**spoiler alert** Definitely another Boy Book in my series of WWII novels (beginning with Tuesday's War and proceeding to The Beauty Chorus). This**spoiler alert** Definitely another Boy Book in my series of WWII novels (beginning with Tuesday's War and proceeding to The Beauty Chorus). This one I didn’t really get into, but apparently I will read JUST ABOUT ANYTHING if it has a Lysander on the cover.
This book would have been stronger, I think, if it was just one story. As it is, the narrative jumps around like CRAZY from person to person and year to year and place to place, backwards and forwards and in and out. Really there is only one story going on, but there are a lot of macho characters to indulge in. I couldn’t keep track of 70 per cent of them and, I confess, I only really cared about the girls. And that wasn’t ’cause they were girls, but ’cause they were SOE agents. Because I *DO* like a cracking SOE agent adventure story.
So I ploughed on till I got to the end, because I was intrigued to find out what could be a worse fate (as was implied) for a disappeared SOE agent than a Gestapo prison followed by a Nacht und Nebel execution at Ravensbrück or Natzweiler-Struthof… apparently the answer is a lifetime spying behind the Iron Curtain. I was kind of disappointed, since I reckoned if the missing agent turned up alive, it was pretty obvious that that’s what she’d be doing… and if she wasn’t alive, well, the Nacht and Nebel scenario was obvious too. So the Big Mystery of the Search for the Disappeared agent was a bit of a non-starter for me.
I have said before, and I’ll say again, that I am such a desperately sad person that when I read the detained Natzweiler guard’s lying account of Diana’s execution I knew what book the author had used for his research (my hunch was confirmed correct in the Author’s Note). It does say on the cover “Inspired by actual events,” but knowing that this particular story was a combination of what did happen to 4 missing SOE women at Natzweiler AND 4 missing SOE women at Dachau (I think) put me instantly in mind of A Life In Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII.
The history is sound and accurate, but a little too spoon-fed for my taste, despite its being decorated with lots of shooting, flying, rape and gore (including a murder scene in a slaughterhouse, and yes, that DOES go where you think it might go). The pilot Lee Crane reminded me A LOT of Lee Scoresby. Laura did not remind me of Lyra. Although, come to think of it, I suppose the plot is very similar to that of The Golden Compass… in a morphological Vladimir Propp kind of way.
Not recommended for girl readers unless you really like spies.
Incidentally, the title has no obvious connection to the rest of the book. ...more
**spoiler alert** I seem to be on a binge of World War II novels (I know, I seem to have been on this binge for 2 years, but lately I’ve been reading**spoiler alert** I seem to be on a binge of World War II novels (I know, I seem to have been on this binge for 2 years, but lately I’ve been reading novels rather than non-fiction). Well actually, it is a perpetual hunt for books about Air Transport Auxiliary girls, with a bit of a Special Operations Executive obsession thrown in.
And that’s exactly what Tuesday’s War feeds… There’s an ATA girl who figures significantly in the plot, and the amiable narrator, Charlie, does end up posted to 138 Squadron (the ones who fly the SOE agents into occupied Europe). I have become SUCH AN SOE-SPOTTING NERD that I know instantly where the story is going as soon as the numbers “138” come up (or the names Tangmere or Tempsford).
Anyway, what I’ve noticed in my recent reading is that war stories are very clearly divided into War Stories for Boys and War Stories for Girls. Tuesday’s War is very much a Boy Book. It’s the story of the life of a single Lancaster bomber (christened Tuesday by her flight crew), chronicling her missions flown and detailing the daily life of her flight crew during that time. The ATA girl, Grace, joins the somewhat mad bomber crew as a clandestine rear gunner and emergency pilot. It’s implausible but entertaining.
I really loved this book. It kind of went on and on, but it is beautifully written; the narrator, Charlie, never slips out of voice or character; he’s a lovely, lovely guy, if a bit of a slut (much too nice, indeed, for Grace); the period detail is effortless and seems to be flawless (well, apart from that 1953 Disney star that’s slipped into the “second to the right” quotation from Peter Pan, but I’ll forgive Fiddimore that one since I nearly made the same mistake myself). The flying sequences are equally effortless and flawless. I love that the setting is Bourn Airfield, thinly disguised as “Bawne,” because that is where our own plane came from (long ago when we had a plane), and I can picture it. I love the ghost who randomly turns up now and then. In fact, I enjoyed this book so much that I have got myself the second in the series.
It’s interesting for me to compare this to other WWII books I’ve read recently and to wonder why I far prefer this one to, say, Connie Willis’s Blackout/All Clear, or Kate Lord Brown’s The Beauty Chorus. There are a number of reasons, but the one that leaps to mind is that I’m not noticing niggling little inaccuracies in this one - no historical errors, no ignorant slips about aircraft controls or flight theory, no bafflingly inappropriate Americanisms. And I don’t even know where the guy gets it - his historical note at the back gives a few tips about what’s real and what’s not, but doesn’t acknowledge where any of his research comes from.
I thought it was a great read. But definitely not a girl’s book. Make of that what you will. ...more
'You'd think they would train these SOE girls better, it's just sloppy.' Hans sipped his cognac. 'She looked the wrong way crossing the road, silly gi'You'd think they would train these SOE girls better, it's just sloppy.' Hans sipped his cognac. 'She looked the wrong way crossing the road, silly girl.'
AHAHAHAHAHA oh god. (nevermind. ignore me.)
This is my second in a list of recently read WWII novels. The first was Tuesday's War by David Fiddimore. I’ve noted, reading these in tandem, that there are definite Girl Books and definite Boy Books, and this one was a Girl Book.
And ya know… sadly, I didn’t get into this one, and I fear that’s because it was a Girl Book. It should have pushed ALL my buttons -- Air Transport Auxiliary with a dash of Special Operations Executive, AND it was set mostly at White Waltham which was our flying club for 5 years (and where we were such regulars that they built a changing table in the Ladies’ for us when our daughter was born)… But little of this book actually had anything to do with flying, and the existing flight sequences were peppered with small but jarring technical errors. (Small but jarring technical errors RUIN MY LIFE… I KNOW TOO MUCH. I can never just sit there and enjoy the ride/read. The misspelling of words like “Messerschmitt” and “Boche” as “Messerschmidt” and “Bosch” drives me nuts. I wish SO MUCH that I didn't notice, or didn't care.)
For my adventure-addicted brain there was far too much pubbing and clubbing in this book. I wouldn’t mind if it forwarded the plot, but I found the focus gravitating toward descriptions of gorgeous clothes and flashy autos. And the pervasive descriptions of gourmet food - what was that about? Besides belying the rationing situation, it was just weird to have the narrative punctuated by extensive descriptions of what everyone was having for supper.
Still, Brown’s research is impressive, and I am in fact quite envious of her exchanges with Betty Lussier, Richard Poad, and Carolyn Grace - me being such a plane-spotter that I have read all the same books as Brown and can put faces to the names of all the real ATA characters who turn up in the book. I know immediately who’s being referred to when so-and-so is introduced as a former ballet dancer or described as ditching in the Firth of Forth. But I wish there had been more evidence of the author’s contact with these people in the book itself, and that the actual plot had been less focused on romance and more focused on flying.
Still, it’s a matter of preference, I think… I suspect I am more a Boy Book reader than a Girl Book reader.
This is Christian Miller’s first book and her only novel. Her other two books are autobiographical (A Childhood in Scotland and Daisy, Daisy: A journeThis is Christian Miller’s first book and her only novel. Her other two books are autobiographical (A Childhood in Scotland and Daisy, Daisy: A journey across America on a bicycle; A Childhood in Scotland, quirky, slender and obscure, is possibly my favourite read of the last decade. The Champagne Sandwich is recognizable in tone as Miller’s, though initially it reads a lot like I Capture the Castle from a grown-up’s point of view and set in a London flat instead of a castle (the younger daughter happens to be named Cassandra AND they dye all their clothes green!).
It’s a slender book, a fast read, but out of print except in Large Print and difficult to obtain. The characterization is charming, the shenanigans hilarious. Knowing that the author did move into a flat in London (from a castle in Scotland) with her mother and a couple of elder sisters, after her father’s death, makes me wonder how semi-autobiographical this book might be; but I confess that I am an inveterate snooper into the hidden details of Miller’s life.
She appears in the following article as Lady Christian Bowman… scroll down for her story.
The bad [books]! These bad ones - terrible ones, ones that don’t even make sense and have adverbs everywhere and made-up words - they sell ten millionThe bad [books]! These bad ones - terrible ones, ones that don’t even make sense and have adverbs everywhere and made-up words - they sell ten million copies and they make movies out of them. I used to cry every night, literally… because I thought I must be stupid. I had these dreams, every night, where everybody speaks some foreign language and I don’t know it.
I KNOW, RIGHT???
It is impossible to say how much I enjoyed this send-up of modern literary trends. I recommend it for everyone in the publishing business. If it doesn’t make you laugh, you are probably making too much money.
It is true, though, that the book drags a bit toward the end, especially as the narrator, Pete Tarslaw, completes his spiral dive into becoming a complete and utter certified jerk. And considering that Pete *is* a certifiable jerk, I also feel Hely sold out a bit by having Pete decide “I wish I’d written something that good.” Yes, great literature is great, but there’s an uncomfortable amount of truth in Pete’s original, less popular view that “The financial success of an author is inversely proportional to the literary worth of the book.” It almost feels like Hely, the real author, is backpedalling, worrying that some of Pete’s ugliness will wash off on HIM. Nabokov is not Humbert, you know? I wish Hely had let his antihero stick to his guns with “THE EMPEROR IS NAKED” rather than, “well, the emperor’s not wearing any clothes at the moment, but he does have some REALLY NICE CLOTHES.”
Writing a novel would be easy if it wasn’t for the frills. Take, for example, the scene early in The Tornado Ashes Club where Luke parachutes into Normandy a month before D-Day. The local resistance fighters find him, and together they celebrate his arrival over a bottle of calvados in a Bayeux root cellar.
This scene took me two days. Lots of Internet research was required to find out pesky details like what they drink in Normandy, and the name of a town, and what kind of parachute they used in the Second World War…
AHAHAHAHA MY COVER IS BLOWN, THIS IS MY LIFE
here’s me thinking I’m the only one who spends TWO HOURS getting the name of a single WEED right or trying to discover if continental Europe was on daylight saving time in 1943… I always think it must be so much easier for those of us making up our own magical vegetation. ...more
**spoiler alert** Reasons most of my book group did not like this book:
1) They hated all the characters. 2) They thought there was no tension. 3) They h**spoiler alert** Reasons most of my book group did not like this book:
1) They hated all the characters. 2) They thought there was no tension. 3) They have no interest in ancient pottery. 4) They found it badly written.
Reasons I enjoyed this book:
1) I really liked the characters. 2) I found it extremely tense. 3) I like learning about things I don’t know anything about. 4) The writing wasn’t full of grammatical errors or awkward constructions.
You know, it wasn’t a GREAT book. But it didn’t make me want to throw it across the room because it was full of misplaced modifiers, like The Outcast, or because it was so patronizing that I wanted to strangle the author, like The Da Vinci Code, or because the ending pulled a cheap trick like One Day or The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, or because it was a thinly disguised political manifesto like The Other Hand or Under the Skin, or… No, I’ll stop now, because I’ve just realized that all the examples of books I’ve wanted to throw across the room are books we’ve read in my book group.
I don’t ask for much in a Good Read, and Acqua Alta didn’t give me much, but it gave me everything I need. Reasonable writing, tons of atmosphere, heart-stopping tension (sorry, book group, but I liked Brett Lynch enough that I was desperate for her not to die, and had to skip to the end to make sure she was going to be ok…. Something I don’t normally do, and OMG, the scene where she purposefully smashed the 5000 year old bowl because it was a way to avenge her own death against her would-be murderer!!!), and the food all sounds so delicious. What’s not to like?
I probably wouldn’t have read this if it hadn’t been a Book Group read, and I probably won’t bother to read another Donna Leon, as I tend not to go for mysteries in series unless there’s something really spectacular about them. And this wasn’t spectacular; it was just a good read. So… overall, an innocent and decent reading experience that’s left me wondering if I need my head adjusting. ...more
I’d read and enjoyed Pars vite et reviens tard/Have Mercy On Us All so I thought I’d try something else by the same author. And I have to say that I tI’d read and enjoyed Pars vite et reviens tard/Have Mercy On Us All so I thought I’d try something else by the same author. And I have to say that I think Fred Vargas is very good. As far as I can work out, this is the first Adamsberg mystery, incorporating a lot of backstory about his mysterious love life. (And I didn’t even realise he had one!) But there's backstory about everybody in the book, which is part of what charms me.
What I like so much about these mysteries is the multitude of extremely quirky characters that populate the action, and also the way everyone seems to have a connection to every other character in the book. It does occasionally wander into the realm of fantastic coincidence, I suppose, but it’s also just highly entertaining, and winds up with a very satisfying sense of closure.
**spoiler alert** Why do books by Scottish authors all have to end so MISERABLY???
The book group liked this, and in general I did too. It is blurbed b**spoiler alert** Why do books by Scottish authors all have to end so MISERABLY???
The book group liked this, and in general I did too. It is blurbed by Audrey Niffenegger as a “Strange, sad, and marvellously well-written novel.” For once, I more or less agree with the assessments on the cover, and the comparisons to Daphne Du Maurier and Jean Rhys make sense. But what would an E Wein book review be without a couple of Pauline Kael-style complaints?
I thought that there were too many loose ends -- that the violent climax came as a punchline rather than as a result of carefully woven strands of plot. Where’s the twisted relationship with Alex and Iris going? Will Esme end up in jail? Iris can’t follow her there, even if she’s decided her loyalty lies with Esme. What will happen to the house? What will happen to Alex? What will happen to the dog? What happened to the wonderful red dress? Why am I cursed with noticing or caring what happens to these things, and why can’t I just enjoy the punchline? (Could it be because as I was reading I thought it was a “strange, sad, and marvellously well-written novel,” not just a bunch of moving and eerie images poetically strung together, and the sudden ending seemed like the lazy writer’s option?)
As usual, my chief criticism is one of STYLE. We have four different narrative points of view in this book… 3 of them are 3rd person and 1 is 1st person; 2 of the 3 third person narratives are viewed by the same character in different time periods. There is no context for the first person narrative. SIGHHH why am I bothering to try to make sense of the author’s tortuous narrative decisions. Why am I cursed with NOTICING OR CARING ???
I think that the obsession with multiple narrators is a trend of early 21st century literature, and I like to believe that at some point in the near future we will grow out of it… or perhaps grow into it, using it as a literary device that adds to the text with purpose and poignancy, rather than a quick and easy way to feed the hapless reader information he or she can’t get from the viewpoint character.
A brief history of the Special Operations Executive, the saboteurs and underground agents that were sent from Britain to the Continent under German oc A brief history of the Special Operations Executive, the saboteurs and underground agents that were sent from Britain to the Continent under German occupation during World War II, with the mission “to set Europe ablaze.” This book was given to me as a Christmas present. Not that I’m obsessive or anything.
This slender volume is actually one of the best I’ve come across for giving elusive details about timing, code names, equipment used, dates of missions, etc. It’s also very clear and orderly in its organization, including lists and chronologies and a good index.
And it’s so interesting! Having mostly concentrated my SOE research on F section (France), I knew very little about the tremendous shenanigans going on in the Norwegian resistance -- for example, the fact that they managed to entirely disrupt Germany’s infant atomic weapons industry. And what about the introduction of itching powder into condoms in brothels used by the German army??? There’s a quick tutorial in the Playfair code system, too, if you want to try your hand at secret messages.
The lady with the pistol on the cover is Jacqueline Nearne (the sister of SOE agent Eileen Nearne, who you may recall died in Torquay in Sept. 2010 and was given a bit of a splash in the media). The cover scene is actually from a short film called Now It Can Be Told (available from the Imperial War Museum). Filmed on site in France in 1945, while the war was still going on, this documentary about the SOE starred actual agents and operational aircraft. There are quite a few stills from this film illustrating SOE Agent, and some vivid re-enactment-type paintings, but the most interesting and intriguing illustrations are actual photos taken in the field.
Really worth a look even if you’re not an SOE junkie like me! ...more
The subtitle of this book is a good summary of it: “A[ir] T[ransport] A[uxiliary] Ferry Pilots’ Handli
I am nothing if not consistent in my obsessions.
The subtitle of this book is a good summary of it: “A[ir] T[ransport] A[uxiliary] Ferry Pilots’ Handling Notes for Seven World War II Aircraft.” I confess that I only skimmed the handling notes, perhaps lingering a bit longer over the Airacobra (which was universally detested and therefore elicited the most scathing comments from the editor).
The editor is Hugh Bergel, formerly the Officer commanding No. 9 Ferry Pool for the ATA, and he gives an entertaining and matter-of-fact introduction and annotations to the handling notes. It’s a useful book for a researcher and possibly quite interesting to a warbird-obsessed plane-spotter. I would not quite call myself a plane-spotter, as my aircraft obsessions stem from very specific associations and tend to be limited by whether or not some fictional or historical person has flown in whatever it is. The Hawker Hurricane, for example, the first aircraft in this book, was flown by Roald Dahl in the Battle of Athens. If you’re interested, read Dahl’s Going Solo -- it’s a fantastic account of a besieged Hurricane squadron.
Here’s a great sample passage of some of the more entertaining instructions in Flying Wartime Aircraft. From “Flying Particulars” for the Hawker Typhoon (verbatim, caps and italics and all):
One of the ground crew MUST be especially detailed to act as fireman in the case of fire at the carburettor air intake during engine starting. During this proceeding he must actually hold the fire extinguisher in his hand, and must also understand the following drill: (a) If the intake catches fire he must shout “FIRE” to the pilot. (b) The pilot will then switch off ignition, open the cockpit, and extend both arms outside to show that the engine is safe. (c) When the man with the extinguisher sees that the pilot has done this he will apply the extinguisher to the air intake. ...more
**spoiler alert** “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
This book really did call to mind The Great Gatsby**spoiler alert** “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
This book really did call to mind The Great Gatsby for me, although I didn’t feel it was anywhere near as good. I suspect it suffers from being a translation. I suspect that in Japanese it is a lyrical and haunting read. In English it’s kind of… well, just flat, really. And it needs the language to keep it going because NOTHING ever happens -- the big moment, when the heroine disappears, happens off stage and is removed from the present by two retellings (the narrator’s and his informant’s); and it turns out that the heroine’s disappearance was a kind of non-event anyway; and when she turns up again at the end of the book that’s ALSO a non-event, and you know…. I just didn’t care about anybody because they were all so BLAH.
It reminded me of Gatsby for two reasons. One was the interminable, interstellar loneliness suffered by every single character (half of them DON’T EVEN HAVE NAMES, including the narrator). But I think the main reason was that the nameless narrator really did remind me of Nick Carraway. He appeared to be removed from the “action” at first, such as it was, but he was the only character capable of action, and I quite liked him. And everybody -- everybody -- depended on him.
I enjoyed the reading while I was reading it. But there was just so little of anything going on, and so little continuity throughout, that I don’t think I’ll remember anything about this book next week. Yet another semi-literary Book Group choice interrupting my continuing orgy of French pilot comics. ...more
**spoiler alert** Ali, child of a beautiful German nurse and a talented Italian pilot, is adopted at birth by a Libyan couple and grows up during the**spoiler alert** Ali, child of a beautiful German nurse and a talented Italian pilot, is adopted at birth by a Libyan couple and grows up during the first part of World War II wrestling with his friend’s homemade flight simulator. His lucky break comes when he gets to show the local German air squadron how to start a captured British Hurricane. In their excitement one of the mechanics knocks Ali unconscious, Ali’s senseless hand shoves the throttle forward, and he’s airborne. All those hours in the simulator pay off, and after coming out of his swoon he performs a number of impressive aerobatics, finally demonstrating his tremendous slow-flying capabilities by escorting Rommel himself (in a Storch, my favourite Luftwaffe reconnaissance aircraft) back to the airbase. The next day they send him into battle in an Me-109. His girlfriend is beginning to worry about him.
This series is great fun but for plausibility I give it an EPIC FAIL! (I laughed when he started the aerobatics.)
So, um, what is it with these French plane-spotter wartime aircraft artist nutters and the Luftwaffe??? Three of the four French graphic novel flying series I have read all feature Luftwaffe heroes. They are always sympathetic, the stories are great reads, the artwork is FABULOUS. But I feel like I’m missing something…. Where did this French adulation of the Luftwaffe come from?
Unless it’s just that in the 1940s the Germans had all the COOLEST PLANES. Which you can’t really argue with.
ETA: hum, on rethinking this, the author's name is not very French and I see that it is a translation. It doesn't say anything about the original, unfortunately. ...more
I loved most of this book - a fascinating and personal account of a very young female pilot doing her best for the Allied war effort.
I read another reI loved most of this book - a fascinating and personal account of a very young female pilot doing her best for the Allied war effort.
I read another review of this book somewhere which complained that the ATA (flying) section was too detailed and that the OSS (spying) section not detailed enough. And it’s true, but my feeling as a reader is that the author ran out of steam at the end. The beginning is detailed day by day, blow by blow…. Wonderful descriptions of piloting in England (mostly) during the Second World War, of the different types of planes, the nightlife and friendships, the stolen rides in bombers. The last year of the war simply isn’t as well documented, maybe not even in the author’s mind. The first couple of years obviously made her; and, the reader needs to remember, she suffered some serious losses before the end.
I am terrifically disappointed to read, by Lussier’s own account, that it was not she but a colleague who caught the spy who wanted to meet Charlie Chaplin! ...more
“The marginal man… lives on the margin of two cultures— that of the country of his parents and that of the country of his adoption, in neither of whic“The marginal man… lives on the margin of two cultures— that of the country of his parents and that of the country of his adoption, in neither of which he is quite at home.” - Robert E Park
So -- Germany instituted a short-wave radio service aimed at Americans, the North American Service, as early as 1933. Who knew? Not me. This book contains a good overview of the North American Service, but the bulk of the work is made up of a series of essays chronicling the individual lives of some of the Americans who were employed as broadcasters for this service, both before and during the Second World War. For the most part, as can be expected, their life stories end “raggedly” (I think that was the word the author used).
In fact this book was recommended to me as a way of refining a fictional character of my own creation, and otherwise I might have never heard of this curious bunch of people. But that painful description of “the marginal man” does apply to me as well as an ex-pat -- something I notice every time I go “home” -- that there is no longer any place on the planet where I am not a foreigner. My children have citizenship of two countries and can legally find work pretty much anywhere on three continents. But none of us obviously belongs anywhere, with our muddled accents and outsiders’ attitudes.
I can’t endorse the beliefs of the peculiar group of Americans described in this book, but I can certainly relate to their sense of displacement. I was particularly fascinated by the stories of Constance Drexel ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constanc... ) and Jane Anderson ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jane_And... ). The treason charge against Drexel was ultimately dropped; Anderson’s positive take on Facism was formulated by a month of imprisonment, torture and a death sentence visited on her by the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War. Interesting and brave people, if delusional. ...more
I am an American living in Europe, and as I commented to a friend while reading this book, it’s so weird to think of what it must have been like for WI am an American living in Europe, and as I commented to a friend while reading this book, it’s so weird to think of what it must have been like for Western Europe to be at war. It’s like Massachusetts slinging a load of guided missiles at Pennsylvania.
This is a whopping 500-some pages long but after the first few technical chapters becomes a very readable account of these “retaliation weapons” launched by Germany at Britain during the summer of 1944 (the bombardment began a week after D-Day). It’s a hugely comprehensive study of the hunt for the launching sites, the public reaction, involvement of press and pilots, with a bit of behind-the-scenes-in-Germany (not much from the factory floor manned by the enslaved prisoners who built the things, but I suppose that information is harder to come by).
The bulk of the book, and the bit that makes it so interesting and accessible, is about the reaction and endurance of the Londoners who were targeted in the attacks. I’m reading it for research and I’m not sure I’d have been so diligent about digesting the WHOLE THING if I was reading it for “fun,” but it certainly kept me riveted.
I don’t think I can possibly do justice to the myriad individual accounts which the author has so seamlessly drawn together, but here are a few samples I liked:
--------------------------------- By now the timorous had gone and those still in London were not going to allow the flying-bombs to interfere with their weekly -- or sometimes twice- or thrice-weekly -- addiction [cinema going]. ‘We’d rather have died watching our favourite film stars than stay at home,’ remembers one woman then aged fourteen and living in Wood Green. ‘They used to put up a notice to say that the siren had gone but nobody ever left.’ ‘I used to slide down a bit in my seat, put my hands over my ears and wait for the engine to cut out,’ remembers a former fifteen-year-old from Greenwich. ‘Then would come the explosion and I would carry on watching the film.’ People’s private thoughts on such occasions varied. ‘I remember wondering whether Gary Cooper would be so tough if he was sitting where I was,’ admits one wartime schoolboy from Croydon, as the V-1s passed over during For Whom the Bell Tolls. ---------------------------
When ‘the [trolley] suddenly stopped halfway between the recognized stops with one accord all the passengers, myself included, dropped to the floor and wriggled under the seats. We felt rather abashed when the conductor… called out “You can all get up. It is only the trolley arm come off!”’
An anti-aircraft gunner remembers a particularly inspiring occasion:
We were listening to one of Bach’s unaccompanied partitas for violin. During this we heard the sound of an approaching V-1. As it came nearer, the audience became tense but the violinist kept on playing, quite unmoved…. There was a terrific contrast -- the throb of the V-1 engine above us, with its deep menacing notes, and against this the thin beautiful melody of the violin …. The audience was held absolutely still and silent …. As the sound of the V-1 died away, the violin seemed to be playing away triumphantly. I have never heard Bach’s music sound so powerful. I turned over two themes in my mind: the battle between good and evil, with the former triumphant; the opposition of great German music of the past to the sound of the contemporary evil regime we were fighting.
All Clear, or, I'm An Historian, Get Me Out Of Here!
What I really found lacking in this novel, and in Blackout All Clear 1, was an overall sense of beAll Clear, or, I'm An Historian, Get Me Out Of Here!
What I really found lacking in this novel, and in Blackout All Clear 1, was an overall sense of being in another time. I know I was reminded of the fact of it on every single page for a thousand pages (“THIS IS TIME TRAVEL! I am AN HISTORIAN and THIS IS TIME TRAVEL!”), but I never got a real sense of it. Maybe this is because the Oxford of 2060 is very sketchily painted? I have no sense of home for any of the characters, and therefore no real sense of their being displaced, apart from their obvious discomfort. (They remind me of emoting Sims, frantically scurrying around and waving their arms in cyberspace.) There was a quotation in Doomsday Book to the effect, What if God wants to help us but can’t get to us -- what if God is permanently separated from the world He created by something more terrible than Time? It brings tears to my eyes even badly paraphrased. What could be more terrible than Time? That dreadful gulf, the doom of us all? I got a pretty good sense of the horrors of being bombed in All Clear, but until the last 200 of the duology’s 1000 pages I got no real sense of the finality of Time.
And for most of the journey I missed it desperately. It’s what I want in a time travel book; it’s the whole point of a time travel book. A sense of the past, a sense of longing for the past, and the impossibility of ever really touching it no matter how close you get or how important it is to you -- the danger inherent in living too much in it and the fact that you can’t change it, even if you want to. Doomsday Book had all of that; Blackout All Clear 1 and All Clear don’t.
I also don’t get much sense of place throughout the book. It’s a very generalized sort of “wartime England” which I find quite difficult to visualize (it’s also peppered with Americanisms). Jarringly, in marked contrast with the vagueness of the local landscapes (either green and rural or grey and flattened), the lengthy action in St. Paul’s Cathedral is described in loving and occasionally excessive detail. This doesn’t make me go, “How well St. Paul’s comes to life here!” so much as, “This is the only place in England the author has ever visited!” Clearly she has done her research on Underground shelters and upmarket London department stores, and has access to a comprehensive list of bomb sites. It is probably the case that I know more about England in WWII than yer average reader, and am cursed with noticing--ahem--discrepancies. But the spotty and occasionally inaccurate historical background really began to wear me down after a while, and took some of the enjoyment out of my reading.
It also bothers me that I can’t think of a single instance throughout the duology where a, pardon me, an historian EVER makes an observational note on paper or records an event electronically (coded messages limited strictly to “helphelphelp” don’t count as research notes). One of the highlights of Doomsday Book is Kivrin cradling her wrist recorder and thinking, “I am here in place of those that I love.” (I’m quoting from memory -- I read it in 1993). She’s got it all down. She has done her fieldwork in spite of the dangers involved, and she never loses sight of what her job and mission is. Who’s that devoted to his or her work in All Clear? As far as I can tell they’re not even equipped for taking notes.
I’ve read and enjoyed other Connie Willis books. These two have received such all-round spectacular reviews, both professional and personal, that I was expecting something… well, neater. Overall I found the duology sprawling and disorganized. I might have enjoyed it more if my own expectations hadn’t been set so high.
P.S. To the editor: I don’t understand why these two books aren’t 1) the single book the author originally intended, and 2) 700 pages shorter.
P.P.S. To my fellow readers: I will never take any of your recommendations seriously EVER AGAIN. :p
This is a facsimile edition of “One-hundred-and-one black-out nights’ entertainment.” We have made good use of it while waiting for our meals at the CThis is a facsimile edition of “One-hundred-and-one black-out nights’ entertainment.” We have made good use of it while waiting for our meals at the Cherrybank Inn, doing the word and number games and reading off interesting (and often obsolete) facts. According to this book, the Gerrmans measure circles in 400 degrees, therefore a right angle is 100 degrees. The present tense of the verb “wrought” is “work.” It takes 19 pennies stacked on top of each other to equal the height of a single penny. I can just imagine the 10-year-old sitting in the Anderson, trying it out by candlelight.
There are also plenty of poems, quotations, puzzles, quizzes and magic tricks to keep you going during the long and sleepless nights of the Blitz. Or whatever might be causing you sleepless nights.
There’s a useful and interesting introduction explaining some of the background for the book. “Evelyn August” was the pen name of the married couple Sydney and Muriel Box. They worked together as playwrights, and enjoyed a good deal of success, but had to supplement their income when cinemas and theatres were shut down during wartime. Hence this book.
They also worked in the film industry. In 1940, together with Jay Gardner Lewis, Sydney formed a production company that made short government propaganda and training films -- one of these, The English Inn (1941), was Muriel’s directing debut.
The company was called “Verity Films.”
Random mythbusting from the last page of The Black-out Book:
=Famous Last Words= Lord Nelson: “Kismet, Hardy.” (No, Bobby, he didn’t say “Kiss me, Hardy.” That is just one of those superstitions that sometimes find their way into history books.) ...more
This was a difficult book to read, not so much for its content as because of the author’s formal and somewhat distant accounting of herself, surely aThis was a difficult book to read, not so much for its content as because of the author’s formal and somewhat distant accounting of herself, surely a result of her lifelong devotion to academia. I think that what I love most about Countess Lanckorońska’s war narrative is how she continually and unselfconsciously refers to any humanitarian effort on her part as “my work.” Here she is writing about a time she spent in near-solitary confinement in the prisoner section of the concentration camp at Ravensbrück:
My work was going very well, not only as far as food distribution was concerned, but also the business of gathering and reporting information.
The communication and food distribution is achieved through guards and cleaners (often prisoners themselves) supplemented by a certain amount of acrobatics:
The most exacting task was how to get food into the ‘dungeons’ after raising the iron shutters. If the shutters jammed, the prisoner inside could not reach high enough to help, with nothing to climb on and no bunk… The thing to do was to attach a stone to the string from the parcel and aiming at the slit in the partially open upper window, throw it. Then the prisoner above would lower the string, to which the small parcel could be attached.
(Being a rather special prisoner herself, Lanckorońska was allowed unlimited food parcels from outside the camp, and took advantage of this, distributing almost all of it with abandon.)
However, only the last fifth or so of Lanckorońska’s narrative takes place in Ravensbrück, despite the title—the bulk of the book is devoted to activities and events beginning with the German invasion of Poland. And, indeed, the Russian invasion of Poland. My Polish history is scanty, and this was a real eye-opener. Lanckorońska’s home city of Lwów was occupied by the Soviet Russian Army on 22 Sept. 1939, leading to, among other things:
* Lanckorońska being forced to share her apartment with a Russian officer who insisted on washing his beard in the toilet.
* The entire winter’s coal supply from her block being “nationalised” by the Soviet government -- i.e. requisitioned and removed without recompense to the tenants who had originally purchased it.
* The Polish currency being abolished four days before Christmas, paralysing “all commercial and investment enterprises” -- so when you went into a shop and tried buy a newspaper or board a tram, you were asked for Russian roubles, then “shown to the door” when you failed to produce them. Suddenly nobody had any cash. Curiously, Polish currency was still valid on “the German side.”
Lanckorońska is a humanitarian and an extremely learned historian, but her well-earned prejudices are hidden only just beneath the surface. It’s hard to tell whether she despises the Russians or Germans more, though she makes a valiant effort to try to analyze what’s going on with scholarly indifference. If there’s any cultural group that comes off as barbaric in this narrative, it’s the “Asian” Russians -- barbaric in the sense that they are uneducated and uncivilized, as well as brutal. When Lanckorońska eventually leaves Lwów for Kraków, she is at first hugely relieved to be under German rule. “Whatever else, this is Europe.”
Again, I’m not really doing justice to the narrative. It’s meaty and there’s a lot of information here, including extensive biographical notes for about 85 individuals. Although presented as an autobiography, this book is also a very personal, subjective, and crystallized look at Poland during World War II. Not easy, but well worth the effort for the curious and ambitious reader. ...more
**spoiler alert** Warning: There are big Plot Spoilers in this review.
“Sometimes, when it’s going badly, she wonders if what she believes to be a love**spoiler alert** Warning: There are big Plot Spoilers in this review.
“Sometimes, when it’s going badly, she wonders if what she believes to be a love of the written word is really just a fetish for stationery.”
I really enjoyed this up to about chapter 16, when it began to drag a bit. I howled with laughter and shed many more tears than were necessary, or even expected, over the scene where Emma goes to meet her prospective editor and is mistaken for a nanny applicant. I liked Emma. I rather marvelled that she was being written by a man, because so often I find male authors incapable of creating convincing female characters, and I really empathized with Emma. And Dexter was such a GIT.
Then somewhere about, oh, maybe about two thirds of the way through the book, Emma’s life improved to the point where I began to feel that she was sort of spiralling into male fantasy never-never-land. Something about the way all the boys in the book, except Dexter of course, couldn’t help but constantly remark on how beautiful Emma was. And the girls kept remarking cattily about the “puppy fat” she’d lost. And her career went zooming skywards through only a small amount of unusual effort on her part, and she went to Paris and started dressing like Audrey Hepburn, and, well, I began to feel kind of like she had stopped being lovely sympathetic Emma Morley and was turning into a bit of a fantasy perfect woman. (She even lost her northern accent and her glasses!) AND THEN she invited Git Dexter to jump into bed with her after many years of recognizing what a git he was, and suddenly she turned his wretched life around and he was off the bottle and running a nice little business and they were married and buying a new house.
Mind you, at this point I was still enjoying the book, but I’d got this niggling feeling that Emma wasn’t such a well-conceived character after all.
Righto, and then on page 385 SHE GOT SQUASHED AND DIED.
I wept COPIOUSLY, Nicholls will be pleased to note, not quite the tears I shed for Robbie Turner in Atonement, but a fair amount of copious tears. And for all that I felt CHEATED. This was a funny book, a light read, a book about MY GENERATION, and the co-star was NOT supposed to DIE. It was cheap, you know? Emma’s death was CHEAP. It was the author looking for a sensational way to end the story.
And my GOD how the next three years (and 70 pages) dragged on after that. Anniversary upon anniversary of maudlin wretchedness on Dexter’s part as he “celebrated” Emma’s “life.” And all this was interspersed with pretty unnecessary flashbacks which really told us nothing we didn’t already know, and which hadn’t previously been part of the narrative.
I’m not sure I’d recommend it because, after all, it turns out it’s NOT a fun read, it’s like a comedy that does a sudden 180 and becomes hugely tragic, and as a reader I felt like I’d really been jerked around. Plot twists, I love plot twists. But this was not a twist. It’s true that life *is* like that sometimes; people die, and you feel cheated. But in a book it needs to mean something, and Emma’s death was meaningless. It also played up just how very artificial and conceited, how self-consciously affected, the construction of the entire novel is -- presenting the book as a series of 20 reports on the events in the lives of these two people on the same day (15 July) over 20 years. It might have worked if they were random events. But they’re all the BIG events, and the characters never notice the connection (until the end of course, when it becomes the anniversary of Emma’s death).
As Sara says: “Say grrrrr, it helps soothe the pain.”
I’m having a good go at finishing some of my stack of unfinished books. This one was commissioned to accompany an excellent exhibit at London’s ImperiI’m having a good go at finishing some of my stack of unfinished books. This one was commissioned to accompany an excellent exhibit at London’s Imperial War Museum, “Women and War,” 15 Oct. 2003 to 18 April 2004. Despite the fact that my inspiration for seeing this exhibit was my then-obsession with the Battle of Britain, this is what I remember most vividly from the exhibit: 1) a skirt made out of silk escape maps. 2) an SOE wireless operator’s radio set. 3) Another SOE agent’s dress with a bullet hole through it. 4) A photograph of Odette Sampson’s quiet smile next to her own words: “If you look into the eyes of the man who is torturing you he knows he cannot win. You are stronger than he is. He can kill you but that is all.” I bought the book but only read the chapter about the SOE women.
Anyway, now that I’ve finished Adie’s book, which I enjoyed and which introduced me to many new interesting and fascinating characters (Lilian Bader! A black WAAF! Who knew!), towards the end I found myself wondering… Why is Adie rabbiting on SO MUCH about fashion? This is supposed to document our journey from “the weaker sex” to being full players in world affairs. It seems to me that the women who really take their combat jobs seriously (I’m thinking WWII Red Army soldiers) aren’t too worried about whether or not their “Mess Dress” will be out of style at a military dinner two decades down the road. And then I realized that although the exhibit was titled “Women and War,” that’s only the subtitle of the accompanying book. The book's title is “Corsets to Camouflage,” and corsets and camouflage it is. I CAN’T SAY how much this revelation annoys me. Why the change of focus? “Women and War” not catchy enough, not sexy enough? Or are we really all that shallow, and the bottom line is how good we look in uniform?
So, a flawed book… so many of Adie’s specific examples are from Sunderland, her hometown, which though inevitable and interesting, provides a lopsided worldview based on Sunderland. The focus on clothing bugs me throughout the book. (After all, the subtitle is still “Women and War,” not “Skirts on the Battlefield.”) But it’s wonderfully illustrated and provides a very good introduction and overview to anyone who’s embarking on a historical feminist military odyssey. Not that I’d do that, right? ...more
Rarely, these days, have I ploughed through a book so quickly. Wanda Półtawska was one of the Polish women used in criminal medical experiments at theRarely, these days, have I ploughed through a book so quickly. Wanda Półtawska was one of the Polish women used in criminal medical experiments at the Ravensbrück concentration camp, and wrote this book in two intense months after her release--as catharsis, since she found herself so shell-shocked she couldn’t sleep.
It is a riveting story of imprisonment and survival and courage, and towards the end becomes a shout of triumph as the camp’s “rabbits” (“guinea pigs” is the English sense of the Polish word, but the Polish word means “rabbits”) rise up in open rebellion against the SS and are supported wholeheartedly by the entire camp. It’s a tremendous and amazing tale, and I feel rather as though this final episode is missing from Jack Morrison’s otherwise excellent Ravensbrück: Everyday Life in a Women’s Concentration Camp 193945.
Although I am sure I went misty-eyed here and there throughout Półtawska's book, I didn’t start sobbing aloud until I got to the postscript. In “Return to Ravensbrück 1959,” Półtawska describes the unveiling of a memorial on the site of the former concentration camp. As the visitors and guests arrive on site, Półtawska is gripped with fear, and then:
A German voice, seeking to bring order into chaos, shouts: “Will the Polish delegates stand in rows of five!” With a single voice we all cry out: “No! No! Not in rows of five!” The official looks at us blankly, not understanding. He calls an interpreter who repeats the order: “The Polish delegates are to stand in rows of five.” And again that single, many-throated cry: “No! Not in fives!” They don’t understand. In the end I can stand it no longer and shout into the man’s ear: “Man! For five years we stood here in rows of five!”
Półtawska was 19 when she was imprisoned. Mentally and physically scarred for life, in spite of these wounds she went on to qualify as a doctor, specializing in the psychiatry of juvenile patients. She married and had four daughters of her own. This inspiring, amazing woman has a shining list of publications, humanist activities, and honorary degrees, and I believe she's still an active lecturer. She'll be 90 this year. She was a close friend of Pope John Paul II.