Book bits

Three books about immigrants, readers' picks, reviews of 'Troublesome Young Men' and 'What Happens on Wednesdays'

Troublesome Young Men

Author: Lynne Olson

It's a well-known story. In May 1940, with World War II under way and Britain's position growing more perilous daily, Neville Chamberlain won a vote of confidence in the House of Commons. But given his Conservative Party's huge majority, it was a narrow win and, three days later, he resigned. He was succeeded by Winston Churchill who led the British to victory, securing his place in history.

But the reality of those fateful days, described by Lynne Olson in Troublesome Young Men, was much more complicated. Churchill was indeed a strong and steady opponent of appeasement during the 1930s and a constant thorn in the side of Conservative Party leadership. But he muted his criticism completely after he joined the cabinet in September 1939 and actually led Chamberlain's defense in Parliament.

To Olson, the heroes of the story – more than Churchill – were a small number of young Conservatives who risked their political careers to overthrow a prime minister of their own party. A few of the rebels – like Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan – later became famous in their own right. But most – like Robert Boothby, Harold Nicolson, Robert "Bobbety" Cranborne, Ronald Cartland, Leo Amery – are little remembered today. Indeed, Cartland died on the beaches at Dunkirk within a month of the decisive vote.

Olson re-creates that exceptional time in a well-written, fast-paced book that reads like a political thriller. She paints a fascinating picture of British society in the late 1930s and describes the social and political pressures that made it so difficult for the rebels to overtly buck the leadership of their own party. She introduces us to the major actors in the drama with all their strengths and weaknesses and carefully describes the parliamentary intrigues.

Her portrait of Chamberlain is especially valuable. Today, if we think of him at all, it is as a well-intentioned bumbler who carried an umbrella and was hopelessly out of his depth. But in reality he was a manipulative and dictatorial leader. He browbeat his parliamentary critics, demanded the press adopt the government's line, tapped phones, restricted journalist's access to government sources, and claimed that critics were damaging the national interest. Members of his party who opposed him were bluntly told that their careers were finished.

"Troublesome Young Men" is an extraordinary tale of political courage in perilous times – and a wonderfully written book.

– Terry Hartle

Three books about immigrants

Filling in a gap in the history books, Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans by Jean Pfaelzer tells of the purging of thousands of Chinese immigrants in the western United States between 1850 and 1906. The events related are deeply disturbing, but Pfaelzer, who is a professor of East Asian studies, handles her material skillfully, bringing to life a vast cast of characters and creating a narrative that's both compelling and accessible.

"What of the children?" asks Melissa Klapper in Small Strangers: The Experiences of Immigrant Children in America, 1880-1925. Klapper, who is a professor of history, draws on the experiences and observations of the children of immigrants during a period of massive immigration to the United States. Klapper relies strongly on personal accounts but also knows how to place these in a larger context.

Being released this fall is a striking graphic novel that wordlessly portrays the voyage of an immigrant. The Arrival by Shaun Tan shows a man taking leave of his wife and daughter and then sailing off in search of a better future for them in a new world. The immigrant's struggles are lonely, but finally end in joy.

Readers' picks

Wives Behaving Badly is the sequel to British author Elizabeth Buchan's "Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman" and is every bit as witty and insightful.

– Clara Boza, Asheville, N.C.

Written with military precision but with little jargon, Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq by Michael R. Gordon swoops and dives between the blinding dust of desert warfare, faraway, high-level, secure conference rooms in Washington, D.C., and coalition headquarters in Kuwait. You gotta read this if you want to know what really happened. – Barry Wightman, Elm Grove, Wis.

When Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld was first released, I dismissed it as "chick-lit for high school." Then I read the first couple of paragraphs and loved them. The protagonist's voice and experiences validate moments that we all have but never speak of publicly. – Rhonda Henderson, Washington, D.C.

My latest book is Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her by Melanie Rehak. Rehak's meticulous research and the organization of her material bowls me over. The book is a fascinating look at Nancy, her authors, and the developing women's movement behind them.– Art Scott, Flagstaff, Ariz.

Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust by Immaculée Ilibagiza – all I can say is that this is a truly life-transforming book – simply awesome! It's the best book I've read since the Bible! – Lynda Newman, Aptos, Calif.

Frances Mayes's A Year in the World is gracing my bedstand. Mayes's poetic language, love of travel, and poignant cultural observations have enchanted me. – Laura Wharff, Modesto, Calif.

What are you reading? Write and tell us at Marjorie Kehe.

Kid's Corner

Any reader eager to share in the happy, busy day of a city-dwelling preschooler will enjoy picking up What Happens On Wednesdays by Emily Jenkins. The narrator is a sharp-eyed, dark-haired moppet who tells us exactly what happens all day long on a day she shares with her parents in their Brooklyn neighborhood. From strawberries on the couch with mommy when they first wake up to visiting the deli and the dog park with daddy to splashing in bubbles at preschool to a bath and then finally heading to bed all zipped up in snuggly red sleep suit, this little girl's world is portrayed in charming illustrations by Lauren Castillo. Young readers ages 4-8 will want to share in the fun and adult readers, too, will be glad to be reminded of the joy to be found in everyday routines.

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