Posted by: ktzefr | January 23, 2012

Snow, Minestrone, and a Good Old Book…

One of my favorite things to do when it snows is make a pot of soup and settle in with a good “old” book. 

Vogue’s First Reader was published by Conde Nast in 1942.  It’s a huge tome  at 557 pages with essays by more than 70 authors.  Some famous, others not so much.  There’s Thomas Wolfe and Andre Maurois, Ludwig Bemelmans and Katherine Anne Porter, Carson McCullers and William Saroyan.   Allene Talmey writes about Clare Boothe and Clare Boothe writes about theater in China.  Andre Maurois recalls Christmas in France and Therese Bonney writes about Gertrude Stein in France.  Many of the essays are personal experiences written against the backdrop of war.  

Here are a few personal “windows” I got a chance to look back and peek into…

— Carson McCullers loved Brooklyn.  Her NYC neighborhood was very different from the Georgia of her childhood, but she writes with warmth in “Brooklyn is My Neighborhood” about the people she met, such as the young Italian electrician who whistled operatic arias while he worked and shared a bottle of homemade wine with her the day his first child was born.  She buys her coal from the man who lives next door and befriends an elderly lady who takes in stray dogs and keeps a monkey as a pet.  The thing she loved most about Brooklyn in the 40s?  “Every one is not expected to be exactly like every one else.”

—  Claire Boothe’s “Chungking’s Broadway” is a fascinating look at China during World War 2 and a good example of the old saying, “the show must go on.”  Chungking’s playgoers flocked to the theaters regardless of air raids and fires and Japanese bombers.  They sat on planks when the theaters were bombed and the seats destroyed.  They watched the show by kerosene lamps when the electricity went off.  They did without scenery when the stage lay in rubble.  Boothe writes: “In the capital of wartime China, a city of four hundred thousand, which has had ten times as many tons of bombs dumped on it per square acre as London, there is always a play…”  And all the plays had the same moral (“Defeat the Japanese”) Ms. Boothe was told, although in most plays the war was not even mentioned.   It didn’t have to be, a friend explained.  In every plot this was understood.

—  In “Chile Con Amore” Ludwig Bemelmans relates one funny story after another about his travels in South America.  On his arrival in Valparaiso he asked a taxi to take him to the Hotel Astor as it had been highly recommended by a friend.  The driver refused.  After some debate, the driver called a policeman over to the car.  The policeman also said “no” to the Hotel Astor, but Bemelmans insisted.  He suspected the two were suggesting a different hotel because they must have been in cahoots with the owner.  Finally, the taxi driver agreed to take Bemelmans where he wanted to go.  They took a long drive across town and the taxi stopped in front of a huge excavation site filled with trucks and construction equipment.  He quickly unloaded the trunks and suitcases.  “This, Senor, will be the Hotel Astor about six months from now, or perhaps a year,” he said, and he drove off.  It still pays to listen to the locals.

— While Mary Ellen Chase wrote a serious piece about the war (“Here We Stand”) Virginia Cowles aimed at making readers laugh (“Humour — The Bomb-Proof Kind”).  Chase claims that the predominant emotion after December 7, 1941 was intense relief — “relief from the intolerable strain of indecision.”  She considers politics and economics as vital and necessary, but they also represent superficial and temporal worlds in comparison with the moral and spiritual world in which we “really” live.  On a lighter note, Cowles says that humour “flashes out of misery like the gleam of cat eyes through a black alley.”  Wandering through the ruins of London after the blitz, she discovered the capital had not lost its ability to laugh.  A barber shop with a caved-in roof also had a sign in the window: “Close shave, eh?”  A department store with two floors missing displayed a poster: “You ought to see our Berlin branch.”  And a private home that was mostly in rubble had a message written in chalk on the pavement: “I wouldn’t even wish this on my mother-in-law.”

I love personal experience essays because I always learn something new or will myself to look at life through a different set of eyes.  Sometimes my own impressions and opinions are reinforced; sometimes I change my mind.  It’s a great way to “experience” history, rather than merely reading a book full of facts.






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