Monday, October 30, 2017

A middlebrow vacation...

I've been thinking for a while about taking a bit of a break from blogging, and it seems that at the moment the stars are aligned for me to do it. I've been happily blogging away for nearly five years now (which seems utterly incredible!), and although I have taken small breaks, and had times of posting more and times of posting less, I have never really taken a full-scale break, during which I can blissfully read without making notes and pursue other interests (or perhaps even, sometimes, no interests at all!) without the nagging feeling that I'm neglecting the blog.

Plus, after the library's delightful Big Book Sale a few weeks ago (see here if you missed it), reading material is certainly in no short supply! No doubt, though, my urge to share good books with you will bring me back before long…

I may also have to use some of my time to think about whether to plunge into doing something with the wonderful recommendations you all recently came up with regarding American women writers. Do we need a list of American authors to supplement my British list? Hmmmm...

See you soon!

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

WINIFRED LEAR, The Causeway (1948)

I've actually had this book waiting patiently on my shelves for at least the past year, ever since an anonymous commenter on another post mentioned that Lear's second and final novel, Shady Cloister, was set in a girls' school and therefore belonged on my Grownup School Story List. At that point, copies of Shady Cloister were hard to come by, but there was a tantalizing copy of this one going dirt cheap. I see that I even included it in a book shopping post not long after. I can't imagine why it took me so long to finally read it, but better late than never.

Definitely not sure about the
Betty Smith comparison...

It's a wonderfully odd tale set over the course of about two years—from some time in 1938 until well into the Blitz. The story centers around the rectory in Camberwell in southeast London (thank you, Google), wherein the rector is suffering the unusual aftereffects of a stroke. He seems to have few enough resulting physical limitations, but it has left him hostile, occasionally violent, and—perhaps even worse given his profession—completely averse to his former religious beliefs. (In the novel's opening paragraphs, for example, his daughter Davina notices, "scratched upon the door of the medicine chest, probably with a pair of scissors, the comment: INCENSE IS NONSENSE.") Davina, her Aunt K, and the poor curate Lancaster, who seems most to arouse the rector's ire, all suffer along with him, though the arrival of a new boarder, Rick Watson, whom the rector quite likes, helps to take the heat off of them. Matters are further complicated by 21-year-old Toby, whom the older Davina (in her late thirties) loves passionately but hopelessly, only awaiting the day he will fall for a girl his own age and abandon her, and the officious Aunt Mavis, who arrives for an extended visit a bit later on.

Davina and Rick are the novel's central characters, and one feels they are destined to be together if they can only clear up some sizable misunderstandings and work through their respective issues—Davina her hopeless love for Toby, and Rick his terminal insecurity and class-consciousness, which cause him to lie compulsively in order to hide even the most trivial details of his working-class background:

"I'm supposed to be like my father, except that he's taller. Mother's very petite." In fact, the reverse was true, but it had always seemed to him that there was something faintly disreputable about having a very small father and a tall mother.

A friend of Davina's later sums him up, "He's a cross between the ancient mariner and a spaniel that hasn't been treated nicely." Among other things, he is an aspiring writer, and it is only as time passes and he gains confidence in his creative abilities that his compulsive dishonesty begins to abate.

The rector himself remains largely in the background of the novel, like the rocks that make a river boil and gurgle around them. But he seems to be important to Lear's point here. One might suggest that such a set of side effects as the rector experiences would be unusual in a stroke patient, but that doesn't make the plot line any less entertaining and, at the same time, disturbing and distinctly uncozy.

To put it into psychoanalytic terms, Lear seems to be saying that the stroke has wiped out the rector's regulating superego (his "filter", we might call it these days) and left his primal id in charge. But more importantly for the novel, it seems that he, with his sometimes shocking behavior (right off the bat we learn that he has brutally killed Davina's fox-terrier with a whack from his walking stick), comes to symbolize the darkness that we all must somehow process and place in perspective in order to remain sane and capable of love.

[Davina] began to wonder whether this perhaps was the proper perspective and whether, two hours ago, she had been mistaking farce for tragedy. Perhaps the cumulative effect of living was of more importance than the passion of the moment. … It was only in moments as on the landing this evening when something which overpowered her because it seemed to be the stark truth thrust up its ugly head and she felt like the diver who comes unexpectedly face to face with a monster, unspeakably hideous, and tugs madly at the life-line. In an instant he is hauled up and away and soon there is nothing but the innocent lapping of the surface waters and his own exhaustion to disturb him in retrospect because of what he saw.

In the middle of what is largely a cozy, funny novel with likeable, believable, and interesting characters, such darkness is a bit of a surprise, but I think it might be one of Lear's main points here. If most of the novel is a rollicking romantic comedy and a fairly cheerful portrayal of the leadup to World War II and the early days of the Blitz, we nevertheless here and there get reminders of that sea monster under the surface. There is, for example, a ghoulish story that Rick tells later on, to the rector's evident delight, about two sisters keeping their dead mother in her chair for two years after her death. And there's a very brief but disturbingly vivid description of a child's tragic death in a bombing raid. These instances are short and infrequent, but regular enough that their horror, underlying the cheerful comedy and romance unfolding on the novel's surface, must be intentional and meaningful.

At any rate, I found The Causeway to be great fun and hard to put down. Because the two main characters are such unusual and unlikely lovers, and because they are so well developed and complex, one is by no means sure exactly how (or even if) things will work out for the best. But I never doubted I was in capable hands and that Lear would have a few surprises up her sleeve.

I should have learned my lesson by now about comparing unknown authors to other, more famous writers that lots of folks know and love. But if I foolishly allowed myself to be pressed for comparisons regarding Winifred Lear, I think I'd suggest that she might be the love child of Stella Gibbons and Barbara Pym (with just a twist of Diana Tutton's Guard Your Daughters). Her humor is not riotous by any means, but here are two examples that made me laugh.

I have been working out and doing yoga a bit more again in the hopes of not fitting Rick's grandmother's description as I get older:

Grandma Watson was of immense girth. She had grown like a tree, adding a new ring to her outer man each year, and now, at seventy-nine, had become so cumbersome that on her own admission her legs wouldn't stand it and weren't a bit of use for moving about.

And then, much later when the Blitz is already raging, this little snippet about Aunt Mavis in a crowded shelter made me laugh and definitely evokes Pym's acid sarcasm:

"I would willingly offer you my own bed," said Aunt Mavis, half getting out of it to show what it would look like if she did, "but, as it happens, I seem to have got a nasty bit of cold in my throat."

Clearly, having enjoyed this book so much, I shall now have to move forward with Lear's second (and, sadly, final) novel, the aforementioned Shady Cloister. She also published a much later memoir of her own school days, Down the Rabbit Hole (1975). A big thank you to the anonymous commenter who first put her on my radar!

Thursday, October 19, 2017

HUGO CHARTERIS, Marching with April (1956)

This post in an exception to the norm on this blog in two different ways.

First, it's about a book written by a man. Shocking, right?

And second, it's the result of my accepting a proffered review copy, something I almost never do. (Apart from the fact that my focus on very obscure authors has limited the relevance of most publishers' titles, this reluctance is also because I'm a cantankerous reader—if I feel pressured to read a given book at a given time, it's almost a sure bet that I'll perversely resist, no matter how interested I was in the book in the first place.)

However, when Michael Walmer sent an email about this recent title, it proved too enticing to resist, and what's more, I started reading it as soon as I received it. (Then, of course, the book sale intervened, so the review has been a bit slower coming along.) And I had such fun with it that I have to stretch the boundaries of the blog for it.

Hugo Charteris wrote nine novels before his tragic death from cancer at age 48. He was a contemporary of such better-known authors as Kingsley Amis, John Osborne, and Angus Wilson, and the new introduction to this edition, by American screenwriter and novelist Frederic Raphael (who won an Oscar for writing the screenplay of 1965's Darling), effectively places Charteris in the context of his period in British literature. The edition also includes a contemporary review from no lesser figure than Elizabeth Bowen, who sums up the novel thus:

Mr. Charteris gives grim situations a witty twist; farce has an edge of sombreness, laughter a note of fury. He is not only one of the most brilliant but one of the most incalculable of our postwar novelists—his generation, viewing the postwar scene, have no use for comfortably blinkered humour. I should call him a romantic anti-romantic. Marching with April offers high entertainment: you may also find that this book bites deep.

The gist of the plot is simple. Lionel Spote is a neurotic London publisher who inherits a Scottish estate. Having no intention of becoming the lord of the manor, he plans to sell, but discovers that the terms of his uncle's will make that impossible. During a stay in Scotland, as much as anything as a means of getting away from his domineering mother, he gets swept up in the grand plans of a local MP, difficulties with his hearty neighbor April (whose property "marches" alongside his own), a bewildering battle with the Corporal of the local Cadets, and a possible romance with April's daughter. On top of which, his mother arrives and threatens to dominate everything.

Charteris's unusual and sometimes dense style took a bit of getting used to (there are still a couple of passages whose exact meanings eluded me), but once I had I frequently laughed out loud. From a brief reference to Lionel's attempts to analyze his dreams ("Sometimes he just lay and didn't say anything for days. Often he went to sleep while remembering his dreams which had a snowball effect on the agenda.") to the following wonderful set piece about his mother arriving to care for him when he falls ill, I thoroughly enjoyed the lot:

She began putting things in order—that is, where she wanted them.

"Perhaps you think I'm going to twiddle my fingers in London while you have pneumonia under horse doctors—who only come up here because they like fishing or bird-watching ten times better than their job. That, or drink got them on the run. Oh, no, Lionel, I know."

That crowing cry—Oh, no, I know. It came repeated out of the primeval infinity of childhood like a medieval cor de chasse motif in a modern symphony. His mise à mort.

She knew.

With a savage whipping movement he threw back the bedclothes and stood up, shakily and drably in his silk pyjamas. While he was fumbling with his dressing-gown she gave in.

As often in the past he half hoped he might die while engaged in protest against her. Angina while reaching for his Jaeger dressing-gown in order to by-pass her. At the inquest a pause would come in the coroner's voice while he gravely and significantly murmured the word Misadventure—meaning of course murder.

And then there's this late exchange between Lionel and his mother which perhaps gives the reader a better idea of her fundamental personality than anything else in the book.

"Was that April, dear? Why didn't you let me talk to her?"

"No, Mother—it wasn't."

"I've a good mind to go round to her. I'd sort her."

"You'd sort each other."

"She's going to apologise—if it's the last thing I make anyone do."

That last turn of phrase keeps making me laugh, no matter how many times I read it. Perhaps this is because it's one my own mother might have uttered on any number of occasions…

Marching with April has certainly made me think I should check out some of Charteris's other fiction. He published nine novels in all before his sad early death from cancer at age 48. I think some of you would quite enjoy this one.

It has also made me think I need to look more closely at some of Michael's other books. He has reprinted several books by authors from my list, including Winifred Holtby, Mary Webb, and Ada Leverson, as well as other women of interest, such as New Zealander Katherine Mansfield, Victorian author Ouida, and Aussie Kylie Tennant (who I am now rather intrigued by). He's also published the likes of Max Beerbohm, Ronald Firbank, M. R. James, and Theophile Gautier, among others. And I should mention that, although his books (like the Furrowed Middlebrow titles) are print on demand, the quality is quite high. Marching with April felt nice in my hands, the print size was comfortable, and the design was attractive. If you're not already familiar with Michael's work, this might be a good time to check it out here.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

An American middlebrow?

A while back, Marcina, a reader of this blog, sent me an email asking if I thought that there was an equivalent "middlebrow" phenomenon in the United States. It's a good question, and one that I'm not really equipped to answer since, apart from sporadic reading here and there, I haven't delved into American women writers in anything like the same depth as my reading of British authors. So I thought I might open it up to you marvelous readers for comments.

Of course, that doesn't mean I didn't come up with anything to answer—I always have some sort of answer! I said that I assumed that although subject matter and themes and tone would undoubtedly vary in the American fiction of the same period (pioneers don't figure prominently in British lit, for example), there were probably ultimately just about as many "lost" women writer from the U.S. as there were from Britain. Then I turned, as I so often do, to my database, and came up with some totally random examples of American books and authors that sound intriguing.

As I've researched authors over the last few years, I've often come across women who turned out in the end to be American (or Canadian, or South African, etc.), but once I've found information about them, I can't resist holding on to what I've found. I label these authors as "peripheral", since they don't fit my main list, but I hold onto them like the obsessive little packrat archivist that I am. So I had a glance through the peripheral American authors in my database to see what books I had found intriguing despite the handicap of being written by Americans. Many of these I hadn't thought of in ages, and two or three of them have even bounded well up my TBR list.

In addition to asking for your thoughts on Marcina's question, I figured that I might as well share what I came across, so I'm putting my original notes, as well as some subsequent discoveries, at the bottom of this post.

These are mostly relatively obscure books and authors, as I assume folks already know about major American women writers like Edith Wharton and Willa Cather. I'm also not mentioning again some authors that I have written about here, such as Rose Franken and Mary Lasswell, or authors already rediscovered by Persephone, such as Susan Glaspell and Helen Hull

At any rate, my notes are below. Have any of you read any of these? Or do you have better American middlebrow titles to recommend?

Abbott, Jane D., Happy House (1920)
"There is something of Louisa May Alcott in the way Mrs. Abbott unfolds her narrative and develops her ideals of womanhood; something refreshing and heartening for readers surfeited with novels that are mainly devoted to uncovering cesspools." --Boston Herald.

Ashmun, Margaret, Pa (1927)
Bookman, 1927: Excellent dialogue and characterization in this sordid but genuine tragedy of an old maid's thwarted romance.

Baker, Margaret, The Key of Rose Cottage (1965?)
recommended as a favorite housekeeping novel

Barnes, Margaret Ayer, Years of Grace (1930)
winner of the Pulitzer Prize & reviewed alongside Helen Ashton’s Dr Serocold

Bassett, Sara Ware, The Green Dolphin (1926)
Bookman: Yankee wit and Cape Cod cooking make a lover's paradise of this tea room and its marvelous gardens.

Boden, Clara Nickerson, The Cut of Her Jib (1953)
As a girl, Clara Nickerson Boden (born 1883, in Cotuit) discovered her grandmother’s journal hidden away in an attic, and her book, The Cut of Her Jib, is historical fiction based on the diary entries and on stories passed down from Boden’s grandparents. It was originally published in 1953, and an exact facsimile has recently been republished by Boden’s family.

Devitt, Tiah, The Aspirin Age (1932)
Bookman, 1932: A first novel that mixes finishing-school girls and gunmen. A little too symmetrical in its balancing of the two kinds of lives, but worth reading.

Forbes, Esther, Mirror for Witches (1928)
Edith Olivier review, Saturday Review of Literature, 2 Jun 1928, Vol. 4: "The atmosphere of the book is entirely true to the seventeenth century. And the characters which move in this atmosphere are clearly and delicately drawn. They come very near, in spite of their remote setting. The tiny, stunted figure of Doll is full of pathos and beauty, and Jared, with all the characteristics of the conventional sea captain, yet succeeds in being individual and charming."

Gallagher, Rory, Lady in Waiting (1943)
see here

Gordon, Caroline, Aleck Maury, Sportsman (1930)
Blurb from reprint edition: “It is, in a sense, a prose Aeneid, written with so much economy and constraint that the reader is only aware at the end that he has been following the wanderings of a hero.” Thus did Andrew Nelson Lytle, in a 1934 New Republic review, capture the essence of Car­oline Gordon’s novel inspired by the life of her father, a supreme hunter and fisherman.

Green, Anne, The Selbys (1930)
Forum 1930: This is a novel of the American residents in Paris; not the night club habitues of the pseudo-bohemians, but a family of rather charming Southerners who accept France as home.  The Selbys take it upon themselves to bring out their orphaned niece, Barbara, in Paris society.  She is not overburdened with intelligence or dowery; but, having changed her provincial polish for a finer lustre and savoir faire, finds herself a husband.  The Selbys and their acquaintances are all most delightfully drawn, be they American or French.

Gregory, Alyse, King Log and Lady Lea (1929)
Sundial Press: In her second novel, Alyse Gregory recounts the story of Richard and Mary Holland, a married couple whose seemingly conventional relationship is threatened by the arrival on the scene of Celia Linton, once the object of Richard’s attentions several years earlier and now an alluring young woman. Richard is eager to incorporate her into his life, but hasn’t bargained for the intangible mutual attraction that develops between the two females. Underlying this sober tale of love and death is the theme of war between the sexes, with its unheeded misconceptions and fevered imaginings, but more profoundly the fear of loneliness and the poignancy of human isolation.

Janeway, Elizabeth—I’ve been generally intrigued by her, but haven’t yet read anything

Mayhall, Jane, Cousin to Human (1960)
See here

Neilson, Isabel, Madonna and the Student (1925)
Spectator: Music, winter sports, and the Munich University are the theme of this novel. It is chiefly interesting for its picture of post-War Germany. The excitement and misery caused by the fluctuations of the mark, the gay night life, and the scarcity of food are all vividly drawn and make a real effect on the mind of the reader.

Norris, Kathleen, The Callahans and the Murphys (1924)
Bookman 1924: The life struggles, amusements, and tragedies of two Irish families shown with admirable power and understanding.

Parmenter, Christine Whiting, Miss Aladdin (1932)
Wisconsin Library Bulletin: A simple, pleasant, and not too sentimental, novel, about an eastern brother and sister who accept the invitation of an eccentric, but likable, cousin to spend a year on her Colorado ranch. For women and older girls.

Paterson, Isabel, Never Ask the End (1933)
Forum 1933: To their own candid surprise, the three highly civilized Americans — two women and a man — who figure in this story discover that emotional turbulence and adventure do not end with the forties. Their relationship stretches back over a long period of years, and when they meet again abroad, and travel together, it blossoms into a new and unexpected flowering. Mrs. Paterson uses a curious, elliptical, yet wholly satisfactory method to tell the story of these three. Gradually, bit by bit, as they brood, remember, and trace back the sources of their present actions, their past is revealed in all its complexity, and they themselves emerge clear and complete. This is a mellow, witty, and very charming novel — conspicuously shrewd in its analysis of character.

Robins, Elizabeth, The Convert (1907)
Relatively well-known suffrage novel. I’ve actually read this one and enjoyed it for it’s “you are there” perspective on the period.

Shor, Jean Bowie, After You, Marco Polo (1955)
A fine novel about a couple, Franc and Jean Schor who travel through China after WWII on their honeymoon. They decide to follow the route of Marco Polo.

Suckow, Ruth, The Folks (1934)
Just acquired at the book sale last month. Apparently quite acclaimed in her lifetime.

Tompkins, Juliet Wilbor, Joanna Builds a Nest (1920)
See here

Walker (Schemm), Mildred, Winter Wheat (1944)
Describes a young woman’s emotional and spiritual awakening as she confronts the disappointments and marvels of love....Walker’s heroine recognizes that love, like winter wheat, requires faith and deep roots to survive the many hardships that threaten its endurance. — Belles Lettres

Weingarten, Violet, Mrs. Beneker (1967)
see here

Winslow, Thyra Samter, Picture Frames (1923)

see here

Wednesday, October 4, 2017


A while before the book sale brought a whole slew of new books into my life, something had inspired me to get back to a few school stories. Since I know some of you are fans of the genre, I thought I'd mention them here in brief (or as brief as I ever get). The first is by one of the lesser-known (and non-prolific) practitioners of the genre, while the others form a late trilogy from one of its best-known authors. I bet some of you are familiar with both.

DOROTHY SMITH, Those Greylands Girls (1944)

Everyone is undoubtedly sick of hearing about my Oxfam shopping on our U.K. trip last October, but despite that I have to note that this was one of my acquisitions there. Along with several other school stories and one or two family adventures, this one was added to my overloaded suitcase at the lovely Oxfam in York with its luscious bookcase full of (mostly dustjacketed) children's titles at bargain prices. And I have to also give credit where credit is due: I would almost certainly have left this one on the shelf if it hadn't been for a morsel of praise given it by Sue Sims and Hilary Clare in their Encyclopaedia of Girls' School Stories. Somehow, that fact stuck in my brain enough for the title to ring a bell when I came across it, and it has turned out to be one of the most entertaining school stories I've come across.

Someone at Nelson
wasn't doing their
job--Greylands is
missing its "s"

The story takes place at Greylands Orphanage, though it's a bit unclear to me what exactly "orphanage" means in the context of a school where only one girl, main character Millicent Lane, has no home to go to during the holidays. Did the word have a different meaning in those days? And if so, what meaning could it have had to differentiate it from a standard boarding-school?

The illustrations by Newton Whitaker are striking

At any rate, Greylands has a rather depressing atmosphere—the girls consider it a matter of principle to dislike the staff (i.e. the "Frightful Foursome") and to obstruct any attempt to improve morale, and therefore remain discontented and unstimulated by their studies. The stage is therefore perfectly set for a transformation tale, but this one is handled in a relatively realistic way, involving a new girl, Pamela Bellamy, who transfers from a more traditional school complete with prefects and games and house cups, and a cheerful new mistress, Miss Fraser, who determines that the surly girls will not get her down. Pamela's welcome is not a warm one, due to a false rumour that she is a relative of the Head, and Miss Fraser's is not warm because, well, because she's staff. But of course things warm up in due course.

The somewhat less realistic part of the school's transformation stems from the school's neighbor, nick-named Mrs Bluebeard, who has often complained of the girls' behavior, but who is suddenly charmed by Millicent when she comes to the rescue of some kittens in her garden. It emerges that not only does Millicent remind Mrs Bluebeard of her long-estranged son, but that Mrs Bluebeard is actually well-known to the girls for her day job. She ends up becoming quite a Lady Bountiful for the school.

If the plotlines are all predictable enough, they only occasionally enter the realm of ridiculousness, and even when they do it's all quite entertaining. What stood out for me was Smith's occasional rather biting humor. We glimpse it during this exchange between two of the staff just before the Christmas holidays:

"They're making an unholy row out there," Miss Sinclair said, after a visit to the playroom," but somehow one doesn't seem inclined to do anything about it. For one thing, I suppose it's a treat to see them looking and behaving naturally for once."

"Or else," said Miss Mercer, "their impending departure makes us view them more benignly. The fact that I shan't see or hear them for fifteen whole days makes me almost like them. What on earth should we do without holidays to look forward to, I wonder?"

And we see it again later on, when Mrs Bluebeard, already conquered by Millicent, offers a bit of "acid" sarcasm when rescuing the school play from drab costumes made from "winceyette nightgowns" (what on earth, pray tell, is winceyette?):

"This," she said, shaking out the silken folds, "was my great-grandmother's wedding dress. It's a crinoline actually, and belongs to a later period than your Quality Street. How will that do for one of your ball dresses?"

She held it out for inspection, and wide-eyed, Millicent gazed at it—a lovely blue taffeta, shot with rose, with great true-lovers' knots embroidered on the skirt.

"You're offering to lend us this gorgeous thing?" Millicent said in awestruck tones.

"No, of course not," was the acid reply. "I'm just showing it to you to reconcile you to the winceyette nightdresses."

This kind of humor only pops up occasionally, but it makes me wonder even more at Smith's real identity. Those Greylands Girls is the only book published under the name Dorothy Smith, and we've never been able to trace her real identity. Could it have been the pseudonym of an author who wrote other books? There is a bit of a polish about it that makes this not entirely implausible, but of course there are plenty of talented authors who only produce a single book. Or perhaps it's a real name, as turned out to be the case with Dorothy Evelyn Smith (who was, in keeping with her predilection for common names, née Jones, no less!). With a name so common, it is sadly likely that we'll never know her real identity, unless a child or grandchild or great-niece happens to recall hearing that her relative once wrote a girls' school story…

JOSEPHINE ELDER, Exile for Annis (1938), Cherry Tree Perch (1939), and Strangers at the Farm School (1940)

I'll bet a few of you who are fans of school stories will have read this trilogy set at the idyllic Farm School. These three books, written just on the cusp of World War II, were nearly the last children's titles written by Josephine Elder, best known for her acclaimed 1929 school story Evelyn Finds Herself (1929), widely considered a classic of the genre. In 1946, she published one final school story, Barbara at School, but then turned to writing four adult novels to supplement the two she had written in the early 1930s. I've written about her two or three times before—see here.

I've had Evelyn on my TBR shelf for ages, but something made me pick these up recently instead. I have a feeling, from what I've heard of the earlier book, that it has a bit more realism about it than the Farm School trilogy, but for the most part I found these to be great fun anyway.

The books focus mainly on Annis Best, who in the first book is transferred to the Farm School against her will following a bout of whooping cough. She is horrified to leave the games and structure of her London school for the laid-back, rule-free environment of the small school run by the large Forester family from their working farm. Annis becomes fast friends with Kitty Forester, whom she helps to draw out of her shell, and comes to enjoy the farmwork and learning the practical skills such work teaches. She learns to ride, works with Kitty to create a canoe from a giant log, and uncovers the Foresters' family secret which has threatened to keep her friendship with Kitty from developing. Of course, by the end of it all Annis decides that the Farm School is the perfect place for her after all, setting up the two sequels, in which Annis learns, with considerable difficulty, to drive a car, is made jealous of a slovenly neighbor woman who captures Kitty's affections, and, in the final volume, helps two Jewish refugees from Germany—the strangers of the title—adapt to their new lives in England.

For the most part, it's all great fun and enjoyable reading. The first book in particular is a fun school story with an enjoyable cast of characters. The other two were also quite pleasant to read, though I have to admit that at times the idealized operations of the Farm School, and the sometimes extended explanations of why everything is so perfect there, did begin to grate on my nerves. The last book, in particular, seemed to focus as much on describing the wonderful school and its policies as on the characters.

Moreover, I can't remember now who of you it was (or perhaps it was a fellow blogger) who mentioned their dislike of Elder's work, but in these books I got a glimpse of one possible reason that might be. When we first meet Annis, we learn that "[s]he disliked on sight all people who were not just like the majority of other people." Presumably, we are to believe that the Farm School has taught her that variety is indeed the spice of life, in people as well as in activities, but there remains a certain intolerance for people with less ambition or self-discipline than she has. In the first book, she and Kitty set about to reform spoiled, fat, gluttonous Peter, helping him get better at sports and become more popular, as well as slimming down and controlling his appetite. All very well, and undoubtedly we see him much happier by the book's end, but some part of me (probably the part that was a fat kid hopelessly bad at—and utterly uninterested in—sports) did cringe a bit at Annis's certainty that she knew best for him.

I also marked this passage from Cherry Tree Perch, which shows Annis's sharp edges:

Annis put Kitty and her doings right out of her head and did her weighing all over again. It came right this time. It wasn't any good letting people and the muddles they made get mixed up with your work.

In many ways, I think I quite agree with Annis here. I've always found that some folks do rather enjoy their muddles, even as they bemoan them, and ensure that the muddles go on and become ever more complicated. (Perhaps that's how some people pass the time we spend on reading?!) However, in this case, the muddled person Annis is thinking of is her best friend, and not at all the sort of person who regularly creates muddles and drags others into them, so Annis's attitude, self-protective as it is in the circumstance, didn't particularly endear her to me.

On the other hand, Elder's work remains one of the only places in early and mid-20th century fiction where one can consistently find smart, motivated, career-minded girls and women who value their education and work and professional goals as highly as men routinely do. In her adult novels, her women professionals mostly end by compromising their careers for romance and motherhood. But in her school stories—even in these idealized late books—her girls are able to eschew romance and retain their ambitions. Even if the girls are occasionally a bit prickly, I can't help loving Elder's works for that reason. If the Farm School trilogy isn't necessarily her best work, it still made for some very pleasant bedtime reading.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Coming clean: The Big Book Sale part 2

Before I make my traditional full confession in the form of a single rather horrifying photo, I feel I should say a couple of things to justify myself. I know there could be no group of people more understanding about compulsive book shopping than you lovely readers, but still...

Consider these factors:

1) I have always budgeted a certain, fairly generous budget for the library book sales, and I've budgeted an amount for both the spring and the fall sales. But this year, as I mentioned before, the spring sale was discontinued. In other words, my budget for this sale effectively doubled (and I still had a bit left over, believe it or not).

2) In the past few weeks, I have made a sort of resoltuion to read some of the classic works that I've just never got round to, especially with all of the reading I've done for the blog. Of course, because this is who I am, I made an extensive reading list. And what better time to stock up on books I've meant to read but haven't than when the selection and prices are this good?


3) I have, as you'll see, also recently felt a reawakened interest in contemporary fiction. Among other things, I work with several people who are avid readers, and peer pressure has its effects. So I partly had in mind sharing many of the recent books I picked up with my officemates. A decent excuse for splurging, right?

Okay, but all that said, it's still a rather shocking photo:

The whole shameful pile. Oh what have I done?!

Good heavens. I should note that I am throwing in a few other fun finds from what has been a downright orgiastic two weeks of book shopping, including my most recent visit to the library's "step sale" just a couple of blocks from my office, a visit to the Friends of the Berkeley Public Library shop across the Bay last Saturday, and a more melancholy but bargain-rich visit to our wonderful neighborhood bookshop, the Overland Book Company, which is—like so many other bookshops—closing down soon, and has marked down it's entire tantalizing inventory. But the vast majority of the books still came from the Big Book Sale itself.

Here was the weighted-down trunk of my car on Tuesday night. Of course, there was a return visit to the sale yesterday, which added considerably to the haul.

Yikes. First and foremost, several titles from the book sale directly related to this blog. I was particularly delighted to see three enticing works from the 1920s by authors I've read before, but not nearly enough. CLEMENCE DANE's The Babyons (1927), according to the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, "traces a curse through four generations," so we'll see how that goes, but I'm very intrigued and the cover, even without a dustjacket, is quite lovely.

I read SUSAN ERTZ's Madame Claire quite a while back and enjoyed it a lot, so I was happy to see not one but two more of her early novels looking up at me from the fiction table. According to a Time review, The Galaxy (1929) is about the "galaxy of scenes and faces and delights" recalled by an elderly woman dying in the 1920s.

My copy of The Galaxy
And a glimpse of the original dustjacket

Now East, Now West (1927), meanwhile, according to the Orlando Project, "presents a contrast between the societies of England and America."

For the first time, I came across a JON GODDEN novel (and now that I think of it, can't recall seeing a single book by her sister Rumer—the first time that's ever happened, I think, though fortunately I have virtually everything she ever wrote already). The Seven Islands (1956) is about a holy man's attempts to stop an ashram from taking over one of the islands in the Ganges because it will destroy a bird sanctuary. Kirkus called it "entrancing" and describes it as a "spiritual fable styled in the rich, ringing simplicity that accompanies wisdom beyond knowledge." Despite their slightly purple prose, I'm excited to read it.

I had never seen a photo of Rumer's sister before.
A definite family resemblance.

Last year's sale was the first time in ages that I came across any D. E. STEVENSON, but this year continued that trend, with a slightly bedraggled copy of The English Air (with a rather ghastly cover) and a rather nice one of Still Glides the Stream.

Although I've already read the book, how could I possibly have resisted this charming 1960s reprint edition of FRANCES HODGSON BURNETT's The Making of a Marchioness? I try to discourage myself from buying books I already have, but sometimes it's just not possible. And of course I had to research the "Doughty Library" series, and found an informative page here which includes a listing of some of the later titles in the series.

I've been planning to try to get PAMELA HANSFORD JOHNSON's WWII novel Winter Quarters (1944) from Interlibrary Loan for ages, so how nice is it that a copy just fell into my hands? It's about the complications that ensue when an anti-tank regiment sets up camp near a small English village. Right up my alley indeed.

I knew almost nothing about VITA SACKVILLE-WEST's The Easter Party (1953), one of her late novels, but of course I knew I needed it on my shelves. And a review of it by Mirabile Dictu here only reinforced that my instinct was correct.

My copy is naked, but here's
the original dustjacket 

Only one green Virago in the mix this time, but I'm delighted to have it, as it's another I've always meant to get round to.

Ever since our two days of Bloomsbury sightseeing last October I've been meaning to read ANGELICA GARNETT's Deceived with Kindness (1984), about her unconventional (to say the least) upbringing. So how pleased was I to just happen to notice it in the European History section, of all places (an oblique commentary/critique on the fact that, for the time being, the book could arguably belong there, but in a few years it won't???), a section I hadn't otherwise done more than glance at?

I've been meaning to get back to reading/re-reading more Muriel Spark ever since a re-read of Loitering with Intent early this year, so the acquisition of three more of her books will further that ambition. These include a lovely vintage edition of The Hothouse by the East River (1973), one of her New York novels which are so far untested waters for me.

From the Friends bookshop (in one of the vintage sections Deborah pointed out to me) comes this Irish-interest children's title from AYLMER HALL, a similarly untested author on my list, complete with a slightly-weathered dustjacket. It could certainly go either way, but I'm happy to have a chance to sample her work.

Tucked into the mystery section at the book sale was one of Edith Pargeter's mainstream novels, Lost Children, a postwar novel that was certainly worth $1.

For those of you with Type A personalities,
yes, I'm afraid the image on the cover
really is this crooked. The cover scan is
exactly straight. Grrrrr.

When I came across a DIANA COOPER memoir at the Overland Book Company last weekend, I felt certain it couldn't be the volume covering WWII, which I had always wanted to read. How could I get that lucky? But lo and behold, the book gods were watching over me, and Trumpets from the Steep is indeed the volume covering the war years.

The rest of the acquisitions, which don't directly relate to the blog, I'll start lumping together, but there are a few more finds and covers that I want to share.

Among books loosely related (in time period or theme) to the blog, there was this delightful book that Deborah at the Friends shop had mentally earmarked for me. KATHLEEN NORRIS is American, but several people have recommended that I should read her, and who could resist the lovely dustjacket?

If SHIRLEY HAZZARD weren't an Aussie, she'd certainly belong on my list, and having read The Great Fire a number of years ago and been blown away, I've always meant to get back to her, so coming across two earlier titles as well as a pristine copy of Great Fire proved an irresistible temptation. I had not even heard of her debut, The Evening of the Holiday, and it's one of those lovely, well-designed and well-maintained hardcovers that are such a pleasure to hold in one's hand.

Then there's this wonderful vintage Salinger cover. Probably most of you across the Atlantic know that the volume Americans think of as Nine Stories appeared practically everywhere else in the world as For Esmé with Love and Squalor, but it was news to me, and I had to grab it. I'm not the biggest Salinger fan in the world, but it may well make a good gift for someone who is, or simply be wonderful shelf candy.

Check out this cute little WOLF MANKOWITZ book with not only A Kid for Two Farthings, which was reprinted by Bloomsbury a few years ago, but another of his titles as well. Has anyone read either of them?

I've always meant to read L. P. HARTLEY's The Go-Between, so this pristine hardcover reprint had to go in the cart.

This lovely omnibus edition of most of DJUNA BARNES's most important works had to make its way to my shelves. (For those who missed it, Barnes, too little known outside of academic circles, makes a brief appearance in Woody Allen's wonderful Midnight in Paris, when Owen Wilson's character, fresh from dancing with a glamorous woman, is told by F. Scott Fitzgerald, "Oh, I see you've met Djuna Barnes.")

Oddly, Barnes, who is purported to be quite a difficult author, is a favorite of mine, but I've still, criminally, never read one of America's most beloved women authors, FLANNERY O'CONNOR. That will finally change with this lovely vintage paperback, published when quality paperbacks actually meant quality—it's solidly bound, with nice thick paper and reader-friendly print, not to mention a charming cover. And the opening line is already making me wonder how I could have waited so long to read it...

On the subject of American writers of the period, have any of you who read American fiction come across RUTH SUCKOW? I think I remember coming across a review of a story collection she wrote, but I was surprised to see one of her books had been reprinted in recent years. It's a huge book, so we'll see how I get on with it, but it bothered me that I wasn't "in the know" about her, so the book leapt right into my cart.

I'll also mention a couple of unknown quantities I gambled on. I had never heard of CHRISTINE WESTON, an American novelist who has clearly fallen very far out of favor. I was merely seduced by the dustjacket and some vague instinct that she might be of interest. When I got home from the sale, I looked her up and found that one of her earlier novels had been compared to Henry James by none other than Dawn Powell (see below), so I'm certainly glad I picked it up. Her New York Times obituary here also mentions praise from E. M. Forster.

Some better-read mystery fans than I are already familiar with HELEN REILLY, who published more than 30 novels, but who was unknown to me. Andy actually brought the wonderfully gaudy paperback of Compartment K to me, because it looked like something I might like (some of my best finds at the book sale are always thanks to Andy noticing book covers that "look like my thing"). It has cruelly small print and yellowed pages, but the setting—a train trip through the Canadian Rockies—sealed the deal. See here for an interesting analysis of Reilly's work.

And finally, M. F. K. FISHER is another American, and one best known as a food writer. I've seen this book around dozens of times over the years, and assumed it wasn't my cup of tea, but when I finally picked it up I discovered that it was her only novel, written in 1947, and it suddenly became rather enticing. Have any of you read it?

Now, here in one lovely pile are some of the other titles with loose connections to the blog.

You can see here, too, that my interest in American fiction is reawakening a bit. Yet another resolution to finally read a famous work applies to THORNTON WILDER's most famous work of fiction (I've only ever read "Our Town," and that back in college days), as well as MAY SARTON. JESSIE REDMON FAUSET and CLAUDE MCKAY are Harlem Renaissance authors (as is RUDOLPH FISHER in the mystery pile below), but I haven't read these particular works. Some of you might know of CORNELIA OTIS SKINNER (Simon at Stuck in a Book has written enthusiastically about her, and she co-authored Our Hearts Were Young and Gay with Emily Kimbrough, who would later become a well-known travel humorist). This will be my first encounter with her as well. The aforementioned DAWN POWELL is another underrated American author, whose books are getting harder to find again, so I'm happy to add three more to my collection. She was rediscovered in the 1990s and enthusiastically embraced, but now seems in danger of being forgotten again. I've never read JANET FLANNER's writings about Paris, roughly parallel with Mollie Panter-Downe's Letters from London in The New Yorker, but I'll bet they'll be fun. And it was Andy who happily found LOUISE DICKINSON RICH's We Took to the Woods in a nice hardcover, which several people have recommended to me over the years. Oh, and the little red book you can barely see is FRANÇOISE SAGAN's Bonjour Tristesse, which Andy also found.

This book sale is always a grand opportunity to stock up on mysteries, as they're all priced ridiculously at $1 each. This year was no exception, and I even upgraded my old paperback of UMBERTO ECO's The Name of the Rose to a snazzy, pristine hardcover. I've already started reading C. J. SANSOM's Dissolution, which was reviewed in a recent issue of The Scribbler, and I'm irrevocably hooked. Happily, I also found the fourth in the series, Revelation, but I was told in no uncertain terms by a fellow mystery fan at the sale that I must read this series in order, so I've already (believe it or not) ordered a copy of the second book from Abe Books—yes, even this extreme book-buying orgy seems only to be leading to additional purchases! Plus, I've been wanting to try ALAN BRADLEY for ages, which will probably lead to more purchases as well. The others are mostly new to me as well, but I bet they're not to many of you.

It may come as a shock that I've lately been delving into far more contemporary fiction than is my norm. I might write a bit about that here soon, as I've read a couple of recent novels that I'm quite enthusiastic about and have several more on my shelves already that I'm dying to get to. So this year's haul contains considerably more recent fiction than is my norm.

There are four authors here that used to be among my favorites, but whom I've been neglecting for a decade or two. I read all of TONI MORRISON's early books, but nothing since Jazz, which I loved (of course Beloved's status goes without saying). I jumped on a pristine hardcover of that one, and also the more recent A Mercy. I've also missed the last two or three by KAZUO ISHIGURO, whose early work I love love love, and along similar lines I haven't read MICHAEL ONDAATJE since falling in love with The English Patient back in the 90s. Ditto PAT BARKER, whose work I haven't read since the Regeneration trilogy, so I thought I'd sample her Blitz-related Noonday. Of the other current authors, believe it or not I've never read SARAH WATERS, GERALDINE BROOKS, ROSE TREMAIN, or TOM MCCARTHY, though I know they all have impressive reputations.

And finally, a whole array of other books that I've always meant to read or was suddenly inspired to want to read when I saw them on the sale tables.

I'm particularly taken with two more random finds in this category. GIORGIO BASSANI's The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, in a slightly bedraggled but still lovely hardcover, was impossible to resist, as was a Faber & Faber edition of Lawrence Durrell's Nunquam.

I'm a big fan of Durrell's Alexandria Quartet, but have read nothing else by him. From online reviews of Nunquam, I'm not sure what to expect, but it's a lovely book, and the little mass market paperback of The Dark Labyrinth is also proof of the afore-mentioned quality that once was lavished by publishers even on low-budget editions.

And in a nice bit of kismet, someone told me only last week I had to read GUNTER GRASS's The Tin Drum, so how nice to find a spanking new copy of the new translation of it just waiting for me at the sale.

By the way, the almost invisible little Modern Library edition at the top of the pile is a charming early edition of GERTRUDE STEIN's Three Lives. This was another wonderful Andy find—there's a reason people are always saying that he should be sainted, and it may be time to contact the Pope about making it happen...

You must be bored out of your minds with my bibliophilia by now, but that is (finally) that. What a marvelous sale it was—I think this might have been the most fun I've ever had, though I am also exhausted and have been using Advil and yoga to try to loosen up the seriously stiff back and neck that are one of the perils of fanatical bookshopping.

The other peril, of course, is finding space, which I'm off to attempt right now. Wish me luck!
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