The Last Brother – by Nathacha Appanah

the last brotherThis book had incredible depths of sadness. And yet, I loved it. I’m in the habit of avoiding sad books, because they generally also fall within the category of depressing books. This book, however, beautifully presented layer upon layer of sadness while still finding hope and healing. The result is profoundly powerful and moving.

The narrator is a nine-year-old boy living on the African island of Mauritius during the 1940s. His life is overpowered by an abusive father and the senseless death of his two brothers. He has no idea that a world war is going on.

Yet when his life intersects with that of a young Jewish refugee from eastern Europe (being held in a British prison on Mauritius), these two boys – both of whom have known deep tragedy in the course of their young lives – find solace and healing in each other’s company.

The language is spare and delicate.The story has a richness and depth of human understanding that’s hard to describe. It’s a book that doesn’t shy away from the depths of brokenness in human existence, and yet it manages to find hope and beauty along the way.

sea rocks

Echo – by Pam Muñoz Ryan

This isn’t a typical Newbery Honor book. (Yet it won that honor for 2016.) For one thing, it’s much longer than most Newbery books, finishing out at nearly 600 pages. For another thing, it doesn’t fit easily into a single genre. echoAt first, I thought it was going to be a magical realism novel. The frame story, which we only encounter at the very beginning and the very end of the book, reads like a fairy tale —with a boy lost in the dark Germanic woods meeting with three magical nymph-like ladies who give him a prophecy. But after the first few pages, the narrative transitions to well-grounded historical fiction—three different historical fiction vignettes in fact— loosely tied together by strains of music from a very special harmonica.

The three vignettes are fairly different from one another. The first features a boy in Germany in the early 1930s, dealing with the fact that his older sister is embracing Hitlerism even as he himself is faced with possible sterilization due to past medical issues. The second story follows an orphaned boy and his brother in Depression-era America, as they interact with a wealthy heiress who is considering adoption. The third vignette focuses on a Hispanic girl growing up in a migrant working family in 1940s California, dealing with the wartime injustices towards her Japanese-American neighbors. All three stories interact with real social and historical injustices that touched the daily lives of the three young people.

The thread that links each of these vignettes is a harmonica—a magical harmonica if we are to take the fairy-tale-esque frame story literally. Each of the three main characters find him or herself inspired and comforted by the music of this harmonica, and the fact that they are musical plays a unique part in each of their stories. The way Ms. Ryan describes the experience of playing and performing music is quite compelling. She evokes the emotions of many different aspects of playing music—improvising, practicing, performing, and just fiddling around on an instrument.

harmonica

All three of the stories were moving and compelling, and they joined together to make a rich novel. But the vignette that stood out the most to me personally was that of Friedrich, the young boy growing up in Nazi Germany. I particularly appreciated Friedrich because he was born with a large birthmark on his face, and has to come to grips with how to stand up and face the world rather than trying to hide his physical imperfection – particularly in a society so fixated upon “physical perfection.”

I live with physical scars that are the result of a bout of bacterial meningitis that I had as a child, so stories that deal with these issues are very meaningful to me personally. As a child, I don’t remember ever reading a book whose main character had physical scarring. This fact never really occurred to me at the time, yet I think reading a story like Friedrich’s might have been helpful to me.

Too often in literature and movies, physical imperfection and scarring are used as dehumanizing characteristics. I recently re-watched Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith and was struck with how physical scarring is used to visually represent both the Emperor and Darth Vader’s transformation toward evil. Think of how much more human (and less villainous) both of those characters would seem in that movie without their physical scarring. There’s something very beautiful and important about seeing sympathetic characters like Friedrich in our literature and movies. Those of us with scars and physical imperfections should have characters to relate to, who understand what it is like to get stares while walking down the street, or who have to think about what they will wear in relation to how much of their physical scarring they want to be visible. It should not be the case that the only fictional characters we see with scars are pirates or outlaws or leaders of evil galactic empires. We need more characters like Friedrich.

All in all, I found this to be a very compelling read. It was unusual in its format and lack of adherence to a single genre, yet each of the main characters came very much alive for me. The worlds opened up by the three different historical vignettes felt real and immediate, and there was a sense of urgency to the social injustices that were pointed out in each story. While the size may be intimidating to some middle grade readers, the journey is worth it in order to know these wonderful characters and enter into these unique moments in history.

The Nightingale – by Kristin Hannah

When I initially read the description for this book, my first thought was, “another book about World War II?” It’s not that I don’t enjoy a good World War II novel—All the Light We Cannot See, Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society are some of my favorites. It just seems that there have been so many published recently. But I’m so glad I decided to pick this one up—this one stands out from among the rest.

the nightingale

The story follows two sisters—Vianne and Isabelle—during the Nazi occupation of France. The juxtaposition and contrast between the two sisters gave a great deal of depth to the book. All too often, books about World War II focus solely on resistance fighters and those who are defying the system in grandiose ways, while looking down on and deriding those who didn’t take as obvious of a stand against the Germans. I appreciated that this book showed the complexity and struggle of the situation.

Isabelle is the sister who portrays the more stereotypical character in books about the French resistance–she’s hot-headed and passionate, ready to throw her lot in with anyone who is willing to take action against the Nazis. Over the course of the book, she grows and matures—we watch as her suffering and bravery give her a rootedness, and as she comes to realize that her hot-headedness and willingness to say whatever is on her mind could endanger those she is seeking to help.

Isabelle stands in contrast to her sister Vianne. Vianne is married with a child (though her husband is off fighting), and her goal in the war is to keep her head down and survive. She cares about her daughter’s safety above all. A German officer ends up billeted in her home, and she struggles to demonize him as “the enemy” in her mind when he appears so human and decent in their daily interactions. Yet as the war heats up and the German treatment of the Jews becomes more obvious, Vianne must draw her own line in the sand as well.

This book is an intriguing study of bravery and courage—and how these things can look different for different people. I loved the subtlety and nuance of these two sisters—both of whom initially balked at each other’s behavior in the face of danger, but both of whom end up recognizing each other’s bravery in the end. It’s a beautiful study of the difficulty in knowing what’s right, what lengths to go to, and how to protect one’s family while not looking the other way in the face of evil.

Roussillon

This was an amazing novel—poignant, compelling, and moving. My only complaint was that it seemed so American in its approach. Don’t get me wrong—the author did her homework about France and the period of the German occupation. The settings seemed very real – both Paris and the small French villages exuded “Frenchness,” and the author included lovely details about the food and language that made a Francophile like me smile. Yet it was something about the style in which the story was told that struck me as American—it somehow seemed too heroic. Certainly, the French have incredibly heroic stories in their history, but as a people they don’t seem to draw attention to these stories in the same way that Americans do. And Americans seem much more enamored with re-telling stories of World War II than the French do.

In one sense, the history of World War II is much more immediate for the French. I remember being struck with this while visiting France—seeing all of the war memorials and the plaques remembering deported Jews. It was a striking reminder that this war occurred on their soil and there was a sense of immediacy that I hadn’t experienced in the US. As I pondered the idea of The Nightingale seeming somewhat Americanized, the part of the story that rang most true for me was that the main character hadn’t shared her war experiences with her son. She’d locked away those memories into a separate part of herself and moved on to a post-war life. The heroism had happened. But it wasn’t quite French to keep talking about it the way these Americans did.

french window

Because of this nagging sense of the “Americanization” of the book, I’d be very curious to hear a French person’s perspective on this novel. I found it to be an incredibly compelling read, and I have continued to think about the story and the characters long after I put the book down.

 

The Man in the High Castle – by Philip K. Dick

It’s not often that I enjoy a movie version of a story better than the book. But this was one of those rare cases. I recently watched Amazon Prime’s mini-series of The Man in the High Castle, and found it to be absolutely riveting. This alternate history world—imagining what the world would have been like if the Axis powers had won World War II—depicts a version of 1960s America divided up between German and Japanese rule, with a narrow strip of neutral area in the Rocky Mountains. It’s an alternate history that is both extremely disturbing and difficult to look away from. The action and the acting in the mini-series were intense and moving. I was so taken by the mini-series that I felt I had to read the book.

man in the high castleBut I found the book to be disappointing. The premise was the same—America after the loss of WWII—but the plot was almost entirely different. And almost entirely lacking. The mini-series had the sense of intensity and purpose that’s often found in stories about the French resistance. The characters in the book, on the other hand, seemed driven down, accepting of their fate. The mini-series involves almost constant, rising action. The book plods, the characterization and set-up spanning most of the book and the action suddenly (and rather shockingly) arriving in the last quarter of the book.

In most instances of books made into movies (or TV shows), I find that the medium of a book offers much more of a scope for getting to know the characters. But in this book, the characters remained strangers to me. Perhaps they suffered in comparison with the impeccable acting in the mini-series. Yet the book seemed purposefully ambiguous and cryptic—in its presentation of both the characters and the plot. Ambiguity doesn’t bother me if it’s well executed. I can embrace metaphor and ambiguity in Faulkner or Proust. But this ambiguity seemed to be cryptic for its own sake, and seemed to interfere in the execution of the story.

There were aspects of the book that I enjoyed. The descriptions of the integration of Japanese and American culture were intriguing–integration even to the level of Japanese philosophy and aesthetics seeping into the existence of the average 1960s American. There’s more room in the book version for an exploration of the historical detail of this alternate world—the details about the war, the assassination of FDR, the fall of Russia—I was fascinated to learn more about this alternate timeline. Even the author’s attempt to express the linguistic differences that might occur in American English due to occupation by a culture that learned English as a second language was interesting—if annoying at times to read.

Despite these aspects, I couldn’t get past the purposefully cryptic style and the plodding pace. This alternate history is an intriguing idea, but I’d suggest sticking to the mini-series.