22 January 2019

Mrs. 'Arris Fights the Cold War

Mrs. 'Arris Goes to Moscow
Paul Gallico
Delacorte Press, 1974
214 pages

I re-read the first of the Mrs. 'Arris quartet, "Mrs. 'Arris Goes to Paris" last September, and enjoyed it every bit as much as I had forty-odd years ago. For some reason the book title, author, and plotline had stuck with me all those years. It was probably one of the first books I read that wasn't assigned for school or a classic novel I'd heard about at school. A real grownup's book!

Then last fall I learned via book people online that there were more Mrs. 'Arris books to be had! I do seem to have read them out of order, as this one is the fourth and final one. But you needn't have read any of the others to enjoy this one. Interestingly, there are a couple places where Mrs. 'Arris's previous exploits are briefly mentioned and they have footnotes to the other titles in the series.


Once again the intrepid Mrs. 'Arris, a London char, ventures out into the wider world, dreaming this time of helping a pair of young lovers who have been separated. She wins a vacation trip to Moscow during the height of the Cold War, and the author, Paul Gallico, has a great time with all the prevalent Russian stereotypes of the inept bureaucracy, KGB brutality and ineptness, terrible food, dowdy fashions, etc.

She and her best friend, Mrs. Butterfield, are marched around Moscow by their Intourist guide, visiting all the obligatory sights. And they make rather pointed remarks about the country, the people they meet, and the general feel of the place. Their candid remarks inside Lenin's tomb are down-to-earth, practical, no nonsense cockney, and very funny. Mrs. 'Arris charms everyone she meets, well, except for those relentless KGB guys whom she outwits instead.

This is another light, breezy read that is quite entertaining, just like the story of her trip to Paris. It made for good cozy reading during a long, cold winter weekend. Of course, it is not particularly realistic. But it was fun, especially coming after my slog through 800 pages of Trollope! In the coming months I will seek out her other books when I'm in a funk.

Mrs. 'Arris reminds me of Mrs. Emily Pollifax, protagonist of a series of 14 spy-mystery books by Dorothy Gilman. Mrs. Pollifax, a sixty-ish New Jersey widow, works for the CIA on far flung (and far fetched) missions. She is just as charming and disarming as Mrs. 'Arris, and just as fun to read. I listened to the Pollifax audiobooks, which are very well done.


The versions published in the UK have slightly different titles and don't use the abbreviated version of her last name. Actually in the books she is always called Mrs. Harris, but the US publishers saw fit to drop her Hs, as does Mrs. 'Arris herself in her cockney accent. She will forever be Mrs. 'Arris to me, too. Also note that British English does not use a period/full stop after "Mrs" or "Mr".

Mrs. 'Arris Goes to Paris - Flowers for Mrs Harris
Mrs. 'Arris Goes to New York - Mrs Harris Goes to New York
Mrs. 'Arris Goes to Parliament - Mrs Harris MP
Mrs. 'Arris Goes to Moscow -  Mrs Harris Goes to Moscow

14 January 2019

Curious Jewels

These Are My Jewels
Lily Bess Campbell
W. W. Norton, 1929
183 pages

Sometimes my curiosity just gets the better of me. I read someone mentioning an obscure novel they cannot locate or an author that has little information about them online. "Ah!" I think. "I should see if the Cincinnati library has a copy of that book." Or "I should Google that author and check WorldCat." So the adventure starts!

A few months ago I checked a favorite blog, Furrowed Middlebrow, which specializes in lesser-known British, Irish, & American women writers from 1910 to 1960. I found his list of American authors with last names beginning with C, wherein I noticed the elusive Lily Bess Campbell:
A longtime UCLA professor and scholar of Renaissance and Shakespeare studies, LILY BESS CAMPBELL was the author of a single novel, about which details are sparse. These Are My Jewels (1929) is described in one source as a satirical novel, and a bookseller says it's about "a mother of the 1890s who ruins her children."
I was up for a challenge! The Cincinnati library did not have the book, however the wonderful OhioLINK system did locate a copy at Ohio State University and send it to me. It's an original First Edition, published in 1929. So I have now read this scarce novel, and it is indeed a satire on parenting with nice doses of humor and a bit of sarcasm thrown in for good measure. It consists of two chapters called Book One and Book Two.

Book One: In Which a Mother Equips Her Children For Life

It opens with the June 1888 wedding of Violet Francis Foulkes to James Whitten Masterson in Wisconsin. Thereafter the omniscient narrator always refers to her as Mrs. Masterson. Since very little information is available about this book, I will quote from it more extensively than I normally would in a review to give you the flavor of the writing. This delicious gem starts on page 1, after the paragraph about the wedding.
In 1888, times had not yet begun the habit of changing, so common in later years. In fact, times were both good and old as well as changeless, according to those who admit the ability to remember 1888. In 1888, then, smoking and swearing and short hair and pajamas and reading the newspapers at breakfast and belonging to clubs and sowing wild oats were the prerogatives of men only. But women enjoyed the high privileges of corsets and bustles and high heels and playing the piano and crying over poetry and being always the better half in any marriage; these were the special prerogatives of women, like having children and cooking and not bothering their pretty heads about things.
A little while later the narrator tells us that
Mrs. Masterson was a progressive before the days of progressives. She was independent, radical, unashamed, long before votes for women and economic independence and bobbed hair and sex experience were dreamed of heresies.
The rest of this first book shows us Mrs. Masterson raising her four children. She is very overbearing and what is today called a helicopter parent, although the narrator always sees the story from her viewpoint and phrases it so that she seems a paragon of modern motherhood. When the children are very little she gets them a cat who becomes pregnant. She tells them about mothers carrying their babies inside themselves
and how every child belonged to its mother... And they knew that they had hurt her when they were born. And they felt very, very loving toward their mother. And they promised always and always to love her more than any one else in all the world.
She makes them repeat that promise nightly.

Book Two: In Which a Mother Protects Her Children From Life

In the second book we see how the children turn out. Her son Harry elopes with a girl named Carlie and they have a baby girl. Mrs. Masterson constantly undermines his wife and tries to take the baby away to raise it herself. The story of Harry and Carlie is the longest one, and we see in detail how Mrs. Masterson runs Harry's life. Eventually Harry and his family move away to St. Louis, at the recommendation of his father. Mrs. Masterson is miserable.
It was hard to think of him facing a world without his mother - with no one but Carlie to help him. And Mrs. Masterson knew he could never really love Carlie. She knew that it was only the children that held him. And she knew that her boy would always keep his mother first in his heart.
The other children don't turn out as Mrs. Masterson had hoped, either. Jim goes off to the First World War and is killed. They discover he was married in New York before he went overseas, but Mrs. Masterson refuses to accept it.
Jane Osgood was not really Jim's wife. She had lived with him for only one week. Jim had always said that he loved his mother more than anybody else in all the world, and she knew that he did.
Violet marries but only on the condition that she and Ted live with her parents, which doesn't work out. She has a child, but Ted leaves her.

Maurine escapes and has her own life. She works for the war effort in various cities around the country. At the end, she tells her mother she's getting married in New York and they can't meet Sammy or attend.
She was sorry if she hurt her mother, but the family had had pretty bad luck about marrying, and she just thought she'd try it alone.
In the end, Mrs. Masterson has messed up the lives of Harry and Violet. Jim dies and she writes his wife out of her life. And Maurine is the only sane and sensible one who leads her own life, which of course makes Mrs. Masterson unhappy.

The book is short and has small pages with wide margins, so is quickly read. It was fun to read about and laugh at Mrs. Masterson. I also enjoyed the details about life in the US between 1888 and 1921. This was the only novel written by Lily Bess Campbell, a scholar of Renaissance drama and an eminent Shakespearean authority who taught for many years at UCLA. She was named Woman of the Year by the Los Angeles Times in 1962. She apparently never married or had children, and certainly had progressive ideas for her day.

One interesting fact I uncovered is that this book was the very first one ever published by W. W. Norton and Company. It seems unusual to stake your business on an unknown author's first novel.


A short biography of Lily Bess Campbell, 1883-1967

Bout of Books #24 - Wrapup


Another week-long Bout of Books comes to an end, during which I read parts of several books, joined the Monday Twitter chat, and completed one of the challenges. I like this read-a-thon because it's all about reading and sharing with the group, in a free-form manner. No rules, no large page-counts required!

First I finished the final 200 pages of the 800-page novel "Can You Forgive Her?" by Anthony Trollope. It's known as the first of his Palliser series, although the Pallisers are not the central figures in this book. Yes, it was long, but I thoroughly enjoyed the stories that it told of upper class life in 1860s England, and look forward to reading the other five tomes eventually.

I also read 3/4 of "Queen Lucia" by E. F. Benson, likewise the first in a series of six novels. Long ago I watched several television productions based on the Mapp and Lucia series of books, so I thought I should read the original comedies. I must admit that I liked Lucia much better on screen than on the page. She's so bossy and snobbish that she became annoying. I guess in the TV series she seemed a bit more likeable. Still, I plan on reading the whole series.


Lastly, I re-read several short stories in the translated collection "The Book of Khartoum" before reviewing it. There are 10 stories from Sudan in the slim volume and it's a quick read. Some stories were very interesting, while others were mostly baffling to me. It gave me a peek into a very different culture, which I enjoyed, but I am glad it was a short trip.

I see Bout of Books #25 will be from May 13th to May 19th. Join us, it's fun!

Stories of Khartoum

The Book of Khartoum: a City in Short Fiction
Raph Cormack & Max Shmookler, editors
Comma Press, 2016
72 pages

Somewhere on a book blog I saw a reference to this book, a slim volume of short stories circling about the city of Khartoum, capital of Sudan. I've been trying to read more literature in translation, and I don't think I've read anything from North Africa, so I requested this from the library.


Khartoum, according to one theory, takes its name from the Beja word hartooma, meaning ‘meeting place’. Geographically, culturally and historically, the Sudanese capital is certainly that: a meeting place of the Blue and White Niles, a confluence of Arabic and African histories, and a destination point for countless refugees displaced by Sudan’s long, troubled history of forced migration.
The Book of Khartoum provides an intimate tour of this city through the eyes of 10 of its best authors, representing a wide array of literary schools and political stances; from the social realism of old Communist stalwarts, to the fantastical abstraction of a new generation of Sudanese writers.
-- Comma Press

Some of the stories are interesting tales of life in this African city today, while others are very experimental and hard to really understand. My favorite of the 10 stories is "The Tank" by Ahmed al-Malik. In it the narrator buys a used tank from a middleman he meets at a wedding. The reactions to the tank are telling of the society he lives in.  His friends and neighbors are suspicious and stay away from him. The tradesman he deals with suddenly give him much better goods and services.

I also enjoyed "Next Eid" by Bawadir Bashir. In it Uthman is a young man from a small village who studies at a big university in Khartoum. Every Eid holiday he takes many gifts home for his family and friends. There he is considered a wonderful and talented big shot, called Sir Doctor Uthman. Afterwards he returns to his shabby dorm, his studies, and the night job that lets him support his family. A small, moving portrait.

According to the introduction, some of the stories depend on nuances of Arabic or playing with Arabic rhyming schemes. I am glad I read this little book, but it does demonstrate that literature in translation can be tricky to understand out of its context.


The publisher, Comma Press of Manchester, England, has a series called "Reading the City: Celebrating the best short stories from cities in the UK and from around the world." They are a bit hard to find, but I would like to read a few more. The series thus far:

The Book of Birmingham (UK)
The Book of Cairo (Egypt)
The Book of Dhaka (Bangladesh)
The Book of Gaza (Palestine)
The Book of Havana (Cuba)
The Book of Istanbul (Turkey)
The Book of Khartoum (Sudan)
The Book of Leeds (UK)
The Book of Riga (Latvia)
The Book of Rio (Brazil)
The Book of Tbilisi (Georgia)
The Book of Tehran (Iran)
The Book of Tokyo (Japan)

08 January 2019

Dinner Party


The challenge for Day 2 of Bout of Books 24 is:

Character dinner party: You are hosting an intimate dinner party for five of your favorite characters. Who do you invite and what food do you serve?

This was a tough one for me at first; of the many books I've read, who would I invite? But then I decided I should invite characters from some of my favorite book series, because after 10 or so books, you feel you know them well enough to have them over.

Invitations go to:

  • Domenica, Bertie, and Angus from the "44 Scotland Street" series by Alexander McCall Smith
  • Isabel and Jamie from the "Isabel Dalhousie" series by Alexander McCall Smith
  • and mayhap Flavia de Luce will pop in from her eponymous series by Alan Bradley

I would cook a 7-course Chinese feast, one course per diner as traditional, because that's what I'm good at! Since the first 5 are from Scotland and Flavia is English, they would all be far to polite to object to whatever I made. For after dinner drinks, I would offer some single-malt Scotch and sparkling apple juice for Flavia.

How is your dinner party working out?

01 January 2019

Short Reads Short Reviews #4: Becoming French

Every Frenchman Has One
Olivia de Havilland
Penguin Random House, 2016
143 pages

This is an amusing little book of short pieces by Olivia de Havilland, the retired actress who won 2 Oscars and many other awards in her long career. On the eve of her 100th birthday, the 1961 book was reissued with a short interview with Miss de Havilland as she turned 100.

She fell in love with a Frenchman and moved to Paris in 1953, where she has remained up to this day. In this book she humorously recounts many incidents that happened to her as she learned to be French. As the publisher's blurb puts it, "her skirmishes with French customs, French maids, French salesladies, French holidays, French law, French doctors, and above all, the French language are here set forth in a delightful and amusing memoir of her early years in the City of Light."

Her style is light and funny, as though she were an old friend telling you of her adventures with as much wit and exaggeration as she could get away with.
Of course the thing that staggers you when you first come to France is the fact that all the French speak French—even the children. Many Americans and Britishers who visit the country never quite adjust to this, and the idea persists that the natives speak the language just to show off or be difficult.
On a long, cold, grey winter day, this would be a perfect pick-me-up accompanied by a cup of something hot, especially if you, like me, have a soft spot in your heart for Paris.

P. S. The secret word is "liver".

Back to the Classics 2019 Challenge


Last year I discovered that reading challenges were being organized online and immediately joined the Back to the Classics 2018 Challenge hosted by Karen at her KarensBooksAndChocolate blog. And I did it: I read and reviewed one book in each of her 12 categories! My Wrapup post just made the December 31st deadline.

And challenging myself to read with categories to meet and a goal in mind was really fun! Somehow having a vague idea that I wanted to "read more classic books" wasn't getting translated into Finished Books. Thus I am jumping right back into the 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge.

Read 1 book from each of the 12 given categories in 2019, review them online, and link back to Karen's blog. I'm going to list my picks and some alternates now. However you are allowed to change them around or read entirely different books, as long as you straighten it all out by year's end. These are all residents of my newly constructed bookshelves, so I plan on sticking to the list and reducing my TBR lists somewhat.

Here goes!

1. 19th Century Classic
    Little Women, Louisa May Alcott (1868-69)

2. 20th Century Classic
    Bachelor's Bounty, Grace S Richmond (1932)
    Grand Hotel, Vicki Baum (1929)

3. Classic by a Female Author
    Bachelor's Bounty, Grace S Richmond (1932)
    The Glimpses of the Moon, Edith Wharton (1922)

4. Classic in Translation
    Grand Hotel, Vicki Baum (1929)

5. Classic Comedy
    Queen Lucia, E. F. Benson (1920)

6. Classic Tragedy
    Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton (1911)

7. Very Long Classic. Any classic single work 500 pages or longer, not including introductions or end notes.
    The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James (1881)
    Innocents Abroad, Mark twain (1869)

8. Classic Novella. Any work of narrative fiction shorter than 250 pages.
    Dubliners, James Joyce (1914)
    Miguel Street, V.S. Naipaul (1959)

9. Classic From the Americas (includes the Caribbean). Includes classic set in either continent or the Caribbean, or by an author originally from one of those countries.
    The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Thorton Wilder (1927)
    Miguel Street, V.S. Naipaul (1959)

10. Classic From Africa, Asia, or Oceania (includes Australia). Any classic set in one of those contents or islands, or by an author from these countries.
    Peony, Pearl S. Buck (1948)

11. Classic From a Place You've Lived. Read locally!
    A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold (1949)

12. Classic Play. Any play written or performed at least 50 years ago. Plays are eligible for this category only.
    Four Major Plays, Henrik Ibsen
        A Doll's House (1879)
        The Wild Duck (1884)
        Hedda Gabler (1890)
        The Master Builder (1892)