Dimestore: A Writer's Life

“Dimestore” is, according to the author, a series of essays but it seems to be more of a memoir. Lee Smith is known for her fiction set in Appalachia (I have only read “Fair and Tender Ladies” although she has written several). She describes growing up in the mountains of western Virginia and her family, life in a small town, and discovering fiction and Southern writers. Her reminisces made me want to delve into the Southern writers again!

I especially enjoyed the chapters on writing and literature. “I was still drunk on words and books, just as I had been as a child, when I used to read under the covers with a flashlight all night long.  My favorite professor at Hollins was Louis D. Rubin, Jr., who introduced us to Southern literature; I hadn’t even known it existed when we started out. I had already gotten drunk on Faulkner a couple of times, then had to go to the infirmary for a whole day when we read William Styron’s “Lie Down in Darkness’ – I got too ‘wrought up,’ as my mother used to say. The nurse gave me a tranquilizer, and made me lie down.”

She writes about meeting Eudora Welty and her disillusionment (“I was deeply disappointed. Why, she certainly didn’t look like a writer! She didn’t have a cape, or boots or anything.”), that changed instantly to enthusiasm as Welty begins to read aloud a passage from one of her stories. And she relates both the difficulties and the fulfillment that writing brings:

“These days, very few are the writers whose book jackets list things like bush pilot, big game hunter, or exotic dancer. No, more often we are English teachers. We have children, we have mortgages, we have bills to pay. So we have to stop writing strictly about what we know, which is what they always told us to do in creative writing classes. Instead, we have to write about what we can learn, and what we can imagine…”

It has been a long time since I’ve read a non-fiction book. I do enjoy reading diaries, letters, and memoirs, as I love reading other viewpoints that enlarge my world. The author tackles difficult subjects (divorce and remarriage; schizophrenia, aging, dysfunctional families, illness).

“Dimestore” centers mainly on Lee Smith’s childhood memories (her father owned a five-and-ten). She also writes candidly and unashamedly about the mental illnesses in her family. There is a very sad, poignant chapter about the death of her son. The author explores in her literature and writing, not only how she herself dealt with loss and grief but the engima of human frailty and surviving the challenges that life brings.

“Then Dr. Stevenson leaned forward intently and said, “Lee, since your parents are both ill, I wonder if you have ever worried about getting sick as well.”
“You mean, if I am going to go crazy, too,” I blurted out.
“Yes’, he said,  “if you are going to go crazy too.”


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Jane and Prudence

Jane and Prudence

I had read Barbara Pym some years ago (not sure which one, it may have been “Excellent Women”?) and although I remember liking it, felt it was very mild. And then I read “Jane and Prudence”.

For some reason this book really absorbed my interest (and why is that? sometimes a book just happens to hit the spot just at the right time.) At first, it was a little slow-moving for me but once I began to delve into the lives of the characters I found it to be a fast read and so entertaining!

Jane is a thoroughly incompetent vicar’s wife who doesn’t seem to mind that she can’t seem to get her act together. It took me a while but I began to really like Jane! She is fresh, unassuming and yet forthright in her opinions, and isn’t too concerned or caught up in outward appearances: “Jane put on an old tweed coat which hung in the hall – the kind of coat one might have used for feeding the chickens in – and they went out together.”

Prudence Bates, Jane’s good friend from university days, is one of the few of their circle left ‘on the shelf’, and Jane decides she must ‘help’ Prudence find a satisfactory husband. (Shades of “Emma” and Jane Austen? probably. )

“There’s Miss Morrow and Fabian Driver – I think I told you about him in my letter.’ Jane was too wise to appear anything but casual in her tone as she mentioned this eligible widower. She knew that the pride of even young spinsters is a delicate thing and that Prudence was especially sensitive. There must be no hint that she was trying to ‘bring them together’.”

There are little vignettes of village affairs, afternoon tea, and tense meetings of the Parochial Council where the most difficult item on the agenda (and the one most discussed) seems to be which photo to put on the cover of the parish magazine. Insightful human perplexities and frailties are scattered throughout, with amusing commentaries (mostly from Jane) that hold the reader’s interest. (There are times when even the reader is unsure whether Jane realizes that her comments are meant to be taken seriously!)

Whether Prudence ultimately will contentment and fulfillment in her (dull) office job, or succeed at snaring the elusive and hopefully-reformed Fabian Driver, is not revealed until the final few chapters.

“She told me a good deal about Mr. Driver,’ said Jane. ‘About his wife and other things.’
“Ah, the other things,’ said Miss Doggett obscurely. ‘Of course, we never saw anything of those. We knew that it went on, of course – in London, I believe.’
‘Yes, it seems suitable that things like that should go on in London,’ Jane agreed. ‘It is in better taste somehow that a man should be unfaithful to his wife away from home.’

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Tim Ekaterin’s parents were rich… up to a point. Enjoying a privileged upbringing of comfort and ease, Tim’s memories included lavish vacations and going to the races. “I had been their only child and they’d given me a very good childhood, to the extent that when I thought of holidays it was of yachts on warms seas or Christmas in the Alps.” However, by the time Tim’s father passes away, he and his wife had lost millions of pounds through gambling. “In twenty-five years, it seemed, my mother had gambled away the best part of half a million pounds; all gone on horses, fast and slow.”

The logical choice for Tim, of course, was to join his grandfather’s prestigious banking firm… or was it?

Tim approves a loan of five million pounds to finance the purchase of the famous racing stallion, Sandcastle, for the purpose of breeding high-performing race horses (an unprecedented loan…who would risk such an amount on a horse?) But when the foals begin to appear with birth defects, it is apparent that someone is interfering and bent on sabotage.

This novel, like almost all of Dick Francis’ writing, *does* involve the world of horses and racing, although not exclusively. Tim will save one of the characters, a ‘faith-healer’ of sorts (of horses! is there such a thing?) from a knife attack, and later we find Tim risking his own safety to rescue a runaway horse. In between, he navigates the always- volatile -and -unpredictable world of finance and banking, stumbles upon evidence in a murder of a popular veterinarian, and saves a stud farm from almost certain failure.

The author brings home to the reader with fresh, illuminating insight, the undeniable tragedy that murder brings: “I’d thought of her young life once as being a clear stretch of sand waiting for footprints, and now there would be none, now only a blank, chopping end to all she could have been and done, to all the bright love she had scattered around her.”

“Banker” is not a novel easily categorized. Is it a murder mystery?  Partly.  Banker is also a novel about the world of finance, horse-racing and breeding (not too explicit thankfully!), and includes villains, heroes, and plain, everyday folk just hoping to ‘make it’ in their world.

The author is not only talented at writing suspenseful mysteries, he is also good at creating believable characters. “Banker” is both fast-paced and intriguing and I was rooting all the way for Tim’s success.

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Death in a White Tie

Death in a White Tie (Roderick Alleyn, #7)

I never used to read mysteries. Several years ago, my (now-retired) librarian friend pointed out mysteries-as-literature to me, and I started right in. Switching between some contemporary mystery authors and some from the “golden age’ of mystery-writing, I find that I do have a few favorite authors, and Ngaio Marsh is one of them.

Who could have possibly wanted to harm Lord Robert Gospell? Introduced to the reader as a mild, well-liked, kind gentleman, he is also much more ‘with it’ than many realize. In fact, so ‘with it’ that Inspector Roderick Alleyn (an old friend), seeks his help when presented with a puzzling blackmail case. And so ‘Bunchy’ (Lord Robert) agrees to go undercover to be Inspector Alleyn’s third eye.

Unfortunately, Bunchy, although able to pinpoint the culprit, is murdered in a taxi just before he is able to pass on his information to Alleyn. And so the mystery begins to unfold among the most unlikely of settings; the London debutante season.

“Death in a White Tie” is, I think, my favorite of all of Marsh’s mystery novels. Ngaio Marsh has several plot lines in this not-too-lengthy story and she handles each of them well. We grieve with Roddy (and understand his feelings of guilt) when he discovers his friend in the taxi. We watch him agonize over his feelings for the famous painter, Agatha Troy.

“The skies have opened and the stars have fallen. I feel as if I’d run round the world in the last hour. And now you must leave me.”

And we suffer along with the young debutantes, resenting all the pretense of a flawed, ostentatious tradition.

“She’s extremely common, but that doesn’t matter.  Lots of common people are charming. Like bounders.”

I fell in love with Bunchy! The thoughtful attention he gives to a lonely, forsaken debutante wallflower illustrates his well-drawn character so well. Quite honestly, Bunchy so engaged me that his murder made me quite zealous for a resolution, and I was rooting for Inspector Alleyn’s success all the way!

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A Horseman Riding By

A Horseman Riding By

Paul Craddock, wounded in the Boer War, returns to England finding he has inherited several thousand pounds sterling from his father. “…they broke the news that his father had died the day he had landed in England. He was shocked by the news but not overwhelmed. He had not seen his father in almost three years…”

Rejecting the city life Paul purchases a large estate consisting of several farms and in this long, epic-ey novel of pre-war life in England, his story continues as he marries (twice), experiences all the upheavals of a changing class system and society that the war ushers in. Paul, although at first hesitant and naive, quickly adjusts to his role as “Squire Craddock” and forges lasting relationships both within his family and among the farming community.

Perhaps overly sentimental at times, the reader is nonetheless caught up in the realistic portraits of the characters and the descriptive passages of England’s countryside. Difficulty and hardships are not glossed over, nor the seamier side of life or problems that present themselves within the lives of the characters (suicide, alcoholism, divorce, adultery, murder and more are all part and parcel of the village life but these difficulties are neither too explicit nor overly-emphasized). Warfare during the World War One is described (and who knew? I learned several new things, among them the booby-traps left in trenches).

“He thought about the span of years before the world ran off its rails in 1914 – “The Edwardian Afternoon” people were already calling it, as though it had been a marathon garden-party but had it? There had been the pleasure of working and planning within settled terms of reference but even then one needed the resilience of youth to absorb the shocks and disappointments of life…the war had rushed down on them, and after that the stresses of the ‘twenties culminating in the slump. One accepted personal tragedies… and with them the ransoms of time, like the elimination of old friends and partners, but lately – just when they seemed to be adjusting themselves to the post-war pattern – fresh shock waves came out of nowhere and a man was flat on his back again if he didn’t keep looking over his shoulder!”

There is such a variety of characters here, all with their own personality traits and flaws, that it took me a while to place them all! Delderfield has a habit of punctuating dialog with exclamation marks, which, although not annoying, does seem to add more emphasis to the characters themselves.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and gave myself a pat on the back once it was finished! However I do have to admit that the first two-thirds were the best. After that, the story-line and themes seemed repetitive and it was more slogging through the same types of challenges. Navigating the English political system and differing parties became a little tedious for me. However, if you are in the mood for something long and saga-ish, something nostalgic and evocative of a vanishing way of life, Delderfield fits the bill.

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Peace Like a River

Peace Like a River

“Peace Like a River” carried me away to another time and place… the Midwest in the 60’s. I was so caught up in the story and characters that I had to stay up late to finish this novel.

Reuben Land is the narrative voice and he is just eleven years old. When his family, especially his young sister, is threatened by the town bullies (violent, unredeemable chaps), the town’s sympathies are swayed by the media (sound familiar, folks?) Reuben puzzles over his neighbors ‘ reluctance to show support for his family . He relates the many times his dad, Jeremiah Land had been there for his neighbors… but apparently this was different. Reuben’s brother Davy, out of motives of self-defense, has committed murder and escapes before his trial results in the inevitable sentence of “guilty”.

The reader is carried through the Land family’s journey as they set out after a series of events to find Davy and try to pick up the pieces of their broken life. But can there really be any peaceful resolution for the Land family as Davy is pursued by police and federal agents?

“Swede said, “What would you give, to get Davy home?”
The way she asked it warned me she’d been thinking about this.
“Well, most things; I guess anything.”
“And then what if they stick him in jail?”

Not just a compelling story of family loyalty and revenge, the strongest element in this novel are the characters themselves.

Swede, the third grade-younger-sister in the Land family, is a poignant nine year old. Abandoned by her mother at a young age (as all three children were), the reader’s sympathies are engaged right away (even though Swede seems a little young to be writing ballads with such resonating prose).

There are small comforts interspersed here and there for the Land family as they find temporary asylum with old and new friends:

“And breakfast? What would you say to butter-crumbled eggs that trembled at the touch of your fork? To buttermilk biscuits under tumbling steam? To orange sides of salmon lying creamed upon blue saucers? What would you say to fresh peach pie, baked not the night before but that very morning? For breakfast? And through everything Mrs. DeCuellar, like a small sun beside her proud and outshone husband, beamed down on Swede and me… I couldn’t ever remember being so easily liked.”

Reuben’s father’s character is very likable. Seemingly having a hotline to heaven, Jeremiah Land is a man of ‘miracles’ and I can’t help but be a bit skeptical as Reuben relates story after story of his dad’s escapes from natural consequences. However, Jeremiah Land’s personality is never offensively ‘pushy’ and is in fact, worthy of the reader’s admiration as his patience with the offences of others (including his oldest son), weighs in.

And of course, there is young Reuben himself. An asthmatic from birth, Reuben’s voice comes through strongly in contrast to his battles with his weaker physical side. Reuben wants so badly to remain staunchly loyal to his older brother and finds himself frustrated and restricted by his own frailties. Reuben has to somehow find peace within himself and reconcile his family loyalty with doing the ‘right thing’.

“… I asked Dad why he kept laughing – what a sound that was, his laugh, low and confident again, like your best friend’s laugh in the darkness when you’ve believed he was gone forever.
And Dad said, Because I was praying this morning and I prayed Lord, send Davy home to us; or if not, Lord, do this: Send us to Davy.”

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The Land of Green Ginger

The Land of Green Ginger

This is the first Winifred Holtby book I’ve read, and I’m still deciding, quite frankly, what to think.

Teddy Leigh, losing his mother and in turn inheriting her debilitating illness of consumption, dreams of a comfortable, fulfilling life. “When should he say, ‘’And Thou, O Lord, art my comfort?” Nobody was now his comfort, neither the form master who had praised his translation of the Eclogues that afternoon, nor the slatternly housekeeper who made him toast for tea and worried kindly about his cough, nor, certainly, his father, drowning sorrow in a stream of compound interest…

At a recruiting meeting in the autumn term of 1914, he had found the peace of mind for which he had prayed so long. Here was the perfectly clear and simple issue. Here was the sacrifice no longer chosen with hesitation, but demanded… He had set about, carefully, cautiously, knowing the difficulties of his past record (of illness), to enter the army.”

Little did Teddy Leigh know that his troubles were just beginning.

“And he had been cheated. Here, as ever, fate had robbed him of satisfaction. There had been no splendid sacrifice, no simple and sufficing act of courage. He had hoped for an honorable return, or for a poppy-covered grave, a simple cross, and his name living for ever more. He found himself imprisoned in a military sanatorium.”

If the military and serving in the war were not enough to give Teddy a sense of satisfaction, neither did his marriage to Joanna. Joanna had dreams of her own; dreams of travel, of finding her ‘land of green ginger’. Instead she finds herself bound in marriage to an invalid returned from the war, a self-absorbed war veteran whose dreams of honor have turned to dust and who must for health reasons, turn to farming and fresh air rather than the scholarly, academic life as a vicar he yearns for.

The farm itself is not only hard unending slogging with debts mounting yearly, but when foreigners move into the area, Joanna’s trials increase. Never truly accepted by the villagers, and already looked upon with suspicion, her innocent friendship with the hired man (who happens to be Hungarian), is turned into scandal. Even the local vicar Mr. Boyse, seemingly sympathetic to the Leighs, now decides he must ‘do something’.

“He knew now that he had been right in his judgment of her as a trifle odd. It was not merely because she wore green stockings, and said smart, uncomfortable things, and brought up her children badly, and proved herself to be no housekeeper; but because of that dangerous levity of manner, that impression which she created of temporary and incomplete adjustment to circumstance, as though she had never managed to settle down in life, as though her business of being a wife and mother were somehow not quite real to her. Almost it seemed as though she were playing at being herself, and not quite serious.”

Joanna is nothing if not gallant. Persevering, always hoping that things will get better for the farm, for her marriage, for Teddy, for her children, she is an admirable character and convincingly portrays the term, ‘never give up’.

“…lying on the sands or bathing in the sharp delicious water, Joanna had planned her future life.   No more dreaming over inaccessible countries. Here was her country. She would learn the arts which should subdue the stubborn earth. She would rear stock and sell milk and butter, and her eggs should be the talk of the countryside.

One day, perhaps, when she was a wealthy farmer, and the children had left school, they would sell the tumble-down old place and wave farewell to the dark circle of heather, and set off on their travels…”

If you are looking for a light, happy-go-lucky pleasant read, you won’t find it here. Holtby’s writing (in this novel, at least), realistically portrays the bleak monotony of unremitting labor for little return, the exhaustion of debilitating illness and their stressful effects on marriage and home life. Although at times the reader is uplifted by Joanna’s courage, her admirable traits are balanced with hardship and unending disappointments. This novel, although ending with optimism, was for me a sad commentary on small-town prejudices, precipitate choice, and the futility of naïve expectation. If the author’s purpose in writing “The Land of Green Ginger” was to portray the sad effects of war, poverty and bigotry upon society, she has succeeded.

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