mini-reviews: black earth and on tyranny

In the last year, I ended up reading two books by Timothy Snyder. One is a couple years old, one is brand new, and both are terrifyingly pertinent to what the United States is going through right now.

Black Earth is a dense and extensive look at the Holocaust, but is told not only as an historical account but also as a warning that the past isn’t so unrepeatable as we may think. Snyder delves into how the Holocaust began—as a dark idea within Hitler’s mind—and each step Hitler took towards attempting to achieve his vision. Military strategies, individual heroes, the dangers of statelessness, and of course the horrors of mass human slaughter are all examined here. Snyder’s warning comes as a conclusion that we in early-twenty-first-century America are facing similar ecological and ideological issues that Europe did in the early twentieth century, and missing the lessons of the Holocaust has endangered our national and global futures. We’re not as removed from Hitler’s supposedly incomprehensible world as we want to believe. It’s a bleak read, but necessary. [Listened to audiobook in October 2016.]

On Tyranny was released in March this year, hot on the heels of the inauguration. It’s a slim volume of twenty ways to defy fascism, the dismantling of democracy, and an authoritarian governmental takeover, citing historical (mostly European) examples from the twentieth century. It doesn’t go into great depth the way Black Earth does—it reads more like daily devotionals or meditations. But still, On Tyranny does serve as a reminder that there are ways to fight back. Some lessons included are refusing to normalize the situation, defending institutions, doing your homework when it comes to information, opposing a one-party state, paying close attention to words, believing in and defending the truth, reading, refusing to obey in advance, and making human connections. This is another excellent addition to the abundant response resisting this administration and time in U.S. history. [Read in April 2017.]

reading recap: october 2016

I had a great month of reading in October! As you can see, I was mostly consumed by Halloween-appropriate books, with a few library holds that just happened to come through:

october-reading

  • The Fire This Time (ebook) … Jesmyn Ward, et al
  • House of Leaves … Mark Z. Danielewski
  • The Troop … Nick Cutter
  • Men Explain Things to Me (ebook) … Rebecca Solnit
  • Dead Mountain … Donnie Eichar
  • Black Earth (audio) … Timothy Snyder, read by Mark Bramhall
  • Stories from Night Shift (audio) … Stephen King, read by John Glover
  • ‘Salem’s Lot … Stephen King

I have to say, as someone who is generally chunksters-averse, I’m pretty proud of myself for getting through three (!) this month: House of Leaves (709 pages), The Troop (507), and ‘Salem’s Lot (653). Black Earth is pretty much a chunkster too, but since it was on audio it felt less daunting. Something about seeing the bulk of it intimidates me, so it usually takes a lot of pep talk to get myself to read anything longer than about 350 pages.

While I enjoyed House of Leaves overall, I may have bailed/DNF if I didn’t have so much free time at the moment—getting through this one is a real time commitment, and you have to pay close attention with all the different tangents and footnotes. It had a great premise and some genuinely creepy moments, but generally didn’t quite live up to the mythical hype for me. The Troop and ‘Salem’s Lot were perfect to get me in the Halloween mood—between the contagious gore in Troop and vampire mischief in Lot, I felt the spirit here in Singapore despite the hot, sunny weather. The audio for Stories from Night Shift was an impulse borrow from the library, to finish out the last few hours of Dewey’s 24 Hour Readthon, the first time I’ve been able to participate! Next time, if I can join again, I’ll plan ahead more (joining this time was also on last-minute impulse).

Men Explain Things to Me and Black Earth were my library holds that came in. Both were excellent, but very real and heavy material. Neither was quite what I was expecting, but I learned a lot from them and both were thought-provoking. I’m glad I was able to finally get these two books.

My favorite books of the month were The Fire This Time and Dead Mountain. EVERYONE should read The Fire This Time. This anthology is full of powerful, moving essays by several writers in a variety of styles, all different perspectives on the experience of being black in America. I will read anything Jesmyn Ward touches. Dead Mountain interested me because I’ve had a fascinating with this case for a while, ever since I saw the movie it inspired, Devil’s Pass. What exactly happened to these nine young hikers in a remote area of Siberia, resulting in their mysterious deaths?? Donnie Eichar has a compelling investigation here.

I’m thinking I might try to go back and do full reviews of the books I’ve read since my last real review post, all the way back in March! Or maybe I’ll just continue the monthly posts. We’ll see. Otherwise… I think I’ll be able to meet my 50 book goal for 2016, with only 16 books left to go. And now that it’s November, I’m going to focus on non-fiction to hopefully jump in on some Non-Fiction November fun.

What were the best books you read in October?
monthly recap image

flags of our fathers

Staying on track for my TBR Pile Challenge, last month I read Flags of Our Fathers by James D. Bradley with Ron Powers. From Goodreads:

In this unforgettable chronicle of perhaps the most famous moment in American military history, James Bradley has captured the glory, the triumph, the heartbreak, and the legacy of the six men who raised the flag at Iwo Jima. Here is the true story behind the immortal photograph that has come to symbolize the courage and indomitable will of America.

In February 1945, American Marines plunged into the surf at Iwo Jima—and into history. Through a hail of machine-gun and mortar fire that left the beaches strewn with comrades, they battled to the island’s highest peak. And after climbing through a landscape of hell itself, they raised a flag.

Now the son of one of the flagraisers has written a powerful account of six very different young men who came together in a moment that will live forever.

I have had my eye on Flags of Our Fathers ever since I first spotted it sitting on my grandmother’s shelf several years ago. I have a minuscule connection to this book—the author and his father, one of the men in the iconic photograph, are from Antigo, the same small up-north Wisconsin town as my father. My grandmother was undoubtedly acquainted with the Bradley family, and our family has used its funeral home services over the years. When my dad and I were in Honolulu last summer, we visited the Pearl Harbor memorial site and he bought me a copy of the book from the gift shop. I’m not sure exactly what compelled me to read Flags right when I did, but my reading of it just so happened to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the battle at Iwo Jima and the flagraising. I love when that sort of serendipity happens!

Flags relates the harrowing battle very well—the whole middle third of the book covering this is hard to put down. I learned some abhorrent facts, but I appreciate that Bradley was generally fair in relating the details of the war, not blaming one side or the other. He is biased on the subject of his father, of course, but that’s not distracting or overwhelming. There were a few repetitive statements throughout, and occasionally Bradley inserted himself and his thoughts or feelings into the story that pulled me out of it a little. He did an excellent job of conveying the horrors of war, and this lengthy, confusing, and exhausting battle in particular.

Further, Bradley went on to relate what happened to the three surviving flagraisers after the war, which I feel is just as important to examine in any discussion of any war. I didn’t really know much about bond tours before reading this book, and how its a relic of the past now, something that would never happen today. With the lives of the flagraisers covered from youth to death, Flags provides a cross-section of what war can do to a person’s psyche, too, from post-traumatic stress disorder to an inflated, false sense of celebrity to the desire to retreat from unwanted attention and live a normal life. What happens when everyone insists you’re a hero when you just happened to be in a certain place at a certain time, just doing your duty like everyone else? It really speaks to the profound respect and loyalty these men had to each other, that just because they put up a flag they knew they weren’t any different from or more special than all the other men on that island, especially those that died there.

Flags of Our Fathers is my second of twelve books read for the 2015 TBR Pile Challenge.

Read from February 18 to 28, 2015.

all the light we cannot see

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr has been a hot book since last summer, and has been on my radar ever since several bloggers I follow started raving about it. This past Christmas I got a copy as a gift, and once I saw Katie at Words for Worms was having a readalong I decided to get to reading it next. From Goodreads:

Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where he works as the master of its thousands of locks. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind and her father builds a perfect miniature of their neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. When Marie-Laure is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris, and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great-uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.

In a mining town in Germany, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments, a talent that wins him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, then a special assignment to track the resistance. More and more aware of the human cost of his intelligence, Werner travels through the heart of the war and, finally, into Saint-Malo, where his story and Marie-Laure’s converge.

You guys… I don’t know. I wanted to love this so much. I typically enjoy historical fiction, and I really thought this was up my alley. Unfortunately, All the Light just didn’t hold my attention very well. Maybe it was the slow start, maybe it was the length, maybe it was the short (even one-page short, sometimes) chapters, the time-jumping, the alternate perspectives, maybe it was just the timing of this read for me (lots of work/life stuff on my mind at the moment), but I just never got into it.

That said, I loved Marie-Laure. What a great character, as well as her family! I loved the relationship she had with her father, Daniel, and with her great-uncle Etienne. I loved that Daniel was so protective of his daughter, that he didn’t pander to her blindness and dumb things down. Despite her disability, she was able to achieve many great things (usually because she had to, but still). I could have read one book just entirely on Marie-Laure’s story. Werner was a brilliant, conflicted character, but again his storyline somehow just didn’t compel me as much. How is that possible!? The premise is so amazing! Sigh. I wanted more about Werner’s sister, Jutta. She was a dominating presence in his thoughts but barely in the book at all.

The Sea of Flames (the jewel)… yeah. Again, great premise, but just fell short for me. I just didn’t care about Von Rumpel’s quest to find the gem or his obstacles along the way; it all felt like “extra” stuff to me. I wanted to get back to Marie-Laure!

However! All the Light is indeed beautifully written, and I believe it does deserve its many accolades. If you love slow-burning historical fiction, and stories set in Europe during World War II, you’ll like this one.

Read from February 1 to 12, 2015.