The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah – Book

Last year we celebrated the 60th Anniversary of
the D-Day invasion at Normandy. This might explain the small flurry of titles
which cover the German occupation of France and which tell of the relief felt
by Frenchmen everywhere when the Allies invaded at Normandy on June 6, 1944. Some of
these books also mark the day that lives in infamy in French history, the day
when the Jews of Paris were rounded up and forced to stay in the Velodrome d’Hiver
(an indoor winter cycling track) until they could be transported to
concentration camps in Germany.

These stories relate history but they are also personal. They
nurture self-examination. If our country was occupied by an enemy we feared, an
enemy that had already conquered and subdued proud nations which also treasure
their autonomy, how would we behave?

In these novels about occupied France authors show us the
choices. Citizens who don’t have to go out in public except to shop could
perhaps lay low, but this option did not work for many Frenchmen or women. You
could “collaborate” with your occupiers as many business people were
practically forced to do. Some citizens, however, were more opportunistic and
saw “collaboration” as a way to prosper. And with great care and in total
secrecy you could join a resistance movement and find ways to work around your
occupiers, or pass on insider information about them to their enemies, or to harass
and harry them. Some resisters were able to save a small number of Jewish
French citizens or their children but this was very difficult as people had to
be hidden, fed, and clothed, almost impossible to do with aggressive German
troops everywhere.

by Kristin Hannah is the story of Isabelle
Rossignol, a fictional French woman, rebellious since she was a girl, who joins
the Resistance in France. She always wanted to do something heroic and she
finds a way to fulfill that dream. She ‘collects’ downed Allied pilots and
hikes with them over the Alps into Spain. Her last name means nightingale and
it became her “tag” of heroism. She becomes famous as the Nightingale and she
puts her life in jeopardy over and over again. Although she is not a real
person, people really did do things just as heroic as Isabelle’s rescues.

She also had a sister, Vianne, who had no heroic
inclinations. She had the life she loved as a mom and wife and a school
teacher, at least she did until Germany marched into France. Her husband left
to go fight with a woefully unprepared French army and was captured and forced to
spend the war in a German work camp and his wife was left to live in a village
that now belonged to her German captors. Vianne eventually found her own way to
be heroic.

Although this story does not have the fine literary qualities of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony
Doerr, Hannah’s story is also well worth reading. Kristin Hannah covers the
same historical events and both stories are set mostly in France. Although The
Nightingale does not represent any one real figure she does remind us that many
French men and women found ways to resist their captors and did so pretty much
right under their noses. Kristin Hannah also gives us a wrenchingly clear view
of the deprivations suffered by the people of France when Germany started to
lose the war and food and clothing and supplies became almost impossible for
the French people to find. Conquered people all over Europe suffered terrible
deprivations and there would have been mass starvations had they not been
rescued just in time. The way the lives of ordinary French people in the
countryside were affected is described well in this novel.

This was an excellent story and I did shed a few tears. We
will never really know if we could resist a fearful foe living right amongst us
until we encounter such a moment and I am sure we all pray that will never
By Nancy Brisson

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr – Book

Anthony Doerr is the author of the novel All The Light We Cannot See. Anthony Doerr is not just a
storyteller, although he tells a great story; he is a writer, a literary writer
whose prose has whole other levels that take off from the story. He is a
philosopher. He creates an artful world. There is rich symbolism all over the
place. There is despair at the calumny of man and rapture at the triumphs of
the human spirit. This is a beautifully written book.

Doerr gives us two young people, one French, one German; one
male, one female; one treasured but blind, one with great intelligence but
destined for the coal mines at fourteen. Both children have quite enough to
deal with but into the midst of their lives Hitler arrives and the lives they
might have lived are set on a new trajectory. Marie-Laure, blind, female, a
virtual prisoner in occupied France has more freedom to act then Werner, our
German boy, the occupier, who must dance, against his nature, to Hitler’s tune.

Science plays a fascinating and consuming role in this novel,
both the quest of mankind to understand the physics of the universe and the natural
history of the universe as contrasted with Hitler’s obsessive and horrific
attempts to quantify the universe. Hitler keeps records on everything, he
greedily steals and hides the art and wealth of Europe and yet he doesn’t
really understands the possibility that art gives humans the capacity to
transcend the primitive in our natures. Hitler does not transcend, although he
believes himself to be the most transcendent of all humans.

“It strikes Werner just then as wondrously futile to build
splendid buildings, to make music, to sing songs, to print huge books full of
colorful birds in the face of the seismic, engulfing indifference of the world –
what pretensions humans have! Why bother to make music when the silence and the
wind are so much larger? Why light lamps when the darkness will inevitably
snuff them? When Russian prisoners are chained by threes and fours to fences
while German privates tuck live grenades in their pockets and run?”

Why indeed?

And yet this is not a depressing novel because of the two
children at its center. Here’s Marie-Laure, a true student of nature,
indomitable in spite of her blindness.

“What mazes are there in this world, the branches of trees,
the filigree of roots, the matrix of crystals…Mazes in the nodules on murex
shells and in the textures of sycamore bark and inside the hollow bones of
eagles. None more complicated than the human brain.”

Every time I say that I can’t imagine another book based in the
World War II someone proves once again what a rich mine is in it for human
thought and human error. Anthony Doerr has caught all of that in this bestselling
By Nancy Brisson

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins – Book

In Paula Hawkins’ novel The
Girl on the Train
, Rachel rides the train back and forth between London and
the suburb where she lives. She reveals herself to us with each trip. We see
her creating stories in her mind about a couple she sees each day near one of
the stops on the way to London and again as she travels home. We become as keen
to see what this couple is up to as Rachel is.
We see that Rachel is drinking. Although at first it seems
casual we soon understand that it is somewhat serious. Eventually we realize
that Rachel is an alcoholic.
Three women tell this story which begins with a tiny grave
by some railroad tracks, a woman in some kind of extremely frightening
situation, and a small pile of dirty clothing by the side of the rails that
Rachel rides each day. Talk about foreshadowing. As we switch back and forth
between glimpses of their lives at first we only see what Rachel sees. Rachel
has very good reasons to stalk this particular set of town houses that back up
to the train tracks. She once lived happily in one of those houses with her
husband Tom.
Just as a train picks up pace each time it leaves a station,
this story is fleshed out each time we travel with Rachel past those Blenheim
Road town houses. Rachel begins as a stalker but eventually she doesn’t keep
her distance from these two couples, Anne and her ex, Tom and the “perfect”
couple, Jess and Jason (actually Megan and Scott). When Megan goes missing on
the exact Saturday that Rachel arrives back from a Blenheim Road “stalking”
expedition with bleeding injuries and no memory of what she did that night,
Rachel’s need to fill in those missing hours reveals truths about all three
women and also about the men these women love. As a consequence of Rachel’s
bumbling attempts to get answers, we, the readers, get to go along for a mind
boggling, goose-flesh-raising, and tangled ride.
Girl on the Train
by Paula Hawkins is engrossing and leads you on
a very modern trip on a rather old-style train. When I am not thinking that
Rachel may have done something unpardonable, I am thinking how much this book
is like Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window
with legs. (Yes, the Jimmy Stewart movie.)

Your trust in humanity may suffer a bit as this one
unravels. This novel gets full marks because, while perhaps not deeply literary,
it is well written and obviously has great mass market appeal. It is difficult
to put it down.

By Nancy Brisson

Gray Mountain by John Grisham – Book

is not John Grisham’s best literary effort but he always
delivers the dirt on the “bad actors” amongst us. I watched The Firm this weekend (again) and that
early book still stands out for both its writing (great suspense) and the theme
that has set a fire under John Grisham throughout his career – little people
with big moral fiber pitted against power people, money people, corporate
people who have lost whatever moral compass they once (or never) consulted.
pits a few very small characters against a big coal
industry that is basically so protected by very powerful people that it can
abuse its employees and the people who live in coal country with impunity.
These companies get homeowners to sign contracts which allow the coal company
to buy their land and they promise huge profits which are seldom delivered.
They clear cut mountain tops including valuable hardwoods, strip the mountains
layer by layer from the top down until the last vein of coal is gone and then
they leave the denuded mountains like sulfurous blemishes on a once beautiful
They push their leavings into the valleys often killing people who reside
there or destroying their homes and they do it without compunction. They can
hire the best lawyers so they rarely have to take any financial responsibility
for those they harm. They leave a poisonous concoction of coal slurry in
dammed-up ponds that seeps slowly into ground water and creates cancer zones and
then the coal companies claim that no clear connection can be proven between the
cancer and the bad chemicals in the water. This is what John Grisham is great
at, exposing greed and its attendant crimes against humanity and the planet.

There is a story line and we do meet some pretty good
characters. We meet Samantha, a NYC lawyer, a newbie in a giant law firm who
loses her job in the Great Recession due to downsizing. The law firm, in hope
of recovery, tells Samantha and the other lawyers if lays off that the firm
will pay for their health insurance for one year if they volunteer to work at a
nonprofit. Samantha, while not excited about leaving the city she loves,
eventually chooses an internship at a Legal Aid office in West Virginia, coal
country, the Appalachian Mountains. 
Here she meets Matty, her warm,
experienced, and highly competent new boss who becomes a friend. She also meets
two brothers, one a lawyer, one not, both deeply involved in exposing the sins
of the coal companies and for very personal reasons. Samantha doesn’t seem like
a strong character, but she surprises us as she avoids falling prey to the
charms of these two handsome, but not totally ethical brothers. We certainly
care about what the coal companies are up to and we end up caring about what
Samantha will do also. Whether or not it is great literature, it makes a great
read for a winter weekend.
By Nancy Brisson

The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez – Book

Those who discuss politics in the media have had much to
say about immigration lately because it is clear that having so many people living
in the shadows and working for whoever will hire them is not really an
acceptable social plan. I have heard many commentators say that anecdotal
stories that zero in on specific undocumented families and individuals are the
best way to describe to the American people how this situation affects
uninvited residents. Knowing why these folks left their homes to go to a place
where they would be homesick, would hardly expect to be welcome, and where they
could be caught and sent home at any moment does not sound like something one
does on a lark. So perhaps those media people have a valid point.
In The Book of
Unknown Americans
by Christina Henríquez we meet a family, Arturo and Alma
Rivera and their daughter, Maribel. They own their own home in Mexico and they
did not want to leave but Maribel suffered some brain damage in an accidental
fall; brain damage which may be reversible. In Mexico the Rivera parents were
advised to take Maribel to the US for special education classes and a school in
Delaware was recommended. The family waits a long time to get their visas and a
job for Arturo so they can come to the US legally. Arturo spends his days in
Delaware in a dark, damp cellar picking mushrooms for an hourly wage. They have
rented an apartment in a two-story cinder block apartment building with a
concrete landing and railing along the second floor.
The building they live in is occupied by a wide variety of
Spanish-speaking people from Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Guatemala, Nicaragua,
Columbia, Mexico, Panama, and Paraguay. I don’t believe it was easy to create a
story that ties these disparate people (whose only commonality is language)
together but with the Rivera family as the main focus the book functions well
as a cohesive novel rather than a series of politically inspired anecdotes. We
come to care about Arturo, Alma, and Maribel and their closest neighbors the
Toros (from Panama) Celia, Rafael, and Mayor.
Maribel was once an intelligent, adventurous girl. She is
also very beautiful. With her diminished capacity and her exquisite looks Alma
worries about protecting Maribel from men (both young and old) who may take
advantage of her. As we find out what happens to the Rivera family in Delaware
we learn that even the most well-intentioned people may experience challenges
when they are “strangers in a strange land.”
Whether or not Henríquez’ novel convinces you that we need
to help 12 million people come out of hiding, Cristina’s story hangs together
well as a novel. It is not perfect, not a deeply literary novel, but it is
engrossing and enlightening and not overly long either. If it helps to raise
our social consciousness about a group we see as sort of monolithic and begins
to help individualize Spanish-speaking immigrants who come to America than it
has earned its way (as has many another novel with social motives).
By Nancy Brisson

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng – Book

Literature has always told us about families – families in
other times, families in different cultures and, of course, modern families.
Contemporary family dynamics described without the advantage of historical
perspective; described with the immediacy of right now, are often especially
personal and easy to relate to. Any of these families could, presumably, resemble ours.
Authors do not usually go on about the pleasures of
families or describe perfectly functional families because the first would
quickly bore us all and we doubt that a fully functional family exists. We
expect to experience flaws in any human relationship and we read a great family
story to see how a family’s dysfunction will affect the various members of the
family, and more specifically a main character who is, more often, the focus of
our interest.
Celeste Ng in Everything
I Never Told You
presents us with Lydia and her family – a family with
mixed ethnic origins, in this case one Chinese American partner (the Dad) and
one white American partner (the Mom). While it is true that such a pairing
would hardly make us blink in 2014 that was not the case when James and Marilyn
married to become the Lees who produced Lydia, Nathan and Hannah.
Although the parents would blame the society’s disapproval
for the tragedy they subsequently experience, we, the readers, can see other
factors afoot in the family which could have contributed to the outcome. Mrs.
Lee wanted to study medicine and gave up her goals after the marriage, for
example. How does this affect the family? The reader gets to sift through a
number of factors which could have lead to the tragedy the Lees experience and
this sifting represents a fair summary of things that can go wrong inside and
outside of families. How much did the mixed ethnicity of the Lees marriage
enter into their loss?
Although prejudice is a minor theme in this book James Lee
hardly seems very Asian, except genetically, yet some people do have a negative
reaction to this pairing and the children are taunted by other children. How
much of a role does societal pressure play in the lives of these family members?
How much of a role does lack of communication play? What happens when families
fail to speak intimately with each other, when unspoken motives and conclusions
pile up, when family members make assumptions about how the other members of the
family feel or what they want?

As in The Lovely
the character involved in the tragedy that is at the heart of this
book comes back to tell the reader what happened. However, the Lee family does
not ever find out what we, as readers, do. Each family member is left to
interpret events in his/her own way with all the attendant effects on their
lives as they go forward. Their demons are filtered through their own
perceptions and will affect each of their lives differently. What affects will
these demons have on their lives?

By Nancy Brisson

Midnight in Europe by Alan Furst – Book

in Europe
by Alan Furst is a story of how ordinary people did
extraordinary things when Europe was headed into the darkness of fascism and
communism just before Hitler really began to power his way through Eastern and
then Western Europe.
Some may see this novel as being about as exciting as
watching paint dry, because the events described are not the action-filled spy
thriller fare we are used to. But to me this plays out as a period piece in
1930’s costumes. It is suspenseful but in quiet ways that strike fear in our
hearts because we can imagine circumstances in which we might be called upon to
test our mettle and our dedication to a cause in similar ways.
Cristiàn Ferrar is our unlikely hero. He works for the
Parisian branch of an American law firm that represents the interests of
wealthy Europeans. He is just approaching middle age, just on the edge of
losing his attractiveness to the types of ladies he has enjoyed in the past. He
is an upper class Spaniard watching his country as it is taken over by fascists
led by General Franco.
Here we come at the encroaching threat of Hitler sort of
sideways as Ferrar is enlisted by a diplomat (Molino) at the Spanish Embassy in
Paris to take the place of Castillo, a museum curator, executed while trying to
broker an arms deal. The forces of the Republic in Spain are starved for
weapons which are provided to Franco’s forces by the Germans and Italians
(under Mussolini). Europe is flirting with the communist/fascist movement as an
opportunity to supposedly upend the aristocracy and distribute power and wealth
more equally.
Watching the glitches and near misses of this arms deal
provides the tension in this novel but even more important, shows us those
moments when Hitler is extending his regime and Russia under Stalin has become
a frightening place where the slightest action can precipitate execution or
We can see that these men, our heroes, are just regular
people pushing past their fears. We can also see that their efforts are like
building a short dam just before a monstrous deluge. This small heroism cannot
stem the tide that is rising over Europe. But it also reminds us that ordinary
people all over Europe will keep performing these small acts of defiance which
will eventually help to turn back the tsunami that is Hitler’s Germany. Hitler
will out-bully all the minor fascists rising throughout Europe and will plunge
Europe into that “midnight” mentioned in the novel’s title. Fortunately we are already
aware as we read that these daring people, the people who love liberty and loathe
a mad master, will prevail.
This is one small story of Europe on the edge of that
Hitler madness, just a peek behind the curtain before the full horror plays out
on the European stage. If our way of life in America were at stake would we be
part of the small army of ordinary people who dared to resist?

A poignant and famous quote sums up this image of a continent
being plunged into darkness. Just behind the title page Alan Furst quotes what
Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary said on 3 August 1914, the eve
of the First World War, a statement that was even more prophetic as a
description of the Second, “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We will
not seem them again in our time.” But we did; although barely.

By Nancy Brisson

The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham – Book

What I love about Michael Cunningham is that he is a
reader’s writer. His literary allusions are satisfyingly extended metaphors
that enrich the story he is telling. That effect is most profound if you are
intimately familiar with the particular writer or genre he is riffing on, but I
am guessing that it embellishes the overall message of his story whether you
get the allusion or not. This particular novel is decorated and layered with
imagery. His novel The Hours was
just about as perfect as a novel can be, while this novel is a bit more uneven,
but I still found myself infatuated with a fair share of the novel’s imagery.
In The Snow Queen,
the literary underpinnings are very accessible, as accessible as classic fairy
tales and heroic fantasies of knights and ladies. They are the very stuff of
childhood for those children who seem hardwired to appreciate drama and who
spend time enhancing their reality by adding mental costumes and sets, by turning
ordinary actions into medieval scenarios. These kids participate in these
interactions which observers see as the mundane stuff of childhood, but which
the children see as gleaming and mythical vignettes which may or may not
involve princesses (queens) or knights trailing “shining capes of chain mail.”
These images also give the author opportunities to dazzle us with linguistic
We meet Barrett and Tyler. Barrett is our dreamer, Tyler
our rock star, neither as larger-than-life as we or they would wish. They are
brothers with a back story; their mom died when she was struck by lightning on
a golf course, but not before making high school football star Tyler promise to
always look after his younger brother Barrett, who is not as socially gifted.
These brothers are no longer young. Barrett should already
have outgrown that fantasy dimension which lends his world its romantic tint.
Tyler should have either succeeded as a musician or placed it secondary to a
real career, or perhaps even tertiary to family and career.
Barrett wanders through Central Park as the novel begins on
the way to the apartment where he lives with his brother and his brother’s
dying fiancée, Beth. A mysterious light appears to him (and apparently only to
him) as he crosses the park and he is stopped; he is not a believer in the
light but he cannot deny the light. Is this light a message? Is this light
about God or something else?
We first encounter Tyler rising from the bed he shares with
the fragile and daintily frail, but lovely Beth, because it is snowing in their
bedroom. She lies in her beauty and stillness on the bed as the snow falls and
begins to pile up on the floor (the Snow Queen).

There is also the part of this story that is not ancient
myth but more urban reality. Drugs like cocaine (snow) and heroine appear
casually in Cunningham’s story, although users want to quit and there are
suggestions that rehab has been tried and will be tried again. I can’t tell
anymore, but I will say that, in a way, this is a coming of age story for
people like us in 21st century America who have a very long
adolescence. It’s a story of love and death with bits of literary adrenalin all
over the place.
By Nancy Brisson