Monday, April 4, 2022

Marching Through Books: Real People

What draws you to a certain book at a certain time? Maybe it is your favorite genre, a new entry by a beloved author or events swirling around you. This month's books weren't picked because they were about "real people," but that's how it ended up. Our March offerings take us from Amsterdam to Paris, Michigan to Japan, and to the war rooms and stages of England.


"The Betrayal of Anne Frank: A Cold Case Investigation" by Rosemary Sullivan

I have been fascinated by the life and death of Anne Frank ever since I was about 12 and read her diary in school. It was my first exposure to World War II and it obviously made an impact because it has been a subject that has both fascinated and saddened me for the nearly 60 years that followed.

Much has been written about who may have betrayed Anne Frank and her family, but I suspect no individual or organization looked at it with the microscopic investigation as the Cold Case team that formed, with an FBI case investigator at its lead. The story of this team is told in non-fiction style, yet it reads as intriguingly as any well-written mystery novel, captured by award-winning biographer Rosemary Sullivan. (Her reference notes at the end of the book take up about 20 percent of the pages.)

The team painstakingly went through countless documents in archive, personal interviews, legal documents and much more, following a simple guide: Did the person(s) in question have the motive, opportunity and knowledge to be able to make the betrayal.

For some suspects, the motive was self-presevation, for others, money. And still for others, the anti-semitism of the period was motive enough. But who may have known that the Franks and their friends were hiding at in the heart of Amsterdam? Or did the betrayer even know the Franks, just that Jews might be hidden at the spot? And when it comes to opportunity, how DID they know?

This book is not a novel but a detailed non-fiction report that goes step by step through a variety of possible subjects with documentation and personal accounts, all of which are fascinating. If you ever wondered how one might take on a cold case, and whether or not the story of Anne Frank interests you, the book is sure to be revealing. (A related piece on "60 Minutes" also highlighted this venture and as one might expect, the results have met with some criticism. After reading the book, I don't know how anyone could come to another conclusion.)

"The Paris Bookseller" by Kelli Maher

Before Shakespeare and Company, the beloved English-language bookstore on the banks of the Seine in Paris, was in its current location, it was located on rue de Dupuyten and later rue de Odeon in the Latin Quarter. It was the brainchild of American ex-pat Sylvia Beach. "The Paris Bookseller" is a historical fiction interpretation of Beach's founding of the bookstore in 1920, her relationship with the writers who inhabited it and her partner, Adrienne Monniere, and the publication of James Joyce's "Ulysses."

I don't know why I do this to myself. I love history. I love fiction. I love biography. I even like historical fiction. But when you combine the three into historical fiction biography, I find myself gnashing my teeth all the way through. There are few (a very few) writers who make me be able to separate the history and fiction as I read and consequently enjoy the book. (Hilary Mantel and Susan Vreeland to name two). It's the conversations that do it, the "feelings." I'm better off if I consider it all completely fiction.

So, what I hoped would be an interesting book on the founding of the iconic bookstore and Beach's travails in publishing ended up being an overly emotive book with too many "conversations" and dangling bits that made me wonder why they were there in the first place. And while parts were interesting (I really didn't know much about the history of "Ulysses" and that was informative), I could have done without the rest.

Things dangle that are never picked up -- unnecessary red herrings.For example, the author harps continually on Beach's smoking, how it increases, her chain smoking. But then it sort of sits there. So you're thinking "she's foreshadowing lung cancer, emphysema, a painful illness." But nothing happens apart from migraines, which may or may not be related to that or was it too much red wine or any other factors?)

The author's note does indicate what was "real" in the book and says everything else is from her imagination based on her research into Beach's life, letters, and the gay culture of Paris in the period. I'd rather she told me what was not real. Are the conversations from Beach's diaries? None are listed in Maher's woefully short bibliography. I was just frustrated.

Beach's life was interesting and her contribution to literature in Paris in the 20s and beyond was significant. Others who enjoy this genre may well enjoy this book. I would be interested in a "real" biography of Beach and Shakespeare and Company and maybe one day, I'll seek one out. Right now I just want to read a book I'll like.

"It's Hard Being You: A Primer on Being Happy Anyway" by Sharon Emery 

"It's hard being you," Sharon Emery would sometimes tell one of her four children when something distressing happened, usually with empathy (and, she admits, occasionally with a bit of snark). Emery would know. It hasn't been easy being her.

But Sharon Emery is a warrior and her weapons are incredible drive and the determination to seek and discover, both the outer and inner elements of life and spirit. These "weapons" help guide and carry her through a life journey that has had more than its share of tragedy and yet leave her at the end a strong, standing and yes, even happy woman. 

"It's Hard Being You" begins with a bold, breath-catching statement: "I am the mother of a dead child." Grief is one of two themes that frame this memoir -- the death of her daughter, Jessica, as well as those of her siblings, particularly the traumatic death of her sister shortly after Jessica's.

The other central theme is disability and it is one Emery knows first hand. She has had a lifelong stutter and it was her drive to overcome it that led her on a quest to think outside the boundaries that disability often sets to became a reporter, public relations professional and university journalism instructor. Perhaps it was her determination and her sense of injustice gave her a special skill set to tackle disability rights, something all the more important when Jessica was diagnosed at a year and a half with a set of disabilities that evolved over time. Emery negotiated the minefield of disability rights, once again a warrior. 

In a matter of moments on an otherwise beautiful day, Jessica drowned in the waters of Lake Huron and a profound grief journey begins for Emery and her family.

Emery didn't have to take that journey alone. Her husband, writer John Schneider, and her three other children, Ben (known to music fans as Lord Huron), Justin and Caitlin, then in high school and college, had to walk that journey as well. Their story is one of emotional survival and the power of love and memory.

"It's Hard Being You" isn't an always easy book and it shouldn't be. Grief is not easy. But Emery's wonderful writing speaks to hard truths and the struggles of survival during the darkest times, as well as the determination to succeed over challenging odds. It is also an empowering book for the reader, who realizes, and through her journey that they are not alone and yes, they can survive survive as well. As we walk through Sharon Emery's challenges and pain, we gain an understanding of the importance of empathy, deep personal soul searching, and in the end happiness.

Her discussion of happiness at the end of the book and her list of her happiness principles that she wanted to pass on to her children should be required reading for anyone.

(A note here: I have known Sharon Emery and John Schneider for many years and long admired them both as professionals and human beings. Longtime readers of this blog may remember my sharing Sharon's TedX talk on stuttering. But I didn't know all of this. Nonetheless, if I'd never met her in my life it wouldn't change a word of my review for this book.)

"The Splendid and the Vile" by Erik Larson

I think I picked the right time to tackle Erik Larson's 500+ page non-fiction telling of Winston Churchill's life (and that of his family) in the years of World War II. Attacked on all coasts from Hitler's Luftwaffe and standing alone -- with no support from the United States for many years into the war. The U.S. didn't want to get too involved, even by sending essential weapons or ships. Sound familiar, anyone?

Of course, in the end, the U.S. did. And you know the end of the story. But it is the heart of that determination England had to fight alone for as long as possible, until the U.S. entered the war, that forms the lion's share of "The Splendid and the Vile." (The story, of course, continues to the war's end.)

Through remarkable research through diaries, letters and public record, Larson tells the story of "the little country that could" -- and did -- stand firm throughout countless bombings, brutal winters where the residents lived in places damaged by the bombing, food shortages and more. And yet morale -- for the most part -- held firm. Larson takes us behind the closed doors of Whitehall and the War Rooms, to the P.M.'s country home of Chequers, and throughout the country, as well as into Germany and the discussions between Goering and Hitler in a fascinating and exhaustive page turner. 

We also see life for Churchill's daughter, Mary, and his gambler-son Randolph and his bride, Pamela; his private secretary John Colville; and many of his key advisors, including Max Beaverbrook and "Pug" Ismay, along with observations by diarists of the day. 

The book is long (not that I minded) and as I neared the end, I thought, "We're only in 1941 -- how is he going to "wrap up" the war?" And Larson doesn't. It's the story of the first year Churchill was Prime Minister, which was also the first year of the war, and the book ends with the entry of the U.S. into the war following Pearl Harbor. I'd love to read more about his Churchill's time during the war and I suspect I will have to find that through his own biographical writings or those of others. I'm not sure they will ever be able to tell the story in a way that captivates me more than Larson's writing.

"The Road Through Miyama" by Leila Philip

In the 1980s, Leila Philip went to a small village in Japan -- Miyama -- to study pottery with one of the villages many potters. Already skilled in the art, she had wanted to learn the traditional methods associated with Miyama and its centuries-old Korean pottery tradition.

"The Road Through Miyama" is both a history of that pottery tradition and a look at the painstaking dedication an apprentice potter must have to work through hundreds of teacups and plates in the quest of perfection. The reader learns of some of the pottery techniques she dealt with (the firing of the kiln process was especially interesting) and life through the seasons as the only "gaigin" (Caucasian woman blond-haired and blue-eyed) in the town. Her life, with the master potter and his wife, was interesting, certainly a window on a world new to me.

The book also gives a look at many of the cultural traditions of the region, including a rather long and interesting chapter on the sowing and harvesting of rice, something Philip did during her time in Miyama. 

Did I like it. Enough. I think I would have appreciated it more had I known more about pottery and it did get long, although compared to most books I read this month, it was far shorter and took me longer to read. But for one interested in the culture of Japan and the art of pottery, I would recommend it.

"Eileen Atkins: Will She Do?" by Eileen Atkins

If you saw "The Crown" or "Doc Martin," you have seen Eileen Atkins doing what she does best -- taking a character and making it profoundly memorable. As Queen Mary in "The Crown" and Ruth Ellingham in "Doc Martin," she has carved out two very different and particularly indelible characters known to millions of viewers around the world. 

But if you don't know those shows (and yes, she has made many other films and television shows including "Cold Comfort Farm," "Cranford," and "Gosford Park," among others), it may well be because much of her work has been on the English stage. "Will She Do?" is a chronicle of Atkins' childhood, and her early years in the theatre, ending in the late 1960s when she appeared in the West End and on Broadway with "The Killing of Sister George," her breakthrough role.

She is a fun storyteller and her anecdotes about her theatre experiences are well told, although again -- if you don't follow theatre, some of these names may not be at all familiar. She looks at herself with an honest and critical eye, well honed through the benefit of hindsight, as she recounts her early toe-tap dancing days performing for "gentlemen's club" as a child (something that left her feet quite deformed), her early days in repertory and finally, her breakthrough.

If I have any complaint about this book, it is that it ended far too quickly. I wanted to learn more about her more contemporary days, including her role as author of the pioneer British television series "Upstairs, Downstairs" (with Jean Marsh, who also acted in the series) and her later film and television work. I would like to think there is a sequel in store. I hope so.

Where to next? More biography? Maybe it's time for a mystery. We'll see!

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Sandi said...

My Dutch sister-in-law's grandmother hid Jews on her farm in the Netherlands during WWII. She was never caught, but after the war ended the Nazi commander in her town told her he'd known all along. Why he let her get away with it I don't know. It's a proud story for the family. Reminds me of Anne Frank and also Corrie Ten Boom.

Onevikinggirl said...

That book by Rosemary Sullivan exploiting Anne Frank and the destruction of Amsterdams Jewish community has been pulled by its Dutch publishers as lacking fact checking. They have apologized and it isn’t sold any longer. We in Amsterdam do not appreciate that book. It is most certainly neither new research nor the last word; or the truth for that matter.

Sue in Suffolk said...

I loved 'The Splendid and the Vile'.
Haven't read any of the others - I avoid biographies of anyone well known, famous or infamous!

David M. Gascoigne, said...

To merely recall the tragedy of Ann Frank is to plunge me into the depths of sadness, not only for what was inflicted upon her, her family, six million other Jews, Romany, infirm people, political opponents and so on, but to realize that we are capable of repeating the whole awful process. The people of Ukraine are being displaced and butchered, the country is being destroyed, cities are being levelled to the ground, and once again the world is a appeasing a madman. I am quite convinced that humans are incapable of learning from the past, and the depth of depravity to which we can sink knows no bounds. We prove it over and over again don't we?

Lisbeth said...

Excellent reviews of all these books. You have been busy reading, as well as painting. Historical fiction can be a trap. I always try to find out the real facts after I have read the book, unless I know it before. I do enjoy historical fiction, but, I think I can agree with you by reading your review. Might not be anything for me.
The Anne Frank story I have read about and it is a very interesting take on a very sad and dramatic event during WWII. I am eager to read the book, even more after your review.
Eric Larson has been on my wish list for years, and every time I read a review of one of his books, I ask myself why I have not yet got around to do it. I will go to the library today for a "read the book, watch the movie", so will have a look if they have anything by him.
Thank you for all your interesting reviews.

acorn hollow said...

I am not as a prolific reader as you are there is just not enough hours in the day for me and all I need and want to do. But these are some heavy subjects. I prefer historical fiction as a rule but will read anything. I just read Mrs Emmerson based on Ralph Waldo Emmerson's wife. It was not good or even researched well. But I finished and that is that. I now have a book called Hannah's war historical fiction of the woman who split the atom.

My name is Erika. said...

You had quite a good selection of books for March Jeanie. And some tough reading ones. I've read the Betrayal of Anne Frank and also the Splendid and the Vile. The Splendid and the Vile was a good one, but wow, if that was 1941 what was the rest of the war? Your friend's book (It's Hard Being You) but have been a hard read, but they can be rewarding Did you ever read Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking? It is about loss also, and it does show how strength comes out even though everything is so hard. The Road Through Miyama sounds great, even though I also don't know much about this pottery, but I guess it would be worth a pre-read about the pottery. Thanks for all these Jeanie. I'm still impressed with the books you got through this past month. hugs-Erika

Pam Richardson said...

Hello Jeanie, thank you for the book reviews. I also love history and love delving deep into characters. Thank you for sharing an in-depth analysis of each book. Have a wonderful Tuesday!

Anca said...

I agree with your assessment of the book on Anne Frank, what they discovered seems the only possible explanation, especially as they looked into the other suspects with so much attention.
"The Splendid and the Vile" by Erik Larson was on my to-read list, but I'm not sure if it's still there. :))

Salty Pumpkin Studio said...

Solid reviews
Feeding the mind take out, Sunday champagne brunch or a home cooked dinner, biographies tend to be seasonal county fair fried dough for me. Atkin's and Larsen books will be hefty additions to my summer reading list.

Pamela said...

Great choices! I think it is always time for another mystery.

Misadventures of Widowhood said...

You are such a prolific reader and choose some interesting topics. The older I get the less complicated my personal reading choices become.

Misadventures of Widowhood said...

You are such a prolific reader and pick some interesting topics to read about.

Beatrice P. Boyd said...

Jeanie, as much as I have enjoyed books by Erik Larson, The Splendid and the Vile, was not one I wanted to read. That said, I have read other books dealing with the same subject matter. The Paris Bookshelf book cover looked like one I might enjoy until I read your thorough review and now it's on the "to skip" list. As always, you have presented us with some choices that showcase your diverse reading. I am currently reading Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys.

Bill said...

Interesting selection of books. I'm waiting on the book about the Betrayal of Anne Frank, it's on my reading list. Thanks for all the good reviews, Jeanie and have a great day.

Valerie-Jael said...

Wonderful books. I'm reading the 'old Filth' trilogy from Jane Gardam. Hugs, Valerie

Lisa from Lisa's Yarns said...

I read about the controversy around the Anne Frank book but hadn't heard from anyone who read it. I can't remember what exactly I read about it but something to the effect that publisher was apologizing for what was published? The Anne Frank story is so heart breaking, especially when you think of how many Anne Frank stories there were... What a horrible time in the history of our world.

I had the Paris Bookseller on my hold list but it sounds like one to skip over - thank you for saving me the time!

Historical fiction/biography is a tricky genre. I have enjoyed Paula McClain's books, especially Paris Wife. But it's hard to separate fact from fiction at times so it makes it a tricky genre.

Rita said...

What excellent reviews!! I wish I could read and read like I used to but my eyes can't handle it these days (macular puckers). Now I have to watch movies instead. ;)

Danielle L Zecher said...

That's a lot of heavy subject matter for one month! I tend to go for much lighter reads when things are stressful. But, the Anne Frank book sounds intriguing. I love cold case type books/shows, and I'm fascinated by World War II history, though it is scary how similar it is to current events.

Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

These are excellent reviews. Thank you so much for them.

I adore The Splendid and the Vile. Churchhill has become an idol for me after reading this book.

I just downloaded Paris Bookseller, but I think I'm going to skip it based on your review. Perhaps I will give it another chance during Paris in July. said...

You have been tackling some heavy literature Jeanie, I am a huge fan of historical fiction, but do relate to your conflicts, it is hard to not be caught between the real and the fiction...Life lately is so stressful, I find I can only escape to cozy mysteries and lighter reading to get away from the daily challenges...

Mae Travels said...

Sad that (as an earlier commenter mentioned) the Anne Frank book turns out to be so inaccurate that the publisher has withdrawn it. Link about this:

Maybe you could add a note to your review for the sake of those who would be intrigued by your interesting description!

I also second what David said.

best... mae at

Joanne Huffman said...

I always enjoy your book reviews.

Priscilla King said...

I like my nonfiction without imagined conversations and other fictional additions, too. Last winter I read "My Darling Clementine," a contemporary biography of Mrs. Churchill, slightly fangirlish but informative. Mine is a library copy discarded due to visible black mold, recently disinfected, but available with that warning if anyone wants to read it next.

Lowcarb team member said...

Many thanks for sharing this selection of books.
Always interesting to read your thoughts/review.

All the best Jan

anno said...

Wow... this is some serious reading for the month (LOTS of names, and dates, and detail). I've started and stopped The Splendid and the Vile several times now, and it would probably benefit me to just start from the beginning... the portrait of Churchill he presents is fascinating (and he does amazing work in characterizing everyone else, too), but my concentration for this kind of work just hasn't been there. You sure make the effort seem worthwhile, though. Maybe time to give it another go, eh?

"It's Hard Being You" -- gosh, I love that title.

And that Eileen Atkins autobiography sure looks intriguing, as well...

Thanks for the round-up, Jeanie -- it's so interesting to me to see what people are reading these days... and your reviews are fabulous. Thank you!

Karen said...

ohhhhhhh! I see some interesting books. Thank you for the suggestions. I always enjoy your book choices.

Bohemian said...

This was some serious Reading my Friend! I'm still struggling to finish up a 2nd Book I started a long time ago and am finding to be a tough Read since it's only barely piquing my Interest, mostly due to how it's Written, I think the Author has Adult ADHD like me and I'm having trouble following along the meandering Path taken about the Autobiographic account he's telling of his Life. The other Book I could hardly put down, written by the Daughter of Eartha Kitt and a fantastic Read. I'm not much of a Reader actually, I Love Books with great Imagery.

Carole @ From My Carolina Home said...

Great reviews! I'll be adding a couple of these to my look-for list.

Sami said...

I'm always impressed with how many books you manage to read in one month Jeanie. I probably manage a maximum of 2 a month - I'm reading one about "Retirement made simple" and then I have a couple more that I bought at an op-shop recently. I usually buy books because I either liked the title or the cover, or I know and like the author.

Steve Reed said...

Thanks for the info! I've read theories about who gave up the Franks -- I wonder if this book is consistent with what I've read in the past. I like Erik Larson's books a lot too, but that one seems maybe a bit more than I want to tackle.

DeniseinVA said...

A marvelous book selection Jeanie, thank you!

Sandra at Maison De Jardin said...

Wonderful reviews, Jeanie, and I thank you for them. I have the book about Anne Frank on my list and the others look interesting as well.

I enjoy Historical Fiction and biographies, especially the WWII era. I see so much of that time repeating today. I am reading "The Diamond Eye" by, Kate Quinn. It is really interesting and is a true story of a woman sniper during WWII. She becomes a great friend of Eleanor Roosevelt. That is all I know at this point.
Have a great day - we have snow on the way for Friday.

Linda @ Life and Linda said...

Book reviews are so helpful Jeanie. Thanks for taking the time to share. I am off to work in the garden again.

gigi-hawaii said...

You certainly are well read! I agree with David G.'s comment about Anne Frank, the war in Ukraine, and how we never learn from the past.

Miss Val's Creations said...

These books sounds fascinating with interesting "characters". Anne Frank's diary is one that has stuck with me since childhood too. Churchill is so interesting that I can imagine what a great read this is.

Debbie-Dabble Blog and A Debbie-Dabble Christmas said...

all look like great books...I hope to try to find some time to read now that the Holiday Season for me will be over after Easter and I am not changing most of the house over every 4-6 weeks!!!
Thanks so much for all your visits and kind words!!

Sandra Cox said...

Anne Frank was fascinating and such a loss to the world. I just don't understand the slaughter of civilians. Especially the young.

Regina said...

The Anne Frank book looks very interesting. I read The Diary of Anne Frank when I was a kid but I don't remember what grade. Might have been 5th or 6th grade. Very heartbreaking to read.😭

Amy at Ms. Toody Goo Shoes said...

The Ann Frank book is going on my list. I read the Diary of Ann Frank a few times, most recently prior to a trip to Amsterdam where we had tickets to visit the house. I would find it fascinating to find out more about who betrayed the family and why.

Iris Flavia said...

Interesting you read Anne Frank´s diary at school and we as Germans did not.
Sharon Emery´s sounds very interesting, too.
Too many books! I started the tutorials you recommended and... I find no time. I also cannot believe it´s already Thursday again. Bummer.

Bleubeard and Elizabeth said...

You read more books in a month than I read in FIVE years. I was going to mention the Anne Frank book having Arnold van den Bergh as the betrayer has been debunked, but I see others have already done that for me.

The book on Churchill sounds intriguing, and so does the one on Eileen Atkins. Yes, I know her from Doc Martin, so that would be a good read.

R's Rue said...

So many great books.

Nancy said...

Thank you for all your book reviews. My Sweet Man just finished The Splendid and the Vile. He really enjoyed it. I like when people give in depth reviews... it gives me a better idea of what to read. I just finished A Gentleman in Moscow. It was fabulous and what an interesting time to read it.
Thank you for your reviews! Happy Thursday!

William Kendall said...

I have read and enjoyed that Larson book. I would also recommend some of his other work, particularly on the sinking of the Lusitania.

Polly said...

What draws me to a certain book? I generally prefer fiction, drama/thriller/historical/murder mystery; not romance. And I have chosen by author. My book clubs often dictate what I read, but now and again I dip into my own “To read” list. I have also chosen some spur of the moment books that my library display, and most of them have been good reads. The Anne Frank books sounds very interesting. Eileen Atkins is so good, I have seen her in Doc Martin and The Crown and many others.

Arti said...

So much I want to say in response to this post! First off, I share your interests in Anne Frank and Sylvia Beach and her bookstore. I've come across the AF book but didn't want to dwell on the tragic betrayal of her... it would be too sad for me to read. As for the latter, I just might look for that book. I remember your pics of Shakespeare and Co. I'd been there too, years ago and stored up some indelible memories. The Splendid and the Vile I'd listened to the audiobook and loved it. And Eileen Atkins, I MUST try to find her book! A wonderful actor and you're right in listing all her famous roles. But there's one that's... ah, I'll have to use that word again, indelible, in my movie memory. Have you watched "What A Girl Wants" (2003), a fun Brit. dramedy with a wonderful cast. Eileen Atkins plays Colin Firth's mother with one very moving scene where she consoles her distraught son. Nothing serious, all good fun. You'll enjoy this movie if you haven't seen it.

Carola Bartz said...

The book by Sharon Emery sounds highly interesting to me - however, I don't know whether I will read it for fear that it might tear up old wounds again. Well, I don't have to decide that here and now. I did read The Splendid and the Vile and loved it. Yes, it is very long, but it is also fascinating. Churchill was such an interesting and unique personality (I specifically remember the stories about his bath taking), and I also learned a lot about the German Luftwaffe and the British Royal Air Force. Fascinating. I enjoyed the mixture of family stories and politics.

Victoria Zigler said...

That's quite a reading list. I especially like the sound of that Anne Frank one.

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