There are approximately twenty-hundred-million books written about World war I and World War II, this is just a handful of them, but it’s what I’ve been reading lately.
World War I
Dead Wake: Last Crossing of the Lusitania, by Erik Larson (5 stars). I love Erik Larson’s writing style, his non-fiction reads in many ways like a sensational novel (doesn’t hurt that he selects gripping stories and the researches the hell out of them to find the stories that we care about). I knew very little about the Lusitania–a huge passenger cruiser that was sunk by German U-boats as it came into harbor in Great Britain–or really about the finer points of World War I history. Larson made this ship come alive for me, and placed within the greater war theater helped a lot of disparate threads of WWI come together for me, especially the isolationist role of the United States and, finally, America joining the Allies in the war.
One of Ours, by Willa Cather (4 stars). Willa Cather is a beautiful writer, so many of her descriptions and dialogue brought up ALL the feels. Claude is a young farmer from Nebraska who feels like he has always been waiting for his life to begin, and despite his best efforts, has not made much headway. He joins the army in WWI and it isn’t until he is working and fighting with a battalion of soldiers, marching across France and watching his friends die, that he truly starts to feel like he is home, like he belongs. This is not a fast-paced battle-heavy book, but a rolling story of a young man in his second coming of age. Winner of the Pulitzer.
Additional recommended WWI reading: All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque
World War II
In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, by Erik Larson (4 stars). There are easily ten thousand books about World War II, however, reading about the slow-burn rise to power of Hitler’s Nazi party, and then the violent overtake of the German government…it’s been chilling to learn more about that in the weeks immediately after the 2016 election. I am not comparing the incoming US administration to Hitler’s Third Reich, however the similarities in the rise of fascism and the decline of basic human rights for all people are hard to miss. This book is told from the perspective of the family of the American ambassador to Germany in the 1930’s, Dodd and his wife are fairly conservative, middle-of-the-road people and their reactions to the changes in Berlin, the lack of believable information coming out of Germany, and the steady takeover of a hate-fueled new government are, well, frightening. I think if I’d read this 6 months ago I would have given it 3 stars. However, 2 weeks post-election, I can’t not award any less than four stars.
Note: this review was written BEFORE there were literal Nazi flags and Heil Trump salutes happening on the regular…I don’t have the political energy to rewrite this to somehow make the analogy that the rise of white supremacy and an American Nazi party is currently in all (red) areas of the country and how we should FREAKING PAY ATTENTION TO WHAT HAPPENED IN GERMANY IN THE 1930s AND THE FUCKING OUTCOME OF THAT POLITICAL DISASTER! Ok, I have a little energy. But seriously, you should all read this book. An American family initially siding with Hitler and seeing his points (??!) and then realizing how full of supremacy-fascist shit he was, and begging the rest of America to BELIEVE WHAT THEY SAW IN THE NEWS about this dangerous
Trump Hitler Trump & Hitler guys. Ok. Back to our regularly scheduled programming.
Everyone Brave is Forgiven, by Chris Cleave (4 stars). Throughout this book I kept thinking of “Life After Life” by Kate Atkinson (which I loved) and it made me like it even more. Not that there is really any similarities outside of stories about British people during the London bombing raids of WWII. I think the author has nailed some witty dialogue and characters, and I liked how the different components were woven together without too much jarring as you jump from story to story. I would probably give this 3.5 stars, but I bumped it up to 4 because of the humor in the dialogue, humor that the British narrator perfectly nailed in the audiobook. The little dry one-liners with an English accent? Perfection.
Salt to the Sea, by Ruta Sepetys (3 stars). Four teenager (or young adults) thrown together during WWII as they flee the advancing Soviet forces, each chapter told from the perspective of one of them. The good news is they are together early on in the book, the bad news is one is ridiculously unpalatable (Alfred), and the other three carry secrets that, despite the chapter being told from inside their head, they refuse to even think about, though their burdens dictate every single choice. I appreciate learning more about a little-known WWII tragedy, the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff a massive refugee ship that went down in just a few minutes, killing an estimated 9,000 passengers. I appreciate Sepetys detailing that maritime disaster and putting a new face on the WWII narrative, that of the Europeans caught between the clashing armies of Hitler and Stalin.
A God in Ruins, by Kate Atkinson (3 stars). Meh. I wanted to love this, but I didn’t. I felt like the jumping around in time absolutely did not work for me, the jumping through various families and three (or four!) generations was confusing and left me feeling discombobulated and disappointed. I really didn’t care much for any of the characters. I’m sure this was intentional, but I hated the little repeating phrases and descriptions that were 40 and 50 pages apart; I think this was something to do with the reincarnation theme that Atkinson writes about in Life After Life, but I didn’t like it here, this book is not nearly as well done as her first, and frankly, you could easily skip.
Additional recommended WWII reading:
Unbroken, by Laura Hildenbrand (READ THIS!)
The Hiding Place, by Corie Ten Boom (about standing up and doing the right thing, read it!)
Lest Innocent Blood by Shed, by Philip Paul Hallie (about protecting refugees, read it!)