World War II

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot SeeAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr My rating: 5 of 5 stars

 

When I travel, I gravitate to the small, forgotten places—the crumbling ruins rather than the soaring cathedrals; villages with their backs turned to the road instead of bustling capital cities. I wonder at the secrets that lie within the stillness, the stories that whisper in the broken stone or behind shuttered windows.

 

I’d not read Anthony Doerr before All The Light We Cannot See, but as I lost myself in the delicate suite tendresse of this novel, I felt I’d found a kindred spirit. From the grandeur of European cities and the drama of war, he uncovers the gems hidden in quiet, forgotten lives.

 

The trope of two star-crossed young protagonists—(a blind French girl, an orphaned German boy) and the hints of fable woven through the characters’ childhoods, set against the dramatic backdrop of opposing countries on the brink of a war—would seem to tread familiar ground.

 

But nothing in this shimmering tapestry of a novel is like anything I’ve read before.

 

The story opens in Saint-Malo on France’s Breton coast—an ancient walled city where the high tides swamp medieval cellars. In August 1944, the town is occupied by German forces and shattered by Allied bombing. Alone in her home, sixteen-year-old Marie-Laure LeBlanc catches one of the hundreds of leaflets falling from the sky. It smells of new ink, but no one is around to tell her what it says.

 

Just a few streets away, Werner Pfenning, a young German soldier, is slowly suffocating in the foundation of a bombed hotel, trying to raise a signal on his radio. Finding voices in the still and empty dark has been his gift since he was a child, trapped in an orphanage in a German coal mining town. At last, he hears the voice of a girl—Marie-Laure—reading passages from Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

 

How these two lives come together is the simple, melodic premise of this symphonic novel. Layered into the composition are wonders of science, literature, and music, the horrors of war, poverty, and occupation, and the legend of a priceless blue diamond known as the Sea of Flames.

 

The light in the novel’s title takes many metaphorical forms. It is the light Marie-Laure’s father, the locksmith at the Museum of Natural History in Paris, shines on the world for his blind daughter. He creates intricate models of their Paris and Saint-Malo neighborhoods so that Marie-Laure can memorize her world with her fingers and not fear what her eyes cannot see. It is the light her father offers in the lies he writes after he is taken prisoner. It is the light of the people left behind who love and care for a brave, perceptive child. It is the light of the Resistance, a flame of hope and defiance.

 

The light in Werner’s life is much dimmer. His scientific genius is recognized and he is taken from the orphanage—saved from certain death in the coal mines—and sent to a Hitler Youth academy, where hope is extinguished by duty. He becomes a radio operator in service of the Führer, and certain death awaits him in Leningrad or Poland or Berlin. Science, math, and distant voices transmitting in the dark are his only lights.

 

The blue flame pulsing from a priceless diamond with a cruel past is another kind of light—one followed by sinister characters who use the trappings of power during the chaos of war to pursue their obsessions to the most bitter ends.

 

Anthony Doerr’s prose is lovely. It pirouettes on the fine line between lush and lyrical, flirting with magical realism, but never leaving solid ground. The imagination it takes to bring a reader into the head of a blind child learning to navigate her world so that we see, feel, smell, and hear as she does is breathtaking. The ability to evoke empathy without tumbling into sentimentality is admirable. The weaving together of so many scientific and historical details so that the reader is spellbound instead of belabored is nothing short of brilliant.

 

Structurally, All The Light We Cannot See is bold, its suspense masterful, its prose confident and beautiful. But it is the fragility and strength of Anthony Doerr’s characters that linger longest after the novel’s final pages. Highly recommended; one of this year’s best.

 

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A Break in the Clouds

I travelled to France last month with a story in my heart. It's a story I've carried around for years—one I chronicled here: The Prisoner's Hands—and I spent time gathering details of place and researching the region's history during WWII. I thought, having seen through the writing of two novels, I was ready to undertake something nearly bigger than me. This story reaches far beyond the realm of alternative history I created in Refuge of Doves. There, my goal was to invoke a sense of place and time, but not to mire the narrative in medieval depths or lose a sense of playful speculation.  

But I'm wasn't looking to retouch history here. Not with this story.

 

A book reviewer commented recently that the WWII literary idiom has been done ad nauseam. In the words of Love and Rockets, It's all the same thing; No new tale to tell. The world doesn't need any more stories from WWII.

 

As a reader fascinated by literature and research emanating from and inspired by WWI through the end of the Second World War, I couldn't disagree more. There will always be room and readers for stories from these eras, as long as the stories are well told.

 

In the past week I've read two extraordinary novels that take place during WWII: Anthony Doerr's All The Light We Cannot See, set in France and Germany; and Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North, set in southeast Asia and Australia. Doerr's novel was just nominated for the National Book Award; Flanagan's won the 2014 Man Booker Prize. Both are beloved by professional critics and every day readers like myself. So yes, there is room for more WWII stories.

 

But one night, deep in jet lag insomnia, as I read All The Light We Cannot See, I realized I had to set aside my story. I came to accept that I am not yet the writer I need to be to tell a story deeply layered with sociopolitical nuance. Nor am I yet the researcher who could create the authenticity readers would rightly expect. 

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Tony Doerr spent ten years researching, crafting, and writing All The Light We Cannot See. Richard Flanagan wrote a novel steeped in so much historical detail and personal history (his father survived the Burma Death Railway—the subject of The Narrow Road to the Deep North), I can only guess he spent years carefully choosing each detail.

 

The understanding came laden with sadness and relief and not a small measure of anxiety for this writer. Setting aside a story I'd been thinking about for so long, that I spent time in France researching, meant I'd opened a yawning chasm of "Now what do I do?" My post-holiday plan, when I knew I would need to work on something new as I began the agent query process for Refuge of Doves and sought beta readers for Crows of Beara, had been to dive straight into a new novel.

 

Suddenly, I was without a story. I had no plan.

 

But if I've learned anything along this writer's journey, it's to trust that the next story is always there, shimmering at the edges of my peripheral vision, just within earshot. If I let go of trying to capture it and wait quietly, it will settle on my shoulder like a rare and fragile butterfly, or beam out like a piercing ray of sun from a rent in a storm cloud.

 

And come it did, during the middle of a writing workshop the week after our return. The story idea isn't new—in fact, its themes and some its characters have appeared in at least one of my short stories—but the Eureka moment came only after I'd let go of the search. Suddenly, quite suddenly, at 2:45 on a rainy Saturday afternoon in late October, I had my premise, my protagonist, and the quivering butterfly of a plot.

 

Let the writing begin.

 

 

 

 

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Life After LifeLife After Life by Kate Atkinson My rating: 5 of 5 stars

‘Time isn’t circular,’ she said to Dr. Kellet. ‘It’s like a … palimpsest.’ ‘Oh dear,’ he said. ‘That sounds vexing.’ ‘And memories are sometimes in the future.’

A preternaturally wise ten-year-old Ursula Todd offers us this succinct thematic summation of Life After Life near the book’s end, after she has lived and died many times.

A palimpsest is also the perfect metaphor for Kate Atkinson’s luminous novel. Its multiple layers of theme and plot pile up like shadows, visible through the translucent onion-skin of imagination. It is a novel of faerie tales—the fox, the wolf, and little girls snatched while walking through the woods. It is about the brutal realities of war—Atkinson brilliantly captures the interminable months of the Blitz, where nightly bombings are endured with aplomb and scooping up bucketsful of your neighbor’s flesh is just what you do to get on to the next day. It is a story of a family—a familiar motif in Atkinson’s literary worlds—with a set of messy, vexing, endearing characters whose personalities remain constant throughout the crazy quilt of this narrative, even if their outcomes change, depending upon the version of life they are living.

Ursula Todd is born at Fox Corner on a snowy night in February 1910, the third child of an upper-middle class family ensconced in the genteel English countryside. She dies at birth. She lives, just barely. She drowns as a toddler. She is rescued at the last minute, clutched by the hand of an amateur painter before the current sweeps her out to sea. She is taken by the Spanish flu just days after Armistice. She is raped on her sixteenth birthday and dies after a botched abortion. She is kissed tenderly by the neighbor boy, a Sweet Sixteen gift beyond her wildest hope. She marries an English psychopath who murders her. She marries a German intellectual. She can never have children. She has a little girl named Frieda who becomes the pet of Eva Braun. She is trapped in Germany during the war and dies from her countrymen’s bombs. She survives the terror during and the deprivation after World War II in London, rising through the ranks of British civil service to become a model for working women in the 1960’s. She assassinates Hitler in 1930, becoming a martyr for peace and the prevention of a Holocaust that no one could believe possible in the desperate years after the Great War.

The first snippets of life and death and life again are jarring. Atkinson opens the door wider each time until you are inside the maze and there is no turning back. But she doesn’t abandon you to aimless wandering. Through the constancy of the characters, you follow the crumbs of her tense and nimble plotting. Her writing, as always, is sheer pleasure to read, with lovely and supple language. She balances the queer and violent with humor and tenderness, leaving her lipstick on the glass with those particular Atkinson markers: affection for children, dogs, and an essential Britishness that mixes poignancy with a wry self-regard.

Atkinson leaves room for the reader and the characters to approach reality on their own terms. Ursula shifts with each life, responding to a sense that if she just did this, something fundamental will change. Is she aware that she is reliving her life? Are her choices conscious, or is it an awareness buried deep inside her, a sixth sense that emerges as déjà vu? You’ve simply got to read this for yourself for the answers. But don’t expect any.

The more I think about this book—several days now after reluctantly closing the back cover—the more in awe I am of one of my favorite authors. Kate Atkinson has crafted a lyrical rendering of metaphysics and a brave manipulation of narrative structure that is at heart a wonderful story—albeit with layers as delicate and impermanent as a croissant’s and as delicious to consume. I’m still licking my fingers. Brava.

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Book Review: Flora by Gail Godwin

FloraFlora by Gail Godwin My rating: 5 of 5 stars

To paraphrase Colm Tóibín, skilled writers explore not the spaces crowded with words and stories, characters and events; they explore the empty spaces, the quiet that most of us seek to fill with the noise of life.

In her gently menacing Flora Gail Godwin creates a character of the empty space. It hovers just beyond the threshold of every doorway at the sprawling One Thousand Sunset Drive and in the dense North Carolina woods that may someday swallow whole the lodge and its remaining inhabitants. It listens in on whispered conversations behind closed doors, it reads letters tucked in the top drawer of a bureau, and it haunts a little girl’s dreams.

In the summer of 1945, deep in the woods of Appalachia, Helen Anstruther is approaching her eleventh birthday. She comes to us by way of her seventy-something self, looking back on that long-ago summer with tenderness and remorse. We know this little girl is about to face something terrible - Godwin’s careful foreshadowing releases a current of dread from its opening pages. But the narrator takes her time, giving us empty spaces to fill with our own coming-of-age memories.

Helen’s world contracts dramatically as school ends for the summer. Her father is called to Oak Ridge, Tennessee to work on a secret military project and leaves her in the care of her young aunt, Flora. We know, of course, what Oak Ridge means and how the summer of 1945 ends, but to Helen, World War II is in the abstract – something that fills radio hours and sermons. Not long after Flora arrives from Alabama, there is a polio outbreak in town. Helen’s father quarantines his daughter and Flora to the lonely lodge on the mountain. Their only relief from each other is the weekly visit by Mrs. Jones, who cleans Astruther Lodge, and by Finn, who delivers for the town grocer. During these “three weeks in June, all of July, and the first six days of August” we quietly explore the head and heart of a lonely little girl.

But the novel’s title is not Helen, it is Flora. And it is Flora's behavior and essence adult Helen attempts to reconcile with her memories and her excavation of the quiet spaces during the summer of 1945 at One Thousand Sunset Drive.

This is not a novel of events, though the few that occur are earth shattering. It is a work of voices- voices from the past, from the grave, from letters and awkward telephone calls, voices from inside. It is the voice of child who is just discovering her own power but has no idea how to restrain it or use it only for good. It is the voice of longing and regret.

It’s the perfect time to read this novel, on the cusp of these long, warm days filled with such promise. Do you remember how it felt to be a child at the start of summer break, long before today’s hyper-programmed “vacations”? Recall that feeling of freedom and possibility, with just a tinge of loneliness and boredom. Now imagine how your world could turn upside-down in just a few short, golden weeks. Allow yourself some empty space.

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Book Review: In Sunlight and In Shadow by Mark Helprin

In Sunlight and in ShadowIn Sunlight and in Shadow by Mark Helprin My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I spent five weeks with In Sunlight and In Shadow. Five monogamous weeks, which is a committed literary relationship for this fast-in, fast-out reader. Yes, life circumstances wore me out and distracted me, so that some days the amount of pages read would be imperceptible as measured on a standard ruler, but never once did I contemplate setting Helprin aside for a less complicated time or supplementing my evening reading with a less demanding literary companion.

This lush, resplendent novel enthralled me. Each and every one of its 705 pages.

The story itself is quite simple. In fact, the old-fashioned romance and adventure style makes this a curl-up-on-the-sofa read. But the beauty of Helprin’s prose, its rococo grandeur and meandering lyricism, make it worthy of lingering. Take your time to reread certain passages and be astonished anew by Helprin’s particular magic.

Harry Copeland is in his early 30s and recently returned to Manhattan from the European Theatre of WWII. Harry is alone in the world, an only child, his parents deceased, and he is taking his time to heal from the emotional wounds and physical trauma sustained as a special ops paratrooper. What can’t wait, however, is the luxury leather goods business he inherited from his father.

The business is being newly bilked by the Mafia. Not the perfunctorily threatening Jewish Mafia to which Copeland Leather and every other manufacturing business in the building has been accustomed to paying off. This is the deeply serious and deadly Mob. Which has singled out Copeland Leather for extortion.

One day, while traveling on the Staten Island ferry, Harry spies a beautiful woman in white and falls immediately and hopelessly in love. She is Catherine Thomas Hale, of the Manhattan and Hamptons Hales, an heiress and Broadway ingénue. Catherine is strong, moral and wise. She meets Harry’s love and passion measure for measure. They are not really star-crossed lovers: Harry is a Harvard man, after all. But he is a Jew and he is broke - facts he and Catherine cannot long hide from her family.

But this is more than a love story. It is a tale of a city at a golden time, when the memories of two wars and the Depression remain vivid enough to fuse gratitude and caution, yet cannot stop the momentum of power and wealth that rocket New York inexorably forward as the steward of all things modern.

It is a thriller, where thugs with Thompsons are pitted against combat heroes with iron nerves; it is a war set piece, where a band of brothers plummet into the mists and mud of western France; it is a window into a world of grand society, where money can buy everything but peace of mind and integrity.

It is true, Helprin uses six words when two would suffice, but never once does the sprawl, the grandiloquence, feel like an attempt to dazzle or distract. The gorgeous language wraps, not traps, the reader; the descriptions of characters and settings put the reader fully inside a moment, most of which you want never to end.

In Sunlight and In Shadow is romanticism at its soft-focus, golden-hued, unapologetic best. Characters are a little more beautiful, dangerous, erudite and talented than real life could afford; food is more delicious, sunsets more vivid, memories more precise and comforting, It is a novel for pleasure-seekers, for readers ready to sink into a web spun by a story-teller. Logic and relativism need not apply; only good guys, bad guys, truth and beauty allowed.

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Book Review: City of Women by David Gillham

City of WomenCity of Women by David R. Gillham My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is neither black nor white in war, only infinite variations of gray. With the buffer of history and hindsight, we can sit at our remove and imagine how our moral compass would guide us through treacherous situations, but fiction – well-crafted fiction – can offer three-dimensional dilemma and nuance that our egos would deny.

David Gillham’s City of Women is just such a work and it is excellent. Berlin in 1943 is a city of shadows. Nearly all able-bodied men are fighting across various fronts; left behind are hungry, cowed, suspicious citizens and their Nazi keepers, the old and infirm, wounded soldiers, and black marketeers. But mostly, Berlin is kept afloat by the wives, mothers, sisters and daughters of soldiers and officers. It is a city of women.

One of these women is the lovely and enigmatic Sigrid Schröder, a stenographer and wife of a combat officer. Sigrid’s war is reduced to the daily grind of her job and the grim existence she shares with her wretched mother-in-law. Scrapping together enough to eat, making do with threadbare clothes, huddling in a bomb shelter, not attracting the attention of her apartment building’s informers or Nazis patrolling the streets, would seem to leave Sigrid with no time or energy for moral quandaries. But there are empty moments, split open by boredom, loneliness and desperation. How Sigrid fills them drives the plot of this atypical wartime thriller.

Gillham juggles many elements. His skill at maintaining a complicated narrative with many characters, while remaining true to history, is tremendous. He adds new elements to our understanding of German citizens’ attitudes and behaviors during the war while crafting the hold-your-breath suspense of a literary thriller. His portrait of Berlin is pitch-perfect – the hopelessness and the viciousness of a city living in fear are claustrophobic and terrifying.

Gillham’s characters are intriguing, sympathetic and nuanced. The moments of tenderness and betrayal leave the reader uncertain of whom to trust, demonstrating the inconsistencies and unpredictability of human behavior that are true even in the best of circumstances. In the worst of times, who among us wouldn’t do what we needed in order to survive? Who among us would risk everything to ensure the survival of others?

What holds this back from a 5-star read is the overheated atmosphere. David Gillham’s Berlin might be drab and crumbling, but beneath the patched coats and bomb rubble is a city pulsing with sex. I’m torn here, because it also raises an important question of how women survive, even now, when their political and physical power is so often compromised. Sex becomes a refuge and a weapon. Still, the movie theatre trysts and living room carpet couplings become tedious and make you wonder how Sigrid would have been portrayed by a woman writer.

In addition, this is one of the most poorly proofread books I have encountered in recent memory. That isn’t the author’s fault, but it jars the reader from her world and sends her dashing for her red pen.

A compelling novel that I highly recommend to WWII history enthusiasts and literary thriller fans alike.

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Book Review: Mission to Paris by Alan Furst

Mission to ParisMission to Paris by Alan Furst My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Jeepers, what a tough review to write. It's that 3-star curse: "I liked it just fine, thank you, Ma'am." My literary passions were neither inflamed nor offended, but I was happily entertained. And sometimes that's all I need from a read: an escape.

And if it comes in a package of sublimely crafted settings that conjure from history's clouds the darkening heart of 1938-39 Europe, with characters rendered as precisely as wood-block prints ("He was about fifty, Stahl guessed, with the thickening body of a former athlete and a heavy boyish face. He might be cast as a guest at one of Jay Gatsby's parties, scotch in hand, flirting with a debutante.") and a quietly simmering plot, well, Bob's your uncle and I'm your girl.

My hesitation to wax more enthusiastic is that I've been gobsmacked by Alan Furst's novels. The characters smoldered, the plots stole the breath, the thriller in "historical thriller" sent the spine a-tingle. It feels as if Furst approached Mission to Paris with tenderness and affection, both for his beloved City of Lights and for his Cary Grant-inspired leading man, Frederic Stahl. The soft-focus lighting on the characters and setting may have smoothed the sharp edge of tension found in his earlier works.

This is cinema-ready, just like its colorful characters and picture-postcard settings. Settle in with a big bowl of buttered popcorn and enjoy the show.

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Book Review: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany by William Shirer

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi GermanyThe Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany by William L. Shirer My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Three years ago I implemented a personal tradition: to read a "Monster Classic" each year. This is my term, referring to a piece of writing that is great in reputation and girth. The how and when of it is to begin the Monster mid-summer and read it in fits and starts over the course of several months, with a goal of finishing before the end of the year. The why of it isn't so simple. Most avid readers I know have daunting lists of books they want to or feel they should read. I'm no different, but life is too short for shoulds. I'm after something that will change the way I look at writing, at storytelling, at the world.

For whatever reason I have chosen these books, I realized this summer that my Monster Classics are built on the premise of, or are greatly informed by, war. Two years ago I read Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, an allegorical tale shaped largely by Mann's reaction to World War I; last year, Tolstoy brought me War and Peace, that gorgeous and profound tale of Russia during the Napoleanic era.

This summer I turned from fiction to narrative non-fiction. World War II has long fascinated and disturbed me. I've sought, without success, to reconcile the incongruous romance of this war - the films, music, literature that conjure a sense of the heroic and of solidarity, the "Greatest Generation" united as Allies - with its human suffering so incomprehensible that the mind struggles against its limits to accept what the eyes witness in words and photos.

I selected The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich for perhaps the same reason that millions before me have: to understand how one man created a machine of slaughter out of a country in shambles. After 1264 pages in six weeks, I am still bewildered. Of course I knew the external conditions: the carving up of Germany after WWI, the political disaster that the Treaty of Versailles put into motion, the desperate economic conditions in Germany as the Depression ground what little economy it had left into grist. But this diminutive Austrian who so captured the imagination and bent the will of a once-proud nation -- how did he do it? Why did he? And why did so many follow him into the hell of his creation?

William Shirer, a longtime foreign correspondent, worked in the Third Reich from 1934 to 1940, leaving only when it became clear he and his family were no longer safe. He returned to Germany in 1945 to report on the Nuremberg trials. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich was published in 1960, barely a generation after the end of the war.

Because of Shirer's proximity and access to the majors players of the Third Reich and certainly because war was exploding all around him, the book has an immediacy and intimacy that sets it apart from a traditional historical examination of events. It also contains Shirer's interpretations, suppositions and ruminations.

As an American of German-Italian-Norwegian descent, I had a very hard time with Shirer's characterization of Germans as possessing a predilection for cruelty and war. There are few nations that remain exempt from this pointed finger. But it begs the question that even Shirer could not answer: how did the atrocities of the war escape the outrage of the German people? Shirer presents clues and circumstances which serve as a caution to us all. And many of which I recognize in today's socially and politically polarized America that feeds on propaganda and is increasingly indulgent of politicians' idiocy and rejection of facts.

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is thick with military history - this is a book about war. That may seem obvious, but do not expect a sociological narrative. Shirer is a great journalist, which assumes certain skill in telling a story that will appeal to a lay audience. But this book, after its introduction to Hitler and his early life, uses the major events, invasions and battles of World War II to show the creation of an empire.

It is a testament to Shirer's skill that I became so caught up in the details of Hitler's conquests and defeats. Although I have read books about individual battles, I have never followed a comprehensive history of the European theatre. It was astonishing to read on-the-ground reports as nearly all of Europe fell at Germany's feet in a short period, then to sit above it all and witness Hitler's increasing megalomania that spelled out his downfall.

It is dense. It is detailed. It is exhausting, exhaustive, overwhelming and shattering. To read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is to have your heart broken again and again. Yet, to hold history at arm's length is to guarantee that it will be repeated.

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Book Review: The Journal of Hélène Berr by Hélène Berr

The Journal of Hélène BerrThe Journal of Hélène Berr by Hélène Berr My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"...I have a duty to write because other people must know. Every hour of every day there is another painful realization that other folk do not know, do not even imagine, the suffering of other men, the evil that some of them inflict. And I am still trying to make the painful effort to tell the story.

Hélène Berr writes these words on October 10, 1943, a year and a half after the opening entry of The Journal of Hélène Berr. This entry marks a profound change in the emotional and intellectual life of a compassionate, smart, sophisticated but sheltered young woman.

Hélène Berr is one of five children of an upper-middle class Parisian family. Although raised by an Ashkenazi Jewish father and Sephardic Jewish mother, religion plays far less a role in her life than secular education. She is a graduate of the Sorbonne, seeking an advanced degree as her journal begins. She is an accomplished musician, linguist and scholar of Western literature. Hélène is curious, articulate and like many young women in the bloom of their early twenties, she loves the attention of men, she adores her many female friends; she lives for the pleasure of weekends in the country and discussing literature in Parisian cafés.

But she is a Jew. It is Occupied Paris, 1942. And this remarkable account by a young woman living through the nightmare of Nazi occupation and French collusion is a unique treasure: rarely are we able to hold in our hands, heart and mind the real-time thoughts and actions of a life in drastic transition.

The obvious comparison to Hélène's journal is The Diary of Anne Frank. The difference is that Hélène is free as she writes, she is able to move about her beloved Paris, she has means and a degree of social freedom. For the reader, this holds a particular pain: we know this spirited woman is doomed, yet we rejoice with her as she gathers flowers at the family's country home in Aubergenville, as she contemplates her future with one of two men who may love her, as she practices Bach and trembles at Keats. Reading, I ache to push her south to Spain, west to England. I whisper "Run, run, Hélène, run while there is still time."

Hélène's journal from April - November 1942 is a slow progression from anecdotes about the impact of war on daily life in Paris to growing indignation and fear at the vulnerability of her Jewish family and friends. The most unspeakable happens - her father is arrested in June 1942 and sent to Drancy, a prison camp just outside the city. Amazingly, he is released a few months later and shortly after that Hélène falls silent, for nearly a year.

It is when she resumes her journal again, in October 1943, that the pretty, flighty girl has become an analytical, hardened woman. The compassion and the appreciation of beauty remain, but Hélène seems resigned to her fate. I found this passage so profound. Who among us has not asked how the German people allowed the Holocaust to happen? Could the soldiers of the Occupation all have been monsters? Hélène writes:

'So why do the German soldiers I pass on the street not slap or insult me? Why do they quite often hold the metro door open for me and say "Excuse me, miss" when they pass in front? Why? Because those people do not know, or rather, they have stopped thinking; they just want to obey orders. So they do not even see the incomprehensible illogicality of opening a door for me one day and perhaps deporting me the next day: yet I would still be the same person. They have forgotten the principle of causality. There is also the possibility that they do not know everything. The atrocious characteristic of this regime is its hypocrisy. They do not know all the horrible details of the persecutions, because there is only a small group of torturers involved, alongside the Gestapo.

Hélène and her parents are arrested in their home in March 1944. Hélène perishes at Bergen-Belsen in November 1944, five days before the camp is liberated by the British.

Hélène regularly gave pages of her journal to a family employee; a surviving family member in turn gave the journal to Hélène's true love, Jean Morawiecki. The translator, David Bellos, shepherded the work to publication in France in 2008 to enormous acclaim. The original manuscript now resides at the beautiful and haunting Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris's Marais district.

Hélène is an extraordinary writer - she has the soul of a poet and the vocabulary of a scholar. Her words are a gift to her readers, her life a sacrifice without sense. By reading what Hélène saw and experienced, we honor her hope: that we will never forget View all my reviews

Book Review: Trapeze by Simon Mawer

TrapezeTrapeze by Simon Mawer My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you were to read a simple blurb of Simon Mawer's Trapeze - at the height of World War II, a young English-French woman trains as a spy and is dropped into Occupied France to aid the French Resistance - you might think you hold an espionage-adventure in your hands. Which, in fact, you do! But Mawer isn't after writing a Robert Ludlum thriller. He offers us a subtle, mannered take on a well-worn theme: how war forces the most ordinary among us to behave in the most extraordinary ways.

With prose that is distant and spare, Mawer sets the tone of isolation experienced by his young protagonist, Marian Sutro, as she is recruited and trained by the little-known British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and dropped by parachute into Southwestern France. Marian is determined to be of use and to succeed, but her motivations aren't clear. From an upper-middle class family, she has been spared the worst of the war's deprivations and has no family members in combat. Only memories of her teenage crush, a older French man who remains in Paris, tie her to her mother's homeland. She is a restless and intelligent, but hardly strikes one as a tough, street smart spy.

And as it turns out, the SOE's motives are even more shadowy. Of course, all spies are pawns. What makes Trapeze so unique - with its quiet suspense and undercurrent of dread - is how deeply Marian and the reader are drawn into the conspiracy, how inexorably Marian's nature leads her to play precisely the role that has been created for her. And like most realistic portrayals of war, there are long stretches of lethargy, of waiting, followed by bursts of adrenalin, terror and split-second decisions that a spy's highly-trained body and mind are designed to handle.

The brevity of Marian's training is the only jarring note. Marian spends six weeks on an island off the coast of Scotland and emerges a lethal weapon. She becomes skilled in radio communication, ciphers, firearms, explosives, hand-to-hand combat -- it's a disbelief-suspending transformation from a soft, naïve girl into a trained assassin with the survival instincts of a fox and the killer reactions of a tiger. Trapeze is a based on the true story, so perhaps this short training period is accurate. It's hard to imagine, really. But again, Mawer's theme runs through: do any of us really know the depth of our own character - its weakness or its power - until we are faced with desperate times?

I made a comment the other day on Twitter that I felt "character-driven" to be one of the most useless descriptors of literary fiction. To my surprise, my off-hand remark was retweeted numerous times by writers and book fans. Apparently, my words touched nerve.

Had I more than 140 characters to express myself, I would asked: if one says a novel is character-driven, what is the alternative? What well-crafted story isn't character driven? Story IS character, as much as it is plot- it is the behavior, action and reaction of the protagonist and ancillaries within and to their environment. A great story is one that wraps you in the characters' world, whether that world is a disintegrating marriage or an exploding planet of some distant universe. Or the shadowed streets and freezing lofts of Occupied Paris.

What leads me to finally reject the notion of "character-driven" as reductive is Simon Mawer's restrained Trapeze. The author does a superb job of taking fiction's inextricably-linked elements - setting, plot, character, theme - and distilling them into the essence of a perfect story.

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The Prisoner's Hands

A few weeks ago I began work on a piece that's been in my heart for several years. It is the story of a star-crossed romance that bloomed in the last year of World War II between a spoiled young French woman and a German prisoner-of-war with movie-star cheekbones and piercing blue eyes. The tale is inspired by a true war romance, a story of characters whom I've known for many years. It was first told to me by my husband, who spent a year working near the village of Cognac in vineyards owned by the French woman's brother-in-law. Brendan became acquainted with the sister and her husband during their visits to the farm from their home in western Germany. They took to Brendan, marveling at this young man who barely spoke French, yet who was willing to live with strangers, tending their vineyards and learning to make their Cognac in exchange for room and board. I then met the couple in 1993, several months after Brendan and I married. We spent ten days at the Bavarian home where the tall, elegant German man was raised, sheltered in the beauty of his Alpine village and by his parents' wealth and gentility.

This couple is still alive. In their late 80s, they spend their days arguing in French in a comfortable apartment full of memories in the medieval village of Freiburg.We've visited them several times over the years, usually at their summer cottage on the Atlantic coast outside the town of Royan, which was smashed to ruins by German and Allied bombs alike. An ironic tragedy borne of desperation and mis-information as the War waned.

We know our chances to hear their stories are disappearing - we hope that at least Brendan can visit in the coming year. And I hope to bring part of their extraordinary story to life.

One detail of the real romance I heard once has served as my inspiration, and thus far, as the title of the story: The Prisoner's Hands.

The young prisoner had fine hands: long, tapered fingers and clean nails, as clean as could be expected while living in the squalor of penal confinement. Because of those hands, and his ability to speak clear and sophisticated French, he came to the attention of local, influential factory owner. The businessman used his connections to "employ" the handsome young German prisoner as a day laborer on the grounds of his estate.

I have identified the prison camp as Stalag 180, outside the lovely, gentle village of Amboise, on the banks of the Loire River. In German hands it had been a transition point for captured Roma, French Jews and Communists before being sent to their deaths in the East. Under French control, it held Germans captured as Liberation forces cut a swath west across the war-trampled fields of north and central France. After some months, American soldiers took control of the prison camp; the German prisoners were released and the young man, still a teenager, returned to his Bavarian home.

This much I know is true. I also know that nearly ten years after the end of the war, the German prisoner married the factory owner's youngest daughter and took her back to Germany, where they have lived since.

I am now in unchartered waters. I have embarked upon a journey where creating a story inspired by real lives straddles a razor's edge. I struggle with the conflicts in my heart to offer an empathetic portrait of a man whose fellow citizens participated in crimes horrific beyond all comprehension. The details I weave from a collection of threads of the story as it has been told to me, of history as it has been recorded and from my imagination. It is easy to lose the singularity of these threads as the story takes shape and the characters go their own ways.

I began this story as my final assignment for my writing program, but I now set it aside. I will wait for a time when deadlines and word limits will not constrain a story that fills my heart with a pounding certainty that it should be told. I trust the story has been gifted to me for a reason. I will do my best.

Book Review: The O'Briens by Peter Behrens

The O'BriensThe O'Briens by Peter Behrens My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It would seem the greater the sweep of history encompassed by a novel, the more confined the writer. The facts of history are many and easily called out, the settings, characters and dialogue are well-defined by their eras and the more years a story covers, the shallower the characters can become as they are stretched and diluted by time.

It is, therefore, deeply satisfying to read a saga as intimate and profound as The O'Briens. Peter Behrens is a master of the art of storytelling. He understands the fine balance between enchanting prose and compelling facts.

The O'Briens begins deep in the pine forests of northern Quebec in 1887 and ends in a dinghy just off the Cape Breton coast in 1960. It follows the fortunes and tragedies of Joe O'Brien, the oldest of five siblings who lose first their father to the Boer War, then their mother to despair and disease. Joe, although taciturn and moody, is a natural leader with an affinity for numbers and an ambition that he uses to propel himself and his siblings out of Canada's back country when he is barely a teenager. Fans of Peter Behrens will recognize the O'Brien determination from the author's previous novel Law of Dreams, which tells the story of Joe's grandfather, Fergus O'Brien, who escaped the famine in Ireland to immigrate to Canada two generations earlier.

Joe rushes across North America, from the forests of British Columbia to the beaches of Southern California and down to Mexico, building a fortune in railroad construction. In 1912, at a quiet real estate office in Venice Beach, Joe encounters a young French-American woman, Iseult Wilkins. Iseult has just buried her mother and she too is an orphan, as restless as Joe, yet constrained by her gender and limited financial resources.

Passion and recognition of kindred spirits bring Joe and Iseult to an altar within weeks of their first meeting. It is in depicting this marriage, an invisible ribbon that shreds to a breaking point by years of betrayal and grief and is knotted anew by tenderness and love, that Behrens reveals some of his greatest strengths as a writer. We come to know Joe and Iseult as much as they allow us to, their voices ringing true as they falter and succumb to their own vanities.

Other characters, such as Joe's brother Grattan, his daughters Frankie and Margo and son Mike, are no less vivid for playing secondary roles. Their stories bring us directly into the emotional devastation of the men who fought in World War I and World War II and of the families left, waiting for the worst news.

Behrens is an atmospheric writer. His settings are vivid, his characters feel and react with tremendous emotion, his prose is rich and lambent. Yet his pacing is precise and brisk. He has such a great span of time to cover - one with many world-changing events - but he selects the most pivotal and delves deeply, showing his characters' development by how they respond to their circumstances.

It was a difficult book to set aside each evening when I knew I had to stock up on sleep; I found myself longing for the free afternoon and early morning late in the week when I could be enfolded by Behrens's story. This is a luminous read.

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Book Review: The Spanish Bow, Andromeda Romano-Lax

The Spanish BowThe Spanish Bow by Andromeda Romano-Lax My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Oh, the treasures that await at Seattle's "The Spanish Table" market, tucked underneath the Pike St. Hillclimb. Reflecting off the gleam of steel paella pans and bottles of port and Albarino, lining the way to the cheese and sausage cold case, are several rows of books: cookbooks from Spain and Portugal, travel books to illuminate the Santiago de Compostela, and works of fiction about Iberia or by authors who are connected to that peninsula so ripe with history and romance.

Enter "he Spanish Bow by the gorgeously-named Andromeda Romano-Lax. The eponymous bow is one of the few belongings a villager leaves to his children and wife - sent by post after his death in distant Cuba in 1898. Young Feliu Delargo is six at the time of his father's death. He selects the bow from his father's meager trove without understanding its use. Even after he begins violin lessons, he feels little more than rote interest in developing his musical aptitude.

Then a cellist visits his village, part of a trio featuring a famous pianist, Justo Al-Cerraz. From the first notes of the cello, Feliu is enchanted. His fate is sealed. What follows is a history of 20th century Spain, as lived through a struggling, then famous, musician. As a child, Feliu travels to Barcelona where he studies with a depressed but brilliant musician. He then comes of age in the fading glory of the Spanish court, befriending the Queen and learning to play duets by making love with an eccentric pianist, the daughter of his tutor.

As a young man Feliu again encounters the piano prodigy, Al-Cerraz. The two form a musical partnership that lasts decades. Music may be the central theme to the novel, but the partnership between Feliu and Al-Cerraz is the novel's motif. The love-tolerance-mistrust-dependence that binds them mirrors how they feel about music, about Spain, and about Aviva, the beautiful Italian violinist who breaks their hearts. They cannot live apart from, yet are tormented by their love for each of these and for one another.

The novel has two distinct parts and feels. Feliu's early years read like a fable, naively, almost as if the book were a translation. Once Feliu reaches adulthood and Europe plunges into World War I, the pace picks up and the tone matures and becomes more modern. It is somewhat disconcerting. Feliu as a character diminishes as the situation in Spain becomes more desperate. Other characters, most notably Al-Cerraz and Aviva, but also historical figures such as Picasso, Elgar, Weill and Goebbels are richly colored and have more immediacy.

Romano-Lax incorporates an astonishing degree of historical detail into The Spanish Bow. Feliu's life is loosely based on that of the great Spanish cellist, Pablo Casals. The author clearly wanted to present a modern history of Spain in its entirety, using art and the pursuit of artistic independence and purity as a mirror to reflect Spain's troubled quest for democracy. It's impressive and engrossing, but the narrative does lose focus in this dogged commitment to history. Years are jumped over, Feliu's rise to fame is foggy, Aviva- a Jew who lives in Berlin when she is not touring with Feliu and Al-Cerraz- has a storyline that begs better resolution. Too much time is given to Feliu's touring and the daily drudgery of his life off the road- sections that could have been deleted in favor of a brisker plot and narrative momentum.

The Spanish Bow is a wonderful début by a devoted student of history, lover of music, and talented storyteller. Historical fiction lives and breathes with intelligence and passion under Ms. Romano-Lax's pen. I see she has a new work debuting early 2012. It's set in Italy, on the eve of World War II -  art, intrigue and the Third Reich. I can't wait!

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Book Review: The Chateau, William Maxwell

The ChateauThe Chateau by William Maxwell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a rare gem of a book. It is so perfect in its depiction of traveling and falling in love with another country that, not only would I not change a word, I found section after section I wanted to absorb into my skin. Although written sixty years ago and set just after World War II, the interactions and reactions of a young American couple with the French and in France remain relevant, painful, hilarious, and true.

Its peaceful pace belies the profound transformation of its principal characters, Harold and Barbara, and of the painful recent history from which the French were so eager to shake loose in the fragile years of the late 1940’s. It is counter to French nature to turn away from history and move on with assertive hope; Barbara and Harold arrive at the border just as France accepts that breaking the habit of reflection and debate and marching in concert with their European neighbors- including Germany- is the only way out of the post-war depression.

Whether or not it was the writer's intention, Maxwell’s characters personify specific national characteristics or conditions that were present in France during this tender and uncertain time.

Mme Viénot is the face of dignity. She endeavors to preserve the gentility of the rapidly disappearing class of landed gentry. Hers is the eponymous château, which suffers the indignities of no hot water, no heat, and a larder limited by ration coupons. She is wily, a survivor, one foot trailing in the France’s past, the rest of her thrust forward, ready to grasp what she can to keep her home and legacy intact.

Eugène Boisgaillard encapsulates a nation emasculated by war, and its co-conspirators helplessness, guilt, and frustration. He runs hot and cold- a character you don’t trust and but somehow you come to understand. He is surely suffering some sort of post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition not spoken of in a nation that had lost so many of its young men to war. He resents the vitality and hope of the American naïfs as he comes to terms with the loss of his gracious pre-war lifestyle.

Mme Straus-Muguet is a reminder that all is not as good as it seems in the land of your dreams. Pulling back the curtain of Emerald City to see an insignificant blunderbuss at the controls is a keen disappointment. But once you accept the flaws and the ordinariness of it all, you also begin to feel more at home.

Her awkward social status is also a painful but unspoken reminder that, although united during the war by hunger, fear, resistance, or mere survival, the different social classes would sort themselves out in peacetime. Peace means never having to say “I’m sorry,” to someone beneath your standing.

Sabine and Alix are the face of the new France: young, strong, independent women. Sabine is blazing her career path without the help of her connected family or a paramour; Alix is a busy mother in a passionate but difficult marriage with the mercurial Eugène. These women realize there is no time to stop and reflect on all that was lost in two generations of war; their lives are rich and full, the demands on their intelligence and heart too great to tarry.

It often feels that Harold and Barbara are more conduits than characters, particularly the winsome and vague Barbara. Harold works so hard to understand and to be understood, to fit in, get along, adapt; he wants desperately to be French, but understands that he is the quintessential American. The passages showing Harold falling helplessly in love with France, encountering the inexplicable and the maddening, and finally, saying goodbye to Paris are heart-wrenching to any one who has known and loved that beautiful, proud, contrary, gracious country.

The Château is a love letter to France, and an homage to the baffling, intoxicating experience of traveling abroad. It is also an astute portrayal of post World War II Europe, of a country that was on the losing side of the victorious.

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Book Review: In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin, Erik Larson

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's BerlinIn the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin by Erik Larson My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Erik Larson assigns himself a Herculean task: to tunnel through the mountain of research on Hitler's regime and the circumstances that led to World War II and emerge with a singular, simple premise: What was Berlin like during the first year of Hitler's chancellery?

Overshadowing this relatively narrow context are the questions that plague anyone confounded and horrified by the Holocaust: How did things go so horribly wrong in Germany, in plain view of its citizens, and why were Europe and the United States so slow to respond? Larson shows us, through the eyes of the U.S. ambassador to Germany, William Dodd, and his grown daughter Martha, the events, the atmosphere, the characters, and the behavior of Berlin's citizens in the early days of Hitler's ascendency. The principal narrative takes place from the summer of 1933, when Dodd arrives with his family to assume the role of ambassador, to the summer of 1934 and the "Night of the Long Knives", Hitler's brutal purge of perceived enemies within the Nazi Party.

The perspectives of the mild, scholarly and overwhelmed Dodd (Roosevelt's last pick, after several others turned down the post, recognizing the storm clouds brewing in fractured Germany) and his intelligent but flighty daughter were unique and fascinating. Dodd was completely out of his element. He was an academic, not a politician, businessman, or social climber- the usual State Department profile for an important ambassadorial post. He shied away from confrontation, unless it regarded the administrative duties of embassy employees or the profligate use of embassy dollars on extravagant parties and overlong overseas telecommunication. Martha, who adored men to the point of idiocy, tumbled into German high society with glee. She loved Berlin and defended its nationalistic attitudes (while seemingly ignoring the violent acts against Jews, Communists, and other undesirables) as Germany's legitimate reaction to the stranglehold of the Treaty of Versailles.

We witness the dawning horror of Dodd and his daughter as Hitler's true ambitions come to light. We see the facade of graceful, elegant Berlin cracking under the increasing violence. We learn of the machinations within the Nazi Party as a host of men vie for their place within Hitler's inner circle. We cringe as the ridiculous Nazi salute and its accompanying "Heil Hitler" become the required greeting in hallways, in schoolrooms, restaurants, the street- and woe to the hapless or willful tourist who does not comply. And we are given the first glimpses into the hell of Dachau, among the first of concentration camps Hitler established soon after his appointment to the chancellery.

Larson does not attempt to answer how the Nazi regime soared to power with such monstrosity and to such public acceptance and acclaim. He does take us, in a real-time unfolding of events, to the heart of a city as it moves toward its destruction.

I was annoyed by and impatient with Dodd and his daughter- they were not empathetic characters, but perhaps my frustration was unfair. With the hindsight of history, I wanted to shake them out of their malaise and trip up their missteps, to shout "Can't you see what is happening?!" Yet, their roles in the course of history were largely insignificant. Dodd was a pawn in the game of international relations. At least he survived his ordeal. Millions of innocents did not.

Larson has the amazing ability to breathe suspenseful, vivid narrative life into his characters. Although not as gracefully rendered as his other non-fiction, In the Garden of Beasts is bold, brilliant, and unforgettable.

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Book Review: Wild Decembers, Edna O'Brien

Wild DecembersWild Decembers by Edna O'Brien My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Edna O'Brien's prose reads like poetry. She conjures images from the mists of Irish mountains and the thick skin of peat bogs, her characters appearing wraith-like in a land of ancient legends and living superstitions. Her style lends a sense of timelessness to her stories and their settings and characters. With a few tweaks of detail, Wild Decembers could be set in late 19th century or pre-World War II Ireland as easily as the end of the 20th century.

O'Brien's affinity for lyricism can distance the reader from the flesh and blood reality of her plot, but her skill with dialogue and the gut-wrenching dilemmas into which she plunges her characters ensure that the reader's heart will be caught firmly in her drama.

Wild Decembers is a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions: star-crossed lovers separated by an ancient land dispute. At the heart of the conflict are two men who could be as close as brothers, yet who cling stubbornly to blurred maps and barbed wire, destroying with madness and violence all that they most love. O'Brien shows the lunacy of lust and the dark tunnels of depression with spare and sharp detail- there are disturbing scenes that will be long to leave my mind, all the more devastating because of their subtlety.

I deeply admire O'Brien's use of language and her skill at stripping prose to its most primitive, most powerful effect.

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