A Spoonful of Sugar: A Nanny’s Story by Brenda Ashford
Does the title have you picturing Julie Andrews, the singing nanny in The Sound of Music? Try listening to the audiobook; the narrator sounds like her. Brenda Ashford, age 92, looks back at her happy childhood, her very long career as a British nanny, and her training at the famed Norland Institute, whose motto is “love never faileth” and which banned spanking. Brenda learned to love babies when her little brother David was born. Not as quick at book learning as her sister Kathleen, who became a midwife, Brenda was thrilled to be admitted to the Norland Institute in 1939. From learning nursery management, cooking, laundry, storytelling, sewing, and working in a hospital’s children’s ward, the teen received a thorough education. Then war disrupted life, with the students taking care of children evacuated from London’s East End and living on a country estate. All of her evaluations are included, along with tidbits of nanny’s wisdom, a daily schedule at each job, and several recipes for “puddings”. Her first several families are described, with the focus on the day and night nurseries and the children. Her heart is broken along the way, she learns to manage an early daycare, called a war nursery, and to care for and cuddle many, many babies. Her work schedule sounds exhausting, with very little time off. Her relief when electric irons become available is evident. Eventually she finds a family to belong to, and later even cares for their grandbabies when she’s 80! A charming read for Anglophiles.
Miss Dimple Disappears by Mignon Ballard
Life on the home front in Elderberry, Georgia, is pretty calm in Fall,1942 until Miss Dimple Kilpatrick, longtime first grade teacher, disappears, and the school custodian dies, apparently of a heart attack. Charlie Carr and her friend Annie, both teachers, decide to investigate, along with Charlie’s mother and aunt. Charlie’s boyfriend Hugh will probably enlist in the armed forces soon, and Charlie wonders how she’ll answer if he proposes. The reader learns Miss Dimple’s account of her kidnapping, a possible motive, and how she plans to get rescued. Meanwhile Thanksgiving is coming, with plans for a meal and dance for visiting service men. This is a cozy mystery with lots of quirky characters and small town charm. I enjoyed a glimpse of Charlie’s life as a teacher dealing with rationing, lunch at a boarding house, worries about her brother in North Africa, and doing her bit by writing to many of the enlisted men she meets. There are two more books already in this series. The second book is Miss Dimple Rallies to the Cause. Miss Dimple Disappears reminds me of the 1930s Darling Dahlias mystery series by Susan Wittig Albert, set in small-town Alabama.
Princess Elizabeth’s Spy by Susan Elia MacNeal
Maggie Hope, born in England but raised by her aunt in New England, is a mathematician, a typist, and is training to be a spy. After the adventures in her first mystery, Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, reviewed here, Maggie is training with MI-5. The physical training is very difficult for the bookish Maggie, but her loyalty and intelligence are valued, so she is reassigned. She is sent to Windsor Castle, to be a math tutor for 14-year-old Princess Elizabeth, and also to help keep her safe. The castle is huge and chilly, and Maggie is expected to dress up for dinner with the staff. Her sweetheart is missing in action, but her handsome contact with Churchill’s Irregulars is a good friend, until he too is reassigned. A sudden death on the castle grounds, and a possible plot to kidnap or harm the princess keep Maggie very busy, along with helping stage a play for Christmas. The royal princesses are charming, as is the peek inside a castle in wartime. Maggie’s distant father, a cryptographer, continues to be an enigma. A friend’s wartime wedding, a suspicious death in London, and a possible romance enliven this mystery. Two more books about Maggie Hope are planned.
Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, by Susan Elia MacNeal
Maggie Hope has lived in New England with her aunt most of her life, but is back in London to sell her late grandmother’s house. When it won’t sell, she gets roommates, reluctantly puts off her plans to attend M.I.T., and takes a job as a typist in Prime Minister Churchill’s office. She had applied to be a private secretary, but even a math degree didn’t overcome the gender bias against women. The Battle of Britain begins, Maggie learns a secret about her father, and an IRA plot by someone close to her endangers Maggie and Churchill. The diaries of some of the prime minister’s secretaries inspired the author, and a sequel, Princess Elizabeth’s Spy, is planned. A fast-paced mystery, some of the plot twists are hard to believe, but Maggie and her friends are memorable characters. Recommended for fans of Maisie Dobbs.
The Lady in Gold, by Anne-Marie O’Connor
In June 2006, The Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer was sold at auction at Christie’s in New York for a record 135 million dollars. The buyer of the painting was Ron Lauder, who had coveted the gold portrait of Adele for years. He needed a destination painting for his new museum in New York City called the Neue Galerie. This painting had a lot of history behind it. He was willing to pay a lot of money for it. How this gorgeous painting was created, and how it came to the United States is the subject of a fascinating book by Anne-Marie O’ Connor.
The painter was Gustav Klimt, part of a new generation of artists in the early 1900s who refused to conform to convention and were instead in the vanguard of the nascent “Art for Art’s sake” movement. The subject of the painting was Adele Bloch-Bauer, a wealthy Jewish socialite, who was also ahead of her time, being an avid suffragist, chain smoker, and salon intellectual. There were also rumors that she and Gustav were lovers although nothing has been proven. Klimt produced several portraits of Adele and often used real gold leaf which added to the allure of his work. However at the time most everyone was disgusted by the overt eroticism of Klimt’s pieces and thus they did not enjoy wide popularity.
The painting resided happily on the walls of the Bloch-Bauer family’s Belvedere Estate in Vienna, until the Anschluss (March 1938) when Hitler insisted that Germany and Austria be united under the Third Reich. Jews and Jewish property were fair game for the Nazis. They stole vast art collections from all the countries of Europe, but Klimt’s works were spared because “Der Fuhrer” considered modern art to be degenerate and unwholesome. However the painting was expropriated by Viennese nationals, who were not Nazis but had no love for the Jews. The name of the painting was changed to “The Lady in Gold” so as to eradicate any connection to its Jewish owners. It survived the war and ended up in a national museum.
During the last decades of the twentieth century, modern art gained in popularity and value. Most of the Viennese Jews had perished in the holocaust, but some claimants came forward and demanded restitution for their stolen property. Litigation went on for years but finally the painting was restored to its rightful owners, the heirs of Adele and her family.
“in Vienna, the impact of the Bloch-Bauer restitution rippled out of ministries and courtrooms and into cafes and dinner parties. “It was our Austrian ‘Mona Lisa’ ” lamented Werner Furnsinn, the director of the Austrian Culture Ministry’s Commission for Provenance Research.
If you like modern art and history, then this book will be perfect for you.
Lost in Shangri-La, by Mitchell Zuckoff
The library’s evening book group met recently to discuss Lost in Shangri-La. I read the book, and listened to it. Those of us who listened to the book enjoyed it the most, even without the photographs scattered throughout the print book. This is a real life adventure story that takes place on the island of New Guinea during World War II. Pilots discover a hidden valley in the unexplored mountainous interior of New Guinea, and many groups of American military personnel stationed on the coast make sightseeing flights over the valley. The entrance to the valley is very tricky, and often foggy. A flight in 1945 with several women WACs aboard crashes into a mountain, leaving few survivors. The survivors struggle to stay alive and reach an area where they can be spotted from the air. Encounters with the native villagers of New Guinea prove very interesting. The struggle to find and then rescue the survivors catches the interest of the media, and their story is followed all over the United States. We found it ironic that the valley turns out to be a very different sort of place then the fabled valley in the Himalayas. Photos and a wealth of information can be found on the author’s website, even some old documentary footage. While our book group had mixed reactions to the book, we certainly found plenty to talk about.
The Girl in the Blue Beret, by Bobbie Ann Mason
Marshall Stone, a commercial airline pilot, is being forced to retire in 1980 at age 60. Now that he has more free time, he wonders what happened to the people he met in 1944, when his B-17 bomber was shot down and crash landed in a Belgian field near the French border. Recently widowed, he rents a temporary flat in Paris, and revisits his past. He writes to his surviving crew mates, and meets Nicolas Albert, whose parents hid him and other aviators as part of the French resistance. Nicolas helps Marshall trace the people and places he encountered in the months before he was smuggled back to England. He most wants to meet Annette Vallon, the girl in the blue beret, and her friend Robert. As Marshall remembers his wartime experiences, Nicolas, Annette, and Robert’s daughter gradually explain what happened to them. The author was inspired by the real-life adventure of her father-in-law, and the people who helped him. A moving and memorable book, it reminds me of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. For more information about the book, visit the author’s web site.
Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand
Hillenbrand’s book is the extraordinary tale of Louie Zamperini’s life – from track and field star of the 1930s, participant in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, survivor of a B-24 crash into the Pacific Ocean in May 1943 followed by 47 days adrift in shark-infested waters, to a hellish and brutal existence in a Japanese POW camp. After the war he experienced years of suffering from what is now referred to as post-traumatic stress syndrome. Eventually he finds inner-peace by forgiving his WWII captors, especially the exceptionally cruel Corp. Mutsuhiro Watanabe. If you are interested in a gripping story that is destined to become a classic of narrative nonfiction, then this book is for you. Highly recommended. For more about Louie, visit the author’s web site.