Review: The Last Girls by Lee Smith

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When I find an author I like, I tend to go on and read all (or at least most) of what they’ve published. I started this in high school with Herman Wouk, then in college with Chaim Potok and have kept up the habit with several others over the years. In this era of Reading Challenges there are some aimed at doing this and others at clearing your To Be Read list/pile. Lee Smith’s The Last Girls is one of those books. I read her novel Oral History when it came out then lost track of her. Recently I read (and reviewed here) her memoir, Dimestore: A Writer’s Life and decided she’d be one of the author’s whose backlist (prior books) I’d tackle gradually. (I posted about the other author’s I’d read in this Top 5 Wednesday post).

Best Quote

”…she has given her body nearly away already, to her children and her husbands, and now she wants to hold on to what she can.”

The Story

In 1965 a group of girls (including the author in her real life) went down the Mississippi by raft. All were students at a Southern women’s college. In the book they all reunite after one dies and go on a riverboat cruise down the Mississippi to remember their lost friend.

The Good

I’m one of those readers who loves the backstories of the characters. I like to know all about them.  I loved learning about each of their childhoods, what they were like in college, where they were today. The title comes from the old news story about the trip–they were referred to as “girls” and not women. One of them remarks that that could not happen today.  Hence they are the “last” girls to do such a trip.

The plot may have been a standard reunion story (a plot I usually really enjoy, by the way), but the characters each had unexpected, if not really “secret-secret” aspects of their life and of their inner “person.” I found myself really looking forward to the drive to and from work (an hour and 15 minutes each way) so I could listen to more of their stories.

I related best to Anna who, in college, planned to write serious fiction but settled for making great money writing formula romances. And I loved Pete–the “River Lore-ian” [I listened to the audio. I don’t think it was laureate. I think he was about River Lore, hence Lore-ian.] I enjoyed that entire story line. And, ugh! Bridgette and Leonard–who hasn’t been trapped with people like them?

An aside: I loved learning that “Mary Scott College” was, in real life, Virginia’s Hollis College where a friend’s mother, who became a poet, went. That was a fun “extra” connection.

The Bad

In spite of all the great backstory, I didn’t come away feeling I knew the characters.

I couldn’t stand Baby. There, I’ve said it! She was…well…a baby! I realize she was mentally ill and in 1962–1965 there were no medications that helped. That part was very sad–and I completely sympathized with even a fictional person suffering in that era. But I still couldn’t stand her little, whiney, manipulative, entitled self!  I could see dear Jeff adoring her–the “Soldier boy” protecting a “baby” and all. But, for the life of me, I couldn’t see why Harriet stayed friends with her! I’d have been at the college housing office in a week begging to move ANYWHERE to avoid her! Even marrying an older man didn’t make her more endearing–and I usually love any story of that sort.

I also kind of hoped Courtney would follow dear Baby’s ashes off the side of the ole Showboat Paddle Wheeler. Another lady who lunches who wasn’t satisfied with all she had. Catherine wasn’t annoying but her husband sure was. Nice, but annoying.

Picky, picky stuff: While panty hose had technically come out in 1962 they were far from common yet and, there was no diet Coke in ’65. Minor stuff–very, very minor stuff.

Rating

3.5 Star

That I didn’t like the main character was personal preference. The writing is wonderful! If you like reunion stories as much as I do, you will still enjoy this one, in spite of my dislikes.

I look forward to another Lee Smith novel before too long. I am going to read them all still., in my own sweet time. As an author, Lee Smith inspires me.

Here’s a link to the author’s story of her own raft trip.

The Last Girls by Lee Smith

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Is it me, or are those bathing suits more suited to the 1940’s than to the Annettte and Frankie years?

Review: One Plus One = Wonderful

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JoJo Moyes won my heart easily with Ship of Brides, then made me a life-long fan with Me Before You (Heck, I loved the movie of that one!). I even liked (but didn’t love) the sequel,  After You, which many fans didn’t. Now with One Plus One she’s entered my league of Favorite. Authors. Ever. I love the tone of her books. Her characters are believable and the stories are realistic enough that I fall right into them. Right now I’m really missing Jess, Tanz. Norman, Nicky, and Ed. That kind of real.

 

The Story

Can truly good people do the wrong thing?

Does it matter WHY they did the wrong thing?

Jess Thomas is a single Mom raising her daughter and step-son alone, her husband having fled to his mother’s due to depression. It’s a hard luck life for Jess and the kids,  Nicky and Tanzy, but she keeps seeing the glass as half-full. Her positive attitude is contagious, without being cloying or precious. She’s not Pollyanna and her life is no picnic. Both kids are bullied for being odd. Nicky is a young teenage “Goth boy” who likes make-up and video games. Tanzie is a mathematics whiz years above her grade level who really only enjoys spending time with their huge dog, Norman.

Ed Nichols is a computer-geek who accidentally creates a successful software company that’s gone public and is about to release another new phenomenal product. To get rid of a girl he thought he wanted he gives her insider stock trading knowledge. His life as he knew it, is over.

The couple meet when Jess is cleaning his vacation home for the cleaning service and he is shouting on the phone after learning he is accused of insider trading.

Then there’s a road trip to Scotland.

What I Loved

Everything. Not a word put wrong. Ok, I could quibble about the likelihood of it all, but why? I’ve seen stranger things happen in real life. People meet thru all sorts of circumstances. But, I’ve been in love. You just KNOW, don’t you? The emotion, the twists and turns of this novel are simply RIGHT. Utterly right. It all just …works. Splendidly.

What I Disliked

Nothing. Really. Nothing.

Rating

4.5 stars–I just loved it. I loved it so much I just bought a copy! I read fiction from the library. Not good for an aspiring author to admit, but I do. I buy them AFTERWARDS if I truly love them. I haven’t do that in a long, long time!

And, Jojo? There’d better’d be a sequel!!!

And, this one could do with Eddie Redmayne in the movie–he’s geeky enough.

One Plus One by Jojo Moyoes

You can read my review of other JoJo Moyes’ books here:

Paris For One & Other Stories

After You

Me Before You

Ship of Brides

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Review: Shotgun Love Songs

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“A debut novel that delves so deeply into the small-town heartland that readers will accept its flaws as part of its charm.” (Kirkus link)

You can almost hear John Mellencamp’s voice in this book! “I was born in a Small Town…” Only that would be a small town in Indiana. This singer hails from small town Northern Wisconsin. A town very much like Mellencamp’s hometown, only much colder.

The Story

Boyhood friends, Leland (Lee), Henry, Kip and Ronny are all grown up now. Ronny has is now disabled from a accident and from his hard-drinking days on the pro rodeo circuit. Henry/”Hank” is happily married and running one of those farms whose Scarecrow got rained on. Kip is trying to be the town savior by buying the grain mill and rehab-ing it. And there’s  Leland (Lee)–the Big Success of Little Wing.  A rock n’ roll superstar. But friendship can be a fickle thing.

The Good

…the safest thing is to become an island to make your house a citadel against all the garbage and ugliness in the world.” (Shotgun Love Songs).

I didn’t have to read where the author was from to know why the voice of this book is so authentic. He IS from “Little Wing”–a Wisconsin boy who knows the language of his state. He knows the small town boys he is writing about. I was impressed with the emotions the men expressed–at least in their thoughts. Lee’s looking out for Ronny, Hank’s love for Beth and their kids, even Kip’s eventual show of emotion all were so real to me–these are, of course, the boys I grew up with (albeit in Central Indiana) and the men I work and live by now in Southern Ohio.

The Bad

I was shocked to read some truly dreadful reviews of this book. I thought it was great. Yes, like most debuts, it had its weak spots, but none that really affected it to me. It is a guy story, told in a guy way, with guy morality. That seems to be the big gripe among online reviewers. It would be a good movie, too. Brad as Lee. Bradley as Hank and so on. It would do well at the box office. Kind of  guy’s Steel Magnolias.

Rating

4 full stars. I look forward to reading more from this author.

Shotgun Love Songs by Nickolas Butler

 

Review: Surviving the 70’s: Muscle Cars, Freedom and Fun

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One of the fun things about the self-publishing boom is getting to read memoirs of ordinary people. The folks who live next door, who sell boxes or repair copiers, who marry their prom date and have two kids and live more or less happily ever after–those kind of “folks.” Such is the case with this little memoir by a graduate of my own high school.

 

 

The Story

Greg Phillips tells of the fun he had, the hell he raised, the dodgeball he played and the cars he drove in his short and sweet memoir of life in Delaware County, Indiana in the 60’s and 70’s.  He was a young man full of life and energy–energy that was often curtailed by the whack of male teacher’s fraternity paddle on his backside! As a parent I often yearned for my son to be in a school like I went to–where there were decent men, family men, who taught not only history or math, but also taught boys to be hard-working, straight-talking, gentlemen who knew how to handle themselves. As Greg Points out, this was before the childless Phd’s (as I like to call them) took over education.

 

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Photo Credit

This could have been a teacher’s actual paddle.

The Good

What shines thru in this story is the accountability, the consequences for actions, the do-the-right-thing spirit of the times in which Greg and I grew up. Whether its the story of the fabled 1972 Tiger basketball team with future Purdue star Bruce Parkinson, or the integrity drilled into boys in the same-sex gym classes of a saner era. Greg writes truthfully about all the ways he was formed into being a hard-working, hard-playing family man and businessman. He tells about the tragic loss of his son, the sad loss of his father and all types of life experiences.

I like the memories of boys being boys and no on calling the cops or the therapists or the safety squirrels. I remember the legend of the teacher who lost his finger in the basketball hoop–he taught the next day. That’s the way men were then and the way they should still be. Boys and girls of every era raise hell in one way or another. We shouldn’t over-react to it.

 

Dodgeball

Illustration Credit and link to the poem Dodgeball–go on, click! Read it!

The Bad

“Bad” is too harsh. This isn’t fine literature and was never meant to be!

He owes no apology for his talk-it-out writing style, but Mrs. Dunn would have a lot to say! And while I certainly wasn’t in his gym class–it was all single sex back then, I don’t imagine quite as much profanity was used, but I AM sure it was all implied.

This isn’t so much a book as a nice long chat with the author at the Hide-out or the Mouse on Smith Street. And that’s just fine.

 

Rating

3 full stars. A fun written oral history of a life well lived and not yet done!

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Photo credit

Review: Chilbury Ladies Choir

51Cca4CCbQL._SY346_This book, told thru letters and diaries, follows on the heels of my 4 week series on favorite epistolary novels and nonfiction. Sadly, it did not make the cut to be included. In fact, twice I nearly tossed it back. The first time was when I checked it out from the new hardback book display at my library . The second time was while listening to the audio version. That it was favorably compared to the Gurnsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Club: A Novel still baffles me. I imagine the fact that both are set in World War II and both are in the United Kingdom (or at least WERE in the United Kingdom before the Nazi’s invaded in the case of the excellent Gurnsey book) and that both employ an epistolary narrative must have been enough for the intern charged with writing the blurb on the back of the book.

I expected to love this book. I did like certain moments of it, but found it just too much of an improbabe mess of story lines to be lovable.

Note: Spoilers abound. It was necessary. Skip to the rating if you don’t want it spoiled.

The Story:

The beginning of the book is all about the trauma of the choir being disbanded by the vicar due to a lack of men left on the home front to sing. This is promptly forgotten except for occasional mentions of the choir here and there until the last chapter. I never really understood how the was supposed to be this uplifting thing, let alone the focus of the story.  Sadly, this is where most reviewers must have stopped reading.

The characters are mostly stereotypes. The matron with the double-barrelled name and the son in the RAF. The Brigadier’s down-trodden wife, who is magically pregnant right as their 20 year old only son is killed. (The bitter tone at the start of the book centers around how awful the son was. That’s right–no one, not even his siblings are sorry he’s dead.)  Their gorgeous debutante-aged daughter, their younger daughter and a still younger Jewish refugee foster-daughter round out the family.

Everyone from his silly wife to the villagers are of course afraid of him. He carries a crop. Of course he does. Apparently, though, the author has never heard that a “horse whip” (as she calls it) of the kind stereotypical British Brigadiers go around thwacking against a thigh or a lover’s bottom is known as a  “crop.”  Surprising he doesn’t have a Labrador. Must have scared the poor thing off. Anyway, this man is silenced by a lady who previously would have cowered in a dark doorway to let him pass. Such is the magic imparted by a good cuppa and an air raid or two.

Then there’s the amazingly modern P.C. elements. The first patient treated from the Dunkirk evacuation is, wait for it…. openly gay (at least he is open about it with the helpful nurse) and, at a time when men went to prison for being gay,  he trusts a total stranger to return his male lover’s ring–and she does it. I’m fully aware that not everyone thought this should be illegal  (nor should it be)–it is just so typical of the immature story lines here. Then the silly young man outs a spy to her! He’s working FOR the spy’s headquarters. You’d think the Brigadier would be right there to beat him with his crop or blast him with his Purdys but no!

Then there’s the flouncing out done to epic levels by the double-barrelled matron’s RAF pilot-officer son when he, too, is done wrong! Epic. But wait! There’s more! He gets to flounce in a letter to the maid he’s just used to get over the debutante who did him wrong. Are you following all of this? But, its about the choir, Silly!

The other characters include a maid, a butler, dueling midwives of the nasty sort not shown on PBS (well at least not till a Downton movie perhaps), the nice, but soon forgotten new choir director and other people in the village Chilbury who suffer a lot once the war heats up, but until then have time to see spies, blackmarketeirs, downed pilots and locate fenced stolen nude paintings. Right, got all that?? But its about the choir? Where is the choir?

The Good:

Not much. I suppose I liked a few of the people. Mrs. Tilling and her lodger, Colonel Mallard (spellings may be off since I listened to the book). Baby Rose seemed sweet. Sylvie, the little refugee girl. Tom, the London boy out hop-picking and maybe someone else. I’m too exhausted trying to keep them all straight. Baby Lawrence was obviously crying because he couldn’t cope with it all–and him part of the most ridiculous story line of them all. Poor lad. Not even a Labrador to snuggle.

The Bad:

The story is such a mess of intrigue, plotting and boredom that I had trouble keeping everyone straight. The whole thing makes Downton Abbey’s Bates mess seem trifling. Someone–the younger daughter? The refugee girl? Says, just before the retreat to Dunkirk occurs, that “at least we [that is the nearly doomed British Army]  have got all routes covered” [something like that]. Very prescient. Very wrong, too.  Lots of stuff like that. “It’s officially now the Battle of Britain,” is actually said out loud. Yes. That kind of thing. Praise for Churchill, but no memory of all the upper-class twits who were British Fascists and appeasers and loathed him–at least in 1940.

Rating:

2 stars only because I finished it and liked the Colonel and Mrs Whatshername. Save yourself the trouble and read the Gurnsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society: A Novel, instead. I will say that in spire of my opinion of this book, I will try another book by this author–even a sequel. I’m sure she can do better. Let’s hope her success with this book is enough to earn her a good, experienced editor.

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Review: The Trophy Child

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The Story

A suburban doctor’s wife with a stoner son by her first husband, is now trying to force her second child to perfection ala the Tiger Mother. Her step-daughter has tried to choke her. Her husband is drinking too much and has a random hook-up one night. So what happens when her push for perfections gets a bit too much? Her small British Lakes District town is watching with fascination! (It is British and there may be a few odd terms that confuse Americans, but Google them, ok? It’s all just like any suburb here.)

The Good

Wow! I kept HAVING to read more, more more! This is a fast-paced book in which the narrator doesn’t really mean to mislead you–but nothing predictable happens!  The characters each have surprises in store. The family dynamic was very real and very believable.

The Bad

I’m not sure there was anything bad! Not really even anything disappointing.

Rating

4 full stars! A great pick for Oprah Book Club fans and other book clubs. Fans of Lisa Scottoline and Jodi Picoult will want to try this one.

I hope there’s a movie so here are two of my cast picks:

PBS History's

This should be an excellent movie. My casting picks? Laura Carmichael for Karen.  And, just for fun, could Robert Bathurst have a brief cameo as the Headmaster? Y’all know I hopelessly ‘ship the doomed Sir Anthony and Lady Edith so humor me with this casting, ok? But please not Benedict or Tom or even Sam Irons for the husband. Someone more mature looking.

Photo Credit

Thank You to bloggers Cleopatra Loves Books and Rather Too Fond of Books to alerting me to this compelling read. Why not click on the links and go read their reviews as well?

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My Favorite Epistolary Books: Real Books of Real Letters Written by Real People

This week it the real life letters  of real people. Last week I introduced you to my favorite fictional diaries. This week it is stories told thru letters and their electronic counterparts. I fell in love with this format as a teenager when my Mom bought 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff–then a new bestseller. I was hooked on the format ever-more. Just like last week, I’ve used the same cover my copy has for the image–if you click on the link, not only do I not make any money off your click, but the book you buy will have a newer cover. [Thank you to those of you who were too polite to point out I’d put these very real letters in the fictional books told thru letters post! Ooops!]

Helene Hanff and Frank Doel, the representative at London’s Charing Cross bookstore, Marks & Co who handles her orders, have a sort of love-affair over great books. It’s harmless–no plotting to run away together or anything, just a shared love of superb books. This book was the first “book about books” that I read, too. It introduced me to Pepys Diary, which I’m still reading as the mood strikes me (No, not since the 70’s–I got a copy about 8 years ago). The fun these two have in their letters–well, that Helene has, goes on thru the deprivation of World War II and beyond. The sequel, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street is also delightful, as are her books Q’s Legacy and Underfoot in Show Business. In writing this post I learned there is a biography of Helene published a few years ago–somehow I missed it. I don’t think I’ll read it though. I like “my” Helene. Since the book got lots of bad reviews I’ve not linked to it.

84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

The superb movie version is worth it too. 84 Charing Cross Road with Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins.

The Best Ones

Adamsletters

Founding Mother, First Lady, Mother of a President. Even Barbara Bush can’t claim all of these! Abigail Adams was every bit as much of a revolutionary as her husband, John. While John was away earning a living as a lawyer, as a member of the Continental Congress, as a Diplomat trying to secure funding and recognition for the rebellious colonies, and later the new United States, as Vice-President and as President, Abigail Adams was mostly back home in Braintree, Massachusetts. She ran the house and farm, doing much of the hard work herself. She educated her children herself giving them a tremendous education in the classics. She raised a President, her son John Quincy. And she wrote letters. Long, beautifully reasoned arguments for freedom, justice and any other topic, to her husband and to other Founding Fathers. Along the way she wrote beautiful love letters to her husband, too. And he wrote back as effusively. Their marriage survived it all.

There are many editions of the Adams letters, just as there are several excellent television series and movies about them. These letters are often truly founding documents–landmark utterances, of America and one of it’s founding families.

My Dearest Friend: Letters of Abigail and John Adams.

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Queen Victoria bore nine children and had 42 grandchildren. Princess Victoria of Hesse, was not only Queen Victoria’s granddaughter (child of her second daughter, Princess Alice), but in time she would also be the mother of Lord Mountbatten and of Queen Louise of Sweden, grandmother of Prince Philip and great-grandmother to Prince Charles and his siblings (though she lived only to see Princess Anne born). This collection shows how Queen Victoria, well known for finding her own babies ugly and babies and pregnancy to be disagreeable (“The hazard of being a wife, ” her great-great-great granddaughter, Princess Anne, said–essentially channeling Victoria), had a softer side once children were able to attend to their bodily functions alone.

The advice, counsel, news and love that she expresses–and that is returned full force, shows a different side to the perpetually mourning, always in black widowed Queen. The younger Victoria would go on to live thru the two World Wars with grandchildren on both sides, see her son, Lord Mountbatten preside over the Brexit of the 1940s–i.e. the independence of India and the creation of Pakistan and see her grandson, Philip, marry the next Queen Sovereign–her own distant cousin.

Advice to my Granddaughter

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Choosing one writer’s letters over all the others was very difficult. I decided on Laura Ingalls Wilder because her letters DID surprise me. There were no tawdry letters to lovers, no barked out memos to servants or underlings, just HER.

The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder

By now most Royal fans have learned from this “selected” collection of letters that the Queen Mother was aghast at Prince Charles having to attend Gordonstoun and not Eton–and with good reason: She knew him so well she could see there mismatch of student and school would be as horrific as his future mismatched marriage to Diana.

But what upset people was learning from a letter from Princess Margaret to her mother that she had burned some of Diana’s letters to the Queen Mother.  Most thought she did it to damage Diana. Margaret had had a good relationship with Diana, though, and her children did, too. If anything, I think she burned them to protect Diana. I also found it very sweet that Margaret revealed that “Mummy” was a bit of a pack rat when it came to papers!

 

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Count One’s Blessings: The Selected Letters of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother also reveals the Queen Mother’s love of the arts, which may help explain why she was able to get on so well with her formidable Mother-in-Law, Queen Mary. And, it puts the final nail in the coffin on so much of the fiction spouted in the “memoirs” of Queen Elizabeths’s governess, Marion “Crawfie” Crawford. I found it oddly telling that Princess Margaret, who railed at her own lack of formal education–that she was “denied” education [this line was given to the Queen in the drama The Crown], but that her love and support of the arts was straight from the very mother who thought that formal education was ghastly!

 The Worst Ones

Admittedly, these were not written for publication, but rather to express a besotted man’s love for his first mistress and then, in a later time in life, for the woman he gave up the Throne of England to marry. That said, they are often so utterly infantile, so bitter and so selfish that the reader can immediately see why the most popular Prince of Wales in history could never be crowned King. “David,” as Edward VIII was known to friends and family, was nearly a case of arrested development and so egocentric as to be almost unmanageable as an adult.

Frieda Dudley Ward, enjoying an upper-class wife’s prerogative of an affair, often did try to counsel him but to no avail. After years and years of the Prince’s love, of his being almost a father to her daughters, she phone the palace one day and the operator who knew her by voice from all the years, was put in the horrible position of having to tell her that he call would not be put thru. The affairs was just “over.” Wallis, we all know, went on to live the most boring exile that money could by. Her only satisfaction was knowing that Queen Elizabeth had sanctioned her burial in the royal burial ground at Frogmore beside her royal husband. Sad. [For the record, the movie W.E. about Wallis/Edward based on their way of expressing “us” was just as awful as the letters that inspired it.]

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Love makes us all say things in the dark that would make us cringe in daylight. Poor Lorena Hickock. Eleanor was soon over her feelings for the woman who helped make her the most controversial (or influential) First Lady in history. Sadly, “Hick” as she was known, kept the torch burning till death. Hick’s letters are the most embarrassing in this collection.  But, as love letters go, these are pretty tame stuff. F.D.R. and Eleanor had also once written each other stuff like this, but that was long, long before. Later, Eleanor would move on to cringe-worthy relationships with younger men, too.

Empty Without You: The Intimate Letters of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickcok.

In the one man show Give ’em Hell Harry, about Harry Truman, Harry tells a story of finding his wife Bess burning his old love letters. “But, Bess! Think of history,” a distraught Harry Truman says. “I AM,” said Bess–as she kept right on burning. It’s a shame any of these were published.

How about you? Do you save old letters? Do you have favorite published collections of letters? Leave me a comment or a link to your own post–I’d love to see what you like.

Review: Three Days in January: Dwight Eisenhower’s Last Mission

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Today we think of the 1950’s as a time when everyone had good jobs, all wives stayed home and scrubbed the kitchen floor in pearls and pumps and children were all named Kathy, Suzy, Jimmy and Beaver.  But when I was an undergraduate at the time Ronald Regan became president, I studied a different part of the 1950’s and 1960’s–Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), The Domino Theory, Brinksmanship, Massive Retaliation, U-2s. People like Alan Dulles, [John] Foster Dulles, George Kennan (aka “Mr. X”) were as familiar to me as the Khardashians are to today’s undergraduates.

The Good of the Book

When people think of the Eisenhower administration today, they see a genial, bald-headed guy playing golf and his wife, with her bangs, and her signature color of Mamie Pink. What really was going on was much more in tune with what I studied than with the links of Burning Tree or Augusta.

At every point in Eisenhower’s administration we were theoretically on the brink of nuclear war. When Stalin died, there was a two-year gap in established leadership of the USSR to contend with. NATO could only respond to threats to member states. That absolutely none of the nation’s worst fears were realized was due to the leadership and listening skills of one man–IKE. He famously remarked, when handed a 30 page  briefing  on one of his first days in office that the Normandy Invasion only needed 5 pages.

Ike valued and encouraged a full-on debate for most matters. Unlike JFK, whose leadership and various crises I also studied, in the case of the Cuban Missile crisis alone, for three semesters, Ike did not rush things. I agree with the author that Kennedy was too willing to make his own decisions. Ike listened, checked the facts and when necessary he had the issue re-debated–then he acted. JFK tended to want to decide and move forward. Thankfully, by the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK had learned a few valuable lessons. Every issue in that Crisis was debated as thoroughly as anything ever put before a president, and Ike’s influence was party to thank.

The author, a Fox journalist, does clarify for readers that Eisenhower was a religious man–but never in the ways we associate with far-right, evangelical extremism today. He prayed. He knew his Bible. He believed. He agreed with adding “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. And, he took for granted that this was right. Ike himself did not bring up that his parents had converted to the Jehovah’s Witness–a popular new group at the time of their conversion, following a son’s death. The author was wise to admit this, though it was very apparent that Ike himself did not hold to the tenants of that cult-ish group.

The author is exactly right, too, that Eisenhower’s farewell address was very, very prescient. The President who coined the term “the military industrial complex” knew what was a ahead. It does not matter if he had a committee helping write his speeches (they all do), it matters that HIS vision was articulated so well. The author is also right that the young, impetuous JFK, was far more hawk-ish in rhetoric than the 5-Star General of the Armies ever was as President. The Torch that was passed to the new generation, was a missile apparently.

The Bad

The author does not even mention, let alone discuss, Ike’s war-time affair with his female driver–a relationship so close that, home on a rare visit, IKE started to call his wife Mamie, “Kay,” the name of his female driver.  The Eisenhowers were more or less separated at the time the war began. Like most couples of their era though, they stayed married and made the best of things, making their own peace and living their lives together again in harmony. I felt that by omitting even a brief mention of this affair, that the author gave Ike more “greatness” than he may have earned. Had someone written of FDR and not mentioned Lucy Mercer the book wouldn’t have been published.

He also chooses to ignore that though Ike wasn’t crazy about Richard Nixon (which he does state), the two families spent enough time together that Ike’s grandson, David (for whom he renamed the Presidential retreat “Shangri La” as Camp David) would marry Nixon’s daughter, Julie.

Finally, the author–a journalist– was incorrect on who the first female Cabinet Secretary was. That was Frances Perkins, appointed by FDR. Fact checking still matters.

Overall this is an excellent layman’s account of Ike’s presidency.  I thought it jumped around way too much. It also went on much longer than the stated 3 days by going on in time to show IKE advising JFK. That was very interesting, but made the title of the book a bit misleading.

Rating

3.75 Stars. Just missed the fourth star for the reasons I mentioned.

What to read after watching PBS’s The Great War on American Experience: FICTION

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Image credit: PBS http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/great-war/

 

Yesterday I gave you suggestions of nonfiction to read. Today it is fiction.

 

The Poem and the Poppy

Poppies photo from The Guardian Massimo Crisafi/GuardianWitness

In Flanders Field the poppies blow…. the most famous poem of the war begins with those words. Poppies, in Britain and the British Commonwealth are the symbol of the war and remembrance of veterans in general.  The art installation, Field of Poppies, shows one poppy for every man killed from Britain and it’s then Empire (Commonwealth).  In Flanders Field by Linda Granfield.

Novels

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Once An Eagle, such a magnificent work that it has been assigned reading for American Army officers, tells the story of two young officers from their beginnings thru the end of their careers in both peace time and in both world wars. The man from humble origins, Sam Damon, and the priviledged officer of the old aristocratic mien, Courtney Massengale, are symbolic of all such officers. Those who put in decades without promotion in the underfunded, undermanned post-Civil War, post-Spanish American War American Army. Anyone who seeks to understand the American Army needs to read this book. The 1970s  tv version, in spite of Sam Elliott playing Sam Damon, wasn’t the greatest and it did take liberties with the story. Once An Eagle by Anton Myrer.

 

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A Star for Mrs. Blake  is a sweet story of a mother’s post-war journey to visit her only son’s grave. We forget how big a part in life mourning the dead was in days past. This war was the first in which the bodies of soldiers were not sent home for burial for the most part. Even former President Theodore Roosevelt’s son and King George V’s  (English) cousin, Prince Maurice of Battenberg, were buried with the other soldiers in France or Belgium. World War I saw the creation and and solemn recognition of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the U.S. (and similar monuments elsewhere) and the Old Guard standing watch round the clock in Arlington Cemetery. Armistice Day (Veteran’s Day) and Remembrance Day (in the U.K. and Commonwealth) were all created to memorialize the dead of this war. A Star For Mrs. Blake by April Smith. You can read my original review here. (Scroll down in the post).

 

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War Horse became a sensation when it hit the London stage and then the movie was made. A wonder of special stage effects and robotics, the audience at one performance was stunned when a white haired, elderly lady and her equally creaky husband sneaked in second before the curtain went up. A few weeks later the same thing happened with a tall, balding young man and his cover-girl wife. Yes the Queen and Prince Philip and then William and Catherine stopped in to see the show. I like the think that Granny convinced William to go, don’t you?

Anyway, before there was a play or a movie there was the book. It’s target audience is young people, but it is a book for any age. Like with the boy soldiers, it is hard for us today to realize that most of the horses (which were still widly used for transportation and farming) were commandeered as were most private automobiles in Britain. This might be difficult for Americans. But just like in fictional Downton Abbey, great houses were also commandeered and many were returned in shameful condition. American children of today may not understand this.  No matter, I loved every minute of the fabulous audio version. War Horse by Michael Morpurgo.

 

516OAOdHP8L._SY346_I found this book one Christmas in the 90’s as a gift for my nephew. I’ve been in love with it ever since. I even went back and bought my own copy. Like War Horse, this is about the fighting. In this case a young boy receives wooden toy soldiers his father carves in downtime in the trenches from scraps of branches or whatever. Another idea that may be hard to realize is how close Britain was to the fighting. A letter posted to the front generally got there the next day. So, the toy soldiers made it across the English Channel from France in good time. Through the expressions of the soldiers Johnny learns the terrible truth of war. This is a well done book–it is not a horror story. The Lord of the Nutcracker Men by Iain Lawrence.

 

51LQWqlQlWL[Please ignore the cheesy cover]. If you loved Anne of Green Gables, but weren’t aware it was a long series of books, then you are in for a treat! Book 8, Rilla of Ingleside, is the story of Anne’s daughter teenage daughter,’Rilla (who wishes, unfathomably, that she’d been named “Bertha” instead!), and the boys in her life who leave Canada to fight for King and Empire in the war. One pens an iconic poem that symbolizes the generation. I love this part ofthe story most, for poetry and music were so important to this generation–very much like today’s rap-writing generation. Rilla of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery.

 

The Christmas Truce

The Christmas Truce and Christmas in the Trenches

Others:

The classic from the German side is, of course, All Quiet on the Western Front, which has been made into a movie a time or two, as well.

A recent collection of excellent World War I -themed short stories, Fall of Poppies. My review.

And 1914 A Novel, a short novel about the French war experience. Scroll way down in the link for my review.

The New Book Review

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I LOVED Helen Simonson’s first novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, so I was very eager to read the Summer Before the War when it came out. I immediately got it on audio and started listening. I loved it and so rushed out and did something I never do–I bought the hardback (I do buy fiction but only in paperback). Then something terrible happened. I lost the book. I found months later, then stumbled on the audio back on the library shelf when I was out of audio books. This week I finished the book.

The Story: Beatrice arrives in the town of Rye to take a teaching position vacated by a man who has enlisted. She meets Hugh and Daniel and a boy nicknamed “Snout”. Later a Belgian girl is added when she arrives as a refugee.

The Good: I loved the gentle tone of the story, the costume drama aspects of it. I genuinely liked Beatrice, Daniel and Hugh. I enjoyed the way the “locals” banded together at one point in the story (no spoilers).

The Bad: I felt the story got bogged down in a spate of modern day tut-tutting over “look how horrid we were back then to this group, that group and another group.” This seems to be necessary to be published today. Dickie–aka “Snout” is Romany, various young men might, or might not be in love, and the poor refugee is a pregnant, unmarried girl. The treatment they received in that era IS despicable, but I am really tired of being beat over the head with the mea culpas over past maltreatment in fiction except for genocide. We’d all love to change history,  to make it humane, but we cannot. This bloated the book and lost the trail of the story for a little while and that hurt it overall.

It is hard to realize today that the British Army still enlisted “boy soldiers” at 14 (the Navy took boys at 14, too–I met such a man who got his first long trousers upon enlistment right after he turned 14) or that in wartime soldiers can/were (maybe still are?) shot for desertion. Shot. By fellow soldiers under orders from a commanding officer. No, “but he’s a good person,” just a summary court martial and a squad of riflemen to do the deed. Sometimes merely one officer with a pistol. Animals, too, were not treated lightly. There is one sad scene that illustrates this, but it is short and, for the time, humane.

Rating

3.5 stars. Better editing and less concern for political correctness would have made it an easy 4 star book. But it was too long due to the p.c. chorus.

What to read after watching PBS’s The Great War on American Experience: NONFICTION

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Image credit: PBS http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/great-war/

World War I connects two of my favorite historical eras–the Edwardian (1901-1910) and the “Between the Wars” era of 1918 to 1939 (yes, 1939–for the rest of the world the Second World War started September 1, 1939 with the invasion of Poland). As a self-styled history freak I’ve read masses of nonfiction in my life. I also love historical fiction. Here are some Great books to read about the once Great War now known as World War I. While we learn (well, we used to learn) in school that the war was from 1914 to 1918, in truth American soldiers were just in the field long enough to end it–arriving in summer 1917. Britain, France and Germany had been at it in deadly stalemate for so long they massacred a generation. Therefore most of the books are from the British experience.

Memoir

41xaJJS++GL._SX319_BO1,204,203,200_Vera Brittain was a well-born, well-educated young woman who volunteered as a nurse. Her memoirs tell the story of her life and those of her brother and friends–all upper class (but not the loftiest of the old aristocratic families–her brother went to Uppingham, not to Eton or Harrow). The “rap” of that day and that class was poetry–they were all poetry mad. But that soon faded with the carnage she witnesses in the hospital in France. It is of her true coming-of-age that she writes–the loss of her boyfriend, the carnage she sees, the change from naive, sheltered youth to battle hardened and worldly war nurse and adult.

This is one of  the classic memoirs of the era, albeit not of the American war experience. Her experiences in the hospital were without national boundaries. It was made into a tv series shown on Masterpiece in the 70s or 80s and again recently into a movie. The book is such compelling reading. Not to be missed. Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain.

 

Causes

51QOJNA+ykL._SY346_Now book on the causes of World War I has been stuided more than Barbara Tuchman’s classic, The Guns of August. JFK cited it as one of the best books he’d read. I read it in college and re-read it after college. Blundering into war? Outdated thinking? Bureaucracy? Ridiculous concepts of chivalry and honor? Read it and make up your own mind. Never was a generation more senselessly sacrificed. (I also read The Germans by Gordon Craig and together they were a master class in World War I). Again, this book is not strictly on the American experience of the war, but it is essential to understanding how it all happened and why we had to ultimately join the war.

The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman.

 

Our Leaders

 

A recent and very readable biography of President Wilson and a brand new biography of General Pershing (is one of two books on this list I have not yet read).

 

The Royal Connections

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There are more substantive biographies of each of these men, but this book more than shows how the Prince Consort’s plan for peace in Europe by marrying his many children to foreign royals didn’t really work. The first cousins–two of whom, George and Nicholas, were often mistaken for twins, were bound by blood ties. But even Nicholas, an autocrat, by 1914 was hemmed in by reforms that gave the civilian government more power. Wilhelm, crippled at birth was left scarred in too many ways. George, who had trained for a navy career, but found himself on the throne after the untimely death of his elder brother, was far happier out on his Norfolk estate shooting. King, Kaiser, Tsar: Three Royal Cousins Who Led the World to War by Catrine Clay.

 

The Fabled Poets

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No understanding of the war can skip its poets and their words. I have not yet read this book. Great Poets of World War I by John Stallworthy.