Review 1604: The Stone of Chastity

The Stone of Chastity is a bit of comic froth, poking fun at small village life. It is a farrago of nonsense populated by eccentric characters.

Nicholas Pounce is a recent Oxford graduate who has yet to find a purpose in life and isn’t trying very hard to find one. So, his uncle, Professor Pounce, announces that Nicholas can be his unpaid research assistant in a special project.

Professor Pounce has found an intriguing reference to folklore in an old diary. It asserts that there is a stone in a brook in the village of Gillenham, the Stone of Chastity. If a chaste woman steps on it, she can get across the brook, but if an unchaste woman steps on it, she will fall into the water. Note that no one seems to be testing the men.

When Nicholas and his mother arrive at the Old Manor in Gillenham, the house the professor has taken, they find Professor Pounce already in residence along with a sultry beauty, Carmen Smith, whose presence is unexplained.

The first thing Professor Pounce does is make up a questionnaire and have Nicholas distribute it throughout the village. Although the professor asks if people have heard about the stone, he also asks about the recipients’ chastity and seems unable to understand that the villagers may be offended.

They are, and a lot of resentment begins to build, especially among the cohorts of Mrs. Pye, an angry and fanatical Nonconformist. Also offended is the vicar’s wife, who has the Boy Scouts collect all the surveys and destroy them. The professor only gets one back, but it contains electrifying information: not only has the recipient heard of the Stone of Chastity, she has it in her scullery!

I have to admit this novel is funny, although much of its humor is slightly politically incorrect these days. It is funny enough that even this recap is making me laugh. Aside from the silly subject matter, it pokes fun at the rustic villagers as well as the researchers, although it bases a lot of its humor on class.

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from the publishers in exchange for a free and fair review.

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Review 1601: Chatterton Square

Two very different families live across the road from each other on Chatterton Square. Mr. Blackett is self-satisfied and judgmental. He thinks Mrs. Fraser across the way is no better than she should be and is trying to attract him. He doesn’t understand that Rosamund Fraser is teasing him because of his conceit.

Rosamund Fraser is separated from her husband and supporting a household that contains her three sons and two daughters as well as Miss Spanner, a single friend and boarder. She runs her household loosely, and their warm home contrasts starkly with the Blacketts’, where Mr. Blackett is always picking on someone, particularly his daughter, Rhoda.

This novel is about more than two families or even about the three statuses available to women at the time. For, it is set shortly before World War II, when the British government was for appeasement. Mr. Blackett, who somehow managed to avoid serving in the First World War, is all for appeasement. Across the road, Rosamund Fraser believes appeasement is shameful, that you don’t make deals with criminals. Despite her fears for her sons, she feels war is the only honorable way forward.

There is finally the state of Rosamund’s marriage as well as Bertha Blackett’s. Rosamund, having been deserted by Fergus and assented to divorce, feels free to fall in love again, with Piers Lindsay, Bertha Blackett’s cousin. But having asked for a divorce, Fergus fall silent. Bertha has for years been hiding her contempt for her husband by pretending complete subservience to him. But eventually her true self must emerge.

This is an absorbing and ultimately touching novel about a particular time and place. The characters are believable and the women and most of the children sympathetic.

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

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Review 1596: Her Father’s Daughter

When I was a girl, I discovered some old Gene Stratton-Porter books of my mother’s, and I just loved them. Later, in high school, I had a job at the public library, so I resolved to read all of her books. However, one of those books put such a bad taste in my mouth that I stopped reading her.

Skip forward 50 years and I found an old copy of one of her books in good shape in a used bookstore, so I bought it. I finally got around to reading it, only to discover on the very first page that this was the same book that turned me off in the first place. How did it strike me now? You shall see.

Linda Strong is in the halls of high school in Los Angeles when she is accosted by an upperclassman, Donald Whiting, who asks her why she wears such odd shoes. She in turn raises an issue with him that I will address in a bit.

Linda is an independent girl who was brought up by her father exploring the desert environs of Southern California, learning how to identify and use plants and how to live in the wilderness. Her parents died four years ago, and she has been living with her older sister, Eileen, who has been systematically robbing Linda of her inheritance to pay for her own clothes and entertainment. Hence, Linda in high school makes a shabby, eccentric appearance, but her shoes are for comfort.

Eileen has also deprived her best friend, Marian, of her boyfriend, which she did as soon as John became successful. Marian is leaving for San Francisco, where she has a job in an architect’s office and has entered an architectural contest. But the plot takes a turn when John brings over an old friend, writer Peter Morrison, who is looking for a place to settle, and Henry Anderson, an architect.

This book is really almost all subplots. I was going to say that the main plot was the relationship between Linda and Eileen, but that plot goes into abeyance for quite some time. There is a romance of some uncertainty, of course, and a plot about a stolen drawing of Marian’s. But my objection to the novel mostly concerns Linda’s issue with Donald. For this novel contains a ridiculous, racist subplot about Japanese adults being sent to attend California high schools so that they can best the American students academically and make them feel inferior. It is one of the stupidest plots I have ever read, and the book is one of the most racist I have ever read, a blueprint to the thinking of white supremacists. Not only does Linda believe all kinds of paranoid things about the Japanese, but she lets others have it as well—African Americans, Mexicans, and Communists. I usually try not to judge books out of their time, but I’ve read plenty of books from this time period (1921), and this one is just despicable. All these horrible attitudes are expressed by an otherwise appealing heroine, which I think makes it worse. I am again disappointed in this author, who has written several really good books for young adults.

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Review 1594: They Were Divided

They Were Divided is the third book in Míklos Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy about the fortunes of Hungary and its leaders coming up to the First World War. It again follows two young noblemen, Laszlo Gyeroffy and Balint Abady, but it is mostly about Balint.

I got a little bogged down in They Were Found Wanting, the second volume of this series. I think that was because I wasn’t particularly interested in Balint’s affair with the married Adrienne, which occupied much of that volume. In that book (small spoiler for the second book), Adrienne kept delaying her request for a divorce from her husband out of fear of a man who was becoming more and more unstable. Now, he has been consigned to a mental hospital, which means that Adrienne cannot legally divorce him. So, Balint and Adrienne are forced to discreetly continue their affair.

On the political front, the Budapest legislature continues its obstructive techniques, not allowing any legislation relating to modernization. But Balint is more and more concerned about the events in other countries that he fears are leading to war. The Hungarian politicians continue to behave as if nothing outside their country affects them.

As for Laszlo, having gambled away most of his inheritance and been cheated of the rest, he has settled down in a small cottage on his estate to drink himself to death.

This novel has some amusing moments and is full of eccentric characters, but it is essentially serious. It depicts a society that has ceased to take care of its property and obligations, including its obligations in government, and spends all its time in frivolous activities. It does have one conversation that made me wince, where Balint insists that historically, nobles did not abuse their serfs because it would be against their own interests. It’s hard to tell whether this is supposed to show Balint’s own naïveté or whether Bánffy really believed this, or perhaps the novel is trying to show what a particular type of Hungarian believes (although I am fairly sure that Balint is Bánffy’s alter ego). Obviously, Balint, anyway, doesn’t compare that thought with his own observations of the Hungarian nobles gambling away their inheritances and mismanaging their government.

Did I enjoy this series? It provided me with a window into a time and place I knew very little about. It was more interesting than not. It was evocative in describing scenery, settings, and characters. At times the series went slowly, but this book clipped along pretty well until the last few pages, when Bánffy was trying hard to get the moral in.

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Review 1592: The Night Watchman

There is always something that keeps my attention in Louise Erdrich’s books, although often they are very sad. In 1953, the United States Congress announced a program of “emancipation” of more than 100 First Nations tribes that was expressed as a program to put indigenous people on an equal footing with other Americans but was actually a way to yet again abrogate treaties and take land. Louise Erdrich’s grandfather helped save the Turtle Mountain Chippewa from this fate all while working full-time as a night watchman. The Night Watchman is Erdrich’s novel about this event.

Thomas Wazhashk, a member of the tribal council, receives a copy of the bill and figures out its intent from its bland, bureaucratic language. He gets the council to collect signatures on a petition and begins collecting information to support the tribe’s stance that its members are too poor to care for themselves so local authorities will have to take on the burden if the federal government doesn’t, this obviously a ploy to get support from state and local authorities to oppose the bill. While he works, he is visited by an owl and the ghost of an old friend who died as a boy after being imprisoned in the basement of a state boarding school.

As usual with Erdrich, aside from the main plot, the novel is full of interesting characters and subplots. Pixie Paranteau takes time off from work to try to find her sister Vera, who has vanished in Minneapolis after leaving to marry her boyfriend. On the train, she encounters Wood Mountain, a young boxer on his way to a fight, but when the fight is cancelled, he decides to make sure Pixie is all right.

Millie Cloud is the woman whom Thomas asks to share the results of the survey on the living conditions of the tribe that she wrote for her doctoral dissertation. She is socially awkward and dresses in geometric patterns.

This novels felt more hopeful than some of Erdrich’s even though it also contained scenes of brutality. My attention was engrossed by it.

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Review 1589: My Husband Simon

According to Simon Thomas’s Afterword for My Husband Simon, the publicity for it posed the heroine’s dilemma as wife vs. mistress. And that’s just typical, isn’t it? When the real choice was marriage vs. not just a writing career but the ability to be a good writer.

Simon’s Afterword discusses the class element of the novel, which comes out in nuances an American reader wouldn’t necessarily pick up on, at least not all of them. (For example, I didn’t get the distinction between Pardon? and Why? until I read the Afterword, although I understood there was something wrong with Pardon?)

Nevertheless, it’s clear from the beginning that Nevis Falconer, a young writer with one very good book out, and the man she chooses to marry, Simon Quinn, are singularly poorly suited. Nevis enjoys sophisticated, witty people who know about books and culture. Simon is actually proud of his ignorance and prefers the country and physical activity. The attraction is physical, and the two consummate it almost the day they meet. Then they immediately get married.

Four years later, there’s trouble in paradise. The couple alternates arguments with love making for a highly volatile relationship. But the worst thing is, Nevis hasn’t written anything good the whole time. And Simon and his family make insulting remarks about her career. He speaks of her doing nothing all day and is continually on at her about the state of the house.

This novel, published in 1931, takes a very serious look at the dilemma of working women of the time, especially those in the arts, a dilemma that still exists in many ways. Although I couldn’t really understand Nevis’s attraction to Simon—to me, he belittled her too much—the ways of sexual attraction are enigmatic.

Panter-Downes is a lovely writer, and I enjoyed this novel very much.

Disclosure: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a free and fair review.

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Review 1588: This Is Happiness

My first introduction to Niall Williams was his wonderful novel History of the Rain. That was so good that I confess to having found Four Letters of Love slightly disappointing, just because it wasn’t as good. This Is Happiness, however, is a gem of a novel.

As an old man, Noe Crowe recollects the summer when he was 17. He has been banished to the small village of Faha in West Clare County, because he left seminary school. While living with his grandparents, Ganga and Doady, he’s supposed to find his way back to God.

First, it stops raining, in a village where it always rains. Then Christie arrives to help install the electricity. Christie, we sense, is a charismatic individual with lots of stories to tell. He has come with a mission, and it’s not electricity. He has heard Annie Moonie lives in Faha, and he wants to apologize to her for leaving her at the altar 50 years before.

In the meantime, Noe, in a village studded with eccentric characters, finds he has fallen in love with Sophie Troy, the doctor’s youngest daughter, or is he in love with Sophie and Charlie Troy, or is it with Sophie, Charlie, and Ronnie, all three of the doctor’s daughters?

The novel starts out funny and charming and it just gets better. Hoorah for another fine book by Niall Williams.

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Review 1581: Somewhere in England

When I received a review copy of Somewhere in England from Furrowed Middlebrow, I realized that it was a sequel. So, I ordered the previous book, the delightful Nothing to Report, to read and review first.

To introduce the plot of Somewhere in England, I have to include a spoiler or two for the previous book. The novel begins with 18-year-old Pippa Johnson, who is about to take a position in a war hospital established in the family home of Mary Morrison, the main character of the previous book. In between novels, Mary Morrison married Kit Hungerford, who had purchased her family home. Now, Mary Hungerford is administering the hospital.

The first part of the novel has to do with Pippa meeting the hospital staff and villagers. It is more concerned with the social side of things than the war work as we meet familiar characters again. Elisabeth, who made her debut the summer of 1939 in the previous book, is a nurse whose fiancé has died, and she is rude to young Pippa. Lalage is friendly and will make a good nurse, but her sister Rosemary and mother Marcelle continue with their selfish ways. Most people, though, are occupied with some kind of war work.

The second part of the novel returns to the point of view of Mary, who is constantly dealing with difficult situations all the while worried for her husband overseas.

I enjoyed this novel, but it is hard to describe. It was fun to revisit the characters of Nothing to Report and see how they’re doing during the war. I think that as a sequel it stands well enough alone, but my enjoyment was enhanced by having read Nothing to Report first.

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Review 1578: After the Party

In 1938, Phyllis Forrester and her family return to England from a long period of living abroad. Phyllis has been yearning to be near her two sisters, so they settle down on the Sussex coast.

Through her sisters, Phyllis gets involved with two different sets of people, with some overlap. Her socialite and snobbish sister Patricia introduces her to an upperclass group interested in social events. Her activist sister Nina is involved in the new Peace Party that runs educational classes and camps for youngsters. It’s not too difficult to figure out that their revered leader is Oswald Mosley.

It’s difficult to decide whether Phyllis is an unreliable narrator through innocence, obliviousness, or lying. I think most likely both of the first two. Certainly, this novel downplays the most negative aspects of Mosley’s party. Anti-semitism is mentioned but is not emphasized, and Phyllis denies the group is Fascist, which of course is what Mosley thought would be best for England. No mention at all is made of the blackshirts or links to Germany. But perhaps Connolly trapped herself into this point of view by using Phyllis as the narrator. In any case, for me the effect was a sort of whitewashing of this movement.

The novel starts slowly and takes a long time to get to its meat, which is the imprisonment of Phyllis and her husband without any due process. If Phyllis can be believed, her activities were fairly benign and this imprisonment was uncalled for. It also involves a betrayal.

I didn’t have much sympathy for Phyllis or really anyone in her circle. The socialites early on are involved in an incident of throwing a terrified pig off a balcony, which some of them seem to think is funny. Although Phyllis doesn’t seem to think it was funny, she also doesn’t seem horrified by it, either. It’s not clear to me what the author’s intent is toward any of her characters unless she is criticizing the class as a whole, both in their leisure and political activities. If so, the criticism is muted.

Periodically, we hear from Phyllis in 1979 when she is being interviewed by someone. If anything, her views have become more right wing. I found this novel rather unsatisfying. Is it a sympathetic one for someone unfairly imprisoned or does it chillingly depict these upperclass people? The novel is one I read for my Walter Scott project.

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Review 1564: Dangerous Ages

Thanks to Simon Thomas’s posts (Stuck in a Book) on the new British Library Women Writers series, I was able to request some review copies. I received Dangerous Ages, which, according to the novel, are all of them. This novel examines the lives of women in the early 1920’s.

Neville is 43, a woman who gave up her medical studies as a young woman to marry and raise a family. That job done, she finds herself feeling adrift, with no purpose, and views her mother, Mrs. Hilary, as an object lesson. She must find work and decides to return to studying medicine.

Mrs. Hilary is a silly woman who always pretends she has read important books and is knowledgeable on all subjects. At 63, she has nothing to do, because she defines herself as a wife and mother. Now she is a widow whose children are grown. She is jealous of anyone being intimate with Neville if her son Jim isn’t around and is jealous of Neville’s intimacy with Jim. She thinks psychoanalysis, which is being talked about, is horrid until she realizes it means someone will listen to her stories.

Nan, Neville’s younger sister, has been courted by Barry for ages. She finally decides she loves him, but instead of telling him so, she goes off to Cornwall to finish writing her latest book, never thinking that Barry might give up on her.

Gerda, Neville’s daughter, is ardently engaged in left-wing activities. The question is, when she falls in love with a man of a different background, whether she will compromise her principles, which reject all the values of her parents’ generation.

Macaulay’s novel is rooted in the early 1920’s, as characters examine hot topics of the time. I had to laugh at the scenes where Mrs. Hilary’s psychoanalysts inundate her with Freudian jargon that she has very little understanding of. That most of these women are frustrated in their aims should not be surprising, for this is a satirical look at the position of women in society. Only Neville’s sister Pamela, who refuses to be bothered, and Neville’s grandmother, who says she is past all that, seem happy.

Simon Thomas’s Afterword provides some insight into views of psychoanalysis in the early 1920’s, which is interesting.

I enjoyed this novel very much. It feels like light, lively reading while dealing with experiences that are universal, no matter the generation.

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