Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Vet's Daughter by Barbara Comyns

The Vet's Daughter / Barbara Comyns
London:Virago, 1993, c1959.
190 p.

All this time, this thin little green book was sitting innocently on my shelf, giving no indication of the box of weird I was going to get when I opened it up. Barbara Comyns is startling in her social realism, with a story that outlines a drab suburban London life in the early years of the 20th century, complete with violent father, ugliness, sexual violence, sordid surroundings, and some completely bonkers elements that are related in the same realistic tone as the rest of the book. Dickens had his spontaneous combustion, Comyns has levitation.

Alice is a young woman whose sickly, defeated mother dies early on, leaving Alice at the mercy of her selfish, cruel father. He sells animals to the local vivisectionist, he is physically violent, he takes up with a crass woman shortly after Alice's mother dies, but fortunately, he does have a temporary assistant who takes pity on Alice and sends her to look after his mother (also sickly) far away in the country.

Eventually, this mother dies too, and Alice returns home to a father who doesn't want her there, thinking he'd finally got rid of her. But then, Alice's secret abilities are discovered, causing dollar signs to pop up in his eyes. His greed eventually leads them all to Clapham Common, to a typical violent and oppressive conclusion. Poor Alice never really has a chance to get out from under his shadow, and her narration reveals a limited understanding of life and its possibilities.

I thought this was brilliantly written, with the style matching Alice perfectly. The multitude of one thing after another that Alice encounters would have broken many women (including her mother) but Alice finds a way to rise above it all -- literally. Her lack of ability to truly connect with other human beings shows her stunted emotional life, though, all tendency for close human relations squashed out of her early on. She lacks that spark that would allow her to throw off her upbringing and carry on. It's a strange, strange story, combining realistic/gothic elements of cruelty and vulgarity with the very fantastical. It all combines to create a book that is uncanny in some ways, with a sense of Alice having gone right through her own kind of looking-glass. Well worth exploring, but also quite unsettling.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Claire Cameron's The Bear

The Bear / Claire Cameron
Toronto: Doubleday, c2014.
221 p. 

Imagine an idyllic summer vacation in Algonquin Park; imagine an outdoorsy family on a canoe trip, two active parents with their two very young children. Now imagine that the worst happens: while the children sleep, their parents are attacked by a rogue bear.

The story is told from the perspective of five year old Anna, confused by what she's hearing. She can't figure out why her mother is yelling, who never yells. So she tries to be very quiet, thinking that she's going to get in trouble for not being asleep. We, the reader, know why, and it is chilling to read this.

Before the bear attacks him as well, their father succeeds in dragging the two children out of their tent and stuffing them for safety into their secure food hamper, where they uncomfortably wait out the bear until morning. But when they finally emerge, it’s to a world completely changed.

Their dying mother hangs on long enough to insist that five year old Anna take care of her three year old brother Alex (usually called Stick), by getting them both into the canoe and away from the campsite. Anna does her best, making it across the lake despite shoving off without a paddle. But as the canoe grounds itself on the other shore, they tumble out; over the next few days, the two children struggle to survive until somebody, anybody, comes searching for the missing campers. They face hunger, thirst, exhaustion, poison ivy, fear, confusion and more, all while Anna is trying to stay in control. 

The story is narrated by Anna, filtered through her five-year-old understanding. It makes the horror of the situation more evident, as she describes things that we as readers understand much more clearly than she does. (My own realization of what was actually going on in some parts made me quickly skip down to the end of the page or turn it rapidly.) 

Cameron succeeds with this approach; Anna’s voice is believable and she behaves like a child would. That said, she is also the only character who acts upon the story for most of the narrative, with no other speaking characters in sight. Because of this, much of the book is made up of Anna’s memories and flashbacks to her regular life in Toronto. These parts are told more with an authorial voice than Anna's specifically, as she'd be a very advanced five year old indeed to express herself so elegantly. 

When Anna and Alex are rescued and returned to their grandfather’s care, Anna is suddenly allowed simply to be a child again, and it is in these last pages of the book that the emotion really kicks in. The final chapter really got me, so make sure if you're reading it in public you're prepared for that -- fair warning!

The Bear is a powerfully written, emotionally hard-hitting novel that becomes compulsive reading. 
This really isn't my usual type of book, as I'm not big on horrible events, outdoorsy themes, or child narrators. But I tried this on a whim, and didn't put it down until I'd finished. If you enjoy adrenaline-ridden contemporary novels, try this one. It's so very Canadian, and well worth checking out. 

(first published in my local paper & library blog in slightly briefer form, March 20)

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Martian

The Martian / Andy Weir
New York: Crown, c2014.
369 p.

Now that everyone** seems to be talking about The Martian, I should weigh in as well! I just read this, very quickly, and enjoyed myself from the very first line, a eye-catching one indicative of what is to come.

Mark Watney, astronaut, is one of the very first people to walk on Mars. But he is currently turning the Red Planet’s atmosphere blue, in his very vocal alarm -- he is upset both by the fact that his mission to Mars has been suddenly aborted, and that while evacuating the surface his team thinks he’s been killed by flying debris, and leaves without him.

What does a botanist and mechanical engineer do, facing the task of solitary survival for the next four years, until the next Mars mission arrives? Fortunately for Mark, he is a creative and resourceful scientist. He calls upon every bit of knowledge he has ever encountered (along with some disco and vintage Agatha Christie to stay sane) and builds his own survival strategies. A lot of the detail right at the start, as Mark tries to create water and plant potatoes, is a bit overwhelming in its particularity, fact on fact on fact. But once the action really kicks in, it's a very quick read; rather like “MacGyver on Mars”.

This story is an entertaining combination of adventure, pure scientific ingenuity, space exploration, and humour. Mark finds a way to communicate with NASA, on a patchy basis, and they make a plan for his rescue. Unfortunately for NASA, the fact that they’ve left a live astronaut behind on Mars gets leaked to the media; in the ensuing frenzy, we also see the desperation on Earth as people across the world follow Mark’s every move.
It's a great science fiction novel, full of lots of hard science of interest to space fanatics, along with a fun character with a dark sense of humour that stands him in good stead in his extreme situation.  There is also a good sense of the teamwork involved in space travel, as both NASA ground control and Mark’s team, now on their way back to Earth, engage in numerous strategies to ensure his rescue. 

There were a few flaws in the reading, but overall a fun, plot-based novel, if you are fine with characters who don't develop too much, and are able to suspend your disbelief long enough to get into the narrative. If you don’t mind sarcasm and strong language, and enjoy the triumph of creative survival over harsh odds, you’ll love this, even if you think you don’t like science fiction.  Recommended for its strong setting and fast-paced plot, tempered by humour. 

see Andi's review, in which she states that "If you're looking for a book that will suck you in straight away and keep you engaged, this is the one!"

see Bookfool's review, and her quote of the fabulously funny first line

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Rising Tide

The Rising Tide / Molly Keane
London: Virago, 2002, c1937.
320 p.

I've had this book near the top of the stack to read for a few months now. It's funny how timing works, as I picked it up last week and began reading, right at the time that I had been mostly reading pattern-making and fashion history books instead of fiction. This shook up my fiction-slump, and it also contained an unusual amount of description of clothing as part of the history of the women of Garonlea. I couldn't help but notice it.

It was a great read -- slightly unusual in style, with jumps in time to cover a few decades that end up being more startling because they are the decades from 1900 to 1930 or so -- with quite a huge shift in social parameters within those few years, as the family moves from the Edwardian Age to the Jazz Age.

The Rising Tide is set in Ireland, among a rich and self-absorbed Anglo-Irish family, the French-McGrath's of Garonlea. Keane is more interested in this family itself, and the power struggles among the women of the family, than in the wider social context. For example, the Irish Troubles are tossed off in a sentence or two about how "houses were being burned", but this unrest never seemed to pierce to the gloomy valley where Garonlea existed.

Keane describes the character of this house as follows:
Garonlea where these McGraths had lived for a long time had its share in the forming and making of that sadness in their natures which so few of the family seemed entirely to escape... What is there that can be told about Garonlea and the evil that can be on a place through want of happiness. Or even of a will towards happiness.  Family tragedy is brief and sudden in comparison to this that lies like the breath of mould in old clothes on the people who live in such a place. It seems as though nothing could ever dissolve such mists and ill vapours, or only for such a little while. So inexact, so dim is such a gloom, it is hard to say whether it is the effect of place on character or character on place. Thus was Garonlea affected beyond its native melancholy by these gloomy McGraths who had lived there such a dreadfully long time. 
This sense of melancholy really permeates the entire book, and the sharp edges of many characters are exposed clearly. The matriarch of the clan, Lady Charlotte French-McGrath, dominates her four daughters relentlessly, enjoying her complete power over all of them and over her husband too. Her son Desmond breaks with the complete control she wields over her children when he chooses his own bride-to-be and brings her home to Garonlea for inspection. Cynthia, a matriarch in her own right, comes from a rich, sporting family, and so is judged acceptable, but from the very moment she first sees Garonlea she knows she will have to fight its influence. Her self-absorption and powerful personality clashes with her mother-in-law's until finally there is a breach; but Cynthia rests secure in the fact that her son will inherit Garonlea in time.

All of the characters are drawn as individuals facing emotional crises of some sort. Of the four original sisters, one is married off early out of necessity, one is married off later to a much older man thanks to her exquisite beauty and essential vapidity, one remains a spinster daughter to care for her parents, and the fourth and youngest becomes Cynthia's adoring assistant for the rest of her life. It's rather like a fairy tale in some ways, though a rather Grimm one. Cynthia's own children suffer emotional trauma and grow to be rather prickly adults in their own right. I couldn't warm to Simon, her eldest son -- despite the difficulties he faced, I found that he expressed all the worst characteristics of both his grandmother and of Cynthia. He dominates his sister as well, in a repeated cycle of family behaviour.

The deep need for affection in all these characters, usually thwarted and twisted, causes much of their behaviour, and of course the social setting of a very small, insular Anglo-Irish community makes its own influence felt. The story is told in a rapidly moving style, feeling as if it's being told in the moment -- with a feeling of surprise at the rate of change in something that they all thought would last forever. Cynthia has a fixation on hunting and riding, and can't conceive of anyone wanting anything different. Each day comes and goes without much reflection on the part of any of the characters; they are just hanging on, surviving by doing what's expected.

Near the end of the book, Simon decides that for his coming-of-age birthday, they are going to hold a ball at Garonlea in the old style -- come dressed as your ancestors (grandparents really, but to him it is so distant as to be ancient). The guests join in valiantly, and as people arrive, dressed in clothing of the past generation, the stultifying unhappiness of that generation seems to descend as well. It's quite an extraordinary scene, and clothing plays a huge role in the lead-up to this ball, as well as the experiences of the night itself. Those who wear what is expected, those who are off by a generation, those who lived through it the first time and subvert Simon's expectations -- all these fine shadings of emotional and social success are communicated through their clothing choices.

Cynthia is particularly represented by her clothes; when she arrives at Garonlea for the very first time as a young woman, she is revealed by her clothing.
"Muriel, my dear, you may take Cynthia up to her room." ...
Cynthia, knowing she looked superb in her new green facecloth coat and skirt with a dark flat velvet cap skewered through the pale puffed wings of her hair, agreed and followed the shy eager Muriel upstairs.
...Cynthia changed with speed and total disregard for cold into a mauve chiffon blouse, dislocating herself cleverly to fasten its back buttons and the nine minute hooks that fastened the wire-supported net collar, which finished in a wee Toby frill under her chin. An embroidered yoke and deep soft folds of tulle, long big sleeves gathered in ten different directions and tight on the wrist -- that was how this romantic blouse was made, and worn with a dark purple skirt and bronze kid slippers with bronze bead buckles. Cynthia tucked a bunch of silk violets into her waistband and was ready when Muriel knocked at her door again.
But years later, on the night of Simon's ball, Cynthia declines to return to those years. Instead she comes downstairs in modern evening dress.
She was wearing a black velvet dress of the latest possible mode. It was simple and inevitably clever, flattering her out of two stone of weight and ten years of age. Among all the puffed bosoms and spread hips and frilled shoulders she looked like a very clean, black fish. She looked lovely and clear-lined and active. Beyond any of them she suggested an extremity of luxury and cleanliness. She wore her pearls and diamond bracelets with that sort of bold carelessness that no one could impart to jewels in the days of lockets or in the days of cameos. ...She looked only like herself. Where she was, there was the place to be.
In the preparations for his party, however, Cynthia begins to recognize the fact that she is aging, that her extraordinary power to charm may in fact be in decline. She realizes this through trying on old clothes, which brings her to her decision to overlook Simon's decree for fancy dress. She's not a highly reflective woman, and so for her, her clothing is in fact her material past, and she keeps it all.
In the passage outside Cynthia's room there stood a very long cupboard. Locked in it were all the clothes of half a lifetime, which she had thought when discarded too good to be given away....She had always loved her clothes, buying them with vision and extravagance, wearing them with immoderate success, and cherishing them beyond any useful purpose. Because they had been part of herself, part of her beauty and glamour and powerfulness, there was a lonely and jealous force in her guarding of them. She would have been desperately angry had any attempt been made on that locked wardrobe of ghosts and memories. All the dresses were hers, her very life. Not a vague, general past. They had decorated her, been warm and light, part of her hours of love and dreadful loneliness and quickened content. There were dresses hanging there that she had worn before her wedding-dress which hung still like a Spanish queen's in isolated perfection. Not as much as a knot of orange blossom unpicked to fit it for lesser moments. Inviolate, unaltered it hung, a shapely thing in the darkness, its sleeves puffed still, as by the breath of romance, its sweeping white line a gorgeous full memorial to ripe virginity.
Often during the last two days Cynthia...had looked into this cupboard, comparing, wondering, strangely touched and plucked at by the past which she would deny and ignore and pretend to forget while keeping so many of its ghosts for torment and delight to feed on.
This is a dark story, one of power and unhappiness and the squelching of so many emotional lives. It reveals how awful is was to be an unmarried daughter in the early 1900's and how the reaction to the stuffiness of that generation was also fairly awful. It's very well done, and I was very drawn into the story throughout my reading. The characters are examined as if they're insects pinned to a board; precisely, a bit harshly perhaps, and by appearances as well. Keane has an unforgiving eye and a fluid pen; together they create a story that I couldn't look away from.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Lost Art of Dress

The Lost Art of Dress: the Women Who Once Made America Stylish / Linda Przybyszewski
New York: Basic Books, c2014.
329 p.

I so enjoyed this history of the "Dress Doctors" that ruled home dressmaking and fashion over the first half of the 20th Century. Though it was entirely focused on the USA, it was fascinating.

The author shares stories of the women who shaped design and home dressmaking over the early part of the 20th century -- through Home Economics departments, 4H, women's clubs, radio shows & pamphlets, the design principles that shaped American style were shared widely. They were based both on artistic beliefs in harmony, balance, proportion, rhythm and emphasis -- two sisters in particular were experts at teaching these long-standing artistic elements as part of clothing design -- and on economy and frugality.

There were many women who taught and emphasized different elements of home sewing, and the notes and bibliography of this book are a goldmine. I found quite a number of the books she mentioned available to read via OpenLibrary, from Mary Brooks Picken's The Secrets of Distinctive Dress (1918) to Margaretta Byers' Designing Women (1938). There were even some pamphlets available to read from the Women's Institute of Domestic Arts & Sciences, like this charming guide to sewing Aprons & Caps. Przybyszewski often quotes from these vintage sources, which can be both oddly relevant and truly amusing to the modern reader.

This book is clearly based in extensive research, sharing the ideas that permeated the domestic arts, those of suitability of dress affected by things like income, personal appearance, function, and skill levels. The Dress Doctors were quite stern about areas of 'appropriate' wear, but they also involved themselves in campaigning for women's comfort -- against ridiculous fashions like the hobble skirt (which was responsible for actual deaths as women couldn't run out of the path of oncoming vehicles, and in one case, couldn't swim after falling off a bridge) or the tiny pinched shoes that restricted free movement. It's a wonderful social history of a large swath of the 20th century, and shows how much the Dress Doctors took for granted that the women learning domestic skills were also working women -- they discussed appropriate and useful fashions for shopgirls, teachers, office workers and so on, as well as the society lady (who wasn't really their target market). All of these women worked themselves, and influenced their areas of expertise greatly. Some of the dress doctors were even involved in academia, in chemistry departments and the like, before eventually being shuffled off into "Domestic Arts" which were often first then targeted when budgets shrank.

Przybyszewski touches on the inequity of race in her book -- the Dress Doctors often addressed an assumed market of white women, and when they went into homes and women's clubs to teach, had to recruit black women to work as adjuncts to teach in black communities, as many of the default instructors would not go into those homes. She also reflects on how the manuals that taught suitable colour matching and how to make fashionable choices based on appearance also gave short shrift to anyone outside of a very narrow range of "not-white" complexions. There is only brief mention of these issues within the scope of this book, though, and I would love to read a book that is completely focused on this area -- I think there is a lot more to learn here.

I was so engaged by this book, which I read in e-format thanks to Netgalley. Its publication date is set for April, and I would love to get myself a hard copy to refer to often, as there was SO MUCH information about so many different women, and different organizations that affected their work. I felt that this combined elements both of good social history and of dressmaking in particular (of course), both of which I love.

Anyhow, there was much more detail in it about tons of other designers, instructors, and social movements that I could share, and many more cool anecdotes and interesting facts to trot out at a dinner party, but I'll stop now and hope that you'll be intrigued enough to get yourself a copy in a couple of weeks when it is available. If you have any interest at all in the domestic arts, or women's history, or simply fascinating non-fiction, do put this one on your list. Przybyszewski has created a book that will end up leading you down many new paths of investigation!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Cover Designs! #4

I haven't done a Cover Designs post lately, but I have been sewing like mad. Plus watching a lot of the Great British Sewing Bee. So dresses (my favourite thing to sew) have been on my mind. And then I shelved this book at work this week:


Jennie Rooney's Red Joan is a tale of a woman unmasked as a former Soviet spy, when in her 80's, after a most respectable post-war life. I love a good spy story, and this swingy wartime dress in a very 40's silhouette and fabric choice caught my eye as well. I think I've found a perfect match in a vintage 40's pattern.

Here's an original Mail Order vintage pattern for a dress with pintucks at waist and neck, and those puffed sleeves from the Red Joan cover. It's even a polka dot fabric! I love how our model below is looking up from her book... what other accessory do you really need?

This pattern comes from a site called So Vintage Patterns, a place that sewists and social historians alike can get lost in for hours...

These red shoes from Modcloth would
clinch the deal...

Saturday, March 15, 2014


Pretty cover that I like, as the
ebook I read didn't have a cover...
Pollyanna / Eleanor H. Porter
New York: L.C. Page, c1913
285 p.

I read this classic novel as an ebook (thanks again, OpenLibrary), and I found it quite a delight, actually! Of course, as everyone does, I knew about the story and Pollyanna's optimistic "Glad Game", through the use of Pollyanna's very name as a synonym for someone who is naively optimistic or cheerful. But upon reading the actual novel, I think that she has been maligned by this association.

Pollyanna is indeed cheerful, always looking for the good in any situation. However, she does this in recognition of the difficulties involved, not by pretending all is well. She's basically reframing any difficult moment, deciding to change perspective and see any positive elements that can be found. This seems to me to be very modern, a philosophy that is reflected in many, many current self-help books and even modern therapeutic practice. What you expect to find, you will find, whether that is negativity or beneficence. Pollyanna's "Glad Game" reminds me of some catchphrases I've heard a lot lately -- "fake it til you make it", "act like you want to feel", "what you focus on grows", and so on. It makes some sense as a way to face the problems in life, certainly a more useful coping strategy than doom and gloom and catastrophizing all the time.

So I did enjoy the read, and found it didn't date itself too badly. The basic storyline is that Pollyanna Whittier, newly orphaned, is returning East to live with her strict Aunt Polly. Pollyanna lost her mother when she was young, and has now lost her minister father as well. Fortunately for her, she has a resilient nature, and added to that, a habit of looking for the good in everything -- it was her father who originated the Glad Game, one Christmas when Pollyanna had been hoping for a doll in the missionary barrel, and got a pair of crutches instead. They decided that the good in that situation was that Pollyanna didn't need the crutches.

Pollyanna's relentless optimism begins to affect the people she encounters in her new home of Beldingsville, Vermont. She befriends housekeepers, sickly invalids, orphan boys, rich recluses, and even softens Aunt Polly's heart. She attempts to understand and improve people's outlooks; but she is not trying to be Lady Bountiful -- she acts this way because she is sincerely interested, and because it's in her nature to do so. I think that this is what saves the book from syrupy melodrama. Pollyanna isn't some golden child, unlikely and saccharine, she is simply an outward-looking people person.

The story comes to a head when Pollyanna has an accident and is invalided herself. She loses her ability to play the Glad Game, with housekeeper Nancy reporting that she's saying "it's easy to tell lifelong invalids how ter be glad, but 'tain't the same thing when you're the lifelong invalid yerself an' have ter try ter do it."

At this, the townspeople rally, and come to tell Aunt Polly how Pollyanna has changed their lives for the better through her positive outlook. It's a bit treacly overall, but it is rescued by the fact that Pollyanna herself recognizes how hard it is to be Glad in the midst of personal tragedy. I think it shows that the Glad Game has to be a conscious choice, and that it's not always easy, a message that still resonates today.

The setting and the main characters are quite developed, making this more than a moral fable. I can't speak to any of the multitudes of sequels (though I have my doubts about those) but this original tale is fairly entertaining, and yes, even uplifting in some ways. While much of the story is definitely of its time, the message is surprisingly modern, and it does hold up. Pollyanna is not entirely the obnoxiously optimistic idiot for whom her name has unfortunately become a synonym.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Love's Shadow

Love's Shadow / Ada Leverson
London: Grant Richards, c1908.
288 p. (read as ebook via OpenLibrary)

I thought I would try out this author, not knowing too much about her. This novel is the first in a trilogy called The Little Ottleys -- it features Edith and Bruce Ottley, and all the characters in the story are all loosely connected with these two in some way. I'll give you a sense of my impression of this book right away; I won't be reading either of the other two Ottley books. I would have to strangle Bruce if I did.

Here's the general gist of the story: Edith is friends with Hyacinth Verney, an exquisitely beautiful flirt who lives with a companion, Anne -- but she is finally about to suffer the agonies of love for herself. Hyacinth's guardian, an unhappily married older man is in love with her himself; Anne seems to be as well; and her soon-to-be husband is himself enthralled with an older woman. The twists and turns and utter lack of fidelity is this Edwardian tale rather surprised me. It seems to be an attempt to examine social mores around love and marriage, from many perspectives, but felt cold and flippant to me, like Sex in the City circa 1910.

Throughout the book, Edith seems remarkably tolerant of an extremely pompous, self-centred, and stupid husband, who reminded me strongly of another Bruce, the one in Alexander McCall Smith's Scotland Street series. I can't imagine wanting to read another book with him in it. Additionally, as Kristina on Goodreads says (perfectly): "This one takes the abrupt-ending cake". I was reading it as an ebook and I actually went online to look for another edition when I finished because I thought I'd got an incomplete version. Nope. Just a weird ending. 
Bloomsbury Edition

Anyhow, this hasn't really become a review, just a quick mention to say that I have indeed read one more early 20th century book which is obsessed with the status of women in relation to love and marriage, but this one did not enthrall or interest me in the same way as the others I've just finished. Too bad, it seemed like it could have had some humour in it but unfortunately it did not mesh with my sensibilities at all. Someone else may find it fascinating though -- obviously someone at Bloomsbury thought it interesting enough to republish in 2010, so you may want to explore it as well. As for me, I have had my fill of Ottleys.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

The Brimming Cup

A lovely Virago cover
The Brimming Cup / Dorothy Canfield
409 p.

I didn't know what to expect from this book; I downloaded it from Open Library, because of the Century of Books project and because of the author -- I've heard about her from other bloggers, and her books sounded interesting.

When I first started reading, I really wasn't sure if I'd like it. It is, of course, a bit dated, having been written in 1921. But there were some nice observations, and after the first chapter (really a prologue of sorts) set in Rome, the action switches to small town Vermont. The story seemed much more grounded after that.

Marise, our heroine, has just sent her youngest child off to school for the first time; now instead of three kids at home, she has none. This produces some kind of crisis for her, exacerbated by her very sophisticated new neighbour, Vincent, who has taken a particular interest in her. Has she wasted her life? Is her dedication to her children just a selfish demand for slavish adoration on their part? Do children even care about their parents at all, or would they be better off raised by others who are only interested in their education?

All these questions torment her, and cause her to question her life choices. Without really noticing, she has slid into a role as homemaker, focused on children and home, with a marriage that is happy but notably lacking passion. Vincent, next door, insists that her responsibility is to serve her musical gifts and to re-experience passion, preferably in the city with him, rather than waste away in this backwater town looking after children. And Marise is truly tempted, despite the fact that she loves her children, and she loves her honourable husband, Neale.

I was fascinated by how this storyline highlighted the psychological theories circulating at the time, regarding education, sexuality, child-rearing, marriage, etc. There was lots of mention of repression, Freud, the need for personal fulfillment, and so forth; against this was placed the idea that sexual passion was not something to throw over life for, that a life with an affectionate marriage and meaningful activities was equal to acting on passion and personal desire. It really explores how much a person needs to be true to their essential self within a marriage, and Neale shows his committment to this ideal of freedom that they'd agreed upon (way back in the rather purpley prologue in Rome) when he states that the important thing is not that Marise stays with him because he desires it, but that the light that is in her stays lit, whatever she decides that will require.

In addition to these questions of the heart, there are more general questions of right and wrong to be raised: Mr. Welles, her kindly new neighbour, loves his new home and the peace he finds there, but he feels compelled to leave his idyll to assist a cousin who is living in Virginia and fighting for the dignity of the black people there; he feels the injustice of their being freed from slavery but not from prejudice. I was amazed at how powerful Canfield's opinions were on many of these topics, but when I read more about her I began to understand how involved she was in social justice, and it all made sense.

This book felt quite modern in its internal explorations of love and marriage and passion. And in its in-depth character studies of Marise and Neale's family, even the children. It was dated in some of its melodramatic plot points, but even then, there was sympathy for the minor characters who are buffeted by tragedies. I enjoyed this depiction of a tiny Vermont town of the 20's, and found the characters fascinating.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Mrs. Miniver

Mrs. Miniver / Jan Struther
London: Virago, 1989, c1939.
145 p.

I don't know where February went...days pass in a blur when you're busy, I guess! But I have still been reading, of course. And one book that I whizzed through was the unexpectedly charming Mrs. Miniver.

I've put off reading this for a long time, having some vague idea in my mind (thanks to the Greer Garson film) that it would be overly sentimental and not really my thing. But on the other hand, my copy is a I added it to my Century of Books list as a possibility. I'm glad I picked it up because I really enjoyed it! It has similarities to my last Century read, Diary of a Provincial Lady -- though it isn't in diary format, it is told in a series of short 'fictional'essays moving through the year from fall to fall, in the years just preceding the start of WWII. Like the Diary of a Provincial Lady, Mrs. Miniver is fiction, but both books were heavily based on the real lives of their authors. That said, the Minivers are wealthier than the Provincial Lady was!

The Minivers have 3 children, a cook, a housemaid, a country house (also with staff), and lots of time to attend dinners and events. Despite that, Mrs. Miniver knows that she is fortunate, and she appreciates every moment. Her essays are about mundane pleasures such a buying a new day planner for the year ahead (it has to be just right), or having a day in the park en famille, or watching fireworks in the garden. There are comments on the ethics of shooting parties, and a reference to Punch & Judy, both of which made me wince a little, but on the whole, this was a book oozing with charm and interest.

It would be a great read for before bed, or when you just have a moment or two to read a brief, delightful essay. Each one is only a few pages, and Struther generally ends them off with a memorable sentence or two. These were originally newspaper columns, which Struther wrote after she was asked to create an ordinary woman living an ordinary English life. While Mrs. Miniver is a little non-ordinary in terms of her social class, the essays capture the feel of life in London and a little bit of the country, too. There are also serious, pointed comments on the war and its effect on the psyche of the nation, as England made its way into WWII. The blend works very nicely, amusing and edifying at the same time. Well worth reading; much less sentimental than I had believed it to be.

Adding a couple of quotes that seemed quite timely this week:

The first, on something a bit silly --

What a contrast to Agnes Lingfield, whom I ran into in Sloane Street a few days ago. She insisted on taking me into a shop for a cup of coffee... "I haven't seen you since the day we lunched at Teresa's and she put me next to that terrible little Bolshie, whats-his-name"
"Neish," I said.
"Of course -- Nash."
"Neish," I said.
"Leish. Oh well..." (One of my favourite studies is the way people like Agnes always mispronounce the names of anybody they dislike, especially if he or she is out of a lower drawer. It is such a pathetically naive weapon.)

The next, on a rather more serious topic that is extremely relevant right now.

Outside the little newsagent's the evening paper placards were flapping under their wire grids like netted geese. The lower half of one of them had been folded upwards by the wind, hiding everything except the word "JEWS." Mrs. Miniver was conscious of an instantaneous mental wincing, and an almost instantaneous remorse for it. However long the horror continued, one must not get to the stage of refusing to think about it. To shrink from direct pain was bad enough, but to shrink from vicarious pain was the ultimate cowardice. And whereas to conceal direct pain was a virtue, to conceal vicarious pain was a sin. Only by feeling it to the utmost, and by expressing it, could the rest of the world help to heal the injury which had caused it. Money, food, clothing, shelter -- people could give all these and still it would not be enough: it would not absolve them from the duty of paying in full, also, the imponderable tribute of grief.

Other opinions:

Christine at The Book Trunk reviewed this one recently, saying that "Mrs Miniver is actually a rather endearing character, and I found her easy to warm to, despite the difference in life-style" Her review reflects just what I think of this book, as well!