Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “World War II”

Funkyfacecat’s #CBR4 Review #26: The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen

The Heat of the Day (1948) is a novel of fire and glass, of broken people in a shattered city. Set in London during the Blitz, it deals with careless talk and even more careless silence. Stella is something in the government, her son is something in the army, her lover Robert may be something shady and on his trail is Harrison, who is something in British Intelligence and who wants something from Stella. Surrounding their stories is that of Louie, who is whatever the newspapers tell her she is.

Identity is shifting and nebulous, while the burning of London casts its own shadows. Motivations, and even events, are hidden, often reported second or third hand, while the characters play their roles as if they have nothing to lose and very little to live for.  Both time and space are fragmented –spaces are unstable because of the constant threat of obliteration, and the only time is the present, with future and past in the dark, as if outside a spotlight on a stage.

The Heat of the Day is a strange novel, alienating in some ways and awe-inspiring in its craftsmanship in others. I really liked it – it reminds me of Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, perhaps an obvious comparison due to the examination of illicit wartime passions and secrets – but it is far more complex in structure and politics.

Funkyfacecat’s #CBR4 Review #25: These Wonderful Rumours by May Smith

“These Wonderful Rumours” refers to the ephemeral scuttlebutt of wartime: stories of parachuting nuns, invasions on bicycles, humble fishmongers as fifth columnists and so on. May Smith’s diaries 1939-1945 regards these with amused scepticism, but their author does find much to worry about with rationing, evacuees, air raids, and friends and relatives in the army. Smith worked as a primary school teacher in the English Midlands during the war, lived with her parents, and managed to lead an active social life despite the war and extra duties, which involved fending off the attentions of at least two suitors, lectures on English Literature and Modern History, and a great deal of shopping and tennis.

Her diaries, modelled on E.M. Delafield’s The Provincial Lady (also published by Virago and an absolute delight) are engaging, often droll and occasionally irritating. Smith’s romantic life is particularly amusing; her entries on Poor Old Dougie or Freddie who is variously Dear and Faithless are a precursor to Bridget Jones in her attempts to figure out her emotions and decipher the codes of courtship:

“Wednesday, December 20th 1939: Received my post at dinnertime – cards and a large carrier bag containing the Promised Bird from Doug – though it was addressed to Mother. Very thrilled – a proper ‘Dougie’ touch. He doesn’t say it with flowers, oh no! Dougie has to shower birds. Howbeit, it looks very succulent, and I like poultry.”

There is a lot about hats and coats and dresses, and the details of life during the Blitz and observations on politics and the progress of the War are interesting and insightful. While the pace slightly drags towards the end of the volume, well, so did the war, highlighting how constant anxiety and sometime panic can become routine.

“Wednesday, July 10th 1940: Torrents of rain fell all day long. Rumbles of thunder also sounded – very ominously – this afternoon, whereat I received a frenzied note from Miss H, asking Was it Thunder or Bombs?’ Replied in consolatory vein, and shortly afterwards lightning appeared, confirming my diagnosis.”

The diaries serve as a view into how ordinary people outside London (often the focus of Blitz narratives) perceived the war, and how important community spirit and snatching as many good times as possible were. I enjoyed them very much; they make a good read with a cup of tea and a cosy window seat.

Goddess of Apathy’s #CBR4 Review #10: The Divine Wind, by Garry Disher

wind

The Divine Wind is is a young adult historical fiction novel that I am currently reading with my high school students. I read it before they did, and I was entertained by the plot and character interactions as well as the multiple examples of conflict. So far, students have enjoyed the book as much as I did.

The setting is Broome, Austrailia both before, during, and after World War II. Broome is a seaside town with a mix of culture and ethnicity. The narrator is Hartley Penrose, a seventeen year old son of a pearl master, Michael Penrose. His family also includes a sister, Alice,  and an English born mother, Ida Penrose. Hartley has a friend and love interest, Mitsy Sennosuke, a Japanese girl whose father, Zeke works for Michael Penrose as a pearl diver.

With war looming in the background, the cultural and ethnic differences begin to rise to the surface causing all types of conflict between families and friends. My students are half-way through the book and have found so much to discuss about relationships: can you choose whom to love? What if your parents don’t want you to be together because of race/ethnicity/culture? Can a relationship survive multiple challenges? We have discussed cultural differences of the English, Australian, Japanese, and Aboriginal. We have discussed the conflicts of the expectations of the time period and conflicts between countries in war time.

Garry Disher has so many little nuggets of historical and cultural information. I was not familiar with Broome, Australia past or present. I did not know what pearl divers did. I had no idea what the Register of Aliens was. Yet, I found myself exploring the Internet for information about Australia, stumbling upon the NFSA Film Australia Collection on YouTube. I’ve read countless informational articles about Australia’s beginnings and its geographical landscape, looked at Google Maps Streetview to see Hartley’s viewpoint at Cable Beach, and what Chinatown looks like in Broome. I’ve investigated the newsreels of the time, the music, fashion, and movies that might have been playing in the tin-topped cinema of Sheba Lane. I’ve share that information with my students and it has brought the text to life for them.

I think the book is interesting and entertaining. Disher’s language is plain, but he has some statements and sentences that are meaningful on multiple levels.  I recommend the book for light reading and it shouldn’t take long for you to enjoy it. All the outside research is purely optional.

ElCicco #CBR4 Review #44: City of Women by David R. Gillham

This novel is set in Berlin 1943. The tide of war has turned against the Nazis since the Battle of Stalingrad, and British nighttime bombings have resumed. The Nazis have stepped up their campaign against the Jews, rounding them up systematically and sending them to death camps in the east.

The main character, Sigrid Schroder lives in a flat with her insufferable mother-in-law and works as a stenographer while her husband Kaspar serves on the eastern front. Sigrid, like many Berliners, is detached from the political events that form daily life until a charismatic man named Egon and a young woman named Ericha present her with choices — to get involved, to care, to try to make a difference. Sigrid becomes involved in the dangerous work of hiding “U-boats” — Jews and deserters. In doing so, she encounters other ordinary women and men who use their meager resources to protect and transport these people out of the country, risking their own lives to do so. The Gestapo make it their business to hunt down people like Sigrid, but they aren’t the only danger — ordinary citizens like Sigrid’s co-workers and others who live in her apartment building could denounce her if they became suspicious, and even some members of the Jewish community have been turned into “catchers” — those who hunt down fellow Jews for the Nazis to protect themselves.

As Sigrid becomes more deeply involved in hiding Jews, her relationships with Ericha and Egon become more complicated. Ericha is a young German woman who simply hates the Nazis and will do anything required to help those in her charge. At the beginning of the novel, she is more worldly than the older Sigrid, but by the end, her youth becomes evident and Sigrid becomes more of the leader. The relationships that Sigrid has with Ericha, her mother-in-law, the women in her building, and a particular woman she is hiding, are the meat of the story for me. Due to war, Berlin is a city of women, and their relationships can be nurturing or combative.

Sigrid’s relationships with the men in her life are more troubling. Even before Kaspar left for the front, their marriage had become somewhat stale. Egon provides the passion that was missing, but the story of how Sigrid and Egon meet and become involved seems ridiculous to me, a male fantasy — two strangers hooking up in the back of a movie theater. Then there is Wolfram, the Nazi officer whose sisters live in the flat across the hall from Sigrid’s. Wolfram lost a leg in the war but not his charisma, and Sigrid becomes involved with him as well. Sigrid’s sexcapades just seemed sort of silly to me and not essential to the plot. Maybe it was supposed to demonstrate that deep down, she was always a risk-taker? Or that the author’s dream is that smart, beautiful women just can’t wait to do it with brutes who treat them like objects? As a card-carrying feminist, I veered back and forth between being aggravated by these passages and rolling my eyes at them.

The plot gets a bit complicated at the end and I felt that some details could have been clearer, but overall this was a pretty good book. Gillham did his research to get the details of life during wartime right, and Sigrid’s transformation from apathetic German trying to get through the war to a protector of the persecuted is convincing.

ElCicco #CBR Review #39-40: Spies of the Balkans by Alan Furst and The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer

This week I kill two birds with one stone and review two novels set in WWII Europe: Spies of the Balkans by Alan Furst and The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer. My advice for both is “read at your own risk,” but not for the same reasons.

First — Spies of the Balkans. It promised to be an edge of your seat thriller. The setting is Salonika on the eve of the Nazi invasion. Our hero, Costa Zannis, is the handsome, 40-ish, single policeman who is very good at his job. He is devoted to his family (mother, grandmother, special needs brother) and knows his city like the back of his hand. He also has contacts amongst the seemier elements, the movers and shakers, and police types in neighboring countries, all of which will come in handy as Zannis becomes involved in helping smuggle Jews out of Europe via Greece and Constantinople.

How could I resist a story like that? How could someone make it dull and predictable?? I don’t know but Furst pulled it off. There were plenty of times that I thought to myself, “This is it! This is when the plans go awry and someone gets hurt or betrayed or disappears.” Nope. Everything turns out just fine. When the novel ends, the Nazis are just starting to bomb Salonika and there is a massive exodus from the city. And Furst could have ended his story with “And they all lived happily ever after.” It was just too easy. There wasn’t the sense of conflict and danger and loss that is necessarily a part of war, especially WWII. Moreover, there is almost nothing in this novel to set up the huge conflict that followed WWII in Greece — the Civil War. I think Alan Furst wrote this just so that he could check off “Balkans” from his list of places that he has covered in his writing. He wants it to be Casablanca, and there is a love story for Zannis, but even that is a pretty dull affair despite the fact that it’s with a married woman! Married to one of the most powerful men in Greece! Hey, no big deal though.

Bottom line — I wouldn’t waste my time with this novel. 1 star

Next up — a WWII story that has everything lacking in Furst’s — Julie Orringer’s The Invisible Bridge. This novel you read at your own risk because it is so heartbreaking and tragic, although there is some happiness at the end.

The Invisible Bridge is the story of Hungarian Jews on the eve of and during WWII. It is a love story between an older woman and a younger man, and it is a story about art, dreams and hope, a story about family bonds broken and reforged. The story starts with Andras, a young architecture student, heading for Paris to study. I loved the parts about his friendships with other students at the school, and his involvement with the theater community in Paris. Paris is also where Andras becomes involved with an older woman, a ballet instructor who is also a Hungarian Jew with a mysterious past. I won’t go into detail too much because I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who wants to read it, but I will say that Orringer spent many years investigating the fate of Hungarian Jews, and it shows in her work. I learned quite a bit about how Hungary was unique in its treatment of its Jewish population, although, as you might guess, that does not mean that the Jews fared much better for it in the end. Orringer also has a personal connection to her story, since some of it is based on the story of her own grandparents.

Maybe that is the crucial difference in these two novels — personal investment. Orringer is writing about her family, her people, and when you are writing about the Holocaust, you damn sure better get it right. Furst has no personal connection to his subject that I know of, and it feels like he went through a check list of what to put in his book without really sensing a true human connection between his characters, their environment and their history.

I recommend The Invisible Bridge, even though it is terribly sad in parts. Hang on for the end. It is worth it! 5 stars

ElCicco#CBR4Review#32: Tigers in Red Weather by Liza Klaussmann

The title of this book comes from a line in the Wallace Stevens poem “A Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock,” and the characters in this novel face much disillusionment and disappointment while chasing after tigers of their own. What starts off as a story of relationships and the strains that separation, wealth and time can place on them, turns into a dark, psychological thriller.

The story centers on five characters who each get a chapter to give their view of events that occurred during and shortly after World War II, the late fifties and the 1960s. Within each chapter, events do not always follow chronological order, but this actually makes the story more interesting as the reader slowly puts the pieces together. The action begins with the story of Nick (female) and Helena, cousins who are like sisters, having grown up together on Cape Cod at Nick’s family’s summer home, Tiger House. Nick’s family is wealthy, Helena’s is poor and has had to rely for support on Nick’s family. Nick is clearly the dominant female in the relationship and Helena is accommodating and submissive. Each has  married, suffered loss and separation. Each is starting a new chapter in life at the end of the war, with Helena newly married and moving to California while Nick and her husband, just back from the war, move to Florida.

Nick is a domineering woman with striking looks and a difficulty with compromise. Those  who know her, seem to both love and hate her. Her marriage with Hughes hits a rough patch when he returns from the war before a revelation or two cause Nick to make some important decisions about how she needs to “be” in order to keep her husband and have the sort of life she wants. Helena, on the other hand, seems to be swept along by the events in her life, not exerting any force or control over them, and resenting Nick’s interference and judgments but also needing her help at several critical junctures. Nick, Hughes and Helena each have a chapter in Tigers in Red Weather.

The other two chapters belong to Nick’s daughter Daisy and Helena’s son Ed. The cousins have a close relationship based on summers spent together at Tiger House. When they are both 12, they discover a dead body on the island. Their chapters look at this event along with several other important events of the summer of 1959, and then follow the characters into the ’60s. Daisy has an unsatisfactory relationship with her mother and is clearly the apple of her father’s eye. Ed is a strange boy — a loner who seems often to be in places he should not be, see things he should not see and know things he should not know. The relationship between Ed and Daisy’s father Hughes is particularly interesting, as Hughes thinks there is something really “off” about the boy, but tries to help in order to please Nick and avert further problems for Helena and Ed. The big revelations come in Ed’s chapter, but each character along the way reveals shameful truths about their own actions, or inaction, as the case may be.

Tigers in Red Weather has well drawn characters who can elicit sympathy and disgust from the reader, and a clever plot with a gripping (kinda creepy) resolution.

Jelinas’ #CBR4 Review #25: Dancing Under the Red Star: The Extraordinary Story of Margaret Werner, the Only American Woman to Survive Stalin’s Gulag by Karl Tobien

dancing under the red star

I am loathe to say that I found any tale of suffering to be lackluster… but Dancing Under the Red Star was pretty tame after Unbroken. Unbroken is way better-written, too.

Scruffy Rube’s #CBR4 Review #3: Night by Elie Wiesel

I work as a teacher partly because there’s a wonderful social element to thejob. No teacher can exist in isolation. We have to collaborate and combine our ideas with other educators or wither under the weight of the job; we have to share with and adapt to students or we might well be committed for ranting to ourselves. I know from prior experience that working with and for others helps me to feel like I’ve reached something close to a state of grace, and that, if deprived of these interactions, I would be something less than whole.

I felt this way first in an English class, when I read Viktor Frankl’s memoir of life in a concentration camp: Man’s Search for Meaning, and suddenly felt as if all of life was illuminated before my eyes. And I felt this way again as I spent the last few weeks reviewing Elie Wiesel’s Night, a more common curricular choice and the next book in my 10th grade syllabus.

While Frankl seeks to find the optimistic solution to every stormy cloud, Wiesel paints a more human portrait of endurance–one filled with much more doubt, horror and grief than his philosophical counterpart. The brutal depiction of men degraded to the level of dogs is terribly true, and truly affecting. Through it all Wiesel shares his frank, grim confessions of internal conflict holding the reader close to a situation that is too often sanitized to “such a shame” platitudes.

In its conclusion, Night reveals the daily salvation that came to Wiesel from his relationship (difficult though it was) with his father. Though he never makes as pointed an argument as Frankl does, his anecdotes offer a captivating portrait of humanity in it’s darkest hour. While the tone and mood left me grimly stone faced till the end and made it difficult to really “love” reading the book, Night reaffirmed what I learned first from Frankl. No matter how often I despair of how others treat me, or how self-obsessed I become with my own needs and wants, I know that the more I respect my responsibility to/for others, the more my life and my world will improve.

rdoak03’s #CBR4 Review #1: Letters from an Unknown Woman by Gerard Woodward

The author is the recipient of several literary prizes, the characters are well-developed and the writing is quickly paced. With World War II as a backdrop, we follow Tory Pace and her family through trials both common and quirky, heartbreaking and comic. A request from  her prisoner of war husband for dirty letters sets off a chain of events that shapes the lives of many.

Read more at my blog!

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