Book Review: Dutch Girlby Robert Matzen


Author: Robert Matzen
Title: Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II
Narrator: Tavia Gilbert
Publication Info: Blackstone Pub (2019)
Summary/Review:

The most famous story of Netherlands during World War II is, of course, The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. Hepburn and Frank were nearly identical in age, born just a month apart in 1929, and their narratives of the war share some similarities.  Nevertheless, Hepburn had a privileged position and not being Jewish didn’t suffer anywhere near the level of persecution, and thus survived the war.  Otto Frank actually requested that Hepburn play the role of his daughter in the 1959 film adaptation of the diary, but she demurred, both because she was too old for the part and because she would not be able to revisit the horrors of the war.

A lot of the narrative in this book focuses on people in Audrey Hepburn’s extended family and friends in family,  or just general history of Netherlands during the war.  Obviously these types of details add context, but their prominence in the book seem to indicate that Matzen had very little material on Hepburn herself to work with.  He also overuses the practice of writing what people may have been thinking in reaction to certain invents that relies more on his (informed) imagination than actual historical records. All in all, this book is an interesting glimpse into events in Netherlands during German occupation, but is less effective as a biography of Audrey Hepburn.

Recommended books:

Rating: **

Podcasts of the Week Ending September 21


Memory Palace :: Safe Passage

The true story of when the U.S. Navy accidentally fired a torpedo at the President of the United States.

Throughline :: Puerto Rico

If you’re like me, you probably don’t know enough about the history of Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States, and the efforts of Puerto Ricans to fight for independence and statehood.  This podcast fills in some gaps in knowledge.

The War on Cars :: Dying For Change

Bicycling activists stage more aggressive protests against politicians and the police as the deaths of cyclists increase in number.

Running tally of 2019 Podcast of the Week appearances:

Classic Movie Review: The Great Dictator (1940)


Title: The Great Dictator
Release Date: October 15, 1940
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Production Company: Charles Chaplin Film Corporation
Summary/Review:

13 years after the first “talkie,” Charlie Chaplin finally made his first film with true sound.  And let me tell you, it is very strange to hear Chaplin talking.  But he puts words to good use in this startling satire of Adolf Hitler and fascism. Filming began the same month that World War II began and The Great Dictator appeared in theaters at the same time the Battle of Britain was raging.  Not knowing the full extent of the Nazi horror was justification for turning away Jewish refugees on the MS St. Louis in 1939, and yet this movie refers to “concentration camps” by name.

Chaplin plays two roles in this movie. One is a Jewish barber who loses his memory in one of the final battles of the Great War while valiantly aiding Commander Schultz (Reginald Gardiner) secure valuable documents.  20 years later he’s finally recovered and returns to work at his barbershop in the ghetto, unaware of the rise of fascism and the persecution of the Jews.  In this role, Chaplin very much resembles his Little Tramp character in attire.  The barber befriends Mr. Jaeckel (Maurice Moscovich, who liked so much in Make Way for Tomorrow and falls in love with Hannah (Paulette Goddard), who help him adjust to the new situation. Schultz is even able to arrange a brief reprieve of the oppression in the ghetto in recognition of the barber’s heroism in World War I.

Chaplin’s other role is Adenoid Hynkel, Dictator of Tomainia, a not at all subtle parody of Adolf Hitler.  Chaplain mimics Hitler’s oratory style, complete with wild arm gestures, in a German-sound gibberish.  His depiction of a power hungry tyrant who is vain, irrational, and stupid feels a bit close to the surface to watch in 2019.  Other parodies target Joseph Goebbels, Hermann Göring, and Benito Mussolini as Garbitsch (Henry Daniell), Herring (Billy Gilbert), Benzino Napaloni (Jack Oakie) respectively.

It is not at all surprising with Chaplin playing two characters that it will eventually lead to mistaken identity.  But what is stunning is the speech the barber delivers in the guise of Hynkel at the film’s conclusion.  All the comedy ceases, and Chaplin essentially speaks as himself for several minutes on peace and unity.  It’s a powerful ending to a film that I’m still amazed even exists.

Rating: ****

Book Review: Just War by Lance Parkin


Author: Lance Parkin
TitleJust War
Publication Info: London : Doctor Who Books, c1996.
Summary/Review:

The Seventh Doctor makes frequent visits to World War II: The Curse of Fenric on tv, Colditz on audio, Timewyrm: Exodus and this book in the Virgin New Adventures. We begin this book with one of this Doctor’s great manipulative plans.  Roz and Chris are working with British intelligence in London, Benny is undercover with the Resistance in Guernsey, and the Doctor is seeking a particularly genius Nazi scientist.  Things go horribly wrong, of course, and as happens all to often in the New Adventures, it leads to a companion getting tortured. The book features a strong narrative though, one of the most easily readable New Adventures, with great character moments for Benny, Roz, and Chris.  It’s also close to being a pure historical, with The Butterfly Effect and the Doctor’s hubris being the main antagonists outside of the Nazis.

Rating: ***1/2

Podcasts of the Week Ending November 17


Sidedoor :: That Brunch in the Forest

Myths and reality of Native Americans and the “first Thanksgiving.”

All Songs Considered :: How the Beatles Made “The White Album”

The story behind the Beatles strangest album.

30 for 30 :: Rickey Won’t Quit

The great Rickey Henderson plays one last season in professional baseball for an independent minor league team.

The Anthropocene Reviewed :: Tetris and the Seed Potatoes of Leningrad

Fascinating stories from the Soviet Union trace the origin of the classic video game Tetris and its unrecognized designer, and the people of Leningrad who protected a seed bank against Nazi invasion.

Have You Heard? :: Closing Time: In a Gentrifying City, are Some Students Expendable

A must-listen story of the effort to close, privatize, and segregate Boston Public Schools.

 

Book Review: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr


AuthorAnthony Doerr
TitleAll the Light We Cannot See
Narrator: Zach Appelman
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Audio (2014)
Summary/Review:

This novel set in World War II and the years immediately preceding the war focus on the parallel lives of two individuals.  Marie-Laure LeBlanc, who loses her vision as a child, evacuates from Paris to her shell-shocked uncle’s house in Saint-Malo once the war begins.  Werner Pfennig is a German orphan in the country’s mining region who learns to repair radios and whose talent with circuitry earns him a spot in an elite but draconian Nazi training school.

Marie-Laure eventually ends up helping her uncle broadcast messages to the French Resistance using a secret transmitter, while Werner ends up working in a military unit that tracks  illegal radio transmissions and shuts them down.  Their paths are obviously set to converge from the earliest pages of the book, and when they do it is a wonderful and unexpected encounter.  There’s also a story about a precious gem intertwined with their stories, but it seems a bit of a macguffin to me.

This is a wonderful novel that illustrates very personal stories of war, and especially the effect of war on limiting the options of children and forcing them to make choices they’d not otherwise be ready to make.  The characters, even the minor characters, are very well-developed and I enjoyed spending time with them.  It’s a beautiful book and likely to make one cry a little bit.

Recommended booksThe Book Thief by Markus Zusak, The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, and The Book of Everything by Guus Kuijer
Rating: ****

Movie Review: The Rape of Europa (2006) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “R” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. This is the first”R” documentary I’ve reviewed.

TitleThe Rape of Europa
Release Date: 12 November 2006
Director:  Richard Berge and Bonni Cohen
Production Company: Actual Films
Summary/Review:

This film documents the many threats to Europe’s art, architecture, and cultural treasures during World War II. Adolf Hitler, a failed artist himself, sought to acquire art treasures to satiate his ego and prop up the Reich.  He even had elaborate plans to remake his hometown of Linz, Austria into a cultural center that he worked on right up to his last days in the bunker under Berlin.  Well before invading other nations, the Nazis put together lists of art works to target and bring to Germany. The Nazis plundered museums and private collections, primarily of Jewish families, in every country they invaded.  Hermann Göring is a major figure in the Nazi art program, presented here as having a more sophisticated taste in art than Hitler, and also setting aside prime pieces for his own collection.

But the Nazis didn’t just steal art.  They also deliberately sought out and destroyed art.  Before the war, Hitler declared certain works and artists as “degenerate art” – primarily the work of Jewish artists, but he a general distaste for Modern Art.  The degenerate art was put on display in a mocking exhibition before being sold off at bargain prices, while much more art was destroyed.  When invading other countries, particularly Poland and Russia, the Nazis deliberately targeted the art and architecture of those countries in an attempt to erase their cultural heritage.

The movie also focuses on the efforts to preserve and protect art during the war.  Specifically, the Louvre and the Hermitage each had programs  involving dedicated staff and volunteers evacuating artworks and otherwise working to protect them from theft or damage.  The Allied armies were very cognizant of Europe’s cultural heritage and attempted to avoid destroying significant artistic and historical sites.  The results were not always good as in the case of the historic monastery of Monte Cassino that they bombed in an attempt to dislodge troops on the mountain, or the destruction of the historic frescoes in Pisa’s Camposanto Monumentale.  Other efforts were more successful, such as a plan for a bombing run on a very narrow target of a railroad depot in central Florence.  During and after the war, the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program – aka the Monuments Men – worked to find, restore, and repatriate art stolen during the war.

More than 70 years after the war, art stolen by the Nazis is still being recovered and controversies continue about art in museums and private collections being returned to their heirs.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

I think most of what this movie covered I was at best vaguely aware of which is why I ended up writing such a long summary.  It’s pretty alarming that art wasn’t a secondary concern during the war but something that involved extensive efforts and planning, whether it be to steal or destroy in the Nazis case, or to protect and repatriate on the Allied side.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

I haven’t read the book or watched the movie about the Monuments Men, but I want to now.  Some good books that offer an insight into World War II in Europe include Lee Miller’s War and Ernie’s War.

Source: I watched this documentary on Amazon Prime Video.
Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)


TitleCaptain America: The First Avenger
Release Date: July 22, 2011
Director: Joe Johnston
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

The Marvel Cinematic Universe adapts the origin story of how the earnest but weak Steve Rogers becomes the superhuman warrior Captain America.  It’s nicely done mix of a World War II historical drama (especially the sets of 1940s New York City) with pure fantasy of futuristic technology mixed in.  Is there a term like “steampunk” that applies to the World War II era.

My big criticism of Marvel movies is that they tend to overdo the fights, chases, explosions, etc. to the point that they lose any sense of what’s at stake.  But I think Captain America strikes a nice balance of quieter scenes developing Rogers’ character and his relationships with Bucky and Peggy, intermixed with well-choreographed action sequences.

There are a lot of parallels in the plot to last year’s Wonder Woman film – a superhuman and a ragtag crew of soldiers venture behind enemy lines in a World War and stop the production of a superweapon – and even though Captain America came first, I think Wonder Woman is still a better movie.

Rating: ***

Related Posts:

Movie Review: Searching for Augusta: The Forgotten Angel of Bastogne


Title: Searching for Augusta: The Forgotten Angel of Bastogne
Release Date: 14 May 2014
Director:  Michael Edwards
Production Company: Jasmine Avenue Holdings with The Five Stones Group
Summary/Review:

Born in the Belgian Congo to a Congolese mother and Belgian father, Augusta Chiwy was brought to Belgium at the age of 9 and was adopted and raised by her aunt.  In December 1944, she was training to be a nurse in  Leuven, and traveled home to celebrate the holidays with her father and aunt in Bastogne. At the time, the town seemed secure in the hands of American troops, but within days, the German offensive put Bastogne at the edge of the Battle of the Bulge.

US Army physician John Prior set up an aid station in Bastogne and recruited a Belgian nurse Renee Lemaire (later remembered as “The Angel of Bastogne” following her death by a German bomb) and Chiwy to help care for the wounded soldiers.  Chiwy helped bring comfort and healing to the wounded with some of the most traumatic injuries, and helped Prior retrieve casualties from the battle field.  Chiwy and Prior developed a mutual admiration during the month they worked together, and keep in touch by writing letters over the years.

Otherwise, Chiwy and her contribution during the war was overlooked.  The center focus of this documentary is British military historian Martin King, who spent years trying to piece together stories he’d heard of an African nurse in Bastogne and finding out if she was still alive.  The movie is obviously a labor of love, and evidently low budget, but the story of Chiwy and Prior is beautifully illustrated with pencil sketches, supplemented by archival photographs and film.  The strange thing is that King does finally find Chiwy in Brussels, but she is hardly shown except in a small portion at the end of the movie and for the majority of the film she appears in she doesn’t speak.  It’s entirely possible that Chiwy did not wish to be the focus of attention, but it seems awfully odd that she never gets the chance to tell her own story.

Still this documentary offers a glimpse into her heroic life and makes sure she won’t be forgotten.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: So Close to Home by Michael J. Tougias and Alison O’Leary


Author: Michael J. Tougias and Alison O’Leary
TitleSo Close to Home
Narrator: Elijah Alexander
Publication Info: Blackstone Audio, 2016
Summary/Review:

The severity of the German u-boat campaign on American ships in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico in the early days of World War II is often overlooked.  Tougias and O’Leary tell that history through the story of the Downs family of Texas as they sail on the cargo ship Heredia from Costa Rica to New Orleans.  The ship is destroyed by torpedoes on the May 19, 1942, and the Downs family are separated in the wreck, each having their own survival journey along with some members of the crew.  It’s a very gripping tale, but Tougias and O’Leary have a bigger story to tell based on the records of u-boat captains and the crews who were big heroes in Nazi Germany.  This means that the Downs’ story is broken up by long sections about the u-boat warfare in general and the experiences of their crew.  Perhaps the Downs’ story was too thin to make a book of its own, but the approach taken here makes the narrative very uneven.  Nevertheless, it is an interesting glimpse into an overlooked period in American history.

Recommended booksUnbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand
Rating: ***