Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A war, a gift and one woman's search

The Box from Braunau: In Search of My Father's War, by Jan Elvin
Rel: May 28, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-8144-1049-3

“Soldiers aren’t the only casualties of war”, says author Jan Elvin in the afterword of this engrossing memoir. ” Their families suffer as well although their battles are fought later, on the home front.”

While never diagnosed, Elvin’s father may have suffered the effects of post traumatic stress disorder(PTSD) long after his return from the front as an American soldier during World War II, in turn emotionally scarring his wife and children as well. Struggling to hide his trauma while providing for his family in the years following the War, Bill Elvin steadily became a controlling and emotionally remote father, prone to anxiety, erratic behaviour and sudden bouts of violence when startled. He became a respected reporter and a pillar of the community, but failed to preserve his marriage or build strong bonds with his four children. This book is the story of his daughter’s attempt , nearly fifty years later, at understanding what he went through during the war, and how this might have affected his life thereafter.

“The Box from Braunau : In Search of My Father’s War” begins with the author’s realization that a simple gift her father received during the war from a prisoner he helped liberate from the Nazis might hold the key to finally understanding him .This book chronicles her investigation into his experiences during World War II, many of which he never revealed to his family. As Elvin delves deeper into her research and encourages her father to begin speaking about his experiences, she realizes that he had witnessed not only frontline combat but also the chilling horrors of a slave labour camp in Austria .Meeting other veterans and survivors of the war, she further realizes that her family’s struggle was far from unique;thousands of families like hers struggled with PTSD then, and continue to do so around the world.

The narrative, interspersed with extracts from Bill Elvin’s lucid war time journal , is elegant and restrained; Elvin knows when to step back and let her father do the talking. The gaps in his journal, the issues he felt unable to write about, are filled in with meticulous research, giving the reader a seamless picture of the War from the American perspective. The book also debunks attempts to romanticize the war or civilian life during that period.

'The hills are alive with the sound of murder',says a speaker at a reunion of Holocaust survivors in Austria, not far from where that evergreen hit 'The Sound of Music' was filmed. 'The hills are alive with the sound of torture'. For every one with a sense of nostalgia about the so-called 'Good War', those lines serve as reminder of the true horrors the War stood for -the mass slaughter of innocents that the Nazis were allowed to get away with, as well as the needless loss of civilians and soldiers alike in a conflict that could have been prevented with sound economic reform.

Elvin painstakingly builds up a portrait of her father by delving right back into his childhood, examining the incidents that shaped him and guided him towards the choices he made. Bill Elvin emerges as a flawed but remarkable man, displaying great courage under adversity and dedicated to his family despite their subsequent estrangement. She is honest about her own feelings of anger and resentment towards her parents as she struggled to deal with their separation and the responsibilities this thrust on her. She also touchingly confesses that while the writing of this book may have helped her forgive him, it may have done nothing for her siblings, each of whom was affected in their own way by Bill's behaviour.

As much as this is a tribute to Bill Elvin, it is also about the author’s own search for closure on a lot of unresolved issues she had with her father. It is heartening to note that she does indeed achieve this and, towards the end of his life, grow closer to him. Above all, the book seeks to reach out to families of soldiers in past and ongoing combat zones around the world, to help them deal with the psychological battles that may continue long after they return home.

Thanks to Alice Northover of AMACOM Books for sending me a copy of the book to review.

Here's another book that looks at PTSD in a soldier from another Great War.

And here and here - past reviews of stories from the Holocaust.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Journeys of other kinds

A Trance after Breakfast and other passages, by Alan Cheuse
Sourcebooks, Inc.
ISBN 978-1-4022-1516-2
Release: June 9 2009

Halfway up a rocky trail leading to a glacier somewhere in New Zealand, the author’s guide quotes Proust, “Life consists not in seeing new things but in finding new ways of seeing.” Those lines pretty much sum up this engrossing new book by Alan Cheuse, the author and noted literary critic for National Public Radio’s ‘All Things Considered’ . Cheuse needs little introduction in the literary world, having previously authored such remarkable books as The Tennessee Waltz, The Light Possessed and To Catch the Lightning. In ‘Trance..’, he turns his skills as a writer, critic and keen observer of life to the wanderlust, physical, intellectual and spiritual, that has driven him through much of his life, and in turn influenced his writing.

These essays by Cheuse, previously featured in various publications like the San Diego Reader, Gourmet and the Antioch Review, take us - from his native New Jersey to places as diverse as Mexico, Bali and New Zealand, and right back again- on journeys of the heart rather than just the eye. Most of these essays are not your usual travelogues but seek to explore wider themes – the notion of home and belonging ; the idea of religious and cultural identity within a greater whole ; immersion as a linguistic tool as well as a broader cultural ideal.

Not all these journeys are taken by the author himself. In ‘Port of Entry’ , for instance, Cheuse- referring to himself as ‘the pilgrim’ – watches other peoples’ journeys, across the San Ysidro Port of Entry between Mexico and California. As he observes the men and women policing the border to weed out illegal immigrants and narcotics smugglers , he draws parallels to desperate immigrants around the world and across time, at border crossings much like this, struggling to reach their idea of a safe haven. ‘The Mexican Rabbi’ describes struggles of a different kind, as it traces the trajectory of Judaism in the Spanish culture, and the assertion of Jewish identity in present day Mexico.

Yet other journeys are purely literary ; ‘ Border Schooling’ begins as an eye witness account of a unique educational experiment, focused as much on cultural assimilation as on pedagogy. But along the way, it becomes an account of the author’s own lifelong affair with literature, and the journeys in reading he has made since his youth. Similarly, ‘Reading the Archipelago’ examines the ways the Indonesian islands have been described in literature, first by European authors like Conrad, Dekker and Couperus, and later by Maugham , Greene and Burgess. It is not until Cheuse turns to the work of indigenous writers that he realizes that the roots of his dissatisfaction with much of the earlier work lies in their being essentially the view of outsiders looking in, focused more with the ‘exotic’ than with the realities of life on the islands.

Ironically, some of the smaller essays in this collection veer towards precisely this kind of exotic portrayal, the view of the casual, if well meaning tourist. The title essay perhaps best represents this style of writing , as it offers the reader bemused observations on local colour and the hold that religion and rituals have on daily life in Bali, from the comforts of a luxurious resort that must surely cater only to foreign tourists like himself. But after a week of yoga, temple hopping and trance dancing, the author finds himself mesmerized by the island and its rituals, willing to let go of his skepticism and submit to greater powers he can briefly sense , yet never fully comprehend . After the essays on Tijuana in the section 'Crossing Borders', I confess this essay left me disappointed. Again, in ‘Kiwi Dreams’, the author finds himself drawn by the cinematic glories of New Zealand’s natural vistas to this tiny island, only to become rapidly overwhelmed , then detached. And in ‘An Artist’s Adobe’, an account of a visit to the house in New Mexico where renowned artist Georgia O’Keefe lived and painted in the last decades of her life, offers little more than descriptions of room layouts.

Cheuse is at his poetic best when writing about water - its powerful draw on travellers, immigrants and gold prospectors alike, and his own lifelong fascination with the ocean. ‘Thirty five Passages across water’ takes us back and forth in time, beginning with memorable events in the author’s own life, then rather cheekily tracing a connection to Noah, prehistoric life and Genesis itself. And the poignant ‘Coda: Two Oceans’, a fitting endpiece to this book, pays a lyrical tribute to the two oceans that have shaped the author’s life. If the Atlantic is to him the shores of his childhood and akward adolescence in New Jersey, the Pacific evokes the romance of adventure , limitless imagination and a cultural tapestry on its American shores that “…seemed more a fusion of presences than a melting away of differences.”

"I am", concludes Cheuse,"Atlantic-born and my mother's child, but Pacific-bound, and my father's man."

Well-crafted, insightful and often profound, a book about finding not just beauty and newness, but also oneself in the journeys that invariably define us - even those of us travelers that are strictly armchair-bound.

Thanks to Heather Moore at Sourcebooks for sending Bookblah a copy of the book to review.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Little Lamb Lost, by Margaret Fenton

Little Lamb Lost marks the debut of novelist Margaret Fenton, and introduces a new detective into the mystery genre– Claire Conover.

Claire is a young social worker with the Department of Human Services in Birmingham , focused on helping kids from troubled homes. And yet, when one of her young clients is found dead, her faith in her abilities at her job is shaken. Could the child be dead because of her own mistakes in the casework? Faced with the loss of both reputation and career, Claire sets out to seek answers, even as the boy’s mother is arrested for the crime. Claire is armed with little more than determination and a belief in the young mother’s innocence , yet continues undaunted even as she begins to fear for her life.

This is a gripping, fast paced book and the author keeps us guessing right till the end. Thrills, car chases and red herrings abound, as Claire inches closer to the truth and suspects multiply. She finds allies in some unexpected places, and a very interesting romantic triangle develops . Claire is also confronted with unpleasant family secrets and the corrosive effects of drug addiction and abuse .

Debut novels often borrow from the author’s own life, and this one is no exception. Much like her heroine, the author has also worked in child and family welfare, and lives in the Birmingham area in which this story is set. This book is commendably rich in detail; the area of Birmingham comes alive in Fenton’s descriptions of it - I especially enjoyed the detailing of Claire's drives and even the car chase sequences. Also food - a lot of the scenes play out over lovingly described meals that Claire rather guiltily enjoys, even as she worries bout her weight. Claire the novice detective is nowhere in the league of her peers yet – Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone readily come to mind - but makes up for this with dogged determination , a keen understanding of people and a dedication to helping people find their way.

The writing does have some uneven moments, especially in the development of Claire’s romance. The denouement also feels rushed, and rather conveniently wound up. And while impulsive, risk taking Claire chooses gentle nerd Grant over the dashing Kirk, surely there is a crackle of unresolved attraction there that begs to be explored? Nevertheless, this book offers much to hook mystery buffs - a gutsy and endearing heroine, a good hand with mystery plotting, and the promise of much more to come in future Conover capers.