Monday, June 9, 2014

A quartet of books, in brief review

Summer has definitely arrived here in the Houston area.  We've had our first days in the 90s, and the humidity feels like 110%.  These first really hot and humid days leave me feeling a bit muddled and vapourish.  I think it's the process of acclimatizing again to the long months of summer heat.  It's good for reading, because I tend to lounge around, but not so good for coherent writing.  Added to that, there was a week of binge-reading Harry Potter, followed by a week of binge-watching "Royal Pains" on Netflix, coping mechanisms in part for the stress of putting on workshops and trainings at work.  Too many hours of TV have also left me feeling a bit mushy, mentally.  So I thought I'd try some brief discussion of the books that have piled up, waiting for posts.

Henrietta's War, Joyce Dennys

I first learned of The Bloomsbury Group's books from blogs, but I honestly never expected to find them in Houston.  I underestimated the bookstores!  The cover of Henrietta Sees It Through caught my eye at Half Price Books.  And while I said before that I had read enough about World War II for a while, there was no chance I was going to leave it on the shelf.  Just from paging through it, I could tell it was along the same lines as The Provincial Lady, with elements of Angela Thirkell's war-time novels.  However, once I realized it was a sequel, with my compulsive need to read stories in order, I had to get the first book, Henrietta's War.  For the first few pages, I was afraid it might be a bit twee for my tastes.  Though I am an Enthusiastic Capitalizer myself,  too many Capitals in a book does not always bode well.  But I quickly became fond of Henrietta and her doctor husband Charles, even before I found them reading Trollope as an antidote not just to the evening news, but even an air-raid.  The books consist of letters that Henrietta writes to her Childhood's Friend Robert, serving in the armed forces.  She downplays them as "the trivial doings of protected people in what is called a safe area!"  But they're funny and full of life, with all the quirks of her small village community, and I am looking forward to her further adventures.

Drawn from Memory and Drawn from Life, Ernest H. Shepard

These went on my reading list as soon as I read Claire's reviews.  I knew of Shepard from my copy of The Wind in the Willows, with his illustrations, but I knew nothing about him.  The first volume is an account of his childhood in Victorian London.  Published in 1957, it covers roughly a year around 1887, when he was 7 and 8.  He introduces us to his parents, his sister Ethel and brother Cyril, their nurses Martha and Lizzie.  He describes their house and the neighborhood, as well as events like Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee and his first ecstatic visit to the pantomime. Though Shepard tells us in a Preface that his mother became ill and died a couple of years later, when he was 10, his life during this year was filled with love and security, and with fun.  I knew from the start of his mother's death, but the sudden shift forward in a later chapter to 1916, and a description of finding his brother's grave in France, took me completely by surprise and left me feeling strangely bereft.  The second book begins with his mother's death, and the ways that the family coped with that devastating loss.  It moves at a faster pace, as it covers his life between ages 10 and 24, focusing particularly on his education as an artist. Here again though the Great War looms, as so many of his friends and fellow students are introduced with their deaths foreshadowed.  That melancholy is balanced in part by the fun that Shepard and his fellow students found, particularly at the Royal Academy; and also by his account of falling in love with one of those students, his future wife Pie.  Both books are wonderfully illustrated with Shepard's drawings, including some saved from his childhood, which show his talents at a very young age.

Random Harvest, James Hilton

I was introduced to Random Harvest with the 1942 film, starring Ronald Colman and Greer Garson.  It was on the Turner Classics Movie channel one night, and though I knew nothing about it or its stars, I watched it straight through. I was completely caught up in the story, and when I saw in the credits that it was based on James Hilton's novel, I made a mental note to find the book.  I've made the same mental note every time I've watched the film (which will be shown again next week).  It was reading a review of the book on Another look book that finally motivated me to order a copy. Since I had seen the film, I knew the central plot, and the big twist. But the film tells the story in chronological order, and mainly from the point of view of Charles Rainier.  We meet him first in 1919, a patient at the Melbury Asylum, a casualty of the war who cannot remember who he is, even his name.  The book is narrated by a man named Harrison, who meets Charles Rainier on a train in 1937, and only gradually comes to hear his story.  Harrison's first-person narration frames two third-person narrative sections, where Rainier is telling his own story.  As I was reading, I kept wishing that I didn't know the ending, that I was discovering the story for the first time.  Though it's a general principle with me that "The book is always better,"  here I think that the film does capture the essence of the book, its emotional heart.  I'm looking forward to seeing it again, now that I've read this.  I'd watch it just to listen to Ronald Colman's beautiful voice.  I've since learned that he himself was gravely wounded in the Great War, which must have helped him connect with his character in this film.


  1. I'm so glad you read the two Shepard books! Like you, I was pretty devastated when he spoke about his brother's death. Despite the untimely loss of his mother and his brother though, I really liked how positive Shepard was. He sounds like a lovely man.

  2. Oh, Ronald Colman... *fans self* I added this book straight to my wishlist after Another Look Book's review, and as I haven't seen the film anytime recently I'm thinking it will not spoil anything for me. But I must track down the film again!

  3. I love the covers of the Bloomsbury Group books, though the only one I've actually read is Miss Hargreaves. I'm glad you enjoyed Henrietta's War - I thought it might be a bit twee for me too, but maybe not!

  4. Oh Lord, I have had Henrietta's War on my shelf for YEARS and somehow still haven't picked it up. I don't know why! I love WWII Britain, it is my fave. I'm glad you posted this -- maybe this will be the nudge that finally gets me to read it.

  5. Royal Pains is a new show to me, but just looked it up and added to my Netflix queue... sounds like my kid of show! Henrietta's War has been on my wish list for ages. Thanks for reminding me.

  6. Claire, he does sound like a lovely person, and I wish he had written at least one more volume. I'd like to have heard about how he got started in his career.

    vicki, the film version definitely set off a slight Ronald Colman obsession. I've even watched one of his silent films.

    Helen, I've actually found four of their books now, including Miss Hargreaves - though I still haven't read it. I think you'd enjoy this. Henrietta is an acute observer, even a slightly acidic one.

    Jenny, her war is a quieter one, in the country - but still all the adventures & hardships. Do you have the sequel on hand? ;)

    JoAnn, I've always heard of the Hamptons, and I enjoyed this version of them (however fictionalized). It gets a bit soapy in the middle, but by then I was pretty well hooked. The new season starts tonight :)

  7. Andrea (aka rokinrev)June 11, 2014 at 8:02 AM

    James Hilton, he also wrote Mildred Pierce,Postman always Rings Twice and Lost Horizons. IMHO, the movies were always better than the stories.

    Mildred Pierce w/Joan Crawford is on my own personal favs list.I stumbled on Random Harvest movie quite by accident one night and fell in love with it. My spouse had a quartet anthology and I devoured that in two days

  8. Good thing you stuck with Henrietta's War, twee though it was. I find I like epistolary novels, and any character who reads Trollope as an antidote to the evening news would have a place in my heart. Sounds like a fun book.

  9. Andrea, thanks for stopping by. The only other books of his that I know are Lost Horizon and Good-bye, Mr. Chips. I've watched parts of both film versions but never the whole thing. I think the other books you mention were by James M. Cain?

    Jane, I am also a fan of epistolary novels! and it's such fun to meet fellow Trollope readers, in fiction as well as real life.

  10. I would have to love someone who reads Trollope to escape from the troubles around them. I am suffering from the onset of summer as well and I think a good dose of Trollope might be just what I need.

  11. I watched Random Harvest a few years ago and absolutely loved it - thanks for pointing out that it will be on again this week. I'll be recording it! And I'll have to read the book, too.
    Like Jenny, I've had a copy of Henrietta's War on my shelf for at least 5 years and I've never read it. I feel I've spent so much time reading contemporary novels lately that it is hard to switch my brain over to classics - there is a different pace and feel - but I'd like to try to read HW this summer. I miss a bit of tweeness that is lacking in the dark novels I've been reading.

  12. Alex, I was thinking, apropos of your comment, that Trollope is indeed perfect summer reading - the long slow story arcs - and then I realized that I also think that's perfect winter reading, curled up inside. But I'm still recovering from the Famine novel.

    Anboyln, I'm recording it as well! HW is an easy read - so it might be a nice change. But coincidentally, I've been feeling like I want to read something modern & contemporary.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!