Tag Archives: Paris

The Lost Girls of Paris by Pam Jenoff

You don’t call it a World War unless the war affects almost everyone in the world. That is why there seems to be pockets of stories about WWII which we might not have heard about before now. One of the most fascinating secrets from the 1940’s is the subversive activities of the British. The SOE (Special Operations Executive) in charge of espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in Occupied Europe was sometimes referred to as the Baker Street Irregulars (based on their location which is infamously connected to Sherlock Holmes). Also colloquially known as Churchill’s Secret Army, this government organization not only used men, but also had a special Section F which trained and sent women into the field at a time when women were mainly considered as auxiliary units. 55 female agents were sent out as radio operators and couriers with 13 being killed in action, many who died in concentration camps. Their expectations included unarmed combat but they were also trained to use weapons. Once the war was over, the SOE was disbanded. Unfortunately, since these women were not enlisted soldiers, they didn’t get the recognition their male counterparts received. It wasn’t until recently that well deserved medals have been awarded and even then the women had to jump through hoops to prove they deserved this honor.

In her research of this scenario, Pam Jenoff discovered a treasure trove of drama both on and off the field to include in her historical novel, The Lost Girls of Paris. There was secret love, bravery, courageous actions, questionable decisions, rogue behaviors, personal sacrifice, and finally betrayal, all packed into a relatively brief period of time.

To portray these events, Jenoff chose to follow the lives of three women. The book begins in early 1946, shortly after the war had ended, where American Grace Healey, a young war widow, accidentally finds a suitcase left under a bench in Grand Central Station. Opening it to take a peak inside she pulls out an envelope with twelve labeled photographs each featuring a different girl. Her determined quest to uncover the whys and wherefores behind this discovery is a running theme throughout the book.

Next we meet Eleanor Trigg, the one in charge of the secret female agents who were sent to France with their radios to decipher and transmit coded messages to assist the success of the French Resistance and clear the way for the anticipated arrival of American Troops. This time frame in 1944 included the weeks leading up to D Day in Normandy where the importance of  their work superseded everything, including the safety of those in the field. Trigg, feeling responsible for the girls she recruited, kept watch over their activities and wanted answers when anything went awry.

Finally, there is Marie Roux, a single mom, whose motivation for taking on this task is questionable. While fluent in French, there were certain aspects of her character which made her a less than stellar candidate for the position, despite the extensive training she and the other women endured. Yet she still was called to duty and sent to France, expected to execute orders without question (even though following orders was not her strong suit). Through Marie we get into the nitty gritty of espionage, with undercover air flights, hidden radios, and sabotage, all while hiding in plain sight despite the ever present Germans literally living next door. Spoiler Alert: Not everything runs smoothly.

Pam Jenoff, known for the novel The Orphan’s Tale as well as other stories based on WWII and the Holocaust, has found another tale which highlights the heroic role of women during wartime. Parts of this novel were fascinating but despite the fact that it was inspired by real events, some of the details seemed too far fetched to pass the smell test. Even if true, the complexities of the situation were so simplified as to be ridiculous at times which took away from the seriousness of the situation. However, the plot quickly flowed through the eyes of the three women and the reader can’t help rooting for their eventual success despite the reality that when it comes to war there isn’t always a big bow to wrap up a happily ever after ending. The best we can hope for is a couple of colorful ribbons.

Three and a half stars and a thank you to Edelweiss for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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The Paris Architect by Charles Belfoure

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.

The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang

In the past, the mass media has presented only one type of norm, the perfect family situation with a husband, wife, and two to three somewhat “ordinary” children. Unfortunately, reality doesn’t match this utopia, so those on the “outside” are made to feel inconsequential for not meeting this ideal. Recently there has been a turnabout with books, television, movies, and even the news, celebrating a diversity of practices. With this change has come an acknowledgement of the LGBTQ community who continue to fight for a positive affirmation. While we aren’t quite there yet, it’s important that literature for children reflect this dynamic so the next generation grows up with a receptive perception of these “alternative” lifestyles which are actually quite common place. Even more important is to develop a prevailing existence of role models who reflect the reader’s intrinsic sensibilities so that they, too, can proudly hold their heads high without hiding their innate psyches.

The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang is just such a book. Taking place in Paris where the first mega department store is going to open, the King and Queen of Brussels are visiting their French cousin with their sixteen year old son, Prince Sebastian. The King is pushing for his son to marry, even at this young age, to secure the future throne. He is even being allowed to choose which of the eligible ladies would suit him best, as compared to his parents’ arranged marriage. Sebastian, however, has a secret which he fears will embarrass his family and any future spouse. He loves fashion, and not just any fashion, but women’s clothing – the more outlandish the better! So when he sees an unusual, but creative style garment at his introductory ball, he sends for the seamstress with an eye for such spectacular design, so she can develop similar avante garde creations for himself to wear.

Frances is excited to design for royalty, even if the fabulous dresses are for the prince. Together they go out into society, he under the persona of Lady Crystallia who becomes a trendsetter in the Paris Fashion World, she as his designer. As Sebastian’s fame grows, so does his worries of being discovered, forcing him to distance himself from Frances despite their budding attraction and close friendship. Although she loves Sebastian for who he is, she also needs to pursue her dreams of becoming a noted couturier.

How this tale is resolved is heartwarming, despite some emotional drama. Will his parents reject a son who does not meet their expectations? Can society accept a cross dresser as royalty? Does Sebastian need to suppress the Lady Crystallia inside or can he continue going out in public showing his authentic self? Can he find true love outside the normal aristocratic channels? And can Frances develop avant garde creations using her genuine talents or must she suppress her inner genius and conform to the norms dictated by the rules of French Fashion?

This is some heavy stuff for a graphic novel, beautifully written and illustrated by Wang who is often able to advance the storyline just with her drawings, letting the expressive faces tell the tale without any words. The color pops, the fashion stuns, the storyline surprises, the ending positively resolves a touchy subject. The cartoon like illustrations lend themselves towards middle school, although older students will also appreciate the gender fluid, transvestite subject matter.

Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly

Despite the spate of novels recently published dealing with the topic of WWII, the subject matter never gets boring. There are so many facets to the war that each book can easily tackle a new concept to explore. In Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly the author utilizes the lives of three intersecting characters to explore the Holocaust, two based on real people and one a fictionalized version representing true events.

Caroline Ferriday is a New York socialite devoting her life to helping the orphans in France. Working full time as a volunteer at the French Embassy in New York City, she assisted individuals in securing visas in order to escape France before the war began. In German occupied Lublin, Poland, Kasha Kuzmerick and various friends and family members get swept up as political prisoners. Sent to Ravensbruck, Kashia and her sister Zuzanna, end up the subjects for a medical laboratory experiment involving battle wounds, which leaves Kashia with a permanent limp. The surgery is performed by Herta Oberheuser, one of the few female doctors in Germany, who was recruited to work at this Women’s Concentration Camp and assigned to perform the operations which permanently maimed or killed the Polish “Rabbits”. Her attitude is fascinating as Herta convinces herself that working for the Nazis is a positive position which furthers the aims of the Fatherland. Yet before the Allies take control, she is involved in a plot to hunt down and murder these covertly hidden patients in order to remove the evidence of her actions. Even at the Nuremberg Trials, Dr Oberheuser still refuses to accept blame for her inhumane behaviors and resents her prison sentence.

The Lilac Girls also explores the after effects of WWII, both immediately following the war and ten years later. Unfortunately, society wanted to move forward and forget the atrocities, but luckily there were many philanthropic individuals ready to help the afflicted integrate back into a somewhat normal life. While this was possible in parts of Europe and the United States, the countries taken over by the Soviet Union, including Poland, went from one oppressive state to another. Caroline, with her connections, is able to find a way to coordinate medical treatment for the “Rabbits” in the United States and encourages the bitter Kashia to find closure.

Alternating between the three female characters, Kelly integrates fiction with information from historical documents to create a realistic scenario. It is heartwarming that women such as Caroline and her mother were able to use their influence for the public good with a focus on those suffering abroad. At the same time, one wonders how Herta could reconcile her actions with her conscience. There is evidence that her outward bravado covered a guilty heart when her visit with a psychiatrist revealed a predisposition for self mutilation (cutting her arm). The fictional sisters were an astute representation of the Polish girls who survived the “Rabbit” experience. While it was heart wrenching to read about their treatment in Ravensbruck, it is a reminder that war can bring out the evil in people, especially when dealing with prisoners of war who are viewed as subhuman. This is definitely not a book for those with sensitive stomachs.

I have several confessions to make. First, I did not necessarily read the chapters in order. Kelly often left a cliffhanger at the end of a chapter and then jumped to one of the other women, but I was impatient and skipped over to the continuation of that particular plot point, then went back to pick up the storyline. I also thought the entire book dragged at times. I didn’t mind the fictional romance for Caroline, but for a book close to 500 pages, I thought some of the irrelevant details could have been eliminated. There was plenty of subject matter without adding fluff. The most compelling part of the book was the girls’ daily trials in Ravensbruck which were both difficult to read and, at the same time, hard to put down. While the therapeutic visit to the United States was anticlimactic, the concluding chapters seemed a fitting way to wrap up the loose ends. I appreciated all the specifics in the author’s note which indicated the amount of research (including interviews and traveling to the various locales) necessary to blend real events with her imaginings, although to get further details about the inspiration for this book you need to go to Martha Hall Kelly’s website. Ultimately, the entire reading experience was worthwhile, especially since I learned something new about the Holocaust. Four stars.

A thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Wonder by R. J. Palacio

Children can be cruel, especially middle school age kids. It’s the reason that most teachers choose to work at elementary or high school, they can’t deal with the angst involved with the hormonal surges of pre-teenagers. It takes a special breed to actually enjoy that age group, children who once they find a weakness in their peers have no qualms in exploiting that fact, whether real or imaginary. “Your nose is too big”, “Your hair is greasy”, “You’re too fat”, “You’re too thin”, “You smell”, You’re stupid”, “You’re smart” . . . Now imagine that you really do have a physical “abnormality” which is front and center and impossible to ignore? Wonder by R. J. Palacio explores the reaction of a private school community to August Pullman, a ten year old boy with a rare congenital defect which has distorted his facial features.

August was home schooled, both due to the recovery periods from his twenty seven surgeries and also to shield him from the reactions of his peers. However, by the time he was ready to start fifth grade, his mother wondered if it wasn’t time to consider a school setting, Beecher Prep, a private school in New York City with a “limited” population. August is leery, but he agrees to check it out. Three of his incoming classmates are chosen to show him around prior to the start of the school year. While Jack and Charlotte seem nice, Julian is outright nasty. After much discussion, August decides to give it a go. The whole experience is not an easy one, neither for August, his parents, or his older sister Olivia Pullman. The adjustment involves not just August, but his classmates, as everyone learns to deal with one another – a process fraught with tension, not just from the kids but also from some of the parents. It’s a time of growth for all, and August develops from a spoiled child into a self assured young man over the course of the year despite or perhaps because of the challenges thrown his way.

What I really liked about this well written, age appropriate children’s book (which should also be read by adults) is the narrative approach Palacio uses to tell August’s story. While it was Auggie’s tale to tell, his life also affected others so we get to hear the point of view of various events from his sister Via, her “best” girlfriend Miranda and boyfriend Justin, a couple of August’s friends – Jackalope and Summer, and even his nemesis – Julian Albany. While we mainly hear August’s voice, it was also important to get the perspective of the people who surrounded him.

Even if you go into this book feeling aloof, eventually the uplifting message grabs you and pulls at your heartstrings. While some might question the happy ending, remember that there was a lot of cruelty along the way. I can only imagine what a tear jerker the movie version evokes. I also appreciate how the educators were cast in a positive, supportive light – they even impart some knowledge on the reader. The additional chapter from Justin’s point of view is a good counterbalance with a surprise revelation which creates a positive outcome for all concerned. Although a little lengthy, it’s still a perfect book for fifth grade ELA! Five stars.

This review also appears on Goodreads.

The Orphan’s Tale by Pam Jenoff

The Orphan’s Tale by Pam Jenoff is a tale of survival for two women, each with something to hide from the Nazis. Noa at sixteen has been seduced by a leering eye and long after the German Soldier is gone she finds herself pregnant and homeless when her unforgiving father shows her the door. Her Dutch heritage, blond hair and blue eyes, allows her asylum in a home which nurtures unwed mothers, the right sort who can contribute their offspring to the utopia fostered by the motherland. Now Noa, once again homeless, finds employment at the local train station, earning a meager keep by cleaning the grounds. It is in this capacity that she discovers a train car full of screaming infants, taken from their mothers and in danger of dying from neglect and the cold elements. Not thinking, she grabs one and runs off through the bitter winter night, collapsing somewhere in the woods from exhaustion. Luckily she is found by some circus folk, whose performers are at their winter quarters preparing for the spring season. The kind hearted ringmaster takes her in along with her (circumcised) “brother” on the condition that she learns to become an aerialist for the trapeze act. Her teacher, Astrid, has her own sad saga. Born into a circus family, she fell in love and married a high ranking German Soldier. Unfortunately her Jewish faith eventually caused a problem for her husband with him being asked to “divorce” his wife. Returning home she discovers that her entire family has disappeared and the circus disbanded. Her carney neighbor, Herr Neuhoff, is still allowed to perform, providing entertainment in selected locations throughout Europe, and she is invited to stay. Adopting a stage name, she continues the career which she had followed since birth, hiding her Jewish heritage within the big top. At first Astrid resents the younger Noa, reluctantly teaching her the ins and outs of an act which normally takes years to develop. Eventually though they form a bond, protecting one another from an outside world which threatens harm on a regular basis.

Don’t expect a feel good story, this is, after all, the era of Nazi Germany where everybody’s life is in danger for one reason or another. However, the trappings of the circus make this tale somewhat unique and anyone who has been lucky enough to attend such a performance will be fascinated by the particulars of the daily doings necessary to run the show. The tale is alternately told from the viewpoint of the two female characters, but despite the interesting setting and some details based on true events, I felt the plot dragged at times with too many repetitive reflections of the angst facing the two women. While there is a lot of movement, especially towards the end of the book, there are also long drawn out passages where nothing important seems to be happening. This is a 300+ page book which could have been edited down and tightened up to make for a fast paced more enjoyable read. Three and a half stars

A thank you to Netgalley and Mira Books for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

I’m trying to decide which story Ernest Hemingway was trying to tell in the book The Sun Also Rises. Is it a tale of bullfighting in Spain during the summer of 1926? Perhaps it’s the saga of a woman who is searching for some answers through sex and booze? Or is it a page out of the life of Jacob Barnes as he works and plays, pursuing solace in the activities he fancies most, while observing the love of his life turn to others for “comfort”? Conceivably it is all or none of the above.

Lady Brett Ashley is a tragic figure, yet so beautiful she collects men’s hearts the way many women collect shoes. After spending two weeks lazing in San Sebastián with the clingy Jewish American author Robert Cohn, she accompanies her indolent fiancé Michael and a crowd of doting male friends to Pamplona to catch the bullfights, departing at the end of the Fiesta for a lusty episode with the handsome young matador, and winding up seeking refuge with the always loyal Jake who has organized the entire excursion. Where her PTSD husband, Lord Ashley, resides is never revealed.

Most of the time Brett remains “tight” in order to maintain her gaiety and devil may care attitude. It is only with Jake that she is able to reveal her true thoughts, especially since he is a safe choice due to the wartime injury which has left him incapable of a normal sexual relationship. As Jake observes “Brett seems to want what she cannot have”.

Jacob is a good sort who enjoys a savory meal and a palatable drink, hanging out with his friends at the various bars and restaurants in Paris and Spain, alternating his time between a drunken stupor and sleeping one off to get rid of the subsequent headaches. Doubtless we should avoid being judgmental since for the majority of this book he is on vacation, first on a fishing trip and then for a week of celebration in Pamplona. A true aficionado, he returns to the same hotel each year where the like minded proprietor welcomes him along with his friends. Hemingway introduces the reader to the finer points of bullfighting as Jake describes the event through his personal observations as well as his explanations to Brett.

Jake is guilty of a sardonic humor, witnessed when he refers to the prostitute he has picked up for some easy company as his “fiancée” and verified when he calls an inebriated friend with an obsession for purchasing stuffed animals a “taxidermist” (not a good profession since the creatures are all dead).

While the narration is simple, full of conversation and descriptions of the various locales Jake visits as well as the numerous individuals with whom he interacts, there is an unwritten story beneath the words alluding to a meaning beyond the tale of their pathetic, wretched lives.

While at first glance one wonders why this novel was considered a groundbreaker with its repetitive dialogue and lack of likable characters, I found it to be one of those rare books that continues to haunt after the last page is read, leaving one wondering whether there is any hope for an eventual favorable resolution. Perhaps the answer is found in the most famous line from this book, the last discussion where Brett indicates the two would have been a great pair with Jake, who is always available to pick up the pieces when her relationships ultimately fail, replies “It would be happy to think so.”

Somehow I think not.

Four stars.