Story of Lithuanian struggle after the war is a fascinating read

Whever I read a book like Under Ground by Antanas Sileika  I’m reminded that we won the lottery being born in Canada. The rights, freedoms and privileges that we enjoy as Canadians are shared by so few in the world. After World War II, the three Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia were basically abandoned by the Allies and left to be plundered by the Russians. After being pummelled both physically, morally and politically by the Germans during the war and then the Red Army, Lithuania was a country destroyed. Everyone was considered a traitor to one side or the other.

In a heroic effort to save their country, rebel armies of partisans formed in forest camps. Consisting of former soldiers, students, farmers and workers, the partisans lived literally below ground, in small earthen bunkers they dug deep in pine forests to conceal their location from the Red Army and its supporters. If you ever watched the 2008 movie Defiance with Daniel Craig you’ll have an understanding of the primitive conditions under which the partisans lived their lives and fought their counter-offensive. The main difference is these people were not Jews hiding from Nazis; they were mainly Catholics fighting for their lives and for freedom.

Lukas, a student and the son of a farmer, is forced to leave university after the war because both he and his seminary-attending younger brother are at risk of being deported to a Siberian labour camp. They join the forest-dwelling underground partisans. Lukas is a cut above the average with his intelligence and language skills so he soon becomes a communicator as well as fighter. After two years of feral existence, he marries a female partisan, Elena. Love affairs and particularly marriage are discouraged because love weakens partisans and makes them vulnerable to capture.

During a particularly bloody confrontation, Lukas is separated from his wife and she is shot by the Reds. Through partisan channels and his own wits, Lucas escapes to Sweden and eventually lands in France. Desperate to call attention to the plight of the Baltic states, he begins speaking to expats and sympathizers to help raise funds for their cause. He has become a bit of a folk hero, well-known among Lithuanians for his heroic attacks on the Reds but he longs to return to his home and rejoin the fight.

This book is based on a compilation of true stories kept secret behind the iron curtain for decades. Antanas Sileikais is a Canadian-born author of Lithuanian heritage and a graduate of The University of Toronto. The story spans the final years of the war until 1950 and in an interesting twist reveals a Canadian connection at the end. I don’t want to give too much of the story away because it’s a fascinating read that you should enjoy for yourself. As baby boomers, we are a product of the end of that war and reading this book serves to remind us all how lucky we are that we were born when we were and where we were. This is a 9 out of 10. I highly recommend reading Under Ground.

Disclosure: If you order from these Amazon links, you will receive Amazon’s best price and I may receive a teeny, tiny commission.
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The Alice Network shines a light on women’s bravery during both wars

It’s natural when we enjoy a book to follow up by reading another book by the same author. After reading Kate Quinn’s The Huntress I couldn’t wait to dig into her earlier book, The Alice Network.

Quinn has a gift for being able to weave real historical events into fictional accounts with characters based on real-life individuals and composites. The story spans a period of several decades with most of the action taking place late in World War I and the years prior to and just after World War II. The plot centers around three women (similar to The Huntress) who never wore military uniforms but were war heroines nonetheless fighting the invisible and dangerous war of spying, sabotoging enemy positions and communicating intelligence to allied forces in England.

The main characters, Evelyn Gardiner from London, England, Charlotte (Charlie) St. Clair, an American and Louise de Bettignies (Lili) a native of France are drawn together in a common mission to take down a French traitor and Nazi opportunist by the name of René Bordelon. Evelyn and Lili first meet in 1916 when Evelyn is sent to Lille on the northern boundry of France to become part of The Alice Network, a highly effective and extensive network of more than one hundred subversive agents directed and coordinated by petite Lili working to undermine enemy actions, .

Multilingual Evelyn is a perfect spy. With a vocal stammer, she appears harmless and possibly even a bit simple. She lands a job waiting tables in the restaurant in Lille owned by René Bordelon who is not aware of her language skills. He tests his employees to make sure they don’t speak or understand German so he can protect the private conversations of his important German military guests. Her access to Bordelon and his German friends is a major tool in the Allies spy network.

At the end of the second world war in the United States, a young college student by the name of Charlie St. Clair finds herself in the family way without a husband. Her French-born mother marches her off to Switzerland to have the “little problem” taken care of, via Southampton, London and Paris. But Charlie goes on the lam in search of her soul-mate French cousin Rose Fournier who disappeared during World War II. The only information Charlie has to go on to find Rose is the name Evelyn Gardiner at an address in London. Evelyn turns out to be a haggard drunk who pulls a gun on her American visitor and threatens to kill her. Then, the plot thickens.

Charlie produces information about her cousin Rose that connects the broken down Evelyn to her former boss from the first war, René Bordelon. Evelyn relies on a misfit Scottish veteran of World War II by the name of Finn Kilgore to help her with daily life, driving her around, making sure she’s safe. The three strike off for France in search of Bordelon who may not just know the fate of Rose but is also the cause of Evelyn’s horrible physical and mental decline over the years. They’re not even sure he’s still alive but they have a score to settle.

The story moves along at a comfortable pace and it was easy to stay engaged. As with her Huntress book, I found the romance to be a bit gratuitous but I suppose it’s all part of good story-telling.  And I’m always annoyed when the timeline jumps around, back and forth between the two wars. I’m a simple person; I prefer plots to unfold in chronological order. The Alice Network takes us on an ambitious romp around northern France. The story ties real historical events and composites of real people together in a compelling tale that kept me reading right up to the end. At times the writing resembled a romantic bodice-ripper but it did the job of keeping me engaged and entertained. I’d give it 7 out of 10.

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Chelsea Handler is getting ready for love

Chelsea Handler with her rescue dogs Bert and Bernice.

The election of Donald Trump in 2016 affected comedienne, writer and late-night talk show host Chelsea Handler so profoundly she altered her entire life to cope with the implications. If you’ve ever watched her late night show Chelsea Lately, listened to her standup routine or read any of her books, you’ll know Handler is smart, beautiful, opinionated and abrasive. Turning forty and the election of Trump forced her to address an inner turmoil that she’d been ignoring her entire life. She suddenly realized that America and herself in particular were going down a very dangerous road. In her own words, “The news was giving me diarrhea.” I can certainly empathize—the news gives me stomach pains.

She put her career on hold for more than a year to focus on leveraging her celebrity status to get women elected in 2018 and increase the turnout of apathetic voters. This transformation happened with the assistance of an effective therapist whom she credits with finally helping her see life through a different lens. Her new book, Life Will Be The Death Of Me” is a recounting of this journey.

Reading Handler’s book reminded me of the special dynamics inherent in families with many children. Handler is the youngest of six children. Her oldest and favourite brother Chet was killed in a hiking accident when she was nine and she never recovered from that loss. As I read about the Handler family’s experiences I was reminded of the colourful childhood of David Sedaris who also grew up with multiple sisters, a brother and parents trying to cope with a demanding family.

Handler was unhappy with her life, always being on the offensive, sabotaging relationships, both romantic and otherwise, and being generally frustrated with the state of the world. She took great pride in her independence and the fact whatever she had achieved had been done without the benefit of a college education, connections or financial support. She’d worked hard and apologized to no one. After the November 2016 election she was so depressed she felt she had to take some responsibility for the state of things. “How could Americans have turned their back on decency, and why was I so misinformed? How did I not know this outcome was even a possibility?” she says early in the book.

Recognizing herself as a privileged white elitist, one of the entitled one percent who was incapable of managing life’s simple chores by herself (despite her blue collar upbringing), she concluded she was part of the problem and set about remaking herself. “I couldn’t carry on the way I had been carrying on, just coasting and cashing checks for essentially being a loudmouth.”

Previous attempts at therapy had not been successful, mainly because, like so many troubled people, she hadn’t connected with the right therapist. Then, she met Dr. Dan Siegel who patiently introduced her to new possibilities, perceptions and an action plan for moving forward in a more positive way. Through intensive psychotherapy, Handler identified the source of her anger, defensiveness and frustration. What could easily descend into psycho-babble does not. The science is intriguing and it’s worth reading about the process she underwent. It involved a lot of time building trust in her therapist, then slowly uncovering and mitigating the causes of her anger.

Chelsea Handler’s first rescue dog, Chunk, flew first class.

With her typical humour and intelligence, Handler not only walks us through her transformation but throws in many bits about her personal life that were enlightening and funny. Her drug and alcohol problems have been well documented in her earlier books and this time around she is once again frank and honest about her use of cannibus in particular. Like many people without children, she has enthusiastically adopted a series of rescue dogs to satisfy her need for nurturing and love. The stories about her various canine pals are hilarious and she is equally generous in exposing her shortcomings in stories about her relationship with her domestic staff and family members.

This book also describes her handling of the death of both her mother and father but the early death of her oldest brother when she was nine years old was particularly significant. She also recognizes that her failures in romantic relationships are completely the result of her unwillingness to accept other people’s shortcomings while acknowledging no one is perfect. Part of the purpose of this book is to right this wrong and in typical Chelsea Handler fashion she dedicates the book to “My Future Husband”. She prefers older men and in particular has a crush on Robert Mueller.

Matchmaker me

C’mon! You’d be so good together.

If we were real life BFFs, I’d be encouraging a relationship with Bill Maher. I’m a hopeless (and probably the world’s worst) matchmaker. I know how difficult it is to meet “the right person” so I’m always trying (unsuccessfully) to fix people up. I know Handler and Maher have been friends for years and I’m hoping now that she’s done all this work on herself she’ll open her eyes to the possibilities of my suggestion. Just once I’d like my matchmaking to work. She prefers older men and Bill Maher’s about 20 years older than her; they’re both political and very smart; neither wants children and both love dogs; they both are passionate about the environment—and weed. Bill—pick up the phone. I think she’s ready.

I loved this book and read it in less than two days. In my opinion, it’s a 9 out of 10. Let me know what you think.

To order Chelsea Handler’s “Life Will Be the Death of Me . . . and you too  from Amazon, click here.

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The Music Shop is run by a peculiar man on a street of peculiar people

The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce is a quirky little story with a quirky little cast of lovably, eccentric characters. One of the reasons I love British authors (and British television shows) is their absolute mastery of understatement and irony. I adored Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine for the same reason. Rachel Joyce also wrote The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry which I must now add to my list of books to read. A good writer can turn the most mundane everyday events into something you become immersed in and don’t want to put down. As I read The Music Shop I enjoyed a good belly chuckle about every second page for most of the book, until toward the end where it took a different turn.

Set in Margaret Thatcher’s England of right-wing politics in the late 80’s, The Music Shop is about half a dozen people living on a little dead-end street in London called (ironically) Unity Street. Their local pub is called England’s Glory. One side of the street is row housing occupied by long-term residents who can either no longer afford to keep up their properties or have simply lost interest. The other side of the street referred to in quaint British terms as ‘the parade’ is a series of barely surviving shops. There’s a disagreeable tattoo artist, a pair of peculiar undertakers, a Polish baker, a defrocked priest who sells religious objects like plastic statues of Jesus and leather religious bookmarks, and a music shop that sells only vinyl. A purist to the core, Frank, who owns and manages the music shop, refuses to carry cassettes, CDs or another paraphernalia related to music that is not recorded on original vinyl.

The little neighbourhood is threatened by developers, a common occurrence in large urban centres. But the residents and shop keepers on Unity Street are united in keeping their little corner of the world intact and serving their particular and peculiar needs. Then, one day a lovely young German woman in a green coat faints in front of Frank’s store and it sets off a chain of events that have a life-long impact on their lives. The plot is minor; the events are mundane and the characters, while totally ordinary in that quirky British way are made colourful and fascinating by Joyce’s loving, sensitive and descriptive narrative.

Music lovers will especially enjoy the dozens and dozens of references to classical, rock, heavy metal, soul and other types of music described in the book. Music is the language that binds so many of these odd characters together and the author dispenses a great deal of knowledge about music, composers and musicians. I can’t claim to have any knowledge of music beyond knowing the words to every single sixties pop piece ever released but I learned a lot of background reading this little book. I was tempted to start writing down many of the recordings described to listen to so that it would give me a greater understanding of the depth of particular musical pieces.

Toward the end of the book, the humour drops off in preparation for a tumultuous finale. I thoroughly enjoyed The Music ShopMusic is not a subject I would have normally have been inclined to pick up a book about, but Rachel Joyce’s warm and sensitive writing made it fun and informative. I’d give it 8 out of 10 because it surprised and informed me more than I expected.


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Who was the woman in Hitler’s bathtub and how did she get there?

Elizabeth “Lee” Miller was a fascinating woman and I love books about fascinating women. The Age of Light by Whitney Scharer describing the life of Lee Miller in the city of light is such a book. Miller’s glory days were spent in Paris between the wars when she was the lover, muse and assistant to the famous artist and photographer Man Ray. In a classic tale of servant becoming the master, the author takes us on a fictional journey based on Miller’s real life—historical fiction, my favourite genre.

Lee Miller was born in 1907 in Poughkeepsie, New York, the middle child of an amateur photographer and his wife. She had an unusually close and somewhat peculiar relationship with her father who often photographed her and encouraged her artistic nature. By the 1920’s she had moved to New York City where she modeled for Vogue magazine, recognized for her beauty and style. Wanting to expand her career as an artist and leave modeling behind she traveled to Paris. Despite having no connections or referrals, she had ambitions of living amongst the bohemian crowd and developing her career as an artist. In the beginning, she was lonely and unfocused. At a café one evening she meets some American expats who introduce her to an assortment of Parisian free-spirited and creative people at a hedonistic party in the home of a local arts patron. At this same party, she is introduced to Man Ray.

Lee Miller was as talented as she was beautiful.

Attracted by her beauty and genuine ambition to learn more about the art of photography, Man Ray hires her as his studio assistant. Their relationship naturally evolves beyond that of mentor and student. Soon they are lovers and Man develops intense feelings for Miller which are reciprocated by the impressionable young woman who is at least two decades younger. As with many creative people, their emotions are intense and mercurial. Both professional and romantic jealousy regularly complicates their relationship. Living, working and socializing together soon becomes more difficult to manoeuvre and they quarrel easily. His ego ultimately supersedes his love for her.

The book begins with a brief chapter on Lee Miller in later life, definitely not her best years. She evolved through several careers over her life time. Beginning with modelling, she then earned a reputation as an accomplished photographer and during World War II was an accredited war photojournalist working for Vogue Magazine. Her war experiences included witnessing horrifying scenes of war and she was among the first photographers who entered Buchenwald and Dachau when they were liberated in April 1945. These experiences left her permanently traumatized (today recognized as PTSD) and she self-medicated with alcohol. Later, she became a Cordon Bleu chef and wrote respected columns on food and domestic life for Vogue.

At the end of WW2 Lee Miller was famously photographed taking a bath in Hitler’s bathtub.

At the end of the war she was given access to Adolf Hitler’s private apartment in Munich where she and a fellow war correspondent spent a few hours alone going through the personal belongings of Hitler and Eva Braun. Miller famously disrobed and took a bath in his bathtub, her first after three weeks in the field, and washed off the dust and grime from visiting the concentration camps.

After the war Miller lived in England where she married and had children. Her life never was as full or as productive as it was in the years prior to 1946 but she soldiered on trying different ways of earning a living. Despite being an accomplished journalist and photographer, she was often remembered only for her relationship with Man Ray. It was the fate of many talented women over the course of history to be remembered only for their association with a famous man and this has resulted in the loss of so many fascinating histories.

The Age of Light was absolutely my cup of tea. I loved every page and wish there had been more. It’s hard to believe this is Sharer’s first novel; the writing is excellent. The research required to string together the life experiences of Lee Miller into this fascinating story is impressive. It’s the nature of historical fiction, however, that certain assumptions and sequences of events that are the creation of the author’s imagination. As soon as I started reading and throughout the book, I found myself checking Wikipedia and Googling Lee Miller’s photographs to bring many of the events to life. I intend to read more about Miller and her fascinating life. I’d rate this book 8 out of 10. Loved it.

To order The Age of Light by Whitney Scharer from Amazon, click here.

(Disclosure: If you order from this link, you will receive Amazon’s best price and I may get a teeny tiny commission. Thank you.)

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Who was the woman in Hitler’s bathtub and how did she get there?
At the end of WW2 Lee Miller was famously photographed taking a bath in Hitlers bathtub.

The Only Woman in the Room sounded familiar for a reason

Usually when I add a book title to my “To Read” list I include a bit of description of what it’s about for when it works its way to the top of the list. I’d forgotten to do that when I recorded The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict but the title did remind me of all my years working in construction. As Corporate Marketing Manager for EllisDon Corporation, I was very often the only woman in the room when I attended meetings in a male dominated business. While the book turned out to have nothing to do with construction it did have quite a lot to do with business, in a round-about way. It wasn’t until I reached the half-way point in the book that I realized why I’d flagged The Only Woman in the Room to read.

The story begins in 1933 with a beautiful young stage actress named Hedwig Kiesler in Vienna, Austria being pursued by an older admirer. His name is Friedrich (Fritz) Mandl and as a manufacturer and distributor of guns and armaments, he’s one of the richest men in Austria. Using all his skills as a master manipulator, he courts and eventually convinces teenaged Hedy to marry him. Although both are of Jewish ancestry, he insists they convert to Christianity and marry in a Catholic cathedral. Considering the threatening political climate for Jews at the time, it seems like a reasonable decision. Mandl is a strong nationalist and friend of Mussolini who supports Austrian independence. Then, as the political climate changes and Hitler allies with Mussolini, Mandl switches loyalties and supports a fascist Austria with shady ties to Nazi Germany.

Hedy’s marriage to Mandl soon deteriorates from being his adored bride to being a captive bird in a gilded cage. He monitors her every move, dictates what she will wear and who she associates with. Before long, he locks her in his castle and restricts her life to the point she plots her escape. By disguising herself as her lady’s maid and making a run for England, she feels she will be out of his reach. There, she meets American movie mogul Louis B. Mayer and his wife who are recruiting emigré Jewish movie and theatre professionals who are threatened by the Nazis. Hedy travels to America on the same ship as the Mayers and is hired as a contract actress.

As they were trying to come up with a less German-sounding last name for Hedy, the penny dropped and I realized why I wanted to read this book. BAM! This was a fictional account, written in the first person, of the life of Hedy Lamarr. That was the reason I’d flagged this book. And apart from her famous beauty and career in the movie industry, she was a very smart lady. Sadly, she suffered the fate of many women in the past whose professional accomplishments were overlooked simply because they were women.

When she was the trophy wife of Fritz Mandl back in Austria, she was present at many meetings, dinner parties and cocktail discussions about defense systems, armaments and military strategy with senior military leaders. She absorbed the knowledge and was able to put it use later. After Hedy Lamarr escaped Austria just before the start of World War II, she always felt guilty about not being able to forewarn others of the impending danger associated with Austria’s alliance with Nazi Germany.

Her torpedo guidance system was at first rejected by the Navy because it was designed by a woman.

Early in the war, German U-boats sank a mercy ship loaded with orphan children headed for America. This cruel act profoundly affected Hedy and she resolved to use her knowledge against Germany. With the assistance of composer George Antheil, she analysed the problem of allied torpedoes missing their targets and together they developed a “synchronized alternating radio frequency device” that prevented the Germans from jamming Allied torpedo radio signals, throwing torpedoes off target. In order to get the navy to use her new invention she had to get it patented and tested, which they eventually accomplished. Despite the obvious benefits of the new torpedo guidance system the navy discounted and turned down her invention. To her great shock and horror, their response was “Stick to your films. We think you’d be better able to assist by selling war bonds than building torpedoes”.  Using the author’s incredulous voice as Lamarr she writes “How could the military allow their soldiers and sailors to lose on the seas—to be killed in vast numbers—because they wouldn’t use a weapon system designed by a woman?”. Sound like a familiar refrain?

Many years ago, in the sixties, I remember a supervisor at Bell Canada telling me something similar when I submitted a list of suggested improvements in efficiency in the Cable Assignment Department where I worked at the time. He waved the piece of paper in my face and said “Who do you think you are? There are men in this department who are getting paid a lot more money than you to come up with solutions to these problems” and he dropped my list in the waste basket. I can still remember that supervisor’s name and feel my blood pressure rise when I think of it. I know how Hedy Lamarr felt. Ironically and as vindication, her torpedo technology was eventually adopted by the navy in the 1950s and was ultimately part of the technology that was further developed to become the cell phones, WiFi and sophisticated technology we use today. Take that mister misogynistic narrow-minded navy man!

The Only Woman in the Room focuses on Lamarr’s early life and war efforts rather than her film career which is already well documented. There are some inaccuracies and factual omissions that are inherent in historical fiction, particularly when taking the liberty of writing in the first person. At only 272 pages in hard copy, the book was a fast read and stopped at her second husband; she ultimately had six husbands and many lovers. There’s conjecture about the paternity of her adopted son which is not addressed in the book. I did enjoy it though and only wish the author had written a couple hundred more pages. I’d rate it 7 out 10.

To order The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict from Amazon click here.

(Disclosure: If you order through this link you will get their best price and I may receive a teeny tiny commission from Amazon.)


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