The Mystery that Breaks all the Rules: The Daughter of Time

My mom could not be predicted.  When I was in my early 20’s, she called up long distance (an expensive activity) and ordered me to read a certain book.  Now.  She heard about it from Gladys who got the recommendation from Jill and now that Mom had read it, I had to.  This made no sense.  Mom knew one or two women named Jill but neither of them usually recommended books and there was no Gladys I could think of. Mom explained to me she had received a letter from one of her favorite writers, Gladys Taber, where Ms. Taber had verified her friend, Jill, revered a book called The Daughter of Time.  Based on that letter, mom borrowed the novel from the library and read it.   Now, she ordered me to do the same.

This story might have ended there because I had developed the habit of ignoring Mom by then but my roommate, Stephanie was working at the college library so I asked her to pick up a copy of the book while she was on shift.  When Stephanie got back that night, the book was in her hand.   She looked up at me and said, “I’m on page 47.  You can have it when I’m finished.”

Jill, Gladys, my mom and Stephanie were all right.  The Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey is a wonderful book, partly because it’s a story that breaks all the rules.  It’s a detective story without any of the usual detective methods.  And as for the mystery, well it is one and it isn’t.  It’s hard to explain.

The detective is Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard and the poor man is caught in hospital.   (This is England, so there’s no “the” in front of hospital).   He’s stuck in a bed with a broken bone and is slowly going nuts because there’s nothing new to think about.  He knows how many cracks there are in his ceiling, he knows how his nurses will react to everything he says and worse yet, he knows the plots of all the unread books on his table because their authors aren’t coming up with new ideas.   I love this observation on pop literature so much, I’m going to have to quote it:

"Did no one, any more, no one in all this wide world, change their record now and then?
Was everyone nowadays thrilled to a formula? Authors today wrote so much
to a pattern that their public expected it. The public talked about 'a
new Silas Weekley' or 'a new Lavinia Fitch' exactly as they talked about
'a new brick' or 'a new hairbrush'. They never said 'a new book by'
whoever it might be. Their interest was not in the book but in its
newness. They knew quite well what the book would be like."

If you are like me and tend to follow certain authors, you’ll agree there’s truth in that statement, but that’s all the more reason to try The Daughter of Time.  There’s really no other book like it.  Instead of going after a recent murderer, Inspector Grant studies the last years of the Plantagenet reign and the War of the Roses by looking at Richard III.  Thanks to Thomas More’s history of Richard and the Shakespearean play based on the history, King Richard’s reputation is only slightly nicer than Hitler’s or Stalin’s.    The mystery is not when Richard murdered his nephews but if he is guilty at all.  And while this novel doesn’t cover every point in the debate, it certainly brings up evidence to suggest a miscarriage of justice has been ongoing for more than 500 years.

For a small novel that came out sixty odd years ago, it has caused some big ripples.  There are societies in England and America about Richard inspired in part by this book and other writers such as Sharon Kay Penman and Elizabeth George have expanded on the ideas in Ms. Tey’s novel in building their own works.  These societies were instrumental in locating the late king’s body last year and they’ve been part of the force ensuring his remains are now treated with respect.  (Treatment his body didn’t get after the Battle of Bosworth)

The book has some humorous bits in it and the characters are wonderful but its longevity is based on an important point.  If history is written by the winners, as Churchill said, how often can we believe history’s assessment of a fallen leader?   Can an opponent ruin a lifetime of work and fair dealing with propaganda?  Perhaps but Ms. Tey thought otherwise, given the title.  You see, truth is The Daughter of Time.

All My Patients are Under the Bed & After All They’re Only Cats

I love some books for their wonderful writing.  I love some books for their wonderful characters.  I even love a few for their couldn’t-guess-that plots.   But All My Patients are Under the Bed and After All They’re Only Cats keep their place on my bookshelf because of their subject.  They’re about the pets we make part of their lives.  In this case they’re both about cats.

Dr. Louis Camuti was a veterinarian that practiced in New York during the 20th century and  specialized in treating cats.   This is unexpected because a) he wasn’t really a “cat person. having no cats of his own and b) he was allergic to felines. Consequently, he really had under no illusions about the species.   He saw they could be good companions and he liked their assertive personalities but he knew they could be sneaky, naughty creatures as well.  So All My Patients are Under the Bed is a collection of professional anecdotes Dr. Camuti collected during his years of practice.  Some are well worth remembering.

There were the times when he treated the cats in Tallulah Bankhead’s house (to make him completely unique, Dr. Camuti made housecalls!) and learned that however badly the actress treated herself and other human beings, she was a very kind person to cats.  Camuti had to pick his way around fallen guests who didn’t survive the previous night’s party and various bric-a-brac to find his client and the owner but the cat was well attended to.   And if the cat needed an injection, Camuti used the contents of the liquor cabinet as handy andiseptic!

He tells of other celebrity (and non-celebrity) related cats always emphasizing how a fair number of the cat injuries result from pairing the cat’s nature with a lifetime of indoor living with humans.   My favorite is when he’s summoned by an owner, convinced the cat has a prolapsed colon (a nasty condition where the inside body part gets pushed to the outside).  Camuti examines the animal and learns the extending piece is a curtain tie-back the poor animal managed to consume.  Camuti stands the cat on the grand piano, firmly grasps the exposed part of the tie-back and swats the animal so it jumps off the piano.  The cat went flying, the tie-back came out and the maid (who thought this was some barberic type of surgery) fainted.  Someday that scene needs to go into a motion picture.

If Louis Camuti was a non-cat person who treated people, then the late Patricia Moyes wrote from the perspective of someone who became a cat person.  She was a mystery writer, married to a non-cat person when he begrudgingly agreed they might manage to share their home with one kitten provided the cat kept away from him.  Of course the Siamese kitten they interviewed chose her husband (Jim) to be her person and Moyes pointed out one of the cat-truths I’ve watched ever since: cats automatically gravitate toward the one person who doesn’t fawn over them.   Stick a cat in a room full of people and the feline will ignore every crooning voice to jump into the lap of the sole cat hater.  The Siamese, Belinda, did it in the book, my Kansas cats did this when my late grandfather came to visit and when I was going through my anti-cat phase, Charlie-Belle did this to me.  Cats like a challenge; it’s part of their nature.

Another part of their nature, Patricia Moyes pointed out was their abhorrence of printed material.  If anyone lives with cats and books, you can bear me out on this.   Put the book down and the cat will ignore you.   Pick the book up and the cat has to get between you and the pages, laying on the open book if possible.  Cats are all members of the anti-book league and it only gets worse when you are trying to write.  Belinda developed the Papoose Effect, which involved jumping onto her writer’s back, digging her front claws into the human’s shoulders and dangling suspended like so much  dead weight down’ the human’s.  Instinctively, Ms. Moyes would fling her own arms under the cat’s hind quarters to ease the weight digging into her body. The cat now had her pinned.  The writer’s hands were off the typewriter and kitty curled up against the small  her back, purring with joy.  It’s a wonder Ms. Moyes managed to write at all after that.

But, write she did for another twenty years as have others who live with felines have done.  The writer is a self-centered sort of person (has to be, really) and a cat can be an ideal companion, independent, a bit aloof and unimpressed with their human’s accomplishments.  To the cat, best-seller status, and literary admiration mean nothing.  Win the Caldecott award one morning, the Pulitzer that afternoon and scoop the Nobel prize that night but the feline won’t be impressed.  The cat still demands to be scratched, petted and fed a tasty dinner because in the end, it’s not about the human, it’s all about the cat.  And that is as it should be.

The after effects of In Cold Blood

Fifty-five years ago this week, a Kansas farmer, his wife and two youngest children were murdered by a pair of ex-convicts.  The cons didn’t get away with much (other than the lives of their victims) and they didn’t get away for long because they were under arrest within six weeks, under sentence of within six months and under the ground within six years, executed for the crimes they’d committed.   In today’s 24/7 news cycle, that story would have been buried as quickly as the principals.  Instead, a fairly large group of people continue to mark this sad anniversary because Truman Capote wrote a book about the crime that set a new style and standard for writers and readers.  You could say the book, In Cold Blood, was a literary event in the ’60’s that stayed popular for a number of years.  For the generation who lived or grew up in Kansas in the aftermath of that book, the repercussions continued much longer

My family moved first to Kansas and then to Garden City (the county seat where the defendants were tried) shortly after Hollywood released a film adaptation of Mr. Capote’s book.  Because of the popularity of the book and film, In Cold Blood rested on the shelves of many Kansas homes and many of the kids I knew had either read it or pretended they had.  Of course my friends weren’t interested in the strong narrative or character development: it was a sensational story set a well-known area and they were looking for gore.  To our parents, these were characters at all but a retelling of one of their worst memories.  What we  allgot was a great book about a terrible crime.  The actions of the murderers terrified a small group of Kansans but  I suspect Mr. Capote’s storytelling skills fed the nightmares of many more people lucky enough not to have first hand knowledge of the crime.

For years I stayed in a quandry over this book because I wanted to read Capote’s masterpiece but the subject scared me to pieces.  The victims were very real to me: the farmer had been a deacon at our Garden City church and my dad drove over roads near the victims’ house on his way to work.  The material was all too near, I suppose and I never managed to finish the book until decades after I’d left the Kansas plains.  I finally picked it up in 2005, shortly after my father died.

In retrospect, I can see how those events were tied together.  As a kid, the thing that scared me the most was losing my family (later I feared I’d never get away from them) and the book was about how a family all lost each other one terrible night.  Even as I grew, a seed of little-kid fear remained until the event I dreaded actually happened and one of my parents died.  As much as Dad’s passing hurt, the years of dread I endured fearing his death were far more frightening than the actual event.   When I realized that, I picked up the book and found much in the work that is good.

Everyone talks about the crime, and it is the central event of the story, but In Cold Blood does a good job of capturing the type of mid-westerners I grew up around.  They’re capable folks with enough sense of self to avoid any semblance of bragging.  They believe in hard work more than brilliance and most of their humor is dry.  (some of the counties were too back then).  With a seasoning of detail and dialogue, Mr.Capote brings the residents of Garden City and Holcomb to vivid life and he doesn’t condescend to them.  These are not quaint or rural types.  They are caring kids and tough adults who have to face the unthinkable and then get past it.

Capote’s story is also well-paced, with the just enough foreshadowing to keep up the tension. It isn’t easy keeping tension in a story with a known outcome but Mr. Capote does this by giving the reader side glimpses of graphic details while holding the central account, the confessions, until the climax of the book. He even managed to put a little hope into the ending.
In Cold Blood may not be my favorite book but it is one I respect and one I’ve gone back to since 2005.  The murders and the book cast a long shadow on many lives but I believe we’re moving into the light.

Je Reviens or a lifelong obsession with Rebecca

I remember the summer I met her.  I was in junior high, to old for kid’s books and too young (and snobbish) for the historical romances my mother favored.  When I whined that I wanted something new to read, Mom looked at me thoughtfully and handed me a library book with a drawing of the English countryside on the cover. “Try this” she said.”It’s surprising.”  I glanced at the title, turned to the first paragraph and was hooked with the first line,”Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”   Some forty years later and I’m still hooked, returning as often as possible to the house in Cornwall called Manderly.  You see, I’m obsessed with Rebecca.

For Rebecca is a novel about obsession.  The book began while the author, Daphne du Maurier, was living Egypt with her husband, Lt. Col. Tommy Browning and it grew out of two secret obsessions of her own: her intense homesickness for England and a packet of letters she found.  The letters were from an unstable, beautiful woman Tommy had been engaged to for a short time, long before he met Daphne.  Daphne and Tommy had not been married all that long when she found the letters and although the former fiance couldn’t threaten their relationship (she was already dead) Daphne felt haunted by the specter of her husband’s earlier love affair. These feelings are at the heart of Rebecca.

The shyest, most awkward girl in the world becomes the second wife of Maxim de Winter, Englishman and owner of the country estate, Manderly.   Becoming lady of the manor would be difficult enough for this child under any conditions; it becomes almost impossible after she learns how Max’s gorgeous first wife, Rebecca, accomplished the job beautifully.   The second wife imagines everyone is comparing her to the first wife and found wanting.  This is certainly true with Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper, Rebecca’s former nanny and one of the scariest women in English Literature.  Seriously, Maleficent, Medea and Lady Macbeth combined couldn’t best Mrs. Danvers in a stare-down contest.  She is one sinister, terrifying lady and she haunts Manderly the way Rebecca DeWinter is supposed to.  By the way, Je Reviens is the name of Rebecca’s boat.  It means I return and believe me, in some ways, she does.

But the first wife isn’t the only character with obsessions and I’m not going to spill any more of the story in case there is someone left on the planet who doesn’t know the plot backwards and forwards.   Ms. Du Maurier makes it clear such fixations never bring a positive result but the book is not about moralizing; it’s about about mood, atmosphere and tension, three things her writing captures so well that reading Rebecca  is like diving below the surface of a pool.  While you are in the book, the world above seems far away and unreal.  Everything below is quiet and enveloping but at Manderly, everything is also under stress..

For those who love Rebecca, I did find something fascinating in my latest copy of the book.  While drafting her famous novel, Daphne du Maurier came up with a  Rebecca epilogue she eventually cut up and use parts of in the intro.   It gives a few details missed getting into the finished book (did you know Maxim was originally going to be named Henry?) and there’s a little dose of that mood that made the novel famous and it suggests that the now resort, Manderly, like Stephen King’s Overlook Hotel retains impressions of its previous inhabitants.

“If you are stouthearted and not overburdened with imagination you can walk anywhere in Manderly with impunity, but if London life has put a strain upon your nerves there are one or two places I should avoid.  The deep woods, for instance, after dark, and the little woodman’s cottage.  Here, there may linger a certain atmosphere of stress.  That corner in the drive too, where the stomp of a tree encroaches upon the gravel, it is not a spot in which to pause….”

I don’t know about you but I always feel overburdend with imagination when I read Rebecca.  I can be as sensible and wholesome as fresh milk most of the time but not when I’m reading Rebecca.  Then I believe in ghosts.

A place to call home: Howards End

Early on in “Educating Rita” the heroine characterizes Howards End as “one crap book.”   When I heard that line, I mentally crossed Howards End off my books-to-read list.    Rita is a funny and engaging character so if she said the book was crap, then crap it must be.  Ten years later, I saw the Merchant-Ivory film and realized I might have been hasty.  More than twenty years have lapsed since then and I am still rereading Howards End, both on paper and as an e-book.  It’s a best friend of a book and I can’t believe I nearly missed it.

Howards End is about many things but mainly its about the connections we have, the connections we make and how they affect our lives.  To begin with, two English sisters named Helen and Margaret Schlegel bump into an English family named Wilcox when they’re all on holiday in Germany.   If these two upper-middle class families had stayed in England, they probably would have stayed strangers since, beyond nationality, they haven’t much in common.  The Schlegels live in London and spend their time supporting progressive causes and the arts, (In American terms they would probably be called liberal elites) because they inherited most of their income.   The Wilcoxes live in the country, are very conservative and are still building their wealth from their own business ventures.  But meet they do and conflicts begin to spark.  Then Helen Wilcox accidentally walks off with the umbrella of a poor clerk named Mr. Bast and he follows her home to get it back.   The third element falls into place and all of their lives will change.

There are other connections in the book (such as Mrs. Wilcox’s emotional bond to her home, the house named Howards End) but when people talk about this novel, they mean something else when they use the  phrase “Only Connect”.   It’s Margaret Schlegel’s plea for everyone to recognize we are all human with good and bad traits. That’s hard to do when we classify people by their backgrounds, their income or their political beliefs.  I’d like to quote the book here:

Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die. 

 

Seen from Margaret’s point of view, it seems to me we tend to live fragmented lives.  The lawyers tend to hang out with lawyers, teachers with teachers, etc., and while that’s reasonable (they have a lot in common) it can also be isolating.  Taken past a certain point and we can forget the “other fellow” has a reasonable point.  Take it even further and groups of people are designated “less than human” and genocide begins.

  But Howards End is not a sermon or a philosophical discussion, it a story with wonderful characters.  There is gentle humor here (every family has their own version of sweet but clueless Aunt Juley or a bossy Mr. Wilcox) and love for the English countryside because the author, E. M Forster loved the Hertfordshire country he lived in as a child.  I understand the fictional house, Howards End, is based on private home named Rooks Nest House.  What lucky people live there now!

  For Howards End is about a home, not just another house.  A home that protects and nurtures those that live in its walls and seems almost to take a hand in determining who will own and care for it.  It’s a home that transcends time touching ancient history in the ancient wych-elm beside the house and accommodating the future with the newer improvements.  In other words, it’s a home for everyone.  Where everyone can connect.

At the Other End of the Timeline: Tensy Farlow & the Home for Mislaid Children

I like literary archetypes.   To me, they’re the puzzle pieces a person can assemble to understand the canon of Western Literature.   Anti-heroes, tricksters, mentors and shadows are all wonderful but my favorite is the orphan-hero.   His search is for home, his judgments are his own and like all archetypes he/she morphs to reflect the values of whatever era he’s created in.**  If yesterday’s Oliver Twist lives at one end of the Hero/Orphan timeline, then Tensy Farlow in Tensy Farlow & the Home for Mislaid Children resides at the other.

As I said yesterday, Oliver is a sweet kid and everyone’s victim.  Graceful and sympathetic beyond his circumstances, his victory is in surviving long enough to be rescued by kind adults.   Well, that’s fair, given Victorian Times.  Unprotected kids were nature’s victims and the best any of them could hope for is a reasonable adoption.   But that’s not very heroic.

Orphan heroes in today’s take charge of their own fates and everyone else’s.   They’re brave, caring individuals who stand up to tyrants, tall and small, and they often rescue the adults.  I realized this a few years ago when I was working on a long research paper tracing the evolution of Orphan/Heroes.   I noticed these orphans advanced from being victims to adventurers, then promising proto-citizens to redeemers and  usually the male characters advance a bit in front of the girls.   As I got to the end of my search, I found lots of orphan boy heroes rescuing the world with bravery, super powers, and what-not, but I couldn’t find any recent corresponding girls.  There were supporting girl characters but not a center heroine that fit the bill.  Then I found Tensy Farlow, a heroine for the contemporary fantasy age.

When Albie Gribble finds the abandoned Tensy in a pile of laundry, all he sees is an abandoned  baby girl.  He doesn’t know Tensy is being looked for, which is all to the good.  You see, each  human in Tensy’s world has a guardian angel to keep as much evil at bay as possible..  Unfortunately, some angels do their job better than others.  Some angels are forgetful or forgotten and some angels become demons, opening the world for wickedness.   And, although Tensy Farlow can see guardian angels, no spirit looks after her.  Tensy has no angel at all.

Tensy Farlow & the Home for Mislaid Children is a children’s novel in the same literary vein as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Graveyard Book.   In other words, the setting is a bit gothic, most of the characters have odd English-sounding names (like Howard Humberstone and Matron Pluckrose) and very improbable things happen.  Like many fantasy books, it has the eternal struggle between good and evil but the the hope of redemption is not a ring-bearing hobbit or a wand-waving wizard.  Instead, the fate of the universe comes to rest on the bony shoulders of a  orphan girl with flyaway red. curly hair, especially good eyesight and a mind of her own.  Trust me, she’s somebody special.

For anyone who thought Children’s fantasy stopped with J. K. Rowling, Lemony Snicket or Neil Gaiman, take a look at this book from Australia.   It’s worth the look.  You could end up believing in angels.

** If I tend to use male pronouns in talking about universal types, that’s how I was taught during a less-enlightened century.  I hope I make it clear that as far as archetypes go, I believe neither gender has a monopoly, nor should they.  Fiction, in my opinion, should be the last place to accept limitations.

The Villans of Oliver Twist

Full disclosure:  I love the novel Oliver Twist but I can’t say I love the title character.  He cries far to easily for my taste and he’s altogether too sweet for words.   Dickens wanted to show Oliver’s basic gentle nature couldn’t be corrupted by the environment he lived in but basically his protagonist is a Casper Milquetoast.  When people are kind to him, he laps it up and soaks them with tears of joy.   When they are unkind, he leaves and cries on himself.  A very soggy kid, needing someone to rescue and rehydrate him.  Occasionally, Oliver will stand up to a bully but on someone else’s behalf, like his dead mother. In this book it’s a lot easier to like the bad guys.

They have all the best lines in this book.  No one has ever developed supporting characters as thoroughly and lovingly as Charles Dickens and the villains in Oliver Twist are either strong and bad (like scary Bill Sikes) or weak and bad.  You know who the fun ones are, right?

Of course there’s Fagin.  A fence and corrupter of children, Fagin sees himself as the ultimate pragmatist.  People do have a habit of buying things that burglars are likely to steal but that’s not Fagin’s fault.   All he does is take the stolen goods off the burglars’ hands and send them back into the economy to be purchased again.   And he doesn’t put the stray children into London’s streets, does he?  Of course not.  Fagin will tell you, he’s providing a service getting those children shelter (in abandoned, unsafe buildings) and teaching them trades.   All right, he trains them to become petty criminals, but Fagin didn’t criminalize their behavior.  That was the work of Parliament.   That’s our Fagin, the man with a reason for everything.

 Then there is the wonderful Beadle Bumble (you can tell what a bumbling, bumptious oaf he’s going to be with that name) who takes careful inventory of Mrs. Corney’s possessions before he proposes marriage to her.   He’s so pompous and mean to everyone else, you can’t help but cheer when the coy Mrs. Corney becomes his tyrant after marriage.  English majors, feminists and law students all cheer when, apprised that the law assumes a man is in charge of his wife’s behavior, Bumble responds, “ If that’s the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is that his eye may be opened by experience—by experience.”

The weakest of the bad boys is Noah Claypole, a sniveler if  there ever was one.  He’ll bully half-starved orphans because he’s better fed and knows the names of his parents (That’s all the genealogy Noah knows but it’s enough) but turns up his nose at snatching handbags because old ladies tend to fight back.  Big, bad Noah Claypole has to take ‘the kinchin lay,’ when he becomes a full-time criminal.  That is he steels the errand and pocket money from children who still have their moms.   His zenith is achieved when he becomes a stool-pigeon.

One of the characters that rarely makes it into an adaptation is Charley Bates, a friend of the Artful Dodger and fellow pickpocket.  Charley stands out against the rest of the bad guys because he’s cheerful.  Unlike the saturnine Dodger and Sykes, Charley  spends most of his time laughing.  He’s just as much a pickpocket as the Dodger but Charley can’t help seeing the funny side of life.   When he witnesses the violent side of crime, Charley rethinks his options and becomes an honest man.  

 And then there’s the Artful.   Jack Dawkins, ladies and gents, immortalized forever as The Artful Dodger.   Although he’s not as adorable as Jack Wild portrayed him in the 1960’s musical adaptation (where huge hunks of the story were chopped off) The Dodger steals every possible scene in Oliver’s life story and has to be transported to Australia to keep from absconding with the ending.  He’s cunning, naughty, impudent, deceitful and a wonderful counterpoint to the perpetual victim, Oliver.  

In the end, Twist is a serious story about the effects of poverty and I am glad that the book helped some real people and that the fictional Oliver eventually obtained enough security to stop dripping tears at the drop of a hat.  He deserved a happy ending, as did the poor of Victorian England.   But if Mr. Dickens had written sequels, as so many writers do these days, I wish he had told of Jack’s life in Australia.   The Dodger Down Under would have sold!

Lest we forget: Taylor Caldwell’s The Balance Wheel

Veteran’s Day is coming up and I can’t help thinking about a poem called “Ode of Remembrance” by Laurence Binyon.   It reads (in part)

They went with songs to the battle, they were young.
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

Those verses and this holiday were to memorialize the veterans of the first World War, the war that was supposed to end all the others.  Well, we know what happened after that.  Despite the enormous cost, wars continued to flourish, large and small, and although no one publicly prefers sending soldiers into battle, the soldiers keep being sent.  Taylor Caldwell explores the reasons and pressures that lead in to war in her book, The Balance Wheel.   It’s an old-fashioned novel in many ways but some of its themes are contemporary.

As the balance wheel among four adult brothers, Charles Wittmann is a very busy man.  Most of his time and energy are consumed either managing the tool factory his father created or his siblings, the materialistic Joe, Wilhelm, the aesthete and Fred, a rabble-rousing, proto-Marxist.   What extra time Charles has is devoted to his teen-aged son, Jimmy. When a government representative visits and talks of imminent global conflict, Charles has to broaden his concerns  to protect his family, his business and his town.  

After that, Charles Wittmann caries the burden of Cassandra, able to see his country’s future but unable to change it.  The reader watches the approach of war through his eyes, knowing his efforts for peace will be swept aside in the end as his family gets swept into history

The novel suggests that families and communities are microcosms of the nations they occupy and that war occurs when intelligent, well-meaning governments and leaders don’t actively work (like Charles) to keep peace or resist evil.  That may or may not be true.  What cannot be disputed is that when governments fail in these tasks, it is the citizens who pay.   Treaties can be negotiated or border-lines redrawn, but no agreement can revive sacrificed soldiers.  No general can bring back the dead.

The only ways to honor their sacrifice are to remember the dead and work to keep others from joining their ranks.   (Or, to quote Mother Jones, “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”)   The Balance Wheel tries to do both.   It’s not a soldier’s novel like A Farewell to Arms  or All Quiet on the Western Front although the soldiers are in it.  It’s about how everyone loses in wars. It’s one way to remember the Armistice.

Growing up with a Gem: The Domestic Novels of Shirley Jackson

Readers love a seldom-read story or an under-praised author.  To appreciate a less-known work or author is the a mark of a book connoisseur and readers delight in being seen as connoisseurs.    Without knowing it, my sister and I trained to be gourmet readers when we grew reading  the work of an under-appreciated writer.  You may  or may not have heard of Shirley Jackson but do you know about  her books Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons?

When Ms. Jackson’s work is recalled (which isn’t often enough) she is remembered for disturbing tales such as The Haunting of Hill House, We Have Always Lived at the Castle and the short story, “The Lottery”.   These are artful, unsettling, well-constructed narratives that leave the reader with the impression they would not want to meet Ms. Jackson in a dark alley.  The titles Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons may sound like more “tales of terror” but these are something different.  These stories would be called domestic humor.

Now domestic humor has never enjoyed a great reputation.  The same critics that sneered over the pulp paper tales of crime and science fiction in the 1940’s ignored the later stories about raising kids in the suburbs, largely because of it’s female target audience.. And though the detectives and space explorers have finally achieved a certain level of respect from the cognoscenti, domestic humor is still literature’s the unwelcome step-child.  So, like Rodney Dangerfield, this work “gets no respect.” But the snob who derides these books because of their catagory is a fool.

Yes, these are family stories, but they are told without sentiment or saccharine.  If anything, Ms. Jackson’s humor is tart, like a dry summer wine. The children are depicted as fully developed characters with individual voices and opinions.  Also, there’s a faint air of disturbance in these tales.  Blankets disappear at will, imaginary playmates send very real presents and a toddler changes names without notice (I sympathize with the child, now a man, who was Barry, B, Mr. B., Mr. Beekman and finally, Beekman to his family and all the world all before he entered first grade.)  There’s an air of logical lunacy in these stories that is familiar to anyone with children, bureaucracies  or a sense of the absurd.  And the prose is as clean as a whistle.

Like I said, my sister and I were raised on these stories.  At first, our Mom read them aloud, then we read them to ourselves at lunch or to each other for pleasure.  When I left for college, I tried to pack Mom’s collection of Shirley Jackson.  My sis tried the same thing years later but each time Mom stole them back out of our luggage.  That says something, considering Mom would lend us shoes, hose or money.  Her Shirley Jackson’s books were off limits. We had to find our own copies.  We did.  I hope, so will you.

There’s Always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort Farm

So intones Judith Starkadder, at the beginning of Stella Gibbon’s comic masterpiece Cold Comfort Farm.  To Judith Starkadder this statement is a curse and a warning but it’s more of an opening salvo in the war of English novel types.   On one side are the moor, mud and fen school of Novels where the clouds are always lowering, the males are always glowering and life is eternally soiled.  Opposing this school of brooding romantics is the pragmatic, organized and cheerful Flora Poste, a Jane Austen heroine in 1920’s regalia.  Can an intelligent girl with a will of her own “tidy up” the morbid and moribund Starkadders?  Can she overcome their devotion to sukebind and jumping into the well?  And can she break Aunt Ada Doom’s preoccupation about seeing “Something narsty in the woodshed”?

Since this book satirizes many novels that aren’t widely read these days, I worried some readers might not get the joke. However my spouse (who mixes up D. H.Lawrence with T. E. Lawrence) got it immediately so read away.  It’s a hilarious satire of English literature but never mind that.  You’ll love the gloomy Starkadders who live in Cold Comfort Farm and the ridiculous, pedantic Mr. Mybug (his real name is Meyerburg but in rural accents that comes out “Mybug”) who wants to write a book proving the Bronte books weren’t written by three sisters but one brother.  Then you’ll cheer for the breezy heroine who threatens to clean up everything and turn the Starkadders into a semi-functional, if not completely respectable family.  It’s amazing what a determined woman can do.

If you haven’t read, this try it and look for the reasonably faithful film adaptation made in 1995.  And remember, avoid the combination of sukebind and summer evenings if you live in a place called Howling.  You’ll be tempting Nature to make things untidy!