Archive for October, 2015


Trustee from the Toolroom

October 27, 2015

Yesterday I discovered Gutenberg Canada. How I managed to overlook its existence until now, I’m not sure. But it’s there, and it has lots of cool stuff, and I don’t really care that I’m probably not supposed to be accessing it from the US.

One of the cool things it has is Trustee from the Toolroom, by Nevil Shute, which is one of my favorite books. When I saw that it was there, I almost started crying, mostly because it’s been that kind of month, but also because I love it a lot.

When I was in college, a read a post on someone’s blog about the fictional characters you love and support unconditionally. Not necessarily the ones who are always right, or most lovable, but the ones to whom you want to say, “if that’s what you want, I want you to have it.” Even if it’s not what’s best for them. The blogger mentioned Keith Stewart, the protagonist of Trustee from the Toolroom, as being one of those characters for her, so I looked up the book. My school library had a copy. I borrowed it.

Some books, when you read them, become a part of you, you know?

Keith Stewart is a quiet, self-effacing man. He works as a mechanic until after World War II. Then he manages to make his hobby — miniature, working models of machinery — into a full time job. He doesn’t make very much money at it, but he’s happy.

For me, the two most important parts of this book — aside from every time anyone is a little starstruck on meeting Keith — are where he is at the beginning and where he is at the end. There’s a quote at the beginning, about three paragraphs in: “He was a quick worker and a ready writer upon technical matters, and he delighted in making little things that worked. He had now so ordered his life that he need do nothing else.” It makes me tear up a little every time. His wife, Katie, is sort of similar. She works in a shop, more because she likes it than because she needs to. Both of them are impractical about things that don’t directly touch them, but that’s okay. They’re fine. They’re more than fine; they’re good.

But then Keith’s sister and brother-in-law leave their daughter in Keith and Katie’s care while they sail across the Atlantic, and it…doesn’t go well. Keith finds himself in the position of having to get himself halfway across the world, and having almost no money to do it with.

It’s kind of a fairy tale, this story, because if the structure and because of the way the world works. Keith has a quest to complete before he can return home, and it breaks itself into a number of different tasks — supplying provisions for a boat, inspecting a lumber mill — doing things for people who can get him where he needs to go. His area of expertise is sort of narrow, but it works for him, partly because this takes place in a universe with a comfortable underlying morality. Keith gets what he deserves, in a way that will make you feel good about the world. And maybe that’s most of the appeal — that and the pleasure of reading about a person who’s very good at something, described in enough detail to be convincing. Competence is so nice to read about, and Keith Stewart is so good at what he does, and so conscientious, and yeah, I unconditionally support him, too.

Does anyone want to recommend books about people who are very good at their jobs?


Lady Noggs

October 23, 2015

For whatever reason, I’m having trouble reading anything that’s not by Edgar Jepson. So let’s follow up the two Tinker books with the two Lady Noggs books. (There may be a third, but I think it’s another case of different titles for different markets.)

So far I have observed that Jepson’s books always include the word “truculent,” someone calling someone else a sweep, and someone’s appearance — usually the main character’s — is described with reference to the history of Western art. Lady Felicia Grandison is about ten, and she looks like a painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds, which is somehow all the description you really need.

Lady Felicia (a contemporary reviewer points out that Jepson is clueless about titles — he sometimes refers to her as Lady Felicia and sometimes as Lady Grandison) is, like Tinker and Pollyooly, very precocious, but somehow a little more childlike. Also she prefers to be known as Noggs.

Noggs lives with her uncle, the Prime Minister, on his country estate. He’s a nice man, and very erudite, but no match for Noggs in a practical sense. She’s a prankster, but all her pranks come from righteous indignation; she has a very well-developed sense of justice, and the will and ingenuity to enforce it.

Her exploits include getting rid of an adventuress with designs on her uncle, touring the slums with a poor girl she’s taken under her wing, and removing the obstacles that stand in the way of her governess marrying her uncle’s secretary. She isn’t as much of a tiny adult as Tinker, though. Sometimes she doesn’t get the results she intends. Sometimes she doesn’t know how she does get the results she intends. And when she meets Tinker and Elsie, she lets Tinker take the lead.

I like Noggs a lot. When I started Lady Noggs, Peeress I was constantly coming up with unfavorable comparisons to Tinker and Pollyooly, but I’ve come to feel that all of them have their points. One of Noggs’ is that she weathers the transition into adulthood better than the other two.

The first book resolves the governess/secretary situation, and the second, The Intervening Lady, picks up pretty soon afterwards, with Noggs trying to adopt a child her own age. It doesn’t work as well for her as it does for Tinker. In fact, the first half of this book feels geared towards very slightly reducing our expectations of Noggs–not in a condescending way so much as to give her room to grow into someone with even greater strength of character. Which is exactly what happens next. The rest of the book takes place when Noggs is an 18-year-old debutante.

I was worried, because my other experience with a Jepson character growing up is Pollyooly Dances, in which Pollyooly is almost unrecognizable. He does a much better job here. Noggs is recognizably herself, even after acquiring all the trappings of young ladyhood. She saves a friend from a blackmailer, makes and unmakes matches, and is reintroduced to her two childhood protégés: the girl from the slums and the attempted adoptee. She doesn’t short-sheet anyone’s bed, but you get the impression that she would if she thought it would be helpful.

Tinker and Elsie also appear, Tinker in a way that makes me think of Lord Peter Wimsey’s cameo in one of Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell books, and Elsie not as often as I’d like. They are, of course, paired off romantically, as are Noggs and her adoptee, Michael Broome. The romance was probably my least favorite part of The Intervening Lady — I expect Edgar Jepson thought he knew how to write romance, but nothing I’ve read would lead me to agree. For me, the best moments are Noggs’ interactions with other women. I would have especially liked to see more of Susie, who would make a far more plausible grown-up Pollyooly than the one in Pollyooly Dances.


The Triumph of Tinker/Tinker Two

October 7, 2015

I still don’t like Tinker as much as Pollyooly, but he’s grown on me, mostly thanks to the second Tinker book, variously known as The Triumph of Tinker and Tinker Two. It feels a lot less episodic than the first one–the initial section basically sets the rest of the book in motion, so there’s no more than a couple of chapters that could stand alone as short stories.

Tinker and his dad are no longer bumming around Europe, as they did for most of the first book. They’re now established in London with Sir Tancred’s new wife Dorothy and Tinker’s adoptive sister Elsie. Elsie was abandoned in Monte Carlo by her gross uncle in the last book, but now her gross uncle is back and hoping that Elsie’s association with millionairess Lady Dorothy Beauleigh means he can make something off her. He and his associate, the equally beery and vulgar Mr. Oliver Brown, concoct a plan to regain custody of Elsie and then mistreat her until the Beauleighs will pay to get her back, but they fail to take Tinker into account. He and Elsie escape to Germany, picking up a beautiful young Russian revolutionary on the way.

Tinker twists the world around his little finger, as usual, with just enough difficulty to keep things interesting. The wicked uncle and his friend are vanquished, Sonia the Russian Countess gets married, and Elsie drives a car. There’s also an episode featuring Lady Felicia Grandison, the heroine of at least two other Jepson books (of whom more later).

Elsie really comes into her own in this book–or maybe she did it in between the two. When she was first introduced, Elsie was delicate and a little weepy, and didn’t really get better defined before the end of the book, but by the time she appeared in Lady Noggs, Peeress she had established an identity: still delicate and frail-looking, but willing to try anything, and casual about Tinker’s plans in a way that even Tinker himself isn’t. Tinker is apt to decide very seriously that something ridiculous must be done. Elsie acquiesces to his plans in a way that suggests she both takes him very seriously and humors him a little. I find myself liking her more and more.

I still feel like Pollyooly has something to offer that the more privileged children in Jepson’s earlier stories don’t, but Tinker is such a well-defined character, predictable but not too predictable. You’re not always sure how Tinker will respond to a situation, but his response always seems inevitable. Tinker is fundamentally the character who, when introduced to a beef-canning millionaire who can estimate by eye how many cans of beef a cow will produce, will a) learn how to do it just as well and b) apply the same methods to human beings. So, if an angelic looking young boy assessing people by how many cans they would fill is entertaining to you, I think you’ll enjoy Edgar Jepson. If not, I’m not entirely sure why you’re reading this blog.