Tag Archives: World History

Orhan’s Inheritance by Aline Ohanesian

Opening Blurb: Grandfather Kemal is found in a vat used to color the kilim rugs he sells, meaning he literally “dyed”.

Orhan’s Inheritance is the perfect title for Aline Ohanesian’s premiere novel about a young man, Orhan Turkoglu, who inherits the family business when his DeDe dies. His bequest is unusual since a father usually passes his property to his son, not his grandson, but the 1990’s are modern times even in Turkey. Yet traditions remain strong and Mustafa threatens to take Orhan to court and challenge what he considers a bogus will. It’s not that the father wants to run the family business, he’s never earned an honest days work, it’s just the principle. Orhan fears his father will either neglect the business or sell it and waste the money, negating all his efforts to create a successful company.

However, that is not the gist of the story. The most unusual aspect of the will is that the deed to their family home is to be transferred to 87 year old Seda Melkonian, an unfamiliar name belonging to an elderly women living in an Armenian Nursing Home in Los Angeles, leaving him, his father, and his aunt without their beloved residence. Seda is the key to Orhan’s true inheritance and he travels across the ocean, his grandfather’s sketch book in hand, to have this stranger sign papers so he can keep his childhood home in the family as well as discover the mysteries of his Dede’s past.

Bopping back and forth between present and past, the reader is exposed to the genocide perpetuated against the Armenians living in Turkey during the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, when the Turks sided with Germany in World War I. The Armenian Death March, where able bodied men were murdered or imprisoned and women, children, and the elderly were forced to leave their homes and walk to the Syrian dessert, is prescient to the treatment of the Jews by the Nazis. Similar to the attitudes towards those of the Jewish faith, the Turkish people resented the affluence of their Armenian neighbors – angry at the fees they charged when lending money, angry that they were Christian instead of Muslim, angry that the women were seen in public without covering their bodies (wearing a bonnet was not enough), angry that their success make them feel somehow lesser. So when the Turkish Army took action, the populace remained mum, even though it was their former friends who were taken away and shot as traitors. They blamed it on the war where casualties are to be expected, but there is a difference between war and genocide, a fact that needs to be acknowledged when a population of 1.7 million is reduced to 300,000.

Based on the memories of the author’s grandmother, Orhan’s Inheritance gives us a glimpse into the mind set of those who live in Turkey, a modernized Middle Eastern country with one foot still in the past.

A thank you to Algonquin Books and Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review. 4 stars.

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The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck

The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck is another World War II story, but this one comes from a different angle, exploring the mayhem in Germany after the Allies storm Berlin and the Fuhrer is dead. In the small villages throughout Germany, the common people supported Hitler and are secretly angry at the Americans who have taken over. Necessities are scarce, not only food and clothing, but fuel needed for the coming winter months. They refuse to believe the atrocities described on the radio and the films depicting emaciated prisoners being released from the concentration camps are in their minds a hoax (or much worse, really German prisoners who have been mistreated by the true enemy). Although deep down they know the truth, they refuse to take any blame or even acknowledge a crime against humanity has been committed by their beloved country. In this case, pretended ignorance is bliss. Yet, even accepting guilt won’t change the past. Despicable behaviors were too often forced upon them in order to survive. In a way, they too were victims.

Yet not all Germans were culpable. Many were appalled by the Hitler regime and a small group, the German Resisters, set out to destroy the Fuhrer before he could do further damage. Unfortunately they failed in their attempt and were hanged for their efforts. Left behind were their wives and children and this is where our story takes us, to an old-fashioned Bavarian castle without modern amenities where three women and their young ones band together to survive the post war period.

Marianne von Lingenfels, married to Professor Albrecht, an aristocratic descendent of famed German Generals, played an active role in dissent, but, being a woman, is left behind to pick up the pieces when her husband and his compatriots are sentenced to death. Her childhood companion Conrad (Connie) Flederman has extracted a promise from her to look after his wife and son, and so she diligently seeks out Benita and their sensitive child Martin, and also tracks down fellow widow Ania Grabanek and her two reticent sons, Anselm and Wolfgang, rescuing them all from the deplorable conditions common in the aftermath of war. Together, along with Marianne’s own three children, Fritz, Elizabeth, and Katherine, they live in the Von Lingenfels’ ancestral Castle, working as a team to raise their newly formed family, surviving as best they can during the reconstruction of Germany.

The tale meanders back and forth between 1938, 1945, 1950, and 1991, presenting varying points of view as each of the characters explores their particular circumstances during those time periods revealing hidden truths through their introspections. While the modern day ending should be one of hope for those who survived such trauma, I found it eerily unnerving, even depressing, as the “family” has difficulty moving forward and discovering happiness. Even success is tinged with a sense of sorrow, as if the yolk of war crimes is a millstone which can never be set down.

This is a novel with a lot to say giving the reader a somewhat different perspective of the war, requiring some reassessing of the truths we learned about Hitler’s Third Reich. Jessica Shattuck’s mother was born in Germany in 1943 and after her death, the author spent time with her Grandmother trying to find out more about her mother’s childhood. This plus all the other research is evident and I can see why it took seven plus years to complete. While her personal family history inspired this book, it is a work of fiction and not strictly biographical, although the viewpoints of her grandmother, an unabashed Nazi, are definitely reflected in the tone of the novel. If you find yourself drawing some parallels between this story and the current political climate in the United States, then consider that a bonus. Four stars.

This review also appears on Goodreads.

The Cost of Courage by Charles Kaiser

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.