Tag Archives: WWII

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

At 70 something, Claudia Hampton is at a facility dying of cancer where she decides to write a history of the world, in essence her history. Yet this is not to be a boring tome, but a kaleidoscope of memories switching back and forth over time, like a shuffled deck of cards, as thoughts of past events flit through her mind. One of the nurses asks the doctor if she was a somebody due to her high handed behaviors. With an offhand remark he responds that it appears so, some sort of writer in her day.

And what a “day” that was. Born in England in 1910, losing her father in the first world war, Claudia and her brother Gordon are a handful that their mother can’t or won’t control, so they forge their own path, constantly competing even on the minutest of levels. At the age of ten she asks God to kill her brother so she can win a foot race and when her brother is victorious she decides to become an agnostic. Constantly bickering, the two are as close as two siblings can be, with Gordon becoming a renowned economist and Claudia achieving acclaim through her writing as both a journalist and an author.

During World War II she finds herself in Cairo, Egypt, a lone women trying to get a scoop at the front lines even though her gender precludes her from gaining proximity to the action. Through a series of events while she is nevertheless attempting such a feat, she meets the love of her life, Tom Southern, and the two spend precious time together visiting the sights during the day, reserving the evenings for romantic rendezvous’ whenever Tom can get leave from his duties as an Armored Tank Commander. Their affair is not destined to survive the war, and Claudia ends up back in London with a new lover, Jasper, a half Russian aristocrat. Through a series of serendipitous events, she ends up impressing an editor who bolsters her career. There’s a child, no marriage but an arrangement of sorts, a movie about Cortez, a harrowing car ride with a renowned actor, a quasi adoption, and an ongoing narcissistic relationship with her brother alongside a barely tolerable nod to his wife, Sylvia.

Through the various flashbacks as well as visits from her relatively few well wishers, we get a glimpse of the woman she once was – someone who commanded attention through her manner of dress, comportment, wit, and style retaining the ability to stun even as she grew older until during her last days on earth she relives these moments, summing up the pieces of her life (thus immortalizing her soul).

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively was the winner of the Man Booker Prize in 1987. This book was often referred to as the “housewife’s choice”, but it actually has a lot of charm for any reader. My favorite aspect about literature is authors who have a unique way of presenting themselves, authentic rather than pretentious, who know how to shape a phrase in such a way as to enchant the reader. Lively is just such an author. I delighted in the idea of a kaleidoscope approach to ones past, plus there were numerous witty remarks imbedded in the text which led me to smile with a chuckle or two. Then, to top things off, there were some interesting tidbits of information. The details of the interactions between Cortez and the Aztecs was fascinating, as was the grittiness of the fighting in Egypt, a location of World War II which we sometimes neglect with our focus on Japan or Germany. Yes, the warfront extended to Africa and those interactions have a direct impact on our current political climate.

Lively, who was born in Cairo in 1933, speaks from first hand knowledge vividly describing the desert, transporting the reader into an almost virtual experience of those war torn times. Although Lively calls this an anti-memoir, using her life as a prompt to create this fictional story, I can’t help but believe that there’s a significant piece of herself wrapped up in Claudia’s persona peeking out through the words. While the majority of the book was written from a narrative/third person viewpoint, several scenes were repeated through the eyes of one or two of the other characters, each who sees a specific event from a slightly different perspective (like looking at life through that ever changing kaleidoscope). Four and a half 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.

Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich by Norman Ohler, translated by Shaun Whiteside

There is an expectation that the leadership of a country maintains good health and refrains from excessive drinking and drug use. We also assume that our doctors have the best interests of their patients in mind when suggesting appropriate treatments for their various maladies.

According to Norman Ohler in his book Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich (translated from German into English by Shaun Whiteside) both presumptions are misguided when referring to Nazi Germany.

It seems Hitler, who prided himself on maintaining a healthy lifestyle as a vegetarian, suffered from stomach upsets, abdominal cramps, constipation and insomnia. Seeking relief he called upon a doctor who was a favorite among those in the private sector, to see if he could help abate the symptoms. Dr Theodor Morell’s popularity was due to his liberal script writing practices, a skill which he exploited when he became Hitler’s personal physician. Ignoring the root cause of the complaints, Morell treated the symptoms with various “nutritional” shots which started with vitamin supplements but slowly progressed to designer injections including animal extracts as well as various highly addictive narcotics. As the victories of the Third Reich lessened, the health of the Fuhrer declined, necessitating higher and more frequent dosages of the injections to make him “feel more like himself”. This euphoria helped Hitler deny the inevitable as he continued to search for a secret weapon to finally defeat the Allies. Towards the end of the war when the pharmaceutical factories were destroyed by American bombs, Dr Morell could no longer give his addicted master the necessary fix so his role as drug dealer was terminated. When the inescapable take over of Berlin occurred Hitler’s final drug choice was a cyanid tablet which he freely passed around to his inner circle, including his dog and his girlfriend/wife.

In the beginning there were numerous pharmaceutical companies in Berlin which were producing heroin and cocaine, readily available as over the counter drugs. Remember during the 1920’s, cocaine was one of the ingredients in Coca Cola. When Hitler came to power, he wanted to purge Germany of those who had a dependency, so drug addicts were either put into rehab, neutered, or sent to the concentration camps for extermination. The Supreme Race had no room for flawed individuals.

But lessons about the results of indiscriminate drug use were not taken to heart. The army was looking for a chemical fix so that their soldiers could move forward without the need of sleep or rest. Thus began the prolific distribution of Pervitin, which uses the same chemical components found in crystal meth. It worked. The German Army moved like a battering ram, taking France under its control with little resistance. Who could fight an army of zombie-like creatures – hyped up on medication which banished the need for sleep or food, making the user feel invincible?

Throughout the war, the SS continued to search for and experiment with various drugs to increase their soldiers endurance without considering the eventual effects of their overuse. In other words, “What goes up, must come down”. Whether the abuse of stimulants led to the downfall of the Third Reich might be arguable, but it certainly didn’t help their cause.

The author backs up his claims with research, especially with the use of the extensive records/diary of the “good” doctor which were available in various archives in Germany as well as in the National Archives of Washington DC. This meticulous process of research (not everything is readily available on the Internet) led to Olney’s conclusions. In answer to why the Americans didn’t glom onto this information at the war’s end might be due to the sloppy penmanship of the Doctor, an insufficient grasp of German, and a lack of knowledge about the significance of the pharmaceutical industry. Patient A – Hitler – at one point was downing 120 to 150 tablets a week and receiving at least 8 injections including the highly addictive Eukodal and the opioid Eupaverin. Many of the doctors involved in the distribution of these medications, due to this oversight of the Allies, were able to take a stance of innocence when they should have been questioned as war criminals.

I found the whole premise fascinating, providing a plausible explanation for the occurrences of WWII, although appalling to read. One particular nightmarish story sticks in my mind. At Sachsenhsusen Concentration Camp there was a special track which the prisoners in the so-called walking unit were forced into an uninterrupted march to test out the endurance of various substances used to create shoes since leather was in short supply. The SS decided to use these inmates to test out various combinations of drugs to discover their effect on a soldier’s endurance to march through the night. Towards the end of the war, the Navy took several of these drugs to give to a new set of recruits from the Hitler Youth who were assigned to a mini sub which was supposed to go into the enemy harbor, torpedo English ships and then quickly retreat. The goal was to have the crew remain awake for the three to four day mission. Unfortunately, while these drugs increased endurance, they also decreased competency (an aspect which wasn’t tested). Most of the sailors perished when their hallucinations made navigation difficult and the muddied instructions too garbled to implement. One sub even surfaced and put up a white flag, ready to be put out of their misery.

If these stories aren’t horrid enough, after the war the Americans continued to study the effects of these drugs for their own potential use in warfare. It is difficult to be smug since, during that time period, our knowledge of the side effects of narcotics were rudimentary at best with uppers prescribed for weight loss and downers to assist insomniac patients. Even today, the pharmaceutical industry “experiments” on a society looking for a quick fix to better health, despite the lengthy process necessary for a drug’s approval for distribution. Every day there is an obituary for one or more people in any given community who has overdosed on heroin, with addictions to cocaine and crystal meth a continuing problem – even though these are illegal substances. We won’t mention the pervasive use of pot, legal in many states, for both medicinal and recreational use. This books gives a glimpse into the attitudes many still hold about the use of artificial means to reach a goal without regards to the predetermined resulting harm.

In picking up this particular book, one concern is the intent of a German author (this book was recently translated into English). Is Ohler trying to minimize the atrocities of Hitler and the Third Reich, blaming WWII on a rash of drug use? The answer is a resounding “no”, backed by his use of derogatory adjectives in describing the key players and the note that Hitler’s plan was clearly written in Mein Kamph years before the war, indicating his megalomaniac ways were ever present. While the drugs exaggerated the Fuhrer’s egotistical stubbornness, paranoia, and controlling manner, they didn’t create these character traits.

My one complaint is the author’s use of a fair bit of repetition as well as too much of a hard sell to prove his point. However, almost half the book contains notes for the various citations, resources, and illustrations/photos used to come up with this scenario. There is just too much evidence to dismiss this theory as ridiculous.

Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley and Houghton Mifflin for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review. This review is also posted on Goodreads.

The Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

Here are two totally different women, one about 90 years of age and another a junior in high school, yet they unknowingly are kindred spirits due to a common difficult childhood.

The Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline focuses on the practice of “adoption” via a train ride from the East throughout the Midwest where families could choose an orphan child to take home. These new “family members” were often selected to be servants or unpaid hired hands to help on the farm. While this entire concept seems unbelievable by today’s standards, this practice began in 1854 and continued as late as 1929. Documented over the years, many survivors or their families maintain a blog or communicate with each other over the Internet. While some placements were fortuitous, too many created unbelievable hardships which these orphans had to endure.

The main focus of The Orphan Train is on Niamh aka Dorothy aka Vivian whose family is put on a boat leaving Ireland in the hopes of finding prosperity in New York City. Unfortunately, her father still drinks and her bitter, jaded mother is pregnant again, so their existence in the crowded flat is less than ideal. Yet Niamh feels lost when her family literally goes up in smoke and she finds herself a ward of the Children’s Aid Society on the Orphan Train going west to find a family willing to take a chance on a red headed Irish girl of nine or ten. The only thing she has from her past is the cross her Irish grandmother bestowed upon her before giving them all the boot. Despite being used to hardship, her new life is one of servitude in Minnesota, first to a seamstress, then to a large family of wild children, before she runs away from a situation which could only worsen if she stayed. That she survives the ordeal is miraculous, but through a series of happenstances, Niamh finds herself a comfortable life although not free from heartache.

Then there is Molly Ayer who also has a keepsake necklace, hers consisting of three charms on a chain which her Penobscot Indian father gave her just prior to his accidental death. Her mother, due to her own issues, is unable to care for her daughter and thus Molly ends up in the foster care system, for all practical purposes an orphan. A difficult teen who gets in trouble for minor infractions purposely rebelling with her piercings and goth appearance, she finds herself doing community service at Vivian Daly’s home, helping the old woman clean out her attic. At first the whole task is a chore, especially since the boxes full of artifacts containing memories from a prior era are simply unpacked, examined, and reboxed. Yet each item has a story and in just a short bit of time, the bitter Molly discovers that she is not the only one with a tragic youth. As part of a school assignment, Molly records Vivian’s tale and the story unfolds along with the items in the attic as the book moves seamlessly from past to present and back again. Through the telling, a relationship develops which soothes them both and makes for a satisfying reading experience, despite the quick wrap up and open ended conclusion.

While I did have a copy of the book for reference (I especially appreciated the photographs and list of resources), I actually listened to the majority of the story on tape (CD) performed by Jessica Almasy and Suzanne Toren. I felt the Scottish accent of the young Niamh, which disappeared over time, added a dimension to the tale which my imagination couldn’t provide with simply reading the written words.

Although Kline used some exaggerated stereotypes to forward the plot, the emphasis (and obvious research) on the historically accurate Orphan Train and its effects on the lives of children such as Niamh was a riveting subject. Four stars.

The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende

I suppose the question must be asked if passion really exists. Not a flame which burns long enough to last through a one night stand, nor a longing which disappears after six months, but a love which transcends time and distance and continues even after death.

The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende Is a novel fraught with angst as two parallel love stories unfold, each full of obstacles with must be overcome in order to find fulfillment. Our tale begins at Lark House, a retirement home in the San Francisco Bay Area where octogenarian Alma Belasco resides. A rich eccentric with a secret past, she has eschewed all her former lavish existence and lives relatively humbly in a small cottage at the home continuing her silk screening avocation, now a hobby. Yet a mystery surrounds her puzzling disappearance for days at a time. Where does she go and who sends her the weekly orchid and the perplexing double enveloped letters?

Then there is Irina Basili who is barely able to eek out an existence assisting at the home and washing dogs in the evening so as to afford the rent at the overcrowded boarding house where she resides. She, too, has a secret past which she holds close. Alma hires Irina to help out and, as a bonus, Alma’s grandson Seth visits more often, not only to see his beloved grandmother, but also to spend time with the woman who has captured his heart. The smitten young lawyer takes it upon himself to write Alma’s memoir with the help of Irina who assists him in deciphering clues into the secrets of his grandmother’s past. Alma watches over the two, approving of Seth’s love choice and encouraging them both to find happiness together. Additional characters are added into the plot as slowly the secrets are revealed giving the reader an understanding of the motivation behind each character’s actions.

From the annihilating destructive results of the holocaust to the dehumanizing confinement at the Japanese Internment camps to all the devastatingly forbidden secrets, Allende explores the various stages and types of love found amidst the joys and sorrows of a life well lived. Going back and forth from the present to past events, with interspersed letters from Alma’s Japanese Lover, Ichimei Fukuda (the gardener’s son from childhood days), giving further clues as to the author’s intent, the reader unravels the events which have affected the fate of both Alma and Irina. It is hard not to feel empathy towards the two as tragedy affects the trajectory of their lives. While we always hope for happy endings, there is a bitter sweet flavor as the story concludes with a touch of magical realism, yet we wouldn’t have it any other way. Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley and Atria Books for providing an ARC of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

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.