Here’s a look at some of the books I’ve read over the past couple of months. My reading tastes are eclectic but I mainly enjoy historical fiction and non-fiction, and the occasional gripping novel.
The Wright Brothers
I admit, I had never been too fascinated by Orville and Wilbur Wright, even though they did the impossible which was allowing man to fly at the turn of the last century. But that all changed when I read David McCullough’s biographical work of the same name. My mind was just blown. One thinks that oh, the Wright brothers must have been wealthy, or had connections, or most importantly, had fancy university degrees. No, no, and no. In fact, Orville never even graduated from high school; he dropped out so he could start a printing business his senior year. What they lacked in formal education and prestige, they made up for with their dedication and industriousness, although the latter seems like an understatement when describing the two brothers. They literally did what was thought impossible through their own sweat and toil, their own physical energies, often at bodily risk when their planes crashed. Reading The Wright Brothers is a truly humbling experience because if you are ever struggling with an issue, wanting to give up, read only what the Wright brothers did, what they kept at until they got it, and you will realize the enormous odds they faced and yet they succeeded.
While a children’s book, the tour guide on my Terezin tour had recommended it. Helga was a young girl from Prague who survived the Holocaust and kept a secret diary during this time. She was first transported to Terezin with her parents and then subsequently sent to Auschwitz where she lied about her age (she said she was older than she was, otherwise she would have been immediately killed), and additional camps before being liberated. Amazingly, she lives in the same flat in Prague as she did as a child. It’s different from The Diary of Anne Frank in the sense that when Helga wrote, she was risking her life to do so, so the entries are short and sometimes abbreviated.
After I returned from my trip to Central Europe last year I got on a huge World War II/Holocaust kick (well, more so than usual), so this seemed like a worthy historical fiction read. The book comprises three interconnecting stories (all based on real life people and events)-a New York socialite who works helping get Jews out of Europe and also provides tremendous assistance post-war, a group of Polish girls who are sent to the infamous Ravensbruck concentration camp, and a female Nazi doctor who works at Ravensbruck. I enjoyed the New York socialite portion the least even though she apparently was a real life angel; after the war she worked tirelessly with European women who had endured unimaginable horrors during the war including bringing many of them to New York for medical and dental care. Although I’ve always been interested and well-versed in the Holocaust, I knew next to nothing about Ravensbruck. But it was a camp where many non-Jewish persons who were arrested were sent and more infamously, was the site of brutal and horrific experiments done on the female prisoners. It’s been compared to Nightingale and of the two, I liked Nightingale more.
The Gilded Years
My blogger friend Bridget had recommended this and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s a fictionalized account of the first black woman to attend Vassar College although she did so by passing for white; she was extremely light and by today’s standards, you wouldn’t think for a second she was “black.” But in 1897, the world was an entirely different place and one drop of black blood meant she was just that. It was fascinating to have a look at what higher education was like for women at the turn of the last century but it was even more heart wrenching to read about what Anita and others like her went through, all to simply better themselves through education.
A Man Called Ove
So if you haven’t heard about A Man Called Ove, then you truly must be living under a rock. It is the delightful story of a curmudgeon who wants nothing to do with life or people, who’s bothered by every little thing, but this all changes once a family with two small children moves into his neighborhood (while striking his mailbox in the meantime). This was definitely a deviation from my usual reads of historical fiction and nonfiction and yet, sometimes you just need a carefree story, one that will tug at your heart strings but not cause you to morph into an utterly depressive state since you just read about the saddest, most horrific event in history. And I will say the recent screen adaptation is almost as good.
The Underground Railroad
Right off the bat one of the reasons I liked The Underground Railroad as much as I did is that it didn’t take place anywhere near the American Civil War (as so many books about slavery do). It’s set in the early 19th century, decades before names like Abraham Lincoln and Gettysburg had ever been uttered. It tells the story of Cora, a young slave who has grown up on a Georgia plantation but ultimately decides to escape to the North. The novel is set in stages, each stage tied to the people, both good and bad, whom she meets. Whitehead’s writing is incredible and gripping from the get go. It’s a book that I hope high schools (and colleges) will mandate as required reading in some capacity. This is a period of American history never really “heard” before in such great detail.
The Zookeeper’s Wife
I’ll admit, I was slightly disappointed with this. Although the topic is fascinating (the true story of a Polish couple who risked their lives and the lives of their children to shelter Jews inside the zoo they owned and managed), it was more scientific than I was expecting. Now granted, I know the previous statement seems somewhat shallow considering the real Dr. Żabiński was a scientist and zoologist. I just thought there would be more on the war, the saving Jewish lives portion. Not pages of text on topics like breeding and beetle collections (the Żabińskis are asked to safeguard a priceless collection of beetles from a Jewish colleague of Dr. Żabiński’s). Although I will say the book was better than the screen adaptation, considering in the film a romantic “relationship” is created between Antonia Żabiński and Daniel Brühl’s character of a German officer when there was in fact none.
During this period I also read:
I Am Malala-not much to say except that every child who complains about “having” to go to school should read this and see what Malala risked after she was almost killed and continues to risk in her advocacy for education for all girls.