Friday, May 29, 2009

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

This book came highly recommended by a friend and several book bloggers. It’s the story of Cassandra Mortmain, a seventeen year old who lives with her family in a crumbling castle. Written as six months of journal entries I Capture the Castle is hard to put down. Who wouldn’t want to read someone else’s diary, especially when it’s well-written and chock full of engaging ideas and understated wit? At first I was put off by the conversational tone of the book which didn’t seem very literary. But by page 24 when Cassandra and her sister are trying to decide if they are more “Austen” than “Brontë”, I was hooked. It was the first time in ages that I’ve read a novel that eclipsed all other distractions.

BUT I must add that I was disappointed with almost every character in the book. It seemed that everyone who was unable to win the affection of the one they loved settled too easily for second best. They hated themselves for doing it, but nevertheless they did it. I am a big fan of people who are faithful to their principles even when no visible reward is in sight (Jane in Jane Eyre, Mr. Harding in The Warden, Anne Elliot in Persuasion, to name a few) so it's hard to root for heroes with no moral fiber. The only character in this book that comes even close to loving faithfully and over the long-term is Stephen, but in the end he, too, disappoints. Although I enjoyed the book I cannot highly recommend it.

A few quotes:

It was late autumn, very gentle and golden. I loved the quiet-colored fields of stubble and the hazy water meadows. Rose doesn’t like the flat country, but I always did – flat country seems to give the sky such a chance. (p. 27)

On religion:
“You lose yourself to something beyond yourself and it’s a lovely rest.” (p. 245)

Saturday, May 23, 2009

When a Man's a Man by Harold Bell Wright

Things have been a bit stressful around here lately, which is why I’ve been reading books that are lighter than my usual fare. A few years ago I was deeply moved by a book called A Higher Call, an updated version of The Calling of Dan Matthews by Harold Bell Wright. I slowly accumulated a few other books by Wright, but never took the time to read them. This week I finished When A Man's A Man and I am still trying to decide whether I liked it or not. A few things bothered me about the book.

First, it was too message-driven. From the beginning the reader knows the premise: A man can only be a true man when he struggles against nature and wins. And I don’t mean human nature. In this story a wimpy, wealthy young man is rejected by the woman he loves because he has no character traits she can admire. So he goes out west to Arizona and becomes a cowboy. The great outdoors, the big-hearted ranch owner and harsh experiences transform him into a “real” man. I wouldn’t have minded this message if it had been more subtle, but Wright reminded the reader constantly that the cultured intellectuals of the big city were bloodless and soulless and only those in touch with their “earthy” side are in touch with their real selves. It got kind of old after awhile.

Its second flaw was its verbosity. Now that I think of it, the version of Dan Matthews that I read was edited for modern readers and had some of the superfluous passages cut out. In this unedited version Patches (the developing hero) was described more than two dozen times as wearing a “mirthless, self-mocking smile”. I began to grit my teeth every time that worn-out phrase came up.

Lastly, although I don’t often read romances, I do like happy endings. This story leaves the hero alone and brooding at the end and was unsatisfying.

A strange coincidence is that at the same time that I was reading this, I was listening to the story, Wanted: A Chaperone, which I believe was written about the same time as Wright’s book. In this story a young woman raised in simple farm-like surroundings is transplanted to the city. A wealthy young bachelor, who has given up hope of ever meeting a “real” woman, can’t believe his good luck in discovering her and marries her.

Rather ironic, don’t you think? Apparently a man can only be a man in country, but a woman can be a woman anywhere.

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Warden by Anthony Trollope

Although I’ve read a dozen Trollope novels, The Warden  is the one I always come back to. This time through I enjoyed it as much as ever. Probably more - since I’ve grown to love the protagonist so well.

Mr. Septimus Harding never ceases to amaze me with his self-effacing personality and kindliness. Early in the book accusations are hurled against him and instead of loudly proclaiming his innocence, he looks deep within himself to see if, in fact, they might be true. (“He was not so anxious to prove himself right as to be so.”) The decisions he makes as a result of his introspection could only be made by a man of utmost integrity and the way he treats those who have wronged him is nothing short of amazing. Somehow Trollope created a character with a startling ability to forgive others without making him disgustingly sweet. I. LOVE. MR. HARDING.

Because Trollope took pains to go against the grain of the sensationalist literature of his day, many modern readers find his books slow going. But if you like rich character descriptions, British witticisms and a relationship-driven (rather than action-driven) story line, you might want to give him a try. The friendships described in the book, especially those between Mr. Harding and the Bishop and between Mr. Harding and the elderly Mr. Bunce, are tender and touching. The not-so-gentle jabs at the power of the press in chapters 14 and 15 are insightful and comical. But let me warn you. There are five other books in the Barchester series. You may not be able to stop after just one.

(I listened to this via Librivox and although there were multiple readers, Andy Minter was far and away the best, capturing all the pathos of the novel with his lovely voice.)

Friday, May 8, 2009

For Classic Film Fans - Jean Arthur

I first saw Jean Arthur in a WWII era film called “The More the Merrier”. I was charmed by her comedic talents, her beauty, and her on-screen vulnerability and wondered how such an appealing star could be virtually unknown. (Was she outshone by her fabulous male co-stars?) Since my first exposure to Arthur I’ve hunted down about a dozen of her other films. Most are so engaging that I’ve watched them several times. Recently I enjoyed viewing her opposite Cary Grant and Ronald Coleman in “The Talk of the Town" (1942). When a charming fugitive, a beautiful teacher, and a stuffy lawyer are forced to become roommates, their unconventional relationship is suddenly The Talk of the Town in this madcap romantic comedy… The zaniness never stops as the three of them dodge the cops, try to snag the real crooks and discover along the way that both men have fallen for Nora. (from the VHS cover)

Imagine my surprise when I looked up a photo for this post and saw Miss Arthur portrayed as a pin-up girl. This was not the Jean Arthur I knew and loved – the beautiful, wacky young woman you’d be proud to take home to your mother. On the other hand, the eleven Arthur movies I’ve seen were some of the last she ever made. Maybe she was a femme fatale in the other eighty-one. I’ll probably never know since many were silent films.

If you like good, clean fun in a movie, you may enjoy these romantic comedies. A list of my five favorites:
1) A Lady Takes a Chance – with John Wayne
2) A Foreign Affair – with John Lund and Marlene Dietrich
3) The More the Merrier – with Joel McCrea
4) The Talk of the Town – with Cary Grant and Ronald Coleman
5) Only Angels Have Wings – with Cary Grant

Friday, May 1, 2009

Code Name Nimrod by James Leasor

I hate to admit it, but I first heard about this spy on an episode of Hogan's Heroes. A quick internet search showed me that he had indeed existed, and I immediately purchased a 99 cent copy of James Leasor’s biography of Stephen Rigby, alias Nimrod.

Code Name Nimrod is the story of one man’s involvement in one of World War II’s greatest deceptions. He was a member of a secret organization formed by Earl Mountbatten called “X-troop”. Mountbatten needed men who could speak colloquial German, read German documents and interrogate German prisoners. They must also understand German psychology, so he suggested to Mr. Churchill that he should form a Troop of anti-Nazi German, Hungarian and Austrian volunteers. They were all technically enemy aliens and understandably, were almost all Jewish. (p.3)

Thus the scene is set. Through a thousand deceptive actions and messages Hitler is made to believe that the Allied assault will happen at the Pas de Calais and not at Normandy. As a confirmation of these messages Nimrod is dropped into France masquerading as a German spy with vital information about the upcoming invasion. If the Germans take the bait, Panzer and infantry divisions will be posted elsewhere, leaving Normandy virtually undefended and greatly reducing casualties on both sides. This book details the success of the mission.

I have noticed that books about the Second World War don’t often fit the “beautifully written” category. For one thing, the subject is too gritty. Secondly, many books are written from eye witness accounts or painstaking research, neither of which assumes that the author is an engaging writer. (One exception was war correspondent, Ernie Pyle.) What keep the reader going are the fascinating facts. How Nimrod escapes from the Germans after the invasion is hair-raising enough, but did you know that most of the world knew about D-Day before Hitler? (He normally slept till noon and his staff was too terrified of him to disturb his routine.) I was intrigued by Leasor’s sympathetic portrayal of Field Marshal Rommel as a man who inspired (rather than forced) faithfulness from his men and as someone who disagreed with Hitler on many points. I plan to do further reading on that.

If you are not a WWII buff, this book may seem a bit dry, but it’s definitely worth a look if you’d like to know more about a fascinating piece of war history.