Virginia Hall, the heroin of A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II, was a spirited, rich, well-educated woman who dreamt of a career in diplomacy. But barred from it by discrimination against women and the disabled (she had been amputated of a leg after a hunting accident), she instead launched a highly dangerous mission to help the French resistance against the Nazi occupants, and indeed the French government that collaborated with them. Under a flimsy cover as a journalist, she organized networks, befriended everyone, and coordinated shipments of money, weapons, and supplies. The author provides abundant documentation from archives and interviews, with the result a lively, even griping story. (It is a little puzzling that she gets the famous poem used to announce D-day slightly wrong,)
Virginia Hall would be treated callously after the war, as perhaps could be expected of smart women at that time. Shame!
Through a series of unlikely coincidences, the octogenarian in Akin finds his back-to-his-roots vacation in Nice, France, transformed as he needs to take along a newly-discovered great-nephew who grew up in a poor and violent neighborhood. The relationship between the two is wonderfully captured as the two struggle to understand each other across the divide of age and background.
The trip is not just for fun, but to discover the mysterious activities of the elder’s mother during WWII, and this is where the story was not so enjoyable for me, as it felt over-rehearsed and researched. But I did love the many well-observed moments between the two protagonists.
The Volunteer: One Man, an Underground Army, and the Secret Mission to Destroy Auschwitz is the stunning biography of a Polish resistance fighter who let himself be imprisoned at Auschwitz to organize the resistance from within. It turns out that there is a task even more difficult than resistance in a concentration camp, and that is convincing the world that what is happening inside the camp is really happening, and could be stopped without too much difficulty. An amazing story that elevates itself from a recitation of facts.
My Parents: An Introduction / This Does Not Belong to You are two related books presented in one (a format completely lost on the Kindle where I read them!). One tells the story of the author’s family before and after the war in Bosnia, and later in Canada.The other contains his own childhood memories.
I found the family history to be the more interesting of the two, and not only because it takes place in the context of a major conflict. He talks about his parents with kindness and respect as they first attain respectability, before the war, and then go through exile and emigration to end up in a country full of friendly people but also strange, for them, customs.
The Little Exile presents itself as a novel that’s very heavily inspired by the author’s real life, as a young Japanese-American who lived in California and was interned, with her parents and brother, in a camp with minimal comforts, after Pearl Harbor.
The story is poignant, both at a personal level, for its young heroine, and also as a scandalous racist act. I wonder why the author chose to present it as a novel. Perhaps to avoid embarrassing family members? It’s too bad because parts of it seem to flow much better, perhaps because they are simple (and evocative) descriptions of what really happened, while others seem forced, even unbelievable. For instance, when the family is forced to leave its San Francisco business and home, the claim is that a large number of neighbors gather to wish them well–but at the same time the forced sale of the business was for a pittance. One would think that the two would not be compatible.
My favorite book on this topic remains When the Emperor Was Divine.
The Red Address Book belongs to a dying nonagenarian and is one of the most pleasant feature of the story, as it structures the chapters by important people in her life (almost all of them no longer with us). And what a life she has led! It includes two childbed deaths, a suicide, several orphans, a tragically lost love, a miraculous survival from a bombed military ship during WWII, a dead baby, a crazy French woman, a rape, sexual assault, and more, much more. If you can believe all the tragedies and lucky coincidences, you will love the book, as it’s told in a cheerful and engaging way.
I just could not believe.
The hero of Memento Park is a moderately successful actor who leads a good life in Los Angeles with his model-girlfriend, while his difficult father lives in New York, far away that he can ignore him. But once he learns that he may be able to recover a painting that was stolen from his family by the Nazis, he tries to understand why his father will have nothing to do with the painting–and falls in love with his lawyer, creating all kinds of complications. It’s all quite fun and entertaining despite the very serious questions the book poses, mostly because the hero seems at a remove, somehow, maybe acting in real life as he does on the job.