Tag Archives: WWII

*** Moonglow by Michael Chabon

Moonglow is a novel that reads like a family history, of a grandfather finally sharing his secrets with his grandson on his deathbed. The stories are  brilliantly tangled, as could well be the case of real death bed conversations. There are some wonderfully entertaining moments, as when the women of the synagogue try to set up the lovely refugee from France with the rabbit, only to have his rakish brother (the grandfather) win out, starting a predictably difficult marriage marred by mental illness and, oops, a murder. As the book progresses, the stories become more and more unlikely and grandiose, perhaps as would befit a dying man with a life of adventure behind him.

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** The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich

The author of The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II collected hundreds of testimonies from Soviet women who fought during WWII and presents them here, arranged in logical chapters but otherwise raw, unedited. It makes for often gruesome stories of killing and often picking up the wounded and dead, of tremendous hardships, no food and no proper clothes against the extreme cold — all that to go home after the war and get none of the recognition accorded to men, but instead suspicion of what the women were really up to, at the front, with all the men…  Not exactly uplifting, but a wonderful portrait of women who don’t seem themselves as heroes, but are.

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* At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen

At The Water’s Edge stars a trio of spoiled Philadelphians who decide to go photograph the Loch Ness monster near the end of the Second World War, bringing with them a breaking-down marriage and very little money as they have been cut off from the family fortune after one too many escapade. Their haughty and oblivious behaviors do not endear them to the locals, but as the two men leave the woman to wait for them at the inn, she mysteriously acquires half a brain, realizes that she is acting as a twit, and even manages to contribute a bit to the world. A love story ensues, of course, in which she is forever rescued from her weaknesses by the stoic, taciturn local. Cliches abound. I did not like.

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*** Monument Men by Robert Edsel

The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History could easily be a sugary, romanced story of American heroism during WWII — but it is not, although it occasionally paints (;)) a Manichean picture of Nazi actions and characters.

It tells the story of a small group of men (all men, alas, although some of the crucial supporting characters are women)  who were tasked with locating, identifying, and returning art work stolen by the Nazis to their rightful owners. With a tiny team and scarce resources, they visited hidden caches in private cellars as well as vast salt mines transformed into enormous warehouses, exploiting the well-kept records of the Nazis while needing to gain the trust of the victims who had learned to resist and conceal and were often, understandably, leery of sharing their secrets. The author chose to draw vivid portraits of the men and included personal correspondence between them and their families, which gives glimpses of everyday life during the war, both for soldiers and the families back home. Well done.

(If you are worried that FT Books has succumbed to rating inflation in the new year, fear not. I just read a wonderful series of wonderful books. I remain unafraid to assign one-star ratings when deemed necessary!)

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** East West Street by Philippe Sands

East West Street: On the Origins of “Genocide” and “Crimes Against Humanity” attempts an ambitious feat: to tell the story of how the Nuremberg trial first introduced the concepts of genocide and crimes against humanity through the biographies of the two lawyers who created the concepts, and at the same time recount the life of his grandfather, who hailed from the same Polish town as the two lawyers.

The family history unfolds brilliantly, starting with tiny clues and photographs that his maternal grandfather, who never spoke about the war, left behind, and blossoming into the identification of long-lost witnesses and heroes who helped saved the family. The legal history I found much less compelling. It certainly is interesting that the two lawyers hailed from the same modestly sized town (and even more extraordinary that the town is the same as the author’s grandfather’s birthplace) but their lives seem much less relevant to the thread.

 

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*** Their Promised Land by Ian Buruma

In Their Promised Land: My Grandparents In Love And War, the author tells the story of his grandparents through his own memories but mostly the letters that they wrote to each other, and they wrote many since they were unlucky enough to live through two world wars, during which they were separated. Both grandparents are second-generation German Jews living in Britain in a very comfortable manner but they still have to contend with antisemitic discrimination that makes it difficult for him to find a position as a physician, for instance. The story is a love story, between Win and Bernard for sure, but also for the family they built together against the background of the wars. (Much better than All The Light We Cannot See!)

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* 1/2 All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr


I will easily predict that All the Light We Cannot See will delight book clubs for months and years to come, and I will readily admit that the plot is finely honed and grabs the reader’s emotional attachment.

But. Do we need yet another book about WWII (I griped about WWI recently)? Isn’t a book that stars both a blind (French) teenage girl and a savant orphaned (German) teenage boy just a little too sentimental? Of course, the German boy loathes the Nazis, let’s make sure that all the proper feelings are displayed here. Of course the girl’s family is in the Resistance (the very bad neighbor is collaborating, but everyone else seems to also be in the Resistance!) And there is a completely insane plot about a lost jewel, with a curse attached to its possession, that seems almost completely irrelevant to the rest of the story.

What irked me the most were the caricatural and incorrect details. No scientist in an official museum would have a glass of wine in his office on a workday afternoon. At the nearby cafe, perhaps, but not in the office. Sandwiches are not, and certainly were not in the 40s, a proper lunch in France. And it’s not just the French details that beggar belief. How could an isolated orphan teach himself physics? It took me hundreds of pages to recover from these early stumbles and get back into the story.

A reassuring novel that tells us that good people and good and bad people are bad, in a moving way.

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