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Hotel Florida: Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War by Amanda Vaill

Vaill’s story of three love affairs, set against the Spanish Civil War, yields a nuanced perspective on war journalism and romance.

florida

During the Spanish Civil War, Madrid’s Hotel Florida was a meeting point for war correspondents, press officers and foreign intellectuals. Amanda Vaill (Everybody Was So Young) uses the hotel as a focal point to examine the war through the lives of three men and three women. These six individuals–all leftists of various stripes and pedigrees, converging on Spain from all over Europe and the U.S.–allow Vaill to range freely through the history of the war, which raged from 1936 to 1939.

Vaill follows her subjects chronologically, shifting locations through Francisco Franco’s rebellion against the Popular Front government and the events that led up to the Spanish Civil War. Arturo Barea of Madrid serves as a censor for the Propaganda Department, finding his leftist politics and commitment to truth well matched by his new assistant Ilsa Kulcsar, who comes from an Austrian resistance cell and speaks many languages. Meanwhile, Ernest Hemingway feels stifled in Key West; a new war to cover provides him with an excuse to get away from his wife and find fresh material to revive his stagnant writing. The attractive young journalist he’s just met, Martha Gellhorn, is also eager to get to Spain. Finally, a young man named Endre Friedmann is exuberantly pursuing his passion for photography in Paris when he meets the charming Gerta Pohorylle. They set off for Spain together with their ideals on their sleeves. Taking new names–Robert Capa and Gerda Taro–they will find fame and love and change the face of war photography forever. One of them will die on Spanish soil.

In addition to explaining the complexities of the Spanish Civil War, Hotel Florida lives up to its grand subtitle. Vaill examines the meaning of truth as conceived by each of her six players–writer, journalist, translator, censor, press officer, photographer. Their romances, all born of war, and the deaths to which they bear witness bring emotion and heartbreak. Buttressed by plentiful research, Vaill’s prose exhibits touches of Hemingway’s own writing style and a gift for narrative that keeps Hotel Florida accessible and engaging.


This review originally ran in the April 15, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 ideals.

The Brothers Lionheart by Astrid Lindgren

lionheartI was asked some time ago what my favorite book was as a child, and I couldn’t say. I could have listed a dozen, at least, that I loved, but I don’t know how I could have chosen one. I asked my mother, and she said my favorite book as a child was the one I was reading right that minute. I read a lot.

But something about The Brothers Lionheart has stayed with me. I don’t know when I read it, or how many times – not many, I think, maybe only once; but it made a strong impression, and I’ve found myself thinking about it over the years. (Astrid Lindgren is better known as the author of Pippi Longstocking, but I think this one kicks Pippi’s butt.) So I finally went and got my hands on a copy recently, and I’m so glad I did!

The story is fantastical. When it opens, little Karl Lion is sick; he’s been in bed for six months. But his older brother Jonathan is a good big brother, one of those golden people, beautiful and strong and talented and kind, and modest because he seems to just really not notice or care how special he is. He’s sweet to his little brother, and stays up late telling him stories. Karl knows he’s going to die. Jonathan tells him it’s okay, because he’s going to a beautiful place beyond the stars called Nangiyala, a land still in the time of campfires and sagas, where the brothers can have adventures together. Jonathan is only sorry that Karl will get there before he does, since Jonathan seems destined to live a long and healthy life.

But there is a fire, and Jonathan saves his brother’s life but forfeits his own; and when Karl succumbs to his illness, Jonathan is waiting for him at Knights Farm in Cherry Valley in Nangiyala. They have horses, and rabbits, and a vegetable garden; Jonathan tends the rose gardens of a nice woman named Sofia, and they are friends with everyone in the town. Karl is happy. But too soon, he learns of Wild Rose Valley, the next neighborhood over, where things are not so simple and joyful: an evil tyrant named Tengil has enslaved the people of Wild Rose Valley and built a wall to keep them from their friends in Cherry Valley. Jonathan and Sofia are part of the resistance; and although Karl is very small and very frightened, he finds himself involved, as well.

There are forces of evil dressed in black uniforms and scary helmets; there is an occupation; there is a fire-breathing dragon; and there are brave citizens. It is a saga itself, and Jonathan is its shining golden hero, but Karl doesn’t do too badly either. I loved this story very much, this time as much as when I read it as a child. And the ending thrills me as much as ever.

This is definitely a book for kids; the language is simple and childlike, and the thing I found most striking upon this adult read was the pacing. It moves very quickly! It takes very few pages to establish how lovely & simple & calm Cherry Valley is; and then we’re on to the darkness next door immediately. An adult book would have been longer and allowed the action to develop a little more slowly. But this made for a very enjoyable, quick read. I’d recommend it for anyone who likes fantasy and dreams and adventure, and who might not be up for a longer, more involved novel.

There is another level on which this story can be read as allegory. Tengil’s occupying force presents several clear options for comparison (and I think also offer some tips on how not to do it). One valley looks so sweet, good, prosperous and happy, and yet if you open your eyes just a little – zoom out to the point where you can see as far as just the next valley over – things are not nearly so happy or easy as you thought. Without putting too fine a point on it, I think this offers an analogy for capitalistic western culture. Speaking of capitalism, I was charmed by the idea of everyone helping everyone & taking care of one another in this idealistic Nangiyala. One can dream.

Themes include the beauty of a deeply felt brotherly love, resistance against evil, loyalty, hope, and courage; but there are also themes related to death & what happens after, tyranny, war and betrayal. The book has been criticized for its approach to suicide (although I would argue it’s not quite that simple). For me, the good is bigger than the darkness, and the ending is happy. I feel that the interplay of dark and light is part of what makes this story the kind that has stuck with me for over 20 years, and keeps it from being saccharine. But not everyone will see it that way.

I am so pleased to report that Jonathan was still simply heroic, Karl still sweet and surprisingly brave, Sophia still good and the dragon still scary, even now that I’ve grown up. Do check out my childhood favorite with me.


Rating: 9 trips along a river.

Teaser Tuesdays: Laidlaw by William McIlvanney

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

laidlaw

Laidlaw was originally published in 1977, and is back in this new reissue, due out in June. McIlvanney has a unique style, literary and lyrical but also gritty and dark. I liked these lines for their nuance and contradictions…

The entry was dank. The darkness was soothing. You groped through smells. The soft hurryings must be rats. There was a stairway that would have been dangerous for someone who had anything to lose.

…by which I mean, Hemingway, right? Short sentences and a lots of sensory detail; and an almost tongue-in-cheek overdoing of the tension in that final line. I like it. Stay tuned.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Lillian & Dash by Sam Toperoff (audio)

lillian&dashEvery since reading A Difficult Woman, I have recognized Lillian Hellman as a fascinatingly complex & ambiguous character, clearly a “difficult woman” and therefore a kindred on some level. A fellow traveler, you might say. I have read very little Dashiell Hammett (just a few short pieces), but I respect his contribution to a genre I love, and I hope to get around to more one day. Furthermore, Hellman is a counterpart to Dorothy Parker, another spunky female wit I have enjoyed reading and reading about. So then, it should be clear why I was interested in this novel about the Hellman and Hammett love affair, which lasted several decades (during which they remained married to other people) and bears on the literary and political events of their time.

This audio version is narrated by three different readers (Mark Bramhall, Lorna Raver, and Bernadette Dunne), an effect I very much liked. One reads Lillian’s (or more often, Lily’s) first-person parts, one reads Hammett’s, and the third is the third-person narrator of the story. It begins with the pair’s first meeting, and follows them through his novels and screenwriting successes, his radio shows, and his later difficulties working and prodigious drinking; her plays and movies, both wild successes and disappointments; her years as a farmer, and both their testimonies before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Both refused to cooperate with HUAC, and both paid dearly; Hammett went to prison at age 58, and tried to drink himself to death when he got out, while Hellman lost her farm, just for starters.

I can’t speak to how precisely this book follows the factual history of these two lives (I don’t know where my copy of A Difficult Woman is), but I don’t really care. This was a great story, heartfelt and heartbreaking, about two delightfully irreverent and vibrant personalities. Their voices felt very real and accurate to me, and HUAC pissed me off all over again. I promised myself once more that I would finally get around to reading one of Hellman’s plays. Hold me to it.

A love story with mysteries & politics mixed up in it, written in the impeccably wry and witty voices of Hellman and Hammett, in a beautifully performed audio edition – I couldn’t ask for more, although I will ask for another. What’s next, Sam Toperoff?


Rating: 8 bottles of champagne.

rare Saturday post: special occasion

Happy sixth anniversary to my love.

April 19, 2008

April 19, 2008

book beginnings on Friday: The Brothers Lionheart by Astrid Lindgren

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

lionheart

Astrid Lindgren is far better known as the author of Pippi Longstocking. But I remember Pippi only vaguely, and have remained enchanted by The Brothers Lionheart since I read it first as a child. I was excited to find a new copy and open it back up again. We begin:

Now I’m going to tell you about my brother. My brother, Jonathan Lionheart, is the person I want to tell you about. I think it’s almost like a saga, and just a very little like a ghost story, and yet every word is true; though Jonathan and I are probably the only people who know that.

I love this childlike tone. But don’t be fooled: this is a hell of a story, exciting and beautiful and poignant and scary and fantastic.

John Muir and the Ice that Started a Fire by Kim Heacox

The carefully researched and engaging story of John Muir, Alaska’s glaciers and the movement they built together.

muir ice

John Muir and the Ice That Started a Fire is neither a straightforward biography of Muir nor a simple study of the global significance Alaska’s glaciers. Rather, Kim Heacox (The Only Kayak) is concerned with the relationship between Muir and the glaciers that rivaled Yosemite in his affections, and the impact that pairing had.

From a humble background in Scotland and Wisconsin, and between stints as a surprisingly apt businessman, Muir lived as a self-described tramp, ardent nature lover and student of flowers, trees, mountains and–upon finally reaching Alaska–glaciers. His famed role as author and activist came late in life, and not easily: he found writing hard work and political activism distasteful, though necessary. However, Muir made perhaps the greatest impact on conservation of any individual in United States history.

Heacox meticulously researched and lovingly describes Alaska’s rivers of ice and Muir’s path toward them, his emergence as writer and preservationist, and his far-ranging influence in legislation, literary legacy and new traditions–including the birth of the conservation movement as we know it. Though often descriptive rather than persuasive, Heacox lends his own voice to the cause in his final chapters: “To debate [climate change] is to give credibility to an argument that shouldn’t exist.” He closes by adding the arguments of Aldo Leopold, Bill McKibben and Derrick Jensen to Muir’s, in the interest of preserving our wild spaces–thereby continuing Muir’s work.


This review originally ran in the April 11, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 little dogs.
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