23 August 2007

On the Callendar With John Verney

(Please note that this contains some character spoilers a few paragraphs on.)
"Daddy says that nowadays any schoolgirl of thirteen who writes a book is hailed as a genius. Well, I'm a schoolgirl and I'm nearly thirteen and though I don't think I am quite genius, I certainly wouldn't mind being hailed as one. Anyway, I've always wanted to write a book. The trouble before was that I had nothing really exciting to write one about—just school, and Friday (who is a year older) and my youngest sisters and my pony Gorse and my guinea pigs and what a nuisance grown-ups are. But of course those are what all the other geniuses of my age write about and I wanted mine to be a proper adventure story."
So begins John Verney's 1959 novel Friday's Tunnel, which introduces the Callendar family: father Gus (Augustus), a newspaper columnist, who is married to Jan (January), an expatriot American who was once an art student in Paris. As February narrates, they decided "to carry on this calendar joke with their children," naming the eldest boy Friday for the day he was born on. February was born on a Sunday, so they named her after the month instead, and for subsequent children, tiring of the calendar, Gus and Jan named them in alphabetical order (Abigail, known as Gail; Beryllium, known as Berry; Chrysogon, "Chrys," and Desdemona, "Des").

It's hard not to love February after that introduction, and she is a most ingenious child: horse-mad as many girls of that age, a middling scholar, and continually amused by her brother's interests. At the time Friday's Tunnel takes place, he has become greatly absorbed in tunnels and is attempting to dig one through the chalk cliff at the rear of their property, Marsh Manor, a smallholding with a converted farmhouse, barn and outbuildings, just north of Chichester. Little does guess that Friday's building project will somehow intersect with a new mineral found on a small Mediterranean island called Capria (where, coincidentally, Gus was stationed during World War II), the officious Lord Sprockett and his madcap wife, a cottage called Deans, and the holiday tutor Gus has engaged for the summer to Friday's and February's dismay, a young college student named Robin Fawcett.

Friday's Tunnel is such a cracking great adventure story, mixing politics at the time with technological secrets and untrustworthy officials, that the first sequel is just slightly a letdown: February's Road involves the family with a lesser crisis that will prove more personal: a new trunk road, partially spurred by Gus's scathing newspaper columns about the need for good highways in Britain, will clip off half of the paddock and bring traffic past Marsh Manor and ruin some of the most beautiful stretches of the South Downs. February is accused of sabotaging the bulldozers about to start the clearing process and the whole family, including new little brother Hildebrand, plus Dr. Henry and his children Adam and Sasha, who were introduced in the previous book, become involved in the convoluted land deals that follow.

The first two books are narrated by February; however, in the third a chummy third-person narration serves as the story follows both February and Gail as they become involved in a youth movement called "ismo," which gives the name to the third book of the series. The Callendars are moving to Florence, Italy, for a year in connection with Gus' job and the special tutor that is engaged to teach Italian to both February and Gail, as well as two other students at her co-ed boarding school, embroils them all—including some surprising adults!—in the "ismo" movement, which seeks to keep peace in the world. Unfortunately "ismo" has been infiltrated by unscrupulous sorts who want to use it to make money—and the combination of art rackets, idealistic students, and an uninspired narrative method makes this the dullest of the books.

And alas, poor February. Becoming involved with "ismo," however good her intentions, marked the "beginning of the end" for her intelligent, delightful character. By the time Seven Sunflower Seeds rolls around, she is now infected by know-it-all teen disease and considers all adults stupid or untrustworthy, and those younger than her but old enough to disagree with her as appropriate targets for scorn. Sasha Henry, the "brainy" girl who helps February solve the mystery in February's Road has become a miniskirt-wearing, sarcastic "dolly bird" who plays "ismo's" idealism like a game. Together they unceasingly criticize the narrator of Seven Sunflower Seeds, Berry, who is now the age of February in the first novel.

Caprium rears its head again in this fourth book, intertwined with the mystery of a retired racehorse boarding at Marsh Manor (the Callendars are back from Italy), editor John Gubbins' boffin-in-training nephew Rupert, the machinations of "ismo" (now being used for bad ends) and, once again, Lord Sprockett, not to mention a new breakfast cereal, the poems of Edward Lear, and Gus Callendar's "Mame"-like aunt Sophie and the Callendars' less-than-helpful au pair, known to the family as "Mamzel." Aunt Sophie is a delightful character, but much of the novel is given over to poor Berry trying to figure out if her little brother's illness was caused by poison in the form of caprium and being proved wrong and right and wrong again.

The final book in the series finds the Callendars having sold Marsh Manor and living in the town of Querbury, where Berry gets involved in a movement to save the town's old maltings (a real-life project of John Verney). Rupert Gubbins reappears, as do several characters from February's Road, in particular Mike Spillergun, who now hosts an offbeat television series, and Peter Blow. The maltings was founded by the Samson family, and wayfaring Samuel Samson is rumored to have a treasure, the "Hoard" of the title, fabulous Incan artifacts, hidden somewhere on his property, once the home the Callendars have purchased. In addition, Gus is running for the town council, and Verney gets some sharp jabs in about small-town politics, not to mention small-town boys made good...or did they?

Something I found interesting about this last entry in the Callendar saga is that the eldest three might as well not exist any longer: February (who was engaged to Robin Fawcett at the end of Seeds), is mentioned only as "your eldest sister," Friday is mentioned only as having once been Peter Blow's friend, and Gail might have dropped from the face of the earth! It's as if now that they're grown Verney no longer has a use for them. Dr. Henry and his family are not mentioned, either, even though Berry is sick with glandular fever during a portion of the book—she's attended by another physician altogether.

The first two books are notable for containing Verney's delightful Edward Ardizzone-like illustrations in the text (Ismo only has chapter headers and the final books only cover illustrations). Here's a few:

The family at dinner after Christmas in February's Road:

The Callendar family at table

Feb in bed after her accident in Friday's Tunnel:

February writing in her speedy scrawl

And this delightful illo of Feb with a cold from February's Road:

February sneezing

Taken as a whole they are delightful portraits of middle-class English childhood forty years ago, but Friday's Tunnel is undoubtedly the best.

I'm at present reading John Verney's World War II memoirs, which are quite offbeat compared to the more serious experiences I've been reading about (Halsey's Typhoon, etc.). It's considered a classic British war memoir.

Here's a Telegraph article commenting on Friday's Tunnel.

John Verney supported the Farnham Trust and created something called "The Dodo Pad."

06 August 2007

Books Read Since June 26

(not counting the library books...)

• Dark Tide, Stephen Puleo
In January of 1919, a huge tank of molasses in the North End of Boston burst. Although when you mention "the great molasses disaster" to people, the first reaction is amusement because it sounds so absurd, the accident killed dozens who were killed by drowning, concussion, and the force of the flow of thousands of gallons of viscous fluid. Puleo's narrative follows the lives of the families who lived and worked in the area and the repercussions of the event—and the results of the determination: was the company who owned the tank to blame? Did they ignore obvious leaks and even cover them up?

• Eric Sloane's America (comprised of American Barns & Covered Bridges, Our Vanishing Landscape, and American Yesterday)
In the 1950s Sloane did numerous books about the vanishing heritage of America: homemade tools, handmade homes and barns and bridges, and a way of life. Lovingly illustrated, wonderfully informative, and always wistful.

• Halsey's Typhoon, Bob Drury and Tom Clavin
James bought this book about a typhoon that struck Admiral Halsey's Task Force 38 in the Pacific during December of 1944. Three destroyers sank, almost 800 men were killed, and the rest of the ships survived unbelievable damage. The writing was so vivid that I was seasick halfway through the book. An amazing story of heroic efforts to stay afloat, of rescue, and of survival. The chapters about the Tabberer and her captain's efforts to keep her afloat are almost a book of their own. (One of the survivors of the storm? A young officer by the name of Gerald Ford.)

• Design for Victory: World War II on the American Home Front, William L. Bird Jr and Harry R. Rubenstein
This is the last of the books I bought in Washington, DC, last November, an overview of the posters and advertisements that were part of American life through the war years. Heavily illustrated in color.

• Another Path, Gladys Taber
Fans of Taber's Stillmeadow books will remember Taber's friend Jill who shared the farmhouse with Taber, her daughter, and Jill's children. After Jill passed away in the early 1960s, Taber wrote this short book about her efforts to come to terms with her grief. I enjoyed it, but it may be for Stillmeadow fans only.

• Re-Read: The Way It Was—1876, Suzanne Hilton
I found this book years ago, probably about 1977, for a dollar in a drugstore. It was written for young adults and told the story of life in the United States during the year of the Centennial. Hilton draws her information from diaries and news reports of the time; the book is lively and engrossing while talking about schooling, sickness, farm life and city life, and especially the excitement of the year: the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.

03 August 2007

Library Books

• Angels in the Gloom, Anne Perry
Third in her World War I series.

followed by

• Some Disputed Barricade and We Shall Not Sleep, the end of the series.

I gave the first book in this series a unfavorable review, but then gave the second book a chance and found it easier to swallow, with the main characters becoming more well-rounded. I actually enjoyed the last few and was of course interested to know who turned out to be "the Peacemaker."

• In Love With Norma Loquendi, William Safire
Another collection from Safire's On Language column. Didn't enjoy this one as much as the others; not sure why.

So I brought back two books to the library, looked around—and came home with six (granted, this was because this is a library that is not close to our house and I would not go there often, so I figured I'd better get them while I was there).

• Aliens in the Backyard: Plant and Animal Imports into America, John Leland
Absolutely fascinating book about...well, title tells all. There are the obvious ones, going back before the development of the US (horses, pigs, smallpox) and afterwards (kudzu, starlings, sparrows), but also things like armadillos, bermuda grass, the potato bug, etc. Very readable and not stodgy as one might expect.

• Halloween and Other Festivals of Death and Life, Jack Santino
Essays about Hallowe'en and celebrations of that ilk and time of year. Very interesting essay on Bonfire Night in Newfoundland and also an examination of placing Hallowe'en decor on children's graves; several essays on pranking in "the good old days" (outhouses tipped, buggies put on roofs, etc.) One particular essay brought back forgotten memories: Hallowe'en noisemakers! I remember the sale of these in Woolworths and Kresges back in the early 1960s, then they vanished. It was common for the older kids who were too old for trick or treat to go out in costume with noisemakers to make a racket as well as frighten the younger children.

• Lusitania, Diane Preston
Preston does an admirable job of recreating the era, the shipboard experiences, the harrowing experiences and the aftermath of the sinking of the luxury liner by German U-boats. The bravery of the survivors who floated for hours in the cold water of the North Atlantic is particularly memorable.

The final two were interlibrary loans:

• Cyberspaces of Their Own: Female Fandoms Online, Rhiannon Bury
Bury examines two internet fandoms—the David Duchovny Estrogen Brigade and fans of Ray Kowalski (and his relationship with Benton Fraser) from Due South—with special emphasis on community and communication (and the inevitable fandom fallouts) online.

• The Democratic Genre: Fanfiction in a Literary Context, Sheenagh Pugh
Pugh takes a different tack on the subject of fan fiction, that of its literary worth. She makes excellent points in regarding well-written, well-thought out fanfiction as of the same caliber as professional sequels to classic books and television tie-in novels. (Frankly, having read both, I can tell you that there is much fanfiction better than some of these published efforts. I've tossed several Star Trek novels against the wall.) She examines five fanfiction communities revolving around Jane Austen's fiction, a British police procedural The Bill, the Horatio Hornblower films, Blake's 7, and Lord of the Rings (both novels and film), but touches on other fandoms briefly as well.