Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe: Summer Reading

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Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

Summer Reading

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Was it only a week ago that the two weeks of conventions ended? Needing a little non-substantive refreshment, I went to the gloriously renovated Boston Public Library for a little frothy palate-cleanser before getting back to the weightier books on my list.  I grabbed “The Summer Before theWar,” by Helen Simonson.  I was hoping for light reading, a confection. Funny how that worked out.

1914 England and the sun is shining down on those it always shines on, English upper-class fortunates. A thinly-disguised Henry James even makes an appearance. These fortunates are in Rye, walking in their gardens and trying to ignore the slow-motion slide into The War, the one before numbering was shown to be necessary. It was a moment when a woman of privilege could speak of never riding on public railway cars but, instead, having a private car which was cleaned by two of her maids before she got it. (A private railway car? Just for her use? Did the train wait at the station while the maids cleaned it? I am still wondering.)

I had echoes in my head of Hillary’s acceptance speech as I read how the (unmarried, of course) heroine was forced to account for every penny she spent from her own inheritance and how she had to fight for a job she was more than qualified for. And, beyond that, the casual cruelties of 98 years ago:  a gay man threatened with being outed—a way too modern term for what discovery would have meant, a lesbian couple living in shadowy ambiguity, a pregnant rape survivor shunned by “polite society.” Human rights…..women’s rights….The pieces of the plot, totally right for the time, felt shocking in the context of what I had been watching for the past days.

And underneath it all, the war. Waving banners, patriotic parades, young women handing out white feathers to brand unenlisted men as cowards, and only the most astute observers understanding that this was not likely to be an exciting and brief adventure. Especially for the poor recruits on the front lines. Especially given the class distinctions which persisted through who got on the ambulances, who was treated in which hospitals.


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