London War Notes, Mollie Panter-Downes
Throughout World War II, Mollie Panter-Downes wrote regular dispatches for The New Yorker describing daily life in a country at war. When I pulled my copy from the shelf to write this, I found I’d dog-eared dozens of pages of wry and poignant details. Her observations from the ‘home front’ in London are full of the quirks and contrasts of living through conflict—like the fact that in 1943, shipping flowers was forbidden in order to divert energy towards war-related activities, so a few entrepreneurs traveled with “valises stuffed full of bootleg jonquils.” (This image makes me think of that e. e. cummings poem about the horrors humans perpetrate: “thou answerest them only with spring.”)
It’s jarring to encompass light and levity and the moments when “horror may glide down suddenly and noiselessly out of the summer sky,” though Panter-Downes does it gracefully. I don’t have an answer to that eternally recurring problem. But I still look forward to spring.
If you like it
Yevgenia Belorusets’ contemporary Kyiv War Diary about the ongoing war in Ukraine. It’s not a book, but daily snapshots of the present: a little girl coloring; gunfire and drones; people glued to their sources of news. With the rules of news coverage changing, she wrote a few days ago, “only the body of the house and one’s own body sense the danger. For now they have become the most immediate sources of information.”
If you don’t
Something joyful and frothy (but not frivolous) like Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle.
Things I’ve written lately:
Nursing: a Visual History, ArtUK
Flesh and Bones: The Art of Anatomy (Getty exhibition review), Hyperallergic
Under the Covers (how Bridgerton book covers reflect changing attitudes towards romance), Slate
Lover’s Eyes (book review), Nineteenth Century Art Worldwide
The wall text for this exhibition opening April 1 at the Santa Monica History Museum on the historic Broadway neighborhood, which was destroyed by the construction of the freeway/structural racism. If you’re local to LA, check it out!
A quick note - I’m going to start sending these every other month instead of monthly, because my life is feeling full (in many good ways) right now. I reserve the right to revert to the former monthly format should a book arrive that’s just too good not to share.