Book Review: Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein


Author: Elizabeth Wein
Title: Rose Under Fire
Publication Info: New York : Hyperion, [2013]
Summary/Review:

This World War II novel is in the same universe as Wein’s excellent Code Name Verity.  Maddie from Code Name Verity is a minor character in Rose Under Fire, and the incidents of that novel are alluded to.  The protagonist of Rose Under Fire is Rose Justice, an American pilot in the Air Transport Auxiliary responsible for ferrying aircraft among Allied airbases.  The book is written as her journal with some letters and poems.

Initially the book is about her quotidian concerns regarding flying, the War, friendships, and men. After the liberation of Paris, she flies to France (and buzzes the Eiffel Tower). Return a plane to England, she sees a V-1 flying bomb and attempts to divert it with the wingtips of her plane. Flying off course, Rose is intercepted by German jets and forced to land behind enemy lines.  She is sent to Ravensbrück, a concentration camp exclusively for women.

While this is a young adult book, it does not shy away from describing the full extent of violence and deprivation the Nazis carried out in Ravensbrück.  It is challenging for children, and adults, to read but I also think it is beneficial.  Rose is able to find hope and survive through the family she makes with the other women at the camp.  These include Polish political prisoners known as the Rabbits because they were forced to endure Nazi medical experiments.  Rose also bonds with Russian military pilots known as the Night Witches.

The story is heartbreaking and devastating, but also hopeful.  I also appreciate that after Rose escapes from Germany, the novel still shows her dealing with her ongoing trauma. Like Code Name Verity, Rose Under Fire is an excellent novel the deals with the horrors of World War II and the bravery of the women who participated in it.

Favorite Passages:

Hope—you think of hope as a bright thing, a strong thing, sustaining. But it’s not. It’s the opposite. It’s simply this: lumps of stale bread stuck down your shirt. Stale gray bread eked out with ground fish bones, which you won’t eat because you’re going to give it away, and maybe you’ll get a message through to your friend. That’s all you need.

Hope is the most treacherous thing in the world. It lifts you and lets you plummet. But as long as you’re being lifted, you don’t worry about plummeting.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****1/2

Classic Movie Review: Twelve O’Clock High (1949)


Title: Twelve O’Clock High
Release Date: December 21, 1949
Director: Henry King
Production Company: Twentieth Century Fox
Summary/Review:

In the early days of American involvement in WWII, the 918th Bomb Group gets a reputation as a “tough luck” group due to heavy loses and low morale. Group commander Colonel Keith Davenport (Gary Merrill) is determined to be too sympathetic to his men and relieved of command. Brigadier General Frank Savage (Gregory Peck) takes over as group commander and implements strict discipline and attempts to get the group a victory to improve confidence. This includes doing things like putting all the flight crew deemed “incompetent” into a bomber named The Leper Colony.

Savage’s ways seem harsh, but on the other hand his insistence on keeping to the plan reduces losses for the group. Harvey Stovall (Dean Jagger) is a WWI vet and civilian lawyer who becomes an early ally to Savage’s system (in fact, the film is framed by Stovall’s post-war reminiscences of the war). It proves to be an interesting philosophical dilemma at the heart of this gritty war drama.

Unlike earlier WWII movies that had an optimistic, propaganda purpose, Twelve O’Clock High depicts the true psychological and physical toll on the flight crews. With the people-focused approach, much of the film is set on the base. Only late in the film do we see a sortie which features actual film from WWII air battles expertly intercut with the cast of the movie.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: The Third Man (1949)


Title: The Third Man
Release Date: September 1, 1949
Director: Carol Reed
Production Company: London Films
Summary/Review:

The Third Man is a thriller set in post-World War II Vienna with the city divided in quadrants among the allies and a thriving criminal underground centered on the black market.  American Western novel author Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) arrives after being promised work by an his old friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles). But upon his arrival, Martins discovers that Lime is being buried after being killed in a car crash.

Angered that British Royal Military Police Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) suggests that Lime was a criminal, Martins investigates Lime’s death and uncovers evidence that it wasn’t accidental.  He becomes acquainted with Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), Lime’s girlfriend, who was born in Czechoslovakia, but with Lime’s help got a forged Austrian passport to avoid repatriation by the Soviets.

The more Martins investigates, the more he discovers things about the dark side of human nature. The film works as a metaphor for naive, can-do Americans compared with the more world-weary and resigned Europeans. And despite the noir aspects of the film, it also has many moments of humor. The soundtrack is cheerful music played on a zither by Anton Karas  which serves as a wonderful contrast to the shadows and light of the film.

The story is gripping but the cinematography is pure art.  Every shot is perfectly composed against the rubble of bombed-out Vienna, a worn out amusement park, and ultimately the city’s extensive sewers.  The denouement in the sewers is a clinic in light, shadow, and sound in a movie. This is a spectacular movie and I expect will reward repeated viewing.

Rating: *****

Classic Movie Review: The Stranger (1946)


Title: The Stranger
Release Date: July 2, 1946
Director: Orson Welles
Production Company: International Pictures
Summary/Review:

This atmospheric film in the film noir style tells the story of a Nazi war criminal hiding among the unsuspecting citizens of a Connecticut town. As someone who grew up in Connecticut, I’m surprised that so many of these classic films I’m watching are set there, particularly one with Nazis.  The film begins with Edward G. Robinson (who I liked so much in Double Indemnity) Mr. Wilson of the War Crimes Commission releasing a low-level Nazi named Konrad Meinike (Konstantin Shayne) in hope of leading him to one of the Nazis most notorious masterminds.

In Harper, Connecticut, Franz Kindler (Orson Welles) has taken the identity of Professor Charles Rankin, a teacher at a boys academy, and marrying Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), the daughter of a Supreme Court Justice.  Rankin murders Meinike so that his past identity will not be revealed and attempts to bury his body in the woods.  Wilson stays in the town for several weeks hoping to catch Rankin in a mistake that reveals himself, as well attempting to shake Mary’s faith in her new husband.  The thrill of the movie is less of a “whodunit” than a “how is this going to shake out?”

Billy House is featured in a prominent role as Mr. Potter, the gossipy druggist who comments on the goings-on in the town while playing checkers with his customers (including Wilson and Rankin).  House provides comic relief but his character is also oddly unsettling.  Storywise the script is fairly predictable and dialogue unnatural, but it’s worth watching for the acting, and Welle’s use of light and shadows and long takes.  It’s also remarkable that a fictional film about a Nazi war criminal was completed so soon after the end of the war.  Additionally, it is the first film to include documentary footage of the liberation of concentration camps.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Rome, Open City (1945)


Title: Rome, Open City
Release Date: September 27, 1945
Director: Roberto Rossellini
Production Company: Excelsa Film
Summary/Review:

Filmed in the final days of World War II, Rome, Open City is a neorealistic film depicting a fictionalized account of the Italian Resistance Movement in 1944. There’s not much acknowledgement that Italy was an Axis power as by the time film begins, Rome is under control of the occupying German forces and the Italian fascist puppet government.  The main figures of the resistance in the movie are communist Giorgio Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero), Francesco (Francesco Grandjacquet), Pina (Anna Magnani), and parish priest Don Pietro Pellegrini (Aldo Fabrizi). Don Pietro is supposed to marry Francesco and the visibly pregnant Pina but the crackdown of SS officers seeking Manfredi sets everyone in motion.

The film depicts the grim realities of the deprivation of a wartime city, betrayals, grim torture, and flat out murder.  But the film also contains moments of humanity, particularly Don Pietro’s devotion to protecting the resistance.  And there is hope in the children who assist the resistance and are the future of Italy.  Technically speaking this is a “low-budget film” but considering the conditions under which it was made it is a remarkable artistic achievement.

Rating: ****

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.