Norman Public Library
This month's guest columnist for 'Staff Selections' is Susan, who works part-time at the Norman Information Services desk and also leads the 'Thursday Night Page Turners' book discussion group at 7pm on the second Thursday of every month.
Says Susan, "I was raised in Oklahoma libraries. I was the kid who needed to know the maximum number of books you were allowed to check out. I came to OU, got a degree in anthropology, and worked at OU for several years, still reading everything I could get my hands on." After moving across the country - twice - Susan returned to Norman and began volunteering for Pioneer Library System, running a children’s book club and a family story time at the Noble Public Library. "I loved library service, so when a position came open at the reference desk in Norman, I jumped at the chance. I’ve been here since the beginning of July, and I’m loving every minute!"
A reader with broad tastes, some of Susan's favorite authors include Terry Pratchett, Mary Roach, Robin McKinley, Neil Gaiman, and Diana Gabaldon. For her 'Staff Selections' column, Susan chose to go with a historical theme: World War II.
"When I was growing up, my dad was really into World War II. He loved learning about the battles, weapons and tactics—NOT my thing. Consequently, pretty much the only reading I did on the subject for most of my life was on Molly, the American Girl. And I wasn’t thrilled with that.
However, a couple of years ago, my book club read several WWII-related novels in a row. Each one really opened my eyes to what it felt like, what it looked like, how it was to live during that time, and the enormous impact it had on so many different places. This is the power of a good book: to open you up to something you never knew before, or make you think about something in a way you hadn't imagined you could...or get you interested in your dad's weird boring hobby, even.
Here are a few of the novels related to World War II that really changed my viewpoint. Some appealed to me more than others, but all will grab you, suck you in, and remind you that history is not boring: history is life. It's everywhere and in everything, and it's what got us to today."
The History of Love, by Nicole Krauss, centers on an old man and a young girl in present-day New York City, both struggling with loss and searching for meaning, looking for validation and love. It's also about a devotion that has affected many lives, and that's so strong it's still burning 70 years later and half a world away. The old man, named Leo Gursky, lived and lost in Poland during World War II, and the book really gives a sense of how chaotic the area was, how hard it was to keep in touch, and how much Leo’s experiences changed him for life. The story is beautifully written, and there's so much more to it than what I just mentioned: translations, things locked away, deep dark secrets, and a little brother named Bird who thinks he's a lamed vovnik. It's a joy to read even while it deals with some of the most painful and difficult human emotions.
Here's an excerpt to get you hooked: “Once upon a time, there was a boy. He lived in a village that no longer exists, in a house that no longer exists, on the edge of a field that no longer exists, where everything was discovered, and everything was possible. A stick could be a sword, a pebble could be a diamond, a tree, a castle. Once upon a time, there was a boy who lived in a house across the field, from a girl who no longer exists. They made up a thousand games. She was queen and he was king. In the autumn light her hair shone like a crown. They collected the world in small handfuls, and when the sky grew dark, they parted with leaves in their hair.
Once upon a time there was a boy who loved a girl, and her laughter was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering.”
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, is a story of a book club (really more like a secret support group) held on Guernsey, one of the two Channel Islands, the only British territory occupied by the Germans during WWII. The main character, Julia, is an outsider who comes to know these book club members through exchanged letters on a variety of topics, and becomes convinced that she must visit. The characters are all colorful as can be, and the impact the German occupation had on their lives is slowly unraveled. Before I read this book, I had no idea that any part of the British Isles was occupied by Germany during the war. I enjoyed learning about the area through the eyes of someone who falls in love with it, and I loved the quirky (if not always realistic) characters.
Probably its most famous quote:"Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers. How delightful if that were true."
Out Stealing Horses, by Per Petterson, deals with the Nazi occupation in Norway. The main character, Trond Sander, is an old man now, in self-imposed isolation. A chance encounter with a neighbor causes him to flash back on the family secrets and community tragedies of his youth, and all that has happened since. This novel is short and humble, but includes so much of life. I really enjoyed reading it because the spareness of the text and of the characters, their emotional restraint and no-nonsense attitudes, reminded me so much of my Swedish relatives. But you don't have to have Nordic blood to appreciate the beauty of this novel. It made me ponder how we never can see all the pieces of the puzzle, and the way we can never tease out only ONE reason for something that happened.
A quote:"But life had shifted its weight from one point to another, from one leg to the other, like a silent giant in the vast shadows against the ridge, and I did not feel like the person I had been when this day began, and I did not even know if that was something to be sorry for."
The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, is a book that I thought I would hate: it's a young adult novel narrated by Death and set in WWII Germany. Sounds horribly depressing, right? But it's not! It's one of my very favorite books, and it's brilliant. The author uses some creative writing tricks to take away from the horror of the situation while still letting you get very close to the characters: humor and a LOT of bad language are two methods of doing this, and having Death narrate in Its own unique way clearly also helps.
It’s really about a girl named Liesl, and her parents and brother, and her foster parents, and the secret named Max who lives in the basement, and middle school punches in the face and pick-up soccer games and Hitler Youth meetings, and Jesse Owens, and potato thieves, and private and public ways of resisting or supporting Hitler, and bombings and deaths and survivals and best friendships and life-savings and music and a beautiful mischievous boy named Rudy, and a sad lonely woman named Ilsa, and what it means to be alive and what it's like to be Death. You have to read it.
Here's the eminently-likeable Death: "I wanted to tell the book thief many things, about beauty and brutality. But what could I tell her about those things that she didn't already know? I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race--that rarely do I ever simply estimate it. I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant."
There are several more books I've read recently that made me think more deeply and broadly about World War II, even if they weren't my very favorites, or weren't centered on wartime. Here are a few to get you started:
Sarah's Key, by Tatiana de Rosnay, tells a heartbreaking story of WWII in France, starring a modern-day character (with plenty of drama of her own) who happens upon the story of a Jewish girl who lived in Paris, and digs deeper to discover the mystery of what happened to her during the war. Do you think you would've been braver than absolutely everyone else in a time of great danger? This book captures the fear, chaos and shame that can come with being a Nazi-occupied territory.
A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki, is an unflinching, occasionally painful, read about a Canadian author of Japanese heritage who comes across a Japanese girl's diary, and how time is really a slippery element, hard to figure out and impossible to truly grasp, but human connections endure. An important portion of the story centers on the girl's great-uncle, who was set to become a kamikaze during WWII against his will.
City of Women by David R. Gillham is about Berlin during WWII, and a woman left behind by her soldier husband. It's about the many struggles this one woman is going through, and her difficult past relationship with a Jewish lover, and how sometimes you might begin something for one reason and continue it for a very different one. Sometimes you end up doing the right thing not because you are the best person or a hero, but because you are the one who can.
And finally, Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter, is an excellent read about a multiplicity of characters. While WWII is not the main point around which the novel is organized, it comes up plenty. Much of the book is about Italy, and one chapter in particular features an American soldier's experience of the war there. Some of the characters find paintings done in a bunker by German soldiers; the American soldier comes back several times, discovering different things about himself and the war. The war is not often center stage, but it touches the characters' lives deeply. (Note: This novel is also currently being adapted into a film! So read it now before all the copies disappear from the library shelf.)