Friday, February 5, 2016

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1945)

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is a lovely little story about a young widow who leaves the home of her in-laws and moves with her two children to an isolated cottage by the sea. It is here, in the British coastal town called Whitecliff, that Irish author Josephine Leslie (writing under the pseudonym R.A. Dick) introduces her lead character Lucy Muir to Daniel Gregg, a sea captain who has passed on to a dimension too big for him to describe in earthly words. The two begin a romance of sorts and the story takes the couple through to their long-awaited reunion at the end of Lucy's life.

"Little Mrs. Muir," as she is so often described by those around her, realizes upon the death of her "adequate" husband that she has been left an "inadequate" income and rather than remain under the obligation of in-laws, she discovers there are "other ways to live." So with that, little Lucy asserts her independence by walking out the door and finding a place she can call her own. This sudden strength of character also gives Lucy the courage to stand up to the ghost that haunts Gull Cottage: her future partner, Captain Gregg.

I loved this story first as a television series and then as an old black and white film but now that I have read The Ghost and Mrs. Muir in its original form, I think the book tells the story best. The author writes with ease and her descriptions - of a breezy March day or the end of one's life - are perfection.

And now, since my "reviews" tend to focus on the position of women in the environment they occupy during their time in history, here goes: 

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir can be seen as a transitional novel, following in a lesser (literary) degree stories like The Awakening (1899). Lucy doesn't want "more" out of life, however. She wants less. No clubs. No societies. No golf. No bridge. She wants to be left alone, to live alone, and as the house agent states with great concern, "without a man's protection." 

It must be acknowledged, however, that Lucy does live with a man, an invisible ghost man, but a man nevertheless and she depends upon him a great deal for advice and protection. Lucy buys Gull Cottage with Gregg's money and, most notably, obtains financial security when she anonymously publishes a book he has written. To the outside world, Mrs. Muir is self sufficient and Leslie's novel introduces the concept that a woman can desire autonomy even if she can't achieve it on her own. And in the same way that later authors will deal more specifically with female independence, and future decades of readers will accept it, Lucy passes the torch and financial security on to the next generation. She says to her daughter:

“Oh, yes, I will [continue to give you an allowance after you are married],” said Lucy, “you don’t know how humiliating it is to have to ask even for a penny to buy a stamp.”

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is a classic in American culture, a story loved by many. Five stars for the memories and an enjoyable read. 

An in-depth and well-considered analysis of the book can be found here.

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Mirror Dance (1970)

I read Elisabeth Kylie's Mirror Dance about a month ago and while I have a vague memory of the plot, I have forgotten most of the details. Goodreads gives the book two stars, probably because the writing is simplistic and the conclusion weak, but I will elevate that rating to three stars because the author creates an independent woman in 1970 and does a good job describing the urban lifestyle I love so much.

The very first sentence of the novel tells us a lot about the city atmosphere that is to follow:

"Paxton was a favoured suburb of London in which to live. It had an excellent train service up to town." 

Judith Marlowe lives in a flat, one she shares first with room mates and then keeps on her own when her salary allows for it. She is financially and emotionally stable. She works, takes holidays, and commutes. 

Things get complicated when Judith inherits her grand-aunt's house and discovers, hidden away, a suitcase that was supposed to have been with her cousin Giselle when she died in a British train accident.

How is it that Giselle's body was damaged yet her suitcase remains in perfect condition? How is it that Giselle's passport includes a Danish entry mark dated several days prior the crash and yet there is no exit visa bringing her back to London? 

Judith, naturally, travels to Copenhagen to solve the mystery of her cousin's death. While there, she lives in a hotel, one with a narrow entrance and an old-fashioned lift. When she looks outside, she can see inside a "handsome" flat across the street and, two stories down, a crown-approved jewelers shop. 

The author describes city life throughout the story in a genuine way. When Judith awakens, an early morning bus rumbles by carrying workers to their 6am shift. The streets begin to fill as the sun rises, first with shop girls and clerks and later with professionals and tourists. Stores open. Judith walks through different neighborhoods, elegant ones and then busier ones selling foodstuffs. She stops for a coffee. Late at night, back in her room, Judith's radiator is noisy but the streets are quiet. The room is stuffy. She opens her window. Another bus passes by and after a short interval, a party of strollers. The flat she was able to look into earlier is dark and the shop below, illuminated softly, is shut tight with iron grilles.

Judith investigates but she doesn't rent or borrow a car. She takes a bus to question her prime suspect. She flags a cab when she's in a hurry or on her way to the airport. Mostly Judith walks, referencing maps and choosing well-lit streets filled with activity for safety. When Judith socializes with others, she does so in parks or over meals in restaurants. She fills her time wandering through museum exhibits and chats with strangers at the ballet. And, throughout it all, she gathers information. At no time does Judith justify her employment or apologize for her lack of a husband.

At the story's conclusion (spoiler alert), we are told that Gisele overdosed while staying with her friend Inge in Denmark. Even though the pills were somehow legal, Inge worked in a chemist's shop that was missing drugs and to avoid scandal and possible incrimination, she dumps Giselle's body in the river and pretends her friend dies in an accident. The true drug thieves, although never named or described, are said to have been arrested. Judith returns to London, without reporting her findings to authorities, and is merely grateful she no longer feels responsible for her cousin having been on the train that crashed. 

I don't know if we are supposed to accept this explanation as fact or see through it? It makes more sense that Inge killed Giselle for her money and dumped her body in the river. Aunt Vera may have wanted to avoid publicity and been blackmailed. A final edit would have helped if the author wanted us to read one thing yet know another, or if she had wanted to leave the ending ambiguous. Either way, Inge lives in fear that the body will resurface and Judith has a new love interest, a short man, small boned and slightly foreign looking, another indication in 1970 that standards are changing. We can conclude the book with satisfaction. 

SIDEBAR: Yet to add a little more confusion, the covers used when this novel was in print do not represent the story at all. The one I show above is ridiculous. This is not a gothic novel although it may have been marketed as such in 1970. The terrified female running from a big house on the moors or cliffs does not apply. Judith lives in a flat and then a hotel. She visits her aunt who lives on a city block and then interviews suspects in bars and parks. She travels to sea-side cottages and modern apartment blocks. At no time does she flee in terror wearing only a nightgown. 

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Literature in the 1970s

1970
Waiting for Willa by Dorothy Eden
The Mirror Dance by Elisabeth Kyle
The Terracotta Palace by Anne Maybury
Love Story by Erich Segal

1971
Ride a White Dolphin by Anne Maybury
The Other by Tom Tryon

1972
Scars on the Soul by Francoise Sagan
Stepford Wives by Ira Levin
An Unsuitable Job for a Woman by P.D. James

1973
The Dressmaker by Beryl Bainbridge
A Taste of Blackberries by Doris Buchanan Smith

1974
Jaws by Peter Benchley

1975 
Salem's Lot by Stephen King

1976
Interview with a Vampire by Anne Rice
Trinity* by Leon Uris
The Jeweled Daughter by Anne Maybury

1977
The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough

1978
Chesapeake by James A. Michener
The Far Pavilions by M. M. Kaye

1979
Close to Home by Deborah Moggach

Friday, August 14, 2015

The Key Key (in case we lose the cheat sheet)

Gold = front door.

Purple = back door.

Blue = front gate (guest).

Plain = front gate (gravel lot).

White = master bedroom.

Pink = laundry room.

Black = hay barn.

Red = tool shed (aka, the old chicken house).

Yellow = pump house (aka, the well house and the garden shed).

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Yitzhak Lanton

Yitzhak and his cousins
(photo credit L. Boressoff)
A few years ago I posted a photo of my great-grandfather Harry Simon and his family in New York City. Well, just last night I received an email from a man named Gary whose great-grandfather was also photographed in the same studio by the same photographer standing in front of the same backdrop.

Yitzhak Lanton was born in 1881 in a town called Tartakov, currently located in the Ukraine. At that time, Tartakov was part of the Austrian Hungarian empire.

Yitzhak's wife Gittel had a brother named Sam, who emigrated to the US in 1912. He was able to secure papers for Yitzhak and Yitzhak set sail from Hamburg, Germany on a boat called the SS Vaterland on June 27, 1914.

The very next day, June 28th, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie, the Duchess of Hohenberg, were shot dead in Sarajevo. This was the event that triggered the beginning of World War I.

Yitzhak's journey was for the purpose of settling in the US and then his wife Gittel and their two children Rebecca (Rhoda) and Heschel (Harry) would join him; however, because of the war, Yitzhak's family was trapped and could not leave Europe.
Harry (Heschel) Gittel, and Rhoda (Rebecca)
(photo credit unknown)

Yitzhak lived with Gittel's cousins. One of them contracted the Spanish flu. Yitzhak helped take care of his cousin and while she survived, Yitzhak contracted the same flu and was not as fortunate. He died October 10, 1918.

Yitzhak and Gittel, separated throughout the war, were never together in the US. Gittel emigrated in 1921, when her brother Sam arranged a second marriage for her.

The photo of Yitzhak and his cousins was taken by Louis Boressoff. His studio was located at 355 Grand Street in the lower east side of Manhattan. Louis arrived in New York City on August 11, 1900 and was naturalized on September 6, 1905. He advertised frequently as an artistic photographer specializing in pastels, crayons, and water colors.

If you have any photos taken by Boressoff, please share them with us.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Abracadaver (1989)

I bought this book in Mexico for ten pesos, the equivalent of about a buck or less, from a vendor who had a table of old books for sale. It was a score for me because it's in English.

Abracadaver is #13 in the Father Dowling mystery series. I am familiar with the character from the American TV show and while the books came first (I believe), Abracadaver reads like a weekly episode. Characters have relationships that suggest romance but the connection never moves forward. Individuals have personality quirks that allow for a little substance but nothing they do is necessarily significant or valuable to the story. Perhaps this is why Raplph McInerny's books translate so well to television?

Overall, I give Abracadaver a big MEH and toss it in the giveaway pile. The crime was moderately interesting but the conclusion of the book was a big disappointment because the resolution relied on information we, the readers, were never given. If you are at all familiar with the Ten Commandments of Detective Writing, solutions like this are a cardinal sin.

While it might be a stretch to say that the setting in Abracadaver operates like a "character," what I will take away from the story in return for my time spent is McInerny's well-done description of the never-ending snow storm in Chicago and how it acts as a background to his action.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Literature in the 1960s

1960
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

1961
The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck

1962
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle

1963
The Cross and the Switchblade by David Wilkerson

1964
The Italian Girl by Iris Murdoch

1965
Airs Above the Ground by Mary Stewart

1966
Kid Rodelo by Louis L'Amoour

1967
Rosemary's Baby by Ira Levin
Miramar by Naguib Mahfouz

1968
True Grit by Charles Portis

1969
The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles
Mount Vernon Love Story by Mary Higgins Clark
The Godfather by Mario Puzo