Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Ship's Nurse

By Rosie M. Banks
(pseud. Alan Jackson), ©1961
Cover illustration probably Robert Maguire

When her aunt, the ship’s senior nurse, breaks her ankle, Cathy volunteers for duty. There seems to be more than the usual shipboard intrigue—the ship’s doctor drinks tea, secretly laced with rum, to forget painful memories. His young assistant yearns to leave the ship to start his own practice. A stowaway—on a last fling before settling down to responsibility—is discovered. A raucous Texas dowager drinks too much and her gigolo-husband has a roving eye. Cathy herself if faced with an oversupply of admirers. An innocent flirtation and sudden tragedy make Cathy realize the depth of her dedication to nursing—and where her heart is.
“I want to see you married and have children, but in fairness to them you should bring them some knowledge other than what the inside of the Twenty-one Club looks like.”
“He thought not that the world was his oyster but that he was the pearl within it.”
“A nurse is always a philosopher.”
“A stowaway! It sounded romantic—like an MGM movie. He might be carrying some dread contagious disease, and she would be the nurse and cure the patient, and—since it was an MGM movie—she would marry him. That brought her back to reality. She would have to see him first.”
“Perhaps he was a writer. They were the nutty ones.”
I can hardly contain my excitement about having discovered the identity of the Alan Jackson who penned this novel: A Princeton grad, former Saturday Evening Post editor and Paramount Picures story editor, Mr. Jackson (1906­–1965) also penned Perdita, Get Lost and a breakfast cookbook under his own name. I know I’ve gone on and on about the joy I take in the fact that this pen name was stolen from a P.G. Wodehouse novelist who wrote torrid romances, but really, I just love that.
Anyway, Cathy Jerrold, a freshly minted RN, is taking a celebratory ten-day cruise to Bermuda onboard the same ship that her aunt, Mary Jerrold, will be working as head nurse—but before the ship has left the harbor, Mary falls and breaks her ankle and is shipped ashore to the hospital. Cathy carries on with her cruise, and volunteers to help the two remaining nurses cover their shifts—and is rewarded with the midnight-to-4-a.m. shift. No good deed goes unpunished, clearly.
But this leaves her days free to fend off advances from a veritable army of men: Alan Richards, a suave gadabout who doesn’t really love her, just the pursuit of her; Arturo Verdi, aka Turo Green, the Italian husband of an oil widow who is 25 years his senior; and both ship’s doctors, the old widowed one who drinks spiked iced tea all day and pops tranquilizers to boot, and the young one who is planning to leave the cruise line and set up shop on Nantucket.
The cast of characters also includes Tim O’Leary, the shiftless boyfriend of one of the nurses, who stows away to be with her and also to see Bermuda. When he is discovered, he is rescued by Turo Green, who puts him up in a first-class cabin and gives him his own clothes to wear. Turo’s wife, Vinnie, is a loud, brassy Texan appealing only for her bank account; she also drinks excessively and is flirting with death as a result of it. The closest thing to a plot the book has centers around the question of whether Vinnie will die soon, leaving Turo to (openly) pursue Cathy, and if Turo’s grace toward Tim stems from a desire to use him as an alibi should he decide to hasten his wife’s impending departure for the pearly gates.
In truth, it must be said that the book does not deliver much in regards to story. Though the plot takes an unexpected swivel from the direction I thought it was headed with the Greens, the ending is somewhat perfunctory, when we are told rather than shown that all the characters have grown from their experiences on the ship. For her part, Cathy makes several heretofore unsuspected decisions about her career and marital status: “I have seen a person come of age,” thinks the ship’s captain at book’s end. “That is Cathy Jerrold.” Good thing he clued us in, else we might have missed it.

No, the real reason to read this book is for the writing. In the event that you have missed my prior reviews of Alan Jackson’s works (that would be Navy Nurse, Surgical Nurse, and Settlement Nurse), Mr. Jackson is an intelligent and witty writer who gives us sly passages such as, “The orchestra continued its determined fortissimi,” and, “Before he was able to resume the tenor of his conversation which she had interrupted like a tornado, she again took the lead.” He tackles this story with an angle seldom seen in a VNRN, from the perspective of the omniscient foreshadowing the story’s direction. We get hints such as, “These were the people who were to make trouble for the ship.” And, after one character declares they will have a wonderful vacation, we are told, “She was wrong.” In most instances this is fun, but it does get a bit heavy-handed, overly doom-and-gloom about the import of events that then come across as fairly ho-hum, as in: “So there sat Cathy, the catalyst, the element which changes others and does not itself change. Cathy, unconscious that at her table were four men who because of the mere sight of her were deciding to alter their plans and their mode of living. A complicated situation, at best, and a potentially dangerous one.” But this is a minor quibble, and in general his descriptions and characterizations are vivid, and I enjoy watching these people come and go. If this isn’t the most brilliantly plotted book, it’s still an easy, breezy afternoon’s companion, and if you are encamped in a steamer chair with a chilled martini at your side when you take it in, all the better.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Nurse on Paradise Isle

By Nell Marr Dean, ©1967
Gently bending palm trees, an untouched island paradise—it all seemed so perfect when pretty Nurse Leslie Sheridan accepted her first assignment. She was to be the only medical attendant to a construction project on an isolated island near Tahiti. But the swaying palms only camouflaged the rampant tensions of the island. Even with a temperament to match her red hair, Nurse Leslie found she was no match for roughneck contruction workers and revenge-seeking natives. But the peril most unbearable for the young nurse was the threat of losing to a native beauty her new found love for big Jim Cobalt, the construction boss. Would the irony of the island named Paradise forever haunt her dreams of love and duty?
“Sometimes she wished that he were not so fircely masculine. Such rugged vigor was like a magnet to a woman … and she was a woman.”
“Sweetheart, I could hardly keep my mind on the blueprints from seeing you priss around in that fluffy white uniform.”
Leslie Sheridan has left her job at Bayshore Hospital in San Francisco to take a temporary position on a remote island—named Coral Reef Island, by the way, not Paradise Island—where construction on a new hotel, the Tongahiti, is underway. The Tongahiti will be the island’s first hotel, transforming it into a tourist mecca, much to disloyal Leslie’s dismay, and she’ll be tending to any construction workers injured on the job as well as any islanders who might need her assistance. But construction boss Jim Cobalt is none to happy about her arrival because, as he snaps at her, “I’m going to have to keep an eye glued to every workman on the job who’s got a wandering eye. Frankly, you’re just too darned pretty.” Leslie just laughs this off and goes for a swim.
And goes about establishing herself not just as a good nurse but really, owing to the fact that she has the most medical training on the island (there’s also a local nurse who is a smart, comptetent professional, but apparently not as schooled as Leslie), more of a nurse practitioner. She befriends many of the locals, all except one—Luva, “the half-breed” daughter of an American and a local island woman, who is “something like a wild animal—one who’ll never be tamed.” Luva was educated at an English school in Fiji, where she picked up “a slight French accent,” but despite the fact that she is one of the very few islanders with a formal education, she is the only character in the book who can’t put together a grammatically correct sentence: “They lewk for you een your clinic, mademoiselle. Or ees you always at Jeem Cobalt’s quarters?” Luva is hankering in a big way for Jeem, but it’s a doomed affair—her half-Polynesian heritage means she could never return to the U.S. as his wife: “He would have to give up his friends and his family, and be an outcast.” And if they had children, “they would be part Polynesian and part American. That would be the real tragedy.” In the meantime, though, while he’s on Coral Reef Island, Luva can hang all over Jim and make Leslie see green. But not for long—soon she and Jim are smooching on the beach at a luau and dating seriously.
But this is not enough for dopey Leslie, because Jim Cobalt “never had told her right out that he loved her,” and he hasn’t proposed marriage in the months she has been seeing him. What else could that mean except that “he had made love to her and now that the season’s end had come, he was going to say goodbye as easily as the wind veers.” So she offers her resignation to the owner of the hotel, effective as of the hotel’s opening night, now just a week or two away. Will she actually have an honest conversation with “the only man she wanted to love her,” or will she “go on pretending” that she doesn’t care about him? Well, there’s nothing like a disaster to bring two people together—in this case, the hotel burning down, which we foresaw from Chapter 1, when the local nurse tells Leslie that the locals resent the hotel “immensely”: “When the hotel is built and people swarm like flies over their small kingdom, their resentment might erupt, like a volcano.” It turns out that ole Jim was keeping a secret from Leslie: the fact that he was married, though his divorce just came through three days ago, and it was this that prevented him from telling her that he loved her—though leaving him completely free, apparently, to fool around with her all summer. (And lest we worry for Jim’s virginity, he tells her that he and his wife never “lived together.”) “Oh, Jim, you should have told me the truth,” declares the hypocritical Leslie, and they walk off into the sunset, “their backs to the smoldering ashes of the Tongahiti.”
This is a throwaway book, curious only for its stereotypical prejudice against the “indolent and shiftless” natives, though it is odd that the only native character who is neither dignified nor honest is Luva—perhaps it’s the taint of her American blood that makes her so scheming and ignorant. Leslie has some admirable qualities, and is in general a strong and capable character—except when it comes to her boyfriend, which is just irritating. The book leaves a few loose ends, like what is going to happen to the hotel—and the island along with it—not to mention the local nurse, in love with a white man she can never marry (though Jim and Leslie nonchalantly agree that “she will die of a broken heart”). Really, there’s not much to say about this book, which I guess is the most telling fact of all.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Northwest Nurse

By Arlene Fitzgerald, ©1964
A torrent of excitement raced through her, as his lips met hers in a firm, gentle kiss. Holly Doran, R.N., had come to Oregon on a temporary assignment, but she found something much more permanent there—a town of people she cared about, and a wonderful young doctor named Key Catrell. There was only one problem—a handsome psychiatrist back in San Francisco who expected her to return to him, and with good reason—he was her fiancé.
“She lowered her own eyes, thinking that the man could very well be a mental case, with eyes like that.”
So for starters—the doctor’s name is Key? Really? Who comes up with names like this? Well, Arlene Fitzgerald, apparently (though Peggy Gaddis is also notorious for giving her men nouns and adjectives for names; see Blade in Doctor Sara, Gray of Leota Foreman, R.N., and Bland of A Nurse for Apple Valley). But this is just the least of this sad book’s flaws.
One VNRN device that really ticks me off is the nurse engaged to a man she frequently claims to love but who is clearly—even in her own eyes—a bit of an ass. We wade deeply into that ploy on the fourth page, when Holly Doran, who has decided to spend the summer nursing in a rural coastal town in Oregon, remembers her fiancé declaring that “no young doctor would be fool enough to stick himself off up there in the Oregon boondocks, when there are countless city pigeons to be plucked.” In case that clue isn’t enough, we are shortly told that “her engagement to Dr. Brian Merdahl had proved to be a disappointment. Somewhere along the way, the sweetness and light had gone out of their romance. For her, at any rate.”
Indeed, her very motivation for taking some time away from Brian is so that she can “evaluate her true feelings for him. A woman shouldn’t feel fear, when the man she loved wanted to make love to her.” In the first place, if she has enough doubt that she needs time out from the relationship before they’re even married, it seems clear that it’s time to return the ring (which she’s actually left at her parent’s house for her little vacation). The second problem with this statement is that just one of Holly Doran’s irritating characteristics is that she is afraid of everything. Within the span of six pages, Holly “shouldn’t feel fear,” “a sudden horror constricted her throat,” she’s “stifling a feeling of panic,” “she clamped the feeling of panic with firm nurse’s discipline,” “the sudden fright had squeezed around her throat,” “she felt queasy inside, with a gnawing little fear that she refused to recognize.” Among the many, many things that Holly is afraid of, beyond sex with her fiancé, is a tidal wave washing away the coastal village, a car-smuggling ring that’s known to be working along this area of Oregon, and sexual assault; of that list, only one thing doesn’t actually happen, so in addition to being overly fearful, Holly demonstrates some impressive psychic abilities.
And if she can’t bring herself to get frisky with Brian, she’s certainly thinking about Key in ways that most chaste VNRN heroines wouldn’t begin to consider until they’re safely married: “She wanted more than a scolding from the tall, handsome man who looked like a deck hand, and who, she admitted to herself, had stirred something that lay deep inside her, like a seed ready to burst forth with new life.” “The feeling of pleasure stayed with her, as she moved about the small, clean office, involving a part of her that was all woman; all longing, with a yearning that Dr. Brian Merdahl had not, with all of his suave utterances of love, been quite able to satisfy.” My, my.
Which leads me to point out that Arlene describes her two female leads using language far more provocative than I’ve seen in any other VNRN, the exception being the other Arlene Fitzgerald book I’ve read, Young Nurse Rayburn. Which is fine, except that it’s badly done, repetitive, and incongruous, such as when “in the next instant, her eagerness turned to stone, beneath her small, round breasts.” Arlene is too fond of the word “ripe,” which she uses most absurdly when Holly is “popping the crisp bacon between her ripe lips.” Arlene’s other favorite word is “voluptuous,” one she sprinkles liberally over Holly’s competition for Key’s affections: “the voluptuous woman’s soft, ripe exterior,” “the voluptuous redhead” “had the kind of bold, voluptuous looks that drew male eyes like a magnet.” Even if it is supposed to be racy, I just can’t find a thrill in badly written prose.
Beyond trashy, Arlene’s prose is excessively florid, and she proves herself to be overly fond of commas, and I can illustrate both propensities with the book’s opening sentences: “The road swooped above the vast Pacific, following the flounced contours of the Coast Range. Then, just as suddenly, it dipped down to a broad harbor, formed by the wide mouth of a river that curved back from the sea, deceivingly silent, as smooth and shiny as a satin ribbon, between high, green mountains.” I tell you, 144 pages never seemed so long, unless it was in Dante’s Inferno, but I think that was only 70 pages and written in stanzas, so it had a lot fewer words.
I usually devote some time in these reviews to the story itself, but why bother? You’ll spend so much time fuming over the bad writing, lazy plotting, and innumerable commas (well, maybe you’re not as passionate about commas as I am) that the story line is immaterial. I had really looked forward to this book (missing the fact that this was penned by the same author as the one who gave us the D+ Young Nurse Rayburn), based entirely on the fantastic cover illustration. Will I ever learn? After Northwest Nurse has so emphatically driven home the complete dissociation between the quality of the cover and that of the story within, at long last I just might.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Jennifer James, R.N.

By Norman Daniels
, ©1961

Cover illustration by M. Hooks
Nestled deep in the California hills was a hospital so strange, so unique that only a handful of people knew of its existence, let alone its mysterious mission. Through its antiseptic corridors moved the shadiest of characters—bullet-ridden gangsters, suicidal actresses, punch-drunk pugs—people who could not stand the all-revealing daylight of public exposure. A truly odd assortment of bedfellows. Here, under the most modern and efficient conditions, beneath the secretive cloak of midnight, life-saving operations were performed by a team of highly skilled, dedicated men and women. Jennifer James, Registered Nurse, was one of them. Some people will condemn her for it. Others will come to her defense. But no one will be indifferent to her, or to the doctor she loved—the man she had no right to want.
“Bye, sweetie, and I hate you because you’re so damn attractive.”
“Now that’s the epitome of our gentle era. Booze through a straw. Bombs from the bomb bays, missiles from the pads, rockets and men in orbit, atoms from the smashers and booze through a straw.”
“Would you like to go down by the river? There are benches, and I promise to behave outrageously.”
“California now has something to talk about whenever the subject of beauty is brought up.”
“She’s your wife. You should be able to handle her or you shouldn’t have married her.”
“You are much too attractive to worry.”
Jennifer James, R.N., is wholly unique among the more than 200 nurse heroines I have met to date: Right off the bat, right there on page 16, she sleeps with a married man she had admired but barely known when she worked with him years ago. The man in question, Dr. Rafferty Corbett, is a surgeon at Manhattan’s West Side General, but now he is a rude, sloppy drunk, babbling on about his Eskimo pie of a wife at the hospital’s annual ball. She takes him outside for some fresh air and he all but passes out, so she takes him to her room in the nurse’s dormitory. Big mistake. In his gratitude for her assistance, he forces her down and tears off her dress. She responds as women in VNRNs usually do when they are being assaulted, namely, “she found herself clinging to him instead, pulling him closer.” Next thing you know, she’s picking up her underwear off the floor and rushing to the OR, where she is head surgical nurse, for an emergency surgery.
There she works on a man who has been assaulted to the brink of death by the henchmen of gangster Sydney Delgado. The man, a former associate of Sydney’s, was about to sing to the police about Sydney’s illicit activities, but now he’s fighting for his life with just Jennifer James, R.N., between him and the grim reaper. But there’s this mean police detective, who wants the patient to wake up and talk before his imminent death. Jennifer, who has orders to keep the man sedated lest his shredded spleen start hemorrhaging, dopes the patient with morphine even as the detective is rushing to the hospital administrator to make Jennifer keep the man alert. Her efforts come to no avail and the patient dies, and now there is hell to pay. Jennifer is fired from her job for obeying the doctor’s orders and not the detective’s, and is blacklisted from every job in town—except for one, working for an abortionist, which she turns down, so we know she has some morals.
Then she gets a phone call from Raff. He’s in California, having left his wife, and he wants her to take a job at the hospital where he works. Next thing you know, she’s at a very upscale medical facility in the Los Angeles hills. The patients are glamorous movie stars, dirt-poor Mexican immigrants, anyone who needs care—including a number of shady types with suspicious wounds; Jennifer’s first surgery upon arriving is assisting Raff in removing a bullet from a seedy fellow who repays her by grabbing her breast, and only Raff’s quick intervention with a right cross to the jaw preserves her relative modesty.
It turns out that the hospital is financed by Sydney, who after watching his mother die of cancer, impoverished and without proper treatment, swore that he would help others in the same situation—apparently the only act of goodness he has ever committed. So all these nice poor people get top-notch care, but the down side is that Jennifer and RAff have to minister to any of Sydney’s associates who might need medical attention. But to have a job again, and to work alongside Raff—and to open her door to him at night—is all Jennifer needs, so she accepts the good with the bad. And the bad includes another assault, this time a near-rape—she is again saved by Raff, whose timing really is uncanny—and the arrival of Sydney himself, who has survived a plane crash and crawled across the California desert to the hospital. Oh, and Raff’s wife turns up as well, and a Hollywood gossip columnist, both of whom are threatening to expose Jennifer and Raff as adulterers as well as the hospital’s slimy underbelly.
It seems black for everyone concerned: How can Raff shake off his wife and the gossip columnist, and persuade Sydney to continue funding the hospital, which, after his first-hand experience as a patient, he now regards as an unworthy medical facility staffed by quacks? (He may have a point there; shortly after his arrival, he is determined to have metastatic lung cancer and less than two weeks to live, and though he is even given radiation treatment, he is never informed of his diagnosis lest he freak out and pull the plug on the hospital’s endowment trust.)
Not to worry, in the event that you are: All is resolved when the hospital handyman (a very dignified Mexican) essentially murders Sydney by brutally revealing his illness to him, the shock of which sends Sydney into a coma from which he never recovers, and also by a bit of dirt that Jennifer and Raff fortuitously uncover on Mrs. Raff and Mr. Columnist. It isn’t really a satisfying ending; I had hoped that someone might literally put an end to Sydney, which would have made for a more thought-provoking conclusion to the hospital’s woes, and the way in which Mrs. Raff is dispatched seemed too facile. But on the whole it’s an enjoyable book, even if at the same time it doesn’t have all that much to recommend it. The writing is pleasant and brisk, and the surgeries are well and accurately described, but the plot just aren’t that enticing. I also wasn’t really impressed with Raff, who goes around either threatening to hit everyone or actually doing so, and his initial assault on Jennifer wasn’t too nice, either, even if she did succumb to his charms. It’s an odd addition to the VNRN genre and for that reason alone perhaps worth reading, but otherwise you won’t find that Jennifer James has much to offer outside the bedroom or the OR.