Friday, February 26, 2016

Historical Fiction: The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

Kristin Hannah's The Nightingale beat out many favorites to take home the 2015 Goodreads Choice Award for Best Historical Fiction. Naturally this made me curious, especially since the book beat out the likes of both Sara Gruen (Water for Elephants) and Kate Atkinson (A God in Ruins). I figured I was in for a somewhat tough and emotional read as the story takes place in France during World War II, and followed two sister as they both try to survive their home being occupied by Nazis. So I steeled myself and decided to dive right in, hoping that my discomfort would be outweighed by an excellent story.

The Situation: Vianne and Isabelle Mauriac are sisters living in France when World War II happens. They had lost their mother years before, and even though he was still alive, they had seemingly lost their father as well to the first world war. When the fighting was over, their father came back as a broken man, and instead of caring for his daughters after his wife's death, he sent them off to live with someone else while he lived in Paris. Vianne would grow up to be the stable, calm, reasonable one who would get married and start a family. Isabelle, forever a rebel, would get thrown out of boarding schools, finishing schools, and other institutions her father chose to put her in, always believing that he did not love her, and that her older sister did not have time for her. Then war breaks out and the Germans make their way into France, just as Isabelle has escaped from yet another school and made her way to her father's home in Paris, and life as everyone knows it changes dramatically.

The Problem: Vianne remains convinced that her husband will be home soon to once again lead her family during this difficult time. Isabelle remains cynical, or realistic, depending on how you feel, and believes that while it may seem futile, France should fight back instead of surrendering. After being rejected once again by her father, Isabelle finds herself living with her older sister as a Nazi soldier is assigned to live in the house. And while Vianne remains the more reasonable one, opting to keep her daughter safe over any ideas of a French resistance, Isabelle cannot help but fight and try to turn the tide of the war. As time goes on, and the Nazis grow in their brutality, each sister will find themselves making impossible decisions to keep themselves and those they love safe, because even a small decision like standing up for a neighbor or friend can prove dangerous under Nazi control.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel set during WWII in occupied France. So yeah, it is grim. In the very beginning, France is not occupied yet, but the Germans are on their way and France is calling up their able bodied men to fight them. But most of the remainder of the book will take place after the French have surrendered and the Germans have made themselves right at home, commandeering resources, living space, and the best food and wine. Vianne will continue living in her home with her daughter and the German soldier who has been assigned to stay in her guest room. But Isabelle will continue to take greater and greater risks to spread anti-propaganda against the Nazis, and eventually rescue downed British and American airmen and assist them in crossing over into Spain, and eventually back to their homes. Naturally it is the story of the tragedies and atrocities of war, as well as a story or survival. But more than that, it is a story of what women can do and had to endure while the men are off fighting, especially in an occupied territory. While the British resisted and were bombed as a result, the French surrendered, but still suffered greatly under Nazi rule. Even though they didn't fight back, they endured ration cards that often didn't result in any meaningful sustenance, especially in the later years. And anything they had of any value was taken and used for the cause of the Nazis. It is a story of the war as it was in France, away from the front lines but still with the enemy close by.

My Verdict: While I will certainly be laying off of stories about WWII for awhile, I can see why this book took home the Best Historical Fiction award. The book is brutal and honest, but without being sadistic about it. And while Vianne and Isabelle are sisters, they are each different enough to have two completely different stories as they each handle the war in their own way. And the thing is, on the surface it seems like Vianne has chosen the smarter, safer, route. But the longer the book goes on the more the reader can see that in this war, in France, no option is really "safe," and any course of action will require the desire and ability to survive. The book doesn't romanticize the war, doesn't pretty it up in any way, but also doesn't bog the reader down in details so awful that turning the page would cause someone to flinch at what could possibly be coming next. Like the characters, I wanted the war to be over, and made a heavy sigh when I continued to read and realized that it wasn't. It is a history lesson many of us are tired of being given, but it needs to be learned. 

Favorite Moment: Obviously, when the war ends and liberation comes. No question about it.

Favorite Character: Poor Sophie, Vianne's daughter, loses her childhood to the war and watches as her mother struggles to keep them safe and fed during the harsh winters of occupied France. She will grow up to be incredibly helpful and wise in those few short years, even though she has every opportunity to become resentful, selfish, and hard-hearted.

Recommended Reading: I recommend both Life After Life and A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson. Both more or less take place during WWII, but are set primarily in Britain.       

Friday, February 19, 2016

Nonfiction: Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling

Because her first book was a little bit of a disappointment for me, I was hesitant to pick up Mindy Kaling's follow-up, Why Not Me? However, curiosity won out in the end, and I had heard really good things. Once the book secured the 2015 Goodreads Choice Award for Best Humor, I figured I needed to give it a chance.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a nonfiction book in which Kaling once again gives readers a glimpse into her day-to-day life. She already covered her childhood and early career in Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me, so with this book we are able to jump right into her college life at Dartmouth, and her transition from The Office on NBC, to her own show, The Mindy Project, on FOX. The previous book had a list of ways Kaling was different from Kelly Kapoor on The Office, so this book contains a list of ways she is different from Mindy Lahiri. And thankfully, instead of ending the book with just a list of things that are in her purse right now, or the selfies that are currently stored on her phone, Why Not Me? concludes with a fantastic short fictional romantic comedy told purely through emails, and is more or less how she envisioned her life would go had she decided to be a teacher. The book walks an interesting line between showing how Kaling isn't that different from any other woman out there, to showing how her life is completely different from pretty much anyone out there who doesn't work in Hollywood. The woman has met President Barack Obama on more than one occasion! Even so, some of her other stories are still relatable, and the ones that aren't are at least fascinating and entertaining.

My Verdict: While I felt pretty "meh" about her first book, Kaling's follow-up was fun, funny, refreshing, and even kind of eye-opening. She mad a lot of great points that either made me think or caused me to find myself nodding in agreement, in public, where other people could see me as I visibly reacted to a book. The points she makes about friendships, weddings, entitlement, and working hard are all worth considering, even if you don't find yourself agreeing completely. And like any great comedy writer, Kaling is able to laugh most of all at herself, but isn't so self-deprecating that it doesn't seem genuine, or just becomes annoying. I definitely would have liked for the book to be longer - 240 pages just isn't enough for me with a book that has parts that read more like a classy gossip column. Even so, I will take it, and am glad Kaling took the time to write it.

Favorite Moment: The fake email exchanges between Kaling, her coworkers, and her friends in the alternate universe where she decides to become a teacher instead of a writer for Hollywood. Even though romantic comedies aren't my favorite type of movie, it was definitely something I could see myself watching and enjoying should a screen version of the story ever come out. 

Recommended Reading: Again, I felt pretty "meh" about Kaling's first book, but if you want a little more background and information, I recommend Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me. But as for another memoir, I recommend Yes Please by Amy Poehler. And as for a romantic comedy I think Kaling herself would enjoy, I recommend Attachments by Rainbow Rowell.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Young Adult Fiction: Mosquitoland by David Arnold

Road Trip!!! That is what I think whenever I read the book jacket on any book that has a road trip in it. Unless the subject matter is super heavy and raising my arms high in the air and yelling, even in my mind, just isn't the appropriate response. But I certainly thought it when reading the synopsis of David Arnold's Mosquitoland. Plus it is YA, which made me even more excited.

The Situation: Sixteen year-old Mary Iris Malone, or Mim, is not okay. It is the first thing she tells you about herself before proceeding to explain how she ended up on a Greyhound bus headed to Cleveland, approximately 947 miles away from where she lives in Mississippi. In between explanations to the reader, Mim is also writing a letter to Isabel, explaining the situation to her as well. Skipping school, stealing travel money from her stepmother Kathy, buying a ticket, and boarding the bus will all prove to be the easy part. But Mim is determined to make it to Cleveland by Labor Day to see her mother. She has had enough of not getting straight answers from her father and Kathy, and the hole she feels left behind by her mother has become too much to bear.

The Problem: Before Mim has even boarded the bus, she has an encounter with an incredibly creepy and intense guy in a poncho. And of course he is getting on the same bus, so it isn't just phone calls from her worried stepmother that Mim will be avoiding. Actually, Mim would love to avoid interactions with people altogether, but the trip is full of meeting and getting close to strangers. And while some of those interactions are absolutely horrible, others are quite nice, and many are full of surprises. To get to Cleveland, Mim will have to deal with villains like Poncho Man and Caleb, while also learning to trust and open up to the heroes, like Beck, Walt, Ahab, and the Pale Whale. One of the many lessons she will learn is that people are often complex: villains are not completely evil, and the heroes are hardly ever completely good. Currently, all she knows about herself is that she is not okay, and she certainly isn't satisfied to live her life in Mississippi, away from her mom.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult fiction novel that follows the narrator, Mim, from Mississippi to Cleveland, with plenty of detours, planned and unplanned, along the way. Mim is 16 and currently on prescription drugs for possibly the same condition that her Aunt Isabel had. Because this is her father's worst fear, he insists that Mim stay on her meds, one of the many things he and Mim's mom did not agree on prior to and after the divorce. But even while on the meds, Mim still decides to skip town with little more than a wad of cash, a backpack, journal, and a few spare shirts. And while not every road trip immediately qualifies as epic - pure distance does not, in my mind, make for an adventure - Mim's certainly fulfills that qualification. There are creepers, shadow men, tire blow outs, honky tonks, ice cream challenges, seedy motels, and side missions galore. But even through all of this, something Mim never once considers is the possibility of admitting defeat and returning back to Mississippi, a place she has not-so-affectionately come to think of as Mosquitoland. Mim is on an odyssey with one mission, and that is to get home and see her mom.

My Verdict: This is a great book. It is just as simple as that. Great characters, even better narrator, wonderful premise, and near flawless execution. Mim is a fantastic narrator while still being an obviously imperfect one. And the actual trip up north has all of the frustrations and complications that you would expect in an epic journey, but they aren't thrown in carelessly or seemingly without reason. Some are certainly uncomfortable, and others will make you anxious for the journey to move forward. But each diversion serves a greater purpose and lesson, and always introduces another hero or villain. And while some books that switch back and forth between letters and narrative can get to be tiresome, that did not happen for me with Mosquitoland. Mim's letters to Isabel were just as crucial to the story as the parts where she is speaking directly to the reader, and I never felt like either part dragged.

Favorite Moment: When Mim is able to call her misplaced epiglottis into action and vomit on command at just the right time. It sounds gross, but trust me, it is oh so satisfying when it happens.

Favorite Character: Mim is my kind of narrator. She says what so many heroines in other YA novels won't say, which always causes more trouble for them. Granted, often when Mim speaks up there is still trouble, but she doesn't have so much junk bottled up inside, which works for her because there is plenty of other stuff for her to deal with. She's funny, brave, and willing to say that she is not okay. She also presses people and asks the hard questions because she values answers and honesty.

Favorite Quotes: "Later in life, it would occur to me that this was the ultimate dichotomy: for a person to want what's best but draw from their worst."

"I am a child. I know nothing about anything. And even less about everything."

"Because even though honesty is hard, you really have to murder people with it if you expect to be a person of any value at all."

Recommended Reading: I think Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira would work well with this one, as would Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Graphic Novel: Step Aside, Pops by Kate Beaton

I couldn't read Kate Beaton's first collection of comics, Hark! A Vagrant, and not read her follow-up, Step Aside, Pops, which was published in early fall of 2015. I looked forward to more fun with historical figures and classic book covers, while maybe learning a few things at the same time.

Genre, Themes, History: Once again, this book isn't really a graphic novel as it doesn't really tell a story. Instead it is more of a collection of comics that poke fun at historical figures; summarize classic works of literature into funny and short comic strips; interpret book covers and broadside pictures into hilarious and ridiculous premises, and occasionally make fun of the modern day feminist. Once again, Beaton has something for both the history buff and and the lover of classic literature. And at the introduction of almost every new section, Beaton offers up a short explanation (or the occasional apology) for what she is trying to do, or the piece of literature, or historical figure she is attempting to have us laugh at. Since her first collection was published in 2011, Beaton has continued to successfully make readers chuckle as she portrays Benjamin Franklin as the good time party guy while Thomas Jefferson and John Adams take things way too seriously. This collection even includes a section of comic strips making fun of "strong female characters" that are really just wearing too little clothing and using only their powers of attraction as their main line of defense. And of course, there is once again plenty of material making fun of Beaton's native land of Canada.

My Verdict: I can't say I had as good a time reading this collection as I did Hark! A Vagrant, but I still had a pretty damned good time. There was still plenty of laughing out loud inappropriately while sitting in a very public coffee shop, and I was thrilled to no end to see that Beaton continued interpreting book covers, which was my favorite section of her previous collection. The author is showing no signs of slowing down, and apparently the history books still have plenty of material for her to work with as she keeps turning out comics depicting Benjamin Franklin as a little wild, and John Adams as more than a little uptight. Just like its predecessor, Step Aside, Pops is worth picking up and can be read on a short plane ride. I recommend getting both collections together and just having them out on the coffee table.

Favorite Comics: This time I have a clear winner in the (partial) retelling of Wuthering Heights. Having struggled through the book myself I could relate to every ridiculous thing about it that Beaton takes the time to point out. I really liked the book, but can understand why some people don't care for it, and the issues that Beaton points out make me believe she feels that same way. 

Recommended Reading: Well now I feel like I have to at least recommend Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights. But since it isn't a comedy, like at all, I will also recommend Christopher Moore's The Serpent of Venice, a book that takes two of Shakespeare's plays, one comedy and one tragedy, and fuses them together in a humorous way.