Showing posts with label WWII. Show all posts
Showing posts with label WWII. Show all posts

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family by Mary S. Lovell

Sometimes when I read books off my TBR Pile Challenge list, it's kind of a slog, and I wonder why I bothered keeping this book around.  However, more often than not, I've been so pleasantly surprised by a book I'm annoyed at myself for waiting so long to read it.  The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family is the second type of book -- a sheer delight and one that I couldn't stop reading.  

I'd never heard of the Mitfords until I watched the BBC adaptation of Love in a Cold Climate around 2006.  I was so enchanted by the story that I quickly bought the book (a combined volume with The Pursuit of Love.  I loved them both so I was delighted to find The Sisters, which I promptly put on my to-read shelf and then ignored, though I moved it from house to house.  I'm really glad I finally read it -- it's both a chatty tell-all and a fascinating biography of a the intertwining lives of six sisters from an eccentric aristocratic English family.  

This is one of those stories that is truly stranger than fiction.  The eldest sister, Nancy, became a bestselling author; the third sister Diana was a reowned Society beauty who married an heir to the Guinness fortune and then left him for Oswald Mosley, a right-wing politician who became an infamous Fascist (both were imprisoned without trial for three years during WWII); another sister, Unity, was one of Hitler's groupies and was rumoured to have been his lover.  The next-to-last sister, Jessica (nicknamed "Decca" eloped with a distant cousin Edmond Romilly, a nephew by marriage to Winston Churchill.  Romilly had fought against fascism in Spain and they were both Marxists.  The youngest sister, Deborah, became Duchess of Devonshire.  So, you can just imagine that this book is just packed with interesting characters and history, mostly set during my favorite period, the inter-war years in England.  I will note that there's quite a focus on Unity's friendship with Hitler, which is really quite creepy.  There's also a lot of discussion as to whether or not some of the sisters were anti-Semitic. I know that this wasn't uncommon among the upper-class British at the time, but it sometimes makes for some uncomfortable reading. 

All of the sisters (with the possible exception of Pamela, the second sister) were real characters, and they were all smart and witty -- sadly, they had very little formal education (some of the sisters never forgave their parents for denying them higher education).  Most of them had writing talent, and besides Nancy, Decca and Deborah also published books -- Deborah published a memoir called Wait For Me! back in 2010.  

I really enjoyed this book -- it's just chatty and gossipy enough to be fun, and includes enough history and politics to be informative, without getting bogged down in too much politics and jargon.  And I was surprised that I never had any trouble distinguishing between all six of them -- they had such distinct personalities.  I only had a few quibbles with the book -- there's not much about the second sister, Pamela, for one thing; also, I did have trouble keeping track of all the many houses the families lived in -- a map would have been incredibly useful, to go along with the family tree and extensive endnotes.  

Overall, though, it's a great biography and I'm very interest to read more of Lovell's books.  She also wrote a biography of Beryl Markham called Straight on Till Morning; The Churchills: In Love and War, plus several others.   The book has really piqued my interest about the Mitfords.  My TBR shelves still include  Hons and Rebels, Decca's memoir; Nancy's book Wigs on the Green, a satire about the fascist sister Unity; and a 700-page volume of Decca's letters.  Hopefully I'll get to some of them before the end of the year.  And now I'm halfway through my TBR Pile Challenge -- I've finished six books in six months, so I'm right on track. 

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Moon is Down by John Steinbeck

I hadn't read anything by John Steinbeck in ages -- looking back, it's been nearly two years since I finished East of Eden.  I mostly love Steinbeck, but I think his work is a little uneven -- I tend to love the longer works but the shorter works are hit or miss.  I loved Travels with Charley and Cannery Row, but I never felt the love for Of Mice and Men.  The Pearl was just so tragic, and I couldn't even get through The Red Pony.  

Recently I'd just finished Kim, which took me a really long time for such a short book.  I wanted a short classic to cross off my list, and something totally opposite from Kipling -- Steinbeck was just the thing, and I could count it as my Classic about War for the Back to the Classics Challenge.  The Moon is Down is extremely short, just over 100 pages.  I probably could have read the whole thing in one sitting.

Published in 1942, this novella is the story of an anonymous town that's suddenly overrun by an invading army.  The names are vaguely American but the setting seems Scandinavian -- it's an coastal town with a coal mine, and it's terribly cold and snowy.  The invaders, who are obviously Nazis but are never specified as such, 

The cast of characters is small -- a few officers from the invading army; the Mayor; the town's doctor; and a few townspeople.  Basically, this is a fable about how an invading army assumed it would be easy to take over a town by surprise, with little opposition, and how they underestimated the will of the people.  Steinbeck wrote this novella during WWII, as a piece of propaganda to encourage resistance against the Nazis.  It was quickly translated into a multitude of languages, and almost as quickly banned by the Nazis.   

I found this story particularly interesting because it was written and published while the war was still going on -- I think the perspective must be quite different than writing a book in hindsight, when the author knows the outcome of the war.  

I liked the story, though it's short and there isn't a huge amount of characters or character development.  Parts of the book are a little preachy.  I found the introduction (which I always read after I've finished a book) especially interesting, as it gave a lot of historical perspective about how the book was received and reviewed.   Apparently, there was a lot of backlash against Steinbeck because he made the invading characters somewhat sympathetic -- at least, not completely evil.  They were believable as people who could have had some good characteristics, although they were on the wrong side.  

The introduction also gave a lot of insight as to how this book was received in other countries -- although it was blasted by Americans, it was very well received by Norway and many other countries, in Europe and farther abroad as well.  

Overall, a good quick read, though not my favorite Steinbeck.  I still want to read Sweet Thursday, the sequel to Cannery Row, which I loved, so maybe I'll choose that for my American Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge. 

Bloggers, what's your favorite book by Steinbeck?  And how is everyone coming along with the Back to the Classics Challenge?  This takes me up to 7/11 -- I'm more than halfway done!

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Few Eggs and No Oranges by Vere Hodgson

Persephone book #9 is Few Eggs and No Oranges: the Wartime Diaries of Vere Hodgson, 1940-1945.  It's probably the longest Persephone book own, nearly 600 pages, and the actual time I spent reading this book was by far longer than any other Persephone, which I can normally get through in a few days, sometimes even as little as one day (and there are those that I've literally finished in one sitting). This book took me more than six weeks, because I had to read it in bits and pieces -- I just couldn't sit and read long sections at once.   

Vere Hodgson (1901-1979) was born in Birmingham and was working at a charity in Notting Hill Gate during WWII.  Few Eggs was first published in 1976, an abridged version of Ms. Hodgson's diaries from the war years, which she sent to relatives in Rhodesia during the war.  Since I'm really interested in the War at Home, I thought this would be just up my alley.  Well, it was and it wasn't -- I was really not prepared for how difficult a read this book would be.  It's one thing to read fiction, but true stories are always more painful to read.  The first year or so of the book covers the London Blitz, and much of this portion of the diary is entry after entry of days when Vere literally did not know if she would live to see another day -- bombs dropping, sirens blaring every night, mad rushes to the bomb shelter -- seriously, I don't know how millions of people lived through it every day and didn't lose their minds.  

Vere Hodgson
And then the survivors had to deal with the destruction, the short rations, and constant fear -- plus the sleeplessness would have sent me around the bend.  People must have developed nerves of steel.  However, the book also includes a lot of lighter moments.  By far, my favorite parts were about the extraordinary kindness that the British people showed to one another -- over and over there are instances of people sharing what little they had with strangers, especially soldiers. 

As I read the book, I only wished I had better knowledge of WWII history -- I know the basic outlines, but I feel like I need to go back and reread all the war history that I've forgotten.  Anyway, this is quite an interesting look at the life of someone who lived through the war.  

The endpapers from the Persphone edition of Few Eggs and No Oranges.
It's from a vintage Jacqmar scarf called "London Wall."
I couldn't use this as my Classic About War selection for the Back to the Classics Challenge, since it wasn't actually published until 1976, but still have a lot of books about WWII on my TBR lists -- I have another book in the Cazalet series, Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky, which I really want to read, plus I might read The Moon is Down by John Steinbeck.  Bloggers, which are your favorite books about WWII? 

Monday, May 27, 2013

Nella Last's War: The Second World War Diaries of Housewife, 49

I'm finally making some real progress with my TBR Pile Challenge list.  However, I skipped over the actual selections and read one of the alternates:  Nella Last's War: The Second World War Diaries of Housewife, 49 is a nonfiction book, selections from her diaries during WWII.  When the war breaks out, Nella Last is a middle-aged housewife, mother of two adult sons, living in Barrow-in-Furness, England, a port town north of Liverpool and Manchester.  Nella was participating in the Mass Observation project, in which she sent weekly installments observing her life and how it changed during wartime.  Her youngest son Cliff volunteers and is eventually posted to the Middle East; her older son Arthur is sent to Northern Ireland. Nella chronicles her days as a housewife coping with the changes due to the war, her fears for the safety of her children and her community; and writes about her participation in the local Centre, the soldier's Canteen, and her volunteer work at a Red Cross thrift shop which donates care packages to POWs.  I'm really interested by the WWII era, especially how it affected people on the home front, more so than military stories.

This book took a lot longer than I expected.  It's ten chapters of diary entries from 1939 until 1945, and it's only about 300 pages long, so there are a lot of short sections -- easy to read just a little bit at a time. But parts of this book were very painful to read about.  I'm usually fascinated by the aspects of war viewed from the home front, but the fact that it isn't fiction made it harder -- Nella was a real person, and this whole time was so difficult for her and everyone else in her situation.

As an American who's never had to live through anything remotely like this, I felt so bad reading her diaries -- not just about the fears of the losing friends and family, and the terror of bomb scares, but just the difficulty people endured every single day.   Gasoline rationing, blackouts, raising your own food, the scarcity of everything -- it just made me realize how fortunate I've been.  I wouldn't say I've had a privileged existence but I've never worried about having food on the table and a roof over my head and gas in the car. 

It was also sort of difficult to read about some of the personal issues Nella was working through.  Nella was only a little older than me when she started writing, though she was married much younger and her boys were already grown.  I got the distinct impression her marriage was not very happy; she mentions repeatedly that she's now standing up for herself more after almost thirty years of marriage; that her husband wants to be the center of her life, and that's she's recovering from a nervous breakdown.  After reading the entire book, I never did figure out what her husband's first name is!!!  I don't think she ever referred to him by his first name, just "my husband."  She mentions friends, relatives, and her sons over and over by their first name, but not her husband.  I'm not sure what it means but it doesn't sound good.

Ultimately, the book is uplifting, and we begin to see how her family and community are recovering from the war, though the rationing and difficulties are far from over.  There is a follow-up book called Nella Last's Peace which I'd also like to read, and a third volume, Nella Last in the 1950s.   I also own some other WWII diaries and nonfiction: Few Eggs and No Oranges by Vere Hodgson; Millions Like Us by Virginia Nicholson; and Our Hidden Lives by Simon Garfield.  However, I think I may take a break before reading any more books about World War II.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki

Set in the late 1930s, this is the story of the four Makioka sisters who are from an affluent family, originally successful merchants in Osaka.  The parents have passed away and the family's fortunes are somewhat in decline.  The two eldest are married (both the husbands have taken the Makioka name, which surprised me), and the two younger, in their mid- to late twenties, are still single.  Most of the story centers around the second sister, Sachiko, and her relationship with her two younger sisters, Yukiko and Taeko.  Yukiko is nearly thirty and the family is anxious to marry her off.  She's had several proposals, mostly men she hardly knew, but either she didn't like the man or the family has found something unsuitable about him.  The youngest, Taeko, has a suitor, but she seems more interested in a career than marrying.  Also, the family is traditional and would prefer she wait to marry until her older sister has a husband.

The story spans several years of the sisters' lives.  Much of the action involves Sachiko's attempts to find a suitable husband for Yukiko, but it's really a story about the day-to-day life of an upper-middle class family in the 1930s.  It's mostly a domestic novel, but there are more and more hints about the war to come.  Sachiko's family has neighbors who are a German family, and their children are playmates.  Eventually they move away and we learn from letters aspects of the coming war in Europe; also, towards the end of the book there are more and more mentions of the "China Incident" -- the second Sino-Japanese war that began in 1937.

I kept hearing that this book was a sort of Japanese version of Pride and Prejudice, but I honestly did not make that connection at all while reading it.  If I hadn't heard it earlier, I would never have compared the two.  In the beginning of the book, the only things they have in common is that they are about families with unmarried sisters trying to find husbands, and a backdrop of imminent war (though wars are barely mentioned in Jane Austen). Later, I did find that one of the Makioka sisters has a pretty strong resemblance to one of the Bennet sisters, but I won't say which one since I don't want to spoil it for anyone.  But I really couldn't find any other parallels between the plot nor the characters.  Sorry, no Japanese Mr. Darcy!

I liked learning about the minutia of daily life in Japan during the era, and I especially liked that it was by a Japanese writer contemporary to the time.  I lived in Japan for more than two years, but sadly, I've read very few books by actual Japanese writers, and none of their classics.  I thought the characters were really well developed and I got a lot of insight about what it must have been like in that time.  However, I couldn't help thinking that the Makioka family members were so wrapped up in their own domestic troubles they couldn't see the war looming ahead of them; I couldn't help wondering which of the characters would survive WWII and how life would change for them.  I'd really like to read a Japanese novel about life in Japan during the war, so if anyone could suggest one I'd love a recommendation.

This book counts as the third read for my TBR Pile 2013 Challenge; my 20th Century Classic for my Back to the Classics Challenge; my second read for the Chunkster Challenge; and my 24th book from my Classics Club Challenge.  

Friday, March 15, 2013

Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres

I signed up for the TBR Pile Challenge again this year because I'm always trying to read those neglected books on my shelves.  The best thing about it is that I find great books and say to myself, "why, why, WHY did I wait so long to read this???"  Which, theoretically, could be the worst thing about it -- I end up kicking myself for not reading them sooner.  But I suppose I should just be grateful that I finally did.

Corelli's Mandolin is just such a book.  This was very popular about ten years ago, and it's #19 of the top 100 books in the BBC's Big Read survey.  I bought my copy about 2002, while I was still living in Nebraska.  (It's pretty easy for me to remember how long I've had books -- I just remember where I was living when I bought them.  Since I move almost every three years, I can usually guess pretty accurately).  It was one of the selections for my book group, and I started it and liked it, but something happened and I never got very far.  I don't know why I never finished it.

Before I digress, here's the basic setup.  Set in the early years of WWII on the Greek island of Cephalonia, this is the story of Dr. Iannis and his beautiful daughter Pelagia, and their experiences during and after the war, and of Antonio Corelli, and Italian officer who is billeted in their home after the Axis forces invade.  However, it's much more than that.  It's told in multiple viewpoints, so we get the glimpses into the experiences of Greek partisans, Italian soldiers, and even Mussolini himself.  The book is both comic, tragic, and satirical, and explores the horrors of the war and its aftermath, and about human nature.

I really enjoyed this.  I'd never read anything by de Bernieres, and I liked his writing style.  I liked reading about the different characters and the shifting viewpoints, because there's so much going on in a war.  I do wish there was more background on Corelli's character, and I was a bit disappointed in the ending (highlight if you want to read more):  I just thought having Corelli magically reappear more than thirty years later was unrealistic -- if he'd really loved Pelagia, he probably would have found out that she wasn't married -- it seemed pretty lame.  Also, what happened to him and how did he survive the rest of the war?   There's so much that was unexplained, I felt like de Bernieres got tired of his character and didn't know what to do with him.  

Last year, one of my favorite reads from the 2012 TBR Challenge was A Bell For Adano, which is about the American occupation of a small Italian town.  I did see parallels with Corelli's Mandolin.  Most of what I know about World War II is about Germany, England or America -- I know next to nothing about the war in other countries.  Before Adano I knew nothing about the war in Italy, and before this book, nothing about the war in Greece.  I'm still fascinated by World War II -- I suppose one could study it for an entire lifetime and still not know everything about it.  I suppose that's why it's such a popular subject.  I don't think there's any other war that has had more books published about it, except maybe the American Civil War.

I never saw the movie adaptation of Corelli's Mandolin, and I probably never will.  I'll just say I tried very hard not to imagine Nicolas Cage in the lead role, because having read it, I think he was horribly miscast, though I'm sure Penelope Cruz was probably excellent as Pelagia.  (And how do you pronounce that name anyway??)

Well.  I'm pleased to have completed another book from my TBR list. Two down, ten to go!  Is anyone else signed up for the TBR Pile Challenge?  How are you doing?  And has anyone seen the movie version of Corelli's Mandolin?  What did you think?

Friday, November 9, 2012

Saplings by Noel Streatfeild

Well -- I'm winding my way down through the TBR Challenge.  Finally, I have completed Saplings by Noel Streatfeild, a Persephone Classic, and one that's been on my shelves for a couple of years.  Normally, I love Persephones, and I don't know why I took so long to pick this one up.  I did try it a couple of months ago and it didn't grab me right away.  I finally gave it another shot and I'm so glad I did, because it was really good.

Here's the setup:  on the eve of WWII, the Wiltshires are an upper-middle or upperclass family, and from the outside, they seem perfect.  Alex Wiltshire is working for the family business, engineering something for the war effort; his beautiful wife Lena is gorgeous and devoted to him; and they have four beautiful children, two boys and two girls, ages ranging from about 12 to five years old.  The war hasn't started, but there are rumblings afoot, and the family is taking a seaside holiday with the children's governess and nanny.

At first, all seems idyllic, but Streatfeild quickly cuts to the heart of what makes this family tick:  Alex is a devoted husband and father, but his wife is more interested in her husband than her children.  The author makes insightful and fascinating psychological observations about the family dynamic and the personalities of each of the children, more so than I've ever read in any book about a family before.  Streatfeild has the amazing ability to get into the essence of these people, especially the children, and examine their personalities and foibles.

Of course, with the onset of the war, this "perfect" family begins to fall apart.  The children are separated from their parents, sent off to the country to stay with their grandparents; the eldest go off to boarding school.  Later, a tragedy strikes that upsets the whole balance of the family, and things start to unravel.  The characters aren't necessarily likable, but they're so realistic, I couldn't wait to find out what happened to them.

Apparently, Streatfeild was one of the first authors to really examine the psychological impact of the trauma of the war on children.  Of course I knew that millions of children were evacuated and separated from their families because of the war, and I'd heard that psychologically, it was probably more damaging for the children to be separated from their families than for them to be together.  I can't imagine having to make a choice like that!

Another of my favorite Persephone books, Doreen, also deals with the story of an evacuated child, but in that situation, both the child's mother and the country family who host her love her and want to keep her.  It's interesting to compare the two.  I reviewed that book as well, and if you're interested, you can read my thoughts here.

This is my 42nd Persephone -- I haven't read that many lately and I've been hoping to read more, especially since they recently published their 100th book!  So congratulations to Persephone, I look forward to completing the other 58 on my list.

Has anyone else read Saplings?  Any other books by Noel Streatfeild?  Or any other Persephones that you love?

Sunday, August 19, 2012

A Bell for Adano by John Hersey

Of all the books I've read this year, I think this one is the most satisfying.  Partly because I really enjoyed reading it, but mostly because this is one of the books that has been on my shelves, unread, for the longest.  I know where I bought it, though not exactly when.  However, I can tell you that this book has been packed and unpacked at least ten times.  It's been in three different houses in Florida, three in Texas, one in Nebraska, an apartment in Chicago, and in storage with the rest of our household goods while we were stationed overseas in Japan.  Does that give you an idea of how long I've owned this book?

I am delighted to report, also, that it was a really good book.  A Bell for Adano is a Pulitzer Prize winner, which doesn't necessarily guarantee I'll like it, but I think that's the reason I never chucked it into the donation bin during any of my moves.  I finally started it the other day when I was looking for a good audiobook and realized that the library owned it -- I could listen to it on my commute to work, which would speed things along.  But after a few minutes, I really didn't like the narrator, so I picked up my own print copy and gave it a try.

Happily, I was rewarded for all my tenacity.  This book is really a charming story.  Major Victor Joppolo, the American child of Italian immigrant parents, is put in charge of an Italian town called Adano after the Italian surrender during WWII.   Major Joppolo has to deal with military bureaucracy, cultural differences, and the looming threat of the Germans as he tries to get the town running smoothly again after years of wartime shortages, fascism, and corruption.  One of his goals is to replace the town's treasured bell, a 700-year-old relic that had been taken by the Fascists and melted down for bullets.  

Honestly, I don't know why I put off reading it for so long.  It's not a very long book, and it's not a difficult read.  I'm not a huge fan of war stories, though I do enjoy reading about how everyday people deal with wartime on the home front.  A Bell For Adano isn't exactly a war story, since the war is mostly over when it starts, so in essence it is about the war at home for the Italians.  Parts of it did remind me a little of Catch-22, because it does poke fun somewhat at military bureaucracy.  It's not making of fun of the military per se, though it does satirize all the ego-massaging that has to go on in a big organization, which I'm sure isn't exclusive to the military.  

I did really like the characters and the story, though I did find the ending a little abrupt -- it really left me wishing I knew what happened to all the people.  Parts of it are very funny, and parts were sad and made me tear up.  I did end up reading most of it in one day because I got so engrossed in it.  It was quite uplifting after some of the terribly depressing books I've read recently.  

I am thankful for Roofbeam Reader's TBR Pile Challenge for inspiring me to finally get around to reading this book -- it was one of a dozen books I promised myself I'd read this year, and I've now completed eight of them -- one a month, right on schedule.   It's really inspired me to keep reading the books from my own shelves, and I've already started my list for the 2013 TBR Challenge.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

With The Little Stranger, I've not only read another book for the RIP Challenge, I've also finally completed another owned-and-unread book from the TBR shelf.  I bought The Little Stranger at a library sale not long after I finished (and loved) Fingersmith, so I've been looking forward to reading it.  But like my last RIP book, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, it wasn't quite what I was expecting.

Set just a couple of years after the end of World War II, The Little Stranger is an atmospheric story told in the first person by a British country doctor, John Faraday.  He grew in the shadow of Hundreds, a grand country house owned by the local gentry family, the Ayreses.  Though his mother was in service and his father a shopkeeper, Dr. Faraday was able to rise above his station through hard work and his parents' sacrifices.  He's not the Ayreses' regular doctor, but one day he's called out there as a substitute, to check on a young maid who's ailing.

The maid seems to be shamming, but confesses to Dr. Faraday that she's unhappy in the big house, which gives her the creeps.  He dismisses her fears -- the house is nearly empty nowadays, with only a full-time housekeeper; Mrs. Ayres, a widow; her daughter Caroline, who is in her twenties and unmarried; and her son and heir Roderick, who was a pilot in the war and was badly wounded and burned in a crash.

The Ayres family has fallen on hard times, and are barely able to keep the estate afloat.  With the pretext of helping Roderick with an experimental medical treatment, Dr. Faraday begins visiting the Ayreses on a regular basis.  He becomes a close family friend and confidant and is present when a terrible thing happens, the first of many odd occurences.

Three of Sarah Waters' novels are neo-Victorian, but this is her second foray into another historical era -- post-WWII Britain, which I thought she did extremely well.  Of course I'm no expert, but the past year or so I've been reading a lot more fiction written and published in that era, and the mood was very similar.  Waters does an excellent job evoking the period, but what I think was best about the book was her description of an aristocratic family fallen on hard times, and their struggle to keep their lifestyle afloat.  They're desperately hanging on to another era -- they can't keep the farm going, can't maintain the property, and can barely find servants to help them around the house.  It's a real contrast to the books I've been reading recently in which great houses have scores of servants and most women had few other job choices than to be a maid, cook, or governess.

The supernatural aspect of the book is not the best part, in my opinion, and I was a little disappointed in the ending, which didn't quite satisfy me.  But the book is so well written, I read it pretty quickly over a couple of days. I didn't like it quite as much as Fingersmith, but it was well worth reading.   One of my librarian friends is coordinating a historical fiction book group, and the December read is one of Waters' other books, Affinity, so I'm hoping to get to it in a couple of months.  This one is set in a Victorian asylum and also has supernatural elements -- as my friend Jason commented, "Nothing says Christmas like Victorian madhouses!"

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton

It seems like it's been forever since I posted a book review -- okay, only ten days.  I have just felt really uninspired lately.  I suppose reading two massive Victorian books back to back was a bad idea -- what was I thinking, tackling Dombey and Son right before I was supposed to read Daniel Deronda for a book group discussion??  Crazy!  (And no surprise -- Daniel Deronda is still unfinished).

Something shorter was just the thing.  My choice was The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton, which came highly recommended by Simon at Stuck in a Book.  And what a great choice!  This is one of those books that make me glad to be a blogger -- it's one of those books of which I would like to buy multiple copies, so I can hand them out to friends (or random strangers) and say "Read this -- right now!!"

Here's the setup:  It's set in England in 1944, in Thames Lockdon, a London suburb, and the action is centered around the residents of a boarding house called the Rosamund Tea Rooms.  The main character is Miss Roach, a 39-year-old spinster, formerly a schoolmistress, who is still working at a publishing company in London since she was bombed out of her home.  Due to the housing crisis, she's forced to live in this rundown boardinghouse with some depressing people.

The most notorious of her fellow residents is Mr. Thwaites, a nasty, bullying retiree of about sixty.  Miss Roach is assigned a seat in the dining room at the same table as Mr. Thwaites, who manages to take the most innocent conversation and turn it into something unpleasant.  Unfortunately, Miss Roach is his favorite target, and either due to politeness or reticence, nobody ever seems to stand up to Mr. Thwaites and put him in his place.

Miss Roach hopes that things will turn around after she suggests the Rosamund Tea Rooms to her acquaintance Vicki Kugelmann, a German emigre with a lot of spunk.  She hopes that Miss Kugelmann's presence will change the dynamic of the boarding house.  And it does, but unfortunately not for the better, of course.  Everything goes absolutely wrong, and it began to get even more interesting.

This book reminds me a bit of Excellent Women by Barbara Pym, though it has a more melancholy undertone.  It's full of wry observations like Pym, but also a little like Jane Austen.  I'm also finding it almost satirical in parts.  Here's a passage describing the detestable Mr. Thwaites, who simply lives to bully the other residents at the boarding house:

". . . Mr. Thwaites had on fine mornings no one to boom at in the Rosamond Tea Rooms, and spent much of the time writing embittered letters in the Lounge.  These, after he had put on his overcoat and cap, he took round to the Post Office and posted in the most acid way.  He passed pillar-boxes on the way, but did not trust them, as not going to the root of the matter.

After this he would return to the Rosamund Tea Rooms, where he would prowl restlessly, and whence he would, perhaps, make one or two rapid, tigerish excursions into the town, to make an enquiry, to buy something, or to change a book -- invariably tying the assistants into knots, and, in the ironical pose of a stupid man, saying he was so sorry, no doubt it was his fault, entirely."

Mr. Thwaites is one of the most memorable characters I've read about this year.  For literary villains, he's right up there with Harold Skimpole from Bleak House or Mr. Collins from Pride and Prejudice -- not evil, but someone you'd just love to throttle.  From the moment this character was introduced, I could not wait for him to get his comeuppance.  He was rather a Dickensian character now that I think about it.

This is another of those great books in which technically, not much happens.  However, it's a great character study, and I loved the dynamics of the people involved.  These people are trapped in their circumstances by the war -- they can't find new homes, they can hardly go out at night because of the blackout, and supplies are short, except for what seems an endless supply of alcohol.  Unhappy people and drinking seems like a recipe for trouble.  I could not put the book down because I was so intrigued at how everything would play out -- which it did, in a highly satisfying manner.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Operation Heartbreak by Duff Cooper

Lately, it seems like I've half my books are about World War II.  Not the war itself -- battles and military strategy are not my thing, and I tend to get bored with extended action scenes -- but the homefront during wartime, what you might call the domestic side of the war.  Three of the last Persephones I've read have been about the war at home, and the fourth (The Hopkins Manuscript) was sort of a war allegory, if I'm not mistaken.

Anyhow, I digress.  This is the story of Willie Marynton, a career soldier that never gets go to war and spends his entire life disappointed.  He's just finished his military training and is about to ship out when WWI is declared over, and by the start of WWII, he's too old and spends his career training other soldiers.  He spends his entire life waiting to go off to war.

Well, I can't say that I can relate to poor Willie's desire to go off and fight -- there are some sections in which he is so depressed that he missed out on WWI, which sounds so ghastly from other books -- but I can definitely relate to his sense of disappointment.  I had the bad timing to finish library school just as the economy began to crumble, and I don't think there's a book blogger around who doesn't realize the tenuous state most libraries are in.  I also had the bad fortune to leave an existing library job and move to a city which began a two-year hiring freeze just before I finished my degree.  I could not have chosen a worse time, and it's heartbreaking to me because I've found the ideal job for me.  So I really felt Willie's pain about his career.

Endpapers from the Persephone edition of Operation Heartbreak

This is a short book, and there's not a lot of flowery description -- the sentences are straight to the point, but they really get to the heart of what's happening in the story.  This passage in particular really captured the essence of this book.  Willie's regiment is shipping off to war, though he's been left behind once again:

The demands of security insisted that to the public eye, the regiment should be there one day, carrying on their normal functions and giving no sign of departure, and on the morrow they should have disappeared, leaving no trace behind.  Willie travelled with them to the port of embarkation and actually went on board the ship in which they were sailing.  When he had shaken hands with some of his friends and come over the side for the last time he had a curious and most uncomfortable feeling in his chest, and he found himself foolishly wondering whether people's hearts really do break, whether it might not be more than a mere figure of speech.

Just heartbreaking.  And I won't give anything away, but the ending was so moving I was glad that no one else was in the room when I finished it because I couldn't help crying.  What a great book.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

A Pair of Persephones: Doreen and On the Other Side: Letters to My Children From Germany, 1940-1946

The endpapers from the Persephone edition of Doreen,
taken from a 1940s printed silk scarf.

My ILL overload is finished; I've finally returned the last of them, and I'm happy to report I finished eight of the ten books!  However, I now have a slew of books to review.  I'm combining two book reviews in this post because I read two books back to back which seemed to go together -- two books set in opposite sides of WWII, and dealing with parents and children.

The first is Doreen by Barbara Noble.  It was my thirty-third Persephone, and it's one of the best ones so far.  This book deals with a heartwrenching topic.  During the London Blitz, parents were encouraged to send their children to foster families in the countries, sometimes for years.  Families were faced with a terrible decision: stay together and face dangerous bombs, or send the children away to safety and suffer an extended separation.

The book begins with Mrs. Rawlings and her ten-year-old daughter Doreen, who have spent the night in a London bomb shelter.  A single mother, Mrs. Rawlings decided to keep her only child close after all the other children in Doreen's school were evacuated.  She is beginning to regret her decision and is overwhelmed with worry, and has a breakdown in the ladies' room of the office building where she works as a cleaner.  Another employee, Miss Osborne, offers to contact her brother and sister-in-law, a childless couple living in the country, to see if they would be willing to take Doreen.

What follows is a great story, with fascinating conflict.  Geoffrey is a country solicitor, ineligible to serve due to health reasons, and he and his wife Francie were unable to have a child, so they jump at the chance to take Francie, whom they treat as their own child.  Doreen is shy, but sweet and very bright, and she begins to blossom under their care.  Except for missing her mother, Francie is very happy living with them.

However, things become more complicated when Mrs. Rawlings spends Christmas with Doreen and the Osbornes, and begins to feel that her daughter is becoming closer to her foster parents.  She begins to worry about will this change their relationship, about the class differences between Doreen and the Osbornes, and how this will affect Doreen in the long run.

What I loved best about this book is how well it showed both sides.  Ultimately, all the adults in the situation want what's best for this child, yet I couldn't help feeling very strongly both ways.  When the author showed the mother's perspective, I was completely on her side, but when it switched to the Osbornes, I wanted Doreen to stay with them.  The book raised so many questions about class-consciousness and what it means to be a parent.

The endpapers from On the Other Side:
Letters to My Children From Germany, 1940-1946

The second book also deals with a mother during wartime; however, this is a true story, a memoir of WWII written in letters, and the children in question are already grown and are never sent. When she wrote On the Other Side: Letters to My Children From Germany, 1940-1946,  Matilde Wolff-Monckeberg was in her sixties, living in Hamburg when the war began, and four of her five grown children were living abroad during the war, in America, Wales, South America, and Sweden.  Her oldest daughter stayed in Germany, where she worked as a doctor.  Matilde's letters of life in Hamburg could never be sent due to censorship, and in fact could have had both her and her husband arrested (possibly even killed) had they been discovered.  Her youngest daughter found them after her death and had them published in book form, and they are both terrifying and fascinating.

Matilde grew up in Hamburg, the daughter of the Lord Mayor, and met and married her first husband, while studying singing in Italy.  Her second husband became Rector of the University of Hamburg.  Her letters are slices of life during wartime, in which she describes the escalation of the war, including the lack of food, the terror of the bombings, her despair over Hitler and the Nazi party, and the loss of friends and family during the violence.

Tillie and her family were luckier than most, since they had money, access to good health care, and various places to live.  Her apartment survived the bombings relatively unscathed and she also spent time in the country with extended family during the worst parts.  However, food was in shorter and shorter supply, and for years at a time she had no contact with four of her children.  The final year of the book is actually one of the longest portions (it was easier to write without the constant threat of bombs or arrest), and it's almost the most heartbreaking.  Finally, the horrible war was over, and the Germans who survived still didn't have enough food and were facing the misery of both reconstruction and the guilt of causing the war.  Tillie doesn't really discuss the rise of Hitler and fascism too much but it appeared that she opposed the war.  I can only imagine that she was unable to leave due to her husband's position.

I was particularly interested in this book because years ago I did a summer exchange with a German family and I stayed in Kiel which is not that far from Hamburg.  I didn't really see anything in Hamburg but I did get to travel a bit in Germany and Denmark.  I do remember seeing the remains of some of the bunkers on the beaches in Denmark but we never really discussed the war, though I do know my host mother was in some kind of refugee camp as a child.

Anyway, I thought both of these books were fascinating looks at what life was like on the homefront from both sides of the war.  I still have an unread copy of Few Eggs and No Oranges, a Persephone nonfiction book which is another diary of life during wartime on the English side.  I'm eager to read that one soon.