There is one bonus to being on medical leave during the winter – lots of time to read! While I’ll be happy to return to school soon, it has been nice to look at the thermometer, remember I don’t have to go outside, and reach for my book. Here’s what I’ve been reading for the past six weeks….
Middle England by Jonathan Coe
At over 400 pages, this novel took the longest to read. I first read about it on a few English newspaper websites, but this endorsement from the author John Boyne tipped me over into the “buy” column: “Millions of words have been and will be written on Brexit but few will get to the heart of why it is happening as incisively as Middle England.” Maybe I was tired of reading about the dysfunction in my own country so I decided to dive into another flavor of anxiety. What I really like about Middle England is its broad sweep. The novel begins eight years before the Brexit vote and follows a cast of characters representing multiple points of view. By the time Coe reaches the actual “stay or leave” vote, I had a deeper understanding of England – and America’s – identity crisis.
Belonging: A German Reckons with History and Home by Nora Krug
This acclaimed memoir by a German woman learning about her family’s history during WWII is an immersive experience. A blend of a graphic novel, a scrapbook, and a memoir, Krug’s book is demanding and thoughtful. It is not a traditional reading experience – rather I found myself engaging with each page visually and emotionally. I felt like I was traveling alongside the author as she uncovers her family’s story and asks hard questions. Krug understands that history exists in the grey space – she does not conclude with a list of who was right and who was wrong. History and family are more complex than that. You reach the end of her memoir shocked again at the atrocities of Nazi-era Germany and thinking about your own cultural heritage and the meaning of “home.”
Someday We Will Fly by Rachel Dewoskin
I read this young adult novel in advance of adding it to Inly’s middle school summer reading list. At the center of the story is Lillia, a fifteen-year-old Polish girl who, with her father and baby sister, escape to Shanghai during WWII. Lillia’s parents were circus performers in Poland, but during a chaotic raid, her mother disappears, leaving the rest of her family to hope for her return. As Lillia makes a new life in Shanghai, she struggles with missing her mother and trying to find ways to make money to help her family survive. The most interesting part of the book was learning about the Jewish community that lived in Shanghai during WWII. China was occupied by Japanese forces at the time, but the Japanese allowed the Jewish refugees to stay because, as Lillia’s dad explains to her, “Apparently the Japanese believe Jews are powerful…..as long as they believe we control Western governments, we should be fine. Who knew there’d be such a silver lining to anti-Semitic conspiracy theories?” A good pick for mature teenagers who enjoy historical fiction.
Inventing Victoria by Tonya Bolden
Continuing the young adult historical fiction segment of the list, I read Tonya Bolden’s new novel about Essie, a young African American woman living in post-Civil War Savannah. At the opening of the novel, Essie lives with her mother in a brothel. Her mother calls the men who visit “uncles,” but Essie knows there is no future with her mother, and with the support of a friend, finds a housekeeping position in a respectable boardinghouse. One of the guests, an African American woman named Dorcas Vashon, gives Essie an opportunity – to be her companion. “I seek out young women of promise,” Dorcas tells Essie. Essie takes the opportunity, renames herself Victoria, and begins a new life among the African American elite in Baltimore. This book addresses race, status, and identity – and it’s perfect for readers ages 14 and over. I really liked this one.
Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney
Since reading about the meteoric rise of Sally Rooney, the twenty-seven year old literary superstar, I’ve wanted to read both of her novels: Conversations With Friends and Normal People. Rooney’s press has been glowing. A New Yorker profile is captioned: “The Irish writer has been hailed as the first great millennial novelist for her stories of love and late capitalism.” Normal People was longlisted for the Booker Prize and was the 2018 Waterstones Book of the Year. So, with that as background music, I enthusiastically jumped into Conversations With Friends. The writing is brilliant – I was so dazzled by some of the sentences that I would stop, reverse direction, and re-read a passage. But overall, I felt like I did when I would occasionally watch Girls, the Lena Dunham HBO series: that this is a generation I don’t recognize. The novel is compelling, kind of dark, and for me, a look inside a world that is far from my experience. That’s not a complaint. I’m grateful for Rooney’s honest look at the concerns of modern twenty-somethings. I’ll recommend Conversations with Friends to people in their 20s and 30s – and those who want to better understand what it feels like to be young today.
While I’ve been out of school, Mary has sent me lots of pictures from the Library. Here are two that I love and make me excited to go back to school:
A few more days at home – time to fit in one more book from my “to read” pile….