MY HONOR FLIGHT by Dan McCurrigan

A … hmmmm….. delightful is not really the right word ……  touching …. yeah, that’s it, touching…. first person account of a soldier’s  experiences in Europe  during WWII.

Well, sort of first person, in that this is a novel, and a beautifully written one at that.  The premise is that a young soldier, soon to be deployed to Afghanistan, accompanies his great grandfather on a sponsored trip to visit the WWII memorial in Washington, D.C., an ‘honor flight’.   During the flight, the old man recounts to his great grandson his experiences in Buzz Company, a group of misfits and leftovers from other companies, brought together to form their own unit.

The ‘memoir’ has tales that are funny, and heartbreaking, and poignant.  Lots of action, lots of characters we come to love, and mourn,  just all around a fine work, helping us to remember and appreciate our soldiers from an older war, from a time when war meant protecting your country, not destroying another country for what seems to be no apparent reason other than oil reserves.

I remember reading a couple of memoirs from the First World War that I found on Project Gutenberg.  This novel has the same feel and flavor as those accounts of an even earlier war.

Golly, we suck as a species.

Honor Flight — Our Mission: To transport America’s Veterans to Washington, DC to visit those memorials dedicated to honor the service and sacrifices of themselves and their friends.

Honor Flight Network is a non-profit organization created solely to honor America’s veterans for all their sacrifices. We transport our heroes to Washington, D.C. to visit and reflect at their memorials. Top priority is given to the senior veterans – World War II survivors, along with those other veterans who may be terminally ill.

Of all of the wars in recent memory, it was World War II that truly threatened our very existence as a nation—and as a culturally diverse, free society. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, an estimated 640 WWII veterans die each day. Our time to express our thanks to these brave men and women is running out.

LANDFALL by Joseph Jablonski

A salty tale, along the Joseph Conrad lines.  No.  It isn’t.  I lied.   It is less about the sea and sailing than it is about the people who sail upon the briney.  Well, maybe that is also true about Conrad’s work.

Jake Thomas is now a retired merchant mariner.  He writes fiction, mostly sea tales,  but his story is all about when he was a 19-year-old cadet on his first voyage.  It was 1969, the Vietnam war was still raging,  and the old freighter he was on was ferrying supplies around the Pacific Rim.  During a month-long stop at Subic Bay in the Philippines for repairs and loading, he is encouraged to go off to the debauchery and corruption of the area’s red light district in the jungle, where he indulges in sex, drugs and maybe even rock n roll.  He contracts some illness, perhaps mosquito-borne,  and the prostitutes with whom he is living fear they cannot save him, so call on the wife of a nearby missionary who has nursing skills.  She comes to take care of him, and it’s Elmer Gantry meets Graham Greene.  She is a sexually frustrated, feisty gal and even though there are twenty years separating their ages, they have a fine old time.

Turns out that the missionary and his family are to be traveling back to California on the same freighter, much to the delight of the now-well young man, who foresees several weeks of hanky, not to mention panky, on the agenda.  However, those dreams are thwarted by the aggressive and peculiar first mate. VERY peculiar.

The night before arriving at the San Francisco port, the woman is found dead.

As the book opens, her now grown children come to Jake to ask what he knows about what really happened on that fateful voyage.  The kids were only 12 and 8 at the time.  They only know what they were told. They ask him to write a narrative about it, and will pay him a large sum to do so.  And thus ensues a tale of moral depravity, youth, corruption, and includes a ship captain whose loyalty to duty and his ship is heartwarming, in an Apocalypse Now kind of way.

It is an examination of human frailty, loss, and the excoriation of government policies and actions.  Yeah.  All of that.

A really great book.  It has everything…. stupidity, human nature, love, hate, and large scary animals.  What’s not to like?

 

THE ROSES UNDERNEATH by C. F. Yetmen

Did you see the movie The Monument Men?  Or read anything about the German Reich looting artworks, and finally stashing it in undisclosed locations?  This is another story about the Monument Men, told from a German woman’s perspective.

It is 1945 in Wiesbaden, Germany.  Anna and her six-year old daughter Amalia are living on scraps, sharing a one room apartment with her elderly aunt.   Anna’s husband, a psychiatrist, is still in a Russian-controlled  area working in a hospital there.  Anna sold what she could and after a huge fight with her husband, who refused to leave, managed to acquire a broken down truck in order to travel to her aunt in Wiesbaden.  The truck broke down 20 kilometers outside of the city, and she and her daughter walked the rest of the way, hoping that when she arrived that her aunt would still be alive and able to take them in.

She gets a job as a typist at the nearby museum which has been turned into a collecting point for the artworks the Americans are finding all over Germany.  There is a new law in place:  no artwork may change hands under any circumstances, not even between friends or family, until further notice.  The goal of the Monument Men is to sort out what is found, and redistribute it back to its rightful owners, or the families of the deceased owners, many of them being Jews, before the trade in artworks begins again.

The second in command of the place needs a translator for the field, when he goes out to investigate reported stashings of work in various abandoned houses, churches, etc., and learns that Anna speaks flawless English from her years living and going to school in London before being forced to return to Germany.

The story is all about the black market for art, the clandestine operations,  and life in 1945 Germany, just at the time when Japan surrendered.  It is about the guilt felt by the citizens, complicit in their knowledge of the camps and the possessions taken by the Nazis.  Anna struggles with this guilt, having living right outside the Theresienstadt camp, and feeling that the German people should all suffer for their actions and lack of actions, that they are all guilty.

It is a poignant story of the characters involved:  the Monument Men, the starving German people, forced to deal with the black market for scarce food,  Anna, her daughter, her Aunt, who remembers such better days, and the closet SS people who still believe in the purity of the Nazi policies.

The title is really interesting.  It is from the idea that although the ground may be covered by winter’s dead and decaying debris, they cover the roses which will appear in the spring. And thus, although Germany is covered with the blood and debris of war, as it is cleaned up, the flowering spirit of its people will once again bloom.

It is really not only a page-turner, but a sad one, and one that can serve as a warning as to what can happen when we ‘let George do it’.   Freedom is everyone’s responsibility, None of us are entitled to it for nothing.

 

 

LONG DIVISION by Kiese Laymon

An interesting first novel by  an American writer, editor and a professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Mississippi. What you think of it has a lot to do with who you are, your age, your race, your gender.

It features a young black 14 year old, who is a participant in a YouTube contest, Can You Use This Word in a Sentence, or something like that.  It is not a spelling bee, but rather a contest to highlight the most articulate students. Citoyen “City” Coldson is a clever kid, definitely more intelligent than most of his contemporaries in   Post-Katrina Mississippi.  He has a fast mind and often an even faster mouth.  The title of the book comes from:

“City, speed that up.  Why you gotta   be so long division?  For real, you don’t have to tell me all the background.  The story doesn’t have to go on and on and on.  “It doesn’t?”  “No.” Shalaya Crump said.  ·Everything with you is long division.  You busy trying to show all your work.  Just get in and get out.”

City has an on-camera melt down during the finals of the contest, railing against the system, against racism.  He has humiliated his family, and is sent to stay with his grandmother in a small coastal town.  As he is collecting his things from school, a teacher gives him a book titled, Long Division.  In it, all the characters are him and his friends and family, but set in 1985.  The small town is the home of a teen who has disappeared.   In the book he received, the characters find a portal in the woods which take them to 2013, or maybe even farther in the future.

OK, so we have time travel, fantasy, an ongoing theme of racism in America, an ongoing theme of being a young black male in America, an ongoing theme of being a teenager, all told in first person black southern teenage slang and rhythm.  It is just beautifully written.

My issues with this debut effort:  (1) too many themes.  It is hard to examine a serious and painful issue as racism in a short book that includes time travel and finding portals.  I have read many books where the idea of racism in a fantasy world was examined very successfully, but in this one, it is hard to reconcile. Are we readers supposed to be seriously contemplating the pitiful state of race relations in America today, or are we supposed to be having fun popping around the time line?  One or the other.

(2) Because of the intertwining of the current events (2013), and the events in the ‘book’, (1985), it was hard to follow.  I have an e-copy of the book, so maybe in print, there was some kind of differentiation — different fonts for each, perhaps.  It was a really fun idea, and a clever vehicle to carry the mystery of the girl’s disappearance, but definitely confusing to the e-reader.

(3) Because of the number of themes, and none of them layered sufficiently to work, none of the themes was explored enough.  It is a long novella length book, almost as if a story idea had been spun out long enough to create a bookish length.

(4) Essentially, the plot wasn’t all that and a bag of chips. What really shone in this work were the characters.  They were perfection.  They were real.  We didn’t need a plot.  We could have just followed them around for a few days of their quotidian lives, being enchanted by them.  All of that time travel was frankly just distracting.

So whether this was aimed at young black people, who all seemed to love it, as it represents their reality,  or at the general reading public, for whom I think it misses the mark on several literary levels, I don’t know.  Being an old white lady, I am surely not the target demographic.  I think it is a literary mishmash, but we all have to start somewhere.

SEAGULL by Lawton Paul

This is one of those novels usually referred to as ‘poignant’.  I don’t know about you, but I like a poignant novel from time to time, in between the post-apocalyptic depressing stories and all those bodies that abound in the murder mysteries.  A little ‘cheer me up’, you know what I mean?

This is a  sweet story, set in 1980s Florida, featuring 14 year old Jesse, who lives with his older brother Tyler, and his Aunt AJ and his Uncle Art, to whom he always refers as The Old Man.  They live on the St. Johns River, where his uncle makes a living crabbing.  Whenever possible, the boys help out on the boat.  His parents have been dead since he was about 3.  He has developed a phobia about large sea creatures, such as dolpins, sharks, etc, which has carried over into fear of deep water and of the dark.

It is a YA, but yet has more depth than the usual self-obsessed teenager novel.  Jesse’s nemesis at school is a big kid who bullies everyone, and seems to get into fights with impunity.  His father and older brother are just recently home from a stint in prison, his home life is unsavory.  He takes out his anger and pain on his fellow students.

Jesse discovers an old photo of his uncle as a boxer, and asks his uncle to teach him how to box so he can defend himself against that boy.

At one point, the bully taunts him, telling him he knows nothing about his mother, and that his aunt is feeding him lies about her, so he sets off on a quest to find out the truth.

I don’t really know much about this author.  other than he lives in Japan with wife and kids, and has a multivolume paranormal mystery series.  So if you want a lovely, easy, soft read, this is for you.

 

 

NICKEL MOUNTAIN by John Gardner

This lovely story is set in the Catskills, and, though the names of the main towns are fictional, the story gives a sense of reality, a sense that the places ought to exist on a Rand McNally map somewhere and, if you had it, you could drive through New Carthage and park in front of the run down Stop-Off, the diner and gasoline station Henry Soames owns, operates, and lives in at the edge of the woods beneath Nickel Mountain.

As the novel begins in the snow of December 1954, Henry is middle-aged, obese, and afraid that a second heart attack will kill him within a year. Business is bad, but Henry keeps his place open late, even if just for drunks. Then, in the spring, Callie Wells, the sixteen-year-old daughter of a woman Henry had wanted to be his girlfriend when they were in school together, comes in, looking for a job.  Although Henry doesn’t really need help, he hires her for a few days a week.

Callie is enamored of Willard, a young man with plans to escape his farmer heritage for something better.  She gets pregnant right before he is to leave for college.  But he goes anyway, and assures her he will return.  But of course, he does not.  1954 is not 2017, and Callie needs to get married.  Henry, who over time has come to love this dear girl, proposes to her, and she accepts.  It is a way out of her dilemma.  They set up house in the room behind the diner.   She finally, after a tough delivery, her son is born, and Henry falls in love with the child and considers him his own.

There is not so much a story line as a cast of characters which come in and out of the picture.  It is a story about people, about coping and making do and making things better.  There are a number of deaths in the tale, and we are encouraged to contemplate it  with acceptance that “Things live and then they die”.   It is a story about …… well, about life, I guess.  Just about life.

Nickel Mountain was published in 1973 and was nominated for the National Book Award for Fiction.

THE FAR PAVILIONS by M. M. Kaye

A long….. and when I say long, I so do mean lengthy …. epic historical novel  of British and Indian relations, set in the late 1800s in India (and incidentally, Afghanistan).  It is the story of the life of one man who eventually ended up in the British army stationed in India.

It was written in 1978.  Did you ever read Anthony Adverse?  That long, rambling adventure story set in 1800 and written in 1933?  I think that one was about 1100 pages, while The Far Pavilions clocks in at something a bit over 700 pages, and I read EVERY. SINGLE. ONE. OF. THEM.   I also read every single page of Anthony Adverse, too, back in my thirties, and if you think I am going to tell you when that was, you can just boogie on down the road, Bub, because that is a secret that only my hairdresser knows for sure, and I lied to her.

Ashton Pelham-Martin (gotta love those British names) was the only son of a British couple who are doing some trekking up in the mountains, going pretty primitive with only about 10 people accompanying them as porters, cooks, etc.  Really roughing it, you know.   Mrs. British Person gets pregnant, dies two days later of some unnamed cause, and fortunately for the dad, who really was not interested in the child, the Hindu wife of one of the camp helpers had lost a child and could act as its nanny and wet nurse.  The father put all the documents about the boy into a large envelope with money.  At about age 4, cholera hit the camp, everyone died except Sita, (his nanny) and Ashton, and she took him off to find the General that the father told her about to deliver the child to him to be sent back to his father’s family in England, taking as her sacred charge the envelope with the documents and funds.

They start off, and find themselves in what would turn out to be the Sepoy uprising of 1857, where danger lurked everywhere.  She finally finds the house of the general only to discover all had been massacred.  What to do?  She sets off to find a quiet area of the country where the uprising was little known.  She tells the boy his name is now Ashok, and that she is his mother.

This is one of those ‘and then’ stories.  And then they eventually find refuge in the kingdom of Gulkote where Ashton, now going by the name Ashok, forgets his English parentage and grows up as a native Indian boy.  And then, while working as a servant for crown prince of Gulkote, Ashton befriends the neglected princess Anjuli, in addition to the master of stables, Koda Dad, and his son Zarin. And then, at the age of 11, Ashton uncovers a murderous conspiracy against the young prince and learns he himself will be killed for interfering with the plot. Promising Anjuli he will return for her one-day, he and Sita escape the palace with assistance from friends Sita and Ashok have made within the palace over the years, and flee from Gulkote.

And then,  the ailing Sita dies en route, but not before revealing to Ash his true parentage and entrusting him with the letters and money his father gave her before his death.

And then, Ashok makes his way to the military division Sita instructed him about, and they recognize him; And then, now known by his English name, Ashton is turned over to English authorities and sent to England for a formal education and military training.  And then, at age 19, Ashton returns to India as an officer in the Corps of Guides with Zarin on the Northern Frontier. He quickly finds that his sense of place is torn between his new-found status as Ashton, an English “sahib”, and Ashok, the native Indian boy he once believed he was.

And then, and then, and then, and then.  It goes on and on, and really, if you want to know all that happens, read the book.  (Or watch the movie).  It is a compelling story line, and honest to pete, you really do get wrapped up in it.

There is a lot in the book about injustice, both personal and political, about the British Raj and the harsh realities of India, about the injustice of the British in wanting to take over Afghanistan as a buff against Russia, about the injustice of the Indian tradition of suttee, when the widow dies on the funeral pyre of her deceased husband, many times not at all willingly, about the caste system, about the division of the religions.   It is wonderfully written, compelling in its detail.   Go read it.