Tuesday, April 28, 2020

You and Me and Us by Alison Hammer

Publication: William Morrow, Hardcover/Trade Paperback/Ebook, April 2020
Genre: Fiction
Plot: Alexis Gold knows how to put the “work” in working mom. It’s the “mom” part that she’s been struggling with lately. Since opening her own advertising agency three years ago, Alexis has all but given up on finding a good work/life balance. Instead, she’s handed over the household reins to her supportive, loving partner, Tommy. While he’s quick to say they divide and conquer, Alexis knows that Tommy does most of the heavy lifting—especially when it comes to their teenage daughter, CeCe.

Their world changes when Tommy receives a terminal cancer diagnosis, and Alexis belatedly realizes everything she’s worked relentlessly for doesn’t matter without him. So Alexis does what Tommy has done for her almost every day since they were twelve-year-old kids in Destin, Florida—she puts him first. And when the only thing Tommy wants is to spend one last summer together at “their” beach, she puts her career on hold to make it happen . . . even if it means putting her family within striking distance of Tommy’s ex, an actress CeCe soon idolizes.

But Alexis and Tommy aren’t the only ones whose lives have been turned inside out. In addition to dealing with the normal ups and downs that come with being a teenager, CeCe is also forced to confront her feelings about Tommy’s illness—and what will happen when the one person who’s always been there for her is gone. When the magic of first love brings a bright spot to her summer, CeCe is determined not to let her mother ruin that for her, too.  As CeCe’s behavior becomes more rebellious, Alexis realizes the only thing harder for her than losing Tommy will be convincing CeCe to let her back into her daughter's life.

My Impressions: Although this is a book about grief and loss, it is also a book about hope and about the vicissitudes of being a family. Tommy, the dying father, is the most appealing character in this story and at times I felt there must have been an earlier book in which he and Alexis reconnected as adults and fell in love.   However, this is a debut novel that captures the pain of losing a beloved family member.   Having lost my own father three years ago, I was reflecting on Joe Biden’s advice to bereaved families, not merely that the pain will ebb but that there will be a moment when one’s first reaction is a smile of love and affection rather than tears, and that is the moment when one has begun to recover.   I am certainly not there myself and I don’t think Alexis and CeCe will reach it soon. 

The book was well written and full of memorable characters; however, Alexis, the heroine, is very unlikeable.  We are meant to excuse her because she started her own business three years ago and has demanding clients.   Yet, CeCe makes it clear Alexis failed to show up to her events and activities long before she ran her own business.  In fact, being the boss doesn’t just mean more pressure and responsibility, it often means some flexibility.  Alexis simply wasn’t there for her husband (even when he is trying to tell her of his diagnosis) or daughter, and just because she agrees to spend the summer in Destin doesn’t make up for years of neglect.  Even when she knows she will be CeCe’s only surviving parents, she has a hard time being kind yet is resentful of her daughter’s hostility.  She is also very rude to CeCe’s boyfriend, who is the son of her best friend.  Her apology is grudging and it is ironic that she wants forgiveness for her neglect, yet is blaming a teenager for something his father did.  She also has been stalking this boy on Instagram even before he was involved with CeCe, which is kind of odd for something so busy.  I did like Alexis’ friends Jill and Becky, either of whom could use a book of her own in the future.

Source: I received a copy of this book from the publisher and TLC Book Tours for review purposes. You can visit other stops on the tour and read the reviews by clicking below:

Tuesday, April 7th: Books and Bindings
Wednesday, April 8th: A Bookish Way of Life
Thursday, April 9th: Girl Who Reads
Friday, April 10th: Stranded in Chaos
Monday, April 13th: BookNAround
Tuesday, April 14th: Thoughts On This ‘n That
Thursday, April 16th: Laura’s Reviews
Friday, April 17th: Kahakai Kitchen
Friday, April 17th: Instagram: @shelovesthepages
Monday, April 20th: Into the Hall of Books
Tuesday, April 21st: Really Into This
Wednesday, April 22nd: Openly Bookish
Thursday, April 23rd: Book by Book
Friday, April 24th: Jathan & Heather
Monday, April 27th: Instagram: @thebookclubmom
Tuesday, April 28th: Instagram: @readingmama_reviews
Wednesday, April 29th: Diary of a Stay at Home Mom

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Easy Shortbread Thumbprints

Have you noticed that working remotely requires a lot more cookies than working in the office? 

Ingredients

½ cup softened butter

1/3 cup granulated sugar

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup all-purpose flour

¼ cup apricot or raspberry jam


Directions

In a medium bowl, cream together butter and white sugar until smooth. Stir in 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract. Mix in flour until dough comes together. Form dough into 1 1/2 inch balls, and place on ungreased cookie sheets. Make a small hole in the center of each ball, using your thumb or finger, and fill the hole with preserves.   The hole should not expose the cookie sheet!

Bake

Bake for 14 to 18 minutes at 350 degrees F (175 degrees C)  in preheated oven, or until lightly browned.  Let cool 1 minute on the cookie sheet.

Results

Delicious and very quick to make!   This was adapted from an AllRecipes version and some of those bakers recommended putting the cookies in the refrigerator or freezer for ten minutes before baking so they are rounder than flatter.   I suspect that is the result of using all butter, which is essential for shortbread.  Butter is an emulsifier and it makes cookies tender.  It also adds in the crispy-around-the-edges element, which you can see in my photo.  Adding too much butter can cause the cookies to be flat and greasy, however.  If I double the recipe in the future, I might try using ¾ butter and ¼ margarine.  

The original recipe called for almond extract instead of vanilla.  I have never owned any almond extract but some will recall that it features prominently in the Beany Malone books.  Over several books, it seems like she will never run out of almond extract: 

Johnny offered to run up to Downey’s drugstore for more, but Beany said firmly, “Not you, I’ll go.”  As though Johnny could buy a few candle holders.  He’d come back with five dozen.  Wasn’t Beany still using the pint bottle of almond extract he had bought over three years ago when a recipe had called for a few drops of almond extract?

Friday, April 24, 2020

Friday's Bookshelf Traveling

I liked Judith's idea at Reader in the Wilderness of visiting a bookshelf that hasn’t been getting a lot of attention so gazed around the room where I sit most often – this particular shelf sometimes gets ignored because it has the much-read-and-referenced Betsy-Tacy books on the shelf above and the almost equally beloved Beany Malone and Elswyth Thane books on the two shelves below!  I am not sure how this happened.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Love, Jacaranda by Alex Flinn, a retelling of Daddy Long Legs

Title: Love, Jacaranda
Author:  Alex Flinn
Publication: HarperTeen, Hardcover, July 2020
Genre: YA
Plot: Jacaranda Abbott is a foster kid with a voice.  While working as a cashier at the Publix grocery store in Florida, she makes up and belts out a song for an elderly customer and it goes viral. When she is offered a scholarship to attend a performing arts boarding school by a mysterious benefactor, she knows what an incredible opportunity this is but is worried people will find out her mother is in prison.  School is hard work but fulfilling and Jacaranda, now calling herself Jackie, is determined to take advantage of every opportunity.   She is happy but once she starts dating a millionaire’s son who seems sensitive and caring she wonders what will happen if he finds out her secret.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Five Things

Dr. Amy Acton, the Health Official flattening the curve in Ohio, took time out to say that Laura Ingalls Wilder helped her get through a very difficult childhood.

My newly crafted mask is not unattractive but slides down the back of my head, although I followed the specs.   A paper bag would be easier to wear!   I am not speedy enough to equip medical professionals but have made a few for family.  I doubt my nephew was thrilled to receive a mask for his 15th birthday but he politely admired it and put it on (taking a wary glance at his reflection in a nearby window) (it wasn’t his only gift).

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Further Chronicles of Avonlea by L.M. Montgomery - #1920Club

Publication: McClelland & Stewart, Hardcover, 1920
Genre: Children’s fiction
This was the edition at my library
The #1920Club is hosted by Simon at Stuck in a Book and Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings who share blogger reviews of books published that year.
Plot: This is a short story collection set in Avonlea, Prince Edward Island, the Canadian village and province made famous by Anne of Green Gables.  Anne plays a leading role in just one story, The Little Brown Book of Miss Emily, and is mentioned in passing in two others, as most of the stories are about other Avonlea or nearby residents.  Gossip, weddings, tragic love affairs, orphans, quirky pets and feuds are featured, some with happy endings and some with dramatically sad results.  For those who cannot concentrate on full-length books during this current worrying time, Further Chronicles might be just the ticket!


My Impressions: Anne of Green Gables was published in 1908 and by 1920 Montgomery had published four sequels.  She would go on to publish 20 novels and a number of short story collections (others were published after her death). This is an uneven collection of stories and, apparently, Montgomery did not authorize their publication.  As a child, I read but was never quite as enthusiastic about Montgomery’s meandering tales of characters I had never heard of (I realize this is why I never cared for Sara Stanley, The Story Girl) but upon rereading, I realize there are several that are quite memorable.  Montgomery’s books are full of feuds and disagreements that seem silly to outsiders.  One such 20-year estrangement takes place in Her Father’s Daughter, where Isabella Spencer forbids her husband to resume his life as a sailor and when he does, she bans him from her home and her life, refusing to even discuss him with their daughter, Rachel.  Rachel meets him by chance just once and establishes instant rapport.  When she is to be married, she insists on inviting him, to her mother’s annoyance.  As stubborn as her mother, she wins out and the wedding results in reconciliation for all. 

The Little Brown Book of Miss Emily features Anne but is written in the first person so it does not sound like her at all, although Marilla and Diana ring true.  An old lady, disliked by the girls because she was sharp and sarcastic, dies and leaves Anne a trunk containing her journal.  Emily’s journal reveals a long-ago romance with a famous painter from Montreal who loved her but his mother did not think country-bred Emily was good enough for him, so persuaded Emily to give him up.  Emily sends him a purposely vulgar letter, pretending she was just flirting so he would be disgusted and never correspond with her again. 
When we had finished [reading the little brown book] the tears were running down both our faces.
“Oh, poor, dear Miss Emily,” sobbed Diana. “I’m so sorry I ever thought her funny and meddlesome.” 
“She was good and strong and brave,” I said. “I could never have been as unselfish as she.”
A poignant story but does it seem like the authentic Anne to you? I remember particularly disliking the final story in this collection, Tannis of the Flats, in which a lovely young woman who is part Cree and part French Canadian falls for Jerome Carey, newly arrived in town to run the telegraph.  Tannis is educated and well-mannered but is referred to throughout as a half-breed and no one, including Carey, takes his flirtation seriously.  When he meets Elinor, a golden-haired, blue-eyed beauty, he forgets Tannis, who is devastated.  However, when there is an accident and Carey faces death, he wants to say goodbye to Elinor and Tannis is the only person who can unselfishly bring her to the deathbed: 
She knew when it happened by Elinor’s cry.
Tannis sprang up and rushed in.  She was too late for even a parting look.The girl took Carey’s hand in hers, and turned to the weeping Elinor with a cold dignity.
 “Now go,” she said. “You had him in life until the very last.  He is mine now.”
“There must be some arrangements made,” faltered Elinor. 
“My father and brother will make all arrangements, as you call them,” said Tannis steadily.  “He had no near relatives in the world – none at all in Canada – he told me so.  You may send out a Protestant minister from town, if you like; but he will be buried here at the Flats and his grave will be mine - all mine!  Go!”
And Elinor, reluctant, sorrowful, yet swayed by a will and an emotion stronger than her own, went slowly out, leaving Tannis of the Flats alone with her dead.
Upon rereading, I can see why my eleven-year-old self was instinctively horrified by the racism and could not forget the passionate loss conveyed.  I felt sorry for Tannis and the author did too, recognizing that Tannis did not know the rules of light-hearted friendship. However, I think Montgomery was more approving of the way Elinor copes with tragedy: she grieved quietly, she never marries, and is “quiet and serious, with a shadowed look in her eyes which time could not quite succeed in blotting out.”   We know now that Montgomery's husband, Reverand Ewan Macdonald suffered from melancholia and that she herself struggled with depression in an era when it was not acceptable to reveal such suffering. 

For those who prefer more Anne in their Montgomery, here are my Top Ten Most Romantic Anne Shirley and Gilbert Blythe Moments.  
Visiting Green Gables in 2014
Source: Personal copy
Stopping by LMM's resting place

Thursday, April 16, 2020

The Great Impersonation by E. Philips Oppenheim - #1920Club

Title: The Great Impersonation
Author:  E. Phillips Oppenheim
Publication: Little, Brown & Co., 1920
Genre: Fiction/Suspense
Setting: 1913 East Africa, England

About the Author: E. Phillips Oppenheim (1866 – 1946) was a English novelist, acclaimed for his thrillers, of which this is the most renowned, selling over 1,000,000 copies in its first year and inspiring several movies over time.  Oppenheim worked in the leather industry for many years and, interestingly, met his wife in Easthampton, Massachusetts while traveling for work in 1892 (Easthampton, about a 90-minute drive from my home, is better known for textiles than leather). Returning to England and settling in Leicestershire, he published the first of more than 160 novels in 1897.    During the Great War he worked for the Ministry of Information in London, which must have provided inspiration for future books.  The Great Impersonation was a perfect choice for the #1920Club, hosted by Simon at Stuck in a Book and Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings.

Plot: Two men meet in an isolated part of Africa and realize they bear an uncanny resemblance to each other and were , in fact, acquainted at Eton.   As they reminisce, it is clear that Baron Leopold Von Ragastein, a German aristocrat has thrived when Sir Everard Dominey has led a seedy existence since leaving England.   Both left their homes in disgrace – Ragastein fought a duel over a married woman and her husband died; he was banished by the Kaiser, while Dominey is accused of murdering his wife’s childhood friend.   Ragastein sees in Dominey’s declining fortunes an opportunity for his new assignment: to infiltrate English society and learn whether the country is prepared for war with Germany, if he can make Dominey disappear. 
The two men exchanged glances of rather more than ordinary interest. Then Dominey laughed.
“I know what you're thinking,” he said. “It gave me quite a start when you came in. We're devilishly alike, aren't we?” 
“There is a very strong likeness between us,” the other admitted. 
Dominey leaned his head upon his hand and studied his host. The likeness was clear enough, although the advantage was all in favour of the man who stood by the side of the camp bedstead with folded arms. Everard Dominey, for the first twenty-six years of his life, had lived as an ordinary young Englishman of his position,—Eton, Oxford, a few years in the Army, a few years about town, during which he had succeeded in making a still more hopeless muddle of his already encumbered estates: a few months of tragedy, and then a blank. Afterwards ten years—at first in the cities, then in the dark places of Africa—years of which no man knew anything. The Everard Dominey of ten years ago had been, without a doubt, good-looking. The finely shaped features remained, but the eyes had lost their lustre, his figure its elasticity, his mouth its firmness. He had the look of a man run prematurely to seed, wasted by fevers and dissipation. Not so his present companion. His features were as finely shaped, cast in an even stronger though similar mould. His eyes were bright and full of fire, his mouth and chin firm, bespeaking a man of deeds, his tall figure lithe and supple. He had the air of being in perfect health, in perfect mental and physical condition, a man who lived with dignity and some measure of content, notwithstanding the slight gravity of his expression. 
“Yes,” the Englishman muttered, “there's no doubt about the likeness, though I suppose I should look more like you than I do if I'd taken care of myself. But I haven't. That's the devil of it. I've gone the other way; tried to chuck my life away and pretty nearly succeeded, too.”
Several months later, a man calling himself Dominey returns to England after eleven years away, resumes old friendships, gains the trust of the German Ambassador, and subtly help Germany lay the groundwork for war.   Kaiser Wilhelm himself has blessed this mission, and to facilitate his acceptance by his peers Germany is discreetly paying off all the mortgages on Dominey’s Norfolk estates.  Will the great impersonation convince Dominey’s wife and Ragastein’s lover?
Oppenheim
My Impressions: This is a great read!  I have always been a huge fan of impersonation stories, with my favorites being Brat Farrar, The Ivy Tree, and Savannah Purchase. This one combines a daring impersonation, espionage, and the aristocratic country home, about to become a trademark of mystery fiction.  For a book a hundred years old, The Great Impersonation holds its own (apart from a few regrettable phrases) with a compelling plot, a vivid look at the coming war, and interesting characters. The most fascinating is the German Ambassador, who is depicted as a man of integrity, committed to advancing peace between the two countries but the unwitting pawn of his countrymen who anticipate and look forward to war, plotting behind his back.  
Another appealing character is Dominey’s cousin Caroline, Duchess of Worcester, who was kind of him before he left and wheedled loans out of her husband when Dominey was down on his luck (the Duke is astounded when Dominey returns and wants to repay hum). The two women, Lady Dominey and Stephanie,  Princess Eiderstrom, the cause of Ragastein’s duel and exile, are important but less dimensional characters, one pure and one temptress.  Lady Dominey had a nervous breakdown when her husband was accused of murder and has never recovered (she is annoyingly childlike and fragile).   Princess Eiderstom is a beautiful Hungarian who does not seem to hold a grudge against Ragastein for the duel that killed her husband; in fact, she wants her lover back and is only temporarily persuaded to stay quiet about the impersonation.  In the meantime,  Dominey takes possession of his ancestral acres and treats his estranged wife with kindness, even when she attempts to kill him in the middle of the night.  This makes the reader want to root for the German impersonator – or is he an impersonator? 

Source: Project Gutenberg

Monday, April 13, 2020

The Top of the World by Ethel M. Dell - #1920Club

Title: The Top of the World
Author:  Ethel M. Dell
Publication: Putnam, hardcover, 1920
Genre: Fiction/Romance
Author:  This seemed like a good choice for the #1920 Club, especially at a time when my library is closed (sorrow). Dell (1881 – 1939) was a bestselling British romance writer, who wrote more than 30 novels and several short stories from 1911 to 1939, thus was an important contributor to this genre.  I first came across her in the Harvard library when I was ostensibly studying 16th-century History and Literature but easily distracted by the unexpected fiction I found in the stacks.  I read at least one book by Dell and all the Elinor Glyn I found, as I had once enjoyed a book by her granddaughter called Don’t Knock the Corners Off

Plot: Lovely Sylvia Ingleton fell for Guy Ranger when she was just 18.   Her father disapproved of her romantic entanglement with the son of his bailiff although Guy had been to a public school and was a personable young man of 25.   Instead, he is packed off to South Africa to make his fortune and the Squire finds his unfortunate father “another billet.” No job security at the Manor if your son doesn’t know his place!  Sylvia stubbornly considers herself engaged and writes faithfully to Guy for years.   When she is 23, her father remarries unexpectedly and Sylvia’s unpleasant new stepmother makes her life a living hell.  When Sylvia learns the woman has been suppressing her letters from Guy, she decides she must go to South Africa herself to start a new life with him, regardless of possible hardships.  She isn’t a complete idiot – she sends a telegram first and gets a response before she sets out.   There is no one to meet her at Cape Town but when she reaches Ritzen, it is Guy’s cousin, Burke, who is waiting for her and warns her that Guy is not a man worth crossing the world for and she is forced to adjust her plans:
"Have you never heard of me before?" she asked. "Did—Guy—never
speak of me?"
"I knew there was someone." Burke spoke rather unwillingly. "I don't think he ever actually spoke of you to me. We're not exactly—kindred spirits, he and I."
"You don't like him," said Sylvia.
"Nor he me," said Burke Ranger.
She looked at him with her candid eyes. "I don't think you are very tolerant of weakness, are you?" she said gently.
"I don't know," he said non-committally. 
The Good: An entertaining story despite its predictability and lack of dimensional characters. Sylvia is not only beautiful but fearless and resolutely positive.  On the other hand, if only she had spent the five years apart from Guy acquiring some marketable skills!  She could have learned to type like the housemaid in Downton Abbey.   What’s a Squire’s daughter to do when an evil stepmother makes your life a misery and you can’t get a job and move out?  Heading to Africa seems a little extreme and the Manor’s old gardener (seemingly the only person who has her interests at heart) warns her:
"Do you ever ask yourself what sort of man he may be after five years? I'll warrant he's lived every minute of it. He's the sort that would." 
Sylvia shrugs off his words but he was right - Guy has gone to the bad (as Dell would be the first to tell you) although he could have been an equal partner with Burke on his farm, had he lived up to his potential.  But it turns out Guy has no work ethic, drinks too much, uses drugs, and consorts with native women.  Sylvia does not learn all of this at once because Burke tries to shelter her from some of the truth.   Guy cabled her to come in a weak moment but then flees rather than face her, and Burke proposes to her, partly out of responsibility and partly because he admires her pluck and has fallen in love.  Sylvia has no options (it is unclear how she even got the funds to make this trip: maybe she borrowed against the modest inheritance she is due to get in two years) and marries the stranger she instinctively knows she can trust, gallantly asking him to be a comrade rather than a lover.   This is not what Burke wants, but he waits more or less patiently, despite being pulled into an inevitable love triangle in which he worships Sylvia's purity, tries to trust her and give her time to recognize her feelings for him.

Ironically, when Sylvia recognizes she is stranded and that “only her own efforts could avail her now,” the solution is to become Burke’s dependent/wife.  At least she never complains about her bleak new life, isolated 20 miles from the closest town (the only thing she ever asks for is yarn to knit Burke socks!) with a man who does not have Guy’s polished upbringing.  She is a skilled horsewoman and adapts surprisingly well to her new surroundings although remains delicate and faints a lot like a dutiful Edwardian heroine. There are no books at Blue Hill Farm!  Maybe she could have ordered some from Cape Town! Books would have been better than yarn and by 1920 Burke could surely have bought machine made socks, although perhaps Sylvia had honed her knitting skills during WWI like these energetic Canadians and wants to demonstrate she possesses some domestic abilities.  There is ultimately a resolution which provides enough angst for Dell’s readership and a happy ending.

The Bad and the Ugly: Dell was likely a woman of her time with regard to her views of Britain’s colonies and their indigenous people, which results in aspects of the book that make it very unpleasant. Guy uses the N word about the black Africans and warns Sylvia they are lazy and ugly.  They are described as Kaffirs, which Dictionary.com defines as Disparaging and Offensive. (in South Africa) a contemptuous term used to refer to a black person: originally used of the Xhosa people only. He whips them without compunction and acts as if Sylvia is soft when she seems appalled.
She laughingly commented upon this one day to Burke, and he amazed her by pointing to the riding-whip she chanced to be holding at the time. "You'll find that's the only medicine for that kind of thing," hesaid. "Give 'em a taste of that and they'll respect you!" She decided he must be joking, but only a few days later he quite undeceived her on that point by dragging Joe, the house boy, into the yard and chastising him with a sjambok for some neglected duty. 
Later pure, kind Sylvia loses her temper and hits the female servant on her naked shoulders with her riding-switch.   She is instantly ashamed of her action but is angry at the woman for causing it, not so much herself for taking advantage of someone less powerless.  She certainly doesn’t apologize, which perhaps an Elinor Glyn heroine would do as they have more of a noblesse oblige mindset.  A modern reader has to skip over these parts because they are so revolting.
This Dell cover for this book is in better shape, plus a dog!
Source: Project Gutenberg

Thursday, April 9, 2020

The Spring of the Year by Elfrida Vipont

Title:  The Spring of the Year (Haverard Family #3)
Author:  Elfrida Vipont
Illustrator: T.R. Freeman
Publication: Oxford University Press, hardcover, 1957
Genre: Children’s/series
Plot: The Spring of the Year continues the story of the Haverard family featured in The Lark in the Morn and The Lark on the Wing but focuses on Kit Haverard’s niece, Laura.  Laura is the fourth and sometimes difficult child of Kit’s older brother Richard and his wife Sylvia (aka Flip), the prefect who was kind to Kit when she was being bullied at Heryot.  Richard is an academic like his father and has just got a department chair at a university in Fairleigh, so the family is reluctantly leaving Oxford. Heading to Fairleigh to house-hunt, they detour to St. Merlyon, a big village with a small but inviting Quaker Meeting House and a beautiful Priory Church.  Laura and her brother Christopher are enchanted by the area and attracted to the house for sale next to Ye Olde Priory Cake and Bunne Shoppe.  Soon, the Haverards have moved in.   While the twins, Richenda and Philippa (born in The Lark on the Wing), are at boarding school at Heryot and brainy Mary at the local grammar school, Laura and her younger brother Christopher attend the village school with Kate Whittacker, whose mother runs the tea shop.   The move takes place in late summer and spring is eventful, with the grammar school examination for Laura and Kate, a local drama production in which Laura gets a significant part, and a growing friendship with Peter Bellamy, haunted by the death of his parents in an auto accident. 

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Six Degrees of Separation: From Stasiland to The Parent Trap

The award-winning Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall by Anna Funder is this month’s starting point for Six Degrees of Separation, which is organized by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best.   The idea is to start with the same title, add six books, and see where you wind up. Kate's blog has links to other chains.

Stasiland is nonfiction by an Australian author which sounds interesting but the libraries that own copies locally are closed so it will have to wait.  I see the book is taught in the history department of Dean College which is part of my library network.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

The Lark on the Wing by Elfrida Vipont

Title: The Lark on the Wing (Haverard Family #2)
Author: Elfrida Vipont
Publication: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, hardcover, 1970 (original UK publication 1950)
Genre: Middle grade fiction/series
US cover

Plot: When Kit Haverard finishes school, she finally knows that she wants to study singing professionally but her overbearing cousin Laura insists she take a secretarial course instead so she can eventually help her father with his history books (query: who has been doing this all these years?  Laura?  Is Professor Haverard paying a secretary?).  Eventually, Kit does escape to London where she obtains a secretarial job at Quaker headquarters and an apartment (a fourth-floor walk-up but it’s in the very nice Marylebone neighborhood which I visited on my last trip to London - good luck affording it these days) which she shares with childhood friends Helen and Pony.  Next door are Bob, a colleague of Miles and his younger brother Felix, who also sings.   Kit arranges lessons with her mother’s old music teacher, Papa Andreas, who is retired but still works with a few favorite students (he also seems to have quite the ménage living at his little house near Kensington Palace: his cousin Tante Anna; Lotte, the mysterious cook/housekeeper; and Miss Fishwick, who taught Kit piano at Heryot, and is an accomplished pianist).  Kit’s friend Terry Chauntesinger has become an accomplished singer:
You could sense the atmosphere as soon as he walked onto the platform. He had outgrown the lean, long awkwardness of his younger days…Kit looked up at Terry wonderingly.  His blue eyes were fixed on something a long way away, in time and in space.  The song had started in his mind long before the first notes broke the silence… Whilst Pony and Helen chattered in the interval, Kit was quiet, wrapped in her own thoughts.  For it was not enough to make up your mind to sing, and win your way to London, and fight to make your dream come true.  You could do all that and have nothing to give.
Kit is so humble she is unaware of the progress she is making with Papa Andreas.  However, when she and Terry are singing a Christmas carol later that year, noted composer Sir Hugh Cathcart hears them and reveals he is working on a magnum opus, The Hill of the Lord, which is an oratorio for an orchestra, chorus, and two solo voices, with lyrics from the Psalms.  He allows them to sing the opening and is visibly moved by hearing his swan song come to life.   He tells them if it gets performed.  This would be a career-changing performance even for Terry, already somewhat established in his profession, but unheard of for a student like Kit!  But nothing is ever easy for Kit so there are forces working against her on several fronts . . .  
Too busy

My Impressions: The Lark on the Wing, focusing on Kit’s musical studies and life in London, is just as delightful as the first book in the series, and won the Carnegie Medal as outstanding new English-language book for children or young adults in 1951. Vipont always has a large cast of characters – there is a reason why a family tree is included, so it is helpful but not necessary to have read the first book.  Kit is hard up, so her dedicated training has to be juggled with a secretarial job working for the Society of Friends.  Her faith is real and for readers who encounter Kit as a child it may be their first exposure outside of social studies to this religion. Vipont depicts both major and minor characters vividly. I like Kit’s coworkers and how they support her musical ambitions, and even that her eventual success requires not merely dedication (which most self-respecting heroines have) but also drudgery.  Kit gets tired, she gets discouraged, she makes mistakes (but learns from them, unlike some of our favorite heroines) and sometimes is humiliated.  The three childhood friends from Chesterham are sharing a London flat and working hard: Helen at the London School of Economics and Pony studying medicine like Kit’s brother Miles, yet they manage to have some fun and their small home becomes a meeting place where their friends hang out.  When Cousin Milly moves to London to attend the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, even she drops by often and she meets the charismatic Laurence Cray, a sort of missionary doctor chez Kit. 

Milly’s romance with Laurence is doomed but is that necessary? I am not a big fan of Milly (and throughout this series, it seems as if few people are, other than Kit, who is sometimes her doormat) but why couldn’t she have stayed in London where her career was and have Laurence come back from Chihar from time to time?  Where is Chihar, anyway – India? It was clearly not the ideal place to bring a wife, at the best of times!  Maybe if the book were set now instead of in 1950, there could have been a little more compromise.   However, it seems obvious that Vipont thinks Laurence’s commitment to Chihar is a higher calling, just as she views Kit’s musical ambitions.  Given that Vipont provides her female characters with careers, why does she expect Laurence’s spouse to give hers up?  By the way, there are Cray cousins everywhere!  Laurence is related to Kit’s friend Pony and there are other cousins who turn up in the next book.   

  • Cousin Laura continues to be one of the worst relatives ever.  She can’t even be nice when Kit does well and she nearly ruins everything at the end!   Stephen Maynard is the best thing that ever happened to her, yet one questions his taste!  Also, what kind of idiot was Professor Haverard not to leave his estate properly allocated?  And didn’t Kit’s mother inherit any shares in Kitsons from her father?
  • Terry is practically a chain smoker!  1950 is like another world: can you imagine a gifted singer smoking now? 
  • These books are obviously very dated.  Modern-day readers may find Kit impossibly clueless and her vocabulary is at times limited.  She never knows when men are in love with her and is forever saying people are “a good sort.”   It is odd that she and Helen and Pony never gossip about the men in their lives, or they might have saved a lot of time – but then there would be no story.
  • I can't help wondering about the Holt editor who came across these books twenty years after they had been published in the UK and decided to publish them here, as that seems quite unusual.  I am sure there was a story there!  

Cover Art: The same artist, Michael Lowenbein (1935-2009), designed the US cover for this and for The Lark in the Morn but I think this one is more appealing and works better than the UK covers I include above.  Kit isn’t wearing the crazy hat and she looks like a thoughtful young woman with London as her backdrop.  Showing red-headed Terry behind her may be a giveaway!  

Source: Personal copy.  You may need to try InterLibrary Loan to read this.