Book report: War comes to a small town in Sussex

The Summer Before the War has been51eS2lPk4cL._SY346_ on my “to be read” shelf since I heard author, Helen Simonson interviewed on NPR some time ago. I’d enjoyed her debut novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, which I found to be simply charming and have recommended often.

Now I can recommend her second novel to you, especially if, like me, you were a fan of “Downton Abbey.” This book is not set on a grand estate, but rather in the town of Rye in Sussex, just before England enters World War I.

We meet liberally-educated and well-traveled, Beatrice Nash, whose father has recently died. She arrives in Rye, still grieving, to take a position teaching Latin as she seeks to gain independence from her family who controls what little money she has inherited. Already in her early twenties, she has resigned herself to spinsterhood. Moreover, as a woman in 1914, she is thwarted at every turn by convention, pettiness, hypocrisy, and prejudice embodied by landladies, solicitors, and small town gossips. Through Beatrice, we are also introduced to a cast of artists, progressives, and a few gypsies who challenge the status quo with their kindness, courage, intelligence, and heart. Beatrice even finds love.

I admire Simonson’s skill at immersing readers into the landscape and conflicts of this time and place. Every well-chosen detail does double duty, informing character or enhancing tension. Simply a pleasure to read. Recommend.

 

 

 

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Book review: Just who do you think you are?

51ctthh6v4l-_sy346_The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion

Fannie Flagg

I’ve been a Flagg fan for years and have always enjoyed the Southern charm, heart, and humor with which she writes. This book is no exception.

Sookie Simmons Poole is approaching sixty and has just married off her third daughter. She’s looking forward to a little time to herself—to tend her beloved birds and maybe read a book or take a trip with her darling husband. Lenore, her “delightfully eccentric” and domineering mother lives two doors down in the tiny Gulf town where everyone knows everyone else’s business. Sookie worries that she carries the gene that has made many of her ancenstors “as batty as hell.” When Sookie receives a phone call followed by a registered letter it shakes her to the core. “Identity crisis” hardly covers the impact of the news she receives.

“Growing up with Lenore, she had always felt like a little brown wren, hopping along behind a huge colorful peacock.”

Meanwhile, readers are also getting acquainted with the Jurdabralinski family who ran the Phillips 66 station in Pulaski, Wisconsin in the years between two World Wars.  Their oldest girl, a free spirit named Fritzi, falls in love with flying. She learns to wing walk and fly as she barnstorms in shows around the Midwest in the early 1940s. When World War II arrives and all the men join the fight, Fritzi and her three sisters successfully run the filling station. Fritzi learns that the Airforce is looking for experienced women fliers to ferry airplanes around the country in order to free up male pilots for combat. Fritzi is one of the first to sign up to be a WASP (Women Air Force Service Pilots) and becomes one of the more that 1000 female pilots to complete seven months of training. These brave women flew sixty million miles of operation flights including ferrying aircraft from factories to bases, flight instruction (both basic and instrument), towing targets for antiaircraft and aerial gunnery, among other duties. You can find out more here: http://wingsacrossamerica.us/wasp/

“It makes me so mad when all the newspaper reporters that come here only want to show the gals putting on lipstick or posing like models…all this phony baloney stuff.  If anybody thinks this is a glamorous job and that we are just in it for the fun, they haven’t watched them pull a friend out of a burning plane and die right in front of them.”

Sookie and Fritzi’s stories are woven together and resolve in a warm and surprising way. I  recommend not only this book, but also learning more about the WASPs, a forgotten chapter of women’s history that is only now being discovered.

Book review: Why you want to catch flies, vinegar girl?

41ajuyjmvpl-_sy346_I’ve been reading and enjoying Anne Tyler’s books for decades, beginning with Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and The Accidental Tourist. Her quirky, yet somehow recognizable characters always make me smile.

Vinegar Girl is no exception. It is a contemporary retelling of “The Taming of the Shrew” and is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare Project, in which respected and diverse authors take on Shakespeare’s best-known stories.

Here, Kate Battista finds herself stuck teaching preschool and running the house for her widowed, eccentric research scientist father and pretty teenage sister, Bunny. Being a scientist, her father has an efficient system for just about everything, from loading the dishwasher to doing laundry. He even thinks cooking just once for the entire week simply makes sense. Watch for his formula for “meat mash.” Naturally, Kate’s forthright and somewhat prickly manner means she’s almost always offending someone.

Trouble starts when Dr. Battista, who is on the verge of a scientific breakthrough that could help millions, has his lifetime of research threatened by the imminent deportation of his foreign-born lab assistant, Pyotr. What to do? An arranged marriage, of course! Kate reluctantly agrees only after it is made clear that the marriage will only be on paper. They just need to convince the Immigration authorities. But then…

Tyler writes some funny and poignant situations around the issues of romance, getting acquainted, family dynamics, and feminism. It’s a comedy with a heart, to be sure.

Pyotr explains something about his country:

 “In my country they have a proverb: ‘Beware against the sweet person, for sugar has no nutrition.’”

This was intriguing. Kate said, “Well, in my country they say that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”

“Yes, they would,” Pyotr said mysteriously…But why you would want to catch flies, hah? Answer me that, vinegar girl.”

On Pyotr’s odd attempts at flattery:

“He had a foreigner’s tendency toward bald, obvious compliments, dropping them with a thud at her feet like a cat presenting her with a dead mouse.”

An excerpt from Kate’s big speech on men:

“Women have been studying people’s feelings since they were toddlers; they’ve been perfecting their radar—their intuition or their empathy or their interpersonal whatchamacallit. They know how things work underneath, while men have been stuck with the sports competitions and the wars and the fame and success. It’s like men and women are in two different countries! I’m not ‘backing down,’ as you call it; I’m letting him into my country. I’m giving him space in a place where we can both be ourselves.”