Reading for Me

The Books I Have Read…..Just for Me

#4: The Nightingale (Kristin Hannah)

Although my reading has been much slower than I had hoped in the first 3 months of the year, I am THRILLED that I took the time to read this amazing novel. It has quickly become one of my most highly recommended books for anyone that is fascinated by stories of World War II and historical fiction in general.

The Nightingale traces the lives of two sisters, Isabelle and Vianne, in occupied France at the height of the Great War. Isabelle is determined to do something to fight the atrocities that she sees around her, even if it means risking her own life. Vianne decides to remain neutral as she watches Nazis move into her small hometown because she must do whatever is necessary to protect her home and her young daughter. When Nazi officers billet in her home, Vianne finds herself facing a moral dilemma that will forever impact her friends, her community, her children, and herself. 

Kristin Hannah’s novel provides an insightful look into the plight of the Jews in France as well as the heroic and terrifying roles women played in the War. If you dare to read this novel, you are guaranteed an adventure as you accompany downed fighter pilots through the mountains and provide false papers to Jews attempting to escape. Readers will get a first-hand look at the horrors of work camps and will observe the fear and hopelessness found there. Quite simply, I don’t think it is possible to experience The Nightingale and not be significantly changed. It is one of my top 10 novels of all time. I highly recommend it to book lovers everywhere!

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#1: The Alice Network (Kate Quinn)

Earlier this week, I completed my first book of 2018. What took me so long? I am trying to read multiple books at the same time, so my pace of reading is slower. (I’m not sure if I like this approach or not, but I’m continuing this way for a bit longer.) January has been an extremely busy month for me, so reading was not always a priority. Thankfully, what I DID manage to read was quite enjoyable and a great way to start the new year.

The Alice Network is actually two stories woven together. Eve was a British spy in World War I near the German front. As a member of a network for female spies — the Alice Network — she gathered information while waiting tables in a lavish restaurant….and in the bed of the establishment’s proprietor.  After the end of World War II, Charlie St. Clair returns to France in search of her beloved cousin, Rose. Through the course of this enthralling novel, Eve and Charlie learn that their stories share a common enemy and the unlikely pair join forces to overcome the evil that continues to permeate western Europe after the War, personified in the life of a single man.

Richly developed characters combine with the beautifully described scenery in a compelling story that makes The Alice Network a must-read for those who enjoy historical fiction. Eve and Charlie will quickly become literary friends whose tales will urge the reader to constantly return to their story in order to find out what happens next while enjoying the wit, sarcasm and banter between these two fierce ladies. I highly recommend Kate Quinn’s The Alice Network.

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#6: When Books Went to War (Molly Guptill Manning)

I decided it was time to read a little non-fiction in this year’s reading adventure. The book’s cover immediately grabbed my attention. A World War II soldier sits in a dirt bunker among heavy vegetation with a moss-covered helmet designed to hide him from the enemy. What is that in his hand? It’s not a rifle or a grenade; the soldier is clearly engrossed in a tiny paperback book.

When Books Went to War: The Stories that Helped Us Win World War II is a fascinating exploration of the U.S. response to Nazi Germany’s book burnings. Beginning with book donations collected by American librarians, the impact of reading on soldier morale was quickly identified. The only problem was the size and weight of the books. In an unexpected turn of events, the Federal Government stepped in and produced thousands of American Service Editions (ASEs), tiny paperback editions that easily fit in a soldier’s pocket.

ASEs appeared throughout the war’s various theaters….in hospitals, bases, and the front line. Soldiers applauded the representative authors for providing insightful stories that connected them to the home they had left behind. The reader will be surprised by the vast library created by the ASEs and the genres represented in the pocket editions. You will chuckle as you read about the politics that hampered the project throughout its existence. You will be amazed as you visualize men and women escaping into the words of a novel as they face mortal danger.

When Books Went to War is not a typical read for me. Still, it was an enjoyable book that was both entertaining and informative.

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#11: Lord John and the Private Matter (Diana Gabaldon)

If you’ve visited a bookstore or library in the past few years, I’m certain you have seen the name Diana Gabaldon. The covers of her books have always made me shy away from reading her works. While I enjoy historical fiction, the images of ships that I always seemed to encounter convinced me that I would not like her writing. This week, I decided to put my preconceived notions aside and actually read one of her novels.

Gabaldon is probably best known for her Outlander novels. When I went to the Memphis Public Library, this more common series was no where to be found. What I discovered was a related series, the Lord John Grey novels. Based on my reading of the jacket panel, John Grey is a character in the Outlander series; his story has become the basis for this group of novels.

Set in London in 1757, Lord John and the Private Matter opens with John Grey making an unfortunate discovery about the man who is soon to marry Grey’s cousin. The groom-to-be appears to have syphillis. How does Grey know this? He answers this for us better than I ever can near the end of the book:  “Saw your prick, over the piss-pots at the Beefstead.” (Lord John and the Private Matter, 267)  As Grey begins to investigate the truth of his observations, he is led into the strange London underworld of whore houses. Things become very strange as Grey becomes convinced that his future in-law may be involved in the mysterious and savage death of the woman in the green dress.

Lord John and the Private Matter is filled with interesting, memorable characters that are wonderfully developed by the author. While the story involves a strong presence of sexuality, promiscuity, and perversion, Gabaldon carefully walks the line between intrigue and vulgarity. (Just so there is no question, I do not recommend this novel for young adults or those who are easily offended by sexual commentary. At the same time, this is not 50 Shades.)  What I found more uncomfortable than the content was the constantly shifting scenes. Written more like a mystery, the novel demands that the reader move seamlessly around the city of London with Lord John. Without a clear visual of the city, the geography can become challenging.

I no longer question Gabaldon’s skill as an author. I liked the book. I just don’t know that I will venture into the world of Lord John again. There are so many books to read that promise (and deliver) greater returns for me.

If you’ve had a different experience with Gabaldon’s works, I welcome your comments below as well as recommendations of another of her books to check out.

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#10: The Winds of War (Herman Wouk)

Even though it took me over a month, I finally completed the 885 page epic novel by Herman Wouk. The Winds of War tells the story of the Henrys, an American military family, during the early years of World War II. Victor “Pug” Henry, a naval officer, and his wife Rhoda have traveled around the world with their small family. As circumstances in Europe escalate, Pug finds himself correctly foretelling one of Germany’s major offensives early in the conflict. His foresight attracts the attention of President Roosevelt and leads to a level of mutual respect between the two men. As FDR’s unofficial advisor on the Germany problem, Pug sees much of the world firsthand and encounters historical figures such as Churchill, Stalin and Hitler. Pug’s children are also directly effected by the winds of war blowing around the world. Pug’s sons, Warren and Byron, have followed in their father’s footsteps; Warren is a naval aviator while Byron serves on a submarine (though not by his own desire). The Henrys’ daughter, Madeline, has begun working with a radio personality in New York City and experiences the crisis as a member of the press. To further complicate this family dynamic, Byron has married Natalie, a Jewish American currently living in Italy with her uncle. Natalie, her uncle and Byron’s newborn son find themselves trapped in Italy and facing the growing waves of anti-Semitism across Europe. The Henry men find themselves reunited as the novel reaches its climatic conclusion with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

The swelling saga of The Winds of War is filled with historical scenes. Its graphic depiction of the Nazi invasion of Warsaw, the snowy Russian front, and the horror of the South Pacific leave the reader spellbound. Perhaps the most arresting of Wouk’s descriptions for me is that of the tragedy in Minsk. In the years leading up to the war, anti-Semitism could be found throughout Europe. Many believed that the stories of the oppression of the Jews were nothing more than propaganda generated by the desperate British. The horror that occurred near Minsk, Russia was one of the first accounts to reach the world  at large that could not be denied, thanks in part to photographs by some who witnessed the tragedy while hiding from the soldiers. Wouk describes the scene as follows:

Then one night gray trucks had swarmed into the ghetto, and squads of Germans in unfamiliar dark uniforms had cleared out the dwellers along two main streets, house by house, loading the people into the vans — for resettlement, they announced. Some of the Germans were brutal, some polite, as they pushed and urged the people into the trucks. In other streets, behind barred doors, other Jews wondered and shivered. What had happened afterward — according to reports brought by partisans who haunted the woods — was so hideous and unbelievable that the Minsk Jews were still trying numbly to come to grips with it. The gray vans had driven five miles away, to the woods outside a village. There in the moonlit ravine the Germans had ordered the people out of the trucks, had lined them up in groups, and had shot every last one — including the babies and the old people — and then had thrown them in a big hole already dug, and shoveled them over with sand.

Peasants who had dug the huge sandy hole had seen this horror with their own eyes; so the partisan report went. The Germans had rounded them up for the job, then had ordered them to go home, and not to linger or to talk about the excavation, on pain of being shot. A few had sneaked back through the trees, all the same, to see what the Germans were up to; and they had recounted to the partisans the massacre of the “Zhids” from the gray trucks. (The Winds of War, 670)

For the novel to be impactful, important historical figures must be presented in a realistic manner. Wouk is very successful in this department. FDR is seen as a brilliant, powerful man despite his physical limitations. Hitler himself is seen as a gentle man in private who is able to logically and clearly explain German philosophy through history; it’s only in public that we see the wild waving arms and shouts of a lunatic. Wouk’s introduction of Winston Churchill made the audience feel as though they were present at his meeting with Pug:

In a small hot cluttered room that smelled of old books and dead cigars, the corpulent old Prime Minister stood near the window, one hand on his hip, looking down at a spread of photographs on his desk. He was very short and very stooped, with graceful little hands and feet; he bulged in the middle, and tapered upward and downward like Tweedledum. As he turned and went to meet Victory Henry, his walk was slow and heavy. With a word of welcome he shook hands and motioned Pug to a seat. The secretary left. Churchill sat in his armchair, put a hand on one arm, leaned back, and contemplated the American naval captain with filmy eyes. The big ruddy face, flecked and spotted with age, looked severe and suspicious. He puffed at the stump of his cigar, and slowly rumbled, “We’re going to win, you know.” (The Winds of War, 405)

While the novel is the story of one family in the midst of a world at war, it is also an examination of warfare and the human condition. Wouk presents himself as a deep thinking author when he ruminates on the art of warfare in passages such as this:

If two men are standing and amiably chatting, and one suddenly punches the other’s belly and kicks his groin, the chances are that even if the other recovers to defend himself, he will be badly beaten up, because the first man has achieved surprise. There is no book on the military art that does not urge the advantage of this. It may not seem quite decent, but that is no concern of the military art. Possibly the Poles should not have been surprised, in view of the Germans’ open threats and preparations, but they were. Their political leaders probably hoped the German menaces were bluster. Their generals probably thought their own armies were ready.  A lot of wrong guessing goes with the start of a war. (The Winds of War, 170)

Near the novel’s conclusion, Wouk provides the reader with some powerful insight into the modern view of war through the fictional memoirs of a defeated German general, Armin von Roon.

There is no morality in world history. There are only tides of change borne on violence and death. The victors write the history, pass the judgments, and hang or shoot the losers. In truth history is an endless chain of hegemony shifts, based on the decay of old political structures and the rise of new ones. Wars are the fever crises of those shifts. Wars are inevitable; there will always be wars; and the one war crime is to lose. That is the reality, and the rest is sentimental nonsense. (The Winds of War, 859)

The Winds of War has long been on my personal reading list, but I’ve always been intimidated by it because of its size and scope. I am so glad that I finally overcame my fear and allowed myself to be swept up in this glorious work of art. I look forward to reading the sequel, War and Remembrance, in the future.

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#2: The Bastard (John Jakes)

In eighth grade, I completed an independent study in American history. It was in that class that I was first introduced to John Jakes’ epic Kent Family Chronicles. Although I was too young to tackle the series at that age, I was intrigued with the concept of a series of novels that traced an American family from the colonial era through the nation’s Bicentennial. As I began my new year of reading, I decided that 2014 was the year to complete the eight volume saga.

The Bastard, the first volume in the Kent Family Chronicles, introduces the reader to Phillipe Charboneau.  Phillipe is the illegitimate son of a wealthy English lord. As Phillipe attempts to claim his rightful inheritance, he faces immense struggle and becomes intrigued with the opportunities to start a new life in the American colonies. After discussing the possibilities with an eccentric Benjamin Franklin, the Bastard chases his dreams of fortune, sails the seas for America, and reinvents himself as Phillip Kent.  Phillip quickly becomes involved with the colonists’ fight for liberty and finds himself at the Boston Tea Party and at the early shots of the Revolutionary War. The book is flecked with historical references and figures such as John Adams, Paul Revere, and John Hancock. Beautifully written, The Bastard easily swept me into the American story and I look forward to beginning the next volume in the near future.

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#42: Savannah (John Jakes)

I was first introduced to John Jakes’ work in junior high school.  I was doing an independent study in American history and the coordinator recommended I read the Kent Family Chronicles. Looking back on that recommendation, I’m still surprised; even though the history was fascinating, the novel was a bit too mature in content for my young mind. Since then, I’ve always been fascinated by Jakes’ works but have never really taken the opportunity to dive in.  This week, I visited a city that I dearly love — Savannah, Georgia — only this time I traveled there during the closing months of the Civil War as told by John Jakes.

Savannah is enthralling as a historical narrative. The details of the war leap from the page. The reader is horrified at the suffering of the innocents at the hands of Union and Confederate soldiers. As a story, however, I found myself wanting more. After reading 100 pages, I was tempted to set the book aside and start something new. The only thing that caused me to push ahead was the realization that there were less than 200 pages remaining. In those final pages, the historical accounts took a backseat to the tribulations faced by the central characters. THIS is what I appreciate about John Jakes’ novels. He is a master storyteller; I simply wish he would get the story rolling a bit sooner.

It’s always been on my bucket list to read the Kent Family Chronicles in its entirety; I still plan to do so, but I’m not feeling an intense desire to start after reading Savannah. If you’ve had a better experience with the works of John Jakes, I’d love to hear about it. I’m willing to give him another chance. I just need a recommendation of which book offers the best storytelling.

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#34: Winter of the World (Ken Follett)

It was a challenge, but I made it through the 940 pages that make up the second book of The Century Trilogy. Don’t misunderstand, I loved every minute of it. The struggle came with the interruptions that came due to vacations, family commitments, and personal illness. Since this covers an era of history that fascinates me, I found myself slowing down and savoring each word and scene.

Winter of the World is the continuing saga of the families introduced in Fall of Giants. The second volume covers the horrific events facing the world between the years 1933 and 1949. I was appalled as I read of Hitler’s rise to power while coming to a clearer understanding of how the German people would allow such a thing to happen. Tears ran down my face as I witnessed the extermination of handicapped children in an effort to strengthen the Aryan race. I admired the courage of German spies who risked their lives to procure vital information for the Allied forces while English women fearlessly attempted to save as many lives as possible during the nightly bombings on London. Battles at Pearl Harbor, Normandy Beach, and the Russian front became vivid. I watched in horror as the first atomic bomb was detonated in the New Mexico desert. The consequences of the bomb’s completion were both riveting and fateful. The creation of the Marshall Plan and the Berlin Airlift filled me with immense pride as an American.

If you find the 20th century as engaging of a century as I do, I strongly encourage you to read these novels! If you’re not a history buff, but you still love a captivating story… these books. My only complaint is that I have to wait to see how the story turns out for these families; Follett’s final volume of the saga, Edge of Eternity, is scheduled to be published in late 2014.

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#30: Winter Garden (Kristin Hannah)

Can love be defined solely by a person’s actions? Is it possible that past experiences and pain shape human interaction? These are two of the main questions raised by Kristin Hannah’s beautiful novel. Meredith and Nina are adult sisters reunited by their father’s death. As a dying request, their father asks that they attempt to get to know their unfeeling, distant mother. As she spins a Russian fairy tale that they have never heard in its entirety, Meredith and Nina begin to understand the experiences that have shaped their mother. Strangely, the fairy tale resounds with elements of truth. Who are the characters in the tale? Where does their mother fit in?

Transporting the reader from the winter gardens of the Pacific Northwest to Russian in the early 20th century, Winter Garden captivates from the outset and explores the pain of the human heart as well as the reality of unconditional love. It’s a beautiful story for anyone who has ever loved and lost.

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#29: The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Mohsin Hamid)

Like most Americans, I clearly remember where I was on that fateful Tuesday morning when I first learned of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. I was filled with anger, fear, and confusion over the attacks. It was impossible to understand why these things were happening. We held our collective breath as we wondered if these were isolated incidents or the first wave of attacks against our country.

Time has passed and the wounds have healed for many. Many authors have added their voice to the memories through works of fiction addressing the tragic events. The Reluctant Fundamentalist was an unusual review for this American reader. Still, I found the book thought-provoking as it explored the events resulting from the attacks from a Middle Eastern point of view.

The novel is set in Pakistan and is told entirely in first person narrative. Our narrator, Changez, studied at an American university and was in the early stages of a lucrative career when the attacks occurred. Changez finds himself living in dual reality of sorts; he is enjoying the American way of life while remembering his heritage as a Pakistani. The novel is uncomfortable to read at times as Hamid mingles criticisms of the American way of life (some might view these as anti-American statements) with a profound affection for other aspects of the nation that has forever changed him. The novel’s conclusion is both ambiguous and disconcerting; the final act is left to the reader’s interpretation. This is not a novel that I think most readers will truly “enjoy”, but I do believe it will become an important part of the dialogue regarding the American role in the global community and our ever-changing understanding of the modern American melting pot.

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