Tuesday, February 26, 2013

February 2013 Books

War and Remembrance by Herman Wouk
Published: 1978
Rating: 5
Good read
Author web site

The story picks up where The Winds of War left off: Pearl Harbor has been bombed and in one stroke, America abandons her isolationist policy and declares war on Japan which leads to Germany declaring war on the US.

Storytelling is an art, especially when the subject matter is as massive and well chronicled as WWII.  And Wouk is the supreme artist.  Continuing the saga of fictitious US naval officer Victor "Pug" Henry and his family, and using various literary techniques listed below, Wouk paints a graphic, unforgettable portrait of this global war, displaying the spectrum of human action - from heroic to inconceivable barbarism.

  • Translated summary of war:  This device has continued from The Winds of War.   At deliberate intervals, Wouk inserts Pug's translations and commentary on sections of General Armin Von Roon's World Holocaust.  In it, Roon discourses on Hitler, the major battles, the "Jewish problem" and the Nazi's cold, calculated solution.  It is a clever and effective way of providing the Nazi viewpoint. 
  • Diary excerpts:  In his private journal, prominent American author Aaron Jastrow writes about his attempts, along with his niece Natalie and her baby, Louis to leave Europe in the midst of the war.  Another clever device as the reader is privy to the thoughts and feelings of an eloquent Jew chronicling the nail-biting escape from the Nazis and tragic conclusion.  
  • Epistolary:  Using letters from various members of the Henry family to one another and/or their love interests, Wouk is able to show what is happening in different parts of the world during the war.
  • Interview excerpts: Taken from liberated Auschwitz victims, the interviews show the true horror of what happened.  

After finishing, I could not stop thinking of this book - the characters, the intimate portrayal of the Holocaust which was extremely emotional to read; I can't imagine where Wouk had to go internally to write it, the brutality of the Japanese soldiers, the incredible naval battles in the Pacific, the North African and Italian conflicts - basically the terrible sacrifices and ultimate consequences of WWII on individuals and nations.

To learn more, I have been watching the BBC DVD series on WWII, borrowed from my dad who is a war buff.  I have also begun watching the mini-series on Wouk's two works, starring Robert Mitchum as Pug Henry.  In my Netflix queue is the 1976 movie Midway starring Charlton Heston and Henry Fonda.

My new favorite section in the bookstore is Military History/WWII.  I am also interested in other WWII historical fiction works.  Who knew my reading journey would take this track, begun last fall during the reading of Ken Follett's Winter of the World?  This is why reading is such an adventure.

Jackdaws by Ken Follett
Published: 1996
Rating: 4

"Exactly fifty women were sent into France as secret agents by the Special Operations Executive during the Second World War.  Of those, thirty-six survived the war.  The other fourteen gave their lives.  This book is dedicated to all of them."

These four haunting sentences initiate the reader to the subject matter of this highly suspenseful book by the master of historical fiction.  French speaking women with certain skills are recruited, quickly trained and parachute into occupied France for a critical mission right before Operation Overlord or D-Day.  Led by smart, beautiful and cunning British agent, Felicity Claret or Flick, they must succeed against all odds. The antagonist is a cultured German intelligence officer whose successful interrogation techniques, specific to each prisoner, earns high accolades (and expectations) from Field Marshall Rommel.

The list of COE female agents in Wikipedia is sobering as the majority of those killed in action (KIA) died in German concentration camps.

I am realizing that it would take a lifetime or more to read all the books - non-fiction, biography and historical fiction - written about WWII.  I remain highly interested in this world-changing period so will continue until another un-named subject arrests and diverts my reading journey.

Audiobooks: Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
Published: 1847
Rating: 4

I listened to this audiobook after listening to Persuasion by Jane Austen.  Wow - what a difference.  From the refined, cultured rooms of Anne Elliott's home at rural Kellynch Hall and sophisticated Bath to the wild moors around Wuthering Heights, the difference was so stark and grating to the ear that I almost did not give it a chance. Good thing I did as it only took a couple of chapters to hook me into the story.

I had heard of the framework that Emily Bronte used in this novel: a story within a story, likened to the Russian dolls.  Mr. Lockwood is the first narrator - a tenant of Thrushcross Grange whose master is the strange Mr. Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights.  After an eventful overnight stay at Wuthering Heights where he meets Heathcliff, Mrs. Heathcliff, a young, but obviously unhappy beauty and a un-cultured man who seems neither servant nor son, Lockwood's curiosity mirrors our own.  Luckily for both, Mrs. Nellie Dean is the housekeeper at Thrushcross Grange and while Lockwood is recovering from an illness, she obliges by telling the story of the inhabitants of the Heights.

It is a story of unbridled passion which leads to the extremes of love and hate, jealousy and revenge.  The frustrated love between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff is like a malignant cancer, destroying them and all associated innocents.  But in the end, it seems like true love prevails.

Listening to classics on audiobooks has become a favored way to utilize time in the car.  I would highly recommend it.

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson
Published: 2011
Rating: 3

I bought this book at a local library sale due to my current interest in WWII.   It answers the question of how and why the German people allowed Hitler and his Third Reich, governed by their fanatical Nazi ideology, to take over every aspect of their lives.

William E Dodd, a history professor at the University of Chicago is tapped to be the US Ambassador to Germany in 1933 - the year that Adolf Hitler becomes Chancellor.  His family's experiences as they leave Chicago and land in Berlin give us an "on-the-ground" view of the events surrounding Hitler's rise to totalitarian dictator as they unfold in real time.

We see his adult daughter's initial attraction to the young, vibrant, idealistic German men of the Third Reich.  She sees nothing wrong with their ambition and desire to restore Germany's position in the world.

As America's first family in Germany, they hob-nob with all the Nazi leaders from the Gestapo head, Rudolf Diels to Hermann Goring, commander of the Luftwaffe and Joseph Goebbels, master mind of the highly effective Nazi propaganda machine.

Their initial tolerance of the Nazi party turns to disbelief and horror as they witness first hand the deliberate persecution of Jews and ultimately anyone who does not sharply raise the "Heil Hitler" salute.

I would classify this as a non-fiction fiction, similar to In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, albeit a significant notch down from TC's beautiful prose.  The amount of research is staggering: the book ends on page 375, notes end on page 422 and the bibliography on page 434.

For those who write non-fiction books based on mountains of research, I wonder if a pre-requisite is a photographic memory.

The Pacific by Hugh Ambrose
Published: 2010
Rating: 4

Hugh Ambrose is son of deceased historian and biographer Stephen E. Ambrose, author of Band of Brothers, the book that inspired the HBO series produced by Steven Spielburg and Tom Hanks.

H. Ambrose takes up his father's banner when he signs on to assist with the research for the HBO series, The Pacific, also produced by Spielburg and Hanks.  The book is born out of that research.

The book follows the lives of 5 Marines who are involved in the major battles of the Pacific from Midway and Guadalcanal to Peleliu and Iwo Jima.  They found the Japanese a different kind of enemy; one that would rather die than surrender and whose conduct in war was indescribably barbaric, brutal and downright inhumane.

Two of the Marines, Robert Leckie and Eugene Sledge kept diaries during the war and from those, wrote detailed memoirs which formed the basis of the mini-series and book.  I would like to read them:  Helmut for My Pillow and With the Old Breed. 

It was helpful to watch the series while reading the book as I could visualize the beachhead landings and horrific battles for previously unknown islands in which the Japanese had mastered the art of concealment by using pillboxes, tunnels and caves from which the brave Marines had to clear one by one.

I can better understand why Truman decided to drop the atomic bombs and force Japan to surrender.  For if the Pacific theatre had dragged on, the next step was the invasion of mainland Japan.  The estimated casualty cost of young lives, based on the experience from previous battles would be too much - unbearably so.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
Published: 2006
Rating: 5

My daughter gave me this book after she was done.  I almost did not take it; what a mistake that would've been!  I loved it - in fact, as soon as I was finished, I wanted to read it again.

On this "grief to reading journey" which started almost four years ago when my beloved Josh died, there are books which have stopped me in my tracks: making me think, cry, ponder, smile and ruminate on certain characters, situations, or even well constructed sentences which convey meaning so unmistakable it is like art. This is such a book.

Barbery, a professor of philosophy turned novelist, examines the meaning of life, books, art, friends, and family through the eyes of two characters, different by all external measures such as age and socio-economic class, but kindred spirits internally - where it matters.

The ending was a shocker but upon reflection, (even though I still would've preferred the Jane Austen "happily ever after" highly satisfying Elizabeth Bennett marries rich, intelligent, hopelessly-in-love-with-her Mr. Darcy), it worked.

I must share one quote in which the precocious 12-year old Paloma writes a description in her diary of her new friend, fifty-four year old concierge, Renee Michel.
Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside, she's covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary - and terribly elegant.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

January 2013 books

Hippolytus of Euripides, translated by David Greene
Published: 428 BC
Rating: 5

Handsome, strong, athletic, virile Hippolytus whole-heartedly worships Artemis, virgin Goddess of the Hunt.  He has absolutely no romantic interest in women and has gone so far as to call Aphrodite the "vilest of the Gods in Heaven."  Because of this, the vain Goddess of Love determines to punish Hippolytus by causing his step-mother, Phaedra to fall hopelessly in love with him.  In keeping these incestuous feelings a secret, Phaedra suffers mightily; becoming depressed and suicidal.

As in the vein of all Greek tragedies, nothing but death will finish the story.  There is much which resonates with me - see post on Josh' blog.

The Winds of War by Herman Wouk
Published: 1970
Rating: 5
Authors web site

My foray into WWII continues with a third historical fiction series, this time by Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, Herman Wouk.  This work covers the time period from March 1939 to the bombing of Pearl Harbor and American's entry into the war.  At the center is Victor "Pug" Henry, a commander in the US Navy whose clear-thinking, dispassionate analysis and prediction of Hitler's surprising non-aggression pact with Stalin leads to an assignment as Naval Attaché in Berlin.  With ease, Wouk introduces us to other members of the Henry family who allow the reader to see and experience the European War from various points of view.

Wouk also shows the German point of view via a military treatise written by a fictitious General Armin Von Roon.  Pug finds this document after the war and since he is fluent in German and believes this should be read by the English speaking public, he translates this work in retirement, complete with commentary.  It is a clever and unobtrusive way to interject the enemy's philosophy, motives and decisions throughout the war.

Through his various positions, Pug ends up meeting, conversing with and forming opinions about all the major world leaders: Hitler, Stalin, Churchill and FDR.

And through one of his sons, Byron, we are introduced to a Jewish family, the Jastrows.  At the close of the book, the principle members of this family, Aaron, Natalie and her baby have been stuck in fascist Italy, trying to get back to the US.  Just days before their departure, Hitler declared war on the United States with Mussolini following suite.

The two books, Winds of War and War and Remembrance were made into a TV mini-series which I remember watching as a young mother.  I don't remember much except that the part which followed the Jastrows, American Jews in Nazi Europe was very sad (multi-tissues, red nose, puffy-eyes-the-next-day, sad).   In the past, I have shielded myself from books and movies which address the Holocaust.  I live just outside Washington DC and have yet to visit the Holocaust museum for this very reason.   However, since our own tragedy, my soul is willing to bear witness to the tragedy of others.

Peony In Love by Lisa See
Published: 2007
Rating: 2.5
Author web site

What began as a book that I loved digressed into one that I could hardly finish....such an unusual experience!

The narrator is Peony, a privileged, highly educated sixteen-year old girl living in 17th century China - in a time of bound feet (described in excruciating detail), servants, concubines and arranged marriages. She lives an extremely sheltered life, unable to venture outside the walls of her family's villa.  Books teach her about the world and similar to Madame Bovary, she is drawn to romantic literature and poetry.  Her dream is to find true love which is tragically elusive.  I cannot share more of the plot without spoilers so will stop here.  Suffice it to say that I wrote many quotes in my journal and may write a post on Josh's blog with my thoughts.

Unfortunately, the rest of the book was difficult.  Many scenes required the suspension of disbelief so great, I found myself spontaneously writing "really?" or "no way!" in the margins.  Upon reflection, I don't think the author set up the ghost world enough in the first part of the book to support what came later. Perhaps it was impossible to do so because of the choice of narrator, for how could a living girl know about the dead?  Would choosing a 3rd person, omniscient narrator accomplished it?  Maybe...but at the sacrifice of Peony's compelling, strong voice which really pulls the reader in.  This is a dilemma of which I have no good answer.

The Liar's Club: A Memoir by Mary Karr
Published: 1995
Rating: 5

Mary Karr is a memoirist (Cherry and Lit are her two subsequently published books) and a songwriter but first and foremost, a poet.  This is a literary memoir. Beautifully written.  Gorgeous sentences.  Describing the most horrific experiences a young girl could ever live through.  I can't even imagine what it took for her to access her memories and write this.

The following reviews are spot on.

"Her poetic touch illuminates a thousand sentences."  Texas Monthly

"Karr's most powerful tool is her language, which she wields with the virtuosity of both a lyric poet and an earthly down-home Texan."  New York Times

Here are samples of her prose.

Describing what she smelled upon entering her grandmother's room:
It's not just the smell of death, but the smell of something thriving on death, a smell you link up to maggots, or those bacteria that eat up corpses one cell at a time.
Describing her mother's eyes while driving:
Nothing showed in those eyes but the road's white dashed lines, which seemed to be flying off the road and into the darkest part of her pupils, where they disappeared like knives.
Thought provoking epigram at the beginning of her book by R.D. Laing from The Divided Self
We have our secrets and our needs to confess.  We may remember how, in childhood, adults were able at first to look right through us, and into us, and what an accomplishment it was when we, in fear and trembling, could tell our first lie, and make, for ourselves, the discovery that we are irredeemably alone in certain respects, and know that within the territory of ourselves, there can be only our footprints.