Tag Archives: World War II

The Buddha in the Attic – Julie Otsuka

The Buddha in the Attic might as easily be named The Book of Lists. Julie Otsuka inscribes a library of research into a slim volume that is almost poetic in its evocative spareness. She tells the story of the Japanese “picture brides” who traveled by ship to the West coast at the turn of the last century to marry men who had sent handsome photographs and eloquent letters–not written by them and not depicting them. Reality was harsh. The sea voyage was hard to endure; their husbands were field workers, twenty years older than the photos, someone else entirely, house servants, not bankers. Their new homes were sacks in sheds at the edges of farms where they picked in the fields all day. Or bare bones servants’ lodgings at the back of the house or in one of the out buildings. Their wedding nights were closer to rape than romance; their lives were exhausting, unending labor. They washed and ironed in laundries, cooked and served in restaurants, escaped from brutal husbands to find work in the bawdy houses in California’s cities, filled the sleeves of their wedding kimonos with stones and waded into the Pacific.

The whole immigrant experience is encapsulated in words that make a slide show of images and impressions. Children are born, live or not, acculturate, lose the customs and the language, turn away from their families to become Americans. And then World War II comes, and Pearl Harbor, and the infamous reception centers are set up and the neat, hard-won homes, the established restaurants, the quiet, orderly presence of the Japanese is suddenly erased. The outrage in this book is palpable. In saying very little, it says everything. Line-by-line, layer-by-layer, Julie Otsuka builds a world of hope, despair, persistence, achievement and overnight devastation. When I first learned about the Japanese concentration camps in this country, many years after my “American history” courses in school, I was appalled. But it seemed so distant, so unimaginably backward, an aberration I couldn’t really comprehend. The Buddha in the Attic makes the whole ragged struggle of being an immigrant visceral, the deportation of an entire ethnic group to internment camps vivid and unforgivable.

It won’t take too many hours to read this small book but the high-definition cinema of its story will stay in your head for a long time.

The Buddha in the Attic   Julie Otsuka | Alfred A. Knopf   2011

Angels Dining at the Ritz – John Gardner

Once you get in the rhythm of the 1940s British vernacular–and it takes some serious getting used to–John Gardner’s Angels Dining at the Ritz is a ripping good tale of deceit, perversion, B-17 bombing raids, wartime romance and , of course, murder. Vile. violent, cold-blooded, twisted, self-serving murder. Ancient grudges, obsessive love, hidden-away children, serious gore. Quite a lot happens.

When three members of the same family–mother, father and eight-year-old son–have their faces blasted off by a twelve-bore, double-barrelled shotgun in their country home, Detective Chief Superintendent the Honorable Tommy Livermore and his subordinate Suzie Mountford get the case. Not only do they work together, they sleep together but that’s their little secret. The few cops who know about them pretend they don’t. The murdered family is prominent, a respected barrister from an ice cream and confections empire–Italians many generations in England who immediately close ranks and leave out some key details of their genetics and relations.

Meanwhile, adjacent to the murder scene, an air base for Flying Fortresses regularly rips open the silent peace of the rural village. The local girls don’t mind a bit and the dashing American pilots and crews spend time off-base when they aren’t making runs over occupied France. That’s how one of them stumbles across a murder scene that he is desperate not to disclose. There is excellent description of the flights and the horrors that happen when the planes are hit. And throughout the book, there is a clear picture of the nasty food available, for the Brits but not so much the Yanks, during wartime–very graphic.

Good read. I waded through the slang and shorthand as best I could. (“Ropey do”–what is that supposed to mean?)  Wasn’t always successful but caught most of it. Figured out what might have been up before the puzzle pieces were dropped in but didn’t quite connect the two murder plots in the story. They did make for some nail-biting reading though. A lot of gruesome dying happens and we are spared none of the details. The sleuthing was pretty engaging and I’d have to rate this one both jaunty and grim but a decent historical crime novel.

Angels Dining at the Ritz   John Gardner | Severn House   2004

Restoration – Olaf Olafsson

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Restoration, Olaf Olafsson’s novel about the perilous intersection of international art dealers, illicit loves and a hidden vault on a Tuscan estate during World War II, covers forgery, tragedy and broken promises—all badly in need of remorse and repair. Kristin is a young art school graduate with an uncanny talent for painstaking restoration of Renaissance art. Alice is a British expat in Italy’s upper crust, closed Anglo communities who breaks with her crowd to marry a native of Tuscany. Robert Marshall is a devious, self-absorbed, brilliant and globally respected art restorer and procurer who authenticates paintings by old masters. The Germans are collecting museum quality art as fast as they can find it and the risk of dabbling in that market is worth your life.

When Kristin despairs of her own talent and faces the fact that Marshall has used and betrayed her, she creates a “found” Caravaggio–with her own face–that fools the experts. Her intention is to humiliate Marshall but before she can reveal the truth, Marshall sells the nearly finished “restoration” to a highly placed Nazi collector and then prevails on Alice to hide it on her estate until it can be retrieved. Alice wants nothing to do with the painting but Marshall’s discovery of an affair that could wreck her troubled marriage gives him an unshakeable hold over her.

This is a wonderful set up for a taut, complex story with plenty of internal and external quandaries to be resolved as the Germans and the Allies close in on the estate. Kristin finds out the painting’s location and intends to destroy it but her train is bombed en route from Rome and her injury prevents a search for it. Alice is in mourning for her young son who dies of meningitis just before a group of orphans arrives at the estate in need of shelter. Her husband disappears abruptly and the horrors of war come to their Tuscan village. Hiding the painting is as dangerous as harboring partisans and no one is spared in the troop occupations and fierce battles that ensue.

Restoration is really well done—an absorbing read with interesting, intelligent and flawed characters, fascinating detail about art restoration and the clandestine trading and acquisition that typified war torn Europe, graphic recreations of local fighting and deadly strafing, portrayal of the intimate effects of battle on combatants and civilians, and believable maps of the terrain a heart wanders after it has been broken. Nothing can ever really be restored to its original state. Olafsson’s novel makes the case that the best we can do is muddle on, trying to find some beauty in the patched and damaged thing that is left to us, deferring to the art of illusion as a survival technique, to whatever extent we can.  

Restoration: A Novel   Olaf Olafsson | HarperCollins   2012

The O’Briens – Peter Behrens

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The O’Briens is the post-diaspora saga of an Irish family in Canada. After a brief scene-setting introduction, we follow the trajectory of Joe, the eldest boy, as his stepfather torments the family, his mother dies and he takes charge of dispersing the younger children into safe havens. Two young sisters go to a cloistered convent. The little brother who wanted to become a priest goes to a Jesuit seminary and Fordham University in New York. Second brother heads for family in Chicago and Joe sets out to build the railroad and make his fortune.

Peter Behrens holds fifty years of the family’s peregrinations up to the light. Joe meets his match in Iseult, a young woman searching for a new start in Venice, California. Their lyrical courtship—attentive to the space between the words—results in a marriage that survives tragedy, the acquisition of great wealth, two devastating wars, the exposure of their personal faultlines, the forgiveness and accommodation of an enduring commitment.

The story tracks what happens to each of the siblings and to their children and children’s children. It is both epic and intimately emotional. There are passages of pure beauty as Behrens describes interior and exterior landscapes. The events of their lives are captured with such verisimilitude that they seem real, and evoke real responses. Most unusually, you can empathize with all the characters, as they experience loss, disappointment, wonder, infatuation, passion, rage, exultation and the restless anxiety that precedes, and sometimes precipitates, change.

I’m not a huge fan of family sagas but I was impressed with this one. The O’Briens are very human, recognizable, loyal, even admirable. They are each searching for meaning, trying to see with clear eyes, intending not to hurt each other. Some of the time they succeed, and you want them to. It was a worthwhile read, a reflection of the terrible mistakes and small graces that tear every family apart–and bind them together.

The O’Briens   Peter Behrens | Pantheon Books   2011

No One is Here Except All of Us – Ramona Ausubel

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No One is Here Except All of Us isn’t a fable or a fairytale. It seems like a cross between Isaac Bashevis Singer and Gabriel Garcia Marquez but Ramona Ausubel’s debut novel is her own invention—a lyrical meditation of the power of storytelling and an excoriating chronicle of the annihilation of a small Jewish community during World War II.

The village of Zalischik in Romania sits on a forgotten peninsula rounded by a river. The villagers fled earlier genocides in Europe and tore down the bridge to the outside world once they were safely across. For generations they have survived peacefully, assigning the simple roles of the society to individual families, raising their children, feeling safe. Then a woman is washed up on the riverbank by a rogue tide and everything changes.

The stranger is the lone survivor of a massacre, a round-up and brutalization of the Jews in a nearby village. Zalischik takes her in but fear enters with her and they devise an original plan to avoid the horrors of the war outside their hidden enclave. Lena, the eleven-year-old narrator of the tale, helps the stranger to invent a new beginning for the village. The world will start that day and nothing else exists yet—no war, no pogroms, no murderous soldiers or yellow stars. The village agrees that this is their only recourse and the odd experiment begins.

It is really an unraveling, a disassociation, a mass denial. Ausubel’s language is evocative and poetic, the concept of starting the world over—no yesterday, everything new—is seductive. But the reality is a nightmare. The tight-knit community breaks down. All timepieces are thrown in the river because time can have no meaning if it never existed. Lena is requisitioned to serve as the baby to her childless relatives, and her insane aunt—now the “mother” who insists she is owed a child–makes Lena regress to infancy and go through every stage of development until the child no longer knows who she is, how old or what will happen to her next. Civilization is suspended and re-imagined and the results are bizarre; the fabric of the villagers’ lives comes unstitched.

Lena is a strong voice and a character you want to root for. Genocide is a hopeless, inescapable scouring. Stories are how we tell ourselves but this story—these stories are something else, a desperate measure, a reaction that presages a violent diaspora to come.

I opened No One is Here… after abandoning Immortal Bird, Doron Weber’s grief-soaked recounting of the medical crises that took the life of his treasured first-born son. An hour into that book I realized I wouldn’t survive the relentless accumulation of procedures and failures that track a boy’s brief life and his family’s sorrow. No One is Here… was no optimistic replacement. It is exquisitely written and the strings of words are a tangible pleasure. But horror is horror and that particular one can never be beautifully narrated or subsumed into legend or myth, no matter who–or what–survives to begin again.

No One is Here Except All of Us   Ramona Ausubel | Riverside Books   2012

Slaughterhouse-Five – Kurt Vonnegut

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Kurt Vonnegut had a hard time translating his war experiences in the bombing of Dresden into a novel. He bemoaned the difficulties in the open to the final published work, Slaughterhouse-Five, which didn’t appear for more than two decades after World War II. By that time, details of the apocalyptic bombing that incinerated a peaceful, architecturally and culturally rich city and left it flattened and lifeless had emerged. The number of people killed in Dresden was greater than the death toll from the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Destroying the city and its inhabitants served no strategic purpose. It was, as so many incidents are in war, a thoughtless and horrible mistake.

Billy Pilgrim is Vonnegut’s stand-in witness to events and Billy’s ingenuous and wry commentary is both cutting and humorous. Vonnegut managed to write a powerful indictment of war, an uncompromising insistence on common sense and compassion, and a very funny novel that never strays too far from the truth of what happened to its author as a prisoner of war trapped in the funeral pyre that was Dresden.

As a soldier, Pilgrim is clueless, feckless and blessed with an odd kind of good fortune. He survives bloody battle, desperate flight for survival in the dead of winter, capture and imprisonment, forced labor and an incendiary disaster through no effort of his own. He is an unintentional clown and a buffoon but he lands on his feet—clad in a pair of stolen glittering silver boots—every time. His observations highlight the cruelty, inhumanity and sheer stupidity of wartime behavior and they are so spot-on and droll that you share his experience. This is no simple trick because his experience is horrific. What Vonnegut saw and reported was sickening and enraging. What Billy Pilgrim relates is a kind of Forrest Gump-like account that makes you laugh even as you recoil.

As an optometrist, husband and survivor of life’s accidents and vicissitudes after the war, Pilgrim slips in and out of mental time travel to convey the mash-up of wartime experience, its social and personal repercussions, the long view of a life’s history with events both anticipated and seen at a distance. He insists that he has been kidnapped by aliens and displayed in a zoo in which American culture is viewed from millions of light years away—and found curious and crazy. His successful adaptation to a career as the head of an optometry practice, his family, his social standing, are upended by his persistent late-in-life candor. Billy’s reality might be the result of a serious head injury and very delayed post traumatic stress disorder. Or it might just be the truth.

The things that happened in the war sections of Vonnegut’s classic fiction about Dresden are not fiction. Most of what he wrote in his own long career was his life and experience, pretty thinly disguised. Slaughterhouse-Five is no exception. The book’s name is the name of the meat warehouse where Vonnegut and his fellow American prisoners were housed in Dresden. Its deep cellar was a safe bunker during the bombing and those who sheltered there, with a few hanging animal carcasses, survived. The memory of what they endured and what they witnessed survived, too. It lives on in a novel that is an hilarious but unambiguous condemnation of war that reads as relevant today as it did when Vonnegut published it during the Vietnam war in 1969. Billy Pilgrim was a time traveler and a prophet. We are still firebombing our Dresdens back into the dark ages. Vonnegut held up a funhouse mirror but we don’t seem to have understood what it reveals.

Slaughterhouse-Five: A Novel    Kurt Vonnegut | Dial Press   2009

And So It Goes, Kurt Vonnegut: A Life — Charles J. Shields

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Kurt Vonnegut was a Midwesterner in a riches-to-rags family who traveled far and wide but never escaped his roots. Charles J. Shields chronicles Vonnegut’s episodic life, triumphs and tragedies, in And So it Goes, a thorough biography that benefits from Vonnegut’s cooperation and access to scores of letters and interviews that fill in the picture. Sadly, Shields only managed a coupe of interviews before the accident that ended Vonnegut’s life at 84.

The Indianapolis Vonnegut family was prominent and moderately wealthy until the Depression wiped out their investments and left them scrambling to salvage a formerly comfortable life. Vonnegut missed the heyday of his family’s wealth—he was the youngest of three children—and he always felt he missed his parents’ attention and approval as well. His mother never adjusted to life without maids, luncheons, travel and society events and ended up committing suicide. His father never achieved the distinction as an architect that was the family heritage. Neither parent had much time for Kurt; what attention they did pay to their children was lavished mostly on his brilliant older brother, a precocious scientist.

Kurt had a talent for writing but agreed to major in science as a concession to family pressure to measure up. He was a serious college journalist but not a dedicated student—eventually he enlisted in the Army in World War II rather than be drafted. It was his personal misfortune and literary bonanza to be a prisoner of war in the firebombing of Dresden, waiting out the carnage that leveled the city in an underground meat locker called Slaughterhouse-5. When he wrote Slaughterhouse Five, his most celebrated novel, many years later, he created a meta-fiction to deal with the fact that he had not witnessed the carnage—he had been underground the whole time. The aftermath seared itself into his memory, though, and his many months as a starving prisoner turned him from a class-clown, zany character into a more sober and pacifist adult.

Marriage to his college-age crush took both of them to the University of Chicago on the G.I. Bill and a fellowship where they studied until Jane became pregnant with their first child. Vonnegut never completed his thesis—his first topic was not approved and his first effort was rejected–and left the university without a degree. That began decades of scrambling to be a successful freelance writer, interspersed with stints of working in public relations for General Electric and taking pick-up teaching jobs to feed his growing family. He and Jane settled on Cape Cod where they added his sister’s four boys to their own three kids after she and her husband died within weeks of each other. It was a generous gesture but unconsidered. The Vonnegut house was messy, uncontrolled chaos. Jane shouldered the burden of daily care, feeding and bill-paying while Vonnegut holed up in his study, chain-smoking and collecting rejections. Throughout her life, she supported his dreams about writing and served as a first reader and critic of his work.

Kurt Vonnegut might never have written his novels if friends in high places in publishing hadn’t taken him on. Magazine articles kept the menagerie going and kept Vonnegut’s vision of himself as a successful writer alive. His earliest books garnered some critical notice, some mixed reactions and underwhelming sales. But he persevered and found an audience, a raconteur’s talent for teaching and, in time, the fame he hungered for. Along the way he began a love affair and lifelong friendship with a woman he met while teaching at the Iowa Writers Workshop, drifted in and out of depressions, paid sporadic attention to the kids, wrote some plays and met the photographer Jill Krementz, who would become his second wife.

Krementz is an irredeemable monster in this biography. She squired Vonnegut around New York’s artsy haute monde and took over his life. Late in their marriage, she changed the locks on his Manhattan townhouse, determined who was allowed to visit, monitored his friendships and harangued him about his personal habits, writing and everything else that met with her disapproval. Meanwhile, Vonnegut, reacting to the reception of his work by a large, college-age audience, developed a marketable persona that became his public face. The clean-shaven Midwesterner let his hair grow, sported a bushy moustache and began to resemble more and more the Mark Twain character he was compared to.

And So It Goes punctures the hot air balloons of fame that lift up a celebrated writer and deliver him to the literary pantheon. Vonnegut was a flawed man and a flawed writer. He left wreckage and a lot of colorful anecdotes in his wake. But he was also beloved, by fans, the friends he didn’t alienate, his family and his students—not always and not blindly. His story is a good story, if not a happy one. He told it, very thinly disguised, in all of his books. Shields has untangled the timeline and fleshed it out for us. The biography made me want to go back and re-read a few of the books to connect the writer with the work that embodies his sense of humor, despair at the human condition and quirky vision.

And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life   Charles J. Shields | Henry Holt and Company  2011