Book Review: The Lieutenant’s Nurse by Sara Ackerman

November, 1941. She’s never even seen the ocean before, but Eva Cassidy has her reasons for making the crossing to Hawaii, and they run a lot deeper than escaping a harsh Michigan winter. Newly enlisted as an Army Corps nurse, Eva is stunned by the splendor she experiences aboard the steamship SS Lurline; even more so by Lt. Clark Spencer, a man to whom she is drawn but who clearly has secrets of his own. Eva’s past—and the future she’s trying to create—means that she’s not free to follow her heart. Clark is a navy intelligence officer, and he warns her that the United States won’t be able to hold off joining the war for long, but nothing can prepare them for the surprise attack that will change the world they know.

In the wake of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Eva and her fellow nurses band together for the immense duty of keeping the American wounded alive. And the danger that finds her threatens everything she holds dear. Amid the chaos and heartbreak, Eva will have to decide whom to trust and how far she will go to protect those she loves.

Set in the vibrant tropical surroundings of the Pacific, The Lieutenant’s Nurse is an evocative, emotional WWII story of love, friendship and the resilient spirit of the heroic nurses of Pearl Harbor.

First, can we take a moment to appreciate the beauty of this book’s cover? Ah, the colors! I needed this book in my life even before reading the synopsis.

Fiction set in and around Pearl Harbor comes with a particular challenge. How do you create a story that can hold readers’ interest when the real-life events are more dramatic than anything made-up could be? The Lieutenant’s Nurse tries very hard to give us an epic love story that complements and is complemented by the historical events, but the love story elements just can’t really hold a candle to the the factual story of Pearl Harbor.

Not that The Lieutenant’s Nurse doesn’t have a lot going for it. Let’s start with our main character, Eva Cassidy. From the first, it’s clear that Eva has secrets. She’s traveling across the Pacific to an army nursing assignment in Hawaii, expecting gorgeous beaches, interesting medicine, and above all, an escape from a traumatic situation back home. The truth comes out in bits and pieces over the course of the novel, but we learn early on that Eva is traveling under an assumed name, that she’s fleeing a hospital scandal that gained her notoriety, and that her long-distance boyfriend has arranged to get her stationed in Honolulu, where’s he’s also stationed with the army.

On the ocean voyage, Eva is immediately drawn to the gorgeous naval officer Clark Spencer, and he seems drawn to her as well. As an intelligence officer, there’s a lot he can’t share, but he does warn her that war may be imminent, and that the Hawaiian islands may not be the peaceful haven she expects.

When the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor takes place, Eva has only just arrived, but rushes to the hospital alongside the other devoted nurses to tend to the horribly wounded men. Meanwhile, she keeps an eye out for Clark, who’s brought in with injuries as well, and has to deal with the boyfriend, Billy, once she realizes that he’s not the man she truly loves.

On top of the love triangle drama, there’s intrigue as we learn that Clark became of aware of the impending attack days ahead of time, but that the report he submitted was blocked and discarded, eliminating the possibility of striking first against the approaching Japanese fleet or at least giving the fleet at Pearl Harbor a chance to prepare. When Clark tries to follow up, both he and Eva receive warnings from a pair of thugs who threaten their lives and also threaten to reveal Eva’s secrets.

While the descriptions of the sea voyage and the Hawaiian islands are lovely, the characters themselves rarely feel like more than cookie cutter figures. Eva is sympathetic, Clark is handsome and mysterious, and the resolution of the love triangle is predictable. Honestly, I’d say the plot didn’t need the extra complication of the spy games and the thugs (who were not all that effective — why didn’t they just shoot Clark when they had the chance rather than letting him off with a warning? As international conspiracies go, it was a little hard to take seriously.)

Still, I found the depictions of the nurses and their dedication to their patients quite moving and inspiring, and the author does a lovely job of giving personalities and individuality to the soldiers and sailors who come to the hospital in the aftermath of the attack. Because we see the events of Pearl Harbor through Eva’s eyes, we don’t move much beyond the hospital confines, so the destruction of the fleet seems to happen at a bit of a remove.

The story of Pearl Harbor is so tragic and dramatic that it’s hard to care about anything else happening at the same time — so yes ,the love story and Eva’s personal background might be engaging, but they seem kind of small in comparison to the historical events unfolding here. The Lieutenant’s Nurse is a quick read with some touching moment, but ultimately the plot — especially the love triangle and the spy business — doesn’t really stand out as truly special.

I’d say this is a solid 3-star read for me.

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The details:

Title: The Lieutenant’s Nurse
Author: Sara Ackerman
Publisher: MIRA
Publication date: March 5, 2019
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Audiobook Review: Unfamiliar Fishes

Unfamiliar Fishes

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Many think of 1776 as the defining year of American history, when we became a nation devoted to the pursuit of happiness through self- government. In Unfamiliar Fishes, Sarah Vowell argues that 1898 might be a year just as defining, when, in an orgy of imperialism, the United States annexed Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Guam, and invaded first Cuba, then the Philippines, becoming an international superpower practically overnight.

Among the developments in these outposts of 1898, Vowell considers the Americanization of Hawaii the most intriguing. From the arrival of New England missionaries in 1820, their goal to Christianize the local heathen, to the coup d’état of the missionaries’ sons in 1893, which overthrew the Hawaiian queen, the events leading up to American annexation feature a cast of beguiling, and often appealing or tragic, characters: whalers who fired cannons at the Bible-thumpers denying them their God-given right to whores, an incestuous princess pulled between her new god and her brother-husband, sugar barons, lepers, con men, Theodore Roosevelt, and the last Hawaiian queen, a songwriter whose sentimental ode “Aloha ‘Oe” serenaded the first Hawaiian president of the United States during his 2009 inaugural parade.

With her trademark smart-alecky insights and reporting, Vowell lights out to discover the off, emblematic, and exceptional history of the fiftieth state, and in so doing finds America, warts and all.

My Thoughts:

Unfamiliar Fishes has been on my to-read list for a few years now. I’m fascinated by Hawaiian history, and have heard all sorts of good things about the author, Sarah Vowell. Since I’m rarely in the mood to sit down with a non-fiction book when there are ALL THE NOVELS to be read, I thought the idea of listening to the audiobook was rather brilliant on my part.

Sadly, the audiobook was a big disappointment, in several ways.

First of all, the content: Unfamiliar Fishes can’t seem to decide whether it wants to be history, social commentary, or personal travelogue. The historical facts and interpretations are there, sure, but mixed in are the author’s narrative of hikes, visits to Hawaii with her nephew, and other random observations. The history is presented chronologically — except when it’s not. So, for example, we may learn about a school founded by missionaries, then jump to President Obama’s school days and quotes from his memoir, before hearing from a modern-day descendant of native Hawaiians on her thoughts about the school, before returning to the historical record.

The narrative jumps from King Kamehameha to the last queen of Hawaii, Queen Liliʻuokalani — a jump of at least 80 years. When a section about the whaling industry and its impact on Hawaii gets underway, we have all sorts of digressions about Herman Melville and Moby Dick, as well as a visit to the Melville museums and tourist attractions in Massachusetts.

The story is all over the place, and particularly in an audiobook, this makes it hard to follow. Without being able to flip back to the last place where the history left off in pursuit of other digressions, it’s practically impossible to keep track of the various missionaries, chiefs, and Hawaiian royalty.

Second, the narration of the audiobook: Most of the audiobook is read by Sarah Vowell herself. To say that she has an odd voice is putting it mildly. Her voice is quirky and sounds as though every line is expected to produce a reaction, so that it’s hard to take it entirely seriously, even when dealing with serious matters. (Of course, some will love this kind of thing. I found it hard to listen to.)

What was even harder for me, and rather puzzling, was the use of some big-name comedians and actors to read sections of the books where there are quotes. According to the audiobook description, narrators include Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, John Hodgman, Catherine Keener, Edward Norton, Keanu Reeves, Paul Rudd, Maya Rudolph, and John Slattery. Impressive? Well, not if their voices are unrecognizable. Listening to the book, it just sounded like random people. Not all quotes were read by these folks — some are just done by Sarah Vowell as part of her narration. But every once in a while, when there’s a quote from a missionary’s memoir or a document written by some other historical feature, one of these random voices pops in to read it. It makes for a very weird and disjointed listening experience, and is distracting too. I found myself losing focus on the context and thinking instead, “Should I know who’s speaking right now?”

Having these people as the voice of the missionaries also seems to imply that we should view everything the missionaries wrote as funny or mock-worthy, and I’m not convinced that the actual content of their writing supports that interpretation. It’s certainly an odd approach to historical documents.

True confession time: I didn’t finish this audiobook. By about the 50% mark, I knew I was struggling. I tried to force myself to continue — I even took the advice of a Twitter friend who suggested listening at 1.5x speed to get through it faster! (Believe me, the higher speed did nothing for the quality of the narration.) Finally, I quit at about 67%. I wasn’t enjoying it, I was fighting to pay attention, and it just wasn’t working.

This was a sad DNF for me. As I mentioned, I do really enjoy learning about Hawaii, but this experience taught me very little except that I should find myself a more traditional history of the islands to read. Unfamiliar Fishes couldn’t seem to decide if it was serious or snarky, and in the end, it ends up somewhere in the muddy middle, not successfully achieving either.

I’ve heard from friends that two other books by Sarah Vowell, The Wordy Shipmates and Assassination Vacation, are worth checking out. Based on my experience with Unfamiliar Fishes, I’m not inclined to read more by this author — but if you’ve have a positive experience with her books, please tell me so!

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The details:

Title: Unfamiliar Fishes
Author: Sarah Vowell
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Publication date: March 22, 2011
Audiobook length: 7 hours, 28 minutes
Printed book length: 258 pages
Genre: History/social commentary (non-fiction)
Source: Library (audio download)

Wishlist Wednesday

And now, for this week’s Wishlist Wednesday…

The concept is to post about one book from our wish lists that we can’t wait to read. Want to play? Here’s how:

  • Follow Pen to Paper as host of the meme.
  • Please consider adding the blog hop button to your blog somewhere, so others can find it easily and join in too! Help spread the word! The code will be at the bottom of the post under the linky.
  • Pick a book from your wishlist that you are dying to get to put on your shelves.
  • Do a post telling your readers about the book and why it’s on your wishlist.
  • Add your blog to the linky at the bottom of the post at Pen to Paper.
  • Put a link back to pen to paper (http://vogue-pentopaper.blogspot.com) somewhere in your post.
  • Visit the other blogs and enjoy!

My Wishlist Wednesday book is:

Moloka’i by Alan Brennert
(published 2004)

From Amazon:

This richly imagined novel, set in Hawai’i more than a century ago, is an extraordinary epic of a little-known time and place—and a deeply moving testament to the resiliency of the human spirit.
Rachel Kalama, a spirited seven-year-old Hawaiian girl, dreams of visiting far-off lands like her father, a merchant seaman. Then one day a rose-colored mark appears on her skin, and those dreams are stolen from her. Taken from her home and family, Rachel is sent to Kalaupapa, the quarantined leprosy settlement on the island of Moloka’i. Here her life is supposed to end—but instead she discovers it is only just beginning.
With a vibrant cast of vividly realized characters, Moloka’i is the true-to-life chronicle of a people who embraced life in the face of death. Such is the warmth, humor, and compassion of this novel that “few readers will remain unchanged by Rachel’s story” (mostlyfiction.com).

Why do I want to read this?

Moloka’i has actually been on my to-read list for some time now. I’ve always been fascinated by Hawaiian history, and really enjoy good historical fiction set in Hawaii. The story of the leper colony on the island of Moloka’i is quite moving — and sadly, is quite true.  Alan Brennert has published Honolulu more recently, another piece of historical fiction set in Hawaii in the early 20th century. If I enjoy Moloka’i as much as I anticipate, I’m sure I’ll want to read Honolulu too.