Review of “50 Things You Should Know About The Second World War” by Simon Adams

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Like the analogously named book about World War I, this small book is replete with excellent maps, great photos, fascinating fact-boxes, and reader-friendly infographics. But of course, limiting a vast subject like “World War II” to “fifty things” is going to leave some gaps.

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Perhaps the most significant omission to my mind is the matter of the internment of Japanese Americans in the United States. This involved the forced relocation and incarceration in 1942 of between 110,000 and 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, 62% of whom were U.S. citizens. Men, women, and children were sent to camps in barren, inhospitable locations. As many as 25 persons lived in spaces intended for four. Their belongings, businesses, and savings were confiscated. (Losses were estimated by the government as more than $200 million in 1942.) None were ever found guilty of disloyalty; a 1980 U.S. Government Commission concluded the incarceration had been the product of racism.

Japanese American Children in an American internment camp

Japanese American Children in an American internment camp

Similarly, Britain’s roundup of Italians and Germans (including Jewish citizens from those two countries who had fled to Britain to avoid the Nazis) gets no mention whatsoever.

The author includes a “blurb” on the 1944 Warsaw Uprising of the Polish Resistance, but nothing whatsoever about the 1943 uprising of the Warsaw Jewish Ghetto, one of the more amazing acts of resistance in modern history. [You can read a summary of what happened here.] Nor is there any mention of The Katyn massacre, a series of mass executions of Polish nationals carried out by the Soviet secret police in 1940, and only acknowledged by Russia in 1990. (Churchill and FDR both knew about what happened at Katyn, but chose not to criticize their Soviet ally.)

Jews from the Warsaw ghetto surrender to German soldiers after the uprising.   (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Jews from the Warsaw ghetto surrender to German soldiers after the uprising. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Another omission seemed unfortunate to me. Although the author devotes a relatively large section to the British code breakers of Bletchley Park and Alan Turing, it is a shame he did not take the opportunity to report on how the British government “rewarded” Turing for work acknowledged as “essential” in defeating enemy U-boats and helping the Allies at D-Day. (In fact, by some accounts, it has been estimated that the work at Bletchley Park shortened the war in Europe by as many as two to four years. And yes, the post-war world does receive some coverage, so it cannot be said to be outside of the purview of the work.) Turing was prosecuted in 1952 for homosexuality; forced to undergo chemical castration in lieu of imprisonment; and died of cyanide poisoning in 1954 (whether self-induced or not has never been conclusively established).

Alan Turing

Alan Turing

Nevertheless, the author found many ways to include engrossing aspects of a huge subject as well as some “fun facts” (like the derivation of code names for various military operations) and gives a good, if incomplete, overview of what happened during the war. Importantly, I don’t think anyone is going to be bored by the history lessons in this book.

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Evaluation:  This book does a very good job at introducing the subject of World War II to students. All the eye-popping pictures and facts will no doubt inspire further inquiries, at which time the omitted portions of the history will become clear. Great maps and infographics with plenty of photos will make the time fly as you learn the basics. A brief “who’s who” photo gallery and glossary are at the back of the book.

Rating:  3.5/5

Published in the US. by QEB Publishing, 2015

Note: This book and others about World War II throws around some pretty big numbers about casualties, but they are not necessarily easy to conceptualize. An excellent animated data visualization by Neil Halloran entitled “The Fallen of World War II” helps translate the abstract numbers into terrifying relatable terms. The video first analyzes soldier fatalities by nation, then civilian deaths, and finally offers a perspective of WWII in the context of previous conflicts and those that followed. It is exceptional and unforgettable, and well worth the eighteen minutes. You can watch it here.

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Review of “The Truth According to Us” by Annie Barrows

Barrows, the co-author of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, here too incorporates some of the same epistolary technique to tell the engrossing story of a small town in Macedonia, West Virginia in the summer of 1938.

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In order to help pay the bills, the Romeyn family rents out a room to Layla Beck, the 24-year-old daughter of a senator from Delaware, who has coerced his brother Ben to give Layla a job with the WPA Federal Writers’ Project. [The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was one of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs to provide work during the Great Depression.]

Layla’s assignment is to write a history of the town of Macedonia. Layla, who has lived an affluent and sheltered life, is convinced she is being send to a place where the house of the supposedly respectable family with which she is to live is, like the town, “probably encrusted in coal dust, and I will probably die of starvation of lice within weeks.”

But as soon as Layla arrives and takes up residence with the Romeyn’s, the close-knit members of whom who cycle in and out of the house, she finds she has been full of misconceptions, and after only three hours admits her “ignorance is already a scandal.” She quickly warms up to the Romeyn’s – Jottie, 35, who runs the household, her handsome brothers Felix and Emmett, her twin sisters Minerva and Mae (both of whom are married but who spend the week at Jottie’s house), and the children of Felix’s short-lived marriage, Willa, 12, and Bird, 9.

As she talks to the townspeople to learn its history, Layla discovers that this small town is full of charm and a complexity she never anticipated:

I was expecting, not lascivious turnip farmers, exactly, but something close. Bumpkins, anyway. Instead, I’ve found a small town that looks like any small town, with wide streets, old elms, white houses, and a tattered, dead-quiet town square – all seething with white-hot passion and Greek tragedy.”

Layla becomes invested in her assignment, wanting it to be more than just a throwaway project, wanting her history of Macedonia “to spurn the dull and amuse the witty.”

And as she becomes more attracted to Felix, she wants to learn more about the Romeyns, who used to be one of the “first families” of Macedonia, when their patriarch owned The American Everlasting Hosiery Factory. In 1920, however, there was a fire that destroyed the factory and in which Vause Hamilton III was killed. Vause seems to be a forbidden topic in the Romeyn house and both Layla and spy-wanna-be Wilma set out to discover what really happened.

Discussion: Barrows doesn’t overdo her evocation of the time and place, but has an eye for selecting sensory details and incorporating them so thoroughly into the story that you can picture the scenes precisely in your mind, feeling the sweat dripping down your back, and the way an iced tea could taste like heaven on a hot day. When all the neighbors gather on hot nights on the Romeyn’s porch to gossip, it is as if you can actually hear their laughter against the backdrop of the clear starry nights.

Her prose is thoughtful, astute, and poetic at times as she limns life in that small town:

Time softened on Sundays; it stretched itself out in vast rubbery lengths, and by two o-clock, there was more of it than would ever be needed for anything.”

I didn’t like one of the main narrators, young Willa, whose lack of understanding of the adult world causes her to be sneaky, resentful, and judgmental. Even at the end, after she gets an epiphany about hate and lack of forgiveness, she doesn’t apply such standards to herself. I couldn’t see how that unusual depth of understanding about others could co-exist with a lack of insight about her own behavior. “The truth of other people is a ceaseless business,” she says, in discussing her family. But what about the truth of herself?

By contrast, Jottie is a wonderful character – fiercely loving, affectionate, loyal to, and protective of her cobbled-together family, patient with and generous to her neighbors, and full of energy and humor in spite of the pain she carries and the burdens she bears.

The other characters are memorable as well, and make you wish you could have been along on Layla’s voyage of discovery of this memorable town.

Evaluation: I adored this book. Highly recommended!

Rating: 4/5

Published by The Dial Press, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, 2015

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Review of “After We Fall” by Emma Kavanagh

This book might be described as an “oblique” police procedural. That is, the focus is elsewhere, and the procedural skirts along the edges of the main thrust of the story. It centers on a plane crash in Wales on a night with bad weather, but in a situation that the experienced pilot should have been able to overcome. Thus an investigation is launched into what actually caused the plane to go down.

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The story, told from four different points of view, begins with the flight attendant Cecilia Williams, one of thirteen survivors of the crash. This flight was to be the first step of abandoning her police detective husband Tom and their almost-three-year-old son Ben.

Tom is another of the narrators, and while he struggles to cope with the dissolution of his marriage, he also has to give his mental energy to the murder of the daughter of retired police superintendent Jim Hanover, who narrates as well. Jim’s daughter Libby was a Police Community Support Officer, so the South Wales Police force is particularly affected by this loss.

The fourth narrator is Freya Blake, the 23-year-old daughter of the pilot who died in the crash. Freya’s mother and young brother Richard, 17, are unable to cope; Freya takes it upon herself to find out what happened.

As the two investigations proceed, the stories of each of the four invariably intersect. The suspense heightens as secrets are gradually revealed having a bearing on both cases.

Discussion: The author trained as a psychologist specializing in human performance in extreme situations, providing training and consultation for police forces and military personnel. This expertise is evident in her deft handling of the wild stew of emotions affecting each of the trauma victims in this story.

Evaluation: This engrossing story will please fans of both thrillers and police procedurals. It is quite well done, and I look forward to reading more work by this author.

Rating: 3.75/5

Published in the U.S. by Sourcebooks, 2015

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Review of “Dead Wake” by Erik Larson

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Cunard has been a leading operator of passenger ships on the North Atlantic since 1840. The company, now owned by Carnival (the cruise line corporation), built the 787-foot superliner Lusitania, which was famously sunk by a German torpedo off the coast of Ireland on May 7, 1915.

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German U-boat Captain Walther Schwieger fired only one torpedo at the Lusitania, but there were two big explosions, one some twenty seconds after the first, and the ship went down in just eighteen minutes. By way of comparison, the Titanic, with a much more serious initial rupture of her hull, took well over two hours to sink. In fact, one rescue ship came help the Lusitania and, seeing nothing, thought the telegram must have been in error and turned around. 1,198 lives, including 128 American civilians and almost 100 children were lost in the incident. The British hoped American outrage would propel it into joining them in “making the world safe for democracy” in World War I, but the U.S. did not join the war until two years later. Even so, 1917 recruitment posters urged would-be enlistees to “Remember the Lusitania!”

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But Britain’s desire for America to enter the war raised many questions about the sinking. The German Embassy had issued clear warnings about the vulnerability of the Lusitania. [In spite of this, Larson often refers to the “uncanny” or “eerie” forebodings of some of the passengers.] Passengers moreover erroneously believed the British Admiralty would provide a military escort, but it inexplicably did not, although fully aware of U-boat activity in the area. On 12 February 1915, Winston Churchill had written to the president of Britain’s Board of Trade:

It is most important to attract neutral shipping to our shores in the hope especially of embroiling the United States with Germany . . . . For our part we want the traffic — the more the better; and if some of it gets into trouble, better still.”

Nor has the cause of the second explosion ever been conclusively identified, although the supposedly “neutral” passenger liner was carrying a great deal of war matériel for the British (including four million rounds of ammunition, as well as volatile materials for explosives).

John Shuley & Company/Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

John Shuley & Company/Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

[In fact, whereas successive British governments continued to maintain there were no munitions on board the Lusitania, once salvage operations began they were forced to acknowledge, for safety reasons, the large amount of dangerous ammunition that would be found in the wreckage. A number of such operations have been conducted; Larson does not refer to any of them, nor to their findings. You can read an excellent account of one of those dives by author Hampton Sides, here.]

Lusitania Wreckage

Lusitania Wreckage

Captain Schwieger was as surprised as anyone about the second explosion, and telegraphed to his own naval authorities that he had only fired one torpedo. The British Admiralty intercepted this and other communications from Schwieger thanks to a top-secret operation monitoring U-boat communications in their “Room 40.” Winston Churchill, at that time Britain’s First Lord of the Admiralty, not only suppressed this information, but along with the rest of the Admiralty publicly asserted that two torpedoes had been fired. The Admiralty attempted to put the blame squarely on the shoulders of the Lusitania’s Captain Turner for not taking adequate evasive action, and take attention off of the Admiralty’s lack of escort, its failure to redirect Turner’s course in light of known U-boat activity, and of course the stash of ammunition in the Lusitania’s hold.

Later, Churchill observed:

The poor babies who perished in the ocean struck a blow at German power more deadly than could have been achieved by the sacrifice of a hundred thousand fighting men.”

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As with other books about the disaster, Larson fills in his narrative by depicting life aboard the liner, including – in sometimes tedious detail – the background of some of the passengers, down to descriptions of clothes and stores of tobacco they brought along for the trip.

The author also chose to include U.S. President Woodrow Wilson in his account by focusing on Wilson’s hormone-addled pursuit of Edith Bolling Galt. She met the President in March 1915 and they married nine months later. Apparently right from the beginning, in the “courting” stages, Wilson was confiding in her about sensitive policy issues. Although this was a much more egregious breech than, for example, the Petraeus scandal, times were different then, and since he eventually married Edith, the information did not get leaked. But the whole affair shows Wilson in a decidedly negative light.

The Lovebirds

The Lovebirds

In any event, in the lead-up to the Lusitania incident, Wilson was quite preoccupied with chasing after Edith. In fact, after a very controversial speech made on May 10 after the Lusitania incident, he wrote to Edith that he didn’t even know what he had said; he was too busy thinking about her. While there are a number of avenues one could take to discredit Wilson (such as by a discussion of his belief in white supremacy and policies he enacted to express those beliefs), Larson certainly doesn’t add anything favorable to the reputations of either Wilson or Churchill. But whereas Larson’s discussions of Churchill were germane to the story of the Lusitania, I wasn’t convinced the long digressions about Wilson’s courtship played a significant role.

The much briefer sections on how the liner and the U-boat were constructed and operated were much more interesting to me.

Evaluation: Bestseller Erik Larson brings the Lusitania to life on the 100th anniversary of its sinking. For those unfamiliar with the contours of the tragedy, Larson’s book is a good place to start. I thought some of the details about miscellaneous passengers were a distraction rather than stories that might make me feel more invested in the outcome of the voyage. It was almost as if Larson selected these mini-portraits just because they were available. But of course that could also just reflect my own lack of interest in them.

Rating: 3.75/5

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

The narrator, Scott Brick, is an accomplished reader of non-fiction books, although he is not always so careful about pronunciation. He continues, as in other audiobooks, to pronounce “err” as if were “air,” although this mispronunciation is now unfortunately so common as to be considered “acceptable,” in a nod – I suppose – to inevitability. But he adds a great deal of inflection and drama to the prose, and holds the listener’s interest.

Published unabridged on 11 CDs (13 listening hours) by Random House Audio, an imprint of the Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2015

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Kid Lit Review of “Chik Chak Shabbat” by Mara Rockliff

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Those looking for diversity in children’s books will welcome this story of a culturally eclectic apartment building in which the residents are invited by Goldie Simcha every Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, for her fragrant and delicious cholent, a traditional stew prepared by observant Jews the night before. According to the Old Testament, one should refrain from doing any work on the Sabbath, and amazingly enough, older societies acknowledged that preparation of meals by women qualified as “work.” So the tradition of cholent began. The recipe for this long-cooking stew varies, but is similar to the if-you-have-it-throw-it-in-the-crockpot idea. Eastern Europeans liked to feature beans, barley, and some sort of meat. Hungarians added paprika, Lithuanians pepper, and Poles onions and garlic. In other words, you’ve got it? you like it? Throw it in!

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In this story, Goldie “doesn’t celebrate Shabbat exactly as my grandma did,” but she likes to honor her memory by making cholent every week and inviting the neighbors to share it with her, because being together is part of what it was all about.

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However, one Saturday, something wasn’t right. No one could catch even the faintest whiff of the stew. Finally, a little girl knocked on Goldie’s door to see what happened. Goldie explained she was sick, and hadn’t been able to get the cholent on the stove the night before. Now it was too late. The neighbors rush to the rescue, each bringing one of their own ethnic dies to share. Soon there is Indian potato curry, Korean barley tea, Italian tomato pizza, and Spanish beans and rice.

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Goldie looks around the table, her face shining, and declares “I think it tastes exactly like Shabbat.”

A recipe for vegetarian cholent is included at the end of the book.

Illustrator Kyrsten Brooker uses a colorful palate of oils and collages in a folk-art style which is exactly right for this story.

Evaluation: This story is a welcome tribute to multicultural amity. Kids will learn about different food traditions among different cultures, but also see that when someone is in need, people of all backgrounds can come together in sharing and celebration.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Candlewick Press, 2014

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wkendcookingThis post will be linked to this Saturday’s Weekend Cooking, hosted by Beth Fish Reads. Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs. where bloggers share food-related posts. Stop by her blog and see what’s cooking this week!

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Review of “The Canterbury Sisters” by Kim Wright

This book, like the original Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, is a collection of stories built around a “frame narrative,” which in this case is a five-day pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral by modern-day women who are traveling as part of “Broads Abroad” (a travel group catering to the solo female traveler).

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The narrator is Che (named for the Cuban revolutionary), 48 and an only child, who was raised on a commune by her impetuous and free-spirited mother Diana. Diana has just died a surprisingly (for Diana) low-key death from cancer. Che received her mother’s ashes at her condo via UPS along with a note from Diana that “per our agreement, you must now take me to Canterbury.” Che really would not have considered it, except that same day she got a “Dear John” letter from her long-time boyfriend Ned, who said he was leaving Che for another woman.

Che puts her dog in the kennel and takes off for England, to join a tour to Canterbury. There are eight women on the tour, including the guide Tess. They start their walk from Southwark, where Chaucer’s pilgrims also began their journey. Tess asks the women to replicate another feature of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which is to tell each other stories along the way. As Tess explains:

Chaucer’s pilgrims told romances . . . They challenged each other to see who could best articulate the nature of true love.”

In Chaucer’s work, the host announced that whoever told the best tale would be treated to a feast at the end of the journey, and Tess makes the same offer. And so the women set out, and each day, one after the other they tell their stories of love. In the process, all of them get to know and care about each other, as well as getting new insights about themselves. Che in particular thinks she has learned valuable lessons from the trip, which she shares with us as the journey draws to a close.

A nice little twist at the end softens the edges of the tale, which ended up being fraught with emotion for all of them.

Evaluation: This seemed like one of those cooking school books except of course the setting was not a cooking school. But the idea was very similar: strangers who come together on some common mission and in the process, get to know each other’s hopes, dreams, sorrows, losses, and triumphs. While this conceit was a nice change from the cooking school setting, the story didn’t wow me. I thought it dragged in parts, and the author herself seemed torn about whether men were a positive or negative force in the world. Nevertheless, it makes a nice light read.

Rating: 3.25/5

Published by Gallery Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, 2015

Canterbury Cathedral from the north west circa 1890–1900

Canterbury Cathedral from the north west circa 1890–1900

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Review of “Finding Audrey” by Sophie Kinsella

This is a very funny and touching book about a very serious subject.

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Fourteen-year-old Audrey Turner is trying to recover from some sort of vicious bullying (never specified in detail) by other girls at school. She withdrew from school, and still wears sunglasses even around the house, which in any event, she rarely leaves except to see her therapist, Dr. Sarah (a wonderfully-written character). Audrey’s family is quirky and chaotic, but supportive. Still, it seems like an uphill road until a friend of her older brother Frank’s, Linus, tentatively and sensitively reaches out to Audrey. He is able to help her in a way no one else has been able to do, and the whole family finally figures out how to achieve some peace and closure.

Discussion: There is a great deal of humor and absurdity in this wonderful story told in a mix of formats, reminding me a bit of Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple. The parents have their own frustrations, and end up acting out in ways that are well-meaning, if misguided. When Frank announces that members of the Turner family “do not understand the concept of love beyond their own self-serving version” and stalks out of the room, Audrey’s mom says to her dad, “That boy needs a hobby. . . We should never have let him give up the cello.”

Audrey sums up what many kids today think:

The thing about Mum is, she doesn’t know what she’s talking about. I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s just, no adults do. They’re totally ignorant, but they’re in control. It’s nuts.”

I had not previously read any of the books by the very popular author, but I do think that has to change!

Evaluation: This is a delightful and heartwarming story, portraying a difficult coming-of-age theme with humor and compassion, and offering an uplifting look at the powerful effects of loving concern and understanding.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, 2015

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