Tuesday, December 31, 2013

December 2013 Books

D-Day June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II by Stephen Ambrose
Published: 1994
Rating: 4

I bought this at the humongous Strand Book Store in New York City in June of this year.  It is a chronologically detailed account of D-Day: the Allied invasion of Hitler's Fortress Europe on June 6, 1944.

What I learned:

  • Eisenhower's fateful decision to go ahead despite the horrible weather conditions.
  • The paratrooper's missions behind enemy lines were critical.  Many were dropped miles from their intended areas.
  • Role of mini-subs and minesweepers
  • Engineers who blew up beachhead obstacles were no less courageous than infantry soldiers. 
  • Unbelievably detailed planning - down to the minute.
  • The training of troops for amphibious landing.
  • The horrible seasickness onboard the landing crafts - the soldiers were eager to get off
  • Carnage on Omaha Beach.
  • Brave decisions/actions of junior officers and NCO's made the difference.  If they stopped, the invasion would have failed. 
  • Almost all senior leaders like Rommel were away.
  • Hitler was the only one who could release the Panzer tanks to the front and he was not awakened when the invasion began.
  • Operation Double-Cross was wildly successful - the Germans were convinced the real invasion would occur at the heavily fortified Calais.
  • Troops were very slow to react.  Many frontline soldiers were conscripted Russians and Poles, who surrendered easily.
  • The Atlantic Wall was the main defense - once it was breached by the Allied forces, it was only a matter of time before Germany fell. 
  • Hitler did not use his new V-1 bombs on the beaches, nor were the Allied ships attacked by U-boats.
Allied forces
  • Control over air and sea was critical for success. 
  • Came to France as liberators, fighting for freedom.
  • Troops were made up of citizen soldiers who fought as courageously and grit as the professional German army. 
I recently watched and would highly recommend the Oscar winning 1962 movie about D-day called The Longest Day.   

Soldier From the War Returning: The Greatest Generation's Troubled Homecoming from World War II by Thomas Childers
Published: 2009
Rating: 4

As opposed to Tom Brokaw's rosy accounts of returning GI's in The Greatest Generation, Childer's excellent book paints a more realistic picture.

As the only son of a WWII veteran, Childer's knows firsthand of what he says in the introduction: "wars are not clean or neat, and neither is their aftermath."

After years of research, he traveled and spoke on this topic which elicited heartfelt responses and confessions, reinforcing Childer's belief that WWII had a far greater negative impact on the veterans and their families than history has led us to believe.  His aim was to tell a truer story - I believe he succeeded.

Sample stats:

  • In 1947, unemployment of veterans was triple that of civilians.
  • Post war housing was hard to find.  In early 1946, an estimated 1.5 million veterans were living  with family or friends.  
  • Civilians grew weary of veteran's complaints and needs. 
  • Divorce boon in the two years right after the war.  
  • PTSD was not a recognized diagnosis at the time but veterans exhibited all the classic symptoms: depressions, recurring nightmares, survivor's guilt, unexplained rage, extreme anxiety.
The book underscores and emphasizes the high price of war.
There are times when war may be necessary.  With all its horrors and grotesque crimes, the Second World War is a case in point.  But if, as a last resort, we send soldier's into harm's way, we should be under no illusion about war's colossal human costs, remembering that even in the most brilliant triumphs there is heartbreak and that the suffering does not stop when the shooting does.   
One only has to read a few brutally honest memoirs of WWII veterans who fought in North Africa, Guadalcanal, Italy, Peleliu, France, or Iwo Jima to know the "Greatest Generation" could not come home unscathed.

My Son and the Afterlife: Conversations From the Other Side by Elisa Medhus, MD
Published: 2013
Rating: 4

I can't help feeling like I was led to this book - by Josh.

On December 18th,  I was at the Dulles airport with a few minutes to spare before my plane took off.  Although I had plenty of reading material, I stopped at a book kiosk and lo and behold, this book was on a shelf that I just happened to peruse.  After reading the back jacket, I not only got the book but read it within a couple of days.
Dr. Elisa Medhus never believed in life after death.  As an accomplished physician, she placed her faith in science.  All of that changed after her son Erik took his own life and then reached out from the other side. 
Intimate, heartbreaking, and illuminating, go on an incredible journey from grief and skepticism to healing and belief.  Based on Medhus' wildly popular blog, ChannelingErik, My Son and the Afterlife provides answers to the most universal questions of being human. 
At once tragic and uplifting, Erik speaks from the other side with candor, wisdom, and depth as he describes his own experiences and provides new answers about the nature of souls, death, and the afterlife - answers that have the potential to change our lives forever.
Erik died on October 6, 2009 - almost 7 months after Josh.  Have they met?  I wonder.  Soon after, she began communicating with him via mediums and started her blog.

The book is essentially a transcript of her questions and his answers (via medium).  It is information overload: strange, surreal, and difficult to process.   The following bullet points are what I wrote in my book journal:

  • Afterlife is a reality
  • Our two-dimensional (space and time) are a very small part of the overall reality
  • Souls depart the physical body upon death but retain their essence, memories, everything that makes them unique.
  • Souls want to remain connected to their loved ones on earth and are able to give signs, play pranks, show themselves and communicate
  • Reincarnation exists
  • Unconditional love for ourselves and others is the ultimate goal of being human
  • This energy, life-force, soul, spirit exists in all living things: humans, plants, animals
Along with Dr. Eban Alexander's book, Proof of Heaven, there is much to ponder. 

Saturday, November 30, 2013

October and November 2013 Books

Since Josh's death, I've felt no motivation to tackle much needed organization/clean-up of our home which included his room.  But last month, I wrote about emerging from a "grief cocoon" on Josh's blog and an unexpected result has been the energy to work on such projects.   But since there are only so many hours in a day and/or gas in the tank, only one book was read in October.   Hence this post will be a record of two months.

Code to Zero by Ken Follett
Published: 2000
Rating: 4

Very fast read; I finished in a  couple of days.  Signature Follett - pulls the reader in right from the start.   Just what I needed after several months of heavy reading of WWII and the tome, War and Peace.

This book is about the Cold War or more specifically, the space race between Russia and the US.  And spies.  I would recommend.

The Road from Coorain by Jill Ker Conway
Published: 1989
Rating: 4

The cover also says In the tradition of My Brilliant Career - a woman's exquisitely clear-sighted memoir of growing up in Australia.  

In my book journal, I added:

  • with a crazy, over-bearing, manipulative, paranoid mother
  • in the outback or bush
  • in a male-dominated, colonial British culture where women get married and have babies
  • where as a true intellectual, she felt out of place, shut down and totally inhibited
  • where family cultures says "one does not cry" no matter who has died
  • where she decides to go the Harvard/Radcliffe to pursue a graduate degree
Her description of the bush in the first few pages is so vivid.  One of my favorite sentences:
There is the ever-present round mount of prickly weed, which begins its life a strong acid-green with hints of yellow, and then is burnt by the sun or the frost to a pale whitish yellow.  As it ages, its root system weakens so that on windy days the wind will pick it out of the earth and roll it slowly and majestically about like whirling suns on a Van Gogh painting. 

Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes
Published: 2006
Rating: 5

This book came highly recommended by my sister-in-law, a fellow bibliophile.  I got the audiobook from the library and was hooked!

Click here to listen to the author discussing his first book.  The debut novel is great on so many levels:

  • In the head of many characters
  • Description of the ugly military bureaucracy and ambition/greed which led to good Marine's deaths
  • Fascination and quest for medals
  • Racism in the military, not only white vs. black but sometimes, black vs. black
  • Enlisted vs officers
  • Junior officers vs "brass"
  • Becoming a killing machine
  • Bravo company as fodder
  • Surviving in enemy jungle without food, water, supplies
  • In the end, Marines really fight for one another
I've read quite a bit of the Marine's horrific experiences in WWII.  Vietnam was no different, except in a major way - these brave young men did not have the backing and support of the home front.  Tragedy heaped upon tragedy.  

Other book by Marlantes:
What It is Like to Go To War" - click here for Q&A with Marlantes.

The Twelve (The Passage # 2) by Justin Cronin
Published: 2012
Rating: 4

I spotted this book in the library while looking for an audiobook for the car.  I read the first book of the trilogy, The Passage and liked it.  The notes in my book diary, however, were not thorough enough to help me remember the main characters and plot outline - thank goodness for Wikipedia.

Cronin's dystopia world pulled me in from the start and did not let go - the plot builds suspense to where I had to find out what happened next even though I felt ambivalent to the main characters.

The story reminds me of Stephen King's The Stand, one of my all-time favorite books except that in his masterpiece, King focused on a few memorable characters (Stu Redmond, Larry Underwood, Randall Flagg, Mother Abigail, Fran Goldsmith, Nadine Cross).

So my new equations:

Fast and good read - suspenseful plot a must; characters can be secondary
Awesome book - suspenseful plot and interesting, round characters

Flyboys: A True Story of Courage by James Bradley
Published: 2003
Rating: 5

Absolutely horrifying account of 8 American airmen shot down and captured off the island of Chichi Jima, a critical Japanese radio base.  For 50 years, howe these men died was kept classified by the US Government.  With the exception of one mother who was still alive when the book was published, all the other parents died without knowing the truth, despite numerous attempts to find out……WOW.

Many, many OMG written in the margins of the book.

In order to fully understand the Japanese mindset and their subsequent treatment of the 8 flyboys, Bradley provides a concise but comprehensive backstory of Japanese history leading up to WWII.  What I learned:

  • For almost 250 years (1614 - 1853), Japan was completely isolated.
  • After seeing Western imperialism in Asia, (Dutch ruled Indonesia; French had Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia; the mighty British Empire governed Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaya, Burma and India), Japan began turning itself into a military nation.
  • In 1862, Japan began its conquest but taking Chichi Jima from American businessmen who had settled this island as a critical coal stop for freighters from US to China.
  • In 1894, Japan attacked China and emerged victorious.  
  • in 1904, Japan started the Russo-Japanese War, resulting in a 1905 treaty mediated by Theodore Roosevelt, in which Japan received territory conceded by Russia and complete control over Korea.
  • The US was far from innocent it her own quest for land against the Native Americans, Mexicans and Filipinos. 
  • Japan continues its course as a military state, where Emperor Hirohito was god and service unto death for the Emperor was expected of every Japanese man, woman and child.  To surrender to the enemy was shameful and forbidden, hence the suicidal policy permeating Japanese military and utter contempt for surrendering Allied soldiers in WWII.   
  • The training of soldiers was brutal and dehumanizing.  The rules of war did not apply. 
  • In 1931, Japan invades and conquers Chinese Manchuria renaming it Manchukuo.  
  • In 1937, Japan shows their brutal hand with the infamous Rape of Nanking.  Atrocities committed against 300,000 civilian Chinese reverberated throughout the world.
  • Summer of 1941, the US and UK ended trade with Japan and cut off precious oil, without which Japan's military would be paralyzed. 
  • Japan faced two options: concede to the West or strike boldly and gain enough territory to exact a treaty with the US. 
  • December 6, 1941 - bombing at Pearl Harbor
Next book to read by Bradley:
  • The Imperial Cause: A Secret History of Empire and War

True North: A Memoir by Jill Ker Conway
Published: 1994
Rating: 3

Picks up where The Road From Coorain leaves off:

  • graduate work at Harvard/Radcliffe
  • marries Harvard professor and moves with him back to his native country, Canada where she moves from Professor to Vice President of Internal Affairs at the University of Toronto
  • becomes President of Smith College
Reading her memoir makes me appreciate how much women had to fight for equal rights and how far we have come however, my interest waned in the many pages describing the inner politics of university life.

The Marines of Autumn: A Novel of the Korean War by James Brady
Published: 2000
Rating: 5

Wow - I loved it.  Like Marlantes' Matterhorn, this is another superb example of how the use of fiction by an ex-Marine can place the reader in war.

Brady was a Marine officer in The Korean War, sandwiched between WWII and the Vietnam War and often called the "Forgotten War" - a sad fact for the brave 52,000+ Americans who fought and died in the three years of conflict from 1950 - 1953.

In this novel, Brady chose to write about a campaign that occurred a year before he arrived in Korea, when the Chinese entered the war on behalf of the retreating North Koreans and nearly destroyed MacArthur's army in the frigidly cold autumn of 1950.  The battleground was the Chosin Reservoir.

It is clear that my prior reading has built a pyramid of knowledge that enhances each subsequent book.   I understood the references to Marine's battles on small Pacific islands, their intense dislike and distrust of General MacArthur, of Marine commander Chesty Puller's reputation, and why the US could not allow Korea to fall to the communists.

What I learned in this book:

  • General MacArthur - decent job getting Japan on her feet after WWII, caught sleeping when North Koreans invaded the South, brilliant move at Inchon, clueless about Chinese invasion, uncontrollable by Washington, thought he would be the next President. 
  • MacArthur vs the Marine generals under him.
  • Army vs Marines 
  • Marine officers vs. senior non-commissioned officer (NCO) vs enlisted.
  • Military hierarchy - if you wanted to move up in the ladder, you did not disagree.
  • Poor decisions by commanders cost lives.
  • Fighting in freezing cold - "God never meant honest soldiers to fight winter wars."
  • Orderly retreat of army vs panic.
  • How the Chinese could have destroyed MacArthur's army but did not, similar to Meade's chance to annihilate Lee's army at Gettysburg. 
  • Criticalness of strategic airstrips and ports during war. 

Other books by Brady to read:

  • The Coldest War: A Memoir of Korea (1990)
  • Warning of War: A Novel of the North China Marines (2002)
  • The Marine: A Novel of War from Guadalcanal to Korea (2003)
  • The Scariest Place In the World: A Marine Returns to North Korea (2005)
  • Why Marines Fight (2007)

Monday, October 14, 2013

September 2013 Books

This month, my reading of WWII has focused on individuals and their contribution to what will hopefully be known as the last World War.  In addition, I have given myself a huge pat on the back for finishing Tolstoy's epic War and Peace.

Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies by Ben Macintyre
Published: 2012
Rating: 4

My brother has a condo on Stratton Mountain, VT and whenever I visit, a trip to my favorite bookstore (Northshire) is an absolute must.  I am never disappointed.

Take this book, for example.  I've perused the WWII section of numerous bookstores and have never come across this gem.  But being prominently displayed at Northshire, it caught my attention.  I was hooked after the first couple of pages and finished it within a few days.  It reads like fiction, similar to Truman Capote's nonfiction fiction: In Cold Blood.  I would highly recommend.

In fact, two novelists who have written about WWII had this to say:

"How on earth, in 1944, did we dupe Berlin that we would attack the coast of France in completely the wrong place?  It was a deception that saved tens of thousands of Allied lives. In Double Cross, Ben Macintyre ingeniously explains exactly how it was done."    Frederick Forsyth

"Never before revealed facts about the workings of the Intelligence Service in the build-up to D-Day in the Second World War.  Ben Macintyre's remarkable book is a gripping revelation."  Jack Higgins

Two epigraphs:
Tangle within tangle, plot and counter-plot, ruse and treachery, cross and double-cross, true agent, false agent, double agent, gold and steel, the bomb, the dagger and the firing party, were interwoven in many a texture so intricate as to be incredible and yet true.
Winston Churchill 
The enemy must not know where I intend to give battle.  For if he does not know where I intend to give battle he must prepare in a great many places.  And when he prepares in a great many places, those I have to fight in any one place will be few.  And when he prepares everywhere he will be weak everywhere.
Sun Tzu
Other WWII espionage books by Macintyre:
  • Agent Zigzag
  • Operation Mincemeat

Audiobook - Hell in the Pacific: A Marine Rifleman's Journey from Guadalcanal to Peleliu by Jim McEnery with Bill Sloan
Published: 2012
Rating: 4

I found this audiobook at my local library and would highly recommend.

An honest, simply written memoir about an enlisted Marine's journey to hell and back.  Mac was in K/3/5 (K Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division) and fought at Guadalcanal and Cape Gloucester (like Robert Leckie of Helmut for My Pillow) and at Peleliu, where he met E.B. Sledge, author of With the Old Breed.  

Published in 2012, this may be the last memoir published by a surviving WWII veteran - see video.   

What the young Marines endured in the Pacific campaign is beyond belief: horrible conditions, little food and water, malaria, jungle rot, constant fear, lack of sleep, seeing best friends die, close combat with K-bar (knife) and bayonets, knowing that you either "kill or be killed."  Mac eventually grew numb to the killing by considering it "his job".  It is what he had to do; it is what he was ordered to do.

His disdain for Army General, Douglas MacArthur or "Dougout Doug" (his infamous nickname after escaping to Australia), is palatable.  It is MacArthur that ordered the invasion of Peleliu, to cover his flank during the Allied invasion of the Philippines, resulting in thousands of Marine casualties.  In retrospect, the securing of the island was unnecessary.

Despite everything, it is clear that he is proud of being a Marine and especially proud of their stand on Guadalcanal, the first US offensive after Pearl Harbor, thereby being the first real test of green Marines.  The Japanese thought the "soft" Americans would turn and run.  Little did they know what courage, stamina, bravery and heroism lay in the soul of those extraordinary "greatest generation" citizen soldiers.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
First Published: 1869
Oxford University Press/Translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude/Intro and notes by Henry Gifford
Rating: 5

Pending - to contemplate writing a blurb about this epic work is a bit overwhelming.  

Wings of Morning: The Story of the Last American Bomber Shot Down Over Germany in World War II by Thomas Childers
Published: 1996
Rating: 5

Childers is a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania and delivers one of my favorite audio courses produced by The Teaching Company: World War II: A Military and Social History.  

I LOVED this book and plan to read his other two WWII books: In the Shadows of War: An American Pilot's Odyssey Through Occupied France and the Camps of Nazi Germany (2003) and Soldier From the War Returning (2009)

Two epigraphs:
If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea;
Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.
If I say, surely the darkness shall cover me, even the night shall be light about me.
Yea, the darkness hideth not from thee, but the night shineth as the day....
Psalm 139
And in the end, of course, a true war story is never about war.....
It's about love and memory. It's about sorrow
Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried
The subject of this book, the bomber Black Cat and her crew, shot down days before the war's end is very personal to Childers as the radio operator was his uncle, Howard Goodner.

While going through his deceased grandmother's possessions, Childers discovered a pack of letters and photographs, postmarked 1943 - 1945.  One picture was of the Black Cat crew; 11 young men in the prime of life, dressed to fly, smiling in front of their plane.  It graces the book's cover (not sure why is does not show up here).   This discovery began a three year journey, taking the author to multiple states as well as a deserted English air base and small town's field in Germany.

The writing is immediate; the reader is right there, experiencing the long training of a bomber crew, the GI experience as part of the 8th Air Force stationed in England, flying the cumbersome Liberator B-24's, the milk runs, the harrowing runs, the frigid winter of 1944, the physical, emotional and mental challenge of flying bombing missions, the added pressure as the lead crew, the fateful last run and the author's quest to discover the truth.  Here are some of my favorite quotes:

About the never-ending British rain:
And, most mystifying and maddening of all, it came in the form so fine they could never feel anything as distinct as a drop, so invisible it failed to stir even the placid surface of a puddle, and yet after walking ten yards their faces, their jackets, their caps would be drenched as if they had somehow generated the moisture from some elusive internal source.
Preparing fore the Black Cat's first official run:
...the atmosphere was subdued, somber, as if each man in the crowded room had deserted the present and crawled into a small, secret space just behind his eyes.
.....these final few minutes before takeoff crawled by, caught in the undertow of time.
 While on leave, walking alone in London, after being with his crew 24/7 for months:
It was a dreamy, luxuriant feeling, this fleeting sensation of solitude, of privacy, a sensation that belonged to another lifetime, like the simple, sensual steam of a shower.

Goodbye Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific War by William Manchester
Published: 1979
Rating: 4

William Raymond Manchester is a renowned biographer, most known for American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur 1880-1964 and The Last Lion trilogy on Winston Churchill.

But as a young 23-year old Marine sergeant, he fought in one of the bloodiest engagements of the Pacific Theatre: Okinawa.

Three epigraphs:
Your old men shall dream dreams,
your young men shall see visions.
Joel 2:28 
War, which was cruel and glorious,
Has become cruel and sordid.
Winston Churchill 
But we....shall be remembered:
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother, be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition.
Henry V, Act IV, Scene iii
This is an interesting and intensely personal memoir.  In fact, it is a memoir of the quest to access the horrors of war which he had tried in vain to write about for years.  The memories were too deep for conscious recollection but manifested themselves in troubling dreams of a split persona - "the scrawny, Atabrine-yellow, cocky young Sergeant of Marines who had borne my name in 1945.  The other was the portly, balding, Brooks-Brothered man who bears it today."

The solution was self-evident - he would have to travel back to the Pacific.  So thirty-three years after the end of the war, Manchester embarks on an island-hopping journey to visit the sites of all the major engagements, beginning at Pearl Harbor to Corregidor, Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Saipan, Guam, Peleliu, Leyte, Manila, Iwo Jima and finally, Okinawa.  As a Marine, he served at two places: Guadalcanal (after the island was secured) and Okinawa.

So it is an unusual memoir with intermingled parts: 1) the sequential account of the war, 2) description of the impact three decades had on these "killing fields", 3) vivid accounts of Manchester's personal experience in Okinawa and 4) reconciliation of his split persona.

 To gain a better understanding of the somewhat complicated structure of this unique memoir, I will need to take pen to paper and write an outline and/or a chapter-by-chapter synopsis.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

August 2013 Books

Audiobook: Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife by Eben Alexander, MD.
Published: 2012
Rating: 4
Author web site

Audiobooks are a favorite way to pass the time in the car, especially this personal and fascinating NDE (Near Death Experience) memoir, read by the author himself.

There were a number of poignant parts in the book made more so by the increased huskiness and emotion in Dr. Alexander's normally calm and matter-of-fact voice.

There is much to think and ponder about his post NDE convictions; I have ordered the book from Amazon and plan to journal through and possibly write more on Josh's blog.

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain
Published: 2000
Rating: 3.5

After much reading about WWII, I needed something different and boy, this fit the bill.

My daughter had read this chef's no-holds-barred memoir of rising within the cutthroat and competitive restaurant industry so when I found it at a local library book sale, into my bag it went.
Good to know "insider" tips:
  • Do not order seafood on Mondays - most likely 4-5 days old.
  • Same reason to beware of seafood dishes on Sunday brunch menus.  Also best cooks and supervising chefs do not usually work Sunday brunch. 
  • Never order mussels or anything with hollandaise sauce (i.e. eggs benedict).
  • Ordering the most popular dishes will most likely ensure the freshest ingredients.
  • Best nights to eat out: Tuesday and Thursday.
  • Do not eat in restaurants with dirty bathrooms which are much easier to clean than kitchens (gross!). 
To be a chef is a calling.  It is a tough life - the hours, the pressure, the back-breaking work.  Hats off to those who choose it. 

Audiobook: Escape From Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West by Blaine Harden
Published: 2012
Rating: 5

Shin Dong-Hyuk was breed and born to be a slave inside Camp 14, a hell-hole work camp for political prisoners and their families deep in the heart of North Korea, a nation subject to tyranny that is hard to fathom by one who has only known democracy and freedom.

Brutally led and brainwashed by the Kim dynasty, first by "The Great Leader", Kim Il Sung, then for seventeen years by his son, Kim Jong Il and now by Kim Jong Eun, the youngest grandson of Kim Il Sung who is promoted by North Korean press as "another leader sent from heaven," the difference between communist North Korea and a democratic, capitalistic South Korea could not be more clear.

In 2008, I had an opportunity to travel to the land of my parents and visited the demilitarized zone between the two countries.  It was sobering to think about my father's family on the other side of the heavily armed border and wonder if they had the basics: food, adequate shelter and medicine.

Shin's miraculous escape from Camp 14, his trek through North Korea and China, his fortuitous meeting with a journalist who walked him safely into the South Korean embassy in China, and the difficult acclimation to South Korea and eventually the United States is a story that everyone should read.

I've learned that South Korea's apathy towards reunification with the North is because the populous is "more interested in preserving peace and protecting living standards" and are well aware of the economic burden of unification.  Some studies show this could cost "more than two trillion dollars over thirty years, raise taxes for six decades and require that ten percent of the South's gross domestic product be spent in the North."

This does not sit well with a society that has gone from a backward, third-world country to the 4th largest economy in Asia via it's focus on education, money and success.  Harden's depiction of a "success-obsessed, status-conscious, and education-crazed culture" is spot on; it permeated my upbringing in a Chicago suburb, over 6,500 miles away.

The staggering rise of South Korea is not without human cost as "South Koreans work more, sleep less, and kill themselves at a higher rate".  In fact, the suicide rate is over twice that of the United States (2008), and higher than Japan, a country renowned for it's suicidal culture.

During my visit to Seoul, the city pulses with the hard-driving, ambitious energy of its occupants.  It was overwhelming to me, even though I've lived in Boston, London and New York City; no wonder Shin and many other North Korean defectors have such a hard adjustment.

My dad says that if China stopped providing aid to North Korea, the country would fall.  He also says that in the past, when the North provoked the South via random attacks, the US encouraged the South not to retaliate.  But if the North did so now, the new female President, Park, Geun-Hye, would take a hard line stand. He says she is a new "Iron Lady" in the mold of Margaret Thatcher.

I know my father's family wishes for reunification in their lifetime - we shall see.

And If I Perish: Frontline U.S. Army Nurses in World War II by Evelyn Monahan and Rosemary Neidel-Greenlee
Published: 2003
Rating: 5

Excellent book on a group of fiercely committed and patriotic unsung heroes who risked their lives to save others.   Dedication in the front and epitaph says it all: "To all the women of the Greatest Generation" and from the Book of Esther 4:16, "I will go....and if I perish, I perish."

This book is the result of the two author's determination to bring to light previously unknown accounts of the nurses who served in WWII, often near the front line and in some cases, right in the line of fire, from the campaigns in North Africa, to Sicily, to Italy and then to Fortress Europe.   It is the same motivation which drove Elizabeth Norman to write of the previously untold accounts of US nurses held as Japanese POWs for over three years - another excellent book.

These women were gritty, courageous, hard-working and as tough as nails...they had to be to work the grueling hours demanded in hospitals set up near the front lines.  Their stories are truly inspiring and should be made into a movie.

Other books are on my wish list:

  • All This Hell: U.S. Nurses Imprisoned by Japanese by Monahan and Greenlee
  • Albanian Escape: The True Story of U.S. Army Nurses Behind Enemy Lines by Agnes Mangerich
  • The Secret Rescue: An Untold Story of American Nurses and Medics Behind Nazi Lines by Cate Lineberry

Franklin and Winston: and Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship by Jon Meacham
Published: 2003
Rating: 5

I listened to the audiobook and after finishing, bought the book so I could re-read the inspiring speech excerpts of both-larger-than-life statesman but in particular, Winston Churchill.   He had a way with words.

The book is also peppered with snippets from their prolific correspondence via letters, telegrams, notes and memos from September, 1939 - April, 1945.  In that time, the two men spent 113 days together - solidifying their "epic" friendship that "rallied the forces of light when darkness fell."

Highly recommend.

Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir by Beth Kephart
Published: 2013
Rating: 4

This is Kephart's 6th memoir and as a write and instructor of the genre, she imparts why she loves reading memoir, what she looks for, blurbs on her favorite memoirs and guidance on writing memoir.  Her passion radiates and is infectious.

Memoirs, journal writing and published journals have become an important genre for my own journal and blog writing.

Her views on memoir:

  • Writers of literary memoir "ope themselves to self-discovery and in the process, make themselves vulnerable - not just to the world but to themselves."
  • "Some of the best memoirs are....the contemplations of universal questions within a framed perspective."
  • She argues that such literary memoirs are works of art.
What she looks for in memoirs:
  • deliberation with structure
  • ambition with language
  • compassion in tone
  • magnanimous reach
  • a refusal to assume chronology alone teaches
Books to add to my wish list
  • Road Song by Natalie Kusz
  • Running In the Family by Michael Ondaatje
  • Duke of Deception by Geoffrey Wolff
  • Townie by Andre Dubus III
  • Heaven's Coast by Mark Doty
  • The Long Goodbye by Meghan O-Rourke
  • The Tender Land by Kathleen Finneran
  • Bereft: A Sister's Story by Kane Bernstein

Monday, July 29, 2013

July 2013 Books

My surprising obsession with World War II continues; I wrote a post about why on Josh's blog.

No Ordinary Time - Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front In World War II by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Published: 1994
Rating: 5
1995 Pulitzer Prize for History

This is the first of several biographies I plan to read on Washington's first power couple. For a novice such as myself, Goodwin's book is an excellent start.  Beginning with the day that ended Europe's "Phony War", when Roosevelt learned of Hitler's invasion of Holland, Luxembourg and the Netherlands on May 9, 1940, Goodwin unveils the personal and political life of this unusual couple as they navigate the war of the century.

What I learned: about FDR:

  • Privledged life
  • Very close to his mother, Sara
  • Master politician - manipulator
  • Unfaithful husband
  • Paralyzed by polio at 39 years old
  • Kept his own counsel - "ice in his veins"
  • Could see the whole picture
  • Would not move without public opinion
  • Folksy fireside chats
  • Elected to an unprecedented four terms
About Eleanor Roosevelt:
  • Shy, awkward, unattractive daughter of beautiful, aloof mother
  • Alcoholic father
  • Niece of Theodore Roosevelt
  • Had 6 children (one died in infancy) but left rearing to her mother-in-law
  • Became FDR's eyes and ears after he was disabled by polio
  • After finding out about FDR's affair with Lucy Mercer, she no longer lived as his wife but continued as political partner.
  • Struggled with depression
  • Work-a-holic
  • Championed the underdog: children, women, Negros, laborers
  • A die-hard liberal
FDR's smart decisions:
  • Picked military leaders and let them run the war
  • 1940 - 1942 - Lend Lease policy which allowed US to give aid to Britain and Russia without entering the war.
  • Doolittle raid on Tokyo
  • Decision to invade North Africa first
  • Recapture of the Philippines
  • Production of B-29 Superfortress bomber
  • Spent enormous amount of federal money on research/development of atomic bomb
  • United Nations
FDR misses:
  • Did not push mobilization/production in 1940-1941
  • Did not do enough to protect small business
  • Sanctioned relocation of US citizens of Japanese descent.  
  • Holocaust -he felt the best way to relieve the suffering of the Jews in concentration camps was to end the war as quickly as possible.  He could've done much more. 

Unprecedented social change in America:

  • Great Migration: south to north, east to west and rural to city
  • Greatest redistribution of wealth - created the middle class
  • Post war economic boom
  • GI bill 
  • Mixed economy: government and consumer spending
  • New entrants into the workforce: women and Negroes

The Greatest Generation by Tom Brokaw
Published: 1998
Rating: 3

I have mixed feelings about this book. No doubt - the young men and women who grew up in the Great Depression, then fought the two-front war at home and overseas, and upon returning, contributed to the greatest economic boom of this country - deserve to be called "The Greatest Generation" and the more I learn about their sacrifice, the more indebted I feel.

However, Brokaw's book gives a one-sided view of those who came home, focusing on the ones who could put the war behind them and lead well-adjusted, productive lives.

I look forward to reading Thomas Childer's book, Soldier From the War Returning: The Greatest Generation's Troubled Homecoming From WWII, which will give a more realistic portrait of the emotional, psychological and physical challenges that faced veterans upon their return.

The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s Over Germany by Stephen E. Ambrose
Published: 2001
Rating: 3.5

A quick read that focused on a B-24 Liberator pilot and his crew, stationed in Italy and tasked with bombing strategic targets such Germany's oil fields.  That pilot was George McGovern, later US Senator and 1972 presidential candidate.

What I learned:

  • The B-24's took a tremendous amount of physical and emotional strength to fly.
  • Pilots needed to complete 35 missions before they could go home.
  • Many young pilots died during training and so were pre-war casualties.
  • McGovern was part of the 15th Air Force which was not as famous as the 8th Air Force stationed in England.
  • Good descriptions of formation flying, flak, faulty bomb releases.
  • Cabins were not pressurized so the crew needed oxygen and endured sub-zero temperatures during missions.
  • Fighter support was crucial to bomber's success.
  • Mussolini's Italy was decimated.

Audiobook: Flag of our Fathers by James Bradley
Published: 2000
Rating: 4

An engrossing book which focuses on 5 Marines and 1 Navy corpsman who were immortalized in the iconic picture of World War II - the raising of the American flag on Iwo Jima.

John Bradley, the author's father was the corpsman who, after returning from the war, became a husband, father, successful small business owner and community leader.  He did not, however, speak of his war experiences or of this photo with his family.  

After his father's death in 1994, they found a few boxes containing war memorabilia in his closet which prompted James' quest to learn more about the 6 men in the photo - before, during and after the war - which, of course, included his father.

Add "To Watch and Read" list:

  • Movie: Flag of Our Fathers directed by Clint Eastwood
  • Movie: Letters from Iwo Jima directed by Clint Eastwood
  • Flyboys: A True Story of Courage by James Bradley
  • The Imperial Cruise: The Secret History of Empire and War by James Bradley

With the Old Breed by E.B. Sledge
Published: 1981
Rating: 5

Excellent personal memoir about an enlisted Marine's experience in WWII, specifically the Battle of Peleliu and Okinawa.  It is an honest, gritty, unembellished portrayal of war, shouldered by the men on the front lines.  Some of the scenes are unbelievably horrific.

He is a main character in Tom Hanks/Steven Spielburg's HBO production, The Pacific.

I plan to read his second book, China Marine which is a memoir about Marine life as part of the occupying forces in China.

We Band of Angels: The Untold Story of American Nurses Trapped on Bataan by the Japanese by Elizabeth Norman
Published: 1999
Rating: 5

The author stumbled upon references to the "Angels of Bataan and Corregidor" while researching her first book, Women at War: The Story of Fifty Military Nurses Who Served In Vietnam.  

These "angels" are the army and navy nurses who found their idyllic, island life on the Philippines turned upside-down on December, 1941 when Japanese bombs landed on Manila.  The US military under General Douglas MacArthur, woefully unprepared for enemy invasion,  retreated to the Bataan Peninsula for their first stand.  The nurses worked in two hospitals, set up in the jungle, not far from the front lines.  Before Bataan fell, the nurses were able to retreat to the Malinta Tunnel deep in Corregidor Island.

Unable to withstand the powerful Japanese forces, the army on Corregidor Island surrendered on May 6, 1942.  The POW nurses lived at the Saint Thomas Internment Camp (STIC) in Manila until liberated by MacArthur in February 1945, almost three years later.

What I learned:
  • Step-by-step fall of the Philippines to the Japanese.
  • "Europe First" policy left MacArthur to fend for himself, however with our decimated Navy at Pearl Harbor, it is unlikely the Philippines could have been saved. 
  • MacArthur's retreat to Corregidor Island earned him the bitter nickname: Dugout Doug
  • Bataan Death March
  • Nurse's grisly and harrowing work in jungle hospitals, close to the front lines of battle. 
  • Starvation, disease and death faced the nurses in STIC. 
  • The nurse's own "esprit de corps" saved them.
  • After liberation, the nurses, having lost an average of 30+ pounds were celebrities, used by the government to boost public support for the war. 
  •  Post homecoming - many felt disjointed, out-of-place, melancholic and depressed.
So glad I found this book on Amazon, in fact, it would make an inspiring movie.

Living Reed: A Novel of Korea by Pearl S. Buck
Published: 1963
Rating: 4

I am of Korean descent, but know very little of Korean history.  Partly because Asian history is not a focus in US schools but mostly because the subject of history, even that of my own race, was not of much interest.  That is, before reading Ken Follett's Winter of the World, a historical fiction novel about World War II.  Now, if one looked at my TBR pile, they would think I loved history.

So when I saw that Buck had written a novel about Korea, I ordered it from Amazon and read it within a couple of weeks.  Through the lens of one aristocratic family, Buck tells of Korea's tumultuous history from late 1800 - Korean War.

What I learned:
  • Political tension between Japan, China and Russia over Korea
  • Social tension between old and new religion/philosophy
  • 40+ years of brutal Japanese occupation
  • Courtship, marriage, role of women
  • Christianity in Korea
  • Teddy Roosevelt's foreign policy favored Japan over Korea
  • Communism vs democracy - a divided Korea
China Marine: An Infantryman's Life After World War II by E. B Sledge
Published: 2002
Rating: 4

Sledge continues his memoir of WWII, from learning about the Japanese surrender in Okinawa to being part of the occupying forces in Northern China, a "tinderbox of conflicting armed forces" to the difficult adjustment back to civilian life, typified by this scene which made it into HBO's The Pacific.

Sledge was signing up for school at Auburn University and trying to see if some of his Marine Corp training would qualify for college credit.  The girl behind the desk was getting flustered when she couldn't find course equivalency for weapons and tactics.
"Finally, in desperation, she slammed her pencil on the table and said in a loud, exasperated voice, "Didn't the Marine Corps teach you anything?!"  A gasp ran through the crowd, and you could have heard a pin drop.  I didn't lose my temper, but I realized that, like most civilians, war to this lady meant John Wayne or the sweet musical South Pacific.  
Slowly placing my hands on the table, aware that all eyes were on us, I said in a loud, calm, voice: "Lady, there was a killing war.  The Marine Corps taught me how to kill Japs and try to survive.  Now, if that don't fit into any academic course, I'm sorry.  But some of us had to do the killing - and most of my buddies got killed or wounded."  
In the preface, he writes about living with the "embedded trauma...the emotional equivalent of a sliver of steel shrapnel lodged near my heart."  I can relate to this.

A Marine's experience of the war, told in his own words, is so gripping.  I can feel him trying to express the inexpressible through the limited means of language.

Other memoirs to read:
  • Goodbye Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific War by William Manchester
  • Red Blood, Black Sand: Fighting Alongside John Basilone from Boot Camp to Iwo Jima by Chuck Tatum
Audiobook - The Few: The American "Knights of the Air" Who Risked Everything to Fight in the Battle of Britain by Alex Kershaw
Published: 2006
Rating: 4

In 1940, while Britain was fighting for her life again Nazi Germany's quest to gain air superiority, it was illegal for any US citizen to fight for a foreign nation, even an ally.

Despite this policy, many American pilots joined the Royal Air Force, fought bravely alongside their aces and did their part to help save the RAF from destruction.  And with the loss of air domination, Hitler called off the invasion of England.

The reader of the audio book was very good - employing German, American, British and Australian accents when needed.  While driving in my car, I could envision the dogfights over the English countryside, her cities or the English Channel.   I could feel the pilot's intense relief in surviving another battle, along with the ensuing physical and emotional post-battle fatigue as well as the grief upon learning of a fellow pilot's death.

Other WWII books by Kershaw:
  • Escape From the Deep - about submarine U.S.S Tang
  • The Longest Winter - about the Battle of the Bulge
  • The Bedford Boys: One American Town's Ultimate D-Day Sacrifice
The Eagle Has Landed by Jack Higgins
Published: 1975
Rating: 2

This fictionalized account of Germany's attempt to kidnap Winston Churchill was uninteresting.  I now see that historical fiction can run the gamut on accuracy and authenticity.  I have to be more selective on what stories to read.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

June 2013 Books

Ike: An American Hero by Michael Korda
Published: 2007
Rating: 4

Over the past 9 months I have been reading about WWII and the brave citizen soldiers who fought against Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperialist Japan.  This month, I wanted to learn more about the person who led the Allied forces to victory in Europe.  I also wanted to learn more about the post WWII era, (i.e. the Cold War).  Both goals were accomplished via two well-written biographies on the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe and later, President of the United States from 1953 - 1961: Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Bullet points of interest that I jotted down in the front of the book:
  •  he had to deal with prima donna generals like Montgomery (huge jerk) and George Patton.
  •  Love triangle?  Ike, Kay Summersby and Mamie (wife)
  •  Korda makes constant comparisons to the Civil War such as Bastogne-Gettysburg and Ike-Grant.
  •  During the war, he was a huge chain smoker - up to 4 packs a day!
  • He is not buried in Arlington Cemetery, but rather in a small chapel on the grounds of the Eisenhower Presidential Library in his hometown of Abilene, Kansas.
Jobs after the war:
  • Leader of US Occupying Forces in Germany
  • Army Chief of Staff (replaced Marshall)
  • President of Columbia University
  • 1st Commander of NATO forces
  • President of the United States for 2 terms
Memoirs to add to the wish list?

By Eisenhower
  • Crusade in Europe 
  • At Ease: Stories I Tell to Friends
  • White House Years: Waging Peace, 1956-1961
By Churchill
  • 6 Volume History of World War II

Eisenhower: Soldier and President by Stephen E. Ambrose
Published: 1983
Rating: 4

This is the second Ambrose book I've read - the first was Band of Brothers.  I really like his writing: clear, concise and interesting.  He gives an unbiased accounting of Eisenhower's good and bad decisions as General and President.

What I learned:
  • Nixon was his VP for 8 years.  They had a formal, frosty relationship.  
  • Eisenhower ended the Korean War with an armistice.  He could not see a way to win without WWIII and a battle with the Russians.
  • He did not get sucked into other escalating areas such as Vietnam and Cuba.
  • President over 8 years of peace and prosperity.
  • He did not assert leadership during the Civil Rights Movement (I found this surprising).
  • U-2 incident (spy plane over Russia) which ended in international embarrassment. 
Other Ambrose books to read:
  • D-Day, June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II
  • Citizen Soldiers
  • The Victors: Eisenhower and His Boys: The Men of World War II
  • Comrades: Brothers, Fathers, Heroes, Sons, Pals
  • The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s Over Germany

The Key to Rebecca by Ken Follett
Published: 1980
Rating: 3

A quick read about a ruthless German spy in Egypt feeding information to Rommel, a British spy-catcher and a beautiful Jewess.

This fictitious account reminds me of his other recently read works: Hornet Flight and Eye of Needle. 

The Odessa File by Frederick Forsyth
Published: 1972
Rating: 3

This book was referenced in Korda's biography on Ike, so I downloaded a sample, got hooked, bought the i-book and finished in a couple of days.

It is based on the true life account of the post-war activities of a ruthless SS officer, Otto Skorzeny, who set up "Odessa, the escape network for Nazi war criminals".

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
Published: 1931
Rating: 5
Awards:  1932 Pulitzer Prize for Novel

I needed a break from WWII and felt hungry for good literary fiction.  I plucked this from my shelves and was hooked from the start.

The first book in her trilogy about the honest, hard-working farmer, Wang Lung and his family in pre-WWII China.  It was a best-seller in 1931 - 1932 and according to Wikipedia, the books apparently helped Americans consider the Chinese as allies in the upcoming conflict with Japan.

The second book of the trilogy, Sons was published in 1932 and the last book,  A House Divided in 1935.

Sons By Pearl S. Buck (# 2 in Good Earth trilogy)
Published: 1932
Rating: 3

As intimated by the title, this book focuses on the three sons of Wang Lung.  In contrast to the round characters in The Good Earth, the sons are flat and one-dimensional; therefore, not as interesting, hence the lower rating.

The social and historical context of pre-World War II China is what makes this trilogy fascinating.  The third son becomes a decorated soldier and with his inheritance, amasses an army and becomes a war lord in the north.  It is a very unstable time period as war lords constantly vie for more land, armies and power while revolution takes root and spreads in the south.

I know nothing of modern Chinese history so will probably read the third book in the trilogy to find out what happens to this family and their country.   I am already starting a list of books to read in the future:

  • Thunder Out of China by Theodore White
  • The Last Empress: Madame Chiang Kai-Shek and Birth of Modern China by Hannah Pakula
  • China Marine: An Infantryman's Life After World War II by E.B. Sledge

Audiobook: Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand
Published: 2010
Rating: 5
Author web site

WOW - what an awesome, inspiring story of Louis Zamperini, Olympic athlete (1936) turned US Army Air Force bombardier in WWII.

I did not know anything of this man's life before listening to the audiobook which made it that much more enjoyable.  His story needed to be told and I am glad Hillenbrand stumbled upon it while conducting research for her first book, Seabiscuit. 

What he endured during the war is truly mind-boggling, defies comprehension and elicited many verbal outbursts (OMG, no way, you've got to be kidding me, what? really?), complete with head shaking and slapping of the steering wheel while driving alone in my car.  Anyone viewing must've thought I was a bit loco.

I love Hillenbrand's writing - so clear, concise, strong and vivid.  One would never know she suffers terribly from chronic fatigue syndrome and is therefore completely housebound, living vicariously through her research and writing - read interview.

I've seen the movie Seabiscuit and loved it, but now want to read her book.  I am a big fan and can only hope that she finds another interesting subject worthy of her writing.

Helmet For My Pillow: From Parris Island to the Pacific by Robert Leckie
Published: 1957
Rating: 5

Another WOW book about a budding, 21-year old journalist Robert Leckie, who enlisted in the US Marine Corp in January 1942 and fought at Guadalcanal, Cape Gloucester and Peleliu where he was wounded by a blast concussion and evacuated to a field hospital.   He is one of the main characters in the Hanks/Spielburg HBO mini series, The Pacific.

He decided to write this memoir in 1951 after seeing the Broadway musical, South Pacific, in order to "tell the story of how it really was.  I have to let people know the war wasn't a musical." (wikipedia article).  He accomplished his goal.

A beautifully written literary memoir about how one goes from being a young patriotic man-boy to a well-trained killer/soldier, ready to fight a ferocious and brutal Japanese enemy - for his country, yes, but even more so, for his fellow Marines - esprit de corps.

Some of my favorite passages:
A soldier's pack is like a woman's purse: it is filled with his personality. 
And there is terror, coming from the interaction of trial and tedium: the first, shaking a man as the wind in the treetops; the second, eroding him as the flood at the roots.  Each fresh trial leaves a man more shaken than the last, and each period of tedium - with its time for speculative dread - leaves his foundations worn lower, his roots less firm for the next trial.
Upon seeing a detached hand:
I turned to go, and as I did, nearly stepped on someone's hand.  "Excuse me," I began to say, but then I saw that it was an unattached hand, or rather a detached one.  It lay there alone - open, palm upwards, clean, capable, solitary.  I could not tear my eyes from it.  The hand is the artisan of the soul.  It is the second member of the human trinity of head and hand and heart.  A man has no faculty more human than his hand, none more beautiful nor expressive nor productive.  To see this hand lying alone, as though contemptuously cast aside, no longer a part of a man, no longer his help, was to see way in all it wantonness; it was to see the especially brutal savagery of our own technique of rending, and it was to see men at their eternal worst, turning upon one another, tearing one another, clawing at their own innards with the maniacal fury of the pride-possessed. 
His descriptions of living and waging war in the jungle are unforgettable.

After publishing his memoir, he went on to be a prolific writer of military history.   The following are ones that I would like to read:

  • Strong Men Armed: The U.S. Marines Against Japan (1962)
  • Conflict: The History of the Korean War (1963)
  • Challenge for the Pacific: 6 Month Battle of Guadalcanal (1968)
  • Delivered From Evil: The Saga of WWII (1987)
  • The March to Glory: Battle of Chosin Reservoir (1990)
  • Okinawa: The Last Battle of WWII (1995)
  • Wars of America (1998)

Sunday, May 26, 2013

May 2013 Books

My foray into WWII continues.  I am also reading posts from last month's Poetry Blog Tour, hosted by Savvy Verse & Wit.

Hornet Flight by Ken Follett
Published: 2002
Rating: 4

A quick read by the master of historical fiction.  This tale is about the Danish resistance during WWII.  It is a critical time in the war - Germany has invaded Russia and Churchill fears Russia will fall soon unless the British can divert Germany's mighty Luftwaffe's (air force) focus back to protecting the homeland.  Thus an all-out blitz of RAF's Bomber Command is scheduled but they need intelligence on Germany's radar capability and how to elude it.  The main radar station is in Denmark.

The afterward tells the important and often un-sung work done by courageous resistance fighters:
The Danish Resistance eventually became one of the most successful underground movements in Europe.  It provided a continuous flow of military intelligence to the Allies, undertook thousands of acts of sabotage against the occupying forces, and provided secret routes by which almost all Denmark's Jews escaped from the Nazis. 

The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk
Published: 1951
Rating: 5
Prizes:  1952 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

Excellent book - I loved it and would highly recommend.

While I decided to read The Caine Mutiny because of the WWII connection, I would actually categorize this novel as a psychological thriller with WWII as its backdrop. It is a story of how rational men, confined in a small space (minesweeper) under extreme pressure and operating under strict military rules of behavior within a set chain of command will act in the hands of a madman.   A similar story could be told about adult behavior in a strict, religious construct or within a family ruled by a tyrannical, psychotic and abusive father.

What makes this work compelling is that Herman Wouk's experience in WWII on two destroyer minesweepers is captured so succinctly that the reader knows what it was like for the sailors and officers:
Another day and another passed of rough seas and lowering skies; of rolling and pitching, cold winds, and cold damp eating into bones softened by tropic warmth; of a treadmill of watches in a wheelhouse dank and gloomy by day and danker and gloomier by night; of sullen silent sailors and pale dog-tired officers, of meals in the wardroom eaten in silence, with the captain at the head of the table ceaselessly rolling the balls in his fingers and saying nothing except an infrequent grumpy sentence about the progress of the work requests....the world became narrowed to a wobbling iron shell on a waste of foamy gray, and the business of the world was staring out at empty water or making red-ink insertions in the devil's own endless library of mildewed unintelligible volumes. 
Back on the ship after shore leave:
There would be hundreds of thousands of miles of steaming, and probably many battles, before the ship would come into these waters again with its bow pointed the other way.  The sun, dead ahead, sinking beneath ragged banks of dark clouds, shot out great spokes of red light which fanned across the western sky.  It was an uncomfortable similitude of the flag of Japan....Willie closed his eyes, listened with pleasure to the hum of the ventilators, and felt in his bones the vibration of the main engines, transmitted through the springs of his bunk.  The ship was alive again. He felt warm, and safe, and at home.  Drowsiness came over him almost at once, and he slept deliciously. 
Eccentricities, those fungi of loneliness and boredom, began to flourish on the Caine.
The awesome responsibility that a ship captain feels:
...a shrinking of his personal identity, and a stretching out of his nerve ends to all the spaces and machinery of his ship.  He was less free than before.  He developed the apprehensive listening ears of a young mother; the ears listened on in his sleep; he never quite slept, not the way he had before.  He had the sense of having been reduced from an individual to the sort of brain of a composite animal, the crew and ship combined.  The reward for these disturbing sensations came when he walked the decks.  Power seemed to flow out of the plates into his body. 
The psychological affect on the protagonist, Willie Keith, serving under a strange, psychotic captain named Queeg:
Willie began to develop a deep, dull hate for Queeg. It was nothing like the boyish pique he had felt against Captain De Vriess.  It was like the hate of a husband for a sick wife, a mature, solid hate, caused by an unbreakable tie to a loathsome person, and existing not as a self-justification but for the rotten gleam of pleasure it gave off in the continuing gloom.
I recognize the same dual-time disconnect that Styron brings up in Sophie's Choice - see post.
Willie stared at the holocaust for a minute or so, while a warm fragrant breeze fanned his face...then Willie sat at his place again, and dug his spoon into the mound of white cream attractively laced with brown.  It occurred to him that there was an unsettling contrast between himself, eating ice cream, and marines on Namur a few thousand yards away, being blown up.  He was not sufficiently unsettled to stop eating the ice cream, but the thought worked around like grit in his mind.
And an example of a kairos moment in Willie's life:
With the smoke of the dead sailor's cigar wreathing around him, Willie passed to thinking about death and life and luck and God.  Philosophers are at home with such thoughts, perhaps, but for the other people it is actual torture when these concepts - not the words, the realities - break through the crust of daily occurrences and grip the soul.  A half hour of such racking meditation can change the ways of a lifetime.  Willie Keith crushing the stub in the ashtray was not the Willie who had lit the cigar.  That boy was gone for good.

Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood With Britain in its Darkest, Finest Hour by Lynne Olson
Published: 2010
Rating: 4

I picked this book up in March at the Shakespeare & Co bookstore on the upper East Side in NYC.

The book focuses on three Americans who made London their home during the darkest days of the war.  They were immersed in British politics and society and used their influence to shape policy and public opinion in both England and America.

What I learned from this highly recommended book:

  • Life in London during the worst of the Blitz when the city was bombed for 57 straight nights.
  • The resiliency of the British people and the amazing volunteerism that arose to tackle domestic problems that the government could not handle such as the crucial task of making the numerous shelters bearable.
  • Changing of the US ambassador to England from isolationist Joseph Kennedy to New Hampshire governor, John Gilbert Winant, who became a well-known and beloved figure to the British monarchy, prime minister, military leaders and general public.  
  • England became the base of US military operations which meant the enormous influx of American GI's in British cities and countryside.  Despite speaking the same language, the cultural and stereotypical barriers were huge.  The British described American soldiers as "over-paid, over-sexed and over here" while Americans remembered the British as the "murderous redcoats who tried to destroy the infant United States during the Revolutionary War".  There was also a healthy dose of skepticism regarding the British colonial policies; the Americans were interested in freeing Europe/Far East from Nazi/Japanese tyranny, not upholding the British Empire. 
  • FDR made unilateral decisions in foreign policy, working with Churchill directly and by-passing Winant's role - much to his frustration.
  • Two other Americans were W. Averell Harriman, head of the Lend-Lease program and Edward R. Murrow, head of CBS news in Europe.  He produced the famous radio broadcasts that educated America on the European War.
  • Very sad and shocking end to Winant's life.  

Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett
Published: 1978
Rating: 4

Another quick read where Follett surmises that one of Hitler's most trusted and ruthless spies, code name Needle, has discovered the truth regarding the Patton ruse, meant to trick the Germans into thinking the cross-channel invasion would be at Calais, rather than the beaches of Normandy.

British intelligence track The Needle to a small island where he is going to alert Germany via radio broadcast and then rendezvous with a U-boat for the trip back home.  The only person in his way is a beautiful, courageous young mother resulting in a nail biting ending.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

April 2013 Books

April was a month of quality over quantity with only three books read, but all rated a 5 - the highest number possible.

Eat Right 4 Your Type and Cook Right 4 Your Type by Dr. Peter D'Adamo
Published: 1997 and 1998
Rating: 5
Author's web site

I was sidelined this month by a medical emergency (bleeding ulcer) which put me in the hospital needing a blood transfusion - the second time in five years.  I also needed an endoscopy and when the anesthesia wore off, the nurse next to my bed talked about the premise of eating for your blood type, researched and championed by Dr. Peter D'Adamo.  And while my doctor swears that food/drink has absolutely no correlation to ulcers, I have to wonder, especially after reading this very compelling book.

The first premise is this:  "Blood type is not a neutral factor.  Rather, it behaves as the control valve of your immune and digestive systems, a biological watchdog that enhances your body's ability to survive and thrive."

The second premise: "Each of the four blood types evolved in response to both the physiologic development of the species and changing climactic conditions over the eons since humankind first trod the Earth.  The adaptations that occurred in the course of evolution not only strengthened our immune systems against new bacterial, viral, and environmental assailants, but at the same time permitted our vulnerable digestive systems to adapt to a wide range of unfamiliar foods."

Linking blood type to diet: Each blood type responds positively and negatively to proteins in certain foods.  These proteins are called lectins and "have agglutinating - gluing or sticking - properties that affect your blood.  When you eat a food containing protein lectins that are incompatible with your blood type antigen, the lectins target an organ and begin to agglutinate blood cells in that area.  In effect, lectins gum up the works, interfering with digestion, insulin production, food metabolism, and hormonal balance."

I have been on the diet for three weeks and feel good.  I am much more conscious of what and how much I am eating so my meals are healthier, portions are less, and interestingly, I do not crave the main negatives for Type B: chicken, tomatoes and wheat.

Egoscue Method of Health Through Motion by Pete Egoscue
Published: 1992
Rating: 5

I am an aerobics instructor, teaching several spinning/cycle classes a week, and need to take continuing ed classes to keep my certification current.  A number of years ago, in one of my classes, the instructor recommended this book.  At the time, I found the exercises extremely helpful in improving my posture and releasing the tension in my upper back, shoulders and neck.

I dug out the book this month and re-read as my upper body tension was so bad, I could literally feel the knots throb all the time.  It was affecting my ability to sit comfortably at work and made it difficult to sleep.  After a quick re-read and faithfully doing the 13 exercises every day (takes about 20 minutes), all the tension is gone!

If you ache from tight, tense muscles, I would highly recommend.

Sophie's Choice by William Styron
Published: 1976
Rating: 5
See post on Josh's blog

Wow - I loved it. So much so that I deliberately slowed down my usually fast reading pace to savor, write down questions I had while reading, write down quotes that I loved, looked up words that I did not understand and added them to my lexicon (there were many), and thought about Styron's style, technique and framework while walking my dogs.

People have said this is a semi-autobiographical book and I would agree.  Both Styron and his protagonist, Stingo graduated from Duke University and were in the Marine Corps during WWII.  As a successful middle-aged novelist, Stingo/Styron writes about the painful and life-changing summer of 1947 when as a virginal twenty-two year old wannabe writer, he meets the tragically beautiful Sophie Zawistowska and her mad but brilliant lover, Nathan Landau.

Written in the first person, I would also describe the work as a "fictional memoir".  As a reader, we are always aware that Stingo is writing about the past and yet, when a scene is described, we are right there, just as he remembers it,

Is Stingo a reliable narrator?  I believe so for he is not reticent about revealing unflattering facts about himself and seems determined to "tell it like it was" - the good, bad and ugly and there is a lot of ugly.

Suicide is a theme that runs through the book which is interesting considering that at the time, Styron was not suffering from depression and suicidal ideation as he did later in life.  He wrote about it in a highly popular memoir, Darkness Visible, published in 1990, which I read last year - see post.

Some of my favorite quotes:

We learn early on that Sophie is a Auschwitz survivor.  Here is a description of how she shops for lunch at a Brooklyn deli, forever changed by her months of starvation.
The privilege of choice gave her a feeling achingly sensual.  There was so much to eat, such variety and abundance, that each time her breath stopped, her eyes actually filmed over  with emotion, and with  slow and elaborate gravity she would choose from the sourly fragrant, opulent, heroic squander of food: a pickled egg here, there a slice of salmi, half a loaf of pumpernickel, lusciously glazed and black.
Stingo, in writer's paradise, where everything comes so easily:
..I breathed a delicious sigh and felt the next scene hatching, so palpable I could almost reach up and fondle it, like a fat golden egg in my brain.
Stingo, on the beach, describing himself vs the other bronzed bathers:
Sharecropper-white with pink elbows and chafed knees, I felt wan and desiccated amid these bodies so richly and sleekly dark, so Mediterranean, glistening like dolphins beneath their Coppertone.  How I envied the pigmentation that could cause one's torso to develop this mellow hue of stained walnut.
Grief, pain, heartache and loss are described so accurately, I plan to write a post on Josh's blog about certain quotes and how they touched me.

I want to see the movie starring Meryl Streep as Sophie with a box of tissues as my only companion.  I would also like to read some of his other works, namely The Confessions of Nat Turner with which he won the 1968 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

The book fits perfectly in my WWII reading theme.  In fact, in this fictional memoir, before Stingo/Styron gets ready to write about Sophie's experience in Auschwitz, he gives a list of authors that helped in his research.  I googled each one and wrote them in my book diary for future reference/reading.

  • This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman and We were in Auschiwitz by Tadeusz Borowski.  Tragically, he committed suicide at 28 years old, 3 days after the birth of his daughter.
  • Essays - Language and Silence by George Steiner
  • Treblinka by Jean-Francois Steiner
  • Five Chimneys: A Woman's True Story of Auschwitz by Olga Lengyel
  • The SS State: The System of the German Concentration Camp by Eugen Kogon
  • The Last of the Just by Andre Schwartz-Bart.  I've downloaded a sample of this novel into my iPad.
  • Anything written by Elie Wiesel.  I am particularly interested in his 2-volume memoir: All Rivers Run To the Sea + And the Sea is Never Full.