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Posts Tagged ‘WWII’

This week I returned to reading Europa Editions (that said, my library got a shipment of new books and it’s possible I won’t stick to E.E. only for the rest of the year). I’ve said before here on bookconscious that one of the pleasures of reading Europa Editions is finding authors who aren’t well known in America, but are in their own countries. Joan London is a good example — she’s an award winning author in Australia, but not as well known here. The Golden Age is her fifth book and third novel, and the first of her works re-published by Europa Editions.

This book holds the memory of some really important 20th century history, for people everywhere, and not just in a particular country. The title is from the name of a rehabilitation home for children in Perth who survived polio but need physical therapy and specialized care before they can return home and go back to school and life. The main characters, Frank and Elsa, are the two oldest children at the Golden Age, on the brink of young adulthood. They form a bond that seems both simple — first love — and extraordinary — who but these two can know what it’s like to live as they do? So in part this novel is a book about the generation that survived polio and lived in its aftermath.

Frank’s parents, Meyer and Ida Gold, are Hungarian Jews, survivors of WWII who had to fight in order to live, and who were resettled in Western Australia. Ida was a classical pianist before the war and still thinks of herself as European. Meyer seems more at ease with himself in the world, aware of his difference, but still able to see the possibilities of their new existence than Ida can. And London shows us, but by bit, how Meyer is stretching away from the past and towards the light and warmth of his new country, imagining a good life, while Ida seems to continue to suffer her new home, accepting her fate but not embracing it. In this way The Golden Age is also about the aftermath of the wars that tore the 20th century apart, the Holocaust, and the postwar migrations that led people to adapt in ways they hadn’t thought possible.

Elsa’s parents are also interesting, although we don’t get to know her father, Jack Briggs, as well as her mother, Margaret. What we learn is that Jack is under the influence of his domineering sister, and that Margaret appears to others as stereotypically feminine (emotional and fragile), but her backbone will carry Elsa into the future she dreams of. Margaret is really representative of womanhood on the cusp of liberation from old roles, old rules. She sees a different future for her daughters, even as she contents herself with keeping house and keeping herself out of the way.

These three themes dominate, but the book is also about other things — Sister Penny, who runs the Golden Age, is another woman on the edge, of old and new ways, of choices previously unknown to women. She is also “truly good” as Meyer thinks of her. But she doesn’t wear this goodness comfortably. She is struggling to be true to herself and still adhere to outside expectations. So that’s another idea in this novel. Also the transformative powers of both nature — which seems to nourish certain characters — and art, which Ida still longs for even if it’s not the same in her new life, and which leads Frank into his own future, when he meets a young man just a little older than he is who introduces him to poetry.

And the writing is a delight. Here’s a passage, late in the book, where Meyer has pulled his drinks truck over near the beach, where Sister Penny has been spending a day off:

“‘Now I know why the ocean was ir-res-istible today,’ he called, walking towards her along the kerb, his hands turned up as if a message had come down from the heavens, almost hating his European charm. The winter sun suddenly emerged from behind a bank of cloud, a white brilliance that engulfed them, so blinding it was almost comical. Using their hands as visors they loomed, dreamlike, squinting at each other. Hard to know if their mouths were stretched into a smile or a grimace.”

I loved this book and I look forward to other Joan London books coming out here. The Golden Age is a good read, a book that immersed me in a different place, different lives, and yet reminded me of familiar feelings. There are so many different aspects of the story to discuss, it would be a terrific book club selection.

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My book club decided to read The English Patient after the recent announcement that it had won the “golden” Booker, chosen by readers from a shortlist (selected by judges) of 5 books representing the five decades of the prize. I’d never read it before, but I had recently ordered Warlight, Ondaatje‘s recent novel, for my library and was curious to read the book he’s possibly most known for.

The copy I read has the movie cover — a marketing trend I dislike — with a blown up image of a kiss between two of the characters. This image misleadingly indicates that this love affair, between the man known throughout most of the novel only as the English Patient (because is burned beyond recognition) and the wife of a fellow desert explorer is the central story. Spoiler alert: it isn’t.

The story is actually four fragmented stories which come together, as the people they belong to do, at the end of WWII in an abandoned monastery, Villa San Girolamo. Hana is the first to be there, when it was still an active war hospital. Only twenty years old, she has served as a nurse throughout Italy, where she has suffered her own losses as well as caring for dozens of wounded and dying soldiers. When the allied hospital staff move on she turns in her uniform and stays, in a place where she “felt safe  . . . half adult and half child,” with the English patient, who is too injured to move. For some time it just the two of them in the ruined building, which really isn’t actually safe. Then Caravaggio, a man described as a thief who was Hana’s father’s friend in Toronto, shows up after hearing about the strange young nurse and her patient. Finally Kip, a Punjabi Sikh man from a British sapper unit, comes to stay at the Villa, clearing it of explosives, sleeping in a tent in the garden.

Ondaatje provides only glimpses of each of his main characters, just as one might get from meeting strangers in a war torn place in strange circumstances. Of the four, it is Kip we come to know best, and whose future Ondaatje most clearly portrays. And it is the love between these four, the comradely love that develops when people are thrown together in loss and danger, that is really the centerpiece, not the English Patient’s and his Cairo lover’s. I still think it is accurate to call it a love story set in wartime. But it isn’t just about passion.

It’s also the story of the end of the colonial world, and the rise of a world where wars will now have “mutually assured destruction” hanging over them in the shape of no longer theoretical mushroom clouds. The most moving parts of the book, for me, are towards the end, when Kip hears over his crystal radio set about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and is horrified, realizing that as he has been risking his life throughout the war to disarm bombs, the allies have been planning to unleash this new weapon. He sees, suddenly, that these people he has come to love and admire are the enemy of “the brown races” just as his militant brother in India has warned him.

This isn’t a book with a lot of action, although again, Kip’s story has the most. It’s a book with a lot of scenes in the dark, where the English Patient’s identity stays for much of the time. It’s incredibly interesting — salted with history, geography, literature and art, and a few real historical figures who appear as characters. And it’s a drama about the human capacity to wound and to heal.

 

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I was at a coffee shop/used bookstore yesterday, picked up Graham Swift‘s Last Orders from a sale cart, and thought it sounded like a good read, sort of a male version of the kind of English social novel I like. When I got home and looked through it more closely I realized I’ve read it before, although a quick search of bookconscious seems to indicate I read it before I started the blog, so prior to 2007. I decided I’d read it anyway, and I’m glad I did. Re-reading is something I don’t do often, but have intended to do from time to time. Like during a week when I have a lot of time to read.

Last Orders is about a butcher, Jack Dodds, and the men (and a few women) in his life, in Bermondsey, London. Although not the hip, White Cube Bermondsey of today; it never says exactly, but I think the book is set in the late 80’s, because four of the men, including Jack, are WWII veterans. When the book opens, Jack’s friends and Vince, the man he raised as his son after his family was killed by a bomb, are gathered in their pub, preparing to carrying out Jack’s final wish: that they spread his ashes in the sea at Margate.

The main arc of the story takes place all on that day, with different sections looking back on the men’s lives at different ages. We hear about their wives and daughters, and Jack’s widow, Amy, and Vince’s wife, Mandy, tell bits of their own stories, but most of the book is about and from the perspective of the men. It’s one of those books where most of what’s important to the character’s lives happened earlier, but the events of the book are a kind of climax, emotionally, in their lives.

It’s a lovely book, about long friendship, love, disappointment, unfulfilled dreams, finding what you’re good at, living your life as best you can. There aren’t a lot of novels that go into the emotional lives of men, I think, or else I don’t usually read those. Here’s a bit from a scene when Jack’s in the hospital, and he’s asked to see Vince, who has been thinking that even unwell there is something about the way Jack looks, “. . . it only makes the main thing show through better, like someone’s turned on a little light inside.” As they sit there together, Vince goes on thinking:

“He looks right into my face like he’s looking for a little light too, like he’s looking for his own face in mine, and it goes right through me, like I’m hollow, like I’m empty, that I haven’t got his eyes, his voice, his bones, his way of holding his jaw and looking straight at you without so much as a bleeding blink. . . .  It’s like I’m not real, I ain’t ever been real. But Jack’s real, he’s realler than every. Though he ain’t going to be real much longer.”

So, I re-read, no regrets — although I have loads of books I haven’t read yet, I’m really glad I re-visited this one. Chime in and let me know: do you re-read? How often? How do you decide what gets a second read or more? I’ve heard of some people re-reading a particular favorite annually. The Computer Scientist used to read The Stand every time he was sick. I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts on this.

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On Friday I got home from a week of travel to see each of my parents. And I did something radical, for me — I only took eBooks with me on my iPad. I borrowed some from the library and others from Amazon with my Prime membership. I still don’t love eBooks, but I wanted to take just one small roller bag  and a shoulder bag for the week and I wasn’t sure about the weather so I packed what turned out to be too many clothes and shoes.

Before I left I had nearly finished a book a friend lent me, which I didn’t want to take on the trip since it wasn’t mine to lose or damage (and it turned out I had to gate check my bag on 3 of the 4 legs of the trip, so that was definitely a possibility).  I had posted on Facebook about attending a very interesting talk at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on one of their paintings, Piermatteo D’Amelia’s Annunciation. A friend saw my post and lent me his copy of The Chapel by Michael Downing. Quick aside: this lecture was the first in a new series at the museum called Close Up, where one item from the collection is temporarily displayed by itself in the special exhibit gallery, with accompanying programming that helps visitors learn more about it. I bought the Close Up guide written for Annunciation by Nathaniel Silver and it’s a wonderful little book. I’m looking forward to future Close Ups.

The Chapel features one of my favorite pieces in the Gardner, which one of the guards told me is also the oldest painting in the collection, Giotto’s The Presentation of the Christ Child in the Temple. The book is about E., recent widow of a Harvard administrator named Mitchell, who is on a trip to Italy that her husband planned for them. He was working on a book about Dante, and part of the trip included a visit to the Scrovegni chapel in Padua, home to Giotto’s famous fresco cycle. One of the panels is the precursor to Giotto’s later painting of the presentation of Jesus, hence the connection to the Gardner. The chapel sounds fascinating and beautiful and I hope to visit it one day.

The novel The Chapel was a good read — it’s a book which tells a story and also sets out to examine “Big T” truths, about love and truth and art and loss and grief and belief and being human. E. doesn’t want to be on this trip, but once in Padua she meets T., who seems as lost as she is in some ways, and utterly competent in others, and she also meets a very kind woman named Shelby who is at home in her own soul. Between these encounters and several other minor ones, E. begins to feel her way towards herself again, and to see that she hasn’t been herself not since Mitchell died, but in decades. Readers are treated to gorgeous descriptions of art, food, and drink in Padua (I wanted an Aperol spritz badly as I read) and even more gorgeous discussions of Dante, Giotto, Scrovegni, and the world of art history, preservation, and criticism. I finished it this morning, and enjoyed it very much.

On the planes at the start of my trip I read most of an issue of The Nation. You should stop whatever you’re doing and read What’s Killing America’s Black Babies by Zoe Carpenter right now, and then spend the next weeks processing it. I still am. The article is about the causes of disproportionately high infant mortality rates among black babies — all of which derive from institutionalized racism. And about the heroic work of some people in Milwaukee, where the problem is worse than anywhere else in America, especially, as Carpenter explains, “. . .  Julia Means, a nurse with a striking track record with Milwaukee’s infants. By her own count, Means has worked with 360 families in the last 12 years, through a program called Blanket of Love. Every single baby whose parents came to her group meetings lived to its first birthday, she told me. Her method is to “wrap the pregnant woman up in love.” Read it. Digest it. Talk about it with someone. Or several someones.

I also read a “Kindle Single” by Andy Borowitz, which also appears to be a story on The Moth, An Unexpected TwistIt’s the story of a freak medical condition and a harrowing series of unfortunate events in the treatment/recovery of said condition, but really, it’s a love story. I’d recommend it, even if you usually feel squeamish or uninterested in medical stories.

My mom is really into HGTV and also I’ve been interested in Tiny Houses (and before that, Not So Big Houses) and more intentional owning of things for awhile, so I also borrowed Tiny House Living  by Ryan Mitchell in the Prime reading section of the Kindle store. I didn’t read every word — some of it is similar to other things I’ve read that discuss paring down your stuff, deciding what you value, living more lightly, etc. I enjoyed the stories of people who went Tiny and the pictures. It was good vacation reading. Inspiring.

And I read two novels that I checked out from the NH Downloadable Books. First, I got caught up with Maggie Hope, the heroine of Susan Elia MacNeal‘s series about a young American woman working for Britain’s government during WWII. As I wrote in my last Book Bingo post I figured out I’d missed The Prime Minister’s Secret Agent. I wrestled with some historical liberties MacNeal takes in this outing in the service of her story, but I read through to the end and the author’s note I see why she did it. Still, I prefer the parts about Maggie, her work, and her friendships more than the historical speculation.

Finally, I read My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman, the Swedish author who also wrote A Man Called Ove. I finished this evening, and I really liked it. It’s about Elsa and eight year old who is very smart and also very miserable at school because she’s different, and her formidable granny, who encourages her to fight back against bullies with the exhortation, “kick them in the fusebox.” Granny has told Elsa fairytales all her life, and as her last act, she sends Elsa on a quest to deliver a series of letters. Hence the title. Elsa is amazing, and felt very true to me, smart and precocious but still very much an eight year old girl. That’s hard to write. If the story seems unlikely, well, the other characters in the book are very well formed and I thought it was a good read. Some might call it a tear jerker, perhaps, but as the story unfolds readers understand why this cast of characters were all in Granny’s life, and it seems if slightly improbable at least not so contrived. And I think a book that examines bullies and the bullied, difference, imperfection, and above all the long lasting damage that human violence — physical, psychological, and emotional — causes has a right to evoke some tears.

I’m starting a graduate course tomorrow so I don’t know how much time I’ll have to read. I can take classes at the university where I’m a librarian, and I’ve been there almost a year now, so I figured, why not? it’s on Adolescent Development. Hopefully I won’t learn all the things I did wrong parenting Teens the Elder & Younger. Stay tuned!

 

 

 

 

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Even though I stopped writing my review column for The New Hampshire Sunday News, I still hear from publishers, publicists, and authors. Often a book from Bauhan Publishing will appear in my mailbox — regular readers of this blog know they are one of my favorite small presses, and they are right here in New Hampshire. I can’t get to every book I’m sent, but recently I opened a package containing a copy of Finding Phil: Lost in War and Silence and it looked intriguing. Then I flipped the book over and realized that the author, Paul Levy, lives in my small city, and that his wife is a retired librarian. Bookconscious regulars know I’m a librarian, too. So for no more scientific reasons than those, I decided to read this biography/memoir. Plus, I had a great uncle who served in WWII, who was Jewish and the child of Russian immigrants, like the subject of this book.

Finding Phil is the story of Phil Levy, a young American army officer, fresh out of college, newlywed, and full of a sincere desire to rescue France and defeat Nazi Germany. And it’s the story of his nephew Paul Levy, who describes his uncle’s journey but also his own, as he uncovered the story of a man his parents and other relatives almost never mentioned.

Phil died in France in the Vosges Mountains in January 1945, after being among the first American troops to cross into Germany. Growing up, Paul Levy knew about his uncle but never heard stories about him. When Phil’s widow Barbara died in 1987, her sister sent Paul his uncle’s journal, and that inspired him to learn more. As he did research into his uncle’s childhood, young adulthood, and military service, Paul reflected on not only his family and the silence surrounding his uncle, but also on larger themes of heroism, silence, and belief. He writes about all of that as well as what makes men go off to war and the different ways that shapes them, in Finding Phil.

Along the way he muses on the legacy of social justice and service to others that runs through the Levy family, on what his uncle might have worked for had he come home, and on how subsequent generations might process the atrocities of battle, civilian suffering, and genocide that are WWII’s legacy. Levy writes beautifully, and he clearly thought very deeply about his subject. In one passage, in a chapter describing what he learned about some members of the German unit and even the particular man who killed his uncle, Levy writes:

“Through it [the story of one of these men] I could begin to imagine more nuanced human beings beneath my simple stereotype. Some people might worry that such stories give escape routes to those who want to deny responsibility and that they encourage efforts at revisionist history . . . in which nations, cultures, and peoples try to distance themselves from their histories of deep antisemitism and downplay their complicity in the Holocaust. . . . I believe it is vital to insist on full responsibility for the atrocities of the Holocaust and to come to grips with the profound reality of engrained antisemitism. It is equally vital to see nuanced human faces beneath our stereotypes lest we fail to recognize how susceptible we all are to cultural demons and dynamics like those that fomented the Holocaust . . . .”

Read that passage again, and think about stereotypes for a second. Paul Levy is talking about considering a German man as a whole person in the context of his life, not just his time as a Waffen SS soldier, but it’s pretty easy to substitute other “cultural demons and dynamics” and think about today’s world. About the prejudices, perhaps subtle or even unconscious, each of us may hold when thinking about people who are part of a different religion, class, culture, or ideology than we are, or whose skin is different than ours. Presuppositions abound in contemporary society about people who live in certain places or do certain jobs. It’s different than antisemitism and Nazism, but our culture is still riddled with the kinds of demons that can incite people to hate or act violently towards each other. Or fall prey to fear mongering and hateful rhetoric and respond by allowing laws or regulations that call attention to difference and deny universal human rights. levy provides much to think about, which I really admire.

One of the other things I really enjoyed about this book was that Levy did not try to artificially build and release tension in his narrative — he lets the natural ups and downs of the story carry readers along. I’ve noticed a tendency in some memoirs to jerk readers’ emotions around, and I think that’s a sign of over-writing or over-manipulating a narrative. Levy instead provides space for readers to process what they are reading. I also learned some things about the war and about people who are preserving the memories of that time, and I love a book that teaches me things.

Finding Phil is a good read whether you are interested in history, war, families, or the mysteries of long-ago memories. Reading about how Levy pieced fragments together into a story made me think again of my great uncle and what I could possibly learn about his war experience (he was stateside, because he was a chemist, but that’s about all I know). Maybe I will attempt to put my own family’s fragments together.

 

 

 

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I don’t really remember how this book got on my radar — probably I read an advance review somewhere. I haven’t read Chris Cleave before, but I knew he wrote “it” books that get loads of attention, and I have to admit, I’m not usually one to jump on the bandwagon of very popular books. For example, I was not as impressed with All the Light We Cannot See as many people were. So I was a little skeptical of another “it” WWII novel.

But I really liked Everyone Brave is Forgiven in large part because I could not resist Mary North. She’s a young woman from a well connected London family who “left  finishing school unfinished” to sign up for war work as soon as Britain declares war. The War Office sends her to a school, which she thinks is a joke or a cover for something more dashing but turns out to be life changing.

One of her tasks is to prepare the children for evacuation, and to go with them. But her headmistress thinks Mary is too familiar with the children, and tells her she’s not a good teacher and must stay behind. Mary is worried about Zachary, an African American boy whose father is in a minstrel show, and writes to him in the countryside. He’s being neglected.

That sets the rest of the plot in motion. Mary goes to Tom Shaw in the Education department and complains about the critique of her teaching and asks to have a school for kids who are making their way back to London because they’ve been rejected — or worse — by their host families. Before long she has a small class, Zachary and some disabled children. And she and Tom see more of each other.

Mary and Tom each have a best friend who also become involved in the story. But it doesn’t devolve into a light hearted romance. In fact, the descriptions of London during the Blitz and then Malta under siege are very bleak, but the view of love is almost as tough: “Tom understood why the good actors in the movies never said it with a smile. To be in love was to understand how alone one had been before. It was to know that if one were ever alone again, there would be no exemption from the agony of it.” When Tom is despairing about being turned down by the Air Force and also that “it isn’t how it was” between him and Mary she says, “We must take turns, don’t you think? Every time one of us is buried like this, we shall dig the other one out.” I think that’s exactly what love in the midst of crisis is.

And Cleave shows the enormity of the crisis in London very very well. Mary has a keen sense of social justice and she notices all of the disparity that comes into greater focus during the Blitz. But also the despair that finally sets in. At one point when she has reached a personal low, she’s sitting outside and she hears women sweeping: “The hissing of the brooms carried a whisper: that life was cracked and gone. That any life left behind was not the good kind, which stubbornly built on rubble . . . . London was a stopped gramophone with no hand to wind it. It smelled of cracked sewers and escaping town gas and charred wood, wet from fire hoses.”

Tom’s friend Alistair has his own story; he’s a conservator at the Tate and once the art is secured, he volunteers. In the author’s note Cleave mentions that Alistair’s service on Malta is based on Tom’s grandfather’s service there. The horrors Alistair experiences, starting in training and right through to the end of the war, are also well told. They’re awful, but Cleave says he ‘hoped to highlight the insincerity of the wars we fight now — to which the commitment of most of us is impersonal, and which finish not with victory or defeat but with a calendar draw-down date and a presumption that we shall never be reconciled with the enemy. I wanted the reader to come away wondering whether forgiveness is possible at a national level or whether it is only achievable between courageous individuals.”

Just as hearing an author always give me a greater understanding of a book, reading this wonderful note at the end helped me like Everyone Brave is Forgiven even more.

 

 

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I was looking around for a classic to read for my book bingo card, which is filling up nicely. More than once in the past couple of months different people whose reading tastes I admire recommended Graham Greene, so when I saw The End of the Affair on a list (something like “classics you may never have gotten around to reading”) I checked it out. I’m embarrassed that this 40-something English major librarian had never read Greene.

It’s a lovely book, and an interesting read during Lent. It’s about Maurice Bendrix, an author living in London, and Sarah and Henry Miles who live across “the Common” from him in London. Maurice and Sarah have the affair in the title, and are happy, although Maurice is a jealous lover. One night towards the end of WWII, a V1 hits Maurice’s house and Sarah thinks he’s dead. Unbeknownst to him, she makes a deal with God: “I shut my eyes tight and I pressed my nails into the palms of my hands until I could feel nothing but the pain and I said, I will believe. Let him be alive and I will believe. . . . But that wasn’t enough, It doesn’t hurt to believe. So I said, I love him and I’ll do anything if you’ll make him alive, I said very slowly, I’ll give him up forever, only let him be alive with a chance . . . .”

As you can guess, Maurice wasn’t really dead. Most of the book is from his perspective, as he and Henry talk about Sarah, engage a private detective to see who else she’s been seeing, and learn why the affair actually ended. I don’t want to give away what she is up to or what happens to the three main characters, but I will say I didn’t want to put the book down.

But it’s so much more than a novel of manners. Sarah and Maurice in particular, and to some extent Henry, wrestle with God’s existence and whether — and what — to believe. It was this aspect of the book I found especially interesting, in particular the way Sarah’s doubt, which is steadfast before her moment of prayer in the bombed house, slowly evolves, even though she is angry with God. She is smart, and a person fully of her time, married to a government minister, perfectly satisfied with her secular London life. She even meets regularly with an atheist who preaches rationalism on the Common.

But God gets in. Not through her happiness, but through her pain. She write in her journal, “I thought, sometimes I’ve hated Maurice, but would I have hated him if I hadn’t loved him too?  Oh God, if I could really hate you, what would that mean?” I think that’s one of the most rawly human streams of thought I’ve ever seen expressed in fiction.

Maurice even shows signs of believing if not exactly in a favorable manner: “With Your great schemes You ruin our happiness like a harvester ruins a mouse’s nest: I hate You, God. I hate You as though You existed.” Wow. That’s a seriously powerful line, especially as it comes towards the end of the book, and readers aren’t sure what will happen to Maurice. It’s also a perfect bookend to the first page of the novel, where Maurice tells the reader, “this is a record of hate far more than of love . . . .”

I didn’t want to put it down. Would any of them be happy? Did any of them actually love each other? What the heck IS love, actually? And hate? And how in the world do we deal with God, who is both real and “a vapour” as Sarah says? The End of the Affair is a beautifully written book, exquisitely structured, suffused with its London setting, which wrestles with some of the greatest questions people face. I loved it. Thanks, Juliana and J for the recommendations!

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