Monday, December 10, 2018

Farewell: A Memoir of a Texas Childhood by Horton Foote

Happy Monday, bookish friends! One of my choices for Nonfiction November and for the year of 1999 for ACOB was Farewell: A Memoir of a Texas Childhood by Horton Foote (1999). Foote won two academy awards--one for the screenplay of To Kill A Mockingbird and another for the film Tender Mercies. Perhaps his most well known play was The Trip to Bountiful. I've been lucky enough to see a few of his plays. Also, I love a good memoir, and Farewell did not disappoint.

Horton Foote (1916-2009) was born into a prominent family in Wharton, Texas. In Farewell, he recounts conversations with his family members which tell much of his story. Foote's childhood in a small town had all the elements of a Norman Rockwell type existence. He climbed pecan trees, was a voracious reader and sat on the porch after dinner with his extended family on many evenings. He knew most everyone in town and recounts stories of eccentric relatives and townsfolk and family secrets. His father owned a dry goods store and was one of the most respected gentlemen in Wharton. 

Foote was an intelligent child and a deep thinker. He found himself questioning the relations between whites and African Americans in the community. The Ku Klux Klan had a strong presence in the town, and as a precocious child, Foote found a strange looking white robe in a drawer and questioned his mother about the garment. He learned that his father and grandfather had attended a Klan meeting but had not gone back. What stuck out most for me, though, was when Foote's father confided once that there were times he felt abject fear walking down the sidewalk because he knew of the violence the men of the town were capable of.

This memoir covers Foote's life growing up in Wharton and ends with his decision to leave home and become an actor. At seventeen, he leaves to join the Pasadena Playhouse.

Farewell has some lovely writing and anecdotes. It's apparent that sitting on the porch as a child and listening to conversations served Horton Foote well as a playwright. I liked that he didn't write an overly sentimental memoir but dived into the underbelly of race relations that gives an in depth and honest picture of what life was like during the time he grew up in Wharton. It was also nice to visit a time before technology when people sat together often and talked to one another.

I enjoyed reading Farewell, and I'd recommend it for anyone who enjoys a good memoir or who likes Horton Foote's work, especially his plays set in the fictional Texas town of Harrison, Texas.

Horton Foote

Monday, December 3, 2018

Remarks on Recent Reads: A Mixed Bag (Part 2)

Greetings, bookish friends! I've been offline longer than I'd planned (since Thanksgiving holiday spent with family in Austin). I hope that you had a good weekend and that your December is off to a good start. 

On to the business at hand as I endeavor to catch up on mentioning some of my reads for A Century of Books, also known as ACOB

Dance Night by Dawn Powell (1930) is a bittersweet story of life in an Ohio factory town. Powell takes the reader on a journey into the lives of several working class characters and their dreams to live better lives. The title comes from the weekly dance at the local dance hall where the characters go to forget their troubles. I've read several books by Dawn Powell this year, and this one is readable but not my favorite.

The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen (1948) tells the story of Stella Rodney, living in World War II London, where she works for a government agency. Her husband is away at the war, and she falls in love with a man she learns is a spy. Soon, she finds herself in a bit of a quandry, caught between the spy and a man trying to apprehend him. Although the writing is wonderful and there are some unforgettable scenes, I had trouble connecting with this book. It has all the elements of a wonderful story, but I found it a challenging read. 

Cast a Cold Eye by Mary McCarthy (1950) is a collection of seven terrific short stories. Each one showcases McCarthy's ability to write about human nature, and each of the stories contains a fair bit of irony and humor. 

The Straight and Narrow Path by Honor Tracy (1956) takes place in a small Irish village where a man from the British aristocracy who is also an anthropologist has been sent to the village by his doctor for a rest. The anthropologist happens to spy a group of nuns jumping over a fire. He writes a story for the local newspaper, thinking he's witnessed a fertility rite. The nuns sue, and chaos breaks out in the village. This book that takes aim at the landed gentry, journalism, academia, religion, and human nature. This was a fun read that makes me want to try more of Honor Tracy's novels.

The Darling Buds of May by H.E. Bates (1958) is just good fun. I enjoyed reading about the Larkin family, living in the countryside in Kent. Pop Larkin and his wife, Ma, are the most easy going people. They embrace life and haven't a care in the world, and although they don't appear to have much money, Pop seems to spend a lot of it. When the taxman, Cedric Charlton, comes calling, he has trouble convincing Pop to pay his taxes. The naive young man doesn't stand a chance, especially when the Larkins' beautiful Mariette, gets involved. This was a fun read.

Blaming by Elizabeth Taylor (1976) was Taylor's last novel, published after her death. Blaming is the story of Amy Henderson whose husband dies while they are on a cruise to Istanbul. Martha, an American novelist, befriends Amy on the ship, helping Amy with decisions and offering support. After Amy returns to London, she realizes that she and Martha don't have much in common. Martha never grasps this fact and pressures Amy into an uneasy friendship with tragic consequences. What struck me most about Blaming is the marvelous job Taylor does in depicting the life of a widow. While not my favorite Elizabeth Taylor novel, I enjoyed reading it.   

Young Adolf by Beryl Bainbridge (1978) is a quirky story based on the premise that a young Adolf Hitler made a trip to Liverpool in 1912 to avoid serving in the military. He stays with his older half brother, Alois, and his small family. Young Adolf is a remarkable piece of writing about what might have happened--funny at times, violent and depressing in other parts.

Crampton Hodnet by Barbara Pym (1985) may be my favorite of Pym's novels. It takes place in North Oxford in the 1930s. At the center of the story are Miss Maude Doggett, the exacting elderly spinster, and her companion, Jessie Morrow. Into their Victorian home comes the young curate, Stephen Latimer, who lives in their guest room. Crampton Hodnet has wonderful characters and witty dialogue and situations. In Pym's way, she shines a light on the foibles of human nature is this engaging novel.  

End in Tears by Ruth Rendell (2005) is the 20th of the Inspector Wexford novels. One night, someone drops a big ball of concrete from a bridge and kills a driver in a silver car, but it's the wrong driver. I wanted to like this novel, but there is just too much going on--too many characters, too much plot, boring middle, and several subplots. It made for me long for the earlier Inspector Wexford books.

Out of this group of novels, I liked The Darling Buds of May, The Straight and Narrow Path, and Crampton Hodnet the best.

What are you reading this week?

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family by Mary S. Lovell (2001)

I haven't read many books this year which could be classified as chunksters, but last weekend, I found myself completely involved in The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family by Mary S. Lovell. You've probably heard of the sisters--Nancy, Diana, Unity, Jessica, Pamela and Deborah. (There was a son Tom as well.) These women were glamorous, sometimes shocking, and never boring. Their lives made them media darlings, much loved or much hated (depending on the sister) by the British public.

Mary S. Lovell tells the story of the aristocratic Mitford family chronologically and begins  with the families of the parents, David and his wife, Sydney. Lovell chronicles their childhoods and courtship. Each chapter of the book deals with a span of years, beginning with 1894 and going on to the year 2000.

What I liked about The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family was the excellent job that Mary Lovell does in covering the Mitfords' unusual childhood, and she the way in which she weaves together a narrative of each of the sisters lives, managing to keep a lot of balls in the air in every chapter. Although Pamela and Deborah each had their own disappointments, they lived rather quiet lives compared to the others. Life for the Mitford family consisted of dealing with one crisis after another.

I agree with Lovell's assertion that we probably wouldn't know much about the Mitfords had it not been for fascism, including communism and Naziism. Diana, celebrated for her beauty, also became known for leaving her first husband for Oswald Mosley, father of British fascism and admirer of Hitler. Hitler served as best man at the Mosleys' wedding. 

Unity had a fascination with Naziism which began in childhood. Rather than going to France for her year abroad, she persuaded her parents into allowing her to spend a year in Germany. During that time, she stalked Hitler until she got his attention. The two began a deep friendship which, if you look at the totality of the kindnesses Hitler extended to Unity and to her family, was probably more than that. Unity shot herself in the head when England declared war on Germany. She didn't succeed in killing herself, but with brain damage, her life was never the same.

Then, there was Jessica's fascination with communism. Her intense interest seemed funny at first, but Jessica fled to Spain at nineteen with her cousin Esmond Romilly (whom she later married) with the idea of fighting alongside the communists. Although Romilly died during World War II, Jessica married a second time and lived in the United States where she remained a lifelong communist.

I've read several of Nancy Mitford's novels, some of Diana's writing, Deborah's lovely autobiography, Wait for Me!, and Hons and Rebels by Jessica. These women were so accomplished, but it was hard to read about how often these women turned against one another. During World War II, Nancy went to the authorities to insist that Diana be put in jail for her involvement in the fascist party, and Jessica said as much to Winston Churchill. As a result, Diana spent three and a half years in Holloway Prison without having been charged with a crime, living in squalid conditions, away from her small children. 

The divisions within the family, especially the actions of Diana and Unity, and their mother's high esteem of Hitler, eventually took its toll on the Mitford parents. David left his wife and the family, moving to an island in the Inner Hebrides, in search of peace and quiet.

The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family does an excellent job of showing how these sisters became closely intertwined with some of the most important events in history. They moved through noted literary and political circles, but it's a bittersweet story as well. For all the Mitfords' political causes, the family paid a heavy price. 

If you love reading about the Mitfords, then I would recommend The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family for you. 

Monday, November 12, 2018

The Tale of Beatrix Potter by Margaret Lane

Happy Monday to you!

I have a few of the old Penguin paperbacks. A Tale of Beatrix Potter by Margaret Lane is the first one I bought, probably twenty years ago, and it has languished on my shelf until recently. 

What I loved about this biography was that although the book was written in 1946, and Beatrix Potter was gone by then, there were several people still around who knew Beatrix Potter and whose accounts of her are part of this book. This included Potter's husband, William Heelis, who made his papers and those of Potter's available to Lane.

Beatrix Potter's story is one of determination. She was painfully shy, and growing up and for a good part of her adulthood, she spent a great deal of time by herself. Of course, now everyone knows how much she loved animals and nature, and about her gift for drawing. 

Potter's wealthy parents tolerated their daughter's artistic hobby. What caused her parents great embarrassment was that Potter sold her work and became a successful author. They preferred her to stay upstairs in her room.

Potter's friendship and later secret engagement to Norman Warne, son of publisher Frederick Warne, caused her parents a great deal of anguish because Warne was middle class and worked for a living. Sadly, Warne became ill and died before the engagement became public.

Potter lived with her parents into her 40s, and her parents had no desire for Potter to live anywhere else. She continued to travel with them, and they spent part of their year in the Lake District, a place Potter especially loved. 

Against her parents' wishes but with proceeds from her many successful books and money from her aunt, Potter purchased Hilltop Farm near the village of Near Sawrey which began a second career of sorts in which Potter started to buy land in the Lake District for preservation. Her lawyer in these affairs was William Heelis, who later became her husband (again embarrassing and angering her parents). Theirs was a happy marriage for thirty years.

This biography is a gem with lovely writing and makes for great reading. Beatrix Potter's ardent spirit and desire to overcome the limitations her parents' continually set for her show what a challenging life she had. Thank goodness for us that she managed to live her life in her own way.

The Tale of Beatrix Potter is a quick read. I'm sure there are more extensive biographies of Potter out there, but this biography is worth reading to get a good overview of Potter's life. 

Beatrix Potter and William Heelis, 1913
by Clarence Edmund Fry & Son
Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery