Their Finest Hour and a Half, Lissa Evans

Forgive the probable idiocy and inanity of this review. I read Their Finest Hour and a Half a few weeks ago, and now it is hard for me to remember things about it. It is a funny book–I kept saying “comic book” but that’s not really want I meant–about London during the Blitz. More or less, it centers on a propaganda film the British Ministry of Information is making. The characters are Edith, a seamstress and aspiring clothing designer who keeps getting bombed out; Ambrose, an aging film actor only interested in himself; and Catrin, an artist’s wife, newly tapped to write women’s dialogue on propaganda films.

When I started reading, I felt that the characters were a little obvious, and I carried on feeling that way throughout most of the book. Not to say that I didn’t get fond of them, but part of that was me being sentimental about Britain in wartime, and being fond of them didn’t mean I didn’t feel I’d seen them all before. They are painted with broad strokes, and while they mostly avoid being types, they don’t quite solidify into people.

That objection out of the way, I am very very fond of Britain in wartime, and the central story was good enough, funny enough, and touching enough to keep me reading. The newspapers pick up a story about twin sisters who take their father’s boat out to Dunkirk to rescue soldiers. Catrin goes to interview them and discovers, first of all, that they are utterly under the thumb of their tyrannical father, and second, that the story is a fiction from start to finish (though not invented by the sisters). Sorry for them, and aware of their great fondness for films, Catrin goes back and suggests a film be written about them; and she finds herself on its writing staff. This wasn’t the only story being carried on, but it was my favorite one, and I think calling it the central one is fair.

Before I started reading, and having completely forgotten the “tragi-” part of Litlove‘s review of Their Finest Hour and a Half, I wondered how Lissa Evans was going to manage to be comedic all throughout a book set in Britain during World War II. Britain during World War II was pretty sad, and anyway I am working on this theory about how sustaining book-length comedy is incredibly difficult and only achievable by a very small group of people. But some quite tragic events occur early on, thereby setting the tone for the kind of light-hearted humor that you can have in the middle of tragic events, if you are able to pay attention to small, funny things.

My absolute favorite scene is when one of the characters rewrites something that happened to her, an encounter that did not go the way she wished it had gone, and gives it a better ending. It’s touching, and I like it that she uses writing to resolve the unsatisfactoriness of real life. That is my strategy also. Not to say that real life cooperates completely with the character in question, but I was much in sympathy with the attempt.

Other reviews:

Tales from the Reading Room (thanks for the recommendation!)

Anyone else?

Nonfiction

I have been reading a lot of nonfiction this summer. It’s been fun, but I am also a little starved for fiction, and I have a massive backlist of books to investigate when I get home.

Juliet Gardiner: The Thirties and Overpaid, Oversexed, and Over Here

When I read Gardiner’s Wartime, I wished it had said more about the experience of being an American GI in England during World War II. Turns out the reason it didn’t is that Juliet Gardiner wrote a whole book about being an American GI in England during World War II. Overpaid, Oversexed, and Over Here (the book in question), a short book with lots of pictures and excerpts from diaries, letters, and journals, held me over until The Thirties got in at the library.

At which point I’m afraid I was woefully disappointed. I gave up on The Thirties about a third of the way through. Perhaps my expectations were too high, or just aimed in the wrong direction. Gardiner writes a lot about labor and the dole and other bleak, depressing economic things, and I got bored. I persevered ages longer than I wanted to, because I had whined so much about the library not having the book when I wanted it.

William Harris: Dreams and Experience in Classical Antiquity

Harris examines classical texts from Homer on forward to get a grip on what kind of dreams the Greeks and Romans had and what their dreams meant to them. He devotes a whole chapter to discussing what he calls “epiphany dreams,” dreams in which an authority figure shows up, gives a message to the dreamer, then leaves again. These appear to have been very common up until around the eleventh or twelfth century, at which point they declined precipitously. All very interesting.

A. D. Nuttall: The Stoic in Love (essays) and Dead from the Waist Down

I’m going to be getting Nuttall’s last book, Shakespeare the Thinker, in the mail pretty soon. I got it because I want to be friends with Shakespeare again. I hate that we’re in a fight. But once it was already ordered, I started to worry that I wouldn’t care for Nuttall, so I went to the library and got a few of his other books. Y’all, as I was reading these books, I kept thinking that if A.D. Nuttall hadn’t died tragically prematurely of a heart attack in 2007, I would have move to whatever university he taught at and become his disciple.

Nuttall read Mods (roughly, that means classics) and English Literature at Oxford, and The Stoic in Love warmed the classics and English literature ventricles of my geeky little heart. There is an essay on Virgil’s use of the causal-but-simultaneous dum (generally translated as “while”) in the Aeneid, which, Nuttall argues, reveals a lot about Virgil’s perception of life-after-death. I also particularly liked the essay on Hamlet and the sources of its uncertainties in previous Hamlet stories as well as in Latin and Greek sources.

Dead from the Waist Down was weird but entrancing. Nuttall writes about sexuality and scholarship in literature and life, taking as his subjects two real scholars (one, Isaac Casaubon, an early modern, and one, Mark Pattison, a contemporary of George Eliot) and the fictional Mr. Casaubon from Middlemarch. Fortunately the half of Middlemarch that I read was sufficient to carry me through this with a reasonable measure of comprehension, and Nuttall doesn’t assume the reader’s familiarity with the other two dudes. He also discusses three things I did not get enough of during college: Robert Browning, Tom Stoppard, and image clusters. In particular I appreciated his compliments to the (wonderful) Stoppard play Invention of Love: “It is a work of breathtaking brilliance….knockabout comedy laced with intense pathos,” etc.

The word [scholarly], I think, connotes a quality of completeness: at the lowest level, complete literacy (never a colon where a comma should be); complete, though not redundant documentation; complete accuracy even with reference to matters not crucial to the main argument, and, together with all this, a sense that the writer’s knowledge of material at the fringe of the thesis is as sound as his or her knowledge of the core material.

Exactly what I like in Nuttall, although he could just be giving the impression of being sound without really being, and I do not know enough to be sure. Though just as I was contemplating flinging myself in the river so that Nuttall could teach me classics in heaven, he said:

It will be said that I am describing the literary canon, which has been shown to be an instrument of oppression. I would have had none of that then and I will have none of it now.

Come on, dude. At least give some respect to the arguments of the people who are completely unrepresented in and disempowered by the literary canon. You are part of a privileged group, and the literary canon hasn’t been an instrument of oppressing you. Hrmph. But apart from this, I think A.D. Nuttall is very, very brilliant and interesting. He talked briefly about a Greek writer called Diogenes Laertius, who wrote gossipy, bitchy lives of philosophers and bad poets, so y’all should expect to be hearing from me pretty soon about that.

Noel Streatfeild

I love me some Noel Streatfeild.  Turns out, she wrote several fictionalized autobiographical books about her life, and I just read two of them, A Vicarage Family and On Tour.  I think there is one more but my library very unobligingly does not have it.  She was the second of four children, and often felt out of place in her family.  Her older sister, Isobel, had asthma and as they had not yet invented the glory that is Albuterol, she was often an invalid.  The younger sister, Louise, was the beauty of the family and apparently never gave any trouble apart from tattling; and then the youngest one, Dick, was the boy.  Their father came from a posh family (“carriage folk” they used to say), but he was a vicar and there wasn’t much money when they were growing up.

I really felt for Victoria, which is what Noel Streatfeild calls herself in this book.  This passage sums up the general attitude towards her in her childhood:

Granny took Victoria’s other hand and pulled her gently nearer to her.  “Of course I love all my grandchildren, but I have a very special corner in my heart for you, Vicky.”

Victoria was amazed.  “Me!  But nobody likes me best!”

“That is what you think but you ae wrong.  I know somebody else who also keeps a special corner of his heart for you.”

Victoria was sure she knew the answer to that.  “God.”

Granny smiled.  “God loves us all.  No, I was thinking of your father.”

“Daddy!  But I’m the cross he has to bear.  Everybody says so.”

Oh dear.  Imagine growing up with everyone saying that about you.  It is no surprise (to me anyway) that Victoria grows up incredibly sensitive to other people not liking her.  As soon as she suspects an adult might not think well of her, she gets very proud and unfriendly – a bit like Jane in Movie Shoes, if you read Movie Shoes.  She grows up and becomes an actress, but after a while she decides to leave that behind (as she has gotten involved in some rather scandalous affairs about which I WANT TO HEAR MORE), go home, and become a writer instead.  And just as the plot thickens and I want to know all about her becoming a writer, On Tour ends and my library hasn’t got the last book and it’s out of print and I shall never know what happens.

Noel Streatfeild does a wonderful job portraying her family members.  The father is quite saintly and sounds like he would sometimes be very trying to live with – they get prayers and Bible verses to memorize and say when they’ve been bad, and when they get asked to a party during Lent, they’re told they can’t eat any sweets.  No sweets!  And they have to say no thank you to the cake and ask for only bread and butter.  LET ME TELL YOU, it is so uncomfortable when you are little to have dietary restrictions at a party.  I used to be allergic to cheese, and when we had pizza at parties everyone was all, Why are you taking the cheese off? and I felt stupid and I hated it.

And then sometimes things are just funny:

” ‘O come let us sing unto the Lord: Let us heartily rejoice in the strength of our salvation..’ What’s the chances we’ve been asked to her party?  But if we have, bets I, Daddy won’t let us go.  I know he likes Mr. Sedman but he’s never let us go to parties in Lent.”

Victoria had a good ear, and she managed to fit the words perfectly to the plainsong of the Venite.

Isobel…began to giggle now, and to cover it pretended to be choking into her handkerchief.  Her mother looked anxiously at her.  She had seemed all right when they came out; the suspicion did stir in her – was Victoria being naughty? – but if she was there was no sign for there stood Victoria, prayer book properly held in two gloved hands, singing beautifully in her clear, choir-boy voice.  Their mother opened her bag and took out a box of cough lozenges and pushed it towards Isobel, who somehow mastered her giggles while with a shake of the head she denied the need for the lozenges.

“And that was pretty mean,” sang Victoria, “for I like them even if you do not.”

It’s also interesting to see the shifting of class boundaries over the course of the books.  Victoria’s parents – really all the adults in her lives – are extremely class-conscious.  Despite the fact that they can hardly afford dresses for the girls, her family has several servants to cook and clean and mind the children, and they distinguish between themselves and the tradesmen who come to the back (not front!) door.  As the book goes on, and World War I happens, these distinctions start to break down.  Victoria goes on the stage, where they don’t matter at all, and struggles to explain this to her family, who all want to know what sort of people she’s associating with on a day-to-day basis.  I am fascinated by the class thing in England.

Oh why is Noel Streatfeild all out of print?  I yearn and yearn for her books to be put all properly back in print and particularly Movie Shoes, which apparently my copy is heavily abridged and I want the proper version that was published in England, lo these many years ago.  The Book Depository, my new best friend and desperate temptation, has let me down.  By not having all of her books in print.  I guess it is not the Book Depository’s fault.

P.S. I went to the game last night, and we won so that was fun, but more importantly!  They honored my most favorite one of all our players, specially, and then right after they had done that he scored a touchdown (hooray!). They were all, the fastest ever player in all of college football, and I was sad because next year he will be gone.  Moreover, we screamed incredibly loudly enough to prevent the other team from getting a touchdown.  I like to feel that I have helped.

Three mini-reviews

Stolen Voices: Young People’s War Diaries, from World War I to Iraq, Zlata Filipovic and Melanie Challenger

We had to read Zlata’s Diary in ninth grade, and I remember thinking, Sheesh, if I were Zlata as a grown-up, I would really wish these diaries weren’t out there.  They are just like the diaries I kept at that age, lots of Oh why is this happening to me, and How can these trivial things make me happy when there is so much darkness in my life? – the difference being, of course, that she actually had bad stuff happening to me; and the other difference being that I sensibly chucked my old diaries in the trash when I reached the age of reason.

However, I am glad that not everyone did that, and I really enjoyed reading these diaries from all different wars, esp. WWII, my favorite war to read about because Hitler was a Very Evil Villain, and hooray for defeating him though down with bad behavior of a retaliatory nature at Dresden.  (Ours not his.)  I like reading other people’s letters and diaries.  If I were not on a specific and necessary book-buying embargo, I would be buying L.M. Montgomery’s journals right this minute.

Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag

I like Susan Sontag.  I really do.  One of these days I am going to read one of her proper books, rather than just essays – thoughher essays are excellent.  Regarding the Pain of Others discusses the idea of war photography – whether the iconic war images we all remember were real or posed, and whether it matters; whether we lose sympathy as we become inured to seeing gruesome images and videos on the TV every night; the role of photography in memory of horrific events; how these images can make people into voyeurs as well as witnesses; and all sorts of things.  She raises more questions than she answers, writing as she always does with lucidity and compassion.

Children Who See Too Much: Lessons from the Child Witness to Violence Project, Betsy McAlister Groves

I do not like reading this sort of book.  I find it really upsetting.  However, I signed up for Jeane’s DogEar Reading Challenge – everyone does these but me!  I feel so left out of the challenges party! but not anymore! – and in order to make myself read this, I made Children Who See Too Much one of the books I was going to read, a nonfiction book on a topic I don’t usually read about (because it makes me really upset).  And it worked, voila!  I read it.

DogEar ReadingChallenge

It made me really upset.  I cry really easily, but seriously, I had to sit next to a box of tissues while I was reading this, because the stories Ms. Groves tells about children she worked with are so tragic (it’s banal but true!).  What gets me is how responsible many of the children seemed to feel for the violence they witnessed – as a great big control freak, this resonated with me.  I think it’s important for people to be aware of how children process what they see, and that children – like adults – need to talk about traumatic things that happen to them; and important for parents to realize how conflict between them, particularly violent conflict, can have a profound and lasting effect on their children.  So I am glad I read this book.

River of Darkness, Rennie Airth

Woohoo!  Between-the-wars-in-England stories are my favorite kind!  Plus, this is a mystery (I sometimes like mysteries), and although I read the end, I didn’t need to read the end necessarily, because the killer’s identity is known to the reader for most of the book.  Lovely.  Only way to do it.  See, the suspense then wasn’t about who done it, but whether he would do it again!  (I will just tell you – he would.)

In River of Darkness, Inspector John Madden, a copper scarred by his time in the trenches in the recently-over World War I, is called in on a case of brutal murder.  Colonel and Lady Fletcher, along with two of their servants, were slaughtered in their manor home, and no motive can be found for the crime.  The Scotland Yard higher-ups are inclined to view it as a robbery gone wrong, but Madden is certain there’s more to it.  Like MAAAAAAAAAAAAAAADNESS.

(That was weird.  However, I have an excuse: I just finally got internet in my apartment this morning, and it is wonderful to finally have internet, and it’s making me a little giddy.  Surrsly, y’all, I cannot do without the internet.  I know it’s bad to be dependent on technology, but I JUST AM.)

I thought the book was a good post-WWI type book.  The war has obviously left scars on the protagonist, John Madden, but also on the country and its people.  There’s some fairly pointed criticism of the army – World War I was awful, eh? – and you see how the war shaped all of the people in the novel, those who were at the front, those who weren’t able to go, the women who stayed home and waited for their brothers and husbands and fathers.  Plus, cause there was a GREAT BIG PSYCHOPATH.  It was v. suspenseful wondering whether they’d catch him before he struck again!  (Except not for me cause I hate suspense and I read ahead.)

I really enjoyed this!  I need more mysteries set after World War I!  Or just regular books set after World War I!

Thanks to litlove for the recommendation!

Love Is Blue, Joan Wyndham

It is difficult for me to review Joan Wyndham’s second volume of diaries.  What really can be said?  Here is what I have to say about Joan Wyndham’s second volume of diaries:

“Aha!” he exclaimed. “Ein liten pinsvin,” which translated literally means “a little prickle pig”. The hedgehog had a very winning little face, but smelt abominable. We sat and played with it for a bit but then I could see a certain look on his face and he took his glasses off – always a bad sign – so held the ‘pinsvin’ firmly in my lap like a living chastity belt. However, it takes more than a hedgehog to deter a Norwegian and before I knew what was happening – hey presto – there I was flat on my back. Very damp it was too.

Oh, Joan.  Joan, how I love you.

You know what I love, Internet?

Internet, I will tell you what I love.  I love stories set in Britain right before, during, between, and right after the World Wars.  I LOVE THEM.  Cf. The Little Stranger, The Shooting Party, The House at Riverton, Baltimore, Those Who Hunt the Night, Love Lessons, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, The Night Watch, etc.  If you say “Britain” and “World War” in your synopsis of a book, I tend to bump it way up on my reading list.  If you also say “aristocracy” and “disintegrating way of life”, I tend to put a hold on it at the library right that very second.  I just have this addiction.

It translates to film also.  My younger sister and I have discovered about ourselves that we have a crush on that haircut that people used to have, back in this day.  You know, like James McAvoy has in Atonement.  When somebody has a haircut like that, we both get all giggly and crushy, even when the somebody is a jerk like that submarine kid in that episode of Angel where he comes back for revenge and dangles Fred and Wesley and everyone by ropes in the main foyer.  And when they make films set in Britain around the Wars, people tend to have this haircut.  All slightly wavy and side-parted.

Apparently, Stephen Poliakoff knows this about me, and he cares.  Because Stephen Poliakoff is doing a film called 1939, in which, “on the eve of World War II, the formidable Keyes family tries to uphold their traditional way of life”.  I didn’t make that up.  Now unfortunately it stars Romola “Please forgive me for Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights” Garai – no, honey, I do not forgive you.  It contains Christopher Lee and Julie Christie and Jeremy Northam, three Legendary Actors in whom I am not deeply interested.

And then, then, then, Internet, it contains Bill Nighy, whom I absolutely adore, in everything, and it contains Charlie Cox, Tristan from Stardust.

And Internet darling, it contains David Tennant too.

David Tennant.  AND Charlie Cox.  AND Bill Nighy.  AND they are all in a film about an influential family just before World War II.  I feel like Stephen Poliakoff needs to come visit me so that I can give him a hug and make him gingerbread.