A Hundred Years to Never Forget…(Let’s read some books about the Great War)

It’s been a hundred years since the end of World War I—an appropriate time to highlight some books I read this year on this subject. The books are all different—the main characters have different nationalities and the books are set in different locations—providing an interesting perspective.

World War I has always appeared as a messy affair to me. First, the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia, and based on alliances, other countries joined in; with Britain, France, Russia, Italy and the US on one side and Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire on the other. Eight and half million soldiers and seven million civilians lost their lives in the span of four years.

But a book usually focuses on one region. Let’s start with The Alice Network by Kate Quinn. It’s set in France during World War I (and World War II) and embraces the role women played in it. The book has two closely connected storylines. In 1947, we get to know Charlie, an American girl trying to locate her French cousin, who is presumed dead. In 1915, we follow Eve, who works as a spy for the Alice Network in France during World War I.

I liked the story set in 1915 the best. The danger of Eve’s job, the double standards she had to deal with as a woman in her profession, her resourcefulness and bravery, all made it impossible for me to put the book down. I don’t know as much about World War I as I would like, and I certainly didn’t know about the Alice Network. The afterword by Kate Quinn is a wonderful addition; much of the book is based on true events.

It’s so easy to ignore women in history who did amazing things. Because, let’s face it, back in the beginning of the 20th century women weren’t supposed to do “amazing things.” The women who were part of The Alice Network, lived in a time in which they were still not allowed to vote, yet they showed themselves capable enough to spy on the enemy and put their lives at risk. For me, Eve’s story alone made this book an excellent read.

As Kate Quinn explains in the afterword, the Alice Network and Alice Dubois, or Louise de Bettingies, really existed. She organized a vast and highly effective network of informants in the area of Lille. Louise was captured by the Germans in 1915, and died in prison in 1918, before the end of the war.

My interest, sparked by reading The Alice Network, led me to pick up a classic describing life in the trenches: All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (written in 1927). Mr. Remarque himself was a soldier on the German side. Instead of glorifying the war, his descriptions of the carnage and total despair these men faced, paint a vivid picture of the utter madness of war. In a few passages, he flat-out taunts the people in power, questioning why the common men always end up fighting a war that was not theirs to begin with. Not surprisingly, the book was forbidden by the Nazi regime. Mr. Remarque had to flee Germany soon after publishing it and in 1938 his German citizenship was revoked.

Some of the areas of fighting in West-Europe, initially nothing but scarred fields of mud and craters, were cordoned off after the war and have since then developed into lush forests, but unfortunately, some are still littered with (unexploded) shells. Other areas apparently are still toxic, containing high levels of arsenic. For reference, check out this article in the Atlantic.

I have never visited any of the battlefields in West-Europe, but this summer we went to Slovenia and Italy, where there was extensive fighting as well. Triglav National Park, in Slovenia, is a beautiful mountainous area—you can hardly imagine its bloody history while enjoying the amazing views of emerald rivers, pristine waterfalls and rocky mountain tops. My daughter decided that if there are fairies, they’d be sure to live in this place.

The fairies may have thought differently a hundred years ago. An estimated 300,000 soldiers died and 700,000 were wounded on the Soča Front. The Italians invaded this part of Slovenia to open up the way to Vienna, but instead faced years of fighting the Austro-Hungarian army uphill.  Then, in 1917, a German offensive blew right through the Italian defenses. The battle of Kobarid (Coparetto) and the following retreat has been well described  in A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway, who himself was an ambulance driver in this area during the war.

I read A Farewell to Arms during high school, but I will admit it was kind of lost on me at that time, and I discarded it as a depressing love story. Having reread the book after our visit to Slovenia and Italy, I can say I appreciate his writing style and tone a lot more than I did when I was younger. The love story was still very sad, but having a better sense of the places he described deepened the reading experience.

It’s been a hundred years—how easy it would be to stop remembering. But if we let time erase the memories of the horrors of war, who is to stop us from making the same mistakes over and over again? These three books are all poignant tales that will ensure you won’t forget.

The Women in the Castle

Books I enjoyed

I have wanted to read The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck for a while now, and I finally got to it. I had high expectations. It did not disappoint.

51VVuJSj7TL._SY346_-2The book is set in the world war II era, as well as the post-war years; a familiar theme. However, what sets this story apart is that it revolves around three women, three German women—each experiencing the war differently—but all scrambling for survival afterwards. As fate binds them together, they take care of one another and their children, trying to find a better life.

The three women are nothing alike; Marianne is independent and strong, Betina beautiful yet vulnerable, and Ania tough and pragmatic—but every one of them brings something unique to the symbiotic relationship. Along with their strengths, they each have their weaknesses and faults, which makes them above all, very human. None of these three women are exceptionally bad or cruel—regardless of some of the bad choices they make. In many ways, they are like any of us, just born in a different time and place.

This book tells a very nuanced story, from the viewpoint of these three women, without making any excuses for their behavior or past actions. I couldn’t help but feeling sympathy for each woman as their memories took me on a journey of their past. Through the characters, the book explores some of the reasoning behind the world war horrors, and the blindness of the German people, or their willingness not to see.

It is a story of loss, guilt and shame, but also of love, hope, friendship and forgiveness. It is incredibly hard, in my opinion, to write a story like this, and write it well. But Jessica Shattuck did just that, and more. She did it exceptionally well.

Let me leave you with a quote from the book and some thoughts:

For so long Marianne and Albrecht and many of their friends had known Hitler was a lunatic, a leader whose lowbrow appeal to people’s most selfish, self-pitying emotions and ignorance was an embarrassment to the country. They had watched him make a masterwork of scapegoating Jews for Germany’s fall from power and persuade his followers that enlightenment, humanity and tolerance were weaknesses—“Jewish” ideas that led to defeat.”

If only we, as humans, would learn from our past mistakes. I’ve always believed that, back then, Germany was a country like any other—with its usual share of monsters and power-hungry enablers, and a lot of people willing to blindly follow a dangerous leader to the point of no return. Many atrocities were committed by average people, who didn’t enjoy them, but were already carrying too much guilt to turn back. This is why we need books like this. To stay vigilant. To remember that, in the end, any of us could be one of these three women.

The Invention of Wings

Books I enjoyed:

Growing up on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, my history knowledge of the American (pre)Civil War era was fairly limited. Most of my information probably came from watching North and South episodes on television. Yeah…I know. I had and still have quite some catching up to do.

inventionofwings

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd is set in the first half of the nineteenth century, and tells the story of the Grimké sisters, but mostly that of Sarah Grimké. Born in the South and despite being raised in a slave-holding family, Sarah grows up abhorring slavery and believing things should be different. As the book describes her life and her slow but steady progress towards not just standing up for herself, but also for abolition and women’s rights in general, I can’t help but admire her for her enlightenment, her courage, and her will to do what is right, despite the restrictions the era—and society—placed upon her.

I had never heard of the Grimké sisters, so I was surprised to find out these ladies really existed, and yet are so little heard of. Therefore, I am grateful to Sue Monk Kidd, for writing this book. If nothing else, these women deserve some attention. In fact, Sarah and Angelina Grimké were one of the first American female advocates for abolition and women’s rights. They were both famous as well as infamous for their viewpoints.

Sue Monk Kidd has, for the most part, tried to be truthful to the life and voice of Sarah Grimké, through examining letters, diaries and so forth. The part of the book that is fiction is the voice of Handful, a slave girl that is given to Sarah on her eleventh birthday. Switching back and forth between the two girls, and later, women, the contrasts are stark; one is in a position of privilege, the other of captivity, submitted to the cruelty and whims of her oppressors. In my opinion, even though the story of Sarah is fascinating, it is the voice of Handful that carries the book to a whole new level.

Both girls endure confinement, albeit in different ways; Handful is owned—her lack of freedom is absolute—for Sarah there are the restrictions of her gender. As Handful points out to Sarah: “My body might be a slave, but my mind is not. For you it’s the other way around.” However, once Sarah manages to break free, she is able to continue along this journey, chipping away at the barriers holding her back, whereas for Handful, the road to any sort of freedom is permanently closed off. Yet, despite her circumstances, Handful’s spirit remains unbroken.

This book reminded me of a quote attributed to Goethe: ‘There are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One of these is roots, the other, wings’. How true.

After reading the book I was left with a variety of emotions, but mostly, hope. Even in our darkest times in which we display our most terrible behavior, there are still people willing to do the right thing—people who have a vision of how things could be, if only…

That’s something to hold onto.

The Lost Ones (Part 3)

This is the final post on The Lost Ones: Writers we lost in 2016. After all, we are about half-way through 2017.

I had not heard of Helen Bailey before, but if you live in the UK you may have. She was a YA writer (the Electra Brown series), but wrote one book for adults: When Bad Things Happen in Good Bikinis.

badthingsgoodbikinis

In 2011, she and her husband went on vacation to Barbados, where her husband drowned while swimming in the ocean. She witnessed his death. “A wife at breakfast, a widow before lunch.”

Trying to deal with the loss of her husband, she started up a blog, Planet Grief, in which she reached out to other people who had lost loved ones. The book When Bad Things Happen in Good Bikinis is a memoir of her journey through the process of grief, based on that blog. She tells about life without her husband, of the simple things that would make her break down in tears, and of her dog, Boris, her loyal companion.

Her stories are filled with raw emotion—especially in the first half of the book—her writing poignant, and sometimes funny. Reading about her experience of loss, of which she writes in a very honest and open way, is heart wrenching.

Her tone gradually changes in the second half of the book. Maybe, there is a way through the hurt, a way toward accepting. Eventually, she meets another man with whom she starts a new relationship.

The book probably had a different effect on me than on people who have experienced a similar loss. For me, it was humbling. The devastation of the loss of a partner, her grief and pain, are almost palpable. She talks about friends being there for her, friends not being there for her, and people being awkward, or even inappropriate. In our society, I feel as if we often try to ignore death. Like many, I have been afraid to say the wrong thing to people who have gone through loss, or I just don’t know what to say or how to be there for them. This book may not have solved that, but at least it has given me plenty to think about.

In her last entry, she has sold her old house and bought a new one with her new partner. She closes the book with “It will all be OK in the end. We promise you.” She, and many of the widows and widowers she had been in touch with, had found new purpose, new joy in life, and some, new love.

We all like happy endings. But for Helen things turned out differently. She disappeared in April 2016. Three months later, her body, and that of her dog Boris, were found hidden in her house. She was 51. In February 2017, her partner was convicted of her murder.

Reading the book made me sad, but reading the book knowing how it all ended for her made it infinitely sadder. Her voice was so personal, almost like you are getting to know her while reading.

One story in the book especially stuck with me. Helen’s best friend gave Helen and her husband a bottle of champagne, which Helen wanted to save for a special occasion. All of a sudden, the best friend dies. The champagne is now symbolic, and no occasion is ever special enough. But then Helen’s husband drowns, and the opportunity for sharing the champagne was gone forever. She writes:

Why couldn’t I have seen that just being alive and with [my husband] was the only reason I ever needed to open it? I had been waiting for some big flashy occasion to come along, when in fact life with him was the big occasion.”

Finally, Helen takes the champagne to a party. But, as irony has it, when they open the bottle, the champagne has gone bad.

There are many things I will take away from the book, but most of all it will be that. Cherish the times you have with your loved-ones. Make every moment special. And when life offers you champagne, drink it.

The Lover’s Portrait

51KNLQlFsBL._AC_US218_The Lover’s Portrait written by Jennifer S. Alderson, was a fun and exciting read!

The main character is Zelda, a young American woman, who has been immersing herself in Dutch culture, studying art. When she gets an internship at an art museum in Amsterdam, trying to restore the in WW II stolen art to the rightful owners, a painting gets claimed by two different women, and questions, as well as trouble, start piling up!

The mystery itself was compelling and made me want to keep reading (I read it in one day, because I couldn’t put it down). The location and time period were the icing on the cake.

The story not only takes the reader to the Amsterdam of today, but also of the past, during the time of WW II. Featuring the stolen and lost art during the German occupation of the Netherlands, it tells about what was happening in Amsterdam during that period, without it turning into a history lesson. It was both a fascinating glimpse back in time as well as very educational. I had the impression Jennifer must have invested a great deal of work researching the era and the city. Having lived in Amsterdam, one of my favorite cities, I felt the descriptions in the book were very accurate, bringing back great memories.

Obviously, it being a mystery novel, I don’t want to provide any more spoilers. You just need to read it!

The Lost Ones (Part 2)

This is the second part of Writers we lost in 2016, in which I highlight a book written by a writer who passed away last year, but was unknown to me.

This time I read a book from Cory Taylor, an Australian writer, who initially started out writing children’s books. I read her first novel, Me and Mr. Booker, written in 2011, which received the Commonwealth Book Prize for the Pacific Region.

me-and-mr-bookerThis was an interesting read. The person telling the story is Martha, a 16-year old girl, living in a sleepy, small town in Australia.

I thought Martha’s voice was authentic and well captured: A mixture of boredom, immaturity, and self-absorption, just “waiting for something to happen.” But, Martha is also witty, quite astute in her observations of the people around her, and of course, a teenager caught in her teenage years. Therefore, I couldn’t find myself disliking her, even more so since the adults in her life are—well—sad, filled with self-loathing and disappointment.

Martha describes her father as a bully as well as a loser, and faults her mother for having a hard time banning him from her life, even though they’ve split up. When Martha meets the Bookers, who just arrived in town from England, they are a welcome diversion, and—as the title suggests— she gets involved with Mr. Booker, who is twice her age. For me, there was nothing likable about Mr. Booker. It was very difficult and uncomfortable to read through the parts of their sexual affair, since their age difference made it such an obviously unequal relationship.

Most of the adults in the book appear to live a life of pretense and just going through the motions, while drinking too much. Yet, their disillusion with life is heart-breaking, because they all seem so trapped, without seeing, or perhaps, wanting a way out.

I read it in one afternoon. Truthfully, I am still not sure I enjoyed it; I like books that make me feel better, and this book does not provide many “feel-good moments,” as the people in it come across as mostly unhappy. Nevertheless, it was very well written, and the voices in the book felt real, resulting in a captivating story. More importantly, it kept lingering in my mind afterwards. The book made me feel conflicted; on the one hand I caught myself being judgmental about the characters while reading it, but then also feeling for them for being incapable of finding a way out. In the end, I was desperately rooting for Martha to escape this life and find something better.

Cory Taylor was diagnosed with melanoma in 2005. After Me and Mr. Booker, she wrote My Beautiful Enemy in 2013. Her last book, Dying, a memoir, was published just before her death. She was 61 years old.

The Handmaid’s Tale

Books I enjoyed:

The Hhandmaid's taleandmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

This book was written in 1985, but I only just read it. And it gave me chills.

Even though the pace of the book is a little slow, it was a compelling and interesting read. I think it was more my impatience that wished the story would move faster. The book was not all that enjoyable, because the content is, well, often disturbing. But then, a book doesn’t always have to be enjoyable; sometimes, it should just make you pause, and think.

The narrator of the book is Offred (which literally means she is “Of Fred”: Fred owns her). This dystopian novel sets the stage for a society that is profoundly female unfriendly—under disguise of ‘the common good’. Because of rampant infertility, women like Offred, who have proven to be fertile, can be abused by the privileged few—the Commanders who rule the new world—for the sake of creating offspring. Previous children have been redistributed, families torn apart—all to serve the new order. Some women have been given more power, foremost over other women, contributing to the inequality and keeping it in place, illustrating well how power can corrupt.

The fundamental religious society Margaret Atwood describes, is absolutely frightening.  The Constitutional Rights (the novel takes place in Massachusetts) have been abandoned and the secret police is abundant, as are the executions. What struck me most was the apathy of the narrator, as well as of the other women. Resistance is futile, at least, that’s what it feels like throughout the book.

Some reviewers have argued that such a sudden change in our society would be too unlikely. But in this year of 2017, I would argue, perhaps not. Women’s rights are still being debated on a daily basis. The novel mentions massive pollution, diseases, disasters and widespread infertility; the idea of civil unrest in the aftermath of such a situation may not be that ludicrous. Neither is the thought that a totalitarian regime would thrive in such conditions, or that people would accept it.

If anything, this book is still surprisingly relevant, even after the thirty-two years it was written. I would highly recommend reading it.