Wednesday, November 30, 2011

From the Archives # 16: Dave Dawson at Dunkirk by Robert Sydney Bowen

"I’m reading Dave Dawson at Singapore
I’m most of the way done. 
Thanks for sending it.” 
pg 95

 I laughed when I read these words a few weeks ago because before I read Eddie’s War I had read another Dave Dawson book and was, by then, quite familiar with Robert Sydney Bowen’s World War II series for boys written during World War II. 

Dave Dawson at Dunkirk is the first book in the series and begins with 17 year old Dave waking upon May 10, 1940 in a hotel in Paris, thinking about how lucky he is to be in war torn Europe with his dad and about the day’s planned trip to the “impenetrable” Maginot Line.  But when he goes to find his dad, Dave discovers he is missing.  Dave is soon informed that his dad has gone to England on government business because Hitler’s forces had just invaded France.  A Lieutenant in the French Army is to drive Dave north to Calais, where he is supposed to catch a boat to Dover, England and safety.

But the road out of Paris is crowded with French refugees trying to escape the advancing Nazis and the going is slow.  Suddenly, a swarm of Nazi planes start shooting at the people on the road, and next thing Dave knows, he is waking up under a tree and it is night.  As he tries to puzzle things out, Dave sees two headlights and runs out to the center of the road to flag down the approaching vehicle. 

The vehicle is an ambulance, driving by a member of the British Volunteer Ambulance Service named Freddy Farmer, 16.  Freddy offers Dave a ride and naturally the two boys become fast friends.  But they don’t get very far when they are arrested as spies by the Germans.  Seems they had unknowingly crossed from France into a Nazi occupied area of Belgium.    Their captors continuously interrogate, but when they offer no information, the Colonel in charge has them brought to his office where threatens to have them shot unless they give him useful information.  Fortuitously, Dave and Freddy see a military map pull of different colored pins in the Colonel’s office and think it might be important to the Allies. 

This spurs Dave to finally figure out how to escape.  They manage to pull of a very convoluted getaway, getting far enough away to be able to sleep in a wood.  But when they awake, they discover that a farmhouse in the area is full of Nazis.  While they are watching, a small plane lands in the farm’s fields.  This give Dave the idea to escape by stealing the plane, and he conveniently has already had flying lessons.  Once again, Dave and Freddy manage to foil the Nazis as they make off with the plane.

But when the Belgian solders see the Swastika on the plane’s wings, they start shooting at it.  Dave manages to crash land the plane and the soldiers rush out to arrest them.  The Belgians, after hearing their story, decide Dave and Freddy's arrest by the Germans has indeed yielded valuable information and they all leave for the Belgian army’s new headquarters, to tell them what they know.  Naturally, they don’t get far when they hit Nazi land mines in the road.

Eight days later, Dave wakes up in a British military hospital in Lille, France.  At first, no one believes their story, but their escape had already become the stuff of legend and they were finally recognized.  The Belgian High Command had notified the British High Command about the boys and the chief of British Staff, General Caldwell, comes to visit and hear their important information.

The boys are still at the military hospital when the Belgians surrender to the Germans and they learn that the patients at Lille must be evacuated as the German advance towards them.  Dave and Freddy are recruited to drive an ambulance to a base hospital at St. Omer, but on the road they are redirected.  The evacuated injured soldiers are to be taken by rail to Dunkirk where they will be evacuated again.  After they load the wounded onto the train, Dave and Freddy are about to board, when Germans planes could be heard.  The train pulls out, leaving the boys and several hundred other behind.

Dave and Freddy find a cave and they both fall asleep, despite the explosions from the German bombs.  The next morning they discover the train tracks are destroyed, but decide to follow what is left of them in order to get to Dunkirk.

As they approach Dunkirk, they are stopp by a British soldier, but once again, their reputation has preceded them and he knows exactly who they are.  The small boat rescue was underway, and as they wait their turn to board a boat, the boys notice as motorboat drifting after being hit by German planes.  They quickly swim out to it and found the boat OK, but the owner is dead.  Just as they are about to collect men from the beach, a U-Boat torpedoes a ship full of soldiers and they turn the motorboat in that direction to save some of them from that burning, sinking ship.  And of all people, it is General Caldwell they pull out of the water.  He tells them that the last of the British Army was at that moment being picked up and it was time to head back to England.

Robert Sidney Bowen had some experience with war time flying.  He was actually a World War I flying ace, having shot down 8 enemy planes.  This and an incredible imagination certainly qualified him for writing the Dave Dawson series, as well as the Red Randall series, begun in 1944.  Altogether, Dave Dawson and Freddy Farmer share 15 war time adventures in both Europe and the Pacific, though Freddy never gets his name in any of the titles, consigning him to mere sidekick status.

Dave Dawson at Dunkirk is neither realistic (what mother would allow her 17 year old son to go to France at that time?) nor plausible, but readers didn’t demand that, they wanted adventure and they got adventure.   My personal favorite thing about this book was Bowen's use the device of unconsciousness in order not to have to explain how some things happen.  How did Dave end up in Belgium and how did Dave and Freddy end up in the British Military hospital?  Your guess is as good as mine.  And how did they survive their harrowingly dangerous adventures?  Lady Luck!  Apparently these conveniences did not bother their fans, who loved reading their adventures.  

This book is recommended for readers 10 and up
This book was downloaded free from Project Gutenberg and you can download and read it, too.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

This and That

A few bits of this and that:

Last year, I reviewed a time travel book called Don’t Know Where, Don’t Know When, Book 1 of The Snipesville Chronicles by Annette Laing.  It is a very nice time travel mystery involving three friends who find themselves in 1940 England, caught up in an evacuation of children during the Blitz.  They soon get caught in solving the mystery of what happened to a young black evacuee.  It is an interesting story, and the time travel element has a nice twist.  If it sounds like something you or someone you know would like to read, now you can buy the E-book from Barnes and Noble or Amazon for only 99¢. 

Last year, I participated in the Holiday Readathon for charity hosted by Liza Wiemer at WhoRuBlog, where anyone can sign up to participate.  The rules are simple and there is still time to sign up, if you would like to participate.   I did this last year.  I read 888 pages at 5¢ each, donated the money to the Salvation Army and 11 books, so I filled my shopping cart with canned good and staples and brought it to a local food bank. I will do the same this year.

I am excited to be participating in this year’s Book Blogger Holiday Swap for the second time.  When I signed up, I was thinking that last year I felt like such a newbie at blogging, but now that I am doing things for the second time, I feel more like an old hand and am looking forward to all the blogging events the future holds. 

This year I have also signed up for the Book Bloggers Holiday Card Exchange hosted by Anastasia at Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog.  You can find all the info on this and sign up to participate until November 30, 2011.  It, too, sounds like a lot of fun.

That time of the year is again upon us where bloggers decide whether or not to participate in Reading Challenges.  Last year, in my bloggy zeal, I signed up for a number of challenges, most of which I enjoyed.  This year, I am going to be a little more restrained.  So far, I am only committed to the World War I Challenge hosted by Anna and Serena at War Through the Generations

I am tempted to try Cruisin' thru the Cozies Reading Challenge hosted by Yvonne at Socrates’ Book Reviews, since I have found a few apropos novels set in WW II. 

And my friend Zohar over at Man of la Book is hosting a perpetual challenge called appropriately enough The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen a la Book Challenge, based on the novel by Alan Moore.  You might want to check this out.

This year I participated in NANOWRIMO for the first time and what I learned, well, really I already knew this, was that I am a very slow writer.  I also learned that while the one page outline worked for academic stuff like my dissertation, it doesn't work for a novel.  But it has been a great experience and my novel is so much further along than it was one month ago, when all I had written was the working title - The Year I Turned 15 (clever and original, I know)  It is a historical novel set in, big surprise, World War II and, I admit, I spent days in the library double checking facts, which I wasn't supposed to do, but I am a little OCD and couldn't help myself.  But I loved NANOWRIMO because it gave me the push I needed to get moving. 

And so...

It has been a very exciting year of blogging for me and, since this is Thanksgiving Weekend, it seems an appropriate time to tell everyone how very grateful I am for all your encouragement and support, and your comments and suggestions.   Thank you!

Friday, November 25, 2011

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr

First published in 1971, I have chosen Judith Kerr’s children’s classic When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit to read for the fourth week of the German Literature Month challenge.  Kerr was born in Berlin in 1923.  Her family chose to flee Germany just before the Nazis came to power because her father, Alfred Kerr, a well-known writer, had openly criticized this regime.  When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit is Kerr’s autobiographical novel about their flight.

The book begins just before the March 1933 election.  Things are pretty good for Anna, 9, and her older brother, Max.  They do well in school and enjoy playing with their friends.  They are Jewish, but secular Jews.  But one day her father disappears and Anna learns that he has traveled to Prague.  He had been warned that he would be a wanted man by the Nazis depending on what happened in the upcoming election.   

A few days before the election, the Reichstag Fire occurs and it is decided that the rest of the family would now travel to Switzerland to meet up with him.  All household goods are packed and put into storage, including all the toys and games that belong to the children.  Their Onkle Julius, who happens to have had a Jewish grandmother, but thinks he is safe and that the Nazis won’t last anyway, is sorry to see them go, but expects the family back with a short time.

The train to Switzerland is a harrowing adventure.  There is always the fear that the passports will be questioned or worse, taken from them, barring entry to Switzerland.  But everything goes well and the family arrives in Zurich and are all reunited.  They soon learn that the Nazis had shown up at their home in Berlin to collect their passports the morning after the election that gave Hitler supreme power in Germany. 

The formerly well off family suddenly finds themselves very poor and Anna’s father can find very little work as a writer/journalist.  Despite their neutrality, the Swiss don’t want provoke the Nazis right across the border.  Nevertheless, Anna and her family remain in Switzerland for about a year, living in two small, inexpensive rooms at a Gasthof.  It is very pleasant there; in fact, the only unpleasant incidents are from German visitors who refuse to let their children play with Jews.

It is later decided to move to Paris, in the hope of getting more paid work.  Once again the family find themselves living in a small, inexpensive apartment.  There are many adjustment difficulties, such as Max and Anna are expected to attend school and learn French at the same time.  Food and money are scarce, and everyone is beginning to get on each other’s nerves.  But they make friends with the Fernand family, which gives them some social outlet.  Eventually, the family makes it way to London, where things are expected to work out better for the family. 

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit is an uncomplicated book, told from the point of view of a child, which Kerr was when she lived through these events.  Yet, if you read between the lines, it is a much more multifaceted story for anyone who knows something about the history of that period of time in Nazi Germany.   And Onkle Julius is typical of many people who believed that things would get better, that heritage didn’t count and by the time they realized the danger they were in, it was too late to leave Germany.

I did feel that Kerr’s depiction of what life is like as a refugee may have been a little too rose-colored, and since I felt that the character of Anna never really grew, so she saw everything rather naively.  The incidents where the family faced some serious danger from the Nazis were well done, but the day to day existence of having no money and being cold, hungry or afraid were really skimmed over.   On the other hand, Kerr is a self-proclaimed optimist and I am not.  Yet, I do feel that this is a book that should be read by both children and adults.

This book is recommended for readers age 9 and up.
This book was purchased for my person library.

This is book 4 of my German Literature Month challenge hosted by Lizzie's Literary Life and Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit 
Judith Kerr
Penguin Group
2009, 1971
192 Pages

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Victory Through Balloons - some Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade history

Early Parade Announcement
When we were kids, every Thanksgiving Day my mother would give each of us a bag of walnuts, a nutcracker and a bowl and place us in front of the television to shell the nuts and watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.  We thought we were helping out somehow, even though walnuts never appeared in any of the dishes served that day.  Later, I discovered it was my mother's scheme to keep up out of her way and prevent any sibling squabbling. And it worked, and, to this day, every Thanksgiving I have an urge to watch the parade and shell walnuts.

The parade was always memorizing, punctuated with commercials for toys, games and dolls we were urged to want for Christmas.  I don’t think I have ever not watched the parade, or at least had it on while I did other things.  There has already been news coverage of this year’s parade, and it got me thinking about its history.

Felix the Cat 1927
The parade began in 1924, going from 110th Street in Harlem to Macy’s Herald Square on 34th Street. a total of 6 miles.  At first, it was just people dressed up in various costumes, animals from the Central Park Zoo and gaily decorated floats, but in 1927 Felix the Cat made his appearance as the first balloon.  In 1928, the parade’s balloons were released into the air, until they deflated.  They had name tags sewn in them, so the finder could return it to Macy’s.  This scheme didn't work very well, though.

By 1939, the first year of the war in Europe, the parade was shortened, beginning at 106th Street in Harlem.  That year, there were several balloons, including a crowd pleasing 50 foot Santa Clause and a very large Uncle Sam, who had to be re-pumped a little during the parade. Over one million men, women and mostly children lined the parade route, watching Macy's employees dressed up in costumes, the balloons and the 26 floats.  And for the very first time, the parade was televised on NBC from a camera mounted on the Museum of Natural History.

In 1940, an 80 foot Superman balloon was added to the parade. Superman almost escaped at Columbus Circle, when he began to list to one side and a rope got caught on a flagpole, but he managed to stay upright and make it to his final destination on 34th Street, along with his other balloon  pals: Laffo the clown, a 35 foot Hippo and of course Santa and Uncle Sam.  Again, more that one million people lined the streets to watch the parade.  

The missing Uncle Sam
Thanksgiving Day 1941 was almost summer-like, with temperatures in the high 60s to 70.  This parade was slightly more patriotic than in the past.  When the store windows were unveiled by Santa Clause, “The Star Spangled Banner” was played and during the parade Dinah Shore sang “A Merry American Christmas” which was written just for this parade. Some new balloons were added: Dumbo, the pink elephant, the Reluctant Dragon, a giant goldfish, and a 75 foot tall football player (nice to know football dominated Thanksgiving than as it does now) joined a newly refurbished Superman and Laffo the clown, but alas, no Uncle Sam.  There was supposed to be 7 balloons altogether, but only six made the parade.  Just as the parade was getting underway the giant Santa Clause, which was supposed to lead the parade, suddenly collapsed.  A portent of things to come?  Just a few weeks later, America was at war.

Poor Santa

The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was cancelled in 1942, 1943 and 1944. In 1942, the seven giant balloons were donated to the government’s rubber scrape drive.  The 60 foot dragon balloon was inflated with air, not the usual helium now also needed for the war effort, and New York's Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, dressed up as St. George, symbolically “slew” it with his dagger.  The seven balloons resulted in 650 pounds of rubber.

Dragon in livelier times

The parade returned, complete with balloons, floats, and bands in 1945, to the delight of the 2 million kids who watched in along the route, despite the cold, raw weather.  And it has been happening every year since then.

 I wish everyone a very Happy Thanksgiving

**If you happen to be in NYC over the holidays, there is an exhibit on the 85th Anniversary of the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade at the Children's Museum of Manhattan complete with models of parade balloons and includes original artwork from Melissa Sweet’s book Balloons Over Broadway, the story of Tony Sarg, “the puppeteer of Macy’s Parade,” a book that has been reviewed on a number of blogs this year.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

A Song for Summer by Eva Ibbotson

The choice for the third week of the German Literature Month challenge was to pick an Austrian or Swiss writer to read. So I chose A Song for Summer by Eva Ibbotson.  Most people think that Eva Ibbotson is a British novelist and she was.  But she is also an Austrian novelist, and though she left Vienna in the early 1930s because of Hitler and the Nazis, her love for Austria is almost always evident in her novels.

A Song for Summer is no exception.  Londoner Ellen Carr has been raised by her mother and two aunts, all intellectuals and suffragettes, who desired Ellen to follow in their footsteps.  But Ellen’s heart lies outside academics; she is much more attracted to the domestic sciences.  So, after graduating from the Lucy Hatton School of Cookery and Household Management, Ellen takes a job as matron in a rather unconventional boarding school in Halllendorf, Austria.

The school is completely at sixes and sevens, but within a week Ellen has set it to rights.  And because this is an Ibbotson story, all the characters, teachers and students, are extraordinarily eccentric, who succumb to Ellen’s ministrations without sacrificing any of their personality.  And Ellen finds that she herself is attracted to the quiet, mysterious gardener, Marek Tarnowsky.  

But Marek, it turns out, had more than one secret.  For one, he is a resistance worker.  He and his friend Professor Steiner drive around in Steiner’s van to various countries rescuing Jews and smuggling them to safety, doing this under the guise of collecting folk songs from these places.  Marek has been searching for another old friend, Isaac Meierwitz, a Jewish music conductor who had been put into a concentration camp and had managed to escape.  When a rescue is finally attempted, it ends in two gunshots.  Each man believes the other has been shot.  Meierwitz wanders for hours looking for Steiner’s van, but ultimately, after days of walking and hiding, he makes his way to the school, finding succor there – Ellen hides him in plain sight by pretending he is her new chef apprentice.
Marek’s other secret is that he is a world famous composer, pursued by an aging, jealous, possessive soprano, Brigitta Seefeld, with whom he had once had an affair.  But Marek has now decided to live in America, causing heartbreak in both Ellen and Brigitta.  If the road to true love is rocky, for Ellen Carr the road is strewn with boulders and Nazis. 
Whenever I read an Ibbotson novel I feel as though I have entered not a fantasy world, but a parallel universe.  A Song for Summer is not exactly conventional historical fiction.  Yes, the threat of Nazism hangs over Europe and she acknowledges this repeatedly, but the school in Hallendorf seems to be devoid of any kind of direct Nazi threat, as there was in The Dragonfly Pool, and though there certainly were Austrians who supported Hitler early on, they did not live near Hallendorf.  One would at least expect some representative of the Reich to be throwing his weight around, even though the majority of this novel is played out prior the Austria’s annexation to Nazi Germany (the very short Part II is set during the war and the even shorter Epilogue is in 1945, just after the war’s end.)  

I have always enjoyed Ibbotson’s unconventional cast of characters and A Song for Summer doesn’t disappoint on that score.   And I have also always enjoyed the way Ibbotson plays around with opposites in her characters – such as the soul sucking behavior of renowned singer Brigitta Seefeld, the shy, weak Kendrick Frobisher’s pretentiousness, the untalented FitzAllen stealing a Brecht property to gain fame, and the self-important behavior of people who think they are better than others when they clearly are not.  Ibbotson’s portrayal of these characters is totally spot on.

A Song for Summer is a wonderful historical romance novel, something I seldom read, but enjoyed thoroughly.  It was originally written in 1997 and marketed as an adult novel, but was recently reissued as a Young Adult book.  And I believe it is a novel that won’t disappoint adult or YA readers.

This book is recommended for readers 12 and up
This book was purchased for my personal library

This is book 3 of my German Literature Month challenge hosted by Lizzie's Literary Life and Beauty is a Sleeping Cat
A Song for Summer
Eva Ibbotson
397 Pages

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Eddie’s War by Carol Fisher Saller

In Eddie’s War, Carol Fisher Saller explores the impact of World War II on a young boy living on a small farm in Ellisville, Illinois.  It is written as a series of dated vignettes, in verse, beginning in January 1934 and ending in November 1944.

Eddie Carl is the younger son of Wynton and May Carl.  In January 1934, Eddie is left at the library by his older brother Thomas, while he is at the barber shop.  Eddie sees a man reading the newspaper and when the librarian asks if she can help him, Eddie asks for a newspaper, too. 

Over time, Eddie continues to read the paper in the library sitting across from the same man and learning about the events that will lead up to World War II.  In 1938 the man, Jozef Mirga, finally speaks to Eddie, asking him to help him read the paper to find news of his home in Poland, now that the Nazis were a threat to him family, who happened to be Gypsies. 

Slowly the vignettes reveal how the people around him impact Eddie’s life, influencing the kind of person he will become as he grows up.  He learns a lesson in kindness when his brother is told to kill the growing baby foxes that he and Eddie had rescued, including Eddie’s favorite, Bitsy.  He witnesses how Thomas’s friend Gabe does what he can do to help friend Curtis Ray after he fell out of a tree, a foreshadowing of later his heroics.  He learns why his wise father refuses to give into Eddie’s begging for a gun before he is 12.  And about Eddie’s long term crush on Sarah Mulberry, starting at a young age, a wise choice given her own compassionate nature.

But hardest of all things is when his brother Thomas enlists after the US enters the war.  Eddie idolizes Thomas and worry about him, but at the same time he is proud of his brother piloting bombers over in Europe   And his disappointment when Thomas comes home and doesn’t want to talk about the war and his experiences.  Eddie, like most kids too young to fight, has romanticized the idea of being in a war and wants Thomas to confirm his ideas.  But, as with all wars, reality comes along and it is very different for Eddie.

Eddie’s War is a not to be missed story that is a poignant coming of age look into the world of one young boy during the war.  Saller based it on a diary that her father had begun as a 12 year old boy in 1944, but she says that Eddie is NOT her father, but some of the things that her dad wrote did make their way into the book as ideas. 

I liked Eddie’s War a great deal, partly because over time I have done quite a bit of research on home front life in the United States, both in the city and the country and I found this to be a very realistic picture of what it was like.  And in the middle of all that is a young boy, trying to understand right from wrong, and understanding the courage it sometimes takes to do the right thing. 

Carol Fisher Saller has a wonderful website about Eddie’s War, where readers and teachers can find information about the 1940’s and World War II as well as questions for discussion.  And as a real treat, there are copies of a page from her father’s diary and a letter he wrote to his older brother serving in the service. 

This book is recommended for readers ages 10 and up.
This book was received as an E-ARC through

Eddie's War
Carol Fisher Saller 
194 Pages 

Monday, November 14, 2011

From the Archives # 15: Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner

This is the second week of the German Literature Month challenge and for that we were supposed to read a crime novel.  I considered a lot of different choices, but decided on Emil and the Detectives for one simple reason.  That reason is that it is a book I haven’t read since forever and I really like Erich Kästner.

Emil and the Detectives is a pretty straightforward story.  Young Emil is being sent off to Berlin to visit relatives for a week long holiday.  He is taking the train and carrying money, which his mother instructs him to give to his grandmother when he arrives in Berlin at the Friedrich Straße and not to lose it on the way.
The train ride lasts a number of hours and Emil finds himself in a full compartment.  One of the women knows someone from Emil’s hometown and asks him to carry her regards to him when he returns home.  After a while, Emil finds he is in the compartment with only one other person, a man with a mustache and a bowler hat who introduces himself as Mr. Grundeis.  

Mr. Grundeis makes Emil feel very uncomfortable, and he must fight to stay awake because of that.  But eventually he succumbs, believing the money is safe, pinned to the inside of his jacket.  However, when he awakens, much to his horror, he finds the money is gone and sees Mr. Grundeis getting off the train at the Tiergarten station.  Emil quickly gathers his belongings together and follows him, sure that he in the person who stole his money.  

Emil follows Mr. Grundeis to a café where, while he is spying on him, he meets another boy named Gustav.  He explains the situation to Gustav, adding that he cannot call the police because he himself had committed the crime of drawing a red nose and mustache on the statue of the Grand Duke in his hometown of Neustadt.  Gustav offers to help Emil get his money back and soon produces 24 other children, all ready to help.  What follows is priceless. 

Since Emil already knows the identity of the person who stole his money, the novel isn’t a classic ‘whodunit’; it doesn’t involve any of the usual detection methods of finding a criminal.  What it does do is present a highly organized, well run effort on the part of the “detectives” in trapping and capturing the thief who stole Emil’s 140 Marks.  But don’t think this is a classic coming of age story, it isn’t.  It is just an adventure in the lives of these kids, and at the end, they go home unchanged, but satisfied.

Emil and the Detectives is considered to be the first children’s book featuring a child detective and it is Kästner’s best known and most loved children’s book, published continuously since 1928.  He hated the Nazis and they didn’t like him much.  All his books were burned on May 10, 1933, because they were considered to be contrary to the German spirit.  The only exception was Emil and the Detectives.  I guess the Nazis figured that this group of 24 detectives was too clever to renounce.  

What I really like about this book is that Kästner seems to have had a high regard for children, portraying them as clever, thoughtful individuals capable of rationally planning and carrying out a way of catching a thief, but still able to commit childish pranks such as Emil’s indiscretion with the statue of the Grand Duke.  But for the most part, Kästner expects his child characters to be uncorrupted and to act morally and they don’t disappoint.  

Even if you are not familiar with Emil and the Detectives, Kästner is a familiar writer to us.  In 1949 he wrote Das doppelte Lottchen.  Walt Disney found this story and produced the 1964 movie The Parent Trap with Hayley Mills and again in 1998 with Lindsay Lohan, based on it.  Emil and the Detectives was also made into a movie in 1964, but it apparently wasn’t very good.  

There are not many translations of Emil and the Detectives, and in fact, a new and better ones really needs to be done.  In one translation, Emil's last name Tischbein is translated as Tabletoe, which isn't even correct, it should be Tableleg - Avoid this translation at all costs!!   The English edition I read was published by Barnes and Noble and it was terrible, but Emil continued to be Emil Tischbein.  It did  completely anglicized the story, so expressions like topping or tophole are found and the Marks are turned into British Pounds.  Of course, it would be best to read it in the original German, which is wonderful, but not always possible. And don't overlook the wonderful illustrations by Walter Tier.  Though the translation may leave much to be desired, they always stick to the Tier illustrations.

This book is recommended for readers age 8 and up
This book was purchased for my personal library

This is book 2 of my German Literature Month challenge hosted by Lizzie's Literary Life and Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

Emil and the Detectives
Erich Kästner
Barnes and Noble
102 Pages

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Velva Jean Learns to Fly by Jennifer Niven

Velva Jean Learns to Fly continues the story of Velva Jean Hart Bright begun in Velva Jean Learns to Drive. In this second novel, Jennifer Niven explores the world of the newly formed WASP,or Women Airforce Service Pilots, in World War II through the experiences of her determined, independent, strong-willed 18 year old protagonist, Velva Jean.

Velva Jean had married her preacher husband Harley Bright when she was 16. She saved as much money as possible and learned to drive, enabling her to leave this abusive marriage. When this sequel opens, Velva is driving her yellow truck from her home in Fair Mountain, North Carolina to Nashville, to realize her dreams of singing at the Grand Ole Opry. Her first day in Nashville, August 23, 1941, standing outside the Opry, a tall, striking woman hands her some money thinking she is needy. After the Opry lets out, Velva Jean finds the woman and returns the money to her. The woman, 26 year old Beryl Goss, or Gossie, takes her in, helps her get a job and introduces Velva Jean to Nashville life. The two become fast friends.

Life in Nashville brings other new things to Velva Jean. She teaches herself how to type, gets a job and bombards the head of the Grand Ole Opry with letters asking for an audition. She also receives regular letters from her husband, but refuses to open them and just puts them away.

On May 21, 1942, Velva Jean’s life changes completely when her brother Johnny Clay Hart comes to Nashville. Johnny Clay has signed up to be a paratrooper, but has some time before his training begins. Impatient to start, Johnny Clay finds a flying instructor to take him and Velva Jean up for her first airplane ride. Scared but thrilled, Velva Jean falls in love with flying and begins taking lessons in earnest. Her flying teacher considers her a natural, and when he hands Velva Jean a copy of Life magazine with an article about two government programs for women pilots, she determines that is what she wants to do, despite being too short, underage and under educated.

Undaunted, however, Velva Jean begins to inundate the head of the WASP program, Jacqueline Cochran, with letters asking for a chance anyway. In October, 1942, she is called in for an interview. In December, Velva Jean is accepted into the WASP program and in February 1943, she leaves Nashville for Texas and pilot training.

Needless to say, Velva Jean has a lot of adventures and experiences, in Nashville, on a visit home to Fair Mountain, in Texas and later at Camp Davis in North Carolina. Some of these involve the usual experiences of loss and love. What really stands out and is the most disturbing are the obstacles that women face while trying to serve their country. In reality, the WASPs really did face many obstacles. Flying was still relatively new, and women fliers were just not readily accepted. WASP experiences in Texas, at Avenger Field where they trained, were for the most part quite positive, as they are portrayed in this novel. But life was not always pleasant at Camp Davis, where male pilots resented the women who could do their job just as well or, sometimes, better, an did things that put their lives in jeopardy.

The characters and setting created by Niven in this novel are well developed and believable. The language is simple, but clear. My only complaint was that there may have been too explanatory. For example, I think there was sometimes more technical information about different planes than I could really understand. But these are minor, and could appeal to other readers. I enjoyed reading this book very much and was particularly grateful that Niven was able to keep Velva Jean from sounding like a southern stereotype, speaking with a vocabulary of nothing more than down home platitudes.

Velva Jean Learns to Fly is not really a YA novel, but is an adult novel that would have a great deal of appeal to many older teen readers. At 16, Velva Jean’s life looked like it was full of limitations. Two years later, it was full of possibilities and all because Velva Jean decided to take over the direction her life was going in. You could say, perhaps, that driving in the first novel is a metaphor for coming of age, but flying in this second novel is a metaphor for soaring. And Velva Jean is a wonderful example of that indomitable spirit that is the stuff of good YA novels, and that is so admirable.

I really liked this novel a lot and do recommend reading it. Velva Jean Learns to Fly can be read as a stand alone novel. References made to people, places or events that happened in Velva Jean Learns to Drive are not in the least a problem. Enough background information is provided to understand what is being referred to, but not so much that if you decide to read the first book it will be spoiled.

The book is recommended for readers age 14 to adult
The book was received as an E-ARC through

Find more information about the WASP program WASP on the WEB
(and be sure to check out the Arcade Games there, my person favorite was Dress the WASP)

PBS also has information on Fly Girls where you can even explore the B29 Super Fortress that played such an important role in Velma Jean Learns to Fly

Velva Jean Learns to Fly
Penguin Group
432 pages

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Sunday Funnies #5: Veteran’s Day 2011

Special Veteran's Day Edition

Today is Veteran’s Day or Remembrance Day, depending on where you live. It is a day on which we honor all soldiers who have fallen in combat since World War I. But it is also a day to honor all the soldiers who are still serving in the Armed Forces.

Here in New York, there is always a Veteran’s Day parade up Fifth Avenue from 23rd Street to 56th Street. This parade has been happening every year since 1929, but it wasn’t so very long ago that there was talk about canceling it. Why? Lack of interest. Interest has since picked up again in recent years and now the parade is better attended.

One person who never forgot Veteran’s Day was Charles Schulz, creator of my muse, Snoopy.  Sometimes, he was the only one to remember.  Schulz was a veteran of World War II, serving in Europe with the 20th Armored Division. He began his career as a cartoonist in 1947, and always maintained that his early influences were Milton Caniff (Terry and the Pirates) and Bill Mauldin (Willie and Joe), both popular cartoons in World War II.

Snoopy made his first appearance as the World War I Flying Ace on his Sopwith Camel on October 10, 1965. His arch enemy was The Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen. But beginning on November 11, 1969, through Snoopy, Schulz honored Veteran’s Day until 1999, just before he passed away in 2000. Many of those years, Snoopy, dressed as an Army Veteran, would go over to Bill Mauldin’s house to quaff a few root beers and pay homage to veteran’s everywhere.

Why Mauldin? During the war, while serving with the 45th Infantry Division, Mauldin worked on the newspaper for his unit. He created Willie and Joe, two “dogface” soldiers that represented all soldiers. Willie and Joe became very popular because they depicted the ordinary soldier’s life the way it was, and gave them hero status. Willie and Joe was an editorial cartoon, so they were sometime raw and definitely not for children.  Mauldin won two Pulitzer Prizes for his work after the war.

Here, then, is a sample of some of Schulz’s Veteran’s Day stripes:

November 11, 1969 The first Veteran's Day Stripe

November 11, 1976 Tribute to all the Rosie the Riveters in World War II

November 11, 1985

November 11, 1997 This speaks for itself

November 11, 1998 Tribute to Willie and Joe

November 11, 1999 Tribute to Ernie Pyle, the famous war correspondent

In Memoriam
FCP 1955-2001

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden

Carrie’s War is a coming of age story with a twist. While visiting the small Welsh mining town where she was billeted during World War II, Carrie Willow, a 42 year old widow with four children, tells them the story of her evacuation. At the start of the war, Carrie, then 11 and her younger brother Nick, 9, were put on a train along with so many other school children, to escape the anticipated bombing of London by the Germans.

In Wales, they end up living with a bullying, miserly shopkeeper, Mr. Evans, and his weak, oppressed younger sister, whom they are told to call Auntie Lou, eventually adjusting to life in this strained household.

Some months after arriving at the Evans home, Carrie and Nick are sent to fetch a Christmas goose at Druid’s Bottom, home of Mr. Evans other sister, Dilys Gotobed. Arriving at Druid’s Bottom, they discover that Albert Sandwich, a boy they met on the train to Wales, is living there, along with the seemingly magical housekeeper Hepzibah Green and Johnny Gotobed who has cerebral palsy. That night, Hepzibah tells them a story about a slave boy who was brought there and died within a year. Before he died, he cursed the house, saying that if his skull is ever removed from the house, some disaster would occur. Carrie half believed this story, even though Albert discredits it.

Happy and comfortable at Druid’s Bottom, Carrie and Nick spend as much time there as possible, entertained by Hepzibah’s stories, sated by her good and plentiful food and comforted by her warmth,. It is the polar opposite of life with Mr. Evans.

But everything changes when Mrs. Gotobed dies and Mr. Evans inherits everything, including Druid’s Bottom. Hepzibah and Mr. Johnny are told they have a month to make other arrangements for themselves. When Albert claims that Mrs. Gotobed said she had a will which took care of them, Carrie fears Mr. Evans may have taken it, and out of selfishness, denies it ever existed. In the middle of all of this, Carrie’s mother writes that she now wants the children to come live with her in Glasgow.

Bawden is spot on depicting the internal preadolescent emotional life of her character, giving the title of this story its irony. Carrie is a bundle of mixed emotions and conflicting feelings at war with each other, coupled with an overactive imagination. She has an overwhelming need to please the people around her, but also has feelings of anxiety about not being good enough. She experiences feelings of jealousy and hostility at her brother for his ability to get what he wants from people one minute and the next minute, she feels lovingly responsible and protective of him. And like most children, Carrie doesn’t completely understand the circumstances surrounding the adults in her world. This not understanding is what leads Carrie to commit the act that will arrest her “coming of age” and result a lifetime of living with guilt, prompting her to return to Druid’s Bottom with her own children 30 years later.

Carrie’s War is perhaps the most well-known book in Nina Bawden’s vast oeuvre. Just a little older than her main character, Bawden was evacuated from London to Wales at 14 in 1939, but returned to London in 1942. I am sure that Bawden’s experiences are what make Carrie’s War such a compelling story – as they say write what you know. Carrie's War was written in 1973, but still resonates in today’s world, making it definitely a book for read.

This book is recommended for readers age 12 and up.
This book was purchased for my personal library.

Bristol Reads offers an extensive activity pack for Carrie's War.

BBC produced a version of Carrie’s War in 2004 that is available on DVD, which is quite good, but I think failed to fully depict Carrie’s conflicted feelings, the whole point of calling it Carrie’s War.

Carrie’s War
Nina Bawden
Puffin Books
1973, 2010
208 pages

Sunday, November 6, 2011

From the Archives # 14: The Oppermanns by Lion Feuchtwanger

I am pleased to say, that The Oppermanns by Lion Feuchtwanger is my premiere Crossover entry.  It is a compelling, poignant novel written in late 1933 about a prosperous Jewish family’s first year living in Berlin under Nazi rule. The family consists of three brothers and one sister: Gustav, Martin, Edgar and Klara, and with the exception of unmarried Gustav, their spouses and children. They had inherited the three generations old family business of making inexpensive furniture and they have always thought of themselves as intelligent, educated Germans.

The novel begins on November 16, 1932. It is Gustav Oppermanns 50th birthday but he wakes up with a very vague uneasy feeling. Since he is a totally non-political man and hasn't paid very close attention to what is happening in Germany, he cannot identify the cause of his unease. Following some self-examination, he realizes that he has actually become indifferent. Disturbed by this insight, he writes out a postcard to send to himself, moving words from the Talmud that in the end will be an important driving force in Gustav’s life:

Dear Sir

Take note of this for all your life:
It is upon us to begin the work,
It is not upon us to complete it.

Yours very truly,
Gustav Oppermann
The Nazis have been gaining ground and things are beginning to change in Germany because of it. For the first time in its history, the Oppermann’s furniture business is forced to take on an approved Aryan partner in order to keep it running. This is a move that contributes to their eventually losing it altogether. Not long after that, Edgar, a prominent surgeon known for a very successful cure he developed called the Oppermann Treatment, is forced out of his clinic, falsely accused of mistreating his Aryan patients. But saddest of all is the story of Berthold, the 17 year old son of Martin and his non-Jewish wife, Liselotte. Berthold finds himself faced with an increasingly hostile Nazi teacher and his student followers when he refuses to “aryanize” a history report. Young and idealistic, Berthold is eventually driven to suicide.

Ultimately, the family is forced to flee Germany and Gustav goes into exile in Switzerland. He, like Feuchtwanger, had never taken Hitler seriously in the beginning. After all, how could this silly little man with the funny mustache, who couldn’t even write a good German sentence in Mein Kampf, rule a country like Germany? But after Berthold’s suicide, his eyes are opened and he begins to read everything he can about events in Germany. Gustav eventually makes the decision to return to Germany under a false identity and see for himself just what is happening and to records these things.

As he travels around Germany, he collects all kinds of examples of Nazi abuses, but one day he is caught, arrested and sent to a concentration camp.

What makes The Oppermanns so interesting is that it has the distinction of being the first story of its kind to tell about life under the Nazis and how it affected people opposed to Hitler. Feuchtwanger had based this story on reports he heard from people who had fled Germany for what they thought would be the safety of France and it is probably one of Feuchtwanger's better novels, at least in my opinion. Feuchtwanger had himself taken refuge in Paris when Hitler became chancellor of Germany and friends warned him not to return home – the Nazis had already been searched his home and he was on the list of banned books that were subsequently burned. Feuchtwanger remained in France until 1940 when he was arrested and placed in an internment camp for future deportation to a concentration camp and certain death. He is one of the artists that were rescued by Varian Fry (see my review In Defiance of Hitler: the Secret Mission of Varian Fry by Carla Killough McClafferty.)

The Oppermanns is a straight forward story that, when reading it with hindsight, contains a great deal of prescience, almost prophetically so. As a work of historical fiction, it is a good book for YA readers because it is not a complicated or terribly sophisticated work, requiring a great deal of background knowledge to make it understandable. This accessibility would have a great deal of appeal to a high school age reader interested in history, or those who simply like historical novels. When The Oppermanns was first published in the United States, it was extraordinarily popular, spending a good number of weeks on the NYTimes Bestseller List.  However, in the American version the ending was changed from the original German, which is unfortunate since I think the ending Feuchtwanger wrote made The Oppermanns a more powerful book. Nevertheless, it is still a very worthwhile book to read.

This book is recommended for readers’ ages 14 to adult
This book was purchased for my personal library.

This is book number 1 of my German Literature Month Challenge hosted by Lizzy’s Literary Life and Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

Thursday, November 3, 2011

So Far From the Bamboo Grove by Yoko Kawashima Watkins

So Far From the Bamboo Grove tells the story of an 11 year old Japanese girl, Yoko Kawashima, who had lived in Nanam in North Korea all her life; in fact, she had never even seen her homeland Japan.

But now, towards the end of the war, Yoko, her mother and older sister Ko are warned by a friend, Corporal Matsumura, that things are not going well and they must try to return to Japan immediately. With Mr. Kawashima, a Japanese diplomat, away in Manchuria, China, and their 18 year old brother Hideyo working elsewhere, Yoko, Ko and their mother leave their home in the middle of the night, taking only what they could carrying. The corporal had been able to secure them places on a hospital train bound for Seoul, where they hoped to find passage on a ship to Japan.

Hideyo had wanted to join the Japanese army when he learned that the war was no longer going well for them. But he is rejected by the army and placed in a factory in another part of Korea to make munitions for the Japanese army. When the war ends, he also finds it necessary to flee and the book is split between the difficulties he meets on his journey with that of the Kawashima women.

The women are able to board the train to Seoul using a letter from Corporal Matsumura, but when the train is bombed 45 miles away from that city, they are forced to walk the rest of the way.  Not long after they start walking, the women are stopped by three armed Korean Communist Army soldiers. But when planes fly over and bomb the area they are in, the soldiers are killed. The women take their uniforms, and because they speak fluent Korean, pass themselves off as Koreans for much of their journey. However, the bombs left Yoko with a painfully injured chest.

Eventually, the women make it to Seoul, where Yoko was fortunate enough to have her chest taken care of at the makeshift Japanese hospital. Ko minds their place in a train station, and must constantly scrounge around for food, while Yoko and her mother remain at the hospital. When Yoko is able to travel, once again manage to get places on a train, this time to Pusan, where they must await passage on a ship to Japan. But when Yoko arrives in Japan, it is not the beautiful, comforting, welcoming place she had always dreamt it would be. Japan is now a defeated country, reeling from the two atomic bombs that had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There is little food and great destruction, and no welcome for the new influx of refugees returning home. Once again, they find themselves living in a train station and scrounging in the garbage of others for food to survive.

So Far from the Bamboo Grove is a compelling, well-written story, detailing how the Kawashima women survive by their wits and much luck. It is a coming of age story, in which Yoko goes from a whining, complaining 11 year old to stronger, and more mature 12 year old girl.

Unfortunately, it is a story not without some controversy. While most people like the book, it has created quite a bit of resentment among Koreans and Korean Americans, who feel that the atrocities committed in Korea during the Japanese occupation was basically ignored and that some of the facts in the book are distorted. Koreans were portrayed as rather barbaric, and there is even the intimation of a Japanese woman being raped by a Korean man. Because of this, in 2006, the book was removed from the reading list for 6th graders at the Dover-Sherborn Middle School in Massachusetts, but was later out back on it. The school decided to find other books that would give the story of Japan occupation in Korea some balance. Which reminded me of When My Name was Keoko. Both books are based on the true experiences of young girls who lived through the war in Korea. Their stories are very different, but read in tandem, the two books do offer a more balanced historical context on this controversial time and that is how I would recommend reading them.

This book is recommended for readers age 12 and up.
This book was purchased for my personal library.

An extensive study guide for So Far from the Bamboo Grove is available at The Glencoe Literature Library.
A concept analysis guide is available from

Ironically, Yoko Kawashima Watkins received The Courage of Conscience Award from the Peace Abby in Sherborn, Massachusetts, despite the controversy surrounding her story.

So Far From the Bamboo Grove
Yoko Kawashima Watkins
192 Pages

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Winter in Wartime by Jan Terlouw

It is the last winter of World War 2 and the people in Holland are cold and hungry. Their country has been devastated by the occupying German forces. For Michiel Van Beusekom, the war is about to get much more dangerous, and now, at 15, he feels ready to actively work against the Germans.

And it looks liked his chance quickly arrives in the form of his neighbor and friend Dirk Knopper. Michiel knows Dirk is in the Dutch Resistance, and Dirk knows he can trust Michiel. On evening, Dirk tells him there is going to be a raid on a distribution center in order to obtain ration cards and identify papers for people in hiding. He give Michiel a letter and tells him to make sure he give it to another Bertus Van Gelder, another friend and resistance member, if anything goes wrong.

And everything does go wrong. Dirk is arrested with his two companions, as is Bertus Van Gelder. Puzzled at how the Gestapo knew what was going on and who was involved, Michiel doesn’t know what to do with the letter. He finally decides reads the letter himself. Inside are instructions for finding a hiding place in the woods, in which Dirk has hidden an injured British pilot named Jack.

Michiel finds the hideout and Jack, and promises to bring him food every other day. But Jack’s injuries are not healing well, so Michiel is forced to let his older sister Erica, a nurse, in on his secret. He didn’t want to expose Erica to any danger, especially since so many things were going wrong lately.

Meanwhile, when the body of a dead German soldier is discovered, it is assumed by the Gestapo that he was killed by one of the Dutch residents of the village of Vlank. They demand that the person come forward and confess, but when that doesn’t happen, they change tactics. They round up a group of 10 random people, including Michiel’s father, the Mayor of Vlank, and announce that they would be publicly hung if the culprit didn’t come forward. When there was still no confession of guilt from anyone, five people are released, but five are shot to death, including Michiel’s father.

While Winter in Wartime is essentially a coming of age story, it is also a suspenseful and tense story that realistically depicts the dangers many people in Nazi occupied countries faced. Although Michiel willingly takes of the resistance activities of a grown man, he does have his moments of question. For example, his plan for sneaking an elderly Jewish man and his son past the Germans guarding a river crossing works brilliantly, until innocent victims are made to pay the price. And yet what becomes clear in this story is also the willingness of people to risk their lives to help those who are even more oppressed and despised, no matter what.

The book was originally published in Dutch in 1972, and issued in translation in 1976. In 2008, an apparently not very good movie (I haven’t seen it yet) was made, also in Dutch, with English subtitles. And in early 2011, the novel Winter in Wartime was re-released. Oddly enough, I cannot find the translators name. The translation is a little awkward and a little abrupt at times, but it certainly does not diminish the quality and impact of this book.

The author, Jan Terkouw, was born in 1931, son of a clergyman. I am sure that many of his experiences in the war are included in Winter in Wartime. The vivid impressive portrayal of the cold, bleak winter weather, the constant stream of people wandering the roads in search of food to bring back to their children, and the difficulty of riding in it on a bicycle with wooden wheels could only come from experience. I was also impressed that I was surprised by the ending, which I never would have suspected.

This book is recommended for readers age 12 and up
The book was a received as an E-ARC from

This is book number 17 of my Forgotten Treasures Challenge hosted by Retroreduxs Reviews