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Posts Tagged ‘WWII’

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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Three years ago I wrote here about Life After Life, Kate Atkinson‘s brilliant puzzle of a novel which featured Ursula Todd, who seemed to be born again and again into the same life, lived a little differently each time. I’ve just finished the novel Atkinson calls a companion, rather than a sequel, the story of Ursula’s younger brother Teddy.

A God In Ruins, unlike Life After Life, is mainly concerned with the characters’ adult lives. There’s a chapter in which Teddy is a child, but most of the remaining 400 some pages are about Teddy’s WWII service as a bomber pilot, and then his postwar life. In 2012, he is dying in a nursing home.

We learn of his time piloting Halifaxes out of a base in Yorkshire, the crews he serves with, and his several tours of duty. “Well, the job isn’t finished yet,” he writes in a letter when his family wonders why he went back to flying, instead of staying out of danger once he’d done his part. “The truth was, there was nothing else he wanted to do, could do. Flying on bombing raids had become him. Who he was.”

Just as Life After Life was, among many other things, about the wartime experience of civilians in England who risked their own lives to aid people during the Blitz, A God In Ruins is about the men who flew for England, carrying our raids that were, for the first time, targeting civilians, firebombing cities, in the name of bringing the German war machine to its knees.

Teddy meets Ursula in London on leave, and they have a conversation about this “area bombing.” She asks, “Indiscriminate attacks. The civilian population considered to be a legitimate target — innocent people. It doesn’t make you feel . . . uncomfortable?” Teddy responds defensively, pointing out that Germany started the war, to which Ursula says, “I rather think we started it at Versailles.”

Teddy sees her points. He is in a difficult position, walking a line, as so many people do, between day-to-day truths and “big T” Truth. And he knows it. He says he wishes he could go back in time and kill Hitler, and Ursula says, “you could keep going back, unpicking history all the way, until you arrived at Cain and Abel.” Teddy responds, “Or the apple.”

And that, I think, is one of the things this book is about. Could mankind really turn out differently? Or are we destined to wage war, and is that a struggle against our very selves at heart? What makes us turn away from innocence and beauty  (this book is full of lovely countryside, meadows, birds, and plants) and choose instead to destroy each other, and ourselves?

But these questions, about human nature and goodness, our capacity to be kind or cruel, to love or not in the name of gain (our own or some other, perhaps national) are all part of the story, and certainly a continuation of Life After Life, but are in a way subverted in the end by an even greater question. Atkinson says in the author’s note: “And of course, there is a great conceit hidden at the heart of the book to do with fiction and the imagination . . . .” I can’t explain this without giving too much away. I had no idea what was coming, I must say, until the last fifty pages, and even then I wasn’t sure I was fully understanding what was happening. Atkinson gets at the heart of what is real and what is imagined, pushing the fictional envelope while also writing what is in many ways a much more traditional novel than it’s companion.

Teddy turns out to be every bit as marvelous a character as his sister, and the writing is also both keen and lovely. I wish I’d had a long stretch to really immerse myself in this novel, because it deserves to be read that way. Even in snatches before bed, it was a book I didn’t really want to end. And when it did I was left sitting, thinking, absorbing, and holding what I’d just felt. Atkinson makes clear the full marvel — for good or ill — of being human and the strange mixture of pleasure and pain that living brings. A God in Ruins is in a way a tribute to the capacity of the human mind. If you haven’t felt amazed by what you’ve read lately, this may be the book for you.

Should you read Life After Life first? I think this book could easily stand alone, but as a pair they definitely compliment each other.

 

 

 

 

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Denise Kiernan‘s book is subtitled The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win WWII. No matter what you think of the decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the story of the thousands and thousands of people who came to a huge tract of muddy land in rural Tennessee to work at the Clinton Engineer Works is fascinating. I admit I did not know about Oak Ridge,  or site X, and only vaguely knew of Hanford, WA, because when we lived near Seattle the extent of radioactive contamination there was big news. But I never realized either site was part of the Manhattan Project. I knew the bomb was built and tested in New Mexico, and that was about it.

The Girls of Atomic City really illuminates the massive size of the Project, the web of protection the government wove around the work at Oak Ridge, where uranium was enriched, and the impact the Project had on ordinary lives. The women Kiernan interviewed and writes about are examples of how much independence women gained when they entered the work force in support of the war effort, and of how fleeting it was for most of them, when marriage and motherhood often meant the end of a woman’s work outside the home.

I enjoyed reading about the sociological aspects of life in a top secret community — where workers were warned that spies and informants may be afoot, and their fellow workers were drafted as “creeps,” who watched and listened for anyone spilling secrets. It is remarkable that the majority of the thousands of workers also had no idea what they were making; each knew how to do their own work and did just that little bit. Disturbingly, most didn’t even know what were working with. Only on Aug. 6, 1945, did it become apparent.

Kiernan’s structure, however, made the book less enjoyable for me. There were chapters about some of the individual women she interviewed, and chapters about the Manhattan Project and the scientists whose work made nuclear weapons possible, and these alternated. There was some chronological order, but otherwise the story jumped around. Perhaps because I did not read in long sittings but a few pages at a time, I frequently felt a little lost. Maybe this is a narrative device employed to recreate the sense of secrecy? If so it worked; personally, as a reader, I prefer more straightforward storytelling, especially for nonfiction. An interesting read, nonetheless.

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Here’s a brief review I wrote for the library. Look for this book, it’s a nice uplifting story from a dark period of history.

When the CPL Book Club recently discussed A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, one reader mentioned an NPR interview with Molly Guptill Manning. She tells the story of the Armed Services Editions, including the importance of Smith’s novel to the program, in When Books Went to War: The Stories that Helped Us Win World War II. It’s an inspiring tale that starts with the horrifying mass burnings and banning of books in Nazi Germany and occupied Europe.

American librarians launched a massive nationwide book drive to help stock training camp libraries and get books into the hands of millions of newly drafted U.S. servicemen. Although the drive was successful, donated books were sometimes too large, heavy, outdated, or uninteresting. In 1942, various members of the publishing industry came together to form The Council on Books in Wartime, and adopted the slogan, “Books are weapons in the war of ideas.” That sounds Orwellian, but the council was a force for good. 1,200 titles, classics and contemporary fiction, nonfiction and poetry, were produced in small, lightweight paperbacks called Armed Services Editions, around 120 million copies in all, shipped wherever Americans served around the world. Along the way, the council championed authors banned at home and abroad, navigated the politics of a presidential election, and promoted lifelong learning and a love of reading. At the end of the war, they produced a series of Overseas Editions and shipped 3.6 million of them to war-torn, book-starved Europe.

Manning tells what could have been a dry story with aplomb, quoting from dozens of letters servicemen wrote to the council and to authors. Her narrative includes enough history to provide context to those who haven’t studied WWII in a long time, and she includes photos and a complete list of ASE titles. Highly recommended for book lovers and history buffs.

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