Lola’s House, by M. Evelina Galang***-****

LolasHouseDuring World War II, the Japanese Imperial Army forced over 400,000 women into sexual slavery; though the Korean comfort women have been recognized for a long time, the survivors in the Philippines lived with the trauma and appalling social stigmatization for decades, unheard. Recently 173 of them, now very elderly, filed suit against the Japanese government. This collection includes interviews with 16 Filipina women whose lives were ruined by this atrocity. Thanks go to Net Galley and Northwestern University Press for the DRC, which I received early and free in exchange for this honest review. The collection is for sale now.

This is a rough read, hard to push through for the very thing that makes it valuable: it tells the women’s experiences in their own words. And they want to be heard. For decades, nobody, including their own families, has been willing to listen to them. After experiencing cruel, sadistic torture, they were greeted, upon the army’s departure, as social pariahs. Their countrymen let them know that nobody wants anything to do with a woman that’s been touched, penetrated, harmed in many unspeakable ways by the Japanese. They were called “Japanese leftovers.” Thus, their nightmare at the hands of the enemy was worsened by a subsequent nightmare at the hands of those they thought would console them.

And so as you can imagine, it’s not an enjoyable book. It isn’t intended to be.

Galang is also Filipina, and she weaves her own story in with that of her subjects. I would have preferred that she restrict herself to the topic; whereas including her own memoir may be cathartic, it also slows the pace. There are also snippets of untranslated Tagalog, and although this may resonate for those that are bilingual, context didn’t make the passages clear much of the time, and so I was left with the choice to either run to my desktop, type in the passages, translate them and return to the text, or just skip them and read on. It didn’t take me long to decide on the latter.

So as a general read for the lover of history, I can’t recommend this book, but for the researcher, it’s a gold mine. There is information here that you won’t find anywhere else. There are primary documents end to end here. I can imagine any number of thesis topics for which this work would be pivotal.

For the researcher, this is a four star read.

The German Girl, by Armando Lucas Correa***-****

thegermangirlThe German Girl arrived in my mailbox, a nice surprise from Atria Books. This novel is historical fiction, an international bestseller translated into many languages; it tells the story of Hannah, a survivor of the Holocaust who was sent to Cuba, and her namesake, Anna, who lives in present day Manhattan. This title is available for purchase now.

Hannah is born into a Jewish family just before Hitler’s rise to power. As white supremacy becomes the new order, her picture is taken by a photographer, and it’s titled “The German Girl”. With her blonde hair and blue eyes, she is exemplified as the perfect Aryan child. No one associated with the magazine or the government knows that she is Jewish. And of course, her father, who has been working furiously and quietly to get passports out of Germany for all of them, is absolutely livid. Who dared do this without his permission, and more to the point, what repercussions will there be once someone in a position of authority realizes the error that’s been made?

As the World War II generation dies out, it is essential that works like this one continue to be published. Though it’s fictional, there are primary documents in the back—photographs and the guest book signatures for a cruise ship that bears a lucky cargo away from Nazi shores. There’s also a bibliography, something few writers of historical fiction provide.

The reader should know that this is not a page-turner. It’s a story for those with a particular interest in historical fiction and the history of World War II. It’s written in a relatively formal style, words that one sinks into rather than tears through. Those looking for a steady, steep story arc aren’t going to find it.

Recommended to those interested in the refugees that fled the Nazis; it’s a worthwhile reminder that white supremacy never leads to good results.

 

Point of No Return, by Martha Gellhorn*****

pointofnoreturn.jpgI want to give a shout-out to Open Road Media for the way they value the First Amendment. Every now and then I review something they’ve given me and rate it with one or two stars, and each time I wonder whether my outspoken criticism will get me knocked off their list of auto-approved readers. It’s never happened. It gives me a little extra joy, therefore, when I’m asked to read and review a book that is straight-up excellent, because everyone will know my five star rating is the real deal. Thanks, Open Road…and happy holidays to you, and to my faithful readers, too.

This exceptionally strong World War II story was a New York Times best seller when it was first published in 1948. Open Road Media has brought it back to us digitally, and I read it free in exchange for this honest review. I thank Open Road and Net Galley for inviting me to do so. Martha Gellhorn was at Dachau a week after its liberation, and her experience frames part of the narrative, the fictional tale of Jacob Levy, US soldier in Europe. This excellent war story is available to the public Tuesday, December 20, 2016.

It’s hard to miss the irony: Levy answers the call to duty, but his commanding officer is unhappy to discover that a member of his personal staff, his driver, is Jewish. He’s never had a Jew in his outfit before and doesn’t want one now; still, there’s nothing much he can do about it, so he forges grimly onward.

Levy, on the other hand, has heard stories and eventually sees situations in which nearly nobody gets out of a wildly dangerous situation alive except for his boss. He decides—as soldiers sometimes do—that his commander is lucky, and therefore the closer to that officer a man is, the likelier he is to share in that luck. He serves so faithfully and dependably that his commander eventually changes his mind and decides he likes Levy, without Levy ever learning that he’d been unwanted.

Our story starts when Levy joins the army in the United States, but quickly shifts to Europe. The most poignant scenes are those in Luxembourg, where the shell-shocked troops are astonished to find a semblance of normal life. There are houses that have people in them, food cooking, and glass in the windows. It is here that Jacob meets Kathe, and although there is no common language spoken between them, they fall in love anyway. For the rest of his part of this war, he will hold dear to the notion of a little home in the Smoky Mountains where he and Kathe can raise a family together.

I had sworn off Holocaust stories, telling myself that I already know about it; I no longer have students to whom to impart the information; from now on, I will only read what I want to read. But I appear to have landed on a list of reviewers that read this sort of book, and once I was invited, I decided I could read just one more. And I am so glad that I did.

The reader should know that the Holocaust is nothing more than rumor for 80 percent of the book. We aren’t looking at 300 pages of horror. There are battle scenes that are vivid and raw; Jacob participates in the Battle of the Bulge. People die; nobody can write about World War II accurately without imparting the fear, the grief, and the alienation that its participants and witnesses endured. But most of it is about Jacob as a person, what he thinks and feels. In other words, this is more the story of one soldier’s life than it is military history.

Technically this story isn’t historical fiction, because it wasn’t written 50 years or more after the events it describes. However, it will impact the reader as if it is, because the World War II was a very long time ago. So I recommend this book to those that love first rate historical fiction; that like to read about the European theater of World War II; or that like a good romance.

Gone to Soldiers, by Marge Piercy*****

gonetosoldiersBrevity isn’t possible here. Settle in and get comfy. Here we go.

The word “epic” gets overused in the world of advertising, and so as a reviewer, I have learned to take the promise with a grain of salt. However, Piercy is renowned, an iconic presence for feminists and for anyone that approaches life from a class perspective. I read this book when it first came out in the 1980’s for no discount whatsoever, and I loved it. Books come and go at my house, since space on the bookshelf is itself a commodity, but Piercy has a permanent shelf all her own; when I saw that Open Road Media had released this book digitally, I jumped on it, even though the release date had passed and even though I already had the book, because I wanted to help promote it, and I was happy to read it again. I rate it 4.75 stars and of course, round it upward.

There are two myths that get told, are believed by others, and then they are retold about World War II. The most recent one is that told by Holocaust deniers, who say that the whole death camp thing was just a huge exaggeration. Yes, there were prisons; yes, guards were mean sometimes; yes, people died, because nobody was getting enough food in Poland and other non-German parts of Europe anyway. This is a lie, but as eyewitnesses grow old and die, it takes a certain vigilance to keep this damnable untruth from gaining a toehold. Piercy tells the truth, and she does it really well. More on that in a moment, but let’s deal with the other lie first.

The second myth, one that’s understandably popular as patriotism grasps the human heart and we wish that our rulers, past and present, were truly noble, is that the USA joined its allies in a quest to preserve democracy and save those poor Jews and other unfortunates tucked away in those hellish camps. Piercy approaches this palace of straw from many different angles and razes it to the ground.  Jews that wanted out faced tremendous obstacles, from nations—the USA included—that were extremely choosy about how many Jews they would take. The US and UK governments were more obstructive than helpful, and countless men, women, and children died because of these exclusions.

Piercy is a brilliant storyteller, and in her hands, the period and its people are so believable, nearly corporal, that I carry them with me still.

This story is told through the eyes of ten characters whose narratives are staggered. There are French characters, British, and Americans; men and women; straight, gay, lesbian, and bisexual.  They hail from a variety of socio-economic circumstances and are affected by the war in different ways. It’s miraculous to see a writer develop even one of these characters as fully and thoroughly as Piercy does; how is it that she does so with a wide range of characters, yet has never been nominated for a prestigious award?

Those of us that are old and perhaps cynical may consider that the very political perspective that makes her prose so rich may be what kept her from landing on a short list. I guess we’ll never know for sure.

Piercy is a scholar and she approaches this historical period with sources in hand. She doesn’t interpret loosely, and her note to the reader tells us in what instance she has taken liberties, for example not wanting to have a whole string of people that have the same first name. Always she is aware of the subtext, the stereotypes that women aviators faced, for example.

My most beloved characters were Jacqueline, a hero of the French resistance, along with her lover, Jeff, and her little sister Naomi, one of the fortunate few who’s sent to live with American relatives before it’s too late. I liked Louise’s moxie, and I loved what happened to Duvey. I also really enjoyed the unusual perspective that Daniel and his fellow code-breakers shared, becoming so familiar with the Japanese point of view that they bonded with the men whose communications they were deciphering.

As we discuss the Japanese, we come to the .25 that I deducted. I did this as a token objection to the use of the racist vernacular that I know was commonplace during the time. This reviewer grew up with a father that served during this war, and reminiscences among the guests he and my mother entertained were so frequent that I, in youthful ignorance, rolled my eyes and decided they were impossibly dull. And my mother taught me that the terms he and they used to speak of Germans, of Jews, of Japanese were never, ever to be used in my own conversations with anyone at any time. And so yes, racist references and ethnic slurs were common to this era.

But I note that whereas our author has had the good taste and the good sense not to repeat the ugly terms by which Jewish people were called, and seldom repeats the anti-German slurs, the “J” word is used dozens of times, usually by the character that fights in the Pacific. And I have to say, it really stings.

There were fewer Asian Americans during the period when Piercy wrote this than there are today, particularly in the author’s own New England home. For anyone writing this today, and for anyone less venerable and also less influential for me personally during my formative years, I would lop off at least a couple of stars from my rating. It’s ugly to repeat these epithets, and it’s particularly painful to me to read them. This is my husband we’re talking about; it’s my daughter, too. It’s my in-laws, one of whom fought, as good Japanese citizens were expected to, for the Japanese Imperial Army. So I would not care to see her go back and insert the horrible terms hurled at Jews and Germans for the sake of consistency; I’d just rather see the “J” word used less often. She could mention it in her introduction if she feels the reader needs to know that she’s made an adjustment.  That’s my viewpoint, and I’m sticking to it.

But it’s also true that when I was young and confused, Piercy was one of the bright feminist lights in literature to whom I looked for guidance. So I am moved not only by the excellence of this work, but also by the shining legacy she has provided for women during an uncertain time.

One further note: though I have a degree in history and have taught it, I have seldom seen much written—at least in English—about the French Resistance. This part is arguably the most deeply resonant part of this novel, and though I had read the book before, it’s amazing what one can forget over the course of twenty or thirty years. I don’t read many books twice because there are so many I haven’t read at all yet; and still this is one that I may read a third time, as I feel my recollection of the fine details already slipping away.

For those that treasure excellent literary fiction; that have the stamina for a novel of this length; that love outstanding historical fiction; that enjoy stories that are told from a feminist viewpoint and that recognize social classes and the way they affect us; this story is unparalleled. Get it and read it.

The Whole Town’s Talking, by Fannie Flagg*****

 “Up on the hill, Lucille Beemer said, ‘Good morning, everybody.’

“Two hundred and three people just waking up answered, ‘Morning’.”

thewholetownstalking Fannie Flagg is legendary, and rightly so. In fact, at one point in my reading of this DRC, I reflected that someone with her power to move people has power indeed; how fortunate that she uses her gift to benefit the rest of us. I don’t know about you, but I am ready to read something that provides a level of reassurance that all has not gone sour in this world, and that everything passes, sooner or later.  I was  fortunate to read this free and in advance thanks to Random House and Net Galley, but it’s one of the very few books for which I’d have paid full freight if it came down to it. It hits the shelves November 29 and is available for pre-order right now.

Our story begins with the first residents of what will become Elmwood Springs. Lordor Nordstrom arrives from Sweden, and after months of searching, finds the perfect place for his dairy farm in a pleasant spot in Missouri. The year is 1889. He puts up a house, buys some cows, and then, as a founding father, he decides he will donate a piece of land, because every town needs one thing for sure…a cemetery.

“Lordor guessed that preparing a place to spend eternity and trying to figure out how many places to set aside for himself was what made him think about his future.”

I went back and reread that sentence a couple of times; it begins our second chapter. Oh my but Flagg is droll. If one were to read this gem with half a mind on other things, nuggets like this might be missed.

The years go on, and with brief, colorful chapters, Flagg develops the town, introducing new residents that move in or are born here, and at first it seems as if the story is cotton candy, all fluff and sugar. But just as the impression is formed, it is vanquished, because our author is just warming up. Moments that are poignant, bittersweet, and darkly funny are sprinkled in lightly as we start, because after all, we are new to Elmwood Springs.

But the longer we stay there, the more intimately we become acquainted with its denizens and their peccadilloes, and then the more emotional aspects of the story unfold, almost as they might within your own large family or tightly knit community. Flagg convinces me that these people are my people, and her characters are so brilliantly developed, so utterly convincing that even when one of them does something surprising, I understand how that has come to pass.  And every time I think I see where she is headed with one thread or another, she surprises me.

About a fourth of the way in, someone dies and we find them interred, of course, at Still Meadows. But there’s an engaging twist to this aspect of Flagg’s story: the first person to pass wakes up when someone new arrives and greets them. They may be six feet under, but they can see what’s happening at the cemetery, along with everything that can be seen from the cemetery, just fine. And so the discussions that took place in life continue after death, and the dead look on avidly and wait for word of the loved ones they left behind.

As the story develops and characters’ lives are more deeply explored—always remaining more light than dark, and without a single word anywhere that isn’t needed—it occurrs to me that she just may have done it again.

Some people like to take gadgets apart to see what makes them work; I enjoy doing that with literature. And so I find myself looking back at my highlights and notes, looking for what, apart from a dry, accurate wit, makes this writer’s work so special. Some of it is an alchemy whose elements can never be described perfectly, taking ordinary Americans and spinning them into gold. But part of it is undoubtedly her deep respect for working people, and her readiness to see redeemable qualities in characters that upon first glance seem abrasive and unlovable:

“Ida had always been different. At school, when all the kids used to play church and one would be the preacher, another the preacher’s wife, a deacon…Ida said she wanted to be God, because she was the only one who knew how to do it.”

But later, once she was grown, “Someone else remarked, ‘By God, if Ida had been a man, she would have made general by now.”

She also acknowledges that once in awhile, someone comes along that no matter what heroic effort is made on their behalf, will never do anything good for anyone. Hey, it happens.

The comments that are made by various characters reflect both the character’s outlook and usually, the prevailing attitude of the time period as she rolls the town steadily forward to 2016.

And this leads to one cautionary note: as with all of Flagg’s work, it is essential to read the chapter and section headings, which provide context. This reviewer once taught a group of teenage honors students that were unable to make heads nor tails of Fried Green Tomatoes, and I discovered it was because they weren’t reading the chapter headings, and so they didn’t know what the time period was or whose point of view they were reading. Don’t let that happen to you!

Finally, I want to thank the author for the kindly manner in which she draws teachers.  Fannie Flagg, every teacher I know that talks about books, loves your work. We need the encouragement sometimes, and your friendly regard means a great deal.

Highly recommended to everyone.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, by Robert Matzen****

missionjimmystewartIn Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, Robert Matzen provides an engaging, compelling memoir that focuses primarily on Stewart’s time as an aviator during World War II. Thanks go to Net Galley and to Goodknight Books for the DRC, which I read free in exchange for this honest review.

The book begins with Stewart’s childhood in a small Pennsylvania town. His is a close knit family with a strong military tradition. An outstanding student, he is educated at Princeton and falls in love with theater one summer. He hits the road for Hollywood to fulfill his dream.

Because of the title, I am taken aback at the amount of celebrity gossip that is included in the first portion of the biography. Matzen wants us to know that Stewart used his skinny-awkward-young-man routine as a sort of foreplay to work his way between the sheets with one well known actress after another; he lists many of them. I could have lived without this part, but maybe you’ll enjoy it. If like me you are really only interested in the military aspect of it, skip the Hollywood part at the start and pick it back up when he enlists. Eventually this is what I did.

Once there, the story is fascinating. Stewart resolutely straight-armed studio efforts to keep him in the USA or use him to entertain troops, as some actors that are drafted chose to do. He angers a studio head who actually tells him, “You’ll never work in this town again”. He decides he is going to do his part like any other man, apart from the fact that he had always wanted to fly and now has the money for a private plane and flying lessons. Once he is actually in uniform, he is able to become the aviator he has dreamed of being as a youngster.

As Martzen unspools Stewart’s story, which had to be difficult to research given Stewart’s resolute refusal to discuss that period, I am instantly engaged. I had known at one time that the planes were not heated back then, but hadn’t fully appreciated the dangers and challenges posed by the cold alone once in the air. A man could suffocate if he didn’t regularly break the ice off of his mask. Men could and did lose body parts to frostbite.

The stories of the men that would eventually serve under him as he rises in rank, not due to strings pulled by authorities but as he has wished, by merit and leadership capability, are also both interesting and poignant. Reading the way the pilots name and decorate their planes, how individual aircraft with idiosyncrasies that make them handle differently so that the pilots strongly prefer to fly their own ships, is interesting, and  reading the personal details and in some cases, the deaths of these men is wrenching in some places, poignant in others.

When Stewart has completed his military service, he looks at least ten years older than he is. He’s seen a lot. If he returns to Hollywood, there’s no chance he will play the same roles he used to do. He stalwartly refuses to exploit his time in the service by making World War II films, which are enormously popular, and for a long time, his phone doesn’t ring. He’s sleeping at his parents’ house in his old childhood bedroom, wondering what will happen. But in time he hears from Frank Capra, who has an idea for a picture “based on a story titled ‘The Greatest Gift,’ about a man from a small town who wishes he had never been born. Jim was the only actor in Hollywood whom Capra considered for the role.”

Despite the sense of alienation he experiences with his return to the other-worldly, glitzy city after his gritty, intense experience in the war, Stewart is glad to be back, and he plays what will become an iconic role, that of George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life”. He credits Capra with saving his career, and is overjoyed to be back:

“He was engaged in something magical again, something to interest people in the art of living, rather than the art of dying.”

The book also discusses Stewart’s lifelong friendship with Henry Fonda, and his marriage. We get a brief overview of the peacetime lives of the surviving members of Stewart’s first crew.

If it were up to me, I would remove all of the somewhat jarring photos at the end of the book that show Stewart alongside one actress after another, and I’d replace them with photos and maybe diagrams of the planes we hear so much about. A map here and there wouldn’t hurt, since we follow his flight paths and it’s sometimes hard to visualize where these places are. I used Google, but would like to see these included as part of the published memoir, perhaps in the center, where they’re most relevant.

I recommend this biography to fans of Stewart’s, and I recommend most of this book to those with an interest in military history.  The book is available to the public today, October 24, 2016.

The Girl from Venice, by Martin Cruz Smith*****

thegirlfromvMartin Cruz Smith is the best-selling author of Gorky Park and the Arkady Renko series. His new stand alone novel, The Girl from Venice, shows he hasn’t lost his magic, and it quickly became my favorite DRC once I began reading it. Thanks go to Simon and Schuster and Net Galley, from whom I received an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. You can get this book today.

Cenzo Vianello is a fisherman from the tiny village of Pellestrina, an ancient place steeped in tradition. He once had two brothers, but now has only one; Hugo died in Mussolini’s Africa campaign, and his remaining brother Giorgio is a movie star as well as an influential member of the Fascist government. Cenzo detests him for his politics, but even more for having stolen his wife Gina, who died when a bomb fell on the movie set to which Giorgio had escorted her.

All of this is background, complex and deliciously ambiguous in many aspects. It is within this context that Cenzo finds the girl, Giulia, floating like a corpse in the lagoon. To his surprise, he finds she is alive. She is Jewish, from a wealthy family and on the run. She figures that if the poet Byron could cross that lagoon, then so can she. Cenzo hates to spoil her dream, but he tells her this is a dangerous plan, and for many reasons. He develops a plan for her rescue, but later finds he is ambivalent about having turned her over to someone else. Is she safe? Does she remember him? Who can he trust, and who not?

One must, after all, be careful who one embraces.

“The trouble was the war. It should be over. Instead, the Americans were taking forever while Mussolini ruled a puppet state and the Germans, like decapitated ants, went on fighting.”

 When one fears defeat, one may become desperate; in some ways, the Fascists now have little to lose, and so their behavior becomes more extreme. There are partisans that oppose the Fascists, but it’s difficult to be sure who is sincere, and who is a double agent.

Part of the suspense inherent in successful spy novels is the feeling of looking over your shoulder, wary of everyone all the time. The relationship between Cenzo and Giorgio is particularly well developed and is intertwined with this aspect of the story; we never know whether one of them is going to kill the other, and when Giorgio says he will help Cenzo, we wonder whether he is helping lead him into a trap.

Although Giulia provides us with a premise and a scaffold for the story, not to mention a really beautiful book jacket, hers is not the character we see developed. The characters that are meaty and interesting are the brothers.

That being said, Smith should get credit for including an interesting female side character in Maria, the wife of the consul of Argentina, a woman with shadowy business and motive. Maria isn’t there to seduce anyone, not really; she’s also not a victim. In a field riddled with endemic sexism, I was happy to see this progressive element, and was fascinated by the brief, spectral appearance of her husband from his sickbed.

This story is a page-turner, an unmissable tale that will keep your light burning late and distract you from your daily pursuits until it’s over.  Don’t miss this one.