On My Book Table… 8 – what next?


May has been an odd sort of reading month for me. I’ve read fewer books than I might have expected, given the amount of extra time I’ve got through not going out, paying visits to London and the like. I must admit to feeling a little bit twitchy after about 10 weeks of lockdown, with the only places I go to being the post office and the occasional nip into the local Co-op for veg. Browsing the local charity shops was one of my great pleasures and I’ve no idea when I’ll do that again. But I’m trying not to be too ungrateful, as I can work from home and safety is the main thing. Nevertheless, books *have* still made their way into the house, and I have been having a little bit of a shuffle of the book table, trying to decide what to read next – never an easy task for me… 😀 Here’s what’s been attracting my attention recently!

Some beautiful Elizabeth Bowen titles…

I have been shouting a bit recently on social media about Elizabeth Bowen; and the random discovery that there were some enticing-looking editions from Edinburgh University Press, bringing together uncollected short stories, essays, broadcasts and the like, was just too much to resist. They arrived, together with two other, older collections, as well as a book of Bowen and Charles Ritchie’s love letters. As I’ve said, I really could go on a Bowen Binge right now.

Classics, chunky and slimmer…

I’m also a huge fan of classics (fairly obviously) and there are a lot vying for attention right now. Carlyle and Chateaubriand have been lurking for a while, with Huysmans and Barbellion more recent arrivals. However, Ruskin has been someone I’ve always intended to read (so I really *should* get round to it before I get any older). The little hardback about why Ruskin matters turned up somewhere in my online browsing, and so I picked up some selected writings of Ruskin himself while I was at it. A new copy of Woolf’s “The Waves” may have fallen into my basket at the same time – I quite fancy a re-read and my original copy (which is nearly 40 years old) is just too crumbly and fragile to be comfortable with.

Some slightly more sombre volumes

One thing I *have* been taking advantage of during these strange times is online bookish stuff; by which I mean mainly the festivals. The Charleston Festival moved online and there was a marvellous broadcast of an interview with Virago’s Lennie Goodings by Joan Bakewell – what a pair of inspirational women! However, one author has been very much in my sightline, from the Charleston Festival and also the Hay Online Festival, and that’s Philippe Sands. I’d previously read his short work on the city of Lvov/Lemberg and “East West Street” had been on my wishlist for ages; so stumbling across it just before lockdown in a charity shop was a treat. Sands is a notable human rights lawyer, and his most recent book “Ratline” deals with the life (and afterlife) of prominent Nazis. His talks for Charleston and Hay were sobering and fascinating, and had me gathering together a number of titles covering difficult WW2 and post-War topics. Arendt, West and Czapski are all authors who’ve considered the inhumanity of our race, and bearing in mind the fragile stage of many countries at the moment, any of these books could be timely reading. It’s ironic that I’ve never attended either festival in person, but this current crisis has given me the chance to…

Books about books and books about authors are always a good thing, and there are plenty lurking on the TBR. One of the Nabokovs I’ve had for a while, the other arrived recently; as did the Steiner. The Very Short Introduction to Russian Literature takes an intrguing angle, and might be well matched with Isaiah Berlin (and indeed Nabokov). This could be another wormhole…

Or, indeed, I could just go down a British Library Crime Classics wormhole!! This is quite a nice pile of their titles, though nowhere near as impressive as the one Simon from Stuck in a Book shared on Twitter! These are a mixture of review copies and ones procured by my dear friend J., who seems to come across them in charity shops more than I do. They’re such a wonderful comforting distraction to read – and there are two Lorac titles in there which are *very* tempting!

Random books…

Finally, a little random pile of various enticing titles! I have been dipping into Mollie Panter-Downes’ “London War Notes”, which has been distracting and surprisingly cathartic. Since I’m not likely to be at the beach any time soon, “A Fortnight in September” by R. C. Sherriff is also very appealing – I do love a Persephone. Bachelard is another book which have been lurking for a while, and since reading “Malicroix” I’m keener than ever to get to it. The two white cover Fitzcarraldos are the last two I have unread, and both appeal strongly. And last, but certainly not least, is a lovely collection of essays by Joseph Brodsky, into which I’ve also been dipping. They’re marvellous, but best read slowly with time to digest in between – such a good writer.

So – an *awful* lot of choices and I find myself very undecided about what to actually read next. Have you read any of these? Which would take *your* fancy?????

The eternal conflict of love and art… #myhusbandsimon @BL_Publishing


My Husband Simon by Mollie Panter-Downes

Author Mollie Panter-Downes is probably best known nowadays for her remarkable novel “One Fine Day“, as well as her short stories and newspaper colums reporting from WW2 London, both of which have been collected in lovely Persephone volumes. However, long before publication of these she had become a popular success as a novelist, after the release of her first book “The Shoreless Sea” in 1923, written when she was just 16. Panter-Downes went on to publish three more novels, culminating in “My Husband Simon” in 1931, followed by a gap until OFD in 1947. She went on to disown her first four works, so it was a particuar treat to see her her last early novel republished as part of the first wave in the new series of British Library Women Writers.

There’s been a lot of buzz about this in bookish circles, and rightly so. The British Library’s publishing arm is doing sterling work with the Crime Classics and Science Fiction Classics, and so a range devoted to neglected women authors of the 20th century is going to appeal to lots of us. Excitingly, too, Simon Thomas from Stuck in a Book (my club co-host!) is consultant on the series, providing afterwords and commentary, and I can’t think of a better choice for the role! The fact that the books are very beautiful editions with French flaps is also a bonus!

Anyway, on to the book! As I mentioned, “My Husband Simon” was Panter-Downes’ fourth book and its focus is on the relationship between the young and sophisticated Nevis Falconer, a successful novelist, and her husband. As the book opens, Nevis is recalling a time four years ago when her life collided with that of Simon Quinn, who she meets at a weekend away visiting friends. Their attraction is instantaneous and physical, and before the weekend is over they’ve slept together and decided to marry. However, the pair have little in common; Nevis is an out-and-out intellectual, whereas Simon (who does something in the City about which Nevis is suitably vague) claims never to read and to be practically illiterate. Nevertheless, despite their obvious differences, the physical attraction is too strong to ignore and they marry.

I lay on my back and stared up at the copper beech tree. It rose in such a miraculous pyre of weaving branches and smooth bronze leaves, high, high, until it lost itself in darkness. Right at the core was a lozenge of blue sky. What was the use of trying to write? I could expend years of energy, gallons of ink, without conveying to anyone else exactly how this tree glowed with secret dark fire in the sunlight, how the trunk stretched out snaky limbs, strong and delicate and exact, just support the piled magnificence of the leaves. Piled magnificence – words, words! What was the good of them?

And this is where Nevis’s problems begin; because once married to Simon, she finds it harder and harder to write as her focus is all on her marriage and her husband. She loses interest and faith in her writing, and certainly Simon has no interest in it, treating it patronisingly as if it’s just a hobby; so the conflict between heart and art starts. Complications arises when Nevis’s American publisher Marcus Chard appears on the scene; unlike her husband, Marcus believes in Nevis’s writing and supports it, leading her to a situation where she may have to make a decision between her writing and her marriage – thus it ever was for women, I suppose!

“My Husband Simon” was an entertaining and enjoyable read; but also an intriguing snapshot of attitudes at the time. In some ways, it’s a little melodramatic, what with the intensity of the physical attraction between Nevis and Simon; and yet it explores a real issue and one which is still sadly with us. Why *is* it that women’s work and women’s writing is regarded so much less seriously than men’s??? Interestingly, Simon Thomas’s afterword picks up on another element in the book, which is the class difference between Nevis and Simon Quinn; and in Britain of the time, that could be a nebulous and hard to define thing. Nevis is obviously from a certain milieu and her viewpoint can be harsh and judgmental at times:

Slough is the station for Burnham Beeches. Even in a good temper I dislike Slough. That morning it seemed to me a town without a single excuse for itself; a foul industrial block spreading slowly over those pleasant fields towards Windsor. I wondered what kind of people could possibly wish to live in Slough, and pictured men with faces on which avarice and pettiness of soul were stamped like mean handwriting on cheap paper; women who made fumbling, ineffectual gestures and said “Pardon!” when they committed a social error. I wondered how many people in Slough had ever heard a Beethoven symphony or seen a Leonardo.

The couple’s differences are perhaps shown best in their attitudes towards the intellectual; Nevis is firmly bound to the cultural world, interested in everyting from Lady Chatterly to books by Vita Sackville-West. Her husband’s inability to relate to that gives them an intellectual gulf that the physical and the domestic cannot bridge for Nevis and we have to guess that there is very little future in her marriage to Simon Quinn.

Mollie Panter-Downes in the front of my old copy of “One Fine Day”

So the British Library Women Writers imprint has got off to a cracking start with this book; there are four titles already available, and many more planned to come. In some ways it seems as if the publisher is picking up the baton where Virago have left off, as these books are titles which would very probably have come under the purview of Virago Modern Classics in the past (and would also be possible Persephones). Although the book never scales the heights of “One Fine Day” (that would be hard to do), “My Husband Simon” is beautifully written, a fascinating read and an interesting exploration of the conflicts facing women to this day – highly recommended!

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!

On My Book Table…7 – modest ambitions!


After the excitement of all the reading and sharing from the #1920Club I was as usual a bit uncertain as to what I wanted to read next. I went for some Golden Age crime of various sorts, but then I decided it was time to have a bit of a reshuffle of the book table to see if I could focus on books I fancied tackling in the immediate future. Plus, a few new titles have made it through the blockades so I thought I would share those too! So here we go…

First up, let’s take a look at the contents of the Book Basket. Some of these are the same as when I last  shared this on social media – the Nairn and the two Huysmans are still WIPs. However, another sneaky little Notting Hill Editions hardback has crept in, in the form of Roland Barthes’ “Mourning Diary” – yes, another addition to my growing Barthes pile! That’s a recent arrival, as is the Dickinson volume. I’ve had a skinny Faber selected volume of her poems since my teens but I’ve been hankering after a complete edition for some time now. When I saw this one available for a reasonable price I snapped it up – ideal for dipping!

Chunksters! Let’s have some big books! All of these have been hanging around waiting for me to notice them for some time now; the Mollie Panter-Downes “London War Notes” volume is a beautiful Persephone I picked up some time back when they had a special offer. It seems like it would be apt reading for these times. The Chateaubriand is a lovely review copy from NYRB (I need to catch up….) and what I’ve read so far has been fascinating. And Carlyle’s “French Revolution” jumped back into my line of sight recently when I read the marvellous Persephone Jane Carlyle book. All would be wonderful to sink into for hours…

Then we have a few random titles which happen to appeal, mostly unearthed after a recent reshuffle. The Colette is one I’ve intended to reread for ages, but somehow never get to despite it being the perfect recent read for 1920… The Bachelard is a more recent acquisition and one which my radar picked up again recently (you might understand why next week). And “I Burn Paris” had been started a couple of times; it’s a beautiful hardback Twisted Spoon edition and although the subject matter is perhaps going to be a little triggery in these pandemic times, I do want to get to it sooner rather than later.

Last but not least, some recent arrivals. Needless to say, because of Outside Circumstances, the books making their way into the Ramblings have reduced in number – no browsing in charity shops nowadays, alas. But I *am* acquiring the odd one or two! The NYRBs are review copies – thank you! – and I’m very excited about these, particularly the Malaparte. “The Yellow Sofa” was one I read about on Tony’s Book Blog and I loved the sound of it (and it’s slim…). “Paris Then and Now” is pretty pictures of the place – ’nuff said. And the Mansfield is a most lovely first edition of her “Novels and Novelists” collection of reviews which I snagged at a Very Reasonable Price online. Last, but definitely not least, “People, Places, Things” is a collection of Elizabeth Bowen’s essays. This is a scholarly publication – but why her non-fiction isn’t more widely available is a mystery to me as I love her writing.

So there you have it. Plenty of reading available for this strange lockdown world in which we find ourselves. As I write this, I’m just coming to the end of another wonderful and comforting Golden Age crime read from the British Library Crime Classics series; so where I go next is anyone’s guess… ;D

#1947 Club – Some of my previous reviews


As we draw closer to the end of our week of reading books from 1947, I thought I would share some older reviews of books I’ve read from that year. It certainly was a bumper year for publishing and there are some great titles – so here are a few I’ve read in the past!

One Fine Day by  Mollie Panter-Downes

One fine day

Oddly enough, I picked up my copy of this wonderful novel in the Bloomsbury Oxfam shop during a LibraryThing Virago group get-together – and it was Simon who pointed it out! It’s a wonderfully written book that captures post-War England quite brilliantly and I absolutely loved it, coming to the conclusion that I couldn’t praise it enough. You can read my full review here.

Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau

706_largeThis rather clever and interesting book was written by a master of word games and member of the OuLiPo group. Basically it tells the same story in a huge number of styles and it’s very entertaining. Read what I thought about it here!

The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding


A lovely Persephone and a fabulous thriller which I read in a borrowed copy from the library. Set in America in the middle of the war, it tells of an ordinary housewife who falls into the grip of blackmailers and thugs and it’s a fabulous, unputdownable read – highly recommend, and read my review here!

Of Love and Hunger by Julian Maclaren-Ross


A great read, this, looking at life on the eve of WW2 from the point of view of a man trying to make a living by selling vacuum cleaners. Shades, perhaps, of Orwell, and a vivid picture of a seedy seaside setting. JMR was a wonderful writer, and this is an essential read from 1947 – my review here!

So there are a few of the books I’ve read in the past from this bumper year in publishing. Don’t forget to leave links to your posts so I can add them to the 1947 Club page, and let’s see how many more books we can get in before the end of the week! 🙂

Bookish post from the lovely Persephone Books!


I’ve been trying to resist new book, I really have, and particularly the lovely Persephones as if I gave in, I’d want to purchase them all….

However, they came up with an offer I couldn’t refuse this week: to celebrate the birthday of author Mollie Panter-Downes, for one day only you could have one of her books free if you bought two other grey books! I gave in – and because I don’t have any MPD Persephones, I sent off for all three, and they arrived today:


Aren’t they gorgeous??? I’m very excited about the London War Diaries as I *really* want to read this one. Now all I have to do is resist the temptation to put down the big books and start on one of these…. !

A Snapshot of Post-War England


One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes

A blindingly obvious fact to any reader of the Ramblings is that there is simply no rhyme nor reason to my reading. I’m like a straw in the wind; easily deflected from my course, subject to all sorts of influences, and my bookish whims are terrible. More often than not, I can’t actually recall what it was that pointed me in the direction of a particular volume; however, with “One Fine Day”, things are a little more clear!

One fine day

The book was on my wish list as it was published by Virago. However, my copy is a lovely old hardback I picked up in the Bloomsbury Oxfam a while back (thanks to Simon, who pointed it out to me). It’s very appealing, with an embossed signature on the cover and a picture of Mollie inside. But it had sat on my shelves for over a year, till Caroline reviewed it recently and I thought that I really should pick it up.

Mollie Panter-Downes’ name is familiar to all lovers of a certain type of 20th century literature: as a columnist for the New Yorker, she was particularly noted for her column “Letter from London”, which was published during WW2 and later collected in the volume “London War Notes” – a much desired title which has just been reissued by Persephone (hurrah!). She wrote many short stories (also published by Persephone) but only a few novels – including “One Fine Day”.

The time is 1946 and the place a small English village by the coast, with the very archetypal name of Wealding. Our protagonists are Laura and Stephen Marshall, plus their 10-year-old daughter Victoria, and the action ostensibly takes place over the course of one hot summer post-War day. Stephen goes off to his commute by train to London; Victoria catches the bus to school in the local town; and Laura wrestles with the household chores, searches for Stuffy the lost family dog, and contemplates life and the future. Because this book is about so much more than just a day in the life of an English village…

As the day unfolds, we learn from Laura’s musings all about the post-War landscape in England; the losses that have taken place; the rationing which is still going on; and the struggles that the middle classes are going through. Quite brilliantly, and in beautiful prose, the book lays bare the incredible losses which have been caused by WW2, and also the seismic shift in class relations which has taken place. Laura is born of a class which had everything done for them (and her hideous mother still reflects this) – maids and nannies and cooks meant that she had beautiful, aristocratic hands and never had to cope with the complexities of shopping, washing, cooking and cleaning. But now the people who would have been servants in the old days have been freed by the way they had lived in the War, no longer a lower class working for others, but working in factories; and having tasted freedom they have no wish to go back to the old ways.

“Like young horses intoxicated with the feel of their freedom, Ethel and Violet had disappeared squealing into the big bright world where you knew where you were, 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.”

So Laura and many other formerly upper-middle class families are struggling; big old houses are being sold off to the National Trust; there is very little help for Laura and Stephen in the house and garden; and while the old families symbolically die off, the vital, energetic working class families expand.


Throughout the day, while her thoughts range back and forth, we learn about Laura’s past and her struggles and how she’s got to this point in her life. Although she is almost at the end of her tether, with the strain on her marriage obvious, a chance encounter with a gypsy in the wood, while searching for Stuffy, sends her to the top of Barrow Down; and as she surveys the landscape in front of her, Laura comes to the conclusion that none of the superficial issues she’s dealing with are important. The Romans have come and gone, the Germans have come and gone, and although humans are transient the land will endure. In this aspect, the book is a love-letter to the English countryside and it captures magnificently the still of a hot summer’s day by the coast.

I can’t praise Panter-Downes’ book enough. Caroline drew a comparison with “A Month in the Country”, and I see exactly what she means; in their portraits of the English countryside, and in their elegiac qualities, evoking a lost world, they have similarities. Panter-Downes’ prose is remarkable; delicious and poetic, with a rhythm all of its own, often taking on the dialect of whoever it’s related to, it’s quite entrancing and draws you right into its world.

The end of the book is an uplifting one: Laura clears her mind on the Downs, putting life into perspective and realising that what matters is her family and her future. Meanwhile, Stephen gets a chance to bond a little with the daughter who is something of a stranger (owing to the time away fighting). There is a feeling that the Marshalls will survive along with England, and whatever the post-War structure is, people will adjust.

“One Fine Day” was a wonderful read; I’m not sure what I expected, but I don’t think it was such complexity and such wonderful writing. Now I just have to restrain myself from rushing off to order every book of hers from Persephone…. !

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