Archive for the ‘world war II’ Tag

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

DoctorsJourney

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

Atomic Reading   Leave a comment

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Denise Kiernan’s The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II made me wonder if it would appeal to anyone unfamiliar with Oak Ridge, Tenn. I lived in Oak Ridge for five years after college. It was a beautiful, fascinating place thanks to its population of highly educated people from all over the world and its impressive, albeit once-clandestine, past. Kiernan writes about how, and why, the town came into existence by focusing on the role of the thousands of women (and men) who did their part to help end WWII. Most had no idea what they were doing or why.

In 1943, people from major metropolitan areas and rural communities were recruited to relocate to a town which didn’t even exist on a map. Kiernan conducted interviews with many of the women, now in their 80s and 90s, to recreate the conditions they endured knowing only that their work contributed to the war effort. Friendships formed, romances ensued and construction progressed at a rapid rate. All the while no one could talk about their jobs. Yet, this was an integral part of American history.

Uranium, referred to as Tubealloy, was, in fact, being enriched for its ultimate use in the atomic bomb. Oak Ridgers learned about the secret the same time as the rest of the world when Hiroshima was bombed.

The advantage to knowing Oak Ridge is that it’s easy to envision Kiernan’s descriptions, but the book’s fascination is far-reaching.

The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II
Four Bookmarks
Simon & Schuster, 2013
371 pages with notes and index

Fear and Ineptitude   Leave a comment

It’s difficult to imagine a more unlikely, unqualified person to serve as the U.S. ambassador to Germany as William E. Dodd during Hitler’s rise to power. It’s equally hard to visualize that his daughter’s scandalous behavior never, well, caused a scandal.

Erik Larson’s In the Garden of  Beasts chronicles one of the four years Dodd spent in Germany first trying to ignore the problems, later attempting to convince others of the threats, fear and destruction caused by the Third Reich. He was equally inept at recognizing the potential dangerous behavior exhibited by his daughter Martha, who was attracted, it seemed, to any man who looked in her direction.

Larson relies on numerous letters, memoirs, newspaper articles, personal diaries and other accounts to piece together his narrative. The result is a well-constructed look at a fascinating time in world history. Beginning with Dodd as a professor at the University of Chicago, Larson tracks his path to Berlin, with brief stops through his backstory as a son of a poor North Carolina farming family. Although Dodd’s wife and son also moved to Germany, Larson’s focus is on the senior Dodd and Martha. He because of his position and his eventual, ineffective efforts to share his concerns/fears to greater powers; she because of the disreputable manner in which she socialized.

Larson’s descriptions of pre-World War II Berlin are riveting, as are his references to Dodd’s frugality. For example, Dodd insisted on shipping the family Chevrolet to Germany to save costs. Even in the face of the ensuing events, this is endearing.

In the Garden of  Beasts
Three-and-a-half Bookmarks
Crown Books, 2011
488 pages, including end notes, bibliography and index