Saturday, September 27, 2014

Book sale hangover

The highlights of this year's haul

Ah, yet again I am left with only the warm afterglow of a Friends of the San Francisco Public Library Big Book Sale. (I believe I called it the "giant" book sale in my post the other day, but it is, in fact, only "big"—though the fact that it's held in a warehouse jam-packed with books might make me modestly suggest that my choice of adjective is more appropriate.) Of course, Andy and I were right there at the "members' preview" on Tuesday afternoon and evening (sounds so exclusive, doesn't it?!). And if it wasn't the most successful book sale ever in terms of quantity of books purchased, it was certainly a very successful one in terms of a few quite enticing finds.

A geek with a granny cart

In fact, one of the most exciting finds of the night—and by far the most expensive at a whopping $7—occurred before the book sale even started. Although the Big Book Sale only takes place twice a year (now I have to wait until April for the next installment!), the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library also operate two bookshops all year round, one of which, conveniently enough, is right next to the warehouse where the sale takes place. Andy and I always arrive at least an hour early to get in line (probably a ridiculous thing to do, we always say, because honestly how much can a difference of about one or two minutes—the time it takes the whole line to file into the sale when the doors finally open—make in the quality of your book finds?—but hey, it's a tradition and it's always fun to people-watch all the other book geeks in line while we wait—plus, in this particular case, it is highly probable that one of the books I found, as the very first person to peruse one of the hardcover fiction tables, would have vanished in another minute or two—see below for details)—anyway, because of this early arrival, I had plenty of time to browse a little in the shop while Andy guarded our place in line.

An utterly superfluous view of the Bay from our place in line

Ordinarily, I don't find much of overwhelming interest in the little shops. They're very pleasant, and they're a great source for inexpensive mysteries or on the off chance that I'm actually looking for something fairly recent and fairly popular, but they don't usually hold the kinds of treasures I'm looking for. And they certainly don't contain books by British women writers from my time period that—even with a list of 1100 such authors and more than 300 more queued up waiting to go into the next update (assuming it's ever finished)—I have yet to hear of. 


But, there's an exception to every rule.


Imagine my surprise to happen across a book called The Cat and the Medal, by Mollie Carpenter Hales, in a Methuen edition from 1938. I thought to myself, "No, I'm sure she's American or Canadian. That's all I ever find in these shops. She couldn't be one of 'my' authors." I even passed the book by at first, returned to the line, and asked Andy to look her up on his phone, but he couldn't find any informative results at all. I almost left it at that, but then I decided I had to go back for it. Even if the jacket flap description left me slightly ambivalent about it:



(My eventual acquisition of the book was only made more certain because the listing of other Methuen "current titles" on the back of the book included Winifred Watson's Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, surely a promising omen if there ever was one. And don't think I'm not planning to investigate those other intriguing and hitherto unknown women listed alongside Watson and Pearl Buck...)


Happily, when I got home and tracked Hales down, I discovered that she was indeed unquestionably British, so I have inadvertently added yet another new writer to the overwhelming update beneath the weight of which I am currently staggering.  I'll have to report back on whether the book was worth the $7 or not…


So, now I was warmed up and ready for some serious shopping.  When the doors finally opened, I headed straight for the hardcover fiction tables, which were surprisingly unpopulated for the first 15 minutes or so. I even managed, as I mentioned above, to have one of the tables to myself for a couple of minutes. Which was lucky indeed, because one of my very first finds was an E. M. Delafield I had never even heard of—Ladies and Gentleman in Victorian Fiction, published in 1937 by the Woolves at Hogarth Press (though mine is the American edition), and subtitled "A Human Record of the Victorian Domestic Scene." It's a compilation of scenes from Victorian novels designed to give an idea of day-to-day life in the mid to late 19th century, linked and interspersed with commentary by Delafield. It's also a big, lovely book with thick pages, reader-friendly font, and a binding that could probably survive a Zombie apocalypse—they definitely don't publish books this way anymore! I've already started it, and it's making perfect bedtime reading.


Surely Delafield's book would have been snatched up in just a few minutes if I hadn't got there first. And I rather doubt if the pristine Viking edition of Sylvia Townsend Warner's Selected Stories would have stuck around for long either…


Or even the slightly less pristine copy of Warner's late collection Swans on an Autumn River (1966). Looks like I'll finally be exploring Warner's short fiction!


And Vita Sackville-West's Pepita (1937), about the author's wayward mother, is not that hard to find, but it's another big, juicy, Zombie-proof book to look forward to.


These book sales have been an excellent source of nice hardcover editions of some more popular authors too—books that are by no means hard to find, but that it's lovely to have in hardcover with more or less nice-looking dust jackets. I'm thrilled to finally be able to replace my battered old paperback of one of my favorites postwar novels, Rumer Godden's An Episode of Sparrows (1955), with a beautiful hardcover.


And that seems to have set me on a Rumer Godden buying spree, as I soon added a story collection I'd never seen—Gone: A Thread of Stories (1968)—and her late novel, The Diddakoi (1972), to my cart as well.



I've often had good luck tracking Margery Sharp titles, though this year's new edition to my library—1948's The Foolish Gentlewoman—is sadly naked of its dust jacket.


And a nice Elizabeth Goudge hardcover is always a lovely thing, and usually all that I see are multiple copies of Green Dolphin Country, so I snapped up the new-looking copy of Gentian Hill (1949) without hesitation.


I'm always happy to find a book by an author from my list that I know next to nothing about. Pamela Wynne was clearly a prolific romance novelist, and I suspect from what little I've read about some of her early work that she may be a bit too "Me Tarzan, You Jane" for my taste, if you know what I mean. Nevertheless, for $3 I couldn't resist adding her 1931 effort, The Last Days of September, to my collection (I just hope the heroine's name doesn't turn out to be September). Whether it will be a permanent addition, or a temporary one, remains to be seen.


I've written before about how I always send poor Andy off on a wild goose chase at these sales, providing him a list of authors who are high-priority—and even more highly unlikely to be found—including D. E. Stevenson, Winifred Peck, Richmal Crompton, Pamela Frankau, and the like. Unsurprisingly, he struck out this year (though why oh why did I not include Elizabeth Goudge or Rumer Godden on his list, as I have previously, which would have allowed him the satisfaction of finding those beautiful books?!). 


But, happily Andy's search was redeemed when he went off to the mystery tables with a separate list (imagine the life that Andy leads at these sales—uninterested in books himself, but patiently dodging shopping carts and too-avid, practically drooling book fiends on an almost always fruitless quest for the books I yearn for, typed out on multiple lists with occasional scrawled afterthoughts—there should be some sort of medal for that). At any rate, snatching an absolutely perfect first U.S. edition of Agatha Christie's Sleeping Murder surely helped to make the evening not seem like a total bust for him, and added a lot of excitement for me. It's not valuable or anything—first editions of Dame Agatha, by the end of her life were given staggering print runs—but it's a really beautiful, reader-friendly edition to replace the battered, yellowed, brittle paperback I bought when I was about 11 years old. 


Andy also managed to find a more or less complete set of the nice-ish Bantam hardcovers with faux-leathery covers. They're not my absolute favorite edition, but I had also made a list of some of the Agatha that I had only in really terrible, grungy copies, and Andy grabbed new copies of each of them. At $1 each for mysteries, I could hardly complain!

Later, when I was perusing the mystery section myself, I had to finally grab my first ever P. D. James title (shown above with the Agathas). And then I just happened to notice, in one of the boxes secreted underneath one table, a flash of color that somehow seemed familiar. It triggered some kind of recollection, and when I pursued it, I discovered not one, not two, not even three or four, but five only slightly worn Sourcebooks editions of Georgette Heyer mysteries. Now, having never actually read a Heyer mystery yet, I suppose I was taking a bit of a risk (especially since two more are already on my TBR shelves), but how could I possibly resist?


Similarly, how could I resist a perfect Gladys Mitchell hardcover, even if it's one of her late novels that are not considered her best?


I've been meaning to check out a Margaret Lane title from the 1930s, when she published her first books (and won the Prix Femina-Vie Heureuse in 1935 for the first, Faith, Hope, No Charity). But it was her 1968 title, The Day of the Feast, which was available on Tuesday night for a buck. It's set in Morocco, where Lane lived in later years.


Margaret Lane, from the back cover of
The Day of the Feat

Oh, and why did I keep imagining, delusionally, that I might find a Girls Gone By title or two at this sale? It would have been as unexpected as a breaking news story about Lindsay Lohan becoming a nun, but I kept imagining it anyway. Well, it never happened. But, just as I was ready to give up on the fiction tables, I happened across this:


So it's almost a Girls Gone By book, except that this publisher, Retro Press, is distinctly no frills—no charming introduction or background on the author or the various editions of the book, nor even any acknowledgement of the book's original publication date. Hmmm. Does anyone know anything about Retro Press? They appear to have also published some other similar titles, but I have no idea whether they could be abridged or in any other way problematic, and a quick Google search was of little help.

And finally, I always manage to come across some strays—titles that have nothing really to do with the blog, but which are interesting for other reasons. I do love humorous American works from the mid-century, and one I've been meaning to read for a while is Jean Kerr's Please Don't Eat the Daisies (1957).


I always love Emily Kimbrough's humorous travel books, and have added one more to the collection. And demonstrating yet again how today's bestsellers are tomorrow's obscurities is Frances Gray Patton's Good Morning, Miss Dove, published in 1954, selected by the Book-of-the-Month Club, and made into a film with Jennifer Jones in 1955. Looking at reviews of it, I think it might be a bit on the sentimental side for me, but I can always donate it back to the library.

The strays

And finally, I've always meant to read a Peter DeVries novel. He wrote humorous, perhaps ridiculous, novels about the sexual revolution and its impacts on suburban American life. Slouching Towards Kalamazoo, from 1983, is perhaps a bit later than his prime, and it would be more fun to read about the swinging 70s in suburbia, but I'm keeping an open mind.

So what do you think? A successful Big Book Sale? 

Now, where on earth am I going to put them all??? 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Digression: Jessamyn West on bookaholism

As the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library Giant Book Sale is beginning tonight, with Andy and I (of course) in attendance for the members' preview, it seemed like good timing to finally make this brief digression onto a fairly obscure American author.

One of my all-time favorite book sale finds—and one of the most unlikely—was by a writer I had never heard of (an American, no less) and to whom, under ordinary circumstances, I would probably never have given a second glance.  Jessamyn West was, as I later discovered, best known for her 1945 debut novel, The Friendly Persuasion, about Quakers wrestling with their pacifism during the American Civil War.  That books sounds quite interesting too and I've always meant to circle back around to it, but that wasn't the book I found myself drawn to.


The book I would ordinarily never have picked up, but for some almost mystical reason (or perhaps merely an obsessive compulsive one) couldn't resist on this occasion, was To See the Dream (1957), West's memoir of her time in Hollywood during the making of the film version of The Friendly Persuasion.  Although she did get to hang out with the likes of Gary Cooper, her shoulder-rubbing with fame was not the book's main attraction.  Rather, it was West's wonderful, thoughtful, charming, and always humane and compassionate personality and mind that made reading the book such a moving experience.  I came to feel that she was a delightful friend in whose company I would cheerfully have watched grass grow or paint dry, so long as she was willing to share her thoughts about those phenomena in the process.


I recall that there were many wonderful passages in the book, all of them worth sharing, but at the time I was reading the book I was blissfully unaware of my future as a blogger, and so I kept no significant notes.  Despite that, however, and despite the fact that my memory of the specifics of most books is about as agile as that of a severely concussed fruit fly, one particular passage has stuck in my mind and resurfaced every time I've even contemplated making a trip.  It's a lovely meditation on bookaholism and on the compulsion to carry books with one even when there's no time for reading.  Some of you might even be fellow bookaholics—either recovering or utterly irredeemable—but if you're not, this passage will give you an idea of how the addiction works…  Ah, how I relate to it!

I'm as drawn toward a bookstore as an alcoholic is toward a bar—only my case is really more neurotic. The alcoholic doesn't, I think, with a room full of bottles, feel the need of going off to search for the one perfect bottle which has, so far, eluded him. Actually, such a compulsion might be the alcoholic's saving—as it can be the reader's undoing. The alcoholic might spend so much time searching he would have little time for drinking. Less drinking is obviously good for the alcoholic. Perhaps less reading is also—for the inebriate of print. I have been sitting here looking down on this tide of prismatic automobile tops, fighting the desire to hail a taxi and go off in search of a bookstore. If others with my weakness had banded together for mutual aid, I might call a fellow inebriate, ask him to come sit with me, hold my hand and feed me black coffee until the longing was conquered.

I have two dozen books with me. Stuart was taken aback. "I hope you didn't think there'd be time to read all of these," he exclaimed, fearing, I think, that I planned to use this week as a period in which to prepare for next week's work at the University of Washington. I said, "No, I don't." The next question—"Why do you have them then?"—I didn't answer at once. I feel panicky—perhaps that's too strong a word—traveling without them. I don't even like to go from my room to sit on the lawn without taking a half-dozen books with me. "It's my insurance policy," I told him finally. "Insurance against what? Boredom?" I don't think of it that way. Though perhaps in the back of my mind there is the conviction that as long as I have my books all other evils (beside the loss of them, I mean) will be bearable. Perhaps I am like a person who, having once endured a famine, wants always to have a supply at hand. Though I never suffered from any real famine of books. Less than I wanted, perhaps; though that still seems to be my state.

I always take with me not the same books but the same variety of books. Half, usually more than half, will be books I've read before. A couple of Thoreau's journals. Some poetry new or old. This time I have Robert Graves, Elizabeth Bishop, and Thomas FerriI. I have Michaux's Barbarian in Asia, which I've read before, and Sackville West's Inclinations and Mumford's Conduct of Life and Welty's Bride of the Innisfallen.

A curious but fascinating selection of books, don't you think?  Which makes me wonder what sorts of books you, dear readers, load yourselves down with when travelling—to the chagrin of spouses, taxi drivers, and hotel porters who must lift your unwieldy suitcases.  (This puts me in mind of a silly movie—of course, its name is not in my short-term memory—in which a man nearly breaks his back lifting a woman's suitcase and asks, "What on earth do you have in here?  Barbells?" to which she nonchalantly answers, "Of course.  Why?")  Or perhaps you merely strain the storage space on your Nooks and Kindles?

Unlike West, I don't generally travel with books I've already read—though that's not at all a bad idea, really, as a kind of insurance against the horror of boarding a plane or train for six or eight cramped, stuffy hours of travel and finding that the book you've chosen to lose yourself in is more tedious than listening to the disgruntled family of tourists arguing and sniping at one another in the seats behind you (one of which, inevitably, is a small child whose greatest joy in life is kicking the back of your seat until you imagine he must surely develop a stress fracture in his knee at any moment). 

Ahem.

But I do take out my own kind of insurance against tedium and moodiness, I suppose, by attempting to bring a book to fit every mood—a murder mystery, a literary middlebrow novel, a cozy/funny book, perhaps a critical text or a history.  But should you think that the selection process is taken lightly, with books merely tossed carelessly into my suitcase, I'll tell you that one reason this post came to mind is because Andy and I have been finalizing our plans for a two-week stay in Italy in late October, and I'm already beginning to worry about reading material. 

Now, London was a piece of cake.  I think I may actually have carried only two books with me (though I felt astonishingly naked in doing so), because after all I knew that visits to Persephone and Hatchards and Oxfam and various locales at Charing Cross would surely take place within a day or two of my arrival on UK soil.  But Italy is just a bit more challenging, isn't it?  Sure, there are English-language bookstores, but they are hardly as certain to bring joyful rewards fitting my taste as London shops were.  What are the chances of stumbling across a dirt-cheap Girls Gone By edition in Rome?  Or a Pamela Frankau first edition in Naples?  And what will I do if I can only locate cheesy contemporary fiction about disfunctional families or—even worse—only fiction by men.  I shudder to think.

So, dear readers, please do tell me your own strategies for being a biblioholic on the move!

Thursday, September 18, 2014

ENA LIMEBEER, The Dove and Roebuck (1933) (and a tantalizing glimpse of her career as a painter)


I can't recall another occasion when I've had quite such a love/hate relationship with a novel as I had with The Dove and Roebuck

Now, ordinarily, if I don't like a book, I just don't write about it here (however much I may moan about it to Andy), because I figure that if it didn't speak to me, then I'm not the right person to discuss it, and it could be that I'm just too dense to "get" what the author was trying to do, so I should just toss it aside and shut up.  But in this case, I am really torn because there were both some achingly beautiful passages that made me think it could become one of my favorites, and some truly excruciating passages (by the end, there were times when I had to sit down and force myself to read two pages at a time).

The story—which definitely takes a back seat to the prose in both the beautiful and the excruciating passages—revolves around a village inn called, of course, The Dove and Roebuck.  The former innkeeper retires, and the inn is taken over by Sophie Hargreaves and her family—sister Doll, brother Joe, father John, son Philip, and husband Robert.  But Louisa, a ne'er-do-well cousin, is bitter because she wanted to run the inn herself, or at least be asked to share the business.  She possibly works to sabotage the inn's business—or perhaps she doesn't (clarity sometimes takes a back seat to prose stylings as well).  When the inn has fallen into dire straits, the family asks her to help.  

Initially, Louisa turns the business around and makes it thrive, but finally her violent temper and violent passions are her downfall, and will haunt the other characters for years to come.  Various other villagers appear here and there, and the perspective and style of the story keeps shifting, in loosely stream-of-consciousness form, from one character to another in a way that was perhaps rather influenced by Faulkner.  It's certainly a distinctly serious, distinctly highbrow novel (where the jacket flap gets the idea that there is a "backdrop of comedy" remains a mystery to me), and it was first published by the Woolves' Hogarth Press.


To begin with the positive, I'll say that, at her best, Limebeer evokes the deceptively simple, profound methods of storytelling used by one of my favorite recent authors, W. G. Sebald.  Sebald's novels are like elegant, achingly beautiful dirges which, though focused on heartrending themes like despair and madness, are somehow also entirely life-affirming.  Most of Sebald's novels are disguised as simple travelogues, in which the narrator wanders—usually in rather bleak areas that are shadows of their former glory—and encounters fascinating, often obsessive or tormented characters who seem like revenents from earlier times of prosperity and joy.  They are novels at all purely by dint of the themes that unite them. 

Perhaps the same could be said of The Dove and Roebuck.  Ironically, though, while some readers might find Sebald's loosely flowing, uneventful journeys too plotless for comfort (or too bleak), and although, as noted above, Limebeer's focus on plot is rather tentative, for me her novel's problem is that it still errs too much in the direction of plot and, well, what can only be called Romantic melodrama. 

Had Limebeer kept her attention focused on the brilliant, meandering surveillance of the various odd and heartbreaking characters of her village, as she does in the first third or so of the novel, and eschewed all attempts at describing a progression of events, The Dove and Roebuck might have wound up as one of my favorite novels (and would almost certainly have been a future selection of the Furrowed Middlebrow Book-of-the-Month Club).  Without a doubt Limebeer can write gorgeous prose, and she can capture the depth and complexity and fundamental disrepair of her characters' lives so vividly that you might find your heart aching for them. 

It's irrelevant to the review, but what's more
fun than finding a "circulating library" label
from a library in Salt Lake City, with a stamp
from 1933, in the front of a book?  Anyone
have grandparents who remember
Dwyer's Book Shop?

I have to give a fairly long example of what was for me the most powerful example.  Here is a description of Sophie's battle-scarred husband Robert, and a passage from a few pages later which seems to be from Robert's own perspective.  The abstraction with which life seems to unfold for him after the traumas of war is reflected in the "one" used to describe his thoughts and feelings, and even the third person "Richard" in one spot, and lines like "One was lying on one's face in the grass" evoke the work that Samuel Beckett would be doing not quite two decades later in his most famous trilogy of experimental novels:

When Sophie gets out of bed in the morning she says, "Why, man, go to sleep, do," for there is something about the eyes which troubles her. And when Doll teases her brother-in-law, saying that his smart town clothes remind her of a flunkey on holiday, he only smiles with his lips, a long curving graceful smile that expresses an almost unbelievable sweetness. But the eyes remain the same, as if, having gazed for some time at unforgettable scenes, they had lost all further powers of registration, the lenses themselves having no longer any inward vision, from a certain moment being paralysed. Only the objects around are reflected as in a mirror of dead blue glass.

...

The armies were marching! The armies were coming along! There was a glare like a gas-jet blowing, the flickering roar of the flame hanging in the little shop. The haystack was falling! Oh, peace! One was lying on one's face in the grass. The cows breathed in the darkness. And the stars shone. It was not that one could not tell anyone: it was that one was far away. One had not come back. One's sword was killing, one's gun was firing, the machines were roaring, the battalion was marching. And lost, like the spot of dark in the heart of the gas-jet, one followed after. One heard one's voice in a dream, crying, yelling, moaning, weeping. One gave Richard some water, one sold one's best treasure for safety. One skirmished, one ran, one crept, one burrowed, one poisoned, one rifled, one pillaged. One lay in a tent of dead men and thought of the water flowing. One wept for the grey river, and Tom and Lily.

It's a lovely bit of writing testifying to the horrifying residue of World War I.  Indeed, the novel might be worth tracking down just for such lovely passages. 

But, alas and alack, Limebeer wasn't quite prepared to be as radical as Beckett, and felt that this loveliness had to be united by a rather tedious plot in which the turmoils surrounding the village inn are tied up with the heavily symbolic image of Louisa as a Lorelei driving men to their doom.  

Ho-hum.  

This is exacerbated by the fact that, while minor characters come alive vividly, Louisa herself never seems to come together convincingly.  She is volatile and tortured, though we never really know why, and she is unlikeable and rather unsympathizable (so to speak).  Perhaps my inability to get at her personality or what drives her is a testament to the complexity that Limebeer was trying to capture, but for better or worse this complexity remained, for me, flat on the page.

It's distinctly odd, too, after the beauty of some of the earlier passages, that Limebeer late in the novel seems frequently to sink into a sort of gushing Romantic prose, rather like an (even more) immature Byron:

Drum. Drum-a-drum. Why should a soldier die? Why, having escaped the anguish of battle, should he not dwell in peace for ever, watching the shining fields of the earth, enjoying the earth as he sought to make it? If the sword has not pierced, the gun not riddled, the shell not shattered, the tank not mangled, it is absurd to die in one's own home. Better the cry of the wounded than a resumption of normal life and early frustration. How bitter the plans, the dreams are then I One recalls the days when one lived by saying, "When I get home I will do this or that." But the cup of peace is at one's lips and lo! it is dashed speedily away.

Ahem.  Reading these passages—of which there are, sadly, many—was like swimming through molasses.

But there, that's enough negativity.  Now, on to something far more interesting.

I had been intending to read this novel since some time last year when I came across an intriguing review of it.  I have been particularly obsessed with novels of village life recently, and like to throw in the occasional story reflecting that not all English village life is like The Vicar of Dibley, any more than San Francisco is like an Armistead Maupin novel (though it is, sort of, at least part of the time).  So I suppose that The Dove and Roebuck, in the bleak view it offers of village life, is a bit of a counterbalance to all of those idealized, charming village tales.

Be that as it may, however, the immediate inspiration for finally making my Interlibrary Loan request for Limebeer's book was an exciting email I received a few weeks ago from Larry Smith of Devon, England, who had just acquired two lovely paintings from a seller at her local market, and had gone online to try to find out more about the artist—one Ena Limebeer.  As Limebeer has virtually no web presence outside of my blog, Larry found herself here, and emailed me to share her discoveries. 

An oil on canvas by Ena Limebeer (the first of her paintings that I know of
to appear online), courtesy of Larry Smith of Devon, England

From what I had managed to find out about Limebeer, I knew that after authoring her two novels in the early 1930s, she had focused primarily on painting, and had apparently developed a fair reputation, reportedly exhibiting paintings in the Paris Salon in the 1960s.  A Japanese Wikipedia page—one of the only online sources of information about Limebeer (and a search for it now to provide a link was unsuccessful)—reports that her works from the 1950s and 1960s are particularly sought after by collectors, but I hadn't been able to locate any information at all about the paintings themselves, so I was particularly excited that Larry was generous enough not only to email me pictures of the two paintings, but also gave her permission for me to share the pictures with you.

Now, obviously I'm not an art critic in any way, shape, or form, but I actually found both of Limebeer's paintings completely haunting and quite lovely in a bleak sort of way (not unlike the best parts of her fiction).  In fact, from my point of view, I would say that Limebeer, without doubt, made the right decision when she opted to focus on painting over a literary career!

Self portrait by Ena Limebeer,
courtesy of Larry Smith of Devon, England

I was also particularly thrilled to have seen the second painting Larry acquired, which seems to be a self-portrait of the elusive artist herself.  Considering the pathetic photo which was my only image of Limebeer previously (see here—I had harvested it from some periodical of the time, which obviously was not concerned with offering high-quality images as one of its attractions for readers), this one is an enormous improvement!

My warm thanks again to Larry for sending the photos and for allowing me to use them here.  She has since reported to me that she has acquired three more Limebeer paintings—watercolors this time.  So, Larry has single-handedly lit a fire under the Limebeer collectors' market in England! (Perhaps I could persuade Larry next to track down a painting or two by Celia Buckmaster, another author who wrote two novels—among my all-time favorites—and then turned to painting?)

I always like to leave you with a humorous quote from the book I'm reviewing.  In this case, however, that would hardly be fitting.  So, here instead is a rather memorable philosophical summation made by one of Limebeer's characters—somewhat eloquent in its determined bleakness:

Life was a thing one had once, a bold gay sort of thing. One flourished it and swore at it, wore it out and took care of it. And then it was over.

Now, isn't that an uplifting thought to be leaving you with?!

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The NEW Hopeless Wish List (now even MORE hopeless!)

I created my original Hopeless Wish List only a few weeks after starting this blog, and I started to talk about creating an updated one within a few months thereafter.  But, alas, apart from going back once or twice to add comments to the original post (with the main effect being that it's now quite sloppy and confusing), I've shamefully neglected the whole idea.  But in the year or so since I first started talking about a new list, I've come across a wide array of tantalizing obscurities, and I've finally decided it's time to share them, albeit in a post that will be sadly lacking in great cover art (if the books just barely exist nowadays, it's not surprising that there are few pictures of their dustjackets).  

Now, bear in mind that in that time my definition of "hopeless" has evolved a little.  Interlibrary loan is a wonderful thing, and on occasion Amazon or Abe Books or Bookfinder can net some remarkable finds at prices cheap enough even for my stingy budget.  Since I drafted the first list, I have actually managed to track down a fair number of titles.  True, a few of those turned out to be disappointments, but also true that a couple have become favorites.  So, the books on this list are mostly even more obscure and hard-to-find than those on my original list.

Here's a brief rundown on some of the books and authors I mentioned in my original list.  First, the positive: 

Thanks to Cornell University's library, I was able to read Frances Faviell's A Chelsea Concerto, now easily one of my handful of absolute favorite books about the home front.  Faviell was featured prominently in Virginia Nicholson's wonderful book Millions Like Us: Women's Lives in War and Peace 1939-1949 (2011), but still no one seems to be reprinting it.

Then, there was the very, very generous gift of Edith Olivier's one delightful but impossibly obscure children's book, The Underground River, sent to me by Simon at Stuck-in-a-Book.  Edith Nesbit's The Lark came to me on loan from the University of Saskatchewan, which seems to be the only library in North America that still has a circulating copy.   It was only after that that Mary B. noticed that the novel is also available in e-book format as part of Delphi Classics' Complete Novels of E. Nesbit, so that one's not hopeless at all anymore.  And then there's Molly Clavering, whose novels are still vanishingly rare, but happily a cousin of Clavering's generously shared a copy of Near Neighbours with me, which only made me want to read her other work that much more.

As for the less positive outcomes, I tracked down Elinor Mordaunt's 1915 novel The Family, mentioned positively by Nicola Beauman in her wonderful book A Very Great Profession (1983). I completely agree that it's an important and interesting book, and yet ultimately it just proved too bleak and dry for me, and I gave up about three-quarters of the way through.  Interestingly, only a few months after starting my blog, I was thrilled to receive an e-mail from Nicola Beauman herself, who mentioned among other things that she personally didn't feel I should go out of my way looking for Winifred Watson's early novels.  I'd still love to have a look at them, given the opportunity, but if I can't take her word for it that there's not another Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day hiding anywhere among Watson's other works, then who could I believe?! 

Joan Morgan's Ding Dong Dell is certainly still hopeless unless you happen to be sitting in the British Library reading room, but honestly, perhaps it's not quite such a fond wish now, having sampled Morgan's rather disappointing debut novel, Citizen of Westminster…  Also on the down side, I was thrilled to find that the wonderful Boston Athenaeum had several of Noel Streatfeild's more or less forgotten novels for adults…but then I sampled a couple of them and the thrill was gone.  A sort of psychological portrait of a sociopathic child, Luke is told as if it's a murder mystery, though "whodunit" is never really in doubt.  It's ultimately a rather cold-blooded tale, and felt rather empty when all was said and done, but it was at least a somewhat interesting disappointment.  I Ordered a Table for Six, by contrast, for which I had especially yearned due to its wartime setting, was merely tedious and depressing—and harsh, and cynical, and focused, again, on cold, unrelatable characters.  Such an odd combination from the author of so many entertaining and likeable children's books, not to mention the charming froth of her eleven novels under the pseudonym Susan Scarlett.

Some of the other WWII novels I've been yearning for could prove as disappointing as Streatfeild's did, but I'm still desperate for a chance to read Marjorie Wilenski's Table Two, or Richmal Crompton's Mrs. Frensham Describes a Circle, or Lorna Lewis' Tea and Hot Bombs, or Barbara Noble's The House Opposite.  Will I ever get to?  Will a trip to the British Library ultimately be necessary in order to do so?

But now, on to the new list:

A few of the titles I'm adding for this second iteration of the list are also books about which I have only the merest snippets of information, so they too could very easily go either way.  Are they charming lost joys?  Or anti-climaxes waiting to happen?  But my instinct (such as it is) seems to be drawing me to them).

The elusive Sybil Lethbridge

I feel like I'm already addicted to Sybil Lethbridge, though I've never managed to read any of her work at all.  Of her 1933 novel, The Wild Feather, the Bookman said: "From Mrs. Campbell Lethbridge we anticipate the more detailed, leisurely methods which is in the worthy tradition of the professional novelist who builds up a theme or plot by refusing to skip the background. Nor are we disappointed. Here is a villain of a builder who seeks to destroy the beauty of an unspoilt seaside place in Cornwall; here is the heroine, fifty-five years of age but still beautiful and admired—a Lady Bountiful, who has in the past outwitted him."  And her intriguingly titled earlier novel Gnats and Camels (1924), reportedly about "a young woman rebelling against her stuffy family," is drawing me to it as well.  But apparently it will have to draw me all the way to the British Library if I want to read it.

The intriguing cover of another Bridget Lowry novel

The Bookman also reviewed BRIDGET LOWRY's To-Morrow's Giants in 1933, and I imagine some of you readers will be as attracted to its description as I am: "The optimism of the book is no flowery sentimental emotion, but the optimism of courage. Katharine Harvey-Adams has lost her only child, her husband is imprisoned for fraud, and she goes into a Suffolk village to start life afresh and to have a home ready for him to come to on his release. The story ends on the eve of his return, and in the interval we have penetrated the lives of the people of the village, rich and poor, and know each one with an intimacy that renders all their small joys and sorrows matters of infinite importance."  But good luck tracking down a copy!

Marjorie Appleton's Anything Can Happen (1942) reportedly deals with a domestic servant conscripted to work in a munitions factory.  Although the Spectator was distinctly luke-warm on it, they added that Appleton "gives vivid and detailed descriptions of what happens in a machine shop and the various rules and regulations governing the production of war material. … The book has many convincing scenes of war-time trials and triumphs."  Add that one to my British Library reading list as well. Perhaps they'll allow me to pitch a tent in the reading room?

A close friend—and roommate for a number of years—of mystery writer Gladys Mitchell, WINIFRED BLAZEY also wrote crime or mystery novels.  Only four of them, apparently, and the early ones sound a bit bleak, from the snippets of information I've found.  But it's the last that I happily would go on a modest quest to acquire.  Grace Before Meat (1942) was described as "a cheerful period piece with a murder thrown in for good measure. … The story is of a young woman who, in the spacious days before the wars, took as her first job the entire charge of a village school. She insisted on living alone, and the various complications which follow have a reasonable inevitability and convincingness."

I know so little about MARGARET DALE's Maze (1934) that nothing at all but blind instinct has led me to list it here, but blind instinct has (sometimes) steered me well in the past, so perhaps it's doing so again?

For a few other books on this list, I have a bit more information to buttress my interest, but of course, they could still fail to live up to their potential.  I can't imagine, however, that ELEANOR SCOTT's War Among Ladies (1928) will be much of a disappointment, particularly after Margin Notes reviewed it a few months ago.  I've become an addict of school stories for adults, and this one sounds particularly intriguing.  Scott's later novel Puss in the Corner (1934), also attracts me, but it seems to be even more steeped in shadow than War is.  There is just a glimmer of hope that Interlibrary Loan could still come through for War.  Fingers crossed!

A terrible picture of one of the novels Kay Carroll
went on to write after Compass Course

Also quite hopeless outside of a national library (for a change of pace, I think I'll read this one at the National Library of Scotland) is KAY CARROLL's Compass Course: The Log of an Air Force Officer's Wife (1941).  An excerpt from the dust jacket tempts me to drop everything and fly to Edinburgh (well, of course, that temptation doesn't require a lot of buttressing): "This is the true story of an Air Force family with its ups and downs and general posts, the period covered being from 1933 to 1941. It is a vastly entertaining story by an Air Officer's wife with a quick and witty mind and a Service heart. The author has the rare knack of turning every incident into an adventure whether it be of the simplest or most exciting nature. It is a moving story which she has to tell, one of high loyalties and magnificent self-sacrifice, and she gives us enthralling glimpses not only of life at air bases in Britain but also of adventures from Cyprus to Baghdad."

New edition of The Good Comrade,
available from Amazon UK

And last but not least of the authors I know a little about (but not much): Scholar Kate Macdonald, author of The Masculine Middlebrow, 1880-1950 (2011), emailed me a while back and provided me with wonderful information about several novels by UNA SILBERRAD.  She's edited Silberrad's early novel The Good Comrade (1907), and she does a podcast series called Why I Really Like This Book, which is irresistible, and which includes a podcast on Silberrad's The Honest Man (1922).  But the novel which intrigued me most from Kate's description was The Letters of Jean Armiter (1923), an epistolary novel about a "useful" middle-aged spinster who writes letters about the trials and travails of family life.  Amazon US doesn't appear to have heard of it, Amazon UK has no copies, and it looks like the British Library or Cambridge for this one. 

Even a year and a half into doing this blog, it's hard for me to believe that there are so many fascinating authors and books that have practically ceased to exist.  

But wait!  There's more!

Perhaps most tantalizing of all the books on this list are those stray, semi-lost books by authors I have read and loved.  For example, I've written several times about URSULA ORANGE, whose handful of novels appeared in the 1930s and 1940s.  She focused often on young, educated, sophisticated women, and the best of the Orange novels I've read is without a doubt Tom Tiddler's Ground (1945, published in the U.S. as Ask Me No Questions).  Her earlier novels are charming and entertaining, and her later novels are a bit darker and distinctly modern in tone.  So it's sheer torture not to be able to read Have Your Cake (1942), published one year after Tom Tiddler's Ground, in the thick of World War II.  Is it another masterpiece of frolic?  Or the beginning of her darker, more psychological explorations?  Or something entirely unique?  Eventually, I will have to find out!

Ruth Adam

I've also read three of RUTH ADAM's books—A Woman's Place, I'm Not Complaining, and A House in the Country—and have enjoyed all of them, as well as being astonished by her range, from very serious, politically-minded fiction, to lighter satire that still has political depth, to wonderful social history (yep, politically-aware as well).  So, I am very curious about There Needs No Ghost (1939), which falls after the seriousness of I'm Not Complaining, but, according to contemporary reviews, is also somewhat humorous in its portrayal of the Bloomsbury elite gearing up for World War II.  The redoubtable Queenie Leavis thought it weaker than Adam's earlier works, but nevertheless concluded her review with praise at the slightly catty expense of a couple of better-known authors: "I for one consider a novel by Mrs. Adam, who has a point of view, a lively feeling for Character as well as for characters, and a personal sense of values, far more worth having than a sackful of art-novels (for instance, those of Miss Elizabeth Bowen and Miss Kay Boyle)."  Oh, dear.  I had a moment of joy when searching Worldcat for it, because it's owned by UCLA's library, to which Andy (bless his heart) has access.  But then I realized that they wisely have it restricted to non-circulating Special Collections, and it's not in a single other U.S. library.  Perhaps a trip to Los Angeles is also in my future?  Of course, I'm also still dreaming of Adam's one mystery novel, Murder in the Home Guard (1942), but the hopelessness surrounding that book remains unabated.

Although I don't hold out particularly high hopes that MARY BELL's Broken Bonds (1946) will be the wonderful stroke of genius that her later novel Summer's Day turned out to be, it would be completely fascinating to read this short romance that appears to be Bell's only other published work.  Are there hints in this early work of the charm, humor, and depth that she would develop so brilliantly a few years later?  Are there any clues in it about the author's still relatively obscure life?  I'd love to know, but the kind of cheaply-published (and perhaps advertiser-supported) romantic fiction that Bonds appears to be was generally viewed as disposable, so finding a copy will likely prove a real challenge.

Among the wonderful information provided to me by MOLLY CLAVERING's cousin Michael Stewart was an amazing list of novels Clavering serialized in the People's Friend magazine from the 1950s to the mid-1970s.  This list totally changed what I thought I knew about Clavering's output and relative prolificity.  But tracking down this work, especially from this side of the pond, is a challenge.  Of course, it's certainly possible that the work Clavering did for serialization would have been of lower quality than her book publications—often the case, due to deadlines and the constraints of periodical publishing.  On the other hand, what if there are lost treasures among those novels???

The redoubtable F. M. MAYOR's two early and now more or less lost writings are surely worthwhile reprints just waiting to happen.  Mrs. Hammond's Children (1901), published under the pseudonym "Mary Strafford" when Mayor was only 29, is described by Janet Morgan in the introduction to the Virago edition of The Squire's Daughter as a collection of stories “based on the relations among children and the kindnesses and cruelties they practise on one another.”  Morgan goes on to mention another work I had never run across: Miss Browne's Friend: A Story of Two Women (1914) is described as "an exploration of a friendship between a suburban lady and a prostitute, published serially in the Free Church Suffrage Times.” Even if the quality of these two early works isn't up to the standards of her later work—such as her masterpiece The Rector's Daughter—they deserve to be in print.  Mayor's literary reputation has been on the rise in later years (Rector's Daughter appeared under the Penguin Modern Classics imprint a few years back), and readers and scholars should have access to her full body of work.  Both of these works would be out of copyright in the U.S. (and presumably in the U.K. as well, since Mayor died in 1932), so hopefully Project Gutenberg or Archive.org will get around to them eventually, but copies are not exactly easy to come by, and both works sound so intriguing that some savvy publisher should get in gear and reprint them.

And finally, with my recent growing obsession with girls' school stories, I might as well mention here how difficult many of those are to come by—at least without indulging in frequent flights to the U.K. or splurging on school stories instead of groceries (always a temptation).  Alas, these are the kinds of books that have almost unanimously been discarded by—or, perhaps more likely, stolen from?—libraries.  In the few cases where libraries still hold these books, they have naturally been placed in non-circulating special collections.  Since few genres seem to attract so many avid collectors, prices for those copies which do get listed for sale are often budget-busting.  And even the existence of the wonderful Girls Gone By Press, furiously reprinting many of the best books of the genre, doesn't always make them accessible for long, since their small print runs ensure that their editions lapse out of print quickly and become almost as collectible (and expensive) as the original versions.

So much hopelessness in one post.  Could anyone possibly have greater woes? 

Obviously, the answer to that question is yes—lots of people, many with much greater woes.  But still, it would be nice to write an update to this post a year from now and report that I've successfully tracked down six or seven of those titles.  Hope does, after all, spring eternal!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

WINIFRED PECK, The Warrielaw Jewel (1933)


Winifred Peck's 1942 novel House-Bound was one of the first Persephone reprints I picked up (soon after D. E. Stevenson's Miss Buncle's Book, which had led me to Persephone in the first place), and I was immediately enamored with its tale of a middle-class woman in wartime Edinburgh who dives in to trying to keep her own house, in the absence of any viable domestic help.  It's not riotous humor, by any means, but charmingly subtle human comedy based on believable characters and true-to-life situations.  Although my first instinct, I recall, was to be rather condescending to poor Rose Fairweather—since of course nowadays we mostly all (at least the folks I hang out with) keep our own houses (though it is also true that I, for one, do not need to clean out a coal-burning stove when I stagger out of bed in the morning), Peck soon made me empathize completely with this delightful character who was really sort of daring and remarkable in her own way, and who approached her steep learning curve with optimism and energy and without whining and moaning about it.  And that was that—I fell in love with Rose and stayed in love with her through a second reading of the novel.

Ever since that time, I've intended to read more of Peck's intriguing body of work.  It includes some quite seductive-sounding titles for a middlebrow addict—and for the treasure hunter in me, they are seductively hard to come by as well.  For instance, there's They Come, They Go: The Story of an English Rectory (1937) and what must surely be its sequel, Bewildering Cares: A Week in the Life of a Clergyman's Wife (1940).  There's Peck's memoir of her early life in A Little Learning, or, A Victorian Childhood (1952).  Plus, there's a whole slew of other novels—perhaps The Skirts of Time (1935) would be a favorite?  Or There Is a Fortress (1945)?  Perhaps Winding Ways (1951)?  I hope to find out someday.


But even when I was doing my initial research on Peck a couple of years ago, I somehow completely missed the fact that she had in fact also written two well-received mystery novels.  It wasn't until I was drafting my Mystery List a few weeks ago that I came across that tantalizing fact, and I immediately and quite spontaneously requested the first of these, The Warrielaw Jewel, from the library.

I'm always saying that I'm surprised that this book or that book has not been reprinted.  It's the recurring refrain of this blog.  But I truly am surprised about this one.  Dating from the Golden Age of mystery writing and set a quarter century earlier in Edwardian Edinburgh, The Warrielaw Jewel is told by the wife of an attorney, who by-the-by becomes a crucial witness in a case that includes mysterious disappearances of jewels and people, as well as wholesale murder.  It's not only a completely competent and rather clever mystery (which, rest assured, I will not spoil here), but also a marvellously evocative portrayal of its place and time:

This story of mine is now I suppose historical. My own children apply the term to that period, so far away from modern youth, when King Edward VII lived, and skirts were long and motors few, and the term Victorian was not yet a reproach. Yet as I look back I see no very profound differences in modern youth and my own upbringing. Before I married I lived with a literary father and artistic mother in Kensington Square, and that life seems to me to have changed but little in essentials. But when, after my marriage, I went to live in Edinburgh, I did feel that I had stepped back definitely into history. I am not speaking of the stricter social and ceremonial proprieties, already undermined by the charming youth of the city. It was not these things which surprised me, but a deeper truth, unimagined by a post-war generation. Edinburgh was not in those days a city, but a fortuitous collection of clans. Beneath a society always charming and interesting on the surface, and delightful to strangers, lurked a history of old hatreds, family quarrels, feuds as old as the Black Douglas. Nor were the clans united internally, except indeed at attack from without. Often already my mother-in-law had placidly dissuaded me from asking relations to meet, on the ground that they did not recognise each other.


The novel's main characters, apart from the narrator, Betty Morrison, and her husband John, are an eccentric family of decayed gentlefolk led by a true domestic dominatrix, Jessica Warrielaw, and her meek martyr of a sister, Mary.  Then there are a small array of other relatives, including Cora and Neil, two cousins who have had just a bit too close a relationship.  Especially in describing the two sisters, Peck does a beautiful job of making vividly real their rather stunted lives.  She's particularly skilled at using descriptions of tangible objects to reveal this, as when the narrator describes Mary's room in the creaky, run-down old mansion:

It had been furnished last, like Jessica's, when the front portion of the house was built, in the style we know so well from Leech's pictures in Punch. But the monumental suite of mahogany and the canopied bed were, like Jessica's, dull and tarnished with years and neglect, and the Axminster carpet almost threadbare. In such rooms as those of the two sisters, all over Scotland in the last half-century, families of daughters grew up to lonely and unhonoured spinsterhood, victims to the traditions and extravagance of the past. Outside, the sun was shining again on the budding trees, and the rooks were calling, but within, youth and spring had passed away irretrievably…

And, just a short while later, Peck uses a stereotypically appropriate "feminine" hobby to show the rather sad, desperate emptiness of Mary's existence:

Incredible as it must seem to this generation, not only the Misses Warrielaw, but many of my own contemporaries spent hours over this peculiarly fatuous form of fancy work. With meticulous care we would pierce holes in white muslin and carefully embroider their edges with white thread till the hole was barely visible. My efforts in that direction had been confined to the corner of one handkerchief, still unfinished, but Miss Mary had been working for years, I imagined, at the large, grimy bedspread laid out before me, punctured inch by inch with embroidered holes.

In a way, the narrator's repeated interest in how different things are now (i.e. in 1933) than they were when the events she describes occurred reminds me a bit of Catherine Aird's A Late Phoenix, another mystery I wrote about fairly recently.  Here, as there, memories of a now-distant way-of-life and set of standards play a crucial role in the mystery, and the changed perceptions of that earlier time are an important concern.  And each little acknowledgement by the narrator of those changed perceptions is packed with wonderful detail of the earlier period, as when she describes how people felt about their automobiles when automobiles were new and exciting possessions:

These were the early days of owner-drivers, and my heart bled for our new, immaculate Albion and its tyres. This generation will never understand the mingled emotions of early motorists, the care and affection we transferred from our horses, the pride of pioneers, and the interest in every other car.

A sentiment she connects up humorously in this comment on the feelings of her and her husband driving away after an evening with the Warrielaws:

Anyone who climbed into our car to-day, and sat, perched over its crude gadgets, in a smell of petrol and an incessant draught, would feel that they had strayed back into the Dark Ages. But upon that evening, I remember, our Albion seemed to me a gay centre of warmth and modernity and civilisation, as we drove homewards and left the gloomy house behind us.

I could quote a dozen more passages that made me smile or pause in my reading to reflect on Peck's vivid images of a time gone by, but I don't want to be giving away anything much about the mystery itself, which, with Betty's charming narration, is too entertaining in its unfolding for me to spoil.  The puzzle, as it's often called, is not the most brilliant I've ever read, but as mysteries go I found it convincing and surprising.  But bear in mind that I have never once guessed "whodunit" when reading a mystery (and sometimes, as I think I've confessed before, I still can't even when reading a mystery for the second or third time!), because I tend to be so much more interested in the characters and settings and descriptions of day-to-day life than I am in who pulled the trigger, tightened the rope, tinkered with the brakes, or flung a poisoned dart across a crowded room without anyone noticing.  So I am perhaps not the best judge.  Your experience may vary, as shady advertisers often put it.  However, if you share my own focus on substance over puzzle, then I can't imagine that you'll be disappointed here.

One rather odd thing about the book, which certainly seems more of a gimmick by the publisher than something Peck herself would have chosen to do: There's a notice on pages 250-251 of the novel (see picture) putting the reader on notice that all of the evidence and clues have now been presented and challenging them to solve the mystery without reading further.  I've never seen such a thing outside of some old children's mysteries I seem to recall reading as a child, but you might either find this notice rather funny and charming or merely a silly distraction, depending on your own readerly predilections.



Needless to say, in response to the publisher's query "Can you do it?" I promptly replied "Certainly not" and went blithely on turning pages, but perhaps you'll be less averse to accepting the challenge?

I have to close with one final, very simple, example of Peck's irresistible domestic humor—one that might almost have been lifted from House-Bound, written nearly a decade later:

I was almost as embarrassed as the two men when Cora began to cry. After all, there are certain things any woman may cry for legitimately, like losing a cook or some teeth or an engagement ring, but not in front of strangers, and not as if her heart was broken.

Of course one might sob at the loss of one's cook.  Just ask Rose Fairweather.
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