City of Thieves by David Benioff

The setting for David Benioff’s City of Thieves is grim and brutal – the siege of Leningrad during World War II – yet there is also light and optimism, even laughter in this book. Lev Benioff, is a naive, 17-year-old is picked up for looting, a sentence punishable by death. Instead of the firing squad, he is thrown together with brash, confident, Red Army soldier Koyla Vaslav (arrested for deserting). They are given a task: find 12 eggs for the general’s daughter’s wedding in five days. If they succeed, they’re free; if not, they’ll be shot.

What follows is the nearly impossible search for fresh eggs in a city that has virtually no food (conservative estimates place the number of Soviet deaths during the siege at 1.7 million, most of whom starved to death) The unlikely pairing develops from forced to begrudging to a true partnership. What these two see, both the cruelty and kindness, is almost unfathomable now in our comfortable, well-fed lives, from the desperate couple resorting to cannibalism (who they barely escape from), to the former call girl that shelters artists and surgeons made homeless by the relentless bombing, to the Nazi commander they must outwit, the book is full of unforgettable characters and heart-stopping tension.

At first, you will want to hate Koyla. He is arrogant and brash and a bit of a braggart. He is also charming and charismatic and at heart, a kind and generous man who does the right thing for others time and again. Lev, who narrates the story, is full of self-doubt and (he believes) weakness, but finds unimaginged courage and strength when he needs it, partly because of Koyla.

Based on Benioff’s grandfather’s memories, this is storytelling at it’s best, the kind of book that stays with you – a story of cruelty, desperation and hardship, but also of kindness, strength, loyalty, love and friendship.

Battlescapes by Alfred Bullesbach

battlescapesThe scars on the landscape have faded, the roar of battle has been forgotten, and the machinations of generals and commanders and sacrifices of soldiers have slipped into the history books, but the places remain. Alfred Bullesbach set out to photograph the locations of 34 famous battles and the result is the stunning and thought-provoking Battlescapes.

Bullesbach is not a historian; he is a photographer and he approached each battlefield with a landscape photographers eye. In some cases, there are elaborate memorials or large formal cemataries; at other sites there is no evidence whatsoever that a battle took place there. Sheep graze on the grass covered trenches of the Somme where 1.5 million men lost their lives. A lush and peaceful forest stands were the Americans and Germans fought the bloody Battle of the Bulge.

Perhaps most poignant are the numerous sites from the Great War (World War I); men were buried where they fell, many of their names unknown. Small cemeteries, containing several dozen to just a few graves, have become part of the landscape, surrounded by farm fields and pastures. Each grave is still meticulously tended, with flowers and carefully mown grass.

All of the battlesites pictured are located in Europe, so Americans were only involved in the later wars (World Wars I and II), but you will have encountered many of the names in your history books – Alesia, Hastings, Agincourt, Blenheim, Waterloo. The photography is stunning with large panoramics and as well as more intimate studies for each location. A guide to visiting the battlefields concludes the book.

D-Day

dday1D-Day was June 6th, 1944.  This year marks its 65th anniversary.  For those who served so long ago, let us take a moment to remember them.  As members of that generation die out, we lose those incredibly precious first-hand accounts.  For those of us born later, we can always rely on the history that has been faithfully recorded  in books and videos.

Check out D-Day:Reflections of Courage, a DVD put out by BBC Video. Shot on location and told from the various point-of-views of American, British, French and German participants, it is an excellent overview of this historic day.

ten-days-to-d-day1If you prefer a written version, try Ten Days to D-Day by David Stafford. The Normandy invasion was the largest single-day amphibious invasion of all time, landing 160,000 troops on that fateful day in June. An operation that large, involving several different governments and armies required unprecedented planning. Told from several points-of-view, from the Generals and Presidents to the soldiers and civilians, this is a gripping story of courage and sacrifice.

the-longest-dayYou might also want to take a look at The Longest Day by Cornelius Ryan, the acknowledged classic of the invasion. Ryan interviewed participants shortly after the war while memories were still fresh and skillfully weaves their personal stories into the overall history. A must-read for history buffs.

And watch for the ongoing Honor Flights, now being conducted throughout the country (Davenport just sent a group in April; another is scheduled for October) Volunteers fly veterans of World War II to Washington D.C. to visit the recently built World War II Memorial. All expenses for the veterans are paid by contributions – a small return to these everyday heroes from a grateful nation.

Eleventh Hour, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Month

Today is Veterans Day, a day set aside to honor military veterans. Originally called Armistice Day, it was first observed in remembrance of soldiers of the Great War (World War I) and is set on November 11, the anniversary of the armistice with Germany in 1918 (major hostilities were formally ended at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month) The name of the holiday was changed in the United States to Veterans Day in 1954, and was dedicated to all veterans.

Most government offices and many businesses are closed today including the city of Davenport. However, both Davenport Library locations will be open their regular hours – Main will be open 9:30am-5:30pm and Fairmount will be open 12 noon to 8:00pm.

If you are interested in learning more about World War I than numbers and dates, I recommend that you search out Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain’s harrowing story of what happened to her, her brother, her fiance and their close friends. All of the men were thrown into the “meat grinder” of trench warfare and Vera became an Army nurse in France and Malta. Filmed as multi-part series for Masterpiece Theater, Alistair Cooke stated in his introduction that if this had been a “Hollywood movie” it would have been dismissed as unbelievable but it is in fact, all true. It is a sobering and heart wrenching look at the cost of warfare.

A Very Long Engagement

Today marks the anniversary of the official beginning of World War I on July 28, 1914. Now often overshadowed by the popularity of fiction and non-fiction of World War II, the First World War saw the introduction of many aspects of modern warfare including the first use of armored tanks and airplanes as fighters as well as the horrors of trench warfare and mustard gas. And although it was known as the “war to end all wars”, in many ways it contributed to the causes of the Second World War.

Poignant, horrific yet ultimately hopeful, the French language film A Very Long Engagement starring Audrey Tautou is set against the backdrop of the end of the war and it’s aftermath. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Mathilde refuses to believe that her fiance has died in the war. She launches an investigation, a search that introduces a multitude of interlocking stories and incidents. The movie shifts from the couple’s courtship before the war to the horrors of the trenches to Mathilde’s determined search after the war and back again. Throughout, Mathilde’s charm, intelligence and most of all faith remain unshakable and will make you believe too.