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Evergreen Memories

All aspects of British life were affected by World War II, from the front lines to the forests, from factories to farms. It disrupted lives, labor, choices, and opportunities, especially with regard to gender. One fascinating example of how the war ushered in different ways of living was the Women’s Land Army. The concept behind it was straightforward: with men in service, the country needed agricultural labor. Why not employ young women? Initially set up in WWI, the Women’s Land Army was disbanded and then re-created in 1939. Land Girls, first volunteers and then conscripts, worked on farms throughout the UK, doing what had been men’s work. More than 80,000 women took part. Britain had its women riveters; it also had women farm hands.

One of the Land Girls was Margaret Hazel Watson (1921-2016). Published in 1943 under the pseudonym Barbara Whitton, her novel Green Hands was about her wartime experience. It was recently reissued as an Imperial War Museum Wartime Classic. The book is fascinating, engaging and a surprisingly warm account of people working and living through challenges. As much memoir as novel, it has a candor and directness that pulled me in with its language and charm. It is a lovely read.

The book’s structure is very much like a diary without dates. As it opens the narrator is sent to a distant Scottish farm where she toils with two other young women. It’s cold, wet, extremely uncomfortable and they do very difficult work. Digging mangolds, a kind of beet, by hand is tough and unappealing. There’s little support. It’s simply backbreaking labor in bad conditions. The young women are discounted, distrusted, and never properly thanked. They persevere. The account of the day-to-day – what people wore, what they ate and drank, how they interacted with each other, what the actual work was like – is fascinating. World War II may not have been all that long ago but the working conditions on farms speak to a harsh and difficult life. Green Hands is a bracing corrective to romantic accounts for British farm life.

After one of the girls gives up – it was simply too unpleasant – the other two are sent to a dairy farm in the north of England. Their work was different, yet still very hard, and the pair bonded as deep friends. They connected more with the community, meeting families, more friends, fellow laborers and others in military service posted nearby. Bee, our narrator, recounts gains and challenges, from learning how to drive the milk cart to wrestling with the sexism of the other farmers. There’s a great sense of the young women growing, both in terms of skills and their own sense of self-worth. The book’s arc follows the form of many other coming of age stories.

Through it all, Bee simply has just the most charming way of looking at things. She never fails to see the humor, her descriptions are deft and not lacking bite, and more than once I thought of how a twentieth century Jane Austen might about what it was like to work for a dairy. Whitton-Watson is that smart and good a writer, with that kind of temperament. She is definitely the kind of person you would want on your island – or farm.

The book’s supporting material references that Watson and her two Land Girl co-workers remained friends and in touch for the rest of their lives. It’s easy to see why. With the right colleagues and partners, the most difficult of circumstances can forge lifetime bonds. Green Hands is much more than personal account. It is a lyrical record of resolution, charm, and the impact of shared labor in difficult circumstances in support of a very worthy cause.

David Potash

British WWII Intrigue

What is it about England that produces so many good mysteries? Is it something in the water, the air, or the culture that gives writers the tools to craft so many outstanding who dunnits? I don’t assiduously read the genre – there are those who readily devour mysteries at a frightening pace – but it’s impossible to read widely and not appreciate the heavy hitters, from Arthur Conan Doyle to Agatha Christie to P.D. James to many others. And among that list, I propose including Kathleen Hewitt.

Hewitt (1893 – 1980) was a prolific writer and playwright, active in London literary and artistic circles, and a well-received author during her lifetime. Thanks to the Imperial War Museum, one of her mysteries, Plenty Under the Counter, was recently reissued. It is, if you will pardon the phrase, a cracking good tale. Called a “wartime classic” by the series editors, it is a page-turner in the tradition of the best sort of mystery.

Plenty Under the Counter is set in London during the Blitz. The war’s conclusion was unknown, the city was under attack, and flourishing throughout the metropolis was an underground economy. That feature of the tale is particularly interesting, as it gives a real flavor for life at the time. Hewitt wrote the book in 1943 as she lived in London, navigated the bombed out streets, and clearly had a handle on the pulse of the city. It bears emphasizing, too, that she was a well-established author at this time. Her talents shine throughout. Characters are distinct, diverse and deftly sketched. Plotting is tight and the time frame compressed, giving an urgency to the story. It is skillfully crafted work that I could easily see finding its way to the stage or cinema.

The book’s hero is an airman on the last week of leave. Flight Lieutenant David Heron is keen on seeing his nurse girlfriend, but as the story opens, there’s a body in the garden of his boarding house with a knife in its back. Heron is good friends with “Meakie,” the former showgirl who runs the house and is having a difficult time with her errant daughter, Thelma. The cast of characters include a fellow navy seaman, a German doctor, a spinster, a maid and the criminals lurking about. Heron’s self-appointed task is solving the crime and we’re along for the ride.

It’s a truly enjoyable read, very good fun and a great example of the genre.

David Potash

Rap Scholar Warriors

Daniel Levin Becker is a scholar, a critic, a translator, and a massive fan of rap. A wordsmith as well as a literary investigator, Becker knows his way around sophisticated prose, poetry, and lyrics. In What’s Good: Notes on Rap and Language, Becker makes a compelling case for a reappraisal of the genius of rap and hip hop lyricism. It’s a love letter penned by a very smart, very knowledgeable fan. I was super impressed and the more I read (and listened), the more I learned.

The book ranges from early days to present, East Coast, West Coast, and local scenes. The chapters are short, akin to aphorisms, each taking up a theme, a question, a connection or a lyric. Becker’s skill is dazzling, drawing out histories and relationships, outlining meaning and meanings. He’s an obsessed expert and he wants to share, to give us the same sense of wonder and admiration. The wordplay, the interplay, the stories and the ways that artists reference each other, admire each other and dis each other is extremely interesting. You have to know to know, though.

It worked for me. I revisited tracks and listened to many new ones. Reading What’s Good is best with a Spotify account, a good pair of headphones, and rap curiosity. My default is to pay closer attention to the beat, but now I’m going to spend more time on Genius (formerly Rap Genius) exploring the wordplay.

And the title for this post? It turns out that many white fans of rap (count Becker and me among them) find an accessible entry point in the works of Jurassic 5. One of their tracks that always makes me smile is Quality Control. Check out the lyrics – it may be old but its message resonates, particularly when it comes to figuring out what is good. Ayo!

David Potash

The Tale of a Fabulist

A short and unusual book, appropriately befitting its short, elusive and inscrutable subject, The Professor and the Parson is Adam Sisman’s biography of a man who never was what he pretended to be. Subtitled “A Story of Desire, Deceit and a Defrocking,” it is the history of an inveterate liar and the famous Oxbridge historian who tracked him. Rigorously researched and woven throughout with questions of “Why?” the book paints a picture of a man whose core essence eludes.

Robert Parkins Peters – though he had more than a few names over the decades – was a confidence man who inveigled his way into academia, schools and churches in the UK, Canada, America and South Africa for decades. In fact, Peter’s entire life, his curriculum vitae if you will, was deception, outrage and flight. He would make up credentials, forge letters of reference, and talk his way into a wide range of posts. None of these positions carried with them much money. They were all spots with intellectual, moral or cultural capital. He’d lead a church, support a program, and pretend to research.

Among the many questions haunting this biography, one is puzzled about why Peters chose this route. Was it some pathological need? For a man who had nothing real to his name, Peters was all about status. Peters used the same tactics and responses again again. He would move to a new place, find a position through forgery and deception, and then do a rotten job in the role. One of the great ironies of the story was the Peters was consistently ineffective in these positions. He was loud-spoken, given to bluster and rigidity, and more often than not, disliked the longer he stayed in one place. Did he ever believe that he’d find a real professional home?

When Peter was challenged, and he invariably would be from a reference, colleague, manager or offended woman, his response was consistent. He would fight back with outrage, litigation and noise. Cries of persecution, of skullduggery, or worse would cloud the issue. The smoke would dissipate and Peters would be fired or he would resign, moving to another place and starting again. Occasionally punctuating this cycle was a spot in prison for bigamy or bad checks. Peters behavior was exhausting. And in Sisman’s elegant hand, an extraordinary idiversion. The famous historian Hugh Trevor-Roper found it equally fascinating. Trevor-Roper was initially fooled by Peters. He then sorted things out and created a dossier on Peters, tracking him over the years.

Peters’ relationship with women was another puzzling aspect to the man. He was misogynistic and a strong advocate for traditional gender roles. He also was always after women, talking them up and looking for relationships. Peters was married many, many times. The church cast him out because of bigamy. What was Peters’ charm?

It’s a great question and one that motivated Sisman. I, too, thought of while reading The Professor and the Parson. What was it about this low-level confidence man that allowed him a lifetime of lies? And what it is about the church and college environment that enables this kind of actor? Are there more Peters out there, lurking in search pools and haunting our offices? It’s a very strange story, one that leaves you puzzled and entertained.

David Potash

Writerly Sagacity with Wit

Anne Lamott is one very wise, very funny writer. The 25th anniversary edition of her seminal book, Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, is comedic, philosophical and a very entertaining read. That endorsement holds true for all manner of readers, whether you are a writer or simply someone who writes, a professional or a student or an aspiring author. Or simply someone who caught her TED talk and would like to hear more.

Lamott writes novels and non-fiction. Her voice is unmistakable, clear and carrying an honesty and immediacy that catches you by the lapels. She is in your face and in your head, and she does it without polemics or a loud voice. Instead, Lamott writes with the great strength that comes from awareness and openness with one’s vulnerability. At first blush you might think it self-deprecating, but much more is taking place. Her prose is extraordinarily human in the best sense of the word. She writes to learn, to know herself and others, and to make sense of the human condition.

Bird By Bird captures that well, giving outlines and observations to what can be an overwhelming task: writing. The title comes from a personal anecdote. Lamott’s brother was assigned a school report on birds, a topic he found too complex and confusing to capture on paper. He did not know how to begin. To address the problem he began with small steps, going bird by bird. The same approach works with writing, Lamott counsels. There is no finished book without many shitty first drafts. Her humor, warm and dark, gives the reader and aspiring writer the reassurance that their struggles may be special, but they are far from unique. Lamott teaches writing regularly and it’s apparent to see that she’d be an outstanding a coach and guide. She is one in this book

It’s easy to find a summary of Bird By Bird online. You can download powerpoints, watch youtube videos, and copy the notes. A documentary was made about her and the book. However, watching and shortcuts in so many ways might bypass a very important point. Underlying Lamott’s work is a recognition that writing is hard work. One of the things that makes it so valuable is the difficulty inherent in writing.. It requires engagement, imagination, and all the comes from working through frustration and despair. You just can’t get all that with notes. If you want to learn from Lamott and to become a better writer, invest the time and energy in the process. Give Bird By Bird time and your undivided attention. I’d wager that Anne Lamott is well worth it.

David Potash

The Magic of Wolpertings in Zamonia

Walter Moers’ indescribably epic epic, Rumo, is out of print in English. Hankering for a return to Zamonia and a refresher of Rumo’s miraculous adventures, I tracked down a second-hand copy. The tale was even better the third time through. More than a few things are special about this book. But no new copies? That’s a crime. Rumo is genius, unlike most things that we read. Why aren’t more captivated by this most unusual of books?

That is probably it, the most simple of explanations. Rumo is so unique, so difficult to characterize, that you might never pick it up should you chance across a copy. Without word of mouth, you might not be able to tell if it was for children or belong to science fiction or fantasy sections. It is chock full of unusual ink drawings. Rumo doesn’t fit into any recognizable box, and as such, may not be readily categorized. Nor easily marketed. But what a story! Please let me introduce you to a history that once read, will never leave you.

The book is massive and is actually two books, bound together with a common story and characters. It takes place in the land of Zamonia, a continent with a rich history of many different kinds creatures, drawn from the fervid imagination of Moers, and no humans. Most of the creatures speak, and all who speak have something interesting to say. Moers has set other novels in Zamonia. It’s an exciting place, steeped in danger: the perfect place to visit through a work of fiction, not a place you might want to live. A quiet and peaceful life in Zamonia is rare.

Our eponymous hero, Rumo, is a wolperting, a dog-like creature with horns and outstanding fighting abilities. Rumo, a quiet fellow who is uncomfortable in the limelight, turns out to be exceptionally good at fighting, even compared to other wolpertings. His frailties – and Moers’ characters, imagined beasts though they may be, consistently are complicated and ring, somehow, as true – make him all the more identifiable. You root for Rumo, who displays tremendous sangfroid in the face of extraordinary risks. It’s a violent tale, much as one would find in a Norse epic. Rumo’s adventures call for interaction with all manner of creatures, and as his and other’s stories unfold, we learn much of the history of Zamonia.

And that doesn’t at all capture the excitement on each page, the humor woven throughout, the wit and the drama. Helping us visualize it all, Moers’ drawings illustrate creatures and their traits. Among his many creative abilities, he’s a very successful cartoonist in Germany. Buy into the book, give it time and focus your imagination, and it becomes all the more memorable.

Book for young adults? Book for adults? Book for adults who think like kids? I have no idea. And it does not matter.

Rumo and His Miraculous Adventures brings to me a return to an extraordinary land where I can marvel at Moers’ genius and truly enjoy the ride.

Good luck finding a copy. It’s completely and totally worth it.

David Potash

Warring on the Home Front

At first glance, To All the Living might seem like a strangely situated novel, looking at factory life in WWII England. Give it a read, though, and it opens up into an extremely interesting tale, filled with drama and a profound appreciation for all characters. It’s a fascinating book. And while not the most innovative works of literature, it flashes more than a few moments of true brilliance. Makes sense, too, as its author, Monica Felton, was an extraordinary person. The Imperial War Museum is so right in naming this a classic.

The story centers around the workers at the Blimpton ammunition factory in Dustborough. Naming is humorous and apt. Miss Creed oversees the women who do much of the labor. Public relations for the enterprise is headed by Otway Dolphin. Small details, flourishes and asides are thoughtfully employed throughout. Felton shares a great deal, with skill and sometimes surprisingly few words.

Drama emerges through the complex interplay of workers and the pressures on the factory. It takes place during the early years of WWII, when Britain’s continued existence was at stake. That big-picture dread is on the horizon, while the characters also wrestle with everyday challenges and fears. Much of the actual work is making ammunition for artillery, a toxic and dangerous business. Young women, sold on the idea of making money – remember, options were quite limited – and helping the war effort, are the labor force. Necessarily they are stressed, often unhappy, and trying to figure out their place within a rapidly changing world. Bureaucratic wrangling and structural incompetence adds another layer of complexity. Though set many years ago, the novel will ring true to anyone who has worked in a politically driven multi-tiered organization.

Felton, a committed feminist, gives her female characters authentic voice. Ground-up narration in the third person, building a series of interlocking stories from multiple perspectives, shapes the text. There’s humor, wit, and more than a fair share of criticism, formal and informal. The book also has romance, colorful characters (despite the dreariness of Dustborough), politics at the local and national level, and a very keen ear for the hidden battles that are woven throughout workplaces.

Felton, a PhD from the London School of Economics, was a town planner, elected official, and serious political player. She worked in Britain’s Ministry of Supply during the early years of the war, too, giving her the direct material for much of the book. Felton clearly was an extraordinarily thoughtful woman and it is evident that To All the Living was not written solely for entertainment. She had important ideas that she wanted to convey. That struck me as quite similar to much of George Elliot’s literature. Both women used plot, characters and conflict to bring to life broader issues, especially the opportunities and constraints defining women’s lives.

Really good novel from a brilliant author – I heartily recommend To All the Living. It has relevance today.

David Potash

1920s Crime & Craziness

The Ghosts of Eden Park, Karen Abbott’s 2019 popular history, tells a dramatic true-life story. So much happens – it is so over-the-top – that it is difficult to believe. Nevertheless, it’s all true.

Abbott, who now goes by the name of Abbott Kahler, is a skilled writer who found success with other histories: Sin in the Second City, American Rose, and Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy. Drawn to tales of crime, betrayal, and the intersection of popular culture and politics, Abbot mixes first-person historical accounts with tabloid-like descriptions and focus. She likes the lurid. Ghosts is a fine example of this sort of work. Abbott’s book is engaging and entertaining.

The story is about a murder trial and the intrigues and stresses that led to it. George Remus and his wife, Imogen, are the primary characters. It takes place in the Midwest in the early twentieth century, a hotbed of crime and Americana. Remus was a pharmacist, lawyer, and wildly ambitious bootlegger who amassed and lost a fortune. Imogen, an equally dynamic character, was his partner and wife. That was, however, until Remus was locked up for some of his crimes. Plotting, criminal activity and all manner of excess take place before the trials. We get a good picture of the investigatory and legal work that led to Remus’s incarceration. Abbott switches her focus very effectively.

In a surprising twist, Imogen takes up with a Department of Justice investigator who was tasked with investigating her wayward husband. Twists and double twists swirl around Remus. He is too dangerous and amoral to serve as a traditional hero. However, as a key character, he is perfect.

Once Imogen’s affair became serious, the investigator resigned from the government. Remus was released and more acrimonious conflict soon followed. There’s lying, crime, violence, more trials, and a surprising interplay with national politics and players. Remus built his business at the start of Prohibition, tangled with other criminals and the politicos, as well as the up and comers in Cincinnati and Chicago. Corruption in the Harding Administration fueled his enterprise.

Snaps to Kahler for putting together a very engaging history, a book that reads like a novel and is grounded in research. There will be a movie, too. The story is that good.

David Potash

The Line Between Funny and Sad

Sam Lipsyte is a successful American writer, a novelist and teacher of fiction at Columbia University. He knows his way around a plot and is very adept at the witty observation, the sarcastic aside and the comedic rant. Lipsyte’s 2010 novel, The Ask, is one of his most popular works. Recommended to me as a funny book about higher education, I decided to give it a try.

The Ask could be read as funny. I write that, though, with a particular understanding of “funny” – meaning the dark sort of humor that feeds on things turning out poorly. Classic Russian short stories can do that sort of disaster as humor well. This novel is set in academia, an advancement office in a New York City university, but higher education doesn’t really drive the story. It has more than a few ridiculous situations and is chock full of sharp barbs and witty asides. The situations are often over the top. All that said, I did find it to be a terribly funny book. The Ask, at least to my thinking, is profoundly sad. It is insightful and somewhat damning, especially when it comes to thinking more deeply about what it might mean to be a man, a good father, a competent worker or professional. Reading it made me wonder about how personal a sense of humor might be to each of us. Is it unique? Or is something different at play?

The novel is written in the first person. It’s an account from the perspective of an anti-hero or hero, depending upon your viewpoint, a witty loser whose life is unraveling. A failed artist who is fired from his development position at the start of the book, Milo is rehired thanks to the machinations of a wealthy college friend. That’s one strand of plot for the hapless Milo. Accompanying it is the dissolution of Milo’s marriage and his awkward attempts to be a good father. Amid his self-destructive activities, he genuinely wants to be a positive influence in his son’s life. Flitting in and out are idiosyncratic eccentrics, all well drawn and crafted.

The novel does not offer much by way of revelations. The book is more about realizations, commentary as things unravel. Characters are more often than not ridiculous. Through it all, Milo’s sarcasm, wise cracks and impetuousness carry us along, as do the wild actions and awkward situations.

My difficulty with the novel as humor, I believe, came from taking Milo’s character as the moral anchor of the book. He is ill-considered, impetuous, lacking in judgment, unlucky, and doomed. It was clear to me from the very beginning that the ending would not be happy. Yet through the setbacks and humiliations, Milo wants to do well and be good, especially as a father and husband. It is quite sad, almost tragic. If one doesn’t care about Milo or take him seriously, the humorous bits might carry the reader along. But if you allow him, or the other characters, to be fully realized, the taste of the humor may sour. And once one thinks of Milo and the other key characters as fully realized, adults who find it impossible to be a grown up, the humor disappears like mist in the sun.

At least it did for me. This is a modern day tragedy, lacking catharsis yet strong in critiques. For many others, The Ask is something different – a humorous take on a loser’s misadventures.

David Potash

Squadron Airborne – WWII Classic

There’s something humbling, fascinating and exciting about discovering a successful author and one of their books. “Why didn’t I know this?” is a common first response, and if the book is really good, then it’s “No wonder it was so successful!” That is often followed by a “Others should read this, too. This book should not be forgotten.” Soon after is “I wonder what other works by this author I should read?” I cycled through all of these while devouring Squadron Airborne by Elleston Trevor, an extremely gifted and prolific novelist. Published in 1955, it is a very good WWII novel. In fact, it is a good novel regardless of the setting. It’s a riveting read that need not be categorized as wartime fiction.

The book tells the story of the pilots and support team and neighbors at a fictional Spitfire fighter base in England in 1940. Taking place over a week, it is rich with authentic detail, memorable characters, tons of action and well-crafted interplay driving the plot. This was during the “Battle of Britain,” the early stages of the war when England’s very survival was at question. The novel is heroic, thrilling, scary, and has more than thread of romance. Above all, Squadron Airborne is very much a book about how a team works together. It is a novel grounded in high-stakes labor, and it is that sense of shared purpose and threat that holds it together. It all makes for a very engaging, very interesting read.

Elleston Trevor was a pseudonym but the eventual legal name of Squadron Airborne’s author. Born Trevor Dudley-Smith in 1920 in England, Trevor had a knock-about life before World War II, where he served with the RAF. Research indicates that some of Trevor’s military service was as an aircraft mechanic. Regardless of responsibilities through the war and beyond, he wrote and wrote, eventually penning more than a hundred works under several different pen names. He moved to the USA where he enjoyed commercial and critical successes. His best-known novel, Flight of the Phoenix, was made into two movies. Trevor also found many fans and readers in the Quiller spy novels, several of which were done for television and cinema. The man knew how to pace a story, how to say a lot with few words, and to engage readers. He died in 1995.

A very big thanks to London’s Imperial War Museum for re-issuing Squadron Airborne and other wartime classics. Looks like I have a lot more Trevor to read.

David Potash