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Archive for the ‘world war II’ Tag

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

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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

 

Slick and Sly   Leave a comment

The adage that opposites attract is evident in Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans. Noel and Vera aren’t exactly drawn together as much as they are forced upon each other: Noel is an orphaned 10-year-old evacuee and Vera is a middle-aged woman who reluctantly agrees to care for him.

Before they meet, Noel has managed to fly under the radar in London with his elderly Godmother, Mattie, with whom he’s been living since the death of his parents. Both have a disdain for authority and are content in their relative isolation. As World War II becomes more imminent, Mattie’s health deteriorates and England increasingly is in Germany’s crosshairs.

Noel is unusual, and Vera is initially convinced he is not very bright. Today he’d be considered a nerd; certainly his intellect and lack of social skills don’t make him a popular child. Vera is widowed and trying to make ends meet, although her efforts aren’t on the up and up. Soon, Noel offers suggestions to improve upon Vera’s scams and their efforts prove to be quite successful, if not quite moral.

Among Noel and Vera’s prey is Mrs. Gifford who unwittingly (and repeatedly) donates to whatever charity the two have concocted. However, they don’t just take her money, they spend time getting to know her. Eventually, Noel becomes protective of the old woman.

Evans’ writing style is subtle as the relationships evolve. Attitudes begin to shift and bonds are created. The couple begins to accept each other’s flaws while recognizing their own.

Crooked Heart

Four Bookmarks
HarperCollins, 2015
282 pages

Insights   4 comments

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Although I read a lot, it’s been a while since I held a book I didn’t want to put down. Even at 500-plus pages, I hated to turn the final one of Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. Doerr is garnering a lot of well-deserved attention including being named a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award and  #1 New York Times bestseller.

This story is about hope and connections, those that are tangible and those we simply know exist. Marie-Laure, a young girl in Paris, is blind. Her story is told in turns with that of Werner, a German mining town orphan with an aptitude for science and gadgets. The novel jumps around the years just before WWII and during the August 1944 bombing of Saint-Malo on the French coast.

From the onset, there’s a sense the two youths will meet, but how and when leave much to the imagination. Werner builds a small, crude radio from scrap parts. This ability ultimately earns him a spot in Hitler’s army. Marie-Laure relies on her father who builds small models to recreate, first, their Parisian neighborhood and later Saint-Malo where they flee. The hand-crafted items are meant to aid communication with good intentions in a world rife with evil.

Doerr’s work is easy to embrace for its vivid descriptions of the kindness and fear individuals extended or induced during the war. Mostly, though, the characters are so finely fashioned that they come alive in the mind’s eye.

Five Bookmarks
All the Light We Cannot See
Scribner, 2014
530 pages

Russian History Revisited   2 comments

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A Doctor’s Journey by Lois Gayle Chance, in collaboration with Anna Kowal, is the true story of Alexander Kowal’s arduous trek from farm boy to physician during World Wars I and II. The book is subtitled From Czarist Russia to Communist Poland.

This independently published work incorporates Alexander’s written accounts, family memories, and, as the author notes in her preface, “the imagination of the writer.” The result is an engaging account of a remarkable man in a historic period.  With a few missteps here and there, it, nonetheless, deserves praise for Chance’s ability to set credible scenes and smooth dialogue (which is where, she admits, she took creative license).

The story begins in 1907 when Alexander’s aspirations of becoming a teacher are thwarted; as the oldest son he’s destined to inherit the family land, which has been handed down for generations.  Nonetheless, a teacher encourages him apply to become a doctor, and Alexander is awarded a scholarship to study medicine. After ultimately receiving his father’s blessing, Alexander begins his journey.

Chance is weakest in her repeated foreshadowing of the obvious. She writes, “Once home, his family gathered around and he showed them this precious possession, his medical diploma. He never dreamed that nearly a century later it would be cherished by a daughter who hung it proudly in her office …” Of course not! Who can, let alone would, imagine such things?

Alexander’s story, driven by his determination, is filled with aspects of ordinary life, except it occurs in an extraordinary era.

A Doctor’s Journey

Three Bookmarks

Outskirts Press, 2013

271 pages