It’s been a while — “The Paris Wife” for Starters

Life can move along at such a surprising pace sometimes. Just when we find ourselves longing for the new season, we blink and another has passed by and the holidays are at our doorsteps. So it has been for me lately with a new job and a new husband. Wonderful blessings have enriched my year. And reading has been a little less important with wedding planning and any other manner of duties waiting in the wings.

But I have been reading, and wanted to start my catch-up round-up with the book that I just adored, The Paris Wife by Paula McLain. My interest in this book started after I watched Midnight in Paris, which I reviewed a few months ago on the blog. I was thinking about Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and all the greats of that era and how I wanted to go back and read many of the works I studied throughout my journey toward my English degree. I read for class back then, and reading for pleasure and intrigue is a completely different animal as anyone would attest.

So, a good friend of mine recommended The Paris Wife as it tells the tale of Hemingway’s first wife (in Paris), their heart-wrenching love story and its demise, and the journey of Hemingway becoming an author that defined an era. It was fascinating and I knew little biographical information about Hemingway beyond the few facts I dredged up from classroom notes taken many years ago, so much of the story was new to me. I loved being able to “watch” Hemingway become obsessed with the Bulls of Pamplona, and the book seems to have a perfect blend of fiction and historical elements that doesn’t make you resent the author for taking too much artistic license.

It really was a wonderful book and afterward I decided I wanted to read The Immovable Feast by Hemingway soon as it is written about Hadley (his Paris wife).

Overall, this is a great book for lovers of the era, for those just stating to become interested in Hemingway, or for those simply interested in a well-told story.

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The Book Thief: Marcus Zusak

I actually read another book before this one that I have been meaning to blog about, but after staying up late to finish The Book Thief, with tears streaming down my cheeks, I knew I had to write about this one first.

On the back cover of the book, reviews promised that reading this book was one of those life-changing experiences that only a powerful story can achieve. I flipped to the first page with great reverence but skepticism — and I can assure you that upon closing it for the last time last night, I agreed. I am not sure how it will impact my life directly, but it certainly opened a new part of my heart and mind to the vast tragedy of Hitler’s Germany and the Holocaust. While I have read Anne Frank’s diary, Night by Elie Wiesel, and have visited the children’s Holocaust museum — nothing compared to this experience. It was so different and so consuming. It also made me think of all of the ways those lives lost could have changed the world — looking to Greenville’s own example with Max Heller. Max was a Jew who fled Austria just before the Holocaust began and settled in Greenville. He is the father of our town and as mayor, orchestrated the incredibly revitalization and vibrancy that we experience today. He died two years ago but has been memorialized in our community. Six million people, truly?

You see, The Book Thief is narrated by Death. That is established immediately, when Death describes the gathering of souls that occurred during World War 2 within the first few pages. Death is telling the story of The Book Thief, a young German girl who is sent to live with foster parents due to her mother’s poverty. The girl steals books, and though that may sound odd, it is a most poetic thing that the book reveals.

As crazy as it sounds, I never thought about the perspective of the Germans who did not align with the propaganda of the Nazi party, who protected the Jews and sympathized with them — who cowered in basements during air raids and dropped bread crumbs for the Jews marching to Dachau. The Book Thief is one such German.

I don’t want to share too much, but I do want to say that the book is organized non-conventionally and extremely creatively — you will know what I mean when you read it. The ending is horribly sad with a glimmer of hope, and you will cry. But it is wonderful and beautiful — filled with bravery and love, human compassion beyond measure.

Read this book. Just do it.

Sarah’s Key – Tatiana De Rosnay

With the excitement of an impending break, I joyously fought the holiday traffic to visit Barnes and Noble for my perfect Christmas read. I was looking for a gripping story, and one that could be conquered in just a few days of reading. As I was scanning all of the titles, I came across one that seemed familiar. I remembered that I had actually seen the preview for the film adaptation a few months ago and had been absolutely curious about what the “key” was for — although apparently not curious enough to actually go see the movie…

Sarah’s Key is a wonderful story that tells two stories at first, alternating between the two in each chapter. One is in present day, and the other is a third person perspective of a fairly unknown historical event — when the French police rounded up all the Jews in Paris during the Holocaust, including children. This event was important because the Nazis had not yet mandated children be included in the round ups — to them, it was too obvious that their intentions involved extermination if young children were sent to “work camps.” So, the fact that the French police did this on their own was very significant, and a dark history that many people do not know about.

(Now, the book does be sure to state that the story itself is fiction, but that it is based on real accounts. So that is just something to keep in mind when/if you read it.)

The alternating chapters initially seem unrelated, as we learn about Sarah’s journey during the roundup and then the modern day journey of our main character, journalist Julia Jarmond. Julia receives an assignment form her editor to research the round up (Vel’ d’ Hiv) in preparation for its anniversary. Through her research, our two stories become linked — in more ways than you will expect.

This story was wonderful — I was completely absorbed and the suspense of finding out one secret after another was fascinating. It also whet my desire to read more about the Holocaust. I plan to read The Book Thief next, a book lent to me that is also about that time of our world’s dark history. I will say, the ending was not entirely believable and I was somewhat disappointed after the momentum gained in the early to middle chapters. I would definitely still recommend it is an interesting read and look forward to seeing the film.

The Kitchen House – Kathleen Grissom

I may be dragging a little bit today because I was up until the wee hours of the morning finishing this fantastic book, and then awake because I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I think that one of the reviews on the back of the book sums it up best — that Kathleen Grissom has taken Gone With the Wind and turned it on its head with this tale.

This book was recommended to me by one of my blog readers and friends who actually just got married this Saturday (congrats, MG!). I love recommendations and will almost always take them for a book to read, so continue to send them my way. I think one of the reasons she probably loved it because it would certainly appeal to any history major, or someone interested in learning more about society during various phases of our country’s past.

The Kitchen House is a fascinating story because it describes without any discretion or veiled reference what life was often like for slaves and servants in the antebellum days prior to the Emancipation Proclamation. But, it also has a twist. The story is told by two narrative voices. The first is Abinia, an orphaned Irish girl who has been “adopted” into indentured servitude at the ripe age of three, and Belle, a slave born into her station via the rape of her mother by her master. The two perspectives offer complex understandings of the narrative and enrich the story dramatically.

Because Abinia is so young (and traumatized by the death/loss of her family), she adopts the black slaves that take care of her as her own family. She does not understand the difference in color and learns the art of serving from her new family. As Abinia ages, she must face a difficult challenge of not knowing where she belongs in the world and the caste system of the South during that time. She is childlike in spirit and naive in heart.

The story follows Abinia’s journey in particular, shedding light on the world around her through Belle’s perspective. We learn about the abuse and assault on the slaves, the rape of a young boy by an older male tutor, horrible deaths, mental disorder, the powerlessness of women in aiding the slaves they grow to love, and how mixed up life was in the South during the late 1700s. And there is so much more.

This book made me physically ache at times for the helplessness of the slaves, embarrassment that this ever was a part of our history, and also frustration for the impotent way women were able to participate in their own life choices. There is so much more to discuss about the book, but I think that is best done after you read the book!

If you are interested in pre-Civil War plantations and the non-Gone with the Wind glamorization of what slavery life was really like, read this book. I will warn you — it is graphic, it is gory, it is gruesome. But it is true — though the story itself is not a nonfictional account, it is based on historical experiences. And you will not be able to put it down.

Atlas Shrugged (aka, serious commitment)

It has been a while since my last book post, so I thought I would share why. I am in the middle of taking on a book that may be the longest I have ever read. Deciding to start it is like beginning a relationship with someone because it just takes so long to digest what is considered a highly philosophical work–very heavy reading!

I am reading “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand and have finally reached a midpoint. The book was loaned to me by a friend and I have heard much about its tale of capitalism and other philosophical themes. It is also a love story and a study of human relationships and I think those aspects have kept me going when I get bogged down by the heavy theory and industrial detail Rand keeps prevalent throughout the book.

I finally got to the cornerstone of the book’s title this week–Atlas is the mythological god who carries the world on his shoulders and one of the characters asks the question, “What would you do if you were Atlas and the weight of the world had become too much to bear?” He goes on to suggest that he would just shrug it off and let things fall where they may. The story tells of a time when this seems to have occurred–there seems to be chaos and a loss of order. Society is falling apart and government is taking control of all industry in an effort to re-center the world.

Obviously, there are certain analogies with certain political perspectives and modern allegory, but I have been reading this book from an objective view and hope to offer an objective opinion when I have reached its end.

So, that is it for now because I don’t want to say too much until I have figured out where the story is going to go from here. I will say that it is very interesting to be reading this book amid our current economic climate.

I have seen a couple of interesting movies that I will be posting on soon, but just wanted to share a bit on Atlas Shrugged for now.

“The Help” – Kathryn Stockett

It is rare that I read a book and am kept awake at night because I feel so passionate about a character that is new to my world. A character that is not real but who feels so much like a real person that I cannot get them out of my head. In this case, reading “The Help” led to me sitting in my bed seething and imagining what I would do to Hilly if she were to walk into my life as a real person. I must confess that some of my fantasies were quite violent–it is hard not to feel that way about Hilly, trust me.

“The Help” is the first novel written by Kathryn Stockett and has been on the best sellers list for quite a while. I saw people reading it on planes, always in the front racks at Barnes and Noble, and I saw it in my house where my mom left it on my bed at my childhood home after raving about how good it was and how I must read it. So, I picked it up and was amazed by just how right everyone was–this is a phenomenal book.

Taking place in Jackson, Mississippi during some of the most critical years of the Civil Rights Movement, “The Help” emphasizes the impact of the movement on African-American maids working for white families. It also tells the story of a young woman, Skeeter, who quietly and carefully advocates for the rights of black women in her community.

The book does a wonderful job of conveying how brave it was for Skeeter to have such progressive ambitions as every white family member and friend in her life  takes part in unforgivable abuse and prejudice towards the black community. Stockett also explains through instances in the story (some fictional, and some that are quite famous and factual) the risks that were taken by blacks and whites to fight for racial equality.

Oh, and Hilly…Hilly is the quintessential southern debutante who went to college to shop for a husband and whose greatest ambition in life was to become president of the Junior League. She will not be double crossed and is the worst enemy you could ever find. She believes that black people have diseases, that they do not belong in the white world, (except, of course, to serve) and she will stop at nothing to achieve revenge for any wrongdoing. Hilly is evil. Hilly is representative of many southern women that really were just like her. And Hilly made me grit my teeth and think of all the ways I would like to punish her for what she did.

But, the book also presents the incredibly conflicting emotional relationships that existed. Skeeter learns about some of the horrifying things her mother has done while also learning her mother is suffering with cancer–how can she hate her and love her at the same time? And how can the maids who are abused again and again by their white employers love their children as much as they love their own?

I must stop here so you will read it on your own but this book has affected me in ways that I hope to carry with me for a long time. I will not forget it.

“Ghost Riders” – Sharyn McCrumb

Here is another book that I may have never read if it had not been lent to me. I love how sharing books can open up new ways of thinking for people! I am so glad I read it as it has wet my appetite for learning more about the Reconstruction following the Civil War.

“Ghost Riders” is set in the Appalachian Mountains and tells the tale of the impact of the Civil War on those who lived in these mountains bordering North and South Carolina, in particular. Sharyn McCrumb poured over historical documents to learn more about the people who lived in these mountains and the way the war affected them. Families were divided on which side they were on from farm to farm and that made for a very unique war.

McCrumb used the real stories of a woman who dressed as a male soldier to fight alongside her husband, a famous governor of North Carolina (Zebulon Vance), and a few other central characters to provide a frame of realistic reference and offer credibility to her story.

The story is told from the perspective of several characters and weaves its way through modern and past times to show the way the Civil War left a massive impact that is still felt to this day. The tales of those who faced the war head on are juxtaposed with the modern-day reenactors and those who have “the sight” and are able to communicate with the ghosts that play a significant part in the story. At times, these changing perspectives can be confusing and it is easy to mix them up, but the style offers a comprehensive way of viewing the way the mountains bore the horrors of war.

She uses the supernatural presence of ghosts of soldiers on both sides to signify the ways in which the war is still not over. Grudges were formed between families who sided with either the Confederacy or the Union that she suggests are still felt today.

Having grown up in both North and South Carolina, I have often visited Grandfather Mountain, a unique mountain that is now known for its mile high suspension bridge between the twin peaks. Grandfather Mountain is an important character of sorts in the book as it serves as a haven to those resisting joining up with the Confederates and also a death trap for those who are caught. Thinking of all of the time I have spent there hiking and visiting, it is difficult to fathom the role it played during the Civil War.

At the end of the story, I was struck by how difficult it must have been to go on after the war was over. In the story, one of the characters sagely suggests that it is easy to start a war but almost impossible to make it stop. Despite the fact that the Confederacy had surrendered, there were still scores that many felt needed to be settled and the war was far from over for them. This was a dark time for our country and a time of healing that I imagine many thought was not possible.

McCrumb does a wonderful job of proving this difficulty and making her readers really think about how such a war tore apart our country.