Archive for the ‘A Century of Books’ Category

Dear OctopusIt has been a long time since I’ve been as happy with a book as I was with Dear Octopus by Dodie Smith.  Simon did a good job of identifying some of its weaknesses – an overly large cast, a too-neat romance plot – in his charming review so I feel completely free to simply heap praise on it.

Produced and published in 1938, Dear Octopus is a comedy in three acts about the Randolph family, who have gathered to celebrate the 50th wedding anniversary of the parents, Charles and Dora.  The family is large so it takes a while to get a feel for all the different relationships; while my head spun a bit during the first act, I had it all figured out by the second.  This is one of those few situations where I could understand why seeing the play might be preferable – it is far easier to keep track of a large cast visually than on paper.  Like any family, the Randolphs have their problems: one of the granddaughters is struggling to move on after her mother’s death; a daughter hasn’t returned home in seven years; a sister-in-law harbours a life-long love of Charles; and the siblings and grandchildren all have their private squabbles and disagreements.  But this is a Dodie Smith comedy, not a Dorothy Whipple melodrama, so none of these issues are allowed to overwhelm the story.  They add depth, certainly, but Smith also treats these issues sensibly: as difficulties to be overcome, not tragedies to be allowed to derail anyone.  The strength and support of the family,“that dear octopus from whose tentacles we never quite escape, nor, in our inmost hearts, ever quite wish to”, is there to help them all. 

Dear Octopus - Fenny and NicholasI, sentimental reader that I am, enjoyed the romance between Nicholas, Charles and Dora’s youngest child, and Fenny, Dora’s companion.  There is nothing startlingly original about it but I genuinely liked Fenny, was horribly embarrassed for her when an interfering Randolph relative explains that Nicholas has no interest in marrying her, was even more embarrassed when she threw herself at other men during the party to avoid Nicholas, and was, of course, delighted when everything worked out neatly.  Nicholas was played in the original stage production by John Gielgud (who I have been thinking about since reading Harriet’s review of Gielgoodies) and appears very striking in the photos that illustrate the book.

Really though, the heart of the play – and of the family – belongs to Dora and Charles.  In their seventies now, they are not only affectionate and charming, they are genuinely happy with each other and with themselves.  When Belle, Charles’ sister-in-law, confronts him about not achieving his boyhood dreams of writing or entering politics, he is far from regretful about the path he has taken:

Charles: I think I might have had a shot at politics – but there were so many far more important things to do.

Belle: What things?

Charles: Surely you have realised that any house that contains Dora also contains a number of Little Jobs?  You would be surprised, for instance, what a very large number of shelves I have put up and an almost equally large number I have taken down.  Then there have been children to play with, dogs to take walks, gardens to plan, neighbours to visit –

Belle: And you call these things important?

Charles: I do indeed.  I call the sum total of any man’s happiness important.

Belle: Have you been happy, Charles?

Charles: So happy that I am sometimes tempted to erect a statue to myself.  I should like people to be reminded that happiness isn’t quite obsolete.

I think that is beautifully expressed.  And while Belle, also in her seventies, does her best to fight age, Dora embraces it.  For Dora, it is not about how old you are but about how much you can do.  Different ages bring different experiences and she – like her husband – has enjoyed them all:

Cynthia: You’ve never minded growing old.

Dora: No, I can honestly say I’ve enjoyed all my ages and I know your father has.  I think, perhaps, it’s a question of being interested in life.  There are so many things – people, theatres, books, wireless.  We’ve a new puppy arriving next week – really one life isn’t long enough.  Your father always says he’d like to be a Wandering Jew – provided, of course, that I was a Wandering Jewess.  I don’t think we shall ever be bored even when we’re quite old.

Cynthia: What would you call quite old, darling?

Dora: Oh, eighty-five or ninety.  Of course, when I read a book about a woman of seventy, she seems quite old, but it’s different when it’s yourself.

Cynthia: You always do seem to be just middle-age to me.

Dora: Your father says middle-age is stretching out, just as youth is.  One’s young until one’s forty and middle-aged till one’s eighty.  I dare say by the time you’re old we shall have got rid of old age altogether.  Anyway, there are nice things about every age if people realise it in time instead of in retrospect.  You should try to be your age and enjoy being it, my dear.

How could you not love Dora and Charles?

I also love their children and grandchildren, though they are less obviously wonderful.  Their squabbles and dialogue felt so natural, so much like how adult children talk when reunited; a mix of unshakable affection and undying rivalry.  Their disagreements, however silly and petty, are too sharp and too blunt to be the kind exchanged between friends: this is the way you can only talk to family.  But sibling arguments can also be resolved and forgotten with a speed that no other kind of friendship can match.  And they know their common enemy and can band together to show impressive force.

Everything ends nicely, with everyone who began at loose ends now taken care of and everyone who attempted to upset things put back in his/her place.  The writing is funny, the characters (once you figure out how to keep track of them) mostly endearing, and the story moves along at the perfect pace.  It is a delightfully fun book to spend an evening with and I know it is one of those books I will look forward to rereading.

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I can’t overstate how immensely useful Elizabeth von Arnim has been for one of the trickiest decades of A Century of Books, the 1900s.  She has been one of my favourite authors for ages but all of the books I’ve read this year for the project were new to me: The Benefactress (1901), The Princess Priscilla’s Fortnight (1905), Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther (1907), and now The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen (1904) and The Caravaners (1909).

adventuresofelizabethLike all of the Elizabeth books, The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen is exactly what you would expect it to be based on the title (much like Elizabeth and Her German Garden is about Elizabeth’s garden in Germany or The Solitary Summer is about, surprise, a summer spent in solitude).  Elizabeth, accompanied by her invaluable maid Gertrud, has decided to take a holiday to the German island of Rügen, leaving her husband and children behind.  Unencumbered by dependents, she is free to be the Elizabeth who indulges in long walks and light meals, able to think about the beauties of nature rather than the demands of her family.

But, of course, Elizabeth does not find the peace she had dreamt of.  Though her trip is a short one – only eleven days – she finds herself kept quite busy between her new acquaintances and her old ones.  The Harvey-Brownes, an English mother and son, she can just about handle, but an unexpected encounter with her unconventional cousin Charlotte proves a bit more frustrating.  A strident feminist and deeply annoying woman, Charlotte has abandoned her husband (an aged professor) and now lives and lectures in England.  Elizabeth cannot agree with her cousin’s extreme views, especially when Charlotte begins criticizing Elizabeth’s life, with her garden and babies.  When the professor appears, an irritatingly condescending and benignly amorous septuagenarian who has not seen his wife in more than a year, things get even more complicated.  His wife wants nothing to do with him while the Harvey-Brownes, great admirers of his work, won’t leave him alone.

As much as I enjoy Elizabeth’s (almost) solitary wanderings and musing on her surroundings, the book is funniest when she is the company of others.  Able to observe and comment on the Harvey-Brownes, Charlotte, and the Professor, we see once again that wit that makes von Arnim’s books so delightful.  The laughs are more gentle than in her other books and it did take me a while to ease into the story but it was still a solidly enjoyable read, just not the best example of von Arnim’s powers.

The CaravanersLike The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen, The Caravaners is also written in the form of a travel journal although this time the travels are in England and the author, instead of the delightful Elizabeth, is one of the most obnoxious characters von Arnim ever created.

When Baron Otto Von Ottringe and his wife Edelgard embark on a caravanning holiday in Southern England, neither they nor they companions know what they are getting themselves in to.  The indignities of life on the road are one thing – the economies of caravanning do not make up for the inconveniences, Otto quickly realises – but it is Otto’s interactions with his fellow travellers that truly sour the trip for everyone.  Except Otto, our pompous, chauvinistic, lazy narrator, has no idea.  What he does notice is how his wife rebels against his authority once they start out, talking back to him, dressing in the more modern style of their travel companions, and generally not behaving at all in the way of a proper German wife.  And goodness knows Otto has plenty to say on how a good German wife should behave:

…older and married women must take care to be at all times quiet.  Ejaculations of a poetic or ecstatic nature should not, as a rule, pass their lips.  They may ejaculate perhaps over a young baby (if it is their own) but that is the one exception; and there is a good reason for this one, the possession of a young baby implying as a general rule a corresponding youth in its mother.  I do not think however that it is nice when a woman ejaculates over, say, her tenth young baby.  The baby of course will still be sufficiently young for it is a fresh one, but it is not a fresh mother, and by that time she should have stiffened into stolidity, and apart from the hours devoted to instructing her servant, silence.  Indeed, the perfect woman does not talk at all.  Who want to hear her?  All that we ask of her is that she shall listen intelligently when we wish, for a change, to tell her about our own thoughts, and that she should be at hand when we want anything.  Surely this is not much to ask.

Otto is awful.  I completely recognize that.  Like those forced to travel with him, I would resent and then avoid him at all costs.  He has no manners, mistreating everyone he views as below his level, and views his wife as a being who neither requires nor desires his affection or respect.  While his courtly manners are deployed on the other women of his party, Edelgard is ignored: No woman (except of course my wife) shall ever be able to say I have not behaved to her as a gentleman should.  Otto is the ultimate portrait of the pompous, poorly educated, undiscerning, war-mongering and overbearing German man so often to be found in von Arnim’s books.  It is sharply but almost too viciously done and by the end I was more upset with von Arnim than I was with Otto.

This kind of humour, where the narrator unknowingly makes himself the object of ridicule, fills me with pity.  Once his companions’ contempt for him became clear, and Otto’s obliviousness remained intact, I spent the rest of the book blushing in embarrassment for him, even as his blunders gave them more and more reasons to avoid his company.  There was something very cruel about the scene at the dance, where everyone darted away as soon as Otto approached.  I know how and why I am supposed to find it amusing, I just don’t.  There is enough sense about Otto – he is particularly sympathetic when pointing out the absurdities of travelling by caravan and how ill-suited he and his upper-class companions are to roughing it – that he cannot be entirely dismissed as a fool.

It is a very humourous book and another wonderful example of von Arnim’s versatility but, for me, it was too uncomfortably cruel to really enjoy.

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I remember reading Max Braithwaite’s autobiographical trilogy of novels years ago, chronicling his (or the fictional Max’s) youth and young adulthood in Saskatchewan from the 1910s to the 1930s, and finding the books amusing but also surprisingly sombre.  Braithwaite is a humorous, colloquial writer but he is not afraid to address serious topics.  In doing so, he gives us an intriguing glimpse into the complexities of life on the prairies between the wars.

Never Sleep Three in a BedNever Sleep Three in a Bed was published in 1969 and is the gentlest of the three books in terms of the subject matter it addresses.  Covering the first eighteen years of his life, this book sees Max through infancy and childhood, his lust-filled teen years, and his emergence after graduation into a world reeling after the stock market crash of 1929.

Braithwaite is very open in talking about sex, though there’s not much to talk about given the years this book covers.  We do hear a great deal about lust and curiosity though and it is pleasingly frank.  There is nothing salacious here; just an honest record of what it feels like to be a hormone-riddled teenager in an era when adults refused to talk to children about sex.  When his father discovers Max looking at the Young Husband’s Guide to Married Sex (pilfered from his parents’ dresser), he replaces it with The Solitary Vice, a book that gave the thirteen-year old nightmares:

The writer of The Solitary Vice had the most graphic style of any writer I’ve since encountered.  He described the terrors of masturbation as they’ve never been described before.  Compared to it, leprosy, rabies, bubonic plague, syphilis even were no more than slight aggravations.  I can’t think of one catastrophe that wouldn’t befall the practitioner of this awful crime.  He would go blind, insane, hairy-palmed, impotent, until he cried out in his misery, ‘Oh who will deliver me from the body of this living death?’

I sat there on the edge of that bed, and the sweat poured off me in buckets.  I have never been so terrified of anything in my life.  Of all the good things my father did for me – and he did plenty – he came close to wiping them all out by placing that awful book in my hands.

Braithwaite maintains a cheerful matter-of-fact tone throughout the book, addressing the difficulties he faced without turning misfortunes into sob-stories.  His family was poor, constantly moving because they were behind on their rent.  In a family with eight children, there was not always a lot to go around (including beds, hence the torture of being forced to share one with two of his brothers).  With unusual anger he remembers how the teachers in Prince Albert sent his elder brother Hub back two grades after discovering that his spelling – just his spelling – was not at grade level.  An otherwise intelligent and hard-working boy, this soured Hub against the school system for life and Braithwaite takes great pleasure in ending the story by saying how successful his brother became as soon as he left school and began working.  None of this made the Braithwaite family unusual for their time and place.  In a province full of immigrants, in a time of large families and scarce jobs, they were hardly the only ones who struggled though, to a great extent, it appears that the children did not realise how difficult things were until they were much older.

Braithwaite is very proud of having grown up in Saskatchewan but does not try to ignore the problems communities faced as they tried to incorporate citizens from so many different countries, all of whom brought their own prejudices.  Catholic and Protestant, Ukrainian and French-Canadian, Chinese and Italian, there were religious and ethnic conflicts aplenty.  These are not cosy village neighbours who might spread rumours but would still be the first to help in a crisis.  No.  This is a place where the “Chink” who runs the diner is habitually scapegoated or where your angry neighbour might shoot your dog and never say a word about it.

The Night We Stole the Mountie's CarThe Night We Stole the Mountie’s Car, published in 1971, picks up four years after Never Sleep Three in a Bed (years chronicled in Why Shoot the Teacher?, which I did not read this time around), after Max has survived his first years as a teacher and acquired his wife, Aileen.   As the book opens, Max is trying to secure a teaching job in the town of Wannego.  He gets it, beating out more than fifty other applicants through a combination of determination (rather than mailing his application, he drove to Wannego to accost the school board), connections (it turned out his father knew the head of the board), and canny politics (playing the board members off against each other, farmers versus their natural enemy: the bank manager).  It is one of many reminders about the scarcity of jobs during the Depression and the lengths the unemployed were willing to go to in order to obtain a post.

The rest of the book looks at Max and Aileen’s experiences during their years in Wannego.  There are some discussions about the school and Max’s teaching but mostly Braithwaite focuses on the townspeople.  When he does mention teaching, it is usually to point out how chaotic matters were.  He had the privilege of working under an excellent principal but, even so, there was little to like about a teacher’s life:

Today, when we have better education that we’ve ever had, everybody is a critic.  Housewives, businessmen, garbage collectors, professors, sports writers – they can all tell you what’s wrong with education.  It costs too much; it doesn’t cost enough.  It’s too easy on the kids; they have too much homework.  Not enough physical education; too much emphasis on sports.  Not enough discipline; too much conformity.  Education is a hot topic in the news media.  On a slack news day every editor and television producer knows he can get somebody to make a pronouncement on education.  It beats pollution by a mile, or even the population explosion.

In the 1930’s when everything was wrong with education nobody talked about it.  Teachers were poorly trained, discontented, underpaid; school boards were made up for the most part of uneducated, sometimes even illiterate, farmers and businessmen.  But nobody cared.  When given a chance, speakers absentmindedly mouthed platitudes about how our education system was “second to none” and about how we were “building this rugged land on firm foundations.”

Only the teachers knew what was wrong and worried about it.  But the teachers were so low in the social and economic pecking order that their voices were rarely heeded.

What time Max doesn’t spend teaching is spent writing.  These years in Wannego are spent learning and refining his craft and receiving many, many rejection notices.  Though they must have been painful lessons to learn, Braithwaite is unflinchingly honest in his criticisms of his flaws as a young writer.  Having read so many plays this year and come to appreciate the skill it takes to write a successful one, I particularly appreciated his panning of his first attempt at writing one (which was staged by the town’s dramatic society):

We had our first practice in our living room, during which we just read through the play.  And I discovered a most horrible truth.  My lines were terrible.  Speeches that sounded so lively and scintillating to me as I wrote them came out trite, dull and ridiculous.  Not because the players were inept – that too – but because the lines were very bad.

Where this book really excels – and I think it is the best of Braithwaite’s three autobiographical books – is in its portraits of ordinary Saskatchewanites: their pastimes, their prejudices, and their pleasures.  There are humourous anecdotes about softball tournaments, rivalries in the rustic tennis club, and a town play (written, directed, and acted in by Max) but there are even more bluntly-told stories of the other realities of Depression-era life on the prairies: couples terrified of having another baby they can ill-afford; a pretty teenage girl whose single mother wants her to go live with one of her own male “friends” in the city; an alcoholic who tries to keep his drinking secret from a town that knows everything; and so, so many bright young men, forced to leave school early and work (when and wherever they can)  to help support their parents and siblings.  For this last group at least, there would eventually come a time when they could prove themselves:

Make no mistake about it, many of my generation of Saskatchewanites were saved by the war.  Boys I’d known at school who were brilliant and never had a chance to prove it joined the army or the air force or the navy and gained rank the way a healthy steer gains weight.  Soon they were lieutenants, flying officers, colonels.  They had a chance to prove their worth.  The war set them on a ladder of success and they never stopped climbing.

My grandfather was in this group, albeit in Ontario not Saskatchewan.  Pulled from school when he was fourteen and loaned out to neighbouring farms where he laboured in exchange for goods or to work off debts, it wasn’t until the war that he had a chance to prove his intelligence or initiative.  Like so many young men, he gained confidence there and though he stayed on the farm for a few years after the war ended he eventually ended up working as a radio and eventually television host, as well as working at both the federal and provincial levels of government.  He never stopped regretting that his schooling ended at Grade Nine but he, like many of his contemporaries, did not let that hold him back.

In both books, it is hard not to draw parallels between some of Braithwaite’s commentary on the Depression and the recession-riddled world of today.  When the Depression begins, he discusses how pervasive stock speculation had become, to the extent that “even the school-teachers, traditionally the most timid members of society, were getting into the act, and if that doesn’t indicate that something was wrong I don’t know what would.”  He also, like so many young people now, though his father and “his generation had let us down, got us into the horrible mess of the depression through neglect, stupidity, wrong values and unwillingness to change.”  Plus ça change…

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Michael and MaryMichael and Mary by A.A. Milne is my last Milne play of the year (most likely) but it was an excellent one to end with.  Published in 1930, it combines elements from many of the earlier plays I also read this year, which greatly added to my enjoyment.  After reading play after play where Milne toyed with the idea of bigamy for comic effect, it is nice to see him finally treat it seriously and not entirely conventionally (as though I would expect anything less of AAM).

Michael and Mary meet in the British Museum in 1905.  To me, this brought to mind Topaz’s mention in I Capture the Castle of her assignations there with Mr Mortmain before their marriage; these two books have nothing else in common, I just like the idea of the British Museum as a backdrop for clandestine affairs.  Michael, a bright young man and aspiring writer who seems to have much in common with his creator, is there for an assignation.  Mary, distraught and tearful, definitely is not.  Abandoned by her husband and utterly alone in the world, she is facing a horrifyingly bleak future.  Michael, noticing the poor girl, immediately strikes up a conversation and it isn’t long before he has uncovered her sad story and is trying to help her.  I think it is fair to say that Michael’s idea of “help” is more than generous, especially given his own youth and relative poverty:

MICHAEL:  Well, now I’ve got £200 in the bank which my mother left me.  I’ve rooms in Islington, if you know where that is.  I don’t know why, except that it’s a cheapish part of London, and Lamb used to live there.  I’m trying to be a writer…Even if I don’t earn anything for a year, I can almost live on half my balance – well, I can quite if I try.  The question is, Can you live on the other half?

MARY (incredulous).  Me live for a year on a hundred pounds?


MARY. Well, of course!

MICHAEL (looking at her thoughtfully).  I suppose I eat more or something.  Anyhow I can do it, and I will.  That gives us a year each, apart from what either of us earns in that time, which is bound to be something.  How old are you?

MARY. Twenty.

MICHAEL.  You child…And I’m twenty-three.  Both young enough to do anything.  And we’ve got a hundred pounds each.  It looks good enough.  What about it?

MARY. You mean you – Your father doesn’t give you an allowance?

MICHAEL. Good Lord, no.  He couldn’t if he would, and he probably wouldn’t if he could.  To a father “writing” just means shirking a real job.

MARY. So that’s all you have in the world?

MICHAEL. Except a fountain-pen with a gold nib. (He displays it proudly.)  A golden nib, indeed, as you shall see one day.

MARY. And you’re going to give me half of all you have in the world?

MICHAEL. Don’t keep on saying “all you have in the world” as if it included a couple of yachts and a coalmine.  I’m going to give you the extremely small sum of £100.

It is an extraordinary gesture and one that changes both their lives.  A year after befriending one another, and now quite in love, Michael and Mary decide to get married – ignoring the difficultly of Mary’s most-likely-still-alive husband.

Michael finds success as a writer, they have a much-adored son, and everything is going quite well until Mary’s husband surfaces after the war; having discovered his wife’s crime, he is now eager to blackmail the couple.  But in the middle of this attempted blackmail he falls down dead: it is convenient for Michael and Mary in that he can no longer blackmail them, but not so convenient in that they now have a dead body in their apartment and must explain its presence to the police without revealing who the man was.  It is a strange act, between the drama of the confrontation, the death, and the interview with the police, not to mention the moral questions that ensure in the wake of Mary’s husband’s death.  Should she and Michael get married again, legally this time?  Would that change anything?

The third act is the best.  After more than twenty years of marriage, Michael and Mary are perfectly happy.  They adore each other and worship their now adult son, David.  When David arrives home with his wife, having unexpectedly eloped, they decide to tell him the truth about their own marriage.  Milne heightens the tension around the reveal with David’s prim comments on morality and his ideas about the conventionality of his parent’s youth.  Like most children, he can’t imagine that his mother (known as Bubbles) and father indulged in anything beyond the most timid and unexceptional courtship, little dreaming of anything so extraordinary as that initial encounter in the British Museum:

DAVID (smiling at MICHAEL affectionately).  I suppose you and Bubbles, having obtained the co-operation and consent of your respective Papas and Mamas, got solemnly engaged to each other, and were allowed five minutes alone in the drawing-room together, after promising that you would be careful with the aspidistra and only kiss each other once?

It is David, not his parents, who is the conservative member of the family, though he is slightly ashamed to admit it, even to his wife:

DAVID.  I’ve got a confession to make.

ROMO. A very bad one?

DAVID. It is rather.  (Solemnly.)  I believe I’m Early Victorian.

ROMO. What a nice thing to be.

DAVID. It’s not really modern –

ROMO. I wonder sometimes if any of us are; if it isn’t just an invention of the newspapers and the novelists.

But some people are modern: just not the ones David or Romo would expect.  Poor innocents, with their affectionate contempt for the ”stodgy” older generation.

The parent-child bond here is as perfect as any could be – probably as AAM hoped his would be with Christopher (Robin) when he grew up – so of course David’s affection and respect for his parents never wavers, despite their shocking revelation.  The scene between them is sentimental but affecting.

To be perfectly honest, I like when Milne indulges his sentimental side.  There is an entire preface to the play in which he refutes the criticisms the play received when it ran, most of which seem to have focused on expressions of honest goodness and affection, whether it be Michael offering to share half of his worldly possessions with a total stranger and expecting nothing in return or David, moved by his parents’ confession, kissing their hands.  Goodness was just as unfashionable then as it is now.  This was not the sort of thing 1930s audiences wanted from Milne, whose comedies with their quick-witted nonsense were better received, but, having read so much of and by him this year, this romantic, more emotional side seems just as much a part of him, if less frequently expressed.  The father-son exchanges are particularly poignant, capturing first the awkwardness between Michael and his clergyman father and then the closeness and comfortable affection between Michael and David.  I found the image of Michael’s father leaving him after a not altogether successful encounter, filled with love for his son but only able to awkwardly express it, particularly moving:

MICHAEL. It’s awful cheek to say it, but however many other commandments I may break, I do honour you, father.  There’s something about sheer goodness that always gets me.  Mind you, I disagree with you profoundly about everything under the sun, sometimes you irritate me intensely – and – and yet (with a little ashamed laugh) I believe I love you.  Good-bye.

(But however near FATHER has come to SON in this speech, the VICAR is always between them)

ROWE (coldly). I don’t think you need break any commandments, Michael.

MICHAEL (lightly).  Well, you never know.  Pray for me, father.  I’m not so bad as you think.

ROWE (gravely).  I pray for you every night.

MICHAEL.  You would…Well, I try to be good, and I daresay I make a mess of it, and shall make a worse mess later on.  But anybody who sees into my heart knows that I try.  Well, good-bye and – er – thanks awfully.

ROWE. God be with you, my son.

MICHAEL (opening the door).  He will, if you ask him…I’ll come down with you.

ROWE (going out).  No, no.  You have work to do.

(He goes down the stairs…to the station…to the lonely Bedforshire vicarage…saying over in his mind all that MICHAEL said to him, all the loving things which he meant to have said to MICHAEL.  We shall not see him again; only little bits of him in MICHAEL, perhaps even in MICHAEL’s son.)

Though I love Milne’s nonsensical bantering in his other plays, it was wonderful to see him treat a serious topic seriously for once, with both sensitivity and intelligence.  Michael and Mary’s ponderings on the morality of their marriage at various stages in their lives is fascinating but, more than anything, I think Milne excelled here at writing about the bonds between family members.  Whether it was Michael and his father or David and his parents, Milne captures the unique blendings of awkwardness and unwavering love that in one case made for a deeply uncomfortable and unsatisfying relationship and, on the other, provided mother, father, and son with immense joy.

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After the week I had, I needed a comforting sort of weekend.  Thankfully, I rather specialise in cosy, cheering activities and so I have had a busy but calming couple of days with my books and my various adventures in the kitchen.

salt sugar smokeAs soon as I finished work on Friday, I pulled out Salt Sugar Smoke by Diana Henry, flipped to the recipe for pink grapefruit marmalade, and got to work.  My grapefruit were fresh and free (having been picked three days before off the tree outside our front door in Palm Desert) so of course I had to try my hand at this.  It was only my second time making marmalade (having made orange marmalade in February) so I hovered anxiously over the stove the entire time but the end result is beautiful and very tasty.  The only problem was that other members of my family kept wandering off with the book while I was needing to refer to it, eagerly looking through the recipes and taking note of the ones they most want to try.  I am thrilled that it interested them but their interest could have been better timed!

Catherine the Great by Robert K. MassieAlso on Friday, I finished reading Robert K. Massie’s wonderful biography of Catherine the Great.  I had started it earlier in the week and sped through the first half but stalled out for a day or two after the news about the firings broke at work.  Really though, it was the perfect book to return to after that, being absolutely in no way related to anything going on in my life.

What I knew of Catherine before reading this book was minimal: our focus in school had been on her relationships with Enlightenment philosophers and other enlightened despots and how she applied Enlightenment ideas to Russia.  Massie does an excellent job of describing this and of putting her policies into perspective versus what the rest of Europe was doing at the same time.  But what really fascinated me was his portrait of her life before she seized the throne, of her life from the age of fourteen (when she came to Russia from Prussia) to the age of thirty-three, when she became empress in a coup d’etat that deposed her husband, Peter III.   Her careful and astute handling of herself and her relationships over this period was extraordinary, reflecting “years of ambition beginning in childhood; the years of waiting, of hungering for power, of always knowing that she was superior in intellect, education, knowledge, and willpower to everyone around her.”  The entire book is masterfully written, making excellent use of Catherine’s memoirs and her letters, which reveal both her intelligence and humour, and skillfully entwining the personal and political, but it is the woman herself who makes it such an interesting story.

P1060193Then, for something completely different, I read What Did It Mean? by Angela Thirkell on Saturday.  While it is not one of her better books (it make actually be the worst of the ones I have read so far), it was exactly the book I needed.  Published in 1954, it focuses on the celebration preparations in Northbridge for the Queen’s June 1953 coronation.   Lydia Merton has been elected chairman of the Coronation Committee and, being Lydia, does an extremely competent job.  She even manages to get the famous Jessica Dean and Aubrey Clover to agree to perform a short play as part of the festivities.

While the number of characters starts out at a relatively manageable size it explodes by the end of the book to include practically everyone living in Northbridge, as well as anyone who can be feasibly dragged in from further afield.  It is nice to see old friends again, especially the delightful Mrs Turner whose not-quite-romance with Mr Downing was my favourite part of Northbridge Rectory, but there are far too many of them.

There are two things that are responsible for my enjoyment of this somewhat uneven book: the blossoming of shy Ludo, Lord Mellings (Lord and Lady Pomfret’s eldest son) and the constant praising of Lydia Merton.  I am perfectly happy as long as people keep saying lovely things about Lydia and a rather ridiculous amount of the book is spent doing just that.

Now, bereft of Lydia, I am spending today baking vanilla crescents (vanilkové rohlíčky in Czech or Vanillekipferl in German), making chicken soup, and reading the new Slightly Foxed quarterly, which arrived on Friday.  A very nice end to a not particularly nice week!

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I have reviews of three excellent children’s books for you today, each containing those magic elements necessary in all good children’s books: new surroundings, limited adult supervision, and unlimited imagination.

The Magic SummerThe Magic Summer by Noel Streatfeild actually made me understand why people love Streatfeild so much.  I had never read any of her children’s books before, just Saplings, which, though children feature as major characters, is definitely an adult book.  I had been told that Streatfeild wrote children’s voices exceptionally well, but there was little sign of it in that book.  Here, on the other hand, the children come alive.

With their parents in the Far East, the four Gareth children are sent to stay with an eccentric great-aunt in Ireland.  Great-aunt Dymphna has no interest in basic domestic chores or children and so, for the first time in their lives, the children are left to fend for themselves.  The two eldest, Alex and Penny (ages 13 and 12), do their best to keep up the standards they are used to a home while their younger siblings, Robin and Naomi (10 and 9), are much quicker to recognize and embrace the freedom their great-aunt is offering.  The summer is spent exploring and learning, occasionally terrifying themselves as they test the limits of their abilities.  There is nothing fantastical about their experiences, which is part of what I liked so much about this book: the Gareths’ experiences are the same ones any child could have, consisting as they do of decidedly mundane tasks like learning to cook or memorizing a bit of poetry.  No magic spell or secret portal necessary: just determination and a willingness to try new things.

The relationships between the children were especially wonderful.  Though they all, to some extent, strike out on their own, mostly we see them together.  They try to support one another but they also snap and bicker.  With none of the pastimes they are used to available in their new surroundings, they become bored and bad-tempered.  They act selfishly and then are ashamed when they realise they ought to apologize (but really don’t want to).  They feel, in short, like real children.

Tom's Midnight GardenYou want to know who doesn’t feel like a real child?  Tom from Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce.  I know people adore this book and will hate to hear any criticism, however minor, but they will have to forgive me.  He is flat but the book is not.  It is a magical story, about a boy who, while staying with his aunt and uncle, discovers that when the clock strikes thirteen each night in the lobby of their apartment building he is able to slip into the past.  Rather than the dreary, rundown apartment building of modern times (“modern” here being the 1950s, as the book came out in 1958) he finds himself back in the days when the building was a family home, when it was surrounded by a large garden instead of other buildings, and when a young girl, Hatty, lived there.  Most people cannot see Tom when he appears in the past but Hatty can and they become playmates.  Night after night, Tom visits her but with each visit she grows a little older, years passing in what for him is a single day.  Thought the ending was clear from the very beginning of the book, it still made me tear up a little.  I am so glad I finally read this.

The Secret World of OgBut the book I am most glad to have read, the one that entertained me the most, was The Secret World of Og by Pierre Berton.  Until recently, I had no idea that Berton, a Canadian historian, had written a children’s book.  Apparently, my father could have told me as much: this was one of his childhood favourites, having been published in 1961 when he was six years old.

When “The Pollywog” (otherwise known as Paul) disappears from the playhouse, his four older siblings set out to find him.  A manhole has been sawed in the playhouse floor and, lifting it, they find a tunnel descending into a mysterious underground world, full of green creatures who can only say “Og”.  Or can they?  As Penny, Pamela, Peter, and Patsy explore this foreign land, their fear and suspicion lessens with the more Ogs they meet.  Not only are the Ogs wearing familiar clothing – dress-up items that had gone missing over time from the playhouse, in fact – but some even appear to speak English, learned from the cowboy comic books that the children love so much and which, like the clothing, had been stored in the playhouse.

I loved everything about this book.   I loved the world of Og itself, with its giant tree-like mushrooms and its citizens who are happy to play make-believe all day, but mostly I loved the five Berton siblings.  Like any children, they love the idea of a world devoted to imaginative play and, even more, adore being authorities on subjects the Ogs are most eager to learn about.  But they also realise that sometimes fantasy needs limits and it can be just as exciting to discover real things as imaginary ones.  This book is so fun and clever and well written that I can understand why Berton considered it his favourite of his works and why it has remained a favourite among readers for fifty years.

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08-Good-Evening-Mrs-Craven-webI am slowly coming to love short stories and the more books I read like Good Evening, Mrs Craven by Mollie Panter-Downes, the faster that conversion will happen.  Published in 1999, this is Persephone Book No. 8, a collection of stories that Panter-Downes, an Englishwoman, wrote for The New Yorker during the Second World War.  Panter-Downes’ wartime journalism has been collected and published (as Letters from England and London War Notes, 1939-1945) but almost all of the stories in this book had never been printed outside of the magazine until Persephone gathered them in this collection.  And what a service they did us readers by doing so.

The stories are focused on ordinary men and women, examining how their lives and views of the world are disrupted by the war.  This kind of quiet, domestic approach to the effects of war suits my tastes exactly; it is why I am drawn to Angela Thirkell’s wartime novels, diaries from women like Nella Last and Clara Milburn, and Persephone’s other WWII-era offerings (House-Bound being one excellent example).  Panter-Downes’ focus is never on the overtly dramatic – there are no dreaded telegrams or major personal tragedies – but that does not make the suffering or disappointments of her characters any less wrenching.  Two mothers brought together through their shared fear for their children in America and Asia in the days after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour; a wife trying to hold herself together through the last days of her husband’s leave; a long-term mistress who has no way of knowing her lover’s fate since “the War Office doesn’t have a service for sending telegrams to mistresses”: these are the sorts of stories that the book is made up of.  Evacuees, rationing, work parties, the home guard…Panter-Downes addresses a wide variety of homefront experiences in a perceptive and direct style that I found irresistible.

The collection is not without humour.  The frustration felt by those hosting evacuees or friends whose London homes were blitzed can be most amusing, as can the gossipy conversations held during Red Cross sewing parties.  To me, though, the most amusing story was the very first one: “A Date with Romance” from October 1939.  Mrs Ramsay, who features in a number of the stories, has come to London to meet an old admirer recently back from Malaya.  Feeling intensely romantic and nostalgic, her fantasy of a tender reunion is quickly dashed by his jolly greeting:

‘Gerald, dear,’ said Mrs Ramsay softly.  She held out both her hands, which Gerald pumped up and down.

‘Well, well,’ he said, ‘old Helen.’  Mrs Ramsay felt a slight but definite chill.

I found the pieces about those saddled with evacuees the most interesting.  Panter-Downes uses a number of stories to address the tensions these situations created and the way lives and households were upset by the addition of outsiders.  “In Clover” is probably the most intriguing, looking at how a young upper-middle class wife’s innocent ignorance is upset by the arrival of a slovenly evacuee and her three children:

Little Mrs Fletcher…had two babies of her own and a husband in the Guards, but her notions about all three were pretty innocent.  On the afternoon her nurse went out, the harsher facts of infant life were concealed from her by the nursery maid, who let her have fun pretending to fool around with two little dears who were always perfectly dry, perfectly sweet-smelling, and done up in frilly organdie tied with ribbons.

By the time the story ends, Mrs Fletcher is no longer quite so unaware of the harsher facts her household had spent years trying to shield her from.

But the story that touched me the most, the one that upset me and actually brought angry tears to my eyes, was “It’s the Reaction” from July 1943.  It is a glimpse into the life of Miss Birch, a lonely ministry employee in London who longs for the friendly camaraderie that had existed between her and her neighbours during the Blitz, when they spent night after night together huddled in their apartment building’s shelter.  Now, they barely even acknowledge one another in the hallways.  Determined not to give up so easily, Miss Birch makes a cheerful and determined attempt to rekindle one of those Blitz-era friendships.  Her effort falls horribly flat and it is heart-breaking.

I found Panter-Downes’ willingness to address such a wide range of reactions to the changes brought on by the war – from earnest enthusiasm to petty but sympathetically-portrayed selfishness – most appealing and, sadly, surprising.  My expectations have been so lowered by other WWII-era books and diaries brimming with patriotic zeal, whose characters or authors would never dare to express any skepticism about the necessity of the discomfort and upheaval the war brought into their lives, that I no longer expect to find anything else.  I am not doubting that there were people – millions! – who exemplified the much-praised wartime spirit but I find it irritating when that kind of sustained optimism and enthusiastic collectivism is treated as the only way to have felt, or, worse yet, the only correct way to have felt.  It is the ability to capture and describe the range of emotions beyong that and to do so without implying any judgment that gives this book so much appeal today, sixty- and seventy-odd years after the stories were written.

The twenty-one stories in this collection are all quite short – most are only around ten pages long – so should theoretically be perfect for those looking for something to dip in and out of.  I say theoretically because I did not dip: I plunged.  Once I started reading, I did not let this book out of my hands.   I now count it as one of my favourite Persephone books and I cannot wait to read Minnie’s Room, a collection of Panter-Downes’ peacetime stories.

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Guard Your DaughtersSimon raved about it, Rachel adored it, and I think we were all convinced I was going to be equally enraptured by Guard Your Daughters by Diana Tutton.  But to my surprise as much as anyone’s, I was not.

Published in 1953, Guard Your Daughters centers on the Harvey girls who live in rural isolation with their mystery author father and hyper-sensitive mother.  There are five daughters but the eldest, Pandora, has recently married and moved away.  Now, having tasted freedom, she is determined that her younger sisters have the same opportunity as she to escape the stifling bonds that exist within the family.  When she broaches the subject with Morgan, the middle child and the narrator of the book, her sister is more amused than tantalized:

‘I realise now that we’re an odd sort of family.’

‘Well of course we are.’

‘But I mean – Oh, Morgan, I do want you all to get married too!’

‘Five of us?  I doubt if even Mrs Bennet managed as well as that, unless she fell back on a few parsons to help out.  However, dearest, we’ll do our best.’

I think the intention is for the Harveys to appear eccentric (instead of simply poorly educated) and if I had been able to view them as such then perhaps I might have found the book charming.  But instead of personalities, Tutton gives them interests, which is not at all the same thing.  Thisbe, the second eldest, dabbles at writing poetry, Morgan half-heartedly plays the piano, Cressida is the homemaker (mostly out of necessity, it seems), and Teresa, the baby at fifteen, is an enthusiastic but undiscerning reader.  We hear more about Thisbe’s bottom than we do about her thoughts or personality and the others aren’t much better off; Morgan is a remarkably dull narrator, recording her observations without ever attempting any analysis of her situation or family members.    As a group, they at best bored me and at worst irritated me to the point where I wondered how I could make it through the rest of a book about such shallow, lazy, ungenerous creatures (Cressida is perhaps the exception to that, but Morgan seems to ignore her even more than she does her other siblings).  I was particularly irritated by some of their cattier comments to one another, revealing jealousies that are typical between sisters but which were underlain with very little affection.  And Morgan’s petty criticisms of other people’s appearances still bother me – if you are going to do that, you had better be Flora Post.  Only Flora, with her typically blunt and unemotional delivery, could say such things and still leave you liking her, knowing that the criticism had nothing to do with making herself feel better at another’s expense.  I have no such confidence about Morgan’s motivations.

The Harvey girls’ largely self-imposed isolation is somewhat broken up by visits from outsiders – they meet two young men over the course of the novel – and a new friendship with a flashy young neighbour and her equally fast set of friends.  But, to be honest, these outsiders mattered very little to the story as a whole and any encounters with them merely emphasized the episodic nature of the book.  A visit from one of the young men, however, did give Morgan cause to consider her father’s work and I will be forever thankful for that since the description of the charts Mr Harvey uses to map out the movements of the characters in his mystery novels was my favourite moment in the entire book.  I do like hearing about how authors work.

Comparisons to Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle are inevitable – there are too many similarities to be overlooked and they were published only five years apart (in 1948 and 1953) – but the Mortmains are superior to the Harveys in every conceivable way.  Part of the charm of Cassandra’s diaries is how clearly she sees the people around her and how very interested she is in them.  She adores her family, knows them each as well as they do themselves (or likes to think she does), but has no illusions about them (just as they have no illusions about her).  They exhaust her and try her patience but she clearly shows what, despite their very real flaws, is most loveable about them.  Morgan never manages to do that, never even attempts it, and I never felt the kind of connection between her and her sisters that there is between Cassandra and any member of her family.  And as for eccentrics, well, who could possibly be more eccentric than Topaz?  Cassandra and Rose try to masquerade as conventional young ladies whereas the Harvey girls affect eccentricity (or, rather, Tutton affects it for them).  Even Rose at her most desperately snobbish is more endearing than any of the Harvey girls at her very best.  At least Rose had purpose and ambition; the Harvey girls, with the exception of Pandora, are a sadly lifeless, charmless bunch.

I did not loathe Guard Your Daughters but neither did I find it particularly special or memorable.  Tutton’s writing can feel a bit cheap at times but it is serviceable.  For me, the greatest sin is that the girls are so unrelentingly flat and boring.  If you are looking for an I Capture the Castle readalike, you had much better try The Montmaray Journals by Michelle Cooper, which has a narrator every bit as complex and intelligent as Cassandra.  Or, better yet, just reread I Capture the Castle.

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A Company of SwansAs a child, there was no activity I hated more than my dancing lessons.  Ballet, Jazz, Hip-Hop, Highland…I loathed all those classes I was forced to take when I was too small for my preferences to matter.  My mother tried – goodness knows she tried – to instill in me a love of ballet, taking me to as many performances as she could, but though I enjoyed watching others performed I never understood why anyone would want to be a dancer.  I never understood, that is, until I was eleven and read A Company of Swans by Eva Ibbotson for the first time.

Set in 1912, A Company of Swans is the tale of Harriet Morton, the sheltered and bookish daughter of a Cambridge professor.  Withdrawn from school after showing alarming bluestocking tendencies, Harriet lives under the control of her strict father and humourless aunt.  Facing the prospect of marriage to an ambitious but terribly dull young zoologist, Edward Finch-Dutton, and with no friends to confide in, Harriet is quite miserable.  Reading alleviates her loneliness somewhat but it is no substitute for human interaction:

Loneliness had taught Harriet that there was always someone who understood – it was just that so very often they were dead, and in a book.

Her only joy comes from her dancing lessons, where she excels.  When the opportunity comes for her to join a touring ballet company, she does just that, running away from her joyless home and setting off with the company for South America.  In the Amazonian capital of Manaus, where its culture-starved citizens built a truly extraordinary opera house and where they enjoy nothing better than going there to see touring ballet, opera, and theatre companies from Europe and America, Harriet blossoms, enchanted by her exotic surroundings and warmed by her new friendships with other members of the company.  She also falls in love for the first time, with Romain Verney, an Englishman who has made his fortune in Brazil.  But Harriet’s father is determined to track down his runaway daughter and has sent Edward Finch-Dutton after her…

Like all of Ibbotson’s adult/young-adult novels, this is a romantic fairy tale and to my mind there are few people who can write such stories as well as she.  The exotic setting, the tantalizing glimpse into the outwardly glamourous world of ballet, the aristocratic love interest…she does all this perfectly and no matter how many times I read this book (and I have been reading it frequently for fifteen years now) it never fails to captivate me.  I love her descriptions of the Amazon – its sounds, its smells, its sights – and could so easily relate to the Europeans who fell in love with it, even as they longed for the refinements of home.  Ibbotson does the little details well and her description of the ballet’s opening night and the feelings of those about to attend is perfect: the young English wife who will, at least for a few hours, be able to forget her grief over the son who has recently been sent to boarding school; the Russian balletomane count, longing to see at least a little bit of home in Swan Lake; the Prefect of Police, who can gaze on the beautiful dancers before returning home with his sour wife; or the German doctor and his wife, who come out of the lonely wilderness to enjoy the gossip and company as much as the performance.  These aren’t characters who are important to the plot of the book but including them makes the story so much richer; even though we never see most of them again, we know they are there, some of them very happy, some of them not.

Ibbotson also acknowledges that not all the dangers in the Amazon came from nature, describing the mistreatment of native workers by European masters, which sicken Verney when he comes across them:

He had believed that he knew of all the cruelties which men had inflicted on the Indians in their insane greed for rubber […] Workers flayed into insensibility with tapir-hide whips for bring in less cahuchu than their master craved; hirelings with Winchesters dragging into slavery every able-bodied man in a village […] He himself had been offered – by a drunken overseer on the Madeira – one of the man’s native concubines, a girl just nine years old…

I find the story of Harriet’s affair with Verney quite satisfying, even more so now that I am an adult and can appreciate that not every author who writes such good and wholesome heroines can also allow them to go quite naturally to bed with a lover, but it is Harriet’s experiences in the ballet company that truly fascinate me.  She takes her dancing very seriously and all the rigour and pain that entails is recorded here.  But Ibbotson also manages to capture the beauty of dance and the joy that it brings to performers.  I hadn’t noticed on previous readings the references to War and Peace but now having read the book myself, I can see why other characters compare Harriet to Natasha.  Harriet’s improvised performance in front of a room full of rowdy men –charming them when they had come to be titillated – has all the enchantment of Natasha’s unexpected peasant dance:

She danced naturally and with a perfect innocence, making no attempt whatever to match the gestures of Marie-Claude, but to the men watching her she purveyed an extraordinary sense of happiness, of fun.  It was the delight of a young girl allowed to stay up for a party that Harriet shared with her audience – the excitement, the wonder of being awake in this glittering grown-up world – and the leader of the orchestra, getting her measure, quietened his players so that the showy, exuberant music revealed its charm and tenderness.

But it is really through the supporting characters that we come to understand the world of the ballet.  Ibbotson was always good at writing superb secondary characters and I think she was at her best in A Company of Swans.  I adore Marie-Claude, a dazzlingly beautiful French dancer with a hard head for business, who is Harriet’s closest friend in the company.  She is what ballet-mad men dream of when they think of ballet dancers, the kind of girl they would like to pick from the corps as their next mistress.  Marie-Claude knows this and exploits it but remains devoted to her fiancé back in France, protecting her virtue with a combination of cleverness and a long, sharp hat-pin.  She is the perfect companion for Harriet: worldly and confident, she gives her friend all the encouragement she needs.

The heart of the ballet company, though, lies with Dubrov, the ballet master, and Simonova, the aging prima ballerina whom he has loved for years.  Simonova is emotional and demanding, not to mention jealous of her understudy, but her fragility always touches me.  After so many years at the peak of her profession, her body is in constant pain and though she may threaten to retire to an alpine village to grow vegetables (a plan that has Dubrov shuddering, knowing how ill-prepared the champagne and cavier-fed Simonova is for rural life), as long as she can still move she will continue to dance.  No matter how much it hurts, it is her life.  Dubrov, who has been devoted to her since she was just a dancer in the corps, has focused his whole life around her; when she exiled herself to Europe after a fight with her company in Russia, he sold his business interests there and followed, setting up a new ballet company for her.  It is a tumultuous but tender relationship and one that always brings tears to my eyes, especially when – feeling tired and defeated – Simonova whispers her fondest memories of St Petersburg, still denying – but not convincingly – that she has no desire to return to Russia.

A Company of Swans is not my favourite of Ibbotson’s adult novels, but that means nothing.  I may prefer The Morning Gift or Madensky Square but I love all of these books, whether they be sent in Austria, England or Brazil.  Ibbotson is romantic and humourous, and has a sensibility that is an intriguing combination of nostalgic and modern.  There is no one quite like her and when I am in need of a comfort read, she is the first author I turn to.

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Noah’s Ark – Currier & Ives

I have not one but two books for you today that are essentially biblical fan fiction.  Both Before the Flood by A.A. Milne and Many Waters by Madeleine L’Engle are (as their titles might suggest) based on the story of Noah’s ark but that is all they have in common.

Before the Flood by A.A. Milne is a one-act play but not, I think, the kind of play most churches would pick to perform at any of their events, despite the biblical origins of the story.  Milne imagines the domestic affairs in Noah’s home in the months between him receiving his divine instructions to build the ark and the day when the rains begin.  The question hanging over them all – Noah’s wife, his three sons and their respective wives – is whether the floods will actually come and be quite as extreme as Noah has been ‘told’.  It can be quite amusing at times, as the family debates the ark-related logistics that Noah’s divine instructions do not account for: how can they bring all those animals on board and prevent the predators from eating their natural prey?  If the animals aren’t going to eat one another, what are they going to eat?  Does the family need to bring extra animals on board for catering purposes?  On the whole though, it is not the best of Milne’s work and easily my least favourite of his plays.  I only laughed once, when, after Noah tells his family that they will be the only ones to survive the coming flood, one of the sons turns to his wife and says “Aren’t you glad now that you married into this family?” (or words to that effect).   The book ends when the rain starts to fall, leaving the question of whether Noah is a prophet or a madman unanswered.

Many Waters by Madeleine L’Engle, on the other, leaves no doubt as to the veracity of Noah’s claims.  In fact, Noah is but a minor character and he and his ark are ignored for a large portion of the book.  The focus in this children’s book from 1986 is on the interaction between the earthly and divine in this imagined pre-flood world where angels walk among men.  As soon as I started reading, I remembered why I found this book so weirdly fascinating when I was young.  Not good, necessarily, but fascinating.  It is the fourth book in the “Time Quartet”, the series that begins with A Wrinkle in Time, L’Engle’s most famous book, but it was the only one I ever felt compelled to reread.  The mechanics of L’Engle’s idea of time/space travel never appealed to me but seraphim and nephilim, for some reason, did.

Sandy and Dennys Murry, the teenage twins who find themselves transported back to (they eventually realise) biblical times after disturbing an experiment in their parents’ home lab, are not remotely interesting.  They are flat and really unbelievably stupid at times.  Stuck thousands of years out of their own time period, they are remarkably relaxed, even with their knowledge of what is about to happen.  Having befriended Noah and his family, they are perfectly content to work in the garden, help build the ark when the time comes, and pine after Noah’s youngest daughter, Yalith.  Yalith is far more developed than either of the boys – all the female characters are – but still not very compelling.  Still, she doesn’t need to be.  This is not a book that requires in-depth characterization.  Instead, we get to read a lot about sex, which some might find slightly surprising for such a religious book.  There is a worrying but not entirely consistent tendency to equate sexual promiscuity with evil but the real message is that sex is a good thing for those in a loving relationship (not necessarily marriage) and a lack of emotional involvement cheapens what should be an intimate experience between two people.  That, as well as a general opening of the twins’ minds to outlandish possibilities, seems to be the main lesson they learn over the course of the book.

Honestly, neither book is particularly excellent.  Many Waters can feel stilted in its need to over explain both its scientific and religious elements and Before the Flood, though it asks the questions any skeptic ponders while reading the story of Noah, does not do so with Milne’s usual energy and so the story drags along.  Both author’s approaches are interesting but their execution is lacklustre.

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