20

Batch Reviews: Edition the First

You know that feeling you have when you’ve read a number of books and haven’t talked about any of them? That vaguely uneasy feeling that makes you feel kind of bad for even being online at all since you’re obviously not doing anything of value?

That’s kind of where I’ve been living in 2016. I read a bunch of books over Christmas and meant to get on here and talk about them and then I just didn’t. And now we’re in that horrible place where I read some of these books WEEKS ago and I’m supposed to discuss them in a meaningful way?

To clear the backlog (mostly of guilt) I’m going to batch them together in mini-reviews. No rhyme or reason to the groups. Random. Kind of like these posts in the first place.

nightingale

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah. I was not going to read this. And then I overheard someone in a bookstore mention to a customer that she had never cried so hard reading a book. My sister and a friend both had the same experiences. I got it for Christmas and it was the first book I read in 2016.

Vianne Mauriac’s husband has left for the front and she and her daughter, Sophie, are left to care for their home as best they can. Soon a German soldier tells them that he’s going to be billeting in their home, complicating all their lives. Vianne’s sister, Isabelle, has always been rebellious and more than a little bit reckless. Having been kicked out of a final school, she is at a loose end when Paris is invaded. Running from Paris, to Vianne’s small village, she meets a young man and falls in love. That’s how she becomes involved in the Resistance.

It took me ages to become invested in this book. Maybe I’ve been reading too much WWII fiction – at times it felt like we were just checking off WWII cliches from a list: forbidden love, German soldier living with you, resistance fighters, Jewish complications, harsh winters, poverty and black markets. But at some point, it becomes more than that. It’s two sisters, each fighting for their future, sacrificing almost everything in the process. As they fight for survival, they also fight each other and the relationship that has always been complicated.

In the end, I was bawling my eyes out on the bus, despite being told not to read the end on the bus. So I guess it was worth it.

ferrante

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. Everyone and their mother seems to have read this story of two friends, Elena and Lila, growing up in a poor neighbourhood in Naples post-WWII. Seems like you either love it or you hate it.

Heinous cover art aside, I fall somewhere in the middle. I love that Ferrante is this anonymous person, who does not discuss the work once it is finished. I love the era in Italy and getting a chance to learn something about what it was like to be a child in an Italy freshly ravaged by war, the social structure that dictated daily life.

But mostly I found it hard going to even get through this. I wanted to give up a number of times. Lila and Elena are best friends but they also act kind of like enemies. It seems more like the accident of their having been born around the same time in the same building, meant that they were expected to be friendly. Elena ends up excelling in school, going to the high school and learning Latin and Greek while Lila is pulled out of school once elementary school is over. Yet, Lila still manages to learn Greek and Latin and accounting and design shoes in her father’s shop.

At times I wasn’t totally convinced that Lila wasn’t a sociopath. We follow the girls to the day of Lila’s wedding and then it ends. But it’s the kind of ending that is supposed to make you want to pick up the next book. I admit that I am curious. I know that IF I do pick up the next book, The Story of a New Name, it will be from the library.

OK. That’s two out of the way. There are more to come! Probably!

PS if you have a  snappy name for these, hit me up!

 

15

2015 TBR Pile Challenge: A Train in Winter

I wrote this last week, before the horrific, devastating events in Paris. Having read this book now feels even more timely. I know that Parisians won’t let the senseless, cowardly attacks define them. The citizens of Paris, of France will always overcome. Vive la France!

I put off reading Caroline Moorehead’s A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship and Survival in World War Two* for a really long time.

I’ve owned a copy for well over a year and I put it on my 2015 TBR Pile Challenge list at the end of 2014. And still, I put off reading it ALL YEAR.

Why did I put off reading such an extraordinary and important book forever? I was scared. I was scared that it would make me sad, that it would be difficult to read, that I would cry.

I finally decided that Remembrance Day was the perfect day to spend with this book. It really, really was.

train

Moorehead packs a lot into 317 pages. The story of these women, mostly Communists in France, working at the beginnings of what would come to be known as the French Resistance, involves 230 individuals. Moorehead doesn’t tell all of their stories, but she tries. She tells us of the work they and their husbands, and sometimes their children, did to try and make life difficult for the occupying Nazis. They distributed pamphlets and flyers, plastered posters all over the city urging the French to resist against the enemy; they gathered information and weapons and moved them around the country to where they would be most useful; they helped Jews and other “undesirables” cross from the occupied territory into the demarcation zone, so that they might have a chance at leaving France; and eventually some of them were part of murdering Nazis, for which they would have to pay.

You learn about who these women were before the war, why it was important to them to fight for France. And when they found themselves imprisoned, the result of some very tenacious collaborative French police officers, they somehow found a way to keep going, to hold each other up even when some of them knew that their husbands were being shot just outside.

For a while I thought it wasn’t going to be so bad – the women were in French prisons but they had figured out a way to live together: they shared their food, put on plays that they could remember, sewed costumes and clothes for each other and wrote letters home. I thought maybe the train in the title was a metaphor for the fear that they all felt, all the time.

But no. Auschwitz beckoned. And everything you’ve read about it…it’s worse in this book. It’s not like I’ve never read about concentration camps – I have. There was just something about this book, though, that made it so much worse. Typhus, diphtheria, attack dogs, sadistic guards (there’s one horrifying photo of the guards at Auschwitz – I thought it was a vacation photo, these young men and women were SO happy and smiling and laughing), heinous living conditions, dying children, disgusting experiments conducted on inmates, filth, horrific punishments – all humanity stripped away.

There were 230 women that went on the train and only 49 of them walked back out two years later.

If you take a quick scan through the Goodreads ratings, a lot of people rate this book quite low. The big complaint seems to be that Moorehead talks about 230 women and it’s a lot of people to keep track of. I didn’t feel that way.  I thought she did an admirable job of telling the stories of these women, these extraordinarily brave wonderful women who managed to look after each other and share what little they had so that they might live together to see another day.

I am a wuss. Because, yes, reading it was difficult and unpleasant and shocking and sad. But the experience of these women was all that and so much worse. The least I could do is read about it so that when these incredible women are no longer with us, we will still know their story.

If you haven’t already, please read this book.

*Please note: the title may be slightly different in your neck of the woods. It’s also titled A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship and Resistance in Occupied France. I think the “…survival in world war two” version is more apt.

15

Spy Game: The Scent of Secrets

You may recall that I’m a big fan of historical fiction but that I’d been having a hard time finding something to really get me excited. The Storms of War and The King’s Curse had been rare bright spots in my historical fiction quest.

But you know what? I feel like maybe the tide is turning and I’m going to have more good luck than bad going forward.

I just finished reading The Scent of Secrets by Jane Thynne, the first book in a promised trilogy, and it was fantastic.

secrets

Clara Vine is a half English, half German (with a Jewish grandmother) actress living in Berlin in 1938. She is popular enough to have her likeness on trading cards cigarette companies are pumping out to promote German culture. And she’s a spy.

A former lover had trained her to be a spy and she’s just waiting to find out when she will be needed. When her assignment comes through it’s a big one: befriend Hitler’s mistress, Eva Braun. Her work takes her to Paris, Berlin and Munich, crossing paths with Chanel, Himmler and Dr. Goebbels.

I’ve read a LOT about Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. I’ve read a biography of Eva Braun, of Hitler, Coco Chanel, a book about the Ritz during the War, I read about the women who did Hitler’s dirty work and what it was like to live in Germany at the time, about what it was like working to try and stop it and so, so much on the Final Solution to the Jewish “Problem.” Considering how much non-fiction I’ve read about this era, this book could have been a re-hashing on a fictional level, leaving me bored.

But it didn’t. Not even a little bit. Thynne must have been reading the same material as I have (and then some) because her book was littered with all kinds of details that I want to know more about. For example, the wives of the Nazi elite Emmy Goering, Magda Goebbels and Lina Heydrich were just as dangerous and powerful as their husbands and I want to read a whole book about them! Thynne also introduced me to Gertrud Scholtz-Klink, the fuhrerin, who was essentially the female Hitler, charged with making sure that all German women were doing their part for the new German Reich – namely marrying Aryan men and having at least six children. Scholtz-Klink sounds like a terrifying woman, she really existed and I would like to read more about her.

I liked this book a lot, I liked Clara and the way she was insinuated into historical fact. I loved that Eva Braun was getting a bit more time on the stage, so to speak – I’ve always felt sorry for her. But what really made this Nazi spy story so great was the amount of detail Thynne has woven into the story. It doesn’t hurt either that she uses a female spy. She really creates a sense of time and place, of the fear that was so prevalent, of how all-encompassing the Nazi way of life really was. Take for example, this passage about German toys:

“Rosa had that morning been sent out to buy puzzle games with pieces of wood that spelled out the name Adolf Hitler, a spelling book – A is for Adolf, B is for Bormann, et cetera – and a mobile with the face of Hitler to hang above a baby’s cot. There were card games too, like the one where players competed to collect the top Nazi leaders, with Hitler, of course, worth the maximum number of points. All these toys would be demonstrated to the women’s leaders in their sessions on childhood indoctrination…”

A Hitler mobile for a crib? The stuff of f*%#ing nightmares.

The Scent of Secrets was a great read and I’m looking out for the next installment!

Thanks to Penguin Random House of Canada for providing me with an ARC of this book. 

8

A Haunting Account: Underground in Berlin

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

Growing up with a mother who had survived the war in Holland, my mother was taught to revile Germans. By no means was that unique. There are still tons of Dutch people that have no time for Germans. So for my mom, the chance to read Underground in Berlin: A Young Woman’s Extraordinary Tale of Survival in the Heart of Nazi Germany by Marie Jalowicz Simon, was eye opening. She told me afterwards that she’d never read a story about the other side, about the German experience during the war.

berlin

At the end of her life, Marie Jalowicz Simon’s son convinced her to finally tell the whole story of her experiences during the war. As a young Jewish woman, she was at risk from 1933 onwards. By the early 1940s, both of her parents were dead and she had only herself and a small network of friends to rely on to keep her safe. For 1942, Marie spent a couple of weeks at a time in different households, sometimes hiding completely, sitting in a chair all day afraid to make any noise, at other times passed off as a visiting relative, always afraid lest a neighbour ask too many questions.

From 1943 until early 1945 she managed to lead what was almost a normal life. But it was still filled with fear, sacrifice, and always ensuring that her true identity was hidden. Food was scarce, buying anything involved a complicated ritual of ration coupons, registered all over the city and standing in line for hours just to get a nominal amount of flour or meat. I was annoyed by the constant mention of “ersatz coffee” until I clued in to the fact that this was an actual thing: “coffee” made from roasted rice, peas and chicory to mimic real coffee.

When Marie finally told her story, she did so orally. Over a period of several months, she filled 77 tapes and her son then transcribed those tapes. As she told the story, her son researched what she told him to see if it matched up with what was known about that period of time in Berlin. He was surprised (and his mother gratified) to learn that her memories did match.

Because of the way the story was told, it feels very much like you are sitting listening to her story the same way. It doesn’t have the polish of other historical accounts of the time, but it has more heart. Marie can, at times, come across as callous and hard but when you think about what she had to live through, how she had to survive with only her wits about her, how she had to lie constantly about who she was, it’s really no wonder she sounds so harsh.

I did have a hard time getting through this book. I think this was partly because Marie does seem so distant from the story – a coping mechanism no doubt. It was also that I found it difficult to keep a lot of the people straight. The people helping her would drift in and out of the story and it took me some time to put it altogether.

Nonetheless this is a powerful account of what it was like to actually live in Berlin at the time, to live through one of the cruelest epochs in human history as the kind of person that your country reviles. And for that reason it’s worth reading.

22

That Time I Channelled Bradley Cooper

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

Reading Life After Life was like a religious experience for me. At the time it was magical, original and incredibly beautiful. I fell in love with Ursula Todd and Fox Corner.

So when I heard that Atkinson was writing a follow up novel, A God in Ruins, I was excited.

Despite the fact that in the interim I have tried to read a number of her other books and hated every single one of them. It’s been an incredible source of frustration for me because a) other people seem to love her other books so what’s wrong with me? And b) technically her books are exquisite. It’s rare for me to read books that are so well written and still hate them. But I do. My biggest gripe always seems to be that nothing good ever happens to redeem all the sh*t that she makes her characters go through.

But I digress.

In A God in Ruins, Atkinson attempts to tell the story of Teddy, Ursula’s younger brother. Except that this time there’s no wonderful do-over aspect. Teddy just lives his life while Atkinson tells it by jumping all over the damn place. Teddy’s experience in the war as an RAF pilot (sections that really could have been something and still bored me); Teddy as an old man, forced to move into seniors’ housing by his daughter Viola; Viola’s experiences as a young wife and mother, and later as a successful novelist; Teddy looking after his grandchildren, Bertie and Sunny, when his daughter is off doing her own thing; Teddy’s wife Nancy, grappling with her own mortality.

The whole time reading A God in Ruins felt like a chore. I was working so hard to get to something, anything that connected me back to the world I loved in Life After Life. Even Ursula herself makes few appearances, limited to short visits and snippets Teddy remembers from letters she’s written. When it became clear that Ursula and Fox Corner weren’t going to be a part of this new story, I focused on finding something to connect with in this story. .Aside from Teddy (and Bertie and occasionally poor Sunny) these characters are horrible. Viola, Nancy and Sunny are all (mostly) selfish. I still can’t think of a single redeeming thing about them.

And then the ending. Normally I’m all about the redemptive power of a solid ending. But this ending made me want to throw the book across the room. After slogging through 360 some odd pages suddenly Atkinson throws in this curveball that’s supposed to make you go “whoa.”

A different 4-letter word comes to mind.

Am I overreacting? Possibly. It’s a book after all. Kate Atkinson hasn’t caused me any bodily harm. But I feel ripped off. Life After Life was such a perfect book and A God in Ruins didn’t need to happen. But it did and I got my hopes up and they were crushed. It kills me because Atkinson is such a good writer. What she can do with language, few can. She writes some of the most beautiful prose and completely ruins it with horrible characters and a timeline that jumps all over the place. Instead of it being inventive, it’s frustrating and confusing.

I want to think about that ending as beautiful and inspiring. Instead, this comes to mind:  

1

The Book Thief

I recently stole The Book Thief from my sister.

True story.

She’s probably not going to get it back.

Someone that I worked with a few years ago told me that I had to read it. That I would love it. That it would change my life.

When someone tells you that about a book, my immediate reaction is always to kind of dismiss it. I am totally comfortable making those kinds of recommendations to other people but horrible at taking the advice myself. My book club participation has definitely made me more open minded about reading recommendations.

It still took me a long time to get around to actually reading it.

It’s one of my new favourite books, despite the fact that I was basically hysterical by the time I finished it (and trying to sob quietly because I was sitting with my boyfriend and he always laughs at me when I cry at movies or books.)

Death narrates the tale of The Book Thief. Liesel Meninger is the daughter of a Communist that is left with foster parents in Bavaria following the death of her little brother on a train. She never sees her mother again but is soon comfortably ensconced in the world of Himmel Street. In the madness of Nazi Germany, Liesel learns to read and soon enough, words and stories and most of all books, come to mean everything to her (who can’t relate to that?) Unfortunately for Liesel and all of the people that she loves, the war and Death are coming ever closer.

I’m doing a horrible job explaining this book. I’m pretty sure I’m one of the last people on the planet to have read it anyway, so you probably already know that it is an incredible story. Liesel grows from this terrified, sulky little girl into a curious, defiant young woman, with incredibly strong convictions. And it’s honestly down to the power of books that she’s able to make it through one of the most heinous epochs in history. It’s not often that a story about Nazi Germany is told from the sympathetic perspective of the Germans, but this story is a very human one. Obviously there are those in the neighbourhood that are Nazis, like the woman that owns the candy shop, or the camp guards that parade Jews through the streets on their way to Dachau. Everyone of age is a participant in the Hitler Youth, although Liesel’s best friend Rudy does make life difficult for himself by constantly undermining his leader. The people in Himmel street are hard working and suffering from the decisions made for them by their leader. They are struggling financially and when the bombs start to fall from the sky and the men start leaving for the front, things become tough emotionally too.

I loved this book. So much. The end was devastatingly heart breaking but so perfect too. It was actually hard to read – you kind of knew something horrible was coming, Death had been foreshadowing it for pretty much the entire book. But I was still completely devastated, and kind of felt ill reading it. I was that invested.

The Book Thief is an incredible book. I loved it so much and there is no way that my sister is going to get it back.