Archive for the ‘world war II’ Tag

Art in History   2 comments

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The Night Portrait by Laura Morelli has four narrators: two from the Renaissance and two associated with World War II. The result is a gripping story about the importance of art and its redemptive qualities — both as masterpieces are created and later rescued.

Edith is a German art restorer for a museum in Munich at the outbreak of the war. She’s ordered to catalog the artwork confiscated in Poland by the Nazis. Most of the pieces are destined for a museum Hitler plans to build, but high ranking officers keep some for their own private collections. This includes a painting by Leonardo Da Vinci.

The painting is the link to the Renaissance. Cecilia Gallerani recounts her life as the mistress of the lord of Milan in the late 1400s; DaVinci, the other narrator in this time period, is commissioned to paint her portrait.

In 1944-45, the war is nearing its end and there’s work to be done. Dominic, an Army GI, is part of a squad charged with guarding a small group of the Monuments Men, the allied troops trying to locate the hidden, stolen art.

The connections among the four narrators works well. Each chapter/speaker is clearly identified, not only by name and year, but by distinctions in voice, descriptions of the era.

Morelli addresses several issues, including Edith’s sense of guilt, Dominic’s discovery of purpose, Cecilia’s realization she will never be the lady of the manor, and DaVinci’s efforts to establish himself not only as a painter, but an inventor.

The Night Portrait

Four Bookmarks

William Morrow, 2020

455 pages

Women at War   Leave a comment

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Although beautifully written, Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King was initially frustrating. I was anxious to meet the title character. He isn’t introduced until more than halfway through the novel at which point it becomes difficult to put down.

A shadow king, it’s explained, is essentially a double, someone who can pass as the real thing. In this case, it’s a peasant who looks like the exiled emperor in war-torn Ethiopia. Yet, the narrative highlights the role of two women: Aster and her servant, Hirut, in the battle against the Italians.

Before the invasion, before the emperor vacates his country, Hirut arrives at the home of Aster and her husband, Kidane an officer in the emperor’s army. Newly orphaned, Hirut must learn to accept her role as a maid to Aster who is jealous of the younger woman.  

In 1935, Mussolini’s army is ruthless in its assault leaving many dead and homeless in its wake. Kidane assembles a small band of soldiers, with the women serving as cooks and nurses, forced to hide in the hills to avoid capture or worse.

Among the Italians are a ruthless, sadistic officer and his assistant, Ettore, a photographer tasked with documenting the war to put Italy in the best possible light. He has a conscience; his superior does not.

Hirut and Aster want to do more than be supporting players. Their efforts reflect the power and strength of women in even the most dire circumstances, along, unfortunately, with the easy dismissal of their accomplishments.

The Shadow King

Four Bookmarks

W.W. Norton & Co., 2019

428 pages

Actions, words and moving forward   Leave a comment

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City of Girls, by Elizabeth Gilbert, is narrated by 89-year-old Vivian Morris reflecting on her life in response to a question posed by Angela, who writes “…I wonder if you might now feel comfortable telling me what you were to my father?”

The short answer is no. The 400-page response is Vivian revealing her history to ultimately explain what he meant to her. Although Vivian knows who Angela is, it’s evident this isn’t a close relationship. In attempting to answer the question regarding her relationship with Angela’s father, Vivian recounts her lively, scarlet past.

Vivian arrives in 1940’s New York City where she’s been banished for tarnishing the family name. She’s failed all of her classes at Vassar. Being sent to live with her bohemian Aunt Peg, who runs a third-rate theatre, is the best thing to ever happen to Vivian.

Vivian lacks an education but is a creative, innovative seamstress and is soon making costumes. Life is good for Vivian until she makes a grave mistake she carries the rest of her life, as does someone else for a completely reason.

After her fall from grace, Vivian briefly returns to her parents’ home before being summoned back to the City by Peg.

Gilbert provides glimpses of the theatre, war effort and beyond as Vivian eventually lives life on her own terms. Although, Angela is frequently addressed throughout the novel, the unexpected connection to Vivian is not revealed until near the end. Herein lies one of the narrative’s many beauties.

City of Girls
Four-and-half bookmarks
Riverhead Books, 2019
470 pages

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

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