The NY Book Society had a table at the Brooklyn Book Festival on Sunday, and it was great! We were even mentioned in Brooklyn Paper (with a lovely picture by Alexa Telano). We sold a bunch of books and made a lot of new friends, including a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. Best of all, many people who stopped by said we had an awesome table, and we did. Huge thanks to Meryl Meisler, Jackie Neale, Oriana Leckert, Petra Mason, Fredda Gordon, Anna Fox, Diane Smook, and Dallas Athent for making it so.
Here are some snaps:
I didn’t pay attention. Perhaps because the stories always began on Christmas, after presents had been opened and dinner was in the stove. Dad would get a far off look in his eye and say: “In December of 1944, I was crossing war-torn Belgium in an open jeep.” Bitter cold was mentioned, as well as K rations and the Battle of the Bulge, which to my young ears sounded like someone trying to knock off a few pounds. Hoping to keep the day upbeat, we would shush him gently, and jolly him back to the present. He died in 2008 at age 93, with many stories untold. I wish now I had listened more.
I am not alone. But if Diane Smook didn’t listen as closely as she should have, she did something about it, compiling her father’s wartime letters to her mother in a sweet book called Love & War: The World War II Letters of Arthur Smook.
Putting the letters in chronological order, she discovered two storylines: a relationship that moved from friendship to love, and the relentless pace of history as WWII drew toward a close. Before that, there was the Battle of the Bulge, a last ditch sneak attack by the Germans in December of 1944 that produced the highest number of American casualties during the war.
The story begins when Arthur I. Smook, completing his undergraduate degree at Cornell, enlists in the U.S. Army. His first letter to Miss Sylvia Rosen of Carroll Street, Brooklyn, dated May 11th, 1942, is sent from Ithaca. The dominant tone is light and joshing; they are just friends, fellow alums, good buddies.
HIs next letter to her comes from Ft. Benning, Georgia, where he is in “the midst of a company commander’s course in heavy infantry weapons.” He speaks briefly of eight exhausting hours spent on the machine gun range in heavy rain, setting the pattern for many missives to come: some news as to his whereabouts and doings, a few tight-lipped lines describing hardships and fighting in a way that makes them seem way lighter than they were, followed by a cheerful close.
The close of the letters is the key to Smook’s deepening feelings for Sylvia, whose parents initially opposed the match. Which according to his daughter, “was a big deal.” But Arthur, like many of his generation, was level-headed and steady in his approach to both love and war.
In the summer of 1944, on a home leave, their relationship took a passionate turn, and that August her parents allowed her to visit him in Texas where he was stationed. In letters back to her to family, small details of the times emerge. Looking “put together” was as important then as it is now, and a huge concern for Sylvia was keeping the orchids for her corsage fresh on the long cross-country train ride. Arriving in Paris, Texas, she learns that hotel rooms are hard to get, one with a shower “an untold luxury” (even if the floor of the shower and the bathroom are one in the same). It was a spare time, with hardships large and small. Amid the minutiae of daily life, there is a sense of larger purpose and shared sacrifice.
After the Texas sojourn, talk of marriage begins to appear in the letters. As Arthur Smook is shipped overseas, this morphs into a dream-like tone of longing and hope for a better time when the war is through, when they will “be together in our own little shack on Long Island.” Their story has a happy ending, but many did not. According to his daughter, Smook’s unit was “decimated crossing the Danube.” There was a “group of forty going in, eighteen coming out.”
She remembers asking her father whether he had killed anybody, and his answer was: “well, yes.” He told her that “the first thing you learn is to stop thinking,” to “put one foot in front of the other and turn off your brain.” You also had to “adjust your brain to the fact that you’re probably not coming back.”
As the war progressed, Smook also worried about returning to civilized life:
“We are men in a foreign country and cannot help feeling that slowly we are being forgotten by the people back home. Men I have met who spent a long time in combat are really in bad shape. They are afraid of the day when they will have to go home for fear that they will no longer fit into the society they came from.”
He had seen terrible things, been devastated when men he had trained or commanded were killed. It affected his nerves and gave him nightmares. In April 1945, he suffered a concussion when a shell exploded in a nearby foxhole. He and many others were affected by a condition called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. At the time, it was lumped into the vague category of “nerves,” for which many, including Arthur Smook, were treated with insulin. Which didn’t address the psychological roots of the suffering. And Diane’s mother, the former Sylvia Rosen, admitted that “the man she married was not the one she was engaged to.”
The man who returned to Long Island to raise a family had a short fuse. His daughter learned this firsthand as a teen when she tangled with him over curfews and rules she felt were too harsh. Her brother Richard also felt a distance, and wished he had done more fun things with his father. Yet reading his letters, they were struck by the depth of feeling conveyed, discovering a side of their father they had never seen.
Diane Smook, a talented photographer, was determined to preserve the letters. She photocopied them and put them in chronological order, then assembled them on her computer, upgrading software as necessary to edit and complete the project. After investigating several publishers and book designers, she decided to do it herself. Love & War is not fancy in terms of size and fonts, but looks fine and is easy to read. There are pictures of some of the letters, and of Arthur, dashing in his uniform, and Sylvia (minus corsage) resplendent in a summer dress and what appears to be a Red Cross coat. Also included is their wedding invitation and pictures of the happy couple, united at last.
Reading the letters is strangely comforting. Though war hovers in the background, they speak of a more modest time when honor and serving the greater good took precedence over self. After a decade of economic hardship, the Greatest Generation faced the ultimate test and rose to it. Through it, they were tough and uncomplaining, as were their loved ones. It was a shared burden with high stakes–the future of the world. Though letters, they dreamed of a better time, yet took a keen interest in the small details of everyday life as they waited for mankind to regain its sanity. Love & War is a loving tribute by a daughter to her parents, a snapshot of the way we as a country once were. It deserves a home in libraries, institutions, and museums dedicated to preserving the history of that day.
(Arthur Smook received two Combat Infantryman’s Awards, a Bronze Star, and four Purple Heart medals for bravery and combat service during World War II)
– Catherine Kirkpatrick
See and read about it in the New Yorker (where I was quoted!).
It’s been a really, really busy spring. Bushwick Open Studios is coming up, so there’s that to get ready for. I also write for Arts in Bushwick, and there’s been stuff for that (see “Chasing History: The 2015 AiB Benefit Exhibition“), then there’s Meryl Meisler. This photo-based artist is at it again, with a new book Purgatory & Paradise: SASSY ’70s Suburbia & The City scheduled to arrive in time for BOS (Bushwick Open Studios for those on other planets).
In it are her first pictures ever, which are very good. She seems to have sprung forth fully formed, immediately creating cohesive and visually compelling bodies of work. It began when she was on break from the University of Wisconsin, and started documenting family and friends in the suburban enclave of Massapequa, Long Island. At the same time, she also began photo forays into New York City, the Big Apple, which at the time was rotting, ridden with crime and decay. She loved it, and the pictures show her love and compassion for the people of its streets as well the people in the sheltered neighborhood where she grew up.
Meryl is a wonderful person, so when she asked me to contribute the introduction (I wrote the one for her first book), I jumped. This year there was that frenemy of all writers–time! I could actually prepare instead of scribbling off the cuff! I read books on the 70′s, looked up icons of its culture, even went back to the 60′s, reading the magnificent, lofty speeches of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. I had so much research going that when it came time to actually write, I was overwhelmed. There was enough material for a thesis, but way too much for a 1,100 word intro. Oops.
Less can be more, but less is hard, like packing a small suitcase. You can’t take the whole closet, but need clothes for day and evening, rain and shine, cultural events as well as sports. If this sounds like something a 1920′s lady of leisure would say, you know what I mean.
There were numerous drafts, how many I can’t even say. Too embarrassed. They spilled from my iPad to my iPhone to my laptop. Finally had to use that glorious app, Mellel, the docent of long documents, to sort it all out.
Meanwhile, Meryl and Patty (uber-designer Patricia O’Brien) were frantically editing images with the help of publisher Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire. Amy Leffler was composing her reflections on the famed “Mystery Club” (outings to seances and a nudist colony), and I was hacking away at these ginormous text documents I had going. Let’s just say everyone had something to do and was very, very busy.
The book went through several drafts, the feel shifting with each version. When I first saw the pictures, the thing that stood out was the eclectic, outlandish interior design of the suburban homes, that ranged from French Empire to Mid-century Modern, with comic book touches thrown in. Yet in the next iteration (with my draft well underway), other things seemed more prominent. Was I mad? Losing my mind? How could I have gotten things so horribly wrong?
I shifted certain paragraphs of the draft to reflect the new tone, yet had tremendous doubt whether I was still touching too heavily on the wrong things. With deadlines looming, everyone brought their work to an end. The final cut brought even more sass to the project, and restored many pictures featuring the ornate decor that had caught my eye in the first place.
Lesson: I thought I was the only one with sprawling, messy work habits, but I am not. It is a part of everyone’s creative process, no matter how refined and “inevitable” the final product is. Stay tuned for this book–it’s going to be a good one.
I just finished Paula Hawkins”Girl on the Train,” managing to break the reading into several sessions because I desperately wanted to stretch it out. It was delicious, an Alfred Hitchcock on paper (actually on my digital reader). Can’t imagine how the movie can possibly be any better, though Dreamworks purchased the rights.
Hawkins had written several romance novels under the pen name Amy Silver, but grew tired of the genre’s limitations, and wanted take on something darker. She has, in spades.
With its (very) unreliable instigator/protagonist, and female characters who start off close to stereotypes (the golden girl, the sympathetic wife), then grow complex, it marks a new high in women’s fiction. The end is like something out of Greek tragedy, the characters bloodied, but noble.
There is a new literary genre shaping up, a kind of “came-of-age-now-what” story where young people have graduated from college, seen a bit of the world, held jobs, and had their share of love. But they are hungry for something else, something more significant and mature. Taylor Jenkins Reid’s work fits perfectly into this category, chronicling their choices and dilemmas, and the NY Book Society is pleased to reveal (don’t scream!) the cover of her third novel, MAYBE IN ANOTHER LIFE, that goes on sale July 7, 2015. Published by Atria Books/Washington Square Press, it sounds like the perfect summer read.
Taylor Jenkins Reid is the author of Forever, Interrupted and After I Do. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, Alex, and her dog, Rabbit (who is very cute and does have ears like a rabbit). You can follow her on Twitter @TJenkinsReid.
When you think of “subway series,” you picture the New York Yankees versus the New York Mets. The Bronx and Queens, accessible by the No. 4 and No. 7 trains which intersect at Grand Central. That station, like Times Square, and the subway system itself, is one of the great crossroads of the modern world, where all kinds of people come and go on a daily basis. There are rich, poor, foreign born and native New Yorkers. They travel to work, return home; they read, sleep, primp and eat on the trains. They’re in their own world and in ours.
Usually on the subway people look, but don’t really see. Photographer Jackie Neale not only saw and paid attention, but captured a slice of our time, using the tools of our time: a smart phone and Instagram.
When you think of Jackie Neale, you don’t think of Instagram. A graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and photographer at the Metropolitan Museum, she knows her way around a camera. Her work is elegant and hi-res. Why would she use a phone to capture anything but the most ordinary images? And why would she use those images to create a book?
The answer is flexibility and freedom. As with Walker Evans and Bruce Davidson, a small, portable camera, in her case a smart phone, enabled her to get very close to people in real life–and it doesn’t get any more real than the New York subway–and capture them as they are. There are no “photo faces” or “F off” gestures of anger, just people going about their lives, heading somewhere.
Unlike most phone shots, these pictures have a purpose you can sense. Despite their apparent casualness, they are telling us something about our world–our concerns, manners and dress–at this particular point in history. The absence of color allow us to concentrate on form, and also connects them to the earlier subway images of Walker Evans, and to the long tradition of gritty B&W street photography. Despite the low-res format, there is some quality that calls us back to them. They demand a second look; they fascinate.
Here are Neale’s thoughts on why she chose to do the project in the form of a book:
“From my experience, a person’s comprehension and absorption is completely different when using a computer/handheld device than when holding a tangible object like a book in their hands…. I took that experience for granted for most of my life, not thinking it was special in any way. I was never prepared to only have my work viewed on a screen, and always envision all of my bodies of work in final print form. But with an entire generation of new photographers only visualizing the end game as being on a screen, printing what people would expect to only see on their phones is my way of insisting that people appreciate more than the two-dimensional. Three dimensions represents life to me. Even a two dimensional drawing is a three dimensional object. My mind tends to go off, thinking how, in it’s own way, the concept is surreal…art imitating life, life imitating art, and becoming similar to surrealist concepts like The Treachery of Images…’Ceci n’est pas une pipe.’ But that is a bigger discussion.”
We look forward to it.
– Catherine Kirkpatrick, NY Book Society
On Monday, November 17th the Brooklyn Historical Society hosted a panel discussion called Brooklyn’s On Fire: Bushwick is Burning. Moderated by Johathan Mahler, a New York Times media reporter and author of the critically acclaimed Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning, it included photographer Meryl Meisler, a tenant lawyer, an FDNY fire marshal, a Community Board manager, and a displaced resident. It was a lively discussion with spirited responses from the audience that included people who grew up in Bushwick, those who fought fires there, and residents who live and work there now.
Meisler, a special friend of the New York Book Society, has had great success with her 2014 book, A Tale of Two Cities: Disco Era Bushwick. It was reveiwed by Johathan Mahler in the New York Times, and was featured by the New Yorker, and by many prominent publications and websites.
(With special thanks to Heather O’Mara for permission to use her image of the panel)