Sunday Review: The Paris Hours by Alex George

This literary novel, set in Paris during a single day in 1927, entranced me with its beauty and its intricate interweaving of four stories.

Camille, the maid of Marcel Proust during the last years of his life, has two deep secrets, one of them a serious betrayal. Her husband, jealous that she still honors the memory of the great writer, takes something of hers and sells it, unaware that by doing so he may destroy their lives. Desperately, Camille seeks to find what was taken before it’s too late.

Souren is an Armenian refugee who made his way to Paris after escaping the genocide that destroyed his entire family. There, haunted by survivor’s guilt, he entertains children in the Luxembourg Garden by performing puppet shows in a language they cannot understand but which portray events so raw and vivid that somehow the audience comprehends the stories intuitively.

Guillaume is an artist who has yet to win fame or fortune and who is in debt to a terrifying criminal. He dreams of attracting an influential collector—and of reuniting with a lost love and the child she bore.

Jean-Paul is a journalist haunted by the terrible loss he endured during the Great War. He spends his days telling other people’s stories and his nights dreaming of finding the one person who would make his life whole again.

As the novel switches back and forth among the lives of these four characters, we gradually learn their secrets and also the threads that link them without any of them suspecting it. As the day wears on, each attempts to find what was lost and, in the process, they unknowingly draw closer together. The climax of the novel brings all four of them to the same cabaret, where their lives collide in shocking ways.

Appropriately for such a glamorous period in history of Paris, the novel is also populated with brief and not-so-brief appearances of famous people: Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Maurice Ravel, Josephine Baker, Sylvia Beach. They add glamour to an already stunning story of humanity at its most poignant.

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Bringing Home the WWII Dead

After the end of World War II, the first shipment of the remains of U.S. military dead arrived in the United States in October 1947. Congress had authorized the U.S. Army to spend $200 million bringing back the dead of all the armed forces as well as civilian federal employees. As I mentioned last week, families had the option of having their loved ones buried in cemeteries overseas, which is also where those remains that could not be identified were buried (except for one that was returned to be buried in the tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington). The majority of families, however, wanted their loved ones brought home.

The army stationed people at military terminals located in two U.S. ports—Oakland, California, and Brooklyn, New York—to coordinate the unloading of the ships and the routing of remains by rail to fifteen distribution centers across the country. The army used its own fleet of mortuary cars, converted primarily from wartime hospital cars.

The military made every effort to treat the fallen with dignity. The remains of soldiers, sailors, and marines were not listed or handled as cargo; they were considered passengers. Military guards, who were recruited from regular troops, accompanied every train.

Once the remains reached the intended distribution center, they either went by hearse to the final location, if it was close enough, or on a passenger train, following the same procedures that railroads used for normal shipments of human remains.

Each of the dead had a military escort, who would be from the same service branch and of the same rank, sex, and race as the deceased. These escorts were not the same personnel as the troops who worked as train guards. The escorts were the only members of the military to interact personally with the loved ones of the fallen, so they went through five weeks of training on what to expect, how to answer questions, and what emotional and psychological reactions they might encounter. Some of their duties included:

  • Making sure no caskets were lost
  • Ensuring that railroad personnel handled the caskets with dignity
  • Verifying locations and identities
  • Seeing that the caskets were draped with flags whenever they were in public view
  • Carrying a new flag for the funeral, blank ammunition rounds for graveside salutes, and reimbursement forms for the funeral expenses

By the time the army had finished repatriating all of the World War II dead, remains of personnel fallen during the Korean War had begun to arrive in Oakland, thus extending the program a few more years.

Source: Murrie, James I. and Naomi Jeffery Petersen. (February 2018). Last Train Home. History Net. Accessed November 17, 2021 from https://www.historynet.com/last-train-home.htm

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Sunday Review: The Library of Light and Shadow by M.J. Rose

NOTE: This got lost in my drafts folder, so this week, there are two reviews.

Because today is Halloween, I’m reviewing a book about magic, witchcraft, and love.

Descendant of a witch named La Lune, Delphine Duplessi has an unsetting talent of her own. While wearing a blindfold, she is able to draw portraits of her subjects that reveal their deeply hidden secrets. She supports herself in New York by creating such portraits as a party trick, only to have one such exhibition uncover a betrayal that leads to tragedy.

Horrified and consumed by guilt, Delphine returns to her home in the south of France and vows never to do another “shadow portrait,” as she refers to her blindfold creations. But France is no safe haven for Delphine. The reason she was in New York in the first place was that she fled Paris in terror because one of her visions revealed that she was going to cause the death of Mathieu, her one true love.

Recuperating from the New York incident in the house of her mother, also an artist and witch, Delphine rereads the journal she kept during her relationship with Mathieu and tries to fend off the pressure exerted by her twin brother and business manager, Sebastian, to return to doing shadow portraits. Eventually, she discovers that he too is in danger and reluctantly agrees to help him by creating shadow portraits, not of a person, but of a chateau where an ancient alchemical work called Book of Abraham is said to be hidden. The Duplessis’ client is Emma Calvé, a famous and charismatic opera singer who has searched for the work for years.

The novel is atmospheric and contains vivid descriptions. The post-World War I time period felt fresh and was perfect for the story. I found Delphine to be sympathetic and well developed.  The other main characters—Mathieu, Sebastian, Sandrine (the twins’ mother), Emma, and the enigmatic caretaker of Emma’s estate—are all complex and interesting.

As for the story’s premise, the idea of shadow portraits is both intriguing and disturbing. The mystery of the Book of Abraham has a surprising resolution.

However, I didn’t have unqualified enthusiasm for the novel. As much as I rooted for Mathieu and Delphine’s love, the flashbacks to their previous relationship began to lose my interest after a while. And the plot hinges on the interpretations of two pieces of ambiguous information that I was able to figure out very early. Overall, I would say this is a solid four-star effort. Note that this is the third in a series. I haven’t read the other two, but if you decide to read this and care about such things, the first installment is The Witch of Painted Sorrows.

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Sunday Review: The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

Imagine if you will that an author who wrote a highly successful novel about a man trapped for decades in a hotel himself develops claustrophobia and decides the only cure is to write about a wild road trip. I honestly don’t know if that was Amor Towles’s motivation for his newest novel, but its premise is about as different from that of A Gentleman in Moscow as it could possibly be.

The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles braids together several related archetypes of literature: a coming-of-age story, a hero’s quest, and a picaresque tale of rogues. As the title indicates, each of these involves a journey, although not the journey that the protagonist originally envisions.

Emmett Watson is a Nebraska teenager, abandoned by his mother as a young boy, raised by a father who left the life of a Boston Brahmin to try his luck as a farmer on the Great Plains. But he turns out to be hopeless at it, making one bad decision after another. As a result, Emmett decides early on to pursue a different path, so he chooses to work for a carpenter to learn a more reliable way to provide for himself. He seems to be succeeding, earning enough to buy his own car, when a rash action changes his life. A taunting by the town bully in the presence of his little brother leads Emmett to throw a punch that inadvertently causes the other boy’s death. He believes in facing the consequences of his actions and stoically accepts an eighteen-month sentence to a juvenile work farm in Kansas.

Fifteen months later, Emmett is released early because his father has died and his eight-year-old brother Billy needs him. Returning home, Emmett learns that the bank has foreclosed on the farm—and that, even if he could return to his old life, the family of the boy he killed has no intention of letting him do so. Emmett had already decided to relocate to Texas, a state with a booming economy and population, where a carpenter’s skills will never go out of demand. His brother, however, has a different plan. After their father’s death, Billy unearthed a hidden stash of postcards sent by their mother on her runaway journey along the Lincoln Highway to San Francisco. He urges Emmett that they should follow her path and try to find her. Young Billy is idealistic, his imagination fired by a book called Professor Abacus Abernathe’s Compendium of Heroes, Adventurers, and Other Intrepid Travelers. Emmett is skeptical but loathe to disappoint his brother, and when he discovers that California’s population is growing even faster than that of Texas, he reluctantly agrees.

The two boys make preparations to leave in Emmett’s sky blue Studebaker. Little do they know that two other boys from the work farm stowed away in the trunk of the warden’s car when he drove Emmett home from Kansas. Duchess and Woolly present themselves the morning of the Watsons’ intended departure and insist that Emmett instead drive them to a hunting lodge in upstate New York that belongs to Woolly’s wealthy family to collect Woolly’s $150,000 trust fund, stored in the safe there. Woolly promises to split the money three ways, sharing with Emmett and Duchess equally. And Billy, captivated by the romantic idea of driving the Lincoln Highway from its beginning in New York to its end in California, adds his voice to the chorus.

What follows is a sequence of adventures, accidents, betrayals, and encounters both dangerous and poignant. The story is packed with enough twists and turns to make the reader wonder if Emmett and Billy will ever get back on their intended road. Most of it is highly enjoyable, although I confess to not much liking the ending. But what really sets this novel apart is the voices. Emmett, Billy, their neighbor Sally, Duchess, Woolly, and a few characters they meet along the way each get point-of-view characters, and each is utterly distinct and vivid. Their voices will linger with you long after the reading experience is over.

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Surprising Research: Returning the World War II Military Dead

While working on a chapter that deals with the death of my main character’s uncle in the Italian campaign during World War II, I decided to look up how long it took to bring back the bodies of dead members of the U.S. military. Having grown up during the Vietnam War and seen the televised footage of caskets returning home, I assumed that it might take a few weeks or months at most. But the answer stunned me. The United States did not bring home the first shipment of World War II dead until October 1947, a full two years after the war ended.

More than 400,000 U.S. military personnel died during the war. The government offered the surviving families two burial options: 1) they could choose to have their loved ones buried in an overseas military cemetery, or 2) they could ask to have to the remains returned to the United States for burial.

World War II was a much more widespread and complicated conflict than any the United States had fought before; battlefields ranged across Europe, Africa, and Asia. The government realized that because the dead were found in such far-flung regions—and because not all of those places would be in friendly hands at war’s end—it was likely that many more families would want their loved one’s remains returned than had occurred after the end of World War I, which took place primarily in Europe.

Not all the dead were recovered. The remains of more than 280,000 Americans were found. (Some are still being found.) As it turned out, more than 171,000 families chose repatriation. In a little more than three-quarters of those cases, those who died were buried in private cemeteries, with the rest being eligible for burial in national cemeteries.

Why did it take so long to return the bodies?

  • First the war had to be won. The government had a policy against transporting remains while the conflict continued.
  • Second, after hostilities ceased, the military had an enormous job to get the live troops back home safely.
  • Third, recovering the bodies of the fallen, buried in temporary graves around the globe, was in itself a logistical nightmare.
  • Fourth, the government had to contact all the families of the dead to learn their wishes. The questionnaires did not go out to the families until 1946, and then the government had to compile the results so it would know what to do in each case.

Next week, I will write about the process of bringing the remains home.

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Sunday Review: The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

I’ve been interested in this novel since it was published ten years ago but somehow never got around to reading it until now. 

The Art of Fielding is the name of both this novel and a book within the novel, a manual about how to be an excellent fielder written by the fictional Hall of Fame shortstop Aparicio Rodriguez. Snippets from this guide—which range from technical advice to Zenlike wisdom to a lover’s obsessive paeans—appear throughout the novel, particularly in the beginning. 

At first, it’s easy to assume that the story is primarily about Henry Scrimshander, who’s read the guide so often he can recite it. But Harbach doesn’t have such a narrow focus in mind. It quickly becomes apparent that there are five equally important protagonists to this story:

  • Henry Scrimshander, a teenaged baseball phenom reminiscent of The Natural’s Roy Hobbs
  • Mike Schwartz, the college sophomore catcher who spots Henry’s talent and recruits him for the Westish College team of which Mike is the driving force
  • Owen Dunn, Henry’s college roommate, a scholarly, gay, biracial student with a normally unflappable personality
  • Gwert Affenlight, the handsome charming president of Westish College, who used his own obsession with Herman Melville to reshape the college identity
  • Pella Affenlight, Gwert’s brilliant but rebellious daughter who dropped out of high school to marry a forty-something architect, a relationship that sent her into deep depression and eventually back home

Like The Natural, this is a baseball story that’s about much more than our national sport. These five people are on a collision course that leads to unexpected romantic pairings and re-pairings. More importantly, several of them confront personal crises that force them to reevaluate what they really want. The themes of obsession, self-destruction, self-knowledge, personal responsibility, and the possibility of redemption are integrated throughout the story. 

I thoroughly enjoyed it and only wish I hadn’t waited so long. 

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New Review of Katie, Bar the Door

The following review by senior reviewer Diane Donovan just appeared in the November issue of MBR Bookwatch:

It’s rare that the title of a book proves original and compelling in and of itself, but Katie, Bar the Door is such a creation. It will appeal to readers of modern women’s fiction with its astute story of Katie Thompson, a first-person story which captives not only by its title, but in its first few lines: “I felt as though I were being driven to a sentencing, not my wedding.”

Katie harbors big dreams for her future which do not embrace the conventional paths others around her believe she should follow.

In the opening lines of her story, she and Ritchie have eloped, and are to be married without benefit of ceremony. The couple has known each other since childhood. Forbidden from embarking on this relationship by a strict mother who caught them necking, Katie’s taken the step into sexuality, and is the driving force behind insisting that they now marry.

The reason, however, isn’t for love. It’s because of lack of options: “Even if I got to a phone and reached my mother, I wasn’t sure she’d take me back. She had forbidden my relationship with Ritchie over a year ago after she caught us necking and told me that, in God’s eyes, I was as guilty as if I’d slept with him. Defying her low opinion of me, I had clung stubbornly to my virginity until we ran away, surrendering it then only because of the promise that I’d be Mrs. Richard Pelletier in the morning – and because Ritchie’s rage at being asked to wait one more day was too menacing to defy. Now that the deed was done, according to the stringent doctrines of my mother and my church, my only chance to redeem myself was to marry the partner of my lust.”

As Katie faces domestic violence, being a runaway from her family and faith, and reviews dead-end roads and future options, readers journey alongside her as she faces a series of men who become bosses, lovers, and potential protectors, unified in their desire to control her in some way.

Even her professor, Dr. Peter Taylor, becomes entangled in Katie’s life and dreams as she moves from a history student in his class to something more.

Katie rewrote a history paper when she realized that her facts and sources were outdated. Can she rewrite her life?

Ruth Hull Chatlien crafts a vivid story of abuse, growth, repression, and changing perceptions and attitudes as she documents a young woman’s journey to self-empowerment and self-realization.

As the story moves full circle to embrace the relationships between mother and daughter and generations of belief, readers receive an engrossing examination of how past memories and experiences transform into future changes and new possibilities.

Katie, Bar the Door takes no simple paths in exploring these revelations. It provides many twists and surprises that will delight readers interested in a moving story of a young woman’s dreams, misconceptions, and growth. It will appeal to those interested in emotional trauma, recovery, and transformation, as well as in evocative women’s fictional writings.

You can order it here.

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Researching a Character’s Look

One thing I love about writing a novel set in the mid-twentieth century is researching the characters’ clothes. Currently, I’m having fun dressing my main character’s mother. She’s a self-absorbed character who feels overwhelmed by her large number of children, so her clothes are one of her few methods of self-expression. Here are two of the outfits I chose for her. The time period is early to mid 1940s.

The following outfit is one that she wore to a doctor’s appointment: the navy polka dot dress on the right, but with a different hat than the one shown on the pattern. I see her wearing a saucer hat like the one shown, but in navy with a white bow at the back.

The outfit below is one she wore to church in the summer. It’s a sleeker style because by 1944, fashions were trying to accommodate the need to use less fabric because of the war. The shoes I chose are made of fabric, not leather, for the same reason. White gloves not black. And her shoes are the red sling-back pumps with pom-pom bow in the lower left corner.

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Sunday Review: Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

In this week before Halloween, I’ve decided to post a review for a book I read a few months ago: Mexican Gothic. Set in the 1950s, the novel takes a classic gothic plot line but transports it to Mexico—a young woman travels to a mysterious house and uncovers a secret horror that ends up threatening her life and freedom.

Noemí Tabada is a popular and charming debutante in the highest levels of Mexican society, known for her beautiful clothes and many admirers. When her recently married cousin Catalina sends a letter home describing bizarre and dangerous happenings in her new husband’s family estate, Noemí’s father sends her on a mission to see if Catalina is losing her mind. When she first arrives, Noemí has a difficult time finding anything wrong, except that no one wants to let her spend time alone with the cousin she came to see.

Of course, things don’t stop there. Noemí begins to have terrible nightmares and to suspect that something is very, very wrong beneath the surface. I won’t say more because I don’t want to spoil the book’s effect.

To be honest, when I read it, I struggled with my reaction to this novel. Parts of it are incredibly disturbing and distasteful, but … that’s kind of the point. In the end, I came to see it as an exploration of the survival instinct. On the one hand is one person’s deformed survival instinct, grown bloated, diseased, and parasitical, which fuels all the weirdness. On the other hand is the main character’s strong but still-within-the-bounds-of-reason survival instinct, fueled by courage, love, and her own indomitable will. I’m glad I read it, but the last section of the novel is not for the faint of heart.

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A Research Gem about WWII Induction

I’ve started writing my next novel. At this point, I’m not sure I’ll continue with this storyline, but for now, I’m working on a possible prequel to Katie, Bar the Door that tells her mother’s story. Because it’s set further back in time (1939 to 1956), I’m having to do more research the way I did with my two historical novels. The other day, I was trying to figure out the process Marietta’s uncle would go through when he was inducted into the army during WWII. Lo and behold, I found this great little informative film.

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