One-Minute Book Reviews

September 6, 2010

The Longest Assault: Antony Beevor’s ‘D-Day: The Battle for Normandy’

Filed under: History,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 6:26 pm
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More than 70,000 French civilians were killed by Allied action in World War II, more people than died in the German bombings of England

D-Day: The Battle for Normandy. By Antony Beevor. Penguin, 608 pp., $18, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

D-Day has inspired the literary equivalent of an amphibious assault landing. Cornelius Ryan set the tone with The Longest Day, a modern classic of narrative nonfiction that has helped to shape how generations of Americans have seen the invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944. Stephen Ambrose, Max Hastings and others later wrote widely praised books about the campaign that led to the liberation of France from Nazi occupation.

But before the publication of D-Day, no major book about the battle for Normandy had appeared in more than twenty years. In that time, many participants in the invasion, code-named Operation Overlord, had died and left diaries and letters that found their way to historical archives. Antony Beevor makes superb use of newly available primary sources in an international bestseller that gets its first American paperback edition this month.

D-Day is nearly twice as long and much more scholarly than The Longest Day, and it makes heavier use of military terminology decoded in an up-front glossary. It also takes a harsher view of some of the participants in the invasion, especially Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, the British officer who commanded the ground troops.

But like Ryan, Beevor has a gift for telling a story through the accretion of humanizing details. In his first pages, he shows Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme allied commander, “smoking up to four packs of Camel cigarettes a day” as he ponders whether the weather will permit an invasion (and after giving the go-ahead, playing Checkers in his trailer at Southwick Park in England). Later Beevor introduces a British liaison officer and future 6th Marquess of Bath “who had gained a reputation for eccentricity because of some of his trips through German lines and his habit of leading two ducks around on a leash.” Near the end of the book, as the Allies enter Paris, French women stay up all night to make flags and clothes in patriotic colors: “One woman, who made an American flag, cut all the stars individually from an old dress.”

Unlike many accounts of the Normandy invasion, D-Day does not end with the battles for the beaches and nearby towns but follows the fighting to the liberation of Paris on August 25, 1944. Beevor shows the grievous toll the campaign took on the Allies and Germans and on French noncombatants — in civilian casualties, ruined cities, suicides or self-inflicted wounds, and cases of “battle shock,” or what is today called post-traumatic stress disorder. He makes clear that even the uninjured faced terrible psychological ordeals. Soldiers had to scrape the unidentified remains of tank crews off the inside of burned-out turrets. Sailors carried the dead on litters to a ship’s refrigerator, “a solution which was not popular with the cooks.”  Victims of battle shock would start running around in circles and weeping “or even wander out in a trance into an open field and start picking flowers as the shells explored.”

Beevor’s great theme and strongest argument is that the heavy Allied bombing and artillery fire liberated France at the expense of Normandy:

“Altogether 19,890 civilians were killed during the liberation of Normandy and an even larger number seriously injured. This was on top of the 15,000 French killed and 19,000 injured during the preparatory bombing for Overlord in the first five months of 1944. It is a sobering thought that 70,000 French civilians were killed by Allied action during the course of the war, a figure which exceeds the total number of British killed by German bombing.”

For all this, the Normandy campaign inspired epic heroism on and off the battlefield, and D-Day includes accounts of exceptional stoicism or selflessness. A staff member at one field hospital expressed amazement at how uncomplaining the wounded were: “It’s such a paradox, this war, which produces the worst in man, and also raises him to the summits of self-sacrifice, self-denial and altruism.” That contradiction may be as old as war itself, but Beevor shows how – for both sides – it showed itself in unique and important ways amid apple orchards and cornfields scattered with poppies.

Best line: Some American soldiers learned conversational French from language books produced by the Army: “Supposedly useful gambits were also provided in daily lessons published by [the military newspaper] Stars and Stripes, such as the French for ‘My wife doesn’t understand me.’”

Worst line: “In their Normandy battles, the Poles had lost 135 officers and 2,192 men.” It may be military jargon, but the implication that officers aren’t men sounds odd.

Published: 2009 (Viking hardcover), Sept. 28, 2010 (Penguin paperback).

About the author: Beevor won the Samuel Johnson Prize, the leading international prize for nonfiction, for his Stalingrad. In an interview posted on YouTube, he talks about topics that include how he used historical sources for D-Day.

Furthermore: D-Day shows the contributions of nations often slighted in accounts of the Normandy campaign, especially Canada. Beevor writes of the pilots for Allied air attacks in the Mortain sector in France: “It was almost an aerial foreign legion, with British pilots, Belgians, French, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans, Norwegians, Poles, an Argentinian and even a German Jew called Klaus Hugo Adam (later the film-maker, Sir Ken Adam).” A Washington Post review by the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Jonathan Yardley, posted in full on Amazon, tells more about the book.

You can also follow janiceharayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

July 2, 2010

Dana Reinhardt’s Young Adult Novel, ‘The Things a Brother Knows’ – Mature Subjects, Third-Grade Reading Level

Filed under: Children's Books,Young Adult — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:53 pm
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A 17-year-old wonders why his older brother acts strangely after serving with the Marines in a combat zone

The Things a Brother Knows. By Dana Reinhardt. Wendy Lamb/Random House Children’s Books, 256 pp., $16.99. Publisher’s suggested ages: 14 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Not long ago, the Canadian novelist Joan Clark argued that North American publishers should drop the “young adult” label and replace it, as their British counterparts have, with two new categories: “under 12” (to be shelved in the children’s section of bookstores) and “over 12” (to shelved in the adult section). Clark makes a strong case that the confusing YA classification can keep both adults and children away from books they might like.

You could hardly find a better example of the problems with the genre than The Things a Brother Knows. This novel deals with a complex topic: A 17-year-old named Levi struggles to make sense of the troubling behavior a brother who, after serving with the Marines, shows PTSD-like symptoms that threaten to estrange the siblings. Dana Reinhardt gives this subject a relatively mature treatment that involves jokes about porn and masturbation, occasional strong language, and serious moral and psychological questions: What do we owe veterans? What price do families pay for their members’ military service? And is it OK to do bad things such as hacking into a brother’s computer because you want to help him?

For all this, Reinhardt writes at a third-grade reading level, according the Flesch-Kincaid readability statistics that come with the Microsoft Word spell-checker. And her earnest prose, if smooth as the surface of an iPod, is too dumbed-down for many of the age-14-and-up readers to whom its publisher recommends it, who may have read the stylistically more challenging Harry Potter and J.R.R. Tolkien tales years ago. The book might have more appeal for 11- and 12-year-olds, but its drab cover won’t help its cause with preteens who have sped through adventure stories like those in Rick Riordan’s “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” series.

Like no small number of young adult novels, The Things a Brother Knows makes you wonder: Who is this book for? Reinhardt says in a letter to readers that Levi, on his quest to understand his brother, “goes in a boy and comes out a man.” If that’s true of her main character, it’s not true her novel as a whole, which is suspended between boyhood and manhood, a case of arrested literary development.

Best line: “We’d been to Israel twice already, in the psychotic heat of summer.”

Worst line: No. 1: “He doesn’t leave his fucking room, Mr. Hopper.” No. 2: “I’m pretty sure there’s nothing in the world uglier than the sight of your own father’s pubic hair.” No. 3: “I meant that ‘little private Levi time’ thing as a euphemism. Masturbating. Get it?”

Published: September 2010

Editor: Wendy Lamb, who edited the 2010 Newbery Medal winner, Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me.

Caveat lector: This book was based on an advance reader’s copy. Some material in the finished book, including the cover, may differ.

Furthermore: Jacqueline Woodson’s Peace, Locomotion also deals with the effect on a family of a son who returns from a war with symptoms resembling those of PTSD.

You may also want to read: Joan Clark’s essay on the problems with the young-adult label.

You can also follow Jan Harayda on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

May 30, 2010

A Review of Dana Reinhardt’s Young-Adult Novel, ‘The Things a Brother Knows,’ From the Editor of the 2010 Newbery Medalist — Coming Soon

Filed under: Children's Books,Young Adult — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:07 pm
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Rebecca Stead won the 2010 Newbery Medal for When You Reach Me, edited by Wendy Lamb, who has her own imprint at Random House. In September Lamb will publish Dana Reinhardt’s The Things a Brother Knows, a young-adult novel about a 17-year-old boy whose older brother acts oddly after returning from deployment with the Marines in a combat zone. Reinhardt says he wrote the book after hearing mothers talk about sons who “came home different” from war. That made him think about the son who didn’t go: “the one who maybe thought that what his brother had chosen to do was a big mistake.” A review of The Things A Brother Knows will appear soon on this site, which reviews children’s books on Saturdays. Jacqueline Woodson dealt with a similar topic in her novel for preteens, Peace, Locomotion, the story of a boy whose foster brother returns from war missing a leg.

October 16, 2009

PTSD in a Book for 9-Year-Olds? Tomorrow — Two-Time Newbery Medal Finalist Jacqueline Woodson Returns With ‘Peace, Locomotion’

The themes in children’s books have been getting grittier for years, and the trend continues with Peace, Locomotion, the latest book by two-time Newbery Medal finalist Jacqueline Woodson. This novel for 9-to-12-year olds deals in part with a soldier who comes home from a war missing a leg and suffering from signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

May 27, 2009

‘Books, What a Jolly Company They Are’ – Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘Repression of War Experience’ – Quote of the Day / Maureen Corrigan

Filed under: Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:42 pm
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How much comfort can books offer as the death toll rises in Iraq and Afghanistan? Maureen Corrigan responds indirectly in her memoir, Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books (Vintage, 240 pp., $14.95, paperback):

A book critic for NPR’s Fresh Air, Corrigan begins a chapter with the line “Books, what a jolly company they are,” by the English poet Siegfried Sassoon, who saw combat on Western Front in World War I. She adds:

“The line is from Siegfried Sassoon’s great 1918 poem, ‘Repression of War Experience,’ and it’s meant to be taken, at best, ambivalently. The poem is written in the form of a dramatic monologue, and the narrator is a World War I vet suffering from shell shock. He’s been shipped away to a rest home in the English countryside, but judging from his off-kilter observations, his prognosis looks bleak. The vet sees ghosts out in the wet darkness of the nearby forest and hears the thud of big guns, booming, booming in the distance. Presumably, he’s sitting in a library as he speaks, because he turns for comfort to the shelves of books nearby. Unfortunately, their black, white, brown, and green spines remind him of his once straight-backed comrades marching off to their deaths. Shaken, the narrator tries to get a grip on his nerves by reassuring himself that ‘all the wisdom of the world / Is waiting for you on those shelves,’ but it’s a claim that rings hollow. Book learning didn’t save a generation of young Oxbridge students from dying in the trenches, along with their shabbily educated working-class countrymen. Indeed, some of those books – filled with tales of chivalric adventure and noble sacrifice – misled their impressionable readers into their wartime deaths.

“I can’t imagine living in rooms without books, but like Sassoon’s narrator, I also think the comfort books offer is qualified. All those voices, all those thoughts, all those reminders of how much there is to read and how little time there is to read it. Mentally and physically, books can be oppressive, even hazardous.”

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

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