Books about WWII

July 30, 2016

I don’t know if there are more novels these days set in World War II, or if I just happen to be coming across them more, but I recently finished three of them, each told from a very different perspective.

Liberation Road: A Novel of World War II and the Red Ball Express, by David Robbins, follows the experiences of two American non-combatants from when they come ashore at Omaha Beach. Joe Amos Biggs is an African-American who left college to enlist and who longs to be able to fight alongside the white men. Ben Kahn is a chaplain who had fought in the trenches in World War I, whose son is a B-17 pilot shot down over France and now MIA, and who is motivated by desire for revenge on the Germans. Occasionally there are also passages told from the point of view of “White Dog,” an American pilot shot down over France, who prefers the comfortable life he has found as a black marketeer in occupied Paris to rejoining his comrades in arms.

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Books: Winter of the World

July 27, 2014

As I had read in book reviews that Winter of the World picks up where Fall of Giants left off, I was surprised and somewhat disappointed to find out that this was not really so. There is a gap of nine years, with the sequel beginning in 1933 with Hitler’s rise to power. Perhaps in terms of world events nine years isn’t so long, but I was expecting continuity in terms of the characters.

Nine years is long enough that the main characters of the first book have receded into the background and it is through the eyes of their children that we see events unfold. The parents are there, but they are no longer very interesting. And there is little explanation for how they got to where they are now. Grigori, in particular, seems much too content with his comfortable position in life as a general in the Red Army. I realize that it would have been dangerous for him to oppose Stalin (he escaped being purged by not being important enough at the time), but one can’t help but wonder what happened to his thirst for a just society.

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Books: City of Clouds

February 1, 2014

I read Book of Clouds because it was recommended by a friend, my Spanish professor from college. I won’t say I disliked it, but on the whole my impression was mostly of unrealized expectations.Perhaps I am missing something. A review in the New York Times calls it “required reading of the most pleasurable sort.” Reviews quoted at call it “exquisitely written,” “beautifully evocative,” and “weighty in its intelligence and thoughtfulness.”

I would agree that there are a number of well-written passages about various aspects of the city of Berlin. Indeed, the novel seems to be more about Berlin than about its main character, Tatiana. Making the setting an essential part of the novel is good, but it doesn’t take the place of good character development and plot.

Or maybe it does, for some readers. The word “surreal” comes up in some reviews. Perhaps it is seen as rising above the need for the sort of characterization and plot development that are normally expected in a novel. I don’t necessarily dislike surrealism (I happen to like Salvador Dalí‘s art), but perhaps I prefer it in visual art rather than literature. I would probably like the surrealist elements in Book of Clouds if they accompanied an interesting character, plot, or both.

But I guess I’m not alone in my disappointment with the book. A review in The Guardian concludes that “But without [the author’s] or Tatiana’s familiarity with Berlin, the reader gets lost in the dense fog of allusion.”

Books: The Russian Donation

April 15, 2013

I enjoyed The Russian Donation largely because it was different from a lot of mystery novels I have read. To begin with, it is written by a German author for a German audience, and of course set in Germany (in the 1990’s). So it depicts life in Germany matter-of-factly, not like a book written for Americans and set in a foreign country to try to make it more interesting.

It could be termed a medical mystery, as the main character is a doctor, attending physician at a teaching hospital, and most of the characters and action are related in some way to the hospital. But the issues turn out to have a lot more to do with the business side of the hospital than the medical side.

It should be no surprise to most people, considering rising healthcare costs and the various efforts made to contain them, that healthcare is a business and decisions are made as much by business administrators as by doctors. But it’s interesting to see a physician’s point of view as he goes about his daily (and sometimes nightly) duties. (Author Christoph Spielberg is himself a practicing physician, so he knows what he’s writing about.)

Early in the novel, narrator Dr. Hoffmann, having just filled out a death certificate (for the patient whose death is surrounded by the mystery Dr. Hoffmann goes about trying to unravel), comments that “I had no idea that at that moment I was almost signing my own death certificate.” I kept waiting for someone to try to murder him. But for a book described by some reviews as a thriller, The Russian Donation struck me as surprisingly undramatic. I don’t say this as a criticism – in some ways it is a welcome change from thrillers where the tension is constantly at a fever pitch.

The cover says this is “Dr. Hoffmann’s first case.” That was one reason I picked it out (among new books at our library). It’s always nice to start a series at the beginning. I don’t know how soon the English translation of another of Spielberg’s Dr. Hoffmann books will appear, but I’ll keep out an eye for it.

Building a medieval monastery

March 31, 2012

A lot of people in today’s society long for a simpler lifestyle, with less technology, fewer consumer goods, and a less hectic pace. But how many would want to try out a 9th century way of living and working?

A German building contractor could give them that opportunity. Bert Geurten plans to build a monastery town the same way it would have been done back in the 9th century. He will use the Plan of St. Gall, which provides a blueprint for a medieval town and monastery.

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Books: Plotting Hitler’s Death

April 17, 2010

I had no idea when I picked this book off the library shelf that I was getting one of the finest books available on the subject. I went there looking for the history behind the movie Valkyrie, and I was surprised to find there were multiple books on the subject. I picked the most recently published based on the fact that its author would have had access to more recently discovered materials (such as diaries or letters that had been kept by the families and only made available to the public decades later).

This review of the book opines that “anything by Joachim Fest is required reading,” especially on the subject of Hitler. Fest knows his subject extremely well, and also knows how to write well. Some history books are a chore to read. This one, on the contrary, was for the most part a pleasure to read. (Brief descriptions of the some of the lesser players in the conspiracy were too short to give me a real feel for their characters, and their roles seemed too small to matter much in the larger story.)

Watching Valkyrie had taught me that there was actually a network of men committed to overthrowing Hitler, not just a few fanatics acting on their own. Plotting Hitler’s Death reveals the surprising extent of that network. It involved hundreds of people (if not thousands – certainly thousands were arrested after the July 20, 1944 assassination attempt), from various sectors of society, and the conspiracy involved not just killing Hitler but setting up a new government in place of the Nazis.

Its extent through time also surprised me. The first coup was planned in 1938, before the war even started. Ironically, it was aborted precisely because Hitler decided not to initiate hostilities yet, because the justification for the coup was supposed to be Hitler’s needlessly plunging Germany into war. The plotters also sent emissaries to contact Germany’s opponents, especially Britain, hoping to push Britain to act decisively against Hitler to forestall war. But British leaders refused to trust Germans who would go against their own government.

Fest does not oversimplify his extremely complex subject. Always before, I have read generalizations about how Hitler rose to power, primarily based on German resentment over the Germany’s humiliation at the hands of the winners of World War I, and Hitler’s using the Jews as a scapegoat for their social and economic problems. Certainly those aspects are true, but Fest explores the multiplicity of factors that gave Hitler such an unshakable grasp on power and his opponents so many missed chances and botched attempts.

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Movies: Valkyrie

March 21, 2010

What a powerful movie!

Both the movie and the recommendation to watch it came from one of my husband’s co-workers. He is a WWII history buff, and assured us that Valkyrie is quite faithful to history. I found out from that there are some factual inaccuracies, particularly in the kind of airplanes that were used (in some cases because there simply are no examples left of the planes actually used), but that hardly detracts from one’s appreciation of the movie – unless perhaps you are an expert in military aviation.

I knew that there had been attempts to assassinate Adolf Hitler, and that Dietrich Bonhoeffer had been involved such plotting, and was hanged for it shortly before the fall of Berlin. But I had never realized just how many people, especially senior military officers, had been working to overthrow Hitler, or how many attempts had been made to kill him. A note at the end of Valkyrie says that the July 20 attempt was the last of fifteen attempts, but according to the “Goofs” section at, there were actually 42 known assassination attempts.

I think this movie would have been a riveting story even if it were fiction, but knowing that it is based on history makes it all the more impressive. We know the outcome, of course – Hitler committed suicide at the end of the war, so the assassination attempt must have failed. But the movie nevertheless maintains a surprising level of suspense. Will the plotters at least escape with their lives? Will Colonel Stauffenberg go home to his pregnant wife and his children?

As happened with the book about mountain-climber George Mallory, this movie left me wanting to know more about Claus von Stauffenberg and the German Resistance movement. Fortunately there have been many books written on the subject (our local library has two just on Stauffenberg), so I will be reading up on this subject in the coming weeks.