Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction, Sociology, Travel

Travels with Myself and Another by Martha Gellhorn

In continuing my war correspondent memoir/biography trend, I figured it was time I pick up Martha Gellhorn’s Travels with Myself and Another. Those who know who she is typically think of her as Hemingway’s third wife, but those who care about journalism, know her as one of the first female war correspondents, and inspiration to my favorite journalist, Marie Colvin.

Synopsis

As a journalist, Gellhorn covered every military conflict from the Spanish Civil War to Vietnam and Nicaragua. She also bewitched Eleanor Roosevelt’s secret love and enraptured Ernest Hemingway with her courage as they dodged shell fire together.

Hemingway is, of course, the unnamed “other” in the title of this tart memoir, first published in 1979, in which Gellhorn describes her globe-spanning adventures, both accompanied and alone. With razor-sharp humor and exceptional insight into place and character, she tells of a tense week spent among dissidents in Moscow; long days whiled away in a disused water tank with hippies clustered at Eilat on the Red Sea; and her journeys by sampan and horse to the interior of China during the Sino-Japanese War.

Review

Martha Gellhorn has fascinated me for quite some time, given my present obsession with female war correspondents this should not be surprising. Her life, one wholly unconventional for her time, is inspiring, but also, in light of twenty first century sensibilities, one I had to remind myself, began over a century ago.

A feminist at her core, Martha, M as UC (unwilling companion, AKA Hemingway) calls her, sets off on each “horror journey” as she’s dubbed them, without a great deal of pre-planning, other than the bare minimum required by her destination. The era of traveling by your bootstraps, hopping flights when you need them, hoping to stumble upon a hotel with available rooms each night, etc. is simply unheard of today. Even when Ewan MacGregor and Charley Boorman went around the world and south through Africa on motorcycles, they still had reservations and accommodations, or at least tents to sleep in each night. Did Martha? No.

When I think of a single woman traveling in the 1940s, ’50s, and early ’60s, I feel a sympathetic sense of dread. I keep waiting for something to go thoroughly wrong, but by her wits or the kindness of others, she avoids any great gender related danger. M doesn’t typically discuss how her gender has anything to do with her ability to travel and I LOVE IT. I felt the real sense of, “If M can do it, so can I!” much more so than when reading Lynsey Addario’s autobiography and Lindsey’s biography of Marie Colvin (apparently a disproportionate number of my favorite journalists are Lindseys…) – they went to the front lines of war. Martha, due to either her gender or the time period, goes to the back lines of war. The war that we don’t see that isn’t quite as dangerous as the war everyone saw on the newsreels each night.

When M and UC (Hemingway) go to China during World War II, it never feels like there is a great threat on their lives. When M goes to the French islands of the Caribbean, I learned a great deal about how the Vichy government affected their lives, but I was never fearful of M’s survival. These adventures, and M’s quite frequent poor decision making – when the pilot of the boat tells you he won’t wait for you to scale a dormant volcano because he can’t dock safely, you should probably heed his warning and not be surprised when you get up in the morning and he’s gone – just a thought. But all these adventures are learning experiences for M and for us, her readers, 40 years after the original publication, 70 years after the adventure. But the real sticking point for this collection for me is M’s trip to Africa.

Holy mother of colonialism. In January of 1962, Martha Gellhorn went to Africa. I found the map in my photo in my collection of vintage maps with a copyright date of 1960 – pretty darn close to how the continent was divided politically at the time of Martha’s travels. Given that Martha’s trip to Africa is by far the longest and move life-affecting of this collection of essays, it seemed a fitting backdrop for the book. But to think of Martha’s approach to the continent, it makes me retch a bit inside.

It seems so foreign to me that we, as human beings, particularly white people, could stereotype an entire continent of people and refuse to get to know them, learn about their communities, and simply label them as selfish, liars, etc. The thing that terrifies me the most is that M was probably considered progressive for her time. While I’m sure there are readers who would find it difficult to turn off their 2018 filters and would find her recounting of her trip to Africa offensive, at it’s core it is a compelling historical and sociological exploration into the changing nature of how we travel and interact with people, and is definitely worth reading.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $17.00 • 9781585420902 • 320 pages • first published 1979, this edition published May 2001 by TarcherPerigee • average Goodreads rating 3.83 out of 5 stars • read in December 2018

Travels with Myself and Another

Fiction, Historical

Dear Mrs. Bird by A. J. Pearce

Working six days a week at the bookstore for the holidays is crazy and I’m way off of my normal posting schedule. But it’s probably one of my favorite times in the store – I get to tell people about my  favorite books all day and they’re most inclined to buy them as gifts! Each year everyone on the staff picks 3 books for our top “gift giving books” of the year and Dear Mrs. Bird is one of mine.

Synopsis

Emmeline Lake and her best friend Bunty are doing their bit for the war effort and trying to stay cheerful despite the German planes making their nightly raids. Emmy dreams of becoming a Lady War Correspondent and when she spots a job advertisement in the newspaper she seizes her chance, but after a rather unfortunate misunderstanding, she finds herself typing letters for the formidable Henrietta Bird, renowned advice columnist of Women’s Friend magazine.

Mrs. Bird if very clear: letters containing any Unpleasantness must go straight into the bin. But as Emmy reads the desperate pleas from women who may have Gone Too Far with the wrong man, or can’t bear to let their children be evacuated, she begins to secretly write back to the readers who have poured out their troubles.

Review

I have loved a good World War II novel for a very long time and have been a deep lover of the genre of historical fiction as a whole for more than two decades (which is more than two thirds of my life given that I’m just shy of 30). A few years ago, though, it seemed to be all I read – great for giving recommendations as at the bookstore, not so great for mental health and reading enjoyment. I felt broken – scenes in concentration camps no longer elicited any feelings from me. I should be bawling my eyes out and I wasn’t. I should have felt something more than simple blase. So I took a break.

Then our Simon & Schuster sales rep gave me and ARC of Dear Mrs. Bird. When it came out and I still hadn’t read it, he sent me a finished copy. When he stopped in to see us and I still hadn’t read it, he very kindly told me (lectured me) about not doing so. He thought it’d be perfect for me. I should have listened to him sooner.

When the holiday staff table was looking like it needed a jolt of historical fiction, I figured it was the perfect time to read this most delightful of books. Did I cry? Of course I did – it’s a World War II novel and is not without it’s share of doom and gloom. But that’s not the main point. That’s not the main plot. It’s not the driving force of Emmy’s life. Is it perfect? No. It’s a debut and the pacing and plot can be clunky and lacking. But it is a most enjoyable and delightful read and an excellent addition to the genre.

So, if you’re a WWII lover like me but are feeling a bit broken by each book trying to be the next Book Thief or Nightingale, take a look at Dear Mrs. Bird. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $26.00 • 9781501170065 • 288 pages • published July 2018 by Scribner • average Goodreads rating 3.81 out of 5 • read in December 2018

Biography, History, Non-Fiction

The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone

Bestsellers intrigue me. I don’t read many, which seems to confuse bookstore patrons until I tell them that I read other books so that when they have finished a bestseller and want something similar, I have a recommendation for them. But when The Woman Who Smashed Codes started to fly off the shelves, I was intrigued enough to take a look.

Synopsis

In 1916, a young Quaker schoolteacher and poetry scholar named Elizebeth Smith was hired by an eccentric tycoon to find the secret messages he believed were embedded in Shakespeare’s plays. But the urgencies of war quickly transformed Elizebeth’s mission, forcing her to apply her skills to an exciting new venture: codebreaking – the solving of secret messages without knowledge of the key. Working alongside her was William Friedman, a Jewish scientist who would become her husband and lifelong codebreaking partner.

Review

A number of customers at the bookstore came in looking for The Woman Who Smashed Codes because their book club had decided to read it. Each time I showed it to them, I’d flip it over, read the back cover myself, and think it was interesting before ultimately putting it back down. Then came holiday (over)ordering at the bookstore and when The Woman Who Smashed Codes came off the bestsellers and we still had a few too many copies on hand, I decided to make it my pet project to sell it myself, without the “bestseller” status, but with the “staff recommends” qualifier.

The holidays are the ultimate time for recommending books to customers. While we are always helping people find a book for themselves, now is the time when people come in with their holiday list and ask us to pick out books for their loved ones. Most of the time they give us some basic information: they like history books, fantasy, science, they’re accountants, etc. and then we take that information to pick out books for them in the store. With that in mind, I’ve decided to change up my review for this book today to my bookstore pitch, but in the opposite way, for customers who come up and ask us if a book is any good. (This is an idealized conversation, but I do have many that go somewhat like this)

Customer (holds up The Woman Who Smashed Codes): Is this book any good?
My Coworker: My manager, Sarah, loved it! Let me ask her to help you!
Me: I really enjoyed The Woman Who Smashed Codes! Is there anything in particular you would like to know about it?
Customer: Who would enjoy it?
Me: It would be a great gift for anyone who is fascinated by World War II history, or someone who enjoys lesser known stories from history, or anyone who loves a great biography of a unique person.
Customer: What was your favorite part of the book?
Me: I love stories about how people we’ve never heard of today played major roles throughout history. Elizebeth, the subject of the book, worked tirelessly to break the codes of Nazis during WWII and her work played a key role in the Americans’ decryption of the German Enigma machine. Additionally, it was her husband who broke the Japanese decryption machines – they were a fascinating couple and I loved how the author, Jason Fagone, really delves into their relationship instead of just focusing on Elizebeth’s work for the government.
Customer: That sounds really neat! I think I’ll give it a shot!

As booksellers, we know, especially during the holiday season, that we may only have a minute or two to share with a customer why we really love a book. Every customer can read the back of the book for a description of the plot/subject, but that information (and what I always include as the “synopsis”) comes from the publisher. I figure my role, as bookseller and blogger, is to put the personal emphasis on the books I love, the books that may also get overlooked on a store’s shelves if they don’t have colorful spines or staff picks tied to them.

When I can’t find the time to personally tell every customer about the books I think they’ll love, I write short little “blurbs” to put under the books on the shelf or print the blurbs up on bookmarks as we do at the store annually for our top holiday gift picks. That being said, my question to you, dear readers, is: When you go into a bookstore during the holidays, or any time of year, to you seek out staff picks? Do the staff’s recommendations hold any sway with what you end up deciding to read or take home?

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $16.99 • 9780062430519 • first published September 2017, this edition published August 2018 by Dey Street Books • average Goodreads rating 4.19 out of 5 • read in November 2018

Woman Who Smashed Codes

 

Fiction, Historical

The Kennedy Debutante by Kerri Maher

I’ve started reading again! In an effort to ingratiate myself with our publisher reps at the bookstore, I’ve decided to read an advanced reader copy a month BEFORE the book comes out AND write an “Indie Next” pick for it – this is the first! Downside, I read it back in July so my memory of it is a touch fuzzy…

Synopsis

London, 1938. The effervescent “It Girl” of London society since her father was named the ambassador, Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy moves in rarefied circles, rubbing satin-covered elbows with some of the twentieth century’s most powerful figures. Eager to escape the watchful eye of her strict mother, Rose; the antics of her older brothers, Jack and Joe; and the erratic behavior of her sister Rosemary, Kick is ready to strike out on her own and is soon swept off her feet by Billy Hartingon, the future Duke of Devonshire.

But their love is forbidden, as Kick’s devout Catholic family and Billy’s staunchly Protestant one would never approve their match. And when war breaks out like a tidal wave across her world, Billy is ripped from her arms as the Kennedys are forced to return to the States. Kick finds work as a journalist and joins the Red Cross to get back to England, where she will have to decide where her true loyalties lie – with family or with love…

Review

Kick Kennedy has fascinated me for years (for the full background on my love of Kick, see my review of Barbara Leaming’s biography, Kick Kennedy) so when Cheryl, our Penguin sales rep, told me about The Kennedy Debutante, I begged her to send me an advance copy. I happy wrote an Indie Next nomination for it, even though I didn’t love it as much as I hoped. And it didn’t make the list, but I felt a sense of accomplishment in doing it!

The Kennedy Debutante has taken Kick’s story and turned it into commercial women’s fiction. And for someone who doesn’t read a great deal of commercial fiction, particularly this year, I wasn’t entirely thrilled with the focus of the story being almost exclusively on Kick & Billy’s love story. Which has always been the least fascinating part of Kick’s story. The best parts of the book involved one of the few invented characters (no historical counterpart), a priest, Father O’Flaherty, who serves as Kick’s moral and religious counselor and is a bright spot in the face her parents’ darkness in the disconcerting time in London leading up to World War II. O’Flaherty is kind and compassionate and helps Kick come to terms with who she is, and the role that she has to play in British society, and subsequently it’s history, during her lifetime.

Additional bright spots include any time the Kennedy kids come into the frame, Joe & Jack (JFK) are quite a pair, and the inner glimpses into Rosemary and Eunice’s lives also show how close the sisters were and the obvious inspiration for Eunice’s founding of the Special Olympics. The siblings’ closeness was another bright spot of the book and I found myself often reading in anticipation of the next time the Kennedy clan would appear on set.

Overall, I enjoy The Kennedy Debutante, but if Kick was not the protagonist and it was say, about one of the Mitford sisters or a generic English woman living during WWII book, I would not have picked it up or bothered to be interested in it, given its position in the very saturated field of WWII fiction.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $26.00 • 9780451492043 • 384 pages • published October 2018 by Berkley • average Goodreads rating 4.01 out of 5 • read in July 2018

Kerri Maher’s Website

The Kennedy Debutante on Goodreads

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Biography, History, Non-Fiction

The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich

I’m not a big post-it note person when it comes to reading, but just in the introduction to this book, I put 6 notes. The content is so unbelievable, it just can’t be made up.

Synopsis

The Unwomanly Face of War is the long-awaited English translation of Svetlana Alexievich’s first book, a groundbreaking oral history of women in World War II across Europe and Russia. Alexievich chronicles the experiences of the Soviet women who fought on the front lines, on the home front, and in the occupied territories These women – more than a million in total – were nurses and doctors, pilots, tank drivers, machine-gunners, and snipers. They battled alongside men, and yet, after the victory, their sacrifices were forgotten. Alexievich traveled thousands of miles and visited more than a hundred towns to record these women’s stories. Together, this symphony of voices reveals a different aspect of the war – the everyday details of life in combat left out of the official histories.

Review

Recently I saw a question asked on a Goodreads forum about whether or not a book was “another Holocaust book.” The asked wanted to know because she was sick of reading that narrative. The population of the internet, being the internet, set about roasting her alive. How, they asked could she be so callus and cold? And no one was forcing her to read such books, etc, etc. She later clarified that she simply wanted a different perspective on the war, a different take, a different story. And to that, I could relate.

Given my present nonfiction binge, added to my fascination with the women’s role in WWII (also the topic of Laura’s masters thesis), I began reading both The Unwomanly Face of War and The Women Who Flew for Hitler. And I’ve now convinced Laura to read them, but that’s a bit besides the point. There are two predominant WWII narratives, the harrowing narrative of the Jews, such as the narrative of Anne Frank, and the narratives of the battles, such as Dunkirk, with some political intrigue thrown in (Churchill, Roosevelt, etc.). The narratives of individual servicemen and women are often overlooked in favor of the larger narrative. The narrative of war is collective, suffering individual.

Many of the women Alexievich interviewed were a bit shocked that she wanted to hear their stories and their husbands were incredibly shocked that their wives were sharing such stories. Because they are far from pretty. They are far from decent. Their descriptions of what life was like in the Soviet military are absolutely shocking. And most importantly, their narratives deserve to be heard. Take the time to read this atypical WWII narrative I you will not be disappointed, I promise.

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $18.00 • 9780399588747 • 384 pages • originally published in English in July 2017, this edition published April 2018 by Random House Trade • original Russian publication 1985 • average Goodreads rating 4.52 out of 5 • read June 2018

Svetlana Alexievich’s Website

The Unwomanly Face of War on Goodreads

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20180527_142714 2

Fantasy, Fiction

All Souls Trilogy by Deborah Harkness

Back in January 2013 I was trying to find a new favorite book (which never works, you can’t force it) and I had been eyeing A Discovery of Witches for a while and decided to take a chance on it. I read the first 30 pages, got really annoyed and put it away, only to start reading it again shortly before the second book in the trilogy came out because Kit Marlowe and Queen Elizabeth would be involved (as well as a trip to Prague) which gave me hope that the trilogy would improve.

A Discovery of Witches Synopsis

Deep in the heart of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, Diana Bishop – a young scholar and the descendant of witches – unearths an enchanted manuscript. Wanting nothing to do with sorcery, she banishes the book to the stacks. But her discovery has set a fantastical underworld stirring, and soon a horde of daemons, witches and other creatures descends upon the library. Among them is the enigmatic Matthew Clairmont, a vampire with a keen interest in the book.

Series Review

The first time I started reading A Discovery of Witches, it had just come out in paperback. I’d been intrigued by the title for some time, but the synopsis sounded vaguely Twilight-y and that I did not like. I started reading it, and my prejudices got the better of me and I quit after 30 pages. Almost a year later, I started it again because I heard there would be a second one that involved time travel to Elizabethan England and Queen Elizabeth I has been my habitual girl crush since I was 10 so sign me up! I read A Discovery of Witches solely so I could read Shadow of Night and have it make sense. I’m glad I approached it this way as it allowed me to make it through A Discovery of Witches, and enjoy it, because I was so looking forward to Diana and Matthew’s Elizabethan adventure in both London and on the continent (particularly Prague).

Diana thoroughly intrigued me and her attraction to Matthew just felt like every young woman going through a “bad boy phase.” I didn’t expect it to last, or to take over her entire life, but of course, it did. This was strike one. I’m all for an opposites-attract, star-crossed lovers romantic subplot but I like it when it is just that: a subplot. While traipsing about Renaissance Europe in Shadow of Night, Matthew and Diana are married by Matthew’s father (who is deceased in the present). The marriage was bound to happen, it happens in all books with a protagonist in her late twenties/early thirties. However, while the books were spaced out over the course of a year and a half, in the land of the All Souls Trilogy it’s been a few months.

Our sharp and quippy Diana becomes an insipid and annoying newlywed who just wants babies. Or maybe she doesn’t and I’m projecting my annoyance at the fact that this attitude has thoroughly consumed my peers, onto innocent Diana. Point being, I’m so sick and tired of every woman’s story ending the same way: marriage, babies, now my life completely revolves around marriage and babies and I can’t seem to remember the fact that I was an awesome individual before my life became defined by those I chose to love.

Yes, Diana becomes a kick ass witch, yes she thoroughly lays waste to all the big baddies in her way, yes she still is witty. But why couldn’t she have done all that without having to marry and have babies? Why did that have to become her new purpose in life? Why couldn’t she remain an academic? Why was she so okay with giving up her entire life to follow Matthew? And he may claim it’s all for her and the book, The Book of Life, but is it really? He’s controlling and manipulative and has an incurable RAGE disease! He warns Diana that he’s basically unstable and unsafe and does she listen? No. Does any female protagonist when faced with a hot vampire ever turn and run? No. Because that’s not the story line every woman my age supposedly wants to read.

I guess this is why I don’t read books like 50 Shades of Grey and Twilight. I’m just so annoyed and disenchanted with the protagonist and for me, if I can’t identify with them, there’s no way I’ll love the book.

Series Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

A Discovery of Witches Edition: Paperback • $18.00 • 9780145119685 • 579 pages • originally published February 2011, this edition published December 2011 by Penguin Books • average Goodreads rating 3.99 out of 5 • finished reading series December 2014

Deborah Harkness’ Website

A Discovery of Witches on Goodreads

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Discovery of Witches

Fiction, Historical

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows

UPDATED WITH SARAH’S REVIEW!

Laura: I found this book on my mom’s shelves and when she noticed that I had picked it up she told me I should absolutely read it. It is one of the few non-mystery type fiction books she has read in the past 10 years, and she thoroughly enjoyed it. Knowing my love of all WWII related stories, she knew how much I would enjoy the book as well. And she was right, because I’ve told people I know well and people I’ve just met that they should read this book.

Sarah: Laura had been telling me to read this book since she finished it and became obsessed with all things Guernsey. As she has read just about every book I’ve told her to, I figured it only fair to return the favor.

Synopsis

“I wonder how the book got to Guernsey? Perhaps there is some sort of secret homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers.” January 1946: London is emerging from the shadow of the Second World War, and writer Juliet Ashton is looking for her next book subject. Who could imagine that she would find it in a letter from a man she’s never met, a native of the island of Guernsey, who has come across her name written inside a book by Charles Lamb….

As Juliet and her new correspondent exchange letters, Juliet is drawn into the world of this man and his friends–and what a wonderfully eccentric world it is. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society–born as a spur-of-the-moment alibi when its members were discovered breaking curfew by the Germans occupying their island–boasts a charming, funny, deeply human cast of characters, from pig farmers to phrenologists, literature lovers all.

Juliet begins a remarkable correspondence with the society’s members, learning about their island, their taste in books, and the impact the recent German occupation has had on their lives. Captivated by their stories, she sets sail for Guernsey, and what she finds will change her forever.

Laura’s Review

I loved this book. It was a relatively quick and easy read, partly due to the structure of the novel. It is an epistolary novel, and is split into two distinct parts. For the first half, Juliet is living in London having successfully accomplished a book tour for her collection of wartime stories, Izzy Biggerstaff Goes to War. The second half finds her on the island of Guernsey after searching for a new story to write and becoming pen pals with several of the island’s inhabitants.

I knew very little about the inhabitants or experience of the Channel Islanders during the Second World War. The islands are briefly mentioned in The Montmaray Journals’ final book with the comment that they have been under the “Nazi jackboot” since 1940. In this novel, Juliet begins corresponding with Dawsey Adams, a Guernsey resident, after the end of the war. Dawsey was in possession of one of Juliet’s old books that she had donated and was hoping she might be able to help him locate several other books. Thus begins Juliet’s introduction to the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society and the traumas that the Channel Islanders suffered under Nazi occupation.

This is a story about resilience, acceptance, and finding a place for oneself in an ever-changing world. It is not until Juliet travels to Guernsey and meets the literary society that she truly feels like she has a place where she belongs. Through Juliet, the reader learns about the horrors committed by the Nazis against the Islanders, their sufferings, and their ability to find solace in books during the time. Juliet meets members of the literary society who had previously shown no interest in reading until becoming a member of the society allowed them to forget about their island’s invaders for a few hours each week. After reading this book I decided I absolutely needed to visit Guernsey. As I am now in London, this will be easier than from the USA, so my wonderful sister and I have decided that when she visits, going to Guernsey is a top priority.

Laura’s Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Sarah’s Review

Continuing with my current audiobook obsession, I listened to the audiobook of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and it is definitely one of the best audiobooks I have listened to in quite awhile. Laura calls it an epistolary book, which means that it is written in letters. As an audiobook, this means that each letter is read by a different reader, based on who it is written by – the reader for Dawsey’s letters reads all of his, Juliet’s hers, etc.

While this is a wonderful change to the typical structure of novel writing, it can at times be frustrating because it is all clearly in the past tense (not uncommon for novels) but I found myself often wanting to get the big moments firsthand, as they were happening, not in letters. The second challenge, is that there are so many points of view with all of the letters that the plot gets a bit muddled, or the plot goes in a different direction for awhile as we “catch up” with certain characters.

All in all, I think Mary Ann and Annie pull off their unique format magnificently, and, like our protagonist/primary letter writer Juliet, I found myself fully immersed in the story of the one member of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society who is not still on the island in 1946, the year the letters are all exchanged. It is definitely worth a read, or a listen, and takes the tried and true WWII novel and gives it an interesting spin.

Sarah’s Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $17.00 • 9780385341004 • 290 pages • first published July 2008, this edition published May 2009 by Dial Press • average Goodreads rating 4.12 out of 5 • read in July 2017

Annie Barrows’ Website

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society on Goodreads

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Guernsey 2

Biography, History, Non-Fiction

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

Looking for an interesting historical book about Nazi Germany, and knowing that my book club was going to read Dead Wake, I decided to read In the Garden of Beasts. Downside, it is a difficult book to get into, upside, the audiobook is well done and enjoyable.  

Synopsis

The time is 1933; the place, Berlin, when William E. Dodd becomes America’s first ambassador to Hitler’s Germany in a year that proved to be a turning point in history.

A mild-mannered professor from Chicago, Dodd brings along his wife, son, and flamboyant daughter, Martha. At first Martha is entranced by the parties and pomp and the handsome young men of the Third Reich with their infectious enthusiasm for restoring Germany to a position of world prominence. But as evidence of Jewish persecution mounts, confirmed by chilling first person testimony, her father telegraphs his concerns to a largely indifferent State Department back home. Dodd watches with alarm as Jews are attacked, the press is censored, and drafts of frightening new laws begin to circulate. As that first year unfolds and the shadows deepen, the Dodds experience days full of excitement, intrigue, romance, and – ultimately – horror, when a climactic spasm of violence and murder reveals Hitler’s true character and ruthless ambition.

Review

In the Garden of Beasts is a bit dry. Even for those who are very interested in the time period, and Americans’ experiences in early Nazi Germany it can be a bit difficult to get into. Therefore, I recommend pairing it with another book that covers an alternate perspective during the same time, or close to it. And listen to the audiobook.

In the Garden of Beasts is less the story of the Dodd family and more the story of what was really going on in 1933 Berlin, and Germany as a whole. Even most people with an interest in the time and subject matter do not know of just how atrocious that actions of the Brownshirts/Stormtroopers/SA/SS were at the time. The concentration camps? Already in existence. Jewish purges? Already happening. Americans threatened? Yep. Already hating the Soviet Union? Check. To the point where the US didn’t even want to acknowledge it’s existence. Hitler lying repeatedly? Absolutely. Dissidents disappearing mysteriously or being shot point blank? Anyone who denies any of this, and the war atrocities and Holocaust happening? Remind them that the Nazis gave us one small means of confirming their despicable actions – they were meticulous record keepers.

Like all populist revolutions, the German revolution started off with charismatic leaders and promises that most people could support. As mentioned in my review of Four Perfect Pebbles, however, this seemingly perfect revolution can quickly become dangerous. The same thing happened in Iran as recounted in Persepolis. No one should think that they have to destroy an entire group of people.

Also, Erik Larson does a terrific job of differentiating between the German people and the members of the Nazi party. The Dodds were in Germany at a time when the German army still held loyalty to the president, Hindenburg, not the chancellor, Hitler. The actions of the Nazis were not the actions of all of the German people. As the granddaughter of a German woman who, while not Jewish, still suffered greatly during the war, my sister and I appreciate the distinction being made. My grandmother faced enough adversity in coming to the US without needing to be blamed for killing people, she was only ten years old when the war ended.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $17.00 • 9780307408853 • 448 pages • originally published May 2011, this edition published May 2012 by Broadway Books • average Goodreads rating 3.82 out of 5 stars • read March 2018

Erik Larson’s Website

In the Garden of Beasts on Goodreads

Get a Copy of In the Garden of Beasts

In the Garden of Beasts

Memoir/Autobiography, Middle Grades, Non-Fiction

Four Perfect Pebbles by Lila Perl & Marion Blumenthal Lazan

One of my grandmothers grew up in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, specifically in Nürnberg and the surrounding countryside. She doesn’t talk about it. As such, I have spent my entire life fascinated by the stories of German children between 1933 and 1945. I don’t remember the first book I read that fit the bill for learning more about that time and people’s experiences, but Four Perfect Pebbles was a book that quickly caught my attention. And when I found out that Marion would be coming to the bookstore I work at, I knew it was going to be a moving moment.

Marion Blumenthal Lazan (r) & I (l)

Marion Lazan

Synopsis

Marion Blumenthal Lazan’s unforgettable and acclaimed memoir recalls the devastating years that shaped her childhood. Following Hitler’s rise to power, the Blumenthal family – father, mother, Marion, and her brother, Albert – were trapped in Nazi Germany. They managed eventually to get to Holland, but soon thereafter it was occupied by the Nazis. For the next six and a half years the Blumenthals were forced to live in refugee, transit, and prison camps, including Westerbork in Holland and Bergen-Belsen in Germany, before finally making it to the United States. Their story is one of horror and hardship, but it is also a story of courage, hope, and the will to survive.

Review

Marion describes her story as the one that Anne Frank might have told had she survived past March 1945. Both Anne and Marion spent time in Westerbork and later Bergen-Belsen. Of the 120,000 Jews detained in Westerbork, 102,000 perished before the end of World War II, 18,000 survived. Anne fell into the former group, Marion, the latter. While Anne’s story is typically read by pre-teens and early teenagers in the world today, Marion’s serves as an introduction for those who are just starting to ask their parents and teachers how people can be so mean and intolerant of one another.

In a society that is quickly becoming more divided and more intolerant, Marion’s message of hope, faith, and family strength, is even more important than it was when she first started discussing her experiences a couple decades ago. While most may brush off the striking similarities to the current president’s rise to power and the Nazis, it is hard for those who truly know their history to ignore. It is even harder for those who know that atrocities of WWII still ring loud in their older generation’s ears, and yet their younger generations engage in racist and destructive behavior.

Marion’s story is one of compassion and hope during one of the world’s worst times. My only reason for giving a less than superb rating is that brevity of the book. While written with young children (9-11 years old) in mind, there is only so much that one can remember about those years themselves, particularly 50 years later, as was the case when Marion & Lila wrote Four Perfect Pebbles and Marion recounted her childhood to Lila. Everyone always wants more from a good book, but at 160 pages, Four Perfect Pebbles is incredible concise.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $6.99 • 9780062489968 • 160 pages • originally published March 1996, this edition published October 2016 by Greenwillow Books • average Goodreads rating 3.92 out of 5 • re-read March 2018

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Fiction, Historical

At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen

I love any book set in Europe during World War II, it is by far one of my favorite time periods to read about. I requested the audiobook from the library to listen to while driving to and from work and I wound up enjoying it so much, I bought the actual book as well.

Synopsis

After disgracing themselves at a high society New Year’s Eve party in Philadelphia in 1944, Madeline Hyde and her husband, Ellis, are cut off financially by his father, a former army colonel who is already ashamed of his son’s inability to serve in the war. With his best friend, Hank, Ellis decides that they only way to regain his father’s favor is to succeed where the Colonel once very publicly failed – by hunting down the famous Loch Ness monster. Maddie reluctantly follows them across the Atlantic, leaving her sheltered world behind.

The trio find themselves in a remote village in the Scottish Highlands, where the locals have nothing but contempt for the privileged interlopers. Maddie is left on her own at the isolated inn, where food is rationed, fuel is scarce, and a knock from the postman can bring tragic news. Yet she finds herself falling in love with the stark beauty and subtle magic of the Scottish countryside. Gradually she comes to know the villagers, and the friendships she forms with two young women open her up to a larger world than she knew existed. Maddie begins to see that nothing is as it first appears: the values she holds dear prove unsustainable, and monsters lurk where they are least expected. As she embraces a fuller sense of who she might be, Maddie becomes aware not only of the dark forces around her but of life’s beauty and surprising possibilities.

Review

While I had never read any of Sara Gruen’s books, well, still have never read as I listened to this one, I have seen the film adaptation of Water for Elephants and enjoyed her story-telling technique. Typically, when I choose a book to listen to in the car while driving back and forth from work, I pick one that is sitting on my shelf, but that I just haven’t had the chance to read yet. With At the Water’s Edge I decided to go for a new book, in keeping with my love of women’s World War II stories. Plus, it starts in the high society quarter of Philadelphia (Rittenhouse Square), near where my grandmother lived as a young girl during World War II.

Maddie, main character of At the Water’s Edge, starts off as the agreeable, and mostly clueless wife of a charismatic young man, Ellis, born into great wealth. Her family is tainted by scandal via her mother and his through his perceived inability to serve in the war. Together, with Ellis’ friend Frank, they set off in search of the Loch Ness monster to reclaim their rightful place in society. They find themselves sheltered in a rundown inn quite near the loch where the manager is surly and the young women who work there don’t think much of the trio’s high society ways. Over the course of a few weeks, Ellis and Frank habitually leave Maddie to her own devices as they search out the monster and Maddie befriends the two women who work in the inn, Anna and Meg (who are by far the best characters in the book).

At the Water’s Edge is what I have come to discover is stereotypical woman’s fiction. Shortly into their adventure, Maddie realizes that her husband is a world class asshole and she attempts to assert her independence in any way she can. In this sense, Maddie goes from being the docile little sheep being led around blindly by Ellis and Frank (she crossed the Atlantic in the middle of the war because they suggested it) to standing on her own two feet and defending those she has come to care about. She eschews her high society background and falls in love with the Scottish Highlands, and the grouchy inn manager to boot. This shouldn’t be a surprise – it was bound to happen or there would be no story – Nessie only exists in our imaginations.

​Sara Gruen’s work reminds me of that of Sarah Addison Allen (are we noticing a pattern of Sarah’s here?) in the sense that it was a breezy read/listen, the characters were intriguing, and the plot was predictable, but not to the point of boredom or irritation. The best scenes are the unexpected ones, particularly those involving the Canadian lumberjacks. Maddie, Anna, and Meg are all real, emotional characters that waver occasionally on being two-dimensional, but their friendship is believable and that is the most impressive part of the book. Writing female relationships is more challenging than writing romantic ones and Gruen does so here with an expert hand.

Rating: 6 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $17.00 • 9780385523240 • 416 pages • first published March 2015, this edition published November 2015 by Spiegel & Grau • average Goodreads rating 3.65 out of 5 • read in May 2015

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