Red Chair Reads: One Fine Day

One Fine Day, by Mollie Panter-Downes (1946)

It is summer of 1946, and Laura and Stephen Marshall are trying to adjust to life in post-war England.  Their little village of Wealding seems the timeless, quintessential English village: the Manor House, the rectory, the High Street with the requisite independent shops, the winding country lanes, the picturesqueTudor cottages. The Marshalls — and the village — have survived the war, and now it is time to live the peace.

What is that peace?  Look closer and there are signs of upheaval everywhere: Laura’s house is falling down around her, the weeds are winning, and a sense of disquiet pervades her life.  She is prematurely grey, she stands in endless lines for her family’s rations, she sees rusting coils of barbed wire, she runs across the remaining German POW still working English farmland.  The owner of the Manor House has sold the crumbling pile for institutional use, and the future is personified by the ambitious and ethically challenged Mr. Rudge, and the good-natured by sly Mrs. Prout, a charwoman who knows her worth, who never says “madam,” and who understands her “place” is not where the “gentry” thinks it is.  So Laura continues her everyday day: she finds her wayward dog, climbs the chalk down and catches a glimpse of her future, and finally sees that her world has undergone a fundamental change that she may not have wanted, but that she can in fact embrace.

Nothing much happens in One Fine Day —  nothing, except one woman finding reasons for hope and optimism.

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Red Chair Reads: Cheerful Weather for the Wedding

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding, by Julia Strachey (1932)

Virginia Woolf apparently thought highly of this work, originally published by the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press in 1932.  Other people must also have loved it, as both Penguin Books and Persephone Books have republished it, and somebody turned it into a movie in 2012.  Anyway.  I wish I loved the book too.

On a blustery day in March, the pampered elder daughter of a wealthy family marries a dull man destined for an acceptable career somewhere in South America.  Dolly knows it is a mistake, and spends the pre-wedding hours in her room with a bottle of rum, even as her friends and family (including a young man she may or may not have loved and who may or may not still love her) gather downstairs for the celebration.

The book is sharp, funny, and short, which turned out to be a good thing.  Julia Strachey populated her work with a cast of characters one expects in certain novels set in English country houses, but the trenchant observations left no room for sympathy.  The book is unflinchingly unsentimental, but nevertheless I wished for a glimmer of likability in the main characters: just when I thought something interesting was going to happen between Mrs. Thatcham and Joseph, it didn’t.  As I said, disappointing, but ultimately a fitting end to the book.

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Let’s read something else, OK?

Red Chair Reads: The Murder of Halland

The Murder of Halland, by Pia Juul, translated from the Danish by Martin Aitkin

Whodunit, who cares?

Halland and Bess live in a small town where everyone knows your name.  One day, Halland is shot dead in the town square, and not surprisingly, this is the catalyst for Bess to reassess her life.  Who killed Halland? Bess is not all that interested, even as her life lurches on and unexpected people keep showing up on her doorstep.  Who, after all,  was the Bess who lived with Halland and yet did not share his life, and who is the Bess who seems unable to grieve for her not-quite-husband?

The book might be called The Murder of Halland, but that is not the actual subject of the book.  Bess is the focus, and we are meant to see the world from her viewpoint.  She is smart, she is skewed, and she may be slowly unhinging.  She does not mourn Halland so much as mourn for the person she may have been: he was never in her life, and neither was she ever in his.  Bess finds out about the pregnant foster-niece in Copenhagen, about the apartment she lives in for which he paid the rent, about his share of the apartment, a small locked room with a gigantic poster of Martin Guerre.  What does it all mean?  She speculates, she gets drunk, she finds out things that she doesn’t share with the police, she loses interest . . . .  and so did I.  In the end, Bess was just too irritating to be intriguing.

The Murder of Halland was my first dip into the Peirene Press, “two-hour books to be devoured in a single sitting: literary cinema for those fatigued by film.”  Clever, well-written, claustrophobic, perhaps too interested in “intellectual dismantling” of an entire genre, and ultimately a most unsatisfying two hours of my life.

Chia, the assitant Red Chair Reader

Chia, the Assistant Red Chair Reader

Chia, who is quite perturbed that Martin Aitkin, PH.D in Linguistics, does not know the difference between further and farther.

Red Chair Listens: The Borough Treasurer

I keep telling myself, “No more mysteries with inane heroines!”  And then I go and blow it.  The latest: The Borough Treasurer by J. S. Fletcher, 1921.  It started out promisingly with a description of the town of Highmarket, its mayor Mr. Mallalieu, and his partner and the borough treasurer Mr. Cotherstone.  Enter the wily Mr. Kitely, former policeman turned blackmailer (a man has to eat, right?) who recognized Mallalieu and Cotherstone as a pair of embezzlers from 30 years ago . . . .  Murder, of course!

Mr. Kitely is dead, strangled like a pig, and Mallalieu and Cotherstone suspect each other without actually accusing each other of the crime.  Mr. Cotherstone tries to throw the suspicion on the mysterious Mr. Harborough: what is his alibi and why does he refuse to just come out with it?  And why does Mr. Brereton, young lawyer from London, suddenly decide that Mr. Harborough is innocent and he simply must defend him?  Well, OK, that last part is easy . . . .  One look at Avice Harborough, and Mr. Brereton is determined to prove her father’s innocence.  Meanwhile, Mr. Cotherstone has to make sure his past stays in the past, not the least because daughter Lettie is engaged to the wealthy Windle Bent, who is also Mr. Brereton’s best friend.  And rounding out the list of unsavory characters, there is Mr. Stoner, Cotherstone’s clerk and neophyte blackmailer, and Miss Pett, a woman with her own secrets to protect.

In the end, everything is explained, even the lamest red herring plot ever.  I do, however, appreciate the moral imperative that everyone gets what he/she deserves, even if the message could have been less heavy-handed.

IMG_3067Tula, waiting for it to be all over.

Red Chair Reads: H. M. Pulham, Esquire

I no longer remember where I bought H. M. Pulham, Esquire, by John P Marquand.  It sat in my bookcase for a while, and I only remembered I had it when I read Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, and the title popped up in a throw-away line.  I finally got around to reading the book during my mini-vacation in the mountains — what better time and place, really, than in a snug cabin, feeling warm and secure while the wind howled outside?  And it was about security: Harry Pulham, brought up in security, decided on a life of security, a security defined and delineated by his class, his upbringing, his education, his job, his wife.  The couple of times he stepped outside himself — first for the Great War, then for Marvin (the girl who got away) — he did not quite know what to do with the new world order he saw and barely comprehended.  Harry was completely decent, and only wanted to do the right thing.  If he knew, vaguely, that he lost something along the way, one must always give him credit for being true to his essential self: the man who understood that it was right and honorable to sacrifice his dreams for the happiness of those he loved, and did so with minimal fuss.  In a defining scene, Harry’s father said, “It isn’t any news that any of us are going to die, but we like to think we’re going to be remembered.”  At the end of the book, Harry finally completed his life story for his class reunion, and it was indeed as conforming and banal as all the personal histories that had gone before him.  Harry knew he would not be remembered, and perhaps that was as it should be.

Do we really want to be remembered?  My book was owned by a Freda Jackson (signed  December 13, 1945) and by Winsor W. McLean, who must have liked the book enough to take it with him when moved from Los Angeles to Glendale, California.  Being a nosy historian, I naturally googled Winsor W. McLean, and ended up on the Wimberly family history site.  He was the only son of Neil McLean and Annie Laura Wimberly McLean, born in 1897 and named after the man who married his parents.  The family history website had a fair amount of information on Neil McLean, but nothing other than Winsor McLean’s birth and death dates.  But I love small coincidences: he died in 1974, in Van Nuys, California.  I imagine that perhaps at some point, I may have bumped into him.  Who knows?

Tula, thinking about H. M. Pulham, Esquire

Tula, thinking about H. M. Pulham, Esquire 

Red Chair Reads: The Hampstead Mystery

Another long-winded but fun Edwardian-era mystery from 1916: The Hampstead Mystery, by Arthur J. Rees and John R. Watson.  A mysterious anonymous note delivered to the local police station announced the murder of Sir Horace Fewbanks, a justice of the High Court.  But he was supposed to be in Scotland, shooting poor little birds!  Clearly not, since he was most definitely dead in his own library at Riversbrook, a bullet hole in the heart.  And the race was on, with two Scotland Yard policemen, Detective Inspector Chippenfield and his subordinate Inspector Rolfe, vying with each other as well as with the inscrutable private detective Crewe (no first name) to find the murderer.

And just who is this Mr. Crewe?  He is of course a brilliant young man of private means who took up detecting as a means of relieving his boredom at being a rich young man with no occupation.  Of course, he could have had a reasonably gentlemanly occupation as a stellar chess master, having been the only one to beat the Russian player Turgieff during one of the master’s famous simultaneous games against twelve different players.  But, Crewe broke all the old-time chess aficionados’ hearts by retiring and going into detective work, of all things — and him a gentleman of presumably impeccable lineage.  I love books where characters say things like: “I know I can rely on his word as a gentleman.”  Ah, the great class divide.

Lots of red herrings in this mystery: a couple of ex-cons, a spurned mistress (the old judge apparently had a weakness for young women, not all of them ladies), a K.C. on the outs with his young wife, a French mademoiselle . . . .  Rees and Watson piled it on, and on, and on — the book could have been shorter, but the readers of a hundred years ago would probably have felt justifiably gypped.