book review

Lilac Girls – Martha Hall Kelly

The Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly is the story of three women in WW2, one American philanthropic socialite, one young Polish concentration camp prisoner and one ambitious German camp doctor. The American and German women are fictionalized portrayals of real historical figures, while the Polish woman is based on multiple women’s stories. It is a true story in the sense that the events the author portrays really took place and this makes the already compelling read impossible to look away from. The fictionalized nature of the retelling brings these people to life in a way that a dry text never would. In this way, the author has done a service to these women.

Hall captures the story of a young Polish girl who is a peripheral member of the Polish underground and is suddenly arrested, along with those around her, and transported to Ravensbruck concentration camp for women. She has never heard of a camp before but is fortunate enough to speak German and French (and not be Jewish) which helps her survive. She is also with family and friends when she is taken, so her community is with her, which both helps and hurts as she has people to rely on and people to lose.

In the camp she encounters a German female doctor, whose ambitions, inculcated racism, and commitment to the Reich quickly overcame any humanitarian feelings she initially had over mass murder and live experimentation. In her quest for glory, and nursing a grudge against others who do not give her credit based on her gender, she willingly joins a doctor who is choosing “rabbits” to experiment on, without anesthesia, supposedly in order to test the effectiveness of a specific class of antibiotics on casualties of war. Her callousness and ability to ignore the pain she is causing to people in front of her for the sake of invisible German soldiers is astonishing.

The American woman comes into the story because of her aid work with French orphans during and after the war. She comes across the story of these women and lobbies to provide them medical assistance and worldwide recognition for the horrors they endured.

This is simultaneously the story of the great evil and great compassion humans are able to show one another. The contrast between the German doctor and American philanthropist aptly shows the range of human interaction and how we can directly affect the lives of others for better or for worse. It is a story of amazing survival in the face of unspeakable horrors, humanized by the fictionalized retelling which lets you really get to know the characters. I also like that it shows prose snapshots of events from pre-war all the way through post-Nuremburg trial events so you felt like you got as much of the entire story as it is possible to tell. I loved that in many instances, Kelly uses direct words from their first person accounts in order to give the characters authentic motives for their behavior.

I recently read Night, by Elie Weisel, and was so struck by the biographical horrors he relates that I was unable to write a review because it felt disrespectful to his words and experiences. You should read that book, but that’s all I feel capable of saying about it. Kelly’s retelling of true events in Lilac Girls provides humanity and kindness and she treats the subject with the respect it deserves, but also gives it a handle that makes it easier to address. The fictionalized account makes it a bit easier to read and talk about, without degrading or dehumanizing any of the real people portrayed in the story. She handles an amazingly hard subject in the German doctor without detracting from the doctor’s own humanity – something a lot of authors writing about Nazis cannot do. This portrayal is important, because it is easy to demonize the people who committed these atrocities, easy to forget that it was regular people who were part of the German extermination campaigns – Hall does not let you forget it. It is discomforting and disturbing in a healthy, honest way to recognize yourself even in the darkest characters in her book, while you are encouraged and inspired to emulate the brightest. She brings a historical truth to light in a way that makes you ask, “How did I never know this before?”

book review

Sing, Unburied, Sing – Jesmyn Ward

This book caught my attention because of the beautiful cover, the beautiful title and its spot on the New York Times bestseller list. I read it a couple weeks ago, but I waited to review it because it was so different from the typical book I read and I wanted to sort out my own reactions to it. My initial impression was that I didn’t like it, but in retrospect, it has grown on me considerably. It is unique and compelling, dark and gritty but it has flashes of hope and humanity throughout. The story itself is not cookie-cutter or traditional and in this, the book is strikingly creative. All the characters are deeply flawed which makes them more interesting, but not always likeable. The cultural descriptions and depictions of social class, drug use, and racial prejudices that persist in America are necessary, excellently portrayed, and incredibly difficult to read about.

All of that being said, the actual writing was just okay. It was overly simplistic and stark most of the time interspersed with startling spiritual passages of intense description which made the flow a little odd. It is written from multiple character perspectives, which I usually like, but the characters were slightly too flat to support this type of writing really well. Sometimes, it was hard to tell which character was speaking because the voice did not change enough from person to person.

Overall I think the author addresses the issues she chose to tackle well, and provides illumination that we, as a society, could use more of, but her writing itself wasn’t groundbreaking.

Worth reading (what else can you expect from a NYT bestseller?) and an interesting story, but you won’t find classic or beautiful writing.

book review

Barry Lyndon – William Makepeace Thackeray

I could not finish this book. I just tried reading it for the second time this week, and I found myself avoiding reading… good for my step count, but so not me! Reading is my outlet! So, this is kind of an anti-review … what not to read….

I can count on one hand the number of books I haven’t been able to finish … Moby Dick and Barry Lyndon. Two.

Barry Lyndon is a fictional memoir of one of the most pompous, annoying, conceited, useless men who ever existed in literature. While the book itself was full of excellent history, and illuminated 18th century European societies the forced closeness with such a miserable character the form of story demanded was intolerable. So I guess you can say, in that sense, Thackeray succeeded. I felt like I was forcing myself to spend time with a person that made me want to scream – not enjoyable. So, if you have to read this, or you want an account of the time period that covers a lot of countries in Europe have at it… but if you’re reading for enjoyment – don’t!

book review, Quotes

The Portrait of a Lady – Henry James

I have been wanting to read this book for a long time and finally got around to it when I found a beautiful used leather bound copy on Thriftbooks. Here is a picture of it on my Instagram.

The book started out wonderfully but got a little slow and depressing at the end. Overall, it was a really good read. It is less of a story and mostly an in depth look at the personality (a portrait?) of the main character, Isabelle. Henry James really focuses on character development and analysis rather than plot; any plot that does exist only serves the purpose of further illuminating the players by changing the stage on which they are performing. It is also really enjoyable to read because of the elegant writing – even if you don’t love the story, you won’t be able to deny the exquisite language. Read this if you enjoy classic literature, poetic feeling prose and character-focused novels.

The only thing that I found annoying about this book is that every single man that came into contact with Isabelle fell in love with her – it got old after a few hundred pages and made her character feel flatter than it should for one on which the author spends so much time. Despite the overabundance of eligible men, this isn’t a love story in the traditional sense and is definitely a realistic account of flawed personalities. It makes for a less stereotypical, but messier feeling read. Do not read this book if you like neat packages with happy endings, but if you enjoy lifelike consequences for fictional decisions, this is a book for you.

I found so many quotes in this book and I have included a selection of them below.

Continue reading “The Portrait of a Lady – Henry James”

book review

The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy

This book was a really fun read. It is an older historical fiction novel full of comedy, beheadings, secret societies, spies, romance, and of course interesting history – it really covers a lot of bases. I would recommend this book to anyone as it is a fairly light and quick read, but the vocabulary is a bit outdated and the author was fond of really long, uncommon words, so have your phone or a dictionary handy.

The Scarlet Pimpernel is set in the Reign of Terror, and puts a human face on the historical events of the French Revolution and Republican use of the guillotine against the aristocratic classes. The Scarlet Pimpernel is the name of an English James Bond type figure who, along with his band of loyal men, orchestrates the escape of aristocrats out of gated Paris across the channel to England where they will be safe. His symbol is an English star shaped flower, a pimpernel, which he uses to sign his missives. He is an enemy of the Republican government in France, and they start a covert search for him, making the book a race to see who will win.

It is interesting, from a modern American perspective, to see the “good guy” revolutionaries who just wanted a better life cast as really unappealing characters. The book is comical and unexpected and a really great read. I give it 4/5 stars – I definitely want a copy on my shelves and will probably have my children read it when they study the French Revolution as it is a different perspective than the one you usually find. If you’re into living books, this is a book for you!

Rating Scale

1/5 – Awful / would not read again / maybe could not finish.

2/5 – Low quality work / some enjoyment / not worth the time

3/5 – Don’t regret, Don’t love / would add to my shelf if it is a piece of literature

4/5 – Would maybe read again / Definitely would add to my shelf because BOOKS

5/5 – Would definitely read more than once / Must buy / Gives you the happy book love feels.

book review

The Wildling Sisters by Eve Chase

There is something captivating about the word wildling, isn’t there? It’s evocative of freedom and nature and you can almost smell the fresh pine needles on the cool breeze you imagine is carrying you the quiet noises of a dim forest in summer. That feeling is what drew me to pick up this book in an airport recently, and the recommendation by Kate Morton sealed the deal – I couldn’t have stopped my credit card from swiping had I wanted to.

It is a very quick read, reminiscent of the Gothic type stories like Jane Eyre and Kate Morton’s books. It wasn’t of the same caliber as either Bronte’s or Morton’s works, but that is an admittedly high bar by which to measure a book and it certainly was well written, nonetheless. There was just enough creepiness to the characters and background level darkness to keep you avidly reading. It has two story lines taking place in the same location but in different time periods and it is cool to see the result of the previous generations on the later time periods before you find out what truly happened back then. Overall, I would say I am glad it is on my bookshelf and I could see myself re-reading it by the pool or at the beach someday, but I wouldn’t have gone out of my way to add it to a curated collection – unquestionably worth checking out from your local library though!

I give this book 3.5/5 stars because it doesn’t quite meet the need it on your bookshelf requirement, but it also is an engrossing, quality read I would recommend to a friend looking for a quick and fun book.

Rating Scale

1/5 – Awful / would not read again / maybe could not finish.

2/5 – Low quality work / some enjoyment / not worth the time

3/5 – Don’t regret, Don’t love / would add to my shelf if it is a piece of literature

4/5 – Would read again / Definitely would add to my shelf because BOOKS

5/5 – Would definitely read more than once / Must buy / Gives you the happy book love feels.

book review, Quotes

Stoner by John Williams

5-star-google-reviews-1024x567

Someone introduced this book to me as one of the great books of American literature and I was surprised that I had never heard of it. I added it to the book list and finally got around to reading it recently. It was beautiful in a soul aching, real kind of way and even after reading it, I’m not sure why. The book itself is the story of one simple and totally complex man’s life, but it’s also a story of every man. I cannot tell you how the story of an unremarkable man, written without ornamentation reminds me of a heroic epic, but it does. I’m giving this book 5/5 stars because I can’t stop thinking about it a month after I finished it in a good way and its hauntingly clear and simple language. I think I will end up reading it again in the future – it has the book magic.

William Stoner is the son of two poor farmers when he is introduced to the idea of going to university to learn more about agriculture. His parents send him there at great cost to both them and him, but as he starts his coursework he is arrested by one of his general education requirements: literature. I think any book lover will understand why. So begins a lifelong love affair with books that will take him away from his small life and into an idealized life of scholarship and marriage to a “higher-class” woman, which turns out to be less than ideal. It’s the story of one man’s struggle with American society and false dreams, and his power to carry on and find a measure of unexpected happiness. His life is also a recording of great events in American history and spans both world wars. It manages to completely capture and comment on society during that time period in an unobtrusive way – you almost don’t even realize it until you’re done reading. The best part of this book are the characters, all of which are nearly tangible they’re so well portrayed.

Favorite Quotes:

“Sometimes, immersed in his books, there would come to him the awareness of all that he did not know, and all that he had not read.”

“In his forty-third year William Stoner learned what others, much younger, had learned before him: that the person one loves at first is not the person one loves at last, and that love is not an end but a process through which one person attempts to know another.”

“In the University library he wandered through the stacks, among the thousands of books, inhaling the musty odor of leather, cloth, and drying page as if it were an exotic incense.”

 

Rating Scale

1/5 – Awful / would not read again / maybe could not finish.

2/5 – Low quality work / some enjoyment / not worth the time

3/5 – Don’t regret, Don’t love / would add to my shelf if it is a piece of literature

4/5 – Would read again / Definitely would add to my shelf because BOOKS

5/5 – Would definitely read more than once / Must buy / Gives you the happy book love feels.

book review

Circe by Madeline Miller Book Review

This book has been making the rounds on social media lately because THAT COVER ART! So beautiful – definitely a case of wanting a book because of it’s cover. Amazingly, it was also really good – lived up to its shelf appeal. I may be a bit biased because one of my majors was Ancient History in college and I really love mythology and how it informs everyday life even now in quiet ways. This book took an ancient myth and brought it to life for modern readers, it had none of the stuffiness of Edith Wharton’s wonderful and so very dry collection of mythology most students read. It was fittingly spellbinding, as it is about one of the most well known witches of history.

4-stars

I am giving it four stars only because, despite the fact that it is an excellent read, it lacked that hard to define magic which makes a book irresistible. I would recommend it to anyone, even someone without a strong interest in mythology since the characters are well developed and git is beautifully written, but it didn’t make me want to read it over and over and give it a sacred spot on my bookshelf.

Rating Scale

1/5 – Awful / would not read again / maybe could not finish.

2/5 – Low quality work / some enjoyment / not worth the time

3/5 – Don’t regret, Don’t love / would add to my shelf if it is a piece of literature

4/5 – Would read again / Definitely would add to my shelf because BOOKS

5/5 – Would definitely read more than once / Must buy / Gives you the happy book love feels.

Philosophy, Tea and Books

David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion 3.5/5

3-5-stars-2bmbspe

If you’ve ever grappled with the questions of where the universe comes from, if there is a deity, how does science reconcile itself with faith and the ultimate why of the origin of the universe – this is the book for you. This book is filled with philosophical debate set in conversational form making it much more accessible and less dry than a didactic text. IF you’re interested, grab a dictionary and a large pot of tea and settle in to this relatively short read.

My reaction upon reading the book, copied from my journal:

We (mankind as a whole) have always come up with theories to answer the unending whys of the world. We have nearly always and universally held our theories to be self-evident truths. As technology and the breadth of human understanding grows, these self-evident truths have largely fallen by the wayside as scientific explanations overtake them – why not the idea of an omnipotent GOD? Continue reading “David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion 3.5/5”

Quotes, Tea and Books

Book Review – Educated by Tara Westover – 4/5

4-stars

This is probably the best memoir I have ever read. There has been a lot of hype about it on Social Media so I was expecting to be let down but instead I couldn’t put it down. It did feel a little invasive reading something so deeply personal whenever I remembered it was real… but it is a memoir after all. Tara writes about her cloistered childhood in the mountains of Idaho with a religious zealot for a father, holistic healer and midwife for a mother and an abusive brother. Not even issued a birth certificate until she was nine, Tara and her siblings were never formally, or even informally, educated and this is the story of her breaking away from her background to earn her PhD – and the sacrifices she made to do it. I loved that whenever relatives remembered stories differently from her memories she made sure to include the alternate versions – something that reflects the ideals she learns as she gains an education. This is a tale made even more gripping by its truthfulness.

Favorite Quote:

“I had come to believe that the ability to evaluate many ideas, many histories, many points of view, was at the heart of what it means to self-create”

Continue reading “Book Review – Educated by Tara Westover – 4/5”