Sunday, March 28, 2010

Meet Me In St. Louis by Sally Benson

As a classic movie fan, I fell under the spell of "Meet Me In St. Louis" long ago, its vivid jewel-bright technicolor tones and simple nostalgic wholesome-as-apple-pie plot reminded me of picture postcards depicting scenes from American life at the turn of the 20th century. So, when I happened across an anniversary reprint of the book that inspired one of my favorite films, I couldn't pass up the chance to read it; I am always curious how movies I like measure up to the books they are based on.

"Meet Me In St. Louis" originally began life as a series of short stories by Sally Benson published in The New Yorker magazine and later collected in book form. The stories, said to be somewhat autobiographical, chronicle a year in the life of the Smith family of Kensington Avenue in St. Louis. They begin in 1903 and end in 1904 with the arrival of the much awaited, highly anticipated World's Fair.

The stories are quaint and charming, showing the reader how much life has changed, like the long ago days when a long distance phone call was a big deal, and how much it stays the same, as with siblings playing practical jokes on each other and the antics of boy-crazy teenage girls. And there is a delightful chapter about Halloween before it became such a commercialized holiday and candy took centerstage.

But, I must admit the movie, which is true to the spirit of the book, far outshines it. The family members are all there--Mr. and Mrs. Smith, their son Lon, daughters Esther, Rose, Agnes, Tootie, Katie the cook, and of course Grandpa, even Lady Babbie the cat--and some situations from the stories do feature prominently in the film, such as Halloween night, the distress caused by a job promotion requiring a move to New York City, a prank involving a streetcar where a dress stuffed to look like a body is laid on the tracks, and youngest daughter Tootie's crashing her sisters' party after she is supposed to be in bed to deliver a delightful rendition of the ballad "I Was Drunk Last Night Dear Mother," but while the stories are not without charm and give the reader a generous slice of apple pie American nostalgia, it is the movie that truly sparkles, like taking an old pair of patent leather dancing slippers out of grandma's trunk in the attic and giving them a high gloss shine.

The Anniversary Edition, published to commemorate the centenary of the 1904 World's Fair is available as a trade paperback from

The movie, directed by Vincent Minnelli, and starring Judy Garland and child star Margaret O'Brien, is available on DVD.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Cat Nap

Tabby taking it easy on the living room sofa.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

No Time For Goodbye by Linwood Barclay

Imagine what it would be like if you woke up one morning and found your entire family gone, vanished, without a trace?

This nightmare became a reality for fourteen-year-old Cynthia Bigge in 1983 when she awoke one school morning to find her mother, father, and brother had disappeared.

Twenty-five years later, Cynthia is a happily married, over-protective mother to an eight-year-old daughter, and still haunted by the mysteries of her past.

Desperate for closure, she agrees to allow a popular true crime tv show to film a segment about her family's mysterious disappearance, but rather than turn up clues that lead to closure, it reawakens sleeping demons seemingly determined to rectify the mistake that left one member of the Bigge family alive.

As is my custom when reviewing mysteries, rather than risk giving too much away, I will stop now and say only that "No Time For Goodbye," is another gripping thriller from Linwood Barclay that does not disappoint.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Too Great A Lady The Notorious, Glorious Life of Emma, Lady Hamilton by Amanda Elyot

In the late 18th century, Emma Hamilton's face and figure made her famous. With her changeable eyes and abundant auburn hair flowing well past her hips, she was accounted one of the most beautiful women in the world...until she opened her mouth.
Amanda Elyot's novel gives the fair Emma a voice and, replete with dropped aitches (the letter H) and the rough English country accent, allows her to tell the story of her meteoric rise from nobody to a titular lady who could never quite shake off the trappings of her dissolute past and notoriety. Within ten years she rose from an illiterate, barefoot country girl selling coal out of her apron pockets at the roadside, to become variously a nursemaid, an orange-girl, an "ornamental beauty" in a fashionable brothel, one of the scantily clad beauties who graced Dr. Graham's famous Temple of Health, where men of means paid fifty pounds to spend a night in the quack's Celestial Bed where the "Goddess of Health" would cure their impotence, the mistress of a hedonistic nobleman who hosted cockfights in his drawing room, and the muse of the painter Romney, to become the wife of Sir William Hamilton, the British Ambassador to Naples, a connoisseur of fine art who accounted his wife the greatest and most beautiful of his many treasures.

Emma's life reads like a bawdy version of "My Fair Lady." But, unlike the fairytale of the cockney flower-girl who learns to walk and talk like a duchess, in Emma's case the transformation never fully takes; she constantly slips. The book is written in proper English except when dialogue is quoted, then Emma drops every "h" and never learns to properly pronounce her husband's given name, calling him "Willum" instead of "William." Though she works hard to better herself, taking lessons in French, Italian, music, and drawing, she never eradicates her rough accent. She is alternately refined and vulgar, but always fresh and candid, and by those who get to know the real big-hearted, kind, generous Emma she is both liked and loved. She even becomes the confidante of Maria Carolina, Queen of Naples, and sister of Marie Antoinette, and enjoys renown as one of the most popular hostesses; visitors to sunny Italy vie for invitations to see Emma perform her "Attitudes" in which, wearing a sheer white Grecian gown, she strikes poses depicting famous female figures from mythology.

But love is Emma's undoing. After many years of marital happiness, in which she proves that a fallen woman can rise again, redeem herself, and become a model of fidelity, Emma is gobsmacked when she falls "arse over tit" in love with Horatio Nelson, the celebrated naval hero and darling of the British public. Both Nelson and Emma are married to others, though Nelson's love for his wife, Fanny, is long dead and their union endures in name only, Sir William Hamilton is one of his best friends, but their passion is too strong to resist, even though they fight it, eventually they give in and surrender to the inevitable.

The hypocritical scandal ineradicably stains both their lives. The upper classes, the aristocracy, and the fashionable folk of the "Beau Monde" and "The Ton" freely indulge in a never-ending game of musical beds, mistresses and extramarital affairs are all socially acceptable and commonplace provided a modicum of discretion is employed, yet Emma and Nelson become a scandal. Polite society snubs Emma, and The Admiralty, Parliament, and King George III alternately punish the lovers in one way or another--when Sir William Hamilton is granted his pension, it is stipulated that the sum will not continue to be paid to his widow after his death as customary, and Nelson's dying wish to provide for Emma is pointedly ignored.

Emma is clearly persona non grata in England, and after the deaths of her husband and lover she falls back down into poverty and squalor. It is Emma's fate to outlive her famous beauty and to suffer the cruel disdain of her daughter, Horatia, Nelson's only child. Horatia has nothing but contempt for Emma and never acknowledges the woman she scornfully dismisses as "a fat and slovenly tippler" as her mother. Emma pens her memoirs from debtors' prison in an attempt to raise money to support herself and Horatia before finally dying of the effects of excessive drinking in 1815.

Amanda Elyot does a fine job of resuscitating Emma and breathing life back into one of the great love stories of history without over-romanticizing it or drowning it in sentimentality.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Secret Life of Josephine Napoleon's Bird of Paradise by Carolly Erickson

In "The Secret Life of Josephine" Carolly Erickson spins a fanciful tale from the life of Napoleon's empress. Embroidering on facts, and inventing from whole-cloth, she shows us how Rose Tascher, from the lush and lazy tropical island of Martinique, went to Paris and evolved into the sensual, charming enchantress Josephine, marrying first a cold, fastidious cousin to enable him to obtain his inheritance, surviving the French Revolution and escaping the guillotine by a hairs-breadth, becoming a lady of fashion and the mistress of powerful men along the way, before her marriage to power-mad Corsican General Napoleon Bonaparte, who ultimately crowned her Empress of France. Their marriage is a stormy story of both battlefields and bedrooms, adultery and abuse, both physical and verbal, that escalates as Josephine's beauty fades and Napoleon's ambitions swell, until his dynastic pretensions (the need for a male heir born of a royal bride) leads to divorce. The novel ends with a rather implausible climax in which Josephine pursues Napoleon to Russia to make his destruction her personal mission and fulfill a prophecy made in her girlhood by a powerful voodoo sorcerer.

After years of writing biographies, Carolly Erickson has thrown the facts away to scatter on the winds and let fancy and fantasy replace them on the printed page. While entertaining, her novels are definitely not the place to look for facts about the lives of the famous women of history, and generally score poorly with readers who require a larger dose of fact in their historical fiction. Personally, I find them fun, escapist fare, swift, easy reads that help pass the time, and I know not to take them seriously.