Cayla’s Reading: “The Women in the Castle” by Jessica Shattuck

women in the castleI’m drawn to World War II fiction, particularly centered around women. Therefore, the premise of the widow of one of the men who plotted to assassinate Hitler gathering other Resistance widows in her family castle post-war was irresistible. After finishing, and pondering over this book for about a week, I am still of mixed emotions.

Marianne von Lingenfels is a formidable, complex character. She is passionately idealistic to the point of being unable to see the human complexities of the people she encounters. To Marianne, you are either a Nazi or you are not, there is no grey area. The other widows and children she manages to pluck out of the post-war DP camps are not quite as black and white. Fragile, romantic Benita burns with her own quiet strength, yearning for a life she’ll never have. Stoic Ania harbors secrets darker than anyone might imagine. Their children struggle for any resemblance of normal childhood after losing their fathers and living through the horrors of war.

The book starts in 1945 and then jumps forward to 1950, and then 1991, with several flashbacks to during and before the war. At first, I thought the author should have lingered in 1945 a bit longer. I was fascinated by life for the widows in the castle, learning to live with each other and find meaning in their new lives.

But as the book went on, I realized the book isn’t so much historical fiction as it is a study in psychology and how each person handles tragedy. The plot in itself doesn’t really matter. It was, of course, an interesting look at post-war Germany, a perspective we don’t often get in fiction. We got to see insight into how German society put itself back together after such a terrible and divisive war. But it really is about the characters. Some find purpose and passion in reconstructing Germany. Some struggle to adapt, some try to forget, and some are trapped in regret and pain and cannot move on at all.

We also got to see how each of the grown children handled their lives after the war. Some want nothing to do with their histories, some study it, and all struggle with relationships and connections. Seeing each character at each point in time was really a remarkable study in human psychology. The events in the book didn’t feel like a nicely arranged plot, either. I actually had to check if they were based in reality, they had that certain random quality that made me think it had to be partly true. It turns out, the only true part is the assassination plot against Hitler. But, Shattuck is half-German and based a lot of the emotional content on her grandparents’ experience during the war.

All in all, I think I liked it, but it isn’t an easy book to read or to digest!



Marie’s Reading: “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” by Michael Chabon

the-amazing-adventures-of-kavalier-clay-book-coverHow am I only just reading this now?

Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay has actually been on my to-read list for a while.  People rave about this one, and lots of people I know call it one of their favorite novels of all time. After reading it, I see why.  It’s got everything.

It’s complex and intricate, but approachable and funny.  The characters are three-dimensional and, while not always likeable, always human. The whole saga has a leisurely pace that manages to be sweeping and compelling.  It’s got pathos and atmosphere and brilliant historical detail, including cameos by historical figures.  It’s got World War II, comic books, escapists and magicians, a story frame which treats Kavalier and Clay as actual figures in the golden era of comics, and a poignant family story.

The basic story is this: In 1939 New York City, Joe Kavalier, a refugee from Hitler’s Prague, joins forces with his Brooklyn-born cousin, Sammy Clay, to create comic-book superheroes.  The two form Empire Comics, and create a character called The Escapist.  The story follows Joe and Sam through the war years and into the mid 1950’s, when superhero comics are going out of fashion.

Chabon takes a lot of time exploring all of the inspiration and fantasies that go into Sam and Joe’s creations as they mature and grow as people, and as the world changes around them.  The history of comics in America figures into the plot quite a bit.  Most of all, the themes of heroism and escapism (two big appeal factors for superheroes) shine through the most in this meaty novel.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is an amazingly rich, detailed, intelligent and entertaining story.  I’d suggest it if you’re after a novel to immerse yourself in, if you enjoy novels about the Jewish experience in World War II, if you enjoy novels about New York City, and if you enjoy family-saga type stories.  Really.  It’s got a little something for everyone.


April Simply Books! Meeting

Thank goodness for the stalwart Simply Books! crew.  Gentlefolk and scholars all.

I was sick on Saturday.  While I chugged Dayquil and herbal tea and watched Spaced on YouTube, four of our regulars got together and had a great meeting.  So I’ll say again: thank goodness for this wonderful group!  I can’t tell you how nice it is that they don’t even need a facilitator around.

Many many thanks to the member who served as scribe this month, and then sent me the list!  I appreciate it immensely!

Here’s the list of books the Simply Books! members talked about this month:

improve marriage the constant princess


all the lightOur next meeting is scheduled for Saturday, May 23rd at 2pm at the library.  It will be our last official meeting of the season!  Hard to believe summer break is already upon us.  As ever, we’ll reconvene in September.

See you in May!


All the Light We Cannot See

Anthony Doerr’s dazzling novel All the Light We Cannot SeeAll the Light We Cannot See follows a girl and a boy brought together by the Nazi invasion of France during the Second World War.

Marie-Laure, age 12, is the only child of a widowed French locksmith working at the National History Museum in Paris. Blind from the age of 6, she depends on her father and becomes the center of his world. He brings her books in Braille and teaches her to read. A talented carver, he creates a minutely detailed model of their corner of Paris so that, using her fingers, Marie-Laure can memorize the neighborhood. The books and the carvings enable Marie-Laure to have a life outside their apartment, but she also has a rich inner life. “She has no memories of her mother but imagines her as white, a soundless brilliance. Her father radiates a thousand colors, opal, strawberry red, deep russet, wild green; a smell like oil and metal, the feel of a lock tumbler sliding home, the sound of his key rings chiming as he walks. He is an olive green when he talks to a department head, an escalating series of oranges when he speaks to Mademoiselle Fleury from the greenhouses, a bright red when he tries to cook. He glows sapphire when he sits over his workbench in the evenings, humming almost inaudibly as he works, the tip of his cigarette gleaming a prismatic blue.”

Werner, the same age as Marie-Laure, lives in a small-town orphanage in Germany with his younger sister, Jutta. He has a gift for engineering; when he was a little boy, he figured out how to build a radio, and for years, he and Jutta listen late at night over his homemade set, their favorite broadcast a French program on science. “Werner likes to crouch in his dormer and imagine radio waves like mile-long harp strings, bending and vibrating over Zollverein, flying through forests, through cities, through walls. At midnight he and Jutta prowl the ionosphere, searching for that lavish, penetrating voice. When they find it, Werner feels as if he has been launched into a different existence, a secret place where great discoveries are possible, where an orphan from a coal town can solve some vital mystery hidden in the physical world.” From building a radio, he moves to fixing radios, and everyone comes to him with their sets—including, finally, the Nazis.

Prompted by rumors that the Reich’s army is marching on Paris, Marie-Laure and her father flee to Saint-Malo on the coast of Brittany. Meanwhile, Werner is torn from Jutta, swept into the army, and shuttled across France to hunt renegade radio signals.

This is a story of war and of the effects of war on people. The book jumps between the children’s stories, the tension builds as evil and horror loom ever larger, and we become frightened for Werner and Marie-Laure.  But this book is more than a gripping war story. Doerr’s gorgeous descriptions—of wholesome food, clean water, fresh air, an embrace, a beloved melody, the feeling of safety—draw us in and remind us of what we often take for granted, the simple glorious things we often fail to see.


December Simply Books! Meeting

A fresh new year means fresh new reads from the Simply Books! group.  Though technically, this was our December meeting, I’m counting it as 2015.

Here are the titles we talked about last Saturday!  I’ve included the reader’s comments and descriptions, which I noted to the best of my ability.  (It’s hard to take notes with this crew, they’re so fast and funny and smart, I always miss a few things….a good problem to have):

War in Val D’Orcia, 1943-1944 by Iris Origo
Origo wrote this diary during WWII, and it  was published largely unedited in 1947.  Origo wanted to keep the emotional immediacy of  her experiences, and it was well worth the effort. During the war Origo and her husband  owned a 4,000 acre farm complex in Tuscany, where they took in twenty-three children from the city as well as housed and protected deserters and travelers.  She wrote every day  for two years, describing their activities on the farm, the visitors they’d had, the  German inspections. Her story of life “on the ground” during wartime makes you think  about what war does to people–how many soldiers are just regular people who would rather  not be where they are, and how sometimes war can bring out the best in people.

Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life by Roxana Robinson
This was a re-read of the hefty but rich  biography of O’Keeffe.  The artist was a fiercely independent extreme introvert who loved nature, and felt that art comes from feeling and intuition (which made her a bit of a maverick in the art world of her time).  Her nuances and complexities make her a  compelling subject for biography.  Robinson also includes a lot of discussion about  schools and theories of art, which adds to the already rich life story.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
This modern classic centers on an impeccable  butler named Mr. Stevens, who has spent his life in service to one Lord Darlington at  Darlington Hall.  The plot centers on Mr. Stevens taking a road trip (with his new  employer’s car) to retrieve the housekeeper he used to work with.  Along the way,  disturbing, rattling memories begin to surface, as well as the realization that the man  Stevens idolized wasn’t as wonderful as he seemed.  A fascinating character study as well as an instructive meditation on the human ability to self-deceive.

The Four Graces by D.E. Stevenson
A delightful, charming, witty story of a vicar and  his four daughters in a small quirky village in England during the second world war.   It’s fun but not frivolous, very much of its time.  A lovely read.

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant
A novel which tells the story of Jacob’s only daughter,  Dinah.  This fictionalized account of her life is very rich in Biblical history, womens’  issues, and relationships (the red tent is where the women of the tribe go in times of  menstruation and childbirth, to receive guidance and support from fellow tribeswomen).   It’s nice to hear a Bible story from a woman’s perspective, and to learn more about daily  life in that time and place.

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
The reader had just started this novel, but had read  The Kite Runner and was very impressed with Hosseini’s phenomenal job of portraying  both a woman’s perspective and that of modern Afghanistan.

Revival by Stephen King
He did this story at least twice already, and did it better  and scarier in Pet Sematary, and better and more heartrending in The Green Mile. Namely, the exploration of grief and what comes after death–in this story, it has to do  with a former minister broken by loss and grief and obsessed with what he calls “secret  electricity.”  All of the good elements of King are there, his characters and compelling  storytelling ability.  What’s missing is either drama or horror this time around, at least not in the usual doses.

There you have it!  If you’d like to join us for our January meeting, bring your latest greatest read to the Jean Picker Room on Saturday, January 24th at 2pm.



Marie’s Reading: “Elizabeth Is Missing” by Emma Healey

Elizabeth is MissingNot since my Jennifer McMahon binge have I read such an un-put-down-able novel.  I read about it a while ago, but it was an encounter with a reader at the library that got me started on it.

A regular patron was in on Saturday morning.  She asked, “Have you read Elizabeth Is Missing?”

“No!” I replied, “But it’s on my list.”  And it has been.  I’d actually checked it out and had to return it unread (story of my life) earlier in the week.    “Is it good?”

But the patron just smiled coyly at me.  I pressed her.  “Is it really compelling?  Is it well-done?”

Nothing.  Just that smile.

“You’re not going to tell me anything, are you?” I asked.  And she scooped up her books without making eye contact and said, “Bye!”

Out the door she went.  I went immediately to the New Fiction shelf, snatched up Elizabeth Is Missing, and started reading it on my morning break.  I finished it in one weekend.

If it turns out that coy smile meant the patron hated it, I will be very sad.  Because Healey’s story is tightly constructed, believably narrated, and affecting in its depiction of a person’s slide into Alzheimer’s.

Read More »

Marie’s Reading: “The Secret Keeper” by Kate Morton

secret keeperI’ve failed my third-grade level Language Arts assignment.  Three times I have tried and three times I have failed to summarize Kate Morton’s latest novel, The Secret Keeper, in a coherent paragraph.  It’s a hard storyline to describe succinctly, because it’s not just storyline.  There are a million storylines going at once with a bajillion characters inhabiting them.

I might be embellishing just a tad.  Find Amazon’s description, my thoughts, and read-alikes after the jump.Read More »