Friday, January 25, 2019

Her wish is his command: SUSAN ALICE KERBY (aka ELIZABETH BURTON), Miss Carter and the Ifrit (1945)

To look at Miss Georgina Carter you would never have suspected that a woman of her age and character would have allowed herself to be so wholeheartedly mixed up with an Ifrit. For Georgina Carter was nearing fifty (she was forty-seven to be exact) and there was something about her long, plain face, her long upper lip, her long, thin hands and feet that marked her very nearly irrevocably as a spinster. That she wore her undistinguished clothes well, had a warm, human smile, was fond of the theatre and had never occasioned anyone a moment's trouble or worry, were minor virtues which had never got her very far.

I had a feeling, from this opening paragraph, that Miss Carter and the Ifrit might be just my cup of tea. A smart, kind, middle-aged spinster whose humdrum existence needs a bit of shaking up, a wartime setting (late in the war, complete with war fatigue and food yearnings), and a bit of a fantasy element to complicate matters—what could be better? And although Susan Alice Kerby's style of writing is quite different from Sylvia Townsend Warner's, it couldn't help but bring back happy memories of my first reading of Lolly Willowes.

In fact, I'd been meaning to read this novel for several years, precisely because it did seem a suitable supplement to my favorite novel. But with my recent resurgence of interest in World War II fiction, I finally tracked it down and read it and it was well worth the effort. It doesn't have all of Lolly Willowes deeper meanings or witty commentary on the position of women, but it's a delightful little wartime frolic.

That Miss Carter is feeling a bit dispirited and resigned to her bland life is made clear as the opening passage continues:

Georgina herself now accepted her state and age without apparent hatred or remorse; in fact she assured herself she was rather glad to be approaching fifty. It was, she felt, a comfortable age, an age past expectation, hope or surprise. Nothing very shattering, nothing very devastating could happen to one after that age. It was a placid, safe harbour. One could indeed then spend the rest of one's life fairly comfortably with a job in the Censorship for the duration, a smallish private income (which, unfortunately, tended to get smaller) and a flat in an old-fashioned block in St. John's Wood, untroubled and untormented by any violent emotion or gross physical change.

But then she buys some wood blocks from a blitzed roadway to burn in her fireplace, one of which contains an imprisoned Ifrit (quite similar, it seems to me, to a genie, but don't tell him I said so). The Ifrit—whose real name is Abu Shiháb but whom Georgina nicknames Joe—is released from the wood by the fire, and appears in a dramatic explosion (she at first thinks her apartment has been bombed), offering to fulfill her every wish. And although it takes some convincing for Joe to make her believe he's not a parachutist or housebreaker, we begin to see that there's still an adventurous spirit under Miss Carter's ordinary façade:

Well, perhaps this was all a dream. Perhaps she was insane. Perhaps even she was dead and wandering in that strange limbo of those half-forgotten things that one had always desired and never achieved. But—and she made up her mind suddenly and firmly—but this present situation she would accept … and enjoy it, as far as possible. That was perhaps not sensible, but sense be hanged, it was at least interesting!

She continues to worry about the reality of her situation, though back at work she concludes that she couldn't possibly be dead "for even Hell itself couldn't be as dismal as the Censorship."

As one might expect, Georgina also has some initial difficulty in accepting Joe's generosity, feeling guilty about the lavish food and travel he offers her because "during the war, being in sole possession of an Ifrit was a little too much like having a private black market at one's fingertips." But nevertheless the excitement enlivens her and makes her begin to question the life she has settled for. Her friend and co-worker Margaret Mackenzie suspects that the pressures of wartime life have led her to become a secret boozer with a live-in foreign refugee lover. A dizzying hurtle through the atmosphere takes her to visit her beloved (and quite astonished) nephew in Canada.

And then an old flame visits and Joe senses possibilities…

It's all perfectly silly but great fun—a bit like Margery Sharp writing with a mild fantastical bent. It's also very much a "late war" novel, with an emphasis on the drab bleakness, dirt, hunger, and surliness of characters who have already been at war for several years. And it's fun getting a glimpse or two of Georgina's job censoring correspondence:

Georgina found it very difficult to keep her mind on her work next day. As a matter of fact, the censoring of letters which had always before seemed interesting and vaguely romantic (for one might really be the means of uncovering a spy ring), now appeared extraordinarily flat and devoid of all meaning. In fact she found herself wishing that a law would be enforced to compel people to use either a typewriter or block capitals. No longer did the sight of a tortured and indecipherable calligraphy fill her with the peculiar zest and delight commonly known to crossword puzzle fiends. And how could so many people write so much about so little!

There's not a huge amount of information out there about Kerby, whose real name was Alice Elizabeth Burton, married name Aitken, changed back to Burton after her divorce. One online source had her dying in 1952, but the redoubtable researcher John Herrington found she was born in Cairo in 1908, lived for a number of years in Canada (in fact, it's possible she really belongs on a Canadian iteration of my Overwhelming List!), where she married and divorced, then lived in later life in Witney, Oxfordshire, until her death in 1990.

She published six novels, of which Miss Carter is the third. The sixth, Mr Kronion (1949), is apparently about "a Greek god defending English village life," by which I now find myself quite intrigued. Regarding her other novels—Cling to Her, Waiting (1939), Fortnight in Frascati (1940), Many Strange Birds (1947, aka Fortune's Gift), and Gone to Grass (1948, aka The Roaring Dove), I know nothing but titles. After Mr Kronion, she seems to have abandoned fiction, but in the 1950s-1970s she published several works of popular history, including The Elizabethans at Home (1958), The Jacobeans at Home (1962), The Early Victorians at Home (1972), and The Early Tudors at Home (1976). The histories seem to have been published as Elizabeth Burton, but it's difficult to determine for certain which of her novels appeared under which name, as libraries seem to classify her in multiple ways.

Certainly an author to earmark for further investigation, and it happens, rather strangely, that Miss Carter and the Ifrit was reprinted in the 1970s as part of a "lost race and adult fantasy" series (many of its readers must have been disappointed, if they were seeking anything like a traditional sci-fi/fantasy story), so it's not impossible to track down, should you be so inclined! But what about her other fiction? Hmmm…

Friday, January 18, 2019

Back to reality (such as it is)

Well, my holiday blog break has now, unintentionally, extended well beyond the holidays and well beyond the limits of our fabulous trip, from which we returned more than two weeks ago. My excuse for my absence includes the brutal interaction of the worst jet lag I've ever had (a 15 hour time difference will turn your sleep inside out) and the insidious cold with which we both returned. The cold made us tired, which meant we didn't, for the first several days, sufficiently resist the urge to fall into blissful slumber at noon, thus perpetuating the evil jetlag, etc etc. Ugh.

Two weeks on, I am now more or less back in the land of the living, though my head still bobs a bit at my desk every afternoon, and I still have a disorienting tendency (for one who has never been an early riser) to find myself ready and rarin' to go at 4 AM each morning.

At any rate, it was all more than worthwhile, as we had a wonderful time and got to have a holiday completely different from anything we had done before.

Our first week or so was the sightseeing-heavy portion of our trip. We spent the first three days in Manila. We explored Intramuros, the old part of the city, including Fort Santiago (left in ruins after the terrible bombing raids on Manila during World War II), did a fascinating tour of several major churches, and went to Malacanang Palace, the Filipino equivalent of the White House or No. 10 Downing Street:

Fort Santiago

Fort Santiago

Binondo Church, Manila

San Agustin, Manila

Exhibition at Fort Santiago about Filipino
patriot and author Jose Rizal

Andy giving a press briefing at Malacanang Palace

The breakfast room at our hotel had quite the view

Almost as fascinating as the churches was riding around the crowded, chaotic city itself. The traffic is unlike anything I'd ever experienced before, with automobiles, jeepneys (the long, modified Jeeps which function as city buses), "tricycles" (motorbikes of various kinds with appendages—some rather precarious-looking—to allow them to carry passengers), and hordes of people dodging one another at every turn. And yet somehow accidents are generally avoided, people are alert and mostly good-humored, and the megacity continues to operate.

Then, a few days before Christmas, we made the flight from Manila to Siem Reap in Cambodia (undoubtedly the most exotic airline boarding pass I'll ever see my name on):

For three days, we got up around dawn (late by Siem Reap standards) to make our way to the magificent temples of Angkor, driven hither and yon by our friendly and informative tuk-tuk driver, Charlie (ours for a mere $20 per day—expensive Cambodia is not!). It was hot in Cambodia, and the sun occasionally made me feel like a gecko roasting on the sand in Death Valley, so after lunch we would return to our lovely air-conditioned hotel room, freshen up, and then snooze or read through the hottest time of day.

It was all well worth the prolific perspiration. Such an amazing place, whether you're interested in the spiritual side of the temples, the stupendous architecture, or the tremendous historical significance of the area.

Ta Prohm temple, famous from the
Angelina Jolie Tomb Raider film

Bayon at Angkor Thom, which has dozen of faces like
this one carved into the stone

My surprise favorite temple, the lesser known Pre Rup
(or maybe it's not a surprise I'd love a "lesser known" temple???)

Next, we flew back from Siem Reap to Manila and were driven to Olongopo City about three hours away to spend the rest of our trip with Andy's family. They had planned a fairly large scale family reunion to coincide with our visit, and I got to meet dozens of long-time Facebook friends never before seen in person, as well as reuniting with some I had met before. Oh, and posing for hundreds of pictures (occasionally with people whose exact relationship to Andy was a mystery). We received the warmest hospitality I've ever encountered, and I feel very lucky to have married into such a kind, caring family and into so much love and laughter.

So what, a few of you might be asking, did I read on holiday? There were, after all, all those times spent recovering from the heat in our hotel room. Well, not too surprisingly, there were no new book acquisitions during this trip, so no need to purchase an extra suitcase to schlep all my new books home, as we did on our England trip. (There are reportedly some small stalls of English language books scattered among the streets of Intramuros—I did check online before arrival, of course—but they were elusive and the heat and humidity made me a bit too impatient to search for them.)

On the flight over, I started the 10th Inspector Gamache novel by Louise Penny, The Long Way Home. Due to the miracle which somehow allowed me, with only slight chemical assistance, to sleep for about 10 of the 14 hours we were in the air (a first for me on any flight, ever!), I didn't have as much reading time as I might have, but I managed to become, as usual, completely immersed in Penny's world, and finished the book in our first couple of days in Manila. I also read and very much enjoyed the fourth Dorothy Martin mystery by Jeanne M. Dams, whom I mentioned in my Furrowed Middlebrow Dozen post.

In one of those strange coincidences that occur (or that perhaps result from large companies keeping us under surveillance so much that they know what we want before we do?), a Filipino thriller (alleged to be the first) set in Manila, called Smaller and Smaller Circles, by F. H. Batacan, was a Kindle Daily Deal while we were actually in Manila, and I couldn't resist. It was quite atmospheric and interesting, but definitely not for the squeamish! Yikes!

After that foray into darkness, I was ready for some good humor and pleasantness, so I turned to an old favorite I haven't read in ages, Elizabeth Cadell, and got through two of her charming novels, The Corner Shop and Fishy Said the Admiral. I'm sure most of you are aware that Cadell's works have in the past couple of years been released in e-book and paperback, so are wonderfully available at last. Both books were great frolics and perfect vacation reading.

I also read the first half or so of Oriel Malet's Paris memoir, Jam Today, and then somehow got sidetracked and haven't finished it. But I will. It's not likely to be an absolute favorite, but I was enjoying it.

And for the flight back home?  Well, after the excitement of seeing the brand new Miss Universe, crowned just a few days before (Andy was excited, of course, that Miss Philippines won), while waiting at the airport...

That's Miss Universe, towering over everyone else
in deadly looking heels. She had passed right by us
a few seconds before, but no one had their camera ready.

I "only" managed eight hours of somewhat fitful sleep on the return flight—still way better than my average—so I had some time for the 11th Inspector Gamache, The Nature of the Beast, which was far-fetched but impossible to put down. What more could you ask of in-flight reading? As number 14 of the series was just published before Christmas, I'm getting closer to being up-to-date—but now I wonder if I should save the remaining books for our next trip!

Oh, and before I forget, the new Furrowed Middlebrow titles are out (if you don't already know about them, see here and here) and I'm so thrilled to be getting such a positive response from readers. A big thanks to anyone who has reviewed the books, bought the books, told others about the books, or in any other way helped to spread the word! We're already hard at work on our next batch of books, hopefully released this summer, and I'm busting my buttons to tell you about it, but I can't just yet...

And that's that! This is clearly not one of my most inspired posts, but I hope to be back to my usual scintillating self soon. I still have several of those books from my Furrowed Middlebrow Dozen to get reviewed, so I'll get on that. Meanwhile, hope you all had lovely holidays and that 2019 is treating you well (though, now that I'm more or less back to reality, I'm rather thinking that, whether you're in the U.K. or the U.S., avoiding reality—especially the news—may be the healthiest choice—ugh indeed).
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