Review 1781: Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes

A woman feels as if some evacuees have taken over her home. The Red Cross sewing party is enlivened by arguments between the good-natured Mrs. Peters and the bloodthirsty Mrs. Twistle. A woman bravely faces her husband’s deployment and then is devastated to find he hasn’t left yet and she has to face it all over again. A couple finally gets rid of their evacuees only to have an acquaintance ask for room in their house. A man who has been working in a ministry feels guilty about not joining up.

These are a few of the stories about ordinary people during World War II that Mollie Panter-Downes published in the New Yorker. They are slice-of-life stories, although most of them have an upper-class perspective, of changing social conditions, of changes in everyday life, of people keeping a stiff upper lip.

I was surprised to learn from the Afterword that Panter-Downes, a prolific British journalist, short story writer, and novelist, was much better known in the United States than in Britain because she published almost everything in the New Yorker. So, even though she wrote hundreds of short stories, her legacy was almost lost in her native country.

Ordered by when they were written, this collection provides an insightful look, beautifully written, at the lives of ordinary people during the war.

One Fine Day

My Husband Simon

To Bed with Grand Music

Review 1779: Sudden Traveler

I enjoyed Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border, so I was looking forward to reading her Sudden Traveler for my James Tait Black project. I sometimes have an uneasy relationship with short stories, though.

This thin book is a collection of seven stories. Some of them are slices of life, but others are more fantastic.

In “M,” a woman who was raped as a child transforms into a powerful creature that disposes of men who prey on the helpless.

In “The Woman the Book Read,” a man spots a woman he knew as a little girl on the beach in Turkey. He remembers how much he cared for her when he was engaged to her mother.

In “The Grotesques,” Dilly witnesses the humiliation of a local drunk.

“Who Pays” is quite mystical. Set in the Middle East, it is about village women who figure out a way to circumvent another war.

In “Orton,” a woman decides to disable her pacemaker in the town of her childhood.

“Sudden Traveler” is about a young mother burying her own mother.

I found some of the stories perplexing and “Live That You May Live” is one of them. It’s about a mother telling a terrifying story to her little girl.

The Wolf Border

Slipping

Nocturnes

Review 1717: Joanna Godden Married and Other Stories

After reading Joanna Godden, I was excited to learn there was a sequel. “Joanna Godden Married” is a longish short story or a short novella, in this volume combined with several other stories.

To say much about “Joanna Godden Married,” I must include spoilers for the previous novel. Joanna has sold her farm and moved because of the disgrace of being an unwed mother. She is looking for a new farm to buy as a hobby, determined to devote her attention to her baby son, Martin. But Joanna is a woman of so much energy that being a hobbyist won’t last long.

Most of the other stories are about ordinary people living in the marshlands of Sussex. In “Mrs. Ardis,” a woman on a remote farm hides Peter Crouch for the sake of his friendship with her son after he has shot a gamekeeper while poaching. In “The Mockbeggar,” an old Romany couple encounters an upper-class runaway couple while sheltering in an abandoned house. In “Good Wits Jump,” after working hard to save money for her marriage, Nellie learns her old friend is ill and needy.

Other stories are about a woman determined to break with a careless lover, a Romany family who decide to thank an old farmer in their own way, and a woman who goes to tea with an old lover, perhaps whom she should have married.

I liked these stories, although some were sad. However, after reading a few pages, I did not read the last two, described as “Christian fairy tales.”

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Review 1552: The Beadworkers

The Beadworkers is a collection of short stories but also some poems and a play about the experience of American indigenous peoples in the Northwest, past and present. These works provide insight into religion, thinking, and beliefs of these peoples. Most of the stories are set in Oregon.

Many of the stories center around feasts. The first entries, a poem called “Feast I” and a story called “Feast II,” are about the importance of water. “Feast III” is about Mae, a woman who has decided to become a migrant laborer after the death of her husband.

“The News of the Day” is set in 19th century Boston, where Charles and his roommate are studying. On the same day, they receive news of family deaths, Marcel’s father from illness in Paris, Charles’s family in a battle of the Indian Wars.

In “Fish Wars,” set in the 1970’s, a schoolgirl fears her parents are getting a divorce. In actuality, her father is fishing and getting arrested for it in hopes of winning rights to fish in ancestral waters.

One of my favorites was “Beading Lesson,” in which an aunt instructs her niece in how to make beaded earrings, all the while mildly regretting that her sister, the girl’s mother, never learned to bead. In “wIndin!” an artistic young woman designs a Native American version of monopoly and tells about her relationship with Trevor, a Yakama gay man. Another favorite is “Katydid,” about the relationship between two young women, one who has abandoned her family because of their brutality, the other who has been abandoned by them.

Many of the stories evoke a sense of loss, as in “Falling Crows,” about the family’s reaction to a young man returned maimed from war, but most of them end in affirmation of some kind.

These stories are powerful and sparely written. Except for the final play, a reworking of “Antigone,” I really enjoyed them.

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Review 1318: All That Man Is

Cover for All That Man IsIf David Szalay’s new novel shows all that man is, then we’re in a sorry state. A collection of nine barely linked short stories that is being marketed as a novel, the book depicts nine men at different life stages travelling or living in a different European country than their native countries.

The book starts with young men and works its way through middle age to old men. Seventeen-year-old Simon is travelling with his friend Ferdinand through Europe. They seem to be incompatible travelers. Simon is interested in art and music, while Ferdinand wants to party. Simon has mixed feelings when Ferdinand has sex with their middle-aged landlady in Prague.

Bernard is an aimless 20 when he quits his job to go to Cyprus with a friend. He ends up going alone, where he finds himself involved in a sexual relationship with both a hefty young woman and her mother.

Baláz is hired by Gábor to come with him and his girlfriend Emma to London. The details of this job are murky, but Baláz needs the money. It turns out that he is to provide the muscle while Gábor and his friend Zoli pimp Emma out to wealthy men.

Karel is an academic who begins the story believing his relationship with a lover who meets him periodically for a few days is perfect. But she has news for him. She has just discovered she is pregnant. To this news he answers, “This is shit!”

Kristian is a talented journalist with a friendly connection to a politician, Dahlig. The tabloid he works for decides to expose Dahlig’s affair with a married woman. Even though Kristian and Dahlig have a cordial and political relationship, Kristian thinks nothing of interrupting Dahlig’s vacation in Spain to break the news and try to force an admission from him.

I think you get the idea. These are not likable men. At best, they are feckless and inert. At worst, they are ruthless and amoral. Szalay affords each of them a moment of insight, clarity, or immersion of the senses, but these moments are fleeting. Sordid is a good adjective to describe these lives. This was not one of my favorite pieces of fiction. I read it for my Man Booker Prize project.

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Review 1313: Obscure Destinies

Cover for Obscure DestiniesObscure Destinies is a collection of three longish stories by Willa Cather. They are all character studies of people living in small prairie towns. I distinctly felt that the stories were based on people Cather knew during her days in Nebraska, even though one story is set in Colorado.

“Neighbor Rosicky” is about a farmer, an old Czech man whose doctor tells him at the beginning of the story that he must stop all hard work. He has a heart condition.

Rosicky has not prospered as well as some of his neighbors, but he is a kind man who enjoys life. He has an affectionate relationship with his family, but he is afraid that his oldest son, Rudolph, and Rudolph’s wife, Polly, will become discontented with the difficult life of farming and move away to the city. Rosicky has lived in London and New York and felt that he was never free until he owned his own land.

“Old Mrs. Harris” is about a woman who lives with her daughter’s family. Mrs. Rosen, her neighbor, thinks she is mistreated. Her room is a passageway in the house, and any treats intended for Mrs. Harris are either resented or appropriated by her daughter, Mrs. Templeton.

Mrs. Harris is from the South, where it was apparently commonplace to spoil young women, and where some older woman usually ran the household behind the scenes. But here she has no help besides a hired girl, and Mr. Templeton’s career has not been successful.

Young Vicky has an opportunity for a scholarship, and she has been encouraged to study by the Rosens. But the Templetons see no reason why she should go to college. Only Mrs. Harris understands.

“Two Friends” is about the friendship between two prominent businessmen in town, Mr. Dillon and Mr. Trueman. The narrator as a child loves playing at their feet each evening as they discuss Mr. Dillon’s tenant farmers, the history of the area, and other interesting topics. However, the friendship eventually founders over politics.

These stories are interesting and insightful character sketches. “Neighbor Rosicky” even brought tears to my eyes. I believe I’ve enjoyed these stories more than I have some of Cather’s novels, which is unusual for me.

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Day 1160: The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories

Cover for The Mistletoe MurderThe Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories is a short collection of four previously uncollected stories by P. D. James. Two of them are set at Christmas, and two feature Adam Dalgliesh, one when he was a newly made sergeant.

“The Mistletoe Murder” is written as a reminiscence, as if it really happened, and P. D. James herself is a character (or the unnamed narrator is a mystery writer). A war widow, she is invited for Christmas at her grandmother’s house, after years of a family feud. There she spends almost all of Christmas Day with her cousin Paul. Another guest is Rowland Maybrick, who has been invited to value a coin collection and whom the narrator finds unappealing. The next morning, he is found with his head smashed in.

“A Very Commonplace Murder” is about an unpleasant man, Ernest Gabriel, and his memory of a murder. Having sneaked into the office at night to view a pornography collection owned by his deceased employer, Gabriel witnesses an illicit love affair going on next door. When the woman is murdered, Gabriel knows her young lover did not do it, but will he give evidence?

In “The Boxdale Inheritance,” Adam Dalgliesh’s godfather, Canon Hubert Boxdale, receives an inheritance from his stepgrandmother. But 67 years ago, Allie Boxdale was famously tried for the murder of her elderly husband. Although she was not found guilty, the Canon asks Dalgliesh to help determine whether she was or not before he can accept the legacy.

Finally, in “The Twelve Clues of Christmas,” young Sergeant Dalgliesh is flagged down on the road to his aunt’s house in Suffolk by Helmut Harkerville, who wants to report his uncle’s suicide and says his phone is out of order. Adam takes him to a phone box but then brings him home to inspect the scene. There he spots 12 clues that tell him this was a murder and the identity of the murderer.

In general, I don’t much enjoy crime short stories because they don’t allow time to develop a plot or characters so must rely on tricks. These stories, though, were a little more clever and interesting than the usual. I only guessed the solution to the second story, and I think some of the clues in the last were not fairly revealed. But the first and third stories held surprises. Overall, this was a set of entertaining mystery stories, much lighter than James’s usual fare.

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Day 1150: Snowdrift and Other Stories

Cover for Snowdrift and Other StoriesI keep saying I love Georgette Heyer, so of course when a volume of her short stories appeared on Netgalley, I requested it. Originally, the story collection was released as Pistols for Two, so I’m sure I read it years before but did not remember the stories.

Each of these stories is a romance in miniature. They involve some of Heyer’s hallmarks—cases of mistaken identity, elopements gone wrong, accidental encounters, and a couple of duels. Appealing heroines meet attractive men usually while they are engaged in some mistaken folly.

link to NetgalleyThese are delightful, light stories, perfect for a rainy day and a cup of tea. This is a very short review, but if you like a charming romance laced with humor, you can’t go wrong with Georgette Heyer.

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Day 1047: The Beggar Maid

beggar-maidLike Olive Kitteridge and a few other books I’ve read the last few years, Alice Munro’s The Beggar Maid is a novel constructed from short stories. It tells the story of Rose and of her relationships with other people in her life.

The stories about her childhood and adolescence are mostly about her complex relationship with her stepmother, Flo. Rose feels she can never please Flo, but at the same time she finds Flo rude and vulgar. These early stories also portray an environment of ignorance and poverty, her stories about school particularly shocking.

“The Beggar Maid” is what Rose’s first boyfriend Patrick calls her. But as Rose marries Patrick, who moves them to Vancouver to run one of his father’s department stores, Rose slowly learns that both of them have overestimated Patrick’s own gentility. Rose has thought she was marrying a scholar not a department store heir. As she is attracted more and more to the bohemian crowd in Vancouver, it becomes more obvious how unsuited the two are.

Munro’s stories are insightful about people, and as I believe Rose is Munro’s alter ego, unsparing in looking at herself. Her prose is, as always, spare and beautiful.

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Day 1037: The Bloody Chamber

Cover for The Bloody ChamberBecause a few months ago there was some mini hooplah about The Bloody Chamber, I thought it was a recent book, but it turns out Angela Carter died in 1992. I was totally unaware of her unique work.

The Bloody Chamber is a series of fairy tales and legends, retold. In them, heroines strip away their passivity. Some of the tales are gruesome, and all of them feature blood.

“The Bloody Chamber” is the story of Bluebeard retold. The young bride sells herself for riches and is taken to a castle floating in the sea. Her husband tempts her to look in the forbidden room by his very act of forbidding it, and she finds a slaughterhouse. When he returns unexpectedly, her intrepid mother saves her life.

I won’t tell the ending of the others, but Little Red Riding Hood, Puss in Boots, and Beauty and the Beast are all featured. The prose is gorgeous, with startling images and strong feminist themes, and Carter has a fascination with wolves.

This book will probably not be for you if you are at all squeamish. I am not, and some of it was a bit much for me. Still, it is a quick read, sometimes funny, always fascinating.

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