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
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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

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.

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

June 6, 2008

D-Day Books – Remembering June 6, 1944

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:22 am
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“Eisenhower revealed a greatness of spirit as Supreme Commander and military leader of the Alliance which it is difficult to imagine being matched by another general.”
– From Max Hastings in Victory in Europe: D-Day to V-E Day

I wanted to write today about The Longest Day, Cornelius Ryan’s great account of the invasion of Normandy and one of my favorite books about World War II. But the library didn’t have a copy I could use to check a few quotes (though it had the movie version, memorable chiefly for a performance by Ernest Borgnine).

Nor did the library have two other books I’d considered: Overlord, by Max Hastings, whose recent Retribution I admired greatly, and Stephen Ambrose’s D Day June 6, 1944, which lacks the narrative power of The Longest Day but which many critics liked more than I did. The library did have Six Armies in Normandy, by the distinguished military historian John Keegan. But that one seemed to be less about the June 6 naval invasion than the subsequent land battles and was also a more technical book than I was looking for.

So I came home with Victory in Europe: D-Day to V-E Day (Little, Brown, 1985) a coffee-table book with a text by Max Hastings, color photographs by the director George Stevens and an introduction by George Stevens, Jr. This passage deals with the role of General Dwight D. Eisenhower in the invasion:

“Much criticism was thrust upon Eisenhower during the war and after its conclusion for his failings as a soldier, and indeed even his admirers concede that he was no battlefield commander. Yet throughout the 1944–1945 campaign, Eisenhower revealed a greatness of spirit as the Supreme Commander and military leader of the Alliance which it is difficult to imagine being matched by another general. Nowhere was this seen to greater advantage than during the critical D-Day launching conferences of 3 and 4 June, when the weather seemed to threaten the fulfillment of all the Allies’ hopes. [Britain’s Field Marshal Bernard] Montgomery, in one of the major misjudgments of his career, urged that the landing should go ahead on 5 June. Given the difficulties that occurred in better weather on the 6th, it seems possible that disaster could have befallen the Allies had they gone ahead a day earlier. As it was, Eisenhower alone assumed the vast responsibility first, for postponing the invasion on the 5th and also committing his vast force to another day of confinement on their ships; and second, for setting the invasion in motion, gambling hugely on the accuracy of Group-Captain Stagg’s prediction of a weather ‘window’ on the 6th. ‘I’m quite positive we must give the order,’ he said at the meeting at 9:45 p.m. on 4 June. ‘I don’t like it, but there it is … I don’t see how we can do anything else.’”

[Note: Fans of military history, what is your favorite D-Day book? In this post I've mentioned several of the best known (especially those by Ryan, Keegan and Ambrose). Have I missed any that you would recommend?]

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 20, 2008

Annie Ernaux’s Modern French Classics, ‘A Man’s Place’ and ‘A Woman’s Story’

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:04 am
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A prize-winning author recalls her parents’ lives in Normandy before and after World War II

A Man’s Place. By Annie Ernaux. Ballantine, 103 pp., varied prices, paperback. A Woman’s Story. By Annie Ernaux. Seven Stories, 96 pp., $8.95, paperback. Both translated from the French by Tanya Leslie.

By Janice Harayda

Annie Ernaux’s spare autobiographical books are remarkable for many things. One of them is their brevity. They typically have fewer than 100 pages, yet are so rich in perception that they have earned the status of modern classics in France.

In the U.S. Ernaux’s reputation rests largely on two books about her parents that are often described as autobiographical novels but resemble high stylized memoirs. Both are partly about how sex roles and social class shaped the lives of residents of a village in Normandy in the decades before and after World War II. They are also about how Ernaux, at once grateful for and alienated from her background, felt “torn between two identities” after she received the university education that her parents lacked.

A Man’s Place is about the life and sudden death of her father, a shopkeeper and café owner whom people called “simple” or “humble” but who had a complexity suggested by a telling incident: “One day he said to me proudly: ‘I have never given you cause for shame.” The sequel, A Woman’s Story, is similarly brief and evocative but, because of its subject, may hold more appeal for Americans.

After her husband’s death, Ernaux’s mother developed the disease the French call la maladie d’Alzheimer and suffered alternately from confusion and a terrified comprehension of her plight. She remembered that she had to turn off the light when she left a room but forgot how to do it, so “she climbed onto a chair and tried to unscrew the bulb.”

Ernaux describes all of this with an austere restraint reminiscent of the best work of Muriel Spark, always providing just enough detail to suggest greater depths. She tells us that her mother, as her Alzheimer’s become worse, wrote to a friend, “Dear Paulette, I am still lost in my world of darkness.”

Best line: From A Woman’s Story: “Books were the only things she handled with care,” Ernaux says of her mother. “She washed her hands before touching them.”

Worst line: Tanya Leslie’s translations capture well the stylistic purity of Ernaux’s prose. But her use of a conspicuously British English at times results in sentences that break the French mood, such as this line from A Man’s Place: “Ah here comes the lass.”

Published: 1993 (Ballantine paperback of A Man’s Place). 2003 (Seven Stories paperback of A Woman’s Story www.sevenstories.com/book/?GCOI=58322100333250).

Furthermore: A Man’s Place won the Prix Renaudot, the French equivalent of the Pulitzer. Ernaux lives in France. A Woman’s Story was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org. She would like to expand One-Minute Book Reviews to include podcasts, broadcasts and other services, such as online book discussion groups or forums in “real time,” and is looking for a home for this blog that would make it possible to provide these.

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

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