Florence Gould, as portrayed in A Dangerous Woman: American Beauty, Noted Philanthropist, Nazi Collaborator – The Life of Florence Gould is a fascinating, if often repulsive woman whose avowed quest for money succeeded beyond her early dreams, I’m sure, as she became fabulously rich by cleverly leveraging her second husband’s money into hotels, casinos, and collaboration with the Nazis. She managed to work around that, too, and keep up her status as a philanthropist and donor to the Met in New York (perhaps recycling her ill-gotten paintings there?)
The book spends a lot of time trying to untangle a money-laundering scheme she was involved in during WWII, but the rest flows better. Today, she would be the head of Enron, perhaps?
The Impostor is biography of Enric Marco, a Barcelona man who claimed for years that he was a Holocaust survivor but was unmasked by a persistent historian who showed that he had never been detained in a Nazi concentration camp — and had so many other lies and embellishments embedded in his life story that additional wives, children, jobs, and political adventures seem to surface in every chapter.
The author very literally takes us along in his quest for the truth, which is sometimes charming, as when he relates his then teenage son’s reaction to the lies, but also makes for a drawn out and discursive story — as if the many lies weren’t enough to delay the conclusion. The most interesting parts of the book, to me, were the ability of the character to subtly change any story into one that was more heroic, more remarkable, and just credible enough to pass muster with the general public, and the wonderful assistance he got of the end of the Franco era, during which many records were lost, and many Spaniards decided that they would invent a more glorious resistance to the dictator. The book shows how important the work of historians can be.
Having loved The Shadow District, I enjoyed The Shadow Killer for much the same reasons, namely the intriguing setting of WWII Iceland and the personalities of the local detective and his temporary partner, a so-called West Icelander, an officer with the Canadian army whose parents immigrated from Iceland. The book starts with a murder that seems pretty straightforward but gets very complicated quickly as it become clear that it’s not a simple jealousy murder, but one borne by a complicated espionage intrigue. I don’t much care for espionage and the story did not change my mind. Read The Shadow District instead.
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.