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2016 TBR Pile Challenge: Thunderstruck

OK. It’s September. Time to get back to it.

I would like to tell you that I had an incredibly relaxing bit of time off and that I feel refreshed and ready for whatever this next season brings. But the last bit of summer was insane, filled with celebrations and out of town guests and oh so much drinking.

Time to dry out and get back to real life.

Which means back to reading and blogging about the things that I read.

In order to keep up with the Unofficial 2016 TBR Pile Challenge, I’ve been making sure to read at least one of the books on my list each month. Except in August. So this month I will try to read two, knowing all the while that I made the mistake that Jennine @ My Life in Books warned me about by keeping TWO massive books on the list until the later part of the challenge.

I wanted a sure thing so the next book I picked from the list was Erik Larson’s Thunderstruck.

I have long been a fan of Erik Larson’s and I was excited to get to read another of his superb books – I almost wrote novels there. It’s easy to forget that Larson is actually writing non-fiction.

thunderstruck

Thunderstruck tells two stories as they come together in an exciting conclusion. One is the story of Guglielmo Marconi and his work to perfect his invention of wireless communication. The other is the story of Hawley Harvey Chippen, the kindest, gentlest of men who almost got away with the perfect crime.

I will freely admit that this one was more of a challenge for me to get into that Larson’s other books. It reminded me a bit of The Devil in the White City where you are reading the story of the set up of the World’s Fair but all you really want to read about is North America’s first serial killer. Plus, the science behind wireless communication is mostly well over my head.

But.

I stuck with it and was well rewarded. Part of what got me through those early sections were Larson’s tantalizing hints of what was to come. Larson constantly draws your attention to look out for things later. And Larson also has a way of inserting himself into his narrative with wry comments about things like the fact that Marconi wasn’t well-versed in how to understand people, or the improbable name of a boarder (May Pole).

While reading this book, it struck me how much it intersected with his other work. There is the talk of coming conflict with the Germans (which sets up In the Garden of Beasts), talk of the Lusitania (Dead Wake), and murder (The Devil in the White City). If there had been more storms perhaps he could have hit Isaac’s Storm as well.

In the end I was amply rewarded for my time spent with this book. I was totally delighted with the way the whole thing came together and am left wondering what tale Larson has in mind to tell us next. As per his twitter, he may have nailed it down.

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Non-fiction Fangirl: Erik Larson’s Dead Wake

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

Ever since I read The Devil in the White City, I’ve been a huge fan of Erik Larson’s. His is a particular kind of novelistic non-fiction that I haven’t seen any other writer achieve. He is able to take something that really happened and flesh out the characters and plot as though he created them. He is thorough, precise, and you can tell that he loved every minute of the process.

When I heard about his latest book, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania I couldn’t wait to read it.

I basically spent all day Saturday doing just that.

Let’s just take a minute to underscore that achievement: Erik Larson wrote a non-fiction book that is so compulsively readable that I finished it in a day. I mean, I love non-fiction and you know I have no problems reading it but I’m not sure that I’ve ever done this before.

dead wake

I’d say the title is pretty self-descriptive in terms of what this book is about: the sinking of the Lusitania off the coast of Ireland in May 1915. But as is often the case in Larson’s books, this one event set off a chain of events that ultimately brought the United States into the First World War. The sinking of a passenger ship by a German U-boat was considered by many Americans to have crossed the line and they wanted to do something about it.

But before Larson gets to the politics that followed the sinking, he describes how the war started in the first place and the days leading up to boarding the ship. He tells us about the people on board: the Cromptons, a family with 6 children and 2 nannies booked into 3 staterooms; Alfred Vanderbilt, one of the men that almost sailed on the Titanic; Theodate Pope, a female architect and spiritualist who served as an investigator of paranormal phenomena and was a friend of Henry James; Charles Lauriet, a bookseller travelling with a set of priceless Thackeray sketches and a copy of A Christmas Carol that had been owned by Dickens’ himself and annotated by the author; Richard Preston Prichard, a second class passenger who was so popular that a number of letters and journals mention him by name; and Robert Kay, a five year old boy who was diagnosed with measles and missed all the fun, spending the voyage in quarantine below deck.

Larson also looks at the man at the helm of the U-Boat, Walther Schweiger who by all accounts was a gregarious man and a good captain. He was able to maintain order on board but earned the respect of his crew and tried to make their days on board as pleasant as possible, at one point they even had puppies on board if you can believe that. The German military was set up so that U-Boat captains were able to make all their own decisions – they were the only ones that could see what was happening and had full judgment to sink passenger liners if they so chose. Their decisions are unpopular in the annals of history but it was wartime and they did what they had to do. Larson is skilled at capturing that delicate balance without judgement.

You know that it’s not going to be a happy ending, from the title alone. Even thinking myself prepared for the end, I was caught off guard by how moved I was by it. Again, Larson handles his subject matter with compassion and care without being sentimental.

Guys, I’m a huge fan of Erik Larson and at this point I’d probably read something he wrote on a cocktail napkin, but if you haven’t read any of his work yet, get to it. He is the best and he tells some incredible (true) stories; you won’t even realize you’re reading non-fiction.

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Books on Screen: The Monuments Men

Have you ever been somewhere in Europe, like the Louvre or the Rijkmuseum, and wondered how on earth all of these paintings survived the fiery destruction of the Second World War? Or had the privilege of visiting Mont St. Michel in France or Neuschwanstein in Bavaria, and marveled at the fact that they are still intact?

If you stop and think about it, you will realize what a miracle it actually is.

Until you read Robert M. Edsel’s The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History and realize that it was less of a miracle and more due to the hard work and dogged perseverance of a select group of art historians, architects and sculptors.

Sometimes the advent of a movie based on a book is a great thing. It brings attention to a book that might otherwise have been overlooked by most people. I’m not sure I would have been aware of this book if it weren’t for the movie. I’m ashamed to admit it, but there you are.

monumentsmen

The book itself is incredible. At first my eyes kind of glazed over at the mention of battle particulars (a common failing of mine) but I soon got used to the pace of the novel: the battle details are mentioned to set the scene for you, so that you, who never lived through anything resembling World War II, can have an idea of the scope of the devastation. Once I got through that, I realized that Edsel is talented like Erik Larson at telling a non-fiction tale in the style of a novel. He introduces us to real-life people that sound like storybook heroes and villains, from the always impeccable George Stout, to the bull-dog like James Rorimer, the quiet brilliance of Rose Valland, and the immense bulk and self-serving ego of Hermann Goering.

We follow these men (and one woman) as they make their way through Europe, trying to save as many historic monuments as possible. We feel the pain of history lost at Saint-Lo where the whole town is basically levelled; the frustration as the Brugges Madonna slips through their fingers again; the elation upon their discovery of hundreds of famous paintings hoarded in one place.

The book is full of interesting tidbits that are sure to come in handy next time you play Trivial Pursuit. For instance, the word salary comes from the salt that was paid to Roman legionnaires since, at the time salt was the basis of all life. Or that the Nazis pillaged hundreds of private collections and stored hundreds of them in the fairy tale castle, Neuschwanstein.

I loved this book and now I can’t wait to see the movie. The work these men did to save hundreds of years of cultural history is an enormous gift to humanity and I’m glad that they are finally getting some recognition.

I leave you with the movie trailer in the hopes that it inspires you to search out the book. Also – a little George Clooney or Matt Damon never did anyone any harm.

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I Changed My Mind: Books I’m Excited About This Season

Remember the other day when I was all “waaaaaa, there are no new books out this fall that I want to read!”?

Turns out I just needed to pull my head out of my a$$ and go to a book store.

I was in the habit of going to bookstores fairly regularly, opening my wallet and my arms to a number of books. But then I got engaged (woot woot!) and started spending more time at the library in the hopes of saving enough pennies to put towards things like flowers and photographers.

The one drawback with going to the library is that the titles on hand aren’t always the freshest.

So imagine my surprise (and delight) when I found myself in a bookstore the other night, surrounded by new books that I want to read!

And the hits keep coming because this week I’ve been hearing about so many other great sounding books I want. I guess the difference this season is that the books aren’t by authors that I already love.

So here’s a rundown of the books that I’m most looking forward to reading soon.

Longbourn by Jo Baker. I’m pretty sure this book combines my love of Pride and Prejudice and Downton Abbey and I cannot think of anything more perfect book-wise right now. The story of Elizabeth and Darcy, Jane and Bingley, and Lydia from the perspective of gossipy servants? I’m in.

Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields by Wendy Lower. I have a fascination with Hitler and the Third Reich. I can’t help it – I know it’s twisted. But one thing that’s not often discussed in books about Hitler or the Third Reich is the role of women in the Third Reich. Not the “undesirables” or those women that helped the Nazis to save themselves, but the women that were a part of it all. The ones that actively participated in the solution to the “Jewish Problem.” Wendy Lower finally addresses it and I’m looking forward to reading about them.

The Circle by Dave Eggers. Aside from the fact that this book has a beautiful cover, there’s been a lot of buzz about this one – I’ve even heard it described as our generation’s 1984. Which is saying something. The premise of a young woman working for the world’s biggest internet company (think Facebook or twitter) and coming face to face with the reality of that much information and power in one place, really appeals to that part of me that grew into adulthood with social media dogging every footstep.

Thunderstruck by Erik Larson. Here’s one of my favourite authors that I didn’t know had a new book out. I loved The Devil in the White City and adored In the Garden of Beasts so I’ve unknowingly been waiting for his new book. Guglielmo Marconi’s telegraph changed the way we communicated but evidently he also played an important role in one of the biggest manhunts in history. Larson is an unparalleled story teller. His tales are true, but you always forget that you’re not reading a novel, such is his talent.

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss. Last year I found out that Alexandre Dumas was a black man. It had never occurred to me that a famous French author from that time could be black which probably says all the wrong things about me (see why reading is important people? You learn so many things). The Black Count is the story of Dumas’ father who was born in Haiti the son of a black slave, came to Paris and ended up becoming a General commanding armies at the height of the Revolution. How can you not want to read that?

And I did actually walk out of the bookstore with Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath because I cannot ever walk away from new Gladwell.

I feel like my book spirit has revived! Bring on the long (Canadian) weekend – I have some reading to do!

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In The Garden of Beasts

Don’t judge, but I’ve always been completely fascinated by Nazi Germany, Hitler and the Third Reich. I know, totally creepy and weird and not something one admits to in polite company, but there we are.

Let’s be clear here. I’m fascinated by the time and the set of circumstances that allowed a completely deranged, angry little man to throw the world into war and terror and all manner of horrible things. I find the personalities completely fascinating. I’ve managed to read almost the entire biography of Hitler that Ian Kershaw put together (probably the heaviest book I own), I loved Angela Lambert’s The Secret Life of Eva Braun and I constantly have to stop myself from buying biographies of other Nazi notables like Himmler and Goebbels because, let’s face it, people will start to think terrible things about me.

That being said, I didn’t stop myself from picking up In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and An American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson. Having read Larson’s account of America’s first serial killer in The Devil in the White City, I knew that I would love it.

You may have heard of In the Garden of Beasts – it’s been on Bestseller Lists and Top 10s all over the place because it is a masterpiece. Erik Larson is incredibly gifted when it comes to novelistic history.

William E. Dodd was just a history professor in the twilight of his career, hoping for a simple ambassador job somewhere undemanding that would allow him to finish his 4 part series on the American South. He ends up getting sent to Berlin in 1933, just after Hitler has become Chancellor of Germany, but before he has managed to assume complete power. Dodd brings his family – wife Mattie, son Bill Jr., and daughter Martha – and in short order all are comfortably ensconced in the social hierarchy of Nazi Germany.

Mattie and Bill Jr. soon fall away from the story – they make appearances when warranted but the story is mainly about Dodd Sr. and Martha. Dodd Sr. begins to understand that America needs to take a stand against Hitler in the face of all the horrible things that are being done to Jews (despite the fact that Dodd is an anti-Semite himself) but everyone back home is working against him, focused on the fact that Germany has defaulted on payments from the Great War and on keeping America out of any future European conflicts.

Martha, meanwhile, is completely infatuated with Nazism. She believes that its wonderful and just what Germany needs. Until she begins to witness assaults in the street, her friends disappear and some of her romantic conquests fear for their lives.

The book isn’t terribly long. With about 50 pages left to go my heart was hammering in my chest and I was reading while I was walking down the street (dangerous pastime if you know me) because, despite having an idea of how this was going to end, I needed to know.

What’s unique about this book on Nazi Germany is that it really focuses on that one pivotal year, the first year (of nearly 4) that the Dodds were in Germany. They were there when Hindenburg died, during the Night of the Long Knives when Hitler ruthlessly took military control and as it became clear the Germany was no longer safe for any “undesirables.” I always have trouble with the military aspect of any books about WWII, but this book leaves all of that out. As far as everyone knew, in 1933/34 Hitler wanted peace for Germany and for Europe. But those who were able to see a little bit further than the ends of their own noses, they understood that Hitler would never settle for what was best for Europe as a whole. He wanted revenge.

Sadly no one else listened to the few.

In the Garden of Beasts is in paperback now, which is even more reason to pick it up for yourself.