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Picks and Pans Main: Books

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MOTHERLAND

by Maria Hummel |

NOVEL

Hummel’s haunting novel is set in the ravaged landscape of Germany just before the country’s collapse at the end of World War II. A young wife, newly married to a widower with three young sons, struggles to keep the children safe as Allied bombing raids intensify and refugees stream into her small town. Her husband, a surgeon drafted into the army, daily confronts the horror of war in the shattered bodies he tends. All around them are signs of Nazi evil – a new “criminal camp” called Buchenwald and a mental hospital where sickly or troubled children are sent, never to return – but townspeople are too beaten down, too obsessed with their day-to-day survival to care. Inspired by her own family’s history, Hummel (Wilderness Run) says that when she started writing, she planned to “slice through the past” to answer the questions “What did they know, and when did they know it?” but came to realize that she should instead be asking, “What did they love? What did they fear?” Searing and honest, her book illuminates the reality of war away from the front lines – betrayal and compromise, neighbor turning on neighbor, the unexpected heroism of ordinary people – with a compassion and depth of understanding that will touch your heart.

–REVIEWED BY HELEN ROGAN

DUTY

by Robert M. Gates |

MEMOIR

“People have no idea how much I detest this job,” the former Secretary of Defense writes of serving two Presidents, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Well, 598 pages later, they get the idea. At risk of getting lost in the military-bureaucracy-speak of MRAPs, EFPs and EXORDs or in the details of White House and Pentagon decision-making processes is a thoughtfully humane, even-handed account of how war is administered and Washington is run. Pokes – “one quality I missed in Obama was passion”- are leavened by praise: “I believe the President cared deeply about the troops.” Rail with Gates against “truly ugly” politics, but weep with him over, by his pained count, the 1,240 U.S. troops killed in action in Iraq on his watch.

—REVIEWED BY SANDRA SOBIERAJ WESTFALL