Monday, October 27, 2014

How We Lived Then: A History of Everyday Life During the Second World War, by Norman Longmate

How We Lived Then: A History of Everyday Life During the Second World WarHow We Lived Then: A History of Everyday Life During the Second World War by Norman Longmate
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One can find many books on the history of World War II, from the perspective of each country involved, to the political undertones, to the experiences of officers and footsoldiers. This book is unique, written in 1970, in a sweeping attempt to explain how the war in England was won on the homefront.

This book was somewhat personal for me, in that some of the artifacts in it were common items from my childhood: we would go through large shoeboxes of pictures and ephemera, and at one point, we found ration coupon books and played "war shops." Somehow as children of the 1970s, the story had come down to us about our English relatives' hardship in finding the most basic of foods and clothing as the war dragged on for six long years; an emigrant cousin or two brought her ration books with her "just in case," and they stayed in a cabinet for decades until we brought them out.

Reading about how English ingenuity used garden hose and rope to replace failed bicycle tires, any textiles at all to replace worn clothing, and hundreds of other make-do efforts, made me appreciate the civilian sacrifice all the more. The United States is currently fighting on several fronts, but civilians have been asked to give up nothing, and we are not particularly aware of the realities of these wars. The English fought hunger and deprivation at home to spare more for their sons and husbands on the front lines, with very little complaining and a chin-up attitude I still find in my family today.

At over 700 pages, Longmate covered nearly all possible aspects of home life: kitchen, cooking, clothing, shopping, movies, popular music, the influx of other Allied troops, books, the media, school, the evacuation of children from dense cities, family relations, and far more. Because it was written just a few decades after it happened, he interviewed women and former children who had these experiences, and thus includes firsthand accounts that are no longer possible, so as a historical document this is rich with information.

Much exists about this war, but reading about how it permeated every aspect of civilian life allows a 21st century reader to truly understand how it was the cultural touchpoint of a generation. It is well worth the time to read through it and reflect.

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Saturday, October 25, 2014

Day of Honey, a Memoir of Food, Love, and War, by Annia Ciezadlo

Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love, and WarDay of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love, and War by Annia Ciezadlo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ciezadlo's crowded, thoughtful, fragrant memoir of her life as a newlywed in Baghdad and later Beirut is loud with bombings and ends with recipes. This is a memoir of everyday life in several middle eastern war zones, where people turn to their food traditions to counter the constant threat of death around every corner. At one point in the book, Ciezadlo makes dinner for her husband and refugee guests while a sniper takes shots from their apartment roof. The recipe is in the back of the book.

This book is about the survival of families, neighborhoods, traditions, and foodways. She learns to cook on hot plates in vermin-infested hotels, finds the real Iraqi food traditions beyond pale restaurant imitations, and learns the nuances of a 10,000 year old culture in the process. There is a point where she has fallen in love with the culture so much that she decides to stay in a very dangerous area long after even her husband has left for New York, and she has to choose between her head and her heart.

It's the core of the book, really; the complete irrationality of war juxtaposed with everyday human living, and how easy it is to believe that everything will be fine if there's a good meal to be made. She explains the political conflict well and helps us understand Sunni vs. Shiite, the different warring factions and the way loyalties can change instantly with the ever-shifting power, but the truth of the book is in the everyday people she introduces.

If the political situation in the Middle East has been hard for you to comprehend, DAY OF HONEY is a very real way to begin understanding the human impact of warfare. Ciezadlo will see that you care about the people, as well: one cab driver pleads with her, "We drive American cars, watch American films, buy American clothes. We love America! WHY DOESN'T AMERICA LOVE US?" Read this book and you will find much to admire in the strength of Iraq's people.

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Sunday, October 12, 2014

Living Well is the Best Revenge, by Calvin Tomkins

Have you ever known people who did everything well, and in such a new, interesting way that it inspired you to live differently and better?

This short, exquisite biography of Gerald and Sara Murphy serves to extend the enigma that they took with them everywhere they lived. At under 150 pages, it is only a taste of their story, but it was written in 1962 following a series of interviews with them and their friends, so it paints a rather different and more poignant picture than Vaill's extensive biography EVERYBODY WAS SO YOUNG, written long after Gerald and Sara Murphy had died.

If you don't know the Murphys, perhaps you should: if you enjoy F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Picasso, Cole Porter, Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, or indeed any of the expatriate writers, artists, musicians and dancers who flourished in 1920s Paris, the Murphys are the common thread who connected them all. About a decade older than their young creative friends, they created a milieu of stability, kindness, and understanding cherished by the younger set, many of whom did not enjoy the support of their families in chasing their creative dreams. The Murphys' excellent taste, style, and indeed their relationship itself inspired novels stories, paintings, dances, and the lives of those around them. In turn, the Murphys truly enjoyed being surrounded by the creative energy of their young friends; their children grew up entertained by the most interesting people of the age.

Without the Murphys' influence, it's hard to imagine how Paris in the 1920s would have had much significance at all. Many of the creative friendships were forged at their Paris atelier or in their home on the Cap d'Antibes, which they made fashionable by attracting the Paris set to the seaside for summers. They lived this idyllic life until tuberculosis struck their youngest, Patrick; they then moved the party to his sanatorium, where all the greats visited and kept up the Murphys' spirits for the long 18 months of treatment. After his release, they enjoyed a few more years of good health; the stock market then crashed, many expats could no longer afford Paris, and little Patrick relapsed and died. Their older son Baoth died shortly after from a brief illness at boarding school, and the Murphys moved home with their daughter to New York. Gerald returned to work at his father's company, making Mark Cross into a successful Park Avenue enterprise through deploying his unique taste and aesthetic; despite his indifference, the business enjoyed unprecedented profit.

The book has a generous inset of family album photos which you are unlikely to see elsewhere. The Murphys' prolific photography reminds one of Facebook with all the candid shots of people having the time of their lives; even in their family album, they are decades ahead of their time. Tellingly, the album ends abruptly with their 1933 return to New York City.

The quote which haunts me most is an exchange between Gerald and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and perhaps explains best why the Murphys resonate with me: "I remember saying to him that for me, only the invented part of life was satisfying, only the unrealistic part. Things happened to you-- sickness, birth, Zelda in Prangins, Patrick in the sanatorium, Father Wiborg's death-- these things were realistic, and you couldn't do anything about them. 'Do you mean you don't accept those things?' Scott asked. I replied that of course I accepted them, but that I didn't feel they were the important things really."