Tag Archive | World War II

Book Review: The Greatest Battle

The Greatest Battle: Stalin, Hitler, and the Desperate Struggle for Moscow That Changed the Course of World War II, by Andrew Nagorski

I listened to this on audio CD; it was one that I had picked up from a used bookstore several years ago, but hadn’t listened to.  Sadly, when I was about 2/3rds of the way through the book, I realized that the audio book that I had was missing CDs 8 and 9 out of 11.  Unfortunately, I feel like this might have been the best part of the book! 

The Greatest Battle: Stalin, Hitler, and the Desperate Struggle for Moscow That Changed the Course of World War II

The Greatest Battle tells the story of Hitler’s assault toward Moscow in the fall of 1941, as well as the Red Army’s attempt to protect the city.  The author began by comparing and contrasting the backgrounds and styles of Hitler and Stalin.  They were obviously both larger than life figures, but they were also men who had significant similarities in their upbringing.  It was interesting to hear the similarities and ponder whether there was something that could be pinpointed to explain why both men came to power and why they were so willing to resort to such incredible cruelty, even towards their own people. 

The author then explains Hitler’s push towards Moscow; he details the circumstances that gave Hitler an advantage, but also the mistakes that were made that ultimately made the campaign unsuccessful.  The Germans got a late start on their assault, and terribly misjudged the effect of the weather on the roads, and the needs of the troops for warm clothes and supplies.  The mud in the fall, and the freezing temperature and snow in winter severely hindered the army’s ability to complete their mission.

Of course, the Red Army has some major issues as well.  The Russian troops were not well equipped, often sharing a rifle among an entire platoon.  Many of their weapons were outdated or lacked ammunition.  And of course, no story about Stalin’s Russia is complete without speaking of the reign of terror that Stalin inflicted on his own people.  Stalin and the NKVD (the precursor to the KGB) often spied on their own people and troops, and severely punished their own people for perceived transgressions.  Stalin literally murdered millions of his own people leading up to and during World War II.  It’s hard to stand up a successful Army when you are assassinating and imprisoning many of your own officers and troops. 

All in all, it was an interesting look into a portion of World War II history that I hadn’t explored much.  I do want to see if I can find a download of the complete book, so I can catch the missing chapters! 

4 stars.  

Book Review: The German Girl

The German Girl is the debut novel of Armando Lucas Correa, a Cuban author.  It was published in 2016 in both Spanish and English.

The German Girl

The story is that of two girls, brought together over time.  Hannah Rosenthal, a German Jewish refugee fleeing to Cuba via ocean liner in 1939.  And Anna, a 14 year old girl living in New York City.

The perspective shifts back and forth between the two of them as the story unfolds, piece by piece.  Hannah’s flight from Germany, trying to escape the reach of the Nazis.  Anna’s trying to learn why her father left her, and understand why her mother just doesn’t have the energy to get out of bed.  I don’t want to reveal much, as the suspense and hold of the story would be diminished if you knew what was waiting around the next corner.

This novel was incredible.  Sweet, and heartbreaking, it pulls you in page after page, not wanting to put it down.  What will happen to these girls as their lives unfold?

5 stars.

 

Book Review: Mistress of the Ritz

Mistress of the Ritz, by Melanie Benjamin

This book was another pick from the “available now” section of audiobooks on the library website.  I hadn’t heard of the book, or the author, and wasn’t quite sure what to expect.

Mistress of the Ritz

Blanche wanted to be rich and famous – she was going to make it as an actress!  She arrived in Paris in the early 1920s with her silent film star friend Pearl White, and met the assistant manager of the Hotel Claridge, Claude Auzello, when they checked into their rooms.  Claude found out that in a weeks’ time, Blanche was set to rendezvous with her paramour, Egyptian Prince J’Ali Ledene; he set about to sweep Blanche off her feet by showing her Paris.  And it worked…

Blanche and Claude married, and he jump-started his career with a move to The Ritz Paris, where he secured the role as Hotel Manager.  Their lives were wonderful until the Nazis came and set up their headquarters in the Hotel Ritz.

The book is a story of secrets, and a marriage built upon those secrets.  Their marriage crumbles, as Claude takes a mistress, and Blanche begins working clandestinely for the French Resistance.  But even more so, it is a story of love.  Love tested by hardship and betrayal, and love that blossoms in the most unexpected of places.

It wasn’t until I finished the book that I learned that Blanche and Claude Auzello were real people, who navigated their way through the French Occupation while living right underneath the noses of the Nazis at the Ritz.  The framework of Blanche’s life is known, but Melanie Benjamin filled in the gaps in this wonderful historical work of fiction.  A must read for lovers of historical fiction, and World War II history.

5 stars. 

Book Review: City of Girls

City of Girls, by Elizabeth Gilbert

Vivian grew up in a rich family in a small town several hours outside of New York City.  She had just been kicked out after her freshman year at Vassar College, basically for not going to class.  Her parents didn’t know what to do with her, so they sent her to live with her eccentric Aunt Peg in New York City.

Peg owns and runs the Lily Playhouse, a run down theatre in a working class neighborhood of Manhattan.  They operate on a shoestring budget, with simple performances for simple working people.

Vivian makes herself useful by designing and sewing costumes for the girls from thrifted clothing, and quickly immerses herself into the party scene of New York City.  She goes down the rabbit hole of booze and men, learning that her desires aren’t those of ‘nice’ girls.  Vivian’s life is set against the backdrop of World War II, with her brother volunteering for service in the Navy.

The book is narrated by 95 year old Vivian, who is looking back and reflecting on her life, filling in the blanks for the daughter of a man who meant the world to Vivian.  She is honest and candid about her non-traditional life, lived in a time when women were expected to conform…

As usual, Gilbert’s character development and fluid descriptions allow the reader to fully immerse into the story, feeling the full sadness, rage, pain and joy of the characters.  It is well worth the read.

“Life is both fleeting and dangerous, and there is no point in denying yourself pleasure, or being anything other than what you are.”

5 stars.

 

 

Book Review: In the Footsteps of the Band of Brothers

In the Footsteps of the Band of Brothers: A Return to Easy Company’s Battlefields with Sergeant Forrest Guth, by Larry Alexander

I found this audio book in my perusal of the library’s collection, and it sounded interesting.  Having more than a passing interest in World War II, and having watched the Band of Brothers miniseries, I wanted to learn more.

In the Footsteps of the Band of Brothers: A Return to Easy Company's Battlefields with Sgt. Forrest Guth

Larry Alexander confesses that he developed his fascination with World War II as a young boy, and has gone on to write three books on World War II.  After meeting some of the veterans of Easy Company, he pitched an intriguing idea to his editor.  He would accompany a member of Easy Company, the Band of Brothers, on a return to the battlefields of the company’s campaigns in Europe.

Alexander travels with Sergeant Forrest Guth, and documents Guth’s observations and reactions to the battlefields and villages they visit. They try, whenever possible, to find homes and buildings where their troops were billeted or places they fought.  Alexander also offers his own observations, from the perspective of someone who wasn’t there during the war.   He details what the battlefield looked like then versus now, along with details of each battle Easy Company fought.

Alexander even describes the warm welcome they received from the people living in the villages they visited, who 70 years later still wanted to express their gratitude to the men who saved them from tyranny.

This book is an interesting look into the war from a different perspective, although it will be easier to follow if you have some knowledge of Easy Company and the campaigns they fought in during World War II.

3 stars

Book Review: The Invisible Bridge

The Invisible Bridge, by Julie Orringer is first and foremost a novel about love.  It is set against the complicated backdrop of World War II and the Holocaust, but throughout, it retains its focus on love.

The Invisible Bridge

Andras Lévi is a young Hungarian Jew, setting off for Paris to attend architectural school in 1937.  He has earned a scholarship for his studies, and is eager to get his education and make his mark on the world.  As a favor to a stranger, he agrees to carry a letter with him to Paris, and as a result meets a woman ten years his senior.  Clara is a beautiful ballet teacher, with a secret history; Andras falls deeply in love with her despite their age difference.

Of course, the late 30s across Europe was an uncertain time, as Hitler consolidated his power and the continent descended into World War II.  The novel follows Andras throughout the next several years of his life, detailing his experiences as his home country of Hungary allies with the Nazis, goes to war and eventually begins its deportation and murder of over 400,000 Hungarian Jews.

Yet through it all, there is love.  A reminder that when all seems hopeless, a glimmer of sunlight remains.

It is beautifully written, pulling the reader effortlessly around the next corner even when we want nothing more than to shield our eyes and hide.  Orringer’s character development is stunning, and she weaves the narrative skillfully through a decade that includes some of the most heart wrenching events in world history.  What a profound and poignant novel, that both breaks your heart and makes you believe in the power of love…

5 stars. 

Book Review: Never Call Me a Hero

Never Call Me a Hero: A Legendary American Dive-Bomber Pilot Remembers the Battle of Midway, by N. Jack “Dusty” Kleiss, and Timothy and Laura Orr

What can you say about this man, other than the fact that he is, indeed, a hero? Born Norman Kleiss, he went by Jack, until a mistake on a Hawaiian airfield earned him the nickname Dusty for the rest of his time in the service.

Never Call Me a Hero: A Legendary American Dive-Bomber Pilot Remembers the Battle of Midway

Jack Kleiss wanted to be an aviator early on and set his goal toward getting into the US Naval Academy. He then had the opportunity to attend flight school, where he was trained as a fighter pilot. The United States declaration of war after Pearl Harbor led to his being stationed on a naval aircraft carrier.

Kleiss’ most significant combat operation in the war was as a participant in the Battle of Midway, a battle between the US and Japanese naval forces. Three US and four Japanese aircraft carriers were involved, as well as numerous heavy and light cruisers and destroyers on both fleets. The US was still reeling from the attack on Pearl Harbor but was able to strike a decisive blow to the Japanese fleet. In all the Japanese lost all four of their aircraft carriers and a heavy cruiser, with another heavy cruiser sustaining damage. Over 3,000 Japanese sailors and aircrew lost their lives.

Kleiss’ book is written with the humble style so common among World War II veterans, the characteristic, “I was just doing my job,” deflections when someone points out the significance of the sacrifice he made for our country. He says a number of times that his fallen comrades are the real heroes, the men who were shot down as they bombed their targets, or worse, ran out of gas on their flight back to their carrier, because they were sent out knowing there wouldn’t be enough fuel for the return trip. And those men are truly heroes, but that doesn’t make Jack less so.

This poignant memoir relates his tale of the Battle of Midway, but also his long marriage to his wife Jean and his family, which he considers his real accomplishment. His simple style is relatable and easy to read, and he is honest enough to share his failings, as well as his frustrations with his superiors and colleagues. Jack had a long career in the Navy, training pilots after Midway, then moving into the private sector for a period before retirement.

Jack Kleiss lived to be 100 years old, another memorable accomplishment, but sadly died shortly before this memoir was published. We can’t tell him now, but he really was a hero.

4 stars.

Book Review: The Winemaker’s Wife

The Winemaker’s Wife, by Kristen Harmel

In this historical novel, Inès and Michel are a young newlywed couple in the Champagne region of France at the beginning of World War II. Michel’s family business, the champagne house of Maison Chauveau and its elaborate wine cellars are the perfect location to hide guns for the French Resistance. Inès and Céline, the wife of Maison Chauveau’s winemaker, have a strained relationship and do not see eye to eye.

Liv is the American granddaughter of a French woman who whisks her off to France after Liv’s marriage falls apart and she finds herself starting over. She soon learns that her grandmother has secrets; the frail, elderly woman is taking her on a wild goose chase to uncover her long-buried family history, a history she tried to leave behind at the end of the war.

Harmel takes the reader on a series of twists and turns; each character is not who they initially seem to be. They are complex and multi-dimensional, making it impossible to either love or hate any of them. Each one has their good and bad qualities, much like we all do in real life, which are exacerbated by the stress and privation of war.

I don’t want to give much away, because each twist in this winding road is worth discovering for yourself. Just know, it is well worth the read.

4 stars.

Book Review: The Hiding Place

The Hiding Place, by Corrie ten Boom

Corrie ten Boom was a Dutch Christian woman.  She was middle-aged and unmarried, living with her father and sister Betsie and running a clock and watch shop when the Nazis occupied the Netherlands during World War II.

The Hiding Place: The Triumphant True Story of Corrie Ten Boom

Of course, the Nazis soon began arresting and deporting the Jews to the concentration camps.  Ten Boom and her family couldn’t stand by and watch their neighbors be rounded up and taken away family by family, so they began sheltering Jews in the home.  Gradually, as things became more desperate and more dangerous, the ten Boom family connected with the Dutch Resistance, participating in acquiring counterfeit food ration cards and having a false wall built in their home to hide the Jews staying there.

Eventually, they were ratted out and ten Boom, her father and her older sister were arrested, detained and sent first to a prison, where her father died.  Corrie and her sister were eventually sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp.  You already know how conditions were in a concentration camp, and it was no different for Corrie and her sister. They leaned heavily on their faith, setting up evening prayer services and Bible readings in order to make it through.  As Corrie allowed herself to hate the Nazi guards, her sister taught her forgiveness, even of the monsters who imprisoned them.

I was surprised that I had never heard of this book, even though it was published in 1971, before I was born.  It tells an important story of the regular people throughout Europe who did what they could to fight the Nazis.  The story is timeless now, but still needs to be heard.  People need to understand what happened, or history will repeat.

4 stars.

Book Review: The Perfect Horse

Back at Christmas time, I finished The Perfect Horse, by Elizabeth Letts.

During World War II, Europe was being decimated by both the Allies and the Axis powers.  Civilians were caught in the middle.  Even if you have read or watched a lot on World War II, one of the things you might not necessarily consider is the absolute upheaval that war brings.

The Spanish Riding School in Vienna, Austria had been breeding the prized Lipizzaner stallions for hundreds of years and training them in the highly elaborate art of classical riding.  The bloodlines were exquisite, and the training was exacting and took years to achieve.  During the war, the horses were prized by the Germans, not for their talent, but as breeding stock. The Germans wanted to create the perfect war horse and were willing to breed for the characteristics that they were looking for.  Given how many generations it takes to breed consistent traits into a horse, it becomes clear that the Germans believe the Third Reich would be around for a while…

As the Austrian managers ran from the destruction of the war with hundreds of prized horses, it became clear that desperate times were going to require desperate measures.  They reached out to the Americans, hoping to ensure the horses’ safety.  They knew that without the assistance of the soon-to-be victors, these beautiful animals would either be shelled to death somewhere, starve to death somewhere or be confiscated by the Germans who were by now desperate for livestock to pull equipment, and for food…

In a hugely lucky twist of fate, the man the Austrian contacted was an American officer who was deeply devoted to horses, having served in the Army Cavalry.  Hank Reed was able to secure permission for the mission from none other than George Patton himself.  It became a race against time to smuggle these gorgeous animals into Allied controlled territory, across Europe, eventually to the United States, and finally safety.

The book is impeccably researched and very well written, keeping me interested from cover to cover.  Admittedly, I do love horses, and the obscure topic of the book might be considered dry by many readers.  I thought it was fascinating though, and well worth the read.

5 stars.