Friday, February 28, 2014

THE NAZI OFFICER'S WIFE – Edith Hahn Beer


Sometimes one needs to read a book that hurts. It helps you to remember to be vigilant so you can be a voice of protest in the present when you witness prejudice, meanness, and injustice. This is such a book. This autobiography by Edith Hahn Beer is very good even if it does make your hair stand on end and your heart ache.

What makes this Holocaust survivor book different is that this educated and outspoken Viennese Jewish woman was forced to hide from Nazi attention, becoming what is referred to as a “U-boat” or a person hiding in plain sight. After being forced into a ghetto and then to a work camp she returned to Vienna to find her family and friends deported or in concentration camps. At first she went underground but finding it too hard to survive she was able to use forged papers from a friend to start a new life in Munich. She married a Nazi Party member, Werner Vetter, held down a job, and bore a child but lived every day with the paralyzing fear of being found out. Edith lost herself during that time. Werner married a complete person that in reality didn't even exist. It came as no surprise that after the war he was not happy with the real person, lawyer, judge who was no longer home cooking and cleaning and being the hausfrau he wanted.

Hahn Beer began her story in the midst of the war, at her job for the Red Cross in a hospital for foreign war criminals where she witnessed a nurse smuggling food to patients and homeless Jews. This is to set the reader up for understanding that there were acts by ordinary citizens trying to deliver mercy during merciless times. She had assumed an alias, was pretending to be an uneducated farm girl and 21 when she was in actuality 29 and highly educated. The next chapter takes the reader back to her happy adolescence and progresses through to when the Nazis have taken over her world and she is denied the opportunity to take her last final to complete her law degree, through her years as a “U-boat” and finally to the present. The construction of the book works well to tell her story. Hahn Beer is never over sentimental, not exceedingly graphic, nor maudlin but her story is clear and heartbreaking. She makes it quite plain that the reader should face facts, the German people did know what was going on, the Christian church did nothing to help and indeed sanctioned the movement, and yet there were and are good people who did and will always step up.

Thank goodness Edith's long time friend and lover Pepi preserved their correspondence and her identity papers enabling her to reclaim her personage after the war and also helping her to reconstruct her experiences decades later. Unfortunately post war Austria under the Soviet occupation was not good. After her marriage to Vetter fell apart Hahn Beer fled to Britain and later to Israel. She died in 2009.


This book is a gem. It is the only one I have read about “U-boat” people. Once I picked it up I couldn't put it down. Knowing it was true at times nearly made my heart stop. In the thirties when Edith and her friends were in college their perspective of Hilter and his ilk were that he/they were idiots and ranters, not real thinkers, and not to be taken seriously soon to be gone. One friend commented that, “There might be a time when people would no longer know the difference.” That conversation brought goosebumps to my arms. Not only for them because that is what happened, but for us as I am afraid that those times may have come today to America. There seem today to be many idiots ranting on the TV and on the radio who are not “wise thinkers” at all, and many today don't seem to know the difference - indeed.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

THE CASUAL VACANCY – J. K. Rowling

Irony – got up in the night with a migraine. Battled it with pain meds and ice packs for several hours until finally it subsided enough to enable reading a book. The Casual Vacancy on the shelf caught my eye so off I went to snuggle up with my cat and a blanket thinking about Rowling's first adult book. I had no idea a main character drops dead in the first chapter of a brain aneurism! At 3 in the morning with a pounding head let me tell you that seemed creepy and perhaps a little omen-ish. But I finished the book and am well so... false alarm.

In the small English town of Pagford there is much unrest. Many prominent people have serious personal issues and some are not who they pretend to be. We, as the reader get to see them in all their dented and tarnished glory. Written in third person with many characters to keep track of, there is no one to clearly identify with. No character is all good or all bad, nor are any without serious flaws. This book is mostly character study interjected with social issues magnified by anger, prejudice, and angst. It definitely has an edge. No pretty idyllic English quaintness at all. But I was hooked on the first page. The writing is wonderful and I loved the way Rowling slowly waltzes the reader into a man's life showing us his lovely wife and family, lets us see his angst at disappointing them and then BAM, the “casual vacancy” occurs. A casual vacancy occurs when a council member cannot finish his term because of resignation or death.

When a pillar of the small community, Berry Fairbrother, drops dead he leaves a beautiful young family, civic projects unfinished, and an open seat on the town council. Multiple battles and social skirmishes ensue. The rich snobs of the community seek an opportunity to rid themselves of the poor neighborhood which includes a methadone center by having it annexed to the nearby larger community. The local physician, a Muslim, battles prejudice in the community but also in herself with her inability to accept her imperfect child. A public school teacher battles his mental illness. A nurse tries to protect her children from her abusive husband. A councilman struggles to get his son elected in Fairbrother's place. A young girl desperately tries to save her brother from her prostitute-drug-addicted mother. A man battles his obesity and his obsession with young women. And that is only a sampling of the conflicts. No easy fixes or satisfying closure to be found in this book either but you will be intrigued and you will be forced to witness different vantage points of several social issues. I like that in a book and I did like this book. However, there were things I did not like and some very much. There was too much, and I would say, overdone teen sex, drugs, and alcohol. I am not averse to reading those things when they further the plot and seem to ring true but here it seemed like Rowling might be trying to make a point that she can write about current issues with grit and reality, but it didn't feel so to me, it felt unnecessary and contrived.

The characters are well written, the multiple plots intertwine well, and the writing style is much to my liking. I look forward to reading more of Rowling's adult lit if she polishes her work a bit. Possibly she should use a better editor? Could it be when an author is so popular less attention is given to making a work more readable? Not sure, but I am seeing more and more work recently which I and others feel are good but should have been better. All that being said I am still recommending this book to some friends. The cover art of my edition is very pleasing, looking a bit retro in black and yellow. The fancy font introducing each of the seven sections is a nice touch and the sections each emphasizing a basic plot meshing together is fun. A good work I say.


Saturday, February 22, 2014

ONE THOUSAND WHITE WOMEN: THE JOURNALS OF MAY DODD – Jim Fergus

One of my book groups was scheduled to read this so I scrounged used book stores until I found a copy, a bit battered but in one piece. Truthfully I prefer hard copies but then I feel a burning desire to keep it, so I try to decide if a book is truly “shelfworthy.” If a book is worthy of keeping in my small house then I will go for the hard. Sure that this would be one to pass along I opted soft. I enjoyed it, it isn't a “classic” or of great quality, some of it seems a bit cliché, and perhaps the portrayal of the Cheyenne isn't very accurate. That being said I still liked it.

If the notes are to be believed the premise of the book is based on a real event. Apparently in 1854 at a national peace conference a noted Indian chief requested 1000 white women be sent West as brides in exchange for horses. The reasoning was that procreating with white women would be the impetus for assimilating the Indian nation into the white man's society. Of course this did not go well and indeed the women were never sent. Enter Jim Fergus to write a “what if” story of just such an endeavor. It is moved forward in time about twenty years and written in the form of a journal of one such woman sent to be a “savage bride.”

As you can imagine it was quite difficult to find 1000 willing women to go, so the prisons and insane asylums were culled for volunteers. Forty women are assembled. May Dodd had been put in an insane asylum by her wealthy family for having a “perverse personality” disorder. Which means she has been living with a man to whom she is not married and had children out of wedlock. The ability to leave the asylum, she thinks, may be her ticket to a new life and a future opportunity to perhaps be able to find her children. While on the way West May has a short but torrid affair with John Bourke, an army captain. He tries to get May to scrap her plans but he also cannot marry her because he is already betrothed, and besides she is not an acceptable bride for an officer.

As the traveling and the journalling progresses the reader gets to know the core group of women quite well and a motley crew they are. Among them are a gay environmentalist, a black Amazon ex-slave, an evangelical Bible-thumper, a terrified mute, feisty Irish twins, a Swedish farm girl, and a racist Southern belle. May steps up as a pillar of strength, an understanding influence, and a wise leader among the women. When she becomes the wife of an important chief she adapts to native life and helps her fellow wives assimilate into the tribe. Of course knowing any history of the time and place the reader knows things cannot end well. There are problems of course with communication and the clash not only of cultures but of strong personalities. The Natives are at war with invading white people but also with each other. There is brutality and hardship as well as love and dawning understanding between unlike minds. When the powers that be in Washington decide to take over the very land where the tribes of the women have been located, the army, including Bourke shows up. Heartbreak.


The segue to the present in my opinion works well and closes the story nicely. Whether or not the description of Cheyenne life is accurate, I enjoyed the adventure, the strange characters, and even the love stories. If you can't appreciate history re-imagined it isn't for you, but if you like the fantastic “what ifs” of a good tale told then you may want to try this one. Overall our book group liked it and we had a good discussion. I have already passed it along to a good friend. Hope she likes it.

AVIATOR'S WIFE – Melanie Benjamin

First of all I want to complain about the cover of the edition I had. It is always aggravating when a publisher doesn't take pains to make sure the cover art rings true. The woman on the cover seems not in the least bit to portray Anne Morrow Lindbergh. While being essentially about Anne we do look at Charles Lindbergh and from reading about Benjamin's research and other articles about him I am suspecting that this is a pretty accurate look at this American icon and his family. He does not come across as very likeable. Of course this is historic fiction so possible he wasn't as manipulative as it seemed here.

Anne Morrow was a smart, motivated, kind, and trusting woman. She was the product of a wealthy family having all the perks of good education, prestige, and opportunity. However, she was very much a product of her time (1920s America) and as did most young society girls she seemed to drift along into what was expected for young girls. She allowed herself to be “chosen” to be a wife by an American hero. Little thought was given to love or whether or not they would be good companions or even had anything in common. Charles was looking for a partner of good breeding and social standing, and one for whom he could rely on for intelligence and a sense of adventure.
It is easy to like Anne in this book and to at some level to admire her stamina, her willingness to support her spouse, and her quest for excitement. But sometimes her need to please and her desire to never disappoint grated on my nerves. Anne allowed Charles to be a bully and a tyrant in the home for which she could never seem to feel good about nor to stand up against. She always wanted to be stronger and a better mother but always capitulated to Charles wishes. It wasn't that he had no feelings, but his childhood had been so dysfunctional that I believe his perspective on good parenting was very warped. The kidnapping and murder of their first child was very hard to read about and very hard not to not hate Charles with his insistence on stoicism and keeping the grief at bay.

In either high school or college after reading about Lindbergh's heroics, it was at some point mentioned that he had been a Nazi sympathizer. Reading about how that transpired in this book made more sense to me. I was glad to discover Anne's inner strength when she came into her own through her writing. Now I want to scour this house to find my old copy of A Gift from the Sea (which I know is here somewhere) so I can read it again since I know a bit more about the author. 
It is sometimes hard for a person of the 21st century to understand the hows and whys of lives lived in a time and culture which we don't understand and so I like it when things evolve in a book in a way to make me feel and think as the main protagonist.

I was as shocked as she was to find out his darkest secrets and to be amazed at how he could publicly be so judgmental towards other men and people who he considered to have loose morals then..... well, we don't want to spoil the ending now do we?


Anne Morrow Lindbergh does not come across as good or bad, as a saint or a terrible sinner, just as an interesting person, a product of her times, but a human of basically good character with flaws. Overall a great beach read or for a rainy afternoon and it doesn't take long to read.

GOING POSTAL – Terry Pratchett

Moist Van Lipwig, what a name and indeed what a book! I do enjoy the Pratchett Discworld books. Many a library and indeed many a reader insist on numbering the series in sequence as they were written, however, you honestly don't need to read them in such a way. Pick any one that suits your fancy and you will be delighted. All of the Discworld books, this one being the 29th, take place in an alternate world that is flat. There are some similarities to our world like cities, armies, ships, animals, greed, piracy, war, and pestilence. But, the technologies are different, and the culture, while similar, seems to be stuck in a past time of horse-drawn conveyances and superstition. This world also has any number of mythological creatures living and interacting with humans. There are werewolves, golems, banshees, vampires... you name it.

The supreme ruler of Discworld, Lord Vetinari rescues Moist Van Lipwig, a notorious con-man and criminal from execution. He then gives him a choice of death or being the new postmaster of the Ankh-Morpork Post Office. Moist knows nothing of mail service but he does know how to manipulate people and get things done. He also cannot escape his bodyguard golem who is made of clay, never eats or sleeps, and is always at his side, so he has no choice but to try to make his new job work. The post office went into decline decades before because of corruption, mismanagement, and a series of unsolved deaths of the previous postmasters. The invention of a series of towers that carry messages across the country, called “The Grand Trunk” also has contributed to the PO decline. The people of Ankh-Morpork are obsessed with sending messages using the clacks towers and no longer want to wait for mail delivery. Moist inherits two employees, an old man who never bathes covering himself in homeopathic salves and poultices, and an unstable young man obsessed with collecting pins. The building which once was a shining beacon of information transference is in decrepitude. The mail has piled up everywhere, the chandeliers have been taken, the place is a mess. The mail sorter has broken down after having gone amok creating a warp in time and space making mail that hadn't actually been written yet. The wizards of the land cannot fix it.

Reacher Gilt, a millionaire has taken over The Grand Trunk lines downsizing the operations and overworking the staff until the operation is in jeopardy. He is obsessed with keeping his investors happy by raking in profits but doesn't care about tower maintenance or the welfare of the craftsman who work the towers. Moist sees an opportunity to redeem the post office. He hires old postmen, a series of delivery coaches, and finds one Adora Belle Dearheart to supply him with golems to do labor and protect the mail carriers. Mail begins to be delivered, some 50-year-old mail makes a splash in the newspapers, and Moist invents stamps. Things begin to happen. Death, fire, espionage, heroics, love, this book has it all and you will laugh and be in a hurry to get to the next page. The characters are so well written as to be clearly visible in the mind. Who could not like characters like Miss Dearheart a gothic and cynical chain smoker, Iodine Maccalariat the iron fisted, double hairbunned office manager, Mr. Tiddles the cat, Tolliver Groat who is offended in the hospital when nurses give him a trouserectomy, to bathe him and who just might have been “Oggling my trumpet-and-skittles,” werewolf Captain Ironfounderson of the police, or Oscar the vampire?


I loved all of it even the dust jacket which looked like a postage stamp, down to the color put on in hashmarks like when you look up close to a stamp or a dollar bill. Pratchett is a genius. If you would like a fantastic story of a lying schemer realizing the satisfaction of being of service to others, learning to feel remorse, and leaving egocentricity behind, pick up Going Postal. The beginning of each chapter has illustrations too, how fun!