‘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


‘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


‘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.


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.


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


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)


Saying Hello

I want to take time to thank Kirsty for inviting me here to The Literary Sisters and to introduce myself. I’ve been a reader since I was a kid and reading is still my first and foremost hobby. I say hobby because I am not a professional in any way – my reviews are simply my personal reaction to a book and not formal in construct. My choices in books lean heavily toward authors from the inter-war years, stories centered around the changes in society and the prevailing culture, some Regency and Victorian and a really great mystery on occasion. Finding publishers that are re-printing works that haven’t been seen in years is a challenge I love and putting together collections of some of my favorite presses keeps my wish list out of control. Please feel free to leave a comment on anything I post, it is great to meet others who are readers. So, thank you again Kirsty and hello to all fellow book lovers!



The Literary Sisters Announcement

April is taking a break from blogging at the moment, and rather than post here on my own, I have invited one of my good friends, Marzie, to blog at The Literary Sisters.  We are both working through the list of Virago Modern Classics, and I am so looking forward to talking about books with Marzie on a more regular basis.  Please join me in welcoming our newest Literary Sister!