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Jill Meyer (United States)

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Pavel & I: A Novel
Pavel & I: A Novel
Price: CDN$ 9.99

5.0 out of 5 stars A dark and moody book..., Oct. 6 2015
Berlin in December, 1946 was struggling through its second post-war winter. Conditions were barely livable in the city; 7 years of war had left the inhabitants living in rubble. Feral children lived in colonies; their parents lost to war and disease. The city was occupied by the four Allied forces and the city was divided into four parts.

British author Dan Vyleta brings this strange and horrifying world to life in his novel, "Pavel and I". To the reader, the identity of "I" comes relatively late in the novel; Pavel, however, is, maybe, a former American GI, living in a frigid apartment with lots and lots of books. Pavel begins the novel suffering from a kidney infection and in grave need of medicine. His occasional apartment mate is a young orphan boy, Anders, who also lives with a group of feral boys. His allegiance - such as it is - is with Pavel, whose ways he just doesn't always understand. Also in the story is their upstairs neighbor, Sonia, who is the mistress of a repulsive British officer. The British officer and a Soviet officer are on the hunt for a midget who was a Nazi and who was found dead. The body was hauled away by a friend of Pavel and hidden at Pavel's apartment. The friend also turns up dead. Who killed who...and what is everyone looking for? And why are the bodies piling up.

Now, dead Nazi midgets, prostitutes, decadent Allied officers, random acts of cruelty, all set in the frozen weather of winter 1946-7, may not sound like your cup of tea. But, Vyleta, the author of "The Quiet Twin" and "The Crooked Maid" (both set in post-war Vienna), delivers a moody and fascinating tale about what comes "next", after the war where millions have died already and another body here or there just doesn't matter in the greater scheme of things. "Pavel and I" is a superb, moody book, not for every reader. So read all the reviews carefully before you buy this book. And, if you like it, check into his other two books.

Building Art: The Life and Work of Frank Gehry
Building Art: The Life and Work of Frank Gehry
by Paul Goldberger
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 28.21
35 used & new from CDN$ 27.94

5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful biography of a creative genius..., Sept. 27 2015
I want to start my review by saying that I'm not particularly a fan of Frank Gehry's work, but I certainly find him amazing for his influence on modern architecture and his years of contributions to society. I was anxious to read critic Paul Goldberger's biography of Gehry, "Building Art: The Life and Work of Frank Gehry". The book, which was written with the cooperation of Gehry and his friends and family and clients, is very even handed. It's clear that Goldberger admires Frank Gehry, but his fondness for his subject doesn't blind him to Gehry's lesser points.

Frank Gehry, by now in his mid-80's, is still hard at work. A man who is uncompromising in his architectural principles, he is known for his buildings all over the world. As an architect, the Canadian-born Gehry - he changed his last name from "Goldberg" to "Gehry" - began his practice in Los Angeles in the early 1950's. He was sought out to design commercial buildings and public buildings, but he gained worldwide fame with his Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain in the 1990's. Suddenly everyone wanted a Frank Gehry-building, but his type of architecture must go through many levels of approval by both financial and artist groups, and many a design never left the drawing boards in Gehry's Los Angeles office. But he has built grand buildings from Berlin to Paris to Los Angeles to parts of Asia.

Paul Goldberger gives as complete a picture of Frank Gehry on a personal level as he does on a professional one. Twice married and the father of four children, Goldberger makes no secret of Gehry's failings as a parent, particularly of the two daughters from his first marriage. Of course, Gehry was building his career, which is often the case.

All in all, Paul Goldberger's biography of Frank Gehry is outstanding. Whether you like Gehry's work or not. The only complaint I have about the book, which I read in e-book form, was that it had a lot of typos. I also wish there were more photographs, but by reading it on my iPad, I was able to switch over to Wikipedia when I wanted to see a building whose picture was not included in the book.

RFK Jr.: Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and the Dark Side of the Dream
RFK Jr.: Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and the Dark Side of the Dream
Offered by Macmillan CA
Price: CDN$ 15.99

4.0 out of 5 stars An interesting biography..., Sept. 27 2015
Jerry Oppenheimer writes biographies that I sometimes feel a little dirty after having read them. I felt that after reading his latest on Robert Kennedy, Jr. But, here's the thing. As a reader, I know that I will get a fairly complete view of the subject, as it has been in this latest biography by Oppenheimer, so basically I can't complain about the writing, which is hurled at the reader with breakneck speed. Sort of like dodging incoming.

I assume that the everybody reading this review and the others think Bobby Kennedy is a rather dodgy character. His marital record - which Oppenheimer goes into great detail - and his drug taking are certainly nothing positive in Kennedy's life, but the man is also a product of his environment, literally. Seeing his father's lifeless body in Los Angeles in 1968 and then being rejected by his mother, who was too busy mourning to take an interest in her grieving children, certainly took a toll on the 14 year old Bobby. Shuttled between schools and trips to exotic places on vacations didn't give him much stability. Oppenheimer makes no bones about the possible affects old JFK best friend Lem Billings had on Bobby when a clueless - or uncaring - Ethel placed Bobby in his care.

I'm willing to look past Oppenheimer's very readable biography of Bobby, Jr to try to figure out what has caused him to be the waste of space he grew into.

A Guest at the Shooters' Banquet: My Grandfather's SS Past, My Jewish Family, A Search for the Truth
A Guest at the Shooters' Banquet: My Grandfather's SS Past, My Jewish Family, A Search for the Truth
Price: CDN$ 9.99

5.0 out of 5 stars A stunning book.., Sept. 18 2015
I've often wondered what happened to the men who perpetrated mass murders during WW2. I'm not talking about the Hitlers, the Eichmanns, or the Hans Franks. I'm referring to the men with the guns who murdered Jews and other undesirables in the killing pits of Eastern Europe. And the men who dropped the Zyklon B tablets in the gas chambers, and those who drove the sealed gas trucks, killing the people inside. These men who did the actual hands-on killing. It takes a certain mentality and amorality to kill others, and as many historians have pointed out, a lot of alcohol releases the inhibitions. How did these men function when they returned to civilian life? So many were never caught or prosecuted after the war; they slipped through the cracks of justice and went unpunished for their deeds.

American author Rita Gabis explores this subject - personal to her - in her ambitious book, "A Guest at the Shooters Banquet: My Grandfather's SS Past, My Jewish Family, A Search for the Truth". The "Shooters' Banquet" referred to in the title was an actual dinner with music and alcohol served in celebration of the murder of the thousands of Jews of a small Lithuanian town in the killing pits of Poligon. The murderers were local Lithuanian Catholics who ate and drank in honor of their great deeds. (They also shot to death two local musicians who were performing for them because they spoke Polish!)

This topic is personal for Rita Gabis because her maternal grandfather was a police chief in the Lithuanian city of Svencionys. He fled with his family after WW2 and ended up in the United States, where he lived until his death. Rita's mother married a Jewish man; I can't imagine her family approved. As Rita grew up, nothing was said in the family about her grandfather's duties in Svencionys. It was not a topic anyone felt comfortable bringing up. The grandfather was known as a loving family man, and Rita's mother and aunts loved him. But Rita began to wonder what her grandfather did in the war and whether he participated in the killings at Poligon and other murders during his tenure under the Nazis in their occupation of Lithuania. About 15 years ago she started to look into his life and traveled to Lithuania and Israel and Poland in search of answers. Answers she might not want to learn.

Rita Gabis's book is a look at both the Catholic and Jewish life during WW2. Lithuania had had an uneasy past as the two religious groups coexisted in the same villages and cities. In addition to tracing her mother's family, she also follows three Lithuanian Jews who had survived the war. Their stories of the casual cruelties and killings they were subjected to in both the ghettos and the camps were, of course, horrifying. Their own random choices - like jumping off a train going to another ghetto - often saved their lives.

You'll have to read Gabis's book to see if she found the answers to her questions about her family and their past in Lithuania. It's an ambitious work, but extremely well-written. She includes pictures and maps. An excellent book.

One Day in France
One Day in France
Price: CDN$ 6.58

5.0 out of 5 stars A Nazi massacre..., Sept. 15 2015
This review is from: One Day in France (Kindle Edition)
On June 10, 1944 (four days after the Allied invasion of France in Normandy), Oradour-sur-Glane, a village near Limoges in Vichy, was occupied by Nazi Waffen-SS troops. The villagers were separated by gender. The men were shot and then burned alive. The women and children were herded into the local Catholic church, which was then lit up with grenades thrown inside and then fires were set. All told, over 640 people were murdered by gun and flames. The murders were supposedly in retaliation for the abduction of a Waffen SS officer by French resistance fighters. The massacres in Oradour were more than twice as many as in the Czech village of Lidice, where over 300 were killed. However, Lidice is much better known.

American author Ethan Mordden has selected the massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane as the subject of a short novel, "One Day in France". The book takes fictional characters - but using the correct name of the village - and imagines their last day of life. Some of the characters are a pianist and his younger brother, who has just became engaged to a local woman and envisions their future lives together. Other characters - men, women, and children - live their last day doing the things they've done on all the previous days of their lives. Mundane daily life only becomes interesting if that daily life is threatened, as it was by the "others" who have invaded the village. The Germans are never referred to as Germans; they're called "aliens" and "others". These people have had control over Vichy France for four years or so and it seems as if the French go through the day, aware of the "others" but not threatened by them. On June 10th, those "others" became mass murderers.

I suppose much of the horror of this incident is because of the manner of death. Most of the 640 people were burned to death. And that horrible death came after the most mundane of days. Does that make it even worse? Or does the fact that the deaths came to people of all ages and all walks of life. Even not being a native of Oradour-sur-Glane didn't save people; 6 bicyclists passing through the village were consigned to the flames with the others.

Ethan Mordden's book is very, very difficult to read. Even those readers who know what happened can find Mordden's writing so good that the massacre sort of sneaks up upon them, as it must have done with the victims. This is definitely not a book for everyone.

The Hotel Years
The Hotel Years
Price: CDN$ 9.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Hindsight is 20-20..., Sept. 6 2015
This review is from: The Hotel Years (Kindle Edition)
There's a difference in reading history written as contemporaneous accounts and reading history written well after the events. The first seems more "live", even if we sometimes know what happened after the author has written his account. That's very, very true about Joseph Roth's essays in the book, "The Hotel Years".

The 65 or so essays chosen by the book's editors were mostly written as newspaper pieces, between 1919 and 1939. Roth died in 1939 at the age of 45 of alcoholism, but the Austrian-Jewish journalist had made a name for himself since 1919 as an observer of culture and politics in the inter-war years.

Most of the essays included were printed in the "Frankfurter Zeitung", and in Berlin newspaper, two papers that I think were German-language papers printed in Paris. But the articles would be printable in any newspaper, at least up til 1936 or so. Roth rarely seemed to write about specific events, though in 1934 he wrote about a journalist's job in reporting "The Night of the Long Knives". No, in general, Roth seemed to write about places he traveled - Albania and the Soviet Union, among others - and the people he met along the way, and the hotels he stayed in. Since he rarely identified which hotels they were, it's difficult to know where they were located. One hotel, though, sounds like a less wacky cousin of Wes Anderson's "Hotel Budapest", with it's international staff and clientele.

To return, though, to my point about reading contemporaneous history. I noticed that WW1 was always referred to as "The Great War", though I'd be surprised if Roth didn't think another world war was on its way. His writing in the early 1920's already referred to "Nazis" and "swastikas". It's too bad that Joseph Roth didn't live longer; I wonder what his impressions of the world of WW2 would be in print. But maybe it's better he didn't live longer. His writing in these selected essays is truly worth reading by anyone interested in the inter-war years.

The Girl Who Wasn't There
The Girl Who Wasn't There
Offered by Hachette Book Group Digital, Inc.
Price: CDN$ 10.99

5.0 out of 5 stars An interesting puzzle..., Sept. 5 2015
As a reviewer of German author/lawyer Ferdinand von Schirach's novel, "The Girl Who Wasn't There", I don't know how many stars to give this book. I think anything from one to five would be valid for "Girl"; I'm still undecided as I write this review.

Ferdinand von Schirach is the grandson of Baldur von Schirach, first head of the Hitler Youth, and then Gauleiter of Vienna. He was responsible for sending thousands of Jews to their deaths. He was tried at Nuremberg and served a 20 year term at Spandau Prison near Berlin. He was released and spent some time with his sons and their children before dying in 1974. Ferdinand knew his grandfather a bit and seems like many Germans of the post-war generation who have tried to understand what their parents and grandparents did in the years of the Third Reich. (This last is speculation on my part, given what I've read about the von Schirach family.)

Ferdinand became a criminal defense lawyer in Berlin. His avocation was writing novels. He's written several, including one, "The Collini Case", about post-war trials, and a book of short stories about crime.

He's now published "The Girl Who Wasn't There", about a possible crime committed by an performance and installation artist. The crime was murder, but no body was ever found. Sebastian von Eschburg, the artist, was from an old family that had seen both better times and much madness. While in jail, he hires Konrad Biegler, a famed defense lawyer but gives him very little to work with, defense-wise. Von Eschburg had supposedly confessed to the murder of the unknown during police interrogation but the exact means to obtain the confession is suspect.

Von Schirach's writing style is terse. Very terse. That alone will throw some readers. He doesn't coddle the reader. He imparts every bit of information like he's having it pulled out of him. Even after finishing the book and thinking about it, I still can't decide who's good and who's bad. Maybe no one is, according to the author. Certainly no character - with the possible exception of Biegler - is drawn in a cut and dried manner. The reader has doubts about all the characters in this short book. I've decided to give it a five star rating, but any reviewer who gives it one star is equally correct. Von Schirach's books are a fascinating, but frustrating look at who we are and who we were. (The translation is done beautifully by Anthea Bell.)

Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham
Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham
Offered by Macmillan CA
Price: CDN$ 15.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting biography..., Sept. 5 2015
Emily Bingham's biography of her great-aunt, "Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham" is a very well written book. Emily and Henrietta are members of the Bingham dynasty of Louisville, who, during the 20th century, produced some illustrious newspaper publishers, writers, and diplomats. The family also had some seriously emotionally troubled members, of which one was Henrietta Bingham. She was a bi-sexual - leaning more to the gay side - in a time when gays were not particularly welcomed by society. She was also a wealthy young woman, very pretty, who lived her life as openly as it could be at the time.

I came away with the feeling that Henrietta Bingham was one of those people who a Venn-diagram would place in the middle of circles that came together around her. She didn't produce any works of art or literature, but inspired those who did. She was part of the Bloomsbury group in London in the early 1920's and also went through analysis with Dr Ernest Jones, the biographer of Freud, and a leading psychoanalyst. The process went on for years - with Henrietta coming and going from London quite regularly. She had many lovers of both genders; the most famous were John Houseman and Helen Hull Jacobs. She was an expert horsewoman and a breeder of race and hunting horses. But who was she, really?

Henrietta lost her mother in an auto accident when Henrietta was 14 years old. Henrietta was in the accident and witnessed her mother's death. She had an odd relationship with her father, Robert Worth Bingham; they were yin and yang. They went through emotional boxing sessions that ended with her father's death in 1937. She seemed to "know" everybody there was to know in the 1920's and 1930's and her time in London in the mid-1930's as the daughter of the US Ambassador to the Court of St James, reminded me a bit about Martha Dodd and her time in Berlin as the daughter of William Dodd, our ambassador to Germany around the same time. Henrietta died of drink in her mid-50's.

But for all her activities in Louisville, London, and New York, what exactly did Henrietta Bingham do to deserve such a well-written biography? It seems that the family disapproval of her and her life style interested her great-niece, Emily. Emily seems to want to see Henrietta both within the context of her family and in the wider world. I'm just not sure the subject warranted the biography.

(This Emily Bingham is also the author of "Mordecai: An Early American Family", superb look at a Jewish family in Virginia in the 1700 and 1800's. She is not the author of the erotic literature listed on Amazon. At least, I don't think she is!)

A Suitcase in Berlin
A Suitcase in Berlin
Price: CDN$ 9.99

3.0 out of 5 stars A miss..., Sept. 3 2015
Sometimes to understand a book, the reader should know a bit about the author. Pierre Frei, the author of "A Suitcase in Berlin", was born in Berlin and lived through the horrors of the Third Reich and the partition of Berlin. He eventually became a newspaper reporter and after he retired, he wrote an excellent mystery called, "Berlin", which was about the murder of five German women right after the war ended, who were killed by a serial murderer. The protagonists were two policemen - one German and the other an American MP - who investigated the murders, along with the 15 year old son of the German policeman who was in the throes of adolescence. The victims were also given ink as five women who had worked against the Nazi regime - in ways small and large - and were emerging into their post-war lives before they were murdered. I assumed the young son in the story was the young Pierre Frei and his part of the book was a bit slapstick.

I mention Pierre Frei and his previous work because I think it is helpful in understanding "A Suitcase in Berlin". This book was set in Berlin in 1938 and is the tale of a German Jewish newspaperman, Leonhard Goldberg, who has moved from Berlin to New York a few years previously. He left behind his wife, Paula, a dancer, who was supposed to join him in New York. She wasn't on the expected boat and he went back to Berlin to try to bring her back. While in Berlin, he ran into a lot of trouble with the authorities and the story slips into rather slapstick mode with Nazi transvestites, a brothel-owner with the proverbial heart-of-gold, wicked Storm Troopers, an American consular official, and other people who aren't as they present themselves. The Goldbergs have had a rather loosey-goosey marriage - well, they have been apart for eight years - but they are happy to see each other. There are also hidden gold bars.

Pierre Frei tries to make the story humorous but Nazis rounding up Jews is not inherently amusing. I think he misses the mark in "A Suitcase in Berlin". If you have a choice in reading Pierre Frei's work, I'd go with "Berlin".

The White Ghost (Billy Boyle World War II Mystery)
The White Ghost (Billy Boyle World War II Mystery)
Price: CDN$ 14.55

4.0 out of 5 stars Billy and...JFK?, Sept. 1 2015
Author James Benn has written ten novels about Boston policeman Billy Boyle and his WW2 service. Nine of the novels were set in the ETO; this one, "The White Ghost", is takes place in the Solomon Islands. Pretty far from London or North Africa - where Billy and his friend "Kaz" began the novel. How Benn was able to get Billy across the world is a bit sketchy, but once there, they find that the Pacific Theater is just as bloody as the Atlantic. Or maybe even more so...

Anybody familiar with the series knows that Billy Boyle was assigned to a cushy job when he enlisted in the American army. He had been assigned as an aide to a distant relative of his mother - a certain general nicknamed "Ike" - and he became Eisenhower's personal "fixer", sent to look into "problems" and crimes Eisenhower wanted informally investigated. He wondered who his father and uncle had talked to to get Billy this job with Eisenhower; in this book, he finds out. And he ain't happy with what he finds out.

James Benn is pretty good at placing Billy's wartime service - Italy, England, and Norway, among other places - within the overall war effort. Since Billy is usually investigating crime, he doesn't normally fight in battles. In "The White Ghost", much of the action is set in skirmishes against the Japanese. There seems to be more battle scenes - both in the air and at sea - in this book, than in all the previous books. There's also more examples of Japanese cruelty against both civilians and military. A whole lot more graphic.

In "The White Ghost", Billy and Kaz are sent by General Marshall - Ike's BOSS! - to investigate a possible murder committed by young John Kennedy. Kennedy had just been in a PT boat accident - somehow his boat was sliced by a Japanese destroyer in Blackett Straight in the Solomons, in August, 1943. The boat sank, several crew members were killed, and Kennedy led the survivors to an island, where they were rescued a few days later. A young native man is found killed and for some reason I still can't figure out, authorities thought Kennedy might be involved.

The plot of "The White Ghost" is basically used to place Billy and Kaz in the thick of the Pacific battles. There's a fair amount of killing and other personal violence. I'm not sure the book "belongs" in the series, but it seems to be a book that James Benn really wanted to write. I can't argue with that and I did enjoy the book. But, let's take them back to Europe in the next book!

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