4 Books I Read in February 2021

Thank you for your patience, if you’ve been eagerly awaiting an extra week to find out what I read last month. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, please read my blog post from last Monday, #OnThisDay: Articles of Confederation & Why They Had to Be Replaced.

Without further explanation, I’ll launch right into my impressions of four of the eight books I read in February.


The Last Year of the War, by Susan Meissner

The Last Year of the War, by Susan Meissner

I listened to this novel. It was mesmerizing. It is told from the point-of-view of an American woman, Elise, whose father immigrated from Germany. Due to lies a neighbor boy told about her father during World War II, she (as a teen) and her parents were scooped up and sent to a family internment camp in Texas. Her best friend there was an American teenage girl of Japanese descent.

I was immediately drawn into the story as the book starts with Elise as an older woman suffering from dementia. More than perhaps anything else I’ve read, the author put me inside the body of this woman who knew she was losing her memory but refused to give in to the disease. She even had a name for her memory-deficient self — Agnes.

Her coping skills were quite impressive. Elise got on a plane to track down her long-loss internment camp friend so they would reconnect before she completely lost her memory. I was right there with her on her physical journey, and then the book took me on a trip through their experiences in the internment camp.

I was unaware of this family internment camp in Crystal City, Texas. After giving the reader an idea of what life was like in the camp – where German- and Japanese-Americans were held captive until they could be sent to their ancestral countries in exchange for Americans who had been caught behind enemy lines when the war started, the novel takes you on Elise’s journey as she and her family spend the last year of the war living in Germany. It then follows Elise’s life after the war and ends by jumping back to the beginning of the book in Los Angeles in 2010 on her trip to look for her long-lost Japanese-American friend, Mariko Inoue.

It was a lovely story to listen to. It was well-written and I found myself pulling for Elise from the first page to the last page. I found myself listening to it at bedtime and struggling to stay awake long enough to listen to just one more chapter. If you’re an avid reader, you know what I mean.

If you want to know more about the Crystal City, Texas internment camp, Jan Jarboe Russell has written a nonfiction book about it, The Train to Crystal City: FDR’s Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America’s Only Family Internment Camp During World War II.


Soroosh, by Laleh Chini

Soroosh, by Laleh Chini

Laleh Chini is a blogger I follow. Soroosh is Laleh’s new novel. In the beginning, Soroosh is a 10-year-old boy who has to become the man of the house and find a way to support his mother and younger siblings. Living in the port city of Abadan, Iran — home to an enormous refinery — Soroosh’s mother is between the proverbial rock and a hard place as she isn’t allowed to work or go into public places alone since she’s a woman in a Muslim country.

Soroosh takes his new role very seriously and starts brainstorming to figure out a way to earn money to support the family. He starts by purchasing handmade Persian rugs one at a time from a woman and sitting by the side of the street to sell them. He is industrious and a good salesperson.

Mid-way through the book, Soroosh is a young adult and has continued to work hard to provide for his s extended family. I don’t want to give the plot away, so I won’t give more story details. Always eager to step out of his comfort zone, Soroosh is constantly looking for a way to expand his business interests so he can help others – whether that is providing jobs or bringing in enough income that he and his wife can do charity work.

Although Soroosh and his family face many challenges and sad events, it is an uplifting story of what persons of strong faith can do when they work hard, remember their meager beginnings, and look for ways to give back to society.

Ms. Chini is an excellent storyteller, which comes through in this novel. She writes in a way that enables the reader to visualize the scenes she describes. Written in first-person, it reads like a memoir as it follows Soroosh for decades of his life. I’m impressed at Ms. Chini’s ability to write a novel in English, as it was a second language for her. She also brings in some history and historic sites as Soroosh travels for his business endeavors, as Iran has such a rich and long history.


Even As We Breathe, by Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle

Even As We Breathe, by Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle

I can’t remember how I heard about this book, but I’m so glad I did. It is the kind of novel that’s hard to put down. The characters are developed well and I really wanted both of the main characters to find happiness and what they were looking for.

A young Cherokee man, Cowney Sequoyah, and a young Cherokee woman, Essie Stamper, get jobs working at the Grove Park Inn in Asheville, North Carolina, during World War II. The resort had been taken over by the US Government and housed foreign diplomats and their families.

Even As We Breathe is the story of the pull the Qualla Boundary has on Cowney and Essie. (The Qualla Boundary is the land trust in North Carolina that the descendants of the Cherokee people who hid out in the Great Smoky Mountains to avoid the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma in 1838 live on.) Even as they yearn to get away from Cherokee and the Qualla Boundary, they are drawn to it. The story shines a light on the white world’s prejudice against Cherokee Indians in the World War II era.

(Before you get upset that I use the term “Indian” instead of the politically-correct term “Native American,” when I did the research for my book, The Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, I learned that, since the term Native American can be used to describe anyone born in America, the North American Indian Women’s Association recommends using the term American Indians. Therefore, I use the word Indian in this blog post and I used it in my vintage postcard book referenced herein.)

There are many, many layers to this story. Cowney’s club foot prevents his being able to serve in the US military during the war, which is a constant guilt he must deal with. There are family secrets that unfold throughout the book. His Uncle Bud plays heavily in Cowney’s life – and not in a good way.

The young daughter of one of the diplomats disappears. Through a series of bad decisions made by Cowney, Essie, and one of the US soldiers on duty at the Grove Park Inn – and the fact that Cowney is a Cherokee Indian and, thereby, is immediately suspect – things go badly for Cowney.

I hope I’ve given you enough information to make you want to read the book and not enough details to spoil it for you. Perhaps I especially enjoyed this book since I live in North Carolina and have visited Cherokee and Asheville many times, but I think you’ll like it, too.

The author, Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle is a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and holds degrees from Yale and the College of William and Mary.

Below is a postcard of the Grove Park Inn that I included in my vintage postcard book, The Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, published by Arcadia Publishing. If you’re interested in learning more about the Great Smoky Mountains, Cherokee and the Qualla Boundary, and Asheville, my book is available on Amazon and from the publisher.

A portion of a linen vintage postcard of Grove Park Inn.

Since I was on the waitlist at the public library for The Last Year of the War and Even As We Breathe for quite some time, it was coincidental that I read them at the same time and both were set against the backdrop of internment during World War II. Another Cherokee connection was in Step into the Circle: Writers in Modern Appalachia, edited by Amy Greene and Trent Thomson, which I read in January. (See my February 8, 2021 blog post, 4 Other Books I Read in January 2021.) My favorite part of that book was the section about Cherokee translator Marie Junaluska.


Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, by Erik Larson

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, by Erik Larson

I can’t say enough about the way Erik Larson writes nonfiction books. He has a way of bringing history alive and holding me spellbound. Granted, I’m a bit of a history buff, but I think many of you would enjoy this book even if you don’t think you would.

The Lusitania was an ocean liner of the Cunard Cruise Line out of England. Ignoring the danger all British ships – military and otherwise – faced from German U-boats in 1915 (during World War I, of course), the Lusitania sailed out of New York City toward Liverpool, England, with more than 1,900 people on board.

Mr. Larson researched the backgrounds of the people who sailed on that voyage of the Lusitania and shares with us tidbits of their lives and why some were going to England. He weaves into the book the hot potato issue of the day: Were cruise ships fair game for German U-boats?

Germany maintained that they were fair game because they were probably carrying munitions as well as passengers.

Tension grows chapter-by-chapter as we alternate between seeing the war and enemy ships from the perspective of the captain of U-Boat 20 and from the perspective of passengers on and the captain of the Lusitania.

I found listening to Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania to be a painless way to learn details about its fateful voyage as well as more than I’d known before about German U-boats and torpedoes. The book goes beyond the sinking of the Lusitania as US President Woodrow Wilson hesitated to enter the war. In fact, it was two years after the sinking of the ocean liner before US troops arrived in England to help “the mother country” out of its dire situation.

Since my last blog post

I’ve had more books vying for my attention than I had time to read or listen to them. At the same time, I’m getting the first 50 pages of my manuscript for my historical novel The Doubloon (or perhaps The Spanish Coin) ready for a professional critique. It’s time to take the plunge!

Spring is in the air here in North Carolina. The daffodils are blooming. They’ve been the harbinger of spring my entire life. I can still remember running into the house clutching a fistful of daffodils and announcing to my mother, “The daffodils are blooming! The daffodils are blooming!” I suppose I’ve had Seasonal Affective Disorder all my life. They just didn’t have a name for it until recent years.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have one or more good books to read this week. Maybe one of the books I wrote about today will catch your eye.

If you’re a writer or other artist, I hope you have productive creative time.

I hope you stay safe and well. I’ll get my second Covid shot before my next blog post. I’m excited about that and the promise it brings. I’ll keep wearing a mask and maintain social distancing as long as necessary, though. I hope you can get vaccinated soon.

Janet

4 Other Books I Read in January 2021

My custom is to share with you my thoughts about the books I read during one calendar month in my first blog of the following month. Last Monday’s post, My thoughts on Stones from the River, by Ursula Hegi, was about the novel Stones from the River, by Ursula Hegi. In today’s post, I’ll tell you what I thought about the other four books I read in January. It’s a nice mix of fiction and nonfiction books.

After the attempted coup at the US Capitol on January 6, it was difficult to concentrate. My reading suffered, but my writing time suffered even more. I was surprised at the end of the month to discover I’d read five books.

I ran into some problems while trying to insert images of the books I’m blogging about today. Ironically, (or not?) the message I got when I tried to copy the publisher’s image of The Spy and the Traitor said “for security reasons” I was not allowed to use it. I had to laugh. I could download it to my computer, but I couldn’t insert it in today’s blog post. It’s recommended that all blog posts have images, so I’m disappointed to present a post today that has no illustrations.


The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War, by Ben MacIntyre

On a scale of one-to-five stars, I give this nonfiction book six stars. The research that backs up this detailed account of the life of double-agent Oleg Gordievsky is stunning. The book reads like a spy novel but is all the more riveting because the reader knows it is true.

I learned about this book when I saw a list of the top five books of 2020 that Bill Gates recommended. This one sounded intriguing, and it didn’t disappoint.

Oleg Gordievsky started out as a KGB agent. Fascinated by the West, though, he read and learned all he could about Great Britain. He also read works of such Soviet dissidents as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, even though reading those works or having them in your possession was against the law in the Soviet Union. Gordievsky’s world opened up when he landed an assignment in England. It is there that he became a double agent and became the crown jewel in Great Britain’s MI6 spy network.

I learned how close we came to nuclear war in 1983 when the Soviet Union misinterpreted a NATO war game with the code name ABLE ARCHER 83. The book says on page 181, “Both Reagan and Thatcher understood the Cold War in terms of a Communist threat to peaceful Western democracy; thanks to Gordievsky, they were now aware that Soviet anxiety might represent a greater danger to the world than Soviet aggression.”

It is not common for an individual spy to have a profound impact on world history, but Oleg Gordievsky falls into that category. As the book says of Gordievsky on page 183, “…he opened up the inner workings of the KGB at a pivotal juncture in history, revealing not just what Soviet intelligence was doing (and not doing), but what the Kremlin was thinking and planning, and in so doing transformed the way the West thought about the Soviet Union. He risked his life to betray his country, and made the world a little safer.”

The story is far from over at that point, and the book takes the reader on an edge-of-your-seat nail-biting ride. Will Gordievsky be outed? Will Great Britain succeed in smuggling him out of the Soviet Union? What happens to his wife and daughters? Who turns out to be an American double agent? Is that spy still alive and, if so, where is he? Is Gordievsky still alive and, if so,  where is he?

All these questions and more are answered in the book, but I don’t want to spoil the fun for you. I highly recommend The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War, by Ben MacIntyre. I listened to the book on CD while keeping a print copy in front of me. That made it easier for me to keep up with the unpronounceable Russian names.


My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, by Fredrik Backman

Told from the point-of-view of seven-year-old Elsa, this is another somewhat quirky novel from Fredrik Backman. I think it was clever for Mr. Backman to give us a novel told from a child’s viewpoint. It was an interesting read, but not one of my favorite novels.

I listened to this book on CD. My favorite part of the book turned out to be the first disc, as it included Elsa’s feisty grandmother before she died. It was funny. Elsa’s grandmother wasn’t a typical grandmother or a typical old woman. She delighted in upsetting the powers that be. She thrilled at dragging Elsa into her various escapades.

Since both of my grandmothers died before I was born, I had trouble identifying with Elsa. I don’t have a firm grasp of the personalities of either of my grandmothers; however, since they were farm wives and were born in the second half of the 19th century, they probably didn’t resemble Elsa’s grandmother in any way, shape, or form.

Of course, the reason for this novel was not to entertain the reader with the antics of an old lady. It was to show the ramifications of a life lived as this woman lived it. This woman lived her entire life insulting people, but somewhere deep down inside she wanted to apologize. The burden of making those apologies fell on her granddaughter.


Step into the Circle: Writers in Modern Appalachia, edited by Amy Greene and Trent Thomson

This is a book of profiles about nine writers of present-day Appalachia written by writers of present-day Appalachia. It is beautifully illustrated with photographs of the writers and the mountains from which they came. The writers highlighted are Wendell Berry, Crystal Wilkinson, Ron Rash, Adriana Trigiani, Silas House, George Ella Lyon, Frank X. Walker, Marie Junaluska, and Lee Smith.

Some of these writers were familiar to me, while others were not. I was glad to learn about each of them; however, the book did not live up to its promise as far as I was concerned. At least one of the “profiles” turned out to be more about the profiler than the writer being profiled. Therefore, the book ended on a sour note for me. Nevertheless, it’s worth checking out of the public library and giving it your attention.

The book addresses the influence of an author’s geographic upbringing and the importance of writing the truth that one knows. The importance of Appalachian writers to write the truth in order to dispel the myths about the people of Appalachia is an overriding theme.

The most interesting profile for me was that of Marie Junaluska, a Cherokee language teacher and translator.


The Fix, by David Baldacci

I’m attempting to whittle away at the 300 books on my To Be Read list (TBR.) I thought it might be a good idea to try to read one book from my TBR each month. But then I did the math and discovered that, at that rate, it will take me 25 years to read those 300 books. That doesn’t sound doable because I would be 103 years old by then. Also, I tend to add more than one book to my TBR each month, so the list is literally never-ending.

The Fix has been on my TBR for several years. It is the third in David Baldacci’s Amos Decker series. Labeled a thriller, I found The Fix to be more of a spy mystery. It did not keep me on the edge of my chair anxious to see what happened next. Perhaps it just wasn’t the right time for me to read this book, since I had trouble concentrating all month.

I’ve listened to many novels in the last year or two, which is quite a change for me. A lot depends on the professional recording reader. In addition to that, something that jumped out at me in listening to The Fix was how the “he said/she said” tags can distract. When reading a print book, our eyes often leap over those tags. In listening to The Fix, I was very distracted by them. There were several readers – male and female. When I female voice read a line, it was terribly jarring to have the male reader follow it by saying, “she said.” It reminded me that I was listening to a book – and that’s not a good thing. I’m not sure what the remedy is for this, but it continually took me out of the story in this novel.


National Grammar Day in the USA

No, that’s not the name of a book. Today is National Grammar Day in the United States It gives me an opportunity to share with you something I learned recently from a blog post.

I took courage from reading Melissa Donovan’s December 15, 2020 blog post. She opened my eyes to the difference between grammar rules and grammar guidelines. Here’s a link to her blog post: Grammar Guidelines Versus Grammar Rules | Writing Forward.

If grammar grabs your attention, please take time to read Ms. Donovan’s blog post. Like me, you might be surprised to learn that some things you think are grammar rules are just guidelines. You must follow the rules, but you don’t have to follow the guidelines. I wish someone had told me that years ago.

I have stressed over some guidelines because I thought they were rules. One of my favorites is that you should never end a sentence with a preposition. It turns out that rule of earlier centuries is now a guideline. Hurrah! I’ve twisted myself into a pretzel on occasion trying not to break that guideline because I thought it was a rule. What I’ve ended up with are awkward sentences. From now on, I’ll end sentences with a preposition when it makes better sense to do so.

And, by the way, you probably noticed that I used the numeral “4” in my blog post title today instead of “four.” I was taught to write out numbers one through nine in a written document – and always when it is the first word in a title or sentence — and to use numerals for 10 and higher.

I learned recently though, that when writing the title of a blog post, I should always use numerals because they make a bigger impact. They help my SEO (Search Engine Optimization). In those mysterious algorithms of cyberspace, they help my blog posts move up and get seen. They grab a person’s attention. That’s what “they” say.

Bear with me, folks. I’m in my 60s (or sixties?) and I’m trying to learn new things and adapt to the world of technology. When I was born, black and white television, black and white photography, and manual typewriters were cutting edge. And Caribbean was pronounced Ca-rah-be-in.


Since my last blog post

I’ve continued to read and I have some excellent books to share with you in March when I blog about the books I read in February. I have been entertained and educated by these books, and the month is just one-week old. I’ve read two historical novels this week that I can’t wait to tell you about.

I tried my hand at a new recipe for no-knead whole wheat sandwich bread. It held much promise in the beginning, but it turned out the size of half-of-a-sandwich bread. It tastes okay, but looks pitiful. I was disappointed but had to laugh.

We came within a few miles of having snow on Saturday night but only got rain. That’s the way it often is in the piedmont of North Carolina.


Until my next blog post

I hope you have at least one good book to read this week – one that will not only entertain you but also educate you. Our learning should never end.

Wear a mask and get the Covid-19 vaccination as soon as it’s your turn and you can get an appointment.

Stay safe, and be respectful of others’ desire to stay safe and well.

Janet