The History of Love is a bittersweet novel that tells the intertwined stories of Alma Singer and Leo Gursky, a teenage girl and an old man whose lives collide under extraordinary circumstances.
When Alma explores her namesake, the main character of the book-within-a-book also titled “The History of Love,” she discovers a dense tapestry of love, heartbreak, and friendship that centers around another Alma, Leo Gursky, her deceased father, her bereft mother, an unknown writer from Poland by way of Chile, and the famous American author Isaac Moritz. Nicole Krauss makes this potentially convoluted tale feel truly magical by illuminating the long, tangled strings of time and events that bring her characters together. There are few detours from the plot and no wasted words, so the story is fully explored and feels deeper than its 272 pages. It’s sweet and sad and thought provoking, but doesn’t carry any depressing baggage to sour your mood. The ending is uplifting without being tidy and perfect.
I selected this book for my book club and I was delighted to see quotations from its pages popping up in my fellow members’ status updates and conversations. There are a lot of beautiful language moments and highly quotable passages (“her kiss was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering” – *swoons*), which help make the book such a joy to read.
Krauss is married to author Jonathan Safran Foer, and their novels make lovely companions. If you loved his novels Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close or Everything Is Illuminated, you will fall for The History of Love, and vice versa. Both authors employ lyrical language to explore the topic of Jewish history (to put it broadly) through the eyes of fictional writers. In Everything is Illuminated, the protagonist is a writer who travels throughout eastern Europe looking for the history of his family and their village. In The History of Love, every major character and almost every minor character are writers in one form or another. Both books are so beautiful that it’s hard to decide which one I liked better, but either or both would make a great springtime read.
The Paris of World War II comes to life again in Lynn Sheene’s The Last Time I Saw Paris, as seen through the eyes of an American ex-pat searching to find her own place in the world.
Manhattan socialite Claire Harris has secrets to hide; when those secrets threaten to expose her, she escapes her glittering cage for Paris and the promises made by a summer fling. However, instead of lavish parties and luxury, she arrives in Paris just as the Germans approach, bringing war and depravation, fear and cruelty. Claire stays, scrambling to survive, making friends, finding a place in a world suddenly turned upside down. When her papers expire, she makes a deal with the Resistance, providing information about the Germans in exchange for forged documents.
Sheene keeps the tension high and the action moving briskly. The terror of living under Nazi rule is shown as harsh and random, the fear of not knowing who to trust is vivid. People are realistically portrayed – Claire is a reluctant freedom fighter, only gradually leaving her shallow dreams behind for the good of others; the Resistance is shown as ruthless and not above blackmail; and the ordinary citizen is often simply struggling to survive. This is a quick read – it’s hard to put it down when you can’t wait to find out what will happen!
Daddy by Loup Durand was a bestseller in France but, amazingly, never a huge hit in the U.S.
Thomas, an 11-year-old genius, is being chased by Nazis, after they discover the boy’s grandfather has entrusted him with information about Jewish fortunes held in Swiss bank accounts.
American millionaire David Quartermain, the father Thomas has never known, is summoned by the child’s mother when she realizes her life is in danger. Not only an incredibly tense cat-and-mouse chase novel, this is also the story of how father and son learn to trust and love each other.
Intricately plotted, there are iconic characters (a sociopathic Nazi, a mysterious sniper/bodyguard and wealthy playboy turned patriot), mysteries, secrets, and the always-fascinating setting of World War II Europe. A great and satisfying page-turner.
So much has been written about Anne Frank and her two years hidden in the Secret Annex during World War II, but little has been written about the woman who hid the family, Miep Gies. Anne Frank Remembered, by Miep Gies and Alison Leslie Gold, tells the story of the woman who not only helped the family to survive in hiding, but was also the person who discovered Anne’s diary after the family was arrested.
The book begins with Miep’s own desperate childhood in Vienna during World War I and how she was sent to the Netherlands with many other Viennesse children in order to live with families who could temporarily take care of them. Years later, Miep decides to stay in Amsterdam after accepting a secretarial job with a company who produced kits so women could make jellies and jams from the comfort of their home – her new boss was a man named Otto Frank. Her recollections of meeting his family, especially Anne, are charming and the long friendship she shared with the Frank family is vividly recalled.
The book follows the progression of World War II and the eventual occupation of the Netherlands. Even though this story is one that has been written about frequently, Miep’s first hand account of the lives of the Frank’s and their friends is an invaluable historical story. The co-author, Alison Leslie Gold, wanted to capture Ms. Gies and her husband’s own thoughts and remembrances – the first edition of the book was published when Ms. Gies was nearly 80 years old. She died this past January at the age of 100.
Before World War II fades from living memory and thereafter resides exclusively in the history books, take a few moments to appreciate those who actually lived it. After all, the history books can only tell us statistics and names, the locations of battlefields and the number who died there. Only the people who were actually there can tell you the personal stories – sleeping in cow pastures, spending time with your buddies in a war zone, seeing the planes of D-Day flying overhead, the pain of watching your best friend die. The Last Good War: the Faces and Voices of World War II with photos by Thomas Sanders, shines the spotlight on some of these last remaining veterans through a series of affecting portraits and reminiscences. Proud, solemn, spirited, these men and women once again show us what made them “the greatest generation.”
One decision can alter a life forever – turning left instead of right, stopping instead of going straight home, holding onto a piece of information. That a life can be saved or shattered by the smallest gestures is movingly illustrated in The Postmistress by Sarah Blake.
Set during the early stages of World War II when London is staggering under the relentless German bombing from the Blitz and America is teetering on the verge of entering the war, The Postmistress looks at how simple decisions change and connect the lives of three women. Frankie works for Edward R Murrow in London, reporting on how the bombing is affecting the people and their lives. Newlywed Emma Trask, just arrived in a small Cape Cod town, waits for her doctor husband, who has gone to London to volunteer. And the town’s postmistress, Iris James, holds onto a crucial piece of information that will impact all of them.
The scenes set in London and Europe are especially good; Blake brilliantly evokes the atmosphere of the Blitz where panic gradually gives way to resignation, and death is random and arbitrary. Frankie’s journey through Europe (as an American she is still able to travel through German-occupied countries) is tense and heartbreaking and terrifying. I felt that the parts of the book that are set in Cape Cod are not as strong – less action, less immediate – and that the ending suffered because of this. However, many readers felt differently; this book is worth reading to find out how you feel.
Like all boys growing up in Rome during the 1930’s and 40’s, the author was expected to join Balilla, Mussolini’s Fascist Youth Organization in Italy. An unwilling participant, he counters this activity by becoming a bicycle runner, secretly delivering pamphlets and other materials to members of the Resistance. Later, near the end of the war, after Italy has surrendered to the Allies but is still controlled by a puppet German government, Romagnoli flees Rome to avoid military conscription. Hiding in the remote mountainous countryside, he becomes even more dangerously involved in the Resistance, working with both American and British soldiers.
But The Bicycle Runner, which covers his life from ages 14-25, is much more than a war story. In fact, it reads much more like a coming-of-age novel, full of the usual adolescent angst weaved together with plenty of humorous anecdotes. Examples include his descriptions of fearful confessions to the local priest (which the entire congregation can hear) to his first experiences with love and lust.
The author may be better known for co-hosting the first American television program on Italian cooking, The Romagnoli’s Table, for which he coauthored two companion books. Though he passed away in December of 2008, the love for his native land and culture comes through strikingly clear; the subtitle, A Memoir of Love, Loyalty and the Italian Resistance, is perfectly appropriate.
The setting for David Benioff’s City of Thieves is grim and brutal – the siege of Leningrad during World War II – yet there is also light and optimism, even laughter in this book. Lev Benioff, is a naive, 17-year-old is picked up for looting, a sentence punishable by death. Instead of the firing squad, he is thrown together with brash, confident, Red Army soldier Koyla Vaslav (arrested for deserting). They are given a task: find 12 eggs for the general’s daughter’s wedding in five days. If they succeed, they’re free; if not, they’ll be shot.
What follows is the nearly impossible search for fresh eggs in a city that has virtually no food (conservative estimates place the number of Soviet deaths during the siege at 1.7 million, most of whom starved to death) The unlikely pairing develops from forced to begrudging to a true partnership. What these two see, both the cruelty and kindness, is almost unfathomable now in our comfortable, well-fed lives, from the desperate couple resorting to cannibalism (who they barely escape from), to the former call girl that shelters artists and surgeons made homeless by the relentless bombing, to the Nazi commander they must outwit, the book is full of unforgettable characters and heart-stopping tension.
At first, you will want to hate Koyla. He is arrogant and brash and a bit of a braggart. He is also charming and charismatic and at heart, a kind and generous man who does the right thing for others time and again. Lev, who narrates the story, is full of self-doubt and (he believes) weakness, but finds unimaginged courage and strength when he needs it, partly because of Koyla.
Based on Benioff’s grandfather’s memories, this is storytelling at it’s best, the kind of book that stays with you – a story of cruelty, desperation and hardship, but also of kindness, strength, loyalty, love and friendship.
On July 16, 1942 thousands of Jewish families were rounded up in Paris and held under brutal conditions at the Vel’ d’Hiv’ train station before being shipped to Auschwitz and almost certain death. Although the orders were issued by the Nazi’s, they were carried out by the French police; most of the Jews were French citizens and almost no one came to their defense. Property and homes left behind by the Jews were quickly taken over by Parisians and the incident buried. While France has recently made an effort to acknowledge and apologize for this dark chapter in their history, and public memorials have been erected, it remains a story that is little known and even deliberately hidden.
Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay brings this horrific story to life. Alternating chapters follow 10-year-old Sarah Starzynki and her family when they are brutally taken from their home in 1942 and present-day journalist Julia Jarmond who is writing a story about the little known roundup. The secret that Sarah carries with her – that, at his insistence, she has locked her little brother into a secret hiding place, believing she will return in a few hours – as well as the suffering she and her family endure shadows her life. Julia, an American living in Paris, discovers that her in-laws have a connection to Sarah, a family secret that they have tried to deny. Julia’s determination to find answers and to trace Sarah threaten her marriage and forever alter her view of her beloved adopted home.
This book is a real page turner – both stories are dramatic, full of twists and revealing of human character both at its worst and its best. There are interesting insights into how the people of Occupied France reacted to the persecution of the Jews, and how many modern French continue to dismiss or ignore their past. At one point someone asks Julia why she, an American born long after the war and with no connection to the tragedy, is so determined to find Sarah. Julia replies that she wants to apologize, “Sorry for not knowing. Sorry for being 45 years old and not knowing.” Reading Sarah’s Key can help all of us correct this error.
In 1937 Shanghai, Pearl and her sister May are living a glamorous, sophisticated life, modeling as “beautiful girls” for the painters of magazine covers and calendar pages. Their sheltered, privileged world comes to a shattering halt when their Father loses everything and he must sell them into marriage. At first they are able to escape this fate, but when the war begins and the Japanese attack their beloved city, they must flee for their lives.
Shanghai Girls by Lisa See follows the harrowing journey that the sisters must undertake – the hardship, the pain and the betrayals as they try to escape the Japanese and find a safe haven first in Hong Kong, then in San Francisco. Throughout it all the sisters remain each others staunchest supporters through good times and bad, through arranged marriages, lost children and oppressive discrimination. Their triumph is that, not only do they emerge from their trials as stronger people, they come through it together.
See also wrote the wildly popular Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, also set in China, and has done extensive research to fill her story with authentic detail. Her story gives us unique views of the past – the Japanese invasion of China and the suffering of the Chinese people at their conquerors hands, the discrimination against the Chinese in America and the Red Scare fear of communist threat that created suspicion against the Chinese in America in the 1950s.
While the trails and suffering that Pearl and May must endure sometimes seem almost endless, the author has left us with a cliffhanger ending, promising a possible sequel and future hope for the beautiful girls from Shanghai.