Some historical background and a preview of The Munich Girl by Phyllis Edgerly Ring

The Munich Girl

I just finished reading a very interesting historical fiction, The Munich Girl by Phyllis Edgerly Ring. It’s a study of Eva Braun, Adolf Hitler’s longtime mistress and his wife of less than two days, before the couple committed suicide in 1945. Much has been written about Braun, a simple shop girl, who met Hitler when she was seventeen. Ring’s book tries to imagine this relationship through the eyes of Braun, a young and vulnerable woman, and through her relationships with three generations of fictional characters in Germany, England and America.

While I’m working on my review of this excellent book about the difficult and painful subject of Hitler and World War II, here’s some background on Eva Braun.

Eva Braun 1942 wikipedia
Eva Braun in 1942; Photo: wikipedia.org
  • Eva Braun was born in 1912, in Munich, Germany. Her father was a school teacher and her mother was a seamstress. She was the middle sister in a family of three girls.
  • Braun’s parents divorced in 1921 and remarried in 1922.
  • Braun attended a convent for one year.  She was not a serious student.
  • She worked as an assistant in Heinrich Hoffmann’s photography shop, the official photographer for Hitler, who at the time was a fast-rising political leader. Braun met Hitler in 1929.
  • To explain her presence at many Nazi Party gatherings, Braun became a photographer for Hitler. During their retreats to Berghof, Hitler’s mountain hideaway, she took many pictures of and filmed Hitler and his party members.
  • Braun was not interested in politics or the war. She loved fashion and movies and was very athletic. She never joined the Nazi Party.  She preferred to live in her personal hyper-focused world, apart from the horrors of World War II and enjoyed the luxuries afforded by Hitler.
  • Braun’s sister, Gretl, married Hermann Fegelein, a member of the SS elite guard and liaison to Heinrich Himmler.
  • Before her death in 1945, Braun had attempted suicide twice, presumably to get Hitler’s attention.
  • Hitler was convinced that his political success was directly tied to his image as a bachelor. Their relationship was top secret and was not revealed to the public until after their deaths.
braun and hitler www.telegraph.co.uk
Photo: telegraph.co.uk

In The Munich Girl, Ring presents Braun as an unhappy and lonely girl and she tries to understand how Braun became involved with the most despised man in world history.


About the Author (from The Munich Girl)

Phyllis Edgerly Ring lives in New Hampshire and returns as often as she can to her childhood home in Germany. Her years there left her with the deep desire to understand the experience of Germans during the Second World War. She has studied plant sciences and ecology, worked as a nurse, been a magazine writer and editor, taught English to kindergartners in China, and frequently serves as workshop facilitator and coach for others’ writing projects. She is the author of the novel, Snow Fence Road, and the inspirational nonfiction, Life at First Sight: Finding the Divine in the Details. She is co-author, with Ron Tomanio and Diane Iverson, of With Thine Own Eyes: Why Imitate the Past When We Can Investigate Reality?, an exploration of how to achieve balance between the material and spiritual aspects of life.

Click here to read my review of The Munich Girl.

For more information about Ring, click here to visit Who’s That Indie Author?  Phyllis Edgerly Ring.

Thanks to Biography.com and Wikipedia.org.

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Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughterhouse-FiveSlaughterhouse-Five
by
Kurt Vonnegut

Rating:

Slaughterhouse-Five is hands down, a genius combination of truth and fiction. Kurt Vonnegut’s famous satirical novel is about violence and war and the idea of free will. It’s an autobiographical and fictional mix built into a story about Billy Pilgrim’s time travels on Earth and his visit to the distant planet Tralfamadore. It was published in 1969, in the midst of the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and became a best-seller because of its anti-war sentiment. It has been banned from some schools and studied in others and is considered Vonnegut’s most influential work. I think it is excellent in its message, its symbolism and its construction.

Vonnegut’s main character, Billy Pilgrim, jumps back and forth through time and tries to make sense of a life that has been dramatically transformed by his experience as an American prisoner during World War Two. Billy wasn’t meant for war, but there he is. His miraculous survival after the Allied bombing and total destruction of Dresden, Germany is a turning point in his life, a moment he struggles, unconsciously, to understand and beat.

Billy copes in a way no one around him can understand, by retreating inward and traveling in time, past and future and being kidnapped by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. Tralfamadorians tell Billy that there is no real end in time. “All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist.” They tell him that moments in time are like “bugs trapped in amber.” When Billy notes that life on their planet is peaceful, unlike on Earth, they tell him they, too have experienced violent wars, but they have a way to deal with them. “There isn’t anything we can do about them, so we simply don’t look at them. We ignore them. We spend eternity looking at pleasant moments.”

I like everything about this book. Many of characters are symbols of certain types of thought and are precisely depicted through their actions and what they say. When Billy’s daughter, Barbara treats him like a child, I found myself believing in Tralfamadore. When Billy visits his mother at Pine Knoll nursing home, I felt his mother’s tears, as she pulls all her “energy from all over her ruined body, even her toes and fingertips” just to ask Billy, “How did I get so old?” I hated Roland Weary, I felt sad for Wild Bob and the hobo who says, “This ain’t bad. This ain’t nothing at all.” I saw the irony of Edgar Derby’s fate, a teacher of “Contemporary Problems in Western Civilization” and the image of Derby’s face bursting into tears after Billy feeds him a spoon of syrup.

This is one of those books that reads quickly and gives the first impression of a story casually told, but it’s not. Every word is carefully chosen, every character is deliberately included, and every jump in time is purposefully choreographed. And despite the graphic descriptions and language and the ugliness of war, this book has a beauty about it that’s hard to describe.

While this story is about Billy’s personal struggle, its bigger story and strongest message is about war. I think Vonnegut’s description of the Allied bombing of Dresden in reverse is very powerful:

“The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes.”

Vonnegut continues this reverse description back to the beginning of man, where eventually, “Everybody turned into a baby, and all humanity, without exception, conspired biologically to produce two perfect people named Adam and Eve.” All that’s complicated and violent, returning to something so simple.

It took me a long time to get to Slaughterhouse-Five. I don’t think these ideas will ever leave me.

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All the Light We Cannot See – favorite parts

all the light we cannot see

I’m still thinking about All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr! That’s always a sign of a great book. Here are some of my favorite things, with only small spoilers:

First of all, can’t you just imagine a story taking place in this ancient walled city?

stmalo1

GREAT IMAGERY

There are so many examples. Here are just a few:

  • Doerr uses great imagery to make you understand how the characters feel about the war and the German occupation of France. Early on, Marie-Laure thinks she can smell gasoline under the wind, “As if a great river of machinery is steaming slowly, irrevocably, toward her.” (p. 61)
  • And Doerr compares the machinery in the distance to Hitler, as Frau Elena sits in the orphanage parlor and worries, “Coal cars grind past in the wet dark. Machinery hums in the distance, pistols throbbing, belts turning. Smoothly. Madly.” (p. 65)
  • Marie-Laure thinks about the bombing of Saint-Malo as if a big tree is being uprooted: “The notion occurs to her that the ground beneath Saint-Malo has been knitted together all along by the root structure of an immense tree, located at the center of the city, in a square no one ever walked her to, and the massive tree has been uprooted by the hand of God and the granite is coming with it, heaps and clumps and clods of stones pulling away as the trunk comes up, followed by the fat tendrils of roots – the root structure like another tree turned upside down and shoved into the soil..” (pp. 95-6)

GREAT CHARACTERS

Here are my favorites:

  • Marie-Laure because of her courage.
  • Papa and his love for Marie-Laure.  I love his puzzle boxes and the miniature neighborhoods he builds to help her learn her way around.
  • Werner despite his moral conflicts, because of what he does at the end and how he realizes that this is his moment, “All your life you wait, and then it finally comes, and are you ready?” (p. 465)
  • Madame Manec because of what she says to Etienne: “Don’t you want to be alive before you die?” (p. 270) I love how this idea becomes an important recurring theme.
  • Etienne because of how he transforms. When he acts, “he feels unshakable; he feels alive.” (p. 331)
  • Volkheimer because he has both good and bad sides. As Doerr develops this character, he introduces another great recurring theme, “What you could be.” (p. 251)
  • Frederick because of his courage to follow his own moral compass at Shulpforta.

THEMES

Courage, love, defiance, overcoming the belief that we are all locked into unchangeable roles.

UNIQUE STRUCTURE

  • Connections between characters and events that are not immediately apparent but are revealed later.
  • Characters that disappear from the storyline after you start caring about them, forcing you to wonder how they are doing and what they are thinking. Not everyone likes this, but I think Doerr does it deliberately to make you think.
  • Jumping back and forth between storylines and time periods. Some readers have complained about this. I think it forces you to think about what’s happening.
  • References to light and the moon throughout the book, but no exact repetition of the title in the text. A late reference ties it all together.
  • The mix of fairy-tale legends with wartime reality.

MISCELLANEOUS COMMENTS

  • Not everyone appreciates parallel references to books within a book’s story. Marie-Laure’s favorite book is Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, by Jules Verne, and there are many references. I never read this one, but my general knowledge of Captain Nemo and the Nautilus was enough to make it work.
  • Because this story takes place during World War 2, some readers think there aren’t enough references to the Holocaust and the major events of the war. I think All the Light We Cannot See is more a story about characters doing great things during a terrible period of history, and that Doerr purposely focuses on the characters, not all the events of the war, which figure prominently in many other historical fiction books.
  • Some readers do not like Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel’s villainous character, saying it does not fit with the rest of the book. I think it’s a necessary device to incorporate the Sea of Flames diamond plot into the storyline, but I agree with some of the comments.
  • Not everyone likes how the author ties up the story.  You’ll have to read it to understand what I mean.  I think the final chapters are necessary, and I always like when an author leaves a few loose ends for me to think about.
  • I especially love the indirect reference to The Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis. Can’t say more because it will spoil the story!

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All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

all the light we cannot see

All the Light We Cannot See
by
Anthony Doerr

Rating:

I can’t say enough about how much I enjoyed this terrific book set during World War II in the walled coastal city of Saint Malo, France. It’s easy to understand why All the Light We Cannot See won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It’s a story full of great characters, important themes, and a plot that’s a wonderful mix of reality and fairytale.

Imagine being Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a young blind girl in Paris, whose entire world revolves around her father, Daniel, a trusted locksmith at the city’s Museum of Natural History. He’s built her a miniature model of their neighborhood and is busy teaching her how to find her way. Meanwhile, the threat of German occupation is real, and the museum is rushing to pack up and send off its valuable exhibits and specimens, before they become German property. Among these priceless objects is the Sea of Flames diamond, a legendary stone of mesmerizing beauty, but thought to carry a curse. When Marie-Laure and her father flee France for Saint Malo, he’s carrying a gem, but is it the Sea of Flames or a decoy?

At the same time, Werner Pfennig is a young boy growing up in an orphanage in the coal mining town of Zollverein, Germany. Desperate for a way out of a life destined for the coal mines, Werner discovers a broken radio. He’s instantly fascinated and teaches himself how to fix and build radios. A genius understanding of the math behind transmitting and receiving signals earns him a glowing reputation, but his hopeful future takes a turn when he’s called to fix a radio for a German officer. The officer recruits Werner to be a member of an elite Hitler youth group and he’s sent away to a brutal camp.

Werner becomes an expert in radio transmission, but questions of morality weigh heavy on him, especially when he’s on missions to locate enemy transmissions. When her father has to leave, Marie-Laure feels helpless in her uncle’s house where it’s becoming more and more dangerous. Slowly, these characters develop and find a way to make a difference, but their futures carry sadness as well.

I won’t spoil the story for you, so I will stop here. This is the kind of book you study. It’s full of great quotes, wonderful ideas and serious moral questions. I’m sure I will be reading this again!

I have many favorite parts, and I’ll write about them tomorrow!

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What’s up next? All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

all the light we cannot seeAll the Light We Cannot See
by
Anthony Doerr

I’m very excited to begin reading All the Light We Cannot See. I have been on the library’s waiting list for six months and I finally made it to the top!

In case you missed last week’s Pulitzer Prize announcements, Doerr’s book won this major prize for fiction. To see all the winners and some interesting facts about the award and about Joseph Pulitzer, check out my April 21 blog post, “2015 Pulitzer Prize winners announced.”

Here’s a nice preview of the book from Amazon:

WINNER OF THE PULITZER PRIZE
From the highly acclaimed, multiple award-winning Anthony Doerr, the beautiful, stunningly ambitious instant New York Times bestseller about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.

Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where he works as the master of its thousands of locks. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind and her father builds a perfect miniature of their neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great-uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.

In a mining town in Germany, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments, a talent that wins him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, then a special assignment to track the resistance. More and more aware of the human cost of his intelligence, Werner travels through the heart of the war and, finally, into Saint-Malo, where his story and Marie-Laure’s converge.

Doerr’s “stunning sense of physical detail and gorgeous metaphors” (San Francisco Chronicle) are dazzling. Deftly interweaving the lives of Marie-Laure and Werner, he illuminates the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another. Ten years in the writing, a National Book Award finalist, All the Light We Cannot See is a magnificent, deeply moving novel from a writer “whose sentences never fail to thrill” (Los Angeles Times).`

Click on this link to see what Doerr thinks about winning the 2015 Pulitzer Prize.

And be sure to visit Anthony Doerr’s website and his biography page:

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Night by Elie Wiesel

 Night

Night
by
Elie Wiesel

Rating:

I had read other books about the Holocaust, but never Night, Elie Wiesel’s memoir about being sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland during World War II. The New York Times calls it “a slim volume of terrifying power” and I couldn’t agree more.

In 1944, Wiesel was deported by the Germans from his town of Sighet, Transylvania and sent by cattle train to Auschwitz and later Buchenwald. He was just a teenager. His account of this experience is a horrifying reminder of a terrible period of history. When the first of many “selections” began, Elie and his father were separated from his mother and sister. Being put in the wrong group meant certain death, but those who were chosen to work suffered brutal physical conditions and vicious psychological terror.

Wiesel’s account also details his questions of faith. When his father whispered prayers, Wiesel could not. He writes, “Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust.” He also explains how desperate and selfish thoughts ran through his mind and how he felt burdened by guilt over these feelings. He and his father, separated at times, still held onto and drew strength from each other. But as his father weakened, Wiesel felt an agonizing conflict between love, duty and survival.

After a brutal death march to Buchenwald, in horrible winter conditions, Wiesel and his father were exhausted and nearly-starved. As his father grew weaker, Wiesel tried desperately to keep him alive. His father endured dysentery and exhaustion, but he succumbed to beatings by SS guards. Just a few weeks later, Wiesel was freed by the Americans.  He was sixteen years old.

Night was first published in English in 1960, but earlier versions were published in Yiddish and French. His single goal in writing Night was to remind the world that such a terrible history should never repeat itself. He later said, “I decided to devote my life to telling the story because I felt that having survived I owe something to the dead, and anyone who does not remember betrays them again.”

Wiesel lived in France after World War II and eventually moved to America. He has received many awards for his work, including the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize. He is Andrew Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Boston University and founding chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council.

Thank you to the following sources:

The My Hero Project – Celebrate the best of humanity.
Brainy Quote
Front and back cover of the above Night publication
Wikipedia articles on Elie Wiesel and Night.

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The Pieces We Keep by Kristina McMorris

The pieces we keep pic

The Pieces We Keep
by
Kristina McMorris

Rating:

When young Jack is overcome with anxiety on an airplane, Audra is concerned.  When night terrors interrupt her son’s sleep, she is worried.  But when Audra sees the disturbing and violent pictures Jack has drawn at school, she realizes she has a big problem.

Jack might be acting this way because of his father’s sudden death two years earlier.  Their lives have been full of changes, including a possible new job in Philadelphia for Audra, far from their home in Portland, Oregon.  But there’s no logical explanation for Jack’s night terrors and his sleep connection to World War II, German spies and crashing airplanes.

This is part of the story that unfolds in The Pieces We Keep; a very clever and entertaining story that is, by my own definition, a combination of modern and historical fiction, with a supernatural piece that tries to answer questions of life, death and spirituality.

The other part is a love story that begins in London, at the outset of World War II.  Vivian and Isaak are drawn to each other, but Isaak has a secret.  When the war breaks out, Vivian must return to America.  Isaak plans to join her, but first he must make sure his German family is safe.

I very much enjoyed reading this book, which alternates between modern-day Portland and the years surrounding World War II, in London and New York.  It’s a plot-driven story, full of suspense and cliff-hangers at the end of each chapter, teasers that make you want to keep reading.  Questions about truth and the meaning of names and phrases also keep the story moving.  McMorris definitely has a knack for story-telling and her use of details that resurface with greater meaning is one of the best things about The Pieces We Keep.

I liked certain characters, especially Gene.  He’s the kind of guy you cheer for in books, full of goodness.  I think his reaction to betrayal is the best part of the story, especially the scene with Vivian in the apartment.  (I’m purposely being vague here for to keep out the spoilers!).  Other characters, such as Vivian and Audra, are not as reachable, but I think this works because it is a story about events and ideas, not so much character development.

McMorris’s characters try to understand why death can be tragic and random.  They struggle to find the connections between the past and the present, ties that will promise closure and a good feeling about the present.  There’s a feeling of all her characters reaching the same positive conclusion, which makes for a nice ending.

I prefer endings that aren’t too perfect, and there’s enough left up in the air here to satisfy me.  McMorris leaves the reader to interpret Jack’s dreams, their source and their full meaning, a mystery to the end.

This is a fun and engaging read, with some open questions about present and past!

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The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

the book thief picThe Book Thief
by
Markus Zusak

Rating:

I’m in that strange period of time right now, having just finished The Book Thief, feeling both exhausted and hopeful.  I feel just like the soul collector who, after rescuing Liesel Meminger’s story, wants to know “how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant.”

The Book Thief is a truly original and moving story of a young Liesel Meminger, whose mother, at the outset of World War II, gives up her daughter to a foster family outside Munich, Germany.  Stunned, Liesel suffers this loss and slowly, in the smallest of steps, rises to periods of love and happiness, through a foster love that is initially unrecognizable, but deep, through her neighbor friend Rudy Steiner, through words and books, and through a painfully happy connection with Max Vandenburg, a German Jew who is hiding in her family’s basement.

It’s the relationships in this story that give you hope.  It’s how they build and become something you know is stronger than the hatred and the loss.  These are the things that help you make sense of a time when one man used words to almost destroy an entire population of innocent people.

I don’t know what to say that properly presents The Book Thief to you.  If you’re a high school student and this book is on your reading list, pick it, even if the title doesn’t grab you.  If you are like me and are just getting to this book, nearly nine years since it was published, read it before the others on your stack.  If you are tempted to see the movie first, read the book first.  I have not seen the movie yet, but the books are always better first.  We all know that.

I will tell you what I like so much about The Book Thief, besides the way the author has made me feel both so happy and sad at the very same time.

1)   The relationship between Liesel and Hans Hubermann is like no other.

2)   The relationship between Liesel and Max Vandenburg is like no other.

3)   The relationship between Liesel and Rudy Steiner is like no other.

You get the idea.

This book is like no other.

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