Book review: Just who do you think you are?

51ctthh6v4l-_sy346_The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion

Fannie Flagg

I’ve been a Flagg fan for years and have always enjoyed the Southern charm, heart, and humor with which she writes. This book is no exception.

Sookie Simmons Poole is approaching sixty and has just married off her third daughter. She’s looking forward to a little time to herself—to tend her beloved birds and maybe read a book or take a trip with her darling husband. Lenore, her “delightfully eccentric” and domineering mother lives two doors down in the tiny Gulf town where everyone knows everyone else’s business. Sookie worries that she carries the gene that has made many of her ancenstors “as batty as hell.” When Sookie receives a phone call followed by a registered letter it shakes her to the core. “Identity crisis” hardly covers the impact of the news she receives.

“Growing up with Lenore, she had always felt like a little brown wren, hopping along behind a huge colorful peacock.”

Meanwhile, readers are also getting acquainted with the Jurdabralinski family who ran the Phillips 66 station in Pulaski, Wisconsin in the years between two World Wars.  Their oldest girl, a free spirit named Fritzi, falls in love with flying. She learns to wing walk and fly as she barnstorms in shows around the Midwest in the early 1940s. When World War II arrives and all the men join the fight, Fritzi and her three sisters successfully run the filling station. Fritzi learns that the Airforce is looking for experienced women fliers to ferry airplanes around the country in order to free up male pilots for combat. Fritzi is one of the first to sign up to be a WASP (Women Air Force Service Pilots) and becomes one of the more that 1000 female pilots to complete seven months of training. These brave women flew sixty million miles of operation flights including ferrying aircraft from factories to bases, flight instruction (both basic and instrument), towing targets for antiaircraft and aerial gunnery, among other duties. You can find out more here: http://wingsacrossamerica.us/wasp/

“It makes me so mad when all the newspaper reporters that come here only want to show the gals putting on lipstick or posing like models…all this phony baloney stuff.  If anybody thinks this is a glamorous job and that we are just in it for the fun, they haven’t watched them pull a friend out of a burning plane and die right in front of them.”

Sookie and Fritzi’s stories are woven together and resolve in a warm and surprising way. I  recommend not only this book, but also learning more about the WASPs, a forgotten chapter of women’s history that is only now being discovered.

Love in the time of prejudice

lover1The Japanese Lover: A Novel

Fans of Isabel Allende will enjoy this sweeping story of forbidden love. Two women meet at Lark House, a retirement home in the San Francisco Bay area. Both are immigrants, but Alma was sent to the US during WWII by her Polish-Jewish parents to live with wealthy relatives. Irina is a young, frightened employee of Lark House from Moldova. Each has secrets that define them, their relationship to each other and to the rest of the large cast of characters here. Little by little, their secrets are revealed, making me turn pages long past my bedtime.
The overarching and lifelong secret love affair of Alma and the Japanese gardener, Ichimei, is set against the backdrop of nearly every twentieth century cultural and historic phenomena. The Holocaust. The internment of the Japanese-Americans in the US. Prejudice in all its forms. Aging and end-of-life issues. Love and sexuality. AIDS. All are explored with Allende’s trademark sensuous (often sensual) writing, not to mention her humanity and heart.

To give you a taste, here’s what Alma’s husband says about their unusual but tender marriage:

“There are always some necessary lies and omissions, just as there are truths it’s better to keep quiet about.”

Alma says this about her beloved Ichimei:

“Love and desire for him scorched her skin; she wanted to stretch her hands out across the table and touch him, draw closer, bury her nose in his neck and confirm it still smelled of earth and herbs…”

And here’s what Ichimei says about dying:

“If I were going to die in the next three days, what would I do during that time? Nothing! I would empty myself of everything but love.”

In the end, this is a sweet, sad, passionate love story–a romance–between two people who couldn’t be together in this world. It left me hoping that they would be able to find and love each other in the next.

 

 

Eleanor Roosevelt’s crowded marriage

loving eleanorFranklin, Eleanor, Sara, Lucy, Earl, Missy, Lorena, Daisy, and Joe. This was a very crowded and complicated marriage. FDR and ER were neither exclusive nor stingy with their affections. And then there was his mother, Sara. Franklin and Eleanor’s story and its accompanying scandals reminded me of another power couple that occupied the White House and our collective consciousness half a century later, Bill and Hillary.

Loving Eleanor by Susan Wittig Albert is a well-researched, but fictional memoir of Lorena Hickok, a noted journalist who became a close friend of Eleanor Roosevelt. Very close. Three thousand revealing and personal letters between the two, that had been archived it the FDR Library, were unsealed ten years after Hickok’s death in 1968. They have provided much source material for both biographers and this fictionalized narrative. They leave little doubt as to the nature of their relationship, at least for a time.

lorena hickok
Lorena Hickok, aka “Hick,” tells this story.

But let’s back up a bit. Before FDR was elected President, Eleanor feared disappearing into his shadow. Remember, this was a time when women in general and First Ladies in particular occupied strictly defined roles. It was during the first presidential campaign that Hickok penned a series of articles about “The Reluctant First Lady,” highlighting ER’s concerns, her interests, and the projects that she desperately wanted to continue. It was “Hick” who encouraged Eleanor to find ways to change the role of First Lady into one in which she could thrive and find fulfillment. ER began holding weekly press conferences with female journalists, writing the widely syndicated “My Day” newspaper column, and shedding light on a host of women’s issues.

While FDR had several well-documented affairs, he was somewhat vindictive when it came to Eleanor’s dalliances. Earl Miller, ER’s hunky body-guard was bought (and married) off. Hick was reassigned to a traveling job during the Depression that kept her out of Washington D.C. And Joe Lash, a younger political activist and journalist beau was sent to the Pacific during WWII. Albert calls this FDR’s “left hook.”

The Roosevelts are of course, larger than life and endlessly fascinating. I’ve read Lucy by Ellen Feldman, about Eleanor’s former secretary who had a decades-long affair with FDR and who was with him when he died at Warm Springs. And I’ve seen the amusing Bill Murray movie, “Hyde Park on Hudson,” which focused on FDR’s relationship with his distant cousin, Daisy. The Ken Burns PBS documentary about the Roosevelts added to my picture of this influential family. However, this book has piqued my curiosity and put more books onto my always growing to-read list, including historian Blanche Wiesen Cook’s authoritative three volumes about Eleanor and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book about the couple. Then there are ER’s own books.

More than anything though, this book illustrates once again, that no one can really know what goes on in inside a marriage or the human heart. The power struggles and compromises that go on behind closed doors even–or especially–in the most public of couples, remain hidden from view. In addition, no matter how we may idolize and deify them, these icons are still quite human, with all the accompanying wants, needs, desires, and limitations. Knowing their struggles and private demons, especially when set against the times in which they lived, makes me appreciate them more and softens my heart. After all, who am I to judge?

What did you do in the war, Mom?

nightingaleThis book put me right back in occupied France during WWII. I told myself I wouldn’t go back there after reading Sarah’s Key, All the Light We Cannot See, and In Enemy Hands. And yet here I am. Again.

This was my parents’ war. Is that the draw? I knew their stories of lost loved ones and rationing. A recipe for butterless, sugarless, eggless cake. No silk stockings. Hemlines raised to use less fabric. My mom worked as a Rosie the Riveter. My dad joined the Amphibians and served in the South Pacific. But still, the war wasn’t here at home. Enemy soldiers weren’t living in our homes. History classes, television documentaries, and movies provided the rest of my knowledge. For the most part, it was the leaders’ stories I learned.  And mostly it was the story of men.

What all the novels here do is tell the very personal stories of the women forced to cope with the circumstances and deprivations over which they had little control. Their very survival was an act of courage and determination.

In Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale are two estranged sisters, one of whom has survived to old age. She is telling the story for the first time. It is particularly a story of how two very different young women coped with the brutal Nazi occupation of their small village in France. There were few men left, because they’d all gone off to fight. When France surrendered (or reached an “agreement” with Germany) they were imprisoned elsewhere. One sister’s day-to-day interactions with Nazi officers forcefully billeted in her home are intimately and vividly contrasted with the other sister’s choice to join the resistance, leading downed pilots over the Pyrenees to safety.

“Men tell stories,” I say. It is the truest, simplest answer to his question. “Women get on with it. For us it was a shadow war. There were no parades for us when it was over, no medals or mentions in history books. We did what we had to during the war, and when it was over, we picked up the pieces and started our lives over.”

Secrets and intrigue abound here as Hannah tells of the heroic and many times ignored or misinterpreted efforts of women to provide for and protect their loved ones, not to mention to fight against their own Vichy government and Germany. Recommend.

Imagining a future

In Life After Life, Kate Atkinson stretched the concept of fiction and challenged readers by exploring multiple futures for her protagonist, Ursula Todd. In A God in Ruins, she does something similar for Ursula’s brother, Teddy, an RAF bomber pilot during WWII. Atkinson calls this a “companion piece” and not a sequel. A master of the omniscient point of view, the author provides the reader with recollections of the past and glimpses of a future. Each character is clear and memorable and gives voice to witty and often conflicting insights. I knew these characters and cared about them. Even the disagreeable ones. Teddy’s daughter is difficult (to say the least) and yet, “He loved Viola as only a parent can love a child, but it was hard work.”
The reader can’t help but notice that after Londoners survived the horrors of The Blitz, Teddy and the RAF inflicted the same kind of terror and destruction on the cities and citizens of Germany. According to the author, bombing crews “… experienced some of the worst combat conditions imaginable and fewer of half of them survived.” Death was everywhere and while he doesn’t talk about it with his family,

Teddy “…made a vow, a private promise to the world in the long dark watches of the night, that if he did survive then in the great afterward he would always try to be kind, to live a good quiet life…And that would be his redemption.”

As I approached the end of the book, I began to worry about what was coming for my beloved and now elderly Teddy Todd. While there is a conceit, Kate Atkinson is so skillful and caring toward her characters that I enjoyed every moment of Teddy’s life.

Catching up on my reading

Actually, I’m catching up on writing about my reading. In the two months since my hand surgery and my move into a new (to us) house, I’ve been reading quite a bit. I just haven’t been sharing much. And now, because I find it difficult to hold more than one or two thoughts in my head at once, my reviews will be necessarily vague. Kind of like me. I know I read more than three books in two months, but these are the ones I’m sharing today.

First, if you haven’t read All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, you must. World War II, Germany and France, again, but my oh my…a young, poor, orphaned German whiz kid whose only chance at an education and a future is to work for the Nazis and the blind, motherless daughter of the locksmith for a Paris museum. Radios and philosophy and natural science and imagination and courage beyond anything you can imagine. Brilliant.

Second, a gift. In on It: What Adoptive parents would like you to know about adoption by Elizabeth O’Toole, offers wise, sensitive and compassionate hints for the friends and family. Several relatives and friends have built families through adoption and more will, I’m sure. I felt myself cringing a bit at (dumb) questions I may have asked. Can I apologize here?  I’m SO SORRY. The main lesson here is to please respect everyone’s privacy including that of the adoptive child. The reasons why a couple choses to adopt, the means of adoption, the birthparents’ nationality (or reasons), and the terms of the adoption are really no ones business but theirs. The author’s preferred response to inappropriately intimate questions: “That’s not my information to share.” An excellent resource.

Lastly, I just finished Not My Father’s Son by Alan Cumming. The actor went in search of his own roots as well as the root of his father’s violent abuse against himself and his older brother. The search began because as an adult, Cumming couldn’t understand why he was so sad.
He writes “So the box in the attic stayed up there, gathering dust, neglected. Eventually I think we forgot about it completely. But the thing about boxes full of denial and years of unresolved pain and hurt is that eventually…they explode.”
Dark secrets fester and infect every experience. While the truth can hurt, not knowing can hurt more. In Cumming’s very personal and ultimately global quest to understand himself and his family, he comes to some degree of closure and peace. He offers both insight and thoughtful compassion for others who might have had similar troubles.

A message to that orange-haired monster

manzanar 1You know who I mean. The guy who thinks internment camps were a good idea. But you know what they say…

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  George Santayana-1905

My column, Don’t repeat the Manzanar mistake, appeared in the Nevada Appeal on Christmas Day, 2007.  I believe it speaks for itself.

You should know that Manzanar is one of ten so-called “War Relocation Centers” to which over 100,000 West Coast Japanese Americans were sent after being given 48 hours to leave their homes, forcing them to sell or abandon belongings and property. Although it was called a “War Relocation Center,” military police armed with sub-machine guns in the eight guard towers, the searchlights and barbed wire told a different story. Manzanar was a prison camp.

 

What would you do to survive?

edithIn World War II Germany, many good but frightened people kept quiet in order to survive. Jewish Edith Hahn, The Nazi Officer’s Wife, denies who she is to survive the Holocaust.  Edith is saved, not only by her own determination, intelligence and ability to disappear, but also by the kindness of strangers. Furthermore, throughout this memoir, the decency of ordinary people shines through. While one cannot deny the horrific deeds done by cruel and abusive people, that only makes the acts of empathy and kindness shine brighter.

That being said, I think this is the last WWII story for me for a while. Something lighter, please.

Winter of the World

Two down, one to go.

winter worldEpic barely describes the sweep of Ken Follett’s Century Trilogy. He manages to insert a cast of Welsh, Russian, German and American characters into nearly every significant historic event (the Blitz, D-Day, the atomic bomb) in the lead up to and the aftermath of the Second World War.

Their stories intersect in Fall of Giants (Book One) and continue to intertwine in Book Two. Now, of course, it’s the children of WWI fighting, spying and dying in WWII as their parents take on leadership roles and deal with the consequences of their actions in their respective countries.

Egos and desires come up against the mores and prejudices of the time. Barriers between classes begin to weaken. Gender roles begin to change, but not without a fight by courageous women of our mothers’ and grandmothers’ generations. These women, widowed or left alone by soldiering husbands, fended for their families under decidedly unequal conditions. They strove for equal pay, access to birth control, affordable health care and the right to vote. Sound familiar?

Winter of the World has enough bloody battles, political intrigue, villains, heroes, sex and romance to satisfy most readers. I’m glad for my kindle, though. At over 800 pages, reading and lugging around this tome might just qualify as strength training.

Historical fiction? Regency romance? Wilma’s got you covered!

enemy-hands memory1

My friend, author Wilma Counts just sent this message. I am posting it here as a favor. My book club read her compelling IN ENEMY HANDS last fall and loved it. You can find out about her other wonderful books and read her blog here: https://wilmacounts.wordpress.com/

“My editor and his staff tell me I am not using social media enough to get the word out about my books. (They don’t seem to know what a techno klutz I am!)  Anyway, I figure if I can persuade even half of my friends and former students to each tell just TWO of THEIR contacts about my new releases–one in Sept, 2014, and on coming in March), I could be on the bestseller lists in no time!  Check me out on Amazon or at Wilma Counts–Author. And do let me know  what you think.”