I wanted to like A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War, and I wanted to recommend it, but alas I found it mostly boring. Sure, the women described in it, who marched for the right to vote, who tolerated terrible working conditions, who had to leave England to be allowed to study medicine, who persevered while idiotic speeches were made explaining that women were too stupid and fragile to work, who were paid a fraction of what men made for the same work because, after all, they don’t need to buy tobacco, al these women are remarkable and brave and interesting. Sadly, the book is dull.
Defying Hitler is an unusual memoir, written by a man who was just 7 at the start of WWI and whose main concern that late summer was that the horses he loved in the place where his family was on vacation were taken away. The book starts with WWI and ends before he left Germany, ultimately for England, where he was able to marry his Jewish wife, something that was illegal in Germany, and welcome his son into the world, the very son who published this memoir that his father had abandoned — after some very uncomfortable months as what we would not call an undocumented immigrant.
The memoir describes the experience of a middle-class family in the midst of extraordinary events. Hyperinflation means that the father’s salary is immediately spent not just on rent and a bus pass but also the purchase of groceries for the entire month. The Reichstag may be dissolved but his Jewish colleague keeps officiating as a judge (not for long, as SAs soon march into the law library and ask everyone, point-blank, whether they are “Aryan”. Some newspapers, titles unchanged, become Nazi organs (the others disappear). And our hero is sent to a military camp along with other law students, which unsettles him most when he actually enjoys some of the activities there.
There are some attempts at explaining and taking a higher perspective, fortunately few of them as the direct experience is what gives the book its power. We can all be very glad that the lost manuscript was found and published.
Freya is a luxuriously long story, starting immediately after WWII in England, of an interesting woman who forges a career and lives an inspiringly independent life. But if you look a little deeper you may find, as I did, that it often feels like a careful recitation of historical research rather than a free-flowing novel, and that the resolute independence of the heroine is a little forced, anachronistic even. Fun, but not more.
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.
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.
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.
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!)