If you read the goodreads reviews on Manhattan Beach you will see varied and strong opinions. Many people who loved Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, A Visit from the Goon Squad, did not like this one. But you can count me in the group who loved this newer book, only the second I’ve read off my fall/winter reading list. In fact I was excited to also add it to my WWII reading list.
“With the atmosphere of a noir thriller, Jennifer Egan’s first historical novel is a world of gangsters, sailors, divers, bankers, and union men.”
As the above note from the publisher implies, a lot is going on in this book. There is a family story, a strong woman helping the war effort story (the main character is the first female Naval diver), a love story about the sea, and a gangster plot that is integrated into all these other stories. It is sometimes a light read and sometimes not. Parts of it reminded me of several different books, but taken all together I have not read anything like it ( a good thing!).
For me it all worked, and in fact it is one of my favorite books of the year though I still feel my favorite is out there somewhere waiting for me to read it…
Like many other readers, I have a fascination with the WWII genre. These stories give me insight into the time period when my grandfather was fighting a war across the world and my grandma was raising children on the home front. These are the times I never asked enough about. Even so, their answers and experiences, had asked all the questions I wish I would have, would be vastly different than those of someone living in occupied France or being bombed in London or experiencing the horrors in Germany and Eastern Europe.
Soon, as this generation leaves us, all we will have left are stories. Thankfully the authors whose books I profile below and others like them have done the daunting amount of work to recreate these experiences. Yes, it may be historical “fiction” but most of these authors spent years researching and interviewing survivors. I learned more about historical events from these books than I ever did in a class.
These stories are not always enjoyable. Parts of them are horrifying. So why put myself through this and why recommend this reading to you? For me it is a way to honor everything that was sacrificed and everyone who was lost. I also enjoy looking for the good and the helpers in the tragedies. It is also self-reflective: What would I have done? How would I have handled that experience or horror? For what it’s worth, after reading all of these books, I have a better understanding of this time period, human nature, and myself.
I will continue adding to this list because I have several other books in my queue so stay tuned.
I just finished reading The Women in the Castle: A Novel, a solid addition to the WWII fiction genre that filled the void since I enjoyed The Nightingale and several others from the past few years.
In fact I am working on a WWII fiction reading list and I am going to keep this post short so I can get back to compiling that before Memorial Day! I have been compiling this reading list for several months now but keep wanting to “add one more” to the list…
The beginning of this new novel by Jessica Shattuck reminded me of Belgravia, where socialites are enjoying a party – this time in a Bavarian castle – and love is in the air. But war is on the horizon, so the fun is short lived and duty calls both soldiers and resistors away.
Apparently during WWII 100,000 European women married American soldiers! So after the war, the U.S. government sent thousands of these women to America on The Queen Mary luxury liner, which is now docked in Long Beach, CA.
The latest of my many WWII fiction reads, A Bridge Across the Ocean by Susan Meissner, follows the stories of three war brides as they experience the horrors of the war, meet their husbands, and later make the trip on the Queen Mary “across the ocean.” Of course as in many modern novels the chapters jump back and forth between past and present so a reader learns key information at various times to make the story most intriguing.
Like one of the characters in The Orphan’s Tale: A Novel, I didn’t expect to find myself in a circus during a WWII read.
“…it is hard to believe that such a world still exists even during the war. I might have been less surprised to find myself on the moon,” says Noa after finding refuge in a circus troupe.
Not to be confused with the previously bestselling Orphan Train, especially since the cover of this newer book has a train and instead of a circus, The Orphan Tale by Pam Jenoff is set in WWII Europe.
Noa, cast away by her family for becoming pregnant, rescues another baby boy from a boxcar of Jewish infants headed towards a concentration camp. Then, taken in by a German circus, Noa gets training in the art of trapeze and also finds deep friendship from her mentor Astrid, who has her own secrets and heartaches.
I woke up early this morning to finish Lilac Girls: A Novel (2016). It’s hard to sleep when someone (in your book) has just returned from a concentration camp.
This book by Martha Hall Kelly came highly recommended, and it turned out to be a fitting finale for my WWII reading binge.
From three perspectives – a German doctor, an American society girl who volunteers in the French consulate, and a Polish prisoner – the book spans the years 1939 – 1959. As expected, the three lives eventually collide. The beautiful book cover projects friendship (three women walking arm in arm) and did not prepare me for the horrors described within its pages, specifically the descriptions of the Ravensbruck concentration camp, the only major concentration camp for women in Germany.
As you may remember, I’ve been reading my way through WWII. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is my latest read in this genre. Due to some stylistic choices and a story line that is close to my heart and this blog (books!), I’m naming it as one of my favorites of this genre. Here’s why:
One of the most intriguing narrators I can remember, “Death” tells this story. Death’s point of view is interesting, profound, and even humorous, dryly of course, as you would expect death’s humor to be. Death is also very tired, especially during this setting. As busy as Death is, it still takes the time to notice the color of the sky at each soul’s taking.
A story of two sisters living in German-occupied France during WWII, Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale depicts women who moved beyond survival to actively aid the resistance movement.
The younger rebellious sister is not content to just survive the occupation and wants to do more to help the resistance, and she does. The older sister, who must also consider her daughter after her husband goes to war, focuses on survival, at first anyway.
Chris Cleve notes in his fascinating Author’s Note for Everyone Brave is Forgiven,
“I belong to the last generation of writers who can still talk to people who lived through the Second World War.”
We readers have been kept busy the past couple of years with several bestselling and critically acclaimed novels set during World War II. As Cleve’s note implies, too soon any additional novels on this topic may not be as historically accurate or inspired, so I am happy for this influx of reading material.
RELATED POST: All the Light We Cannot See
Cleve, for example, loosely based this novel on his grandparents.
He says of the quick loves and engagements from this era,
“Theirs was a generation whose choices were made quickly, through bravery and instinct, and whose hopes always hung by a thread.”
“Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they are closed forever.” – Anthony Doerr in All the Light We Cannot See
A Pulitzer-Prize-winning bestseller hardly needs my recommendation. And you likely don’t need another raving review telling you the story line of All the Light We Cannot See, which of course includes a blind French girl and a conflicted Nazi-youth, both coming of age in WWII Europe.
Thus, my reflections today focus on the glorious sea and the power of the radio, especially its music. (no spoliers!)