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Josephine Johnson – Now In November

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Farming during the Depression.

Publisher: Apollo (Head Of Zeus)
Pages: 198
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-784-97075-8
First Published: 1934
Date Reviewed: 31st January 2017
Rating: 4/5

Marget and her family travel to their mortgaged land, becoming farmers. It’s a difficult time and beyond the stress of growing and selling the crops for less than hoped, Marget’s sister Kerrin is becoming more and more difficult to live with. Things start looking up when Grant arrives to help out but the worst is yet to come.

Now In November is a short novel focused on the land and a family’s relationship to it. It’s a gracefully written novel, tragedy detailed in beautiful language, that whilst often painful has a stunning atmosphere not unlike the Brontës and their moors, or Laura Ingalls Wilder.

This is a simple tale, and relatively small in scope – the years both go by and stay still (there’s a sort of time-focused dual narrative going on you’d have to see yourself) but not so many as to cover too long a time, at least it seems so from what happens. It’s also not a happy book but as said above this is where the language has a lovely effect, not glossing over the events by any means but making it so that you can continue reading, so that you want to continue reading. The shortness of the novel aids in this as well.

A great deal of the book is focused on nature. In the context of its entirety, Johnson spends paragraphs upon paragraphs detailing the weather, the colours, the flora and fauna. This boosts the book a little, sometimes, above its general sad atmosphere, and helps to ground you in the scene, though some may find it too much depending on mood – this is a book for which it pays to choose your reading time wisely. A story for a hectic day this is not; a lazy afternoon, as much as it may seem at odds with the text, is your best bet. There is action in the events but the language flows along softly, an interesting effect and choice which means the book transcends its subjects.

The family is a good one to read about because they are so mixed in temperament. Marget, her mother, and younger sister Merle, do a lot of the household work. The father does all the manual labour, most often with a single helper. Oldest sister, Kerrin, brings to the book a different subject – seeming first to be very obnoxious then, in turn, dangerous and finally mentally ill (Johnson writes the progression of Kerrin’s mental capability very well), the use of such a character shines a particularly almost-modern light on mental illness which when mixed with the lesser medical knowledge of the time becomes quite something. Whilst Now In November may well have won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction due to the the story of the Depression, and perhaps its author’s young age, it’s the characterisation and development of Kerrin that is perhaps its strongest element for us today, something that speaks very much to our present values and discussion.

Minor points are unrequited romance, the effects of industry on farming (in the event this is a major point, it’s just that it’s confined), the integration of black people. These round the story off, adding to the atmosphere and general demonstration of the time.

Now In November can be difficult to get into and the story itself is rough going, but the whole is an excellent creation with a lot to recommend it. Its themes are relevant today and it’s an interesting source for historical study and information.

I received this book for review.

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Angela Thirkell – The Brandons

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One could have a nice rest if they would all just go away…

Publisher: Virago
Pages: 380
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-844-08970-3
First Published: 1939
Date Reviewed: 23rd July 2015
Rating: 4.5/5

Mrs Lavinia Brandon, a youngish widow, finds people very difficult. Most everyone adores her to the point that they won’t leave her alone in peace to wonder about what she’s going to wear to dinner. It’s all very tiring and she really would rather not have to listen to readings and upsets and so on. When her aunt-by-marriage asks Lavinia and her children to visit – so that she can assess their suitability for inheritance over another relation she’s never met – they go grudgingly. No one wants the old house. Francis prefers live as usual, Delia loves learning about death. And out of the woodwork comes Mr Grant, the fabled relation, to adore Lavinia. It’s going to be a sadly eventful summer.

The Brandons is a very funny novel, set in the fictional county of Barsetshire created by Anthony Trollope, that has a bit of a plot but is all about the characters. There are many characters to keep track of, but keep track of them you do because Thirkell makes every one memorable in their own way and makes a point of giving them all ample opportunities to make you laugh or sigh. The author gives you some leeway to make up your own mind but this is a book in which the writer decides who you’re going to like and makes it so; she has full control of her characters. This may signal a problem in other books, but here it’s magnificent.

To be sure you’ll be wondering whether anything you’re reading about is going to go anywhere but you get used to it pretty quickly. The threads that are tied at the end are the only ones there were to tie to begin with and Thirkell never pretends it will be any different. You’re here for the ride.

Speaking of rides (there is a fairground in the book), it’s a good thing to know that this book, whilst not outdated, is very set in its time. Beyond the problematic words – words that have since gained a sexual connotation that in Thirkell’s time were quite innocent (there’s actually an entire paragraph that out of context reads as explicit!) – there are words and concepts used that we’ve since confined to history. There are illegitimate children and ‘children of shame’ who are termed as such many times because it was an issue as far as the 1930s were concerned. (Thirkell reserves comment on this point: due to her style of writing one cannot ascertain whether she is speaking personally or simply in terms of the people she has created.) There is the use of ‘half-caste’ which, whilst not used with disdain for the people it describes, is prevalent. So normal a word is it to Thirkell that she even uses it to describe a dog.

So this book definitely has to be read in context. And it’s a hilariously funny book with a fair amount of black humour. Delia’s obsession with death and disease; Mrs Brandon’s disinterest that’s obvious only to a few; Mrs Grant’s constant referencing of Italy, which is so superior to the England she left; Amelia (Miss) Brandon’s thought that idling is awful, so said as she sits in bed as she has for weeks for no real reason. The book practically begs quotation, so here we are, each block a different extract:

“But I would certainly have come to the funeral,” Miss Brandon continued, ” had it not been my Day in Bed. I take one day a week in bed, an excellent plan at my age. Later I shall take two days, and probably spend the last years of my life entirely in bed. My grandfather, my mother and my elder half-sister were all bed-ridden for the last ten years of their lives and all lived to be over ninety.”

“I have only just thought of it!” Mrs Morland suddenly exclaimed in her impressive voice, pushing her hair and her hat widely back from her forehead with both hands. “We are all widows!”
“So we are,” said Mrs Brandon, looking round distractedly as if she might see a few more somewhere, “but not what I would call widows.”
“I suppose,” said Mrs Morland, “the longer one is a widow, the less one is a widow. Or is it that one just has it in one or else one hasn’t?”

Mrs Grant said Hilary must get his hair cut and there was a delightful old custom in Calabria by which young men and maidens spent the night under a tree on the night of the full moon and drew lots with the bristles of a hog who had died a natural death, and whoever drew the longest bristle died in childbirth within the year.

As for the prose, it is good. There are places that read awkwardly, grammar-wise, and a few places wherein the editor may have been out for tea and scones at the time and more interested in those than the text (issues that would be picked up by today’s editors) but on the whole it’s easy, comfortable, and welcoming.

Everything is pretty simple and laid out in the open, in fact the only thing that may leave you wondering is Mrs Brandon herself. In reading this book you can rest assured that the only real thinking you may have to do will revolve around Mrs Brandon’s interest or lack there of, and even that won’t take long. This is a book for a lazy day, a book during which you just want to pick up your embroidery, relax, and have a laugh; the book is a manifestation, of sorts, of what Mrs Brandon hopes for, indeed if she could just read this book and do nothing else she’d be in her element.

The Brandons is one book in a saga but it stands by itself. It lets you enjoy the simpler things, life as it was some decades ago. It’s just a good, solid, read that asks for little and offers little, and yet provides in spades.

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Georges Simenon – The Late Monsieur Gallet

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Money and murder.

Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 155
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-141-39337-7
First Published: 1931
Date Reviewed: 8th July 2015
Rating: 3/5

Original language: French
Original title: Monsieur Gallet, Décédé (Monsieur Gallet, Deceased)
Translated by: Anthea Bell

When Maigret is called upon to solve a murder case, he realises there’s more to it; something’s not quite ‘right’. There are suspects but there seems little reason for Monsieur Gallet to have been killed. The bullet and stab wounds seem slightly suspicious. And whilst there’s motive, no one person sticks out as the murderer.

The Late Monsieur Gallet is the third book in Simenon’s extensive Maigret series and whilst it’s the only one I’ve read I have to say I get the impression that various others are better.

Chances are it’s partly the translation that’s the issue. Missing commas, sentences that aren’t phrased very well. The text reads too simply.

The story is told very swiftly and much of it is facts. It can be contrived, at least in the context of our present day (more on that in a moment). People pop out of the scenery to provide titbits of information as Maigret walks past, to pop back just as quickly. Premises give way to suggestions of dinner just as you’re getting into the swing of things.

The text is outdated but easy to see why it worked at the time. It’s enjoyable if read in the context it was written in, and the work that went into the mystery is plain to see. That the story is told swiftly seems odd nowadays but one can appreciate the way Simenon doesn’t linger on sub-plots – there aren’t any. This is a crime novella and that’s how it stays; everything is focused on the mystery at hand. Maigret walks you through everything so you know exactly what happened and is happening.

And the psychology behind it all is fascinating. Simenon spends just as much time on the who as he does the why, looking into the social context. He lets his character flourish on the page, to be there in front of you even though the man’s been dead since the beginning. Solving the mystery may be key to the world at hand but looking at the deceased as a person is key to Maigret.

I get the sense that this book isn’t reflective of the rest of the series. The books can be read out of order but I would certainly recommend starting with a different one and leaving The Late Monsieur Gallet for later. It’s a perfectly fine way to pass an hour or two but is unlikely to make much in the way of a good early impression.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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Margaret Mitchell – Gone With The Wind

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Beware your attitude.

Publisher: N/A
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: N/A
First Published: 1936
Date Reviewed: 28th August 2013
Rating: 5/5

Scarlett O’Hara is vain, ignorant and arrogant, and is proud to be so. She steals other girls’ sweethearts and does whatever she pleases. Her rebellious nature suits her very much – until the north wages war against the slave-owning south. Suddenly she finds herself looking after people she does not like and being forced into roles she couldn’t care less about. She needs money, she needs food, but she most certainly does not need Rhett, the man in whom she met her match.

Gone With The Wind is the epic story of the early life of a woman ahead of her time, against the backdrop of the American Civil War. Comprising a great many pages, the book is just as much about society as it is Scarlett, and it provides information about the period in general.

It’s probably best to talk of Scarlett first, before anything else. Scarlett is selfish and always out for money, but it is difficult to say she is altogether bad. Going against the grain, she is a confident and intelligent woman (at least in some respects), and takes what she wants with little thought for others. She is hampered by her society’s views about women, and this, to the modern reader (and indeed likely Mitchell’s contemporaries, too), makes her easy to relate to, in that ahead-of-her-time way. Not so good is the way she views herself, beauty over everything, and how she steals the attention of men from every other girl. Of course there is a lot to be said about the fact the men could have been more faithful to their women, but there are nevertheless times when Scarlett manipulates a situation to the extent that the man can do nothing about it.

Undoubtedly Scarlett’s biggest issue is her lack of understanding for others. Intelligent in business matters, she is nevertheless ignorant when it comes to people’s feelings. She loves a bookish, academic man, but does not understand his nature and sees nothing foreboding in this. Even Rhett Butler, the hero, is a mystery to her.

As for Rhett, he is selfish and manipulative, too, but he possesses an element Scarlett does not that leads him to care when others are genuinely nice to him. And unlike Scarlett he learns from his mistakes. The two have near explosive chemistry, and for this it is a pity they do not share more episodes together than they do. The relationship provides much needed relief, via its modernity, to the stuffy historical society.

Mitchell’s writing of Scarlett enables the reader to see the bad side of society, and how people would act towards someone who didn’t fit the accepted mould. What is interesting here, however, is that ultimately dignity and goodness prevails. Yes, it’s bad that society washes its hands of Scarlett as Scarlett, for all her selfishness, does have a very hard time during the war and does offer to help others, but Mitchell shows that if her heroine would just be nice when she ought, she would be accepted. And she wouldn’t necessarily have to change her nature to do it. She would be accepted back into the fold – society values honesty and loyalty beyond all else – and whilst it may seem silly that it preferred ill health to ill-gotten wealth, the community was strong and helped one another. The reader can understand Scarlett’s desire for money, but it isn’t long before the reader equally understands society’s feelings towards her, too.

Inevitably one cannot think of the community without bringing Melanie into the picture. Melanie is the complete opposite of Scarlett. Quiet, supposedly and perhaps truly oblivious, but strong at heart, Melanie wins support that Scarlett can not understand. The good thing about Melanie is that the reader can always be assured that there is more than meets the eye – which is particularly interesting as Mitchell never really lets you into Melanie’s head.

A lot of the reason why Gone With The Wind is so long is due to the amount of history included in it. Truly there is a great deal and it may prove frustrating to the reader who is more interested in the characters. Not only does Mitchell place her characters in the south at the time of war, whole pages are filled with descriptions of what was going on. In a way it’s necessary, as Scarlett is not interested in the war and therefore you learn little about it when Mitchell focuses on her. The only issue is that the detailing slows the narrative down substantially.

Yet the information provided about the effects of war is worth its weight in gold. As the book is told from the southern perspective, all talk of evil slave ownership is confined to the northerners. This enables Mitchell to concentrate on those southerners we view as in the wrong. Mitchell’s characters are, in the main, good to their slaves, and Mitchell shows how true loyalty and affection between slaves and owners could arise. Of course this is idealistic and there were many more families that were cruel, but the light that shines on this other side of the story is somewhat revelatory, and it is always important to consider the other side.

And consider it Mitchell does. The author shows how many couldn’t understand the ‘problem’ the north had with slavery, and whilst the southern characters do see their slaves as childlike, there is a caring atmosphere surrounding them. In Mitchell’s story, house slaves are part of the family, the field hands are to be looked after.

It’s poignant that Mitchell explores the thoughts of the north. They wanted abolition, but when it comes down to it, the northern women Scarlett meets are incredibly prejudice of the ‘darkies’ and would never consider hiring them due to a lack of trust. This is contrasted by Scarlett’s stating that the darkies were good at their old jobs. What Mitchell infers is the lack of understanding both sides had of each other. And she puts the north under scrutiny, showing how they were all for blacks voting and setting them free – in many ways because they wanted to humiliate the southerners. It is interesting that despite abolition no true respect occurs and the darkies are manipulated still, if in a different way.

But perhaps the most interesting aspect about the book, from a historical perspective, is the exploration of the views of the slaves for one another. Mitchell demonstrates the hierarchy that existed between people who were, at heart, in the same situation. She shows how snobbishness grew in those who worked in houses towards the ‘field-niggers’. Her narrative of the field hands being those who joined the northerners supports the constant theme of loyalty amongst the house slaves. For example Scarlett’s servants remain with her, free but technically shunning freedom. They even show contempt for freed slaves, seeing themselves as more respectable and intelligent. And, to further comment on the north’s lack of care for the slaves, many freed people returned to their owners.

Now this is interesting, because the context supports the idea that uneducated and poor, a slave would rather be looked after and owned than have to learn to fend for themselves. But what it shines a light on is the way the northerners let people go without really thinking about them. Because whilst those first Africans who landed in America knew another way of life, working for white masters was all these newer generations knew. Of course it inevitably transpires that those who owned slaves look like the ‘good guys’ in this book, but in a way it is hard not to see Mitchell’s point that abolition could have been conducted in a far better manner.

Mitchell puts her black characters in a fine light. In fact the only negativity is stereotypical of the role no matter the person’s colour, for example Scarlett’s Mammy’s strictness towards children. Talking of Mammy, the reader should be aware that dialogue is written in accents that, due to issues in transliterating, can sometimes be hard to decipher.

So to the war. Due to Scarlett’s choice to remain ignorant, a lot is glossed over, even if Mitchell does spend sections telling you what was happening ‘abroad’ at the time. The book is both rose-tinted and horrific, and Mitchell has no qualms in discussing uncomfortable subjects.

Gone With The Wind is a book that deals with many themes, least not the ignorance and misunderstanding that accompany vanity and selfishness. It is often poignant, often humorous, and certainly very long. And as much as it could be said that it could have been shorter, it can’t be said that Mitchell was careless – there is real reasoning behind the length of the text, and Mitchell wants her reader educated.

Gone With The Wind presents a heroine who is hard to like but is far from being an anti-heroine. It presents a woman who is aptly detailed and criticised by her author when required, and lauded when expected. Its classic nature whilst being historical fiction in itself creates ample opportunity for discussion, as you’re getting the 1936 perspective of the 1860s war. And its lessons about love and the self are eternal.

Scarlett O’Hara is as memorable as they say, and Mitchell’s work a masterpiece.

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Daphne du Maurier – Rebecca

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You have never known a writer as uniquely talented as this.

Publisher: Virago Modern Classics (Virago)
Pages: 428
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-84408-038-0
First Published: 1938
Date Reviewed: 27th April 2012
Rating: 4.5/5

The heroine meets Maxim de Winter while she is training to be a lady’s companion under the tutorage of an American woman. Bored of her life, and fed up with the snobbery possessed by Mrs Van Hopper, when Maxim makes a surprise proposal of marriage, the heroine accepts. Maxim’s first wife has died, but that does not worry her; however on arriving at Manderley, the de Winter’s home, she finds that Rebecca is very much alive in the constant references and laments of staff and those who knew her. And from being happy, the heroine sinks into a place where she feels as though this haunting atmosphere will always be about her. What does it matter how Maxim tells her it’s fine, when everyone else is living in the past?

Rebecca, the novel with the unnamed heroine, is rather individual. The basic plot itself is far from incredible as it has been done before, indeed comparisons could be made with Jane Eyre in many respects, so what makes the novel spellbinding is Du Maurier herself. The writing in Rebecca – the structure of the book, the characterisation, and the detailing – is exceptional. The words themselves may be usual enough, and it might be a difficult task to identify any short passage of the book as Du Maurier’s without knowing beforehand, but the overall presentation is completely unique. No other author has ever brought such individuality to the table as Du Maurier does.

I thought how little we know about the feelings of old people… Did she know that Beatrice was yawning and glancing at her watch? Did she guess that we had come to visit her because we felt it right, it was a duty, so that when she got home afterwards Beatrice would be able to say, “Well that clears my conscience for three months”?

The characters in Rebecca are rather abrupt, almost in your face. There is no added lingering emotion, and Du Maurier never starts from the shallows – she throws you in the deep end. There is no time for the reader to become acquainted slowly with Max, for example – you either become acquainted instantly or you shy away.

And no matter how far into the book you are, these characters, despite being personalities confined to fictional history and therefore of a different nature to readers further on in the world’s years, continue to shock. They are the sorts that waste no time, don’t bother with pleasantries, and have no time for dreamers.

Maxim is, by himself, a fantastic creation. He never shows emotion whilst at the same time practically oozing it. He is completely obvious whilst being totally obscure. Yet he is utterly likeable for the way he has been written. Rather like Jane Eyre’s Mr Rochester, he defies the usual limitations of books, and comes out as one of the best heroes in literature in terms of being memorable.

I wanted to go back again, to recapture the moment that had gone, and then it came to me that if we did it would not be the same, even the sun would be changed in the sky, casting another shadow, and the peasant girl would trudge past us along the road in a different way, not waving this time, perhaps not even seeing us.

The heroine, who can never be named, is the opposite. She is emotional, she is an analyst, and she is a compulsive dreamer. A great deal of the book is taken up by her daydreams and worrying, her “what if”, her dissection of her relationship, her craving to relieve the past, and her function in a home wherein the dead wife is still the queen. Her role at Manderley she doesn’t actually realise because she spends so much time daydreaming. That Du Maurier was a daydreamer herself is obvious. She writes so knowingly, expressing how easy it can be to look to a future that may or may not be, how easy it is to think over and over of the past. Her writing here is most universal and eternal, and Du Maurier aptly portrays the plight of a woman who feels she cannot bring up in conversation the woman who came before her.

Not surprisingly, the majority of the book’s themes arise from, and orbit around, the heroine’s story and her development. The reader can see in her thoughts where she is thinking the wrong things, how she has come to believe that she is secondary to Rebecca despite never asking if she is so, and how she has come to be confused as to who she should be. From being a little interested, the heroine becomes obsessed by the idea of Rebecca, so much so that the amount of her (artificial) memories of Rebecca eclipse those of any other character, perhaps of all the other characters combined. She is the reason the reader can sit back and think that yes, this book does indeed deserve to be called after a dead and never fully introduced person, because the heroine always puts Rebecca before herself.

Because that’s the nub of the book, one of the elements of it that leaves you amazed. There is this sense throughout that somehow, some when, you as the reader are going to meet Rebecca. You are going to be able to see her away from biased thoughts, and hear her speak for herself. But Rebecca has gone, and Du Maurier never suggests otherwise. Yet so crafty is the author, so clever are her dialogues and scenes, that just like the heroine, you can never fully believe that Rebecca is dead. The phrase “Rebecca has won” crosses over into reality. The fictional never-actually-there woman does win, because despite never being fully realised she is likely to be the “character” that remains in your mind. And the fact that we can only call the heroine “the heroine” is surely further testament to this.

Perhaps the most apparent quality to the book is the way that the reader is obliged to read it. The pages don’t often beg to be turned, in fact for the most part, if not all, of the book, there is no pressing reason to finish it quickly. Each section is long, and the climax itself is drawn out, but the pace is never fast. In any other situation, that would be a bad thing. The genius of the narrative lies in the way that once you do pick it up it’s incredibly easy to get carried away and lose track of time. Chapters go by without notice. Du Maurier’s writing is so effortless to read – whilst being far from dull – that although she favours descriptions often, it’s difficult to really comprehend that that’s the case until you have moved on to dialogue. She employs an intriguing balance, while her descriptions are detailed and run on for pages at a time, the dialogue is edited to perfection, there are no superfluous words and every response to a question has a ton of subtext and meaning to it. A simple seeming “yes” is never that, but instead holds in three letters an entire story all of its own. The book is a glorious example of showing rather than telling.

Regarding the detailed descriptions, the way Du Maurier includes so much of the goings on in the day is refreshing. The mundane she makes interesting and of those days during which she chooses to spend hours with the characters, you feel as though you have indeed spent the entire day with them. The mixture of these detailed days and the ones she leaves in the dark make for a shock when you discover, for example, that far from being a few months down the line, the characters are still leaving in the same week.

Just as Rebecca herself is stunningly beautiful, so is the book that Du Maurier has written. The plot may be straightforward given the heroine’s analysing nature that takes time, and Du Maurier’s almost carefree attitude to events that other authors would turn into thrillers, but there is a splendour to the complete creation that defies any notion of the glory bestowed upon other stories. The heroine may be alive and Rebecca dead, the heroine may have gained our admiration whilst Rebecca is in no position to speak, but it is Rebecca we will remember evermore. And so we should, as it is a book that surely heralds an addition to our lists of eternal classics.

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