One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes

An ordinary day, an ordinary family, ordinary lives, but an extraordinary novel.

I read One Fine Day fresh from reading The Verneys, moving from England in the seventeenth century to England in the twentieth century; from one century dominated by the English Civil War to a century divided in two by the Second World War. I enjoyed the contrast between the books, one non-fiction and the other a novel. I’m also very fond of the cover of my copy of One Fine Day.

One Fine Day is a beautiful, poetic novel about England in 1946 after the Second World War had ended. It was written in 1946 and published in 1947 and although it recalls an England that had disappeared with the war it also looks forward with optimism to the future. It’™s a novel vividly evoking life in the post-war period. I was fascinated and drawn into this book right from the start. Part of my fascination was because it made me think of what life was like for my parents, picking up their lives together after the war and part was because of the wonderful imagery and sense of time and place.

Not a lot happens and yet so much is conveyed of the changes in society as the novel recounts the events of a hot summer’™s day in the lives of Laura and Stephen Marshall, a middle class couple struggling to manage the house and garden without the servants they had before the war.

‘œMeanwhile, here they were awkwardly saddled with a house which all those pleasant years, had really been supported and nourished by squawks over bread-and-cheese elevenses, by the sound of Chandler’™s boots on the paths, by the smell of ironing and toast from the nursery. The support, the nourishment, had been removed. Now on this summer morning, when doors and windows stood open, it was possible to hear the house slowly giving up, loosening its hold, gently accepting shabbiness and defeat. Nature seemed to realize its discomfiture. Birds hopped boldly through the front door, evidently meditating a lodging; Laura’™s dusting hardly discouraged the bold machinations of the spiders. As she sat drinking her tea, a yellow butterfly came in and settled on the faded plum-and-white pattern of the curtains as though it could no longer distinguish between outside and in.’

It’™s not only the house that has changed. Laura feels life is passing her by, that she is getting grey and dull and like an old sofa. She pictures her life ‘œFrom being a measureless room with endless arches stretching away, away, contracting to a span the size of a hearthrug.’ Such a powerful image of the contrast between youth and age.

Life is also changing in other levels of society. The young people are leaving the village, for the cities where there is work. George, who she hopes would take over from their old gardener is off to work in a garage in Coventry and the girls who previously would have be live-in help are also leaving: ‘œEthel and Violet had disappeared squealing into the big bright world where there were no bells to fun your legs off, where you could go to the flicks regular, and where you worked to the sound of dance music pouring out continuously, sweet and thick and insipid as condensed milk dripping through a hole in a tin.’

During the day Laura meets several people when out shopping (food is still in short supply and rationed), talks on the telephone with her mother, still harking back to the days of the British Empire and goes out on her bicycle to look for Stuffy, their bitch who has escaped she thinks to go the gypsy’™s dog on Barrow Down. On her way to look for Stuffy, she meets Edward Cranmer. The Cranmers, whose family have lived in the old manor house for generations are giving up the house, as they can no longer afford its upkeep. Edward’™s mother and aunt will still be living in a flat over the stables wing, whilst the house is going to be used partly as a holiday hostel and partly as an agricultural training centre for boys. Yet, another reflection on the changing times.

Laura continues on her search for Stuffy and finds her with the gypsy on Barrow Down hill. In contrast to the Marshalls and the Cranmers his life is unaffected by change, living in an old railway carriage in a rough field, unencumbered by possessions and property. Laura is envious of him and when she finds the dog instead of going home she spends the rest of the afternoon and evening on the hillside, leaving Stephen and Victoria wondering and worrying where she can be. From Barrow Down she looks out over England. I could quote many passages where Mollie Panter-Downes so beautifully captures the essence of the English countryside, but here is just one quote:

‘œThe country was tumbled out before her like the contents of a lady’™s workbox, spools of green and silver and pale yellow, ribbed squares of brown stuff, a thread of crimson, a stab of silver, a round, polished gleam of mother of pearl. It was all bathed in magic light, the wonderful transforming light in which known things look suddenly new.’

Although there is nostalgia and a tragic sense of all that has been lost, Laura realises how lucky they are, lucky to be alive and all together and what it would have meant if England had lost. She ponders that life will go on: ‘œWe are at peace, we still stand, we will stand when you are dust, sang the humming land in the summer evening.’

A memorable novel about England in the aftermath of war.

Broken – One Resolution and One Pair of Glasses

A few weeks ago I resolved not to buy any more books for a while. My resolve lasted until this weekend when we went shopping. Unfortunately Waterstones sells coffee as well as books, so this was the cause of my downfall when we went in – just for a coffee. The coffee shop is upstairs and although I looked round at the books up there I resisted buying any. But on the way downstairs I decided to clean my glasses and succeeded in breaking them in two. I’m short sighted so I can see close up, but distance is terrible. I was OK in the shop and D left me there whilst he went into the Panasonic shop opposite to look at speakers for the TV.

Big mistake – one of the books that caught my eye in the 3 for 2 was Mary Lawson’s The Other Side of the Bridge and as I loved Crow Lake I thought I’d just have a look. Well, of course I couldn’t leave it there and when I saw Paul Auster’s Travels in the Scriptorium (I loved Oracle Night) I had to look for a third book.

The Savage Garden by Mark Mills looked the ideal book, set in Tuscany (one of my favourite places) and a story of love, revenge and murder separated by 400 years. The Sunday Telegraph quote on the back cover clinched it “An intriguing puzzle, elegantly written … the atmosphere of an Italian summer and of the mysterious garden are beautifully captured.” What could be better for a November read? I’ve never read anything by Mark Mills, but my choice was confirmed when I got home and read Roberta’s post as she recommended it.

Now I have to wait until next Tuesday for my glasses to be repaired and as my old glasses are so different I can’t wear them and only have my computer glasses that are any good at all. They’re great for close work, but the rest of the world is all blurred, out of focus and fuzzy round the edges and I feel a bit woozy and detached from everything – quite nice really.

October’s Feast of Books

The books I have read this last month have been varied in style and subject matter, including a number of short stories, mainly about ghosts; a murder mystery; a Christmas fantasy; and one non-fiction book. They are all very entertaining and as I read one good book after another I began to think my luck could not last and that I was bound to start one I did not like. But no, I enjoyed them all.

  • The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
  • The Man Who Died by D H Lawrence (short story)
  • Sons and Lovers by D H Lawrence
  • Set in Darkness by Ian Rankin, the11th Rebus novel (and the first that I have read)
  • Christine Kringle by Lynn Brittney
  • The Verneys by Adrian Tinniswood
  • The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke
  • One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes
  • Crossing To Safety by Wallace Stegner

Five short stories from Great Ghost Stories
1. Berenice by Edgar Allan Poe
2. Keeping his Promise by Algernon Blackwood
3. Honolulu by Somerset Maugham
4. The Hostelry by Guy de Maupassant
5. The Murder of the Mandarin by Arnold Bennett
and The Pit and the Pendulum by Edgar Allan Poe in Tales of Mystery and

I have already written about Sons and Lovers, Christine Kringle, The Verneys, The Ladies of Grace, Crossing to Safety, the Ghost Stories and The Pit and the Pendulum. Clicking on the titles links to my posts on these books.

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho and The Man Who Died by D H Lawrence.

The Alchemist is a short novel, the story of Santiago, an Andalusian shepherd boy who travels from his home in search of treasure. It’s a symbolic book about following our hearts and dreams, and reading the omens we encounter in our lives. Santiago sells his sheep and travels to Tangiers on his journey to the Pyramids following his dream that he will find hidden treasure there. On his travels in the Egyptian desert he meets an Englishman who introduces him to alchemy and together they search for the alchemist.

Eventually Santiago, guided by the alchemist, learns that alchemy is about ‘penetrating to the Soul of the World and discovering the treasure that has been reserved for you.‘ He also learns that

‘Love is the force that transforms and improves the Soul of the World.  It is we who nourish the Soul of the World, and the world we live in will either be better or worse, depending on whether we become better or worse. And that’s where the power of love comes in. Because when we love, we always strive to become better than we are.’

I found The Alchemist to be an entertaining tale of how to live our dreams. It appears to be a simplistic tale on the surface but it is a meditation on the question of fate versus free will, love, luck and spiritual enlightenment.

I was surprised by The Man Who Died by D H Lawrence, published in 1929, less than a year before Lawrence’s death and originally called The Escaped Cock. It is the last story in my copy of D H Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers and other novels. Wikipedia recounts that Lawrence himself summarized The Escaped Cock in a letter to Brewster (a friend):

I wrote a story of the Resurrection, where Jesus gets up and feels very sick bout everything, and can’t stand the old crowd any more – so cuts out – and as he heals up, he begins to find what an astonishing place the phenomenal world is, far more marvellous than any salvation or heaven – and thanks his stars he needn’t have a mission any more.

It starts with an account of a cock, held captive by a string tied to its leg, breaking free from the cord with a wild strange squawk. At the same time a man, who is not named, awoke from a long sleep, numb and cold. The cock is a symbolic representation of the man who died. His agonising return to life and his remembrance of what happened to him filled him with nausea and pain. Bandages fell off as he moved and seeing his hurt feet he moved painfully out of the carved hole in the rock in which he was entombed and ‘filled with the sickness of disillusion’ he walked away passing the sleeping soldiers, away from the town. ‘He was alone; and having died, was even beyond loneliness.’

In the garden where he had been betrayed and buried he met Madeleine and forbidding her to touch him because he was not yet healed and in touch with men he told her not to be afraid because ‘I am alive. They took me down too soon, so I came back to life’, implying to me that he had not actually died. But, there is ambiguity here as at another time he said: ‘I have not risen from the dead in order to seek death again.’ Whatever the truth is, his mission has changed and he cannot return to his friends, ‘Now I belong to no one and have no connection, and mission or gospel is gone from me.’

He must learn to be alone. The story has clear references to Biblical characters and events but it departs from the Christian version as the man travelled on and found rest in a temple dedicated to the Egyptian goddess, Isis. There he fell in love with the temple’s priestess, whose mother, a widow, owned the shrine. He showed the priestess, who believes him to be Osiris, the wounds in his hands, feet and side. She anointed them with oil and he felt he was made whole again. They made love and she conceived. He knew then that the time had come for him to leave:

In the name of property, the widow and her slaves would seek to be revenged on him for the bread he had eaten, and the living touch he had established, the woman he had delighted in.  He went on, alone with his destiny, and laughed to himself: ‘I have sowed the seed of my life and my resurrection, and put my touch for ever upon the choice woman of this day – Tomorrow is another day.

I was surprised because despite its title I didn’t expect it to be about the death and resurrection of Christ. My reaction on realising that it is was mixed and I have wondered whether or not to write about it. I thought it was well written and that the concept was an interesting version of the resurrection. It is just that, a story and it gave me food for thought. There are two more stories in the book – St Mawr, which I have never read before and The Virgin and the Gypsy, which I read a few years ago, but is very vague in my memory. I’m looking forward to reading these and wonder if Lawrence has yet another surprise in store for me.

The other books I finished reading in October are Set in Darkness by Ian Rankin, One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes, which I’ll write about in another post.

Crossing To Safety by Wallace Stegner

Crossing to Safety was Wallace Stegner’™s last novel published when he was 78 years old. It’™s a beautiful, and thought provoking novel and I loved it. Unusually for me I read it straight through, on its own, abandoning the other books I’™m reading to concentrate on just this one book. It was well worth it. I was engrossed in the story and felt as though I was part of it ‘“ such is the power of Stegner’™s writing.
Crossing To Safety is a story about love, marriage, friendship, relationships, ambition, illness and death; in other words it’™s about life and death. I’™ve read a lot of good books recently, but without a doubt this is one of the best books I’™ve read this year. It has so much to say on many different themes that I’™m lost where to start in describing and considering its impact on me.

In essence, the novel recounts the lives of two couples who first met during the Depression in 1930s America and the joys and difficulties they encounter throughout their lives. Larry Morgan is the narrator and the events are seen through his eyes. Both he and Sid Lang have jobs in the English Department at the University of Wisconsin and their lives are intertwined from the moment they meet, when both their wives are pregnant. At the start of the novel we are told that Charity, Sid’™s wife is dying. Sally and Larry have travelled to Battell Pond in Vermont for a reunion with the Langs. Sally is in a wheelchair and from that point Larry looks back over their lives. Whereas in Angle of Repose Stegner depicts the American West, Crossing To Safety is set mainly in the landscape of northern New England, where the wilderness is seen as no less dangerous than in the West, particularly in the camping trip the Langs and the Morgans take. I had to get the atlas out to see where Wisconsin and Vermont are, as I had no idea of the distance between the two, nor the difference in the landscape.

Charity and Larry are the dominant characters. The Morgans’™ lives are changed by Sally’™s illness and at different stages in the book I thought, ‘œthis is what happened to Sally’, but it’™s not clear until about halfway through the book precisely why Sally is paralysed. Charity is the strong, ambitious, self-confident organiser, not only of her own life, but also those of her husband, children’™s and friends’™ lives. She take the direct ‘œcompass’ direction in whatever she does and her confidence is not undermined by others’™ doubts or different ideas. She knows what she wants and imposes her ambitions on Sid. However, she is also generous and wants her friends to share in their success and helps Larry and Sally both financially and socially.

As well as the low points of their lives the novel also recounts the happy and joyful experiences the couples encounter. The novel explores the complexity of human nature and meditates on the drama of everyday experience in quiet ‘œordinary’ situations ‘“ the stuff of life, how to live through the difficulties that life and death throw in all our paths. Most poignant, to me at least, are the descriptions of how the couples deal with ambition, the disappointments of failed ambition, illness and death.

Larry meditates: ‘œAmbition is a path, not a destination, and it is essentially the same path for everybody. No matter what the goal is, the path leads through Pilgrim’™s Progress regions of motivation, hard work, persistence, stubbornness, and resilience under disappointment. Unconsidered, merely indulged, ambition becomes a vice; it can turn a man into a machine that knows nothing but how to run. Considered, it can become something else ‘“ pathway to the stars, maybe.’

Larry also provides some interesting insights into writing itself. He loves writing but also writes to help boost his income, whereas Sid wants to write poetry and is held back and criticised by Charity as she does not think this will help to advance his career. Larry and Sid discuss why writers write. Larry thinks writing “has to be free, it has to flow from the gift, not from outside pressures. The gift is its own justification, and there is no way of telling for sure, short of the appeal to posterity, whether it’s really worth something or whether it’s only the ephemeral expression of a fad or tendency, the articulation of a steroptype.”

The scenes where Charity explores how to approach her death not just for herself, but also for Sid and her family are touchingly realistic and heart-rending. She seemingly pushes Sid away as she prepares for death because she cannot cope with his reaction to her death; she knows she is not only Sid’™s support – she is his life. One of the most difficult questions we face is how we deal with the facts of death and the fear of death. When Sid is faced with the inevitability of Charity’™s death he asks Larry ‘œCould you survive without Sally?’ Whether Sid can survive without Charity is left unanswered. Although Larry hopes he will I’™m not so sure.

My copy is a library book; maybe this is a book I should buy as I would like to read it again sometime.The painful honesty of this book in portraying life’™s happiness, joy, pathos and sorrow is what touched me the most and makes it a book to remember and treasure.

Oh, Horror! Booking Through Thursday

What with yesterday being Halloween, and all . . . do you read horror? Stories of things that go bump in the night and keep you from sleeping?

I thought about asking you about whether you were participating in NaNoWriMo, but I asked that last year. Although . . . if you want to answer that one, too, please feel free to go ahead and do both, or either, your choice!
It is easy for me to answer the first question in one word – “yes”. In a few more words – as I joined the R.I.P. Challenge I’ve been reading more “horror” stories than I normally do and I’ve written about them in several other posts in September and October. I think the one that I enjoyed for the Challenge the most was Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott which I wrote about here. Another book that sent shivers down my back was Season of the Witch by Natasha Mostert – see my review here.
My answer to the second question is no, I’m not participating in NaNoWriMo. I didn’t know what that is so I checked Debbie’s link and found that this is yet another challenge’“where lots of marginally crazy people try to write a 50,000 word novel in one month. What do you think about that idea? Crazy? Inspired? Challenging?
Would you/Have you tried it yourself? In other years? (Or this one, in which case, shouldn’™t you be writing and not reading blogs?).
Mmm. An interesting idea – I don’t know if I have enough time to do this – maybe?

Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke and illustrated by Charles Vess

I started the R.I.P. Challenge II aiming to read just one book. It’s now nearly the end of the challenge and I have exceeded my target. I have read Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott, several short stories from Edgar Allen Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination, from the Great Ghost Stories collection published by the Chancellor Press and today I finished reading The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories by Susanna Clarke. I’m glad I took this challenge as it has made me read Poe’s Tales after years of wondering what they are like, but I am a little disappointed that they are not as spooky as I imagined them to be and I don’t like the gory elements and Poe’s fascination with premature burials. I’m probably in a minority on this.

Ghostwalk was to my mind a much more satisfying read and I’m pleased that The Ladies of Grace and Adieu was as fantastical as Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (also by Susanna Clarke), which I read about two years ago. I was entranced by Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, which is set in a parallel nineteenth century England and tells the story of two magicians, full of mystery, magic, fantasy and faerie tales and The Ladies, although much shorter, is another book full of fantasy stories.

As a child I read all the fairytale books I could find and The Ladies collection takes me back to the magical world of those stories. They are full of deep dark woods, paths leading to houses that seemingly move locations, ladies who are never what they appear to be, princesses, owls, and above all fairies, including the Raven King.

The stories are all captivating and strange and set up echoes in my mind of such fairytales, as Rumpelstiltskin (in On Lickerish Hill). My favourite stories are The Ladies of Grace Adieu, Mrs Mabb, and The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse. The Ladies explains why Jonathan Strange prevented his clergyman brother-in-law from an engagement with Cassandra Parbringer as Strange discovers that his magic is no match for Cassandra and her two friends, the three bewitching ladies of Grace Adieu.

Mrs Mabb is a fascinating story in which the heroine, Venetia Moore contends with the mysterious Mrs Mabb who has stolen away Venetia’s fiancé. Whichever path she takes to get to Mrs Mabb’s house she cannot find it, although she catches sight of the house and wonders at the smallness of it. She is surprised to realise that she remembers little of what has happened to her after she is found in a state of confusion, with her clothes in tatters. On another occasion after trying to get to the house she dances all night until her feet are bleeding, and finally she is attacked by what seems to be a great crowd of people with glittering swords. This reminded me of a book my mother used to have full of strange and wonderful stories and poems, one of which was about Queen Mab. I wish I still had that book. I have tried to find what the poem could be – as I remember it, Queen Mab was a fairy queen, full of malice and mischief, who turned out to be not what she seems. I think the poem I read must have been from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in Mercutio’s speech in Act 1 scene iv:

O, then, I see Queen Mab hath been with you.
She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate-stone
On the fore-finger of an alderman,
Drawn with a team of little atomies
Athwart men’s noses as they lie asleep;
Her wagon-spokes made of long spinners’ legs,
The cover of the wings of grasshoppers,
The traces of the smallest spider’s web,
The collars of the moonshine’s watery beams,
Her whip of cricket’s bone, the lash of film,
Her wagoner a small grey-coated gnat,
Not so big as a round little worm
Prick’d from the lazy finger of a maid;
Her chariot is an empty hazel-nut
Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub,

Time out o’ mind the fairies’ coachmakers.

The story I enjoyed the most was The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse. I have not read any of Neil Gaiman’s books, but I think I really should. The story of the Duke’s horse is set in Wall, a village in the world created by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess, where there is an actual wall dividing our world and the world of Faerie, guarded by burly villagers with cudgels. The proud Duke, the Nation’s Hero, passes unchallenged by the intimidated villagers into Faerie, in pursuit of his horse. His fate is then seemingly set in stitches in a magnificent piece of embroidery in exquisite pictures. I wonder if the creator of Heroes has read this story – there are similarities with the painter, Isaac, who has the ability to paint the future? The Duke’s fate depends on whether he can alter the future shown in the embroidery. The ending has a satisfying twist.

I have enjoyed this Challenge and although it ends on 31 October I shall carry on reading “R.I.P.” books. I have Susan Hill’s The Man in the Picture and Raold Dahl’s Completely Unexpected Tales waiting in line.


Ghost Stories R.I.P.Challenge II

Great Ghost Stories

This is a collection of ghost stories by different authors including G.K. Chesterton, Walter De La Mare, O. Henry, Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence, R.L.Stevenson, and H.G. Wells. So far I have read just a few of them and I’m looking forward to reading the rest. It’s a good book to dip into from time to time.

Berenice by Edgar Allen Poe
Keeping His Promise by Algernon Blackwood
Honolulu by Somerset Maugham
The Hostelry by Guy de Maupassant
The Murder of the Mandarin by Arnold Bennett

Berenice is not included in Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination. According to Wikipedia it was first published in the Southern Literary Messenger in March 1835 and due to public outcry an edited version was published in 1840.

The opening sentence sets the scene ‘Misery is manifold.’ From then on you know that this is another of Poe’s tales of unrelieved tragedy. There is no escaping it. The narrator is Egaeus, an obsessive intellectual who falls in love with his cousin, Berenice. She is his opposite, beautiful, agile, healthy and full of energy. His obsession is monomania; he is fixated on objects to the exclusion of everything else around him. Alas, disease befell Berenice and she wasted away until all that was unchanged were her teeth. Egaeus as you would expect is devastated, but is totally obsessed with her perfect teeth and he sees them everywhere. She dies. He comes to as though ‘awakened from a confused and exciting dream’ to an horrific discovery ‘.

This story is very much what I’ve come to expect from Poe and repeats a number of themes he uses in other stories – death, burial and mental illness. To me they lack suspense, maybe because they are so short. When he revised Berenice Poe wrote in a letter to the editor of the Southern Literary Messenger on April 30, 1835: “I allow that it approaches the very verge of bad taste — but I will not sin quite so egregiously again.” I not sure that he succeeded.

Keeping His Promise by Algernon Blackwood is a story with a supernatural twist; he builds up a tale of gradually increasing tension. Marriott is a student at Edinburgh University studying for his exams. He is disturbed in his room by the arrival of Field, who appeared to be starving, thin as a skeleton, exhausted and under the influence of drugs. Marriott gave him a whisky and they had supper together before Field dropped with exhaustion on Marriott’s bed where he slept the night. Marriott could hear his heavy deep breathing in the next room as he resumed his studies. When morning came there was no sign of Field and Marriott feels a sensation of fear, his left arm throbs violently and he trembles from head to foot. There is the impress of a body on the bed and Marriott can still hear the breathing.

The pain in his arm is caused by a scar on his wrist and he realises that it is now bleeding. Then he remembers how the scar had been made and why, which leads him to discover the truth about his nightmare experience. Had Field really been there? Marriott had fed him and seen him eat and drink – but in the morning the food was untouched, although he could still hear the breathing…

In contrast Honolulu is an amusing but sinister tale of a little fat sea captain, who tells of the strange events that had overtaken him whilst sailing in the South Seas between Honolulu and various small islands. An enjoyable tale of love, betrayal and voodoo.

The Hostelry by Guy de Maupassant is set in the High Alps in the depth of winter. The Schwarenbach Inn is left in the care of two mountain men as the family descend to the village below. De Maupassant’s description of the freezing conditions as the snow falls and the two men are isolated on the mountain sets the scene for the events that follow. When one of the men goes out hunting and doesn’t return the other is alone in the inn. He can’t get out because something is trying to get in!

The Murder of the Mandarin by Arnold Bennett tells the story of a young wife with an unimaginative and controlling husband, set in one of the Pottery towns in Staffordshire. She wants a belt to enhance her ball dress, which leads her to a strange experience connected (or is it?) to the death of a mandarin in China. This is not a scary story. It’s a study of how an ordinary situation can become seemingly extraordinary through the power of imagination.