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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