1) The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945, by Rick Atkins: I have trouble reading about war. Most people alive today had fathers or grandfathers who fought in WWII, and it’s very hard to face cold facts about how impossible it was to survive under these circumstances and then think about accidents of time and place. It blows my mind even more to think that I only ever knew the survivors—every single grandfather, great uncle and their friends that I met were among these few lucky ones. How can that be? For what it’s worth, both of my grandfathers were in the South Pacific, but my great uncle was part of D-Day. I don’t know in what capacity, because he never talked about it, but I thought about him constantly while reading this book.
2) Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia, by Jenny Torres Sanchez: Frenchie Garcia spent the best night of her life on a strange adventure with her longtime crush, Andy Cooper. Afterwards, Frenchie went home and went to bed, and Andy went home and killed himself. They barely knew each other, and so no one has any reason to suspect that Frenchie was the last person to see him alive. That’s why her parents don’t understand her refusal to reapply to art school, her best friend doesn’t understand why she’s pushing him away, and no one understands why she has become moody, angry and depressed. Frenchie decides that the only way to understand Andy’s choice is to relive that night, this time with a boy she barely knows who is interested in her.
3) In the Unlikely Event, by Judy Blume: I am not generally prone to fangirling and hold my own pretty well around celebrities, athletes and musicians (by which I mean I am as awkward and uncomfortable, but no more so, around them as I am around everyone else). That said, when I went to see Judy Blume speak about her new book last month at the Greenwich Library, I FREAKED OUT. If you remember how excited Michael Hitchcock’s character was in the front row during Waiting for Guffman, you have some idea of my behavior at this event. The book doesn’t even matter. It’s by Judy Blume and so you should read it, but the real takeaway here is I SAW JUDY BLUME THIS MONTH.
4) Between Shades of Grey, by : This YA historical novel follows Lina, a fifteen-year-old Lithuanian girl deported to Siberia with her family during World War II. If you watch this page, you know I’m into history, but I especially love anything that turns history on its head.
For example, while most people can recite the grisly death toll of Hitler’s Holocaust (six million Jews; 12 million total), did you know that Stalin was responsible for the loss of 20 million lives? Given that, is it particularly surprising that countries like Lithuania hoped and prayed for a Nazi victory so Russia would leave them the F alone? One of the most interesting scenes in this book was when Lina and her fellow prisoners hear about the Pearl Harbor bombings and are crushed because it means the Americans will be joining the Allies, fighting alongside Russia.
Here’s another fact that’s both amazing and horrifying: while the victims of the Nazis were encouraged to tell their stories far and wide, after the war the Iron Curtain descended upon the people of the Baltics, and so they weren’t even able to talk about what had happened to them for another 45 years, under punishment of death. They just had to swallow it down! I enjoyed this book for its own sake, but it also made me want to seek out lots of further reading on the Baltics and the USSR.
5) Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes: Kind, good-natured, mentally handicapped Charlie has been given a wonderful opportunity—he was the first human to undergo a new surgery meant to increase intelligence. After a slow beginning, Charlie’s intellect catapults past normal levels and into genius territory—and then off the charts. In some ways, it’s wonderful. Charlie finds great joy in learning and in understanding the world around him for the first time. But other aspects are not so nice, such as discovering that human nature is complicated and most people are deeply flawed. Charlie also learns the painful lesson that genius can be every bit as isolating as mental deficiency. I really loved this book, and I was incredibly impressed that Keyes had me rooting for Charlie by the end of the very first page.
6) A Visit From the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan: It’s amazing you can even still read the cover of this book, for all of the awards its won. In fact, my cover folded out into a little bonus page so that all the accolades could be properly listed. Jennifer Egan is really innovative—I will definitely give her that. I’ve certainly never read anything else where an entire chapter is presented via PowerPoint. This is a novel where each chapter stands alone as it’s own short story, which then also fits into the larger narrative. I personally don’t care for short stories at all (it’s something to do with my own immaturity and not liking it when I get invested in a character only to leave them forever six pages later), but, again—entire extra page for awards.
7) A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, by Ben Macintyre: How can you not love a good spy story, especially when it’s true? The spooks we think of today have computerized contact lenses and tracking devices activated by body heat, but I prefer this era, where men in trench coats identified one another by carrying books with yellow covers, or foreign dictators were taken out by women with long eyelashes.
Kim Philby was a member of the British aristocracy, Cambridge-educated and the son of an MP. He joined MI6 in his early twenties and spent more than 30 years with the agency. His best friends were the other agents, with whom he’d often spend nights laughing and drinking, talking about the work that could never be discussed in their non-professional lives. And for 30 years, Kim Philby sold that information to Moscow. He was directly responsible for compromising missions, exposing countless agents inside Germany and Russia, and for the deaths of several of his friends.
The book opens with a 1938 quote from E.M. Forster that I think does a very good job of summing up the story:
“If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friends, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country. Such a choice may scandalize the modern reader, and he may stretch out his patriotic hand to the telephone at once and ring up the police. It would not have shocked Dante, though. Dante places Brutus and Cassius in the lowest circle of Hell because they had chosen to betray their friend Julius Caesar rather than their country Rome.”
And the best thing I read this month…
8) Sister, by Rosamund Lupton: Beatrice is called home to London when her younger sister Tess goes missing. Although they live very different lives, Beatrice and Tess are uncommonly close, or so Beatrice thinks until she learns more about the circumstances of the disappearance. The police think that the free-spirited Tess has wandered off on her own, but Beatrice knows she would never do such a thing. As she launches her own investigation, Beatrice becomes more and more convinced that her sister was murdered—and that she herself may be next.
There should be some kind of code word for mysteries with a good twist, because I want to tell you that was the case here, but just by knowing there is a twist, it’s already halfway ruined. So, read this book for…reasons. You’ll like it.