Saturday, May 26, 2018

STELLA GIBBONS, The Untidy Gnome (1935)

As many of you know, I've been semi-methodically working my way through a bunch of Stella Gibbons's fiction in the past six months or so, and I'm delighted to have finally got round to her one and only effort in the direction of children's fiction. I owe a big thanks (not for the first time) to Grant Hurlock for lending me his copy of the book, of which it is none too easy to track down a copy these days!

I wasn't sure what to expect from this book. In some ways, Stella Gibbons, several of whose novels for adults are loose retellings of fairy tales, would seem a natural children's author. On the other hand, despite her proclivity for fairy tales, I somehow tend to think of Gibbons as a very smart, practical, down-to-earth author, firmly grounded in reality and not terribly touchy-feely or sympathetic to fanciful reveries. So then, what on earth would her tale of elves and fairies, written for her own young daughter, turn out to be?

The handful of full-page illustrations by
William Townsend are quite striking...

What it turned out to be, as I really should have known it would, was an entirely unique, funny, and "Gibbonsesque" take on a children's fantasy. If it's not a perfectly polished tale, and if it's not that surprising that Gibbons didn't feel that children's fiction was her forte, it's nevertheless the kind of book I would have delighted in at age 10 or so, and the kind that I take perhaps a deeper delight in as an adult of several times that age.

For whatever reason, Gibbons sets her story in Norway circa the mid-1700s, but the only things affected by this setting is that the character names and landscape are somewhat Scandinavian and the time is a rustic one, pre-automobile and pre-electricity. Young Gerda, the daughter of Peter the woodcutter, is kidnapped by Elves and held hostage, only to be returned if Peter vows to stop cutting down the trees which form the elves' homes. This abduction is complicated by the involvement of the Faeries, whose young Princess Fand is outraged by the kidnapping and determines to use the Faery army to rescue Gerda.

Whether Gibbons intended it or not, the plot is a strikingly modern one, even including some of the complexities of conservation of natural resources versus people's livelihoods, and even the misunderstanding of motives of those involved. Peter's large family is oblivious of the pain his profession causes for the Elves:

On the way they passed three big trees, cut down by their father and his friends, lying with boughs stripped off and trunks white as flour where the bark had been peeled from them, and if they could have seen with fairy eyes, they would have seen the homeless Elves wandering sadly among the scattered branches of their homes. Some of them were weeping and trying to build themselves little houses out of pine needles, and others were stamping and wringing their hands, and others were sitting quite still, in cold Elfin fury.

After Gerda is kidnapped, Peter faces the economic realities of his dilemma ("I shall have to promise, and we shall all starve."), but we also see Princess Fand's misunderstanding of the Elves' motives as she wants to teach them a lesson about their spitefulness ("Fand did not know that the Elves had acted, not out of spite, but to prevent more of their people being made homeless"). Indeed, here's a situation that evokes a good many of the fiercest conflicts of 20th (and 21st) century world politics, though some of those it fits best actually postdate Gibbons' story.

...while the smaller, simpler drawings scattered throughout
didn't seem quite so effective to me

But of course these are things that an adult reader might notice. A younger reader would be far more interested in strange and often humorous details of the book's imagined universe. For example, the gnome of the title is Kob, who grew up with an overachieving houseproud mother (who may indeed have taken things to extreme, as Kob and his siblings mostly had to live in tents in the garden to avoid dirtying their home) and always dreamed of some day being a slob.  He is charged with holding Gerda in his cave high up in the mountains, but it's a pleasant enough form of imprisonment for Gerda, who passes the time tidying his cave, paying off his bills, replacing his shiftless robin housekeeper with a diligent rabbit, and generally delighting in her own Flora Poste-ness.

We learn about the strange behavior of witches' houses:

A splashing icy stream ran through the valley, and the witch's house always stood on the side opposite to which you were, so that to reach it you must ride or climb over three flat stones which made a bridge across the stream.

The witch's house only did this because all witch's houses do it, in order to puzzle and annoy travellers. In just the same way the witch never looked like a witch when you got quite close to her, though you could see her as plain as plain from a distance. All witches do this; it is a sure way of telling one when you meet one.

We learn what happens to Elves and Fairies instead of death ("'You might have been turned into mist,' said the Prince gravely"). And, my favorite, we learn about the excesses of insects as we catch a glimpse of "a butterfly who had drunk too much sunlight and was singing loudly to himself."

I also, despite his profession (and his lack of restraint in producing children!), found Peter hard to resist in this early scene:

Peter the Woodcutter was pouring out soup into the ten little wooden bowls which stood round him, like a little wooden fence at the head of the table, and talking at the same time to Nils the baby, for Peter wanted Nils to learn to talk, thinking it must be dull for him to hear a conversation going on all round him, and not be able to join in.

Perhaps it's inevitable, with such an imaginative setting and plot, that the ending was not, for me, entirely satisfying. (Particularly when Gibbons had made her fantasy political situation so realistic that a fully satisfying solution might have been as difficult to find as a real-life outcome to the world's problems.) But that's a small quibble compared to how enjoyable the book as a whole was. With Gibbons's name recognition and the enjoyability of the story for adults as well as children, it's hard to see why New York Review Books hasn't already grabbed this one for it's children's series.

Without giving too much away, one element of the story's climactic moments is the pivotal arrival of the rarely-seen "Snow People", who, with their particular loathing of noise and fuss, reminded me of a line from Gibbons's own ODNB entry that I used in her blurb on my British Women Writers list, describing the weekly "at homes" she hosted for many years: "She was known to expel guests from these tea parties if they were shrill, dramatic, or wrote tragic novels."

Oh, to go back in time and have an invite to one of those tea parties!

Monday, May 21, 2018

P. B. (PATRICIA BARNES) ABERCROMBIE, The Little Difference (1959)

And now for something completely different from Miss Read...

Back in February, the Neglected Books site featured a review of P. B. Abercrombie's sixth novel, Fido Couchant (1962), an author neither the reviewer nor myself had ever heard of before, though she apparently received considerable acclaim in her day for the eight novels she published between 1952 and 1972, including from the likes of John Betjeman, Marghanita Laski, and Angus Wilson, the last of whom called her "the most interesting of our young novelists."

Abercrombie was, it turns out, born in 1917, and lived until 2003, though her work appears to have been forgotten long before that. Her pen name, interestingly, reverses her maiden and married names. She was born Abercrombie and in 1938 married Denis Barnes, a civil servant who was knighted in 1967. She's not yet even on my British authors list, though of course she will be added in my next update.

I'm grateful to two different readers of this blog—Mark Harris and Jeb Nichols—who emailed me to mention the Neglected Books post. I immediately checked Worldcat and was delighted to find that most of Abercrombie's novels are available to me one way or another. I more or less randomly selected one of them to request first, and apparently made a good choice, since not only does The Little Difference seem to have been her most successful work, but it also belongs on my Grownup School Story List, which makes it an excellent place for me to have started. I didn't do any digging for information about Abercrombie until after I'd read the book, but Abercrombie's Wikipedia page quotes a review of Difference from The Tatler which called it, "As enjoyable as a glass of champagne in the middle of a sunny morning when you ought to be working." I don't typically drink champagne at mid-morning, but in this case an exception is called for…

The novel follows the experiences of Vivian Mudge, an independent-minded, sexually liberated Londoner, during the year after she—perhaps misguidedly—accepts a teaching position in a girls' boarding school in Cheshire. But don't get the idea that the novel therefore belongs next to Mabel Esther Allan's Here We Go Round or Miss Read's Fresh from the Country. This is an entirely different cup of tea—edgy, jaded, and very, very funny—contrasting the glamorous Vivian with the more provincial women around her, including the two headmistresses and an array of eccentric mistresses, not to mention the goodlooking farmer nearby whom she commandeers to help her teach cricket to the girls (among other things).

You know you're in for an unusual reading experience with the very first paragraph, in which the school's cranky music teacher trails Vivian, whom he has not yet met, on her first arrival at the school, grumbling misogynistically all along the road:

An angry old man had followed an unknown young woman for more than two miles before he began to be specific in his strictures on her character. Then, when she abruptly turned off the main road, with a gesture whose arrogance was clearly characteristic, he began to analyse in detail a person he had until then simply accused of being female. When first he caught sight of the bare brown elbow resting on the opened window, his thoughts might have been simplified into the exclamation, "Women!" which exacerbated the emotions he always felt at certain mannerisms of driving. When the arm moved and raised itself to lightly clasp the roof—like a woman holding a hat on in a wind—his rage at this most irritating of motoring affectations was mingled with a dark suspicion; "Lesbian!" he muttered aloud. The gold bracelet she wore slid down from wrist to forearm. He watched it move again when, a little later, she slowed down; he could not accuse her of not making signals, but in some mysterious way she had as she did so the air of somebody giving orders. Besides, the flashes of that ostentatious bracelet constituted, he believed, a danger on the road.

It's an appropriate opening, because in many ways Abercrombie's novel is about just how much hostility and resistance there is against women who are independent and unvulnerable, who take life, men, love, and sex lightly. To some extent, Vivian is more the sort of heroine one would expect from a novel of the late 1960s, and one can easily see why the other mistresses would be seduced by her into risking soirées with sherry, steak, and pop music (all forbidden by the sober, vegetarian, conservative headmistresses, who fortunately sleep in a different building from the teachers). Even the teachers who disapprove of her or feel threatened by her seem unable to resist her. But happily, Vivian is lacking in the angst of, say, a Doris Lessing heroine.

Vivian has for some time been the mistress of an oft-married publisher named Garnett Hatfull, whom she convinces to publish the first novel of one of her fellow teachers, Laura Lafleur. She also offers Laura advice on dressing and behaving in a more sophisticated way—though it's an uphill battle. Laura's terribly earnest feelings about romance, both in her novel and in real life, are hopelessly idealized, and Garnett agrees to publish her novel because of it naïve, unintentional comedy. When Laura turns her romantic urges on Garnett, the discord between fantasy and reality is hilariously clear:

They were very close together. In her novel, Rosita, the young and innocent heroine, had imagined that the hero's heavy breathing was because he had run all the way across the piazza. Laura had herself never heard a man breathing heavily for any other reason, but she believed she would recognise the phenomenon when it occurred. Garnett, however, could not be heard breathing at all.

Poor Laura.

The novel is a bit bare bones in its presentation of the characters. We know very little of Vivian's background, let alone the other characters. In that sense, it reads a bit like a play, set always in the immediate present. It's also perhaps a bit jaded for some readers, though if you're a fan of Barbara Pym, Abercrombie's cynical humor might be right up your alley. Like Pym, her metaphors are frequently brilliant, but Abercrombie's are sometimes distinctly more odd. Consider, for example, this early description of stern Miss Geraldine, one of the headmistresses:

She carried with her a menacing serenity. Though almost as tall as her sister she was less solidly oblong. Her face had the colour and texture of skin, but of skin that has been removed from the body and scraped on the inside; not luminous but yet not quite opaque, not dry and yet appearing never to have needed moisture. She stood with the fingers of one hand loosely entangled in a long necklet of beads, while the muted hubbub of greeting died away.

There are also some very funny passages describing the school. Ironically, though Miss Geraldine and, to a lesser extent, her sister Miss Amanda, have rigid and conservative views of the behavior of their women staff, they have founded their school on the standard of total freedom for its girls:

From sounds that she could hear—a shrieking and a squeaking—she knew that a certain Betty was swinging on the Lodge gates, smoking a cigarette. The "Suggestions for Conduct" which were put to the girls, included the thought that it would be "disturbing to the staff" if the children invaded the Lodge and its garden; and a particularly gruesome description of lung cancer was read out several times a term. Ignoring suggestions was as near to breaking rules as Betty could get (her frantic indiscipline had almost inclined the Miss Gallions to frame some rules especially for her to break, but this would entail a sacrifice of the community to the individual and was finally abandoned).

(By the way, I'm always happy when a book introduces a totally new vocabulary word to me, as happens here when Vivian, frankly fantasizing about men playing cricket, gives "a musical but frankly esurient groan.")

I found The Little Difference to be a more or less engrossing read, if for no other reason than I was constantly curious what the author was going to do next. There are few enough novels that consistently lead one down unexpected paths. That said, it does rather seem to just aimlessly amble along without any definite shape or purpose, and the ending, though appropriate to the tone and the characters, felt a bit anticlimactic.

Nevertheless, I am certainly keeping an open mind about Abercrombie, because if nothing else she's a deeply interesting and unusual author, which counts for a lot with me. I've already made an interlibrary loan request for another of her novels, so stay tuned for more…

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

MISS READ (DORA SAINT), Fresh from the Country (1960)

I don't recall for sure how I came across this lesser-known gem from the author of the Fairacre and Thrush Green books. I have a suspicion that the knowledge came from one of you lovely readers, perhaps in the form of a suggestion that the book belonged on my Grownup School Story List? Whoever it was who put it on my radar, I'm certainly grateful, and now the book, having remained on my TBR shelves for a couple of years, has finally floated its way to the top. (And yes, this one is actually on my shelves, rather than from a dusty library storage facility, and it's a beautiful copy at that. Would that I could remember how I came to possess it...)

And it has now become perhaps my favorite of the Miss Read (real name Dora Saint) books I've read, providing a slightly surprising variation on the author's more famous work.

It's the tale of Anna Lacey, a young schoolteacher from Essex, who takes her first teaching position in an unattractive newly-built suburb. Anna has spent her life on a farm in the open country, and has difficulty adjusting to her cramped, unpleasant lodgings with a skinflint landlady, the overcrowded conditions that reign in her classroom, and the attitudes and eccentricities of some of her colleagues at the school. She also must somewhat adapt the teaching techniques she learned in her training:

She had called the children's names and marked her register with care. Fearful lest uproar should break out again she had kept her voice stern and her face unsmiling. She had mispronounced one or two names and quelled the resulting sniggers with her most daunting glances. This was not how she had envisaged meeting her new charges. She had meant to advance with happiness and confidence, as she had been told to do at college, but she felt neither at the moment, and guilty into the bargain.

Two bustling, self-important little girls had given out paper and pencils to the rest and the class settled itself, with only a minor buzzing, to filling its empty sheets with horses, ballerinas, cowboys and anything else which engaged its attention, leaving Anna free to roam up and down the aisles and to look from the windows upon the windy sunlit wastes of the new suburb which surrounded the school.

I don't often look at Amazon or Goodreads reviews of books I've already read, but in checking Amazon to confirm that this book is indeed out-of-print on both sides of the Atlantic (boo!), I happened to glance at the reviews and was a bit surprised, so I found myself checking Goodreads too. More than one reviewer called Fresh from the Country a "rose-tinted" or idealized view of teaching, which was striking to me because I felt quite the opposite. Approaching it from having read some of the Fairacre and Thrush Green books, I found this novel a bit more realistic, with just a bit of an edge even, and, apart from the fact that Anna is the kind of well-grounded, intelligent, diligent, and basically cheerful type of character one would expect from Miss Read, I didn't see anything particularly rose-tinted about this portrayal. I mean, true enough that none of the children bring drugs or guns to school, and none of them seem to be particularly abused or neglected, but then this is presumably the late 1950s and Anna is teaching young children, so I didn't find this particularly surprising.

The villages from Saint's two series are generally cozy and cheerful in the best kind of way, and the reader always feels that most people are genuinely kind and good and all will come right in the end. Here, however, Anna has some moments of real unhappiness, as well as very real and believable uncertainties about her future and her options, and there are some biting portrayals of the darker sides of human nature. I felt I was getting an honest glimpse of the real problems and frustrations of a new teacher, perhaps inspired by the authors own experiences, and I found it all terribly interesting.

As it happens, one of my favorite humorous passages in Fresh from the Country also demonstrates a bit of the acidity that appears here and there. Anna has been invited to tea with her awful landlady and two of her friends, who apparently enjoy their games of one upsmanship:

'Of course, there are a lot of people,' went on Mrs Porter, 'who criticise him. They say that he is too fond of ritual and he overdoes the incense and the genuflections, but personally I like it. After all, if one doesn't, one can always go to chapel.'

'I go to chapel,' said Mrs Adams, dangerously calm.

'Well, there you are!' said Mrs Porter, in a faintly patronising tone. Anna was instantly aware that Mrs Porter had known this all along, and watched the scene with quickened appreciation. Here was self-aggrandisement in action again.

'And you probably enjoy it very much,' continued Mrs Porter indulgently, nodding the ruched pancake. She spoke, thought Anna, as though religion were a comfortable cup of tea, Indian or China, chosen to taste.

'Naturally,' said Mrs Adams, turning a dusky pink. She took a deep breath as though about to defend her religious principles, but Mrs Flynn with commendable aplomb, proffered the tomato sandwiches and spoke hastily.

'And your little boy, Mrs Adams? Is he well?'

Mrs Adams' breath expired peacefully through smiling lips.

'Very well indeed. He's the liveliest of the three. I really don't know what we'd do without him now the others are away at school.'

'Such a handsome child,' enthused Mrs Flyrm, 'and devoted to you. His little face fairly lights up when he sees you.'

Mrs Adams simpered and looked gratified.

'Well, I must say he almost hero-worships me. It's "Mum this" and "Mum that." I can't do any wrong in that child's eyes.'

Anna, yet again, marvelled at the diversity of opinion on children. Beauty was certainly in the eye of the beholder. She had yet to find any child with the faintest desire to make a hero of herself but this was not the first mother she had heard claiming devoted allegiance so calmly.

'Frankly,' went on Mrs Adams, her voice getting stronger, 'I don't know how people manage without children. It seems so unnatural. I suppose they turn to other things for a substitute. Religion, for instance.' She gave a swift sidelong glance at Mrs Porter who, affecting complete indifference, was studying the tea-leaves at the bottom of her cup.

There is certainly plenty of humor in Miss Read's Thrush Green series, but it seemed to me there was a bit of an edge, of spitefulness, in this scene that rarely appears in the other novels, and the same is true of some of Anna's observations of her fellow teachers.

Some other reviewers—especially loyal fans of the Fairacre and Thrush Green books—found Fresh a bit depressing or slow. I didn't find it that at all, and indeed had trouble tearing myself away from it, but I can see why some Miss Read fans might feel that way. And perhaps that sort of reaction is why she never seems to have written in the same mode again, but oh, I can't help thinking what a pleasure it would have been to have a whole series about Anna and her development as a teacher!

With the above qualification for Miss Read fans, I do very much recommend this book. Fans of grownup school stories more generally, for example, or of stories of young women starting out in their careers, may find this right up their alley. Those who enjoyed Mabel Esther Allan's Here We Go Round, for example, might particularly take note. 

I should point out that this novel, like many of the other Miss Read books, is beautifully illustrated by J. S. (John Strickland) Goodall. (I meant to show you some of the illustrations, but my copy is a tightly bound American edition which doesn't lend itself at all to being placed flat on a scanner.)

I'm curious if any of you have already read this book, and if so, what was your reaction?

Wednesday, May 9, 2018


I'm getting very nearly caught up in writing about the reading I've done in the past few months, but I thought I'd do a brief catch-up post about some of the mysteries that are either directly relevant to the blog or possibly of peripheral interest. I'm afraid it's a rather drab post, as I really only wholeheartedly enjoyed one of the four books I'm mentioning. Am I just being bitchy or what? But which one was the one I loved?

JEAN EDMISTON (writing as HELEN ROBERTSON), The Chinese Goose (aka Swan Song) (1960)

Well, the first is undoubtedly the most obscure of the five. Helen Jean Mary Edmiston published four mysteries 1955-1960 under the pseudonym Helen Robertson, of which The Chinese Goose (aka Swan Song) is the most famous. "Most famous" can, however, be taken with a grain of salt, since the book has been out of print since its 1983 reprinting as part of a "50 Classics of Crime Fiction, 1950-1975" series, edited by Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor. Edmiston also wrote one non-mystery under her own name, called The Shake-Up (1962). She remains a fairly mysterious figure apart from some general information here and there, and although she lived until 2008, she does not seem to have published any additional books (though there's a bit of confusion with another Jean Edmiston who seems to have begun publishing in the 1990s).

In The Chinese Goose, 18-year-old Lucy Cluff has been sent to a small town somewhere in the Thames estuary to help care for the young son of her cousin Nancy, who has recently drowned after apparently being attacked by swans. She has also been sent to keep her at a distance from the young man her parents consider undesirable (though little do they know what the result will be!).

We meet Nancy's widower, Roy Portham, who owns the local pub, the Swan with Two Necks (a distortion of meaning from the days when swans were marked with nicks according to their ownership), Martin Rimmer, local sleaze and womanizer (more on him below), his mother, who works at the local post office, and several other locals. It also happens that Jack Benwick, a local man now working with the CID in London, has brought Chief Detective Inspector Lathom Dynes to the area for a holiday.

In the first chapter, Lucy sits in Roy's bar and turns the conversation to Nancy's bizarre death. She begins to wonder if the marks found on Nancy's body couldn't have been from a mantrap rather than a swan attack, and the mystery develops from there in its somewhat moseying way.

So is this the book in this post that I loved? Well, since it was chosen by Barzun and Taylor as a crime "classic," and has been praised by others who know more about mystery writing in general than I do, I can hardly make any definitive assertion about it. But I can say that it quite definitely wasn't up my alley. Drab, morose characters, a drab grey setting, and a plodding, drab plot. I even found the puzzle and the solution rather drab, nothing like so clever or surprising as one might have expected from a "classic".

Did I mention that I found it drab?

Worst of all was that Lucy, the main character, is a drab, lifeless little waif who makes one want to shake her. The aforementioned charmer Martin (I told you I'd mention him again) asks her to go for a drive with him, comes very close to raping her, and thereby of course inspires her to fall head over heels in love with him. Clearly, Lucy has never heard of the "Me Too" movement. Or feminism. Or basic self-respect.

I will say that Edmiston has an excellent sense of place. The reader can certainly feel that they're seeing and smelling and experiencing what it's like in this small town. For my own part, I just wish she'd put this talent to use with more interesting characters and a more interesting plot.

JOSEPHINE TEY, Brat Farrar (1949)

I'm going to keep this one short, because I know this will be a shocking thing for many of you. As a rule, I absolutely love Josephine Tey. The Daughter of Time is quite possibly my favorite mystery of all time, Miss Pym Disposes is among my top 10, and To Love and Be Wise and The Franchise Affair are right up there as well.

Why, then, did I find this other much-loved and much-recommended Tey so utterly dull? I was terribly disappointed, as this was the last of the really well-known Tey novels that I hadn't yet read, and I approached it with great enthusiasm, only to know within the first couple of chapters exactly how it would play out. And I never guess the ends of mysteries and thrillers, so I can't help feeling that this one was terribly obvious.

Enough said. But on a brighter note, it was only when I was searching online for some tidbit about the book that I discovered the bio of Tey published a couple of years ago. Have any of you read it? I don't read a lot of author bios, but I am definitely tempted by this one as Tey seems to have had an unusual life.

MAVIS DORIEL HAY, Murder Underground (1935)

Ah yes, finally! Now here was a mystery I could sink my teeth into! I can't say that it's my all-time favorite or anything like that, but it was thoroughly enjoyable, with entertaining characters and an intriguing puzzle.

Poor Euphemia Pongleton is strangled on the steps of the Belsize Park Tube station, with her own dog's leash. There's no shortage of suspects, as she was a thoroughly distasteful woman, and no shortage of opportunity, since as it turns out practically everyone she knew just happened to be hanging about in or around that particularly station that very morning (and for the most part without having come in contact with one another), and her penchant for taking the stairs due to her fear of elevators was also widely known.

Rather ridiculous, for sure—if strict realism is your thing, this one may not be for you (perhaps see above for the drab realism of The Chinese Goose?)—and yet it's so charmingly told that I couldn't resist it. And even though to some extent there is a fair amount of rehashing and chewing over theories about the crime, something that often makes me very cranky, here it's all done in the context of one very silly character's efforts to extricate himself from his own suspicious behavior and his untruths about it to police. So rather than making me cranky, I found it all quite clever and fun.

I wrote briefly about another Mavis Doriel Hay mystery, Death on the Cherwell, here, which I loved as a novel but found "no great shakes" as a mystery. I don't recall the details of that book now, but I can only say that Murder Underground's puzzle, though far-fetched, seemed quite good to me.

I found Cherwell for dirt cheap during my orgy of Oxfam shopping in England, and Murder Underground for dirt cheap at the Friends of the Oakland Public Library shop. So perhaps I have a good enough excuse for splurging on a copy of Hay's third and final mystery, The Santa Klaus Murder? What a shame she didn't write a dozen or two more…

FRANCES & RICHARD LOCKRIDGE, The Norths Meet Murder (1940)

The first of more than two dozen mysteries featuring Pam and Jerry North, a sophisticated married couple in New York City, this one proved irresistible to me when I came across it as a $1.99 e-book. In this first volume of the series, the Norths, a rather boozy couple who might evoke the William Powell-Myrna Loy Thin Man films, are planning to hold a party in the vacant apartment upstairs from theirs, but on scouting out the location find a dead body in the bathtub instead. Enter clever New York police inspector Bill Weigand and Sergeant Mullins, his perpetually bewildered sergeant, for whom this case is particularly "screwy".

It all sounds completely delightful, and for the most part it was. At least the scenes involving the Norths themselves, particularly Pam, whose random (sometimes tipsy) ramblings often lead her to work out connections no one else sees. But the problem is that they appeared far too little, and for a mystery fan who cares not a snip about "procedural" elements, there was a bit too much of Weigand and Mullins chewing everything over. Having discovered that a film was made starring George Burns and Gracie Allen as the Norths, I am now thinking that a film version might be just up my street—presuming that, as Burns and Allen were big stars, the Norths' roles were probably expanded and the poor supporting actors who played Weigand and Mullins were probably relegated to background scenery. Hmmmm…

In the unintentionally humorous
cover blurb category...

However, I'm certainly willing to give the Norths another try. Have any of you read enough of this series to recommend favorites?

By the way, with the exception of the first of these novels (did I mention it was drab?), all of these are readily available in both e-book and paperback—rather shocking for this blog…

Thursday, May 3, 2018

The Americans: the A's part 2

I recently posted about the first ten women to be added to my in-progress American Women Writers list. Now, rounding out the A's, here are 12 more.

Zoë Akins, photographed by
Carl van Vechten, 1935

If there was ever any doubt about how fleeting literary fame can be, ZOË AKINS is a reminder. She was a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, screenwriter, poet and novelist. Among her most famous plays are Déclassée (1919), which starred Ethel Barrymore, The Greeks Had a Word for It (1930), which would later form part of the basis for the film How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), a favorite of mine starring Lauren Bacall, Marilyn Monroe, and Betty Grable, Morning Glory, which was unproduced as a play but won Katherine Hepburn her first Oscar when it was filmed in 1933, and The Old Maid (1935), based on an Edith Wharton novella, which starred Judith Anderson on Broadway and Bette Davis when it was filmed. The last earned Akins the Pulitzer Prize for drama, by which time she was very nearly the stereotypical household name. 

She also wrote screenplays for a number of films, including Camille (1936) with Greta Garbo and Zaza (1938) starring Claudette Colbert. Akins published only two novels—Cake upon the Waters (1919), described as a humorous crime novel featuring a widow with a knack for trouble, and Forever Young (1941), in which, according to Contemporary Authors, "a woman reminisces about her first year at school in 1900 as the youngest girl in the class, and recalls how she helped save the school from disgrace." In her personal life, Akins married once, but her husband tragically died after only 8 months of marriage.

JEAN ARISS, meanwhile, may be best remembered for the company she kept. She and her husband Bruce Ariss, a noted artist in Monterey, California, were close friends of John Steinbeck, and Bruce published a book, Inside Cannery Row (1988), about their friendship. Jean herself published two novels. In The Quick Years (1958), a young woman tells the story of her difficult grandfather's life—Kirkus critiqued its "erratic stream of consciousness" but said the main character rang true. The Shattered Glass (1962) is about a woman recovering from her son's death by falling in love, only to find that her new lover is an alcoholic.

The A's also include no fewer than six authors of fiction primarily aimed at girls (though some also wrote fiction for adults.

I owe the presence of MARJORIE HILL ALLEE on my list to Constance Martin, one of the readers of this blog who gave me lots of assistance brainstorming American women writers. Allee was the author of 14 volumes of fiction for adults and children, much of it informed by her own Quakerism. A trilogy of novels—Judith Lankester (1930), A House of Her Own (1934), and Off to Philadelphia! (1936)—deal with a widow and her eight daughters in the mid-19th century U.S. 

The girls and women in Allee's fiction are frequently notable for their interest in science and their dedication to scientific careers. The Great Tradition (1937) features several young women living together while studying biology at the University of Chicago, and was in part Allee's response to college novels which focused on parties and social life. The House (1944) is a sequel that follows one of the women into her career as a zoologist. Among her children's fiction, Susanna and Tristram (1929) deals with a teenage girl and her younger brother working with the Underground Railroad, and its sequel, The Road to Carolina (1932), traces the brother's trip into the South with a passionate Quaker abolitionist. 

Jane's Island (1931) and Ann's Surprising Summer (1933) are also about young girls exploring their scientific interests, while The Little American Girl (1938) (which appears to be for older readers than its title might suggest) follows a girl's experiences studying at the Quaker International Center in Paris. Runaway Linda (1939) deals with an unwanted orphan, The Camp at Westlands (1941) is set at a Quaker volunteer work camp, Winter's Mischief (1942) at a country boarding school, and Smoke Jumper (1945) in the Forestry Service. Allee was married to a zoologist, undoubtedly a source of some of the background of her fiction. I'm finding myself particularly interested in reading Judith Lankester, which, it just so happens, is available is the U.S. for free downloading from Hathi Trust!

JANE D. ABBOTT was the author of more than 40 volumes of fiction, most aimed at young girls and featuring elements of romance and adventure. Her publisher marketed her books as holding "the place in the hearts of girls of today that Louisa May Alcott held in the hearts of their mothers," which was perhaps laying it on a bit thick, but she does seem to have been quite successful. Titles include Happy House (1920), Highacres (1920), Barberry Gate (1925), Harriet's Choice (1928), Bouquet Hill (1931), Miss Jolley's Family (1933), Low Bridge (1935), Lorrie (1941), and The Inheritors (1953).

Perhaps a bit of evidence that we shouldn't take the Alcott comparison too seriously is the fact that MARGARET ASHMUN was also compared to Alcott, particularly for her Isabel Carleton series for teenage girls. (One wonders just how many authors were compared to Alcott in those days?!) Those books are Isabel Carleton's Year (1916), Heart of Isabel Carleton (1917), Isabel Carleton's Friends (1918), Isabel Carleton in the West (1919), and Isabel Carleton at Home (1920). In the 1920s, she published four novels for adults—Topless Towers: A Romance of Morningside Heights (1921), Support (1922), The Lake (1924, aka The Lonely Lake), and Pa: The Head of the Family (1927). The latter two in particular received critical acclaim. Her final book was the biographical Singing Swan: An Account of Anna Seward and Her Acquaintance with Dr. Johnson, Boswell, & Others of Their Time (1931).

Reader GSGreatEscaper drew my attention to ISABELLA ALDEN, author of well over 100 Christian-themed children's books published over the course of six decades. Alden was the aunt of novelist Grace Livingston Hill, who will appear further down the list. Her most popular works included a series featuring Ester Reid, which included Ester Ried: Asleep and Awake (1870), Ester Ried Yet Speaking (1883), and Ester Ried's Namesake (1906), and her "Chautauqua Girls" series, which begins with Four Girls at Chautauqua (1876) and concludes with Four Mothers at Chautauqua (1913). In her 1956 work All the Happy Endings: A Study of the Domestic Novel in America, Helen Papashvily noted of Alden's work: "So frequently did the cliches of grief appear—the lock of hair, the shoe, the sun's last rays on the fading cheek, the plaintive voice asking, 'Will Papa come home?'—that some later readers found amusement in these bits of sentimentality." As Pansy, her childhood nickname from her father, Alden published periodical fiction for children, and for more than 20 years edited a periodical of her own called, naturally enough, Pansy.

1923 yearbook photo of Grace Allen from
Newton High School, Newton, Massachusetts

GRACE ALLEN, meanwhile, was on my radar from my perusal of Sims & Clare's Encyclopaedia of Girls' School Stories, which mentioned her 1950 part-school story Lucy's League (1950). When I found that she was American (she was born and raised in the U.S., though she lived much of her adult life in the U.K.), I held her off of my original list, but kept her in my database, and she can now take her rightful place. Having started as a staff artist at Oxford University Press, she became an editor for OUP and later for Chatto & Windus, Houghton Mifflin, Constable, Longman, and Collins. She published five children's titles, the first two—the aforementioned Lucy's League (1950) and John's Journey (1952)—under her Amelia Gay pseudonym, the others—The Funny Guy (1955), As a May Morning (1958), and A Sister for Helen (1976)—as Grace Allen Hogarth. She also published four adult novels, the first three—This to Be Love (1949), The End of Summer (1951), and Children of This World (1953)—as Grace Allen, and the last, a mystery called Murders for Sale (1954, aka Sneeze on Sunday), written in collaboration with Mary Alice NORTON (who often published sci-fi and fantasy as Andre Norton), under the pseudonym Allen Weston. Whew!

MARY ANN AMSBARY did publish one adult novel under her own name, Caesar's Angel (1952), which was reviewed at Neglected Books here. In addition, she, along with Jean Lyttleton MCKECHNIE, apparently shared the Kay Lyttleton pseudonym, credited with the five-book Jean Craig series for girls—Jean Craig Grows Up (1948), Jean Craig in New York (1948), Jean Craig Finds Romance (1948), Jean Craig, Nurse (1949), and Jean Craig, Graduate Nurse (1950). It's unclear at this point which author wrote which books in the series.

Also a children's writer, though not specifically for girls, was LAURA ADAMS ARMER. Many of her children's books focused on Navajo culture, and she often illustrated or co-illustrated them with husband Sidney Armer. She is most famous for her first book, Waterless Mountain (1931), about a Navajo boy who wants to be a medicine man, which won the Newbery Medal and has frequently been reprinted. Later children's titles were Dark Circle of Branches (1933), The Traders' Children (1937), which was somewhat autobiographical and featured characters based on Armer and her husband, The Forest Pool (1938), and Farthest West (1939). She also published the non-fiction Cactus (1934), about different species of desert plants, and Southwest (1935), described by Kirkus as "an inspirational book, which catches the hidden meaning and underlying significance of the beauties of the country and the philosophy of the people." In Navajo Land (1962), published when she was in her late 80s, is a short memoir of her early visits to American Indian sites in Arizona. Some of Armer's artwork can be seen here.

To slightly stretch the point, one might say that IRENE ALEXANDER's four novels were aimed at rather older girls or young women. The Wisconsin Library Bulletin describes her debut, Villa Caprice (1932): "Entertaining light romance of a young architect whose opportunity to decorate a villa at Monte Carlo sets him on the road to professional success and wins him the girl he loves." Her other titles are Crooked Alley (1933), which appears to have elements of mystery and suspense as well, Ninth Week (1935), and Revenge Can Wait (1941). On the 1920 U.S. census, she was a schoolteacher.

Mary Anne Amsbary, from the New
York Times
 review of Caesar's Angel

And finally, two authors who don't particularly fit any subgrouping. HELEN ANDERSON—not to be confused with Scottish author Helen Maud Anderson (see my British Women Writers list)—was apparently the author of only one novel, the lesbian-themed Pity for Women (1937). The novel received scathing reviews at the time, but the beginning of the Kirkus review might have gained more readers for the book than the scornful critiques discouraged: "Here is a book that makes The Well of Loneliness and Dusty Answer look like Sunday School missals, that out-Colettes Colette." Hmmm, now I sort of want to read it myself! Despite the bad reviews, the book has been of interest to scholars of lesbian fiction in recent years. Lori L. Lake notes here that it seems to be the first example of a lesbian wedding ceremony portrayed in fiction. By all counts, however, the story doesn't end happily.

And MARION POLK ANGELLOTTI was the author of five novels as well as additional periodical fiction. Her debut, Sir John Hawkwood (1911), is based on the adventures of the real life 14th century soldier of the same name, while The Firefly of France (1918) is based on the life of French WWI fighter pilot Georges Guynemer. Burgundian: A Tale of Old France (1912) is set in the court of King Charles VI, Harlette (1913) is "a strong tale of Duke Robert of Normandy and the beautiful peasant woman who loved him," and Three Black Bags (1922) is described by a bookseller as an "international mystery novel set in France and Germany and involving a 'beautiful and resourceful American girl'."

There are two or three authors here that intrigue me enough to lengthen my TBR list a bit more. What about you?  And this is only the A's. The B's will be coming along before long…
NOTE: The comment function on Blogger is notoriously cranky. If you're having problems, try selecting "Name/URL" or "Anonymous" from the "Comment as" drop-down (be sure to "sign" your comment, though, so I know who dropped by). Some people also find it easier using a browser like Firefox or Chrome instead of Internet Explorer.

But it can still be a pain, and if you can't get any of that to work, please email me at I do want to hear from you!