Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “WWII”

Captain Tuttle’s #CBR4 Review #36 – In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

In 1933, William Dodd is appointed America’s ambassador to Germany in the year that Hitler rose to power.  He and his family witness the rise of the Nazis, and see how Germany changed completely.

Dodd’s daughter, Martha, is one of the main characters here, and if I didn’t know this was based on historical record, I wouldn’t believe that she was as involved as she was. Martha’s kind of a slut, and gets involved with a bunch of Nazi boys, including the first chief of the Gestapo.  She gets very deep into the “New Germany,” but as she witnesses the mounting violence, she realizes that things aren’t as great as she thinks.

Dodd sees what’s going on, and tries to tell the State Department, who isn’t listening. Jews are attacked, the press is censored, and new laws are being passed that make it clear that Germany is not safe.

Larson, as ever, does impeccable research, and writes a non-fiction book that reads like a novel.  The book is interesting, and made me want to learn more about all the people involved.  I hit Wikipedia very hard whilst reading.  Highly recommended.

ElCicco#CBR4Review#26: Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder by Evelyn Waugh

Waugh, known for his humorous novels, published the soap-opera-like Brideshead Revisited in 1945. Some may be familiar with it from the 1981 TV series starring Jeremy Irons as Charles and Anthony Andrews as Sebastian. Brideshead Revisited is the story of the wealthy, propertied, Catholic Marchmain family and their manor at Brideshead on the eve of World War II. The story is told by Charles in a flashback. It begins during the war, with Charles (in his late 30s) serving in the military and being stationed at Brideshead, thus causing him to think back on the very strange but fascinating family that he knew there many years before.

The themes running through the book involve the loss of youth and innocence, the decay of the wealthy propertied class between the wars, and the search for faith and meaning in life. The Marchmains are Catholic because Lady Marchmain had refused to marry Lord Marchmain unless he converted. They had four children together, and then while fighting in World War I, Lord Marchmain left them for his lover on the continent. Lady Marchmain remains a staunch Catholic, but two of her four children — Sebastian and Julia — struggle with their faith and the aftermath of their parents’ divorce.

Charles meets Sebastian at Oxford and finds the family’s religion a curiosity but does not understand its hold on the Marchmains. On the whole, Charles opposes organized religion since “…at its best it was slightly ornamental, at the worst it was the province of ‘complexes’ and ‘inhibitions’ … and of intolerance, hypocrisy, and sheer stupidity.” Sebastian, who struggles with alcoholism especially when amongst his family, seems to be searching for faith and purpose in life, and his inability to find it exacerbates his drinking problem. In a conversation with Charles on Catholicism, in which Charles calls it all nonsense, Sebastian says, “Is it nonsense? I wish it were. It sometimes sounds terribly sensible to me.” He goes on to describe Catholics thus: “…they’ve got an entirely different outlook on life; everything they think important is different from other people.” The description of the life that Sebastian comes to lead sounds rather sad and pathetic, but it actually seems to be the fulfillment of his desires and affords him some happiness.

Charles, while distancing himself from organized religion, seems to fetishize buildings and architecture. He wishes to be an artist but does a poor job with people and excels at architectural painting. “I have always loved building, holding it to be not only the highest achievement of man but one in which, at the moment of consummation, things were most clearly taken out of his hands and perfected, without his intention, by other means, and I regarded men as something much less than the buildings they made and inhabited.” It is the structure, and not those who live in it, that leads a “long fruitful life.” During the Depression, Charles becomes a successful artist by painting portraits of houses and manors that will soon be “deserted or debased” because the families can no longer afford to keep them. They commission portraits of their homes to remember how they once were. But Charles grows tired of this, and finding that he needs some sort of inspiration, sets off for Central and South America. It’s a strange sort of missionary trip for Charles, where he can “…go to the wild lands where man had deserted his post and the jungle was creeping back to its old strongholds.” He paints churches, palaces and cloisters in disrepair and makes another fortune. On his return voyage from this trip, he reconnects with his wife, whom he left for two years to do his painting, and with Julia Marchmain Mottram, leading to Charles’ return to Brideshead and the final chapters on the fate of the Marchmains and Brideshead.

I found myself engaged throughout the story but somewhat disappointed when it was all over. It was okay, but not great. The characters who interested me most — Sebastian and Lord Marchmain — had relatively small parts in the novel. Waugh devotes more attention at the end to Julia, whom I did not especially like, and I couldn’t understand why Charles became so interested in her all of a sudden. I can see how this would make for better television than reading.

Quorren’s #CBR4 Review #32 The Redbreast by Jo Nesbo

The noir Phillip Marlowes all seem to have flown away to Europe in recent years.  Most of the old style detective stories are now being written in Sweden (by Kjeld Eriksson) and Norway (by Jo Nesbo).  I even think that the Lizbeth Salander trilogy borrowed heavily from the detective noir genre, which used to be an American export.  Not that I’m complaining; I’m glad to see its resurrection.  Even murder mystery novel could benefit from a Humphrey Bogart character.

The Redbreast’s Marlowe is Detective Harry Hole  Like all noir detectives before him, Hole suffers from a vice.  Nesbo went with the old stand-by of alcoholism, which plagues so many literary detectives.  He had previous appearances in Nesbo’s first two books, but I have not found their English translations.  The book does mention some of his early adventures, but it’s possible to read this one without reading the other two first.

The book starts out with Hole’s bumbling of an important political event, which gets him promoted from the police force to a Department of Homeland Security-like position, in order to avoid a scandal.  Hole pieces together small tidbits of intelligence over the months that he’s there to reveal an issue of national security involving former Norwegian soldiers who fought on the German side on the Eastern Front during WWII.  At times the story gets a bit unbelievable, but the fast pace and interesting characters make up for it.

The story ends without resolving a subplot, which is a bit of a letdown.  Hopefully it will be resolved in the next novel as the characters involved in that subplot were very dull.  I really hope he was not trying to make a Moriarty for Hole as this Moriarty is a bit, well, dim.

Quorren’s #CBRS Review #31 Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

There’s nothing I can really say that hasn’t already been covered in any other review of this book.  In theory, the books sounds great.  In practice, it fails.  Sometimes that happens when you try something innovative.

The books follows Jacob, who has a Big Fish kind of grandfather.  Grandpa tells a lot of tall tales, which as Jacob ages, he starts to disbelieve.  After his grandfather’s death, Jacob begins having nightmares and general anxiety issues.  He decides to visit the house his grand father stayed in during WWII in Wales, which turns out to be an olde time Xavier Academy for Mutants.

The books is interspersed with slightly creepy old fashioned photos, several of which use trick photography, like the Cottingley fairies.  It is kind of a novel idea to take a bunch of old photos and construct a story around them.  However, like I said, it doesn’t work so well in practice.  Several photos were a stretch for the author to include them in the story.  Some of the photos we’re lead to believe are of Miss Peregrine’s students.  However, when Jacob locates the mutant school, those particular students are never introduced.  I REALLY wanted to know what the deal was with those two creepy twins in the weird masks and I was left disappointed.

The story really does suffer from many plot holes and unresolved mysteries.  It had a lot of potential.  The author would’ve been well-advised to let this story ferment a bit.  Maybe set it on a shelf for a few months and read it with a more critical eye.  As the book ends on a cliffhanger, I can only hope the next one has better writing.


Amanda6′s #CBR4 Review 22: Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

Plot summaries are the most boring part of writing these reviews, so is it okay if I cheat a little and just ask Wikipedia? Please guys? (Just say yes…)

“Jonathan Safran Foer, a young American Jew, journeys to Ukraine in search of Augustine, the woman who saved his grandfather’s life during the Nazi liquidation of Trachimbrod, his family shtetl… Jonathan begins his adventure with Ukrainian native and soon-to-be good friend, Alexander “Alex” Perchov, who is Foer’s age and very fond of American pop culture, albeit culture that is already out of date in the United States. Alex studied English at his university, and even though his knowledge of the language is not “first-rate”, he becomes the translator. Alex’s “blind” grandfather and his “deranged seeing-eye bitch,” Sammy Davis, Jr., Jr., accompany them on their journey. Throughout the book, the meaning of love is deeply examined.”

Okay, thanks for letting me do that. Anyway, the first thing I want to get out of the way is that yes, JSF’s writing is pretty damn precious. Half of the novel is written from Alex’s point of view, and his broken English is utilized as a main motif to comedic effect: “seeing-eye bitch,” “masticated her tail,” “It was very rigid to understand,” etc. It worked, and it was funny, but these sections at times come across not so much as a means to further the story, as they are a humorous academic exercise in thesaurus abuse. By which I mean: literary dick-measuring. Even considering this bit of pretentiousness, though, these sections are pretty funny — both for the language gymnastics and for some of Alex’s editorialized translations to the American tourist.

The other parts of the story, interwoven in parallel, are meant to be excerpts from the Jonathan Safran Foer character’s novel, an imagined and fictionalized version of the history of Trachimbrod (stand-in for Trochenbrod,) the shtetl where his ancestors originated from in the Ukraine. These sections are written with a heavy hat-tip to Gabriel García Márquez, but they are really lovely. The residents of the shtetl really come to life through Foer’s imagination, and they get their share of humor, too.

The historical setting of WWII naturally means there will be some tragedy, and some really tough, heart-wrenching sections. There is, allegedly, a bit of controversy around Foer’s depiction of the Nazi liquidation of Trachimbrod/Trochenbrod; my feeling (as a non-historian) is that this is pretty clearly fiction, and as Foer took the liberty of re-naming and reconstructing the town, I didn’t have any issues with his presentation.

Reading this, I instantly began comparing it to Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which I also reviewed but didn’t like that much. The precious writing is present in both in spades, but the characters in Everything is Illuminated were not quite as too-advanced-for-their-own-good — a characteristic I found very grating in the former. As book-reading types, many Cannonballers will probably have picked this one up already, but if you haven’t, I’d definitely recommend it as worth reading.

Siege’s #CBR4 #19: Miracles on the Water: The Heroic Survivors of a World War II U-Boat Attack by Tom Nagorski

In which Siege reads a stirring tale of heroism and survival from WWII.

Doodlepants’s #CBR4 Review #4: In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson

For me, the best non-fiction books are the ones that read like fiction. Stories that are so exciting and characters so three dimensional that you have to take a step back from the book and remind yourself that the events in the novel really occurred, that they are not merely some figment of the author’s imagination.  In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson, was just that sort of non-fiction that I crave, a page turning story about Ambassador William Dodd and his family in Hitler’s Germany. 

 In the Garden of Beasts tells the story of Berlin during Hitler’s rise through power from the perspective ofAmerica’s ambassador, William Dodd, and his daughter, Martha. William Dodd is uprooted from his modest life as a history professor in Chicago to the glitzy life of Ambassador in Berlin. As ambassador Dodd shuns the conventional role of his predecessors and insists on continuing with his frugal lifestyle, driving himself and refusing to employ a house full of servants. Dodd refuses to accept his peers’ view of humoring Hitler, instead questioning the regimen that is rising to power. Martha, meanwhile, becomes enamored of the lifestyle of the rich and famous in Berlin. She loves the glamour associated with the Nazi party and flits her way between social engagements and romantic trysts, becoming involved with many of Berlin’s elite. The story climaxes with “the night of long knives”, a night when hundreds, maybe thousands of innocent people are murdered, that Hitler’s true capacity for violence and hatred becomes known to both William and Martha. 

While the plot I described might sound slightly interesting to the couple of history buffs reading this review, I imagine that a majority of people read my synopsis and groaned, another World War II story.  The joy of reading In the Garden of Beasts comes not from the actual plot (which I admit at times can be a bit dry and middle-school-history- bookish) but from Erik Larson’s rich description that transports the reader to Berlin with the Dodd family.  Larson captures the sights, smells, and sounds of Berlin in such detail that as a reader you believe that you are sitting in a meeting with Hitler or at a party in the embassy.  Despite the rather grim topic of the book, Larson manages to find idiosyncratic moments that make the reader chuckle and that humanize figures that history has portrayed to be larger than life.  Larson successfully takes a moment in history that we know so well and delves so deeply into the details of that moment that suddenly the reader sees the event from a whole new angle.

In the Garden of Beasts was a page turning non-fiction that will transport the reader to Hitler’s Germany. For those who have read Larson’s The Devil in the White City and loved it, this book will not disappoint. For those who haven’t read one of Larson’s brilliant non-fiction novels, give it a shot, you are missing out and might be surprised that there is excitement in history.

Quorren’s #CBR4 Review #10 Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson

I picked the wrong week to read a sad story.  After losing a pet, this book probably wasn’t the best choice to occupy my mind from sadness.  Surprisingly, it did help me put my grief into perspective, if only for short periods of time, which did help a bit with the healing process.  It’s very hard to be huddle up in your nest of despair on the couch for the death of a pet rat when thousands of Japanese Americans were forced into “interment” camps (let’s be polite about institutional racism, guys!) after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

The story begins abruptly in the courtroom where Kabuo Miyamoto is on trial for the murder of Carl Heine.  Through the trial and witness testimony, we are giving glimpse of life in this small Puget Sound island pre and post WWII.  The island of San Piedro had a sizable Japanese population before the war, most of whom worked as field hands in the farms on the island.  Miyamoto’s father made an arrangement with Heine’s father; they bought seven acres of Heine’s farmland to be paid off in monthly installments.  When the forced internment occurred, the Miyamoto family was one payment short of finally owning the land outright.  Heine’s father promised them that he would honor their agreement when the family could return to the island.  Unfortunately, the father died before the end of the war, leaving his racists wife to sell all of the land to another farmer.  Since the war, Miyamoto has become obsessed with reclaiming the land.  Motive, a slew of circumstantial evidence and the community’s deep resentment of their Japanese populace after the war leads Kabuo’s arrest.

Another aspect of the story is that the town reporter and WWII vetran, Ishmael, was in love with Kabuo’s wife, Hatsue, when they were teenagers.  What began as a subplot quickly became the focus of the story – their childhood together, their burgeoning romance, the day they were parted while the trial takes a backseat.  Eventually Ishmael reconciles loosing Hatsue and saves the day.  Excuse me if I don’t give the guy a standing ovation.

Most of the story is told from Ishmael’s point of view, especially after the internment when Hatsue breaks it off with him in a letter and Ishmael is drafted into the Pacific theater.  He then wallows in self-pity amiss a very graphic depiction of American troops attempting to storm an island in the Pacific.   I’m not a big fan of reading detailed accounts in real wars (I’m totally cool with Aragon storming the Black Gate, but I can’t stand to think of my grandfather fighting in the Pacific with body parts floating around in the water), but I really hate people that write letters to their ex-girlfriends that say, “I hate you, I hate your race and I can’t wait to kill people that look like you”.  Because Hatsue must be living it up after being forced from her home and put into prison all because of her parents are Japanese.  So Ishmael’s a big charmer.  And he only gets better as the story goes on; the ending hinges on his moral ambiguity. I feel like several times the author tries to emotional manipulate the reader into feeling sorry for Ishmael (oh no, he lost a arm in the war!  The Japanese population and the US government lost their dignity!), but I just wasn’t buying it.

All in all, it’s an amazing book, but don’t expect to walk away from it in a great mood.

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