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Archive for the ‘world war II’ Tag

The Depth of Friendship   Leave a comment

I’m drawn to novels about women’s friendships: the premise of The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See and I was not disappointed.

Set on the Korean Island of Jeju, the author provides an in-depth look at Korean culture involving female sea divers, an ever-changing political climate and the bonds of friendship that beautifully flourish before painfully disintegrating.

The elderly Young-sook narrates this captivating story of her friendship with Mi-ja. They are different in their experiences and backgrounds. Young-sook’s lineage boasts the respected sea women, divers who carefully harvest from the ocean for their livelihood. Mi-ja is the daughter of a Japanese collaborator. They learn to dive together; they share secrets, joys and losses.

As they grow-up their island undergoes numerous political changes beginning with Japanese colonialism to World War II then the Korean War. Poverty is a way of life for the villagers, but the sea women find solace beneath the water’s surface. Through vivid descriptions, See recreates the rural lifestyle of the islanders and the heartbreak they endure in war.

When marriages are arranged for Mi-Ja and Young-sook, they wonder how they’ll survive being apart from one another. Facing the harsh influences of the outside world, their friendship falters until rendered irreparable.

The progression of time is marked through the different regimes, cell phones and indoor plumbing.

Among the novel’s many beauties are the memory of the rich friendship, the presence of Mi-ja’s great granddaughter and, finally, the reader’s awareness of a single perspective being shared.

The Island of Sea Women
Four-and-a-half bookmarks
Scribner, 2019
374 pages

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Brains Beyond Beauty   Leave a comment

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Marie Benedict has a knack for fictionalizing life stories of impressive, impactful women. The Only Woman in the Room is her latest endeavor. Hedy Lamarr, screen star of the 1940s and 50s, isn’t the first person who comes to mind as a significant World War II figure. Further, as an inventor she deserves more credit than many realize.

Hedweg Kiesler was born in Vienna into a wealthy, Jewish family and considered a stunning beauty. Initially, Benedict’s account of Kiesler/Lamarr is focused on her early stage career leading to her marriage to Friedrich Mandl, a munitions manufacturer.

Mandl is older, wealthy and powerful. Hedy’s father fears any rejection on Hedy’s part toward Mandl’s romantic interest could put the family in danger. Initially, Hedy is not impressed by the riches (and roses) he dispenses so freely to woo her. Eventually they marry after she succumbs to his charms.

The novel’s title is an apt description of Hedy’s presence which is dismissed as one of no consequence. She’s considered no more than a beautiful woman. What she learns, however, are plans for Austria to first join forces with Mussolini; and later Hitler. She knows she needs to escape, not only the fate of her country, but the abusive relationship with Mandl, who simply wanted a trophy wife.

Danger and intrigue are tangible elements in Keisler’s life; fame and romance comprise Lamarr’s. Yet, Benedict shows something deeper by chronicling the transition from refugee to film siren to wireless communications inventor.

The Only Woman in the Room
Four Bookmarks
Sourcebooks Landmark, 2019
254 pages

Uncovering the Past   2 comments

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The Tuscan Child is a book that makes you hungry for Italy, especially its food. Rhys Bowen’s story alternates between two different time periods: 1944 and 1973.

The former recounts British pilot Hugo Langley’s efforts to survive after parachuting from his stricken plane over German-occupied Tuscany. The latter, and bulk of the novel, picks up with his daughter, Joanna, following Hugo’s death. She discovers an unopened letter addressed to Sophia in a small Tuscan village. The letter includes a reference to their “beautiful boy.” With little else to go on, Joanna travels to Italy learn more about Sophia and the boy, who could be her brother.

The chapters involving Hugo answer some of the mystery; others are left to Joanna to solve.

Sophia discovers the wounded pilot and helps keep in him hidden in a bombed-out monastery. She’s limited by scarce resources and the inability to leave home without raising suspicion among the townspeople and Germans. Although it is only a month, Hugo and Sophia fall in love.

Joanna is unable to learn anything about Sophia and none of the old timers in the village knew anything of a wounded pilot. Still, shortly after her arrival, one man suggests he has information for Joanna. Before he’s able to share anything, he’s murdered and Joanna becomes a suspect.

Bowen has crafted a double mystery: one involving the boy and the other the murderer. In the process of unearthing secrets, Joanna is treated to meals lovingly prepared by her guest house owner.

The Tuscan Child
Four Bookmarks
Lake Union Publishing, 2018
336 pages

Tasting for Evil   Leave a comment

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History has already documented the atrocities of World War II at the hands of Adolf Hitler. In addition to the horror, his idiosyncrasies and his death are well detailed. Nonetheless, author V.S. Alexander has one more story to add to the fiction side of the scales: The Taster.

Magda Ritter is adrift in war-torn Berlin. With no job or romantic prospects, her parents send her to Berchtesgarten in the German Alps to escape the bombing – to ensure her safety. Their efforts succeed but not the way Magda imagined. She’s assigned to taste Hitler’s food to ensure it’s safe for him to eat.

Alexander describes the bucolic life at Hitler’s mountain retreat, the Berghof, where much of the novel is set. It’s a stark contrast to other parts of Germany. Initially, Magda is frightened by her responsibilities, but she soon realizes they are keeping her and her family alive. Still, she is repulsed by the knowledge that by tasting Hitler’s food she is keeping him safe.

The focus of Alexander’s narrative is Magda who falls in love with Captain Weber, a conspirator within the SS. The cook, other tasters and Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress, are among the interesting characters with whom Magda interacts. Feelings of mistrust, a constant cloud of fear and the blind devotion so many had toward the Fuhrer are well developed.

Alexander notes this is a work of fiction, and his research is chillingly thorough. Knowing Hitler’s death is imminent does little to dispel the thriller he creates.

The Taster
Four Bookmarks
Kensington Books, 2018
320 pages

Beneath the Surface   Leave a comment

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Jennifer Egan is masterful at setting the scene and evoking another era in Manhattan Beach, her recent novel. Her characters, their emotions and their resolve are captivating. The narrative is part love story, part gangster tale in an historic World War II, (mostly) New York City setting.

As a young girl, Anna Kerrigan tagged along with her father, Eddie, on his errands, presumably for the union. On one such outing, the 11-year-old and Eddie visit Dexter Styles at his mansion-like home on a private beach. It’s evident that the Kerrigans don’t share the same lifestyle as Styles.

By contrast, Anna’s family lives in a small, sixth floor apartment. Her younger sister, Lydia, is severely disabled requiring constant care.

Fast forward and Anna is now the sole provider for her mother and sister thanks to her job at the Brooklyn Naval Yard, where she becomes the first female diver. Her father disappeared years earlier and the country is at war.

The progression of sorrow Anna experiences regarding Eddie begins with anguish which evolves into anger before settling into indifference. For the reader, however, his long absence is hard to ignore. Egan wants it that way. Meanwhile, Styles resurfaces. Anna remembers him; even though she catches his attention, he has no recollection of her as a child.

The interactions of this trio of main characters across time, complete with back stories, hopes and foibles, provide the book’s focus.

Ultimately, it’s about reinventing oneself and the toll it takes to do so.

Manhattan Beach
Four-and-a-quarter Bookmarks
Scribner, 2017
433 pages

A Tale of Two Sisters   Leave a comment

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The heroics/horrors of war, tests of familial love and loyalty to one’s country merge in Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale.

In Oregon 1995 an unnamed elderly woman prepares to move from her home at the insistence of her adult son. This sets in motion her recollection of life in France during World War II. At its heart, the novel is about the relationship between sisters Vianne and Isabelle, ten years her junior. Following the death of their mother, their father leaves them with a stranger. Despite their shared grief and sense of abandonment, the two have nothing else in common.

The war years show how, as adults, the sisters remain at odds. Vianne struggles to keep her daughter safe and maintain the family home after her husband goes to fight. Meanwhile, Isabelle wants a role in her helping her country overcome German authority.

The sisters’ personality differences are repeatedly described, yet the strained relationship doesn’t always ring true. Vianne acknowledges that she failed in her responsibility as the older sibling to help Isabelle; she attributes this failure to dealing with her own sorrow at the time. Isabelle has an air of entitlement – at least when it comes to emotions; this sense of privilege doesn’t follow her as she works with the French Resistance.

The novel progresses with the war; occasional interruptions remind the reader of the elderly woman. This becomes a guess-who exercise: who is it and how did she end up in Oregon. Only one of the questions is answered.

The Nightingale
Three-and-a-half Bookmarks
St. Martin’s Press, 2015
438 pages

Children of the Holocaust   Leave a comment

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Just when it seems there can’t possibly be more to write about the horrors of the Holocaust, Jim Shepard in The Book of Aron reminds us why it is something we must never stop reading about – and, hopefully, learning from.

In Aron, the young narrator, Shepard has created a selfish, defiant, naïve and curious young boy. The German invasion of Poland and the subsequent establishment of the Warsaw Ghetto are described through Aron’s experience. He and his friends turn to smuggling. They couch their activities as efforts to help their families; however, the thrill of seeing not only what they can unearth, but also what they can get away with are, initially, stronger forces.

Shepard’s descriptions of the harsh living conditions, the threat of being caught by the authorities for dealing in contraband and the pain induced by being cold and hungry are painfully vivid. At first Aron treats the situation as little more than an inconvenience and the smuggling as something to keep him and his cohorts occupied.

As Aron slowly loses his family and friends, he finds himself on the streets struggling to survive. Dr. Janusz Korczak, who ran the Warsaw orphanage, rescues him. Before the war, Korczak was well-known as a children’s rights advocate. As portrayed by Shepard, he is a man old before his time motivated by a need to instill hope in children trying to endure hopeless lives.

This fictionalized account of the eventual friendship between Aron and the good doctor is harrowing and riveting.

The Book of Aron
Four Bookmarks
Alfred A. Knopf, 2015
253 pages