The Nightingale

The Nightingale“In love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are.”

The Nightingale was one of the most popular books of 2015 and—clocking in with 85% five-star reviews out of nearly twenty thousand reviewers—was deservedly one of the best. While it’s not my favorite book of all time (it’s hard to beat Jane Eyre, eh?), I thoroughly enjoyed it and admired what the author, Kristin Hannah, accomplished with it.

The Nightingale traces the World War II experiences of two French sisters, Vianne and Isabelle, who illustrate two varying ways of facing—enduring—the horrors of war. Vianne—wife, mother, and housewife—finds out just how deeply war reaches into her “everyday.” And Isabelle, the young and reckless little sister, discovers that war presents once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. The essence of their story is that war makes us figure out what we’re made of.

War strips away all the things that we depend upon: our money, our government, our homes, our friends, our family (and especially for many women, our husbands), and our faith. Vianne and Isabelle, both with original, convincing personalities, react to their losses in contrary ways. Vianne tends toward denial, blind trust, and then resignation and a tendency to let the enemy walk all over her. Isabelle leans toward hot-headed rebellion and defiance, a desire to do something, and a determination never to surrender. The German arrival in France brings both sisters to a tipping point—how will they choose to live?

I haven’t read any of Kristin Hannah’s other books, but I admire her easy, effortless writing style and attention to detail. Don’t be fooled by her reputation—The Nightingale isn’t romance or chick-lit. It’s an immersive experience of life in occupied France—sights, sounds, smells, food—of what it was like to flee the German invasion of Paris, watch the Nazis round up the Jews, work in the French Resistance, or live in a house with occupying soldiers. And Hannah faces the hard questions of life head on. How would YOU react if war came into your life? How do you treat loved ones that have hurt you in the past? What do you do when the enemy starts blurring the line between enemy and friend? How far would you go to protect your friends or your family? How do you explain war to your children? Why does God allow such horrific events? How far will you go to follow your conscience?

What makes The Nightingale stand out from the rest of 2015’s popular fiction? I think part of it lies in our fascination with World War II. We know some of these people—Vianne and Isabelle are our mothers and grandmothers. And Hannah draws us in, by finding and exploring the heart of emotions and relationships. For me, The Nightingale brings to fiction everything I love about studying social history—what life was like every day for women, children, the elderly. This is what happened around and between and because of those dates and political movements in the history textbooks.

If you enjoy historical fiction or are interested World War II, you will enjoy the unique perspective of The Nightingale.

[Fair warning: there are some graphic and mature scenes and some language.]
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“In love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are.” (1)

“These questions are not about them, but about us…. Don’t think about who they are. Think about who you are and what sacrifices you can live with and what will break you.” (126)

“Love has to be stronger than hate, or there is no future for us.” (410)

“Men tell stories…. Women get on with it. For us it was a shadow war. There were no parades for us when it was over, no medals or mentions in history books. We did what we had to during the war, and when it was over, we picked up the pieces and started our lives over.” (436)

The Boys in the Boat

The Boys in the Boat“Spellbinding.” “Breathtaking.” “A Triumph.” All of those words that reviewers and authors throw at books in the front matter are absolutely true of The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown. It is one of the best books I’ve read in the last twelve months, if not one of the best books I’ve ever read in this genre.

If you’re like me, one of the most captivating aspects of the Olympics is the story films that run before the athletic events. These pieces explore the personalities of the athletes and the varied journeys that brought them to the Olympics. The Boys in the Boat is one of those films in book form, the difference being that you have hours to enjoy it.

The Boys in the Boat follows the story of a nine-man rowing crew from the University of Washington, with a specific focus on one oarsman, Joe Rantz. By some magic, Daniel Brown discovered Joe next door to his own property, living out his last days under the care of his daughter. Brown was spell-bound by Joe’s account and, happily for us, recorded it for history.

Joe’s story is similar to that of many other boys who came to adulthood during the Depression, and mirrors the lives of the boys that he rowed with in the Olympics. He grew up without money, without the love and support of family, yet somehow found the courage and backbone to care for himself, not ask for hand-outs, and work his way through college. He endured the emotional ups-and-downs of trying to make the varsity crew and then of pushing himself to make each race count. Through his eyes, we experience the wonder of those western boys as they saw the posh East Coast, and then Europe, for the first time. And looking back, we sense the eeriness of the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Daniel Brown has a wonderful way with words. His evocative portrayal of Depression-era Washington state and America brings that period to life. He describes the sport of rowing in a poetic and inspiring way. He tells Joe’s story with great compassion and beauty, making the life of this extraordinary ordinary man so addictive I didn’t want to put the book down.

The Boys in the Boat is one of those books like Unbroken that I’ll be keeping on the shelf for my children to read when they grow older. I believe it is vitally important that our kids, who, for the most part, have it so very easy, learn from the examples of men like Joe who worked and worked to make a life, even when the odds were stacked against them.

Go Set a Watchman

Go Set a Watchman

The dust has settled now around Harper Lee’s over-hyped and over-disparaged second (or is it first?) novel, Go Set a Watchman. I say over-hyped—was it ever really probable to expect the second-coming of a book the likes of To Kill a Mockingbird? (Maybe I’m an eternal pessimist.) And over-disparaged, because those who expected more Mockingbird didn’t get it, and judged it unfairly.

The way we feel about Go Set a Watchman hinges on how we feel about, or how much we feel about To Kill a Mockingbird. Maybe you grabbed the book as soon as it appeared at the store. Or maybe you’ve been afraid to read it, because you didn’t want new revelation to discolor your view of Maycomb, Atticus, and Scout. I admit I put it off for a couple of months and gave myself time to firmly ground my feelings for To Kill a Mockingbird by re-reading it. I think that’s the best thing I could have done, and what I’d suggest if you still haven’t read Go Set a Watchman. It turns out that they’re inseparable or, at the least, that Watchman cannot be understood or appreciated without an understanding and emotional attachment to Mockingbird.

Here is my take-away: If the moral of To Kill a Mockingbird is do right, even if you’re licked, then the moral of Go Set a Watchman is the right is not going to look the same to everybody.

(If you haven’t read Watchman yet, read with caution. But if you have read it, I’d love to find out whether or not you read it the same way I did.)

Scout, or the more grown-up Jean Louise, returns home to Maycomb after a stint in the heart of Yankee-dom, New York City. She has changed and Maycomb has changed. The Maycomb of Mockingbird was insulated, but the Civil Rights Movement is beginning to roll through the South and now Maycomb faces the outside world. In Maycomb, Jean Louise finds her beau, Hank, and her rock, Atticus, party to a reactive racism so repulsive that she becomes physically ill. She learns the hard way that you can’t ever go home again.

Jean Louise’s interactions with—and reactions to—her loved ones in Maycomb are nuanced, instructive, and heart-breaking. She endures one of the hardest parts of coming of age—the realization that you no longer believe the same things your parents believe. She learns that life is filled with grey areas. The black and white, right and wrong perceptions of childhood don’t always withstand the questions of adulthood. She learns who her “kind” is—Atticus is, Hank isn’t—by what motivates their choices. And she has to choose to live with compassion towards them, to choose not to hate them because they chose differently.

This lesson is one of the greatest lessons in maturity. How should we approach our inscrutable fellow men? With compassion. Atticus tells us to wear their shoes in Mockingbird. And how do we approach unexplainable history—that place filled with the fellow men that we do not always understand? With compassion. Go Set a Watchman illuminates one of those historical eras that modern man has a hard time understanding. But it is unfair to place ourselves in a position of superiority and judge the workings of history (after all, our lives will be subjected to the same in a few short years). Atticus and Maycomb are steeped in their Southern past—they cannot escape it’s effect on their thinking. If we look with compassion at Atticus, who many readers believe turned into a bitter old racist, we can see that in his situation he has turned into a realist. He sees problems in the black community (and yes, maybe these problems were caused by white people) that will only be exacerbated by the Civil Rights Movement. And he sees a Southern culture that needs time to make changes on its own and not have them handed down from above.

In the end, Jean Louise learns that maybe, just maybe, there can be more than one right point of view. We each have to follow our conscience, our Watchman, and work together. She says, “I guess it’s like an airplane: they’re the drag and we’re the thrust, together we make the thing fly. Too much of us and we’re nose-heavy, too much of them and we’re tail-heavy—it’s a matter of balance.” For me, this parallels the many spiritual struggles that divide us. It is just possible that we are all led conscience-wise or Spirit-wise at a different rate. If we think our motives and philosophies have moved on to a higher, purer plain than the people we used to think ourselves a part of, this is where compassion and the Watchman come in.

I could go on and on and let my thoughts go deeper. The bottom line is, it’s a good read if you love Mockingbird. Yes, it has its problems. It’s choppy and lacks polish and the cohesive feel of Mockingbird. There are flashes of brilliance during Jean-Louise’s childhood flashbacks—Dill’s revival, learning the facts of life, and the school dance. But Watchman was best published second, in such a happy way. There is no way that my emotions would have been brought to such an awful pitch had I not had that emotional tie to Atticus, seen through Jem and Scout’s eyes, and had I not shared that childhood nostalgia for Maycomb.

Read it, enjoy it, and learn from it.

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“When you live in New York, you often have the feeling that New York’s not the world. I mean this: every time I come home, I feel like I’m coming back to the world, and when I leave Maycomb it’s like leaving the world. It’s silly. I can’t explain it, and what makes it sillier is that I’d go stark raving living in Maycomb.” (75-76)

“Some men who cheat their wives out of grocery money wouldn’t think of cheating the grocer. Men tend to carry their honesty in pigeonholes, Jean Louise. They can be perfectly honest in some ways and fool themselves in other ways.” (237)

“Well, it seemed that to meet the real needs of a small portion of the population, the Court set up something horrible that could—that could affect the vast majority of folks. Adversely, that is. Atticus, I don’t know anything about it—all we have is the Constitution between us and anything some smart fellow wants to start, and there went the Court just breezily canceling one whole amendment, it seemed to me. We have a system of checks and balances and things, but when it comes down to it we don’t have much check on the Court, so who’ll bell the cat?” (239-240)

“Prejudice, a dirty word, and faith, a clean one, have something in common: they both begin where reason ends.” (270-271)

Dear goodness, the things I learned. I did not want my world disturbed, but I wanted to crush the man who’s trying to preserve it for me. I wanted to stamp out all the people like him. I guess it’s like an airplane: they’re the drag and we’re the thrust, together we make the thing fly. Too much of us and we’re nose-heavy, too much of them and we’re tail-heavy—it’s a matter of balance. I can’t beat him, and I can’t join him— (277)

Our Man in Charleston

Sometimes reading history is a trip down the rabbit-hole—odd, fascinating, and endlessly complex. Christopher Dickey’s Our Man in Charleston: Britain’s Secret Agent in the Civil War South reminded me that history is huge and multifaceted and that there’s always another opinion. Our Man takes us down the rabbit-hole to the unfamiliar world of diplomatic relations between the firmly anti-slavery British and the wavering Americans, both northern and southern; a world of deceptions, near-misses, and high-stakes bluffs. It’s an easy, quick read, and you’ll enjoy it if you’re looking for a new angle on the Civil War.

In my mind, there are few American cities with the historic charm of Charleston, South Carolina—the perfect blend of Southern coastal climate and a centuries-old culture that has simmered and mellowed and kept a distinct flavor all its own. For me, one of its distinctions is its addictive beauty: time-worn brick and sky-blue porch ceilings and wrought iron, the sway of palms and crepe myrtles, and the scent of water and tea olive and gardenia. All these beckon you to linger in gardens and houses where history is preserved and honored. It’s no stretch to imagine the look of life at the turn of the 19th or 20th centuries.

Yet under all of that beauty lies an at-times ugly story of pride, greed, and injustice that’s enough to make the modern South-Carolinian-and-proud-of-it cringe and think, Well, what do I do with that? Slavery and all of its attendant evils built Charleston’s magnificent wealth and, no matter which side of the debate you take, was one of the ultimate causes of the Southern empire’s fall in the 1860s. Our Man in Charleston elucidates the uncomfortable political and social atmosphere of the city and the South’s relationship with Britain in the crisis years of the 1850s and 60s through the eyes of Robert Bunch, Her Majesty’s consul in Charleston.

While Robert Bunch was hardly a secret agent, he was advantageously placed and perceptive enough to be of great benefit to the engine of the British Empire. Tasked with eliminating South Carolina’s Negro Seamen Act, which allowed the city to seize and hold incoming black sailors of any nationality until their ship’s departure, Bunch ingratiated himself with the state’s leading politicians, journalists, and slaveholders (often all the same people). What Bunch learned of these men and women over the years turned his stomach, and the reports he passed on to his superiors in Washington and London painted southern Americans as snobbish, irrational, and inhumane. He watched the South alienate itself from the Union and did everything he could to prevent the South from gaining British assistance during the war.

Caution: sometimes knowing the past hurts. Bunch’s outsider’s view of antebellum Charlestonians (and Americans in general) is enough to make me squirm—there’s a great deal of uncomfortable truth about human nature here. And at times I felt that Dickey went out of his way to portray Americans in a negative light (using words like “insane,” or complaining of a drunk Secretary Seward) or to say that the war stemmed from the single issue, slavery. So if you’re a Southerner or even a sympathizer, guard your heart before you read.

Middlemarch

There are times when the dishes are piled and dirty, the clutter-droppings of children cover every surface of the house, and the list of tomorrow’s to-do-things grows by the minute, that dreams and visions lie buried under the every-day, and life loses its scope. It becomes an hour-by-hour (ok, minute-by-minute with kids), day-by-day battle to stay on top of responsibilities and expectations. Ideas of doing something “meaningful” and “lasting” are gone with (younger) youth; I have to remind myself repeatedly that—hopefully—I’ve got a lot of time left for the passionate pursuit of other things.

Enter here George Eliot and Middlemarch. Mary Ann Evans, English journalist and author extraordinaire, hid behind the name George Eliot and produced such classics as Silas Marner and Adam Bede. I’ve read nearly all of them, but I picked up the hefty Middlemarch (my edition has 853 pages) for a re-read. With the above-mentioned chores and responsibilities, it took me a good month to finish. Yet my perseverance was richly rewarded.

Eliot knew all about dreams and what life does to them. In Middlemarch’s village-full of characters, most are facing some form of change and disappointment. All of the players are drawn with realism and honesty, but the central two that struck my heart were Dorothea Brooke, a young, hard-to-live-with sister and wife, longing for knowledge and the key to doing ultimate good; and Doctor Lydgate, a flawed intellectual visionary, plagued by his naivety about money and women. We make their acquaintance when the world and its possibilities lie before them and watch as change in the form of marriage—life, really—turns their ideals on their heads.

Eliot likens Dorothea’s dreams to Saint Theresa’s: an “ardour alternat[ing] between a vague ideal and the common yearning of womanhood; so that the one was disapproved as extravagance, and the other condemned as a lapse.” Dorothea wants to know things, to do some great and lasting work. Yes—I, too, feel the constant pull of wanting “more” out of life, and yet the desire and need to fulfill a woman’s role, all while others watch and weigh the use of my abilities. And so I think of Dorothea with that line of C.S. Lewis’ running in my head: “What? You too? I thought I was the only one.”

Lydgate’s dreams are for his hoped-for career as a medical researcher. His pursuit of medicine is drawn like a romance, a true intellectual passion. He fears mediocrity.

And then comes change. Dorothea enters marriage as into salvation; not as an escape from evil, per se, but as a means of elevating herself intellectually and spiritually. Lydgate views his marriage as an adornment—the beauties of hearth and home as just another mark of his success—to his hoped-for career as a medical researcher. Dorothea longs to be changed by marriage; Lydgate counts on remaining unchanged by his. Both are soon fully disillusioned.

“In courtship everything is regarded as provisional and preliminary, and the smallest sample of virtue or accomplishment is taken to guarantee delightful stores which the broad leisure of marriage will reveal. But the door-sill of marriage once crossed, expectation is concentrated on the present. Having once embarked on your marital voyage, it is impossible not to be aware that you make no way and that the sea is not within sight—that, in fact, you are exploring an enclosed basin.” (195-196)

Here Eliot’s talents of portraying life with such realism and honesty are apparent. Which of us is not filled with expectations? “Another degree will make me more intelligent”—“marriage will bring me security”—“this friendship will take away the loneliness”—“this new job will finally bring contentment.” Expectations are bound to be unfulfilled, especially in marriage, where two fallen natures lean on and rub off on each other in such close proximity. In Dorothea’s words, “Marriage is so unlike everything else. There is something awful in the nearness it brings” (797).

The world of Middlemarch is tangled and complex. Lives weave in and out of one another, and dreams rise and fall. And what do we get for all our dreams? Sometimes nothing. But Eliot leaves us with hope in the simple day-to-day doing, and the wisdom of not placing all of our expectations in one basket. Despite all of those ideas that linger and wait to be pursued, today’s work matters, too.

“The effect of [Dorothea’s] being on those around her was incalculably diffusive; for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is halfway owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” (838)
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“In the multitude of middle-aged men who go about their vocations in a daily course determined for them much in the same way as the tie of their cravats, there is always a good number who once meant to shape their own deeds and alter the world a little. The story of their coming to be shapen after the average … is hardly ever told even in their consciousness; for perhaps their ardor in generous unpaid toil cooled as imperceptibly as the ardor of other youthful loves, till one day their earlier self walked like a ghost in its old home ….” (144-145)

“You must be sure of two things: you must love your work, and not be always looking over the edge of it, wanting your play to begin. And the other is, you must not be ashamed of your work, and think it would be more honorable to you to be doing something else.” (562)

“He felt the scenes of his earlier life coming between him and everything else, as obstinately as when we look through the window from a lighted room, the objects we turn our backs on are still before us, instead of the grass and the trees.” (615)

“Marriage, which has been the bourne of so many narratives, is still a great beginning, as it was to Adam and Eve, who kept their honeymoon in Eden, but had their first little one among the thorns and thistles of the wilderness. … Some set out, like Crusaders of old, with a glorious equipment of hope and enthusiasm, and get broken by the way, wanting patience with each other and the world.” (832)

A Touch of Wimsey

I am a through-and-through Anglophile. If anyone’s asked me, I’ve always pegged myself as more of a Francophile—I studied the language for 8(!!) years, I decorate my house with little Eiffel Towers and French words and I dream non-stop of my next trip to France—but maybe, just maybe, I’m really more of an Anglophile. Probably 90% of the literature I pick up was a) written by an English person or b) written about an English person living in England. And probably 90% of the television I watch for my own enjoyment is—yes, British TV.

I’ve got British mysteries in the blood, I think. I grew up on Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes and now, admittedly, I sometimes walk past the “C” and “D” sections of the bookstore subconsciously hoping that Christie and Doyle have miraculously released something new (yes, I do it in “A” for Austen and “B” for Bronte, too). It’s hard for me to love anything as much as I love the classics. So while I was in a bit of a funk about not reading any good books for a stretch, a friend recommended Dorothy Sayers. Sayers is just as classic age-wise as Christie and Doyle but I’ve managed to avoid her all these years. I have no idea why. I picked up one of her later Lord Peter mysteries several years ago and wasn’t thrilled—I had no idea who Peter was or what he was like. It was a mistake to start in the middle. This time I started at the beginning with Whose Body?

It’s impossible to dislike Lord Peter, our amateur detective. The Anglophile in me was instantly satisfied with this light-hearted young lord, his posh Piccadilly flat, and his sleuthing-yet-ever-proper butler, Bunter. Lord Peter’s mother, the Duchess of Denver, calls on Peter to investigate whose body is in the bathtub of the local architect. At the same time, Lord Peter’s friend, the respectable detective Parker, investigates the disappearance of a London financier. The two sleuth their way in and around “Twenties” London to determine if these cases are at all linked. The mystery of whose body is in the bathtub proves more complex and more subtle than a Christie, and Lord Peter’s dabbling with forensics is reminiscent of Sherlock’s experiments.

Clouds of Witness brings back Lord Peter and all of my other new friends, including detective Parker and Peter’s spry mother. Clouds reminds me of a typical drawing-room mystery—an English country house full of guests, a night-time death, and an overabundance of motives and alibis. Yet this mystery has enough twists and oddities—the accused is Lord Peter’s brother, no less—to set it apart from others in its genre.

What sets Lord Peter and Dorothy Sayers apart, in my opinion—because, really, so many “cozy” mysteries have a formulaic feel—is the sparkling prose and the occasional glimpses of great insight and depth in Lord Peter. There are no dead descriptions or dialogue or flat characterizations, but an amateur detective fighting PTSD and a sense that he’s making too much of a game out of hunting murderers.

So if you’re in the mood for an English murder mystery with a bit of a special touch, pick up one of these.