Review 1336: The Great Fortune

Cover of Fortunes of WarThe Great Fortune is the first book of Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy called Fortunes of War. I didn’t know quite what to think of it but am interested enough to continue.

Harriet and Guy Pringle are newlyweds on their way to Bucharest in the autumn of 1939. War is on the horizon, but Guy is in a reserved profession as a teacher at a university. It is his second year in Bucharest, and Harriet realizes very quickly that, while she is a stranger, Guy has already made a place for himself there among the English expatriates and diplomatic staff, the university staff, as well as other groups.

Harriet is not always a fan of his friends, particularly Sophie, a Rumanian student who would like Guy for herself, and Prince Yakimov, an English-born son of a Russian expatriate. Yakimov was once the companion of a wealthy woman and has been left destitute upon her death.

Although everyone is interested in the worsening news from Western Europe, they are also oddly detached. For example, Guy has been warmly welcomed into the home of the Druckers, he a Jewish banker whose son is Guy’s student. When the king’s mistress wants his oil rights, both Drucker and his son are arrested for pro-German sympathies, the son because the father’s Swiss bank accounts are in his name. Although the agriculturally rich Rumanians are supplying much of the German food, he is not released, nor do we hear much about his fate.

I thought Harriet supercilious and Guy totally oblivious of the results of his actions on others, particularly Harriet. Still, I found this period and setting interesting.

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Review 1327: Brief Lives

Cover for Brief LivesAlthough John Aubrey has been criticized as a historian, he was actually a collector, of documents, stories, and little bits of information. For a project in the late 17th century undertaken by Anthony Wood, he began collecting short biographies of Oxford scholars of his time but then expanded his collection to include other notables of the 16th and 17th centuries. From 426 lives, this book has collected the most significant 134, some as short as a few sentences while others are several pages long.

These lives do not necessarily list their subjects’ accomplishments, although most of them begin with a short biography included by the editors. Aubrey’s talent was for telling something about each person that defines him or her, makes the person seem more knowable, whether it be a physical description or a story about the person.

Aubrey was apparently a rather disorganized person, so sometimes we are amused by a story or comment that seems to have nothing to do with the subject. Although well written and entertaining, his lives sometimes use pronouns confusingly, so that you’re not always sure who he’s talking about.

Just as entertaining as the original subject matter is the 100-page introduction about Aubrey’s life and milieu. I have to say that he seldom says anything really negative about anyone, even if you can tell he didn’t like that person. He was plainly a good-natured man who also sometimes likes to tell bawdy stories. Centuries after his lives were written, they make a living document, bringing exceptional people back to life. I was interested to see that one of them was Venetia Digby, the main character of Hermione Eyre’s Viper Wine.

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Review 1324: All Done by Kindness

Cover for All Done by KindnessMy friend Deb recommended that I read All Done by Kindness based on a post she read by Furrowed Middlebrow. Such is the power of the web, though, that by the time I looked for it, the few copies available were expensive. I had to borrow hers.

Caper books and movies were popular in the 1950’s and 60’s, and All Done by Kindness fits the description, telling the story of a crime committed with worthy motives, a light-hearted caper with a dash of romance. It begins with a visit by Dr. Sandilands to an elderly patient, Mrs. Hovenden. Mrs. Hovenden’s family has been wealthy, but since the war, Mrs. Hovenden has fallen into hard times. She tells the doctor she is badly in debt for the first time in her life.

Dr. Sandilands offers to lend her the money, even though he can hardly afford it, but Mrs. Hovenden is too proud to take it. Instead, she offers to sell him some boxes of clothes and linen from her attic, including a box of pictures. When the Sandilands family opens the boxes, the results provide Beatrix Sandilands, the doctor’s sharp-tongued daughter, with a great deal to say, for everything is either worthless to begin with or is mouldering away. About the pictures, however, daughter Linda suggests that they consult her knowledgeable fellow librarian, Stephanie du Plessis.

Stephanie thinks that the paintings might be quite valuable, even Old Masters. She does some research that indicates they may have been removed from an Italian villa. Beatrix thinks they are worthless and wants them out of her house. Finally, the family agrees to consult Sir Harry Maximer, an art expert who has the reputation for integrity.

Here, the plot thickens, for Sir Harry recognizes the paintings as Old Masters, but he tells Dr. Sandilands they are only good copies. Why? Because he intends to have them in his own collection.

This is a charming little novel, a delightful book for when you want to read something light.

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Review 1313: Obscure Destinies

Cover for Obscure DestiniesObscure Destinies is a collection of three longish stories by Willa Cather. They are all character studies of people living in small prairie towns. I distinctly felt that the stories were based on people Cather knew during her days in Nebraska, even though one story is set in Colorado.

“Neighbor Rosicky” is about a farmer, an old Czech man whose doctor tells him at the beginning of the story that he must stop all hard work. He has a heart condition.

Rosicky has not prospered as well as some of his neighbors, but he is a kind man who enjoys life. He has an affectionate relationship with his family, but he is afraid that his oldest son, Rudolph, and Rudolph’s wife, Polly, will become discontented with the difficult life of farming and move away to the city. Rosicky has lived in London and New York and felt that he was never free until he owned his own land.

“Old Mrs. Harris” is about a woman who lives with her daughter’s family. Mrs. Rosen, her neighbor, thinks she is mistreated. Her room is a passageway in the house, and any treats intended for Mrs. Harris are either resented or appropriated by her daughter, Mrs. Templeton.

Mrs. Harris is from the South, where it was apparently commonplace to spoil young women, and where some older woman usually ran the household behind the scenes. But here she has no help besides a hired girl, and Mr. Templeton’s career has not been successful.

Young Vicky has an opportunity for a scholarship, and she has been encouraged to study by the Rosens. But the Templetons see no reason why she should go to college. Only Mrs. Harris understands.

“Two Friends” is about the friendship between two prominent businessmen in town, Mr. Dillon and Mr. Trueman. The narrator as a child loves playing at their feet each evening as they discuss Mr. Dillon’s tenant farmers, the history of the area, and other interesting topics. However, the friendship eventually founders over politics.

These stories are interesting and insightful character sketches. “Neighbor Rosicky” even brought tears to my eyes. I believe I’ve enjoyed these stories more than I have some of Cather’s novels, which is unusual for me.

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Review 1311: Literary Wives! They Were Sisters

Cover for They Were Sisters

Today is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in fiction. If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs. Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!

Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J.
Eva of Paperback Princess
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

* * *

I jumped the gun on this book back in October because of the 1944 Club. I had already read the book when the club was proposed, so I published my review in time for that club, since it was written in 1944. So, you can read my review there. Suffice it to say that this was one of my best books of the year.

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

I like how balanced this book is in presenting marriage, especially as most of the books we’ve read for Literary Wives are about unhappy marriages. They Were Sisters is a good book for this club, because it depicts three very different marriages, although it spends most of its time on the two unhappy ones. The details of Lucy’s marriage are more implied. They married late after she didn’t expect to. She and William lead a calm, well-ordered life. They discuss their concerns with each other. When Lucy wants to provide a more stable environment for Judith, he is happy to oblige.

Lucy approves of Vera’s husband, Brian, but Vera’s marriage slowly disintegrates under the pressure of her boredom with him and his resentment of her series of admirers (whether they are actually lovers is not clear). They become more withdrawn from each other, and eventually Brian gives her a final opportunity to save their marriage. In this situation, Vera is depicted as at fault. Beautiful and spoiled, she is happy to use his money, but she cannot do without the admiration and constant entertaining. Theirs is a true mismatch.

From the beginning, Lucy thinks Charlotte is making a mistake in marrying Geoffrey. Charlotte is in love with him and at first thinks he can do no wrong. Later, she protects him even after he makes her life a misery and teaches their daughters to disdain her. This is a classic abusive relationship where he does everything to separate her from those she loves and to destroy her self-esteem. Nothing she does is right, although she only tries to please him. Eventually, she gives up and reverts to alcoholism.

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Review 1310: Classics Club Spin Review! To the Lighthouse

Cover from To the LighthouseWhen the Classics Club Spin chose To the Lighthouse for me from my list, I wasn’t sure how pleased I was. I first read it in college and remembered very little of it except that it wasn’t my favorite. On the other hand, our tastes change as we grow, and I had enjoyed Mrs. Dalloway.

The novel is divided into three sections. The first is about a day in the life of the Ramsey family, as they vacation on the Isle of Skye with their friends. The second is about the house and the passage of time. The third takes place there again ten or eleven years later.

Young James Ramsey has been begging for a trip the next day to the lighthouse, and both he and Mrs. Ramsey are irritated with Mr. Ramsey for so assuredly stating that the weather will be too stormy. The novel revolves around the presence of Mrs. Ramsey, a beautiful, quiet, assured mother of eight. Although we briefly see things from other characters’ points of view, the most prevalent are those of Mrs. Ramsey and of Lily Briscoe, a painter.

Nothing much happens in this part of the novel. The family doesn’t go to the lighthouse; Lily has difficulty with her painting, and although she has insight during dinner, she doesn’t finish it; Minta loses her brooch on the beach and accepts a proposal from Paul; Lily resists Mrs. Ramsey’s old-fashioned idea that she must marry and her attempts to pair her off with William Bankes. The action of the novel isn’t really the point, though, it’s the complex relationships between friends and family.

At times the narrative is a little hard to follow, because Woolf switches time and pronouns so that you don’t always know whether something takes place in the novel’s present or past or who is being referred to. The novel is impressionistic in its approach, both in its descriptions of characters’ thoughts and of the settings. Over everything is the strong presence of Mrs. Ramsey.

Time passes, the war intervenes, and the family does not return for more than 10 years. When it does, things have changed.

I enjoyed reading this novel, although I’m sure I missed a lot. I think it could be food for study and contemplation, but I did not have time to do so.

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Review 1306: The Fortnight in September

Cover for The Fortnight in SeptemberIf you are a reader who needs a novel with a strong plot, The Fortnight in September is not for you. However, if you like to read about ordinary people doing ordinary things, then the novel will probably entertain you.

The Stevens family has vacationed in Bognor Regis every summer since Mr. and Mrs. Stevens’s honeymoon. It is time to go again. Although Mr. Stevens is conscious that this custom may be changing soon—his oldest children, Dick and Mary, are grown now and both working—he hopes that they will continue to vacation together a while longer. Everyone is excited as they sit down the night before to allocate last-minute tasks before they take the train the next morning.

This is a simple story about uncomplicated people doing what they have always done and enjoying it very much. There are hints that the future may not stay the same—for example, Mrs. Huggett’s Seaview House is getting worn and seedy and the Stevens find that she is losing customers. But that doesn’t matter much to them. They think others don’t understand the place.

Each member has his or her concern. Mr. Stevens is worried about some things at work. Dick is unsatisfied with his job at a stationers. Mary has made an attractive friend but feels guilty as the family always spends its time together. Mrs. Stephens doesn’t enjoy the sea very much, but she keeps that to herself, not wanting to mar the enjoyment of the others. Young Ernie is only concerned about bringing his toy yacht.

Sherriff manages to involve us in the thought and activities of these ordinary good people. I found this novel quite charming.

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