Friday, January 31, 2020

Book Review: When Books Went to War (OT) (WW2, the rise of the paperback)

When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II, by Molly Manning (Mariner Books, 2015, 304 pages, $23.15)

Enticing Premise, 303 Pages Too Long

When Books Went to War - one book I was very excited to receive recently (with one tantalizing front cover photo worthy of several conversations itself [reading in a foxhole]) . . . only to be enormously disappointed in the extensive amount of extraneous detail.

Perhaps you have come across a title in the Armed Serviced Editions (ASEs) at a rummage sale and wondered about the short but wide little paperback with the original cover photo on the book cover along with other information, and with two columns of print inside on each page rather than one. When Books Went to War, (not the first book on the subject) is the story of those little paperback books for the troops in the 40s, a story that might be more enticing and memorable had it been considerably shorter. (Who was it that said he would have sent a shorter letter but he didn’t have time?)

“Weapons in the War of Ideas”

“This is a war of books. . . Books are our weapons.” (p. 65) It all started with the publication of Mein Kampf and the book burnings. . . .*

Books and Bullets

Yes, When Books Went to War opens with book burnings, the famous book burnings of 1933 in various locations in Nazi Germany. You may be learning about these incidents for the first time (and may not know about Banned Books Week** every fall which celebrates the freedom to read that we have here in the United States).

Millions of Books

Basically, during WWII, a series of paperback books was distributed to troops stationed overseas as part of a morale-boosting program. Each month, different titles were sent from 1943 (it took a while for the program to develop and start up) through June 1947 (not all troops came home right after VE Day or VJ Day – there was rebuilding to help with and even those troops had some spare time to fill).

One secondary result of the book distribution to the troops was to help increase the number of books in Germany, the literary population of which had been decimated by Hitler’s actions: “. . . 3.6 million books [the overseas editions - donated to Europeans] were a drop in the bucket when compared to the estimated destruction of more than 100 million books in Europe by the Nazis.” (p. 154) The 123 million ASEs and 18 million books donated by the American public for our troops also helped supplant the books burned by the Nazis and helped fill the void they caused. More books were given to the American armed services than Hitler destroyed!

A second secondary result was to help educate troops when they had time on their hands. At this time in our military, the average soldier had an 11th grade education so the monthly book distribution contained a wide range of reading material from books about cowboys to books about crime and the classics***. At least one soldier kept up his reading and went on to earn a PhD after the War. In addition, perhaps as a result of this reading, from 1947-48, 50% of college graduates were veterans.

Damned Average Raisers

The final chapter, aptly named Damned Average Raisers, pertains to those returning college veterans, a bit older and much more mature than the regular students, who managed to study harder and, thus, raise the grading curve for the rest of the class.

Yes, I Did Learn

Yes, I did learn about the swift creation of the paperback and how its size was eventually decided upon. Yes, I did learn that the rise of the paperback book is due to the rapidly enlarged military and why other sizes (some, even smaller) failed to catch on.

Yes, I did learn about the public book drives and why they were discontinued in favor of printing hundreds of thousands of copies of several titles a month: 122 million total, 1300 titles - about 155,000 copies of a title.

Writing Style

Written by attorney Molly Manning (when would an attorney have the time?), Books is fairly quick read for an academic tome, helped by a section of photos plus about 100 pages of appendices that makes the book itself only 200 pages rather than 300. Thank goodness.

Although I managed to make it through the first few chapters, thinking they were just setting the stage for better reading, more exciting and personal stories, it soon became evident that Manning began chapters with what was going on during World War II at the time, a fascinating review of the history of the War, tying it all together. She starts at the beginning of the War and ends just after WW2 as GIs are going back to school and work, replacing women and making them free to become homemakers once again and share in the budding consumer economy.

My Question for You, Dear Reader

What are you reading in your foxhole tonight?

NEXT: What My Veterans' Book Club Thinks of When Books Went to War

*Book burnings, according to Wikipedia, began in the 7th century BCE and include those in the US in the 50s, Chile in the 70s, among others.

**27 September – 3 October 2020 is Banned Books Week: “. . . spotlighting current and historical attempts to censor books in libraries and schools.” Surprising titles that people have attempted to censor include Tom Sawyer. The most challenged books in 2018 (the previous year included To Kill a Mockingbird and The Kite Runner) were the following:
  1. George by Alex Gino
    Reasons: banned, challenged, and relocated because it was believed to encourage children to clear browser history and change their bodies using hormones, and for mentioning “dirty magazines,” describing male anatomy, “creating confusion,” and including a transgender character
  2. A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo by Jill Twiss, illustrated by EG Keller
    Reasons: banned and challenged for including LGBTQIA+ content, and for political and religious viewpoints
  3. Captain Underpants series written and illustrated by Dav Pilkey
    Reasons: series was challenged because it was perceived as encouraging disruptive behavior, while 
    Captain Underpants and the Sensational Saga of Sir Stinks-A-Lot was challenged for including a same-sex couple
  4. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
    Reasons: banned and challenged because it was deemed “anti-cop,” and for profanity, drug use, and sexual references
  5. Drama written and illustrated by Raina Telgemeier
    Reasons: banned and challenged for including LGBTQIA+ characters and themes
  6. Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
    Reasons: banned, challenged, and restricted for addressing teen suicide
  7. This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki, illustrated by Jillian Tamaki
    Reasons: banned and challenged for profanity, sexual references, and certain illustrations
  8. Skippyjon Jones series written and illustrated by Judy Schachner
    Reason: challenged for depicting stereotypes of Mexican culture
  9. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
    Reasons: banned and challenged for sexual references, profanity, violence, gambling, and underage drinking, and for its religious viewpoint
  10. This Day in June by Gayle E. Pitman, illustrated by Kristyna Litten
    Reason: challenged and burned for including LGBTQIA+ content
  11. Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan
    Reason: challenged and burned for including LGBTQIA+ content

***Contemporary fiction led the lists, followed by historical novels, mysteries, books of humor, westerns and “. . .  adventure stories, biographies, cartoons, classics, current events, fantasy, histories, music, nature, poetry, science, sea and naval stories, self-help and inspirational books, short story collections and travel books.” (p. 80)

Monday, January 20, 2020

Book Review (OT): If: The Untold Story of Kipling's American Years (VT, history)

If: The Untold Story of Kipling’s American Years, by Christopher Benfey (Penguin Press, 2019, 242 pages, $28)

I was so excited to start If: The Untold Story of Kipling’s American Years. I hadn’t known that Rudyard Kipling spent a decade in the US, much less in Brattleboro, Vermont, where I have visited.

Give it a Chance

If starts out slooooowly. It might appeal to you if you are an English major, a grad student in English, or an English professor or teacher (or History). I am not, so, many names mentioned were lost on me, like Henry James. Others, not so much: Mark Twain, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Teddy Roosevelt, Bram Stoker and Andrew Carnegie: all friends of Kipling.


As a matter of fact, If reminded me of someone who talks only about others – a name-dropper – in order to appear more important than they really are. Many unnecessary and long-winded diversions abound by author Christopher Benfey, an English professor (what else?), perhaps in an attempt to make this quasi-history book a quasi-analysis of many of Kipling’s works.

However, Kipling is important. Did you know he won the Nobel Prize back in 1907? A member of the upper crust of expatriate British society, he lived on three continents and lost all his money in a Japanese bank (but recovered, thanks to his writings). Kipling is also known as the soldier’s poet, which is expounded upon extensively in the epilogue where author Benfey brings us up to date on Iraq and Afghanistan but spends considerable time comparing Kipling’s work with the Vietnam* Conflict.

Everyday Kipling

If you have never read Kipling, you are, at least, aware of his stories and poems from Kim to The Jungle Book to Captains Courageous to Gunga Din to Mandalay to The White Man’s Burden to The Man Who Would Be King to If.


I once told myself I would read any book by an English professor. Then I read If. Benfey’s style is tedious: although his sentence structure, paragraphs, and organization are good, If sounds like a book report written to impress the teacher with one quote after another. The sheer number of quotes (and diversions) interferes with reading about Kipling.

Which brings us to:
            “And the end of the fight is a tombstone white with the name of the late deceased,
            “And the epitaph drear: ’A Fool lies here who tried to hustle the East.’”
*"If any question why we died,
"Tell them, because our fathers lied."

Monday, January 13, 2020

Book Review: My Sister, The Serial Killer (Nigeria, murder, murder, . . . . family) (OT)

My Sister, The Serial Killer, by Oyinkan Braithwaite (Doubleday, 2018, 226 pages, $22.95)

 My Kind of Book

Small and short. Short chapters. Actually the hardback copy is the size of a paperback!

Fascinating Title! Intriguing Cover!

Who wouldn’t want to read this book? But, will it be grisly?

My Sister. . . .

Is blood really thicker than water? How does your family compare to the one in the book? Does either parent favor one child, or even seem to (to the other child)? Perhaps (hopefully!) you don’t have a serial killer or even a murderer in your family but does one member always seem to have to rescue the other? Or, does one member always bully or pick on the other? If so, why do they stay together? Because they are family and therefore, one (the serial killer) needs the other (the nurse) and because the nurse envies her sister?

Also in Portuguese

Will the tables ever turn? Will your younger sister ever grow up and stop stealing your boyfriends? Will you ever move out and force her to face her problems?

The Setting

Lagos, Nigeria (a megalopolis). Names that American readers are not used to.

A Very Unusual Read!

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Book Review: Lot: Stories (Houston, ethics, poverty) (OT)

Lot: Stories, by Bryan Washington (Riverhead Books, 2019, 222 pages, $25)

If a book can be melodic, this is it. “. . . talking, words bursting our of my nose, my ears, . . . . “

What is a Family?

A story of stories of Houston, on first names with streets* and neighborhoods but now you see them in a different light from different eyes (hookers, druggies, dealers, workers).

On first names with a hurricane: before Harvey, after Rita. If you can afford to come back, if you can afford to come back AND to rebuild. If not, . . . .”Rumors glide through the complex like vines.” (p. 14)

A Different Houston

Author Bryan Washington shows us a different Houston, a different life, peopled with disintegration and a different set of ethics. Is it real? Just as one seems to be getting his life together, he is shot down (or dies in a car accident) but there are those who get out and get a PhD – how, is anyone’s guess: the survival of the fittest. For the few, the very few.

“Gloria blew through our lives on a Wednesday, and our mother told us to treat her like pottery, to not ask questions, to creep around the house like ants before their queen. Our mother, who returned grape bunches over single sourings; who’d shipped my sister, Nikki, to Tech with a knife in her pillowcase; who’d slipped into this country, this home, her life, on the whim of a fortune-teller, . . . . “ (p. 43)


Lot is an enigma, a puzzle that is not too hard to figure out but you will still be proud of yourself that you can figure it out. Thanks for chapter titles rather than chapter numbers (titles that can mostly be understood, being street names in Houston). You can read each chapter as a stand-alone or in series (better in series, but possible the other way around). Some chapters introduce a new character (Gloria) who is never mentioned again but the chapter in question is all about them and how that person fits into the family and what that person does to advance the story, the break-up.

Lot is an enigma that challenges you to place each chapter in the time dimension, e.g., what has transpired since the previous chapter ended is slowly made apparent and the intervening time can be very long in time and space.

Lot is an enigma in that author Bryan Washington writes a lot of dialogue but without quotation marks – you have to remember who is speaking.

When Does a Family Die?

One by one, they leave. . . .

*”They touched eyes taking out the trash on MLK Boulevard.” (p. 7)