Imagine your worst nightmare . . . A monster is chasing you and no matter where you run it is right behind. You try to escape but random bystanders send the monster your way. Just when you think all is lost, a kindly man helps you hide. Panic stricken by the nearness of the monster who is destroying the world around, so close you can hear it breathe, you remain safe in your hiding spot until it finally gives up and slinks away.
This is the scenario the French faced during the Nazi Occupation of Paris. While the Jews were the focal point, nobody was safe from the atrocities. Charles Belfoure is able to capture the terror of the times in his novel The Paris Architect. Taking place in 1942, the altruistic man who is willing to hide the escaping Jews until he can get them to safety is wealthy patron, entrepreneur Auguste Manet. The hero who designs the ingenious hiding spots literally blended into the woodwork is the architect Lucien Bernard.
Unfortunately, our hero is a real bastard – bad tempered and egocentric, whose deeds are primarily motivated by his own interests. Even considerate acts are self serving, not for the benefit of the receiver, but for the fulfillment of the giver. Thus Lucien Bernard, a self proclaimed architectural prodigy, agrees to help design munitions buildings for the enemy, so as to have the satisfaction of seeing his work completed. He admires how quickly the Germans bring his blueprints to life with shifts covering 24 hours and threats of bodily harm pushing the workers to extremes.
While the Boche regime gave little renumeration to French workers, the ingenious redesigns creating hidey holes as temporary havens for fleeing Jews paid quite well at a time when money was scarce and the items to meet daily needs were even scarcer. Lucien, brought up by an antisemitic father, doesn’t exactly despise the Jews, he just doesn’t think they are worth the sacrifice. Too many French were gunned down for aiding the runaways, even if their only crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Yet Lucien gets a thrill out of deceiving the Nazis who he does hate. In the end, it isn’t hard for Manet to convince Lucien to use his talents for the greater good, in return for the appropriate compensation for this potentially lethal deed as well as a promise of the chance to see his designs, albeit for the German cause, come to fruition.
Some readers object to the gruesomeness of the detailed torture techniques used by Schlegel, the sadistic leader of the Paris Gestapo, in his desperate efforts to please his superiors by pinpointing the location of Janusky, an overly rich man who flaunts his wealth by assisting fellow Jews escape, but I feel these horrific acts help the reader experience the atmosphere of terror which was a part of the Parisian’s daily lives during this time period.
However, I did not appreciate how the general population of France was represented, especially those in the French Resistance. I feel the author was mislead by paying too much credence to the writings of John-Paul Sartre as his reference source. Ultimately, It became difficult to root for those who didn’t appear to have any redeeming characteristics and while we are supposed to boo the Nazis, we should also want the French to be successful in defeating their enemy. Of course, we are mostly seeing the story through Lucien’s eyes so that could explain the dismal point of view.
This attitude also lead to stereotypical characters such as vain women, cheating husbands, and the assumption that all members of the French Resistance were Communists. There were only a few sympathetic characters, such as Hertzog, the supportive German boss who admired Lucien’s work, the brave Jesuit Priest who laughed in the face of torture, and the Jewish escapees who captured our sympathy through their bravery and kindness in the face of almost certain death.
Despite these flaws, the story itself, while not great literature, was still compelling. The frenzied trepidation of hiding while the enemy is at hand invades the reader’s mind. Every time the Nazis approach, the reader is sure someone will be hauled away. It does make one grip their seat. Despite the recent glut of novels centering around the French Occupation, Belfoure provides a different approach which is hard to resist. Four stars.
In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende explores three individuals whose lives inexplicably intersect via a freak winter storm, a sick cat, and a run to the market for diapers. There’s 60 year old Richard Bowmaster who is living in a fog after tragically losing his Brazilian wife and child. His coworker and tenant, 62 year old Lucia Maraz, has survived her own life of upheavals in Chili, escaping the danger by moving to Canada and emigrating to the United States. Finally there’s 23 year old Evelyn Ortega, an undocumented refugee from Guatemala assisting a disabled boy whose father is involved in questionable business practices.
When Evelyn “borrows” her boss’s Lexus for a quick run to the supermarket, she’s caught in the “wrong place at the wrong time” when Richard’s car skids into the rear of the vehicle. Panicking, she ends up at his home, terrified of the consequences when her temporarily out of town employer returns home. Somehow Louisa and Evelyn end up with Richard in his apartment huddling together through the night while a freak blizzard rages across Brooklyn and into the surrounding regions. It’s not just the minor fender bender, but what’s inside the trunk that has them all in a sweat despite the cold.
Thus begins a bizarre road trip to an isolated location far away from the boundaries of the “incident” to get rid of the evidence. Close quarters and fear create the perfect environment for confidences as the three tell their personal stories and develop an unbreakable bond through this illicit deed. Back in Brooklyn is the “rest of the story” providing closure long after the threesome have resolved their accidental dilemma.
I’d like to highlight Lucia’s tale involving the Military coup d’etat in Chili in 1973 where President Salvador Allende was overthrown by armed forces and the national police. It is not a coincidence that the author’s last name is also Allende since this leader was Isabel’s “uncle” which endangered not only her life, but those of loved ones. I’m sure this particular tale invoked some strong emotions from Isabel’s past when she was actively involved in helping those on the “wanted” list find safe passage, which is inherently reflected in the attitudes and behaviors of the characters in this novel.
There was a lot to take in (almost too much to absorb) as the atrocities in Lucia’s and Evelyn’s childhoods are revealed. It is almost impossible to imagine living a life of terror, waiting for someone you love to be killed, or worse, not knowing whether or not the missing are still alive – not to mention your own dangers in an unstable country. Intertwined is the scenarios of those loved ones who influenced the decisions of the trio.
Without maintaining a specific focus on the immigration issue which is currently stalled in Congress, the reader is still left to ponder the attitude of American society towards undocumented workers who have fled their beloved homeland in order to stay safe, as well as the belligerence towards their children who were brought up in this country and know no other home.
While these timely issues make this a must read book (please note the President mentioned the violent M-13 in his 2018 State of the Union Address), I did have difficulty with the choppiness of the story as the plot flipped back and forth between the three main characters revealing their backgrounds piecemeal. I actually cheated and skipped ahead to read each biography in full (one at a time) which gave me a better understanding of their motivations. Oops, sorry Isabel. Allende had the difficult task of condensing their lives into a relatively brief narrative when each of the characters could have easily filled the pages of their own book (including some of the minor players). The conclusion neatly wraps up the details with a bit of poetic justice and a touch of romance thrown into the mix.
Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley for proving an ARC in exchange for an honest review.
If you are looking for an HEA (Happily Ever After) story, then you need to look elsewhere. Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys takes place towards the end of World War II in winter of 1945 and any tale involving the Holocaust and the savageness of war is not a feel good read. Yet, during the most adverse conditions, despite the despicable actions surrounding each individual’s struggle for survival, there is love, compassion, and even humor amongst the tragic events.
Salt to the Sea has four narrators who each give us rotating glimpses of their thoughts and actions as a means of advancing the plot. Three are in an incongruous entourage of refugees on their way across East Prussia to the Baltic Sea to catch a ship to Kiel in order to escape the advancing Russians and the marauding Germans, both likely to kill on sight. The fourth is a German Soldier preparing a ship, the Wilhelm Gustloff, for departure. How their lives intersect is the basis of this story. The youngest of the four is Emilia (Shame is a Hunter), a Pole who was sent to safety by her father and then betrayed. Then there is nineteen year old Joana (Guilt is a Hunter), a trained nurse from Lithuania whose guilt ridden need to help others leads her to befriend a wandering boy in search of his dead grandmother. Finally there is the young Prussian artist, Florian Beck (Fate is a Hunter), who has a secret hidden in his backpack which must be preserved no matter what the cost. Somehow Emilia attaches herself to Florian who she views as her savior after he rescues her from some savage thugs. Although Florian wants to travel alone, he finds himself tagging along with the others, all moving in the same direction. Ingrid, whose blindness allows her to hear hidden sounds, a grandfatherly cobbler they refer to as the “Shoe Poet”, and Eva, a Viking Giantess, round out the pack. The fourth narrator is Alfred Frick (Fear is a Hunter), a foolish young man who creates mental letters to a girl called Hannelore referring to himself as a war hero. Yet instead of courageous deeds, the inept German soldier is sent to scrub toilets, a job which better suits his talents. Each of the four carries a secret which is revealed as the events unfold. Their lives intersect at the Port of Gotenhofen leading to an exciting climax which is guaranteed to mesmerize the reader.
Whenever I think I have a handle on WWII, (for God’s sake I read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and Schindler’s List as well as a myriad of other books, both fiction and nonfiction), I realize there is always something new to learn. I’m glad that Sepetys wrote this book as it explores a subject which is not common knowledge. Truths such as these must be quickly told as time is running out. How many eyewitnesses are left to share their stories? History will soon be relegated to the distant past as we continue to forgot the lessons Iearned by our parents, grandparents, or great grandparents. Even in the US, there are still white supremacists and other radicals who wait for their chance to annihilate the enemy. The identity of this enemy depends upon the speaker, but those of us who know how easy it would be to repeat history, are terrified by the rhetoric and violence we see throughout the world.
The story of the maritime evacuation, Operation Hannibal, which despite its rescue intent resulted in the death of over 25,000 people, mainly retreating women and children, is a secret that must be revealed. Neither the Russians whose uboats torpedoed the Wilhelm Gustloff, nor the Germans who were facilitating the refugees escape, wanted to admit their culpability in the death of over 90% of the 10,000 fleeing passengers, so the truth remained hidden. Yet there are survivors who have a tale to tell and storytellers, such as Sepetys who had the wherewithal and connections (her father’s cousin had a ticket to board the fatal ship but miraculously missed the launching), that are willing to share these horrors from the past. Over three years of research, including interviews with eyewitnesses and their families, allowed the author to create a realistic scenario as a background for the fictional trek towards freedom. While this book is written for teens (the extremely short chapters and young main characters will be a draw for the YA crowd), adults will also be fascinated by this historical saga with a new angle about the atrocities of war.
Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.
WWII! Of course we studied it in high school. Everybody has read The Diary of Ann Frank and the current generation has read The Book Thief. When I was twenty one I read the entire Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and over the years I have watched various movies from Bridge on the River Kwai to The Great Escape to The Guns of Navarrone. I even had the privilege of hearing the 80 year old Elie Wiesel at the Chautauqua Institute speak about his experiences in German concentration camps during the war. I reread my purchased autographed copy of Night between his two talks (so I could save a good seat).
I grew up in a Brooklyn neighborhood where some of my friend’s parents had visible tattooed numbers on their arms as evidence of their war experiences. My father was a mine sweeper in the Pacific and survived two sinking ships, pulling one to shore and earning a medal for saving the Captain’s life. (My dad died less than twenty years later from a weak heart – the after effects of malaria and chain smoking). So even though, in a way, I grew up surrounded by the war, in reality, my knowledge is limited. When I began reading The Cost of Courage by former New York Times reporter Charles Kaiser, it was like reading a science fiction novel full of fantasy. Although I knew about the French Resistance, I didn’t know the particulars as retold by the author. Here is the down and dirty side of the French occupation by the Germans, not a story coached in politically correct descriptions, but an honest accounting of what happened from the eyes of the people involved. Just as my father rarely spoke of the war (and never to me), these folks were tight lipped as well. The horrors they experienced remained a taboo subject. Luckily Kaiser was able to convince them to share their memories as members of the Maquis, a tale which will all-to-soon be lost resulting in a world ignorant of the nitty gritty details of that era – a time which needs to be chronicled if only to allow us to understand how our past is effecting the future.
Nobody else could have written this book. Charles’ Uncle Henry Kaiser was an American Lieutenant who was invited to stay at the Boulloche home in Paris in 1944 after the Liberation of Paris and the return of Charles de Gaulle. Over the year he remained, Henry head the stories of Christiane, Jacqueline, and Andre and their experiences as a part of the French Resistance, which he later conveyed with a dramatic flair to his young nephew. Charles Kaiser first visited the Boulloche family in 1962 when he was eleven and over the years was able to frequent their gatherings. He considered the Boulloches his “French cousins” and became an “adopted” member of their extended family. Charles noticed that the past adventures relayed by his uncle were never mentioned. It is not surprising that after the senseless death of their parents (Jacques and Helene, and their older brother Robert) and the end of the war, the surviving three siblings married and started life anew, leaving the horrors of the war behind.
Finally, nearing the end of the century, Charles was able to convince Christiane, the only surviving sibling, that if her tale was not told the history would be lost to future generations. It would simply disappear if she failed to record it. For her it was a sense of obligation, so, at the age of 71, she began the emotionally difficult task of transcribing her experiences in a forty five page manuscript for her children and grand kids to read. Charles used this memoir, completed in 1999, as a starting point. He spent two and a half years in France researching and interviewing key players in the drama. This is a book which was fifty years in the making, beginning with the “stories” as retold by his uncle on up through to 2015 when this tome was finally published.
Charles, a journalist, relates the specifics of the European War from the rise of Hitler and the reactions of England and France to the German invasion of France to the Battle of Normandy where the allies began defeating the Germans to the final retaking of Paris continuing up until the end of the war. Within this historical background is the story of the French Resistance and the role the Bollouche siblings played in bringing down the Nazis. This book takes a straightforward unapologetic view of the reactions of the French citizens, especially the Parisians, to the German occupation. If this topic intrigues you there is also the 1969 documentary – The Sorrow and the Pity – which explores European life during this era. Despite the revealed depictions fraught with tragedy (all man made), there are also moments of success and ultimate victory. Kaiser rounds out this book with details about the postwar lives of the Boulloches and includes a list of characters, acknowledgements, notes, a bibliography, and an index along with an afterward and preface. The included photographs were a nice touch.
The author writes the story as if we are there and life is unfolding as we read. This telling in the present tense might be jarring for folks who would rather read about the past and not feel as if they were reliving events as they happened. It is, however, an effective tool to immerse the reader into the story to get a touch of the gut wrenching horror felt by the participants. In any case, while fascinating and well written, this is not an easy book to get through simply because there is just too much to take in. Just as when I read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, I concede that even if I reread it a second time, I still would not be able to retain all the information. Yet, I perceive its essence and that is good enough for me. God bless Christiane, Jacqueline, and Andre (and their cohorts) for their fearless work on behalf of the French nation as well as the rest of the world. Thank you! Four stars.
I would like to thank Netgalley and Other Press for this ARC in exchange for an honest review. This review also appears on Goodreads.