World War II -- fiction
Did you know that you can eat milkweed? This is one of the interesting facts I learned from Ruth Reichl’s debut novel, Delicious!
At the age of 10, Billie Breslin discovered she had a gift. She is able to recreate the recipe for a cake based on her memory of the flavors she tasted in that cake. Eleven years later, Billie finds herself in New York, far from her family in California, applying for a job, not as a chef but as an administrative assistant for a food magazine, Delicious.
While at the magazine, Billie uncovers a series of letters written during World War II between a young girl, Lulu, and Mr. Beard, a former employee of the magazine and a chef. Billie becomes fascinated with them and wants to learn more about Lulu. As Billie attempts to solve the mystery of Lulu’s letters, she works on issues in her own life.
I love a book with an inventive narrative structure and, like Scheherazade, Kate Atkinson has 1,001 plots in her novel, Life after Life. Ursula Todd, born on a snowy night in 1910 to banker Hugh Todd and his aristocratic wife Sylvie dies and lives--over and over again. But this is a novel not just about reincarnation but also about how a writer writes and makes choices. The chapters reveal the choices a writer--or a human being--makes and how it changes the path a life takes.
In When the Emperor Was Divine, Julie Otsuka uses a sparse, lyrical writing style to illuminate the psychological effects of one of the most shameful episodes in U.S. history. The novel opens with a portrait of an ordinary woman going about her daily chores in Berkeley, California. While en route to her local library, she sees something troubling: Evacuation Order No. 19. After reading the notice, she abandons her errands and begins preparing for life in an unfamiliar locale.
At first, the sequence of events feels dystopian or apocalyptic – the world is ending and a family is forced to prepare to face the unknown. But this narrative is a dramatization of history, not a speculative tale of the future. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government began to suspect that American citizens of Japanese ancestry might harbor allegiance to Japan. In 1942, these paranoid fantasies lead to the forcible internment of Japanese-Americans announced in Evacuation Order No. 19.
In the closing months of World War II, the Allies are bombing German cities. As Dresden prepares for the inevitable, Lizzie’s family gains an unlikely extra member. Lizzie’s mother works at the Dresden zoo. When the zoo director orders that in the event of a bombing raid, the animals must be shot to prevent them escaping and causing havoc in the city, Lizzie’s mother convinces him to let her take the young orphaned elephant, Marlene, home. And so Marlene moves into the shed in the garden behind Lizzie’s house.
When the bombing of Dresden finally happens, the destruction is worse than anyone imagined. With the Soviet Army approaching from the East, Lizzie’s family flees to the West through bitter winter weather with Marlene in tow. An Elephant in the Garden is not only a story of the horrors of World War II from the perspective of German civilians, it is a tale of an unlikely group of people drawn together by circumstances and an elephant, struggling to survive war, hunger, and winter hardship and to escape to safety behind Allied lines.
Shambling Towards Hiroshima is a brisk and inventive novel that incorporates elements of science fiction, humor, historical fiction, and moody introspection. James Morrow utilizes these disparate narrative modes in order to portray the life story of a B-movie actor named Syms Thorley. Thorley has spent most of his screen time bringing monsters to life. His devoted fans fondly remember him as “Kha-Ton-Ra the living mummy, Corpuscula the alchemical creature, and Gorgantis, King of the Lizards.” However, no one suspects that Gorgantis, a grotesque fire- breathing lizard, originated as a top secret military project designed to swiftly end World War II.
Picture book writer and illustrator Uri Shulevitz came into a world on the brink of a devastating war. The son of son of Abraham and Szandla (Hermanstat) Shulevitz, Uri (pronounced oo-ree), he was only four years old when German bombs falling on Warsaw drove his Jewish family out of the city and into an eight-year period of travel in exile throughout Europe before finally settling in Paris in 1947, when Uri was twelve years old.
We are all very familiar with the atrocities engineered by Adolph Hitler, but less is heard about the atrocities that occurred at the direction of Joseph Stalin. Twenty million people were murdered under his leadership. In the book Between the Shades of Gray, Ruta Sepetys gives a very compelling account of the Soviet invasion of the country of Lithuania in 1941. Lists of people who were considered enemies of the state were compliled, and these people were removed from their homes and workplaces. These people were often professors, teachers, writers, artists, and librarians. The men were sent to prison and the women and children to forced labor camps--some of which were located in Siberia and the Arctic Circle. These individuals were separated from family members and forced to live under extremely harsh conditions with none of the comforts of home. They were not given food or medical attention. The women and children were shoved into railroad cars and sent away without ever being told where they were going.
The main character in this book is named Lina. She, her mother, and her younger brother are removed by force from their home and sent to Siberia. In Siberia, which is harsh enough to begin with, they have to scrounge for anything to eat. Even one potato becomes a luxury for the prisoners. Beets become a treat. The prisoners are forced to dig with shovels which have no handles, and they sleep on the freezing cold floor of a shack.
In An Artist of the Floating World, Kazuo Ishiguro gracefully explores the experiences and memories of a disgraced artist living in post-war Japan. The novel is seductive and haunting, but I was also impressed by its substance and depth.
Mansuji Ono, the novel’s protagonist, was once a great artist whose paintings commanded respect throughout Japan. Following the end of World War II, however, Ono experiences a surreal displacement. From Ono’s perspective, the former order he was a part of has not only been abandoned, it has been rejected and renounced as the epitome of disaster. Instead of enjoying the power and prestige that accompanied his former reputation, Ono finds himself adrift, an aging man who wanders through a crumbling house, where all traces of his past life have been “tidied away.”
Rupert Holmes’ Swing has more than a touch of noir—and its own soundtrack. Set in San Francisco in 1940, vagabond jazz musician Ray Sherwood has been made a very interesting proposition. A beautiful, young Berkley music student wants him in a most peculiar way. She’s won an international contest for composers, and her piece needs to premiere at the Golden Gate Exposition in just a few weeks. What she needs from Ray are his talents to orchestrate her music for many instruments. Ray is enchanted by Gail’s breezy joie de vivre and her snappy patter even as his own troubled past makes him hesitate. But the tenor veers from sweet romance to dangerous liaison when a lovely woman plunges to her death mere feet from the happy couple, changing this composition’s theme from serenade to police siren.
One sign of a good book is that you come to the last page and want to start all over again. Connie Willis’s Blackout and All Clear – which should really be read straight through as one – made me wish for leisurely hours in a hammock, where I could go back and savor every plot twist, every character and every word.