When I travel, reading plays a major role. Reading helps keep me sane while waiting at the airport and of course through the sometimes inevitable delays. Reading definitely helps to pass the time on long flights and is sometimes the best activity to do once you’ve arrived at your final destination and want to do nothing except relax.
Although I’ve been reviewing travel narratives for a couple of years now, I’ve never discussed any of the fiction works I’ve read. So my plan is on a monthly basis to do a reading roundup. Since this is my first I’m going to include favorites I’ve read over the last year.
Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian
This is the first ever book I read by Bohjalian and it was one that had me completely spellbound the entire way through. It tells the story of the Armenian Genocide and the denial of it by neighboring Turkey through two interconnected plotlines: the story of Elizabeth, a WASP who travels to Syria to assist in aid relief for the Armenian people and ends up falling in love with Armen, an Armenian with his own haunting and unimaginable tale, and the story of Laura, their granddaughter who does’t quite fully understand the chilling tale of her grandparents’ past and tries to make sense of it while living the suburban American life. Like most non-Armenian Americans, I know very little about the Genocide save for what is found in summary write ups in history books and on the Internet. However, Bohjalian makes this horrific event come alive on the pages through the experiences of his characters.
And on an extremely sad note, the characters of Elizabeth and Armen meet in Aleppo, Syria, which is where some relief efforts for the Armenian people took place. Tragic to think that this historic biblical city would be one of the worst sites of fighting less than a century later during the Syrian Civil War which continues to this day. (I also read another work of Bohjalian’s, The Light in the Ruins, which is a murder mystery that takes place in 1950s Italy as well as during the Second World War. I liked it immensely but still preferred Sandcastle Girls even more.
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford
While this was a book I had seen numerous times on the shelves at Target, I had never read it nor knew much about it. But while I was at my parents’ house for the holidays, my mom recommended it and I brought it back home with me. It tells the innocent love story of Henry, a Chinese American boy and Keiko, a Japanese American girl living in Seattle right after Pearl Harbor occurred. They form a bond for no other reason than they are not accepted nor treated equal even by most white Americans even though neither is an immigrant. They also fight great animosity when it comes to their own unique cultural backgrounds, especially by Henry’s parents, who are fiercely anti-Japanese. Their lives change forever once Keiko’s family is rounded up and sent to an internment camp. The book flashes back between Henry as a child and as a middle-aged man. It was a very sweet book the entire way through with great melancholic overtones as well.
The Ambassador’s Daughter by Pam Jenoff
I saw this book one day at Barnes and Noble and decided to request it through the library. Although I didn’t think it was spectacular, it touches on a topic that I think is often left out of the history books and especially historical fiction, the end of World War I and the events surrounding the Treaty of Versailles as told through the eyes of German people. Margot is the daughter of a German diplomat who has been asked to take part in the peace conference in Paris, representing, of course, the German side. While Margo initially dislikes being in a place where she is regarded as the enemy, she eventually finds her “place” and also meets Georg, a German naval officer who has also been asked to participate in the proceedings. The two form a kinship and ultimately fall in love, both wanting nothing more than for Germany and the global community to move on towards modernization after the crippling events that transpired during the war. Some of the book’s story lines were a bit far fetched but overall it was an enjoyable historical read.
I’ve never studied the Treaty of Versailles in too much detail and am certainly not knowledgeable enough to discuss its merits or unfairness, but I can see how there would have been some Germans who wanted the modern Germany to move down the right path and were completely ignored but instead were punished, thus paving the way for someone like Adolf Hitler to come to power.
The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom
If there was ever a book that just made you “ache” sadness the whole read through, The Kitchen House would be it. It tells the story of Lavinia, an immigrant Irish girl who has come to America with her parents and brother only to end up an orphan before the journey is complete. Her brother is placed into indentured servitude and due to Lavinia’s being so young, she’s taken to the captain’s home in rural southern Virginia to work as a servant to pay off her passage from Europe. She’s taken in by some of the plantation’s slaves and forms an instant attachment with them, even though it greatly upsets the racial order of the plantation. As Lavinia grows up the race lines are more divided than ever, creating immense conflict for her and the slaves that truly had become her family as a young child.
This was a book that for the last 70 pages I did not want to put down.
Seven Houses in France by Bernardo Axtaga
I saw this book by chance one day in my library’s new reads section. It was definitely a book I could have seen myself reading during any number of the comparative literature classes I took in college. It’s set against the backdrop of the colonial era in the Belgian Congo and tells the story of multiple soldiers who are stationed at a garrison deep in the heart of the jungle. It was a fascinating look at life through the eye of both the colonizer and the colonized. It’s also definitely an easier and quicker read than anything Joseph Conrad wrote…
And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Kosseini
The Kite Runner was one of the best books I have ever read but since then Kosseini’s subsequent two books, A Thousand Splendid Suns and And the Mountains Echoed have not been as enjoyable. If I had to describe Kosseini’s latest book to someone who hasn’t read it, I would say he is the Afghan equivalent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez in terms of his numerous characters, many whose stories are tied to each other, many who are not connected. Anything to do with Afghanistan is always a fascinating read but I just felt there was too much going on in the novel and too many stories to keep track of.
So there you have it! And yes, historical fiction, in case you haven’t noticed, is my favorite genre.
Have you read any of the books I discussed? If not, are there any you would want to try?