There's a black-and-white photo taped on my office door at school—the office I haven't been inside in almost a month. It shows an American soldier stretched out, reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith's 1943 novel based on her childhood in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Smith's novel, along with Moby Dick, The Adventures of Superman and some 122 million copies of novels, essays and poetry were printed during World War II and distributed to servicemen. The largest distribution of these so-called "Armed Services Editions" was on the eve of D-Day: Every man boarding a landing craft was handed a book. Even as an uncertain destiny awaited them, some of these guys—like our friend in that photo—found solace in reading.
Books are essential cargo, I believe that. And, I want to give a nod to the range of the Armed Services Editions by recommending a variety of books—old and new—that appeal to me right now.
When I need a mental escape from a stressful situation, I often fantasize about wandering around one of the grand department stores of my New York City childhood: stores like Bonwit Teller and B. Altman. Most of those palaces of consumption are gone but, fortunately, Scribner has recently published the first American edition of a tart, beguiling 1993 department store novel called The Women in Black, by Madeleine St John.
Set in the 1950s, the novel focuses on four saleswomen, decked out in black uniform dresses, who work at Goode's Department Store in Sydney, Australia. My favorite character is a high school girl, a temporary worker named Lisa, who falls in love at first sight with a couture cocktail dress, "a froth of red pin-spotted white organza with a low neck, a tight bodice, a few deep ruffles over the shoulders. ..."
"She was experiencing for the first time that particular species of love-at-first-sight ... which sooner or later comes to all: the sudden recognition that a particular frock is not merely pretty, would not merely suit one, but answers beyond these necessary attributes to one's deepest notions of oneself."
On the cover of The Women in Black is a blurb by author Hilary Mantel who says that this is the book she "most often give[s] as a gift to cheer people up." Do you really need to know anything more?