5.31.2017

recent reads

The Hours After: Letters of Love and Longing in War's Aftermath by Gerda Weissmann Klein--5 stars: If you read All But My Life, this book is a MUST. In a sense, it's the sequel and follow-up to Gerda and Kirk's life after the war. Kirk is sent home to the US, and Gerda is stuck in Germany, the country who wanted to murder her, until she can get her papers together and emigrate to the US. The book is compromised of the letters they wrote to each other during their year apart. They wrote each other ideas and strategies to get her out of Germany, and their letters would often take upwards of a month or two to get to each other. Imagine waiting that long when you're needing an answer to important questions! Both Kurt and Gerda write essays and stories depicting their lives at the time and what the years have taught them about their letters in hindsight. These letters are so beautifully written, and I am SO glad they saved and published them. They give a fascinating insight into what it was like for soldiers to return to the US after years at war, and how displaced Jews put the pieces of their lives back together after the Holocaust. All I want now is to write letters talking about my day and my thoughts to my friends and get them in return.

For fans of: WWII, snooping through peoples' mail, the Holocaust, love stories, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society




A Boring Evening at Home by Gerda Weissmann Klein--5 stars: Gerda is such a treasure in this dark world. During her time in the concentration camps, the one image she clung to was her boring evenings at home with her family when she would do her homework, her dad read the paper, and her mom would do her needlework. I loved that. This collection of essays range from immediately after her marriage to the early 2000s, when her husband dies, and everything in between. It's about her family life and how she handles balancing the horror of her past with the happiness of her current life. My favorites were her takes on 9/11 after weathering WWII, and when she met a woman in Amsterdam who was a good friend of Anne Frank's. It's clear that she took sections of some of these essays to use in her previous books, so some of the book was a little repetitive, but these essays dig much deeper. I loved and adored this book and didn't want it to end.

For fans of: being a homebody, immigration stories, family life, marriage, motherhood, trying to find Gerda's address online so you can write her a letter




The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride by Daniel James Brown--3.5 stars: Take The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder, add some mountains and zombies, throw in a pinch of The Hunger Games, and you have the tale of the Donner Party! I spent most of my childhood in Reno, an hour away from the spot where this tragedy occurred. We drove over Donner Pass countless times, and I had a field trip to the Donner Memorial in 5th or 6th grade. I need to go back as an adult with fresh eyes, and not the eyes of an 11 year old who is intrigued by the story but a little more obsessed over the fact that a classmate brought her Britney Spears folder along (we went to a private Christian school--admitting you're a fan of Britney was A Big Deal). If you're not aware of the story (are you? I honestly don't know how well-known they are since I grew up in the area), the Donner Party were midwestern emigrants making their way to California via the Oregon Trail in the 1840s. They had constant trials and setbacks, and they reached the Sierra Nevadas too late in the year to be able to cross safely, but they had no choice since they were out of food. They were trapped near the summit in snowstorm after snowstorm, and they began dying of starvation and hypothermia after eating all their animals. A handful of them tried to cross over to California to gather food and supplies and rescue the rest, but most of them died. In desperation, the survivors ate the dead bodies to stay alive. Yes, cannibalism. Honestly, I think the author was a little giddy about this fact. You could just sense it in the way he wrote about it. He made a grotesque situation feel that much creepier and awful. The story is told from the point of view of one woman in particular, which is weird since he seemed to know the least about her, and he goes off on some weird tangents. It is very much written in the vein of an Erik Larsen book, but without the same finesse. Definitely worth reading if you're at all interested in the situation. Make sure you read right before bed--it makes for excellent dreams that might make you scream in the middle of the night.


Fun fact: As I was reading this, I had a sudden flashback to my field trip. We hiked our way up to a stream and a huge boulder that supported one of the cabins the DP lived in during that winter. We ate our bagged lunches in the spot where people starved to death and ate their relatives. Appetizing, right?

For fans of: horror movies, Laura Ingalls Wilder, The Hunger Games, playing Oregon Trail in elementary school computer class, The Walking Dead, Erik Larson, pioneer life, dystopian novels



The Secret Lives of Codebreakers: The Men and Women Who Cracked the Enigma Code at Bletchley Park by Sinclair McKay--2 stars: During WWII, the British government rented a huge, garish building in the outskirts of London known as Bletchley Park. They secretly recruited thousands of brilliant civilians well-versed in language and math. For the duration of the war and for many decades after, no one had any idea that Bletchley Park was where the British were cracking the German Enigma code which had been thought to be unbreakable. This book interviews a handful of people that worked there during the war as codebreakers. It sounds like it should be a fantastic, riveting book, but I had to force myself to finish it and skimmed the last third. It was not written in an engaging way, much of the information was repetitive, and it felt more gossipy than informative. There were a few intriguing chapters, like one about the Blitz, and another that talked about how Bletchley often used the German codes to misinform the Luftwaffe so they would they would drop bombs in the countryside instead of cities. Worth reading if you want to know more, but keep your expectations low.

For fans of: WWII, London, reading government memos, thinking about what a good BBC show this could make (isn't there one?)



Deep Undercover: My Secret Life and Tangled Allegiances as a KGB Spy in America by Jack Barsky--5 stars: Jack Barsky grew up in East Germany following the end of WWII. In high school, he was recruited by the KGB to work as an undercover spy in the US. He spent years training for secret missions and making cover stories so his friends and family weren't wondering where he was and what he was doing. He worked as a spy in the US for decades, doing his best to blend in as an average citizen. As the years went by, he found himself questioning his formerly unwavering belief in Communism and tried to worm his way out of being a spy. His cover was compromised and he was given orders to leave the US, but he had put down his roots and transformed himself into an American, so he refused and was caught by the FBI. This book---read this book. I could not put it down. It was so well-written and interesting. Jack Barsky is a 5 star douchebag through most of the book, but you can't help rooting for him and wanting to know how he turns out. I loved reading about how spies are trained and what it took to get an undercover spy in the US. It's creepy and not as glamorous as it sounds, but just so cool.

For fans of: spy stories, history of the Soviet Union, the Cold War, faith, Jack Bauer 



Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick--4 stars: This was a gut-wrenching, horrifying, triumphant, fascinating book. I devoured it in just a couple days. The author is a journalist who covered events in North and South Korea. She wound up following the lives of 6 North Koreans, detailing their lives under a horrifying communist regime until they corageously defected to South Korea in the 90s and 2000s. North Korea went through a horrible famine in the 90s, killing a huge chunk of the population, and a lot of the book centers on the life during the famine and how people survived under such strict regulation. I knew North Korea was not a pleasant place to live, but I had no idea just how devastating life is there. They often have no electricity, no salaries, and hardly any food. They can't even travel to the next town over without government approval. Seriously, I cannot recommend this book enough. It's so important to know what's going on over there. Some of the information is outdated as it was written before Kim Jong-un was in power, but things have not improved for them. This should be required reading for anyone with romantic ideas about socialism and communism. I have never in my life been so grateful to be an American. If you read it before bed, you might have dreams about being a fighter pilot in the Korean War. Just don't be alarmed.

For fans of: politics, survival stories, the United States of America, wanting to sing the national anthem through a megaphone while waving the American flag



As you can plainly see, everything I've read lately has been heavy nonfiction. I hate sad movies and shows because life has enough sadness, but for some reason I love a good, intense book that teaches me more about the world. I'm trying to lighten things up by reading the Anne of Green Gables series, and I'm loving every single second of it. After that, I think I'm going to dip my toes back into fiction again. Obviously Anne is fiction, but I knew I would love it. When it comes to grabbing books at the library, I tend to shy away from fiction because I usually don't enjoy it as much as nonfiction. So tell me some good novels to put on my reading list! I plan to spend much of the summer reading by the pool.

8 comments:

  1. I think the last fiction I read was last fall/winter sometime. It always seems to let me down so I stepped away for a while. That book about North Korea looks interesting, and it's on my list. I'll never forget a news segment I watched once and they were interviewing a guy who had escaped to South Korea, trying to see if he was familiar with ANYthing Western, and they asked him if he knew what the Nike Swoosh was (they even showed him the logo on a hat). He had no idea what it was and said he had never even seen it before.

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  2. Oof. These seem like super heavy books. That last one sounds very, very intriguing, though. I never read nonfiction, although I'd like to start. I picked up a book about The Alamo in February when I was there and it's been on my dresser ever since...

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  3. I love that these are all non fiction! The last two sound so fascinating, I am going to add them to my list!

    I also love books that teach me a different perspective and story. These all sound like a great departure from my current time and place.

    You need to add The Tenant of Wildfell Hall to your pool reads :)

    Hyperbole and a Half isn't really fiction, but it's good for some kicks and giggles.

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    1. I WILL! That and Villette are my goals to get through this summer. I'm digging the classics right now.

      Oh I want to read that! I love the blog.

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  4. I pretty much get all my book recs from you! The last few weeks I read Lunch in Paris and Picnic in Provence...loved them! And OMG growing up in northern CA I totally got super into the Donnor party history as a kid and read tons of books on them, haha! We used to always ski at donnor ranch cause it was the cheapest ski park! hahah! The spy books looks super interesting as does the Gerda Klein books! I just picked up a book called After Long Silence that my mom said was fascinating. It's about an American woman who grew up thinking her parents were Roman Catholic, only to find out later her parents were Jewish and had been in the holocaust and immigrated (but had tried to cover up their old life). I'll tell you how it is when I finish it!

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    1. So I finished After Long Silence in a day. IT WAS SOOO GOOD!! I might even go as far as to say it ranks up there as one of my top favorite books…ever. So well written and the most incredible true story!! You HAVE to read it!!!

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  5. Wow, Deep Undercover sounds fascinating. I might need to pick that up. My mom is currently reading Anne of Green Gables and I'm going to borrow her copy when she's finished. I've already read it but I feel like it will be like hanging out with an old friend.

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  6. Wow, I'm totally going to pick up that KGB spy book. That sounds like something I would love. Though I'm like a month behind on my "reading schedule" (because I keep checking out random exciting books from the library), so I don't know when I'll get to it. But I will sometime! For fiction, have you read The Summer Before the War, by Helen Simonson? Maybe you're the one that recommended it, actually. I have a terrible memory when it comes to which books were recommended by which people. Also, have you read Julie Klassen's fiction? They're more of "fluffy" books, but they are fun now and then, I think, for my "fluff fix" since I know I won't have to deal with sex scenes (her books are Christian). I just read The Innkeeper of Ivy Hill, and it was sweet-kind of like one of those BBC shows about English people in the olden days, living their daily lives.

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