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Good Literature for Children & Adults

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney

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If you love New York City as I do, I bet you’ll also enjoy Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk. This first novel by Kathleen Rooney features a young woman who took the advertising world of New York City by storm in the 1930s and continues to walk the city into her ripe old age. We follow along behind as Lillian spends New Year’s Eve, the last evening of 1984, walking from her home in Murray Hill to Lower Manhattan and back again. Her circuitous route takes her past former homes, favourite bars and restaurants, and of course Macy’s department store where she worked for many happy years, and where she made her reputation as the sharpest, smartest, most successful female advertising copy writer of her time. In those now long ago days there was always a table for her at Delmonico’s. 

Lillian knew from a young age that she wanted more than marriage and baby carriages. She wanted to be somebody – to have a career – to live in New York City. And she succeeded as she dreamed. Along with a job she excelled at with Macy’s, she published poetry collections to much acclaim, had her own apartment, and a veritable parade of gentlemen friends. Her life was envied by most of her friends, though many wondered at her lack of interest in finding a husband and having babies. That is until she met Max Caputo, the rug buyer for Macy’s.

Lillian fell head over heels in love with Max, and he with her. Baby Gian, Johnny, followed shortly after marriage and a honeymoon in Italy. Lillian and Max appeared to live the very good life, no worries about money, satisfying work and a busy social life. But, motherhood was not Lillian’s best work and she soon felt the loss of her former self.

The story of Lillian’s early career, her marriage and motherhood are slowly revealed during her evening, and late night, walk. We learn about the girl about town, the happy young wife, and the following years, raising her son and her middle aged life as wife to Max. And, then, the later years alone.

Lillian is a complicated woman. An elderly woman by 1984, who “used to be beautiful”, she still cares about her appearance. She is still bright, still as uncompromising as ever, and still as brave. There were times I did not especially like the young career woman Lillian – she was sometimes too hard and very self focused, as perhaps she had to be to meet with the success she was so determined to achieve.

Only at the conclusion of the novel do we learn that Lillian’s life is, in fact, based on that of a real woman, whose life story captured the attention of Kathleen Rooney, who knew it would provide the framework for a novel that is a love song to Manhattan, past and present.

Wildfire at Midnight by Mary Stewart

My grandmother Goodman was born in 1900, so while she seemed old to me when I was 12 she was only about the same age I am now – old. I had not realized this rather horrifying fact until just now when I did the math!

Though she smoked constantly – but never inhaled – she lived to be 92 years old with absolutely no health issues until she dropped dead early one morning. Grammy Goodman was my city grandmother. She lived in Saint John, New Brunswick where she raised her son alone, after what had seemed to be an advantageous marriage to a man from a well to do Toronto family. Unfortunately, he was the black sheep and she ended up taking her only child, my father, back to New Brunswick, moved into the family home where she raised her son and cared for her mother and her two brothers for the rest of their lives. Her father had been a sea captain and her home was full of wonders. She worked for an electrical contracting company and set an example to her impressionable young granddaughter that women could lead independent lives. 

Grammy Goodman was also a voracious reader. I picture her in a chair with a cigarette, a drink by her side and a paperback book. By the time I was a young teenager I’d read through all the children’s books and was reading whatever was on hand, my uncles Zane Grey novels, and my grandmother’s mystery novels. She had a footstool made from a butter box full of paperback books. Helen MacInnes and Mary Stewart are the ones I remember most.

This fall, looking for the comfort food version of books, I decided to re-read Wildfire at Midnight by Mary Stewart. Reading it now, more than 50 years later, I can understand why my grandmother liked it, and why my 12-year-old self liked it as well.

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The heroine, Gianetta Drury, is a well-known London fashion model. After a nasty divorce, and a busy London season she retreats to the Scottish island of Skye, to the Camas Fhionnaridh Hotel, for a much needed rest. Upon her arrival she immediately senses an atmosphere of fear and secrecy. It is soon revealed that a young woman was very recently murdered close by the hotel and many of the other guests are among the possible suspects. To complicate matters further, Gianetta’s ex-husband arrives and she finds herself struggling with her un-resolved feelings for him.

Wildfire at Midnight is a period piece, it was Mary Stewart’s second novel, published in 1956, a great success at the time it has stayed in print ever since. The heroine is beautiful, intelligent and independent but still does a fair amount of feminine swooning and fainting. The men are invariably handsome and gallant – even the murderer. The plot is credible, the setting exotic and the story captivating and suspenseful.

 

Mad Enchantment – Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies by Ross King

 

Ross King is a Canadian writer, based in the UK, and winner of the 2017 RBC Taylor Prize for his most recent book Mad Enchantment – Claude Monet and the Painting of The Water Lilies.

We are all familiar with the work of Claude Monet, especially the Water Lilies. These images have been used on all sorts of stationery items, jigsaw puzzles, clothing and accessories.

One of the most well known of the Impressionist painters, by the 1890s Monet was already widely recognized, his work sold in prestigious galleries, being collected by wealthy Americans. He was also one of few living artists to see his work hung in the Louvre.

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The book spans the years when Monet lived at Giverny but fills in the past as the story moves forward. We read of Monet and his family vacationing in Trouville during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, then leaving France to sit out that war in England. But, by the time World War 1 begins Monet is living in Giverny and this time he stays put – in his garden, working on the huge paintings that have become so celebrated. He wrote, “I would prefer to die here in the midst of my work”.

With the horror of the First World War in the background Monet lived relatively unaffected at Giverny. He was inconvenienced by the disruption of the train schedule, the shortage of cigarettes and gasoline. He was worried about the young men in his family who were fighting but he continued to work quite undisturbed by the war. Amazingly in 1917 he was commissioned to paint the ruins of the cathedral in Reims, and took advantage of the trip to take a holiday, driving in Normandy, to Etretat, Fecamp, Dieppe and Le Havre – a route still often followed by tourists today.

Of course it is always advantageous for artists to have friends in positions of power. Monet had many but Georges Clemenceau was his great friend and future Prime Minister of France. His story is woven into that of Monet’s. Clemenceau was instrumental is allowing Monet to keep possession of his car, and a supply of gas. Clemenceau and other friends also ensured that Monet had a supply of cigarettes.

Artists reading this book will find Monet’s way of working especially interesting, the way in which he prepared his canvases and other odd bits of information about his painting technique, and how later in his life he deals with compromised vision.

The first half of the book takes place during the First World War, and the second half continues through the years of Peace Treaty negotiations. In these years in addition to the wealthy Americans already buying Monet’s work he also developed a clientele of wealthy Japanese collectors. Monet himself had been collecting Japanese prints for many years, and certainly there is Japanese influence to be seen in the Giverny gardens.

We come to know Monet as a complicated man, a tormented genius, a man who put his art before all, a man depressed by the death of friends, including Rodin and Renoir. He is frustrated by failing eyesight and cataract surgery, and becomes more and more enraged and frustrated as he ages.

During all of this time Monet worked on his huge canvases with the plan, from the beginning, that they be donated to the nation in a purpose built gallery. After much delay and negotiation the venue considered most suitable was The Orangerie des Tuileries in Paris. Monet was impatient with the delay in the completion of renovations to the Orangerie. By 1925 both Monet and Clemenceau were in poor health and feeling that they were approaching the end of life. In fact, Monet died on December 5th, 1926 – his paintings not installed in the Organerie until two weeks after his funeral! Georges Clemenceau died only a few short years later in November 1929.

Of course, now The Organerie and Monet’s home and gardens at Giverny are on every tourist itinerary and travellers to France are all taking pleasure in reading Mad Enchantment by Ross King.

 

The Paris Spy by Susan Elia MacNeal and The Shadow District by Arnaldur Indridason

Two new mystery novels from two old favourites

 

Those of us who read mystery novels are always excited when a new installment of a favourite series is released. This fall we have new books by a couple I enjoy reading, The Paris Spy by Susan Elia MacNeal and The Shadow District by Arnaldur Indridason.

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The Paris Spy features SOE secret agent Maggie Hope and takes place in the final years of the Second World War. In this episode Maggie is in Paris, on an assignment to locate another agent who seems to have disappeared – and on a personal mission to find her half-sister who she believes may also be in Paris. Maggie is masquerading as a young woman from neutral Ireland, supposedly in Paris to purchase her wedding gown and trousseau from those fashion houses that are still open. And, many couturiers are doing a very good business with the Nazi officers who are purchasing clothes for their wives and girlfriends.

While staying at the Ritz Maggie meets Coco Chanel who, though somewhat suspicious of Maggie, invites her to the ballet and parties that are frequented by high-ranking Nazi officers. Always fearing for her own safety, and especially for that of her fellow operatives, Maggie must be ever vigilant and fearless in her actions. This is a dangerous mission and mistakes are truly a matter of life and death for Maggie and others who support the Allies. Woven into the daring do life of Maggie Hope is the real history of the time, and in this case it is the planning of the Normandy invasion – and the British attempt to convince Nazi intelligence that they will land in another location.

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The Shadow District by Arnaldur Indridason also takes place during the Second World War, this time in the Shadow District of Reykjavik, Iceland. This book is the first in a new series by Indridason that will all take place in wartime Reykjavik. Iceland has recently become a new republic, surrendered by Denmark during the Second World War. The geographic position of Iceland made it a vital location for the Allied forces during the war, and afterwards, and there were many British and American servicemen there for a number of years.

The story takes place in both the present time and during WW2. CID officer Marta enlists the help of her retired colleague Konrad in investigating the case of an elderly man who appears to have been smothered in his bed. As it turns out the man was once a Canadian serviceman of Icelandic heritage, Stefan Thorson, who remained in Iceland after the end of the war. During the war, fluent in both English and Icelandic, Thorson worked as liaison with the Icelandic police, especially a detective Flovent. There was great concern about the problems caused by the occupying soldiers fraternizing with Icelandic women and girls.

Thorson and Flovent become involved in an investigation into the death of a young woman who is known to have had an American soldier boyfriend, but the demands of war prevent them from satisfactorily concluding the investigation. Flovent wrote “for some reason the matter won’t give me any peace”.

It is only when Thorson, himself, is murdered many years later, and his death is being investigated by our present day detective Konrad, that the earlier murder inquiry surfaces again. Konrad discovers that Thorson had recently been asking questions of those still alive in an effort to discover who in fact had murdered the young woman in the case he’d been investigating during the war.

 

A Measure of Light by Beth Powning

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Though it was published in the early spring of 2015, I did not read Beth Powning’s A Measure of Light until this fall. I hesitated for a long time, began it once, but could not continue. Why? Because Mary Dyer, the heroine of the novel, is also, my family believes, our ancestor. I grew up with the story that Mary Dyer was put to death in Salem, Massachusetts – either by drowning or hanging, depending on the storyteller – because she was considered to be a witch. I now suspect, if we assume that Beth Powning has her facts straight (of which I have no doubt) that the family story is far from correct. And, in fact, Mary Dyer’s story was a much more complicated one than I had imagined.

Mary and William Dyer were Puritans who left England in the mid 1630s to escape religious persecution. Their beliefs were strictly observed, with absolute obedience to the dictates of their religion – break any one of the Ten Commandments and you’d be put to death. They sailed from Plymouth to Boston to begin a new life, in a new land.

Mary’s first-born son died in England when he was only a few days old. Her second son, Samuel, survived. But a third pregnancy resulted in the tragic pre-mature birth of a daughter, anencephalic. The superstitions of the time had some in the community claiming that the child was a monster – begat by the devil and Mary a sinner.

Mary was also, at this time, becoming increasingly unpopular with the clergy and other powerful men in the community. Women “had no right to question” but Mary and her friend Anne Hutchinson did question. Anne was intelligent, articulate and a leader among the women in her community. Excommunication was threatened - a serious charge, as one would be “rejected from God and delivered to Satan”. Striving for a safer, less restrictive place to live the Dyer family and others left for Providence to begin again.

More children were born to Mary and William, another home built and another life established. Mary struggled to find her place. From today’s perspective I’d guess that Mary suffered from post-partum depression – she hated the demands of motherhood, and always feared having another child die – or even worse another with a birth defect. Baby after baby, she could not find it within herself to love them as she knew she should.

Mary was searching for meaning in her life and was vulnerable to the influence of religious extremism – and she found it with the Quakers. The Quakers believed that “God is in all”, that there was no need for a church, and that they were very much on a mission of bringing all into their faith as “Children of Light”. They also believed that men and women were equal in the eyes of God. For Mary this answered all of her needs and she was ready to sacrifice herself, her only desire to prove that she was in the right and that no man, no community had the right to deny her – even on the threat of death. Somehow, I found this story, probably very much the truth of the life of Mary Dyer, more disturbing than the idea that she’d been unjustly accused of being a witch!

A Measure of Light, no matter what your personal beliefs, provides a fascinating view of a world I certainly knew nothing about. Though the novel takes place in what is now the United States of America, many of the Quakers later left Massachusetts for Nova Scotia, moving as they had before seeking freedom of religious expression.

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