Category Archives: WWII challange 2009

Guernica by Dave Boling

Guernica by Dave Boling

Bloomsbury, New York, 2008

Won at LibraryThing.

At the center of this novel is the town of Guernica, a cultural center of the Basque people and the site of one of the first carpet bombing of a town and its civilian population.  At the beginning of World War II the German Luftwaffe, showing support for Franco and his rebel forces in Spain, bombed this small town to bits.  No one knows how many people died.

Boling tells a story of two families from the Basque Country in the western Pyrenees mountains.  The region lies on the border between France and Spain along the Atlantic coast.  The story of the Ansotegui and Navarro families begins in the late 1800’s but most time is spent in the 1930’s focused on the meeting and marriage of Miren Ansotegui and Miguel Navarro.

Boling portrays members of both families with depth and caring and there is almost a touch of magical realism woven throughout the book.  The reader follows many characters through their lifetimes.   Through great detail and lyric language, Boling conveys the rugged landscape and rich history of the region.

Historical figures play important roles, the most obvious being Pablo Picasso.  I found this to be the one awkward layer in the novel but I understand Boling’s desire for Picasso’s presence.  Many people only know the name Guernica because of the artist’s famous mural and the history surrounding it.

Guernica is a wonderful, carefully written novel about an important piece of European history.  It is richly layered, carefully researched and its characters will stay with me for some time.

Boling’s dedication reads: For the victims of Guernica…and all the Guernicas that followed.  For more information he suggests a visit to the Guernica Peace Museum.

Other reviews:


Devourer of Books

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She Is Too Fond Of Books


Filed under Historical Fiction, Random Reading, Review, WWII challange 2009

Human Smoke by Nicholson Baker

hum1416567844.01._SX140_SY225_SCLZZZZZZZ_ Human Smoke:The Beginnings of World War II, The End of Civilization

By Nicholson Baker

Simon & Schuster, New York, 2008

Nicholson Baker has compiled an outstanding collection of texts from many sources.  His attention to detail is infinite. Using newspapers, speeches, diaries, memos, public proclamations, and memoirs, as well as secondary sources he has created a record of events and decisions leading up to the Second World War.

Laid out in one or two blocks to a page the text draws you in.  I felt compelled to keep reading even though I grew more and more disturbed and angry.  I learned about the history of carpet bombing and chemical warfare and of Winston Churchill’s idea of “air control”.  This policy would police the British empire, including the tribes in Iraq and Sudan, from above , thereby saving the cost of group troops.

“I think we should certainly proceed with the experimental work on gas bombs, especially mustard gas, which would inflict punishment on recalcitrant natives without inflicting grave injury on them.” Churchill wrote Trenchard [ the head of the Royal Air Force].  Churchill was an expert on the effects of mustard gas–he knew it could blind and kill, especially children and infants.

I read many quotes of the speeches by Goring, Goebbels, and Hitler and many news articles proclaiming the danger of National Socialism as early as 1930.  But England and the United States continued to deal with Germany for purely financial gain right up to the start of the war.

I also learned of the refusal by the United States and England to expand their quota system which would have allowed Jewish refugees to cross their borders.  Nicholson also quotes from the diaries and memoirs of clergy and other peace activists as they tried to bring the attention of their governments and the world at large onto the driving force that was building towards the atrocities that happened in Europe and Asia during World War II.  They tried to find safe havens for refugees and offered to house and feed people all over Europe.

This is a fascinating addition to World War II history that acknowledges the American and British pacifists who tried to save Jewish refugees, feed Europe, reconcile Japan and the United States and stop the war from happening.  As Nicholson says, “They failed, but they were right.”


Filed under WWII challange 2009

Hiroshima by John Hersey

2a7c2cb4e947f2bb1fa653e87bd55946Hiroshima by John Hersey,warthrugen_button21

Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1946

Hiroshima was original published in the New Yorker Magazine on August 31, 1946, a year after the first atomic bomb was dropped on Japan. During the winter of 1945-46 John Hersey, a war correspondent for several publications, was in Japan reporting on post-war reconstruction.  While there he found a document written by a Jesuit missionary who had survived the bombing.  He located the missionary and was introduced to other survivors.


The New Yorker published Hersey’s article in a single issue, a first for such a long piece.  The cover of the issue shows a lovely summer day with people picnicking in a park.  There was no warning of what lay inside.  After the “Talk of the Town” column the editors had added a note:

“TO OUR READERS. The New Yorker this week devotes its entire editorial space to an article on the almost complete obliteration of a city by one atomic bomb, and what happened to the people of that city. It does so in the conviction that few of us have yet comprehended the all but incredible destructive power of this weapon, and that everyone might well take time to consider the terrible implications of its use. The Editors.”

The article, later published by Knopf as a small book,  contains the stories of six survivors, the Priest, a young seamstress, a factory worker, two doctors and a minister.  In clear, undramatic prose Hersey described the impact on the city,  the first destroyed by a single weapon. In precise, meticulous language he writes of the survivors  From the first paragraph:

“A hundred thousand people were killed by the atomic bomb, and these six were among the survivors.  They still wonder why they lived when so many others died. Each of them counts many small items of chance or volition- a step taken in time, a decision to go indoors, catching one streetcar instead of the next- that spared him.  And now each knows that in the act of survival he lived a dozen lives and saw more death than he ever thought he would see.  At the time, none of them knew anything.”

The survivors describe what they were doing at the exact moment of the bombing.  They tell of their first reactions, their belief that the attack only affected their local neighborhoods.  They tell of what they did, what they heard, what they saw.  I can not imagine the feelings of shock these people must have felt and yet they continued on.

“At first Dr. Fujii could see only two fires, one across the river from his hospital site and one quite far to the south.  But at the same time, he and his friend observed something that puzzled them, and which, as doctors, they discussed: although there were as yet very few fires, wounded people were hurrying across the bridge in a helpless parade of misery, and many of the exhibited terrible burns on their faces and arms.  “Why do you suppose it is?”  Dr. Fujii asked.  Even a theory was comforting that day, and Dr. Machii stuck to his.”

No one knew anything about this devastating new weapon.

“…Those victims who were able to worry at all about what had happened thought of it and discussed it in more primitive, childish terms – gasoline sprinkled from and airplane, maybe, or some combustible gas, or a cluster of incendiaries, or the work of parachutists: but, even if they had know the truth, most of them were too busy or to wary or too badly hurt to care that they were the objects of the first great experiment in the use of atomic power..”

There are images from this book that I have stayed with me since the first time I read it nearly 30 years ago. No matter how you feel about the United States first use of an atomic weapon this is a book all people should read.  It was important when it was first published and is even more important today.

Other reviews:


Sadie-Jean’s Book Blog

Across The Page


Filed under Challenges, Review, WWII challange 2009

How to Cook a Wolf by MFK Fisher

3704964_aI read this book because I had heard so many good things about Fisher’s writing.  Little did I know that it would fit right into the World War II challenge.  How to cook a Wolf was first published in 1942, shortly after the United States had entered the war.  Written to inspire during wartime shortages it reminds cooks that it takes more then a foodstuffs to provide nourishment for loved ones.

Fisher knew that  telling people to cut back on this or substitute that was no way to get through tough times.  She believed that people should follow their own instincts instead of some nutritional chart.  Experiment, dream, add an “expensive” ingredient to bring  joy to a meal.  These suggestions work just as well today as they did it WWII.   I truly enjoyed reading this and fully prepared  to greet the wolf at the door.


Filed under WWII challange 2009

Berlin Diaries 1940 – 1945 by Marie Vassiltchikov


A War Through The Generations review.

Berlin Diaries 1940-1945 by Marie Vassiltchikov.

A very interesting read.  I kept thinking of what we know now about what was happening in  Germany during that time and what Missie knew then.  This is a wonderfully clear, direct and honest book.

Marie “Missie” Vassilchikov, a member of  the Russian aristocracy, left her country in 1919 and lived in Germany, France and Lithuania.  At the start of World War II she found herself in Germany, with her sister Tatiana.  The rest family was scattered and the sisters found themselves desperately in need of work.  Missie’s language abilities won her a minor position in the German Foreign Office. At first,  she and her friends lived well, among the wealthier class,  joining an endless round of parties, country weekend and champagne suppers.  From this relatively protected position Missie observed life and kept a detailed diary.

Around her the country dissolved into poverty, privation,  and death.  Her family was shattered.  Friends were shot out of the sky or killed in battle, Allied saturation bombing rained destruction on German cities.  Her diaries become a chronicle of ever growing horror.  She records the daily events and human responses that make up life in wartime. She begins to drops hints of a dangerous secret, a developing conspiracy involving some of the closest friend, a plot to overthrow the Nazi high command and to assassinate Adolph Hitler.  In the aftermath of the failed plan many of her friends are arrested, tortured and executed.

Missie writes of discovering the dangers around her, of friends trying to protect each other and of the terrible losses they suffered at the hands of the the Nazis.  She writes of her escape from Berlin and the struggles to get through till the end of the war.  It’s a different perspective and one that, I feel, is worth reading.


Filed under Memoir, Review, WWII challange 2009

Resistance by Owen Sheers


Resistance by Owen Sheers is based on the premise that D-Day failed and that Germany invaded Great Britain.  The author, a poet, grew up in the area where the story takes place and this shows in the writing.  It is highly descriptive and quite beautiful, weaving the history of the land, a valley on the Welsh border,  with the lives of it’s people.  It is also a description of an occupation and the consequences of war.

There are many ways that people can resist, and Sheers layers  his well-written, lyrical novel with several of them.  This is a story of people under siege, and of their responses to occupation.  It is also a story of the invaders, at least a small group of them and their protective commanding officer.

Resistance follows the lives of a group of women left by the men of their village. They are left to cope with their farms and their livestock alone.  The men have gone to join the “resistance”, without a word to their wives and loved ones.  How can the women cope?  We hear from Sarah, a  women of 26, who has been deserted by her husband without understanding why. She and the others are joined by a group of German soldiers sent on a mission that is never really explained until close to the end of the story.  Overcoming their initial resistance, the women accept help from the soldiers and they all struggle through a difficult winter, cut off from the rest of the world.  Come spring, when the world invades their valley, there are choices to be made, and the consequences of those choices.  Sheers does not take the easy way out and the results, for me, where unexpected but satisfying.


Filed under Review, WWII challange 2009