Reading Roundup #14
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.
Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian
I’ve mentioned it before but I much prefer Bohjalian’s historical fiction to his regular fiction. So when I heard him speak last January, he mentioned his Skeletons at the Feast as being one of his favorite historical fiction works he had written. I was immediately intrigued as prior I had only read Light at the Ruins and The Sandcastle Girls. Although I’ve read numerous books about the Holocaust and World War II I had never read anything from the German civilian perspective. And that’s exactly what Skeletons at the Feast was primarily about, coupled with the perspective of two Jewish persons. One hears about Germans during World War II and automatically calls them Nazis and anti-Semites. And without making any excuses for the monstrous behavior of the Nazis, many civilians were completely ignorant and almost childlike in what they believed in (i.e. the lies they were told for years by the government, all for the good of the Fatherland). Such is the case of the Emmerich family, who in the waning days of World War II are fleeing from their Prussian home to escape the oncoming Red Army. I am currently reading the nonfiction tome The Fall of Berlin 1945 and it’s heartbreaking to realize the revenge taken on German civilians by the Soviet soldiers, all for what the German army had done at Stalingrad, yet no women or children were at Stalingrad. Skeletons at the Feast will offer you a much needed and truly unheard voice of the German civilian experience when World War II was basically over for the armies but not for the civilians.
The Traitor’s Wife: The Woman Behind Benedict Arnold and the Plan to Betray America by Allison Pataki
As a Philadelphia native, I of course knew the story of one of the city’s most infamous daughters, Peggy Shippen, the beautiful yet cunning and manipulative woman who convinced her husband Benedict Arnold to turn sides during the Revolutionary War and join the British forces after his feeling slighted and betrayed by the American army. The Traitor’s Wife is told from the perspective of Peggy’s maid (who herself supports the Patriot cause) and in the course of it you become intimately introduced to the whole cast of real life characters who were there during the years of the American Revolution and who would forever be tied to this sordid and treacherous chapter in American history-Benedict Arnold, John Andre, George Washington. This was one of my favorite historical fiction reads of 2017.
The Hamilton Affair by Elizabeth Cobbs
Certainly I knew who Alexander Hamilton was but if you asked me to give his wife’s name (without looking it up, mind you), I would have drawn a blank. After securing tickets to see that little talked about musical, I figured it would be a good time to brush up on my Hamilton history, although Ron Chernow’s 832 page book on him didn’t necessarily appeal to me. But that’s when I learned of The Hamilton Affair, a novel telling the story of both Hamilton AND his wife Eliza. I took away two things from the book- Hamilton is a hugely underrated figure in American history, especially considering how much he contributed to the founding of our nation and secondly, what an incredible woman Eliza seemed to be. And more importantly, a woman so ahead of her time. As much as I enjoyed Hamilton the musical, Lin-Manuel Miranda took numerous historical liberties so if you want something more accurate, read The Hamilton Affair.
The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See
Years ago I had read another of Lisa See’s novels, The Shanghai Girls, and it was one of those books where I didn’t understand its enormous buzz. So I was somewhat hesitant to try another of hers but it was a new release and I figured what the heck. The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane explores the lives of a Chinese mother and her daughter, who has been adopted by an American couple. Besides the very intriguing storylines that were a constant throughout the book, I loved learning about Akha people, the indigenous hill tribe to which the mother belongs. I know very little about Asian cultures and virtually nothing about indigenous peoples, so this was a great primer. It also helped to introduce me to pu’er tea, a variety of fermented tea produced in the Yunan province which great numbers of the Akha people harvest.
The Shadowland by Elizabeth Kostova
Let me preface that if you read Kostova’s amazing debut work The Historian, you’ll probably be slightly disappointed by her latest novel, The Shadowland. It was good, but just not great, as follow-up works to critically acclaimed pieces often are. In The Shadowland you first meet the character of Alexandra, a somewhat naive American woman who has traveled to present day Bulgaria to work as an English teacher and to also escape from the pain of losing her brother. Within mere moments of arriving at her hotel, she finds herself in accidental receipt of an ornate box which she discovers contains human ashes and has the name of Stoyan Lazarov. The reader is soon transported back decades ago when Bulgaria was under cruel Communist oppression and when a man’s entire soul and spirit was broken time and time again. This was another great read in the sense I got to learn about a country and its modern day history I knew very little about.
The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant
My blogging/fellow history lover friend Bridget had recommended The Boston Girl to me and it did not disappoint. It tells the story of Addie Baum, a young immigrant girl living in Boston at the turn of the last century. Stuck between two worlds, the one she was born into (Russian -Jewish) and the world in which she now lives, 20th century America, where she doesn’t want to remotely look or behave like a greenhorn. Besides Addie’s being an extremely likable character I really enjoyed the novel’s progression through this period in American history-the heyday of American immigration, the Great War, the Spanish Flu epidemic, the Roaring 20s. It was also very easy to imagine my own great-grandmothers as Addies since they would have been born around the same time.
Day After Night by Anita Diamant
Well, I loved The Boston Girl so much I ended up immediately reading another of hers, Day After Night, which was entirely different on just about every level. It takes place in what was then British Palestine and tells the story of several Jewish women who had survived the horrors of the Holocaust and escaped to Israel, even though in the period immediately following World War II Jewish immigration to Palestine was highly discouraged and illegal. The bulk of the book takes place at an internment center where the refugees were kept following their arrival in Palestine (as the characters say, they went from one camp to another). Another sad and almost tragic historical fiction read to add to the list, whose main characters were all young women who truly had lost their entire families. Several stories that resembled millions of real life others.
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