Thursday, January 26, 2012

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

Feeling pleasantly drowsy, Miss Ewing murmured, 'Miss Challoner thinks there's bound to be a revolution in Germany soon. She's always so well-informed. Pull the curtains right back when you've put the light out, Sparks. I like to hear the sea.'

It was a shock when, only a day or two later, things began to happen. One morning, before the old ladies had got their teeth in or their curled fronts adjusted or their stays laced for the day, the terrible noise started. The China tea slopped over in the trembling saucer as Miss Ewing listened, the windows in the Palm Court shivered as though gripped by an ague. At lunchtime nobody could eat, everyone was listening for the next heart-stopping rumble of gunfire. That night there were several muffled explosions that the headwaiter, not so attentive over the wine list as usual, thought might be depth charges out in the Channel.

--from "This Flower Safety" of Good Evening, Mrs. Craven, p. 38
I've let several books languish in my sidebar and Good Evening, Mrs. Craven is one of them. Hopefully, I'll be able to do it justice. Good Evening, Mrs. Craven is subtitled, "The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes". A collection of short stories, all take place in England during the WWII time period.

Panter-Downes wrote a column for The New Yorker called "Letters from London" for 50 years, but she only wrote a smattering of short stories. Pity. Panter-Downes' stories are witty and engaging. The stories in Good Evening, Mrs. Craven delve into the little mini-wars being fought on the home front, the tensions between people of different classes as they were forced to change their ways or mix social classes, the irrational fears of some and the over-confidence others had that things would blow over soon.

In one story, a servant bristles at her employer's sudden change from stiff upper class mistress of the home to happily chatting with the Canadian soldiers camped out on her property, dining casually in the kitchen and setting aside her fancier clothing. In another, a woman comes to the conclusion that she's had quite enough of those lower-class people invading her house and turns down a woman in desperate need of a place for herself and her child to live, just after another family has opted to leave her home. In "Mrs. Ramsey's War", a woman moves from one place to another, seeking safety but discovering that it's rather difficult to find a truly safe place to live when one's small island nation is threatened by an airborne and nautical enemy.

Panter-Downes' prose is delightful, but at the same time there's an economy of words that makes her stories really pack a punch. I absolutely loved this collection and never felt let-down. Each story feels complete to me; although, at the same time I do believe any of them would have been enjoyable if expanded to novel length.

Highly Recommended to lovers of short stories and those who are interested in WWII. Sharp writing, keenly observed and cleverly written. I do think Good Evening, Mrs. Craven was a bit of a learning experience, in some ways. It's always much more revealing to read work written at the time of an event, by its participants, as opposed to viewing history in hindsight.

Cover thoughts:

There's not much to those dove-gray Persephone covers, but there's something comforting about them and I do love the pretty interior papers.

I'm not sure where I got Good Evening, Mrs. Craven. It might be one of the books I purchased at Persephone Books in London or I might have ordered it. I should probably keep better track of such things. I have about 6 more Persephone titles to indulge in.

Current desktop background:

Ah, winter. I miss it. It's cool, now, but still not acting very wintery.


©2012 Nancy Horner. All rights reserved. If you are reading this post at a site other than Bookfoolery and Babble or its RSS feed, you are reading a stolen feed. Email bookfoolery@gmail.com for written permission to reproduce text or photos.

18 comments:

  1. I'm not much into WWII stories but it does sound like interesting slices of peoples lives of the time.

    That desktop background is wintery wonderful!

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    1. I'm a big fan of anything about WWII and I love short stories, so it was actually perfect for me. Yes, definitely very interesting peeks into a particular time and place.

      Isn't that a great photo? Husband took that in Germany, a couple years ago. He did not take me. Boo, hiss.

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  2. I started this one but did not make it very far. I am not much of a short story reader but I love the title of it. lol I am going to finish it one of these days. I say that about a lot of books. :)

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    1. Really? I'm surprised you didn't get far, Brittanie. Maybe it was just bad timing. A lot of people dislike short stories. I used to be one of them, but not anymore. You should definitely give it a second go. :)

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  3. Six more Persephone books? Lucky! I need to find some more.

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    1. Yes, at least 6 more. I have a tendency to collect. It's not my best character trait.

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  4. You know me and my love of WWII books. Why haven't I read this one yet?? It sounds wonderful! Will link your review on War Through the Generations.

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    1. Oh, yes, I surely do know your love of WWII, Anna. You definitely need to read Good Evening, Mrs. Craven. You'll love it. Thanks for the link!

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  5. I like the sound of this book, and I love the format. I have always wanted a Persephone book, and really think that I am going to order one of them for myself soon. So glad that you loved this one. It's going on the list!

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    1. Oh, Zibilee, you definitely need to get yourself a Persephone book or two (or three). I've read two, now: Good Evening, Mrs. Craven and Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. The former is really delightful, the latter charming but mildly sad. I highly recommend both.

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  6. I don't normally gravitate toward short stories. For the most part I don't like that I invest in them and just as I'm getting used to/growing attached to characters, the story is over. But, there are some authors whose writing is so good (Jhumpa Lahiri for example) that I don't mind that the format is short stories. This book sounds like it has the potential to be that good too (plus I like WWII fiction).

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    1. Alyce,

      A lot of people feel that way about short stories. I do think a really well-written short story is one that feels complete and that a lot of them simply don't. They just don't work. But, I've been reading them long enough that I've found quite a few writers who do them well. I haven't read Jhumpa Lahiri, yet! I think . . . is it Unaccustomed Earth? That was on last year's self-challenge shelf and I didn't get to it. Need to do that. Yes, if you're a fan of WWII fiction, I do believe you'll like the stories.

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  7. This sounds really interesting!

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    1. It's really fun reading and I felt like I learned a few things about the time period. :)

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  8. I've just finished reading these stories too, and I loved them. So much so that I've tracked down a collection of her Letters from London and am looking forward to reading them too.
    From warm Melbourne, Australia

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    1. Oh! Lucky devil! I haven't been able to find a copy of Letters from London, yet, but it's on my list. Same here - loved them so much I wanted to read more.

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