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Posts tagged ‘World War II’

Friendships & War

It’s been more than 6 years that I have been blogging and if I had to describe the experience in one sentence, I would simply say, that Blogging made me find my tribe! I  found friends who read books and authors I never knew and friends who helped me read texts that I never thought I could and finally friends, I could talk too without judgement or prejudices, talking in the language only readers understand! Stemming from this unshakable faith in my tribe, I always listen very closely to recommendations that come my way and naturally, when Helen, over at She Reads Novels, introduced me to Dear Mrs. Bird by AJ Pearce a couple of weeks back, in her wonderful post, I knew this is was far too good to pass away!

Mrs Bird

Set in 1941, the book chronicles, the life of Emmeline Lake as she quits her boring but stable job as a secretary, in a Law Firm, to embark on a journey as journalist and that she thinks will finally lead her to her ultimate goal of becoming a  Lady War Correspondent.  Only on the first day of her job, does she realize that she never asked for what role is she being  hired for, and finds her self as a junior staff of a Women’s Self Column called Dear Mrs. Bird. Emmy never one to give in to gloom for too long, grits her teeth and gets down to her job, ably supported by her colleagues, including Kathleen and the cyncial Mr. Collins. She soon finds, that Mrs. Bird, a formidable elderly woman, believes the current generation has lost all sense of proper conduct and has a list of subjects, “Unpleasantness” as she calls them, on which she refuses to give advise  – affairs, pregnancies out side of marriage, girls who have gone too far and other such “riff -raff”. However Emmy believes that these woman in the time of War as as is having a hard time and truly need help. She thus embarks on a project to help them. Of course, she has to keep it all quiet, not only from her office colleagues, but also more importantly from Bunty, her best friend and roommate who would never approve of meddling in other’s affairs, against the instructions of her Superiors, but Emmy is convinced she is on the right path, until fate dislodges all her best laid plans!

What can I say about the book? Whatever I say, will not suffice! In the character of Emmy and Bunty, Ms. Pearce has created a real life portrait of deep friendships among women, who are sisters not by birth, but by their soul. She captures the whole gamut of emotions that are at the core of such relationships – loyalty, support, love, sometimes even anger and finally humor, dollops and dollops of it! In Emmy, the author has created a heroine whose indomitable spirit and optimism conquers everything! Smart, loyal, funny and sometimes crazy, she is you or one your friends, with all the madcap zanniness, that goes with people like them! Bunty is what a Bunty should be – supportive, sensible, capable of drawing her claws when her loved ones are hurt and finally loyal! The ensemble cast is wonderfully drawn with my heart, literally going out for Mr. Collins, and ably supported by ‘Charles’, Bill and the formidable Mrs. Bird. Written in bright, optimistic and funny note, the book however manages to stay very realistic and captures the grim realities of London, during the German bombing. The plot is fast paced, and holds your attention so strongly, that you finish the book in one sitting! There are more than enough laugh out loud moments, and you should be careful if reading in public as me discovered when reading it in a cafe! Most importantly, for me what really made this novel stand out, was while there are many works set in this era, they all somehow end up focusing on the “romance” angle of the plot; this book in a stark departure from such angle, (it does have some romance) instead followed a narrative that showcased how woman helped woman, through self help columns, through long nights of vigil at the fire stations and as friends, when the chips are truly down!

I cannot say enough great things about this book; it is brilliant, funny, real and heart rending. all in one go! So just please read it, especially, if you are fortunate to have a Em or a Bunts in your life!

The German Guard

I am as many know obsessed with History and the World Wars are especially close to my heart, because, well simply because I do not understand how men and women could have been so cruel to their own kind and secondly, most importantly, I am sometimes scared, that we as a species never learn from our mistakes and we are going down the same path! This urge to read up on the subjects leads me down to various paths of Fiction and Non Fiction and sometimes, I find myself with a book, I would not usually venture to read, had it not been set on this premises so close to my heart!

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink is one such novel. I have not seen the film, but I have heard rave reviews about both the novel and the film and both were highly recommended by many people whose opinion I respect. However I could not quite bring myself to read this one; the idea of sexual relations between a 15 and 36 year old, somehow seemed to have hints of pedophilia and even my broad, live and let live philosophy had trouble digesting! So I waited and procrastinated and then one Sunday afternoon, I found myself at lose ends, challenging myself to do something different and suddenly The Reader found me!

Set in the early years post World War II Germany, The Reader, traces the lives of Michael Berg, a lawyer and Hannah Schmitz, a former guard at Auschwitz. Micheal first meets Hannah, a streetcar conductor, when he is 15 and falls ill, near her house and she assists him with aid, before sending him back home. Once recovered, he goes to thank Hannah and they begin a relationship. One key aspect of the relationship is that Hannah expects Micheal to read to her, every time he visits. One day however, Hannah abruptly leaves town and Micheal is left with the guilt that it was his conduct that drove Hannah away! After a gap of several years, while attending a seminar that follows the trial of some of the former Nazi guards and soldiers, Michael meets Hannah again, only this time she is one of the accused, held responsible for the death of many Jewish woman and children, who died in a church fire where they were being held captive under the supervision of Hannah and several other women guards, when an allies bomb stuck the church trapping the women and children in a horrific fire, killing all most everyone. As the trial progresses, Micheal realizes that the evidence is circumstantial and a good lawyer, would have disposed off the whole thing in a couple of days. However, Hannah seemed to willfully volunteer information, that held her, more of the accused guards responsible for the death of those women and children and agree on matters that may not be wholly true. As the trial progresses, Micheal wonders about Hannah’s behavior and action, until stumbling on the secret that holds key to Hannah’s action and in protecting that secret, Hannah accepts all that is thrown her way, leading to unintended consequences!

Like I said, I was not comfortable with the premises of the book, because of which I held of on reading it for a long time. There is no denying that there is streak of eroticism that is there in the book, but as I rushed through its pages, I realized it so much more than that! The guilt of the war of the post war generation of Germans, comes searing through the pages, as Michael speaks for a whole generation, that could not believe that their parents were capable of the kind of brutality that Nazi Germany unleashed. Their struggle to ‘love and respect” the elders comes clashing with the historic reality of their elders and the struggle to somehow make peace or distance themselves from that past is heartbreaking! The burden of this generation with what to condemn and who to condemn and how to make sense of it all, is tragically and beautifully described by the author, capturing the pain, the guilt, the confusion and raging anger!Hannah’s secret that symbolizes the German population during the Nazi rule, is at the very heart of the book, that questions on how the common man could turn away from what was truly an abhorrence in the name of mankind and live to exist with it everyday! This sheer negligence of moral responsibility and how that generation tackled this, forms the very essence of this novel. Sensitively written, in some of the most heart rending prose, the book offers no apology for the Nazi Germany, but rather a bewilderment of how a nation and its people can go so wrong and its consequences that echo on the future generation. With a deep understanding of his country and the people, Schlink, wrote on what can only be called a masterpiece that makes us question our sense of morality and the option of “no alternative” that hides behind it the complete and utter failure of moral courage!

I did not love this book, but I was touched by it. It remained with me for a long time and I needed to distance myself from its overwhelming difficult questions, to write an objective review. It is not an easy read; I do not mean in terms of word count, but in terms of message it brings. But it fulfills the most important criterion of a novel, the ability to make the reader hold up a mirror to his or her face and question the most important principles of life! It is a book that needs to be read, if for no other reason, than simply because we need ensure that we do not commit the same mistakes as our predecessors!

What The July Showers Bring

Finally July…Fall is only 3 months away and I survived yet another horrid Indian Summer. Actually, there are 3 more months to go, but these are technically the Monsoon months, where it rains and floods and while it is quite pleasant when it rains, immediately after that the humidity soars and the baking heat now with high humidity, makes life, well miserable to say the very least!! But like my oft repeated motto, as long as there are books, life will always look up!

Whats in my July book bag then? A very eclectic collection! I am slowly and by slowly, I mean barely crawling through Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War as part of the The Well Educated Mind Reading Challenge – Reading The Histories! And I cannot say, like Herodotus’s The Histories, I am enjoying it! In addition there is OMG-I-CANNOT-BELIEVE-HOW-PONDEROUS-IT-IS reading of The City of God by Saint Augustine, again part of the same project. History, the subject I love has never seemed such an uphill task! To continue my interest in the subject, it is extremely important, that I spice things up and I go to other end of the spectrum to read The Raj at War – A People’s History of India’s Second World War by Yasmin Khan. I have heard some amazing things about the book and am really looking forward to it! Now for Fiction, I have everything from 19th century Russia to 19th century England and finally, 19th century India. I should complete Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol. I also continue with The Pickwick Paper Read Along and finally, I am hosting The Shadow of the Moon Read Along, for which the plan is to finish reading this month! I also have on my Kindle, The Red House Mystery by A.A.Milne (of Winnie The Pooh fame and yes, he wrote a adult mysteries as well!) and Desperate Remedies by Thomas Hardy; his first book which is considered to very different from his Wessex Rural novels.

All in all and exciting (I think!) and somewhat exasperating Reading month! I leave you all with a video that I think capture the very essence of Indian monsoons!

Happy Reading!

All About the Ladies from the Choir

Everybody and by that I mean EVERYBODY who reads my posts knows that I have a blind spot for Historical Fiction. And historical fiction that is set in the backdrop of a small English village, during the early years of World War II – well, there is no way I am going to pass up that book! Hence, I was supremely satisfied to find The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan, when one day browsing through bloggingforbooks.com.

Jennifer Ryan

The novel opens in March 1940, with England beginning it’s initial foray into World War II and the Ladies of Chilbury Choir realizing that their singing in the church has come to an end, since the men, so very necessary to produce the right balance in the choir have left to join the armed forces. Each member of the choir has her own thoughts and reservation about this ending of their Choir singing. There is Mrs. Tilling, a widow and a nurse and one the premier members of the troupe; her concerns are divided into the worry of her son leaving for the front, the horrors that war will bring and of course the demise of the beloved choir which brought much peace to her. Then there is Edwina Paltry, the village mid-wife, guilt ridden by her past conduct that robbed her sister and herself of a good life; she is now desperate for a fortune, to ensure she can get away from the village and re-posses her old home with her sister and whose only motive of joining the choir is to use it as a means to her ends. Kitty Winthrop, the talented and precocious 13 year old daughter of the local gentry Brigadier Winthrop, who dreams of becoming a famous singer and leading a happily ever after life with the much older Henry Brampton-Boyd, who in turn seems to be infatuated with her elder sister, Venetia. Venetia, yet another member of the choir is a willful, pampered and bereft of any worries, 18 year old, seeking adventures and entertainment. Finally, there is Sylvie, the 10 year old refugee form Czechoslovakia who is troubled from the memories of a Nazi occupied homeland and a constant yearning for her family. The ending of choir leaves all the members at lose ends, with a sense of loss of something comfortable, in absence of singing when the new Music Teacher in the town,  Miss Prim starts the  revolutionary idea of  a women’s only choir, forcing the members into life changing situations, forcing them to confront their long held believes and do things that they never quite thought possible. As they all try and grapple with these changes, the meet and are forced to shape their lives around strangers who pour into the village, like the mysterious painter Mr. Slater, Colonel Mallard and the London evacuee, Tom.

This is a wonderful and delightful tale told in the form of diary/journal entries and letters exchanged and the narrative is well woven among the characters and the historical backdrop. Ms. Ryan is able to deftly portray the impact of the war on a small village community, balancing it well, with the more immediate concerns of its inhabitants. The life and concerns of the small community is extremely well captured. She creates some wonderful characters in Mrs. Tilling and Miss Prim and Sylvie. The way her characters evolve as the war goes on is very well done, especially when the way she manages to convey the changing belief system of her characters, from denial to tolerance to respect.  The slow sense of empowerment that comes through to the women of the choir as they stand up like never before is very well captured! I loved the way the author was able to intersperse the whole book with hymns and songs that were so apt for the occasion! The only call out I had was some of the events, which I thought were cliched and could have been managed better – for eg. from the moment, Kitty mentions Mr. Slater, I knew what he was about, as well as the way it would finish off. Similarly, I knew how Colonel Mallard would end up in the narrative, from the very moment he was introduced. Some of the interactions depicted are kind of jerky and jump from one emotion to other without sufficient reasoning of why it was happening and how did  the change come about; like the one between Mr. Slater and Venetia. The end also seemed to suddenly tie up neatly in a package, leaving one wondering about where did that come from. However despite, some of these flaws, the book remains a good read – a perfect anecdote to a hectic day, in the accompaniment of some good tea!

I understand from her website that the novel was based on the experience of Ms. Ryan’s grandmother who lived through World War II and shared her stories with the family.  The author does a wonderful job of taking these real life stories and turning them into fiction with enough dash of reality to make it believable and readable!

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

The French Girl & The German Boy

After much deliberation and delay, I finally delved into All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Yes, I am aware I am really late for the party, but atleast I got here. This is especially significant, considering, I usually give prize winning novels a wide berth. Anyhow, I spent the two weekend nights all being super comfortable in my bed, drinking cups of Rose tea and reading this 2014 Pulitzer prize winning work!

The book is set during the World War II, briefly covering the year of 1934, before delving into the events that occurs 1940-1945. The novel tells the story of Marie-Laurie, a young blind girl, the daughter to the locksmith to the Natural History Museum in Paris. Marie-Laurie spends time in her father’s museum, talking to the curator and reading Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, knowing of her father’s love and care for her. Her orderly life is shattered and brought  to a standstill, when Hitler’s Germany invades France and she and her father are forced to flee Paris, in wake of the occupation. In search of refuge of some kind, her father finally reached Saint Malo, the home of her great uncle. Her great Uncle, an erudite brilliant man, has shut himself up from the world, being afraid of shadows, since his experience in World War I. The father and daughter are however kindly looked after by the house keeper and days begin to melt into month, as Marie-Laurie tries to adjust herself to her new surroundings. Across the border, in a orphanage, Werner and Jutta, the orphaned children of a mine worker, listen to distant voices in a hand made radio, made by Werner,that tells them of miracles of science and wonders of the world. Wener’s brilliance with radio sciences and engineering is soon discovered by those in power and he is sent to an elite school to get trained to mold the future of Aryan Germany. It is at this school, that in the angst to ensure, he does not end up with a life like his father, he makes choices, that he knows Jutta will never forgive and which in his heart he knows is never acceptable. However, these choices seem to drag him down until he ends up in Saint Malo, with one chance to redeem all his past.

Now come the part about how I liked the book…well, I liked it a lot!! I thought the descriptions whether of the sea or of being stuck inside the rubble was mesmeric. The prose of the novel, lifted me and seared my soul and painted some breathe taking pictures. I loved how each character was drawn out, not by the descriptions that the author wrote but by their actions and how each of the character was etched out and stood out clearly and independently of others. I loved how Marie-Laurie’s life was made independent of her visual inabilities and made her do brave things, without any dependency on any other character.  I loved the subtleties in the characters like Etienne LeBlanc and Frank Volkheimer. It was wonderful getting to know them and see their lives unravel. The plot deviates from the usual boy meets girl phenomena and delves into relationships that are just as rich and yet cannot be defined by the standards set by the society. However despite all the brilliance of the book, I cannot help but feel that in the end, Werner’s fate was a bit of cliche; like he had to made to pay for all the betrayals in a de-la grande style. I could not help but feel that Mr. Doerr, kind of treads on the line of Flaubert and Tolstoy in making the fatal flaw, the unforgivable flaw. I somehow cannot help but feel that Werner’s fate had it been a bit different, would have been less maudlin and made more sense. Finally, speaking of fatal flaws, I have a one – that is never of quite liking a historical fiction, if it is inaccurate in its facts. Mr. Doerr unfortunately ends up making a minor error, but to me, it glares like a red hot iron, taking away much of the credibility of the book. In page 135, Kindle Print, Etienne talks about listening to broadcasts from Pakistan. The chapter is set in 1940, full 7 years before Pakistan came into being!!! How can the author not check his facts? How can his editor ignore such a blatant mistake? Or is it to the North, events of the South do not matter? Mr. Doerr should know that while many French, American and German soldiers died, there were more than 2 million Indian troops who also fought defending a nation, that was not theirs, fighting for a cause they had no say in, all because as a country they belonged to the Great British Empire. Their identity and their heritage is disparaged by such errors, and their efforts negated, by the complete ignominy that is assigned to them by the careless stroke of the pen!

The Girls from Shepard’s Bush

This should have been posted a week ago, but I was busy playing catch up with life after a brilliant vacation and things kind of got out of control! Anyway, moving on in an effort to gain control, let me start by saying what I keep repeating often, that my blogging – universe friends really do take me on reading adventures, that I could not have fathomed let alone, explore, if it was not for their ideas, encouragement and reviews. Ali and Jane are such people; they keep finding these lost gems that I never knew existed and  suddenly I am in the world of a marvelous author, albeit now almost lost – a considerable tragedy, considering how brilliant they are! Naturally, when Ali decided to host Mary Hocking Week, I just had to join the party. I had never read Mary Hocking, but both Jane and Ali had high words of praise, and some of her books were set in genre very close to my heart – the family sagas in the pre-world war II world. How could I possibly pass up such an opportunity???

Thus I started my tryst with Mary Hocking’s Good Daughters, Volume 1 of her Farley Family Series.

Set in 1933, the book opens with an introduction to the Farley Family residing in Shepard’s Bush, London – Stanley, the father is a well intentioned, albeit a strict Methodist man, who is the principle of a Boy’s school. He is a kind, good man, wanting the best for his family, somewhat out of touch with reality. His wife Judith is a strong, sensible woman who is far more in touch with reality and changes that they need to make in the lives, as their daughters start to become women. The daughters in order of their age are Louise, Alice and Clare, who have hereto led sheltered but good lives but are now on the threshold of womanhood; particularly Louise who is seeking new freedoms and adventures, trying to break free from her father’s Methodist lifestyle and dreams of becoming an actress. Alice, is the middle daughter, a plum girl good in sports and a hidden talent for writing, trying to find her own world as she enters teenage. Clare is the youngest of the Farley girls,. the most earnest and single minded, still a child, trying to understand the world, where her sister’s are disappearing into. As Hitler starts to make threatening noises in Europe, life in Shepard Bush, also changes for the three girls as they make new friends, discover new emotions and realize that there is perhaps no simple answers to life and there is more to things than just appearances. Over the next two years that the novel plots, we see the girls making choices and settling into lives on which they did not intend to set out originally, but were now firmly trodding on and with the Farley parents, forced to accept changes, that they never thought they would need to make!

I loved the characterizations – the Farley parents outshine all others. You love them, you are irritated with them, especially when remembering your own adolescence, and you find solace and warmth in them. Mary Hocking created two perfect characters in Stanley and Judith, imbibing them with many human flaws, and yet making them outstanding parents and friends, who see you through, when they see your through. The daughters are also very well drawn out and though I could not relate to Louise, I could understand the need to breakaway and I saw strong glimpses of my friends and myself in Alice and Claire. The ensemble cast is equally brilliant – as a reader you want to be friends with the next door neighbors Vaseyelin family, the Russian family who escaped the Revolution, Miss Blaze the formidable principle of the school the girls attend, the grandparents and cousin Ben, the orphaned, studious, self made young man. Mary Hocking presents a wonderful picture of a family and their daily lives in the world which was thought to be safe, in the wake of World War I. She brings out the disbelief of the changes that seemed to be propelling the world into another war externally as well changes more at home which the Farley’s need to make in beautiful and balanced contrast. Despite, all this, I do own I kind of felt let down – like a promise that was not kept. There was too much time spent on the sexual awakening of the daughters and while I understand girls at that age are curious about things happening to them, I  do not think that is the only preoccupation – a feeling I distinctly got from the novel, as I heard of the changes and longings of the eldest two daughters, especially Louise.Furthermore, I found the ending a bit cliched and even linear,again in specific reference to Louise – what happened, we expected to happen from early on in the novel. There are things and people I would have liked to explore more and maybe in her Volume 2 and 3, Mary Hocking does do them justice. I will have to read to find more! The language is clear and concise – simple yet definitive prose that draws clear mental pictures for the reader of the kind of home and family and life that the author tried to showcase!

Good Daughters is a great read, with some reservations, but good enough to convince me to reach out for more Mary Hocking’s novels and for sure complete the Farley Saga.

Thank You Ali for hosting the event and introducing me to another wonderful author!

All That Remains…

I finished reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Remains of the Day” yesterday as part of my Reading England Project. I had heard enough of this book and again the fact that this was a Booker Prize winner put me on the guard! But seems like recent events seem to be turning my view on Booker Prize winning works – take for instance “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” and now “The Remains of the Day”. I feel like kicking myself for not reading this work earlier and having lost out on such lovely, beautiful and absolutely heart breaking experience. I think I have just shared the very core of the book, but let’s nevertheless get on with the details.

Set in 1956, the novel is written in a first person narrative of Steven’s, the butler at Darlington Hall. Darlington Hall has recently been bought by an American Mr. Faraday from the heirs for Lord Darlington, and had requested Stevens to continue in his capacity as a butler for him as well. Since Mr. Faraday was going away for some time to America, he generously offers Stevens the use of his Ford as well for providing his food and lodging cost, if Stevens chose to take a short vacation. The receipt of a letter by Ms. Kenton, the former housekeeper at Darlington Hall, in which he believes there are hints of an unhappy marriage, Steven’s proposes to take a “motoring tour” both to enjoy a vacation and to revisit Ms. Kenton and to better understand if she was likely to return to her employment at Darlington Hall. Over the next six days, Stevens drives across England and each day, he recalls his life and certain incidents in past – memories of life at Darlington Hall during the intervening war years, the glory days of Lord Darlington and his eventual fall from grace, of Ms. Kenton’s tenure at Darlington Hall and her departure from Darlington Hall after her marriage in 1935, her relationship with Stevens and Stevens own relationship with his father and his understanding of “dignity” and “duty”. His motoring trip finally culminates in his meeting Ms. Kenton after 20 years and the dawning realization of all that is lost and all that remains of his day!

What can I say about the book that has already not been said? There is tragedy, there is pathos, there is heart break and finally there is resilience! Steven’s character is beautifully drawn out as a man whose understanding and diligence at his profession, makes him loose on what is lost to him as a human and a man. His expectation from himself and his complete belief in Lord Darlington’s purpose is touching and deeply moving! Ms. Kenton is a wonderful flesh and blood character that sparkles and shines, with all the emotions of failings and triumphs! Lord Darlington is a brilliant character from the long gone past of “gentlemanly conduct” and “Noblesse oblige, a misfit in an era of cunning political maneuvers and double diplomacy, where his best intentions lead him to his ruin – a familiar tale for many once great people. The plot is beautifully woven, passing between past and present, showcasing the lost grandeur of landed gentry and the changing society of post-world war England. The language is mesmerizing…it’s not lyrical or poetic, but it is English language at its best! Straightforward, crisp, succinct and rich! Despite the tragic stain of the book, there are innumerable moments of brilliant and subtle wit which takes off the tension and makes you laugh. Finally, inspite of the pathos and the heartbreak, it is not a bleak book – it is tribute to the resilience of human soul and its ability to look beyond and move on!

Brilliant, mesmerizing and absolutely marvelous!!

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