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Archive for the ‘George Barr McCutcheon’ Category

A few quick reviews from my less interesting reading encounters:

Graustark by George Barr McCutcheon (1901) – I loved Brewster’s Millions (despite its many quirks and frankly bizarre plot twists) so was determined to read more by McCutcheon.  When I learned he’d written a series of Ruritanian novels, starting with Graustark, it was clear where I would start.  I love a good Ruritanian romance.  However, it turns out this is not good.  It starts well enough, yes, with our young hero meeting a beautiful, mysterious girl on the train as they travel across America.  By the time they reach Washington, DC, he is in love but she must depart for home, a small European principality he has never heard of.  Naturally, it isn’t too long before he finds his way there and ridiculous adventures involving hidden identities, dastardly aristocrats, and national debt ensue.  The saving grace was our hero’s stalwart friend and travel companion, who provided a bit of levity and a merciful dose of common sense when everyone else lost theirs.  A ridiculous book – yet I’m still strangely tempted to try the next book in the series…

A Lost Lady by Willa Cather (1923) – this novella by Cather was a lovely reminder of just what a beautiful writer she was.  As usual, her characters are a bit flat (particularly the lady at the center of the tale) but Cather’s passion for her setting – a small Western town of fading importance – and the simple elegance of her writing made this a pleasure to read.  That said, the memory of it is already fading from my mind, unlike her best works which remain vivid even years later.

A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L’Engle (1972) – This is the first volume of L’Engle’s Crosswick Journals and, as usual, I approached them all out of order.  I read the last one first (Two-Part Invention – still one of my favourite bookish discoveries), then the third (The Summer of the Great-Grandmother), and now jumped back to the start.  The problem with that is that L’Engle rose to such heights with her later books that this first one can’t compare.  Those later books are deeply personal and she shares her memories and emotions in a way she probably hadn’t imagine when she wrote this first book.  This is an interesting look at her life and some of her thoughts, particularly around the communities she belongs to, but it lacks a compelling focus and I missed the sense of L’Engle herself that was so strong in the other books.  I still have An Irrational Season, the second book, left to read and will be interested to see how it compares to the others.

The Doctor’s Sweetheart and Other Stories by L.M. Montgomery (1979) – what a throw back to my childhood.  After I discovered Anne of Green Gables, I spent the next few years obsessively reading anything by or about Montgomery, including all the collections of her short stories.  This was one of many volumes that was put together drawing on pieces she’d had published in magazines (both before and after Anne, her breakthrough novel, was published), most of which had some sort of linking theme – here it is lovers who are parted.   I remembered them as repetitive and melodramatic, and was a bit embarrassed that anyone had wanted to draw attention to them by republishing them.  Twenty-two years later, that is still how I feel about them.  Well done ten-year old Claire for being such an astute literary judge.  From a scholarship point of view, this collection does have some interest – you can see Montgomery playing around with plots she would eventually use in her novels – but on their own they are best forgotten.

Salt-Water Moon by David French (1984) – part of a cycle of plays about the Mercers, a Newfoundland family, this focuses on the parents’ story, looking back to their youth.  It is just one-act, set on a moonlit summer night in 1926 when Jacob Mercer reappears in his small Newfoundland hometown a year after having left for Toronto.  He’s come to see Mary, his girl, and learn why she’s become engaged to the town schoolteacher.  Jacob is a chatty fellow and the two bicker back and forth all evening in enjoyable interplay.  By the end, of course, they have decided to face the future together, even though for Mary it might not be as practical as the future she had talked herself into with the hapless schoolteacher.  This wasn’t particularly special on its own but I’m intrigued enough to want to read more about the Mercers in French’s other plays.

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

 

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There are not a lot of books I find worth staying up for on a weeknight.  Sleep is a wonderful thing and I take it seriously.  But last night I foolishly started reading just before (what should have been) my bedtime and ending up reading until almost midnight, caught up in the joyfully comic fantasy of Brewster’s Millions by George Barr McCutcheon.

Adapted many, many times for the stage and screen, this tale from 1903 will already be familiar to many of you.  When his grandfather dies and leaves him a million dollars on his twenty-fifth birthday, Monty Brewster knows his life will change.  No longer does he need to work for a salary – good though he was at his work – or leave anxious tailors and tradespeople waiting for bills to be settled.  No, he can live as he likes and begin to help the people he loves live a little better too.  And he can pursue the girl he loves, knowing he has fortune enough to give her a life of luxury and ease.  Yes, the future is bright.  But only days after his first inheritance Monty learns of another: an eccentric uncle has left him seven million dollars – but only if Monty is penniless by his twenty-sixth birthday.  And penniless with conditions – the money must not be thrown away in excessive gestures of charity or idiocy – it must be spent wisely and reasonably and he may tell no one about the second inheritance.  With only a year to do it, Monty sets methodically to work.

I found the entire thing delightful.  Monty is, as we are told at the beginning, entirely admirable.  He has “a decent respect for himself and no great aversion to work”, the ability to stay calm in a crisis, to mix with all sorts of people, and to view things in perspective and with humour.  He is warm and friendly and trusting, yet with a solid business sense and no nonsense about him.  He is, in fact, a rather perfect hero and I loved reading about his successes in carefully spending his fortune – and his failures when his attempts to invest poorly or gamble away bits of his fortune backfire and find him with more rather than less riches.  It is no small thing to spend a great fortune but he sets about it methodically and sensibly, enjoying himself along the way.

Enjoying themselves far less are his friends and loved ones.  At first delighted by Monty’s well-deserved wealth, they are pained to see him frittering it away and constantly on the look out for ways to curb his spending and save him from himself.  The first flush of spending – lavishly decorating a new apartment, throwing extravagant dinner parties – was fun for everyone but as the year goes on and Monty’s excesses grow more and more extreme both his friends and society at large can’t help but lament his extravagance and judge him harshly for it.  And when you are being judged extravagant by New Yorkers at the turn of the century, in the most gilded city of the gilded age, you really must be an extreme case.

I think McCutcheon must have had fun dreaming up all the ways to spend a million – and carefully accounting for them in the ledger Monty keeps.  Silly parties can only help so much.  It’s when he hits on the idea of taking a party of friends to Europe that the money really starts disappearing.  First with the hire of a yacht.  Yachts will always be a wonderful way to spend money very quickly and get very little return.  True then, true now, true always.  And once in Europe Monty is wildly successful at spending.  He buys cars, hires a villa, rents out hotels, and hires an opera company and opera house for not just one night but two.  But the joyful spending of the early days in gone and as his birthday draws near it becomes a chore to rid himself of all his funds, made painful by the taunts of society and the disapproval of his friends.

There is, of course, a romance, though not the one Monty himself dreamed of when the year began.  It is obvious from her first introduction who his real love interest will be – a girl who knows him well, who can tease and speak freely with him – and it’s satisfying to watch them both realise their true feelings over the course of the year.  A little less satisfying when the girl is abducted off the yacht by an Arab sheik in the middle of the night and a daring rescue is then enacted but, oh well, McCutcheon was clearly getting bored with all the accounting Monty was doing and felt the urge to liven things up.

It’s all a bit of whimsy but whimsy is wonderful.  The second half is weaker than the first but it matters not.  It’s a quick book to read and the overall effect is so fun and sprightly that the odd weakness can be overlooked.  Definitely a book worth staying up late with.

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