August Minireviews – Part 1

So I find that I not-infrequently read books that I just feel rather “meh” about and they don’t seem worth writing an entire post about.  However, since I also use this blog as a sort of book-review diary, I like to at least say something.  So I’ve started a monthly post with minireviews of all those books that just didn’t get more than a few paragraphs of feelings from me.

The High Window by Raymond Chandler

//published 1942//

In this outing for PI Phillip Marlowe, the tough-talking-but-soft-hearted detective finds himself working for a rich but rather dreadful old widow.  Per usual, Marlowe is pulled into all sorts of shenanigans, most of which would seem unrelated to someone more optimistic than our hero.  The mystery in this one seemed stronger to me than the first few books, and I really enjoyed the story.  These books are pretty fast reads and I am finding them to be thoroughly engaging.  3.5/5.

Once Upon a Kiss by various authors

//published 2017//

This collection of short stories are all retellings of fairy tales by random YA authors.  I picked it up as a free Kindle book in hopes of maybe finding some new authors to check out.  However, none of the stories in this collection rated higher than a 3/5 for me, and some I didn’t even bother to finish.  To me, a short story should still have a coherent plot with a beginning, middle, and end, and some kind of driving force for the protagonists, but a lot of these stories just came across as ‘sample’ writing – a few stories literally just stopped and were like, ‘If you want to find out more about what happens next, be sure to check out my book!’ which annoyed me so much that I won’t be checking out their books.

Overall, not a complete waste of time, but almost.

The Cat Sitter Mystery by Carol Adorjan

//published 1973//

This is an old Scholastic Book Club book that I’ve had around for as long as I can remember.  I read this book when I was pretty little – it was possibly one of the first mysteries I ever read.  I was quite enthralled with the exciting and mysterious events surrounding Beth’s neighbor’s house!

Rereading as an adult, this story about a girl who moves into a new neighborhood and then ends up taking care of her eccentric neighbors’ cats, doesn’t really have a great deal of depth, but I still thoroughly enjoyed it.  Adorjan does a really great job of making the whole story plausible, and also setting up reasonable explanations for all of the shenanigans.  The side story about Beth trying to settle into her new neighborhood in the middle of summer is also done well.

My edition is fabulously illustrated by Beth and Joe Krush, who illustrated several other childhood favorites, like Magic Elizabeth and Miracles on Maple Hill.  They are probably most famous for their work with the original editions of The Borrowers and their sequels.  The Krush’s line drawings are just perfect, especially of the cats.

All in all, a comfortable 4/5 for this short children’s book, an old favorite that held up quite well to an adult reread.

The Story of Amelia Earhart by Adele de Leeuw

//published 1955//

Back in the 1950’s, Grosset & Dunlap published a series of children’s biographies called ‘Signature’ books – each one has a copy of the famous person’s signature on the front, and an illustrated timeline of ‘Great Events in the Life of…’ inside the front cover.  I really enjoy history books that are aimed at the middle school range because they usually hit all the high points without getting bogged down with a lot of details and political opinions.  It’s a great way to get a basic introduction to a person or event.  I’ve collected a lot of these Signature books over the years – they have those delightful cloth covers from the era and are just a perfect size to read.

That said, I wasn’t particularly impressed with this one.  While it was a fine read, de Leeuw’s choices about what random vignettes from Earhart’s life to include seemed really random.  For instance, an entire chapter is devoted to a random event in Earhart’s life involving a neighbor who treats his horse cruelly – and in the end, Earhart and her sister don’t actually get to rescue the horse – instead, it escapes and then dies leaping over a creek?!  It just felt incredibly random and didn’t really add any information about Earhart – it never came back as this big influential event or anything.  There were several other, smaller stories like that throughout, like de Leeuw had collected tons of tales and then just pulled out of a hat which ones to include.  It was definitely much choppier than other Signature books that I’ve read.

Still, Earhart had an amazing and fascinating life.  I really loved how so much of what she did wasn’t amazing because she was the first woman to do it – but just the first person.  I love biographies that emphasize a woman’s abilities, intelligence, and skills as those of a person instead of those as a woman.  No one is going to believe that women are just as capable as men if we constantly act like being a woman was a weakness they had to overcome.

All in all, this was a fun and interesting book.  I’m not particularly into aviation, but apparently Earhart herself wrote a couple of books – I’m especially interesting to check out her book 20 Hrs., 40 Min. about flying over the Atlantic – I’m curious to see how it compares to Charles Lindbergh’s account, which I ended up really enjoying a lot.

The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler

//published 1943//

The fourth Phillip Marlowe felt a little darker than the first three.  Marlowe seems a little jaded, and while he still manages to make fun of many of the terrible people he meets (usually everyone he meets is pretty terrible), sometimes it felt a little serious, like Chandler genuinely was starting to think that everyone out there really is terrible.  There is also a rather gruesome scene when a body is found – not exactly graphic, but so well implied that it didn’t need to be in order to make me feel a little queasy (possibly because I was trying to eat a baloney sandwich at the time).

However, the mystery itself was, I felt, the strongest yet.  The reader has access to all the same information as Marlowe, and while I was able to connect some of the dots, I didn’t hit them all.  I really enjoyed watching everything come together, but the ending was just a bit too abrupt to feel completely satisfactory.

Still, a really great read, if a bit darker than the earlier fare.  3.5/5.

Patrick Henry: Firebrand of the Revolution // by Nardi Reeder Campion

//published 1961//

This is an older biography of Patrick Henry (1961), with target audience of middle school/junior high.  Overall, this was a really excellent read, with plenty of details about Henry’s life and career, but not too overwhelming.  It’s written to engage younger readers, so there is some dialogue and little anecdotes along the way, but most of these stories added to the character development of Henry, helping us to see what shaped him throughout his younger years and even as an adult.

It’s been a while since I studied this era of American history, so my memories of Henry were a bit vague, other than attributing his famous cry of “Give me liberty, or give me death!”  Reading this book made me want to learn more about this fascinating man – poorly educated, more comfortable in the wilderness than anywhere else, a failure at so many careers, a self-made lawyer, a man who lived his religious beliefs, a non-drinker, father of seventeen children, the first governor of Virginia, and a passionate advocate of personal freedom and the equality of all men.

Campion did a really wonderful job of putting Henry in his time period as well.  For instance, the topic of slavery is touched on a few times – something that Henry struggled with, but was more or less resigned to, a product not just of his time, but of time immortal, as there have always been slaves throughout the history of mankind.  (Which obviously does not justify it, but I think sometimes people get really hung up on the concept that the founding fathers could fight so passionately for their freedom while ignoring the fact that so many people were enslaved.  A terrible thing, yes, but not as hypocritical as we may believe at this time.  There has been slavery throughout every time of recorded history, and are still slaves even today; I think it is rather unfair to expect those founding fathers to not only set up the world’s first democracy from scratch, but to also expect them to reject a concept ingrained in humanity for thousands of years, as though their failure on that point means that everything else they did was worthless.  But I digress.)

While Henry was initially friends with Thomas Jefferson, their relationship soured over the years, and Campion also weaves that story throughout the book, helping the reader to see how this breakdown could have occurred.  And while Henry was a passionate speech-maker, he was no writer, which means that much of our perspective of Henry as a person is through people who, at the time, were writers… like Thomas Jefferson.  While Campion never comes across as defending Henry, she does remind the reader that historians are people, too, who have personal opinions and beliefs, so when someone like Jefferson says that Henry was “avaricious and rotten-hearted,” he may not have been completely objective.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and am interested to read more about Henry’s life.  Campion’s description of the build-up to Henry’s greatest speech genuinely gave me chills.  I wished that I could have learned a little more about his  home life (with seventeen children, it seems like there would be scope for something interesting there!), and I also think that a more in-depth biography would have more information about Henry’s negative views on the Constitution (which Henry believed was basically worthless without a Bill of Rights to accompany it).

All in all, Firebrand of the Revolution was a great place to start – enough to give me a good overview of Henry’s life and leave me interested to learn more.  5/5 and recommended.

Reclaiming Christianity: A Call to Authentic Faith // by A.W. Tozer // Compiled & Edited by James L. Snyder

//published 2009//

Last September I reviewed another of these collections of Tozer’s sermons, Living as a Christian, and the beginning of my review of that book summarizes a bit about Tozer himself and how Snyder came to be going through his sermons and turning them into collections of essays.  Reclaiming Christianity is another of these sermon/essay collections that I was picking up now and then throughout the spring.  While they are loosely connected because of their common theme, each chapter is a complete lesson unto itself.

Tozer is always a challenge to read.  He isn’t afraid to shine a bright light on things we’d rather keep hidden – don’t read Tozer if you aren’t willing to face the fact that you probably have several areas of your life that you conveniently ignore and hope they just go away on their own.  But, as Tozer says, “The epistles do not advise; they command,” and Tozer reminds his readers that if you have claimed your place as a child of God, you are now bound to a life of continuing maturity and purity – the Scripture is no longer just some suggestions.

And while Tozer definitely plays hardball, he never comes through as condescending.  He writes like an older brother, or a sage old grandfather – someone who wants to help you avoid the mistakes that he’s made and is willing to take your hand and help you through.  It is so obvious that his words spring from love – love of God, and love of the brethren.

I think the way that Tozer reminds his readers that accepting Christ is only the first step of a process is really excellent.  While it is THE step that grants you a place in heaven, it isn’t genuine unless it changes other aspects of our lives as well.

We have people showing us that we ought not to be holier than thou, but that we ought to say, ‘We are the same as you, only we have a Savior.’

This would be like two men dying on hospital beds in the same ward and one saying to the other, ‘I have what you have but the only difference between us is that I have a physician and you don’t.’

You could not interest a dying man in another man who is so well off because he had a physician.  If the physician could not cure the fellow, what was the good of the physician?  …

If I go to a sinner and say, “I am exactly the same as you, the only difference is that I have a Savior,’ but I do all the same things he does – I tell the same dirty jokes he tells and I waste my time the same way he does and I do everything he does – and then I say, ‘I have a Savior, you out to have a Savior,’ doesn’t he have the right to ask me what kind of Savior I have?  What profit is there for a man to say, ‘I have a physician’ if he is dying on a cot?  What does it profit a man to say, ‘I have a Savior’ if he is living in iniquity?

Tozer isn’t a read for the faint of heart or for those not willing to be challenged.  He does not soften his words or sugarcoat anything.  But if you are looking for more depth and grit in your Christian walk, you would be hard pressed to find a better place to start.

NB: Not actually one of my #20BooksofSummer.  Ah well.  ;-)

The Nesting Place // by Myquillyn Smith

//published 2014//

I have this crazy idea in the back of mind that I will finish writing reviews for books read in May and THEN do an April/May Rearview…  except it’s already June 12…  ah well.  Yesterday was my last day of my seasonal job, so I’m anticipating a better pattern of reading and reviewing (haha) in between playing with the puppy, keeping up the garden, doing laundry, running my Etsy shop, etc….

Somewhere along the line I stumbled into this book.  I’m rather drawn to home organizational books and magazines; I love looking for ideas that I can use (or tweak a little and then use), especially since we somehow seem to always be remodeling something around here.  This book had delightfully smooth and glossy pages and perfect binding; lots of photographs and beautiful font, so I was immediately attracted.  And once I started reading, Smith’s friendly and encouraging writing kept me turning the pages.

This book felt like a letter from a friend, possibly because Smith is actually a blogger.  But despite the warm tone, the book stayed focused and orderly, making it not just enjoyable for a one-time read,  but a book that can be referenced again and again.

I was expecting a typical book about organizing your home – step-by-step instructions and suggestions.  I was also hoping for some tips on home decorating, as I sometimes struggle with making things look ‘right’, especially in our small home where it is very easy to cross the line to ‘cluttered’.  What I wasn’t anticipating was an actual message that would both encourage and challenge, as Smith believes that the first step to decorating your home is getting your heart and attitude in the right place.

She starts by outlining her own house history, which involves 13 houses in 18 years of marriage – I believe this qualifies as a lot of moves by any standard.  As Smith talks about the different houses, she also talks about how, at the time, each one wasn’t ‘the one’, and so she didn’t make much of an effort to nest in.  But what she began to realize was that everyone house is ‘the one’ for the current season, and while it may not be worthwhile to throw down thousands of dollars on projects in every house, it is always worthwhile to make every house your own home.

A lot of what Smith discusses has to do with the importance of contentment.  So often we cheat ourselves out of enjoying the present because we are wishing we had something different.  I love the quote that she attributed to Epicurus – “Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you have now was once among the things you only hoped for.”

Smith’s message is not a complicated one; in fact, I was rather blown away by its simplicity.  Appreciate where you are now.  Work within your current means.  Be willing to try something new.  Stop worrying about what other people think and instead create something you love.  Remember that your home is a haven, and go from there.

According to Smith, perfection is overrated.  Because we set “perfection” (a somewhat vague term when it comes to home decor) as our goal, we become frozen with fear and do nothing.  “Done is better than perfect,” Smith says.  “Welcoming and comfortable do not have to equal perfection.”  She quotes Sandy Coughlin –

Excellence is working toward an attainable goal that benefits everyone, while perfection comes from a place of great need – usually the need to avoid criticism and gain praise and approval.

One of the big things that really hit me was Smith’s discussion about apologizing for things in the home.  “Sorry, it’s such a mess today,” or “I’m so embarrassed by what a disaster this kitchen is!”  These types of comments do not make people feel comfortable and welcomed.  Instead, apologizing not only broadcasts your discontentment with your current state of affairs, it sets up whomever is receiving your apology to wonder how harshly you would judge their messes if you were in their home!

After quite a bit of time on attitude and contentment (time that was not at all wasted, in my opinion), Smith gets down to some of the nitty-gritty of nesting.  She says that a big part of making decorating decisions is first of all determining the purpose of your home and of the different spaces within it.  She points out that most of us want things that are somewhat intangible for our homes.  Smith suggests taking a moment to “think about words you would use to describe the feel of the home you’ve always wanted,” and later she lists several words that she gathered from some of her blog readers.  The words were things like “restful,” “welcoming,” “comfortable,” “safe,” “fun,” and “joyful.”  Start with your words, she says, and go from there to create intentional spaces.

I’ve rambled on quite a bit about this book, but it really impacted me, and I highly recommend it.  While I’ve talked a lot about Smith’s thoughts on attitude and contentment, she also has a lot of practical advice.  A huge take-away for me was the importance of making the spaces in my home purposeful – to look at each room/area and decide what it is I want that space to do, and then only place things in that space that further the purpose.

Funny story, I thought I would start with the little dining nook off our kitchen, and I started to write down the different things we use that space for, and realized that the one thing we don’t use it for is eating… and now we’re in the process of turning the entire area into a pantry, and there are boxes of food stacked all over the place and construction dust everywhere, so be careful whilst reading this book!

I also have to say that Smith has been a renter throughout the majority of her married life, and her book reaches out to renters as well as home-owners.  So  many of her suggestions and thoughts are inexpensive and easily changed (hanging pictures, moving furniture, painting things, etc).  I found myself wishing that I had read this book back when we were renters and I so often found myself staring at those dreadful flat-beige rental walls!

All in all, The Nesting Place was an unexpected encouragement.  Warm and thoughtful, challenging and practical, I highly recommend this book if you are feeling a smidge overwhelmed about creating a “look” for your home.

February Minireviews

So I find that I not-infrequently read books that I just feel rather “meh” about and they don’t seem worth writing an entire post about.  However, since I also use this blog as a sort of book-review diary, I like to at least say something.  So I’ve started a monthly post with minireviews of all those books that just didn’t get more than a few paragraphs of feelings from me.

The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World by E.L. Konigsburg

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//published 2007//

So growing up, Konigsburg’s The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler was one of my favorite books.  As an adult, I discovered her book The View from Saturday and loved that one, too – a lot (I even read and reviewed it again!).  But for me, The Mysterious Edge just didn’t work the way her other two books did.  The plot is disjointed and strange, the characters inconsistent and unrealistic, and the entire premise centers around a lot of coincidences.

I really wanted to like this book – two kids becoming friends while helping an elderly lady clean out her house that’s full of interesting stuff – doesn’t that sound like fun??  But the old lady, Mrs. Zender, is really weird, and so are both of the boys – and not in the realistic, quirky way of some of Konigsburg’s characters in Saturday – just weird, weird: the kind of weird that leaves you scratching your head in puzzlement.

A lot of the story centers around a picture that one of the boys finds, a drawing of a naked woman.  Now we’re informed that this is art, so this is a “nude” which is different from just someone being naked.  But…  it still felt really inappropriate for the age of the characters and the intended readers, and, once again, was just kind of weird.  Like why does the picture have to be of a naked person??

There are almost some good discussions about how people perceive us and how we perceive ourselves, about people who are rich and people who aren’t, about whether or not a government should be able to decide what is or isn’t art.  But none of those conversations really go anywhere, so the whole book feels awkward and stunted.

All in all, 1/5 for a book that I wanted to like but just couldn’t.  I’m still planning to read some more of Konigsburg’s books because I have enjoyed a couple of them so very much, but I don’t see myself ever revisiting this one.

American Gardening Series: Container Gardening by Suzanne Frutig Bales

s-l225

//published 1993//

This is one of those random books that I picked up for a quarter at a library book sale at some point.  It’s not a terribly thick book, but it does have a lot of photographs and plenty of good information about choosing plants for container gardens and then keeping them alive after you’ve planted them!  Bales has a lot of enthusiasm for container gardening as it is very flexible and can be done in almost any amount of space.

I’ve been working through several gardening books this month, and I always glean some new tips and ideas.  This one is well worth the shelf space as a great reference book.  I especially enjoyed the chapters that focused on planning container gardens – I think that a lot of times people go into container gardening assuming that you just sort of jam some plants in and it will look great, but this book spends some time talking about not just the color of the plants you are planting, but texture, size, and growing requirements.  Definitely recommended if this is a topic you’re interested in learning more about.

The Princess by Lori Wick

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//published 1999//

This is a (multiple time) reread for me, and I have a more detailed review here.  Sometimes I just need some happy fluff, and this book always fits the bill.  It involves my favorite trope (marriage than love), and just is a happy, gentle little tale that I have read many times and yet always find enjoyable.  I’ve been in a bit of a reading slump here at the end of February, what with starting my new job and being super tired all the time, so The Princess helped get me through!

Terms & Conditions // by Ysenda Maxtone Graham

termsconditions

//published 2016//

It occurs to me as I am writing this that this is actually the second book I have read by this title in the last few months, which seems peculiar.  It also has absolutely nothing to do with this review, as Robert Glancy’s Terms & Conditions was absolutely nothing like Graham’s!

Some of you may remember, back in the mists of time (and by that I mean in December), that I received my first issue of Slightly Foxed, an absolutely delightful literary magazine.  I enjoyed it so much that I actually wrote a review of a quarterly full of reviews!  SF publishes a special edition book every quarter as well, and for this winter it was Terms & Conditions.  Everyone spoke so warmly of this volume that I felt that I had to have it – and when it comes to books, I nearly always indulge my whims!

First off, we simply must address the physical perfection of this book.  Everything about it is exactly as it should be, from grey-blue cloth-bound cover to the ideal size (perfect for slipping into a pocket or reading in bed) to the book-marker ribbon to the excellent quality binding that allows the book to lay flat no matter where it is opened.  I wish all books would be published with such care!  All this meant that reading this book was always a lovely experience.  Every time I picked it up, my spirits were lifted before I even opened the book.  It is that perfect!

As for the book itself – well, conveniently, that is delightful as well!  This is a nonfiction book, a memoir of sorts, although not in the traditional sense as Graham has mostly collected the memories and stories of people other than herself.  So in a way it is a memoir not of a specific person, but of a type of person – of a group of people who all went through a similar experience.  And while each of them brings her own voice and memories, together they create a type: Women who attended British boarding schools between 1939 and 1979.

Before I began this book, I found myself wondering if I would really relate to anything it said.  After all, I’m an American who was home-educated and wasn’t even alive during the first seven decades of the twentieth century!  But to my delight, reading this book reminded me afresh that the simple kinship of being a woman is frequently enough of a bond to make the stories of other women relevant to me.

Graham’s book doesn’t really follow a linear story, a specific character, or even a particular location.  Instead, she has divided her book into chapters that each delve into an individual aspect of boarding school life during this period.  Throughout there are quotes from women who were students at this time, all with their own memories and stories, a rich reminder of how childhood experiences and friendships can stay with us throughout our lives.

I was a bit afraid that Graham was going to use this book as a platform to rant about the educational inequalities between girls and boys during this time.  But while she did discuss this – as it was an important aspect of boarding school life – I never felt like the book ventured into the polemic.  Instead, Graham balanced much of what she was writing with the concept that while some of the girls did suffer educationally because they were ambitious and their ambitions were dismissed merely because of their sex, other girls genuinely did want to find a nice husband and settle into their homes and raise their children, so for them an education that focused more on the social rather than the scientific was not detrimental to their future lives.

And in the end, I appreciated many of Graham’s conclusions –

These women were trained not to see themselves as the centre of the universe, but always to think of others, even when it came to the method for being passed the salt.  They learned early that ‘it’s not all about me’.  This lack of self-centredness is, I think, the biggest difference between privileged childhoods fifty or sixty years ago and privileged childhoods today.  Yes, these boarding-school girls came from affluent families, but they did not go on skiing holidays every year, and they were not given the idea that things should be arranged mainly for their benefit and delight.  Their schools taught them that their duty was to be of service to the community: they learned to look outwards and away from themselves rather than to wallow in introspection.  Thus they grew into an unselfish, un-self-pitying generation.

A while back I worked for an elderly woman (born 1919) who was born rich, raised rich, married rich, and is probably going to die rich (last I checked, she was still going strong!).  But what really amazed me about this woman was how despite the fact that she definitely felt entitled to a great deal (and honestly it was kind of hilarious to work as a servant…  like if she had people come to visit I would legit bring them tea and then go hang out in the kitchen until they left haha at least I didn’t have to wear a uniform), she believed it was so important for her to give back to her community.  In her lifetime she had personally overseen the purchase and restoration of a beautiful historic home that was slated for demolition in our downtown – it’s a museum now, and it was amazing to take her there for different events and listen to her stories about how even though other people helped, she almost single-handedly had done this.  And that wasn’t the only thing – she led committees and fundraisers that benefited all sorts of different local charities and organizations.  She was wealthy and privileged (she drove a custom-made Lincoln Town Car with her name engraved on the dashboard for pity’s sake!), but like the women in this book, she was also raised with the concept that being wealthy and privileged meant that you had responsibility.  And while she – and most of the women in the book – didn’t have a career, that did not stop her from being a productive, intelligent, competent citizen who devoted hours every week of her life to bettering her community and the lives of the people who lived in it.

All that to say that I do think that it is excellent that girls are given equal educational opportunities nowadays, but it does sometimes feel as though we have sacrificed that ingrained knowledge (in both girls and boys) that if you have, you are responsible for helping the have-nots.

My only complaint about this book was that I somewhat felt that Graham did not establish context.  I mean, yes, these girls definitely had a hard time of it – but so did almost everyone in those war/post-war years.  I don’t think going to a boys’ school at that time was a bed of roses, but at times the book edges towards implication that girls had it so much worse than the boys.  I don’t think they had it worse – I think they just had it different.

But on the whole, this was a delightfully entertaining and interesting read.  Plus, it’s nonfiction, so I’m already working on my goal of reading more nonfiction in 2017 – bonus!  I definitely recommend this book that manages to take a very specific piece of societal history and place it in relevant terms.  I thoroughly enjoyed it and look forward to seeking out more of Graham’s works soon – not to mention more of Slightly Foxed’s lovely special editions!

P.G. Wodehouse – A Life in Letters // edited by Sophie Ratcliffe

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//published 2011//

As soon as I heard about this book, I knew that I wanted to not just read it, but to own it, so that I could savor it whenever I wished.  I haven’t regretted investing in this hefty tome (especially since I got it used, hardcover, for only $5!), even though it has taken me months to wade through it.

 

While, on the whole, I’m not someone who enjoys delving into the personal lives of individuals whose art I enjoy, there are some exceptions to the rule.  Agatha Christie’s autobiography was an absolute delight, with a fascinating glimpse into the age in which she lived.  More recently, John Cleese’s rambling about his early years and the various events that led up to the formation of the Pythons was fun and engaging.  A Life in Letters was a different sort of autobiography, because it isn’t exactly an autobiography as such.  Instead, it was a biography with large batches of letters in between.

In her introduction, Ratcliffe explains that while Wodehouse’s writing often seems conventional and frivolous,

beneath the mostly male upper-crust there is some radical table-turning.  Butlers bail their masters out, passion wins over reason, and girls, invariably, know more than boys.  The letters reveal the roots of this reversal.  Wodehouse was a self-made man who married a chorus-girl, spent time with Hollywood music stars, and endured Nazi imprisonment and journalistic accusations of treason.

Ratcliffe’s admiration for Wodehouse is obvious throughout her introduction and the biographical sections she writes.  She explains that she has attempted to find balance throughout her choices in which correspondence to include.  With the cooperation from the Wodehouse estate to include “freedom to publish any and every part of any Wodehouse letter,” she must have had a very hefty task in editing for this volume.  At 542 pages (plus endnotes), she has definitely included many, many letters.  She says,

Letters have been chosen for inclusion on the basis of their individual merit – either in terms of the information that they offer about Wodehouse’s life, the evolution of his style, or times in which he lived.  Cuts within individual letters have also been essential, but passages have only been removed if they are irrelevant to the main thrust of the letter, or to Wodehouse’s biographical or artistic narrative.  I have made a particular point of leaving the letters that Wodehouse sent during the war years as complete as space will allow.

As regards those “war years” letters, I admit that I had only a vague notion of some trouble Wodehouse had during that time.  I am not sure if it is my position as an American reader, or as a somewhat younger fan of his, but before I read this book I really had no notion of the extent of persecution Wodehouse suffered because of the infamous German broadcasts.  Ratcliffe makes no secret of the fact that she believes Wodehouse to be completely innocent of anything so dire as treason, and believes that Wodehouse’s letters, circumstances, and letters speak for themselves.  In some ways, I think that one of the purposes of this volume was to place that situation in the perspective of Wodehouse’s entire life.

The book is divided into sections by date.  Each chapter  begins with Ratcliffe’s biographical notes as to what was going on with Wodehouse’s life at the time.  These sections were just as interesting to me as the letters, as I really didn’t know much about his life going into this book.  After that, there is a collection of letters from the dates indicated.  Some of the letters also have editorial introductions, which actually brings me to my only complain about this book – the formatting of those introductions.  Throughout the letter section, there would be letter, letter footnotes, heavy dark line to indicate letter break, next letter.  But if a letter warranted an introduction, that introduction was placed between the footnotes and the dark line – so it always felt to me that the introduction actually belonged to the letter before it… funny how the brain works at times, and I can’t really explain why this aggravated me throughout all 500-odd pages, but it did!

The letters themselves are delightful.  There is something quite personal about correspondence, and it is obvious that Wodehouse cares a great deal of his circle of friends.

The war letters were quite interesting.  Wodehouse’s genuine distress over the broadcasts, and the world’s reception of them, is so very sad to read.  It is hard enough to feel judged by the relatively small circle of people normal people know – I cannot imagine the pressure of an entire world full of people treating you with such negatively and, frequently, outright hatred.  And to feel that there is no real defense that you can make – that every word you say only makes it worse…!  And saddest of all, that he never was able to go back to England!  Outcast from his home…

He wanted to write a book about his time in the internment camp, an attempt to help the public see his perspective and to understand how the broadcasts came to be made, but it was a difficult book to write.  In a letter to one of his best friends, William Townend, he writes,

My trouble has been to get the right tone …  comedy will keep creeping in at the most solemn moments.  I wrote this yesterday – ‘The global howl which went up as a result of my indiscretion exceeded in volume and intensity anything I had experienced since the time of my boyhood when I broke the curate’s umbrella and my aunts started writing letters to one another about it. ‘

But despite all the pressure, Wodehouse still stayed strong to his own personal beliefs.  I loved when he was being pressed to declare his hatred for the Nazis and the Germans, and his response was, “I do not hate in the plural.”  Such strong words; I love them.

Throughout the letters, Wodehouse’s strong sense of humor is evident.  He is a master of taking his frustrations and difficulties and turning them into opportunities for self-depreciating humor:

A few days ago I received a formal notification from the French Government that I was no longer considered ‘dangereux’ to the safety of the Republic.  Up till now the Republic has been ducking down side streets when it saw me coming and shouting, ‘Save yourself, boys!  Here comes Wodehouse!’, but now all is well and me and them are just like that.  I am glad of this, because I have always considered them one of the nicest Republics I have ever met, my great trouble being that I simply can’t master the language.  My instructor at the Berlitz was strong on pencils.  She would keep saying, ‘Un crayon.  Le crayon est jaune.  Le crayon est bleu’ and so on till I really got good on pencils.  But in actual conversation I found that it didn’t carry me very far.  I was sunk unless I could work the talk round to pencils, and nobody seemed really interested in them.

One of the best parts of reading books like this is to find out little snippets of commonality.  For instance, if I had to choose one character from all Wodehouse’s writing who is my favorite, it would be Lord Emsworth of Blandings Castle.  I can’t really explain my fondness for him, but I really do love that fellow very much – I have a great deal of empathy for his love of quiet, country life (and pigs) and fear of formal gatherings and crowds.  So it was rather a delight to find

I love [Jeeves] and all I ask is for a constant supply of ‘Jeeves’ ideas.  Actually, I prefer my Blandings Castle stories to the Jeeves stories, but I have a very good time writing the latter.  I think Lord Emsworth is my favourite character.  But Jeeves runs him very close.

Another personal opinion of mine was bolstered as well – my least-favorite Jeeves book is most definitely The Return of Jeevespublished also as Ring for Jeeves.  This because it is Jeeves – but no Bertie!  Wodehouse says,

I was very relieved that you liked Ring for Jeeves.  But I think I made a bloomer in using Jeeves without Bertie.  It’s really Bertie whom people like.

Much of Wodehouse’s correspondence is fun because it deals with his own opinions on other people’s literature.  In one letter he is writing about various poetry he has been reading.

Why will people collect ALL a poet’s work into a volume instead of burying the bad stuff?  It’s a nasty jar, after reading ‘The Nightingale’, to come on the following little effort of Keats: –

There was a naughty boy,
And a naughty boy was he,
He kept little fishes
In washing tubs three
In spite
Of the might
Of the maid
Nor afraid
Of his Granny-good –
He often would
Hurly burly
Get up early…

I can see Keats shoving that one away in a drawer and saying to himself ‘Thank God no one will ever see that baby!’.  And then along comes some damned fool and publishes it.

Another thing about Wodehouse’s life that was a delight to read was his genuine love and affection for his wife.  They married after only knowing each other a few weeks, and remained married for sixty years.  Throughout his letters, Wodehouse never has a negative word about his wife, and his letters to her are warm and touching.  His letters to her always begin with something like, “My darling angel Bunny whom I love so dear,” and frequently mention how lonely and empty the house is without her.  The letter he wrote to her on their 59th anniversary says,

Another anniversary!  Isn’t it wonderful to think that we have been married for 59 years and still love each other as much as ever except when I spill my tobacco on the floor, which I’ll never do again!

At the end of the day, this was a fantastic book.  There is so much information about Wodehouse as an individual, about his writing, about the history through which he lived, and more.  Ratcliffe’s biographical sections are very well done, providing the reader with plenty of background information and context.  I most definitely recommend this volume to those who love Wodehouse’s writings.  Despite the length of time it took me to read it, this book was genuinely engaging, and is one that I anticipate referencing whenever I read any Wodehouse books going forward.