A Gentleman of Leisure // by P.G. Wodehouse

AKA The Intrusion of Jimmy

//published 1910//

As I am reading through all of Wodehouse’s books in published order, it is rather fun to watch his novels shape into what I would consider ‘traditional’ Wodehouse.  A Gentleman of Leisure has many of those components, with lively dialogue, engaging characters, love at first sight, overbearing fathers, and overwhelming aunts.

The story starts well, with a group of actors gathered together at their club after a successful night of a new play.  They are all happy to see their old friend Jimmy show up.  He inherited a bunch of money a while back, so he’s been off traveling the world and they never know when they will see him around again.  He chats it up with his friends, complimenting them on an excellent play, one which revolves around the story of a thief.  As their conversation continues, Jimmy supposes that breaking into a house would be no difficult feat, and, long story short, he and a friend make a bet as to whether or not he can successfully break into a house that very night.

As luck would have it, after Jimmy gets home and settles into his chair, what should happen but that a thief should attempt to rob him!  Rather than turn in the would-be criminal, Jimmy convinces him to show Jimmy how to break into a house.

The story continues as we follow the would-be love life of Jimmy, and there were plenty of laugh-aloud moments.  This plot is, by Wodehouse standards, fairly straight-forward, but one can already see some of his favorite tropes coming into play.

One interesting thing is that I originally started reading this on my Kindle – all of Wodehouse’s earliest works are available as free Kindle books because they are out of copyright.  I found I was enjoying this one enough that I decided to go ahead and order a hard copy from eBay.  While the Kindle edition was a straight copy of the original 1910 print, my hard copy is a later edition that was published in the 1960’s.  I had initially read maybe a third of the story on my Kindle, and I was intrigued to find that there were several differences in the newer copy.  The biggest one was that in the original book Jimmy had just arrived in America via the Lusitania, but in the later edition the name of the ship has been changed to the Mauretania, presumably due to the tragic sinking of the former, which would have occurred several years after the book was first printed.  The newer book also included some random background story on one of the characters (which seemed weirdly unnecessary as it never came into play later in the story), and probably other changes that I don’t remember/didn’t notice.  It was just a funny thing to remember how much many of his books changed over the years as Wodehouse himself edited them before they were reprinted.

Anyway, all in all A Gentleman of Leisure wasn’t my favorite Wodehouse ever, but was still a fun and lively little read, and one that I’m glad to add to my ever-growing collection.

Mike at Wrykyn // Mike and Psmith // by P.G. Wodehouse

These books have also been published together as Mike, but I read them in two separate volumes.

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//published 1909//

Wrykyn, one of Wodehouse’s fictional schools, has appeared in other stories, so it was a somewhat familiar setting for Mike at Wrykyn.  Unlike many of Wodehouse’s other school stories, this one has a fairly linear plot, and while cricket is an important aspect of the story, it isn’t the story.

Mike is the youngest son (although not the youngest child) of a large and rollicking family.  The story opens in the Jackson home, at breakfast, where Mr. Jackson announces that Mike, aged 15, will be heading off to Wrykyn this term.  Mike is quite amenable to idea, as all of his older brothers have gone there (in fact, the next son, Bob, is still there), and he knows that he should be able to be involved in cricket.  The three brothers older than Bob (Joe, Reggie, and Frank, of whom only Joe really plays a part in the story) all play cricket at a somewhat professional level, and while no one wants Mike to get a big head, the general consensus is that he may be the best of the lot.

Wodehouse does a really wonderful job of telling the story of Mike’s first term at Wrykyn.  While cricket is a crucial part of the story, it’s really much more about Mike’s character, and it was quite nice to see him learn to become a lot less self-centered.  The story is in no way preachy, though, as it is full of Wodehouse humor and really entertaining characters.

Mike at Wrykyn is an easy 3/5, with Mike himself a sturdy and interesting protagonist.

Even though Wrykyn was later combined with Mike and Psmith to make one story, I definitely think they make more sense as two volumes.  While both stories center around Mike, they take place at different schools and are set a couple of years apart.

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//published 1909//

In this tale, we meet Rupert Psmith for the first time.  While I have heard some people (namely my mother) claim that Psmith at times irritates them, he is actually one of my favorite Wodehouse characters.  (Although I will admit that if he was someone I had to deal with regularly in real life, I would probably throttle him.)

At the beginning of the story, Mike’s father has decided to remove Mike from Wrykyn for Mike’s last term of school.  Mike has been warned about his poor grades before, and was told that this would be the result, and now, with the arrival of Mike’s most recent report, the threat is being made good.  Instead, Mike is shipped to a much smaller school, Sedleigh.  Mike is in a very bad mood over this decision, as he loves Wrykyn and was going to be the captain of the school’s cricket team this term.  Thus, he enters Sedleigh with a chip on his shoulder against the school.

The first fellow-student he meets is also a new arrival.

“I’m the latest import.” [said the new student] “Sit down on yonder settee, and I will tell you the painful story of my life.  By the way, before I start, there’s just one thing.  If you ever have occasion to write to me, would you mind sticking a P at the beginning of my name? P-s-m-i-t-h.  See?  There are too many Smiths, and I don’t care for Smythe.  My father’s content to worry along in the old-fashioned way, but I’ve decided to strike out a fresh line.  I shall found a new dynasty.  The resolve came to me unexpectedly this morning.  I jotted it down on the back of an envelope.  In conversation you may address me as Rupert (though I hope you won’t) or simply Smith, the not being sounded.  Compare the name Zbysco, in which the is given a similar miss-in-balk.”

To me, one of the best parts of this story is when Wodehouse does or does not insert the P at the beginning of Psmith.  For instance, whenever Psmith is being addressed by one of the teachers – “Smith.”  Sometimes the P appears from a fellow student and sometimes not.  It’s a funny and subtle way of indicating just what the situation at hand entails.

Psmith and Mike form a bond and, as one of the first arrivals at the school, secure a very nice study for themselves, even though it was unofficially claimed by a previous student the previous term.  Thus, the first few chapters involve a great deal of mild warfare as Mike and Psmith settle into their new home.

“I am with you, Comrade Jackson.  You won’t mind my calling you Comrade, will you?  I’ve just become a socialist.  It’s a great scheme.  You ought to be one.  You work for the equal distribution of property, and start by collaring all you can and sitting on it.”

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed Mike and Psmith.  Wodehouse does a great job of creating two characters who are dissimilar and yet who fit together as friends very well.  Because I’ve read some of the later Psmith books, I know that they remain friends as they grow into adulthood, and I’m intrigued to read those book again now that I’ve finally gotten this early background of the pair.

Another solid 3/5 for this book, and I definitely recommend both Mike at Wrykyn and Mike and Psmith.  While not as full-developed as Wodehouse’s later novels, these are short, snappy, full of humor, and all-around great fun.

The Mystery of the Yellow Room // by Gaston Leroux

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//published 1908//

Published 1908, The Mystery of the Yellow Room is one of the earliest “locked-room” mysteries, and a precursor to the era of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.  This classic was brought to my attention a while back by a review by The Literary Sisters.  I have, as an aside, never gotten around to reading Leroux’s most famous work, The Phantom of the Opera, so this is my only experience with his writing to date.

The story centers around Mademoiselle Stangerson, the daughter of a famous scientist.  She and her father have worked together for many years, and reside in a chateau in France.  When Mlle Stangerson is attacked in her room, her father and their faithful servant rush to rescue her.  Mlle Stangerson had locked the door from the inside and it had to be broken down before she could be rescued.  But when they finally break in, Mlle Stangerson is all alone, close to death – and there is no way out of the room other than the locked door her father has just broken down.  How could the attacker of gotten in or out of the locked room?

The detective in the story is not actually a detective at all, but a reporter named Joseph Rouletabille, who, at this time, is only 18 years of age.  Rouletabille is clever and logical and is determined to find out what happened in Mlle Stangerson’s room – the Yellow Room.  The narrator, Sainclair, is a friend of Rouletabille who spends, in my opinion, far too much time singing Rouletabille’s praises.  Rouletabille finds himself butting heads with the lead detective on the case, Larsan, a Rouletabille believes the man Larsan is pursuing is actually innocent.

So I didn’t really get into this story, but I think that the main reason is because I was reading it as a Kindle edition, and it was honestly rather terrible.  While the words themselves were there, no effort had been made to really correct any of the formatting.  Sainclair frequently inserts other sources into his narrative – newspaper articles, journal entries, written reports, etc. – and the Kindle edition did a dreadful job of setting these apart or making sure that the quotes of when they began and ended were clearly marked.  Because Sainclair’s narrative is first person, and may of the things he quotes are a first-person narrative, it really did make the whole thing feel muddled, because I wasn’t always completely sure when I had switched between the narrator and one of his sources.

The Kindle edition also lacks any of the diagrams or floor plans, which, I have discovered, were quite critical to my understanding of the story.  Consequently we get references to locations in the chateau or the Yellow Room for which I had no real basis for understanding.

I read this on my Kindle because I got the book for free, but I really wish that I had gone through the effort of locating a hard copy at the library instead, as the terrible formatting really detracted from my enjoyment of the story.

The mystery itself is clever, but the writing is rather long-winded (although typical of its time).  There are a few chapters that are from Rouletabille’s perspective and they were rather confusing because he would switch at random from present tense to past tense.  For instance, at one point, he is speaking with Larsan, and the section is in present tense.  He and Larsan run down the stairs and knock on the door of another character, but as soon as the door is opened, Rouletabille’s narrative starts using the past tense instead.  It was rather confusing and made his sections feel very disjointed to me.  There are also many dramatic references to random things, like Rouletabille’s repeated cry of, “Ah!  The perfume of the Lady in Black!” which has absolutely nothing to do with this story, but apparently does have a great deal to do with the second story starring Rouletabille, aptly titled, The Perfume of the Lady in Black.

I found it virtually impossible to believe that Rouletabille was only 18, and when I was able to believe it, it made his character that much more obnoxious.  Arrogance is acceptable in a character like Hercule Poirot because he has spent many years building his reputation and being brilliant.  From a teenager, it just felt quite annoying.

All in all, while I found The Mystery of the Yellow Room to be fairly interesting as a piece of historical crime fiction, I wasn’t particularly enamored with it, and it was definitely not a story that made me yearn to read other adventures of Rouletabille.  I think I probably would have liked it more if I had had a hard copy with proper formatting, but I’m also sure that I wouldn’t have liked Rouletabille any more on physical pages than I liked him in the ebook.  3/5.

The White Feather // by P.G. Wodehouse

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//published 1907//

The White Feather is probably my favorite of Wodehouse’s school stories so far.  Set at Wrykyn, one of Wodehouse’s favorite fictional schools, the introduction (from the author) states that it is set a little over a year after the events in The Gold Bat.  I didn’t notice much of an overlap of characters, but the setting is the same.  In that same introduction Wodehouse states that other Wrykyn adventures have been recorded in various short stories published in various magazines.  I’m pretty sure that Mike – which leads into the Psmith stories – is also set at Wrykyn.

At any rate, in typical school story fashion, this story has plenty of sports and slang.  But there is also a decent little story, wherein one boy, Sheen, is a quiet, studious boy towards whom his classmates are rather ambivalent.  There is a feud of sorts between the school boys and the town boys, and one day there is a big kerfluffle between them.  Sheen, instead of jumping in to the aid of his fellow students, quietly disappears.  This leads to him being ostracized by his entire house, and many of the rest of the students as well.  Sheen ends up taking up boxing lessons and, in the end, pulls out a wonderful victory at an inter-school sporting event and is accepted back into the arms of his house, especially when it comes about that much of the negative information surrounding Sheen was actually based on false stories circulated by a boy who didn’t like him.

The fun in this book isn’t necessarily in the story, which is fine but not thrilling, but in the very fact that I actually was able to keep most of these characters straight – which means that they were different enough from one another in order for me to do so, something that isn’t always true in these early school stories.  There were more little quirks and pieces of individuality, like the boxing coach who loves (and quotes) Shakespeare.

On the whole, I didn’t find myself racing through The White Feather or laughing out loud while reading it, but it did have its moments of humor, and there was a definite plot above and beyond sports to carry the story through.  While I don’t see myself returning to this one time and again, it was a pleasant read, although not heartily recommended.  3/5.

December Minireviews – Part II

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, inspired by the way that Stephanie reviews the unreviewed every month, I think that some months (or maybe all of them!) will get a post with minireviews of all those books that just didn’t get more than a few paragraphs of feelings from me.

This month I had quite a few, so Part I has already been published.

The Head of Kay’s by P.G. Wodehouse

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//published 1905//

Yet another school story from Wodehouse’s early days.  This one definitely had more plot than some of the others – it’s basically the story of how a couple of prefects work together to bring solidarity to their house, despite the interference and incompetency of their house head, Kay.  There is still quite a lot of cricket and footer, especially at the end (it really felt like the story ought to have ended with Kay’s resignation, rather than having it be 3/4 of the way through), but it was overall a breezy and engaging little story.

The Dead Sea Cipher by Elizabeth Peters

9781585470396

//published 1970//

In this story, by the author of the Amelia Peabody books, our heroine (Dinah) is taking a little tour through the Holy Lands.  She overhears an argument in the next room one night, and the next morning a man in that room is found dead.  Suddenly, a lot of different strangers seem very interested in Dinah, despite her protestations that, because the argument was in Arabic, she understood nothing.

This book reminded me a lot of one of Agatha Christie’s spy novels.  It has that same we’re-all-just-here-for-the-ride attitude towards realism, and it was a fun little frolic if you were willing to forego any need to have the book make logical sense.  Dinah was a moderately interesting protagonist, although things did fall into place just a little too neatly.  And while I’ve loosely compared this story to one of Christie’s, this one definitely lacked Christie’s knack of making characters feel warm and natural.  This was a fairly enjoyable 3/5 read, but not a particularly noteworthy one.

Midnight: Wild Stallion of the West // by Rutherford Montgomery

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//published 1940//

In the 1950’s and 60’s, Grosset & Dunlap published about 40 books, written by various authors, under the label of “Famous Horse Stories.”  My understanding is that most of these books were already in print at some point (most were from the 1940’s and 50’s originally), but G&D brought them together in a sort of collection.  Several of the authors were quite well known at the time, like Thomas Hinkle, Glenn Balch, and Henry Larom.  Most of the books have a western/ranch setting, although I have come across some set in other “horsey” surrounds, like Dorothy Lyons’s horse show books.

Because I loved horses and horse stories so much when I was a kid, I collected these whenever I came across them.  Back in the day, before the internet was the thing that it is now, finding an out-of-print book that fit into a collection was really a bonanza.  Nowadays I just get onto eBay and type in what I’m looking for and can nearly always find it, even if I’m not willing to pay the price.  But in my teen years, most of my book collecting was done by sifting through piles of books in musty antique shops.  Oh the joy when I found a Famous Horse Story, or a book by Albert Payson Terhune, or a Judy Bolton mystery!  And then the agony – was it really worth $5 or $8 or $13??  (Here is a tip for used-book shopping: you see the book you want on the shelf.  Place your hand on the book.  And then, before you open it or check the price, tell yourself what the maximum amount is that you would be willing to pay to add this book to your permanent collection.  Then check the price!)

At any rate, as part of my (very slow-moving) goal to read/reread all of the books in my personal collection, several of these Famous Horse Stories have come up in my lottery drawing recently, so you can expect to see them on the blog over the next few months.  I own maybe half the titles published under this label, and I’m honestly not sure if I ever read all the ones I own.  And it’s been a very long time since I have read the ones I did read, so if I end up particularly liking an author, it may be a chance to invest in some more of his works (via the easy, eBay way).

And so, on to the actual book for which this review is being written!  Midnight: Wild Stallion of the West.  And already I’m going to start rambling again, because I’ve been struck by how many of the titles from this era employ the [Name]:[Description] style.  Plain old Midnight just isn’t good enough!

Rutherford Montgomery is best known (in 1950’s horse-story circles) for his Golden Stallion series, seven titles revolving around the same horse/characters.  I own several of those, so I’m sure we’ll get to them eventually.  Midnight, however, appears to be a stand-alone, although I have another book by Montgomery, Crazy Kill Range, that I believe may be a loose sequel (as Midnight takes place in Crazy Kill Range), so I’ll be reading that soon.

Montgomery’s books definitely fall into the western/ranch category, and Midnight in many ways is not so much a story as it is several vignettes of western mustang life.  The book opens with Sam, an old prospector, quietly enjoying life on the porch of his cabin.  He lives alone and, we later find out, built his cabin back in the day when all the land was open and public.  Since then, the property has been purchased by a rich rancher named Major Howard, an “Easterner” who doesn’t really understand the culture of his new home.  However, he allows Sam to continue living in the cabin because Sam isn’t really hurting anything.

Major Howard raises cattle and finely-bred horses.  One of his mares, Lady Ebony, likes to graze near Sam’s cabin.  Sam has become very attached to the horse and offers to buy her from the Major.  Major Howard doesn’t want to sell Lady Ebony as he intends to race her.  Sarcastically, he tells Sam that he can buy Lady Ebony for $500, confident that Sam doesn’t have a twentieth of that to his name.  But little does Major Howard know!  Sam actually has a secret little vein of gold up in the hills that he mines from time to time.  He’s kept it quiet so that other people don’t horn in on the region, but he knows that if he spends a couple of weeks up there he can get the $500.  So he packs up his bags and heads for the hills.

While he’s gone, Lady Ebony gets swept up into a band of wild horses.  Their leader, a vicious chestnut stallion, is heading over the mountains for the winter, and takes Lady Ebony with him.  So, when Sam gets back with his money, Major Howard accuses him of stealing the mare and Sam ends up getting arrested.  The rest of the story isn’t really about Sam all that much – instead, we follow Lady Ebony as she is part of the chestnut’s band.  Eventually she breaks free of the herd and returns to the pasture near Sam’s (now abandoned) cabin.  She has a foal from the chestnut, a black colt named (you guessed it) Midnight.  Throughout the book, while we mostly focus on Midnight and his adventures, we also get little snippets of updates of the falsely-accused Sam, pining away in prison, yearning for his freedom.  (I’ll leave you to guess whether or not he is eventually freed, but here’s a hint: it’s a children’s book.)

In a lot of ways, this book reminded me of Jim Kjelgaard’s works.   It was really a story about wilderness life and survival.  And despite the fact that this is a children’s book, so we end up with happy endings for Midnight (and Sam), the story doesn’t shy away from the fact that, in the wild, only the strong survive.  There is a lot of death in this story, but it isn’t really portrayed gruesomely or for dramatic effect: it just is.

One of the animals that is involved in Midnight’s story is an old buck deer.  He is described as being crafty and intelligent.  But eventually, he is overtaken and killed by a pack of wolves.

The end of the monarch was the destined end of all wild dwellers.  The end of a life of struggle and constant alertness.  The law of the wild was fulfilled.  While youth and vigor gave him power and speed the buck lived and went his way, but when that strength slipped from him he went down before the gray killers.

While I didn’t love Midnight the way that I love a lot of Kjelgaard’s books – it somehow lacked the warmth and personal touch of his works – Montgomery’s story was a good one nonetheless.  I feel like so much of children’s literature these days focuses on feelings, and making sure you understand your feelings, and don’t hurt anyone else’s feelings, and remember – your feelings are what define you, and how you feel is what decides what you are, and it’s honestly just plain ridiculous.  I’d much rather have kids read books like Midnight – because somehow his story about how the strong survive also comes across as a reminder that the strong must care for the weak, or the weak will not make it.  He writes a story about balance – the circle of life, if you will – how every living thing has its place, not in a touchy-feely now-we-should-all-be-vegans kind of way, but realistically.  Every living thing has its part to play.  This is a story with a lot of grit and a lot of death, but also a book that is positive and hopeful, because death is also a natural part of life.

And despite all the death, Montgomery’s book still comes across as one written by someone who loves the wilderness about which he’s writing.  His dedication is to “Earl Hammock, who knows the value of the lonesome places” and I feel like that really summarizes a lot of what this book is about.

Anyway, I’ve rambled on long enough.  A decent and interesting read, especially if you like horses or western wildlife, and I’m looking forward to delving into some more of my long-forgotten Famous Horse Stories soon.

Love Among the Chickens // by P.G. Wodehouse

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//published 1906//

As I’ve been working my way through Wodehouse’s works in published order, it’s mostly been a slog of school stories, which involve a great deal of cricket and footer and slang.  But in 1906 Wodehouse published his first not-school-story.  Love Among the Chickens instead has many of the hallmarks of his later works – a character who does rather outrageous things but always seems to come out right, secondary characters who are quite hilarious, and, of course, true love that must go through many trials before being realized.

I’ve also been working my way through a collection of Wodehouse’s letters (A Life in Letters compiled/edited by Sophie Ratcliffe – I actually finally finished this book yesterday, so review coming soon), and now I find myself wondering how interesting it would be to go back and read each section as I finish the books for that time period.  In his letters, Wodehouse says that the whole bit of this book about the chicken farm is true to life, as told to him by one of his closest friends, William Townsend.  The character of Ukridge was further fleshed out by another man Wodehouse had roomed with in the past.

In a letter to his stepdaughter, written about fifteen years after the initial publication, Wodehouse writes about the reissuing of Love Among the Chickens in paperback:

Love Among the Chickens is out in the cheap edition.  I’ll send you a copy.  Townend told me it was on sale at the Charing Cross bookstall, so I rolled round and found they had sold out.  Thence to Piccadilly Circus bookstall.  Sold out again.  Pretty good in the first two days.  Both men offered to sell me ‘other Wodehouse books’, but I smiled gently on them and legged it.

As an aside, reading Wodehouse’s letters has only increased my love for this fellow!

The humor in Chickens is much more pronounced than it is in some of his earlier works, although it didn’t have me laughing out loud as I do with his later stories.  Still, lines like –

Coming towards me at her best pace was a small hen.  I recognised her immediately.  It was the disagreeable, sardonic-looking bird which Ukridge, on the strength of an allegedly similar profile to his wife’s nearest relation, had christened Aunt Elizabeth.  A Bolshevist hen, always at the bottom of any disturbance in the fowl-run, a  bird which ate its head off daily at our expense and bit the hands which fed it by resolutely declining to lay a single egg.

The phrase “a Bolshevist hen” has really stuck with me, especially as my own personal hens have been quite the slackers lately.  (Is there a Bolshevist among them, stirring up a revolution?!)

Wodehouse’s ability to avoid swearing yet still imply it is at its artistic best as well –

He poured scorn upon his hearers, and they quailed.  He flung invective at them, and they wilted.  Strange oaths, learned among strange men on cattle-ships or gleaned on the waterfronts of Buenos Ayres and San Francisco, slid into the stream of his speech. It was hard, he said in part … that a gentleman … could not run up to London for five minutes on business without having his private grounds turned upside down by a gang of cattle-ship adjectived San Francisco substantives who behaved as if the whole of the Buenos Ayres phrased place belonged to them.

On the whole, I thoroughly enjoyed Chickens.  Somehow, I had never read an Ukridge book before, and his character, with his habit of coming up with ridiculous schemes and then railroading everyone into following them – was really an entertaining one to read.  While I would still put Chickens as a 3/5 (on the Wodehouse scale, of course, which is really its own thing, as a 3/5 Wodehouse is still superior to many 4/5 for other authors), I do recommend it and intend to add this one to my permanent Wodehouse collection.