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‘Charms For The Easy Life’ by Kaye Gibbons

What a neat story this is! I am hit and miss with Kaye Gibbons, but this is a story I thoroughly enjoyed. It has elements that I am drawn to: a very Southern Gothic sense, a family of women striving to get through life as a family, and the individual strengths of each woman.

Margaret is the narrator, living with her mother and grandmother in the old family home. The grandmother is called Charley Kate, a name of her own choice and she is the ” healer”. She is a legendary medicinal practitioner, who sees herself as correcting all the wrongs of the professional Doctors. The mother is Sophia, a woman used to more glamour than her mother, and bound and determined to find a man who deserves her. Margaret is in the midst of these two women, and is strong in her own right.

The plot is not necessarily set in stone here. Instead, there are many stories, past and present, of the three women. The setting is North Carolina, and the sense of place is written wonderfully. Gibbons is an expert in local dialect and customs in each of her books, but this one struck me as the least dramatic, written in a the manner that family stories are usually handed down orally . It is a nice quick read for a weekend or filler between more involved books.

Rating: 4 stars

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‘Indian Summer’ by William Dean Howells

This is a story of Mr. Colville ,experiencing what we would call a mid-life crisis, and how we view the past upon reaching middle-age. Colville has left the ownership of a small Indiana newspaper after a failed run for Congress. Seventeen years earlier, his life was on path to become an artist in the spirit of Ruskin. He moves to Florence with a young man’s high hopes, and promptly falls in love. It is hinted that the love affair was not reciprocal, but instead a passing fancy for the young woman. This failed relationship wounds him dramatically.

He leaves Florence to return to the States, and takes over the ownership of a paper his brother bought in a land deal. He is ultimately very successful, beloved by the town for his fair and even-handed news reporting. In all these years, he remains a bachelor. It is only when he steps outside of being the ‘Everyman’ and voices his own opinion in his Congressional race that the townspeople rebuff him. He, in essence, is rejected again in voicing his true feelings. As a result, he sells up and decides to give Florence and art another try seventeen years later.

Within the first day of his return to Italy, he runs into a widow, a Mrs. Bowen, her small daughter Effie and her charge for the season, twenty-year-old Imogene Graham. It seems that Mrs. Bowen, seventeen years earlier, was the best friend of the girl who threw over Colville.  As a wealthy widow, she spends the majority of her time in Florence, rarely returning to the States. Colville and she strike up an instant reacquaintance and friendship. Colville is doting upon her small daughter and charming at every party and ball they attend. It looks like Mrs. Bowen would be an ideal wife for Colville after his life of rejection. But as I mentioned, this is a mid-life crisis theme. The young and beautiful Imogene, with her sparkling youth, entrances Colville. He is living his own past. Mrs. Bowen is keenly aware of his path, but what can stop him?

I really enjoyed this, my first William Dean Howells book. His admiration for authors Henry James and George Eliot are seen, as he gives a vibrancy to the exchanges between characters and in the European setting, specific customs and mores. His great friendship with Mark Twain is evident in the clever humor and the retrospectives of an American abroad.

Rating: 4 stars

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‘The Magician’ by Somerset Maugham (1908), and the story behind the book

In the introduction to The Magician, Maugham himself allows that this is far from his best work. No argument there. The story is based on Aleister Crowley, a fixture in the occultist, black magic trend that was popular for a bit in early 20th century Paris. Maugham and Crowley met at times and established a mutual cordial disdain.

When reading The Magician, his dislike for Crowley is far more intense, in that Maugham never misses a chance to refer to Oliver Haddo (the Magician/Crowley) as a corpulent gas-bag of a man who was a cad, a con and pretty much evil. Maugham implies that he forgot most of the book until a reading of it again after nearly 50 years, where he was astonished to find he had researched the subject so thoroughly. Hmm.

He readily admits that the style is not his usual grounded realism, and that his prose was at times “florid” and full of too many adjectives. The story is that of Arthur and Margaret, a sweet couple who are engaged to be married. Margaret would like to marry immediately, but Arthur feels a trip to Paris with her friend Susie is what she needs. Margaret, looking for entertainment in Paris, soon comes into contact with a set who are involved in the occult/black magic fad. She meets Haddo, is fascinated by him, and buys into his authenticity. Arthur needless to say does not, and believes he is a phony.

Margaret becomes entranced and seduced by Haddo, and by what she believes is truly the effects of black magic. She follows him, and this is where the story is uneven and not Maugham’s usual style. The plot is a little weird near the end, but it still has a few well-turned phrases with an interesting finish. This is not horrible, nor great – more a fable-like telling of one of the numerous trends that were so prevalent at the time; and, more importantly, a jab at Crowley and his claims of being an authentic black magic purveyor.

After publication and a review in the press, Aleister Crowley wrote an infuriated response, claiming Maugham had plagiarized his life. Odd, because the Haddo character was pretty much a jerk and a fake and Crowley claimed it as plagiarism? Since Crowley’s name pops up in literature of that era occassionly, he apparently left the same impression with many writers in Paris at the time. So I rated this 4 stars – 3 for the book, and an extra for the story behind it.

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Saturday Poem (2): ‘Spring’ by Mary Oliver

Somewhere
a black bear
has just risen from sleep
and is staring

down the mountain.
All night
in the brisk and shallow restlessness
of early spring

I think of her,
her four black fists
flicking the gravel,
her tongue

like a red fire
touching the grass,
the cold water.
There is only one question:

how to love this world.
I think of her
rising
like a black and leafy ledge

to sharpen her claws against
the silence
of the trees.
Whatever else

my life is
with its poems
and its music
and its glass cities,

it is also this dazzling darkness
coming
down the mountain,
breathing and tasting;

all day I think of her—
her white teeth,
her wordlessness,
her perfect love.

3

‘The Goldfinch’ by Donna Tartt

In this stunning novel, Tartt envisions a modern Dickensian cast of characters, substituting London for present day New York. Theo Decker, our century’s orphan, sets forth on a journey led largely on his possession of a priceless painting. Circumstances that lead to his getting this artwork are the basis for the spiraling turn his life takes in the next ten years. His mother is killed in a bomb blast (not a spoiler) at a New York museum, and in that chaos ,Theo meets the dying man, and the painting, that change him forever.

What I found most fascinating about this book is how Tartt shows the life of an American teen left with nothing familiar remaining in his life. Theo’s journey is raw and filled with drugs, thugs and a brief uniting with an extremely unstable father who exits his life yet again. Theo experiences life with the extremely wealthy in New York, to what is effectively urban squatting in a Las Vegas suburb. Through him, we see the dark sides of both lifestyles – a very neat nod to Dickens, it seems. Tartt doesn’t just tip her hat to Dickens though. The great Russian classics come to us through Theo’s friend, and possibly his worst influence, Boris. Love him or hate him – and there is plenty of room for both – Boris is a larger than life character. The modern Artful Dodger, Boris weaves in and out of Theo’s life, from high-school to involvement in the art underworld.  And we aren’t without the presence of an old curiosity shop and the proprietor Hobie who is a haven of stability throughout for all.

As a fan of the ‘big saga’ genre, I fell into this story right from the start. There are many complex characters that propel a plot that is familiar at times, and yet can suddenly become wild and fantastical. Tartt can write some of the tightest prose I’ve read and then wax philosophic for pages. She took thirteen years to write this, all the while with a print of ‘The Goldfinch’ by Carel Fabritius at her desk, so I can forgive any digressions. The painting gives a hint to the story; the little bird held to its perch by a small chain reminds the reader of whatever it may be in life that holds us forever.

Rating: 5 stars

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Marzie’s Novella Series: ‘Simonetta Perkins’ by L. P. Hartley ***

‘Simonetta Perkins’ by L.P. Hartley

J. P. Hartley considered this one of his best works, though I found it not to be nearly as captivating as his book The Go-Between.

In this novella, Lavinia Johnstone is touring Vienna with her mother, who is desperately trying to set up a marriage for her daughter. Lavinia has had plenty of suitors, but none that she will consider. The pressure by her mother and the boredom she finds amid the mostly American fellow travelers that her mother only see fit to socialize with, she begins a diary. The diary is interesting in that it evolves from more than her troubles with her mother and lack of freedom to do as she chooses, into a sort of alternate life. Here, she can express her feelings for a gondolier that she has become infatuated with.

Hartley uses this as an exploration into hidden desires and longing, and the almost stalker-like methods Lavinia uses to secure rides with the gondolier. These seem a bit overdone. In her diary, she begins to call herself by a different name and some actions are carried out under that guise. It is a rather big leap to put all together in novella form.

I think if this was spun out more slowly as in a novel format, I might have enjoyed it more. The Go-Between addresses similar themes but in longer form, and for me is still one of my favorite books.

Rating: 3 stars.

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‘The Laments’ by George Hagen *****

Howard and Julia Lament are in search of the perfect place in which to raise their family. With the birth of their first child, who is then lost in a tragic hospital mix up, they take in the child left by the mother who who kidnapped and lost their son. They name him Will, Julia believing that a child’s name should be one which fits their purpose in life. Will is the glue that holds the often precarious family together. Howard and Julia begin a globe-crossing search to find the perfect place in which to live with their family, a place free of danger, prejudice and full of opportunity.

Some of the funniest episodes of the book are the adjustments to life in whatever country they alight in. Despite its grave beginning, this is in parts a very funny book. The episode in which, on an ocean liner whilst making the move to England, they celebrate the equator crossing is delightfully revealing of the family.

Eventually, twins Julius and Marcus are born into the family, and as is the case, they have names that perfectly describe their own particular force of existence. Will remains the stable center of the family though, with a quiet strength that the adults often can not achieve. With so many moves, the family that had such lofty ideals begins to unravel. With the final stop in New Jersey, they are barely held together, and barely existing financially. With an unexpected tragedy and the appearance of Rose, Julia’s mother, they may find the way to survival and maybe not an ideal life, but rather a life in which they can come back together as a family.

Rating: 5 stars

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Abandoned: ‘Bright Young People: The Lost Generation of London’s Jazz Age’ by D. J. Taylor **

I ended up just skimming through this book, which combines very little biographical info and uneven cultural details. I’ve had this on my shelf for so long, waiting for a time when I needed a good escape book. The book gives a large emphasis on Elizabeth Ponsonby, but very little else on figures who are much more widely known.

There are some interesting pictures contained, yet none that I haven’t seen in other books of the era. I wanted more on the literary influences and less on the social elite, although that is rather incomplete. I would suggest skipping this book, since there are some great individual bios and correspondence compilations that contain much more detail.

Rating: 2 stars

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1950s Women’s Stories

Below are a few books which I’ve read, all of which were written in the 1950s about the lives of women in that era. Not exactly chick lit, but great vintage reading. Virago also has several from this era that are excellent.

‘Marjorie Morningstar’ by Herman Wouk

– Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wauk (1955)
– Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis (1955) – famous as a film and stage play, the book is still the
best for the comedic effect
The Best Of Everything by Rona Jaffe (1958)
The Group by Mary McCarthy (1954)
The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy (1958)
Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth (1959)
The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns (1959)
Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell (1958)
Peyton Place by Grace Metalious (1955)
Giant by Edna Ferber (1952)
The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay (1956)
Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote (1958)

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‘The Meaning of The Night’ by Michael Cox

This is truly an amazing work of Gothic mystery/literary fiction. Beginning with the discovered confession of the

‘The Meaning of Night’ by Michael Cox

protagonist, Edward Glyver, a tale of obsession in extreme unfolds over a narrative that incorporates facts, fiction and bibliophilic references to peak the interests of all readers, and numerous footnotes to promote a sense of authenticity.

It is not an easy book to review without the book sounding dull or pondering, but the plot is so well played out that it is difficult to give too many details without giving too much away. Anyway, it is great fun to read for the mystery and for fans of well done literature.  It is one of the best I have read in a while. The social aspects of the depictions of 1850s London and surrounding areas are realistic of the era, and are a story in their own right.  They also add another dimension to a well conceived and executed storyline.

Rating: 5 stars

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