Review: War and Grace by Desmond McDougall

I finished War and Grace: One Woman’s Time at the Trenches by Desmond McDougall a couple of days ago, but sitting down to write a review has proved a challenge. My thoughts are still disorganized, so I’ll attempt to sort them out here.

war&graceWar and Grace is the story of Grace McDougall nee Smith, a leading figure in the FANY (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry) and a woman who passed most of World War I serving near the allied battlefront. Her youngest son wrote the book and many times while reading, I was swept with nostalgia for my childhood moments of listening my grandpa tell stories about the Civil War that he heard from his who fought in it. Reading War and Grace was like overhearing another family’s history. As I process the book, I struggle to merge the family story feel with my trained historian brain. Some elements drove me bonkers, and yet, I can’t remember the last time a book spiked my curiosity the way this one has and left me totally jazzed about jumping down the rabbit hole of research.

The nitpicking critical part of my brain wanted to remove the unnecessary exclamation points and have more context. I suspect the author wrote as he talked. The prose is a bit clunky in places and prone to hyperbole, but I think that is part of why this story tapped into my nostalgia for my grandpa’s stories. As for the context, some of the individuals and places referenced may be more familiar to those who went through the British school system. I consider myself fairly well versed in European history, but I had a hard time grafting the events in War and Grace onto the overall timeline of World War I and my understanding of British involvement in the war and the military hierarchy. I’m a map girl, so I’m glad one was included so I could see the areas where FANY operated, but having a few dated maps that showed a snapshot of the battle lines would have heightened my temporal grounding. I would have loved a reference list as well since the author mentioned several published and unpublished works used to guide his storytelling, but I was left to wonder how much came through the filter of memory.

And yet, in spite of, or perhaps, because of, these shortcomings, I cannot wait to read more about this subject. I was unfamiliar with FANY and the role of women at the front lines outside of the work of the Red Cross.  Grace McDougall is a fascinating woman who should be more widely known as a feminist pioneer. Grace’s life intersected with then socio-cultural shift from the 19th to the 20th century. A strong moralist streak and deep seeded patriotism drove her to challenge the patriarchal establishment. The nature of this being Grace’s story means the reader does not get a complete picture of the obstacles she faced and how systemic they were. I want to know what other women thought of Grace and her struggle for equality. Were other people as in awe of her as I am or did they find her a nuisance? This is fascinating stuff. I need to read more about it.

If the sole measure of a book is how excited the reader feels, and how much they talk it up with anyone who will listen, then War and Grace is a 5 star. I’m going with a 4 because of the style elements.

If you are interested in World War I, or British history, or history in general, this is a worthwhile read and the paperback is fairly cheap on Amazon. My daughter wants to read it. If she does, I’ll share her thoughts.

And if anyone out there can recommend further books on the subject of FANY or women in World War I, please let me know. You’ll help me save a little bit of time researching what to read, and let me have more time reading. Thanks.

 

 

 

Remembering Roger Ebert

I may not go often anymore, but I love the movies.  Once upon a time, I harbored the dream of going to film school. Not because I wanted to make them, although playing with fake blood would be a pretty good job description, but I wanted to be a film critic.  And not just any critic.  I wanted to be the female Roger Ebert.  Growing up in Chicago, Roger Ebert was as much a part of my movie going experience as an oversized soda and bucket of popcorn the size of which rivaled a bathtub.  Today I mourn the loss of a man who influenced me and millions of others with his belief that going to the movies should be fun.

Forgive my scattershot thoughts.  I am not the eloquent writer Ebert was.  I cannot knock out a beautifully written an  d thoughtful essay in five minutes – which is all the time I have before the kids wake up.  If you doubt his eloquence, get one of his wonderful essay books stat.  You won’t be disappointed unless you are some type of insane person who cannot appreciate wit, joy, and precisely chosen words.  Don’t judge his writing by watching “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls,” the Russ Meyer film he scripted.  Or go ahead.  Indulge and don’t feel guilty about it.  Ebert didn’t.

I will miss Ebert’s passion the most.  The man loved movies. Plain and simple.  His paring with the more classically trained movie critic Gene Siskel proved golden.  I loved them on “Sneak Previews” and continued following when the show morphed into” At the Movies.”  I loved how they argued, even when they ultimately agreed.  I loved that two people could look at the same thing, have completely different experiences, and yet often agree the movie earned two thumbs up or two thumbs down.

When I think about my personal Golden Age of going to the movies, that post movie breakdown was as integral to the movie experience as greasy popcorn butter.  Whether I went with to the movies with Mike, Amanda, Mom, Dad, Gabe, Marci, Eric, Genna, or a host of others, the post-film pow-wow and breakdown of what worked and what didn’t was part of the experience.  My husband doesn’t think of going to the movies as a particularly social experience.  I’ve been working with him and he’s improving, but he also didn’t grow up watching Siskel and Ebert.

For teaching me how to watch, enjoy, and discuss not just the movies, but the arts and more, I give Roger Ebert two thumbs up.  Thanks for the inspiration and I’ll see you “At the Movies.”

Review: Your House is on Fire, Your Children All Gone by Stefan Kiesbye

Stefan Kiesbye’s haunting novel, Your House is on Fire, Your Children All Gone is well worth adding to your reading list.  At slightly under 200 pages, this slim book has much to say about guilt, memory and the burden of wrongs.  Kiesbye writes with a poet’s use of words.  The technical writing is outstanding and each word matters. In this sense he reminds me of one of my all time favorite writers Jennifer Johnston, author of the outstanding, if hard to find, Fool’s Sanctuary. Both write short with an economy of precisely used words.  The beauty with which Keisbye describes horrible awful things is a rare talent.

read this

read this

Intrigued? The prologue begins with middle-aged adults attending the funeral of a childhood friend. The story then shifts gears and takes the reader back in time to when they were children. The chapters alternate narrators.  Often we get more than one perspective on a nasty event (think incest, rape, and murder both intentional and accidental).  Sometimes the reactions are immediate. Other times, years have passed and a character who was aged 7 during one episode is now a pre-teen or young adult.  We see how friendships unite and divide over shared memories of trauma.  There is plenty of guilt to go around and that is how this book relates to twentieth century German history.

Unlike the heavy-handed and nearly unbearable book B. Schlink’s The Reader (read my review here), Kiesbye interweaves the notions of collective guilt, perpetrators, victims, bystanders and sins of the fathers subtly throughout the book. Guilt and murder are so  interwoven in fabric of Devil’s Moor that the problems of the past are the problems of today, seamlessly, and for the characters in the book, without conscious thought.

Kiesbye treats his readers as intelligent human beings.  He doesn’t offer easy answers to the characters responsibility and duty to the past, just as there has been no clear and easy path for Germany to reconcile its present state and role with the horrors of the Nazi legacy.   In my opinion, Kiesbye’s book is par with any number of Gunter Grass’ work on a similar theme.

And if German History and memory and legacy aren’t your cup of tea, well then, read this book anyway.  It’s short, haunting and beautiful.

Let me know what you think…

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

As part of my ongoing but occasional series of book reviews, I wanted to share my Goodreads review of The Reader by Bernhard Schlink, in slightly revised form.

I wanted to like The Reader by Bernhard Schlink so much more and I think if you approached it as more of a lay reader rather than someone who has studied German history extensively it would be a better read.  Another Goodsread reviewer described this book as a “Buildungsroman” and I wish I could remember who it was because they were spot on.  The plot unfolds along traditional lines. A great deal of time is devoted to the loss of innocence, particularly the narrators sexual education at the hands of an older woman.  We understand why the narrator is so smitten, but the woman, Hanna, remains aloof. I found this off-putting, particularly because the relationship reminded me of something that would be a sensationalist headline in today’s media like “Teacher seduces student.”  I wanted to know her motivation, but was left wanting.  The teaser on the back of the book promises a shocking reveal when the two meet again after a lengthy separation.  For me, even the “surprises” were predictable and that may have taken away some of my enjoyment of The Reader.

That being said, I think there is a lot to recommend in this book. I hope it is not a spoiler to say the relationship between Hanna and the narrator is meant to symbolize larger patterns of German history and an idea of who, if anyone, should be held guilty and responsible for past German crimes. For many people, this slim novel is a good way to open the door to a fuller discussion of morality, government crime, and the idea of who is a perpetrator and who is a bystander and why the distinction matters.  The memory of the Holocaust is an important issue and The Reader considers who is responsible for keeping the memory but also if it is necessary to keep the memory alive and what is the burden of knowledge.

On the other hand, for those already well versed in Holocaust literature and memory, there is not much to be gleaned from the otherwise predictable book.  Gunter Grass, the former Hitler Youth, does a better job of addressing guilt, national character and responsibility and does so in more innovative ways.  It is as if Schlink has bundled those ideas in a sexier more casual reader friendly form.  You could do worse than The Reader, but you could also do better.

Love those Harlem Globetrotters

Yesterday, Hubby and I took the kids to see the Harlem Globetrotters. Not a cheap afternoon out, but worth every penny. The kids had a great time, even though my youngest covered his ears every time the kids behind us emitted a sound so loud it put foghorns to shame.  The Harlem Globetrotters played the International Elite this time. Led by Special K,  they pulled out a victory, thanks to a few well-timed four point shots.

I admit it. I love the Harlem Globetrotters and I have ever since I was a kid. When I was in second (or maybe third) grade, the Globetrotters came to my grade school. I’m sure Curly Neal was there, but maybe not. I adored him, so I don’t trust my memory completely on this matter. But I do remember the visit. We crowded into the school gymnasium and sat on the floor. I was in the first row. The Globetrotters did the water gag, shot baskets and encouraged us to follow our dreams. They pulled up several students to teach them skills. I did not get to spin a ball on my finger, but I did get to stand up and be part of the program – they passed a ball around me in some magical way. The exact trick escapes me because my bliss addled brain couldn’t focus on much.  I admit to being star struck.  They’d been on Scooby Doo.  But I also remember thinking how cool it was that they came to our school and were so nice and much fun.

Thirty years later, the same holds true.  The Harlem Globetrotters are the best sort of celebrities.  After the game, they signed autographs. A huge line waited for Flight Time.  Apparently I’m not the only one crushing on him after his appearance on the Amazing Race.  I think it would be easy to become jaded, signing so many autographs game after game, but not him. He was gracious the whole time.  We also sought out Spider Wilks, who enthralled us with his dunking skills. He gave us a huge smile when he saw my hubby’s sweatshirt with their shared college. He signed the program my eight year old daughter held then looked at my four-year old son.  “What? The little guy has nothing to sign? We’ve got to fix that.” Spider took off is wrist band, autographed it, and handed it to my son. Beck beamed.  So did I.

You have to love the Harlem Globetrotters. What a wonderful organization that promotes fun, humor, athleticism and above all kindness.  My daughter can’t wait to go next year.  Frankly, neither can I.

Guenter Grass “The Box”

Guenter Grass "The Box"After the revelations that Guenter Grass (sorry for the lack of umlaut. I  can’t figure out how to get the thing in there) participated in the Waffen SS, I was among those, angry and betrayed who swore I wouldn’t read him again.  That lasted all of five years.

I couldn’t help myself when I saw The Box: Tales from the Darkroom at my library.  I haven’t finished the book yet, and I’m already looking forward to reading it again.  The author imagines his eight children gathering at various times and in different grouping to discuss him, his presence and his absence in their lives. The discussions rarely stray far from family friend Maria and her mysterious Agfa box camera.  The adult children debate the merits of the camera and Maria’s darkroom work, but all agree Maria’s camera showed them worlds and wishes normally hidden.

The imaginative premise blurs the line between reality and fiction. An old-fashioned camera is a perfect metaphor. We tend to think of true and false, real and fiction as absolutes as stark as black and white.  However, anyone who ever dabbled in black and white photography knows, the artistry reveals itself in the grays.

On Memoirs Part I

Lately, memoirs have been both in the news and on my mind. They are not a genre I eagerly seek out, and yet, I read them on a regular basis. I have not read the book at the heart of the latest controversy, Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea, nor have I read the infamous James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces. Frey’s is somewhere in my “To Be Read” stack, but it’s not a high priority read for me.  What interests me is not the content of these books, but rather the shock and outrage following the “revelation” that some of the “facts” are not actually “factual.”

Memoirs are classified as and treated as works of non-fiction. They are not. Nor are they works of fiction, at least not entirely. they exist on a plane somewhere in between. unfortunately, many readers seem to approach a memoir with the same mentality as they would a work of history or journalism. To misappropriate Ranke, too many readers expect the memoir to tell the story of a person’s life “as it actually was.”

The problem is that human beings are inherently flawed, particularly our memories.  Consider how often you misplace your keys, or have that nagging feeling you are forgetting something important. Today I found a camera I misplaced for over a month.  Our minds take a lot of short cuts to remember day-to-day moments.

We also use these short cuts when we tell people stories. We are all story tellers, verbally constructing a memoir of sorts as we relate the events of our day or week to an interested party. We leave out the details we find unimportant or uninteresting, compressing the story to become a more coherent listening experience. If someone included all these factual events in their memoir, we would be bored silly.

Part of the memoir problem, I suspect, comes when one goes back later to fill in those details with an eye to what would make the story better, more inspiring, more powerful and ultimately allow the author to sell the book first to a publisher and later to the reading public.  What the author considers embellishment or perhaps even clarification, can be considered lies or at the very least misleading statements. When the author is caught amending what purports to be a true life story, no wonder we get mad. We’ve been deceived. The story is not as ‘true’ or ‘authentic’ as promised.

The issue of veracity in memoirs is one of the many reasons that the next memoir I intend to read is actually a novel.  The Entertainment Weekly review of Francisco Goldman’s Say her Name suggests the pressure and expectations implicit in the word “Truth” led Goldman to reject the traditional memoir category in his ode to his wife.

I have plenty more to say on memoirs and anticipate future blogs on this subject, but for now, let me know what you think.