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 fiction work.
Shanghai Girls by Lisa See
Shanghai Girls first came out in 2009 and while it seemed like something I would enjoy (a riveting historical fiction drama), I only read it last summer. Shanghai Girls tells the story of two sisters, Pearl and May, who are as different as night and day. It opens in the Chinese city of Shanghai shortly before the Japanese invade prior to the start of World War II where the sisters enjoy a luxurious and almost fanciful life. They end up escaping to the United States after the Japanese invasion, with their lives barely intact, although their new lives as American girls are nothing like the ones they left behind. The novel includes everything from the immigrant experience, to war, to immense, dark secrets, to your typical sister squabbles. There is a sequel to Shanghai Girls (Dreams of Joy) and I would definitely have an interest in reading it as I did enjoy the original quite a bit.
The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman
Like me, I think most people would have no idea that one of the most famous painters from the Impressionist period, Camille Pissarro, was not in fact born in Paris or even France, but grew up in the West Indies of all places. The Marriage of Opposites tells the story of Rachel, Pissarro’s mother, who lived on the island of St. Thomas in the early 1800s and never fully fit in among her family or the Jewish community either (Pissarro was Jewish too, something else I was unaware of). As Rachel grows older, she sees as a woman in early 19th century society, how she has no control over her future and the choices she makes, one after the next, cause her and her family to basically be forever ostracized on the island. The story itself is very captivating but I loved Hoffman’s vivid imagery of St. Thomas the most, as I’m sure there are still some pockets of it today that resemble the St. Thomas from over two centuries ago.
Circling the Sun by Paula McLain
I had previously read one of McLain’s other acclaimed works (The Paris Wife) and looked forward to reading her other fictionalized account of a real person’s life. Although I had never heard of her, Beryl Markham was quite the woman. And like many women in the course of history, she was born into a time she didn’t belong due to her independent, headstrong spirit. Beryl grew up in Kenya on a small horse farm in the early 20th century when it was part of the British Empire and did in her life did everything society told her not to (got married at 16 and was divorced a short time later, became a famous horse trainer at a time when this was not at all a woman’s domain). The other neat connection of the book is that the real life Denys Finch Hatten and Karen Blixen (Out of Africa anyone?) are rather prominent characters in the book, so you get another whole side of seeing them as well. Although personally I didn’t care for the character of Markham (I feel she was a bit selfish at times), she still sounded like quite the person, especially considering the era she lived in. McLain does another splendid job of creating this masterfully woven story against the beautiful backdrop of East Africa.
Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
Back in the fall I saw the film Everest and became a bit obsessed with this indomitable mountain. As much as I enjoyed the movie, I liked the book even more since it obviously went into much greater detail. Into Thin Air is Krakauer’s first person account of the infamous 1996 Mount Everest disaster when eight climbers were killed and several others were stranded by a random storm. Krakauer, an avid mountain climber (although he acknowledges in the book that nothing he had scaled came remotely close to the height of Everest) had journeyed to Nepal to climb Everest, the highest mountain in the world, to write an article for the magazine he worked for. Krakauer’s group suffered some of the worst losses including their own guide. In many ways, reading Into Thin Air is akin to dominoes falling, as it seemed one bad decision was made after the next. It’s non-fiction, but reads like a fast paced novel.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
This is a book I started hearing about all the time-in the news, on blogs. So when I happened to see it sitting in the new section at my local library (typically I request new books online for them to come in), it seemed it was telling me I needed to get it. So I did. All the Light We Cannot See is truly an epic World War II novel. It primarily tells the story of a blind French girl and a German solider whose paths cross one day. While there are other characters interspersed throughout the novel, they are in some way connected to the two main ones. I read somewhere that it took Doerr a decade to write this and having read it, I believe it. Not only is it quite long (544 pages), but his level of detail is astounding. The blind French girl (Marie-Laure) ends up fleeing to the coastal town of Saint-Malo with her father following the Nazi invasion of Paris. I’ve never been to the Brittany region and even though it is set during war (and the subsequent German occupation), Saint-Malo from Doerr’s descriptions utterly entranced me; you can almost feel the water of the English Channel. The book continually jumps back between the stories of Marie-Laure and Werner (the German solider) and while at first I didn’t like this since in the beginning the chapters were only a couple of pages each (akin to a musical staccato-nice for a bar, but not something you want to keep hearing), I eventually got used to it and rather preferred it because reading it seemed to make the story more “live.” If you enjoy historical fiction, you will by all accounts love Doerr’s epic work.
Have you read any of these books? Any would like to read?