Tag Archives: 20th Century

Review: Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey

My Review:
B FarrarThe Ashby family has maintained their estate in the south of England for many generations.  The current family members who inhabit the estate are best known for their stables of beautiful horses.  Aunt Bee, the matriarch of the family, oversees the care of her ten-year-old nieces Jane and Ruth.  Bee supervises and runs the horse estate with the help of her niece Elenor and nephew Simon who are young adults.  Although to visit them for afternoon tea, one would believe that this is a happy and well-adjusted family, the Ashby’s have suffered some terrible tragedies.

The reason Aunt Bee has had to take over as parent for her three nieces and her nephew is that their parents died in a tragic airplane crash when Jane and Ruth were only a few months old.  Soon after the parents’ death, Simon’s twin brother committed suicide by throwing himself off of a cliff.  This second tragedy particularly surprised the family because Patrick was such a sweet and well-adjusted boy whom no one suspected was on the brink of taking his own life.

One day, a man walks into their life claiming that he is Patrick, the long-lost Ashby; he says that he didn’t commit suicide but instead ran away, assumed the name of Brat Farrar and spent the last eight years in America where he worked on horse ranches.  Aunt Bee is especially eager to believe Brat’s story and the fact that he looks like an Ashby helps to convince everyone in their immediate circle that Patrick is the long-lost heir.  The only one who seems skeptical about Brat’s identity is Simon.  It is Simon who has the most to lose from Patrick’s reappearance since Simon will no longer be the Ashby heir; the family fortune will revert back to Patrick who is the eldest son.

What I found most unique about this story is that Brat is supposed to be the bad buy in this story, the imposter, the crook.  But Brat’s story is very compelling and he is really not after the Ashby fortune.  Brat grew up in an orphanage and he has never had a family of his own.  When the opportunity to become part of an middle class English family presents itself, Brat’s desire for a sense of belonging and a place to call home prove to be a stronger temptation then the lure of money.

Brat is welcomed into the Ashby home and becomes a part of their everyday lives.  He is an expert horse trainer and he gets along especially well with Elenor for whom he develops more than sisterly feelings..  As he spends quality time with the family, he discovers through various clues that Simon has a sinister and mean side to him.  Simon’s reasons for being angry go much deeper than his disinheritance from the Ashby fortune.  I don’t want to give away too much, but the mystery surrounding Patrick’s disappearance and Simon’s involvement in it were very compelling plot lines and I finished the book very quickly.  I guess this would quality Tey’s book as a page turner.

Tey’s books are written in a classics and charming British style one would expect from a 20th century author.  Her characters are interesting in the sense that they are likeable but can be morally flexible.  Finally, the plot alone is reason enough to pick up this book.

I’ve also read Tey’s The Franchise Affair and enjoyed that book as well.  Has anyone else read any of Tey’s books?  I would love to hear about them.

About the Author:

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Josephine Tey was a pseudonym of Elizabeth Mackintosh. Josephine was her mother’s first name and Tey the surname of an English Grandmother. As Josephine Tey, she wrote six mystery novels including Scotland Yard’s Inspector Alan Grant.

The first of these, ‘The Man in the Queue’ (1929) was published under the pseudonym of Gordon Daviot , whose name also appears on the title page of another of her 1929 novels, ‘Kit An Unvarnished History’. She also used the Daviot by-line for a biography of the 17th century cavalry leader John Graham, which was entitled ‘Claverhouse’ (1937).

Mackintosh also wrote plays (both one act and full length), some of which were produced during her lifetime, under the pseudonym Gordon Daviot. The district of Daviot, nea Josephine Tey was a pseudonym of Elizabeth Mackintosh. Josephine was her mother’s first name and Tey the surname of an English Grandmother. As Josephine Tey, she wrote six mystery novels including Scotland Yard’s Inspector Alan Grant.

The first of these, ‘The Man in the Queue’ (1929) was published under the pseudonym of Gordon Daviot , whose name also appears on the title page of another of her 1929 novels, ‘Kit An Unvarnished History’. She also used the Daviot by-line for a biography of the 17th century cavalry leader John Graham, which was entitled ‘Claverhouse’ (1937).

Mackintosh also wrote plays (both one act and full length), some of which were produced during her lifetime, under the pseudonym Gordon Daviot. The district of Daviot, near her home of Inverness in Scotland, was a location her family had vacationed. The name Gordon does not appear in either her family or her history.

Elizabeth Mackintosh came of age during World War I, attending Anstey Physical Training College in Birmingham, England during the years 1915-1918. Upon graduation, she became a physical training instructor for eight years. In 1926, her mother died and she returned home to Inverness to care for her invalid father. Busy with household duties, she turned to writing as a diversion, and was successful in creating a second career.

Alfred Hitchcock filmed one of her novels, ‘A Shilling for Candles’ (1936) as ‘Young and Innocent’ in 1937 and two other of her novels have been made into films, ‘The Franchise Affair’ (1948), filmed in 1950, and ‘Brat Farrar’ (1949), filmed as ‘Paranoiac’ in 1963. In addition a number of her works have been dramatised for radio.

Her novel ‘The Daughter of Time’ (1951) was voted the greatest mystery novel of all time by the Crime Writers’ Association in 1990.

Miss Mackintosh never married, and died at the age of 55, in London. A shy woman, she is reported to have been somewhat of a mystery even to her intimate friends. While her death seems to have been a surprise, there is some indication she may have known she was fatally ill for some time prior to her passing.

 

 

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Review: My Marriage by Jakob Wassermann

I received an advanced review copy of this title from The New York Review of Books.  The original novel was published in German in 1934 and this English translation has been done by Michael Hofmann

My Review:
My MarriageWassermann presents us with the story of Alexander Herzog and his disastrous marriage to a woman from a middle-class German family named Ganna.  Alexander begins his tale with a history of Ganna’s childhood which seems to have a profound effect on her mental stability as an adult.  Ganna is one of six daughters, fifth in line, and is described as a duckling among swans.  She is not as pretty, graceful or demure as her sisters.  Her disobedience and lying often result in brutal beatings from her father.  No one ever thinks that Ganna could attract a man to marry; but Alexander, a young and up-and-coming writer, enters the scene and Ganna is smitten with him.

The beginning of the story has a light and funny tone as Alexander tells us about Ganna’s devotion to him and his writing.  She follows him around like a puppy and adores anything and everything he writes.  During this time Alexander is not able to make a successful living from the sales of his books so he is often in debt and wondering where his next meal will come from.  It starts to wound his pride when he is forced to rely heavily on the charity and pity of his friends.  Ganna suggests marriage to him because her rather sizeable dowry would mean the end of his financial woes.  Alexander dismisses Ganna’s suggestion of marriage as ridiculous, first and foremost because is not the one- woman, settling-down type of man.  But Ganna is relentless and finally wears him down, even threating to jump off a balcony if Alexander doesn’t agree to marry her.

Alexander lets Ganna and her world wash over him and he accepts his fate as her husband and a member of her extended family.  But Alexander’s passivity is his greatest flaw and he ignores the many warning signs of his impending misery and doom.  I kept reading the book and cringing because of all the gloomy foreshadowing.  The marriage starts to unravel rather quickly because it is evident that Ganna is mentally unstable, volatile, paranoid, and quite possibly psychotic.  She yells at the servants and then plays the part of the victim; she makes quick and intimate friends with various people in society and just as quickly makes them her mortal enemy.  Ganna and Alexander fight constantly and all the while Alexander keeps believing that he can change Ganna, calm her down, make her see reason.

After about ten years of marriage Alexander has many affairs which Ganna accepts as something that Alexander needs to do;  she is content with the fact that she is the lawful wife and that he will always come home to her.  But when Alexander meets and falls in love with a woman named Bettina, all of this changes.  Bettina is kind and patient and happy and Alexander, possibly for the first time in his life, falls deeply in love with her.  After carrying on their affair for several years, Alexander finally decides that he must ask Ganna for a divorce.  This divorce pushes Ganna over the edge to the point at which she is completely obsessed with making Alexander’s life miserable.  She employs one lawyer after another to ring more  and more money out of him and to drag out the divorce for years.  At one point it is estimated that she has a team of forty lawyers working to make Alexander’s  life miserable.  The last third of the book goes on for pages about the awful mess that Ganna makes out of everyone’s life and the horrible stress she causes to Alexander and Bettina.

I really should not have finished reading this book before bed because I laid awake for quite awhile thinking about it.  The combination of Alexander’s passivity and Ganna’s mental instability causes a perfect storm of misery for both of them.  The book is also an interesting commentary on mental illness and the far-reaching effects it has on a family.  How does one deal with a person who is so completely irrational, paranoid and volatile?  I think if Ganna were written about in the 21st century should would probably be diagnosed with a personality disorder or a psychosis.

The New York Review of Books has reissued another great classic from the German Language which I highly recommend if you enjoy books that explore marriage, psychological issues and unforgetable characters.

 

About the Author:
J WassermannBorn in Fürth, Wassermann was the son of a shopkeeper and lost his mother at an early age. He showed literary interest early and published various pieces in small newspapers. Because his father was reluctant to support his literary ambitions, he began a short-lived apprenticeship with a businessman in Vienna after graduation.

He completed his military service in Nuremberg. Afterward, he stayed in southern Germany and in Switzerland. In 1894 he moved to Munich. Here he worked as a secretary and later as a copy editor at the paper Simplicissimus. Around this time he also became acquainted with other writers Rainer Maria Rilke, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and Thomas Mann.

In 1896 he released his first novel, Melusine. Interestingly, his last name (Wassermann) means “water-man” in German; a “Melusine” (or “Melusina”) is a figure of European legends and folklore, a feminine spirit of fresh waters in sacred springs and rivers.
From 1898 he was a theater critic in Vienna. In 1901 he married Julie Speyer, whom he divorced in 1915. Three years later he was married again to Marta Karlweis.

After 1906, he lived alternatively in Vienna or at Altaussee in der Steiermark where he died in 1934 after a severe illness.
In 1926, he was elected to the Prussian Academy of Art. He resigned in 1933, narrowly avoiding an expulsion by the Nazis. In the same year, his books were banned in Germany owing to his Jewish ancestry.

Wassermann’s work includes poetry, essays, novels, and short stories. His most important works are considered the novel Der Fall Maurizius (1928) and the autobiography, My Life as German and Jew (Mein Weg als Deutscher und Jude) (1921), in which he discussed the tense relationship between his German and Jewish identities.

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Filed under Classics, German Literature, Literature in Translation, New York Review of Books

Review: Stoner 50th Anniversary Edition by John Williams

I received an advance review copy of this title from New York Review of Books.

My Review:
Stoner 50thFor those of you that are not new to my blog, you might have noticed that this book has a place in my “favorites” section. In this book we are introduced to William Stoner who is born at the turn of the century into a very poor farm family in rural Missouri.   Stoner would have also become a farmer like his father and when he is given a scholarship to the state university, he fully intends to study agriculture.  But through the influence of a tough but inspiring English professor, Stoner changes his major to English and he himself becomes a University English professor.

One of the aspects that I enjoyed most about the book is Stoner’s contemplation about what it means to be a good teacher. He also doesn’t always play the university politics game and his career suffers for it.  He is forced to teach Freshman English courses over and over again and he does so in a stoic manner without protest.  Whether he is in a graduate seminar class or a beginning Freshman English class he always gives his best teaching to his students.

Stoner meets a charming young woman at the home of his professor and he immediately decides that he wants to marry her.  He courts Edith for about two weeks and they have a modest wedding ceremony at her parent’s house.  But Edith soon reveals her mental instability and Stoner realizes very quickly that his marriage is a miserable failure.   But Stoner never even contemplates leaving Edith and instead he endures a miserable life at home with a wife who is crazy and unpredictable. I was glad to see that at one point in the book, though, he does find real love and intimacy, which I think is what he craves all along.

The prose in this book is exceptionally elegant. This is one of those books that my thoughts keep wandering to over and over. It makes one contemplate so many different ideas: career, family, love, marriage, and even death.  The 50th anniversary edition issued by the New York Review of Boks is a hardcover book with an introduction by John McGahern.  Even if you have already read Stoner on the Kindle or in the original paperback, this beautiful hardcover edition is very special and worth having on one’s bookshelf.

About The Author:
John WilliamsJohn Edward Williams was born on August 29, 1922, in Clarksville, Texas, near the Red River east of Paris, Texas and brought up in Texas. His grandparents were farmers; his stepfather was a janitor in a post office. After flunking out of junior college and holding various positions with newspapers and radio stations in the Southwest, Williams enlisted in the USAAF early in 1942, spending two and a half years as a sergeant in India and Burma. Several years after the war, Williams enrolled in the University of Denver, where he received his B.A. in 1949 and an M.A. in 1950. During this period, his first novel, Nothing But the Night, was published (1948), and his first volume of poems, The Broken Landscape, appeared the following year. In the fall of 1950, Williams went to the University of Missouri, where he taught and received a Ph.D. in 1954. In the fall of 1955, Williams took over the directorship of the creative writing program at the University of Denver, where he taught for more than 30 years. Williams’s second novel, Butcher’s Crossing, was published by Macmillan in 1960, followed by English Renaissance Poetry, an anthology published in 1963 by Doubleday which he edited and for which he wrote the introduction. His second book of poems, The Necessary Lie, appeared in 1965 and was published by Verb Publications. In 1965 he became editor of University of Denver Quarterly (later Denver Quarterly) until 1970. In 1965, Williams’s third novel, Stoner, was published by Viking Press. It has been recently been re-issued by The New York Review of Books. His fourth novel, Augustus, was published by Viking Press in 1973 and won the prestigious National Book Award in 1973 and remains in print.

The critic Morris Dickstein has noted that, while Butcher’s Crossing, Stoner, and Augustus are “strikingly different in subject,” they “show a similar narrative arc: a young man’s initiation, vicious male rivalries, subtler tensions between men and women, fathers and daughters, and finally a bleak sense of disappointment, even futility.” Dickstein called Stoner, in particular, “something rarer than a great novel — it is a perfect novel, so well told and beautifully written, so deeply moving, it takes your breath away.”

After retiring from the University of Denver in 1986, Williams moved with his wife, Nancy, to Fayetteville, Arkansas, where he resided until he died of respiratory failure on March 3, 1994. A fifth novel, The Sleep of Reason, was left unfinished at the time of his death

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Review: Seven for a Secret by Mary Webb

I read what is probably Mary Webb’s most famous novel, Precious Bane, a few months back.  So when a friend and follow bibliophile offered me his extra copy of this novel I was thrilled at the prospect of reading another of Webb’s books.

My Review:
Seven for a SecretGillian is the only child of a very wealthy farmer, so whomever she marries will not only be lucky to have a pretty bride, but will also have the added benefit of inheriting a large fortune.  Gillian is nineteen when the novel opens and she is a starry-eyed romantic who wants to flirt with men so that they will fall in love with her.  Gillian, in many ways, still acts like a child and she is is selfish, narcissistic and silly towards others in her life.  The kind and simple shepherd named Robert who is employed by her father is oftentimes the target of her coquetry.  But Gillian keeps telling herself that she can never fall in love with Robert because she doesn’t want a simple farm hand for a husband;  she wants excitement, passion and a man who can ride a horse bareback.  Webb beautifully foreshadows the suffering that Gillian will have to endure before she can have her happily ever after.

Robert is the only son of Mrs. Makepeace who lost her husband when Robert was a very young boy.  Mrs. Makepeace has remarried a man named Jonathan who, despite being so clumsy, is a great husband and stepfather.  Mrs. Makepeace knows her son Robert well, so she senses it when Robert begins to fall in love with Gillian.  Robert is the main farm hand and does the lion’s share of the work for Gillian’s father; he has grown up with Gillian and as they both mature he sees her in a very different light and begins to develop deep romantic feelings for her.  It is sweet that since he cannot express his love to her directly, he composes penillion verses about her and his love for her.   He is a gifted poet but he never writes his poetry down or shares it with anyone, especially not Gillian.

When another sheep farmer comes to town and buys the local inn, Robert is very suspicions of this mysterious man from the beginning.  Ralph Elmer is not married, or so he says, and lives with his servants Fringal and Rwth.  Rwth is mute and Robert treats her very badly.  Both Robert and Gillian take pity on Rwth and treat Rwth with kindness and compassion;  Gillian’s kind treatment of Rwth, for me, was the beginning of her transformation into a mature and less selfish woman.

Unfortunately, Gillian is smitten with Ralph Elmer and despite the warnings from Robert, she continues to spend a lot of time with Ralph.  Ralph makes physical advances toward Gillian that show us he is not a gentlemen.  But Gillian is too silly and young to make the distinction between passion and physical lust and true love.  While she is allowing Mr. Elmer to court and kiss her and do other things to her, she is really thinking about Robert and wishing it was the shepherd-poet who was paying her so much attention.

In the end, Gillian does have to suffer in order to become a better human being; she becomes someone with whom we can sympathize and someone who is finally worthy of Robert’s love.  I am so glad I had the opportunity to read another of Webb’s novels and I would like to read even more of her works.

About The Author:
Mary WebbMary Webb (1881-1927) was an English romantic novelist of the early 20th century, whose novels were set chiefly in the Shropshire countryside and among Shropshire characters and people which she knew and loved well. Although she was acclaimed by John Buchan and by Rebecca West, who hailed her as a genius, and won the Prix Femina of La Vie Heureuse for Precious Bane (1924), she won little respect from the general public. It was only after her death that the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, earned her posthumous success through his approbation, referring to her as a neglected genius at a Literary Fund dinner in 1928. Her writing is notable for its descriptions of nature, and of the human heart. She had a deep sympathy for all her characters and was able to see good and truth in all of them. Among her most famous works are: The Golden Arrow (1916), Gone to Earth (1917), and Seven for a Secret (1922).

 

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Review- Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village by Ronald Blythe

I received and advanced review copy of this title from the New York Review of Books.

My Review:
AkenfieldThis book is a history of the British village of Akenfield in Suffolk, England as told through the stories and narratives of its own citizens.  Blythe interviewed 49 different people from all types of social backgrounds and occupations and recorded their words for this social history.   In 1967, the year in which the villagers are interviewed, the way of life in this small village is changing from one of manual labor to mechanization. Each person from Akenfield that is interviewed by the author highlights different aspects of his or her life in a forthright, honest and stream-of-consciousness narrative.  Blythe groups the book into twenty different sections of the people, some of which include “God,” “The Craftsmen,” “The School,” and “The Law.”

One group in the book that made a particular impression on me were the craftsmen such as the wheelwright, the  blacksmith and the thatcher.  It would seem that with the invention of cars that there would no longer be a need for such talents because of the shrinking reliance on horses and wagons for transportation.  It was inspiring that these hardworking men decide to change with the times and find other uses for their crafts.  The blacksmith, Francis Lambert age twenty-five, is a very talented craftsman and now that there are no longer horses to shoe in order to sustain his business he has diversified by making weather-vanes, gates and fire-screens.  Francis is so talented that he is even sent to Germany to represent England at an international craft festival.  Francis loves his job which is evident by the fact that he usually puts in sixty hours of work per week and he takes a great deal of pride in his masterpieces.

As one would expect, hopes of escaping the village are expressed from some of the residents, but for the most part they seem content to stay in their small part of England.  Several of them mention that their families have resided within the boundaries of Akenfield for generations.  But there are also a fair number of voices we hear from people who, even though that have lived in Akenfield for many years, will always be considered “outsiders” because they were born elsewhere.  Hugh Hambling age thirty who is a schoolmaster tells us that he was born on Norfolk.  He and his wife move to Akenfield when he was twenty because he found a charming cottage that the newly married couple could afford.  Hugh feels that the villagers are very private people and although he tries to engage them in discussions, he only ever is able to talk to them about cursory things like football or the weather.

In the section on the school, Blythe includes the administrative records from the teachers and headmasters which date back to 1875.  One problem, in particular, that teachers have to deal with is poor attendance by the children of farm owners.  There are certain times of the year when even the young ones are needed to be out in the fields helping with the crop and later when a truancy law is passed these guidelines for school attendance are still not enforced.  Outbreaks of health issues such as ringworm, diphtheria and scarlet fever are also recorded and must have certainly worsened the poor attendance issues.

Many of the details that the residents of Akenfield provide are like no other that one would find in any ordinary history book.  The orchard worker, for instance, gives us a detailed accounts of different apples that are best grown in the English climate and what the prime picking time is for each breed.  The thatcher provides a lengthy description of the best way to thatch a roof and which are the best materials to use.  I found the section on the bell-ringers particularly fascinating; these young men are in a way considered talented musicians and go around to village and neighborhood churches in order to practice their craft of bell-ringing.  I had no idea before reading this history that there is such a fine art form to the ringing of church bells.

This is a charming, interesting, candid glimpse into the pulse and essence of an English village in the middle of the 20th century.  If you have any interest in British history, oral history or social history then this latest edition to the New York Review of Books classic titles is a must read.

About The Author:
Ronald Blythe is an English writer, essayist and editor, best known for his work Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village (1969), an account of agricultural life in Suffolk from the turn of the century to the 1960s. He writes a long-running and considerably praised weekly column in the Church Times entitled Word from Wormingford.

 

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