Tag Archive | World War II

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.

 

London 2018: Churchill War Rooms

Day 2, Monday, June 25, 2018

After our visit to Westminster Abbey, we headed to see the Churchill War Rooms close by.  We were met with another line of about half an hour.

Taryn and me waiting at the War Rooms

History of the War Rooms

The Churchill War Rooms is the underground bunker that was used by the British Government during World War II.  They planned war strategy, ran the government, sent and received critical communications, and even stayed overnight during the bombings of London.

In 1936, the British government realized that the potential of war would be devastating for both the government and the civilian population.  They began looking for an suitable emergency location for the government and settled on a basement under what is now the Treasury Building; renovations were completed in 1938 to make the site livable, usable, and relatively safe – with a 5 foot thick concrete layer of protection.

The basement consisted of communications rooms, map rooms, typing pool rooms for the secretaries, and living quarters for Churchill, his staff and officers of the Navy, Army and Air Force.  The underground rooms were completely self-contained, with a kitchen, bathrooms, sleeping quarters and a full communications system.  The staff could stay underground indefinitely, if they needed to.

The War Rooms were in continuous use throughout the war, especially during the Blitz in 1940.  In 1945 when the war ended, the government recognized the historical significance of the rooms and preserved them as they looked during the war.  They were only open to the public on a very limited basis until the 1980s, when the government transferred the administration of the rooms to the Imperial War Museum.

The Museum

The museum explores the life of Winston Churchill, and goes through his birth to his death, focusing on the World War II period.  The exhibits are wide-ranging, with pieces from his childhood, one of his infamous siren suits, his paintings (did you know Churchill was an accomplished amateur artist?), and more somber exhibits on the war.  The museum explores Churchill’s work habits and personality, discussing how his staff felt about him.

The Rooms

The war rooms are a self-guided tour with an audio-guide (see, I told you London loves audio-guides!); the guide was quite thorough with about 30 stations.  Even I, being the museum nerd that I am, stopped listening to it towards the end.  I was most fascinated with the map room, the cabinet war room, and the living quarters.  Churchill even had a bed here; although it was explained that he never really spent the night here – he did take naps here.  The staff in the map rooms clearly got frustrated and needed an outlet at times, so they drew a caricature of Hitler that survives today.

It was fascinating to be there; at the site where critical decisions of the war were made.

Costs: Churchill War Rooms –  16.35 pounds (included in London Pass).  According to their website, photos are permitted in the war rooms but not in the museum; they didn’t seem to mind that I took photos in the museum too.

Flying Heritage and Combat Armor Museum

Sunday, August 13, 2017

This large museum building is tucked away in a corner of Paine Field in Everett, Washington.  I visited in August 2017 on the way home from a long weekend in Portland to visit Antiques Roadshow!  The museum is the lifelong dream of Paul Allen, one of the founders of Microsoft – he has long had a passion for historic aircraft, and set about acquiring some of the rarest examples of military aircraft in the world.  Many of the planes are in restored and flyable condition – and they are spectacular!

The museum has excellent information on each plane, both the make and model of the particular plane on display, as well as the particulars of the plane that is sitting before you, and how it was acquired.  I am a nerd for that kind of detail, so I enjoyed reading all the signs and taking good long looks at the planes.

 

Allen branched out into collecting other types of military vehicles as well, and eventually had to change the name of the museum to reflect the fact that it wasn’t all planes.  The museum has all sorts of Jeeps, tanks, transport vehicles, rocket launchers and other types of combat armored vehicles.  It is really interesting to see.

 

There is a great exhibit on World War I and II; and the history of events that led up to the world being embroiled in battle twice in less than 30 years.  There was a lot of information in that room, as well as replicas of the Fat Man and Little Boy atomic bombs.

Fat Man and Little Boy (replicas)

 

There is even the trophy for the X-Prize that Paul Allen and his team won in 2004 – for being the first non-government organization to launch a reusable manned spacecraft into space twice within two weeks – it came with a $10 million prize too, but that wasn’t on display.

Some of my favorite planes though, are the ones with the nose art.  They are so beautiful – and really represent the character and personality of the pilot who flew the plane.  I have seen some really nice nose art at various museum, and loved the artwork here.

 

The museum is well worth the $16 cost of admission, and even Shelley’s teenage son Jack, who was pretty blah about going, had to admit in the end that he really enjoyed it.  It was a great end to a nice long weekend.