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review 2018-03-19 05:31
Absolutely tore through this.
Ester and Ruzya: How My Grandmothers Survived Hitler's War and Stalin's Peace - Masha Gessen

It's pretty rare for me to chew through non-fiction this fast, but I couldn't put this one down.


The storyline follows the lives of the author's grandmothers, both Jewish one from Moscow, one from Poland, from their birth through to the present day, with a focus on how they survived WWII and Stalinist Russia. The book illuminates their careers, their loves, their children. It shows better than anything else I've read what living in Russia int eh '40s and '50s felt like, and at its heart it's about choices.


At the very centre of the book, in terms of page count, are a set of potentially conflicting accounts of the actions of Gessen's great grandfather, who was an elder in a Nazi-run ghetto in Poland. The information is unclear, possibly contradictory. Was he a hero or a collaborator? What choices did he make? What choices did he have? How did he die? Each option is explored, conclusions are implied.


The ghetto story a microscale of the rest of the book, in which his daughter and the woman who will eventually be her best friend, the mother of the girl his grandson will marry, make those choices their whole lives. What is folding to the state, compromising your ethics, protecting your family, staying alive? Do you turn away a job for the secret police if that job will keep your baby from starving? If you do, what then? If you don't, what then?


I'm making this sound unrelentingly grim, and certainly bad things happen in it and the central characters suffer, but both of these women lived and even thrived in a hostile state, built careers and families, and have children and grandchildren who did the same. Maybe at it's heart it's also about growing potatoes on Mars: survival against all odds.


The writing itself is gorgeous and compelling. I hadn't run into Gessen before, aside from an essay that pointed me to this book, but I will be reading them again.

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review 2018-03-08 04:06
Poorly written, interesting content.
Beyond Band of Brothers:The War Memoirs of Major Dick Winters - Cole C. Kingseed,Dick Winters,Tom Weiner

I probably should have just read Band of Brothers, but this was the one that was on sale, so this was the one I read. Winters is a very poor writer on a technical level, often repeating himself, not very good at describing things, often failing to land a joke. It's basically ten hours of story time from that uncle that drones on. He had a helper writer, and one has to feel that person should have helped more.


However, the content was quite interesting, if you're into infantry tactics in WWII (which I am for fanfic purposes), and I liked the bits of relationship and personality that gleamed through. I haven't seen the mini series, and generally don't know a lot about the topic, so I enjoyed the story on that level.


I'd rec the book for people who are really interested in reading all the military histories, are into Easy Company stuff, or like me are doing fic research. Will admit to skipping the last section which was his Opinions on Leadership.

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review 2018-02-24 05:31
Huh. I feel like Chabon is backsliding.
Moonglow: A Novel - Michael Chabon

At least in regards to women. I felt like Yiddish Policemen's Union was a massive step up from Chevalier and Clay in that regard, but this was... a step sideways at best.


I don't know, maybe I just wasn't feeling this book. It's a pretty self-indulgent project in that it's a fictionalised family biography of his grandfather and himself wrapped together and told out of order, and it never quite gelled for me. I enjoyed a lot of the segments, especially the WWII stuff. I liked the relationship between Chabon and his mom. I liked the humour much of the time.


I just never quit developed a strong attachment to the characters, and the different timelines never really told a story in a way that justified the skipping chronology. We get bits of his grandfather in WWII, bits of his childhood, bits of a year in prison, bits of his courtship and tumultuous marriage, bits of a later courtship with another woman, bits of him dying. Almost all of it starring as him being gallant and heroic. The through line is possibly his relationship to rockets and a one-sided rivalry with Werner Von Braun, or it could be his relationship with his manic pixie dream wife. I couldn't really tell, and by the end I didn't care.


I'm probably being overly harsh with that description, but it seemed like the purpose of the women in this story was to be difficult, frustrating, slightly mad, and very sexy. We rarely if ever saw the story from their perspective, but we get a series of prostitutes, French girls with mysterious pasts, sexy widows in retirement homes. There's a lot about the grandmother's mental illness, especially in how it effects the men around her (and to some extent her daughter), and very little about what's actually going on in her head or what she wanted. A lot of the interactions involved implied sexual violence.


Towards the end, we get a narrative-shattering backstory revelation that more or less sinks without a ripple, and I always came back to the feeling that--rocket obsession aside--I'd much rather be reading the novel that Cabon decided not to write about his grandmother. Too bad he didn't go with that.

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review 2018-02-21 05:26
Interesting premise, odd execution.
Grand Canyon - Vita Sackville-West

So this is a book that Vita Sackville-West (member of the Bloomsberry Group, sometimes lover of Virginia Woolf) wrote half way through the second world war. I had thought going in it had a similar premise to Farthing by Jo Walton, but no, in this book the Nazis conquered the UK and Ireland, and the US having won the Pacific War made peace with the Third Reich. The story follows a group of characters in a hotel on the rim of the Grand Canyon, about a year after these events. The two main characters are both English expats living in the hotel, and there are US air force officers, a bunch of college kids, and a handful of other European refugees, plus the hotel staff. Some of them will be turn out to be Nazi Fifth Column, some will be up to no good in other ways, and war draws closer by the day.


Sounds exciting, right? Yeah, no. It wasn't. This is a short book, and it took my ten days to read it (granted I was busy for much of it, but still!).  The two main point of view characters spend massive amounts of page time hanging out and chatting, mostly about their opinions of the other characters, especially one of the college girls. Who does not and never will have anything whatsoever to do with the plot. At all. They also talk about their experiences during the war and current events, but seriously massive page time on stuff that isn't interesting and won't matter to the story.


The style is very dialogue heavy. Everyone gets long monologues either aloud or internal about their feelings about each situation, and absolutely none of it is anything a human being would ever say, though maybe it works for thoughts some of the time. There is also a good deal of racism directed at the black musician characters, including the N-word a couple times, and an ambivalent relationship with the Hopi characters.


However, for all that? I still found it absolutely fascinating. There are some SF elements in the uses of technology (there are supersonic heavy bombers in 1942, and undisclosed WMD that was used to defeat England, and underutilised technology that can draw electricity from the air ala Tesla), and then the last third has a strong fantasy element that I won't spoil but which was used to great effect. I also really liked a lot of the responses to trauma that the female PoV character was working through, and a lot of her interactions. A lot of the writing especially the descriptions of place and emotion were gorgeous.


I think if you're interested in the evolution of alternate histories, especially of WWII, or of Sackville-West. If you're going to be more interested in everything that's happening off page, you might find it incredibly frustrating.

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review 2018-02-08 21:37
Great journey for Lucy!
The Way to London - Alix Rickloff

So what I was expecting from this book is a typical journey of a young woman and a boy she finds along the way. I was expecting a serious journey, perhaps with a few tear jerker scenes along and a bit of romance to lighten the mood. I was happy to be wrong about it when I finally finished the book.


Besides the obvious journey to London, it’s also more of Lucy’s road to developing her true self and coming to terms with it. She comes across characters that have had a hand in impacting her life and assisting Lucy in finding self finding journey.


The plot here was steady and flowing, there were some lulls here and there but it’s pretty much cut and clear. I did like reading Lucy’s character development throughout the novel. She went from spoiled entitled brat to someone who really did have a soft caring heart. It was great to see her develop into a more caring loving person of not others but also of herself. No matter how much she tries to go back to her selfish ways something always gets her back on track to show her true caring nature and that it is more rewarding helping and caring for others.


Lucy’s chemistry with Bill and Michael make the book more enjoyable to read. Bill because he brought out the caring aspect in Lucy, Michael because he challenged her and made her see things in a different light (plus, well he managed to wriggle under Lucy’s skin which was nice and fun to read as he had caught her speechless in some moments)


What I didn’t expect from the book was the funny light hearted moments. I found myself laughing here and there with Bill’s behavior and his uncanny ability to involve himself and Lucy into potentially hairy situations, or the times where Lucy fights with Michael, and it seems Michael is the only one that can render Lucy speechless and flabbergasted. Those were great moments in the book and it kept the reading at a light hearted mood despite what was happening around them.


I enjoyed this book a lot and I do recommend it if you’re in the mood for something light despite the dark setting of WWII London.

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