Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Laughing Gas by PG Wodehouse

Wodehouse is usually thought of as a quinessentially British writer, but the fact is that he spent some time in the infamous writing-cages of Hollywood, emerging a harder and bitterer man. Also for the last few decades of his life he settled in Long Island, New York. It was this brief sojourn in Hollywood that inspired some of his most hilarious stories. After all, he had looked behind the cardboard facades of Hollywood and seen the truth.

Laughing Gas is one of my favourite Wodehouse books. I know I say it a lot, but I solemnly swear there are plenty of his books that aren't my favourites. Well, one or two. I never could enjoy Ukridge.

Laughing Gas tells the story of the Earl of Havershot, better known as Reggie to his friends. Reggie succeeded to the title unexpectedly, after distinguishing himself as an amateur boxer at Cambridge. He may not excel in other areas, but few peers could boast a right hook or a cabbage ear like his.

Reggie is a man on a mission. His family have rounded him up and sent him off to Hollywood after his Cousin Eggy, the family black sheep, who apparently intends to marry some awful Hollywood female. On his way, Reggie meets the famous movie star April June. Urged on by her melting good looks, Reggie finds himself entertaining her with stories of his past:

Blood flowing in quarts, and the air thick with teeth and ears and things. And then, just before the bell went, the champ brought one up from the floor...”

I broke off here, because she had fainted. I had thought at first, when she closed her eyes, that she had done so merely in order to listen better, but this was apparently not the case. She slid sideways along the seat and quietly passed out.

I was gravely concerned. In the enthusiasm of the moment I had forgotten the effect my narrative might have on this sensitive plant, and I was not quite certain what was the next move. The best way, of course, of bringing round a swooned subject is to bite the ear, but I couldn't very well bite this divine girl's ear. Apart from anything else, I felt I didn't know her well enough.

Until now Reggie has been pining after Ann Bannister, his long-lost love. But April June's attentions banish her from his mind. Even when he finds that the girl his cousin Eggy intends to marry is none other than the aforesaid Ann, he doesn't hesitate in giving his blessing.

With his mission discharged, Reggie looks forward to the task of persuading April June to yoke her pseudonym with his. Then disaster strikes in the form of a toothache. Reggie finds himself in the dentist's waiting room at the same time as the child star Joey Cooley is due for an extraction. He takes a mild interest in Joey Cooley as Ann Bannister is working as his governess. That is nothing, however, beside the interest he takes in the ringleted ten-year-old when he comes out from under the laughing-gas to find that somehow, while both of them were unconscious, Reggie Havershot (third Earl of Havershot) and Joey Cooley (child megastar) have switched bodies...

Chaos, naturally, follows. Young Joey boils with resentment for his agent and managers—and worst of all, his co-star April June. And now he has the physique of a Cambridge Blue, nothing will stand in the way of his avowed intention: to get to each of his tormentors and give them “a poke in the snoot”.

Will Reggie ever get his body back? How will he escape the draconian eyes of Joey's agent and manager long enough to warn April June of the impending snoot-poke? Will he realise the sterling worth of Miss Bannister before it's too late? Read on...

I suppose I don't have to proceed at any length about what a good time this book is. Perhaps the best thing about it is the satire on Hollywood, where everything is about fronts and facades. The palace of Haroun-al-Raschid is just a cardboard model three feet tall. April June may not be as sweet as she seems. And a ringleted child star may in fact be a twenty-seven year old British earl who only wants a stiff brandy and soda...

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Biggles Series by WE Johns

If you have boys, you either have Biggles books, or need to get them.
Biggles is one of those literary characters to filter through to mass cultural awareness, and yet a whole new generation is growing up—a generation that has never crouched in a chilly cockpit high above the Flanders mud, squinting into the sun for enemy fighters; has never been high in the midst of a whirling dogfight, realising with panic that the guns on its Camel have jammed; that has never waited on tenterhooks in the darkness with a beating heart and a drawn revolver for archenemy Von Stalhein...
Instead they read such modern classics as “The Day A Part Of My Anatomy Which Should Not Be Mentioned In Polite Company Went Psycho.” O parents, there is a better way! You don't have to pander to the worst in human nature to get your sons (or daughters—hey, Biggles isn't just for boys!) to read. Alternately, you don't need to raise them on a steady diet of Louisa May Alcott.
Major James Bigglesworth was introduced to the public after World War I, when a flying-officer who had been demobbed found there was a pretty good market in tales of derring-do in the air. He was already a published writer, but not a well-known one, when he decided to make a little money off his wartime experience writing about what life in the RAF actually was like. At least that's how it started, in 1932. Captain Johns soon ran out of wars (World War I, World War II, Spanish Civil War...Cold War?) and that's when the Biggles stories got a bit more formulaic, a bit more far-fetched as Biggles visited every part of the globe for some thrilling adventure or another. There are around a hundred Biggles books to be had, some of which are of middling quality and some of which are hardly worth bothering about for an adult reader. This review is about the gems.
The best Biggles stories are the first. Short stories set in WWI, they are still some of the best war stories I've ever read, combining realism with adventurous excitement. They were also written for adults and contain plenty of un-PC behaviour, which is to say whiskey. If you want to get just one Biggles book, get The Camels Are Coming, the first one; stories from it are also contained in Biggles Pioneer Air Fighter and Biggles of the Special Air Police. Later Biggles stories would not be so edgy, but these contain a solid grounding of realism: danger, wounds, trauma, stress, and the spectres of death and alcoholism. Biggles, barely out of his teens but already bearing a heavy load of responsibility, comes close to cracking more than once as he faces the deaths of his friends and the sense of inevitable death for himself, in a fledgeling (pun semi-intended) air force which sees most pilots die in their first week. There are lighter stories too, some so crazy they must certainly be based on real events, like the story of the boy who flies into a dogfight with a jammed gun. There's the story of Biggles's one brief, tragic romance, never to be repeated—for the most part, although a big squishy sentimentalist, WE Johns avoided it like the plague in future Biggles novels.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Interview with Me!

First, I have to apologise for missing a post on Wednesday. The time I spent not composing a review was spent reading Biggles Buries a Hatchet. Oops! I meant to say, John of Salisbury's Policraticus! In the original Latin!

Second, my friend Miss Charis Ellison has a craft blog, and is doing a craft challenge--she's making something for twelve people this year, and I count myself fortunate enough to be among them, as Charis has never met the craft she couldn't conquer with a few hours' steely determination, from a complete Renaissance wardrobe to oh-so-stylish silhouette portraits.

I mention this in particular because March is the month she sends me a craft, and she interviewed me for that purpose. So pop on over to A Grey-Eyed Girl to read me talking about my favourite subject-- ME. I also recall that I promised to write a poem for her on whatever she sends me, so once the mystery parcel arrives I suppose I can start composing...

Sunday, March 20, 2011

1066 And All That by Sellar and Yeatman

Do you love history? Was HE Marshall's Our Island Story or Charles Dickens's A Child's History of England part of your history curriculum? Do you still occasionally get Montrose and Monmouth confused? Then this book is for you...
1066 And All That: A Memorable History of England comprising all the parts you can remember, including 103 Good Things, 5 Bad Kings, and 2 Genuine Dates by Walter Sellar and Robert Yeatman is a history textbook with a difference! It's a parody based on the conceit that history is only what you can remember. In the Compulsory Preface (This Means You) they explain:
For instance, 2 out of the 4 Dates originally included were eliminated at the last moment, a research done at the Eton and Harrow match having revealed that they are not memorable.

They then launch into the history text proper. It covers the history of Britain from Caesar's invasion in 55BC-- “This was in the Olden Days, when the Romans were top nation on account of their classical education” all the way to the end of the First World War, after which “America was thus clearly top nation, and History came to a .”
You'll learn all about the Venomous Bead, King Alfred (or was that Arthur?) the Cake, the first English newspaper (The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle), the Sacred Scone of Scotland, the Pheasants' Revolt, Broody Mary and the Great Spanish Armadillo. You'll be introduced to a few unusual insights into history:
Noticing some fair-haired children in the slave market one morning, Pope Gregory, the memorable Pope, said (in Latin), 'What are those?' and on being told that they were Angels, made the memorable joke-- 'Non Angli, sed Angeli' ('not Angels, but Anglicans') and commanded one of his Saints called St Augustine to go and convert the rest.
Edward III had very good manners. One day at a royal dance he noticed some men-about-court mocking a lady whose garter had come off, whereupon to put her at her ease he stopped the dance and made the memorable epitaph: 'Honi soie qui mal y pense' ('Honey, your silk stocking's hanging down').
With the ascension of Charles I to the throne we come at last to the Central Period of English History (not to be confused with the Middle Ages, of course), consisting in the utterly memorable Struggle between the Cavaliers (Wrong but Wromantic) and the Roundheads (Right but Repulsive).
Charles I was a Cavalier King and therefore had a small pointed beard, long flowing curls, a large, flat, flowing hat and gay attire. The Roundheads, on the other hand, were clean-shaven and wore tall, conical hats, white ties, and sombre garments. Under these circumstances a Civil War was inevitable.
The Occasional Conformity Act was the only Act of its kind in History, until the Speed Limit was invented.
I love the sly poke at Elizabeth I at Tilbury as the Spanish Armada approached:
The crisis was boldly faced in England, especially by Big Bess herself, who instantly put on an enormous quantity of clothing and rode to and fro on a white horse at Tilbury—a courageous act which was warmly applauded by the English sailors.

You might be wondering, Why Bother with such a silly history book? The fact is it's the one history book you'll want to read over and over, and you really do need an excellent education in order to get all the jokes. For example, to understand this paragraph:
The hero of these adventures was the memorable Bonnie Prince Charlie (the Young Chandelier), who after being bloodily defeated by a Butcher at Flodden in Cumberland, was helped to escape by his many Scottish lovers, such as Flora MacNightingale (the fair maid of Perth), Amy Robsart, Lorna Doone, Annie Laurie, the Widow with Thumbs, etc.

--you need to be familiar not only with the history of the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745, but also with many works by Sir Walter Scott, Lorna Doone, Florence Nightingale and some old Scottish ballads. (Anyone who wants to help me out with the Widow-with-Thumbs reference is most welcome). A familiarity with the works of the Pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais will help understand the St Bartholomew's joke, and the joke about Cramner and Latimer falls altogether flat if you don't recall the latter's dying words.
The danger is remembering the errors, instead of using the jokes to remember the real history. But don't let that put you off. 1066 And All That has a deceptively huge amount of real history in it.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

I read Brideshead Revisited in the course of one day, beginning before sunrise and ending after sundown, with a law exam in the middle. All the way through it, I thought to myself-- “This is a book about fascinating people who continually seem to be about to do something, but never really do.” The writing style, I knew, was wonderfully delicate and evocative, and the characters were captivating; I just didn't think there was much of a plot. I could take it or leave it.
I've still only read Brideshead Revisited once. My gradual progression from indifference to wholehearted love of the book came afterwards, while I was thinking it over. I now think of it as one of the best Christian novels I've ever read.
It tells the story of Charles Ryder, an introverted, drifting young man who while drifting through his days at Oxford makes the acquaintance of the charming and aristocratic Sebastian Flyte. At first Charles and Sebastian find their days at Oxford idyllic, but Charles who comes from a small and loveless family finds it hard to figure out why Sebastian is so reluctant to speak about, or introduce Charles to, his own family. The Flytes are dysfunctional—Lord Marchmain, the patriarch, never came back from the War and is living in Italy to avoid his wife—but Charles can't figure out why. There's nothing particularly wrong with the Flytes—but Sebastian seems to want to keep Charles away from them. As Charles's status shifts from Sebastian's particular friend to that of a friend of the whole family, Sebastian drifts further and further into self-destruction, eventually running away to face life on his own. Soon Charles realises that this odd family is haunted by something that will never let them go. Is Lady Marchmain a woman of staunch faith, or a mistress guilt-manipulator? Is Lord Marchmain—with Sebastian and Julia--running from her or from God?
As the Flyte family disintegrates still further, Charles loses touch with them altogether. But he hasn't seen the last of them yet. Ten years later, he'll be there to witness their end, as he was there to witness their slow dissolution—but this time, he, too, will be caught in their fate.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Salute to Adventurers by John Buchan

I suppose you must all know by now how much I love John Buchan--and Salute to Adventurers is one of my many favourites among his works.
It tells the adventures of Andrew Garvald, who is a Scot—in other words, a merchant-poet, a Presbyterian-cavalier, a businessman-romantic. Eighteen years old, he's already had to leave his schooling in Edinburgh to help his Covenanter father escape the King's men to Holland, and it's reluctantly that he lays down his responsibility as current head of the family to return to Edinburgh. On the way he meets two people who will change the course of his life: pretty, aristocratic Elspeth Blair on the one hand, and the ranting fanatic preacher Muckle John Gib on the other.
Oh dear,” you're thinking, “one of those books, where sincere Christians are the bad guys! How fast can I get away from this book?”
Not so fast—you have a pleasant surprise in store! But let me continue.--Andrew finds himself in a nasty spot when the king's dragoons rescue him from John Gib's “Sweet-singers” only to throw him into prison along with them—from whence he is retrieved by Mistress Elspeth Blair, who laughs and pronounces him harmless enough for a whiggamore; pleasantries which wound young Andrew's pride and ensure that he does not forget her in a hurry.
Years pass, and Andrew completes his studies and begins a good sober Scottish career as a grocer; soon he has determined to move to the Virginian colony for to groce in the New World. Not long before he leaves, adventure once more comes to him in the Edinburgh street, where he witnesses three men attack a stranger and leave bleeding from the point of his sword.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Quentin Durward by Sir Walter Scott

When people ask me where they should start reading Scott, I often try to steer them in the direction of Quentin Durward. It's a perfect introduction to his body of work: it's got the callow young Scottish hero; the lady of high estate; the machinations of kings and princes; the wars and dangers. And as always with Scott, extremely fine characterisation.
Quentin Durward is the story of a pawn. We meet our young hero travelling through France in the hope of cadging a job at the French Court through his uncle, who is part of the guard. Before two chapters are up, he's met a handful of mysterious strangers—notably a wily old merchant who commands unusual respect wherever he goes, and a mysterious lady known only as “Jacqueline”. It isn't long until Quentin discovers that, all unwittingly, he has fallen into exalted company. His courage, resource, and usefulness are gauged to a nicety—and then moved into play. It is not the purpose of his puppeteer that he should live beyond said usefulness, nor that he should seek to carve his own way to wealth, love, and fame. Quentin Durward, who may be hot-headed but has a certain native wit of his own, has other ideas.
The story is set during the conflict in France and Flanders between King Louis XI of France and Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. In those days, in the mid-1400s, the Dukes of Burgundy had become all but independent of the Kings of France, and France was effectively two nations, with the Duke holding the upper hand. Louis XI does not relish this state of affairs, but his plot to regain Flanders by inciting an uprising in the city of Liege, led by the notorious bandit noble William de la Marck, 'the Boar of the Ardennes', backfires when the brutal murder of the Prince-Bishop of Liege coincides with a visit by Louis to Burgundy.
It is to Liege on the eve of revolt that Quentin Durward is commanded to escort a runaway countess. But why? And who will extricate the King of France from Charles the Bold's clutches? Read on to find out...
If you've already read this book, there's one character you'll be remembering, and that's Louis XI, one of Scott's most unforgettable characterisations. This King of France may be descended from a proud line of warrior-kings going all the way back to Charles the Great and Charles Hammer-of-Islam, but he has the soul of a moneylender. He is, in that dear old Cockney idiom, as crooked as a dog's hind leg. Scott draws an unforgettable portrait of a man wealthy but miserly, far too crafty for his own good, haunted by superstitious fear, and altogether hilarious to read about.
If it's plot you're looking for, Quentin Durward has it in spades: Palace intrigue, young love, danger in the feasting-hall of the Boar of Ardennes, hair's-breadth escapes, battles, and a happy ending. There's rarely a dull moment and (unusually in Scott's works) the plot gets going from the first couple of chapters.
All this and some unforgettable history, too. What are you waiting for?

Gutenberg etext

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Fiction: How Long Has It Really Been Around?

I've been on a bit of a sit-around-listening-to-lectures-while-knitting kick lately and it's been most enjoyable. But then the other day I heard a quick comment to the effect that “fiction hasn't been around very long” --just since the 1700s, in fact. Well, how could I resist a thing like that?
It's true that novels have only been around for the last 300-400 years. The works of Daniel Defoe such as Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders are among the first, novels ever written; Wikipedia calls Robinson Crusoe “the beginning of realistic fiction as a literary genre.” Defoe's novels were soon followed by many more and by Jane Austen's time the novel was a well-established literary tradition.
The Victorians had a low view of novels. They also had a low view of the Puritans. Coincidentally, the two are related: Daniel Defoe was a Calvinist in the Puritan tradition, although men of his stamp had ceased to be called Puritans by then; and The Pilgrim's Progress, still one of the greatest Calvinist works of fiction ever written, was the father of the modern novel. It was also perhaps the last epic, and thus straddles both genres. As a brief explanation, let me point out that before the novel, dialogue was not usually included in stories; rather, it could be found in plays. John Bunyan's addition of dialogue to his epic, and his sophisticated use thereof, formed the basis for the modern novel.
Novels have proliferated since English Calvinists first invented them. The last 100 years have seen the publication of more novels than in the previous 200 years put together. They are no longer the province of Puritans--a crying shame.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Vice Versa by F Anstey

When I picked this book up in an op shop and read the back cover, my first thought was Ah-ha, that's where they got the plot to Freaky Friday from! You know, it's the story where a parent and child have a terrible relationship until by some quirk of fate they end up switching bodies? And they both have lessons to learn about walking a mile in someone else's shoes before the happy ending?
It never struck me as being a particularly edifying plotline. If only we understood people's hardships, we would be more sympathetic to them. Discord in the world is the result of a lack of sympathy. Be sympathetic, and the world becomes a better place. In the words of Socrates, Nuh-uh.
Vice Versa is about pompous Mr Paul Bultitude, who one day wishes (in the midst of a lecture to his naughty son Dick, who doesn't wish to return to boarding-school) that he was a boy again. Mr Bultitude's surprise on finding that he now inhabits the body of his son is considerable, but his feelings when Dick seizes upon the same mode of transformation to switch himself into his father's body and then packs the unfortunate Mr Bultitude off to school can hardly be described.
Boarding-school becomes a fiery crucible for Mr Bultitude's character. Blamed for his son's previous misdoings, beset by his son's masters and child 'sweetheart', an object of punishment to bullies, and completely incompetent with his lessons, Mr Bultitude also finds himself unable to adapt himself to his surroundings. Meanwhile he is tortured by the news from home that his son, now wearing his guise, is wasting his money and causing strange stories to circulate about his name.
All this in tones of light comedy. The book is a hoot.
But then somewhere along the plotline, the book changes. It transcends itself. It crosses the line from fluffy entertainment to quality literature. Mr Bultitude is forced to grow in ways he never intended, and when he comes home—harried, hunted, and desperate—it is almost like Odysseus returning. He casts out the wicked uncle who has guessed the secret and come to make money off it; forgives his repentant son; and restores order to his home, a wiser and more grateful man.
This is less a story about the necessity of sympathy than it is the portrait of a man who is forced to grow in character during a horrible ordeal. Not that boarding-schools are portrayed as horrible; just horrible for this particular man, no longer boy enough to deal with it. For all that the book must have struck a chord with one unhappy schoolboy who later used the name Mr Bultitude for the pet bear in That Hideous Strength—CS Lewis.
Edited to add--Thanks to the commenter who provided CS Lewis's own assessment of this book:
I spoke just now of Vice Versa. Its popularity was surely due to something more than farce. It is the only truthful school story in existence. The machinery of the Garuda Stone really serves to bring out in their true colours (which would otherwise seem exaggerated) the sensations which every boy had on passing from the warmth and softness and dignity of his home life to the privations, the raw and sordid ugliness, of school. -- C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, Ch 2.


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