Category Archives: Book Club

Hillbilly Elegy – J.D. Vance

Review (Amazon): From a former marine and Yale Law School graduate, a powerful account of growing up in a poor Rust Belt town that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class

Hillbilly Elegy is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis—that of white working-class Americans. The decline of this group, a demographic of our country that has been slowly disintegrating over forty years, has been reported on with growing frequency and alarm, but has never before been written about as searingly from the inside. J. D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hung around your neck.

The Vance family story begins hopefully in postwar America. J. D.’s grandparents were “dirt poor and in love,” and moved north from Kentucky’s Appalachia region to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. They raised a middle-class family, and eventually their grandchild (the author) would graduate from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of their success in achieving generational upward mobility.

But as the family saga of Hillbilly Elegy plays out, we learn that this is only the short, superficial version. Vance’s grandparents, aunt, uncle, sister, and, most of all, his mother, struggled profoundly with the demands of their new middle-class life, and were never able to fully escape the legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma so characteristic of their part of America. Vance piercingly shows how he himself still carries around the demons of their chaotic family history.

A deeply moving memoir with its share of humor and vividly colorful figures, Hillbilly Elegy is the story of how upward mobility really feels. And it is an urgent and troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large segment of this country.

My Review:

Executive Summary: Interesting

This story is an interesting glimpse into a section of America that not many people know about and even fewer understand. I include myself in that, and I grew up in nearby (to Ohio) Pennsylvania, 7 miles from the closest town whose population was around 1000 people. So you’d think I’d be familiar, but not really. In fact, a guy I work with was born and spent his early years near where I grew up, but he moved to Middletown (where most of the book is set) and spent the rest of his childhood there. He said there was (he’s in his 60s) a huge difference between the folks who emigrated from Kentucky, like the author’s family, and those who didn’t. He mentioned too that they didn’t call them hillbillies; they called them briar hoppers.

J.D.’s family was a bunch of rabble rousers from Jackson, Kentucky. It seems like most people from there were the same rough crowd, although endearing in their own way. Everyone knows everyone and has for a long time so people are friendly and nice to each other, but cross one of them, and they legitimately might kill you. So you can see how moving to Ohio (where not everyone has the “take God into your own hands” attitude) in search of better opportunities can prove challenging.

J.D. made it work though, seemingly partly by accident or luck, but he had some moments where his family made it work. His most constant family were his grandparents, although when they were parents, they were pretty terrible. Due to their alcoholism and fighting, J.D.’s mom was not set up for success. The other two children seemed to be fine enough, but J.D.’s mother never really got it together. Despite being smart enough to get a nursing certificate and at moments of lucidity, to stress to J.D. and his sister how important school was, a series of shitty boyfriends, fights, addictions, and job losses did not put her into a position to be a remotely decent mother.

Between his sister and his recovered grandparents, J.D. manages to graduate high school, and enrolls at Ohio State. However, he can’t bring himself to go. He’s nervous about all of the costs, and leaving his family, and just everything about it. So he decides to do the Marine Corps (still has to leave his family). Mamaw doesn’t think he’s making the right choice, but he does his 4 years in the Marines and comes back to go to Ohio State. (Reading the book, the author does mention advantages of going to the military but when he goes to Ohio State, he’s still doing stupid things like taking out payday loans or showing up for interviews wearing army fatigues). He packs his schedule full of classes and graduates in record time and then starts applying for law school.

He doesn’t initially apply to any top tier schools, but after realizing that law degrees from those sort of schools give you jobs as waitresses, he reconsiders and applies to Yale. He is accepted and even pays less than he would have at a less esteemed school. But it’s a huge culture shock that is entertaining but a little sad to read. Luckily classes there are small and he has fellow students and teachers (specifically one in particular) who helps him find his way. At the end of the day, he graduates, and he and his wife take jobs in Cincinnati. He still has a challenging relationship with his mother, but a good one with those who had continually supported him–his sister and some of his aunts and uncles. Hopefully we see more to come from him in the future.

Verdict: 3.5 Stars

Overall I thought the story was interesting. It was fairly cohesive and provides a glimpse into a life that most of us (thankfully including myself) never experience. I did feel like the story dragged a bit once J.D. goes to the marines and then back to Ohio State, but all in all, the stories of his upbringing and challenges go a long way to explanations. However, I felt like the conclusion was a little weak. Not that I expected the author to “solve the problem”, but I left wanting more of a conclusion. It could have been  “here are ways to help” or more social activism from him (a website which has political candidates to follow or laws/bills to support), but instead, it ended on a little bit of a neutral. Overall though, definitely would recommend.

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The Last Days of Night – Graham Moore

Review (Amazon): New York, 1888. Gas lamps still flicker in the city streets, but the miracle of electric light is in its infancy. The person who controls the means to turn night into day will make history—and a vast fortune. A young untested lawyer named Paul Cravath, fresh out of Columbia Law School, takes a case that seems impossible to win. Paul’s client, George Westinghouse, has been sued by Thomas Edison over a billion-dollar question: Who invented the light bulb and holds the right to power the country?

The case affords Paul entry to the heady world of high society—the glittering parties in Gramercy Park mansions, and the more insidious dealings done behind closed doors. The task facing him is beyond daunting. Edison is a wily, dangerous opponent with vast resources at his disposal—private spies, newspapers in his pocket, and the backing of J. P. Morgan himself. Yet this unknown lawyer shares with his famous adversary a compulsion to win at all costs. How will he do it?

In obsessive pursuit of victory, Paul crosses paths with Nikola Tesla, an eccentric, brilliant inventor who may hold the key to defeating Edison, and with Agnes Huntington, a beautiful opera singer who proves to be a flawless performer on stage and off. As Paul takes greater and greater risks, he’ll find that everyone in his path is playing their own game, and no one is quite who they seem.

My Review (Not many spoilers on this since it’s historical fiction):

Executive Summary: Interesting

This was our book club pick for Thriller/Suspense. Why? I don’t really know, as it was definitely a historical fiction in my mind. Ah well, it was still a good read. Not really fast paced, but not slow either.

Have you heard of George Westinghouse? Thomas Edison? J.P. Morgan? Nikola Tesla? Yes? OK, How about Paul Cravath? No, well, he’s the unknown, but central character to this book.

Paul is a young lawyer who has been hired (just him, not his firm) to represent George Westinghouse who is suing Thomas Edison. But Thomas Edison is also suing George Westinghouse. Three hundred and twelve lawsuits to be exact. He’s on his way to meet Thomas Edison for the lawsuits when he sees a electrical line worker get electrocuted. Electricity is just becoming common place and this is not good publicity.

Paul is a recent grad from Columbia. He’s never tried a case. So why did Westinghouse hire him? Probably because he will fight as hard as he can to win, and the fight is the story. Paul is also the tool for the non-electrical engineering (I’m mechanical 🙂 ) reader to have all the technical stuff explained to them in layman terms.

It’s actually quite the epic battle. It’s not just a meager lawsuit over who owns the lightbulb. It’s AC vs. DC currents, and how to get the currents to travel far enough distances that it is a sustainable product for an entire town, let alone city, to subsist on it. They all have their strategies, even going so far as to bringing up the idea of the electric chair, bringing Alexander Graham Bell into the fray, or buying out each other’s company.

In the end, it turns out to be a pretty good feel good story. Paul ends up with the famous singer who has been helping him out with his case. Westinghouse, Tesla, and Edison, despite being basically at war, are all scientists underneath, and they realize each other’s values. The way the book leaves off, they have coffee once a month and talk about science.

Verdict: 4 stars

It’s definitely a very specific book, but I think it’s a good read and a great peek into an interesting point in American history. It’s tough to summarize because it’s very detailed, but it does move at a steady pace and has a lot of fairly surprising twists. I suppose that’s why it was touted as a thriller/suspense, but to me, it’s just an interesting historical fiction

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A Monster Calls – Patrick Ness

Review (Amazon): An unflinching, darkly funny, and deeply moving story of a boy, his seriously ill mother, and an unexpected monstrous visitor.

At seven minutes past midnight, thirteen-year-old Conor wakes to find a monster outside his bedroom window. But it isn’t the monster Conor’s been expecting– he’s been expecting the one from his nightmare, the nightmare he’s had nearly every night since his mother started her treatments. The monster in his backyard is different. It’s ancient. And wild. And it wants something from Conor. Something terrible and dangerous. It wants the truth. From the final idea of award-winning author Siobhan Dowd– whose premature death from cancer prevented her from writing it herself– Patrick Ness has spun a haunting and darkly funny novel of mischief, loss, and monsters both real and imagined.

My Review (Spoilers):

Executive Summary: Emotional

This was my book pick for 2016 for “book into movie”. However the movie release continued to get pushed back so we switched it with our book swap and did it as the last book of 2016. I also loaned the book out so I needed to get it back before finishing the review which is why it’s a few months late. Oops.

First, if you get this book, be sure you get the one with pictures. Seriously though, it is worth it. The book is touted as a children’s book but it is actually fairly dark and is about serious issues. I don’t think a single person in my book club finished the book with dry eyes.


Conor keeps having this nightmare about a monster. He wakes up but keeps hearing his name whispered. And when he looks out his window, he sees the giant yew tree that is planted in the church cemetery beside their house turn into a giant monster. It comes up to Conor’s window, but he’s not scared of the monster.

When he gets up in the morning, he thinks it was just his nightmare again like it always is, but when he steps out of bed, his whole room is covered with yew leaves. He sweeps them up and hides them in the trash as he’s getting ready. His mom -er- mum comes down and we realize that something’s wrong with her. She’s in a new round of treatments. And she tells Conor that his grandma is going to come stay with them because a kid of 13 shouldn’t have to take care of everything.

At school, he’s bullied by the teacher’s pet Harry. It started right around the time Conor’s mum was diagnosed. Not immediately, but afterwards. When he started having the nightmare with the screaming and falling. The bullying continues and this time, Conor’s friend Lily steps up for him, telling the teacher that they were making fun of Conor’s mother, but he denies it and she gets detention. When Conor’s mother was first diagnosed, she called Lily’s mother, who told Lily and then eventually everyone knew. And they started treating him differently.

When he gets home from school, the yew tree is just a tree. But in the middle of the night, it visits him again. Always at 12:07. This time he tells Conor to come outside and that he will tell him 3 stories. And at the end, Conor will tell the monster a story of his own–the truth, his truth. Conor thinks this is about the stupidest thing for a monster to do, but he’s also scared to tell his story.

Conor’s grandma arrives and she’s a bit…cold. Everything about her irritates Conor. She tells Conor that he can come live with her, but he angrily denies that there will be a need for that.

The monster arrives that night again at 12:07 for the first story. Long ago, a kingdom was on that very land. The king remarries a young bride, but then he suddenly grows ill and dies. His son is still too young so the queen rules alone, and rumors start that she is a witch and she killed the king with magic powers. As the prince grows closer to the throne, the queen has grown fond of ruling and tries to entice the prince to marry her. Alas, he has fallen in love with a farm girl, and one night, he and his love run away. They fall asleep under the (same) yew tree, and when the prince awakes, the princess is dead. The prince races back to the kingdom telling everyone that the queen has murdered his bride. The villagers break into the castle to get the queen who is to be burned alive. BUT it turns out that it was not the queen. It was the prince. He sacrificed his beloved to rid the kingdom of the queen who was actually a witch. The yew tree knew what had happened, and before the villagers could burn the queen at the stake, he saves her and transports her to another land where she could do no harm. The prince ruled til the end of his days and was much loved.

Conor is enraged! What does the yew monster mean that the prince killed his own bride. Surely the villagers would have believed him without such drastic measures. And why would the yew monster save the evil queen!? She was bad. No one was the good guy in the story.

When Conor gets up in the morning, there’s a foot tall sapling growing out of his bedroom floor. He gets a knife and cuts out the tree. His day at school is more of the same. Lily apologizes because he deserves special treatment. Harry bullies him. The teachers pity him. And then he comes home to his grandmother who tells him that his father is coming to visit from America. He never sees his father. Why’s he coming? His mum is going back to the hospital but she assures him she’s going to be fine.

When his mum goes to the hospital, he goes to stay with his grandma. The yew tree doesn’t visit him for a few days. Maybe it doesn’t know where he is. His dad arrives because his mum asked him to. But he won’t say why. And Conor isn’t coming to live with him because his place in America is small and his wife is (paraphrasing) terrible. And he can’t stay long because Americans don’t get much vacation (preach!) so by the time Conor is done hanging out with him, he’s just so mad. He’s so mad, he destroys his grandma’s heirloom clock and the time is stuck, of course, at 12:07 so the yew monster appears for story #2.

Over a hundred years ago, the country had become industrialized. But there are still some who are clinging to the past, in particular, the apothecary. He made ancient medicines from trees and berries and plants. But as society changed, people started using him less, and he grew bitter. The parson (of the church beside Conor’s home) had two daughters who he loved very much. The apothecary asked the parson if he could cut down the ancient yew tree for his medicines and the parson said no. In fact, he went so far as to preach against the apothecary and turn the townspeople against him. But then one day, his daughters fell sick, but no modern doctor could help. The parson swallows his pride and asks the apothecary. The apothecary asks why he should help the parson. The parson says he will give up the yew tree. He will send all his parishioners to the apothecary. He will give up everything he believes to cure his daughters. And so, the apothecary tells him that there is nothing that he can do to help the parson, and that night, both his daughters die. And that night, the yew monster tears the parson’s house from its foundation.

Conor is furious! The parson’s house! But the apothecary is the bad one. He let the children die. No, the yew monster says. The parson was selfish and cared only about himself. He should have given up the yew tree from the beginning.

Conor and the monster begin tearing down the parson’s house in the story, but once the story is over, Conor realizes he has completely destroyed his grandmother’s home. When he realizes what he has done, he’s in shock, and then his grandmother pulls into the driveway. When she sees what he has done, she screams. But she’s not mad. She comes through the room and knocks the only remaining upright thing down.

No one yells at him. He goes through school and no one really talks to him. He doesn’t even get his beating from Harry. It’s like he’s invisible. He goes to visit his mum in the hospital, and she tells him they are going to try one more thing–medicine made from the yew tree.

His dad has to leave but before he goes, he tries to tell Conor that his mum is very very sick and the medicine is probably not going to work. Stories don’t always have happy endings. Conor has learned this from the yew monster, but he still thinks that the situation is too coincidental for the medicine not to work. When the yew monster appears that night, Conor asks him if he will heal his mum. The monster say “If your mother can be healed, then the yew tree will do it” The monster leaves without a story.

At school the next day, he gets cornered by Harry and his friends. But instead of beating him up, Harry tells Conor, “I know longer see you” and walks past him. It’s 12:06. The yew monster appears for the 3rd tale.

There once was an invisible man. Not really invisible, but it was just that people had gotten used to not seeing him. And so he decides that he will make them see him. Conor asks how–by calling for a monster! And he reaches his giant monster hand out and knocks Harry across the floor. The monster pummels Harry, and at the end, the headmistress calls Conor to the office. The entire cafeteria saw Conor completely attack Harry. Like usual, he’s not being punished. The entire school now sees him, but he’s more alone than ever.

A few days pass. He doesn’t see the monster. He does make up with Lily, but just at that moment, his grandma appears at school. His mum’s treatment isn’t working. Conor is furious and tells his grandma that he has to go back to his home, the one with the yew tree. She is confused, but she agrees, and she drops him off and then heads back to the hospital. There Conor confronts the yew monster about why he didn’t heal his mother. The monster says it’s time for Conor’s story, and suddenly they are in his nightmare. The one he doesn’t tell anyone about.

He’s in a forest clearing and on one side, there’s a cliff. His mum is standing near the cliff edge, and he yells that she needs to get out of there. She doesn’t listen despite his pleas. A cloud which turns into two large fists raises over the cliff and grab her and pull her over the edge. Conor runs toward her and catches her just as she falls over. She begs him to hold on, but she’s slipping. She’s getting heavier, and the monster appears to tell him that it’s time for the fourth tale. Conor wants him to help, but the yew monster tells him that it’s time for the truth, and his mother falls from his grasp.

But that’s not the end. The monster says he must tell the truth. That he had let her go. Conor argues that he didn’t, but the monster says he cannot leave until he admits it, and finally he does. The monster asks why, and Conor says that he just wants it all to be over.

They leave the nightmare and are back at his house. Conor is devastated that he has said such a horrible thing about his mum who he loves so much. But the monster says that it is just a thought. It wasn’t an action. Conor is exhausted and falls asleep under the yew.

He awakes to his grandmother screaming, trying to find him. When she finally does, they race back to the hospital. On the way, she tells Conor that she knows that they haven’t always gotten along very well, but she tells him that they do have one thing in common. They both love his mum.

They arrive to the hospital in time, and the monster is there too. It’s close to midnight. The monster tells Conor to speak the truth. He tells his mother “I don’t want you to go” and she tells him that she knows. He puts his arm around her and when 12:07 arrives, he knows that he can finally let her go.

Verdict: 4.5 stars

This book is really special. It’s imaginative. It’s happy, funny, sad. The characters are all so incredibly believable. I would recommend this book to everyone from about late junior high on. Yes, it has pictures. No it’s not for children. I absolutely loved it.

 

 

 

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The Husband’s Secret – Liane Moriarty

Review (Amazon):

At the heart of The Husband’s Secret is a letter that is not meant to be read…

My darling Cecilia,
If you’re reading this, then I’ve died…

Imagine your husband wrote you a letter, to be opened after his death. Imagine, too, that the letter contains his deepest, darkest secret—something with the potential to destroy not only the life you have built together, but the lives of others as well. And then imagine that you stumble across that letter while your husband is still very much alive…

Cecilia Fitzpatrick has achieved it all—she’s an incredibly successful businesswoman, a pillar of her small community, a devoted wife and mother. Her life is as orderly and spotless as her home. But that letter is about to change everything—and not just for her. There are other women who barely know Cecilia—or each other—but they, too, are about to feel the earth-shattering repercussions of her husband’s secret.

My Review (MAJOR SPOILERS!!!):

Executive Summary: deeper than first glance

This is our literary fiction for the year. It’s a bit of a love story (stories?), a bit of a whodunnit, but mostly just a people drama. It’s set in Australia, mostly Sydney, and it has multiple quickly intersecting stories.

The “main” family that the book follows is perfect wife Cecilia and her husband John-Paul and their three children–Esther (a Berlin Wall enthusiast), Isabel and Polly (the outspoken beautiful youngster). One day, by accident, Cecilia finds a letter in her attic addressed “For my wife, Cecilia Fitzpatrick to be opened only in the event of my death”.

We’re also introduced to Tess, her husband Will, her cousin Felicity, and her son Liam. Tess and Felicity have always been closer than sisters, and apparently even closer. After Felicity lost a ton of weight in the last year (after always being the fat girl), Will and Felicity fell in love. They announce to Tess who, understandably, freaks out and decides to take Liam back to Sydney (from Melbourne) to stay with her mother.

Next chapter, we meet Rachel. Rachel is a widow, and her only son Rob brought her over to tell her that he, his wife Lauren, and their son Jacob were going to be moving to New York for a few years. Rachel is overwhelmingly devastated. She had had a daughter, Janie,  who had been murdered many years earlier, and that pain had never healed. She feels like Jacob is all she has. Meanwhile she never really lets Rob or Lauren into her grief.

We cut back to Cecilia who brings up the letter she found when she knocked over some boxes in their crowded attic to her husband who is on a business trip. She can tell that he is trying to sound nonchalant, but that there’s more to it.

The following day, the connection between the 3 stories makes sense. Tess goes with her mother, Lucy to drop Liam off at his new school. Cecilia’s children go there as well, and Polly is in Liam’s grade. Rachel is the school’s secretary. While at the school, Tess also meets the gym teacher, Connor Whitby, a man who she dated years prior and who used to be an accountant. As soon as they meet, there’s obvious sexual tension.

Cecilia is going through all the things in her mind. She and John-Paul have not have sex in a year. Is he gay? Polly mentioned that Jean-Paul looks at Isabel strangely. Is he a pedophile? Esther saw him crying in the shower. Is he depressed? He tried to commit suicide once when he was younger…? She decides that she is in fact going to open the letter that evening after her Tupperware party she’s hosting. She volunteers to drive Rachel home from the party (her first one she’s attended) and arrives at home to find that John-Paul is home early. He asks her if she has opened it and she says no, but once he goes to bed, she opens it.

SPOILER! Stop reading here if you intend to read the book!!!

 

In the letter, John-Paul writes that he in fact is the person who killed Janie. They were secretly going out, not boyfriend/girlfriend, although that’s what he wanted. One day, Janie meets him at the park to break it off and tell him that there’s another boy who she’s more interested in. He’s furious and instead of being sympathetic, she laughs. He didn’t mean to kill her. He just attacked her in rage and before he knew what he was doing, she was dead. The police never suspected him because they didn’t know he was involved at all. He went to a different school, and Janie hadn’t told anyone about him. John-Paul said that he would have confessed had anyone else been accused for the crime, but the only person of interest was Connor Whitby and he had an alibi.

Welp, OK. So a) I figured out the secret ahead of time (because really what else could it be? there’s only one unsolved mystery in the story) and b) now what?! The book to me got really dull after this because the letter was opened less than halfway through!

So the book progresses that Tess begins sleeping with Connor. Rachel finds a video of Janie and Connor, and she turns it into the police as new evidence. She is convinced that Connor killed Janie and it just eats her alive seeing him at the school every day. Cecilia and John-Paul try to have a normal life, but Cecilia is having a lot of trouble keeping it together (at least to the perfect mom level she had previously).

And then it’s Good Friday. Apparently no one does anything at all on Good Friday in Australia except eat hot cross buns with lots of butter. (I thought hot cross buns were from a nursery rhyme and weren’t really a thing any more.)  So on Good Friday, Tess tells Connor that she and Liam will come to the park to fly a kite. Unfortunately, Felicity appears earlier in the day to tell her that she and Will are splitting up and he’s on his way to meet her to try to get Tess back. By the time she lets Connor know that they can’t meet him, he’s already at the park. Cecilia, John-Paul and the girls are also there on their bikes and Polly spots Connor, one of her favorite teachers, and races to catch him before he heads off. Unfortunately Good Friday is also the anniversary of Janie’s death. Rachel has spent the morning with Rob and Lauren visiting the grave site before getting the police call that they are not reopening the case due to her new evidence as it wasn’t substantial enough. All of those things pieced together lead to Rachel seeing Connor–the man she believes killed her daughter–about to walk into traffic and blinded with rage, she hits the accelerator and hits…Polly who is trying to get Connor’s attention.

Polly is rushed to the hospital, where she is in critical condition. She ends up having to lose her right arm below the elbow because it couldn’t be salvaged. Rachel is there too getting checked up and she goes to try to apologize to Cecilia and explains that she was enraged seeing Connor because he killed her daughter. At that moment, Cecilia confesses that it was actually John-Paul who had done it. And then the world was right and everyone got on with their lives.

Verdict: 3.5 stars

The book was fine. It had some ups and downs. The whole underlying premise though that this stupid boy murdered a girl who wasn’t even dating him because she nervous giggled at him. It makes me want to kill him. She died. His daughter only lost an arm. It’s not the same. I thought the prose itself was good so that helped a little, but all in all the story felt a bit like it was trying to prove a point then be realistic.

 

 

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Those Who Save Us – Jenna Blum

Review (Amazon): For fifty years, Anna Schlemmer has refused to talk about her life in Germany during World War II. Her daughter, Trudy, was only three when she and her mother were liberated by an American soldier and went to live with him in Minnesota. Trudy’s sole evidence of the past is an old photograph: a family portrait showing Anna, Trudy, and a Nazi officer, the Obersturmfuhrer of Buchenwald.

Driven by the guilt of her heritage, Trudy, now a professor of German history, begins investigating the past and finally unearths the dramatic and heartbreaking truth of her mother’s life.

Combining a passionate, doomed love story, a vivid evocation of life during the war, and a poignant mother/daughter drama, Those Who Save Us is a profound exploration of what we endure to survive and the legacy of shame.

My Review (spoilers!):

Executive Summary: decent

I’ve expressed my general apathy toward WW2 (German-focused) books on here before. Yet somehow I keep reading them (because I foolishly take recommendations of them from people who love them). This one really is not bad, however it was my 3rd WW2 for 2016 (technically I finished it in ’17 but it was started in ’16 so I’m counting it). It wasn’t as great as The Nightingale, but it wasn’t as rotten as The Book Thief, so I guess that makes it solidly decent.

The book follows two intertwined stories–One of Anna and eventually her daughter Trudy in 1940s Germany, and another story in the present (late 1990s) of the mother and daughter in Minnesota. Despite that literary device being a bit overused in my opinion, the author did a good job with it and was able to freshen it up a bit with the modern story.

Trudy is a professor of German history. When her colleague and only friend tells Trudy about her upcoming project to interview Jews who lived through WW2, Trudy has a revelation that she wants to do the same with German nationals. She wants first person stories about how people who lived through such atrocities could turn a blind eye to what was going on around them. She also secretly has a desire to learn about her own past since her mother has closed off everything about that time.

Anna grew up in Weimar in Germany (not the town in Texas that has really good fried chicken). Her mother died and she took over the job of taking care of her father who early became a Nazi. He was a social climber and wanted to find Anna a good pure husband. Unbeknownst to him, she had other plans. Anna falls for the town doctor, a Jew, and eventually hides him in their home. Anna’s father is away much of the time and she visits Max in the secret closet. Her father inevitably finds out and turns Max into the Gestapo. Anna at this point is pregnant and retreats to a sympathetic Mathilde, the town baker.

Mathilde keeps her hidden until Trudy is born and begins teaching her the craft–not just baking, but also smuggling food to prisoners at the nearby work yard where she collects and returns with their messages.  Mathilde keeps this up until she is eventually killed, presumably caught in the act, and Anna takes over. However, this is not to last either. A German officer, the Oberstrumfuhrer, takes interest in her. Anna makes the decision to encourage these advances to both protect her daughter and also feed them. She keeps up work at the bakery until there is no more ingredients left from which to make bread (although she is only feeding the Nazi soldiers at this point and is not taking any to the prisoners). The Oberstrumfuhrer is a man of some depth. While he is a horrible man in many ways, he does seem to generally like Anna and Trudy, bringing them chocolates and taking them on trips. Anna struggles with her decisions daily, but she doesn’t see another option. When finally the American arrival is inevitable, the Oberstrumfuhrer leaves and heads for Argentina, leaving Anna and Trudy in Weimar.

The Americans arrive, and one drunken soldier breaks into the bakery and tries to rape Anna. He is stopped by a superior officer, a Jack Schlemmer. He and Anna marry and they move to Minnesota with Trudy. Anna never really fits in with the locals in the small town, and she has so much emotional baggage from her time in Germany that she and Jack have a very broken relationship until he dies and Anna is put into a home which she is eventually kicked out of when she comes to live with Trudy.

Trudy continues doing interviews. In one, she is bamboozled by a Jew who has called her for an interview only to berate her entire project denouncing all Germans for what they have done. However, Trudy is drawn to this man and feels a connection to him. She tells him that she is the daughter of an Oberstrumfuhrer as she has seen the picture of him, Anna and her in her mother’s cigarette case. He tells her that his brother was shot in the head point blank by a Nazi soldier just to make a point. They date for a while, Trudy falling in love with him, but it is not to work. Her mother secretly watches the interviews and Trudy has caught her watching the one of Rainer, but her mother will not agree to be interviewed and spills no information.

Another interviewee who reaches out to Trudy is a man named Felix who grew up just outside Weimar. Trudy acknowledges her birthplace and begins to listen more intently to his tale. He tells of how he was a bit of a scumbag–out to make money on the war. He bought people’s valuables in exchange for papers and ways out of Germany. Eventually he was caught and imprisoned. He tells Trudy about the bakery angels who would leave presents in the hollow tree and take their messages. He tells Trudy about a man named Max who was also in the camp and had a secret daughter with one of the bakery angels. At this point, Trudy, in shock, asks her camera man to stop the tape and asks Felix if he will come meet her mother. He agrees and while they are waiting for the camera man to pack up, Trudy asks what became of Max. Felix responds that Oberstrumfuhrer von Stuern hanged him and kicked away the chair.

When they get to Trudy’s, Anna still does not give away anything. She says she cannot remember ever seeing a murder at the prison while she was delivering food, although Felix later assures Trudy that it was indeed Anna who he saw there. He has lunch with Anna and when Trudy returns him to his place, he tells her that he would like to visit Anna again, and Trudy agrees that she thinks her mother would enjoy it. The book ends with Trudy in silent reflection.

Verdict: 3.5 Stars

All in all, I thought it was a pretty good book. I enjoyed the premise of Trudy being a child in the war who grew up to be a professor of German history. I found the characters to be very well rounded and well developed and they felt very real, even the ones the readers didn’t know well. The only real downside is that…it’s hard to be very original on a German WW2 novel.

 

 

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2017 Book Club List

Another year, another book club list! This year, I decided to choose historical fiction as my category (as I always like to choose a different category each year), and the three books I chose to offer up for consideration were:

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan which is the one that was chosen by book club member vote.

The others that were chosen for all genres are as follows:

January (Literary Fiction) – The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty

February (Suspense/Thriller) – The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore

March (Memoir) – Hillbilly Ellegy by J.D. Vance

April (Classic) – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

May (Mystery) – And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

June (Book into Movie) – Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

July (Historical Fiction) – The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan as referenced above!

August (Non-Fiction) – The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown

September (Young Adult) – The Girl From Everywhere by Heidi Heilig

October (Best Seller) – TBD

November – TBD

December – Book Swap!

 

If you ever want to go back to see our many previous book club lists, they can be located right here!

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The Nightingale – Kristin Hannah

Review (Amazon): In love we find out who we want to be.
In war we find out who we are.

FRANCE, 1939

In the quiet village of Carriveau, Vianne Mauriac says goodbye to her husband, Antoine, as he heads for the Front. She doesn’t believe that the Nazis will invade France…but invade they do, in droves of marching soldiers, in caravans of trucks and tanks, in planes that fill the skies and drop bombs upon the innocent. When a German captain requisitions Vianne’s home, she and her daughter must live with the enemy or lose everything. Without food or money or hope, as danger escalates all around them, she is forced to make one impossible choice after another to keep her family alive.

Vianne’s sister, Isabelle, is a rebellious eighteen-year-old girl, searching for purpose with all the reckless passion of youth. While thousands of Parisians march into the unknown terrors of war, she meets Gäetan, a partisan who believes the French can fight the Nazis from within France, and she falls in love as only the young can…completely. But when he betrays her, Isabelle joins the Resistance and never looks back, risking her life time and again to save others.

With courage, grace and powerful insight, bestselling author Kristin Hannah captures the epic panorama of WWII and illuminates an intimate part of history seldom seen: the women’s war. The Nightingale tells the stories of two sisters, separated by years and experience, by ideals, passion and circumstance, each embarking on her own dangerous path toward survival, love, and freedom in German-occupied, war-torn France–a heartbreakingly beautiful novel that celebrates the resilience of the human spirit and the durability of women. It is a novel for everyone, a novel for a lifetime.

My Review (Spoilers!):

Executive Summary: slow to start but really strong ending

This book has a nearly perfect rating on Amazon, but our book club was still a little hesitant to read this one due to a previous Kristin Hannah book we read (Magic Hour, pre-blog) which was very mediocre. I’m happy to report that Hannah has matured as an author and in my mind, pulled off a nearly impossible task–a great ending!!

I apologize that this review will not be quite as detailed as some of my others–I’ve found myself so swamped and want to get this in here before I bet even more swamped with the holidays!

The book starts with an old woman who is being moved into a nursing home due to a poor cancer prognosis, and she is going through her stuff. The book goes back and forth between the old woman and her son (present time) but mostly stays in the past.

Sisters Isabelle and Vianne have been emotionally estranged for most of their lives. Their father came back from the Great War a changed man and when their mother died, the girls were off to boarding school. Vianne was much older than Isabelle and as soon as Vianne was old enough to get married and move on with her life, she did. She married Antoine and despite a number of miscarriages, had a daughter Sophie and lived in Carriveau. Isabelle fared worse. Her sister never stuck up for her and left her as soon as possible. Isabelle failed out of one boarding school after another, unwelcome at Vianne’s and unwelcome with her father in Paris. Vianne’s dream life in the French countryside comes to a dramatic halt when Antoine, a postman, is drafted for war (WW2). Her friend Rachel’s husband is also drafted.

Isabelle is kicked out of yet another school and is sent back to Paris. Her father has no interest in her living with him but he begrudgingly allows her until the Germans invade Paris. Then he sends her to Carriveau to live with Vianne, especially now that she is alone. Eventually the car that she is in runs out of gas and they are forced to walk. The family she was riding with abandons her, and she finds herself alone. Luckily she is stubborn and persistent. She meets a young man, Gaetan who is roasting a rabbit on a fire. They decide to stop by Carriveau, see his mother in Poitiers and then go join the resistance. They finally get to Carriveau, having to walk most of the way. Vianne doesn’t answer as the house has been harassed by other refugees all day so Gaetan and Isabelle sleep in the back. When Isabelle finally awakens, Gaetan has left her with just a note “You are not ready”.

Isabelle grows more and more enraged. She wants to help but can’t. Vianne doesn’t want to rock the boat at all, even when things get more and more dire and France surrenders. After hiding all the valuables despite Vianne telling her how foolish it was, Isabelle turns on the radio and hears General de Gaulle who is talking about the resistance. Isabelle realizes there is some hope…until the Nazis come to Carriveau and a soldier, Captain Wolfgang Beck, billets in their home. In general, he is pretty reserved. He believes he is fighting the good fight, hoping to get back to his own wife and kids.

Isabelle, Vianne, and Sophie go on pretending things are normal–going into town to pick up their rations, growing their garden. One day when Isabelle is going into town to get rations, she picks up a piece of chalk. She notices a war propaganda poster in an alley and decides to draw a giant V on it (for Victory) with the chalk when she is caught. She can’t see who it is who has caught her and where she is being taken, but she eventually realizes it’s not to the Gestapo–it’s to the resistance. They realize that women and girls can get away with a lot more than men so they task her with delivering messages. She is thrilled!

She delivers many messages–sneaking away at all hours to do so. On one occasion, Vianne and Sophie see her and Vianne immediately assumes that Isabelle’s odd behavior is because of a boy.

Meanwhile, Vianne learns that Antoine has been captured, but Captain Beck is able to get messages to him. In return, Vianne lists all Jews, Communists, etc. who are teachers at her school, including her best friend Rachel, and they are all dismissed.

Isabelle gets the message that she is needed, and heads into town. She is needed for bigger tasks–the first being to take a message to Paris and stay there to be the contact. She convinces Captain Beck to give her a pass on account of her father being ill. Vianne still assumes that Isabelle is going on about for a boy and Isabelle lets her believe it. She arrives in Paris and sees the bookstore all boarded up, and waits in the apartment until her father returns. Eventually she convinces her father to let her stay. She meets her first appointment with another woman messenger. She is brought into their group and given a false identity (Juliette Gervais) and given more tasks especially when they realize that her fancy education has taught her German and English. She reopens her father’s bookstore to use as a front and it earns her a little money as well.

One night on her way home from picking up food (leftovers from the Germans in the restaurant), she finds a British RAF pilot. She decides to take him to their apartment and hide him in the closet in her room. She takes him to the other resistance people who don’t know what to do. They are trying to figure out how to get the downed pilots into Spain but that means having to cross the Pyrenees. Isabelle has a family friend who is a Basque and she thinks that she can help by going undetected and getting the men to safety. As she is helping flesh out the plan, in comes Gaetan. He tells her that he left because it’s dangerous and he wanted to forget her, but now it turns out they’re working together like she had wanted.

When she gets home, she discovers another surprise. Her father too is working for the resistance. He works for the Nazis where he can create fake papers for people including her. He knew about the airman she was hiding and told her that he had sent her away to protect her. He already knows about her plan to lead the airmen to Spain and gives her the name of the family friend. He tells her that she will never be able to come back because she will have to go completely underground from now onward.

The first trip is the biggest risk as they can’t be sure that Madame Babineau will help them, but when Isabelle appears with 4 airmen, Madame Babineau indeed does. Isabelle, Eduardo (guide) and the airmen make the rough 5-day trek across the Pyrenees into Spain. Isabelle presents them at the British consulate and is provided with money to set up safe houses, food and clothing for the inevitable other airmen. She sent word back that “The Nightingale has Sung” alerting the resistance that she made it.

In the meantime in Carriveau, everyone is nervous about the collaborators and people are being rounded up for the slightest infractions. The Jews, including Rachel, have to wear yellow Stars of David on their clothing.

Over the next months, the Nightingale continues to escort airmen into Spain as the Germans start closing in on her. The Resistance sets her up with a job doing clerical work for the Nazis. No one knows what she’ll be doing. When she arrives, she finds that she is sorting foreign born Jews from native born. When she sees the name of the mastermind behind her branch of the resistance on the list, she feigns flu and leaves. All the foreign born Jews are being rounded up and sent to the camps in Germany. In Carriveau, the same is happening. However, Captain Beck alerts Vianne that Rachel should not be home the following morning. This time Vianne listens and she, Rachel and Rachel’s two kids take the long walk to see if they can cross the border with Rachel’s false paperwork. When they get close, something goes awry and the guard opens fire on the crowd. Sophie’s best friend Sarah does not survive. Rachel and Ari hide in Vianne’s barn while Vianne buries Sarah.

The next day, they walk with Rachel back to her house later in the day (because somehow they thought they would round everyone up in a couple hours in the morning) and she is picked up by the gestapo. Since Ari was born in France, he can stay, and Vianne takes him in. She tells Captain Beck what she has done, and he promises to not turn her in and even gets her a set of fake papers for him.

Isabelle returns to Carriveau on a mission and upon arrival stumbles upon a downed airman. She and her colleagues take him to Vianne’s house where they hide in the safe spot under the car in the barn. Unfortunately the airman was too far gone and dies. All the soldiers in Carriveau are looking for this pilot, including Captain Beck. Vianne sees the barn door is astray and thinks it’s Rachel. She is shocked and annoyed when she finds that it’s Isabelle and the pilot and says some terrible nasty things to Isabelle. When Beck returns home, he realizes that he has not searched her barn. When he goes out there, he finds the trap door, and Vianne hits him over the head with a shovel as he opens the door and Isabelle shoots him.

Isabelle is taken to a safe place, the bodies are disposed of, and Vianne tells the soldiers that Captain Beck went looking for the pilot and never returned. Vianne gets a new, much worse Nazi billeting with her in his place. Whereas Beck did not like the direction that the war had moved, Captain von Richter did and he took his power very seriously. Vianne begins to grow a spine and take part in a plan where she moves Jewish children into the church orphanage. To keep suspicion down, she is a good little French woman to von Richter who repeatedly rapes and beats her.

Meanwhile Isabelle keeps the Nightingale going, meeting Gaetan secretly when they cross paths. On a trip to the Pyrenees, the safe house is raided and everyone is captured. Isabelle is questioned for days, but everyone assumes the Nightingale is a man.

Isabelle’s father goes to Carriveau to tell Vianne the news that Isabelle has been captured. He tells her, as best as he can, how sorry he is about everything. He tells her that she needs to be strong for Isabelle and asks her what she would do to save Sophie before going off and confessing that he is the Nightingale to free Isabelle and save her life. She is thrown onto a train with other political prisoners and is left there until the war ends and she is freed.

Antoine returns to a broken and pregnant Vianne. They manage to hold it together for Sophie and Ari. Vianne continues to search for news of Isabelle but cannot find any. She learns that Rachel and her husband have died, and one day, two Jewish men come for Ari. He has family in New York who want to look after him, and it is important for him to learn the Jewish customs since so few of his generation remain.

SPOILERS!!!

Isabelle returns to Carriveau, gravely sick. Antoine, Vianne, and Sophie keep her alive until Gaetan arrives and she dies peacefully.

The story returns to the old woman, who we now know is not Isabelle like I had assumed (and hoped). It is Vianne and her child Julien born from the Nazi captain. Vianne has been invited to speak in Paris on account of Isabelle where she is posthumously presented an award for her service. She sees Gaetan there who tells Vianne that he loved her (Isabelle) all his life. And then lastly, she meets Ari who has come there to reconnect with her, telling her how she saved his life. Julien admires his mother in a way he never knew.

Verdict: 4 stars

I actually found myself getting a little misty eyed in parts during this book which doesn’t happen frequently. I really liked Isabelle and was rooting for her during the book. I was really surprised to find that the “old woman” was actually Vianne in the end and in general, I really thought the flash forwards were woven in thoughtfully (which is not that common). I’m really racking up my WW2 books this year as I’m already reading another one!

 

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