The Monday Check-In ~ 6/10/2019

cooltext1850356879 My Monday tradition, including a look back and a look ahead — what I read last week, what new books came my way, and what books are keeping me busy right now. Plus a smattering of other stuff too.

What did I read during the last week?

The Last Year of the War by Susan Meissner: Powerful historical fiction. My review is here.

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn: A truly beautiful and powerful memoir. My review is here.

Recursion by Blake Crouch: So much mind-f*ckery. Just finished reading this Sunday night; review to follow. (Loved it.)

Fresh Catch:

No new books — although I did pick up a paperback edition of The Salt Path to complement listening to the audiobook!

What will I be reading during the coming week?

Currently in my hands:

Bouncing around between different books right now:

A graphic novel, an ARC of a recent release, and a re-read of a book whose sequel comes out later this month — between these three, I should be able to keep myself busy for the next several days!

Now playing via audiobook:

Anne of Avonlea by L. M. Montgomery: Back to Anne! I read Anne of Green Gables for the first time earlier this year, and have been wanting to continue with the series. I’m only a little way into the book, but it’s charming so far.

Ongoing reads:

Two ongoing book group reads at the moment:

  • A Fugitive Green by Diana Gabaldon, from the Seven Stones To Stand or Fall collection.
  • The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens — our current classic selection.

So many books, so little time…

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Book Review: The Last Year of the War by Susan Meissner



Elise Sontag is a typical Iowa fourteen-year-old in 1943–aware of the war but distanced from its reach. Then her father, a legal U.S. resident for nearly two decades, is suddenly arrested on suspicion of being a Nazi sympathizer. The family is sent to an internment camp in Texas, where, behind the armed guards and barbed wire, Elise feels stripped of everything beloved and familiar, including her own identity.

The only thing that makes the camp bearable is meeting fellow internee Mariko Inoue, a Japanese-American teen from Los Angeles, whose friendship empowers Elise to believe the life she knew before the war will again be hers. Together in the desert wilderness, Elise and Mariko hold tight the dream of being young American women with a future beyond the fences.

The Last Year of the War is the moving story of true friendship that lasts a lifetime, despite years of separation. Told through the eyes of Elise, the story opens in 2010 when Elise is in her 80s, suffering from the losses associated with Alzheimers, feeling pieces of herself and her life being stolen away from her. When her housekeeper teaches her to use Google, Elise uses it to look up her friend Mariko, a girl she last saw during the last year of World War II. And having found her, Elise decides to go see her, despite the memory lapses that cause her to repeatedly lose her focus and her purpose for traveling.

From there, we go back to Elise’s adolescence. As the American-born daughter of German immigrants, Elise enjoys her ordinary life in Davenport, Iowa, up until the day her father is arrested as an enemy of the United States:

As I watched the black car that held my father disappear around the block, the strongest sensation I had was not that this couldn’t be happening, but that it was. It was like being awakened from a stupor, not falling into a nightmare. I couldn’t have explained it to anyone then. Not even to myself. It was only in the years that followed that I realized this was the moment my eyes were opened to what the world is really like.

Eventually, the family is reunited at the Crystal City Internment Camp in Texas, where they, along with hundreds of other German-American and Japanese-American families, are assigned to remain throughout the war years. Life in the camp isn’t awful for Elise, because she finds Mariko — also an American-born daughter of immigrants. They attend the mixed school together and become deeply connected friends, sharing their dreams, their hopes, and their fears, and making grand plans for the life they’ll spend together after the war, moving to New York and pursuing their adult lives side by side.

It’s not to be, sadly — first Elise’s family and then Mariko’s are chosen for repatriation. Despite being American citizens, Elise and her brother Max along with her parents are sent to Germany in exchange for Americans being held there. Suddenly, in what will be the final year of the war, the family is thrust into a war zone. While Elise’s father’s family is there to welcome them and offer them a home, it isn’t home for Elise, who doesn’t even speak the language. From the safety of American soil, Elise finds herself in a strange land, where bombs fall over night as the Allied armies get closer and closer, and where the day after a bombing raid reveals nothing but death and destruction.

Throughout this time, it’s the thought of Mariko and their friendship that gives Elise hope, until the day a letter from Mariko arrives, telling Elise that she’s being forced to marry and that her family forbids any further contact. Heartbroken, Elise struggles to find a way to move forward, until a meeting with an American GI after the German surrender opens up new opportunities for her.

Enough synopsis! I won’t give away any further plot details. The Last Year of the War is a very compelling story, and Elise is a very sympathetic character. It’s almost impossible to imagine, sitting her in the comfort of the 21st century, that an American citizen could be torn away from her country like this and sent into a war zone, but the key events in this book are drawn from the historical record. The Crystal City camp was a real place, and repatriation of Japanese and German immigrants and their families really did happen.

I was actually shocked to discover that German-Americans were sent to internment camps — I’d only ever read about Japanese-Americans and their treatment during WWII. It might be just ignorance on my part, but it seems like that element of the war years has never been as publicly known and reported. I was equally shocked to learn about the repatriation of families to Japan and Germany. It seems incredibly cruel to send these people into war-torn countries for no reason other than the fact of their birthplaces — or in the cases of Elise, Mariko, and their siblings, the birthplaces of their parents.

Based on the synopsis of the book, I’d expected to have Elise and Mariko share the historical pieces of the story, but the book is actually Elise’s story, told through her memories of her war years and beyond. We learn about Mariko through Elise’s perspective, so once the girls are separated, we only know what happened to Mariko when Elise finds out more. This doesn’t diminish the power of the story — Elise’s experiences are powerful and fascinating on their own — but it was a little out of alignment with my initial expectations.

That doesn’t mean that I didn’t love this book, because I absolutely did. I learned pieces of history that were new and surprising to me, and beyond that, I got to meet characters who are richly drawn, deeply relatable, and full of hopes, fears, and passions that resonate. Elise goes on to live a life of purpose and meaning, but never forgets Mariko and what their brief time together meant to her.

My only wish might be that Elise and Mariko had more time together once they were reunited. These pieces of the story are so powerful, but we only get small segments of this time, as a framing device for the historical pieces of the story.

All in all, I’d say that The Last Year of the War is a must-read for fans of historical fiction or for anyone who wants to learn more about an unseen chapter of the war. It’s a wonderfully rich story of two friends and how a connection like theirs can change lives. Highly recommended!

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The details:

Title: The Last Year of the War
Author: Susan Meissner
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: March 19, 2019
Length: 389 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Take A Peek Book Review: As Bright As Heaven by Susan Meissner

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

 

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

From the acclaimed author of Secrets of a Charmed Life and A Bridge Across the Ocean comes a new novel set in Philadelphia during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, which tells the story of a family reborn through loss and love.

In 1918, Philadelphia was a city teeming with promise. Even as its young men went off to fight in the Great War, there were opportunities for a fresh start on its cobblestone streets. Into this bustling town, came Pauline Bright and her husband, filled with hope that they could now give their three daughters–Evelyn, Maggie, and Willa–a chance at a better life.

But just months after they arrive, the Spanish Flu reaches the shores of America. As the pandemic claims more than twelve thousand victims in their adopted city, they find their lives left with a world that looks nothing like the one they knew. But even as they lose loved ones, they take in a baby orphaned by the disease who becomes their single source of hope. Amidst the tragedy and challenges, they learn what they cannot live without–and what they are willing to do about it.

As Bright as Heaven is the compelling story of a mother and her daughters who find themselves in a harsh world, not of their making, which will either crush their resolve to survive or purify it.

My Thoughts:

When we hear about the flu pandemic of 1918, we can be blown away by the number — as many as 50 million people died, many more than the number who died on the battlefields of World War I. In As Bright As Heaven, this unfathomable global catastrophe is made personal as we see the flu and its devastating impact through the experiences of one family. The Bright family, having already suffered the loss of an infant to a heart condition some months earlier, relocates to Philadelphia from the countryside so that the father can start a new career as partner and heir to his uncle’s funeral home business. For the mother Pauline and her three daughters, it’s a chance at a new life in a new city, moving away from the location of their recent heartbreak and starting over.

Between living in the family quarters of the funeral home, the continuing war in Europe, and then the onslaught of the flu, the family can’t escape death. Through the eyes of Pauline and each of the girls, we see the darkness of the time period as loss piles upon loss, with no rhyme or reason for who lives and who dies.

The story of the Spanish Flu pandemic is tragic and fascinating, but I found the individual characters and their perspectives less compelling than I would have hoped. Perhaps having so many narrators — not just Pauline, but also the three daughters, one of whom is only nine years old — dilutes the immediacy. The book gets off to a slow start, although the pace picks up quite a bit from about 40% onward, once the flu begins to spread and the family’s life begins to change. The subplot about the orphaned baby adds some suspense, but it’s fairly simple to see where that storyline is going.

I liked the characters well enough, and overall thought this was a fine read about an interesting time period. I can’t really put my finger on why the book as a whole just didn’t particularly grab me.

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The details:

Title: As Bright As Heaven
Author: Susan Meissner
Publisher: Berkley Books
Publication date: February 6, 2018
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Take A Peek Book Review: A Fall of Marigolds by Susan Meissner

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

A beautiful scarf, passed down through the generations, connects two women who learn that the weight of the world is made bearable by the love we give away….

September 1911. On Ellis Island in New York Harbor, nurse Clara Wood cannot face returning to Manhattan, where the man she loved fell to his death in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Then, while caring for a fevered immigrant whose own loss mirrors hers, she becomes intrigued by a name embroidered onto the scarf he carries …and finds herself caught in a dilemma that compels her to confront the truth about the assumptions she’s made. Will what she learns devastate her or free her?

September 2011. On Manhattan’s Upper West Side, widow Taryn Michaels has convinced herself that she is living fully, working in a charming specialty fabric store and raising her daughter alone. Then a long-lost photograph appears in a national magazine, and she is forced to relive the terrible day her husband died in the collapse of the World Trade Towers …the same day a stranger reached out and saved her. Will a chance reconnection and a century-old scarf open Taryn’s eyes to the larger forces at work in her life?

My Thoughts:

While A Fall of Marigolds held my attention, I couldn’t quite love this book. For one thing, I’m really getting tired of the split timeline narrative that seems to be everywhere these days, especially when the two timelines are connected by some artifact of one sort or another — a painting, a diary, a doll, etc. It’s a plot device that’s becoming all too prevalent in historical fiction when the author wants a contemporary hook. In A Fall of Marigolds, it’s a colorful scarf that features in both the 1911 and 2011 stories, but the linkage between the two feels forced at times.

It’s too bad, because I might have enjoyed the book more if it had just told one story or the other. Either is compelling, and the book does contain some very dramatic and emotional moments. 9/11 is still part of our collective psyches, and it’s impossible to read Taryn’s part of the story, which includes her eyewitness experience of watching the towers fall, and not be overwhelmed by memories and feelings.

Likewise, the story of the nurses of Ellis Island and their work with infectious immigrants, as well as the story of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, is powerful and moving. But the lives of the fictional characters can’t really measure up to the terror and power of the real events. Clara’s experiences, and her fixation on the man who died in the fire in particular, seem rather lightweight when looking at the broader extent of the tragedy. Her story is enlivened by her interactions with the immigrant she nurses through scarlet fever and her dilemma regarding his own losses and secrets, but I couldn’t buy the essential premise of her part of the story and Clara’s view on love and destiny.

The entire plot of A Fall of Marigolds seems to rest quite a bit on the characters coming to terms with events outside of their control. For both Taryn and Clara, they’re left to sort out whether things were meant to happen, or whether their own actions were somehow to blame for outcomes that could otherwise have been avoided. Clara’s need to figure out whether her love for the man she barely knew was real is vital to her, but her fixation on the loss of what might have been begins to feel overblown as the story progresses. On the other hand, Taryn’s guilt over surviving and the loss of her husband feel quite real, and her story gets a pay-off that is bittersweet yet satisfying.

Parts of this book are quite good, but as a whole, there’s some essential element missing. And as I said, the overall structure doesn’t work for me in general — I really would not have started this book, knowing it was a “two-women-from-two-different-eras-linked-by-one-special-thing” kind of story, were it not a book group pick. I’m glad to have read it, but knowing now that most of this author’s works have a similar two-timeline structure, I don’t think I’ll be seeking out more of her books.

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The details:

Title: A Fall of Marigolds
Author: Susan Meissner
Publisher: NAL
Publication date: January 1, 2014
Length: 394 pages
Genre: Contemporary/historical fiction
Source: Purchased

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