Tag Archives: WWII Italy

Review: Lambrusco: A Novel

Lambrusco, by Ellen Cooney, is an excellent and compelling study of life during the Nazi invasion of Italy, told by the protaganist, Lucia Fantini, widow of Aldo. It is a very descriptive novel, filled with fantastic characters, all varied in thought, physical appearance and personality.

At times, due to the content and amount of individuals, it is difficult to try to keep track of who is who in the scheme of the story, but Cooney makes that a little easier for us by listing the characters and their place in the story on a separate page, before the story begins.

Lucia is at the forefront of everyone, and her presence emanates strength and assertiveness. Lucia is caught up in trying to find her son Beppi, who blew up a German tank and immediately went into hiding. She is upset, not only because she doesn’t know where he is, but upset more due to the fact that he blew up the tank and didn’t tell her!

Thinking such as that is what fills this book with humor and poignancy combined. That is one of the strengths of the writing. The story shows us how laughter can seep through the darkness of war. Talk about unique perspectives and story lines, Lambrusco has them both.

Lucia is an opera singer in her seaside restaurant. She would sing in the restaurant, attracting villagers from miles around. Her music filled their souls, while the food and Lambrusco wine filled their stomachs.

She smuggled guns and other items for them, both into and out of the restaurant, hidden in her purse or her coat pocket, hidden by scarves, etc.  She would take them by train to the partisans. With the war as a backdrop for the book, we are given descriptive word images of how the Italians band together in order to fight off the “nazifascisti” and survive as they travel through farmlands, from city to village, back again.

Lucia reflects on her life, her deceased husband who she believes watches over her and speaks to her. Much of her narrative is seen through her reflections on the past, her thoughts for the future, and also through her fantasies and dreams. She dreams of singing and of imaginary operas, she dreams of Caruso, Fellini films, of great opera singers debating with each other over who sings better. Her world is filled with fantasy and humor, and these dreams are what keep her alive, as they constantly play and resound in her head.

Cooney infuses comic relief within the confines of war-torn Italy in a most effective manner, and she knows just where to insert it. She never undermines or sweetens the devastation of war. It is not only the German occupation they are surviving from, but also the American bombings in Italy, ruining everything from factories to churches and homes in the landscape.

Lucia is struggling, herself, and Lambrusco is her journey, not only of survival, but journey of finding ones’ Self. Much of Lucia’s attitude, and the attitudes of the Italian villagers, stems from suspicions and their beliefs in legends myths, superstitions, concoctions, and ghosts that appear to them.

Cooney is excellent in weaving the various family tapestries, friendships and stories together. Her writing is rich with characters, and with a landscape embellished with ravages of war. It is a beautifully written metaphor for love of family and friends, for humanity and responsibility, and concern for each member of the community, as each one is a piece of the whole.

Lambrusco is often filled with comical interactions, but beneath the comedy lies a poignant and serious account of Italy during World War II. Ellen Cooney writes with sensitivity to the ramifications of war, demonstrating not only cognizance, but also historical importance of events of the time period..

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Book Diva Review: The Periodic Table

the periodic table2 The Periodic Table is a well-written book, giving us insight into the scientific mind, thoughts and emotions of its author, Primo Levi. The book is basically a memoir, and the 21 stories are written through the perspective of a chemist and also through the perspective of a writer. Chemistry and writing were the two primary passions of Levi.

“There are the so-called inert gases in the air we breathe. They bear curious Greek names of erudite derivation which mean “the New,” “the Hidden,” “the Inactive,” and “the Alien.” They are indeed so inert, so satisfied with their condition, that they do not interfere in any chemical reaction, do not combine with any other element, and for precisely this reason have gone undetected for centuries.”

Thus begins the book, and each of the 21 stories are named for a chemical element in the Periodic Table (not to be confused with the Title of the book). The actual Periodic Table contains 118 elements.

After finishing The Periodic Table, one might assume that it is a book that was written about the Holocaust. The primary structure of the book (including the opening lines), has an undertone of the Holocaust within its pages, as it was of extreme importance to Levi to bear witness. If one pays attention to the titles of the individual stories, it is obvious the Holocaust has an important “between-the-lines” synthesis tying the stories together, subtly, without being mentioned outright. The element of Fascism has strong overtones in the book. Levi is astutely cognizant of the fact that many Italian Jews grasped Fascism, without realizing its consequences. A large percentage of these Jews were not “practicing Jews”, and were assimilated within the Italian culture, ignorant of the possible outcome their choices would inflict on them and their families.

The main reflection in Levi’s book is the growth of Levi from his childhood and chemical experimenting with a friend, attending a university where Levi studied chemistry and experimented in university labs, and to finally graduating and becoming a chemist by profession. He also become a well-known author of novels and poetry, mingling his scientific mind with poetic emotions, creating chemistry and chemical reactions of his own, in written form.

Each element in the book coincides with a time period of Levi’s life, and we see him move through prewar Fascism to World War II where he was sent to Auschwitz. His brilliance in formulating this book and its structure has amazed me. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I was not disappointed, and in fact, I was in awe of Primo Levi as an author, in extremely impressed with his ability to blend chemistry and prose and create such a compelling book. After finishing The Periodic Table, I wanted to read more of his works, especially his poetry, and I have done just that.

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Book Diva Review: Benevolence and Betrayal

benevolence and betrayal cover Benevolence and Betrayal: Five Italian Jewish Families Under Fascism, by Alexander Stille is intense, compelling and extraordinary in its details and depths.

The stories within this compelling book revolve around five Italian Jewish families preceding and during World War II, and their plight, idealism, their commonalities and their differences. Put together the stories read like an intriguing and profound historical novel, rather than five separate accountings of Italian Jewish families whose lives are affected in different, yet similar, ways.

Benevolence and betrayal
, the title of the book, stems from the fact that the Italian Jews and fascism seemingly coexisted for almost two decades before the antisemitism and its roots dug deep into the skin and earth of the Italians, gripping like a vine, and causing some to betray Jews, and others to rush to help them.

Although the families come from different backgrounds, social classes, occupations and geographical areas of Italy, their stories are strong and vivid, and each one represents a part of the whole, in the Italian-Jewish structure.

From the accounts of the lives of a Jewish fascist family and an antifascist Jewish family, a Jewish family living in the ghettos of Rome and a family in Genoa, and finally to a family whose members were deported to Germany, the book is a revelation on the actual issues and almost unknown situations that happened to occur in Italy during World War II.

Alexander Stille’s book is more than compelling, it is a profound and historical accounting of events in Italy leading up to, and including, World War II, and it is eye-opening, heart-wrenching, mesmerizing and absorbing read. I was astounded by what I read, and realize how ignorant I had been about the Italian Jewish factor during World War II. I read Benevolence and Betrayal straight through in one day.


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Review – Road to Valor

   Road to Valor: A True Story of WWII Italy,the Nazis, and the Cyclist Who Inspired a Nation, by Aili and Andres McConnon was a page-turner for me. Once I began it, I couldn’t put it down. I was mesmerized and captivated by the compelling, intense, and true story of Gino Bartali, an Italian cyclist. But, he was much more than that, as it turned out, as I read with hardly a break between pages.
Born of poverty, in the small town of Ponte a Ema, in 1914, he would eventually become larger than life, a legend in his own time. Yet, little was known about his other passion, helping to save Jews during World War II. He was a silent hero.
From the moment he saved up enough money to buy his first bicycle, along with a bit of family financial help, cycling became the love of his life. He would cycle the mountainsides, the hillsides, the winding roads, inhaling the countryside, becoming one with the landscape. He dreamed of cycling, and was determined to win the Tour de France. Not only did he accomplish that goal, he did it twice, ten years apart, first in 1938 and again in 1948!
The lapse in winning was due to World War II, when cycling took a back stage to the events of war, and due to the fascist situation in Italy. When he did cycle, it became political motivation, which was not his intention. He did not side with fascism or with the Nazis. In fact, as the story unfolds we read otherwise.
Bartali risked his life during the war to shelter Jews and to save them by helping pass false identity cards that he hid in his bicycle. He not only incurred risk for his own life and their lives, but also for his family. He would meet various individuals in secret locations and pass the identity cards to them. Often times, he would not see their faces, which was intentional, so nobody could be identified if ever questioned by the authorities.
Within the pages, the reader also gets glimpses of how cycling overtook Italy as a form of transportation, due to the economic situation and political pressures. The reader is given insight into Italian World War II history, including fascism, Mussolini, the horrific hardships that the nation, as a whole, faced during this tumultuous time period. It depicts the horrendous treatment of the Jews of Italy by the ruling factions. It also evokes the integrity and humanity of every day individuals under extreme duress.
The war cost him chances to engage in varied cycling events, but he never gave up hope of winning the Tour de France a second time. He persevered, and in it he did, with ferocious strength, which at the time was thought impossible due to his age. In his eyes, though, that win was the lesser of his accomplishments.
He would eventually tell his son, “If you’re good at a sport, they attach medals to your shirts and then they shine in some museum. That which is earned by doing good deeds is attached to the soul and shines elsewhere.“
Those words encompass Bartali’s train of thought, and the reader feels it reign supreme throughout the story. His cycling journey took him to journeys of the soul, of the spirit of mankind. His life was one of humaneness and goodness, within his often boisterous presentation to those in the cycling world. Little did they know of his kindness and risk taking in order to rescue Jews.
I have been enriched, emotionally and historically speaking through reading Road to Valor, by Aili and Andres McConnon. Their contribution to Italian history during prewar and the war itself, is immeasurable. Their research was more than thorough, and their interviews and other factors of information gathering was an endeavor of high accomplishment.
I highly recommend Road to Valor: A True Story of WWII Italy,the Nazis, and the Cyclist Who Inspired a Nation.


No permission is given to reuse, reproduce or copy any of my writings without my express written permission.
October 15, 2012

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Review – Italy’s Sorrow: A Year of War, 1944-1945

   Not much is known about how Italy was thrust in the middle of World War II, with the fascist regime. Not much is known about the allied forces who were involved in the war in the liberation of Italy. Italy’s Sorrow: A Year of War, 1944-1945, by James Holland is a book that encompasses all facets of fascism in Italy under Mussolini’s rule, and the German occupation of the country.

I was astounded while reading Italy’s Sorrow, astounded by the actual data that the book contained. One thing that was overwhelming to me was the fact that the liberation of Italy was more or less played down and given a low profile in the newspaper accounts of the day. The events of the Italian liberation sat on the back burner, because of what occurred a few days later in France…D-Day/Normandy’s invasion. Normandy was given full coverage, yet without the Italian Campaign, the outcome might have been different.

That doesn’t make the allied forces attempt to overcome the German occupation any less of a battle, or less important in the stature of battles fought against the German Nazi forces. In fact, there were more U.S. troops lost in the Italian Campaign than in other important geographical areas that were a part of the warring factions in World War II. The total lives lost are estimated to be more than the entire northern European Campaign, and in the end the total was almost 200,00 troops. The total allied deaths (all countries involved) were approximately 320,000, not including the battle of the final surrender.

From Sicily to Naples-Foggia, to Anzio, Cassini and Sardinia, Rome and Arno, events have been clouded over, and little is known about what actually transpired during the days from September 1943 through June 1944. The U.S. chiefs and other allied forces combined together, were more concerned about invading France, and the ensuing Italian Campaign battles suffered due to that reasoning. They also were not given the accolades, by the press, that they most definitely deserved. In fact, many of the troops that were in the Italian Campaign, ended up making their way through Italy, Germany and Belgium, and on through the north of France, making and creating a holding force, which forced the Germans south. Yet, little is referenced, voiced, or known about the Italian Campaign. Almost as many troops were casualties in what is known as the Gothic Line in Italy, as there were in World War I, and the western front. More troops were killed in Italy during WWII than those killed in northwestern Europe.

Italian fascists and partisans fought against each other in a civil war within World War II. Friend or foe, it was hard to separate the two. The poverty stricken Italians had many decisions to make, and some were heart-wrenching. Yet, many of the Italian fascists fought to save Italian Jews. For them, religion wasn’t the issue that divided them. The primary issue was fascists vs ordinary Italians, and fascists vs partisans. Genocide loomed large in Italy, and the Germans occupied the homes, land and buildings in the villages they plundered through. When they were finished, the destroyed everything in sight.

James Holland doesn’t mince words, graphic word images, and details, in his book on the Italian Campaign. It is filled with all the horrors of war, all the atrocities and genocide that the Germans tried to force on the Italians. Nothing is left unturned in Italy’s Sorrow. All the stones are overturned revealing the horrific incidents, and the violence that wreaked havoc on the landscape of Italy. Destruction was everywhere, bodies lay everywhere, bombed out buildings, homes and places of worship were a common sight on what was once a scenic land.

The advance of the allies was not one that was known by all the Italian citizens. One day they had a home, a village, the next day it was bombed out by the allies who were advancing on the Germans. Many of the citizens had no idea what was happening, or why. The Italians were devastated, their land and homes looking like matchsticks. The landscape was a bloodbath, along with the hardships of a muddy terrain.

I won’t describe details in full, and won’t go any further in describing the contents of the book. It is an extremely detailed summation of facts and historical information and documents garnered from newspaper articles, photographs, diaries, journals, witness accounts, interviews, etc. From soldier stories and accounts to the telling of the events by the Italian citizens, the experiences of the Italian Campaign are told. Holland is to be commended on his untiring endeavor to set the record straight through his endless research.
He wanted to set the record straight, and that he has accomplished in ways I can’t even begin to articulate.

History is not only depicted, but honored, and those who served in the military, and those who were ordinary citizens are given recognition. The book is extremely compelling, astounding, overwhelming, and one can’t finish it and let go of what they have read. The words find their own way into the reader’s mind, and the reader is unable to separate from the journey they have taken through the Holocaust, World War II, and the Italian Campaign. One can’t simply put the book down and forget about the Italian people and their once beautiful landscape, which was covered with death, carnage and destruction. Holland has brought a sense of compassion to the Italian campaign through his brilliant and masterful writing of history. Italy’s Sorrow is a telling of brutality, evil, humanity, humankind and human kindness, paralleled with fascism and the Nazis. It is a book that belongs in every school, college, university, and home library.

I salute James Holland for his steadfast concern in telling not only a story of war, but of military heroes, every day heroes, and a historical documentation of lives lost in the process of the Italian Liberation, which took place in June 1944. His sense of time and place, are crucial to the historical events that took place, and nothing about the events, civilians, military, etc., is diminished or demeaned in any manner. In fact, the military personnel along with the every day Italian citizens are given the recognition and honor they deserve, and their long overdue accomplishments are brought to the forefront. He is concise in his deliverance of what took place, and his forthrightness and need to bring the history of the Italian Campaign to the forefront is what impressed me about his writing. I highly recommend Italy’s Sorrow to everyone.

Reading this book (twice, and more, in some parts) has also helped me to realize the intensity and compelling events in a new light, and has given me immense insight as to what my father went through when he served in Italy for the U.S. Army. But, just as important, it gives me knowledge about what many of my Italian relatives (who lived in Naples, Anzio and Cassini) had to endure and what they experienced during this horrific of times. Some survived, some were not so lucky.

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