One-Minute Book Reviews

June 6, 2013

The Bagpipes of D-Day – ‘Highland Laddie’ at Sword Beach

Filed under: Nonfiction,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:27 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Like great novelists, great war correspondents know that people make the story. One who never forgot it was Cornelius Ryan, the Dublin-born reporter and author of the classic account of the invasion of Normandy, The Longest Day: June 6, 1944 (Simon & Schuster, 1959).

Ryan’s book is less about military tactics and strategy than about their effect on people — from the German high command to a French schoolmistress and the American paratrooper who tumbled into her garden just after midnight on June 6, 1944. One of the most remarkable characters in The Longest Day is Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat, the Scottish brigade commander who, with his bagpiper and fellow commandos, went ashore Sword Beach. This paragraph from the book describes the scene:

“As the commandos touched down on Sword, Lord Lovat’s piper, William Millin, plunged off his landing craft into water up to his armpits. He could see smoke piling up from the beach ahead and hear the crump of exploding mortar shells. As Millin floundered toward shore, Lovat shouted at him, ‘Give us “Highland Laddie,” man!’ Waist-deep in water, Millin put his mouthpiece to his lips and splashed through the surf, the pipes keening crazily. At the water’s edge, oblivious to the gunfire, he halted and, parading up and down the beach, piped the commandos ashore. The men streamed past him, and mingling with the whine of bullets and the screams of shells came the wild skirl of the pipes as Millin now played, ‘The Road to the Isles.’ ‘That’s the stuff, Jock,’ yelled a commando. Said another, ‘Get down, you mad bugger.’”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

December 15, 2012

Laura Hillenbrand’s ‘Unbroken’ – A World War II POW’s Tale

Filed under: Biography,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:47 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

An American bombardier spent 47 days on a raft and became a prisoner of war 

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. By Laura Hillenbrand. Random House, 473 pp., $27.

By Janice Harayda

As a child, Louis Zamperini stole from neighbors and hid his plunder so the police wouldn’t catch him with it. Unbroken leaves the impression that, in his 90s, he is still keeping evidence under wraps.

Zamperini cooperated with Laura Hillenbrand on this swashbuckling account of his life as an Olympic runner and Army Air Forces bombardier who, after his plane crashed into the Pacific in 1943, spent 47 days on a raft and more than two years as a prisoner of the Japanese. But the book requires you to take more on trust than did its author’s Seabiscuit. Can a man whose parents tried to raise him as a Catholic really not have known the Hail Mary and, while sharks circled his raft, had to recite “snippets of prayers that he’d heard in movies”? Can his horrific postwar nightmares have evaporated after he found God at a Billy Graham revival meeting?

Even with 50 pages of end notes, the book doesn’t put those questions to rest. While best biographies demythologize their subjects, this one invests its hero with the qualities less of a mortal than of Bunyan-esque folk hero.

Best line: No. 1: “In Torrance, a one-boy insurgency was born.” No. 2: “The paradox of vengefulness is that it makes men dependent on those who have harmed them, believing that their release from pain will come only when they make their tormentors suffer.”

Worst line: “Louie was hauled into the principal’s office for the umpteenth time.” “For the umpteenth time, Louie cursed whoever had stocked the raft.” Hillenbrand tends to overwrite: In both cases, she needed only to say “again.”

If you like Unbroken, you might also like: Steven Callahan’s bestselling memoir Adrift: Seventy-Six Days Lost at Sea.

Published: November 2010

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the sidebar on this page.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
http://www.janiceharayda.com

April 20, 2012

Heda Kovály’s Memoir of Nazi and Stalinist Tyranny, ‘Under a Cruel Star’

Filed under: Classics,Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:23 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

A firsthand account of a courageous woman’s life at Auschwitz and in Communist Czechoslovakia

Under a Cruel Star: A Life in Prague 1941–1968 By Heda Margolius Kovály. Translated by Franci Epstein and Helen Epstein with the author. Holmes & Meier, 192 pp., $15, paperback. First published as The Victors and the Vanquished (Horizon Press, 1973), translated by Ezrahim Kohák.

By Janice Harayda

Two of the least apt euphemisms in English are “concentration camp” and “Stalinist purge.” Nothing was “concentrated” in Hitler’s crematoria except for misery and death. And nothing was “purged” by Stalinist demagogues except human liberty and life.

Heda Kovály shows how much the euphemisms mask in Under a Cruel Star, a classic memoir of 20th-century totalitarianism. Perhaps her greatest achievement is describing her ghastly experiences during and after World War II with a self-respect that her Nazi and Stalinist oppressors tried again and again to crush.

Kovály was born to well-off Czech parents and lived a comfortable life in Prague until the Nazis herded her and her family along with thousands of other Jews into the Lodz Ghetto in Poland, a slum without sewage, “walled off with a board fence and barbed wire.” It was the first of a series of internments, each more barbarous than the last. At Auschwitz, she and other prisoners had to watch as guards broke the arms and legs of a girl who had tried to escape, then dragged her off to a gas chamber. Kovály nonetheless made a bold and successful attempt to escape during a forced march to Bergen-Belsen, only to find during a desperate house-to-house search for shelter in Prague that most of her old friends turned her away for fear of SS reprisals.

After the war, Kovályand her husband, Rudolf Margolius, had a son, and Rudolf accepted under official pressure a high post in the ministry of foreign trade in newly Communist Czechoslovakia. The party falsely accused him of treason, executed him and his co-defendants after a show trial, and ostracized his widow and young child. Kovály finally fled Czechoslovakia as Soviet tanks arrived to crush the pro-democracy movement in 1968.

Those scant facts don’t begin to suggest the physical and psychological suffering Kovály endured. For 27 years, she seems rarely to have had a day when she wasn’t cold, sick, hungry, homeless, or shunned for the unjust charges against her husband, who was exonerated as the process of de-Stalinization began under Khruschev. Along with life-threatening hardships, Kovály faced countless smaller humiliations. She writes that when survivors of Dachau or Auschwitz spoke of their experiences after the war, their more fortunate friends responded with comments such as, “Oh, yes, we too have suffered, how often there was not even margarine to spread on our bread …”

Kovály focuses on what she experienced and appears never to pad her book with accounts by historians or other victims, which makes her book read like a swift-moving dystopian novel narrated by a wise and clear-eyed storyteller who is appropriately outraged by what she sees. By dint of her husband’s work, she observed at close range the actions of the powerful, including the Party leaders who made scapegoats of Rudolf Margolius and others. That proximity to officialdom allows her include in her memoir a rare combination of poignant domestic scenes and telling observations about signal events of the Cold War.

Under a Cruel Star has much in common with Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s account of the kidnapping of her infant son, Hour of Gold, Hour of Lead. Like Charles Lindbergh’s wife, Kovály married a prominent man and faced tragedy in full view of the public. She has Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s courage, intelligence, and keenness of perception about people and events. And she retained a similar ability to appreciate joy and beauty amid tragedy. Kovály died at the age of 91 in 2010, and her son, Ivan, said that her message to the world was: “I loved you! Live on!”

Best line: The government eventually offered to compensate Kovály for her husband’s execution and asked her to list her losses. She wrote: “Losses my Son and I Suffered Due to the Arrest and Conviction of Dr. Rudolf Margolius: (a) Loss of father (b) Loss of husband (c) Loss of honor (d) Loss of health (e) Loss of employment and possibility to complete studies (f) loss of faith in the Party and in justice.” Only at the very end did she write: “Loss of property.”

Worst line: “Sometime in the fall of 1951, I believe it was in November, Secretary General of the Party Rudolf Slánský was arrested.” Why the “I believe”? It should have been easy to confirm the date of that well-known incident.

Caveat lector: All quotations in this review come from The Victors and the Vanquished, translated by Ezrahim Kohák and published along with his memoir. Some material in the retranslated Under the Cruel Star may differ.

About the author: After the war, Kovály translated German, British and American fiction into Czech, including books by Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Raymond Chandler, Muriel Spark, William Golding, and Arnold Zweig.

Furthermore: Alfred Kazin said in a review of Kovály’s book quoted in her New York Times obituary: “This is an extraordinary memoir, so heartbreaking that I have reread it for months, unable to rise to the business of ‘reviewing’ less a book than a life repeatedly outraged by the worst totalitarians in Europe. Yet it is written with so much quiet respect for the minutiae of justice and truth that one does not know where and how to specify Heda Kovaly’s splendidness as a human being.”

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio. You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda

April 10, 2012

‘We Band of Angels’: The True Story of Nurses Who Became Prisoners of War

Filed under: History,Nonfiction,Women — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:18 am
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

A portrait of the first American military women taken captive and imprisoned as a group by an enemy

We Band of Angels: The True Story of American Nurses Trapped on Bataan by the Japanese. By Elizabeth M. Norman. Atria Books, 327 pp., $16, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

This book can only lift the heart of any woman who regrets seeing her sex represented in print by Lindsay Lohan’s bail hearings and Kim Kardashian’s prenuptial agreement. Few people may remember that American female prisoners of war existed before U.S. Special Operations Forces rescued Jessica Lynch from captivity in Iraq. But women have been falling into enemy hands at least since the Civil War. And the unlucky group includes 77 U.S. Army and Navy nurses who were stationed in the Philippines when Japanese bombs began to fall on American military bases there on Dec. 8, 1941.

Nurses on the Bataan peninsula worked in an open-air field hospital with thousands of beds laid out in rows under a jungle canopy intended to hide it from enemy planes. They sharpened needles on rocks and tried to ease their hunger by frying weeds in cold cream. After Bataan fell, the nurses were evacuated to Corregidor, where they worked in bomb-proof tunnels. When the Allies surrendered, they became prisoners of the Japanese, who held them in internment camps until the end of the war. It should surprise no one that after an initial flurry of attention, Americans lost interest in the group known as the “Angels of Bataan.”

Elizabeth Norman tries not to overplay the heroism of these nurses, but their extraordinary stories speak for themselves. On the evidence of We Band of Angels, these women were not raped or, in the sense in which the word is used today, tortured. But for more than three years they lead torturous lives, enduring with courage and professionalism their fate as “the first group of American military women taken captive and imprisoned by an enemy.” The nurses deserve a secure place beside the men who inspired They Were Expendable, perhaps the best-known story of the battle for Bataan, and other enduring World War II narratives. Their stories also suggest that we need history of all female prisoners of war. Some of the captives might have a tart response to a recent US Weekly cover story on Kim Kardashian entitled “My Divorce Hell.”

Best line: “By all available accounts the presence of women on the battlefield boosted the morale of men.” This fact and much else in We Band of Angels contradict the cliché that women in combat “distract” men.

Worst line: Only 48 of the 77 nurses captured in 1942 and freed in 1945 were alive when Norman began her research for We Band of Angels, and some turned down her requests for an interview. Such realities may help to explain the stilted characterizations of certain nurses, such as Helen Cassiani: “At twenty-four she was pretty and bright, with dark, curly hair down to her neck, a round face and an inviting smile.”

Recommendation? Highly recommended to book clubs, especially those looking for good nonfiction about women or a neglected aspect of military history.

About the author: Norman is a nurse and historian who teaches at New York UniversityWe Band of Angels won the Lavinia L. Dock Award from the American Association for the History for Nursing and other prizes.

Read more about this book or buy a copy from an independent bookstore in the author’s area.

Furthermore: William Lindsay White tells the story of the retreat from the Philippines from the perspective of a torpedo boat squadron in the book They Were Expendable, made into a movie that starred John Wayne.

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar on this page.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

July 22, 2011

Mitchell Zuckoff’s ‘Lost in Shangri-la,’ a World War II Rescue Story

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:03 am
Tags: , , , , , ,

Mitchell Zuckoff resurrects a little-known episode in American military history in his new Lost in Shangri-la: A True Story of Survival, Adventure and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II, which describes an attempt by the Army to extract the stranded survivors of a plane crash in New Guinea.  My review of the book ran this week in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. These lines from Lost in Shangri-la don’t appear in the review but suggest the lively details gathered by Zuckoff: “In New Guinea as elsewhere, Margaret Hastings and other WACs filled strictly noncombat roles, as expressed by their slogan, ‘Free a Man to Fight.’ An earlier motto, ‘Release a Man for Combat,’ was scratched because it fed suspicions among the WACs’ detractors that their secret purpose was to provide sexual release for soldiers in the field.” 

January 19, 2011

Joyce Dennys’s ‘Henrietta’s War’ – The Other Battle of Britain

Filed under: Classics,Humor — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:52 am
Tags: , , , , ,

Henrietta’s War: News From the Home Front 1939–1942. By Joyce Dennys. Bloomsbury USA, 176 pp., $14, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

During World War II, Joyce Dennys expressed her frustrations as the wife of a small-town doctor in Devon by writing a series of light, amusing sketches for a British tabloid. Her pieces took the form of fictionalized letters to a childhood friend, a middle-aged colonel on duty in France, and became so popular that a publisher collected some of them in Henrietta’s War and its sequel, Henrietta Sees It Through.

Bloomsbury USA reissued the first of the two volumes last year, and its timing couldn’t have been better. Henrietta’s War helps to satisfy an American hunger for epistolary tales fostered by The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows’s 2008 bestseller. Dennys’s book also reflects the influence of E. M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady, a modern classic that has had a modest revival since The New Yorker published an appreciation of its author in 2005.

But Henrietta’s War has a tone all its own, less sentimental than that of Shaffer and Barrows but gentler than the astringent Delafield’s. Dennys finds her alter ego in Henrietta Brown, the wife of a popular GP on a part of the English coast that is bracing for an expected German invasion by sea. As enemy bombers ply the skies, Devonians acquire gas masks, join air raid drills, and cope with meat and margarine rationing, all the while keeping up cherished rituals – jumble sales, garden parties, and drinking tea while listening to the click of croquet balls at the tennis club.

Henrietta and Charles have a son and daughter who are away helping with the war effort and appear occasionally, once when Bill returns unhurt from Dunkirk. In the children’s absence, the couple care for their eccentric dog, Perry: “A firm believer in warmth and a hater of fresh air, he sleeps, winter and summer, with a rug over his head.” The couple also live with the behavior of neighbors like Faith, the town siren, who insists on being vaccinated in response to the rumor that “the Germans are going to fly at great height over England and release thousands of minute parachutes laden with bacilli.”

Early on, Henrietta suggests the theme and tone of the book when she observes, “This is a belligerent community to make up for the extreme peacefulness of our surroundings, I suppose.” She is perceptive enough to notice her neighbors’ absurdities but too kind and cheerful to condemn them for it. Henrietta writes, after meat rationing begins:

“Mrs. Savernack, that woman of action, took out a gun-license. If she can’t get meat at the butcher’s, she will go out and shoot it. The rabbits which for years gambolled happily in the fields at the back of the Savernacks’ house have received a rude awakening, and Mrs. Savernack, flushed with success, has begun to turn her thoughts to bigger game. Farmer Barnes, wisely perhaps, has moved his cows to another field.”

Henrietta’s War brims passages that, if light-hearted and at times disjointed, give a piquant flavor to a time when the British were urged to stay “Bright, Brave and Confident.” Henrietta laments the underuse of the skills of her female neighbors, expected to aid the war through such unheroic tasks as making marmalade with saccharine instead of the rationed sugar. Men could join the Home Defense Corps, but “we married women still feel the part we have to play in this war is mundane, unromantic and monotonous.”

Henrietta doesn’t allow herself a stronger complaint, and her “musn’t grumble” approach is part of her appeal. Her lack of cynicism and self-pity may seem as far removed from the present as the sewing bees at which women make flannel hot-water–bottle warmers for soldiers. And yet, by the end of the book, Henrietta has revealed enough that you what she means when she says of a Christmas celebration: “We decided that we wouldn’t try to be too gay, because if we did, we would all end by being depressed.”

Best line: It’s a rare English book in which the heroine dares to say, even with tongue in cheek, that “gardening simply corrodes the character.”

Worst line: Henrietta’s War reflects common wartime ethnic stereotypes that would today be considered slurs.

Recommendation? My fellow worshippers at the Shrine of E. M. Delafield, this is for you. Also highly recommended to book clubs that liked The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, though Henrietta’s War is a better book.

Published: April 2010

About the author: Dennys studied at the Exeter College of Art and illustrated Henrietta’s Warwith witty line drawings in a style reminiscent of those of the New Yorker cartoonist Helen Hokinson. An unsigned introduction to the book says that Dennys invented all the characters except Henrietta and her husband, her daughter, and her dog.

Furthermore: A sequel, Henrietta Sees It Through: More News From the Home Front 1942–1945, is due out from Bloomsbury USA on Feb. 1, 2011. Both books are part of the publisher’s stylish “Bloomsbury Group” series that revives light and entertaining 20th-century British books.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic and journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour and the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. You can follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 14, 2010

Julie Orringer’s ‘The Invisible Bridge’ – A Saga of Love and Labor Camps in Hungary in World War II

Filed under: Historical Novels,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:07 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

A Holocaust novel with honorable aims and a high schmaltz factor

The Invisible Bridge. By Julie Orringer. Knopf, 602 pp., $26.95.

By Janice Harayda

Reading this novel is like riding a slow-moving steam locomotive from Hungary to France and back as Nazi atrocities spread across Europe. Everything passes your window at the same speed, whether Hitler’s tanks are rolling toward Budapest or pygmy goats are eating a forgotten handkerchief in a garden in Nice.

Julie Orringer makes an honorable but sluggish effort to bring life to this a saga of three brothers and their extended families, whose members move in and out of love and labor camps between 1937 and 1945. Her novel is a sister under the skin to The Help: As Kathryn Stockett exhumed the cruelties of the Jim Crow era, Orringer recalls the brutalities of the Munkaszolgálat, the required national labor service program for Hungarian Jews, whom the law barred from serving in the armed forces. Her story develops the worthy theme that a will to live isn’t enough when disaster looms: You also need luck.

But Orringer is overmatched with a story that has nearly 250,000 words, about 190,000 longer than an average novel. Her plot relies heavily on coincidences, and her cliché-strewn prose resembles that of an overzealous editor for InStyle (“a warm apricotty soprano”). She asks us to believe that Hungarians of the 1940s used words like “empathy,” “energy conglomerate,” and “We’ve got to talk.” And her book abounds with redundancies such as “the triple-beat lilt of a waltz” (as though some waltzes had four beats) and “a perfect manmade oval artificially cooled by underground pipes” (as though pipes could provide cooling that wasn’t “artificial”). The overwriting slows the pace enough turn the novel into an oxymoron: a potboiler that never comes to boil.

Brian Hall offered more insights into Hungary in Stealing From a Deep Place (Hill & Wang, 1989), a travel memoir that includes a brief analysis the national anthem, the title of which can be translated as “Please God, Save the Magyar.” The text of the song comes from a 19th-century poem and has lines that say, in effect: This nation has suffered enough for all of its past and future sins. Hall wonders: What must a country have endured to believe it has paid not just for its past sins but for any it might yet commit? And his brief comments on the anthem may tell you as much about the Hungarian character as anything in The Invisible Bridge. Instead of providing fresh perceptions, Orringer’s story of the invisible bridge between generations confirms the lessons of Hall’s and many other books: Hungarians and Jews have suffered in unique and enduring ways.

Best line: Andras Lévi, one of the three brothers at the heart of The Invisible Bridge, quotes an architecture teacher: “Speed is the enemy of precision.”

Worst line: No. 1: “And he took her to bed and made love to her as if for the first time in his life.” A cliché, padded with “in his life,” that suggests the schmaltz factor in The Invisible Bridge. No. 2: “a layered egg-and-potato rakott krumpli.” Krumpli means “potato” in Hungarian, so this is another redundancy. It’s like saying “a bacon-and-cheese cheese sandwich.” No. 3: “It was a nightmare version of a fairy tale.”

Recommendation? The Invisible Bridge is likely to appeal most to extremely patient readers who want to learn about an aspect of the Holocaust slighted in mass-market fiction, the plight of Hungarian Jews in World War II. The book may also appeal to people who look to historical novels more for a wealth of period details than for a well-paced plot or believable characters.

Published: May 2010

Furthermore: Orringer also wrote the short-story collection How to Breathe Underwater. The Invisible Bridge, her first novel, was inspired by the life of her grandfather.

Read an excerpt from The Invisible Bridge.

Janice Harayda is a novelist who has been the book columnist for Glamour and the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. You can also follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

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

September 6, 2010

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

Filed under: History,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 6:26 pm
Tags: , , , , , , ,

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

August 3, 2009

Clara Kramer’s ‘Clara’s War: One Girl’s Story of Survival’ – A Teenager’s Holocaust

Filed under: Biography,Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:25 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

A first-person account of hiding in a bunker during the Nazi occupation of Poland

Clara’s War: One Girl’s Story of Survival. By Clara Kramer. With Stephen Glantz. Harper/Ecco, 339 pp., $25.99.

By Janice Harayda

Clara Kramer tells us early in this book that when Nazis arrested Jewish leaders in her town in Poland in 1941, her mother donated “her wedding band” to help ransom them. More than 150 pages later, she says that her family had to pay a monthly fee to the Christians who were hiding them in a bunker, and when her parents ran out of money in 1944, her mother gave “her wedding ring”: “We didn’t sell it until now.”

This first quote comes from the story told in Clara’s War with the aid of screenwriter Stephen Glantz. The second comes from one of its excerpts from the teenage diary said to have inspired the narrative. The inconsistency between the two quotes – one of a number involving substantive facts – shows a problem with this book: Its publisher bills it as a “biography,” but it reads more like a novelization of a life.

As Clara’s War has it, five thousand Jews lived in Zolkiew, Poland, at the start of World War II, and about 50 survived. Clara Kramer was one of the lucky ones. She survived the Holocaust because an ethnic German named Valentin Beck hid her family and others for more than a year in a bunker under his house, “a space no larger than a horse stall.” Beck had a reputation as an anti-Semite, a drunk and a philanderer, and he appears to have had complex reasons, not all of them noble, for sheltering Jews during the Nazi occupation of Zolkiew. He often summoned one of the women in the bunker to his living quarters for trysts, and the affair may have begun before she arrived. His infidelity enraged his wife and, when it came to light, imperiled everyone under his roof.

If Clara’s War is accurate, the Becks were nonethess heroic, saving 18 Jews, and have been honored by Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial. Valentin’s acts of kindness included bringing the teenage Clara composition books and a blue pencil that she used to keep a diary, now in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

But it is hard to know how accurate the book is. With Glantz’s help, Kramer describes many scenes in a detail few people could recall even with the help of a diary, such as line-by-line conversations complete with gestures and facial expressions. Some events serve literary purposes that seem too neat. One occurs in the prologue when the author is 12 years old and her sister leaves the shelter of an apple tree to look at bombers overhead – a foreshadowing of a disaster that will occur later. You never really see how 18 people could have survived in a crypt-like space the size of “a horse stall,” though the book has a diagram and says that the bunker still exists and the author and others have returned to it.

Kramer kept in touch with others saved by the Becks, and they and their descendants presumably have confirmed much of the story in Clara’s War. Even so, you wish the book had fewer inconsistencies and cinematic flourishes. The excerpts from the diary in the Holocaust Museum are fascinating in their own right, and you hope that readers someday will have a chance to read the entire journal in straight-up form.

Best line: “My father, like every Jewish business owner in town, had his business confiscated by the Nazis. We had to wear the white armband with the blue Jewish star above the right elbow. Any offense was punishable by death. The day the order for the armbands came down, none of us could leave the house until my mother had embroidered them. It took Mama over two hours to do one armband.”

Worst line: “My father’s family was so religious that they had had considered it irrelevant to have their weddings recorded by the state. So even though we went by the name of Schwartz in our day-to-day life, all of our official papers, including my birth certificate, bore the name of Gottlieb.” Why Gottlieb? Was Gottlieb carried over from previous generations not mentioned in the book? Or did ultra-religious Jews choose it because it means “God love”?

Published: 2009 (first American edition), 2008 (British edition from Ebury Press, part of Random House).

Watch a video of Clara Kramer talking about the Holocaust and her book.

Consider reading instead of or in addition to Clara’s War: All But My Life, a beautifully written memoir by Gerda Weissmann Klein and a pillar of Holocaust literature.

Furthermore: Kramer lives in Elizabeth, NJ. She helped found the Holocaust Resource Center at Kean University in Union, NJ. Glantz is a screenwriter. The inconsistencies cited in the first paragraph of this review appear on pages 43 and 219 of the book and can be confirmed by using the “Browse Inside” tool on the HarperCollins Web site to search for “her wedding band” and “her wedding ring.”

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

June 10, 2009

Norman Mailer’s Overrated ‘The Naked and the Dead’ — An Admirable Fake?

Filed under: Classics,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:58 pm
Tags: , , , , , , ,

It’s perversely satisfying to learn that a great critic dislikes a book that you thought you alone didn’t enjoy. In my life an example involves The Naked and the Dead, the 1948 World War II novel that grew out of Norman Mailer’s experiences as a rifleman on Luzon and made his reputation while he was in his 20s. For years I’ve considered this book one of the most overrated of the 20th century and far inferior to war novels often mentioned in the same breath, including All Quiet on the Western Front and A Farewell to Arms. Chief among its problems is that it tells the stories of a variety of soldiers without making any of them uniquely memorable.

It’s always seemed to me that The Naked and the Dead might have had less praise if Mailer had been 30 years older when he wrote it and if the novel had not come out a few years after World War II, when critics could compare it to relatively few books about the conflict. So I was heartened to find that Gore Vidal — one of the great literary critics of our time — years ago had a similar response that I had missed. Vidal wrote in a 1960 essay in the Nation, reprinted in Homage to Daniel Shays: Collected Essays 1952–1972 (Random House, 1972):

“My first reaction to The Naked and the Dead was: it’s a fake. A clever, talented, admirably executed fake. I have not changed my opinion of the book since, though I have considerably changed my opinion of Mailer, as he himself as changed. Now I confess I have never read all of The Naked and the Dead. I do recall a fine description of soldiers carrying a dying man down a mountain (done almost as well as the same scene in Malraux’s earlier work). Yet every time I got going in the narrative I would find myself stopped cold by a set of made-up, predictable characters taken not from life but from the same novels all of us had read, and informed by a naïveté which was at its worst when Mailer went into his Time-Machine and wrote those passages which resemble nothing so much as smudged carbon copies of a Dos Passos work.”

Wouldn’t you love to know what Vidal said when he learned that Mailer posthumously won the 2007 Bad Sex in Fiction Award for for The Castle in the Forest?

(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Next Page »

The Rubric Theme. Blog at WordPress.com.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 385 other followers

%d bloggers like this: