By Tilar J. Mazzeo

Harper, 2014

292 pages, $26.99

ISBN 978-0-06-179108-6

The historiography of World War II has produced some amazing little-known stories, but none as fascinating and entertaining as what took place in the Hotel Ritz in Paris during the German occupation 1941-1944.

“The Hotel On Place Vendome” is best-selling author Tilar Mazzeo’s intriguing story of this historic luxury hotel and the multiple roles it played. It was a neutral playground for high-ranking Nazis (including Luftwaffe Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering) and Vichy France officials mingling among Europe’s glitterati of film stars, artists, writers, playboys, divas, royalty, art thieves, spies for both sides and French resistance members who tended bar, waited tables and eavesdropped.

Mazzeo is an English professor at Colby College and author of the best-sellers “The Widow Clicquot” and “The Secret Of Chanel No. 5.” Here, she tells the exciting stories of the men and women who worked and lived at the Ritz during those dreadful war years, and how they co-existed amidst divided loyalties, selfish and opportunistic behavior, overt collaboration, subtle and often hidden resistance, Gestapo surveillance and reckless hedonism.

Mazzeo provides the history of the Ritz before and after the war, but it is those war years that capture the imagination. As she relates, the Ritz was the only luxury hotel allowed to remain open in Paris by German edict, so it became a famous raucous wartime social center for German offices and diplomats, and French and neutral civilians with wild, drunken parties, lurid love affairs and talk of assassination conspiracies over cocktails in the bar (drinks brilliantly mixed by the Jewish bartender who was a member of the French resistance).

She also tells of the American war correspondents who raced to be the first in a liberated Paris in 1944, especially Ernest Hemingway’s dangerous, wacky and successful antics to liberate the hotel’s legendary wine cellar and most luxurious hotel suite.


By Helen Peppe

Da Capo Press, 2014

257 pages, $22.99

ISBN 978-0-306-82272-8.

Humanist and writer Aldous Huxley once wrote: “Children are remarkable for their intelligence and ardor, for their curiosity, their intolerance of shams, the clarity and ruthlessness of their vision.” When he wrote those words he might have been describing 6-year-old Helen Peppe.

“Pigs Can’t Swim” is Portland author Peppe’s first book — a bittersweet, brutally honest memoir of growing up in a large family on a hardscrabble farm in central Maine between 1974 and 1984.

The first 10 years of her childhood are vividly recounted, from age 6 to 18, a period of wonder, curiosity, hardship, heartache, mystery and the constant torments of snarky name-calling and bullying that come with being the youngest of nine kids.

She tells of her parents, hard-working, no-nonsense adults who spared little time for their youngest daughter, responding to her precocious questions with “You’re too young to understand.” She also has little good to say about most of her older brothers and sisters, rebellious teenagers who declared their teen independence with cigarettes, booze and sex (with predictable teenage pregnancies) — bad behavior that bewildered a little girl.

Helen loved to read — Stephen King, the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew — and she loved animals and couldn’t understand why anyone would want to eat them. As years pass, young Helen is exposed to her parents’ racism, the family’s near poverty, child sex abuse and the painful innocence of young love.

Despite its promotional hype this book has little humor and less tenderness. Its strength, however, is in Peppe’s graphic and unvarnished portrayal of a Maine family struggling under the weight of grinding poverty and cultural stereotypes. It’s no surprise that she does not refer to her family as a loving unit: “None of us in this family have ever been fine.”

Bill Bushnell lives and writes in Harpswell.