A farewell to Paul Fussell

This week, the New York Times Sunday Magazine eulogizes the famous people who died over the past year. Dwight Garner writes of Paul Fussell:

Fussell’s masterpiece is “The Great War and Modern Memory” (1975), a book that’s of permanent literary interest; his prose and quality of observation are uncommonly fine. …  A literary scholar as well as a soldier, Fussell attended to (of all things) that war’s poetry and observed how it exposed the yawning gaps between the myth and reality of armed conflict.


Here’s the link:


Christmas dinner

What will be on your table? Turkey. ham, goose? Americans are not big fans of goose — most of us have never even eaten duck. A fine rib roast sounds good to me, but don’t mess with the dressing. I read once of a woman who went to a great deal of trouble to prepare oyster dressing for Thanksgiving, only to have her son refused to eat it.

He said: It takes like walrus.

Children in the belligerent countries lost their picky tendencies during WWI — many of them would have eaten walrus. Charles Todd, the mother/son duo who writes the popular Inspector Rutledge post-war mysteries and the mid-war adventures of nurse Bess Crawford, has written a Christmas story about an aristocrat who is in Paris with her fiance when the war begins and has to struggle to get back to England. She meets a handsome captain and so on, and she runs across Bess. It sounds like a more romantic story than their other novels.

Anyway, the Todds, who are Americans, visited Scotland for research and wrote a post about their travels for The Secret Ingredient blog that includes notes on what British families ate during the war. Warning: Have a snack before you read this — they begin by describing in detail all that they ate in Scotland. Apparently, sticky pudding is to die for.


Here’s the Todds’ website:


Book review: “At the Front in a Flivver”

William Yorke Stevenson went to France in 1916 as a volunteer ambulance driver. His year-long sojourn resulted in the memoir – part diary, part letters – “At the Front in a Flivver.”


William Yorke Stevenson with his ambulance

The flivver was a Ford ambulance, in a battered fleet of ambulances the American Ambulance Field Service used to transport French soldiers to dressing stations. The ambulances ran back and forth on heavily shelled roads full of holes. They frequently broke down with a cargo of badly wounded men, and the drivers jumped out and fixed them, often while under fire.

Stevenson served with Section No. 1 during its assignments to the Somme – yes, there were French troops at the Battle of the Somme – Verdun and the Argonne. He was on duty at the final battle for Fleury in September 1916, the end of the Germans’ offensive at Verdun.

It’s not fair to Stevenson to paint him as a carefree lightweight who blundered naively into war and had to grow up. His writing is casual, but only because he doesn’t want a lot of fuss. And like most of the American volunteers, his admiration is all for the troops and none for himself. Still, you can see the change from his first diary entry from Paris on March 15, 1916:

 “Most of the Ambulance men are at the front. They have organized a new special fifteen-day corps for emergencies. It is now at Verdun. I hope I get a chance, although, of course, the turns go more or less by seniority.”

On Dec. 3, he writes aboard the ship taking him home:

 “C. started the ball rolling by copying in his sleep the sound of the guns at Verdun. He did it so well that it sent one woman into hysterics and they had to wake him up. Then an aviator on twenty-one days’ leave proceeded to have a nightmare. Then they tell me I called out in my sleep, ‘What, four new men and only one going? For Heaven’s sake!’ They say it was quite distinct.”

He returned to France in March 1917, just ahead of the U.S. entry into the war and made the transition from volunteer to combatant, which he detailed in the sequel “From Poilu to Yank.”

“At the Front in a Flivver” makes a pleasant read, but if you read it alongside an account of the actual battles, it’s hair-raising.

The Battle of Verdun ended on Dec. 19 with the Germans pushed back to their jumping off positions and 700,000 men dead, wounded or missing.

Happy Hannukah!

Here are photos of soldiers celebrating with their menorahs.. These photos are from the collection of  the Center for Jewish History in New York City. These are German and Austrian soldiers celebrating together.

co the Leo Baeck Institute at the Center for Jewish History

Here are German soldiers marking the holiday in Poland.

Hannukah 1916

And here are American soldiers, celebrating in 1917 at the Little White House, Camp Gordon, Georgia.


Book 18: “The Conjurer’s Boy”

When I started the War Through the Generations World War I Challenge, I committed — to myself — to reading one book a week.

Didn’t work out.

I can read that fast, but I realized that I couldn’t read that much death and destruction book after book. So I gave reading weekly reading — so I have to rename my review series and count the actual books, not the weeks.

This post is about an urban fantasy. Not everyone’s taste, but a wonderful read. “The Conjurer’s Boy,” by Michael Raleigh, is about a 14-year-old being chased by bullies who ducks into a bookstore and finds a new life. The man who runs the store, and seems to buy more books from odd strangers than he does selling them, has some healing powers.

When you review a book with supernatural components, you don’t want to give away too much, so I’ll just say: Everything goes back to the Somme.

We can’t always take the world seriously — reading can be an escape as well as instructive. So if you enjoy fun fiction, this might be the book for you. The characters are engaging and surprising, the setting is specific and well-detailed.