The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict

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When Hedy Kiesler receives her first ostentatiously presented, dozen bouquets of hothouse roses from an admirer after a performance at the theater, she has no idea that it is from the well-known, millionaire, munitions manufacturer, Fritz Mandl.  While she can’t imagine that she’d really be attracted to this older man, she finds she is actually taken in by his charm and charisma.  In actuality, she has little choice, as her father pointedly insists that Hitler’s advances in Germany in 1933 foreboded danger for Jews in Austria as well, and their family needed the protection Mandl might provide.  As Hedy acquiesced, she gradually became trapped in a marriage which was more like a cage.  As she plots her escape, she incurs a stain of guilt that she subsequently spends years of her life trying to repair.

This is in fact, the story of Hedy Lamarr, actress, scientist, and inventor.  After she comes to America, she spends her days behind the camera and her evenings combing physics textbooks in order to master an ideal system to direct torpedoes without being able to be intercepted by an enemy, for use during WWII.  She is not only beautiful and talented, but also brilliant and creative; much to the disbelief of the men around her.  But knowing her secretive backstory gives her inventions context and helps the reader understand her motivations and connections to the war effort.

While this book is based in fact, it is written as fiction, and therefore so easy to read.  Right from Page 1, it draws the reader in and it is difficult to put down until the end.  There is humor and warmth and even a bit of suspense, and certainly anger on Hedy’s behalf.  But overall, there is a great deal of respect for the person she was and the accomplishments she achieved.  It also showed how strongly she had to fight to be respected for her internal beauty and intelligence when she had such striking external beauty.

 

The Atomic City Girls by Janet Beard

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June  has just arrived in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, circa 1944.  It is a town that has just been built, but does not exist on a map, and the job she’s been hired to do involves monitoring gauges on machines she is not even told the purpose of.  Her roommate, Cici, is more seasoned and while she could care less about the purpose of her job, her real purpose is to search for a husband among the many soldiers who are stationed right here in Oak Ridge.  Meanwhile, Joe, a Negro construction worker who has also come to the town looking for opportunity, misses his family deeply and just means to keep his head down and earn as much as he can in order to send his good wage home, while trying to keep his younger friend out of trouble.  Eventually, these lives converge as their mission in Oak Ridge comes to a crescendo, and they all become swept up in a historical moment in our dark history.

This is an effective historical fiction novel about a very bleak moment in the history of the world.  While it deals with this global issue, it tells the story through the lens of fictional but realistic individuals who were involved in the production of this most destructive weapon ever created – and used! – on our planet.  It relates the social and political class and racial issues that were on everyone’s minds at the time, whether it was finding a husband for the women who did not have access to higher paying jobs, or accessing decent housing because of one’s skin color.  It also reveals the attitudes towards the final product of Oak Ridge of each of the participants, which varied widely from pride to guilt.  The army’s secrecy throughout the whole project is stunningly creepy.

I’d recommend this book as a both an important piece of historical fiction, and as just an engrossing read.  I listened to it on CD and it held my attention the whole way through!

 

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada

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This unusual story of the quiet insurgency of Otto and Anna Quangel against Hitler’s war begins with the various characters in their apartment building.  At the beginning of the story, each family has little to do with each other, but because the Gestapo has fostered a culture of paranoia and turning others against each other, each has an eye out for/against the other and their lives become unwittingly embroiled together.  Ironically, the most self-contained and private of all of them, reveal themselves to be the most truly dignified, even as they are ineffectual in their attempts at postcard propaganda.

Let’s just start with the statement that this is not the usual WWII novel, at all.  The quirky writing and the shift in focus from minor character to character keep it floating just a little bit above the usual depth of despair that one usually carries, although it is certainly not without its violence or death.   The focus, though, is really on what is going on in Germany proper and particularly in the ” criminal justice” system.  There are more than a few interlocking stories of how corrupt Nazi Party officials use their positions to gain from the losses of the masses and everyone tries to profit from informing on each other.   The overarching irony becomes who are the “criminals” and who are those who deliver “justice.”  The highlight of this is the actual trial scene, during which a judge essentially does the work of the prosecutor.  After this, when Otto’s “defense attorney” accuses Otto of being mad for what he’s done, Otto rightly asks him, “Do you think it’s mad to be willing to pay any price for remaining decent?”

The most dignified characters here are also the most common, ordinary ones.  Otto and Anna are not wealthy, and not well-educated.  They are hard-working, awkward, regimented people.  Otto is pretty OCD and shuns social interactions.  He is not the typical novel hero.  Which I think is what makes him all the more striking as a hero here.  He’s saying here that anyone can, in his own, small and dignified way, stand up for what he believes in – for what is right.

There is an obvious message here and relevance to what is going on today.  I apologize for my frequent references to political issues in this supposed literary blog, but I can’t help myself.  As I read this book, particular lines and issues jumped out from the pages as if coming fresh out of the newspaper headlines of 2018 as well.  Injustices done to people because of their race or religion, leaders getting away with abuse of power because people worshipped them valuing party over constituents, having a leader of a country who believes himself a deity deserving of unlimited power as if he is not in a democracy at all.  It’s all too familiar and if we do not stop this, it will be just as it was in 1933 at the beginning of all of that.

We have to circulate our own little postcards here and now.  This is mine…

 

Seven Days in May by Kim Izzo

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This is a gorgeous work of historical fiction that is a new addition to my “Must Read” list.  Isabel is a woman hell-bent on reinventing herself as a decoder for the war effort for Britain during the second World War.  Across the ocean, Sydney begins as a headstrong suffragette, much to the chagrin of her sister, Brooke, who just needs Sydney to tone it down so as not to scare away Brooke’s fiancee Edward.  They are all entwined by the voyage of the Lusitania, which is to carry Brooke, Sydney and Edward to England where Brooke and Edward are to marry.  Will the Lusitania make it through war zone waters safely?

This is a beautifully orchestrated novel, with suspenseful subplots and many amusing and colorful characters that draw the reader in and keep the pages turning.  Both Isabel and Sydney are strong protagonists, each with complicated pasts but each also very forward-thinking.  The reader cannot help loving both of them for their idealism and their honesty.  I imagine some of the scenes as being beautiful, by the descriptions of the elegant rooms on the ship, the gowns that the sisters wear, the view from the ship – I can easily picture a filming of this book.

But the real beauty lies in the suspense that builds throughout the story, both in the various sub-plots as well as in the overall big story.  There is a battle between the sisters that must be overcome.  There is someone who might jeopardize all that Isabel has worked so hard to achieve.  And will the Lusitania actually defy the Germans and cross to Liverpool safely?  This is a page-turner that will bring tears to your eyes, that you will read late into the night, and that will stay with you after putting it down.

 

 

Among the Living by Jonathan Rabb

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“Ike” Goldah seems to be finding his way to adjusting to life after the concentration camps of World War II.  He has come straight from the DP camp to live with his cousins in Savannah, Georgia.  His cousin has set him up with a room in their house, a job in his shoe store, and he is even looking into doing some writing on the side, which was his previous career before the war.  That is, until he has a surprise visitor who is like a ghost from his past – and seems to turn his world upside down.

I really like this book for its many plot threads and themes.  You can look at the Jewish Holocaust themes, but there are also comparisons between the Jew/non-Jew and Black/White race relations that are laid out so starkly here.  In addition, Goldah’s cousin is involved in illegal dealings with his shoe business that are a bit murky but that give the story another dimension.   Goldah’s love interests also create another side story, giving his “visitor” addition a real shock value.

I actually think the book could have been expanded upon.  It felt like it ended much too soon.  The characters were great and there was so much happening in it that it could have been broadened further.  I was left wanting much more.

I think this book was a good read, but probably edited down a bit too much.

The Baker’s Daughter by Sarah McCoy

bakers-daugher

This is the tender story of 2 women – Reba, a journalist living in El Paso, assigned to interview a German baker for a Christmas story, and Elsie, the baker during her youth in Germany in 1944.  As Reba is battling her ghosts, trying to sort out her own difficult childhood with an alcoholic father, we learn also of Elsie’s trauma of coming of age in Hitler’s failing war and the bravery she demonstrates silently at that time.  As the two characters get to know each other, they develop a friendship that goes beyond friendship and Elsie and and her daughter Jane become Reba’s second family.

I like the unfolding of the story, as it ping pongs back and forth between the two time periods.  This technique is not uncommon, but it never fails to elevate the suspense.  The tension in the story reaches a crescendo, and then – bam! – switch to the other time period.  A sure-fire way to keep the reader turning those pages.

And as many World War II stories as I’ve read – and there have been many, even just in this blog alone! – I still learn new things.  The new and ugly detail that I had not learned of before was about the Lebensborn Program.  This program was Himmler’s attempt at genetic programming.  There were houses set up in Germany to essentially breed the idealized, blond-haired, blue-eyed Aryans.  Women were kept in these houses for chosen men – married or not – to come and “mate” with them.  The attraction was that the children were given privileges others didn’t have – food, education, other benefits.  However, when babies were born to these women with undesirable characteristics, these babies were done away with, in whatever fashion was easiest.  Evidently, there were other programs tied to this, where children (often Polish) were kidnapped to be dedicated and trained to serve the Third Reich, if they had these characteristics as well.

Evidently, when you think you’ve learned about all the cruelty that could exist, there is still more to discover.

I would not count this book among the “MUST READ’S,” however.  I think that the writing in some spots is excellent and in some spots is quite ordinary.  Somehow, the parts that describe Elsie are tender, rich, and colorful – as Elsie’s character is.  The parts that describe Reba, though, feel flat.  It may be that we don’t have as deep a window into her character as we do to Elsie’s.

I do recommend this, though, as it is still an interesting read, with suspense and feeling and important historical context.

Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly

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Wow.  I just finished this book and I’m still breathless…

Caroline is a young debutante who has given up her acting career to volunteer to help French families who have just come to resettle in NYC in the late 1930’s. Herta is an ambitious physician, one of the few women doctors, in fact, in Germany in 1939.  And Kasia is a teenager who, in 1939 decides she will join her crush, Pietrik, and deliver packages for the Polish underground, after the invasion of the Germans.  As you might expect, these very different women’s lives eventually intersect as the tragedies of the second World War drive them together.

What is most staggering is that this story is based on the lives of real people and real events.  Both Caroline and Herta were real women, individuals who exemplified the best and the worst that women could be.  And Ravensbruck, the Nazi concentration camp for women, was frighteningly real as well.  What fills in the connections between the two women is historical fiction based on years of research by the author to create a story that also illustrates the best and the worst that people can be.

The writing is excellent.  The way the plot is drawn, circling among the 3 major characters, is great not only in terms of fortifying the opposing narratives, but also in building up and then releasing tension as well.  When parts become almost too painful to read, the story switches back to a lighter mood to give the reader a much deserved break.  (What I always feel guilty about is that what I find too hard to read about – millions of people – literally, millions! – actually lived.)

What was most horrifying – and I hate to bring this up, but I feel compelled – is that sentences in this book that described Hitler were frighteningly identical to those describing our new president of the United Staes.  The ego, the destruction of anyone who disagreed with him, and the paranoia with which he reigned – it was all too familiar.  That is terrifying. But all the more reason to read books like this one:  ones that remind us how far people can really go.  It reminds us not to be complacent, because people in Germany thought that it could never happen there either.

This is a MUST READ, by any measure!