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A Nation of Readers

A Nation of Readers

A fascinating article in The Atlantic details how publishers sent free books overseas to GIs during World War II (in sharp contrast to the countries were books were burned) and in so doing, created “a nation of readers.” Sure, the soldiers preferred westerns, mysteries, comics and porn to relieve the boredom and the waiting, but the article also noted:

No book generated more passion among its readers than A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a gritty coming-of-age novel. On a Pacific island, a lucky soldier given a new copy “howled with joy,” but knew he’d have to sleep on top of it if he hoped to hang onto it long enough to finish it. A 20-year-old Marine “went through hell” in two years of combat, but wrote from his stateside hospital bed that the book had made him feel human again. It might, he conceded, be “unusual for a supposedly battle-hardened marine to do such an effeminate thing as weep over a piece of fiction,” but he was now making his way through the book for the third time. In France, the colonel commanding an anti-aircraft battalion being shelled by German artillery found one of his soldiers reading the book between explosions. “He started to read us a portion … and we laughed like hell between bursts. It sure was funny.” The tough West Pointer later found a copy of his own, and was tempted to pull it out and read it while wounded and pinned down by enemy fire. “It was that interesting,” he recalled, in a letter to the publisher.


.Motherland_FINAL (1)

In December 1944, Liesl Kappus, an orphaned newlywed with three small stepsons, struggles to maintain a household on the scant provisions available in her German village.  Her husband Frank married her two months after losing his first wife in childbirth and, after spending fewer than two months was Liesl, has left for the Weimar to serve as a reconstructive surgeon in a field hospital near Buchenwald.

First Liesl must contend with her oldest stepson’s hostility, the incessant needs of the newborn, unfriendly neighbors who refer to her as the “new wife,” insufficient rations, and frequent air raids.  Then two refugee faimilars are quartered in her house and her middle stepson begins behaving very oddly.  After a local doctor diagnosis the boy’s trouble as lead poisoning and threatens to send him to Hadaman, a hospital for the deficient from which few return, Liesl sends for Frank.  Although he has transferring him to Berlin, which is disintegrating literally and figuratively from Allied bombing, Frank deserts and makes the difficult journey home through a Germany which weakens daily.

Based on events which occurred in her own family, Hummel’s novel is an intense examination of the horros and compromises faced by an ordinary German family in the last crumbling months of the Reich.  Surrounded by astonishing cruelty, were they also complicit in it, if only through turning a blind eye?  If they could not save even themselves from spying neighbors and vindictive betrayals, could they have been expected to save others?  In an afterward to the novel, Hummel writes that in the course of writing the story, she moved from asking the question “What did they know and when did they know it?” to the question “What did they love?”

Was love, wonders Liesl, just made up of simple incidents in which you brought out the best in one another?

Incidents in which people bring out the best in one another are thin on the ground in this novel and are primarily confined to the relationships between Liesl (who is sorely tested but rarely falters) and her stepsons.  Elsewhere, even under her own roof, treachery, violence and convenient ignorance abound.  Motherland is a fastincating novel of complicity and complexity about “ordinary” Germans facing the end of the war, its consequences and its punishments, and the steps they must take towards their future.

Maria Hummel
Novel, Counterpoint Press, 2014
375 pages (count based on Advanced Readers’ Copy)

World War II Day by Day

Almost Chosen People

An interesting look at World War II on a global scale day by day.  Amazing to recall how seventy years ago battles were being fought that set the course of our world.

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Interview with David Leavitt

david leavitt

David Leavitt stopped by So Much So Many So Few to discuss his new novel, “The Two Hotel Francforts.”

This novel is so vividly about a specific time and place. In the movie “Casablanca,” there’s a scene early on where the refugees are gazing skyward and one says “The night plane to Lisbon.”  But I don’t think there’s been a dramatic depiction, before this, of what went on once they got to Lisbon.  Can you tell us a little about how you came to it?

You’re right: as a location, Lisbon during the War hasn’t been exploited nearly as much as, say, Paris or London. There was one movie set there—Lisbon Story—but it’s an obscurity. I still haven’t been able to track down a copy.

Before I started working on the novel, I’d never been to Portugal. I knew virtually nothing about Lisbon. I came to the city through an historical back door. In 2008 I was doing some research on the modernist French interior decorator and furniture designer Jean-Michel Frank, whose work I have always loved. Like many other Jews, Frank fled Paris in the spring of 1940. He arrived in Portugal in June, only to be shipped off (along with Elsa Schiaparelli) into residence forcée in the university city of Coimbra. Subsequently he appealed to Nelson Rockefeller, whose New York apartment he had decorated in 1939, for assistance in obtaining an American visa, but Rockefeller either could not or would not help him. Finally Frank got a visa for Argentina, at which point he was allowed into Lisbon, where he stayed for a few weeks in July. He spent three months in Buenos Aires (designing a lot of furniture for the Argentine company Comté) before he was finally granted the US visa that he had been denied in Portugal, at which point he sailed in New York. There he committed suicide in March 1941.

In its original incarnation, the novel was to be about Frank and his American lover, Thad Lovett, a fascinatingly weird character in his own right and, like me, a native of Palo Alto, California. Unfortunately I couldn’t make that novel work. Part of the problem was the unavoidable downward trajectory of Frank’s life from bad to worse to still worse to suicide. More significantly, as I tried to write that novel, I kept getting “stuck” in Lisbon. That is to say, Frank’s life both before and after Lisbon refused to take shape in my imagination. Lisbon itself wouldn’t give up the spotlight.

“Seeing” is a major theme in this novel — what the characters choose to see and what they choose to look away from.  It begins quite literally, when one character steps on another’s glasses.  Can you take us through the evolution of this blindness?

That’s a very interesting question. I think it all started with the pigeons. The first time I went to Lisbon, the aggressiveness of the pigeons on the Rossio astonished me. The idea of a pigeon attack as a sort of echo of an air raid stuck in my mind, eventually combining, somehow, with a pair of glasses being broken. Probably in the back of my mind was the famous scene from Strangers on a Train in which the strangling is filmed through the distorting lenses of the victim’s glasses….I suspect that what I’m exploring here is the impulse or desire to see the world through someone else’s eyes, and in particular to see the world through the eyes of a lover.

The other significance of the glasses: when Pete isn’t wearing them, the sharp lines that define his perspective (and his identity) blur. This allows him to behave in ways that he never would when he’s wearing them. Edward picks up on this, which is why the stealing or removal of Pete’s glasses becomes such a crucial move in the erotic games they play. But as the novel goes on, Pete realizes that he can’t afford (emotionally?) to compromise his own vision. The world in which he lives is too difficult and threatening. Hence his decision to end the affair with Edward is part of his realization that he can no longer sit back and observe the war passively. He has to take a more active role. He has to drive—and he can’t drive without his glasses.

Speaking of Pete and his driving, I wanted to ask about Pete’s resolute American-ness.  He’s not just an American, he’s a Midwesterner.  He’s not just a Midwesterner, he’s a salesman.  And he sells no frou-frou, he sells cars.  Until Dr. Gray appears, he’s really the only one with a real job, and with practical skills and knowledge (which he uses to get the dog safely onboard) but he’s so marginalized by the other characters.  He’s like a car himself to them — a means to get somewhere or, more accurately, to get elsewhere.

That’s a good point. As the novel took shape, Pete’s job became more and more central to my conception of him. I had at first gotten the idea of making him a car salesman because so many emigres/refugees drove to Lisbon and so many of them drove American cars—mostly Buicks and Packards—which aroused my curiosity and led me to investigate the history of these brands. Gradually it started making more and more sense to me that Pete should be a salesman. I also liked the idea of selling a car as a kind of seduction—hence the scene in which Edward asks Pete to make his pitch to him.

To some degree, in creating Pete and Julia, I was drawing on certain couples I’ve met over the years in which one partner is the flightily mercurial artist and the other the breadwinner. The breadwinner provides the mercurial artist with financial and practical grounding. The artist brings color to his life. He (for the breadwinner is usually male) gains variety and richness of experience through the agency of the artist (usually female) so in a sense this kind of a relationship is a trade-off: each provides for the other. Though Julia is not an artist per se, I see her as having an artistic sensibility

Dr. Gray is magnificent as a character!  And I love that she, the one who makes him see, is called “gray”, but enough of gray, current popular tastes in fiction being what they are.  When she strides into the action, it’s so cinematic, it’s as though everything suddenly blooms into color a la The Wizard of Oz.  .

I like Dr. Gray a lot. She is based in part on an English doctor I met in the nineties in Rome, Dr. Alberta Jeans. At the time Dr. Jeans was already in her eighties, which means that she must have gotten her medical degree at a time when few women did. Possibly she came to Rome during the war. I never had the chance to ask her before she died. In some ways Dr. Gray is a tribute to her memory.

As I entered into what I will call, for lack of a better term, the last “movement” of the novel, I realized that I really needed to introduce a new character—a very down-to-earth character who could take Pete out of the claustrophobic realm that Lisbon has become for him and provide him with what we might now call a “reality check.” For reasons I can no longer remember, I decided to make this character a woman doctor on her way into the war to provide first aid. Through subsequent research I discovered that the most likely route that such a doctor would take would be through the Quaker Relief movement. Hence Dr. Gray was born.

Usually when I write I know from the beginning where a story is going to end. I didn’t in this case until very late in the process. As I entered the last phase, I felt fairly certain that Edward and Pete would never be able to make a go of their relationship, not because they were both men, or because either was really “trapped” in his marriage, but because Edward’s passivity would prove an intolerable obstacle. Given that my novel takes place during the war, it seemed to me essential that one of the characters should break out of the Lisbon bubble and do something. Pete, I realized, was that character. He only needed someone (in this case Dr. Gray) to wake his conscience.



The Two Hotel Francforts

2hotelIn June 1940, two couples meet in Lisbon, “waiting for the ship that was coming to rescue us and take us to New York.  By us I mean, of course, us Americans, expatriates of long standing mostly for whom the prospect of returning home was a bitter one.  Now it seems churlish to speak of our plight, which was as nothing compared with that of the real refugees – the Europeans, the Jews, the European Jews.  Yet at the time we were too worried about what we were losing to care about those who were losing more.”

And so we are drawn into the world of “The Two Hotel Francforts,” David Leavitt’s spooky gem of a novel which recounts a week in the lives of two couples – Julia and Pete Winters, and Edward and Iris Freleng, staying in different hotels both named Francfort.  They meet when Edward accidentally steps on Pete’s glasses.  Pete, our narrator, in a nice bit of symbolism, remains shaky of vision as he relates the story of what happened that week, in that city, in a tragic unfolding which seems inevitable.

That story follows these four characters through various kinds of blindness: cultural, willful and oblivious, of lies, betrayal and sudden death, of lust, languor, and anxiety.  With its faint echo of Ford Madox Ford’s “The Good Soldier,” it also brings to mind the self-involved expats of “Tender is the Night” and “The Sun Also Rises,” with a dose of the vague menace of Patricia Highsmith.  “I often wonder why they don’t make glasses for people who see too well,” muses one character.  “I mean, to see so clearly that it hurts – isn’t that a kind of impairment?”

Densely atmospheric with a pacing that increases in urgency and dread, “The Two Hotel Francforts” will stay with you long after you have put it down (which you will find it hard to do.)

The Two Hotel Francforts
David Leavitt
Novel, Bloomsbury USA, 2013
272 pages

V is for Victory Disk


In 1942, Robert Vincent was assigned to the Army’s Morale Branch, Radio Section. He was a friend of the son of Thomas Edison, would be known as a pioneer in sound recording, help to establish Armed Forces Radio and, later, serve as a sound engineer on the Nürnberg Trials.  The Army had been sending entertainment to overseas personnel since the establishment of the Morale Branch in 1940, but in 1942, two major musicians unions, engaged in a strike against all four U.S. record companies, imposed a recording ban that was to last until 1944.  In pretty short order, the supply of music available to send to the soldiers dried up and shipments slowed to a crawl.

Lt. Vincent visited the Pentagon, asking approval for his plan to create records especially for military personnel, to be sent in monthly care packages. Permission granted, he was transferred to the Music Section — to offices on 42nd street in New York City — where he brokered a compromise amongst the two unions, the four record companies and the US government: Artists wouldn’t be compensated, the Army would pay for production and distribution, and the record companies would give up royalties and forgive copyright obligations.  To keep the record companies on board, a key provision was that the records were to be treated as government issue, reserved for military purposes only. They were neither to be bought nor sold, nor ever made available, under any circumstances, inside the territories of the United States.

Pursuing agreement amongst the Pentagon, the unions and the record companies wasn’t difficult  enough; the recently-promoted Captain’s road was not yet smooth.  The next challenge needing to be met was getting the material with which to make the records. Shellac, which was required for the production of records, was strictly rationed.  It came from Japan and Japanese-occupied French Indochina; there was none to be had during the war. An alternative, Union Carbide’s product Vinylite, was also difficult to lay hands on, being reserved first for life rafts and electrical insulation. Ultimately, a subsidiary of Monsanto provided a product called Formvar, and they were in business.  Precious, fragile records were packed twenty or thirty to a container, in shock-proof boxes that were then dipped in wax. The records were shipped, many out of the Port of Brooklyn, to the headquarters of the theaters of war. By the time the program ended in 1949, eight million V-Discs had been distributed to soldiers scattered all over three continents.  A wonderful story on the blog Keep(it)Swinging about finding V-Discs in a Christmas Island bunker, can be read here.

In an amusing example of art imitating life, a little movie called Duffy’s Tavern is one of a number of pictures produced especially for the military, and features a plot that hinges entirely on the rationing of shellac. Perhaps the team of writers had the ear of Private Frank Loesser, who was assigned to V-Disc HQ in New York, and was doubtless all too familiar with the problem.  In the movie, Duffy’s tavern is the spot where the out of work veterans gather; they’d been employed at a phonograph factory, but shellac rationing shut its doors. Archie, at the tavern, has the idea to put on a show to save the factory. Cue production numbers. The show is bursting with stars: Bing Crosby, Paulette Goddard, Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake — and Hollywood’s top contract artist of the moment, Betty Hutton, who did her bit for the boys both in movies like this one, and on a number of V-discs.

The Victory Disc Program, meanwhile, which started as a hand-to-mouth, shoestring operation, quickly became selective.  The best acts of the day were released by their management companies and unions and rushed to volunteer: Hoagy Carmichael, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Frank Sinatra, Martha Tilton, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Jo Stafford, Billie Holiday, Dinah Shore — everybody who was anybody — gathered at V-Disc recording sessions held at the CBS Theater in NYC, where David Letterman plays today, and the NBC studio in LA; sessions were also held at New York’s Liederkrantz Hall, the CBS Playhouse (or Studio 54) and even on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, while the Met was playing in Philadelphia.

With no contract restrictions, artists could choose anything in the repertoire and collaborate with artists ordinarily outside their professional circle. In what was described as a friendly and collegial atmosphere, they played and sang ad-hoc versions of all the great songs we still love – the standards – in performances that could never be re-created – these unique moments were broadcast over Battleship loudspeakers and in Quonset hut rec rooms, and were a rousing success overseas.

Taking advantage of recording technology developed by the Army, V-Discs were 12”-inch 78 rpm records, which could run as long as six and a half minutes, as opposed to the standard commercial record of the time, which only ran about three and a half minutes. This meant that the musicians could take much longer solos than had previously been available to them; it’s possible that the first extended solos on big band records, were recorded by the government.

And what do we suppose happened to these eight million records after the program ended?  The parties honored the terms of the compromise: The military confiscated and destroyed the records; production plants destroyed the masters; the Provost Marshall stopped soldiers smuggling records home; the FBI got involved, when they prosecuted an employee of a record company for the illegal possession of 2,500 V-Discs. However, we’re all lucky, because our soldiers are sneaky, sneaky; our fighting men and women foiled the Military Police, the Provost Marshall and the FBI, and smuggled enough V-Discs home that, today, the Library of Congress has a complete set.  Also, the National Archives managed to save a few of the stampers, and it’s no longer a crime to buy and sell these records.

This post was adapted from a fuller post from the website of Kathryn Allyn, a jazz singer and musician.  Kathryn will be performing a set of songs from World War II in her cabaret show “V is for Victory: Doing it for Defense,” which will play at Stage 72, 158 W. 72nd Street, on July 25 and on August 1.  To buy tickets, click hereTo review her set list, and read the piece in its entirety, click here


Interview with Lynne Olson

Lynne Olson, author of “Those Angry Days,” stopped by somuchsomanysofew to discuss her book and its exploration of the extreme polarization in the United States over the very idea of entering the war, an aspect forgotten by many people today. 

Author Lynne Olson

Author Lynne Olson

Four of the books you’ve co-written or written focus on this specific period in World War II, when England was fighting alone.   You’ve explored it from the point of view of the American journalists stationed in London, the Polish fighter pilots who joined the RAF, the men who brought Churchill to power, and with Those Angry Days you’ve come stateside to explain what was going on in the U.S. that was keeping us out of the fight.  What is it about this particular aspect of the war that you find so compelling?I’ve been fascinated with both the place (Britain) and the period (the early days of World War II) ever since my husband, Stan Cloud, and I wrote our first book, The Murrow Boys, about Edward R. Murrow and the correspondents he hired to create CBS News before and during the war. Several scenes in the book take place in London during the Battle of Britain and the 1940-41 Blitz. In doing research for that book, I got caught up in the story of Britain’s struggle for survival in the early years of the war – and the extraordinary leadership of Winston Churchill and courage of ordinary Britons in waging that fight. I discovered that there were still a number of stories about the period that remained largely unknown and untold, so I decided to tell them myself.

Having focused so much on Britain in my previous books, I decided it was time, in my latest one, to take a look at the very bitter debate going on in the United States during 1939-1941 about what its role should be in World War II. It turned out to be an extraordinary story — one that I realized I didn’t know very much about and one that I don’t think most Americans do. That debate, as it turned out, was crucial in deciding the future of the United States, especially the role it would play in the world from then on.  

As you’ve been touring with this book, have you faced a lot of surprise from readers?  Specifically, that FDR was so reliant on polls, that Lindbergh held so many views which would make him wildly unpopular today? 

I think what’s been most surprising to readers is the extreme polarization in this country over the very idea of entering the war. Today, we think of World War II as the “good war” — a necessary conflict to save Western civilization from the evil of Nazi Germany.  And that’s all true. But in the years leading up to Pearl Harbor, the extent of that evil was not as obvious as it is now. The passions on both sides were really at a fever pitch.

As you indicate, there’s also considerable surprise about FDR’s caution and procrastination in taking bold, decisive steps that would move the country closer toward intervention. When most Americans think of FDR now, we think of his bold leadership, which he certainly did show in the first years of his presidency and then again after the United States got into the war. But during those critical years — 1939 to 1941 — while he was very forceful in his calls for action to help Britain and end German aggression, he sometimes dilly-dallied in making such action a reality. He tended to exaggerate the power of congressional isolationists and was quite reluctant to challenge them.

As for Charles Lindbergh, there’s no question that many of his views — on the role of Jews in our society, on race, on the importance of America remaining an isolationist country — would be anathema to a large proportion of Americans today. But what surprised me is how much those views reflected the mood of a significant segment of the population back then, a much greater percentage of the country than would be true now.

You see that scene in movies and tv shows of a sleepy America strolling home from church, or cheering at the Army-Navy game, suddenly stunned in to war.  But in fact it had been a topic of ferocious debate for almost two years by then.

By December 1941,  most Americans, I think, believed that the country was going to have to enter the war at some point. The big questions were: when and under what circumstances. I don’t think the majority of people in this country would have been surprised if  our entry into the war had been triggered by a major incident involving Nazi Germany. After all, Hitler and the Nazis were regarded then as the biggest, most immediate threat to the United States and the world. Almost no one in the U.S. expected an attack on American soil by the Japanese.  Getting into the war itself wasn’t unexpected; what shocked Americans were the stunning events that finally catapulted us into it.