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Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

After years of looking for a copy of Rhododendron Pie by Margery Sharp (and not being able to stomach the $300+ price tag attached to used copies), I finally employed my interlibrary loan system to help me track it down.  For the eminently reasonable price of $15 dollars they found it for me in the wilds of Utah and now, after almost ten years of waiting, I have finally had a chance to read it.

First published in 1930, Rhododendron Pie is the story of the Laventie family.  The country-dwelling Laventies take great pleasure in their cultured and sophisticated tastes when compared to their pitiful rural neighbours and this is, we learn on the first page, a tradition that the family has carried on for many generations:

…deep-rooted in Sussex history, they had nevertheless a fantastic strain in their blood which served to alienate them almost entirely from their worthy neighbours.  Generation after generation of eldest sons set off on the Grand Tour and had to be sought out, years after, in Paris and Vienna and St Petersburg when the death of their sires left Whitenights masterless.  They came home middle-aged men, urbane, travelled, generally impoverished, occasionally debauched: and the good Sussex squires asked them to dine.  It was usually about six months before all invitation ceased.

In the current era, this family trait is exhibited by Mr Laventie, a louche aesthete who goes travelling (and philandering) every so often and returns with a gift for his invalid wife and even more distain for his rural neighbours, eldest daughter Elizabeth, a sharp-tongued and observant essayist, and son Dick, an artist.  Mrs Laventie, disabled for many years, stays quietly in the background for the most part while daughter Ann struggles to find where she fits in.  Not unnaturally, she shares the tastes and prejudices of her opinionated family members, as we all absorb the world view of those we grew up with.  But even early in life there are signs that a more conventional soul lurks beneath: it is Ann, alone among the Laventie children, who quietly loathes the family birthday tradition of pies filled with artistic but inedible flowers.  Rather than beautiful mounds of rhododendron flowers, Ann longs for juicy apples to fill her birthday pie.

Ann is our heroine but, as in the way of so many Margery Sharp novels, heroine may be too strong a word.  It implies perhaps more fondness than Sharp cares to elicit from us.  What I love about many of Sharp’s other novels is how pointed they are and how callously she treats many of her protagonists.  Here in her first novel she hasn’t quite achieved that style but the early glimmerings are there.  She gives us enough in Ann to care about but not so much that we don’t still find her frustrating in her moments of meekness and uncertainty.

And there are many such moments.  Ann, young and isolated from the glamorous world of artists and liberal thinkers that she has been brought up to view as her rightful sphere, is infatuated when Gilbert Croy arrives at Whitenights.  A daring film producer, Croy is handsome and flatteringly attentive to Ann.  It is only when the action moves to London that Ann, who has decided she is in love with Croy and willing to marry him, realises how little her values align with those of her father, her siblings and Croy.  For in the country the family’s affectations were relatively harmless – at least to themselves.  They may have made cutting remarks about the stolid neighbours (particularly the sprawling Gaylord family) and discussed their beliefs in personal expression and free love but in Sussex the neighbours found them too odd (and perhaps too amusing) to take much offense and there was little chance of a belief in free love causing problems when there was no one intellectual enough around to love.  London, where all three children find themselves, is another matter.

Following Elizabeth and Dick to town, Ann finds herself part of their social circles and not at all sure of her surroundings.  Everyone she meets seems somewhat lost in their pursuit of individual pleasures and free love seems to be causing more pain than anything.

When she retreats home to Sussex, Ann’s London experiences help her see her old surroundings and old country friends in a new way.  And when she falls in love with one of those neighbours whom her family so despise – a young man who is so gauche as to work in a bank, epitomizing the type of conventional thinking that so outrages Mr Laventie – the family is aghast.

It’s an entertaining story but, for me, a forgettable one.  Sharp was very young when she wrote it – only twenty four or twenty five – and everything is a bit simplistic.  The elements that would make her excellent later are there but it’s a bit of wasted potential when she wasn’t yet confident enough to truly make fun of her eminently laughable creations.

What it worth $15?  Absolutely.  Is it worth $300?  Certainly not.  Spend your money instead on one of her later, better works (my favourites are The Flowering Thorn and Something Light).  But if you can track this down, there is still plenty to enjoy.

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Well Walk from New End Square by George Charlton

It’s been an absolutely beautiful Sunday here and, despite having been determined to do lots of reading this weekend, I have been weak.  Instead I’ve been enjoying the pale winter sunlight and the spring-like temperatures.  Sunshine in winter – especially in a Vancouver winter – always feels like a gift.  The more typical torrential rains will return soon enough (tomorrow, to be precise) so to waste such weather would have been unforgiveable.

Despite neglecting my books this weekend, I have managed to get some reading done already this year.  I’ve somehow managed four books, though none of them were very long or challenging.  Two were pleasant and forgettable but I’d thought I’d share a little about the two extremes: one which was very beautiful and one which turned out to be very bad.

My least favourite, and by far the most scarring, was Brief Flower by Dorothy Evelyn Smith.  Originally published in 1966 (and, as far as I can tell, never republished thank goodness), it is the story of Bunny’s adolescence, those last years of childhood as she matures into adulthood, told many years later by the adult Bunny.  Raised in squalor and hunger by Laurie, an unsuccessful author with a drinking problem, and the equally useless Madge on the Yorkshire coast, Bunny has no idea who her parents were and, when we meet her at the age of ten or eleven, doesn’t seem particularly to care.  She hates being cold and hungry and not having any clothes that fit her but loves her wild life at the farm and adores Laurie (despite him literally belting her when he’s had too much to drink).  But then her wealthy grandfather appears and Bunny goes away to live with him for a year, after which she must decide which home – and which set of loved ones – to stay with.  The story follows her for the next few years, though the “brief flower” of her youth, and I HATED it.  It’s so disappointing because Smith’s writing is good and her supporting characters are truly excellent, but the entire story is overwhelmed by bizarrely sexual overtones right from the beginning (when, let’s remember, Bunny is about 11).  And the ending was so off-putting that I feel sullied for having read it.  I’m not a particularly sensitive reader but this was such a jarring combination of factors that the end result was very disappointing.  If you see this one, pass right on by.

Far more successful was Poems of Arab Andalusia translated by Cola Franzen.  I first became interested in the Arab poets of Andalusia when I read The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay.  Kay’s books are infused with poetry and I loved the style of the verses.  It pushed me to read some of the works that had inspired Kay and ever since I’ve been happy to pick up any volumes that come my way.  This year, as I’m planning a trip to Andalusia for the autumn, I plan to be reading even more.

This is a slim book originally published in 1989 but its roots go back to the 1920s, when the versions the translations are based on were originally published by Emilo Garcia Gomez.  The poems themselves of course date back much further, to the 10th through 13th centuries when much of modern-day Spain was ruled by the Islamic Moors.

The poems are sensual and beautiful and my favourite was “Remembering Silves” by King Al-Mu’tamid of Seville, the 11th century “Poet King”, who was dethroned and lived his final years far from the home he loved:

Well, Abū Bakr,
greet my home place in Silves
and ask the people there
if, as I think, they still remember me.

Greet the Palace of the Balconies
on behalf of a young man
still nostalgic for that place.

Warriors like lions lived there
and white gazelles
in what beautiful forests
and in what beautiful lairs!

How many pleasurable nights I spent
in the shadow of the palace
with women of opulent hips
and delicate waists:

blonds and brunettes.
My soul remembers them
as shining swords and dark lances.

With one girl I spent
many delicious nights
beside the bend of the river.
Her bracelet resembled
the curve of the current

and as the hours went by
she offered me the wine
of her glance or that of her glass
and sometimes that of her lips.

The strings of her lute
wounded by the plectrum
caused me to shiver
as if I had heard a melody
played by swords on the
neck tendons of the enemy.

When she took off her cloak
and revealed her waist,
a flowering willow branch,
it was like a bud
opening to reveal a flower.

I’m not usually a poetry lover but how could anyone fail to love that?

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Sometimes the stars align and an author produces a work so perfect, so utterly satisfying and joyous on every page, that you never want the reading experience to end.  That was what I found when I picked up A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles.

Now, this is hardly an unheralded gem.  It was well-reviewed and widely read when it came out in 2016, appearing on several prize lists, and Bill Gates, a reader par excellence, has shared his own love of it.  So I am, as usual, a little behind the times.  But the beauty of books is that they wait for the reader to find them when the time is right and, for me, this was the perfect time.

The story opens in 1922 in Moscow as Count Alexander Rostov is being sentenced by a people’s committee.  Their usual inclination to dispose of a member of the leisured class is checked by one thing: a poem written by Rostov more than a decade before that was sympathetic to the revolutionary cause.  And so their verdict is unusually lenient: house arrest for life.  But Rostov has no home of his own – the family estates having been seized – and lives in the Metropol Hotel at the heart of Moscow.  So it is there that he, age 32, is sentenced to live out the rest of his days.

And so it is within the walls of this last pillar of old-world elegance that our tale unfolds, a place where ballerinas from the Bolshoi dash in for a drink, where the French chef ensures that every dish is a masterpiece, and where every detail is thought of, cared for, and perfected.  It is a world that suits Rostov well and, even after he is moved into a dingy attic room from his stately suite, he finds ways of adapting to his new circumstances.

It is this graceful adaptability that provides the true charm of the novel.  Rostov is a product of his upbringing and it is the gentlemanly traits he has been trained in that allow him to weather his trials.  Before his incarceration, his days were, as he explained during his trial, devoted to “Dining, discussing.  Reading, reflecting.  The usual rigmarole.”  He was a friend to poets and princesses, a world traveller, and darling of hostesses for his easy conversation, excellent manners, and ability to smooth difficult situations.  He knew the world and loved its many pleasures.  Now captive in the hotel, he must set about building a life on a smaller scale, mastering his new world and seeing to the little preferences and pleasures that make life – whether it be in a palace or a prison – tolerable.

This he does with such ingenuity and nonchalance that it is impossible not be charmed by him.  If you grew up reading about orphans living in attics or poor young women making sad garret rooms into welcoming havens, you will be delighted by Rostov’s immediate actions.  And then even more delighted as through the years he makes a true home at the Metropol, finding new friends and a purpose.

The story follows Rostov over the course of thirty-odd years, years where he is largely insulated from the wider changes happening in Russia.  But he is not oblivious to them, staying as well-informed as ever (as any good gentleman would), and as Russia becomes increasingly dangerous, he begins to worry about the future of those he loves.  For, in thirty years, he has found people to love: friends, a lover, and a daughter-of-sorts whom he has raised from childhood.

A Gentleman in Moscow reminded me of nothing so much as an Eva Ibbotson novel, which is just about the highest praise I can think of.  It has the same charmed nostalgia of her books, capturing a world of lost European elegance, and Rostov shares the same optimism and practicality as Ibbotson’s protagonists, who, when faced with disaster, can smile, persevere, and use all their charm and talent to bring about a solution.  It is also peopled with delightful secondary characters: a willowy actress, who throws tantrums but has enough humility to clean up after them; a serious child who introduces Rostov to all the secrets of the hotel; a shy seamstress with a lazy eye and a warm heart; and so on.  Towles, like Ibbotson, takes care to make each character memorable and loveable and, in doing so, creates a world that is just a little kinder, a little more fantastic, than the one we know.  Just the kind of world we like best to escape to in a novel.

 

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What a wonderful week for reading!  My rereading of old favourites for the 1930 Club continued on from The Diary of a Provincial Lady to Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers (via Corduroy by Adrian Bell but I have complicated thoughts on that book and won’t manage to write about it before the Club is over).

Strong Poison was the fifth of Sayers’ mystery novels features Lord Peter Wimsey, the erudite graduate of Eton and Oxford who loves old books, music, cricket, and sleuthing.  Suffering from shell shock after the First World War, Lord Peter, the second son of the Duke of Denver, loafed about a little before discovering in his early thirties a passion for crime solving.  And so he became one of the world’s best-loved literary detectives.

He is, as always, surrounded by a cast of excellent supporting characters: his delightful mother, the Dowager Duchess; Charles Parker, a Scotland Yard detective with whom Wimsey works closely (and who will eventually become his brother-in-law); and Miss Climpson, who runs what Wimsey refers to as “the Cattery”, an employment bureau stocked with useful women who can be installed as informants in offices and homes of interest to the cases Wimsey works on.  Best of all, Wimsey is supported by his batman-cum-valet Bunter who has been with him since the war and is integral to both the running of Wimsey’s life and the solving of crimes.

Strong Poison contains all of these beloved supporting characters and introduces the most important one of all: Harriet Vane.

When we – and Peter – meet her, Harriet Vane is in the dock at the Old Bailey, accused of murdering her former lover.  A detective novelist by trade, Harriet is twenty-nine years old, a graduate of Oxford, and, Peter is convinced, entirely innocent of the murder by poisoning of Philip Boyes.  Despite her plain appearance, Peter falls in love with Harriet at first sight and becomes determined to both prove her innocence and marry her.  He alerts her to both intentions when he finally manages to meet her.  Harriet, being an entirely sane and reasonable person, is not terribly impressed and sees a number of bumps along the path to wedded bliss.  Peter is unperturbed by these concerns, including her past relationship with Philip Boyes:

‘I was absolutely stunned that first day in court, and I rushed off to my mater, who’s an absolute dear, and the kind of person who really understands things, and I said, “Look here!  Here’s the absolutely one and only woman, and she’s being put through a simply ghastly awful business and for God’s sake come and hold my hand!” You simply don’t know how foul it was.’

‘That does sound rather rotten.  I’m sorry I was brutal.  But, by the way, you’re bearing in mind, aren’t you, that I’ve had a lover?’

‘Oh, yes.  So have I, if it comes to that.  In fact, several.  It’s the sort of thing that might happen to anybody.  I can produce quite good testimonials.  I’m told I make love rather nicely – only I’m at a disadvantage at the moment.  One can’t be very convincing at the other end of a table with a bloke looking in at the door.’

Of Harriet’s concern, separate from their romantic future, that she night not have any future at all as the jury seems inclined for her to face the gallows, Peter is equally confident:

‘People have been wrongly condemned before now.’

‘Exactly; simply because I wasn’t there.’

There is much to be said for such confidence.  And so Peter sets out to use all his intelligence and ingenuity to prove Harriet’s innocence.

Strong Poison is, aside from the murder bit, drawn on events from Sayers’ own life.  Harriet, Sayers’ alter ego, was involved in an intense affair with the deeply selfish Philip Boyes, a fellow novelist.  Despite Harriet’s desire to marry and live conventionally, Boyes’ asserted his beliefs in bohemian ideals and free love, eventually breaking down her resistance and convincing her to live with him.  In Sayers’ own situation, she had a passionate affair with a poet who, like Boyes, rejected convention and embraced free love.  After two years, they parted and Sayers’ love then married another.  In Strong Poison, she had the satisfaction of killing him off instead.

Peter is Sayers’ ideal man so it is no surprise that he proves to be the perfect foil to selfish Philip Boyes.  He appears and immediately offers the one thing Harriet had tried so hard to get from Boyes: marriage.  He plays no games and tells her that her past is no barrier to their future together – after all, he also has a past.  Why should hers be more of a barrier than his?  And Peter is wonderfully accepting of other views.  When he visits with Harriet’s friends to gain a better understanding of the case, he good naturedly responds to their egalitarian beliefs – no macho posturing for him:

‘No, thanks’ – as Wimsey advanced to carry the kettle – ‘I’m quite capable of carrying six pints of water.’

‘Crushed again!’ said Wimsey.

‘Eiluned disapproves of conventional courtesies between the sexes,’ said Marjorie.

‘Very well,’ replied Wimsey, amiably.  ‘I will adopt an attitude of passive decoration.’

And yet…Let us be clear, I enjoy these books and always find them entertaining.  But with the introduction of Harriet, I also find myself a little unsettled.  Peter’s pursuit of Harriet is determined and, in the face of Harriet’s repeated assertions that she will not marry him, that becomes a little disturbing.  And there was one statement that drew me up short:

‘…I say,’ said Wimsey, ‘that it would be better for her to be hanged outright than to live and have everybody think her a murderess who got off by a fluke.’

This seems a little out-of-character for Peter and it seems a sentiment that is more focused on his feelings than Harriet’s.  Peter can easily incorporate a wife who has been cleared of wrongdoing into his privileged world but one who still has the stain of notoriety would be a rather different matter.  This statement seems fixed on his concerns, rather than Harriet’s.  Yes, she is a proud woman but would she really prefer to be dead?  To be alive and free might appeal more to the prisoner herself.

In the end – thanks to the extraordinary assistance of Bunter and Miss Climpson – the true murderer is discovered and Harriet is freed.  All is well and we end the book with Peter still determined to marry Harriet and Harriet perhaps feeling a little more inclined in his favour.  But we’ve another five books for that story to play out across…

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Like many other people this week, I am viewing the 1930 Club as the perfect excuse to reread The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield.  This begs the question, does one ever really need an excuse to read such a perfect book?  No but I took it anyways.

For the uninitiated (are there any of you?  Is it possible that the Venn diagram of people who read my blog and people who have read the Provincial Lady does not directly overlap?), the Provincial Lady is a devoted diarist who chronicles the small goings in her life over the course of a year.  The PL lives in the country with her husband Robert (a land agent), her six-year-old daughter Vicky, and, when he is not away at school, her son Robin.  They are attended by the standard indispensable household staff for an interwar middle-class household, include Mademoiselle, Cook, a maid, and a gardener.  Life is not hard but it has its trials and they are (mostly) all amusing.

With a mono-syllabic husband who is more likely to fall asleep with his copy of The Times after dinner than make sparkling conversation, the PL pours most of her thoughts into her diary.  She aspires to cultural and social refinements but, to her disappointment, is always falling a bit short.  She can’t quite find the enthusiasm to read the books she knows she ought to read.  When in town, she swears she wants to see the exhibitions everyone else is talking about, but prefers to spend her time shopping for things she can’t afford.  She can’t seem to win the literary contests she enters, even though clearly stupider friends and relations manage to do so.  She struggles to be modern (particularly when it comes to parenting), well-dressed (always a challenge on her budget), and many other things, always falling a bit short.

Where she doesn’t fall short is with her writing.  The PL’s style is distinctive and has been copied ad nauseum since she appeared (Bridget Jones being her most famous descendant) and you can understand why.  Brevity is the soul of wit and her sentences are masterfully short with great effect.  Most winningly, she leaves herself notes and questions in her diaries for further reflection, highlighting her insecurities and random trains of thoughts, and giving us a much better sense of her personality than most verbose novelists could do.

But the best way to get to know the PL is through her own words.  I find she is always at her best when discussing the children.  Lamentably, they are neither as attractive nor as angelic as other people’s children appear to be, which she feels reflects badly on her.  Vicky and Robin are reassuringly irritating and arguably the best things about the book:

December 1st – Cable from dear Rose saying she lands at Tilbury on 10th.  Cable back welcome, and will meet her Tilbury, 10th.  Tell Vicky that her godmother, my dearest friend, is returning home after three years in America.  Vicky says: “Oh, will she have a present for me?”  Am disgusted with her mercenary attitude and complain to Mademoiselle, who replies Si la Sainte Vierge revenait sur la terre, madame, ce serait notre petite Vicky.  Do not at all agree with this.  Moreover, in other moods Mademoiselle first person to refer to Vicky as ce petit démon enragé.

(Query: Are the Latin races always as sincere as one would wish them to be?)

December 24th – Take entire family to children’s party at neighbouring Rectory.  Robin says Damn three times in the Rector’s hearing, an expression never used by him before or since, but apparently reserved for this unsuitable occasion.

The PL also saves some of her frustration for Robert, but I have a soft spot for him so feel this is largely unearned.  Robert is a solid, predictable man who does not share his wife’s cultural pretensions but tolerates them (I think) remarkably well.  He is decidedly not a figure of high romance – however much the PL might sometimes wish him to be:

December 10th – Read Life and Letters of distinguished woman recently dead, and am struck, as so often, by difference between her correspondence and that of less distinguished women.  Immense and affectionate letters from celebrities on every other page, epigrammatic notes from literary and political acquaintances, poetical assurances of affection and admiration from husband, and even infant children.  Try to imagine Robert writing in similar strain in the (improbable) event of my attaining celebrity, but fail.  Dear Vicky equally unlikely to commit her feelings (if any) to paper.

April 12th – …Final straw is added when Lady B. amiably observes that I, at least, have nothing to complain of, as she always thinks Robert such a safe, respectable husband for any woman.  Give her briefly to understand that Robert is in reality a compound of Don Juan, the Marquis de Sade, and Dr Crippen, but that we do not care to let it be known locally.

I do find that the book is best when the PL is focused on her family.  E.M. Delafield has young children herself at this stage who clearly provided endless inspiration for Vicky and Robin’s most obnoxious behaviours. (N.B. Delafield’s daughter wrote Provincial Daughter as a 1950s response to her mother’s book.)  When the PL turns her sights to her social circle, the humour lags a bit.  Yes, she is still amusing in her pretensions and frustrations but I like her most when she is exasperated rather than insecure.

I like her least of all when she reminds me of how incompetent she is with money.  She is always short of funds: the pawnbroker knows her well and her banker dreads her visits to have her overdraft extended.  It’s never entirely clear if this is a family-wide issue (if so, Robert is remarkably sanguine, though he does know about the pawnbroker) or just the PL’s particular cross to bear.  What is clear is that she should not be allowed near money as every time she has any – or the promise of any – she spends it quickly and uselessly.  I can love her for her other foibles but this one leaves me twisted into anxious knots.

The Provincial Lady never disappoints and it was a delight to revisit her again.  But, by the end, it’s also a relief to leave her.  She is not a restful person – always aspiring to something that she can never reach, always feeling inadequate for some silly reason – and it’s refreshing to leave her behind and return to a more well-ordered world.

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The greatest pleasure of feeling a bit under the weather is picking reading material to match your frail state.  No weighty tomes or complex sentence structure here please!  Just straightforward storytelling that will capture an invalid’s attention without wearing them out.

Enter Ten Way Street by Susan Scarlett.

Scarlett (the penname under which Noel Streatfeild wrote a dozen light romances – see previous reviews of Under the Rainbow, Babbacombe’s, and Pirouette) is always reliable in these circumstances and Ten Way Street fitted my mood perfectly.  Wrapped up with blankets and with a constant stream of tea to keep me hydrated, I fell into the undemanding story with pleasure.

Ten Way Street is the London address of Mrs Cardew.  Better known by her stage name of Miss Margot Dale, Mrs Cardew is a genius in the theatre but a tyrant at home where her three children (Meggie, age 12; Betsy, age 10; and David, age 7) are at the mercy of her self-obsessed whims.  Having pulled the children out of their day schools after clashing with teachers, Mrs Cardew has engaged newly qualified governess Beverley Shaw to take care of them.

For Beverley, used to the pleasant but austere orphanage where she grew up, the Cardew household is  a shock.  The children have been brought up as accessories to their mother and are dressed up and trotted out to show off in a way that boggles her mind.  They are used to fur accessories, exquisite clothing, and caviar.  What they are not used to is an adult who cares about them.  Beverley, of course, is that adult.

Streatfeild wrote often about actors and their world, inspired by her own decade-long acting career, and she was rarely kind.  Mrs Cardew is all things horrible but, for most of the book, seems at least plausible.  It seems sad but realistic that she would prefer to spend her time lavishing attention on male callers rather than her children, or that she would have little patience with childish ailments and insecurities.  The household exists in a state of nervous exhaustion, ever sensitive to Mrs Cardew’s unpredictable moods, and the strain shows on everyone – especially the children.  But they are all quick to excuse her for she is, when the mood strikes her, a Genius on stage.

Beverley, however, doesn’t think Genius excuses Mrs Cardew’s behaviour towards her children.  In best governess-school style, Beverley sets out to get the children on a proper diet (no more gorging on caviar) and on a proper school schedule (no more jetting off to dress fittings if she can help it).  She gives them what they need – attention and discipline – and, to the surprise of absolutely no one, they slowly turn from obnoxious brats into completely normal, lovable children.

An admiring witness to this transformation is Peter Crewdson.  Invalided back to England after contracting black-water fever in Deepest, Darkest Africa, Peter is a young biochemist who has inadvertently become the object of Mrs Cardew’s very determined affections.  Originally a friend of the children, Mrs Cardew “stole” him from them (something they are resigned to – this is not the first time their mother has stolen one of their male friends) but he still manages to break away to the nursery to visit them.  Which is where he meets Beverley.  Naturally enough, the two sensible young people fall in love but all is not well.  How will Mrs Cardew react when she discovers the governess has stolen the man she loves?  And how can Bevelery even think of leaving the children who are just beginning to blossom under her care?

The ending is extraordinarily melodramatic but, after a few scuffles and a runaway attempt, all is resolved in a neat happy ending.  It’s not great literature but it is exactly right for a reader with a head cold.

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For me and many other Canadians (and enlightened Americans living near the border), one of the much-anticipated pleasures of the holiday season for many years was listening to Stuart McLean debut a new Christmas story on his CBC radio show.  You knew you could tune in and spend half an hour that would lead you from collapsing with hysterical laughter to blinking back surprisingly emotional tears.  It was a wonderful tradition.

Stuart passed away from cancer in February 2017 so intellectually I know there are no more stories coming.  But emotionally, I know nothing of the sort.  I long for his characteristically humorous and touching stories this time of the year and, even if Stuart is no longer around to read them, we still have his books to keep us company.  And so, earlier this week, I found myself reaching for Home from the Vinyl Café.

Published in 1998, this was Stuart’s second volume of Vinyl Café stories.  The Vinyl Café was the name of his radio program but it was also the name of the record shop run by Dave, the hapless hero of his stories.  Dave, his wife Morley, and their children, Stephanie and Sam, were the focus of twenty-odd years of radio stories as Stuart chronicled their lives in a normal Toronto neighbourhood with stories of neighbourhood rivalries and friendships, social faux pas (something Dave was particularly subject too), Stephanie and Sam’s growing pains and Dave and Morley’s nostalgia for their own childhoods.  They were wonderful stories and this book is a particularly wonderful collection of them.

It begins with the first – and one of the very best – of the Vinyl Café Christmas stories: “Dave Cooks the Turkey”.  This appears to be available on the CBC website (here – this story starts around 24:30) so if you’re able to listen, go now and do so.  It will be time well spent.  Just make sure you’re somewhere you can laugh uproariously without alarming too many people.  Dave’s wife Morley, after years of carrying the burden of all the holiday preparations as well as the day-to-day administering of their busy family, accepts Dave’s offer to help with Christmas this year: Dave can cook the turkey.  He commits, happy to make a small offering towards marital harmony, but realises only on Christmas Eve that he has forgotten to buy the turkey.  Determined to have the perfect Christmas dinner ready for his family (who are conveniently out of the house volunteering for most of Christmas day), he uses all of his ingenuity to acquire and cook a bird.  But the path he takes is far from conventional and the results are hysterically funny.

The next story in the collection is one of my all-time favourites and could not be more different from “Dave Cooks the Turkey”.  “Holland” tells the story of how Dave and Morley met in the 1970s and their early married life.  It’s a story about the struggles to combine lives and traditions, and the work – and love, and patience – that is required to make that happen.  It’s a beautiful story and one that has stayed fresh in my mind ever since I first heard all those years ago.  Someone has helpfully uploaded it to YouTube so you can listen here (it’s been split into two parts).

There are some other equally classic stories in this book – “Burd”, about what happens when a rare bird decides to winter in Dave and Morley’s backyard, and “Polly Anderson’s Christmas Party”, which involves an awkward neighbourhood gathering and a mix up with the eggnog bowls – but others I’d forgotten.  So many of the stories look at the anxiety Dave and Morley feel as parents, worrying about Sam and music lessons, or Stephanie and teenage romances, and they show what Stuart could do so well: make fun of the little things while always staying true to the heart of the matter.

I love these stories.  I have read them countless times and I will read them countless more, alongside all the other volumes of Stuart’s books.  They bring me great pleasure at this and any other time of year and I hope, if they’re not already a part of your life, you will give them a try.  I can’t imagine them not bringing you joy.

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