Sunday, March 29, 2015

Sunday Poetry - Henry Vaughan

I've just finished reading a memoir by the novelist Margaret Kennedy which describes life in England from May-September 1940. It was written for an American audience & I found it fascinating. I'll be reviewing it properly in a few days but I was intrigued by the title, Where Stands a Wingéd Sentry, & wondered where it came from. I discovered that it was from a poem called Peace by the Welsh 17th century poet, Henry Vaughan.

My Soul, there is a country
       Afar beyond the stars,
Where stands a wingéd sentry
       All skillful in the wars;
There, above noise and danger
       Sweet Peace sits, crown’d with smiles,
And One born in a manger
       Commands the beauteous files.
He is thy gracious friend
       And (O my Soul awake!)
Did in pure love descend,
       To die here for thy sake.
If thou canst get but thither,
       There grows the flow’r of peace,
The rose that cannot wither,
       Thy fortress, and thy ease.
Leave then thy foolish ranges,
       For none can thee secure,
But One, who never changes,
       Thy God, thy life, thy cure.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Sue Hepworth - free ebook

In honour of World Autism Awareness Week, Sue Hepworth is offering her terrific romantic comedy, But I Told You Last Year That I Loved You, for free, on Amazon for the next few days. I loved the book when I read it a few years ago & Asperger's, & the impact it can have on relationships, is a major theme of the novel.

Here's my review & here's a post that Sue wrote about her decision to self-publish the book. Sue is also working on a screenplay of the novel & you can read more about that on her blog. An interview with Sue is also featured on Christine Poulson's blog today.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Crime on my Hands - George Sanders

One of my favourite scenes in Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca is during the inquest. The wreck of a boat has been found, a boat that contains the body of a woman, Rebecca De Winter. An inquest is called & Rebecca's widower, Maxim, is being asked some very difficult questions about the night his wife disappeared. During the luncheon adjournment, Maxim & his new wife are sitting in their Rolls Royce not eating the lunch sent from Manderley by their staff. Rebecca's louche cousin, Jack Favell, played by George Sanders, slides into the car, eats a chicken leg & tosses it out of the window, all the while making sly insinuations about Rebecca's death & threatening blackmail in the most suave way (you can see this scene here).

George Sanders made a living playing suave, smooth cads in Hollywood movies from the 30s to the 50s, including his Oscar-winning role as critic Addison De Witt in All About Eve. He also wrote, or co-wrote, two mysteries, Crime on my Hands, & Stranger at Home, as well as an autobiography, Memoirs of a Professional Cad. All three books have just been reprinted by Dean Street Press. I've just spent several very enjoyable hours reading Crime on my Hands. The story is narrated by George & I could hear his voice in every line. What a pity he's not still around to narrate the audio book.

As well as playing cads, George Sanders also made a successful series of mystery films playing a detective known as The Falcon. When the novel opens, George is making yet another Falcon movie & is starting to feel typecast. His agent, Melva, gets him a terrific part as the lead in a pioneer Western epic also starring screen goddess Carla Folsom. This could be the role that sends George's career in a whole new direction. The company are shooting a scene on location, when one of the extras is shot. It looks like a tragic accident, one of the prop guns must have been loaded with live ammunition rather than blanks. When it emerges that the man was shot with George's gun, a different calibre to the other weapons, which has since gone missing, it looks as though George is being framed for murder.

How different this was from my screenplays. As The Saint, or The Falcon, I had been confronted many times with situations more baffling than this, and always I had penetrated to the heart of the matter, seen a clue, reconstructed the situation and acted unerringly. But here was a nameless bearded corpse sprawled inside the circle of wagons on baking sand. There were no dropped collar buttons, no cartridges of an odd caliber, no telltale footprint with a worn heel, no glove lost in haste. ... A nameless corpse, and the only clue to the killer was my gun, planted by a nameless hopeful who thought he could match wits with me. Only, this time the lines weren't written for me. I had to make them up as I went along.

However, it seems that the extra, listed as Herman Smith, wasn't Herman Smith at all, but Severance Flynne, an unsuccessful small-time actor who changed places with Smith, but with what motive? All the extras wore beards, so had the bullet been intended for Smith or Flynne? George is drawn into the investigation & there seem to almost too many suspects - Riegleman, the director, anxious not to lose any time on a strict shooting schedule; Sammy, the prop man who should have made sure the weapons were safe; Paul, the casting director who was supposed to keep track of the extras. Then, there's Carla Folsom & Wanda Waite, both actresses with a lot riding on the picture for their future careers. Somebody in the cast & crew must have known Flynne but who was it & what could have been their motive to kill him?

Deputy Sheriff Lamar James is an intelligent, ambitious policeman who can run rings around his boss, Sheriff Callahan. He reluctantly allows George to do some investigating on his own & George is soon entangled in more complications than he imagined possible. The murder was caught on camera but when not only the murder weapon but also the vital reel of film go missing, George looks like the only viable suspect. He needs to not only clear his own name but find the murderer if he's going to avoid arrest - & the end of the best career break he's ever had. Then, when the vital scene is reshot & George deduces that the shot had to be fired from behind the camera, the circle of suspects narrows, more murders are committed & George finds his own life in danger.

Crime on my Hands is a fantastic mystery. The atmosphere of a film set in the 40s is fascinating & I loved the evocation of the whole Hollywood system. George's agent, Melva Lonigan & his press agent, Fred, are terrific. They're totally committed to George's career - & the cut they take of his earnings. Melva is smart & sassy, I imagined her played by Myrna Loy or Rosalind Russell. Vampy Wanda Waite could be played by Lana Turner & maybe a young Henry Fonda as Lamar James? I couldn't help casting the movie in my head as I read. The producer of the movie, Brewster Wallingford, must have been at least partly based on director Michael Curtiz. Curtiz' mangling of the language was notorious in Hollywood; David Niven used one of his most famous phrases, "Bring on the empty horses" as the title of one of his memoirs.

George Sanders is a witty narrator with a very dry, self-deprecating sense of humour. I found him infinitely more charming on the page than I ever have in the movies. For me, he'll always be Jack Favell or Miles Fairley, the sly cad in The Ghost and Mrs Muir. I really want to track down more of his movies now though. I'd like to see him playing a charming character rather than a cad. I don't know how much of the book Sanders actually wrote, it's co-written with Craig Rice, a popular crime writer who had written screenplays for Sanders' films. The dedication reads To Craig Rice, without whom this book would not be possible. George in the book certainly seems to owe quite a bit to Sanders' screen persona & aspects of his life such as his hobby as an inventor & his ability to cook are featured. I don't know that it really matters how much of the book is Sanders & how much is Rice. I enjoyed it very much & I think any fan of 1940s Hollywood or classic detective fiction would enjoy it too.

Dean Street Press kindly sent me review copies of all three George Sanders books that they're reprinting & I'm looking forward to reading the others. They also have plans to reprint other mystery authors, including Ianthe Jerrold, who was featured by Scott at Furrowed Middlebrow in his truly remarkable list of women mystery authors.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Sunday Poetry - D H Lawrence

I've been reading Janet Morley's anthology of poetry for Lent, The Heart's Time. One poem a day with an analysis of the poem & some thoughts about the relevance of the piece for meditation during Lent. I'm not a religious person but I'm enjoying reading my one poem a day, reading the analysis & then reading the poem again. I first read about Janet Morley in this review on Vulpes Libris about her anthology for Advent, Haphazard by Starlight. I love reading poetry & I like the idea of taking the time to read one poem a day. The Lent anthology includes poems by many of my favourite poets - Herbert, Christina Rossetti, Blake, Dickinson - along with others I've never read before like U A Fanthorpe & Kei Miller.

This poem, Pax, is by D H Lawrence. I vaguely knew that Lawrence wrote poetry but I don't remember ever reading any. The image of the sleeping cat drew me to this poem immediately, I love the image of contemplative rest & calm, the repetitions of the words peace, sleeping, yawning. This time of year, the beginning of autumn, is one of my favourites seasons. I feel contented, looking forward to autumn & winter. The image of a sleeping cat makes me think of safety; a cat never fully abandons itself to sleep unless it feels safe. On Friday night I had Lucky & Phoebe both asleep on my lap (it was a very tight squeeze), Brahms' Violin Concerto on the radio & it was very peaceful, even though I couldn't move an inch.

All that matters is to be at one with the living God
To be a creature in the house of the God of Life.

Like a cat asleep on a chair
at peace, in peace
and at one with the master of the house, with the
mistress
at home, at home in the house of the living,
sleeping on the hearth, and yawning before the fire.

Sleeping on the hearth of the living world,
yawning at home before the fire of life
feeling the presence of the living God
like a great reassurance
a deep calm in the heart
a presence
as of a master sitting at the board
in his own and greater being,
in the house of lif
e.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Usurper - Judith Gautier

This novel has it all. Set in 17th century Japan, it's a story of intrigue & betrayal at the highest levels of society. It's adventurous, heart-stopping & has a poignant love triangle as well as a romantic quest at its centre. The Usurper (cover picture from here) was written by Judith Gautier, daughter of the poet & writer Théophile Gautier. She wrote several novels using her expertise as a scholar of China & Japan. I had never heard of Judith or this novel until it was suggested for my 19th century bookgroup. Yet another fascinating book that would have passed me by if not for the wide reading of the members of the group.

The Mikado, more god than emperor, reigns over Japan but the actual rulers of the country are the Shoguns. One of these, Fide-Yori, is a young man whose duties have been carried out by Hieyas, an ambitious older man who is called the Regent although he does hold the title of Shogun. Hieyas is content for Fide-Yori to spend his time hunting with his friends, including his closest companion Iwakura, Prince of Nagato. Hieyas is Nagato's enemy & tries to kill him several times, however, his plans are unsuccessful. When Nagato appears at a Council meeting with a letter from the Mikado requesting that Hieyas step aside, Hieyas realises that he has no choice & steps down. Nagato counsels the Shogun to sign Hieyas' death warrant as he will certainly not do the honourable thing & commit suicide but Hieyas escapes to his own estate & the opportunity is lost.

Nagato is in love with the Kisaki, wife to the Mikado, who lives a life of seclusion & ritual. The Kisaki returns Nagato's love but realises that their relationship is doomed. One of the Kisaki's ladies, Katkoura, is in love with Nagato but he is indifferent to her. On a Court picnic at her Summer residence where the Kisaki & her courtiers write & recite poetry, Nagato realises that the Kisaki loves him & Fatkoura realises it too.

Hieyas decides that he is no longer willing to forgo the title of Shogun. It's a hereditary title & he wants to bequeath it to his son. He attempts to murder Fide-Yori but his plot is discovered by a young woman, Omiti, who warns the Shogun & Nagato averts the crisis. The Shogun is entranced by Omiti & is determined to make her his wife. However, she has disappeared. Hieyas instructs his son to spread discontent among the other nobles while he fortifies his stronghold with his supporters & plans his next attack. Nagato & the Shogun, Fide-Yori, gather their forces & plan their strategy. A young man, Sado, who bears a resemblance to Nagato, creates a diversion while Nagato gathers a fleet of fishermen to carry out an audacious strike at the heart of Hieyas' forces.

The Kisaki has commanded Nagato to marry Fatkoura. He is reluctant but realises that there is no future for his relationship with the Kisaki. His attentions to Fatkoura before he fell in love with the Kisaki have given rise to gossip & the only honourable way to silence the talk is to marry the young woman. Fatkoura travels to Nagato's home & is kindly received by his father. However, Hieyas' forces attack the castle & Fatkoura is abducted by the Prince of Tosa, one of Hieyas' allies. Tosa falls in love with Fatkoura & hopes she will marry him but she is contemptuous even though her feelings for Nagato swing from love to jealous hatred. Tosa's forces defeat an army led by Sado masquerading as Nagato. Sado is captured & brought to Tosa's fortress. He is not allowed to honourably commit suicide & is beheaded. His head is taken to Hieyas as a trophy. Fatkoura has discovered that the captive is not Nagato but her attempts to rescue him are foiled by Tosa who forces her to watch the execution.

Fatkoura's imprisonment becomes stricter as she continues to resist Tosa's advances. A crisis is reached when Nagato's army lays siege to Tosa's palace.The victory of Fide-Yori is celebrated with a gala theatrical performance but there are disgruntled murmurings among the working people at the  extravagance of the aristocrats, especially Fide-Yori's vain, thoughtless mother, & another rebellion is only narrowly averted. Fide-Yori has become disheartened by his fruitless quest to find Omiti & has neglected his official duties & care of his subjects. The final battle between the forces of Hieyas & Fide-Yori will decide the future of Japan.

This is such an exciting story although I must admit that I was finding the story quite slow going until Hieyas' rebellion begins. The scenes at Court & at the Kisaki's summer residence are beautifully described but so formal & stylized that I was feeling impatient although the formally polite language & ritual very effectively highlighted just how impolite & murderous the protagonists were really feeling. The central love triangle is beautifully done. I really felt the Kisaki's misery at her circumscribed life. Every move she made was watched & her every utterance scrutinized for meaning. It reminded me of the stories about Crown Princess Masako, who married the Crown Prince in 1993. The isolation of the Imperial family is highlighted by a scene where the Mikado, an enormously fat young man, moans about his loneliness & boredom. Because the Mikado is treated as a god rather than a human being, he is at liberty to do anything or nothing & usually does nothing. His relationship with his wife, the Kisaki, is formal & distant; they seem to live completely separate lives. His servants are not even allowed to suggest meals to the Emperor so he has 33 different meals prepared every day in 33 rooms & walks from one room to the next until he finds something he fancies.

Nagato is a resourceful hero. His scheme to scupper Hieyas' navy is bold & carried out with courage. He is also completely loyal to the Shogun Fide-Yori & inspires loyalty in his followers. The tragedy of Nagato's impossible love for the Kisaki is the great sorrow of his life which never leaves him & he also feels some guilt for Fatkoura's fate.

There are elements of fairy story in The Usurper, particularly in the quest of Fide-Yori to find Omiti. There are also echoes of the Arthurian legends in the story of Nagato, Fatkoura & the Kisaki. I wondered if those elements were in the original story or whether Gautier added them. There are some beautiful set pieces in the book - the picnic at the summer residence & a later visit to the theatre. However, I also felt that Gautier had crammed in every bit of research she had done. I found it all fascinating because I know very little about Japanese culture but it did slow the novel down.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Sunday Song - Bryn Terfel

I've decided to replace Sunday Poetry this week with Sunday Song. I'm beside myself with excitement because this afternoon I'm heading off to the Arts Centre in Melbourne to see the brilliant Bryn Terfel in concert singing Broadway Classics with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. My lovely friends at work bought me the ticket for my birthday & I've had a calendar on the wall over my desk marking off the days until the concert.

You can see my collection of Bryn CDs above & if you've never heard the Welsh Wonder, there are many clips on YouTube here. I especially love his versions of English folk songs & his recordings of Gerald Finzi, George Butterworth, Vaughan Williams & Benjamin Britten are my favourites. Maybe he'll sing The Foggy, Foggy Dew as an encore? Whatever he sings will be a treat & to see him in person will be wonderful.

More Sunday Poetry next week when I've calmed down a little.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Letters of Lord Byron - selected by R G Howarth

Lord Byron is one of the most famous literary figures the world has ever known. Whether his fame is due to his romantically early death in the cause of Greek independence or because of his scandalous private life, Byron was famous amongst his contemporaries & remains famous today. His fame should rest on his wonderful poetry & his letters, which I've been reading over the last month, rather than speculation about whether he had an affair with his half-sister or what he could possibly have done to make his wife leave him only a year after their marriage. The letters are full of fun & wit. I laughed out loud often but Byron also writes of his misery over the death of friends; his despair at his famously unhappy marriage & the aftermath of his separation from Annabella. He tells a fantastically good story & often skewers an opponent (often his much-loathed mother-in-law, Lady Noel) with a witty phrase.

His correspondents include his half-sister, Augusta, his friends, Thomas Moore & John Cam Hobhouse, & his publisher, John Murray. The letters to Murray are my favourites. In between instructions for the publication of his latest work, he implores Murray to send him supplies of magnesia, corn plasters & tooth powder. Quotations from Shakespeare (particularly Macbeth), Scott & other favourite authors are just dropped in everywhere, in the middle of sentences, as if his thoughts were a mixture of  his reading & his own experience.

Most of the letters were written in his self-imposed exile in Italy, where he went to escape the gossip surrounding the end of his marriage. Byron was already famous for his poetry by this time, especially Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, which drew on his experiences travelling in Greece & the Middle East. His style is so readable, racy & colloquial, like a novel in verse, giving the impression that it was just dashed off, written as quickly as it can be read. The public confused the man with his creations & the image of the Byronic hero was an amalgam of Byron himself & his characters. His relationships, most notoriously with Lady Caroline Lamb, who called him "mad, bad and dangerous to know" & wrote a novel, Glenarvon, about their affair, added to the mystique surrounding him.

As you can see, I kept putting sticky notes in my copy as I read & I'd much rather share some of my favourite passages so you can hear the man himself rather than me trying to describe him.

To Anne Isabella Milbanke, after their engagement,

I did not believe such a woman existed - at least for me,- and I sometimes fear I ought to wish that she had not. I must turn from the subject.
My love, do forgive me if I have written in a spirit that renders you uncomfortable. I cannot embody my feelings in words. I have nothing to desire - nothing I would see altered in you - but so much in myself. I can conceive no misery equal to mine, if I failed in making you happy,- and yet how can I hope to do justice to those merits from whose praise there is not a dissentient voice?
14 October 1814

To his sister, Augusta,

I heard the other day that she (Annabella) was very unwell. I was shocked enough - and sorry enough, God knows, but never mind; H (Hobhouse) tells me however that she is not ill; that she had been indisposed, but is better and well to do - This is a relief. As for me I am in good health, and fair, though very unequal spirits; but for all that - she - or rather the Separation - has broken my heart. I feel as if an Elephant had trodden on it. I am convinced that I shall never get over it - but I try.
8 September 1816

To Thomas Moore,

I rejoice to hear of your forthcoming in February - though I tremble for the 'magnificence' which you attribute to the new Childe Harold. I am glad you like it; it is a fine indistinct piece of poetical desolation, and my favourite. I was half mad during the time of its composition, between metaphysics, mountains, lakes, love unextinguishable, thoughts unutterable, and the nightmare of my own delinquencies. I should, many a good day, have blown my brains out, but for the recollection that it would have given pleasure to my mother-in-law; and, even then, if I could have been certain to haunt her - but I won't dwell upon these trifling family matters.
28 January 1817

To John Murray,

The story of Shelley's agitation (on the famous night when Byron, the Shelleys & Dr Polidori told each other ghost stories & Mary Shelley had the nightmare that resulted in her writing Frankenstein) is true. I can't tell what seized him for he don't want courage. He was once with me in a gale of Wind, in a small boat, right under the rocks between Meillerie and St Gingo. ... The sail was mismanaged, and the boat was filling fast. He can't swim. I stripped off my coat - made him strip off his and take hold of an oar, telling him that I thought (being an expert swimmer) I could save him, if he would not struggle when I took hold of him ... He answered me with the greatest coolness, that 'he had no notion of being saved, and that I would have enough to do to save myself, and begged not to trouble me.' Luckily, the boat righted, and, baling, we got round a point into St Gingo ... 
And yet the same Shelley, who was as cool as it was possible to be in such circumstances ... certainly had the fit of phantasy which Polidori describes, though not exactly as he describes it.
15 May 1819

To John Murray,

Dear Murray,
I have been thinking over our late correspondence, and wish to propose to you the following articles for our future:-
1stly That you shall write to me of yourself, of the health, wealth, and welfare of all friends; but of me (quoad me) little or nothing.
2dly That you shall send me Soda powders, tooth-powder, tooth-brushes, or any such anti-odontalgic or chemical articles, as heretofore, ad libitum, upon being re-imbursed for the same.
3dly that you shall not send me any modern, or (as they are called) new, publications in English whatsoever, save and excepting any writing, prose or verse, of (or reasonably presumed to be of) Walter Scott, Crabbe, Moore ... or any especial single work of fancy, which is thought to be of considerable merit. ...
5thly That you send me no opinions whatsoever, whether good, bad, or indifferent, of yourself, or your friends, or others, concerning any work, or works, of mine, past, present, or to come.
24 September 1821

This edition is a reprint of the 1933 selection of the Letters by R G Howarth. Byron's Letters were originally collected & published by Thomas Moore, who deleted some material considered too shocking or embarrassing for publication, replacing the offending words with asterisks. It wasn't until Leslie Marchand's 12 volume Collected Letters was published in the 1970s, that an unexpurgated edition was available.

Thank you to Mike Walmer for sending me a review copy.