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Archive for the ‘Mollie Panter-Downes’ Category

What a strange year it has been, full of changes, new adventures and, as far as this blog is concerned, very abnormal reading habits.  But, however altered my reading schedule may have been, the quality of books remained excellent and it was not at all difficult to pick my ten favourite books from 2013:

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10. The Talisman Ring (1936) – Georgette Heyer
Having discovered Heyer a decade ago, I thought I’d read all her best works.  But no, other bloggers assured me, I still needed to read The Talisman Ring.  Nonsense, I thought, but it was Heyer so I was determined to read it anyways.  Of course, I discovered that everyone was right and that this hilarious tale of a fanciful young woman, a dashing smuggler, and their put-upon elders is indeed one of the greatest things Heyer wrote.

9. Alif the Unseen (2012) – G. Willow Wilson
I struggled to review all the books I wished to this year and that included some of my favourites, like Alif the Unseen.  An extraordinary combination of fantasy, religion, and 21st technology, this story of an Indo-Arab hacker who finds himself on the run from the corrupt state authorities is powerful, timely, and above all, engaging.  It was one of only two books this year that kept me reading until late into the night (the other is #6 on this list).

8. The English Air (1940) – D.E. Stevenson
Stevenson is an author whose quality varies dramatically from book to book.  I love her but most of her novels are merely good rather than excellent.  The English Air is one of those excellent exceptions, sensitively following the struggles of a young German man who finds himself torn between England and Germany at the beginning of the Second World War.  Stevenson paints as alluring a portrait of the domestic charms of middle-class pre-war England as anyone but it is her intelligent handling of Franz’s divided loyalties that makes this rise above most of her other works. 2013Books2

7. The Rosie Project (2013) – Graeme Simsion
This quirky and touching romantic comedy about a socially inept Australian scientist’s search for love was an absolute delight.  I loved it so much in fact that I read it not once but twice this year and am now busy pressing everyone I know to read it too.

6. Under Heaven (2010) – Guy Gavriel Kay
Kay, the master of historical fantasy, has now published two books inspired by Chinese history: Under Heaven and River of Stars.  I read both this year and both are extraordinarily good but Under Heaven was, to me, the most absorbing.  Kay is astonishingly good at balancing character development, political intrigue, and action, making for a book that left my pulse racing and my mind whirling.

5. London War Notes (1971) – Mollie Panter-Downes
The fact that I was even able to get my hands on a copy of this all-too-rare book was a miracle; as anyone who has had the privilege of reading this will agree, it is a travesty that it has not yet been reprinted.  During the Second World War, Mollie Panter-Downes’ “Letter from London” was published every second week in the New Yorker magazine, giving her American readers a glimpse of the wartime experience in London.  In typical Panter-Downes fashion, she is observant and articulate, intelligent and unsentimental.  These letters capture Londoners at their best and worst and are an extraordinary historical record as well as examples of first-rate journalism.

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4. Framley Parsonage (1861) – Anthony Trollope
I had some reservations but, for the most part, I adored the fourth book in Trollope’s Barsetshire series.  Trollope’s handling of the virtues and failings of his young men reminded me once more of the truthfulness of his writing (and the consistency of human beings, regards of the century) while his female characters, young and old, were delightfully strong, funny, and sympathetic.

3. The Harold Nicolson Diaries (2004) – edited by Nigel Nicolson
An absorbing and revealing collection of wonderfully-written diaries and letters, I loved getting to glimpse all the different facets of Nicolson’s character, from youth to old age.

2. A Time of Gifts (1977) – Patrick Leigh Fermor
In another year, this might have grabbed the top spot.  Fermor’s account of the first leg of the charmed journey he took across Europe as a teenager is beautifully written and had me longing to set out on adventures of my own. Speaking of Jane Austen

1. Speaking of Jane Austen (1943) – Sheila Kaye-Smith and G.B. Stern
All the other titles on this list were wonderful but not nearly as wonderful as this collection of delightfully eccentric Austen-focused essays.  And, of course, it is the only book I have ever come across that spends a sufficient amont of time lavishing praise on the deserving Emma (if you are looking for the fastest way to my heart, look no further).

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London War NotesLondon War Notes, 1939-1945 by Mollie Panter-Downes was my second book of 2013 and also my second book of the year by Panter-Downes, having started with her beautiful post-war novel, One Fine Day.  I loved the novel, though perhaps not quite as much as I loved Good Evening, Mrs Craven, a volume of her wartime short stories, but nowhere near as much as I loved this volume of wartime journalism.  Every fortnight throughout the war, Panter-Downes wrote a “Letter from London” for The New Yorker, giving American readers a glimpse into life during wartime as civilians dealt with rationing and bombs, suffered victories and defeats.  Published in 1971, this book contains all of the letters and provides one of the finest, most perfectly observed portraits of wartime England I have ever read.

Panter-Downes has a gift for relating small particulars that amounts to a kind of genius.  I loved her use of imagery in her fiction but was not sure how that would translate to journalism.  I need not have worried.  From the first letter it was clear that, if anything, as a journalist she was even more attuned to the details.  Her description of the civilian response to the declaration of war, with middle-aged women and retired officers mobilizing in the country, was wonderful:

All over the country, the declaration of war has brought a new lease of life to retired army officers, who suddenly find themselves the commanders of battalions of willing ladies who have emerged from the herbaceous borders to answer the call of duty.  Morris 10s, their windshields plastered with notices that they are engaged on business of the ARP or WVS (both volunteer services), rock down quiet country lanes propelled by firm-lipped spinsters who yesterday could hardly have said ‘Boo!’ to an aster. (3 September 1939)

She also manages to include information I didn’t know or had forgotten about and, more delightfully, to corroborate information I’ve gleaned from novels.  Having enjoyed Angela Thirkell’s rants about the awful standard of programming offered by the BBC during the war, it was great fun to hear someone else complain about it too:

…it does seem probable that schemes for reopening theatre and cinemas will be drawn up shortly.  Meanwhile, Britons find themselves dependent for entertainment on the BBC, which desperately filled the gaps in its first wartime programs with gramophone recordings and jolly bouts of community singing stiff with nautical heave-hos and folksy nonny-noes.  There has already been considerable public criticism of these programs and of the tendency of announcers to read out important news in tones that suggest they are understudying for Cassandra on the walls of Troy. (10 September 1939)

No wonder they had to reopen the theatres and cinemas if that was the only entertainment on offer!

Even though Panter-Downes was writing for an American audience, she does not pander.  She reports on what is happening in London and rural England, which is not necessarily what Americans were most interested in hearing about.  America’s entry into the war (and the bombing of Pearl Harbour) is over-shadowed by public concern for friends and family members working or stationed in the Far East:

On Monday, December 8th, London felt as it did at the beginning of the war.  Newsdealers stood on the corners handing out papers as steadily and automatically as if they were husking corn; people bought copies on the way out to lunch and again on the way back, just in case a late edition might have sneaked up on them with some fresher news.  Suddenly and soberly, this little island was remembering its vast and sprawling possessions of Empire.  It seemed as though every person one met had a son in Singapore or a daughter in Rangoon; every post office was jammed with anxious crowds finding out about cable rates to Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, or Penang. (14 December 1941)

Though she can touchingly discuss the fears of her fellow Englishmen and women, she is not sentimental.  Part of what I loved so much about Good Evening, Mrs Craven was her willingness to explore the anger and disgruntlement that lurked beneath the more acceptable stoicism or jolliness.  Here, somewhat surprisingly given her audience, she is just as open about the mood of bitterness and frustration that settled over the country during the darkest moments of the war in 1942: the Pacific theatre had opened, a German invasion seemed imminent, and even Churchill was no longer infallible:

His promises that Singapore would be held and that Rommel’s forces would be destroyed haven’t helped the public to view with equanimity to the ignominious British retreats in Malaya and Libya.  You hear people say that they have always trusted him in the past because they knew that he would let them have the truth, however unpalatable; now there’s an uneasy suspicion that fine oratory may sometimes carry away the orator as well as his audience.  You also hear people say that anyway they’ve had enough of fine oratory; what they would like is action and a sign from Mr Churchill that he understands the profoundly worried temper of the country… (14 February 1942)

Once the outlook for victory began to improve – perhaps especially once that started to happen – Panter-Downes was still there, perfectly observing and relating the mood of a population tense with anticipation:

Londoners, normally as good-tempered a crowd of people as you could hope to find anywhere, are beginning to show the strain of these first keyed-up days of a year which by now every statesman must have hailed as one of fateful decision…Naturally, a lot of the native good humour and manners is still around, but the surface impression is that everybody’s nerves are frayed.  Possibly it’s the inevitable hangover of the winter’s flu epidemic, plus four years of wartime diet, but it seems more likely to be an inevitable result of simply waiting for something to happen.  (30 January 1944)

The writing is unfaultable but the book as a whole can make for heavy reading.  Each letter is dense with details, providing an invaluable blend of political and domestic observations, but as a collection the flow is slightly awkward at times.  There are repetitions and contradictions which would not have been obvious to The New Yorker’s subscribers, reading these letters months or years apart, but which are noticeable here.  Still, editing the letters and removing content would have me up in arms: it might give the book a better flow but it would sadly impair its value as a historical document.  What I am truly bothered by is the editor’s apparent disinterest in providing any introduction to Panter-Downes or information on her life when she was writing these letters, and I am irritated his only half-hearted effort to clarify which battles and world events Panter-Downes references (though not always by name) in her letters.  Battles that once occupied the headlines are now long forgotten and though there are some explanatory notes I think more detail would make the book more accessible.

These letters lack the personal touch of diaries since Panter-Downes maintains journalistic detachment throughout, detailing the experiences of the everyman rather than relating anecdotes about herself (at least openly), but with her clear eye for detail Panter-Downes captured moments that other accounts omit.  She is calm in her reporting and thankfully unexcitable but knows exactly what will be of most interest to her readers – both then and now.  Having sampled three very different examples of her writing, I can now declare that it is Panter-Downes the journalist who impresses me the most.

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One Fine DayHow very right it felt to start 2013 with One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes.  Not only is it a beautifully and intelligently written book (I would expect nothing less from Panter-Downes) but it is also a story about making peace with the past and being thankful for what one has, lessons that seem especially appropriate at the start of a new year.

The book focuses on the Marshall family during one hot day in the summer of 1946.  They are a typical English middle-class family but, in the uncertainty of the post-world war, Laura and Stephen Marshall are still struggling to define what a typical middle-class existence now looks like.  Their beautiful pre-war garden has turned into a jungle in the absence of a dedicated gardener and Laura is overwhelmed by the cooking and cleaning that had once been the domain of servants; they both are realising that, though peace now reigns in Europe, things are never going to go back to the way they were before the war and their pre-war standard of living needs to be adjusted for the post-war labour market.  Over the course of one very normal day, we follow Laura through her daily tasks, glimpsing her thoughts as she contemplates her life, her family, and the brave new world she now finds herself in.

There is nothing exceptional about Laura, which is, of course, the point.  Nothing extraordinary has ever happened in her life, nor does she expect it to.  She accepts her situation resignedly but not unhappily: “I am a perfectly happy married woman, simply getting a little greyer, duller, more tired than I should be getting, because my easier sort of life has come to an end.”  She is a little bewildered by her role as homemaker, having relied on servants all her life for the running of the house, and is largely disinterested in it.  She loves her husband and her daughter Victoria but is beginning to realise that not every part of their old life needs to – or can – be replicated in the post-war environment.  But that realisation is not an easy one.  Her mother, a formidable woman who, having spent years in the outposts of the empire fighting to maintain an English way of life in alien environments, sees no reason for her or her daughter’s households to alter now that the war is over:

Her mother, she thought, had not adapted to things.  The war had flowed past her like a dark, strong river, never pulling her into its currents, simply washing to her feet the minor debris of evacuees who broke the statue’s fingers and spoiled a mattress, of food shortages, or worry over Laura who was close to bombs and worked too hard, and had tragically lost her fresh looks.  Now, said Mrs Herriot, think God it was over, and everything could get back to normal again.

Mrs Herriot, one realises, will get her way but her daughter, infinitely more sensitive to the changing world around her, will have to adapt.  But it is not easy to find your feet in a world so foreign, in many ways, to the one you grew up in.  Laura fumbles her way through housekeeping and when it comes to raising her daughter, she realises that Victoria might need very different skills than the ones Laura was taught:

…was she, Laura, ridiculous to have Victoria given all the little graces of the Herriot world, the light foot, the agile finger, the easy manner, when it seemed perfectly clear that she would have to work seriously for her living…?

Throughout the day, Laura ponders these questions and observes, as she makes her way through the village, the ways other people’s lives have also changed.  By the end of the day, both she and Stephen have come to realise what truly matters to them and that, despite the stresses and uncertainties inherent in post-war Britain, it is within their power to be truly happy.

I know a number of other readers feel very strongly about Laura, finding her incredibly sympathetic with her distaste for housework, absentmindedness in the kitchen, and ability to take pleasure in small things.  I did not dislike her but I cannot say that I ever became particularly fond of her.  Laura is a mild everywoman who I am sure many people can relate to but, for that reason, she is scarcely memorable as an individual.  Panter-Downes’ strength was not characterization but description and is it those descriptive powers that make this book so impressive.  There are plenty of stories about men and women who struggled to adjust to the post-war world but there are not many that are written this beautifully, with such rich descriptions and striking imagery.  The introduction of Wealding, the village where the Marshalls live, is a wonderful example of Panter-Downes’ skill:

Its perfect peace was, after all, a sham.  Coils of barbed wire still rustling among the sorrel were a reminder.  Sandbags pouring out sodden guts from the old strong-point among the bracken, the frizzy lily spikes pushing up in the deserted garden of the bombed cottage, spoke of days when the nearness of the sea had been no watch ticking comfortably in the pocket, but a loud brazen question striking constantly in the brain, When?  When?  The danger had passed.  Wealding, however, had been invaded.  Uneasiness made the charming, insanitary cottages seem unsubstantial as rose-painted canvas in an operetta; uncertainty floated on the air with the voice of the wireless, which had brought the worm of the world into the tight bud of Wealding.  It did not know, it could not tell what to think.

I think Panter-Downes was a better stylist than she was novelist and most of my pleasure in reading this came from the beautifully-composed sentences, intriguing overall structure, and, as mentioned above, vivid imagery.  As a glimpse of the struggling middle class in post-WWII Britain, this is fine, though I must admit a preference for domestic novels from the period that deal with these questions in greater detail (including, yes, my beloved Angela Thirkell – you had to have seen that coming).  But as a glimpse of Panter-Downes as a writer, as a keen observer of the world around her and masterful stylist, it is extraordinary.  This is my least favourite of the three Mollie Panter-Downes books I have now read (this, Good Evening, Mrs Craven, and London War Notes, 1939-1945) but that tells you more about the high standard of her writing than about the flaws of this novel.

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I always have fun making this list but, for the first time, it was easy as well as fun.  There was no struggling over what belong in each spot and no angst-ridden hours spent juggling the merits of one book over another in deciding which deserved to make the list.  These are, without a doubt, the ten best books I read in 2012.  They have stuck in my mind since I read them and I cannot go a day without recommending at least one of them to friends, family members, other bloggers or people I randomly meet on the street (like the woman I met at the coffeeshop on Friday.  Such are the dangers of engaging me in conversation).  Without further ado, here are ten best books I read in 2012:

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10. The Home-Maker (1924) – Dorothy Canfield Fisher
This is, quite rightly, one of the best-loved Persephone titles among readers.  It is a wonderfully thoughtful book about gender roles, societal pressure, and personal fulfillment and treats all of its characters – adult or child – with respect for the everyday struggles they face.

9. Two-Part Invention (1988) – Madeleine L’Engle
This book was heartbreaking, beautiful, and, above all, surprising.  It is a portrait of L’Engle’s forty year marriage written during her husband’s final illness but it is also a reflection on her faith and what religion meant in her life.  It is a highly emotional and intelligent book and I cried more tears over this than anything else I read this year.

8. The Siren Years (1974) – Charles Ritchie
No matter how many times I read this (and I have lost count at this point), it remains the best wartime diary I have ever come across.   Ritchie’s diplomatic and social connections in London exposed him to an extraordinary variety of people, from political leaders and petty bureaucrats to authors and exiled royalty.  The joy of Ritchie’s diaries comes from the meld of political details and domestic ones.  I find it just as interesting to hear about how the Canadian High Commission handled refugee claims as I do to discover what Ritchie saw on his walk through London each day on the way to work or what he talked about at lunch with Nancy Mitford.     Best Books of 2012 - Part 2

7. Leningrad (2011) – Anna Reid
I still get chills thinking about this book, which looks at what happened to those trapped in Leningrad while it was under siege during the Second World War.  It is uncomfortable and upsetting to read but so very well done.

6. The Headmistress (1944) – Angela Thirkell
Possibly the most perfectly-formed of Thirkell’s Barsetshire novels, The Headmistress focuses on the experiences of the Belton family during the Second World War.  Mrs Belton, the middle-aged mother of three, is one of Thirkell’s best heroines.  Her struggles to understand her adult children and to live with her constant fear for her sons broke my heart.

5. The Laskett (2003) – Roy Strong
A gardening tome that even non-gardeners would love, this book describes the evolution of Strong’s garden at his country home, The Laskett.  Though there are plenty of details about the garden’s layout and plant choices, what makes this book special are the stories Strong shares about the friends and experiences that influenced the garden’s formation.  This is a garden that clearly reflects both Strong and his wife’s personalities and experiences and it is a book that acts as a tribute to their delightfully unique lives.  Best Books of 2012 - Part 3

4. Good Evening, Mrs Craven (1999) – Mollie Panter-Downes
A wonderfully varied collection of short stories about life in England during the Second World War.  Panter-Downes’ domestic focus exactly suits my tastes as does her interest in the quiet disappointments and muted struggles faced by her characters.  There is nothing sensational about the events in these stories, making them both relatable and, to me, touching.

3. It’s Too Late Now (1939) –  A.A. Milne
2012 was the year of Milne and as much as I loved his plays, his pieces for Punch, his passionate plea for pacifism, and his light verse, it was his autobiography that gave me the most pleasure.  Looking back on the first fifty-odd years of his life, Milne joyously recalls the happy days of his childhood and, later, his determined pursuit of a writing career.  It has nothing in common with gossipy tell-alls and that is part of what I loved about it.  It is a fun book to read and I suspect Milne had even more fun writing it.

2. Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther (1907) – Elizabeth von Arnim
It has been a long time since I’ve fallen as hard for a fictional character as I did for Fräulein Rose-Marie Schmidt.  These letters, written to her erstwhile suitor Roger Anstruther, reveal a woman who is both romantic and practical, youthful and mature.  She is clever and funny and resilient and I want to be her almost as much as I want to befriend her. the-element-of-lavishness

1. The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell  (2001) – edited by Michael Steinman
I read this in January and, honestly, no other book I read this year came even close to eclipsing it in my affections.  I had never read anything by either Warner or Maxwell before and knew very little about either of them but that made no difference.  Through their letters, I got to know both of them intimately and to witness the wonderful warmth and depth of their friendship as it evolved over the decades.  While both were extraordinary writers, it is Warner’s letters I remember the best now, almost a year after I read them.  She wrote beautifully about the domestic details of her life and the letters written between the death of her partner Valentine and her own death are as good a record of aging and loss as I have ever read.

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08-Good-Evening-Mrs-Craven-webI am slowly coming to love short stories and the more books I read like Good Evening, Mrs Craven by Mollie Panter-Downes, the faster that conversion will happen.  Published in 1999, this is Persephone Book No. 8, a collection of stories that Panter-Downes, an Englishwoman, wrote for The New Yorker during the Second World War.  Panter-Downes’ wartime journalism has been collected and published (as Letters from England and London War Notes, 1939-1945) but almost all of the stories in this book had never been printed outside of the magazine until Persephone gathered them in this collection.  And what a service they did us readers by doing so.

The stories are focused on ordinary men and women, examining how their lives and views of the world are disrupted by the war.  This kind of quiet, domestic approach to the effects of war suits my tastes exactly; it is why I am drawn to Angela Thirkell’s wartime novels, diaries from women like Nella Last and Clara Milburn, and Persephone’s other WWII-era offerings (House-Bound being one excellent example).  Panter-Downes’ focus is never on the overtly dramatic – there are no dreaded telegrams or major personal tragedies – but that does not make the suffering or disappointments of her characters any less wrenching.  Two mothers brought together through their shared fear for their children in America and Asia in the days after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour; a wife trying to hold herself together through the last days of her husband’s leave; a long-term mistress who has no way of knowing her lover’s fate since “the War Office doesn’t have a service for sending telegrams to mistresses”: these are the sorts of stories that the book is made up of.  Evacuees, rationing, work parties, the home guard…Panter-Downes addresses a wide variety of homefront experiences in a perceptive and direct style that I found irresistible.

The collection is not without humour.  The frustration felt by those hosting evacuees or friends whose London homes were blitzed can be most amusing, as can the gossipy conversations held during Red Cross sewing parties.  To me, though, the most amusing story was the very first one: “A Date with Romance” from October 1939.  Mrs Ramsay, who features in a number of the stories, has come to London to meet an old admirer recently back from Malaya.  Feeling intensely romantic and nostalgic, her fantasy of a tender reunion is quickly dashed by his jolly greeting:

‘Gerald, dear,’ said Mrs Ramsay softly.  She held out both her hands, which Gerald pumped up and down.

‘Well, well,’ he said, ‘old Helen.’  Mrs Ramsay felt a slight but definite chill.

I found the pieces about those saddled with evacuees the most interesting.  Panter-Downes uses a number of stories to address the tensions these situations created and the way lives and households were upset by the addition of outsiders.  “In Clover” is probably the most intriguing, looking at how a young upper-middle class wife’s innocent ignorance is upset by the arrival of a slovenly evacuee and her three children:

Little Mrs Fletcher…had two babies of her own and a husband in the Guards, but her notions about all three were pretty innocent.  On the afternoon her nurse went out, the harsher facts of infant life were concealed from her by the nursery maid, who let her have fun pretending to fool around with two little dears who were always perfectly dry, perfectly sweet-smelling, and done up in frilly organdie tied with ribbons.

By the time the story ends, Mrs Fletcher is no longer quite so unaware of the harsher facts her household had spent years trying to shield her from.

But the story that touched me the most, the one that upset me and actually brought angry tears to my eyes, was “It’s the Reaction” from July 1943.  It is a glimpse into the life of Miss Birch, a lonely ministry employee in London who longs for the friendly camaraderie that had existed between her and her neighbours during the Blitz, when they spent night after night together huddled in their apartment building’s shelter.  Now, they barely even acknowledge one another in the hallways.  Determined not to give up so easily, Miss Birch makes a cheerful and determined attempt to rekindle one of those Blitz-era friendships.  Her effort falls horribly flat and it is heart-breaking.

I found Panter-Downes’ willingness to address such a wide range of reactions to the changes brought on by the war – from earnest enthusiasm to petty but sympathetically-portrayed selfishness – most appealing and, sadly, surprising.  My expectations have been so lowered by other WWII-era books and diaries brimming with patriotic zeal, whose characters or authors would never dare to express any skepticism about the necessity of the discomfort and upheaval the war brought into their lives, that I no longer expect to find anything else.  I am not doubting that there were people – millions! – who exemplified the much-praised wartime spirit but I find it irritating when that kind of sustained optimism and enthusiastic collectivism is treated as the only way to have felt, or, worse yet, the only correct way to have felt.  It is the ability to capture and describe the range of emotions beyong that and to do so without implying any judgment that gives this book so much appeal today, sixty- and seventy-odd years after the stories were written.

The twenty-one stories in this collection are all quite short – most are only around ten pages long – so should theoretically be perfect for those looking for something to dip in and out of.  I say theoretically because I did not dip: I plunged.  Once I started reading, I did not let this book out of my hands.   I now count it as one of my favourite Persephone books and I cannot wait to read Minnie’s Room, a collection of Panter-Downes’ peacetime stories.

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