Book Review: Army Wives

Book Review: Army Wives by Midge Gillies

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book through a Goodreads giveaway for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was requested or offered.

Army Wives

The life of a soldier is hard and often dangerous, but the life of a soldier’s spouse has its hardships and hazards as well.  This book collects the stories of various British Army wives from the Crimean War (where wives sometimes shared tents near the front lines with their husbands) to the modern day, when social media allows spouses (now including husbands) to worry about the servicemember’s safety in “real time.”

After chapters on spousal travel and accommodations, the remainder of the book is in roughly chronological order.  There tends to be more information on officers’ wives than those of enlisted men, as especially in the early days they were more likely to be literate and thus leave behind letters, journals and memoirs.  Most of the women covered are ordinary people who rose to the occasion, but there’s also Lady Elizabeth Butler, who was a famous painter even before marrying a famous soldier.

The epilogue is about life after the army, both in the general sense, and the fates of the specific women used as examples in the book.  There’s a nice center section of pictures, many in color, plus a bibliography, end notes and an index.

As always, learning about the lives of people in unusual circumstances is fascinating, and there is quite a variety of women and outcomes represented.  The writing is decent, and some sections are emotionally affecting.

On the other hand, covering so many different stories means that some feel as though they’ve gotten short shrift.  Edith Tolkien, for example, gets two pages, mostly about the codes her husband (J.R.R.) slipped into his letters to let her know where he was.  And the section on soldiers who came home from World War One with facial disfigurements has no direct testimony from wives at all.

That said, this book should be of interest to those interested in military history (especially about women in military history) and those considering being the spouse of a military person.

And now, a video of the British Army Wives’ Chorus:

 

Book Review: The Perfect Horse

Book Review: The Perfect Horse by Elizabeth Letts

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

The Perfect Horse

The year is 1945.  The war in Europe is almost over.  American troops learn that a stud farm in Hostau contains horses looted by the Nazis from all over Europe, including all the mares of the famous Lipizzaners of Austria, the pride of the Spanish Riding School.  Unless something is done to ensure the area is captured peacefully, the cream of Europe’s equine population will be at risk of destruction in the fighting.

There’s a huge problem standing in the way; Hostau is on the other side of the Czechoslovakian  border, where the U.S. Army has been forbidden to trespass.  Can the 2nd Cavalry convince command to make an exception in time?  Even if they do, can they pull it off with minimal bloodshed?

That mission is the centerpiece of this volume, but there’s considerable material both before and after it.  Author Elizabeth Letts is an equestrian herself, and it really shows in the descriptions of the bond between rider and mount.  There are also quite a few black and white illustrations that give context to the story.

One of the central figures of this history is Alois Podhajsky, introduced riding dressage for the Austrian team during the 1936 Berlin Olympics before taking the reins of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna.  A great lover of horses, especially the Lipizzaner, he did what he had to do to preserve the horses and the riding school, even if it meant abandoning the school building to save the stallions.

On the American side, there’s Colonel Hank Reed, cavalry commander from the days when they had been horse soldiers (not that long before–it was 1942 when the U.S. decided to make their cavalry completely mechanized!)  He was fully aware of the value of what might be lost if Hostau was not captured without a battle, and was the one to order the mission.

But there are plenty of other humans involved.  Gustav Rau was Nazi Germany’s Master of Horse, and believed that he could breed a perfect horse, superior in battle, and destined to aid the Third Reich in conquering the world.  (Since he was a civilian and not involved in any war crimes against humans, he got off scot-free at the end of the war.  Information that has come out since has made his legacy more controversial.)

Rudolph Lessing was a German Army veterinarian who’d spent the first few years of the war fighting on the Eastern Front.  It wasn’t until he was pulled back to Occupied Poland that he realized just what atrocities were happening and that his country might not be the good guys in this conflict.

And of course General George S. Patton, America’s Fightin’est General, who sort of authorized the Hostau mission, in the Mission: Impossible sense.  “If you are captured or killed, Command will disavow any knowledge of your actions.”  He, too, was a man who appreciated a fine horse, and also helped out the stallions of the Spanish Riding School.

Of course, just capturing the stud farm didn’t actually make the horses safe, and they then had to be moved to better locations.  Some went home to the countries they’d been stolen from (and the Spanish Riding School exists to this day), others made the perilous sea voyage to America, and some found homes wherever they were.

There’s an epilogue section that details the final fates of the major figures in the story, both horses and men.  There are endnotes (including notes on when the sources used contradict each other), a bibliography and full index.

The book is movingly written and will be appreciated both by horse lovers and World War Two buffs.  There is some discussion of disturbing material, but this book should be suitable for senior high readers on up.

Older readers may be thinking, “wait, wasn’t there a Disney TV movie about this?”  Yes, there was.  The Miracle of the White Stallions was released in the early 1960s.  It was, of course, somewhat loose with the historical facts, but here’s the trailer.

Book Review: The Partnership

Book Review: The Partnership by Pamela Katz

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  This copy was a bound galley, and changes have been made in the published edition (most notably, a proper index.)

The Partnership

The Weimar Republic, Germany after World War One and before the rise of the Nazis, was a time of great change.  The Kaiser had been dethroned, militarism had been discredited with large sections of the population, and social movement was greater than ever before.  But at the same time, the economy was dreadful, many in Germany felt they could have won the war if they weren’t “betrayed”, and political extremists rioted in the streets.  This was the crucible in which the partnership of playwright Berthold Brecht and composer Kurt Weill was born.

The two men, brilliant on their own, inspired each other to greatness in their two most famous collaborations, The Threepenny Opera and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, as well as a handful of lesser works.  This volume concentrates on the years of their partnership and how it was facilitated by three important women, actors Lotte Lenya and Helene Weigel, and writer Elisabeth Hauptmann.

The partnership only lasted a few years, with brief reprises necessitated by their joint ownership of their plays.  While there were many factors involved in the breakup (political differences, diverging artistic aims, Weill becoming independently successful in America), the author posits that the main reason the team splintered was that neither man could stand not being in charge.  They hadn’t quite realized this during their initial creative period, but as the political climate changed, and each had his own goals in mind, it became obvious.

Brecht comes across as a deeply unpleasant person, the type of man who has three children by three different women before he even had a proper career.   It feels like the biographer bends over backwards to excuse Brecht’s behavior towards his wives and mistresses (especially as he hypocritically expected them to be faithful to him.)  He seems to have believed that his superior creativity and artistic vision gave him license to run roughshod over anyone in his path.  It didn’t go over so well in America, where no one was impressed by his European reputation and he didn’t speak the language.

Weill, by contrast, though he had his flaws, seems to have known how to adapt his desire for creative control to the demands of Broadway, working with many excellent writers.

The book goes into great detail about the production of Threepenny; rehearsals were disastrous, entire parts had to be cut at the last minute, and it took several scenes in before the audience figured out which play they were watching.  The song “Mack the Knife” was written and scored in 24 hours as a simultaneous concession to and dig at the actor playing MacHeath, as he’d demanded a song about how awesome his character was.

There’s also quite a bit of focus on the women; Lenya and Weigel brought their husbands’ work to life on the stage, and after they became widows truly kept the legacies alive as well as coming into their own careers.  Hauptmann is a bit harder to read; as the translator who brought Brecht many of the works he freely adapted, and probably much more involved in his writing than was ever acknowledged by either of them, she’s a shadowy figure.  The Weimar Republic gave women new freedom, but it was still in relation to powerful or creative men.

The book skimps on the parts of Brecht and Weill’s careers that did not involve each other; you’ll need to read their separate biographies for those. The writing gets a bit pompous at times, and there’s some use of gratuitous mind-reading, along the lines of “Weill would have enjoyed the breezes.”

There are extensive end-notes with bits that didn’t fit into the main text, and a good bibliography.  I’d recommend this book to fans of Brecht, Weill and theater in general.

And if somehow you haven’t heard it before, here’s Lotte Lenya singing “Pirate Jenny” for the BBC.

Comic Book Review: Top 10: The Forty-Niners

Comic Book Review: Top 10: The Forty-Niners written by Alan Moore, art by Gene Ha

In an alternate America with science heroes and other weird or wonderful “characters”, it’s been decided to move everyone who isn’t “normal” to one city, Neopolis.  It’s 1949, and war veterans Jetlad and Sky Witch are reunited on the relocation train.  The new city is bursting at the seams with the continuing arrivals, and crime is on the rise.

Top 10: The Forty-Niners

Jetlad, whose real name is Steve Traynor, finds a mechanic job with the Sky Sharks, an aerial team that themselves are at something of loose ends with the end of the war.  Leni Muller, the Sky Witch (who’d defected from Germany during the war) winds up joining the understaffed police department.

In addition to the usual random street crime, there’s a lot of prejudice against the mechanical-American minority (vulgarly called “clickers”,) something is up with the Nazi scientists the U.S. has kept away from the Russians, and vampire gangsters are taking over the city’s rackets.  Although a romance is blooming, the climax is a major battle to determine just who the law is in Neopolis. and who it will serve.

This is a prequel to the Top 10 series by the same creative team, and fills in some of the background of the city seen there.  As with the original series, some of the characters are thinly-veiled versions of well-known comic book and comic strip characters.  Centrally to this volume, Jetlad and Sky Witch are takeoffs of classic characters Airboy and Valkyrie.  (Airboy was also used in the Wild Cards series under another alias.)  The Sky Sharks are the Blackhawks, and other characters are pretty obvious to fans of the original material.

Gene Ha also puts in many background cameos and sign references, readers can have hours of fun trying to spot and identify them all.  The coloring also deserves a mention, using sepia tones for a nostalgic feel.

The writing, as expected from Alan Moore, is good, but tends to dip into some of his favorite themes, which had gone a bit stale by the time this series appeared.  There’s a fair amount of seamy sexual content (including a vampire brothel) which makes this volume unsuitable for younger readers.  (I’d put it senior high and up.)

If you enjoyed the main Top 10 series, this is a good addition to that.  Otherwise, I recommend this most to older comic book fans who will get the references and are able to handle the seamier aspects.

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