Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Garden of Letters by Alyson Richman

One of the joys of reading historical fiction is in learning intriguing historical details. It's amazing how little-known facts can lead to an entire treasure trove of information.

That's one of the reasons I loved Alyson Richman's latest novel, The Garden of Letters. Set in World War II Italy before and during the German Occupation, the novel centers on Elodie Bertolotti, a gifted young cellist who becomes involved in the Italian Resistance movement. As the novel opens, Mussolini is still in power, and Elodie lives a quiet life with her parents in Verona. Music is everything to her - it shapes how she sees every aspect of the world.

Things change, however, when her father is savagely beaten by fascists, and suddenly, Elodie's world view becomes skewered. She becomes involved in the local resistance movement as a staffetta. But instead of using a gun to fight her battles, she uses her cello, hiding secret codes within her music. She passes messages on to local resistance members and finds herself transforming from a girl into a woman, a woman who sees the destruction of her beloved country and cannot sit idly by and watch. But the deeper she becomes involved, the more dangerous it becomes, and when the Germans occupy Verona, Elodie must rely on all her courage to survive.

It is Elodie that makes this novel such a treat to read. Richman's characterization of her is full and rich as she expertly shows the symbiotic relationship between Elodie and her beloved music. Richman's descriptions of Elodie playing her cello are impeccably crafted, pulling the reader fully into Elodie's world.

The inner workings of the Italian resistance movement in Verona are fascinating and Richman uses real personalities in the novel. Her historical detail isn't heavy-handed, but deftly wielded to create a vibrant story alive with the feel of the time.

Beautifully written, The Garden of Letters is a wonderful read and a must for lovers of World War II fiction.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

My Pearl Harbor Scrapbook

Today marks the 73rd anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Hundreds of books have been written on the subject, but My Pearl Harbor Scrapbook by Bess Taubman is unique among them all.

This beautiful book is laid out in a scrapbook format and includes the history of that fateful day through the use of photos, maps, telegrams, newspaper articles, stamps, and memorabilia from the war. This is history come to life. Eschewing page after page of nothing but text, this book seeks to educate through the use of a visual kaleidoscope of images. And of course, the pertinent facts of that fateful day are included but in such a way as to seamlessly blend with the imagery.

Simply put, it's gorgeously done, and a delight to the senses. Here is just a sampling of what you'll find inside:

I highly recommend this book to any World War II enthusiast, whether you are a scholar or a hobbyist. Even if you think you've read enough books on Pearl Harbor, you'll want this one for the stunning collection of WW2 memorabilia alone.

And because it is Pearl Harbor Day, here's a story from the morning that led the U.S. to enter World War II.

America's First Air Hero's of WWII  or "Just An Easy Day"
By Bess Taubman,
Author of My Pearl Harbor Scrapbook 1941

On the eve of December 6th, Lieutenants Kenneth M. Taylor and George S. Welch, dressed in tuxedos, attended a formal dance at the Officer's Club at Hickam Field. They left around 11 p.m. and drove back to the Bachelor's Officer Quarters at Wheeler Field. The usual Saturday night poker game at the BOQ was in full swing so they sat in to play. Welch turned in early. Close to 4 a.m. a weary Taylor left the game to hit the sack thinking Sunday would just be another easy day.

The men in the BOQ were suddenly awakened the morning of December 7th, by the sounds of roaring planes and loud explosions. Someone yelled "We're under attack!" Taylor, still in his tuxedo pants and a skivvy shirt, ran to the window and saw clouds of smoke and fire rising from the twisted wreckage on the flight line where the squadron's fighter planes were parked wingtip to wingtip for anti-sabotage protection -- indeed an inviting target for Japanese planes. He met up with Welch who had just called the Haleiwa auxiliary airstrip on the North Shore where their squadron was stationed. Told there was no damage at the base, he ordered all aircraft fueled and armed ASAP. Within minutes they were in Taylor's Buick speeding up to Haleiwa.

Taylor and Welch took off in their Curtiss P-40 fighter planes, climbed to 3,000 feet and flew towards Pearl Harbor. Seeing a formation of Japanese planes circling over the Marine air base at Ewa, they charged in and quickly shot down four enemy planes and damaged two others.
Having expended all their ammunition and low on fuel, they flew back to Wheeler to re-arm. Wheeler Airfield came under attack by a group of Japanese "VAL" dive bombers. Welch was the first to take off. Taylor quickly followed and as he was gaining altitude he got on the tail of a "VAL" and began firing. However, he was wounded as his P-40 came under fire from behind with a "VAL" on his tail. Taylor managed to watch his pursuer shot down by Welch who also shot down another of the attackers for his fourth kill of the day. With his plane still flyable, Taylor continued chasing after other enemy planes until all his ammo was expended. He returned to base still wearing his tuxedo pants.

Both Army pilots were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for their outstanding acts of heroism on a Sunday morning that turned out to be "not just an easy day" after all.
© 2014 Bess Taubman, author of My Pearl Harbor Scrapbook 1941

Author Bio
Bess Taubman, 
author of My  Pearl Harbor Scrapbook 1941, combines her unique talents as writer, designer and publisher creating dynamic, educational products about historical subjects. She has been writing about the Pearl Harbor story for over twenty years. Presenting the reader a unique way to learn about complex subjects, Ms. Taubman is helping to reshape the way historical information is introduced with colorful vivid story lines. This is her first book. She lives in Phoenix, Arizona with her husband and daughter.

For more information please visit, and follow the author on Facebook and Twitter.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Watch FREE Live-Stream of International Conference on WWII - Dec. 4-6, 2014

The National World War II museum in New Orleans, Louisiana, will once again live-stream their amazing conference for FREE. This year's theme is 1944: Beyond All Borders, and it promises to be just as good as last year.

Here's a brief description of the conference:

"The 2014 International Conference on WWII, 1944: Beyond All Boundaries, will cover the buildup and preparations for the explosive summer of 1944, the Allied advances on all fronts, and the eventual stalling of that momentum in the fall. Top scholars in the field will explore key battles, personalities, and controversies—including why, despite great success, the Allies were unable to achieve victory by year’s end."

Noted speakers include Rick Atkinson, Antony Beevor, and Dr. Gerhard Weinberg.

Check out the museum's website for a full schedule and to see a list of all the talks. Then make sure to mark your calendars!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Review: Out of the Depths by Edgar Harrell

Sometimes, we forget the horrors of war. We forget that the veterans we rightly praise as heroes went through hell, time and time again.

This is certainly true for Edgar Harrell, a U.S. Marine who survived the sinking of the USS Indianapolis in late July 1945. Together with his son, David Harrell, Edgar relates his unbelievable story in Out of the Depths: An Unforgettable WWII Story of Survival, Courage, and the Sinking of the USS Indianapolis.

Much has been written about the USS Indianapolis as one of the worst naval disasters in U.S. history, but Edgar's story truly brings the human element to life. When the ship was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine, Edgar was sleeping on the deck of the ship. The blasts instantly woke him and before long, he, along with hundreds of other men, had to abandon the sinking ship.

What followed in the next four days could only be the stuff of nightmares. Plagued by unbearable thirst, the sun's harsh rays, and hypothermia, many men went delirious or saw hallucinations and swam away to their deaths. Others succumbed to their need for water and drank the poisonous salt water, resulting in their tormenting deaths. Sharks attacks, lack of fresh water and food, dehydration, injuries, and utter exhaustion took many others.

With vivid imagery, Edgar describes the heartbreaking ordeal of watching his comrades die, of trying to keep his fellow friend and Marine, Miles Spooner, alive, of his determination to survive. Throughout it all, his faith in God kept him going, and others, as well. It was this unshakable faith that enabled him to never give up hope.

Rescue finally came, a miracle in itself,  and Edgar and his fellow survivors began the arduous journey of recovering from their experience. 317 out of 900 men survived. Unfortunately, the secrecy and deception surrounding the incident haunted them for years afterwards, and it would be decades before the truth was finally told.

This is an intimate, highly readable story. In fact, it would be quite easy to imagine Edgar telling you his tale while sitting across from you at a table in your local coffee shop. His is a gentle voice, one that can move you to tears of happiness or tears of pain. Yet over and over, the one striking element of his story is his overwhelming gratitude to the Lord for sparing him and for allowing him to share his faith with his shipmates.  It's this faith that sustained him through his ordeal, and this faith that has enabled him to live a full life blessed with a loving wife, children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Though the memories of this nightmare still remain (he has never again stepped foot in the ocean), Edgar has found peace.

A highly readable, well-written personal account, Out of the Depths is as inspiring as it is informative.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Veterans Day 2014

A few weeks ago, hubby and I went to a local grocery store to buy a few things. An elderly veteran stood outside, selling poppies for the Disabled American Veterans. He looked grizzled and cranky and, frankly, plain grouchy. And no wonder. No one was stopping to buy his poppies.
I didn't have any cash on me, so I figured I'd wait to buy a poppy from him until I got some money inside the store. After we finished shopping, we went back outside and I walked up to the veteran, handing him the money. You would not believe the smile that lit his face. 
"I'd like to buy a poppy," I said.
He beamed at me. "You can have as many as you want!"
That smile changed his entire demeanor, and I suddenly realized what a small act of kindness can do for people, especially a small act telling that veteran you will remember him and his comrades.
Today, I wear that poppy and I remember him and the rest of the veterans, past and present.

Thank you for allowing me to live in freedom. I will never forget.

Friday, November 07, 2014

The Illustrated London News

If you're interested in primary resources on World War I and World War II, then it's a safe bet you'll love this new resource from Christie's in London: The Illustrated London News. Though the sale has passed, you can still view the e-catalogue with a listing of the works and descriptions.

From the press release:

"Christie’s is proud to announce that it will offer works from the collection of The Illustrated London News in the Interiors sale on 7 October 2014. The works on offer from Illustrated News Limited (ILN) include original illustrations and artworks from the world’s first illustrated weekly news magazine, The Illustrated London News, published from 1842 to 2003 and The Sphere, a weekly illustrated newspaper published from 1900 to 1964. The illustrations offered from the collection, the majority of which were reproduced in print, highlight the role that these publications played in chronicling through imagery British history in the 20th Century.

From their coverage of royal events including the Royal wedding of Queen Elizabeth and Phillip Mountbatten, to the publications’ coverage of WWI and WWII, and The Festival of Britain, the illustrations offer a diverse and fascinating insight into the way The Illustrated London News documented key events of the time to its British and North American readership. The sale features works on paper by leading artists and illustrators of the period, Bryan de Grineau, Steven Ward, Fortunino Matania and several oils by Terence Cuneo, all of whom worked for the publications."

 A few of the illustrations:

The value of carrier pigeons during World War II - by Bryan De Grineau, 1941

Charles Edward Turner (1883-1965) - The last tense minutes of the "Ark Royal": A destroyer hitches alongside the sinking warship, 1941.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Review: The Hotel on Place Vendome

Narrative nonfiction is becoming a favorite of mine to read. It tells a story in much the same way as a novel, only this story is real. Some really great narrative nonfiction in the history realm include Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand and Priscilla by Nicholas Shakespeare (both reviewed here on the blog). I'm very pleased to add another one to the list: The Hotel on Place Vendome: Life, Death, and Betrayal at the Hotel Ritz in Paris by Tilar J. Mazzeo.

Since 1898, the Hotel Ritz in Paris has been the place where heads of state, cultural icons (writers, painters, actors), journalists, and even royalty have flocked. In the 1920s, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald frequented the Ritz, as did Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle.

But it was when the Occupation of Paris started in 1940 that things at the Ritz became quite interesting. The hotel was owned by Swiss-born Marie-Louise Ritz (she and her husband founded the Ritz in 1898) and despite her loathing for the Third Reich, Marie-Louise kept the hotel open rather than have it requisitioned by the Germans and losing it altogether.

German Reichsmarshall Hermann Goring took up residence in the Ritz as did numerous other German officials and military brass. Leading members in Parisian society, including Coco Chanel, still lived at the Ritz, though their regular luxury rooms were given to the Germans. Suddenly, the hotel became a seething hotbed of espionage and collaboration. Some of the generals involved in the plot to assassinate Hitler had their talks at the Ritz bar (and the bartender passed messages for them). French actress Arletty carried on a very open affair with German officer Hans-Jurgen Soehring. Members of the staff were involved with the French Resistance, and more than one room hid Jews and others the Gestapo were keen to find.

When Paris was liberated, the Ritz again underwent a transformation as did the entire city of Paris. Reprisals were swift and unrepentant. Women who had become "horizontal collaborators" often had their heads shaved and were paraded in the street. Arletty, even though she was a famous actress, did not escape retribution, either, though details are scarce as to what, exactly, she endured.

The Ritz was occupied again, but this time, it was under the Allies - specifically the Americans. As an official war correspondent, Ernest Hemingway returned triumphantly to the Ritz ahead of his friend and sometime rival Robert Capa, the famous photographer. Here, Hemingway indulged in alcohol and broke his marriage vows. Capa had his affair with Ingrid Bergman at the Ritz, and Coco Chanel was investigated for possible collaboration with the Germans (some thought she might be a Nazi spy), though her tangled relations with high British officials (she called Churchill friend) meant the allegations against her were never proven. Marlene Dietrich caused mischief between Hemingway's ex-wife and her new lover, a U.S. general, and enjoyed every minute of it. A top-secret Allied team even used the Ritz as their home while they sought to discover if the Germans had learned how to split the atom.

After the war, the Ritz started to fall out of favor as Hollywood became the place to be in the world, though the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were guests here while the Duke made plans to usurp his niece, Elizabeth, from the throne (the Duchess of Windsor, Wallis Simpson, effectively took care of his plans by embarking on a torrid affair with another man. The resulting scandal finished his ambitions.).

And, years later, after the Ritz had fallen into disrepair, an Egyptian businessman named Mohamed Al Fayed bought the hotel and completely renovated it. In 1997, his son, Dodi, and his girlfriend, Diana, the Princess of Wales, were at the Ritz  the night of their deaths.

Tilar J. Mazzeo does a lovely job of sweeping you into the history of this hotel. It is a history so rich with large personalities that reading the innermost lives of these people is an absolute pleasure. Her writing is rich and engaging, and peppered with such authentic, period detail that it is hard to switch back to reality after being buried in the book's pages for any length of time. That is the mark of a truly good book.

So much happened in this hotel during World War II, so many lives intersected, that it would not be a stretch to say that the Hotel Ritz played an integral role in the framing of modern Europe politically and culturally.

The Hotel on Place Vendome is a book for a wide and varied audience - those interested in World War II certainly, but also for those interested in Paris as a cultural center from the 1920s through the 1950s, and in the Ritz in particular.

I am in awe of the research involved in this endeavor, and Tilar J. Mazzeo deserves high praise for producing such an outstanding piece of narrative history.