Posts tagged ‘World War II’

When You Make Assumptions…- “Lilac Girls” by Martha Hall Kelly

This book, like approximately 60% of any book being published right now, is set during World War II.   While I do understand that WWII as a device is extremely compelling for writers I  wonder when this trend will begin to tamper off.  Honestly, it is getting a little wearisome.  And this was my mind-set when I started “Lilac Girls” – oh look another WWII book.  Which is too bad because this book is well researched, well written and two of the characters are based on real people.  Unfortunately, at the time I read this book I did not know it was based on real people. So please forgive my assumptions which will be included in this review for your amusement.

25893693.jpgThe novel covers the life of three woman during WWII, dedicating each Chapter to one of the woman and the story flits back and forth.  There is Caroline, a former broadway actress and blue-blooded New Englander, who lives in New York City and volunteers her time for the French Consulate helping French orphans.  Across the ocean, Kasia Kuzmerick is living in Poland and is one-quarter Jewish when the Nazis invade her town.    Herta Oberheuser is a young German doctor looking for employment and a way to be independent and financially secure.

The three lives come together in both harrowing and beautiful ways.  Kasia becomes a part of the Polish resistance, only to eventually be taken to Ravensbrück when captured by the SS.  Herta finds a position at a wonderful spa-like resort (also Ravensbrück) doing medical experiments on political prisoners, including Kasia which she seems to excuse by the mind-set that are meant to be executed anyway.  And Caroline falls in love with a married man, prunes lilacs and after the war raises money for the women who suffered from the experiments of Dr. Herta Oberheuser.

As apparent by my description, as I read the book, I found Caroline’s story to be the least interesting and the most drawn out. Again, I had no idea this was based on a real life, so I was a bit confused as to why this character’s story mattered.  Now that I am not as ignorant as I was before realize that Kelly had some limitations here with Caroline.  Her real story does indeed have a lot of parts to it, as most lives do, and I admire Kelly for trying to write so much about Caroline.  She was quite the hero in multiple ways through-out the war but particularly in helping the women who had cruelly suffered both medically and psychologically from the camps. So I am that jerk who feels like her story lags a bit (I really am sorry about that).

I do think one of the short-comings of the book is Herta’s story.  At the beginning, Kelly seems committed to examining Herta’s choices and explaining how she ended up becoming who she was and doing what she did.   But in the middle of the book, Herta’s voice seems to end. I am unclear if Kelly wrote chapters here that were removed or if she just felt like she couldn’t push that envelope further.  Either way, it seems that it would have been interesting to follow Herta through her arrest and her time in prison to her release and reentry into society.  If the book starts with these three stories then it seems disjointed that it somehow become two stories instead.

To Kelly’s credit, this first book is quite a feat.   I will also admit I came to this book with assumptions and a bit of an attitude.  Needless to say, Kelly as a writer has my attention and I look forward to her next book.

But seriously writers, there really are other wars to write about. I promise…



October 12, 2016 at 6:31 pm Leave a comment

The Schools out It’s Time to Read List

I have been reading a lot, and a lot of the books have been fun.  So here is what I think you should be reading while malingering by the pool.

1. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel: This was one of those big hype books that never sounded particularly like my kind of genre.  But it is just so good. Admittedly, it is another of those futuristic, lots of people die from a disease, stories. But the way the story is linked with the life of a celebrity actor is just fascinating.  The novel also takes  an interesting look at theater and how it changes as the world changes. Celebrity acting is such a disconnecting/lonely thing but a traveling troupe of actors connects people and towns.  I can’t guarantee your money back or anything, but this book is worth the leap of faith.

2. The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon: This book is creepy and scary and all of those good things that a creepy-scary book should be.  Below the floor boards in an old house, surrounded by encroaching woods,  someone finds the diary of a woman who was murdered in 1908.  This is really all I need to say, right?

3. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng: You know from the first sentence of the book that Lydia is dead but her family does not.  Lydia is the teen daughter of a mixed-race marriage in the 1970s.  Her father is Chinese and her mother is Caucasian.  While it is a mystery through-out how Lydia died, it is not the driving force of the book. It is instead driven by the dreams that parents have and how the unspoken force of these dreams can do great harm, even when they are meant with the best intentions.  This novel was amazingly insightful, particularly in how Ng examines how broken people carry their brokenness into parenthood.

4. At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen:  I didn’t think this was a stunning novel.  And it was extremely predictable, almost painfully so, but it took place in Scotland and that made me inexplicably happy.  It is set during WWII, when three American socialites Maddie and her husband Ellis, along with his friend Hank, decide to head to Loch Ness to find the infamous monster.  They are spoiled, rich kids with a ridiculous plan.  While Ellis and Hank spend their days drinking on the shores of Loch Ness, with binoculars, Maddie sits at the pub and waits.  There is a sully maid and a burly pub keeper – so one gets in a fight, another woman gets pregnant, etc.  I think you get the idea but it is a fun, mindless read for the summer.

IMG_0498Swim, read. Work, read. Have a cocktail, read. Have two cocktails, read.  Whatever happens just make sure it ends with a book. Cheers.

May 26, 2015 at 7:05 pm Leave a comment

Cider, Crepes and Street Dancing – “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr

“All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr, Published in 2014

In the Summer of 2003, my husband and I took a trip to France.  Somehow, we ended up in the beautiful, walled city of St. Malo.  It was touristy – there were a lot of fat, shirtless Frenchimages-1 men, sticky children, street vendors and sunburns.  We also got to see some very bad, but terribly amusing, street ballet.  I am really using the term “ballet” loosely here.  But the streets, the city walls, the beach, all of it is beautiful.  And I had the best mushroom crepe and bottle of cider of my life in that city – something I have tried multiple times to replicate but have failed miserably.  So this book, which opens with a scene in St. Malo, made me so happy to remember that crepe and bottle of cider that I was instantly in love with it – I guess I am just that simple really.

At the outset of WWII, Marie-Laure lives in Paris with her father, a locksmith for the Museum of Natural History.  At the age of six, Marie-Laure becomes blind and finds herself having to experience her world through her hands, her feet, her sense of distance – everything is a tactile experience.  At the same time in Germany, young Werner is growing up in an orphanage with an amazing propensity to understand the interworkings of radios.  He quickly finds himself swept up by the Hilter youth and the propaganda, yet always with that feeling that something is just not quite right.   As the Germans begin to invade France, Marie-Laure and her father must flee Paris and they find themselves on the doorstep of Marie-Laure’s eccentric great-uncle in St. Malo.  Werner eventually finds himself in St. Malo as well and the two stories intertwine.

This story didn’t grab me when I read what this book was about on the back cover of the jacket.  And when I read what I wrote above it still doesn’t. But don’t let that fool you, this book is a piece of art.  Doerr is able to take the reader into the world of blindness and somehow make everything seem brighter.  He can describe Marie-Laure’s world of touch, and all her senses, in such a way that it makes the reader feel like they are missing out on too much beauty by relying on their eyes.

To really touch something, she is learning—the bark of a sycamore tree in the gardens; a pinned stag beetle in the Department of Etymology; the exquisitely polished interior of a scallop shell in Dr. Geffard’s workshop—is to love it.

On the other side of the story, Doerr has taken a very complicated situation like Nazism and the baffling question of how it swept nations in its cruelty and evil and with Werner  has shown how maybe, just maybe, when all of the circumstances are just so, it is scarily easy to get wrapped up in something.  Doerr also astutely writes about the consequences of Germany and being German, both during and after the war, in a way that I found enlightening and thoughtful but without making excuses or defending the indefensible.  It is done with gentle story-telling and simple detail, something that, in my humble opinion, makes a writer truly great.

It is inspiring that Doerr has taken one of the darkest times in modern history, and uses the characters of a blind girl and a powerless orphan soldier, perhaps the seemingly least important people, to show how bright and intricate and important our world and our lives are.  Even without a crepe and a bottle of cider or even really awful street performing, I am so happy to be reminded of that.

Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.



March 7, 2015 at 6:43 pm 2 comments

Don’t worry this will happen again – “Life After Life” by Kate Atkinson

9780316176491_custom-c831234cef792e71b1cd218d07c98edfbd8d2ddd-s2-c85“Life After Life” by Kate Akinson, Published in 2013

When I finished this book I could almost hear the sounds of my own disappointment *insert sad trombone here*.  I don’t want to diminish the writing or the concept of Atkinson’s story but like a lot of things what starts as a good idea at the beginning can often fall flat and for me that is what happened here. To be fair, I was really looking forward to reading this book knowing it had received so many accolades so perhaps the book was doomed from the beginning of our relationship.

This book has been reviewed to death but, regardless, a quick summary: Ursula Todd is born on a snowy night in 1910, in the English countryside. She dies. Reset. She is born again in 1910. She narrowly makes it but she lives.  And thus begins her lives of dying, narrowly escaping death, living, moving to Germany, moving to London, having a child, being childless – often a frightening feeling in her gut that this has all happened before.  Sometimes this feeling changes her decision-making and of course changes the lives of the whole cast of characters around her.

I am just going to be honest here, though the first 80 pages felt a bit repetitive, my main issue with the book is I just got confused. Was this the 1922 where she had the affair with the married guy or the 1922 where Ursula was raped? Is this the WWII where Ursula lives in a dismal apartment, working as a secretary, or lives with her friend or has a child or…I think you get the point.  And yes, in part I was a lazy reader with this book. But honestly, I didn’t feel like I should have to make a flowchart to keep up with what Atkinson was throwing at me.

I went through the last fourth of the rather large book just reading and accepting each new chapter as essentially a new short story about the same character. Maybe that was the plan all along.  I have to say, it is romantic – this notion that we will have the chance to do it again, better, maybe even wiser.  I predict that we are going to see this technique again and Atkinson is a solid writer so I worry what would happen with this idea in less capable hands.  But what do I know? I just recorded an episode of “True Tori” so there is no accounting for taste.


April 30, 2014 at 8:17 pm 7 comments

Honor and Obey – “The Aviator’s Wife” by Melanie Benjamin

“The Aviator’s Wife” by Melanie Benjamin, Published in 2012

I really enjoy Ms. Benjamin’s writing.  Her historical fiction (“Alice I have Been”) is extremely interesting and engaging.  She has a way of bringing the reader into the story. I really like this book but I really didn’t like the Lindberghs.

Shy Anne Morrow was the daughter of the American Ambassador to Mexico.  Over the holidays,  Anne takes a break from her studies at Smith College to visit her parents at the Embassy only to find out they are also being visited by none other than the world famous aviator Charles Lindbergh.   Both Anne and Charles are introverts and seem to have an odd connection.   After having no contact with Charles when she returns to school, Anne is surprised when Charles shows up one day at her parents house after her graduation and proposes to her.  Of course, Anne says yes and her life is forever changed.

The Lindberghs live in the public eye and are constantly hounded by the press. Charles however teaches Anne how to be his crew and they travel through-out the world together.   They seem happy-ish together – though Anne, through Benjamin’s account, seems really lonely while Charles is austere and removed.   Then they have Charlie.  Anne becomes torn between being a good mother and being Charles’ crew.  It seems that she is constantly failing at one or the other.  Until the night Charlie is stolen through the window of the nursery.  The couple never quite recovers from the loss of their child.

Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh

Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Anne goes on to have six more children but none of it erases the pain of losing her first child or that Charles, in his arrogance, hindered the police investigation into the kidnapping.  The couple become more estranged when, at the height of Hitler’s reign, Charles latches on to Nazi rhetoric also espousing the antisemitic sentiments of the regime. Of course even though Anne (according to Benjamin) does not agree with his stance, this does not stop her from publishing a pamphlet of support for both her husband and the Nazis.    But eventually, the U.S. joins the allies in WWII and Charles chooses to go and rejoin the U.S. military.   Charles returns to his family after the war but Anne has figured out, in part, how to live without him.  Of course, none of this leads to her seeking her independence or having an honest conversation with Charles, instead she spends the rest of their life together just trying to make Charles proud of her.

I tried to keep in mind through-out this book that Anne and Charles were living in a different era.  An era where women would put up with a lot of nonsense in marriage. But even with that in the back of my mind I found it hard to believe that the Anne that Benjamin portrays in the book is really someone who would stay married to Charles.  Her internal dialogue and drive just seems too strong to put up with his continual self-absorption.  Multiple times in the book Benjamin brings up the fact that Anne had her own trust fund – she could leave at any time.

Honestly, though whether I liked the characters in their fictional state seemed beside the point. Their life story is interesting and that was enough.  The fact that they spent their lives making each other miserable just somehow seems fitting.

Other review to check out: 

April 23, 2013 at 5:56 pm 5 comments

The inescapable past – “The Secret Keeper” by Kate Morton

“The Secret Keeper” by Kate Morton, Published in 2012

(As an aside: I would like to start with the question why did Morton title this book “The Secret Keeper”? It just makes it sound like this salacious, torrid, Danielle Steele novel with a large breasted woman in a torn corset on the cover.)

Morton has a formula. In her novels there is always an old woman in her last days suffering from guilt/sorrThe Secret Keeperow/grief over a secret that she has kept all of these years but then someone must uncover this secret to give the old woman forgiveness/peace/comfort.  For many other authors this type of repetition would become tedious BUT Morton’s writing and her amazing gift of story-telling makes her formula great almost every time (“Distant Hours” is the exception).

In 1961, when Laurel was 16 years old, she saw her mother kill a man. And though her mother (Dorothy) and the police have both told her it was in self-defense,  there is something about that day that has always bothered Laurel.  Forty years later, Dorothy is in the hospital facing death and Laurel and her siblings must return home to make decisions about her end of life care.   Returning to her childhood home, Laurel finds herself immersed in memories of her happy childhood:

“The landscape of one’s childhood was more vibrant than any other. It didn’t matter where it was or what it looked like, the sights and sounds imprinted differently from those encountered later. They became part of a person, inescapable.”

But as Laurel comes to terms with her mother’s inevitable death, she begins to realize that, though her mother made her childhood magical, she knows absolutely nothing about who Dorothy was before she had her children.  All she knows is that Dorothy left London during WWII. And there is always that lingering question: why would her mother have been so fast to kill that man on that summer day years before?

Morton then takes the reader back to the late 1930s/early 1940s and begins narrating Dorothy’s life.  Raised by a boring country family Dorothy longs to embrace a different life. As soon as she is old enough she rushes off to London to fulfill her dreams.  Dorothy finds herself in the middle of war-torn London working for an old, rich, and infirm woman.  Dorothy is vivacious but self-absorbed, narcissistic and  difficult to like. As she begins to see how the “other half” lives she starts to long for more than just a simple life by the sea that she had planned with her boyfriend Jimmy.  But time passes and it appears that Dorothy’s dreams of living an elegant life are just not possible. Her wealthy friend Vivien seems to have betrayed her and Dorothy decides she is going to have to make her fortune for herself. Of course, in true Morton style, Dorothy foolishly makes a poor choice that, while seemingly harmless enough, ends up destroying the lives of those around her.

The narrative bounces back and forth between what Laurel is discovering about her mother and the actual story of Dorothy.  Laurel digs deeper into her mother’s past and also revisits many of her childhood memories.  As Laurel finds out more about her mother her own memories take on a different hue and the meaning of certain events in Laurel’s life change.  And of course truth changes everything.

There is a secret in this book (hence the title) which I figured out pretty quickly. But even knowing where the book was headed it was still engaging.  Morton’s writing is lovely. It has a lilt to it.  And she has a way of writing about regret that makes her narrative beautifully tragic.  Her novels always make me cry, and this one was no exception.

Morton has written before about how the choices we make ultimately lead us down the path to who we become and how often those choices haunt us.  Revisiting that theme in “The Secret Keeper” makes it certainly worth the read.  Because, as they say, “if it isn’t broken…”

January 23, 2013 at 8:52 pm 2 comments

Edelweiss, bless my homeland forever – “The House at Tyneford” by Natasha Solomons

“The House at Tyneford” by Natasha Solomons, Published in 2011

There are a lot of novels about WWII and the holocaust.  It is revisited over and over, making it at times seem like everything about this period in our collective history has been rehashed, fictionalized and over-analyzed.  Twice this year I have been happily surprised by novels that really added to my understanding of this period of history. The first was “The Lost Wife” and the second was this novel.

The House at TynefordElise is the high society daughter of a well-respected Austrian author and an Austrian opera singer.  She and her sister, Margot, come of age in Vienna during the 1930s just as Hitler is coming into power. Elise’s parents quickly realize that it is no longer safe to be Jewish in Austria.  They are able to obtain a visa for Margot to go to America with her husband and a work visa for Elise to become a domestic servant in England. Her parents promise that they will obtain visas to America for themselves and then send for Elise. She reluctantly goes to England but remains hopeful that soon she will be in reunited with her family in New York City.  When she arrives in London, Elise is carrying a viola which is stuffed with the pages of her father’s last unpublished novel, a beautiful gown last worn by her mother, and clothes with jewels and pearls sewn into the seams. These are the keepsakes from her family, their memories.

Elise finds herself working for Mr. Rivers at the old English Manor at Tyneford. She is merely a house maid but while learning how to clean silver and build fires in the multiple fireplace she finds that she really doesn’t fit anywhere. She had to leave her country where she was not wanted to come to a cloudy, rainy country where she is looked down upon.  When Mr. Rivers’ son, Kit, returns home from university Elise finally feels like she may have met a kindred spirit. She becomes friends with him and is able to be, not Jewish or a maid or even a foreign, just a young woman wanting to be happy.

As the situation in Austria continues to deteriorate, Elise begins to worry and she has not heard from her parents. She continues to receive letters from her sister but not as often as she wishes and the letters don’t help with Elise’s tremendous sense of loneliness.  Eventually, Elise and Kit fall in love but even he leaves her to fight in the war.  Elise begins to redefine her vision of the future and her life, coming to terms with what she knows she has lost and accepting what she still has. And she is continually surprised at her ability to survive even the greatest losses –

“I imagined that if my parent died or Margot, I would die of grief; I’d cleave in two like an elm tree in a lightning strike. But I didn’t die. I was hollowed out, scraped clean inside.”

But even in the midst of surviving Elise never gets over her stunning homesickness – she always dreams of Vienna, the cafes, the pastries, the perfect architecture and the music that had always  been a part of her life.

Solomons pulls some unfortunate writing stunts. Throughout, she writes several paragraphs with happy moments for Elise only to then write “but that was not how it happened.”  In a novel where the main character experiences loss after loss the reader wants her to have some happiness so Solomons’ writing technique in those parts seems like a cruel joke.  She also steals the opening of her novel straight out of “Rebecca” by Daphne du Maurier  and though maybe meant to be an homage of sorts it just seems like lazy writing.

All of that said these are small parts of the book and the rest more than makes up for the writing missteps.  Overall, Solomons is a surprisingly good writer. I say surprisingly because I came across this book by happenstance and so the writing was a pleasant surprise. She is able to capture a stark loneliness that is profound.  At times the amount of loss that Elise experiences had such a stunning effect on me that I had to catch my breath.  There is a triumph here as well, the strength to survive. And  Elise reminds us that even at our loneliest moments our memories can keep us company and make us feel at home.

Other Reviews to Check out:

From Trees and Ink

From Luxury Reading 

From Peerless Bookstore 

From Covered in Flour 

November 19, 2012 at 9:49 pm 3 comments

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There is some great literature out there, but there is a lot of bad literature as well. We shouldn't all have to read it. These are my recommendations and thoughts about the books I read.


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