Tag Archives: World War II

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

book cover

“Don’t you wonder sometimes,” Ursula said. “If just one small thing had been changed, in the past, I mean. If Hitler had died at birth, or if someone had kidnapped him as a baby and brought him up in—I don’t know, say, a Quaker household—surely things would be different.”

Kate Atkinson, author of eight previous novels, including four Jackson Brodie crime books, has come up with a nifty notion for a story. Kill off your heroine, early and often, while offering a look at the history of England from 1910 to the 1960s. I would love to tell you more but an SUV appears to have run a red light at the corner, had a too close encounter with a very large truck and seems to be heading into this café…Gotta go. Damn!

Now, where were we, a review? Yes, I seem to recall something about that. More of a feeling really. So, England, 20th century, perils of Pauline, well in this case Ursula, little bear, of Fox Corner, the manse of a well-to-do sort, not Downton rich, but, you know, comfortable. She has a prat of an older brother and a decent elder sis, with a couple of brothers arriving later.

description
Kate Atkinson – from The Telegraph

Life is full of decision points. Walk this way, survive, walk that way and splat. It begins early with Ursula, who is offed before her first breath the first time around. She gets a better deal on the next go, managing to remain with us into childhood, and so on. The structure seems to employ the backstitch a fair bit, starting Ursula up a few chronological paces before the deadly decision point. She seems to be born again more than an entire congregation of fundamentalist Christians, or, maybe more likely a band of Buddhists, as she seems to pick up a bit of wisdom, a bit of strength with each reincarnation. I counted 15 passings-on, but sure, I could have missed one or two. The lady must have G. Reaper on her autodial. What if I had done this instead of that? How might that have changed the outcomes? One can imagine the fun, and challenge an author experiences. Taking her main character, and plenty of secondary characters as well, in one direction then another, then another. It must mimic, to a degree, the authorial process. What if I do this to Ursula? What might happen? What if I point her in a different direction? And as for stuff happening, while it is usually pretty calm here, writing while on a bench in Prospect Park, I must admit I have never seen tentacles that size emerging from anywhere let alone the very modest Park Lake. The slurping sounds are getting rather loud. That sumbitch is faster than he looks…Gotta go. Damn!

So, I felt like sitting with some coffee but the local café just seemed, I don’t know, not what I wanted. Then I considered maybe heading over to the park to work on a review, but it looks like it might rain, so I think I’ll stick at home for now. Of course the desktop has been a bit dodgy of late, but no big whup. I will dip into the special Kona stash, brew up a nice cuppa and set to, shoes off, no shirt. Maybe a nice bagel with butter and strawberry preserves. Yummm! Review, yes, Atkinson, Ursula, do-overs. Oh yeah, it does call to mind a bit of Groundhog Day, although Phil the Weatherman knew early on that he was coming back each time. Not Ursula, although as time goes on she does develop a bit of a sixth sense about some things. And the other major difference here is that Life After Life takes on some heftier purpose than Phil getting the girl and becoming a better person. Ursula is faced with some immediate challenges, like evading a rapist, a girl-killer, those annoying Nazi bombs during the blitz, not falling out windows, you know, stuff. But she also must contend with moral choices, and larger scale. Not only figuring out what the right thing is to do and then deciding, for her life, but thinking about how events affect other people, the nation, maybe the world. What sort of life does she want to lead? How can she help the most people? What sort of person does she want to be? Can she make an impact beyond her immediate concerns? And within that context, others face similar choices. Ursula is not the only one with multiple exit scenes. There are plenty in the chorus of secondary characters who come and go, or should that be go and come back in varying iterations. What if so-and-so did A this time and B the next? How might that change things? This is part of the fun of the book. Not all the decisions are of the life-threatening variety, but they can seriously impact one’s life, other lives as well. Excuse me a moment, Nala, sweetie, off the desk please. I will be happy to scratch you. No, do not rub up against my coffee cup. Nala, DOWN, NOW! Too late, brown milky liquid splatters from the cup on the desk, rushing over the top of the desktop tower, which is sitting on the floor between desk and couch. I get up to fetch some paper towels. Nala’s tail is vertical as she scampers from the room. Maybe I should have worn slippers. I step away from the desk chair, contact enough wet to matter, and only feel it for moment when my body hair begins to ignite and my heart goes into highly charged spasms. I hear the beginning of a scream and then….sonuva..!

Seems a lovely morning for some reviewing. Rainy out? Well, not yet, but you can feel it coming. So, open a few windows. Sit at the desk. Well. Maybe not. Might be a bit too much breeze there. Maybe the couch for a change. Yeah, book, they killed Kenny. You bastards! England. Ursula. War.

I’d always meant it to be very focused on the Second World War, and I don’t know what I was thinking when I decided to start in 1910, to get her born…I think that’s when the coming back again and again kicked in. And I was, on, oh, page 250 of the manuscript and still in the 1920s. I kept saying to people, “Yeah it’s a book about the war!” and then I’d think, it’s not a book about the war. I hadn’t realized how much I would get entangled in 1910-1939 as opposed to 1939-1945. – from Chatelaine interview

There have certainly been some wonderful novels in the last few years that play with structure. A Visit from the Goon Squad is one of the more dramatic of that sort. The rise of the novel comprised of linked stories has seen a boom in popularity. This year’s Welcome to Braggsville takes some chances with form as well. And so it is with Life After Life. While the notion of reincarnation is hardly new in fiction, how it is handled here is far beyond what we have seen before, a real risk-taking. And so effective.

Ursula is a very engaging character. Each time she comes back, you want her to stick around. And even when she makes bad choices you will be rooting for her to fix those in the next round. Her sister Pamela seems as decent a sort as their brother Maurice seems insufferable, maybe a bit too insufferable. We get to see dimensions to Atkinson’s characters over the many iterations, learn something new about them, sometimes surprisingly so. I found it to be entirely engaging, and was always sad with Ursula went dark yet again. The book opens with her taking aim at the worst baddie of the 20th century and you will keep hoping she finds her way back to that place and completes the mission. Will she?

One of the most riveting and memorable elements in Life After Life is the description of London during the Blitz, on the ground, you-are-there, offering considerable nightmare material, and making it clear just how hardy the survivors must have been, and how fragile the hold on life, whichever iteration a person is in. The best part of the book, for me.

There are many uses of animal references here. Ursula means little bear, The family name, Todd, means Fox. A group of Nazi wives is referred to as a wolf pack. Actual foxes move in and out of the story, residents of Fox Corner, the Todd family home. A German is named Fuchs which also means fox. There are more. A warden during the Blitz is named Woolf. At one point, Atkinson offers a wink and a nod to readers as her characters discuss time travel questions. There is much consideration here of the role and rights of women in the first half of the 20th century, and the changes in mores that marked the era. The difference between love and gratitude when considering marriage is considered. The effect of World War I on the nation is noted as well, the loss of a generation of men in the war, and the loss of vast numbers from both genders from the Spanish flu. While florid passages do not characterize the novel, there are some wonderful descriptions. One of my favorites regards the night sky during the Blitz

“It’s almost like a painting, isn’t it?” Miss Woolf said.
“Of the Apocalypse maybe,” Ursula said. Against the backdrop of black night the fires that had been started burned in a huge variety of colors—scarlet and gold and orange, indigo and a sickly lemon. Occasionally vivid greens and blues would shoot up where something chemical had caught fire. Orange flames and thick black smoke roiled out of a warehouse…”
“It’s spectacular, isn’t it? Savage and strangely magnificent.

Yes it is.

Now that the task is done, I think I will bring in a glass of juice and have some of these lovely hard sourdough pretzels. Maybe catch something from the DVR. Always loved these pretzels, except, of course, when bits get stuck going down. Sometimes large bits, uh oh, a very large bit…trying to self-Heimlich, but no go, hitting my head on the edge of the coffee table as I stumble and fall while trying to stand up. Maybe if I can get some liquid in there it will soften it, but the noggin-knock and the inability to get any air makes decision-making a tough go. Damn!

Published – 5/2/13

Review Posted – 7/17/15

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal and FB pages

Interviews
—–Chatelaine by Alex Laws – this is a two-parter. The link to the second part is at the bottom of this one.

—–NPR – with Scott Simon

—–The Sydney Morning Herald by Linda Morris

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Filed under England, Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

book cover

The brain is locked in total darkness of course, children, says the voice. It floats in a clear liquid inside the skull, never in the light. And yet the world it constructs in the mind is full of light. It brims with color and movement. So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?

Marie Laure LeBlanc is a teen who had gone blind at age 6. She and her father, Daniel, fled Paris ahead of the German invasion, arriving in the ancient walled port city of Saint Malo in northwest France to stay with M-L’s great uncle, Etienne. His PTSD from WW I had kept him indoors for two decades. They bring with them a large and infamous diamond, to save it from the Nazis. Daniel had made a scale model of their neighborhood in Paris to help young Marie Laure learn her away around, and repeats the project in Saint Malo, which is eventually occupied by the German army.

Werner and Jutta Pfennig are raised in a German orphanage after their father is killed in the local mine. Werner has a gift for electronics, and is sent to a special school where, despite the many horrors of the experience, his talent is nurtured. He develops technology for locating radio sources, and is rushed into the Wehrmacht to apply his skill in the war. His assignment brings him to Saint Malo, where his path and Marie Laure’s intersect.

book cover

Anthony Doerr

There are three primary time streams here, 1944 as the Allies are assaulting the German-held town, 1940-44, as we follow the progress of Werner and Marie Laure to their intersection, and the 1930s. We see the boy and the girl as children, and are presented with mirrored events in their young lives that will define in large measure the years to follow. Werner and Jutta are mesmerized by a French radio broadcast, a respite from the anti-Semitic propaganda the government is broadcasting. The Professor in the French broadcast offers lectures on science, and inspires Werner to dream of a life beyond the orphanage.

Open your eyes, concluded the man, and see what you can with them before they close forever, and then a piano comes on, playing a lonely song that sounds to Werner like a golden boat traveling a dark river, a progression of harmonies that transfigures Zollverein: the houses turned to mist, the mines filled in, the smokestacks fallen, an ancient sea spilling through the streets, and the air streaming with possibility.

As her father is the head locksmith for the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, Marie Laure has the run of the place. She spends a lot of time with a professor there, learning everything she can about shells, mollusks and snails.

Dr. Geffard teaches her the names of shells–Lambis lambis, Cypraea moneta, Lophiotoma acuta–and lets her feel the spines and apertures and whorls of each in turn. He explains the branches of marine evolution and the sequences of the geologic periods; on her best days, she glimpses the limitless span of millennia behind her: millions of years, tens of millions of years.

Both Werner and Marie Laure are enriched by teachers and books as they grow. No nuclear families here. Marie Laure’s mother died in childbirth. The Pfennig children lost their remaining parent when father was killed in the mine.

The author, in a video on his site, talks about the three pieces of inspiration that provided the superstructure for the novel. While 80 feet below ground in a NYC subway, a fellow passenger was griping about the loss of cell service. Doerr appreciates the beautiful miracle that is modern communications. At the start of the book I wanted to try to capture the magic of hearing the voice of a stranger in a little device in your home because for the history of humanity, that was a strange thing. I started with a boy trapped somewhere and a girl reading a story. A year later he was on a book tour in France and saw Saint Malo for the first time. Walking around this beautiful seaside town, a walled fortress, the beautiful channel, the green water of the channel breaking against the walls and I told my editor, “look how old this is. This medieval town’s so pretty.” He said, “actually, this town was almost entirely destroyed in 1944, by your country, by American bombs.” So I started researching a lot about the city of Saint Malo immediately and knew that was the setting. That was where the boy would be trapped, listening to the radio. The third piece arrived when Doerr learned that when the Germans invaded, the French hid not only their artistic treasures but their important natural history and gemological holdings as well.

The story is told primarily in alternating Marie Laure’s and Werner’s experiences. But there is a third stream as well, that of Sgt Major Reinhold von Rumpel, a gem appraiser drafted by the Reich to examine the jewels captured by the military and collect the best for a special collection. He becomes obsessed with finding the Sea of Flames, the near mythic diamond Daniel LeBlanc had hidden away. He is pretty much the prototypical evil Nazi, completely corrupt, greedy, cruel, as close to a stick-figure characterization as there is in the book. But his evil-doing provides the danger needed to move the story forward.

There may not be words sufficient to exclaim just how magnificent an accomplishment this book is. Amazing, spectacular, incredible, moving, engaging, emotional, gripping, celestial, soulful, and bloody fracking brilliant might give some indication. There is so much going on here. One can read it for the story alone and come away satisfied. But there is such amazing craft on display that the book rewards a closer reading. In addition to a deft application of mirroring in the experiences of Werner and Marie Laure, Doerr brings a poet’s sense of imagery and magic.

Marie-Laure’s experience of the world is filled with shell, snail, and mollusk experiences and references. Some are simple. During a time of intense stress, she must live like the snails, moment to moment, centimeter to centimeter. In a moment of hopeful reflection, these tiny wet beings straining calcium from the water and spinning it into polished dreams on their backs—it is enough. More than enough. You will find many more scattered about like you-know-what on a beach.

I knew early on that I wanted her to be interested in shells. I’m standing here at the ocean right now. I’ve always been so interested in both the visual beauty of mollusks and the tactile feel of them. As a kid, I collected them all the time. That really imbued both “The Shell Collector” and Marie with, Why does the natural world bother to be so beautiful? For me, that’s really embodied in seashells. I knew early on that I wanted her to find a path to pursue her interest in shells. I think that fits — I hope that fits — with visual impairment, using your fingers to identify them and admire them. – from the Powell’s review

Werner’s snowy white hair alone might stand in for the entirety of the visible spectrum. (although it is described as “a color that is the absence of color.”) The dreaded prospect of being forced to work in the mines in a literally coal-black environment, the very antithesis of light, offers motivation for Werner to find another path, and coal itself offers a balance for that other form of carbon that drives Marie Laure’s father out of Paris, the one that embodies light. While black and white are often used in describing Werner’s environment, the broader spectrum figures large in his descriptions.

Werner liked to crouch in his dormer and imagine radio waves like mile-long harp strings, bending and vibrating over Zollverein, flying through forests, through cities, through walls. At midnight he and Jutta prowl the ionosphere, searching for that lavish, penetrating voice. When they find it, Werner feels as if he has been launched into a different existence, a secret place where great discoveries are possible, where an orphan from a coal town can solve some vital mystery hidden in the physical world.

A nice additional touch is Marie Laure’s reading of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. It permeates the tale as her reading echoes events and tensions in the real world of the story.

Also avian imagery is a frequent, soulful presence. A particularly moving moment is when a damaged character is reminded of a long-lost friend (or maybe a long-remembered fear?) by the presence of a particular bird associated with that friend and the time when they knew each other.

There are substantive issues addressed in this National Book Award finalist. Moral choices must be made about how to respond when darkness seeks to extinguish the light. There are powerful instances in which different characters withdraw into their shells in response to evil, but others in which they rage against the night with their actions. Thoughtful characters question the morality of their actions, as dark-siders plunge into the moral abyss. Sometimes the plunge is steep and immediate, but for others it is made clear that innocence can be corrupted, bit by bit. The major characters, and a few of the secondary ones, are very well drawn. You will most definitely care what happens to them.

As for gripes, few and far between. There is a tendency at times to tell rather than show. Marie Laure may be too good. That’s about it. There are sure to be some who find this story too emotional. I am not among them.

Just as Werner perceives or imagines he perceives an invisible world of radiowaves, All the Light We Cannot See enriches the reader with a spectrum of imagery, of meaning, of feeling. You may need eyes to read the page, ears to hear if listening to an audio version, or sensitive, educated fingers to read a Braille volume (please tell me this book has been published in Braille), but the waves with which Doerr has constructed his masterwork will permeate your reading experience. They may not be entirely apparent to your senses the first time you read this book. They are there. Whether you see, hear or touch them, or miss them entirely, they are there, and they will fill you. All the Light We Cannot See is a dazzling novel. When you read it, you will see.

======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, and FB pages

Definitely check out Doerr’s site. And if you are wondering what he had in mind, specifically, with the title:

It’s a reference first and foremost to all the light we literally cannot see: that is, the wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum that are beyond the ability of human eyes to detect (radio waves, of course, being the most relevant). It’s also a metaphorical suggestion that there are countless invisible stories still buried within World War II — that stories of ordinary children, for example, are a kind of light we do not typically see. Ultimately, the title is intended as a suggestion that we spend too much time focused on only a small slice of the spectrum of possibility. – from Doerr’s site

Interview by Jill Owens for Powell’s

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea for free on Project Gutenberg

Here’s the wiki page for Saint Malo

An interesting article on the damage done to Saint Malo in the 1944 battle

A page on the surrender of Saint Malo, from the site World War II Today
World War II Today

Here is a link to a nice, large panoramic shot of modern Saint Malo, far too wide to include here

2/11/2015 – The long list was announced today for The Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and NonFiction and All The Light We Cannot See was on it.

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The Wind is not a River by Brian Payton

book cover

The Aleutian Archipelago: fourteen large and fifty-five small volcanic islands, strung over more than a thousand miles. Somewhere there, he’s alive. On good days, her faith overshadows doubt. And what is faith but belief independent of proof, a conviction that stands on its own. To this she knows John would roll his eyes. The thought makes her smile.

John Easley is missing. Shaken by the death of his RCAF brother over the English Channel, the 38-year-old writer determines to bring information to the people at home about what is really happening in the war. It seems so much more meaningful to him than reporting on bird migration for National Geographic. He feels he owes Warren at least that much. His wife, Helen, disagrees. Their last words before he took off yet again on a war-reporting mission were harsh, and final.

She is facing challenges of her own. Her father is not well, and she wants to be there for him. She is struggling with not having much by way of work skills and is stuck at a low-level job. John’s absence gnaws at her until, realizing that she still loves him, she decides to do everything in her power to find and bring him home. John had bailed out from a damaged aircraft over the Japanese occupied island of Attu. He struggles to survive in the treeless tundra. Helen struggles to find him.

book cover

Brian Payton – from his site

The story flips back and forth between the challenges John and Helen face. John has to figure out how to stay alive, and hidden from the occupying army. I was reminded of David Malouf’s excellent book, An Imaginary Life , about another person isolated in an arctic realm. Helen must figure out how to find John. Both face daunting tasks.

The Wind is a powerful, beautifully written, heart-wrenching love story, but sails well past any simple notions of romance. There is struggle here with the imagined instead of the actual partner. Does there come a time when imagination, whether fed by love or not, loses its sharp focus? How can love survive absence of the other? How far can love take a person when the odds are overwhelmingly against? Can love keep someone alive?

In addition to the compelling tale of a reverse Odyssey, one in which Penelope goes in search of Ulysses, Payton offers us considerable payload in his look at a little-seen part of WW II history. For those who thought that the last time the USA endured the landing of foreign troops was during the War of 1812, you have another think coming. Japan captured and occupied several of the Aleutian islands, and had plans to advance farther. News media of the time was subject to government censorship and the political leaders did not want it known that a foreign power had successfully invaded US territory. We are given a look at a remote and challenging aspect of the war. Along those lines Payton drops in bits of information. For instance, because the land was challenging as a place on which to build strong flat surfaces, a runway was constructed of metal matting cinched together. Another scene shows Americans dropping off planes for Soviet pilots to fly back to the USSR and use in the war on Hitler. We also get a look at the USO,

USO in the Aleutians
The USO sees action – from strangemilitary.com

and, chillingly, the treatment of local evacuees by the US military. So, food for the brain as well as the heart.

As for gripes, I have two. While the cover art is beautiful, it fails to let the reader know what this book is all about, focusing as it does on a single early moment in the story, and ignoring what follows. I was not all that thrilled with the ending. But that did not detract from the great joy that can be had reading this book. Your heart will get quite a workout. John Easley, a decent guy, is engaged in a prolonged life-and-death struggle, and Helen’s love takes on heroic dimensions. There is a large range of emotion from which to draw here. Uplift to be experienced, delight in beauty of various sorts, appreciation for the sacrifices of some, anger, sadness and disappointment as well. Bring your hankies. The love that Brian Payton portrays glows even brighter against the spare environment in which it is set.

Publication Date is January 7, 2014

Review posted 12/16/13

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

The American Booksellers Association named the Wind is not the River a January ’14 Next List pick

Mention is made in the book about John Huston making a documentary of the military campaign in the Aleutians. Here is the film, Report from the Aleutians. It clocks in at 43:13.

A shorter (17:26), color version can be found here

Here is a map of the Aleutians that seemed too tough to read to fit the image into the body of the review

The National Park Service also has some interesting information about the Aleutians here

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