Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Nightingale, Kristin Hannah

Kristin Hannah's books are hit or miss for me. Sometimes I am completely swept away by the very human worlds she creates, and sometimes they feel a little bit too much like a Lifetime movie for me (I realize I use "Lifetime movie" as a pejorative a lot, but if sappy sentimentalism is your jam, good on ya!). Since The Nightingale was all over lists of book club picks this year, I figured eventually my book club would get around to it.
When we did, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it.

The Nightingale tells the story of two sisters, Vianne and Isabelle. Set against the backdrop of World War II, the story follows the sisters through the German occupation of France. Vianne, whose husband Antoine has left to join the fighting, tries desperately to keep her small family together. She struggles to provide shelter and comfort to her children, all while staying under the radar of the Germans occupying her small rural village. Fiery Isabelle, on the other hand, joins the resistance, and undertakes the dangerous mission of shepherding downed  Allied pilots out of France. She saves dozens of people through her work, but she soon becomes a wanted fugitive, known only as The Nightingale. The sisters experience love and loss and betrayal and, ultimately, triumph, though in very different ways.

While it is important to tell and tell again stories of the Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and dissidents who were sent to the camps, I find that I have developed an appreciation for books that focus on how the average citizen of Germany or France coped with the war. History books give us the major players, and the most important events, but I think that there is much to be learned from hearing about the way that war affects not just those who have been targeted, but those who are forced to live, day after day, under such oppressive conditions. While nothing compares to the horror of the camps, Hannah does an excellent job showing just how treacherous it was just to try and live your life during the occupation. While Isabelle was portrayed as outwardly heroic through her deeds, Vianne's quieter acts say just as much about the human spirit as Isabelle's grand ones. Much like Zusak did in The Book Thief, Hannah shows in The Nightingale that even when things seem the darkest, if you can hold on to even a spark of the light that is in each of us, there is cause for hope.

I think that the most intriguing character, though, is not Vianne or Isabelle. It is the Nazi officer, Capt. Beck, who ends up billeted with Vianne for a time. Hannah creates a character that is clearly struggling with what he is being asked to do. A devoted family man, Capt. Beck is a loyal German, who is also extremely uncomfortable with the way the Nazis treat the occupied French, and with being seen as a monster by the outside world. He ends up being a sympathetic character, even though he doesn't renounce Nazi-ism or help Vianne escape, etc...But he does show another side of the evils of war-forcing basically good men to go against their own nature in the service of an ideal or political goal they may or may not share.

Overall, I enjoyed this read, and it was good for some tear-jerk moments. I'd say even if you haven't been too impressed by Hannah's other work, I'd give this one a try.

Friday, July 01, 2016

The Storied Life of A.J Fikry, Gabrielle Zevin

I'll admit it-I'm a sucker for books about books. Not literary analysis or style guides, mind you. Fictional stories about bookish people, places, or things. So I suppose it's no surprise that I found The Storied Life of A.J Fikry charming and endearing, much like the main character himself.

Fikry's life is getting narrower and narrower all the time. Depressed after the death of his wife, Fikry cuts himself off from his friends and neighbors on Alice Island slowly but surely. His bookstore is doing poorly, and his daily existence mostly consists of brooding in his office, followed by brooding in his apartment alone, except for the bottle of liquor he consumes like it's his job. His friend, Lambiase and his sister-in-law Ismay try to pull him out of himself and back to the world, but Fikry basically doesn't see the point. Even the attractive and persistent book rep, Amelia, who keeps coming to the island determined to make this curmudgeonly client accept at least one of her books.

He thinks things couldn't possibly get any worse, when his most prized possession, a copy of a collection of Poe stories, is stolen. Just when he's about to give up, a surprise package arrives on his doorstep-a baby! In a storyline that is not at all realistic but completely works anyway, he becomes the girl's guardian, and things begin to change for him.

Fikry's character is smart and sarcastic and hilarious. His love of books, and the way in which Zevin writes about them, made me chuckle aloud more than once, despite how hopeless Fikry is for much of the first quarter of the book. Even at his most self-pitying, I couldn't help but like Fikry. Which makes the ending all the more poignant. Zevin was not lazy with this one. All of the plot points are nicely summed up, and while many authors would have stopped at what was definitely one of the happiest points in the story, she didn't. Not only did the novel move past the easy, happy ending, it somehow made the not-as-happy ending into something wonderful. Zevin explores the power of words and stories, and the way that community and family are created in so many different ways.

It probably didn't hurt that this book contains two dreams of mine: island living and owning a bookshop. A bookshop on an island sounds pretty much like heaven to me. So yeah, I was predisposed to love this book. And love it I did, not just because of the bookishness of it all, but because of the heart and soul of this story of love and life and family and power of ideas.