Review 1737: #1976 Club! Meridian

Meridian is another choice for the 1976 Club. It is about the life of a Southern black woman who becomes an activist during the 1960’s Civil Rights movement.

Meridian is hard to describe as a novel. Although it covers the teen and adult years of its heroine, Meridian Hill, it does so in a patchy, nonlinear way, at first seeming to be a series of nonsequential short stories. Meridian grows up with an uninvolved mother, who says things she doesn’t understand, like “Be nice,” as a code for her behavior with boys. So, it’s not surprising that she becomes pregnant at a young age and has to drop out of high school to get married.

However, the bulk of the story is about relationships formed after her marriage is over and she gives up her son so that she can accept a scholarship to a black girls’ college in Atlanta. She meets and falls for Truman Held, who encourages her to become more involved in the Civil Rights movement, demonstrating and signing up black adults to vote.

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It is Meridian’s complex relationship with Truman and his white activitist wife from the North, Lynne, that is the focus of much of the novel. Truman and Lynne are involved in a black/white love/hate relationship that is familiar to me from reading other black authors of the time. At first, the Civil Rights movement is composed of a mixture of black and white activists. Then some of the groups shut out the white activists and then the women, so that only the black men have a voice. Meridian continues to adopt any cause she can find, but as Lynne is shut out, her relationship with Truman sours, as it does over his frequent infidelities.

Walker’s prose is lovely, although she seems detached from her characters. Meridian herself seems to have to remove herself from personal relationships before she can serve humanity. I had mixed feelings about this novel and wasn’t sure I understood everything.

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Review 1735: #1976 Club! Sleeping Murder

With the 1976 Club looming, I picked out some books to read for October that were published in 1976. Sleeping Murder also qualifies for RIP XVI! As usual, on this first post I’m also listing anything else I’ve reviewed published in 1976. As far as I know, there are only two:

Newlywed Gwenda Reed is house hunting along the south coast of England for herself and her husband Giles, both newly arrived from New Zealand. When she comes across a house in Dillmouth, she immediately feels at home there, although she experiences a fleeting panic on the stairs. Nevertheless, she buys the home.

Gwenda is residing in it to oversee updates to the house when she begins to experience something odd. She expects the stairs down from the terrace to be in one place but they are in another. When workmen remove some bushes where she thinks the steps should be, they find the stairs used to be there. Similarly, she keeps trying to walk through the wall in the dining room where she thinks there should be a doorway. When the workmen examine the wall, they say it had a door there. She imagines a particular wallpaper in what used to be the nursery, and when a blocked cupboard in that room is opened, she sees that wallpaper inside.

Gwenda is most upset because she’s had a vision of a woman dead at the bottom of the stairs and realized it was Helen. But she has no idea who Helen is. Feeling confused, she decides to consult friends in London. Accompanying the group out for the evening is her friends’ aunt, Miss Jane Marple. After she explains what’s been happening, Miss Marple says she should find out if she ever lived in England as a child.

Inquiries find that Gwenda lived in the house when she was three. At the time, her father had a second wife named Helen. But Helen supposedly ran off with another man. Gwenda and Giles find that Helen’s half brother, Dr. Kennedy, still lives in the area. He has some letters that she sent right after she left but hasn’t heard from her since.

Gwenda and Giles begin to believe that Helen was murdered. Did Gwenda’s father kill his wife, or did someone else?

It was hard for me to judge whether this was a difficult mystery, because I vividly remembered a TV production of it. However, knowing the identity of the killer made me appreciate how skillfully Christie salts in the clues without giving too much away. The characters are clearly defined, and Miss Marple is at her cleverest.

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Review 1731: Old Filth

From his birth and continuing through his adolescence, Edward Feathers was abandoned or taken away from every person he loved. As an adult, he was a still, stiff man unable to love.

After the death of his wife, Betty, Sir Edward, or Old Filth as he is known in the world of law where he is a prominent lawyer, begins re-examining the events of his past. He also makes attempts to connect with people important to him, but these attempts are abortive. Slowly, all the things he has never spoken of are revealed.

Written in sterling prose, Old Filth is a mesmerizing story about the Raj Orphans, children who were shipped to England at an early age from the Far East. The novel is touching and completely gripping. And for those who loved it like I did, hooray! It’s the first of a trilogy.

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Review 1730: #ThirkellBar! August Folly Recap

It’s time for our reviews of August Folly, the fourth book in Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire series. I just reviewed this book last April, so I’ll link back to my original review for most of my comments and the plot synopsis. My post covers some other observations I have after my reread.

First, I was struck by Thirkell’s depiction of Richard Tebbins, because it is so typical of adolescent behavior. His mother adores him to the neglect of his (more deserving) sister Margaret, but of course he is embarrassed by everything his parents do and then feels guilty about his rudeness to them. His passion for Mrs. Dean is absurd but, I think, very true to the behavior of an infatuated youth, and he finally begins to grow up later in the novel.

Of the two love affairs, the novel concentrates more on the one between Margaret and Laurence Dean, but I was more interested in the one between Charles Fanshawe and the much younger Helen Dean.

There are lots of comic characters in this novel. The managing Mrs. Palmer is almost unbearable at times (as is the fussing Mrs. Tebbins), but both of them show other sides. And that’s what I like about Thirkell. She creates some hilarious characters, but most of them, except perhaps Moxon, the curate, show other, more sympathetic sides, or the humor is gentle, not mocking. I wasn’t much taken with the conversations between the donkey and the cat, but that’s a minor criticism and a very small part of the book.

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Review 1725: Cluny Brown

Mr. Porritt, the plumber, is worried about his niece, young Cluny Brown, because, he says, she does not know her place. Why, the other day she went to the Ritz just to see what it was like. When he catches Cluny about to take a bath in a gentleman’s lovely bathtub after she made a plumbing call, Mr. Porritt decides to take advice and send Cluny into service.

She ends up as a parlor maid in Devonshire for Lady Carmel and Sir Henry. There, although she’s not very adept at being a parlor maid, she finds she likes the country and she befriends a golden lab belonging to Colonel Duff-Graham, who allows her to take the dog out for walks.

In the meantime, Lady Carmel’s son Andrew has met Mr. Belinski, an eminent man of letters who has had to abruptly flee Poland and is barely getting by. Andrew invites Mr. Belinski to stay at his parents’ manor, where he can write. Andrew himself is preparing to propose to the beautiful Betty Cream.

Cluny is struck by Mr. Wilson, the chemist, and he rearranges his shop’s closing day to take walks with her. There’s something about Cluny, who is direct and forthright and doesn’t seem to understand customary boundaries.

This is a wonderful comic novel, absolutely delightful, and my first by Margery Sharp (I have reviewed one that I read after this one). I’ll be looking for more.

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Review 1723: A Fugue in Time

Godden attempts something unusual in A Fugue in Time. She makes a house that has held the same family for a century into a sort of conscious entity and tells the story of the family in collapsing time.

It’s World War II, and old Rolls Dane has received notice that the 99-year lease on his house has elapsed and the owners want it back. The house was the one his parents moved into upon their marriage, and it has been the scene of many events, including his own unhappy love affair.

Rolls has been leading a reclusive life with only one servant left in the big house, and he is not pleased when his great niece, Grizel, an American officer, comes to ask if she can stay in the house. Later, Pax Masterson, an RAF officer being treated for burns, comes to visit the house that he’s heard about all his life from his mother, Lark, the girl Rolls’s father brought home many years before after her parents died in a railway accident.

Although I eventually got involved in this novel, its basic premise seemed at first affected and I didn’t think it was going to work. Early on, for example, there is a five- or six-page description of the house that slowed momentum to a standstill. Then, the shifts in time sometimes take place within the same paragraph, and at first it’s hard to grasp the when. There are some cues, for example Rolls’s name changes from Roly to Rollo to Rolls.

This is not one of my favorite Godden books, but the idea behind it is an interesting one. It reminded me a little of A Harp in Lowndes Square, in which images and sounds of the future and past reside in a house.

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Review 1721: Winter and Rough Weather

According to the Foreword of Winter and Rough Weather, it is related to two other books by D. E. Stevenson, Vittoria Cottage and Music in the Hills. It has been a long time since I read Vittoria Cottage, and none of the characters in Winter and Rough Weather rang a bell. I finally had to look up my old review to find the link between the two is James, who is a minor character in this novel.

Jock and Mamie Johnstone are preparing for the arrival of their nephew, James Dering Johnstone, and his bride Rhoda. James and Rhoda will be occupying Boscath, the farm adjoining the Johnstone’s Mureth, except separated by a river that can at times be raging.

Rhoda has abandoned a promising career as an artist to marry James and at first finds herself unhappy in their remote farm that doesn’t have a telephone and can be cut off by weather. After a while, though, she makes friends in the area and begins painting again and teaching a promising youngster named Duggie, who is the son of Lizzie, the Mureth cook.

This novel has a firm sense of place in the border country of southern Scotland and has a host of mostly likable characters. It is about everyday post-war life there, although it has a few subplots—Adam and Nan Forrester, the village doctor and his sister, both have unhappy love affairs. The neighboring farm to Mureth, Tassieknowe, has been bought by a rich man whom everyone dislikes and who is running his farm poorly.

I enjoyed this novel and mean to look for the other one, Music in the Hills, which I believe comes before this one.

I received this book from the publishers in exchange for a free and fair review.

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Review 1720: Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream

As a young adult in the late 60’s and 70’s, I did not have a high opinion of Lyndon Johnson. Although I was not political, like many people, I was against the Vietnam War. It wasn’t until I lived in Texas that I saw another side to Johnson, who was revered for, among other things, bringing electricity to rural Texas to ease the work of women.

Doris Kearns Goodwin worked in the White House in the late 60’s, and when Johnson asked her to help him write his memoirs, she declined because she also was against the war. However, Johnson was a master of persuasion, and she finally agreed. The memoir never got written, but Goodwin had unprecedented access to Johnson because of it and eventually used her notes to write this biography.

Goodwin is obviously interested in the pursuit and use of power, and Johnson is a perfect subject for that interest. She depicts a man who did not pursue power for itself but for the good he could do with it. I failed to mark them in the text, but many of his comments about the presidency and the use of power contrast starkly with the thinking of our last regime, which was fizzling out as I read this book.

Goodwin paints a picture of a complex man, brilliant but at times crude, organized, manipulative, a consummate negotiator, but a man with good intentions. It’s a pity that the war overshadowed and overwhelmed the other accomplishments of his presidency. Because of it, we forget that he put into process programs to help the needy and people of color. Medicare and the Voting Rights Act are down to him as well as other programs that were not handled as well because of his preoccupation with the war or that were gutted by Richard Nixon.

I did get a little bogged down in the chapter about the war, and it being a different time, today’s readers may have problems with how Johnson and others refer to minority groups. Still, I found this book really insightful and interesting, as it explores the reasons for some of his controversial decisions.

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Review 1709: The Redeemed

The third book of Pears’ West Country Trilogy and the book I read for my Walter Scott Prize project, The Redeemed begins in 1916. Leo Sercombe, now about 16, joined the Royal Navy at the beginning of the war as a boy seaman. In a battle, his ship, the Queen Mary, is sunk, and he is one of only 20 crew members rescued.

His father’s former employer’s daughter Lottie begins training as a veterinarian with Mr. Jago. He believes that soon the veterinarian college will be opened to women and she will be the first graduate.

The novel works slowly toward the reunion of its two main characters. There is one incident where this reunion is delayed because of a misunderstanding. It’s the type of plot device used frequently in movies, where the problem could be solved in a few words, and I think using it was a bit lazy.

Although Pears continues with his spare, understated writing style that is so eloquent, I found after a while that his minute descriptions of work, whether it be birthing a foal or floating a sunken ship, were losing my attention. Finally, the long-awaited reunion seemed somewhat anticlimactic. Pears’ style is very detached, maybe too much so. Although I was always interested in what happened to the characters, I probably could have been more so. Of the trilogy, I think the first book was the strongest.

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Review 1706: Milton Place

Milton Place is sort of an update of King Lear—set in the 1950’s. It is partially drawn from de Waal’s experience and is one of two novels published posthumously.

Mr. Barlow, the elderly owner of Milton Place, receives a letter one morning from Anita Seiler. She is the daughter of a girl he fell in love with long ago in Austria, but unfortunately he was already engaged. Anita tells him that she no longer has ties in Austria and would like to come to England, asking him to recommend her to someone for work. He writes back inviting her to stay.

His daughter Emily is a busybody who thinks it’s time he sold Milton Place and moved somewhere smaller where he can be more comfortable. It’s true that the place is cold and shabby, but Mr. Barlow is comfortable in the few rooms he uses and loves his garden. However, Emily is already setting out on a plan to have the county request the house for a home for unwed mothers. When Emily hears about the new house guest, she is certain that Anita is after her father’s money.

Anita and Mr. Barlow get along beautifully, and he wants her to stay. She feels uncomfortable staying as a visitor, so she begins cleaning all the vacant rooms and making the house more cheerful.

Things change, though, with the arrival of Tony, Mr. Barlow’s beloved grandson, on break from university.

One plot line of this novel bothered me a bit. I want to be a little mysterious about it, but my difficulty hinges on how adult an 18-year-old boy is. I admit there is probably a difference of opinion on this, that clearly in the novel there is, and that this idea changes over time. That is, an 18-year-old of either sex is now considered less of an adult than they would have been then, and then less than 50 years before.

This caused a problem for me, but I found the novel beautifully written and affecting.

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