Let's just start out by getting one thing clear: I hate war. I loathe violence in any form, to the point of a visceral recoil. Oh, yeah, and I'm the only person I know who falls asleep in action movies. (I think it's my way of emotionally checking out when the action/violence becomes overwhelming.)
In the last few weeks I purchased three books to give as gifts, and shocked myself as I realized (after the fact) that all three books, spanning over seven different countries and cultures, are all centered around World War II. Yet they are all surprisingly non-violent. Somehow these three books manage to side-step most of the blood and gore and bring us powerful stories about humanity — how love prevails over the ravages of war on families, friendship, and forgotten freedoms. These truly are three of the best books I've read this year—not counting Miss Delacourt, which is of course in a category all its own). I can say that partly because war is not the main character here. People are. And I LOVE people!
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer is a series of witty letters back and forth between London travel author Juliet, her publisher, and her new (serendipitous) friends in Guernsey. The writing style is so clever and dry, it reminded me of what Brillig and I might have written to each other in London in the 1940s. This book is a charmer! At first I was just intrigued by the snarky witticisms and the epistolary form, thinking it was another, updated, 84 Charing Cross Road...a paean to book lovers. I dabbled at it slowly here and there, and laughed at the brashness this woman wielded through words.
Then at some point I was drawn into their world so completely I could not put the book down. The characters came to life, inhabiting my subconscious. One night I actually had a dream that I went to Guernsey to hang out with them. I was a little sad when I woke up and realized it was just a dream. I love these people. I love their simple way of life. I love that they founded their whole book club in an effort to make a harmless lie become rock-solid truth. I love their silly quirks and antics, and their acceptance of the same in each other. I love the humanity that rises to the surface. I love the silly misadventures that helped them support each other through appalling wartime conditions. It makes everyone who survived the war with their humanity intact a genuine hero.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is an amazing piece of literature, perhaps wrongfully classified as young adult fiction. It is the first time I've encountered Death as a narrator, and he does so artfully:
First the colors.
Then the humans.
That's usually how I see things.
Or at least, how I try.
Death describes the weight and color of souls he has been asked to carry back across the sky to their maker, and bemoans the vast amount of work he has during WWII. The main character is a young girl, Liesl Meminger, sent to live with another family outside Munich. More than anything in the world she wants to learn to read, and her love for words becomes one of the driving forces in the book. (Ironically the book is laced with a smattering of harsh curse words, although most are in German, which tends to have a softening effect similar to the British accent in Four Weddings and a Funeral.)
***HERE IS A SMALL FACT ***
You are going to die.
I love seeing the war through the girl's eyes, the contrast of such innocence against the atrocities of war, and the irony of how most adults behaved in ways that are senseless and childish and cruel. The friendships are both innocent and powerful, crossing lines of race, religion, culture, and age. The strongest theme of the book was the power wielded by words, both for good and for evil. It does so primarily with the use of metafiction — in this case strange, primitively-illustrated, yet powerful books-within-books that use abstraction and storytelling to draw some poignant insights. This book was visionary, profound and unique. I would honestly have to label it Literature with a capital L and Art with a capital A.
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford, a Romeo and Juliet-esque love story about a Chinese boy and a Japanese girl growing up in Seattle during World War II, intrigued me to the point that I was up late at night googling Japanese internment camps. I found myself completely and personally immersed in the storyline from page one. There are reasons for this, beyond Mr. Ford's great storytelling. We have some dear friends whose parents lived through the grave injustices of internment. Furthermore, I was haunted as a child by the stories of such an internment camp located right here in Utah, called Topaz. I remember stories my dad told of my grandpa speaking out in various public forums against the internment camps. Dad said that after the war he and Grandpa would stop by the Japanese markets and people would slip extra gifts into his grocery bags. He was completely revered by the Japanese population that remained in Utah – his efforts on their behalf were legendary.
A week or so ago my book group had a phone conference with Jamie Ford. He was delightful and endearing and we could instantly see why the book is so widely loved – because he himself is so widely loveable. The book has a pull between the characters that is so strong it turns page after page and chapter after chapter by sheer magnetism. I loved the way Mr. Ford chose to use the innocence of children and friendship to shed light on the harshness of prejudice and hate. I loved the symbol of the rare jazz record, both broken and whole, he used to represent the relationships. I loved the characters, both fictional and real, he included. I loved the setting of Seattle, and the old Panama Hotel still standing there. I loved the sub-plot of the sympathetic gal at the post office. And the surprising goodness of the harsh-at-times school lunch lady. One more thing I should mention about this book: It is squeaky-clean. Clean enough to offer to both your children and your grandma. Pure. Innocent. Lovely. But with a compelling plot that will grip you to the very last page.
And, I can't resist adding the just-finished Sarah's Key, which shares the setting of World War II and a child as the central character, and adds France to the list of countries and cultures. I have to admit I did not love this book to the degree I loved the first three, but the image of the boy in the cupboard is both precious and searing; juxtaposing the issue of abortion with the holocaust made for an eye-opening metaphor; and it was a definite page-turner – I had a hard time putting it down, even when I knew what was going to happen.