Category Archives: posts

Barchester Towers: Anthony Trollope

There is no happiness in love except at the end of an English novel.

Time for a revisit to Barchester Towers. I’m glad I re-read this after recently re-reading The Warden. Many of the characters appear in both novels, so reading Barchester Towers reunites us with those in The Warden. But also in reading the two novels close together, I was struck by issues that appear in both books. The plot of The Warden focuses on the humble, meek Reverend Septimus Harding, a man in his 60s, a widower and father of two daughters, who has the wardenship of Hiram’s Hospital. Harding lives in a lovely home on the premises of the hospital and receives 800 pounds to boot. All the trouble starts when local reformer, Dr. Bold, takes issue with the amount of Harding’s wages. So the main dilemma in the novel is what is going to happen to Harding and the wardenship. Another issue is whether Harding’s daughter, Eleanor, will marry Bold or not.

In Barchester Towers, the old Bishop dies and although Archdeacon Grantly, the Bishop’s son, and also Harding’s son-in-law expects to be made the new Bishop, that position falls elsewhere. So there’s a new Bishop in Barchester–namely Bishop Proudie, but… wait… is he indeed the Bishop? The Bishop’s fearsome wife, Mrs. Proudie controls the reins and then there’s Mr. Slope, a chaplain who has ingratiated himself into Mrs. Proudie’s good graces but whose ambition dictates that he will run the diocese. Barchester Towers, then is a novel which explores the struggle for ecclesiastical power in the town. Barchester Towers is incredibly funny. Some of the humour resides in the fact that while religion is the profession of many of the main characters, religion has very little to do with what takes place. Try ambition, pride, class and status. And even add a bit of lust.

The book opens with Archdeacon Grantly at his father’s bedside calculating his “chances” of securing the Bishopric, knowing that much depends, for political reasons, on the timing of his father’s death. The Archdeacon was one of the more unappealing characters (IMO) in The Warden, but in Barchester Towers, he seems rather defanged, or at least his more unpleasant characteristics are swamped by Mr. Slope’s queasy obsequiousness. Archdeacon Grantly is obviously bruised when the Bishopric falls to another, but an initial social visit to the Bishop’s palace turns into a verbal skirmish. The vulgar, bossy, “despotic” Mrs. Proudie, with the insufferable Slope as her henchman, is determined to put the Archdeacon into his place and let him know that while her husband may have the title of ‘Bishop,” it is she who rules the palace.

As for the Bishop, he has learned for the sake of peace and sanity, to submit to his wife’s tyranny: “all hope of defending himself has long passed from him.” Mrs Proudie is not a particularly intelligent woman, but her lack of intelligence is compensated by her fierce bossiness and complete absence of manners. So while the Bishop could outmaneuver her in the brains department, he has learned that independence comes with a price he’s not willing to pay. Mr. Slope appears to be Mrs. Proudie’s creature, but he sees his allegiance to her as a stepping stone. His allegiance is temporary and serves only to gain the position of chaplain. Now in Barchester, Slope intends to wield the power. He intends to liberate the Bishop from the thrall of his wife (and place the Bishop under his thrall), but the Bishop must choose domestic comfort over marital liberation. And Mrs. Proudie plays to win.

Mr. Slope is tall and not ill-made. His feet and hands are large as has ever been the case with all his family, but he has a broad chest and wide shoulders to carry off these excrescences, and on the whole his figure is good. His countenance however is not specially prepossessing. His hair is lank and of a dull, pale reddish hue. It is always formed into three straight lumpy masses, each brushed with admirable precision and cemented with much grease, two of them adhere closely to the side of his face and the other lies at right angles above them. He wears no whiskers and is always punctiliously shaven. His face is nearly the same colour as his hair though perhaps a little redder. It is not unlike beef. Beef, however one would say, of a bad quality. His forehead is captious and high but square and heavy and unpleasantly shining.

The whole question of who has the power, Mrs. Proudie or Mr. Slope, erupts over who will get the wardenship of Hiram’s Hospital. So once again who will run Hiram’s hospital is a central plot dilemma.

Trollope seems to have great fun with this novel, and it’s when I read a book such as this, I realise how fantastic it must be to create this hodge-podge of characters, throw them together and then describe what happens. The lines between the characters (the Slope party, the Grantly party) are sharply drawn, and the battle scene seems set, but then Trollope throws the Stanhope family into the fun. Dr. Vesey Stanhope is the prebendary of Barchester cathedral but he’s been living, with his awful family, in Italy for the last 12 years. Mr. Slope advises the Bishop to recall Stanhope and so the Stanhopes reluctantly arrive in Barchester.

Ahhh.. the Stanhopes. What a perfectly dreadful family; yet they are not completely dreadful; some of them have a sort of malicious, toxic, seductive and destructive charm. They move to Barchester and their exoticism sends its warping tendrils into society. Who will emerge unscathed?

The great family characteristic of the Stanhopes might probably be said to be heartlessness but this want of feeling was, in most of them, accompanied by so great an amount of good nature as to make itself but little noticeable to the world. They were so prone to oblige their neighbors that their neighbours failed to see how indifferent to them was the happiness and wellbeing of those around them. The Stanhopes would visit you in your sickness, provided it were not contagious, would bring you oranges, French novels, and the last new bit of scandal and then hear of your death or your recovery with an equally indifferent composure. Their conduct to each other was the same.

Bon vivant,” Dr. Stanhope’s main concern in his life is his dinner. His well-dressed wife doesn’t appear before three in the afternoon. They have three children: Charlotte, the eldest daughter manages the household. She is the one who appears ‘normal.’ There’s a wastrel “idle” son, Bertie whose lackadaisical pursuit of various careers (poet, art) is secondary to running up huge debts. The younger daughter is Signora Madeline Vesey Neroni, a very beautiful woman, who ran off to marry some ne’er do well, impoverished Italian with “oily manners.” She returned home after having a child and sustaining some sort of crippling accident. In any other woman, such an injury would be a deficit, and yet she manages to turn this injury into a mystery, and the old injury is a powerful weapon in terms of being the centre of attention. She has reinvented her past, and her penniless husband has become the scion of a noble family while her child is “the last of the Neros.”

Madame Neroni, though forced to give all up all motion on the world, had no intention of giving up the world itself. The beauty of her face was uninjured and that beauty was of a peculiar kind. Her copious rich brown hair was worn in Grecian bandeau around her head, displaying as much as possible of her forehead and cheeks. Her forehead, though rather low, was very beautiful from its perfect contour and pearly whiteness. Her eyes were long and large and marvelously bright. Might I venture to say bright as Lucifer’s. I should perhaps express the depth of their brilliancy. They were dreadful eyes to look at such as would deter any man of quiet mind and easy spirit from attempting a passage of arms from such foes. There was talent in them and the fire of passion and the play of wit but there was no love. Cruelty was there instead and courage. A desire of masterhood, cunning and a wish for mischief and yet as eyes they were very beautiful.

Madeline Neroni, now she’s shackled by marriage, and hampered by physical limitations, is left with one hobby: to enchant, seduce and torture her many male admirers. Mr. Slope, whose dominant characteristic is ambition, makes himself a complete idiot for Madeline, and she, like a spider, draws him in, leads him to make overtures and then, when the opportunity is ripe, twists the knife into Slope, delivering the coup de grace But, hell, he deserves it. But since this is Trollope, even the villains have some degree of humanity. While Madeline Neroni, that latter-day Cleopatra, and the nasty Slope steal the show here, I cannot forget the Thornes, siblings violently set in their ways or the desperate Quiverfuls, a large needy family whose poverty is in contrast to the Stanhopes.

5 Comments

Filed under Fiction, posts, Trollope, Anthony

Meet Me at the Morgue: Ross Macdonald (1953)

“The things a man does are always connected in some way.”

In Ross Macdonald’s crime novel, Meet Me at the Morgue, parole officer Howard Cross runs into Fred Miner, a parolee. It’s an insignificant meeting and yet those few moments have serious ramifications. Miner is looking for Cross’s partner, but he’s gone from the office. Since Miner’s business isn’t with Cross, they exchange only a few words, but during that minute or so, Cross notices that Miner is accompanied by his employer’s small son, Jamie. Within hours, it appears that Miner has kidnapped the boy and is demanding a $50,000 ransom. It seems odd that Miner, in the midst of a kidnapping, would take a detour to visit his parole officer–especially in the company of the kidnapped boy.

In Meet Me at the Morgue, Cross assumes a PI role as he investigates the kidnapping. The kidnapped boy is the son of the very wealthy Abel Johnson, and his attractive oh-so-much-younger wife. The plot thickens when it turns out that Miner, a man of otherwise impeccable background, is on parole for vehicular manslaughter, but Miner doesn’t remember a thing about the accident as he was drunk at the time. Another curious fact, the dead man had no ID, and no one stepped forward to claim the body. Add yet another curious fact, Miner’s lawyer, Siefel is also the lawyer for the Johnson family. And apparently Cross’s assistant Ann is dating, Seifel, Johnson’s lawyer… well she’s trying to date him. But mummy gets getting in the way:

Her eyes were on her son like wet, black leeches. “It’s mean and selfish of you to keep me waiting like this. I didn’t devote my life to you in order to be cast aside whenever you feel the whim.”

“I’m sorry mother.”

“Indeed you should be sorry, you forced me to take a public bus down here.”

You could have taken a taxi.”

I can’t afford to pay taxi fare every day. You never think of my sacrifices, of course, but it has cost me an enormous amount of money to set you up in practice with Mr. Sturdyvant.”

“I realise that.” He looked at me miserably. His body seemed to have shrunk and taken on an adolescent awkwardness. “Can we drop the subject for now mother? I’m ready to drive you anywhere you’d like.”

She said with icy boredom, “finish your business, Lawrence. I’m in no hurry. In fact I’ve lost any interest I had in the party. I believe I feel a headache coming on.”

Please mother, don’t be like that.” He fumbled awkwardly reaching for her hand she turned away from him in a movement of disdainful coquetry and walked to the window on high sharp heels. I stepped into the elevator. The last I saw of his face it looked bruised and shapeless as if her Cuban heels had been hammering it.

The Johnsons decide to obey the kidnappers’ demands: not tell the police and hand over the money. The situation presents Cross with a moral dilemma. He knows that he should inform the police but he also feels obligated to respect the Johnsons’ wishes, but when a dead man is found with an ice pick sticking out of his neck, Cross brings in the police.

What’s that old saying, ‘all roads lead to Rome.’ The deeper Cross digs, things just don’t add up, and yet the same names keep connecting in bizarre ways. This fate-laden tale is a hellish journey for Cross, and the investigation is peppered with strong characterizations: unhappy wives, a controlling mother, a disappointed father, and an underage girl who has a great figure but not much in the brains department. Ross Macdonald’s (Kenneth Millar) intense descriptive powers add to this excellent tale, and as Cross continues his labyrinthine investigation, the human landscape yields glimpses of various versions of private hell–the private hell of poisonous relationships.

The car ground to a stop on the cinder shoulder, the shallow ditch was paved with empty cans. A Sulphur stench fouled the the air. On the rim of the plain against the cloudy reflection of the city, the oil derricks stood like watchtowers around a prison camp where nothing lived. I’d come to the wrong place at the wrong time and done the wrong thing.

4 Comments

Filed under Macdonald Ross, posts

Memento Mori: Muriel Spark (1959)

How nerve-wracking it is to be getting old, how much better to be old!”

At the heart of Muriel Spark’s wickedly funny novel, Memento Mori, lies a chain of anonymous phone calls in which the speaker says “Remember, you must die.” These anonymous calls set off a series of events as various characters react to the calls with anger, terror and, in some cases, interest. While most of the characters in the novel are connected, the telephone calls bring other characters together, but perhaps the least predictable fallout from the phone calls is the way in which the past comes calling in various ways. So here’s a breakdown of the characters:

Dame Lettie Colston. Unmarried, one of those social do-gooders. Busy bossy everyone about and arranging their lives.

Godfrey Colston, heir to a brewing company. Perennially unfaithful to his wife. “Obsessed by the question of old people and their faculties.”

Charmain Colston, novelist. Dotty. But not as dotty as she appears.

Charmain’s former employee Jean Taylor who lives in a nursing home. She’s mostly glad that she lives there and isn’t subject to the wild emotional challenges of life outside of the home.

Lisa Brooke, deceased, a woman whose death unleashes other plot developments.

Guy Leet, charming, even now in old age and ill health. Charmain’s former lover.

Mrs. Pettigrew. Lisa Brooke’s conniving housekeeper

Alec Warner. A emotional vampire whose obsessive, morbid interest in the health and health reactions to exciting or traumatic news reflects his own fear of morality.

Various residents of the Maud Long Medical Ward

Inspector Mortimer, retired, who investigates the phone calls.

Other minor characters

While chapter one kicks off with an anonymous call, the plot thickens when Dame Lettie, a dreadful bossy woman, persuades her brother, Godfrey to employ Mrs. Pettigrew to ‘take care of’ Charmian. Mrs. Pettigrew was supposed to inherit her employer, Lisa Brooke’s estate, but since that doesn’t work out as planned, Mrs. Pettigrew must move on to pastures new. Dame Lettie, a woman who lacks a particle of empathy, argues that Charmian “needs a bully,” and her desire to see Charmain in thrall to Mrs. Pettigrew is not without malice:

Mrs. Pettigrew has a constitution like a horse,” said Dame Lettie, casting a horse-dealer’s glance over Mrs. Pettigrew’s upright form. “And it is impossible to get younger women.”

“Has she got all her faculties?

“Of course. She had poor Lisa right under her thumb.”

“I hardly think Charmain would want to —

“Charmain needs to be bullied. What Charmain needs is a firm hand. She will simply go to pieces if you don’t keep at her. Charmain needs a firm hand. It’s the only way.

At the core of the novel, lies mortality. An unfaithful husband find innovative ways of straying, nasty people become nastier, and dottiness is a refuge from the more unpleasant things in life. Charmain, who ponders the limits of marital obligation, Jean, who proves immensely powerful, even from a care home, and Guy, who remains pleasant company in spite of ill health, bad luck and old age, are the nicest characters in the book. Mrs. Pettigrew with her very practiced way of infantilizing the elderly is the nastiest person in the book with Dame Lettie as the runner-up. Mrs. Pettigrew insinuates herself into the good graces of those with power, and coopts others, who don’t want to be seen as dotty, into her crew. What a horrible woman.

Memento Mori: Latin translation: Remember you must/have to die. (I had to look it up.) So it’s no surprise that the themes of death and dying appear here, and while that may seem morbid, how one choses to approach life, how one accepts aging, and how one choses to live life are also themes. Charmain has chosen to approach life in a very particular way–as has Guy Leet, in spite of ill health. At the same time, there’s 87-year-old Godfrey choosing to pursue women–even if these days it means paying for the privilege (in more ways than one) of salivating over the view of a suspender belt. Somehow Muriel Spark’s mordant, black comedy brings the idea of the best way to live one’s life, and how to waste it, in sharp relief.

“Would you like me to read you the obituaries, dear?” Godfrey said, turning the pages to find the place in defiance of his sister.

“Well I would like the war news,” Charmain said.

“The war has been over since nineteen forty-five,” Dame Lettie said. “If indeed it is the last war you are referring to. Perhaps, however, you mean the First World War? The Crimean, perhaps …?”

There are lessons here about death and dying, but there are also lessons for life. The novel argues that people don’t change. Youthful bores become old bores. Pleasant, kind young people become pleasant kind, old people. We don’t change. We distill.

A delightful, darkly comic read.

5 Comments

Filed under Fiction, posts, Spark, Muriel

New Hope For the Dead: Charles Willeford (1985)

Charles Willeford’s New Hope For the Dead, the second Hoke Moseley novel, finds the Miami homicide detective called to a suburban home with a dead body inside. The body is, was, Jerry, a young junkie whose tracks on his scrotum supports the presenting evidence that he died of an overdose. But there’s something about the case that doesn’t quite add up for Hoke. Sanchez, Hoke’s Cuban partner likes Jerry’s stepmother, Lorrie Hickey, as a possible murder suspect, but Hoke, who picks up on Lorrie’s sexually ravenous nature, in spite of her grief stricken state, doesn’t think she’s guilty. After all Lorrie is a businesswoman, the owner of a florist shop, but Jerry’s father is a lawyer whose business focuses on drug dealers.

Miami Blues is an introduction to Hoke’s spartan lifestyle. As he has to hand over half his paycheck to the X, he subsists on the remainder. He lives in a 3rd rate motel exchanging rent for ‘private security’ services, services which includes arranging for the dead bodies of the mostly elderly tenants to leave during the night. Also in Miami Blues, Hoke’s long-term homicide partner, Bill Henderson moved on, and Hoke now works with Sanchez. He doesn’t ‘get’ Sanchez at all. She’s smart, has a great figure, but has no sex appeal for Hoke.

A lot of the novel’s humour comes from Hoke who’s slowly moving out of the Dark Ages and waking up to the fact that he can’t send his female partner for coffee all the time. Hoke, (in his 40s?) comes from a different time, and that is underscored by the novel’s focus on Miami gentrification and the shifting dynamic of the Miami population. Hoke seems very much a man of the 60s. In this novel, Sanchez has a personal crisis which she keeps to herself, but Hoke notices her “quiescent moodiness” which he initially chalks up to Sanchez’s period.

Having a female partner in the car wasn’t the same. Maybe he should let Sanchez drive the car once in a while but that didn’t seem right either. The man always drove not the woman, although when he and Bill had been together, Bill had driven most of the time because he was a better driver than Hoke and they both knew it.

As in any series novel, we have the crime at hand (what appears to be an overdose of a junkie) and also the main character’s personal life. In Miami Blues, Hoke was given warning that he had to move into his precinct and that means moving out of the motel, but given his lack of funds, finding a place to live is proving to be a challenge. At one point, he tries to get a house-sitting gig, and the first place he looks at comes with an amorous Airedale. In this second book in the series, Hoke, a divorced man, with no regular girlfriend (the woman he left his wife for tossed him out), a father who never sees his kids, ends up living with three females. You have to read the book to find out how that happens. Also in this book, Hoke and Sanchez are given a special assignment to solve cold cases at record speed in order for the boss, Major Brownley, to have a shot at a promotion.

Hoke is a dogged homicide detective. He’s not corrupt. Exactly. But he waves that badge a lot. In this book, he pulls a trick that is unethical and even Hoke questions himself about his actions. Somehow I think his actions will come back to haunt him. While a lot of the humour comes from Hoke’s archaic attitude (and the author is aware it’s archaic), some of the humour comes from Hoke’s version of being a father; that includes a rapid sex ed. conversation and his plans that his daughters get jobs:

“First, though, what did your mother tell you about sex?”

“She already told us everything, Daddy,” Sue Ellen said looking at her fingernails.

“She tell you about the clap, syphilis, AIDS, herpes, shit chancres?”

Also, black humour simmers in the off-the-wall reactions of the characters. These are characters who have seen it all, and nothing seems to have shock value. A great example of this is the real estate agent who isn’t so much worried about the Airedale’s sexual needs, as how long it takes.

Hoke is a unique creation. He’s definitely a man of his times and he’s a good, although unorthodox detective. Standard morality is a not a suit Hoke wears. In fact he can’t give up those leisure suits!

Here’s Hoke, called into his boss’s office for a meeting.

“Hoke, you must be the last man in Miami wearing a leusire suit. Where’d you find it anyway?”

There’s a close-out in the fashion district. I got this blue poplin and a yellow one just like it for only 50 bucks on 2-for-1 sale. I like the extra pockets, with a leisure suit you don’t have to wear a tie.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction, posts, Willeford, Charles

A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray: Dominique Barbéris

On Sunday–don’t you think?–certain things come back to you more than on other days.”

Dominique Barbéris’s slim, disturbing novel A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray explores the fragility of domestic contentment, the lurking dangers of extramarital romance, and just how little we know those closest to us.

The story is narrated by a young married woman, a high school teacher, who drives from Paris to the sleepy suburb of Ville-d’Avray to visit her elder sister, Marie-Claire. The narrator suspects that her husband, Luc, may be having an affair, and while he claims to be attending a seminar, it seems possible he’s meeting the ‘other woman.’ So the narrator is mulling over these worries on the way to see Marie-Claire, and this all-too-rare visit is an acknowledgement of Luc’s dislike for his wife’s family. He describes Marie-Claire as “boring,” and he also dislikes Ville-d’Avray, a place he finds “depressing.” Ville-d’Avray is a place, but it’s also, as we see as the book continues, a state of mind.

I’m sure that Ville-d’Avray, with its peaceful, secluded streets, its houses set back in their gardens given over to the passage of the seasons as if defenseless against time, has further increased the gap between her and reality. She has formed all sorts of outdated habits

Marie-Claire is married to Christian, a doctor, they have one child together, and share a beautiful home. The two sisters visit, and as the hours pass, the narrator recalls moments from her childhood and the way in which both girls became caught up in the romance of Jane Eyre and the mysterious Mr. Rochester. Whereas the narrator’s focus moved on to other male figures, Marie-Claire “stayed under the spell of that literary love affair for a long time.” During the visit, Marie-Claire confides that she had an “encounter” with the mysterious Marc Hermann, a patient she met at her husband’s practice. Then about a month later, Marc, ‘coincidentally’ happens to drive by Marie-Claire and offers to give her a lift home. The story is a little odd, and perhaps even odder since Marie-Claire asks her sister “what would you have done in my place?” A sure sign that Marie-Claire isn’t telling the whole story and yet wants approval for her decision to get into Marc’s car. The lift home turns into a drive to a cafe, wine, conversation, and a leisurely evening stroll. Marc claims to be a Hungarian businessman in the Import-Export trade. He gives Marie-Claire a business card and asks her to call him. It’s all very vague. A little while later, Marie-Claire thinks she may be being followed. Of course, eventually Marie-Claire calls Marc, and a relationship begins. ….

While the narrator is stunned to hear her sister’s story, and what’s more that it happened some years ago, she begins to slot pieces into the puzzle. She recalls how Marie-Claire once asked “Are there times when you dream of something else?” And while the question is dismissed at the time, the narrator admits that it needles her and awakens vague feelings of discontent.

Her question had stirred up something buried in a secret corner of my mind (or my heart), the old, vague passionate dream, the never-forgotten images of an overblown, schmaltzy romanticism: the pasteboard reproduction of the manor houses, the flames of the fire, the drama, the banks of artificial fog, and looming up from them, “Orson Welles,” the dashing cavalier, the ideal man, the tormented “master!”

This impressive lean story explores the reality of domestic boredom and the dangerous temptation that illuminates one’s discontent. Ville-d’Avray is a real place, a safe suburb, a place many of us would appreciate living in, but here it represents the choices that Marie-Claire has made. The plot is infused with regret which is amplified by quiet, dream-like Sunday afternoons. What is it about Sundays?

On Sundays, you think about life.

Translated by John Cullen.

Review copy.

5 Comments

Filed under Fiction, posts

If This Was Happiness: Barbara Leaming

“Men go to bed with Gilda but wake up with me.”

Rita Hayworth’s life is a study in contrasts: she was an incredible beauty, a phenomenal dancer, and a glittering screen presence. As the Sex Goddess, she was the chosen pin-up for American servicemen. Married and divorced 5 times, at her peak she was a highly paid actress, and yet there were periods during her life when she had no money for food. One husband threatened to throw acid in her face, another walloped her in public. Men chased her, wooed her, wed her and promptly cheated on her. How could someone so beautiful so lithe, so exquisite, be so mistreated by the men who wanted to possess her?

Barbara Leaming’s biography of Rita Hayworth, If This Was Happiness begins with background information about Rita’s father and aunt, Eduardo and Elisa Caniso. They came from a family of Spanish dancers, and arrived in America in 1913. “Although silent films were already beginning to encroach on its appeal, vaudeville clearly dominated American entertainment, and the Cansinos ” were a celebrated and highly paid vaudeville dance team.” By 1915, they earned 1500 a week. Eduardo and Elisa and his sister had a tight relationship which was not infiltrated or diminished by Eduardo’s marriage to 19-year-old dancer, Volga Hayworth.

As I read about Eduardo and Elisa, I heard these alarms bells in my head and wondered exactly what the relationship was between brother and sister. I decided I must have a dirty mind, but then later as I read how Eduardo molested Rita, I wondered again just how far back that behaviour went.

Eduardo and Volga’s first child was Margarita (later Rita), and they also had 2 sons. Eduardo tried to break in Hollywood, but his strong accent hampered his success. The family lost all their savings due to “bad investments” during the depression, and by the age of 12, Rita became her father’s dancing partner. She never graduated from high school and only completed the 9th grade. By age 13, with her parents lying about her age, she was travelling down to Tijuana, the sexual relationship between Rita and her father (she was not allowed to call him ‘father,’ in public) was established, but her “sexually provocative” performances on stage did not mirror the reality of the “shy, withdrawn” child. This dichotomy defined Rita for the rest of her life.

There began a curious phenomenon that would be observed repeatedly throughout her career: While silently and obediently taking orders, doing exactly as she was told, Rita would seem somehow to blank out, to withdraw deeply into herself.

It was quickly understood that Rita was the family’s money maker. At 16, she landed a contract with Fox, and headed for stardom, she was courted by 39-year-old Eddie Judson, a man who claimed to be Hollywood savvy and who made “the rounds of fashionable nightspots.” Rita and Eddie eloped and when Rita married Judson, she traded one domineering man, her father, for another. It was Judson who took control of Rita’s metamorphosis; he arranged painful electrolysis treatments to alter her hairline and her hair was dyed auburn. One person quoted notes that Judson tried “to push her to have affairs with people” (including Harry Cohn, head of Columbia Pictures, who was so obsessed with Rita he had her spied on) to further her career. Orson Welles didn’t shy away from calling Judson “a pimp. Literally a pimp.” The marriage didn’t last long, but Judson flagrantly cheated on Rita and left her penniless. To quote Rita: “I married him for love, but he married me for an investment.”

There was an affair with Victor Mature, but then Orson Welles entered the picture after seeing a photo of Rita and seeking her out. In some ways, it seems as though Rita’s marriage to Orson was the high point of her life, perhaps both of their lives, but then Orson was cheating. Divorce number 2. Rita’s third marriage was to Prince Aly Khan, another man who lavishly courted Rita–a woman whose value always sunk the minute that ring was on her finger. Prince Aly Khan’s playboy lifestyle did not end with his marriage so there was divorce number 3. Orson Welles noted that:

After Aly, Rita was on a downward path, a steep toboggan ride.

Rita returned to America to revive her film career and she was quickly wooed by Dick Haymes, a singer with a long string of debts and a fading career. It’s hard to say which marriage was the worst but if I had to pick, I would say this was it. The marriage brought public humiliation when Dick Haymes, who should have known he owed Rita a great deal, walloped her across the face in a nightclub. Rita had already damaged her career by her European marriage to Aly Khan, but public scandal, contract issues, along with child neglect charges landed on her head when she took Dick’s advice continually. Whoever named this man did so aptly.

Rita’s last marriage to film producer James Hill seemed a repeat of all the mistakes of the past. By the time she was in her 50s it was evident that there was something wrong with Rita and alcohol was blamed before the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s was finally reached.

The book is a sad read. IMO the author was too kind to Orson Welles, “We’re such a cruel race of people,” groaned Welles, with reference to those who told Rita about” his extra marital affairs. (An interesting way of objectifying one’s own behaviour.) I would have liked to have known whether or not Rita had any female friends. There are a couple of names mentioned but its not clear whether these were deep friendships or just light social acquaintances.

Men flocked to Rita like bees to honey but then treated her like shit. This is a woman, damaged in childhood, who outwardly had the world on a plate, but whose relationships were all destructive in one way or another:

“I think if you take ego and vanity out of sex,” Welles would explain, “you would find that the actual amount of sexual activity would be reduced drastically. I’m thinking of men in, particular more than women. A man is to a great extent operating on other juices than the sexual ones when he’s chasing around.”

Here she is driving Glenn Ford crazy

Gilda clip

4 Comments

Filed under Leaming Barbara, Non Fiction, posts

Take Me Apart: Sara Sligar

In Sara Sligar’s novel Take Me Apart, former journalist Kate Aiken is under some unspecified cloud when she relocates from New York to California. At the town of Callinas, California, Kate has a new job as archivist for famed, controversial deceased painter, Miranda Brand. Miranda’s house, located dramatically on an isolated coastal cliff top is now owned by her son, Theo, a troubled man who has issues, some of which involve his famous mother. But who wouldn’t have issues growing up with Miranda?

As Kate wades through the chaotic stack (think rooms) of Miranda’s papers, Kate’s task to separate that which is important from the trivial, seems overwhelming, but since she’s there to work and forget about whatever happened in New York (events which are vaguely hinted about), she’s happy to dig in and work.

It looked like a dump truck had backed in through the bay window and unloaded an entire town’s worth of recycling.

But there’s an atmosphere in the house. Touchy Theo wants Kate to work but only within certain confines. Plus then there’s the question of Miranda’s death. Was is a suicide or was it murder? Through Miranda’s journals, a portrait of a troubled woman emerges. Since Miranda had a history of mental illness (including some rather bizarre feeling about her new born son) it’s fairly easy to accept that Miranda topped herself. But then there are rumours…..Her “art dealer had killed her in order to limit supply and raise her value,” that her husband Jake or Theo killed her, or that she was the victim of a serial killer. But then Miranda’s work shows self-inflicted violence:

The next sections were on Inside Me, Miranda’s mutilation series. She had slashed different parts of her body and photographed them up close. A hand, sliced open. The inside of a knee, blood pooling from a horizontal slit. An ear with blood pouring out of the canal, over a diamond earring. The gristle and fat and bone of her, torn open into elegant flicks and syrupy drips.

Take Me Apart has a very slow build up. I wanted to know what the hell happened in New York and found the breadcrumb hints rather scanty and frustrating. Plus then there’s Miranda herself who comes across as a horrible human being…

It was late at night and I had looked at the baby and thought about running a blade through his tiny heart and I knew I could not do this anymore.

The sections regarding the archivist job are interesting, and soon, Kate, who sniffs something is rotten at the heart of Miranda’s death, begins asking questions. This is a tight community in which residents gossip and form opinions. Opinions that they are happy to share. Since Kate is on the run from her own issues, she’s intrigued by Miranda and the journals draw her into Miranda’s world.

The premise of the novel was intriguing but for this reader, the gothic overtones combined with the emphasis on Miranda’s journals were too much. Being inside Miranda’s head made me want to head for the exit. Many reviews bring up the term ‘noir’ but I didn’t get the noir vibe at all. I’ll stick with gothic–with an archivist instead of a governess and with a romance (blech) at the end.

Review copy

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction, posts, Sliger Sara

The Warden: Anthony Trollope (1855)

Anthony Trollope’s The Warden is the kick-off novel for the 6-book series, The Chronicles of Barsetshire, so it’s an introduction to the social environment of the region with an emphasis on the clergy and gentry. The plot of The Warden is simple: mild, unassuming Reverend Septimus Harding is the warden of Hiram’s Hospital and preceptor of Barchester cathedral. He’s a widower and has two daughters: Mrs Susan Grantly who is married to the indefatigable Archdeacon Grantly (son of the Bishop of Barchester) and unmarried Eleanor who lives with her father in a very pleasant home on the grounds of Hiram’s Hospital. Hiram’s Hospital, an almshouse established in the 15th century for elderly wool-carders, houses 12 men. Recently, the warden stepped in and gave each man an extra tuppence a day which is added to the meagre amount of one shilling and fourpence each resident receives from the almshouse. Septimus Harding, who has been warden for ten years, receives 800 pounds a year, and in addition has 80 pounds a year as preceptor of Barchester.

All the trouble starts when John Bold, a local doctor whose practice has not exactly taken off, launches a campaign of legal action and social awareness regarding Harding’s pay. Bold contends that it was never the intention of the hospital founder that the lion’s share of the money should go to a warden while the residents receive a relatively meagre amount. The whole Hiram Hospital set-up is somewhat wobbly for the manner in which its mission has strayed from the founder’s original intent. Wool-carders in Barchester no longer exist, and now the residents are handpicked “so the bishop, dean and warden, who took it in turn to put in the old men, generally appointed some hangers-on of their own: worn-out gardeners, decrepit grave-diggers, or octogenarian sextons, who thankfully received a comfortable lodging and one shilling fourpence a day.” The fact that Harding was appointed by his old friend the Bishop and that Harding’s elder daughter is married to the Bishop’s son smacks of nepotism, and those facts add to the argument that Harding is wildly overpaid. Harding is a humble, sweet man, and he’s horrified to find himself the subject of public censure. He investigates the veracity of Bold’s legal argument, and all this is complicated by the fact that Bold is courting Harding’s daughter Eleanor.

While the plot is simple, The Warden is a study in human nature: the lambs vs, the wolves. Pride, power, stubbornness, the power of the press, the misguided machinations of the reformer, and the absolute authority of the church all come under scrutiny. The peaceful, well-established structure of Barsetshire is disrupted when Bold, a “strong reformer,” turns his energy towards Hiram’s Hospital:

His passion is the reform of all abuses; state abuses, church abuses, corporation abuses (he had got himself elected a town councillor of Barchester, and has so worried three consecutive mayors, that it became somewhat difficult to find a fourth), abuses in medical practice, and general abuses in the world at large. Bold is thoroughly sincere in his patriotic endeavours to mend mankind, and there is something to be admired in the energy with which he devotes himself to remedying evil and stopping injustice.

Bold’s directed attack on Harding’s pay–although acutely personal, is undertaken with a blind zeal which ignores the likely consequence. After all, Bold loves Eleanor, and yet it’s pride that blinds him to the consequences of his actions. But then reformers are so often about tearing down without consideration of the human consequences. Then there’s Harding, a doddery man who is happy to take this generous living until it’s pointed out that the pay he receives for is basically given for doing ‘nothing.’ And that’s an argument which festers on both sides of divide–the Archdeacon thinks his father in law is mad to give up this cushy job that requires so little of him, and yet it’s the very same argument, great pay, no labour, that the reformers and the press use. Most of the humor here comes from the insufferable Archdeacon Grantly who tries to bully his father-in-law, Harding into keeping the job. His very argument that Harding gets 800 pounds for basically nothing is exactly the argument to make Harding cringe and run. The Warden examines the layered structures of society: Law, Church, Clergy–those who prop up those structures, those who pontificate and tear them down, and the finally the humans who are supposed to be helped by both established structure and reformers but who are far more likely to be victims:

Did you ever know a poor man yet better for Law or for a lawyer?

The warden

9 Comments

Filed under Fiction, posts, Trollope, Anthony

Leisureville: Adventures in a World Without Children: Andrew D. Blechman

“I’d rather bite a suicide pill than live with any of my kids.”

Author Andrew Blechman’s neighbors, retired teacher Dave Anderson and his wife, Betsy, took a holiday to Florida, returned home to their small New England town, and promptly put their house up for sale. Blechman was surprised by the Andersons’ decision, but even more surprised to learn that the Andersons were moving to a gated retirement community in Florida. And not just any retirement community; the Andersons were moving to The Villages:

The Andersons were moving to the largest gated retirement community in the world. It spanned three counties, two zip codes and more than 20,000 acres. The Villages itself, Dave explained, was subdivided into dozens of separate gated communities, each with its own distinct entity, yet fully integrated into a greater whole that shared two manufactured downtowns, a financial district, and several shopping centers, and all of it connected by nearly 100 miles of golf cart trails.

Before the Andersons announced their impending move, the author had never heard of The Villages, and neither had I until I stumbled across this fascinating, flawed book. The Andersons move, and the author asks himself what motivated the Andersons to “sequester themselves in a gated geritopia?” Blechman goes to visit, and once there he gathers material for this non-fiction book.

The book includes a fascinating history of retirement communities which started in …. answer in one… you got it: Arizona. Retirement communities were rooted in idealism and also, as the author acknowledges, as a way for older Americans to “find community.” While a fair portion of the book concentrates on the appallingly bad, sexually promiscious behaviour of some of the residents of The Villages, there are also interviews, which do not take place in bars, with residents who express the fact that safety, and being able to go out at night, is a huge factor in their decision to move to The Villages:

I don’t feel threatened like I did back in Boston. Back home, I’d be stuck in the house, scared. Here I can go down to the square by myself, listen to the music, see people dancing, go home and I feel like I did something–and it doesn’t cost me a dime.

At one point, the author takes a tour and learns that “The Villages stands for GLC: golf, lifestyle, and convenience [..] everywhere you go is accessible by golf carts.” No doubt the ability to drive a golf cart anywhere appeals to those who are concerned that aging may threaten the renewal of a Driver’s License, but at several points in the book, there’s the definite feeling that driving golf carts removes the threat of the DUI. The term “Disney for adults” crops up more than once. The Villages is owned by the Morse family, and the author says that “from what I can tell, they own the liquor stores and liquor distribution rights, a mortgage company, several banks, many of the restaurants, two giant furniture stores as well as a giant indoor furnishings arcade called ‘The Street of Dreams,’ a real estate company, gold cart dealerships, movie theaters and the local media.” While I don’t care for this artificial construct, is this type of system that weird? Disney is the same–except people don’t live there (some wish they could). There’s a retirement housing complex in my town. It’s owned by some huge corporation. The seniors pay big bucks for these rentals which include maid service, meals and all these activities. I’m sure every lightbulb and all cleaning products are ‘provided’ by the management. No one seems to lift an eyebrow at the ethics of this–after all it’s sort of along the lines of a hotel playbook. Except in this case it’s seniors and long-term residence of more than a few nights. I couldn’t help but think of Better Call Saul….

One of the best parts of the book is a trip to the original development, the humble “decidedly less fancy Village of Orange Blossom Gardens” where “the Villages’ history begins.” One Orange Blossom Village resident notes that the “major difference [is] between the two sides of the highway” that divides his village from the other Village communities is “money.” As The Villages expanded, it became fancier–more amenities, larger houses etc. But then the tendency in America is towards larger, fancier homes.

Andrew Blechman doesn’t seem to like The Villages. I get it: At one point, he says he feels like he’s “on a movie set,” and indeed the impression I get is that it’s like one of those fake tourist towns–you know the ones–where there’s a main street with for the tourists and the ‘real people’ live elsewhere. The sense of the surreal, of this otherworld community is supported by the “The Villages’ own morning show, which is broadcast on Gary Morse’s television station” and then there’s Gary Morse’s local newspaper. The author longs for people his own age, which isn’t too surprising as he’s not the appropriate resident age, but there’s also a sense of disapproval:

While it’s not for me to say seniors shouldn’t enjoy themselves, the reality behind age segregation is another matter. No clever euphemism can hide the fact that these communities are based on a selfish and fraudulent premise–the exclusion of children and families.

I would have loved some interviews with people who left (there’s a whiff of the ghosts of former unhappy residents) or just more residents who weren’t Looking For Love In All the Wrong Places. Mr. Midnight (who gets his Viagra via mail order) and other lotharios at Crazy Gringos may have been easy to interview but I would hate to think they are typical residents. They can’t all be geriatric swingers. I would have also been interested in the financial side of things. These amenities are not free; they are mostly included: so how does that impact the cost-of-living? How many residents find that they run out of money and move on?

No doubt we all know what retirement communities are, and perhaps a few of those who read this live in one. While I had no idea that The Villages existed, after reading the book, I understand why many retired people rave about the place. At the same time, I know there’s no way in hell I’d move there:

Next door is the Savannah Center, a performing arts facility which was built to resemble Scarlett O’ Hara’s beloved Tara and which attracts touring Broadway productions. “I just can’t imagine what we don’t have here, ” Mindy remarks. “It seems like we have everything we could possibly need. And it’s so beautiful–like living in a Thomas Kinkade painting, but in real life.

I can’t stand Thomas Kinkade paintings.

Now I’m going to clarify that… saying I would never live in The Villages . … it’s not a moral judgment; it’s more that I am not social and it would be pointless for me to live there; plus the place would drive me nuts. If I want to put a statue in my front garden, I’m going to do it, dammit (the rules are much more relaxed in Orange Blossom Village, which sounds quite charming to be honest.) I’ve driven by an upscale retirement housing ‘village’ which boasts the sign: Your New Friends Are Waiting For You. Yeah… fat chance. The Villages is a playground for retirees, a “Disney for adults,” and that’s great, but the manufactured downtowns would make me feel as if I lived in one of those revolting tourist towns. But I’ll settle with whatever floats your boat (short of illegal, etc):

The Villagers’ perennially favorite pool: a whimsical creation reminiscent of the Flintstones with a water fall masking a hidden cave and a jacuzzi. There was a Tiki bar on one side, and on the other a small karaoke tent with an older DJ wearing a big grin and blasting music loud enough to make me cringe.

Back to the author’s argument that retirement communities are, in reality, regions of “age segregation,” and that “the communities are based on a selfish and fraudulent premise–the exclusion of children and families.” These seniors are not paying any taxes that are directed to schools etc. Residents can indulge in endless activities and idiosyncrasy seems to be encouraged. It seems creepy to me to imagine not living near children, and somehow jarring that young people staff the restaurants of the very communities in which they cannot live.

Leisureville is a thought-provoking read, but for me, the interest sprang from attitudes and expectations of the retired, the aging, the old. So I’ll ask this question: when we drive by those drab, lower income retirement communities, assisted living, homes to park the elderly, or whatever name you want to apply to these places, do we still think it’s age-segregation? It’s fundamentally the same thing– except, since these residences are not in their own separate, exclusive county, without the tax issue. Without the gloss and the glamour. Are the residents of these less-desirable, unappealing, spine- shivering places “selfish?” No of course not, and the reason we don’t think that is, because we suspect that, inside those walls, no one is having much fun. So is that what it comes down to…. fun…??? How much ‘fun’ retirees are expected to have? How much ‘fun’ do we think they should have?

Leisureville was published over 10 years ago, but there’s a documentary about The Villages on the way. Can’t wait.

8 Comments

Filed under posts

Christmas 1955: Stuart Evers

“Some fantasies, if they are suitably meagre, have the possibility of coming to pass.”

Speaking for myself, the New Year is always a time for reflection: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly, so that may explain why I related to Stuart Evers’ short story, Christmas 1955. The main character, June, has the long-held tradition of taking a long, luxurious bath on the evening of the 24th. As with most traditions, June’s leisurely bath is deeply rooted in the past. In this case, June, at age 16 when she was in service to “Madam” was tasked with preparing her employer’s bath, and the task was “as much of a gift as those glittering beneath the eight-foot fir in the dining room.” Madam would remain in the bath until dinner, attended by family and guests, was over.

At age 16, June was so impressed with Madam’s ceremonial relaxation, she “promised herself-in that way we carelessly promise ourselves the impossible-that all June’s future Christmas Eves would be taken just like that; alone, in a bathroom, up to her neck in salted water.”

As June takes her time in the bath, she has conversations with her former employer, “Madam,” who has, as it turns out been dead for some years. June is now married to Peter; we know many decades have passed as Peter is retired and June has a grandson. The time in the bath allows June to reflect on her past, and the many changes in her life; one of the changes was to move to a house with indoor plumbing.

In many ways, Christmas 1955 reminded me of A Christmas Carol, but it lacks the sentimentality and manufactured pathos. June reflects at moments in her life, remembering those she knew and lost, and the memories pass like a series of picture postcards with salient moments caught like fossils in amber.

It is a communion, this tradition, it is an armistice with the dead; but it is also a reckoning of sorts.

The short story is set in the world of Stuart Evers’ novel, The Blind Light, and for some reason, the novel’s release escaped my notice. Onto the list it goes

Review copy

Leave a comment

Filed under Evers Stuart, Fiction, posts