In the closing days of WWII, as the Allies are conquering northward up the Italian peninsula, the Germans are beginning to retreat, and their Italian allies are bumbling. Venice, though under German occupation still, is spared American bombing runs. In the lagoons beyond the city, Cenzo, an insightful, witty fisherman, finds an 18-year-old Jewish girl, Giula Silber, floating face down, but still alive. Giula and Cenzo must outwit Nazis hunting for her, black marketeers willing to trade in everything from human cargo to peace initiatives, Italian Fascists, anti-Fascist partisans, Cenzo’s dubious older brother, and his indomitable mother. The writing is spare, occasionally too lean, so that some characters and a few of their actions are veiled in a Venetian mist, and yet, in sum, the disorder imposed of a World War on the daily lives of bartenders, fishermen, backwater diplomats, and indulgent Italian mothers emerges with the piquancy of fresh polenta.
Paper Love by Sarah Wildman **** (of 4)
Sarah Waldman’s grandfather escaped the Nazi Aunchshloss in Austria by the skin of his teeth. He settled in America, opened a successful medical practice, and lived a life of joy and optimism. In his closet, discovered only after his death, are the letters of his true love, Valy, left behind in Vienna and Berlin. As the jaws of the Nazi vice slowly draw closer together around Valy’s diminishing life her letters to America become increasingly desperate, personal, and ultimately heartbreaking. By searching for Valy’s story, the history of one woman whose trail leads into the maw of the Shoah, Waldman answers one of the most difficult questions asked of Jews. Why did Jews let the Nazis do this to them? Here we see how it happened to Valy who stayed behind to be with her mother when even in 1938 things seemed like they could not get so bad that abandoning a country, a livelihood and the only family you still had was the only means of saving any member of your family. Because we read this book knowing the outcome and that those Jews still in Europe could never know what was yet to come we are even more chilled as Nazi restrictions build one upon another. And then the really unanswerable question comes to the fore. How could Nazis week after week conceive of new methods of torture: forbidding Jews to shop, ride a bus, congregate, appear in public, live in their own homes, work, live?
I tried. I read 100 pages but could get no further. An excessively detailed description of the disintegration of a town of Turks (Muslims) and Greeks (Christians) who get along and then are split apart by World War I or II, I can’t recall. Read Corelli’s Mandolin instead, by the same author, because it is one of the best books I’ve ever read. May 2007.
Mila 18 by Leon Uris **** (of 4)
One of my absolute favorite books about the Warsaw ghetto uprising. A real page turner with wonderful characterizations.
Nuremberg: The Reckoning, by William F. Buckley * (of 4)
It was surprisingly bad. I learned a fair amount about the Nuremberg trials after WWII, but was shocked by how trivial the plot was and how uninspiring the writing was. I expected more.
Old Men at Midnight, by Chaim Potok *** (of 4)
Enigmatic. I went back and forth between thinking the three short stories were too simple, too typical, not completely unique recountings of Jewish suffering in the Holocaust and Pogroms and Russian Revolution and being totally captivated.
Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut ** (of 4)
As a twenty year old soldier Vonnegut was one of the few people to survive the allied bombing of Dresden in World War II. For more than twenty years he wrestled with how to tell the story of the senseless and overwhelming destruction of a city and vritually all its inhabitants. What he decides upon is a fictional account of the absurd life of Billy Pilgrim, a soldier-nebish who travels in time and space and conjoins with science fiction characters. The book’s success is the novelty in which it portrays the absurdity of war by being an absurdist book. Or, it fails as just another late 60s acid trip of a tale. July 2008.
A story of Easy Company during WW II that trained as the most elite paratrooper unit in the Army and fought in the Battle of the Bulge holding off the Germans despite alarming odds and the absence of supplies. The kind of men that make up the greatest generation. Ambrose does let on that these guys were young, uneducated men capable of less than honorable behavior – cowardice, looting, poor judgment – but that is a minor theme. There are too many names to keep track of in the book. The fight scenes are very well described. December 2004
Goodbye Darkness by William Manchester *** (of 4)
One of Manchester’s best. A memoir about his role in WWII marines in Pacific theater.
No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II by Doris Kearns Goodwin *** (of 4)
The book only covers five years, but it does it so thoroughly that it probably contains more than half a million words. Goodwin brings several strengths to the task. First, she doesn’t try to cover their entire lives. Second, and most appealing to me, she describes events chronologically, as if we were following them unfold in the newspapers. Third, she integrates the combustible nuances of Franklin’s and Eleanor’s divergent personalities, providing psychoanalysis at the same time she is explaining their actions as perceived by the nation and world. Fourth, she writes about World War II as perceived from within America, a view I’ve never encountered before. Fifth, she’s a very compelling writer. But the book’s length makes it a real commitment. September 2006.