Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘WWII’

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!

Read Full Post »

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.

 

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

Here’s another brief review I wrote for the library.  I love Penelope Lively‘s writing, and I really enjoyed her memoir. It made me wish I could hear her speak, or even better, sit down and have a cup of tea (or glass of wine) with her.

Novelist Penelope Lively reflects on “old age,” “life and times,” “memory,” “reading and writing,” and “six things” – objects around her  house that hold special meaning for her – in this vivid and unique memoir. The book reads like a conversation with a wise older friend, and Lively’s nonlinear narrative and varied recollections make this a book you can dip into. For fans of Lively’s fiction, her descriptions of various stories’ origins are interesting and enlightening. For history buffs, there are remembrances of a WWII childhood in Egypt and as the war grew too close, Palestine and England. Throughout the book, Lively notes the importance of reading. “I can measure out my life in books. They stand along the way like signposts: the moments of absorption and empathy and direction and enlightenment and sheer pleasure.” I found all of these in Dancing Fish and Ammonites.

Read Full Post »

For some reason I’ve always been a sucker for letters. I love sending and receiving them, and I love reading them — not only family letters, but also collections of letters from historical figures and fictional letters in epistolary novels like Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole. It’s a love story about a poet, Elspeth, who lives on the Isle of Skye in Scotland and receives a fan letter from an Illinois college student, David, in 1912. They begin a faithful correspondence and through their letters, fall in love. When David volunteers for ambulance service (before America formally enters WWI), they finally meet.

Naturally it’s a star-crossed love — Elspeth is married, for one thing, and she has never left Skye because she’s terrified of being in a boat. Other plot twists I won’t reveal conspire to separate the lovers. The book alternates between their letters and those of Elspeth’s daughter Margaret and her fiancee Paul, a pilot in WWII. Margaret discovers her mother’s wartime romance when a bomb reveals the letters, hidden away in their Edinburgh home for years. Elspeth’s reaction to the bombing is to go to London. In the face of this unexpected behavior, Margaret decides to learn about her mother’s life before she was born.

As Margaret reconnects with Elspeth’s family in Skye and discovers a side of her mother she has never known, Elspeth writes letter after letter trying to track down what happened to David. By the end of the book the mystery is solved, once again entirely through letters.

This was a quick read, and I enjoyed it well enough, but the ending was a bit tidy for my liking. I think I would have enjoyed the physical look of the letters on the page more than I did the e-book, which I downloaded from my library. But if you like epistolary or historical novels and/or Scotland, you will probably find Letters from Skye appealing.

 

Read Full Post »

This weekend I finished the very unusual novel (one of two with this title released last month) Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. I’d only ever read a short story of Atkinson’s, in an anthology called Earth. I enjoyed this book not only because it’s incredibly original — more on that in a moment — but also because it melds interesting characters, compelling ideas, and rich writing.

Ursula Todd, the heroine of the novel, is born over and over. Not into different lives, not reincarnated into new existences, but as herself, in her family and place and time (a moderately prosperous British family in the early 1900’s — she’s a child when her father goes off to the Great War and a young woman when WWII begins). Her life(ves) turn on circumstances that she can recall or sense, so sometimes she manipulates events to prevent untimely death. Sometimes things are beyond her control but still turn out differently. As she lives longer and grows up she begins to sense the nature of her strange reality.

Readers never get a sense that she completely grasps it, nor are we ever sure exactly which existence trumps the others; right up until the end, this novel is a puzzle. At least for me it was — I found it endlessly fascinating but was never sure I’d got it assembled in my mind perfectly. If you require a novel with a straightforward chronological narrative, or at least easy to digest flashbacks, you may be befuddled. But if you’re willing to let those trappings go, this is a really intriguing book.

Ursula is a great character — bright and capable and mostly quite brave and independent-minded. Different, marked not only by her strange deja-vu lives but as her father Hugh describes her, “watchful, as if she was trying to drink in the whole world.” And its a world in the throes of change: the world wars, the ushering in of the modern era’s new moral, cultural, and political realities. Atkinson mines all of that rich historical context and also plumbs Ursula’s relationships and her emotional life from various angles: Ursula as daughter, sister, niece, friend, lover, aunt. In this regard Atkinson reminds me of Jane Gardam.

This is a book you will likely want very much to discuss when you finish. Beyond the obvious questions about how much we control our own fate, Atkinson also looks closely at human nature. What makes a person act horribly to those closest to him or her? Why do we insist on labeling each other and boxing ourselves into social roles and expectations? Why are there dictators? Wars? Why are some people driven by ambition and others by purer motives? Does love ever exist in its purest form, and what is it exactly?

As I thoroughly enjoyed being immersed in the questions and quandaries of Ursula’s fictional world I had our own very much in mind. At one point in the novel Ursula is a warden in an Air Raid Precaution unit. It’s a diverse group of volunteers from different walks of life, different ages and backgrounds, who come together to keep the people in their small sector of London safe, making sure everyone observes the blackout, takes shelter during raids, and is properly identified in case of injury or death. They respond to the horrors of the Blitz night after night. Ursula’s senior warden in a retired hospital matron and WWI nurse veteran, Miss Woolf. She’s unflappable and she keeps them focused on the higher moral ground at one point noting “it is intolerance that has brought us to this pass.”

It’s easy to think that was a different time, that there’s nothing comparable to such selfless service today — except there is. A Holocaust survivor, Irene Butter, spoke in Concord last week about her life, and the Concord Monitor noted, “Ten years ago, she also helped found the Zeitouna Project,” a group of women, Jews and Arabs, who are “refusing to be enemies.” In the UK, Faith Matters is working “to reduce extremism and interfaith and intra-faith tensions and . . . develop platforms for discourse and interaction between Muslim, Sikh, Christian, Jewish and Hindu communities across the globe,” responding this week to the anti-Muslim backlash after the extremist murder of a British soldier.

And of course, people are still working to assist the Boston bombing victims, people impacted by the Oklahoma tornado, and in quiet, less newsworthy ways, people in their own towns and cities every day who need help: homeless people, the elderly, those afflicted with cancer or mental illness or other health challenges, victims of abuse and violence, and others who need a helping hand. I’m grateful for people who are willing give of themselves to do what’s right. And for literature that helps us understand and discuss human nature at its best and worst.

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »