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A Daughter’s Tale

 

“Mary is very gracious to me & spends ½ an hour each morning in my bed while I breakfast,” Winston Churchill wrote to his wife Clementine in 1926.  “Some of her comments are made in the tone & style of a woman of thirty.  She is a sweet.”

 Mary was two and a half years old at the time.  Now nearly ninety, she has, if this memoir is anything to go by, stayed the course of graciousness throughout her life.  Her recounting of her childhood at the family estate, Chartwell – idyllic really is the only word – will slake the thirst of anyone pining for the return of Downton Abbey.  A good deal younger than her siblings, she was “alternately in the roles of new cuddly toy and real little bore – to be discarded rapidly when a more pressing or suitable-to-age attraction presents itself.”  However, once “discarded,” she could turn to a nanny, a nursery, a complicated collection of dolls, an even more imposing collection of pets, a pony and a playhouse called the “Marycote” with a working kitchen.  Yet there is not a touch of hauteur in her.  She works very hard to produce a scene or two demonstrating her bad behavior – failing to sit still for a portrait when she is four years old, pouring water on a policeman’s head from the window at No. 11 Downing Street when she is just a little older, a quarrel, as an adult, with her brother Randolph which Winston deemed “unsisterly.”  But it doesn’t work – she is too decent, happy, and well brought-up.  They don’t make them like this anymore.

During the war, she works as a gunner in the women’s auxiliary, achieves an officer’s rank, and is awarded an MBE for her service.  However, it is here, most unfortunately, that the narrative falls down a little.  Hundreds of characters have paraded through her story, nearly all of them “charming” or a “lifelong friend.”  A lifelong diarist and prodigious correspondent (as were her parents), she has cartons of material from which to pull, but would have benefitted from a firmer hand helping to select what is presented.  Surely there was more to her war than a series of “jolly” luncheons, the guest lists and menus of which are dutifully recorded.  What about that MBE?  Her reserve, modesty, and graciousness, all qualities we would want in a friend (particularly in a “lifelong friend”) make her a bit of an unreliable narrator.

Still, a valuable volume for an account of the social life of a certain time and place, from an ultimate insider. 

A Daughter’s Tale:  The Memoir of Winston Churchill’s Youngest Child
Mary Soames
Random House
Memoir
349 pages

 

The Secret Lives of Codebreakers:
The Men and Women Who Cracked
the Enigma Code at Bletchley Park

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During the war, a branch of British Intelligence, the Government Code and Cypher School, set up shop at Bletchley Park, to decrypt ciphers and codes of the Italians, the Japanese and most of all the Germans, whose Enigma machine, which encrypted all their communications, the team eventually cracked.  The team itself was made up of now-legendary mathematician Alan Turing, codebreaker and classics scholar Dilly Knox, and hundreds of young men and women recruited right out of university and spirited away to a remote estate outside the small town of Bletchley, where they signed the Official Secrets Act which forbade them, during the war or for decades after, from ever discussing their work.  It was work that many of them never fully understood, while all of them bore “the heroism of the long, hard slog and the burden of ugly, painful secrets.”

 “It was not just the mentally exhausting prospect of facing, day after day, these groups of random-looking letters, trying to think from every conceivable angle of some sort of logical formula that would bring order to the chaos and make the letters resolve into language,” McKay writes.  “It was also the knowledge that they simply had to succeed.”

 However, he continues, “at the higher levels, the cryptanalytic work was intensely enjoyable.”

And so is this book.

If you’re an Anglophile, a history buff, a lover of stories of small communities becoming a tribe, this is the book for you.  If you have any interest in Bletchley Park or codebreaking, this will be your go-to book.  Meticulously researched (the author seems to have read every scrap of paper relating to the subject), The Secret Lives of Codebreakers lives up to its title by evoking the day-to-day lives of the Park residents, from the notorious Turing to a 14-year-old waitress who worked in the dining hall while her sister and mother were also employed at Bletchley Park, doing work they never discussed.  Author McKay has interviewed many of the former codebreakers and he relates, in a lively, sympathetic (and so veddy veddy British) voice their romances, mishaps and social lives.  Thorough in its execution and thoroughly engaging.

The Secret Lives of Codebreakers:
The Men and Women Who Cracked the Enigma Code at Bletchley Park
Sinclair McKay
History
Plume
352 pages

HHhH

Later than usual on the morning of May 27, 1942, two young men, a Czech and a Slovak, stop a black Mercedes navigating a narrow turn on a quiet city street in Prague. Or is it a blue Mercedes? In the car is Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi Protectorate of Czechoslovakia and architect of the Holocaust. The Czech aims a machine gun. The Slovak grips a bomb. Time stands still, just for a moment, and into this gap in time, as history strains to rush forward and narrative explores all the possibilities of causality,a young French author has set HHhH, his fascinating and enthralling novel. Or is it a history? Or historical novel? On the surface it’s Binet’s autobiography as he struggles with balancing the tremendous responsibility of presenting the truthwith the potential of telling a ripping good yarn. It’s also a deconstruction of history, an experiment in assembling facts and creating a picture, almost like a pointillist painting, of a Nazi general and two brave Resistance fighterswhose meetingone morning on a street in Prague changes history.

Not really like other true-life fictions, such as Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night or even Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, but more in the vein of The Lazarus Project, Aleksandar Hemon’s wonderful exploration into history, HHhH focuses on the true events surrounding Heydrich’sattempted assassination and eventual death in 1942. Binet plays with perspective, foregrounding the story of his involvement with the story, and then foregrounding the story itself. HHhHexploreshow historical events overcame these three characters, and how the telling of these events overcame the author himself, until the story and the telling became compressed into a few horrible moments. Or are they heroic?

Time speeds up and slows down. From the safe perspective of history we, and Binet, are caught up in the irresistible dramaof the story even as we attempt to objectivelyparse the facts. Binet weaves together three main plots, starting with the rise of Nazism,from Kristallnacht in 1938 and the Munich Agreement in 1939 to the early days of World War II. Binet also follows Heydrich’s own rise to power asthe Nazi’s Chief of Intelligenceand later “Protector of Behemia and Moravia,” essentially King of Nazi-controlled Czechoslovakia. We also follow the paths of two young men, Josef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš, who escape from their Nazi-occupied homelands, join the war effort in Great Britain, and parachute back into Czechoslovakia with false papers and an urgent mission they cannot reveal to anyone.

HHhH lets us experience history, but not as a novelization would. We do not identify with thesereal characters, at least not at first, though we certainly identify with the author as he becomes caught up in the ethics ofassembling his true-life story. “How impudent of me,” Binet writes,“to turn a man into a puppet—a man who’s been dead for a long time, who cannot defend himself. To make him drink tea, when it might turn out that he liked only coffee. To make him put on two coats, when perhaps he had only one. To make him take the bus, when he could have taken the train. To decide that he left in the evening, rather than the morning. I am ashamed of myself.” The effect is fairly uncanny. By accepting the artificiality of a novel about a historical event, by acknowledging the space between the author researching the event and the event itself,we are actually brought closer to the experience. This might be because the book and the story have an irresistible forward progress. It might be because Binet, by accepting the distance between himself and these historical events, eliminates any distancing irony 21st century readers might bring to a fusty, though exciting, story of faulty submachine guns, daring bicycle escapes, betrayals, murders, and a standoff in the crypt of an ancient church surrounded by 700 SS guards. The inevitability of history is yoked to the forward momentum of the story, and the space between us and these long-ago events is erased. Even though Binet knows what will happen next, and we do too, the suspense becomes excruciating.

Binet explores the conflict between the “glib falsification” of historical fiction and the ultimately unknowable truths embodied by the monster Heydrich and the heroes Gabčík and Kubiš. “Scorning modesty,” he writes,“I had to join forces with men so great that I am a mere insect in comparison.” By immersing himself so deeply into history that objective facts become personal memories, we experience Binet’s history as a memory ourselves. In HHhH, Binet transports us inside the stories of Heydrich, Gabčík and Kubiš. Or is it Binet’s own story? Or ours?

HHhH
Laurent Binet
Novel, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012
327 pages

Reviewed by Peter Kleiner

Guest blogger Peter Kleiner is a writer and educator living in Brooklyn, New York.  You can read more of him at Peter Rivas Kleiner.

 

 

The Report

In March, 1943, 713 civilians of the East End of London, mainly women and children, were asphyxiated to death on a small stairwell leading to the Bethnal Green Tube shelter.  The air raid siren had gone off, but, ironically, no bombs fell that night. 

The event was so traumatic that it was years before anyone spoke of it. “The official report,” according to a story in a February, 2008 edition of the UK’s Daily Mail “was simply that a woman had tripped with a baby and others had fallen on top of her.”  A private investigation was conducted by Magistrate Laurence Dunne; the government suppressed his report of it until after the war, and the incident was largely forgotten until a recent successful campaign to erect a plaque commemorating the disaster.

From these small threads of fact, Jessica Francis Kane has woven “The Report,” a compelling first novel written in lean, lucid prose.  Crafting sharp individual voices from the beleaguered community of Bethnal Green, Kane follows their actions on the night of the event and deftly portrays their subsequent anguish and confusion. “The Report” reads like a Greek tragedy in which the chorus plays the role of the protagonist, its tragic flaw a collective exhaustion, fear, and impatience from years of bombing and scarcity.

What happened?  There was a loud explosion, which frightened people into pushing.  Or else, there wasn’t, and they hadn’t.  A flashlight was on.  A bulb was out.  There was only one entrance.  There was no center rail.  There were few injured. Most either died or survived.  It is the gift of Kane’s skill as a storyteller that she can maintain suspense in the face of a foregone, tragic conclusion.  The reader presses on, like the crowd, to get to the bottom of things.

The magistrate questions witnesses and survivors:  a constable, a warden, a clerk charged with sorting and gathering the buttons and pins and pocket change pulled from the bodies of the dead, a nurse, a beleaguered mother, her young daughter, shelter volunteers and the parish priest all contribute their individual voices to the story.  In flash-forwards, we find Magistrate Dunne being interviewed thirty years later by a filmmaker producing a documentary about the event.

But talking to him was like talking to any young person about the war years:  they spoke from a background of black-and-white pictures, while your memories were very much in color.  They asked about the rationing, while you saw coupons.  They spoke about the public morale, when what you remembered were the faces.  Try as they might, they heard only a chord or two, while the whole symphony still roared in your head.

The Report
Jessica Francis Kane
Novel, Graywolf Press, 2011
240 pages

Breaking the Code

This gorgeously designed book presents several stories: that of the by-now familiar WWII letters home, the secrets from the past, and parent-child experience, and the wounded veteran. There is more than one code to be broken here.

Murray Fisher’s concerns as he leaves for the war in medias res — he attended boot camp in April 1944 — are mundane and typical: will he lose his job at the railroad after the war to a woman who has replaced him for the duration? How to allocate his pay to refurbish the cars he holds so dear, the Cord, the Fiat, the Buick? A tinkerer with an inventive mind, Murray is discovered while in training to possess a talent with telegraphy. He is tested out and taught, seemingly as busywork, the Japanese code in Katakana.

The Fishers are great letter writers and retainers of ephemera. It is partly this which enabled the gorgeous design and even the very existence of Breaking the Code. They seem to have retained not only every letter the prolific Murray wrote, but all photos and documents such as church programs, driver’s licenses and menus. They are also fortunate in that they are a close and long-lived family.

Murray was sworn to secrecy and this, combined with the passage of 60 years, and PTSD, means that he requires some help to recover his wartime experience. The help comes in the form of his daughter, the author, and their regular meetings as she questions what she has transcribed that week from his 400 pages of letters home.  Both the young and the modern-day Murray seem slightly ashamed of his comparatively safe on-call desk job, his leisure time in now-paradisiacal Hawaii, the fact the he saw no real duty: “A very invigorating existence. Spend rest of time browsing around ships service, drinking Nesbit orange pop, visiting tent library and reading and writing letters. I may have to resort to building model airplanes soon.”

While Murray spent the duration on Hawaii, since he arrives when he does, the reader is spared the too-familiar, enraging, and heartbreaking story of the attack. We have read this many times before. But the code that is broken, Murray’s buried secret, serves as a stand-in for all the losses of life and in the end we are spared nothing.

This book is a touching exploration of the war of one ordinary man from one ordinary town and the effects he had on a few other men. Anyone who despite, timeworn advice, judges a book by its cover and picks up the charming Breaking the Code will not be disappointed (and will not exit dry-eyed.)

Breaking the Code: A Father’s Secret, a Daughter’s Journey, and the Question That Changed Everything
Karen Fisher-Alaniz
Memoir/Personal History, SourceBooks
336 pages

Guest reviewer: Christine Frank

 

Velva Jean Learns to Fly

While this reviewer is not particularly inclined to the folksy-Southern gal novel series, and didn’t read the initial series offering, Velva Jean Learns to Drive, this one is a charmer, a charmer with teeth: Southern hospitality and sweetened iced tea have no part here. Rather, the history of the WASP, Women Airforce Service Pilots, a criminally unheralded and rather arcane footnote to WWII history is the leading lady.

Our Velva Jean, having apparently taught herself to drive in a previous novel, the very definition of plucky, is a talented young married woman from a Waltons-like family in the mountains of North Carolina. When we meet her, she has left the mountains and the husband with some 121 1940’s dollars to make a name for herself in Nashville. Events ensue, and, in short, she learns to fly and becomes a WASP.

At the end of the tale even the most cynical 21-st century Yankee is left wanting to know what happens. This reader with today’s sensibilities will be outraged with the callous, deadly racism and sexism of “the Greatest Generation.” Yet the horror and anger is tempered, a bit, with Velva Jean’s dogged striving for a life “beyond the keep” as she strives to overcome her limitations and fight the battle for all modern women. Author Jennifer Niven subtly shows the painful path that Rosie the Riveter—or Jacqueline Cochran’s girls—paved the way for the path that the women of the 50s and 60s would have to further painfully carve.

Velva Jean is aided here by General Hap Arnold, Eddie Rickenbacker, Cornelia Fort, Count Basie, Jacqueline Cochran, and code talkers, as well as walk-ons Judge Hay of the Grand Ol’ Opry and Carole Lombard. Other stalwarts of country and blues music, Hollywood, and WWII either have walk-on parts or are major characters.

Velva Jean and her brothers manage, Zelig-like, to hint at D-Day, fly a B-29, and perform heroics on several Japanese islands. Familiar events are either alluded to or subtly larded in, such as the reactions to Pearl Harbor Day, melting down lipstick tubes for ammo shells, and the prestige of Life magazine and the huge impression that Hollywood had when movies were the only game in town. And Velva Jean herself subtly or expressly alludes to several decades of twentieth century vents.

Readers who are distracted or annoyed by recipes, lyrics, and poetry in books are advised to simply skip the pages of lyrics and lyrics-in-progress. But those who read every word won’t regret it. And they may run into them again, for if ever a book were made for eventual movement to the movies, Velva Jean Learns to Fly is it. Highly recommended.

Velva Jean Learns to Fly
Jennifer Niven
Plume, August, 2011 (paperback)
432 pages

Guest reviewer: Christine Frank

 

 

The Hannah Vogel Series by Rebecca Cantrell

“A Game of Lies,” released in July, 2011, is the both the most exciting and the latest in Rebecca Cantrell’s Hannah Vogel  series,  but it is not the one you should read first.  Former Berlin police beat reporter Hannah Vogel, under her pseudonym  as Swiss travel writer Adelheid Zinsli, is covering the 1936 Olympics, while spying for the British with the help of her faux fiancé, SS interrogator Lars Lang, a complex man who seems a little too practiced in the art of deceiving those around him.  Though their public romance is a cover for their espionage work, it is obvious that Lang is in love with Hannah, though Hannah’s opportunities to reciprocate his romantic feelings are clouded by her well-placed mistrust of Lang, who shifts from tormented to tormentor all too easily.  When Hannah’s mentor in journalism dies from a mysterious poisoning before her very eyes at the Olympiad, perilous events are set in brisk motion.

But you really need to start at the beginning, with “A Trace of Smoke,” which introduces us to Hannah in the Berlin of 1931.  Hannah is checking in at the Berlin police station the Alexanderplatz, when she sees a photo of a corpse in the Hall of the Unnamed Dead that she knows all too well:  it is her younger brother, Ernst, whom she raised from childhood.  She cannot identify him to the police, not because Ernst is a popular transvestite performer in a gay nightclub (although that certainly doesn’t help) but because Hannah and Ernst have lent their identify papers to Zionist friends have used them to escape from Germany.  Hannah’s quest to learn the identify of her brother’s killer by herself is complicated by her duties covering the trial of an M-like child rapist, and by the arrival on her doorstep of Anton, a five-year-old orphan whose father “Ernst” might be Hannah’s brother, or might be Ernst’s lover, also named Ernst and head of the Sturm Abteilung – Ernst Rohm, of the S.A.

An American educated in Germany and fluent in German, Cantrell is adept in her evocation of the rise of the Reich in Berlin.  In 1931, the city is still hungry and ragged from a decade of biting economic depression; in 1936, it is plump, corrupt and menacing.  Certain friends from the first novel have grown too comfortable, by the third, with the bargains they must make with corruption in order to buy their own safety.  Each novel is augmented by a glossary of terms and author’s historical notes.  Cantrell’s research is thorough yet smoothly applied; a reader in search of an adept, friendly read in the genre of historical thriller will be hooked.

One nit:   Hannah is a terrific thriller series protagonist:  courageous, loyal, independent, stubborn and funny.  Yet it seems a bit much that nearly every man she encounters – Nazi, resister, gay or straight – lusts after her, particularly when the Nazi Party line for women was kinder, kuche, kirche and Hannah, a 32-year-old unmarried newspaper reporter with no fortune or family, would have fallen outside the ideal of an Aryan bride of the Reich.  But then, Hannah is so engaging that perhaps she can entrance these rigid-thinking men as well as she does the reader.  This is a series of mysteries that skillfully entwines historical events with morally ambiguous plot twists; these are books that wrap into their plots difficult questions of risk, sacrifice and going along to get along which seem so easy in retrospect but remains ones our society still grapples with.

A Trace of Smoke (Mystery, Forge Books, 2009)
A Night of Long Knives (Mystery, Forge Books, 2010)
A Game of Lies (Mystery, Forge Books, 2011)

 

“We unfortunately live in a divisive, no-holds-barred political culture in which recognition of complexity is taken for weakness and far too many people believe that on any particular issue there is only One True Story.”

The main purpose of this book, writes the author Sylvie Murray, is to invite students to think critically about historical writing itself.  Citing contemporary sources – newspaper articles, advertisement, speeches, as well as historical analysis – Murray provides rich context for them.  Divided into three parts, this guide examines how the prevailing sentiment of each period of the war affected its media, as well as how such periods were depicted and possibly distorted afterwards.  Part One, “Before Pearl Harbor,” addresses the fervent anti-interventionist policies in the United States prevalent throughout the nation before it was actually attacked.  Part Two, “Create a Will to Win,” describes the propaganda campaigns implemented to get the war machine started. Part Three, “Their World Can Never Be Known to You,” the most painful and poignant section of the book, examines the reporting from the war by Murrow and Ernie Pyle, the censorship and self-censorship of letters written by the combat soldiers (“I didn’t mean to be so morbid in this letter – but you just can’t ignore the casualties of war.”), and the challenges experienced the Japanese-Americans, African-Americans and Native Americans fighting for a nation which had traditionally marginalized them.

Although written for an academic audience (the lay person may be a bit puzzled by the peer commentary periodically interjected by Robert D. Johnston, quoted above) “A Student’s Guide to Writing World War II,” is a treasure trove of resources and information. Murray proves herself well-qualified for writing a guide to writing history.

A Student’s Guide to Writing World War II
Sylvia Murray (with commentary by Robert D. Johnston)
Reference/History, Hill and Wang, 2011
194 pages


Twelve year old Henry Lee wears a button that states “I Am Chinese.”  In 1942 Seattle, it is important to make the point that he is not Japanese, and indeed, soon the Japanese-Americans of the community – even the ones born in the United States, even the ones who speak no Japanese – are rounded up and sent off to internment camps.  Among the interned is Henry’s first sweetheart, classmate Keiko.  Many of the exiled families store their precious belongings in the basement of the Panama Hotel, which, in 1986, is being renovated as an older Henry Lee watches.  A cache of old letters found in the hotel unleashes memories of Henry’s first, bitter, sweet love and as the story progresses in chapters alternating between the past to the present, we discover the forces which drove Henry and Keiko apart.  Soaked in period atmosphere of the jazzy, divisive 1940s, this is an impressive debut.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
Jamie Ford
Novel, Ballantine Books
285 pages

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2 responses »

  1. Pingback: Interview with Jessica Francis Kane « somuchsomanysofew

  2. Pingback: HHhH by Laurent Binet « Welcome to Peter Kleiner's Blog

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