History

Atomic Café

In the early 60’s I remember going through atomic bomb drills in school.  We were dutifully herded by our teachers down to the depths of Roger’s Elementary school here in Bloomington, past the furnaces, and seemingly below the floors to the area in which we were to remain until the radiation levels dropped enough for us to come out.  I can still remember the big storage cans of water stacked along the walls and under stairwells marked with the Civil Defense emblem.  I assume, though I can’t really remember seeing them, that there were food rations that were available for us to eat as well.  Along with the television advertisements for cereal, candy and toys we saw public service announcements with “Burt the Turtle” teaching us how to “duck and cover” if we should ever see the flash of an atomic bomb.   How naïve these advertisements and steps seem today when more accurate information about atomic blasts and radiation is common knowledge.   We know for example that we can’t survive an atomic blast by hiding inside of a refrigerator.

Orphan Train

I had a personal connection to this novel because my mom was raised as an orphan in Chicago. Luckily, she never had to experience adoptions or sharing foster homes with unloving parents but she did start out on her own at age sixteen working as a salesgirl in the Chicago Loop.

This touching intertwined story of two orphans: one contemporary and one from depression era days, was a quick and touching read. It begins with Goth-looking Molly, a young, half-Native America girl from Maine who just got busted for stealing a book from the public library.  Really? Well not every detail in a novel has to be 100% authentic.   

In case you’re curious, Molly took the third and the most beaten-up copy of Jane Eyre.

The Invention of Wings

Two young women characters guide the reader back to 19th century South Carolina where the institution of slavery affected everyone’s life and relationships. Hetty (nicknamed Handful) is a skinny wisp of a girl with amber eyes and wild braids in her hair. 

At the age of ten, the Missus gives her to her middle child, Sarah, who has just moved up from the nursery.  In this society it’s normal to have your own slave, and one who can mend and sew is highly valued.

At an elegant birthday party attended by the privileged young of Charleston society, Sarah refuses this lady’s maid/slave.  Sarah does not believe in the institution although her family’s life centers around its abuse and brutality.  The Missus walks everywhere with a cane, but the slaves know its real use—to hit them on the head should they bring this lady displeasure.

Monuments Men

It’s not often that a World War II film comes my way that stirs my soul.  It’s even rarer that what stirs my soul is not the personal story of an individual or a small group  of people standing up for what is right against the Nazi’s or an escape from a German internment camp despite impossible odds.  It’s not that I don’t enjoy a good war film, but most war films have the same basic features,

Lucky Us

This intriguing 1940s novel opens with a mother announcing that someone has died and they better hustle over to the house and "see what might be in it for us."  The house belongs to Eva's dad and his recently deceased wife.

A week later Eva's Mom deposits her on the doorstep with a suitcase then disappears from her life. Upstairs is Eva's half-sister, Iris. Until this day, neither sister knew the other existed. 

Iris, four years older and in high school, enters and wins many talent contests (elocution, dramatic readings, poetry, patriotic essays, and dance) in their small Ohio town and bergs like it within fifty miles. However, she must hide her earnings from her father, Edgar, a college professor of elocution, who has no qualms about stealing from his children.

Before long, Iris graduates from school and heads out to Hollywood. Because their dad basically abandons Eva to her own care, she soon drops out of school to join her older sister in Hollywood. They move into a rooming house and Iris shares her adventures with Eva as she holes up in their room until school is out each day.

Iris scores a few speaking roles in movies, but soon becomes involved in a gay sex scandal and gets blacklisted in Hollywood. The older more famous actress marries immediately and her career zooms on.

Soon Edgar reappears and along with a helpful make-up artist, Francisco, they decide to drive across country to find possible jobs in New York. Edgar thinks he can pass as a butler and with some training, Iris, can be a governess. As they drive through the west, Iris memories facts from The Little Blue Books, and the party grills her on Shakespeare. Luckily, father and daughter land jobs with an Italian nouveau riche family, the Torellis.

Eva grows up to become a fortune teller. As Iris advised Eva, "It's the great thing about the war.... Anyone can be anyone." Iris adopts a son (somewhat illegally--they actually steal him from the orphanage) and falls in love with the Torellis' cook, Reenie, whom she convinces to leave her husband and move in with them.

To this crazy disfunctional family, Bloom brings her insight as a former psychotherapist. The 40s time period is captured well and a series of letters from a dear family friend, who was thrown out of the country for being Jewish describe some of the hardships of Europe including the Dresden bombings.

In no sense is this a light, hopeful book, yet it is very well-written and captures the complex relationships and dynamics of a modern American family in the midst of a rapidly changing world.

For a book about another family surviving WW II on the other side of the pond, try Amanda Hodginkson's 22 Britannia Road.

Man Booker Prize Awarded to Australian Novelist

The Man Booker Prize winner for 2014 was announced on Tuesday. Richard Flanagan, a popular and highly-regarded Australian novelist, won it for his book The Narrow Road to the Deep North, a historical novel set during WWII.

It’s about the construction of the Thai-Burma railroad, known as the Death Railway. For an odd bit of symmetry, Flanagan’s father, who worked on this railway during World War II, died on the very day that Flanagan finished his book.

If you follow book news, you already know that this is the first year that American authors have been allowed to compete for the Booker, and two Americans made the short list: Karen Joy Fowler (We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves) and Joshua Ferris (To Rise Again at a Decent Hour).

All the Light We Cannot See

A blind French girl. A brilliant German boy.  A locksmith who works at a world-class museum. A French resistance worker who doubles as a housewife. An agoraphobic great uncle who has not left home since the close of the last war, WW1.  A Nazi army gem expert who prowls after a world-class jewel that he believes will cure his advanced cancer.

These are the main characters that people this fascinating WWII novel.  Tying them all together are radio signals and a blue diamond worth millions.

The novel alternates (mostly) between the points of view of Marie-Laure, a blind girl and Werner, an orphan who teaches himself advanced radio skills. Marie-Laure has been blind since the age of six.  Just after the German occupation,  she and her locksmith father flee Paris, but soon after the Germans take and imprison her father.

A myth surrounds the blue diamond itself.  Marie-Laure learned about the diamond early in her life. The myth says that anyone who carries it will have bad luck befall them. Unfortunately, the museum director entrusts the locksmith with this diamond as the Germans enter Paris. He also ordered two other duplicates created to confuse anyone trying to track the diamond. None of the three employees trusted with the diamond know who has the real one.

Someone

No one else writes with the lyric flow of Alice McDermott.  Or covers childhood and adolescence with so much immediacy as though it were happening right now.  When I surfaced for breaths while reading this novel, I had to remind myself that I wasn’t in a stuffy walk-up in Brooklyn listening  to children play ball and jump rope in the street.

The novel tells the story of Marie Commeford as a child, teen, young woman and as an older woman with grown children of her own.  Marie is the stubborn second child of Irish Catholics. Her brother Gabe is remarkably obedient and good, already in grade school, on a path for the priesthood, whereas Marie is rebellious, adventurous, and not one for rules.

Her dad takes her on walks to speakeasies and encourages her fiery temperament; her mother tries to discipline her and tamp down her rebellious spirit. Saturday mornings, she runs to her best friend Gerty’s house and buries herself in her mother’s lap, but Gerty’s kind mother dies in childbirth. This tragedy convinces Marie to refuse to learn how to cook. Gerty had learned and look what happened to her.

Life after Life

Oh my, what happens when a novel’s lead character dies on the fourth page? Alas, Dr. Fellowes never made it to Ursula’s birth (at least not this time around)—he was busy treating a man trampled by a bull.

This novel made many “best book” of the year lists. On a cold winter’s night in 1910, a baby girl was born to the Todd family, but alas poor Ursula was born blue. Then she is born again and the family cat, Queenie, smothers her (not necessarily on purpose.) She’s born again and drowns while swimming in the sea with her older sister Pamela.

But in between all the births and deaths, (her younger brother Teddy, has his own run-ins with nasty accidents and reincarnation), a lot happens to the Todd family. Hugh, the father, is a banker, and his wife Sylvie, a rather uninvolved mother. In a style and format all her own, Kate Atkinson has reimagined the historical novel.

Dorothy Day's Circle of Friends

I’ve read other books by Joan Silber, and I think she is a writer who deserves a bigger audience. If you’re a fan of historical novels, you will enjoy this book. It’s less a novel than a collection of interrelated stories centered on friends of Dorothy Day (or were related to her inner circle). She was a famous Catholic worker who fought hard for the poor.

The first story revolves on a group of young 20-somethings in Day’s New York circle about the time she was getting serious about Catholicism.  (She was an adult convert.)  In the title story, a young vivacious woman named Vera, loves her life surrounded by smart, interesting people, one of whom she marries. Silber captures the feel of New York City during this time, the freedom young adults experienced living together, going to political meetings, working their day jobs but also doing creative things on the side.

Vera is a sign painter until her employer insults her and then eventually fires her without cause.  Although in love with her husband, Joe, Vera is drawn to Day’s boyfriend, Forster, who is also the father of Day’s child. A chance meeting in a park brings Vera and Forster together when they discover the corpse of a poor man who froze to death on a bench.

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