Two Recent WWII books: The War I Finally Won and Salt to the Sea

May 17, 2019

Not that anyone is looking for more World War II books to read, but if they were, these two are definitely topping my list right now.

The War I Finally Won by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

I loved The War That Saved My Life so much that I immediately put the sequel on hold (and if you know anything about me and my track record with sequels/series, then you'll know what high praise this is). I've heard some readers say they liked this one better than the first one, but if I was forced to choose, I think I'd put my vote with the first one.

That isn't to say there was anything wrong with this one. Just, to me, it seemed like the story kind of stalled out a bit. It still has most of the same characters: Ada, Jamie, Susan, Lady Thornton, and Maggie, with the addition of Ruth (a young Jewish woman who has come to study math with Susan). In many ways, Ada's story has come full circle as demonstrated in this scene where she is riding Maggie's brother's horse, Oben: "I kicked again. I whooped. His speed increased until his stride began to feel as smooth as rushing wind, as effortless as flowing water. I moved with him, effortlessly. On the day I was evacuated, I'd looked out the window of our train and seen a girl galloping a pony, racing the train. Now I was that girl, galloping, laughing, my head thrown back, the wind tugging my hair. I'd become the person I'd longed to be."

But "becoming the person she'd longed to be" came with a price, which was that Ada was gripped with an intense need to control everything and keep anything bad out of her life--a task that is impossible at the best of times, let alone during a war.

She was also confronted with the question of, "If I've already become who I want to be [the girl riding the horse], what comes next?"

It's those two things (Ada's internal anxieties and her hopes for the future) that really drive the plot of this book. But even though big things happened (the Thorntons experienced a tragedy, Susan became very ill, Ada helped warn the village about a bombing), the pacing itself felt slow. To be fair, it wasn't any slower than the first book, but I think the difference was that in the first one, I was getting to know the characters at the same time, but here I already knew the characters really well, so the quiet moments dragged.

That said, I think it's partly the slow pace that makes Ada's growth seem so authentic. Her problems are not solved overnight. She has opportunities where she gets the best of her demons and other times when they get the best of her, but her overall motion is upward and forward. This quote from the end might sum it up best:
"I'd known the right thing to do, and I'd done it. I'd helped take care of Lady Thornton the way she'd helped take care of me. I'd stood in the steeple while bombs and even an airplane had fallen past me out of the sky. I'd felt afraid but I hadn't come undone. My foot would never be all the way right, but I could walk and climb and run. My feelings might never be all the way right either but they were healed enough.
There were many things I liked about this book--it was definitely a worthy and satisfying sequel (and there is even a sweet moment of closure for Susan at the very end). But I guess what I'm trying to say is that it maybe matched the first one a little too well in tone and pacing and drama, so it didn't have quite the same impact on me.

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

This book is evidence to my suspicion that no matter how many books are written about World War II, we will never run out of new material for another one. More than anything, I think that attests to the sad reality of how vast and all-encompassing that war really was.

This story centers around four characters: Emilia (a young Polish girl) Florian (a secretive Prussian), Joana (a Lithuanian nurse), and Alfred (a German private). As the war neared its end, thousands of Eastern Europeans fled before the Russians. These four characters boarded the infamous Wilhelm Gustloff for a short voyage across the Baltic Sea.

Infamous, except that I'd never heard of it before hearing about this book. If that's you too, then here are a few facts: the Wilhelm Gustloff was torpedoed in the Baltic Sea on January 30, 1945. It was carrying over 10,000 people, nearly 9,400 of whom perished in the frigid waters (and an unbelievable 5,000 of those losses were children). To give you some comparison, the Titanic lost 1,600 lives and the Lusitania lost 1,200. The sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff dwarfed these other tragedies in every way, but for some reason, it has not been given the same amount of attention.

Set against this horrific backdrop, the stories of these four people were fascinating and heartbreaking. I listened to this book, and the audio used four different narrators, which made it easy to differentiate between the characters right from the beginning. As is so often the case with stories told from multiple points of view, this one was rich and multi-layered as I witnessed the same event from different perspectives and pieced together all of the details.

The writing is exquisite. Even simple sentences like this one, "She held her breath in one hand and her suitcase in the other," vividly meshed together the physical and emotional details. I also loved this one, which gave a stark image of the effect of the war: "War had bled color from everything, leaving nothing but a storm of gray."

In the midst of this terrible tragedy, the writing had a way of bringing in little forgotten details that just made my heart twist. For example, as Emilia is traveling through the woods, she often sings a little nursery rhyme from her childhood: "All the little duckies with their heads in the water, heads in the water . . . " Later, as she looks over the water at the destruction all around her, the nursery rhyme, once innocent, comes back unbidden with frightening accuracy, only it is no longer referring to ducks.

Two characters deserve special mention: the shoe poet because I loved him so much and Alfred because he was so unbelievably awful.

The shoe poet, as everyone referred to him, might have been my very favorite. He was a man without guile who had a keen sense of observation and shared his wisdom through shoe metaphors (hence, the nickname). He was especially kind to the wandering boy, a young child who had come unmoored from his family. I loved their trusting and loving relationship in the midst of so much despair.

Then there was Alfred who was an egotistic narcissist but also a bumbling idiot (depending on the point of view at the time). I loved the other three main characters so much and felt a connection with each one. But even in his pathetic wretchedness, I couldn't drum up even the least bit of sympathy for Alfred. I had to wonder if this was what the author intended or if I was at least supposed to feel somewhat sorry for Alfred or if she purposely created an unlikeable character because she knew we would need someone to hate.

I'm always on the lookout for the title of the book to be embedded in the story somewhere. It usually sheds some light as to why the author chose it for the title and makes it more poignant. In this case, the title came from Joana as she drifted in the middle of the sea: "I wanted my mother. My mother loved Lithuania. She loved her family. The war had torn every last love from her life. Would she have to learn the grotesque details of our suffering? Would news make it to my hometown . . . ,  to the dark bunker in the woods where my father and brother were thought to be hiding? Joana Vilcus. Your daughter. Your sister. She is salt to the sea."

I'm grateful that I have yet another book to add to my list of worthwhile and appropriate young adult novels. Because even though the subject matter is dark and heavy, the actual content was quite clean and sensitive. I'll leave you with this final bit of wisdom from Emilia, which highlights the resiliency of the human spirit and that even in the darkest moments, we can find the good: "Nature. That was something the war couldn't take from me either. The Nazis couldn't stop the wind and the snow. The Russians couldn't take the sun or the stars."

A Little of This and That in April

May 11, 2019

There's just nothing like April. I think it will always be my favorite month. And it was a good one this time around. You might have found us . . .

Pruning . . . our fruit trees. We have three fruit trees in our backyard (apple, pear, and peach), and in the five years we have lived here, we have never given them a proper pruning. One of my friends offered to teach me how to prune them, and it was an opportunity I couldn't pass up. She showed me what a proper cut looks like and taught me the correct shape for each type of tree (hint: they're different). I learned to look for branches that are crossing or overlapping and pay attention to the direction of the new growth. When we were done, they all had been pruned back quite a bit (especially the peach), and I am SO excited to see what they'll do this year.

Revamping . . . the flower beds. We have been holding off planting anything in our front flower bed for a long time because we couldn't make a decision about what we actually wanted to do with it. But then Mike was at his favorite store (i.e., the NPS store), and they had a bunch of inexpensive plants, and so he just decided to buy them all (not really, but close). It's a hodgepodge of stuff, and we don't really know what we're doing, but for the moment, it looks way better, and at the very least, it's a starting place. Mike bought enough plants to also rip out one of the beds in the backyard and replant the whole thing with lower maintenance bushes. Sometimes I just have to remember Gretchen Rubin's adage: "Done is better than perfect."

Taking . . . notes during General Conference. I felt like we turned a corner this year because for the first time, Aaron and Maxwell took pages (literally pages) of notes during the talks. Yes, they were being bribed with candy, but they've been bribed with candy before and have only done the bare minimum required. This year, they listened attentively and wrote down lots of insights, and I just felt like I was seeing them grow up before my very eyes. (But then, there was also Bradley who told me probably a dozen times how much he hated conference and listening to talks, etc., so it wasn't all golden.)

Wielding . . . a medieval sword. Mike's parents came home for General Conference, and we had the overdue Christmas party that got postponed last October when my mother-in-law had a health scare and they couldn't fly home. Among the gifts, each family received a long broadsword (i.e., a "sword of truth") with the intent that it will be used to open future mission calls (a family tradition). The swords have actually been stored in our basement for the last eight months because Mike's dad had them shipped to us, so I'm glad to see them finally go to their real homes. (Sometime I'll have to share the story about when the first one arrived at our house before we knew my father-in-law was sending them to us. We got a mysterious package in the mail from, and when I opened it and found a full size, authentic (and yes, sharp!) sword in there, I might have freaked out a little.)

Going . . . on a shopping spree. At least, that's what it felt like. I had just been needing a lot of different things--a couple of pairs of shoes for me, some summer clothes for the boys, some new shirts for Mike--and I had just been letting it all pile up until Mike and I went on a date to the outlets  and just took care of it all. It kind of gives me some anxiety to spend a lot of money all at once, but it's so nice not to have to use up brain space researching running shoes anymore (because that's what I do, and research just paralyzes my decision-making abilities). Also, for the record, Mike is a fantastic person to go shopping with because he has no problem making decisions, he actually likes to give his opinion when I try on clothes, and he always encourages me to buy more than I would otherwise (which may or may not be a good idea . . . ).

Receiving . . . a lot of rain. This spring has been a wet one. Thankfully, most of it has come in the form of rain and not snow. (But I had to laugh when I was volunteering in Aaron's class on the last day of the month right during a little snowstorm; the kids were all very distracted by it until his teacher finally got fed up with it all and said, "Come on, you guys, you live in Utah! It snows in April! It's not anything special.") After the third or fourth day in a row of rain and no sunshine, I was pretty much over it, but I can't deny the results: our grass is maybe the greenest it has ever been.

Drawing . . . a picture of the allegory of the olive tree. Perhaps I better explain. One afternoon during my personal scripture study, I was reading the allegory of the olive tree, which is found in Jacob 5 in The Book of Mormon. It is a long, detailed allegory that involves planting and pruning and grafting and burning, and even though I have read this chapter many times, I was just feeling a little lost. So I decided to start over and attempt to illustrate what I was reading. Now, you have to understand that my artistic abilities are severely limited, but I made my best attempt in forty little pictures over six pages in my notebook. It's not something I would show to anyone else (hence, no photo), but it helped me visualize and understand this allegory like I never have before. It was a good exercise (and I can only imagine what it could have been in the hands of a different artist).

Finishing . . . the softest, coziest sweater. I finally finished another project (I have three others started . . . ), and I'm so glad we still had a couple of cold days in April so I could wear it. It is so warm and comfortable; I could live in it. It will be something to look forward to in the fall.

Seeing . . . the news about Notre Dame. Like probably so many of you, I was shocked to hear that Notre Dame had caught fire and that centuries of history and culture had been lost. It reminded me of when the Provo Tabernacle experienced similar destruction in 2010. It made me realize that even though buildings are not alive, they have the power to touch the lives of millions of people through their beauty and the events that happen inside and around them. I visited Notre Dame in 2016, and it wildly exceeded my expectations. I had seen photos of Notre Dame before, but photos couldn't capture the craftsmanship or scope or magnificence of that edifice. I remember standing right next to it and looking up in awe at its intricately carved walls and wondering about the hundreds of unknown, unrecognized people who worked so tirelessly for a lifetime to make it what it was. After the fire, the internet was flooded with photos--images of families and friends and individuals visiting the cathedral and basking in its beauty. I'm glad that I have my own photos to remind me of it.

Running . . . out of fabric. I dusted off my sewing machine this month and made myself a dress. In the process of cutting out the pieces for it, I realized I did not have enough fabric for the sleeves. So I went back to the fabric store, only to find out that they no longer had that fabric in stock. So I went to another (much larger) store and miraculously (seriously, it was a miracle) found the same fabric. I finished the dress (I even conquered the invisible zipper) before admitting that I had chosen the wrong fabric (it was very stiff and had absolutely no give). So I don't know that I will ever wear it in real life, but I've already bought more fabric to make it again (and this time, I made sure that I'll have enough).

Winning . . . first AND second place in the pinewood derby! We literally forgot about the pinewood derby until two days before the race whereupon Mike scrambled to help Aaron and Maxwell each make a car. Then on the day of the race, Mike came home from work and realized he had left the cars on his desk (he'd taken them there to make sure the wheels were aligned). Then when Aaron weighed in his car, they realized it was too heavy, so Mike hacked away pieces of it until it passed. So it might have seemed like the stars were not aligned for the boys, but then they ended up winning both first (Aaron) and second (Maxwell). In Aaron's words, "My car didn't look the nicest, but it was the fastest."

Hosting . . . our fourth annual neighborhood Easter egg hunt. I love this tradition so much, and we had a perfect day for it this year.

Observing . . . Easter. We always do Easter baskets and our neighborhood egg hunt on the Saturday before Easter, which keeps the actual day a little more focused on the Resurrection. This year we went to my parents' house for dinner and then had a little family egg hunt after that, and it was simple and perfect.

Studying . . . the scriptures as a family. Ever since our boys were very little, we have tried to read the scriptures daily and share scripture stories with them, but at the beginning of the year, we started doing it with a little more intention than before. That is because our church made a big change in January: the Sunday meeting schedule was cut down from three hours to two hours, and we were encouraged to use that extra hour to study together as a family in a home-centered, church-supported effort. In addition to this, gospel study was correlated throughout the Church with the Come Follow Me curriculum. The New Testament is our course of study, and it is broken down by week with which chapters to read, questions to discuss, and activities to do. The same material is also taught at church, and so we study it at home, and then we're ready to share insights when we meet together at church. It has been wonderful. Our weeknight study is still fairly short, but on Sunday afternoons, we put Ian down for a nap, and then study and learn together. Not only has it been a good experience for us in our home, but it has enriched our time at church as well. Rather than having family scripture study in one book of scripture and church classes in another, now we're all on the same page (literally), and I love it.

Celebrating . . . our two April birthdays--Mike's and Ian's. One of Ian's favorite songs is Happy Birthday, so I knew he would be thrilled when it was actually his turn to open presents and blow out a candle. The evening before, after Ian went to bed, the rest of us all gathered in the living room to wrap presents and get everything ready for the birthday boy. I thought it was the perfect representation of how much we all love and adore little Ian. He loved his presents and his Chicka Chicka Boom Boom cake, and he even blew out the candle all by himself.

Weaning . . . Ian. A few days after Ian's birthday, Mike and I went to New York, and I knew that was going to be the perfect time to finish weaning Ian. But to be perfectly honest, I didn't feel ready for it. He is my baby, and nursing has always been one of my favorite parts of being a mom. I will miss hearing him ask for "Mommy's milk" or "a little bit of milk." (As of right now, he still hasn't stopped asking him for it, but I just keep reminding him that it is all gone.) Luckily, our nighttime cuddles and conversations and songs have not stopped, and I'm grateful I still get to rock him before bed.

Visiting . . . New York for the first time. To celebrate our fourteenth wedding anniversary, we decided to take a trip to the Big Apple. Neither of us had ever been, and we spent the weeks leading up to it gathering recommendations from all of our more sophisticated and well-traveled friends and then editing our itinerary again and again as we tried to squeeze in more things before being realistic and trimming it back down. The trip exceeded all of my expectations. I will write a whole post about it soon, but I'm so glad we got to go, and I can't wait to go back.

Missing . . . the wax museum. While Mike and I were in New York, Maxwell's class put together their own wax museum. Max was Benedict Arnold, and in the days leading up to it, he loved to wear his costume and say his part (in fact, you can see him in it in the birthday prep photo above, ha!). I was so sad to miss the actual event, but luckily my mom was able to go see him, and she said he did great!

Loving . . . every little detail of spring: the forsythia bushes that burst into brilliant light before resuming their incognito status; the sweet star magnolias that I never noticed until this year; the changing hues of green--sharp and new, then darkening into something more mature; the parades of butterflies returning from their migration south; the pungent smell of lilac; and of course, my beloved flowering cherry in all its frothy pink glory. I have loved everything about this spring (except for maybe my allergies, but it's a small price to pay for all of this beauty).

What has this spring looked like for you? Tell me about it!

Three Recent Re-reads: Princess Academy, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

May 3, 2019

I've had the pleasure of re-reading a few excellent books over the last couple of months. Rereading is so great, especially when you have a horrible memory like I do and can basically enjoy it like the first time all over again!

Princess Academy by Shannon Hale

When I suggested this as our next readaloud, my boys balked a little at the title. With the word "princess" in the title, it does tend to come across as a little bit girly. But having already read it twice myself, I assured them they had nothing to fear.

But . . . it turns out . . . I had forgotten how slow-paced this book is. It didn't seem slow when I was reading it to myself. But when I was reading it to three boys who just couldn't wait for the bandits to arrive, suddenly Miri's repetitive thoughts on whether she would rather stay on Mount Eskel or move to the palace and become a princess seemed rather dull and boring. I caught myself thinking, Oh no, Miri, not again. Do you have to agonize over your feelings for Peder one more time? 

Over the years of reading aloud to my boys, I haven't shied away from books that might be seen as being more traditionally for girls. Consequently, some of our favorite books have starred female protagonists, such as The Penderwicks, Ramona, and Pippi Longstocking. But I can also recognize that there are certain themes and subjects and plots that my boys are just more naturally drawn to. And daydreaming about what it might be like to be a princess isn't one of them. (In all fairness though, it isn't really a matter of girl vs. boy as much as just a matter of taste. For example, I don't enjoy books with fantasy creatures in them; that doesn't have anything to do with the fact that I'm a girl, but rather, that's just my personal preference.)

But we held out for the promised siege, and it was worth the wait (although, I have to say, I don't remember being so incredulous about Dan's demise when I read it the first two times . . . tiny Miri was able to hold onto a root with huge Dan hanging onto one of her legs???? No way. I'm sorry, but no way.)

So all's told, it was a bit of a let down. It pains me to say it, but it was. I still liked the writing (how about this wisdom from Doter: "Unhappiness can't stick in a person's soul when it's slick with tears"), but the story was a bit of a drag. This is why I'm sometimes afraid to reread a book I loved in the past. You just never know how it's going to strike you on a reread.

(For a more positive review, read the one I wrote back in 2012.)

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

I read this book for the first time in 2013, but when it was selected for my book club's "classic" month, I knew I would need to reread it as I could remember almost nothing from before.

I purposely held off reading my review of it because I wanted to be able to experience it this time without being influenced by my 2013 self. (I will probably finally go back and read it after I finish writing this review.)

What I found was that bits of the story immediately came back to me as soon as I began listening. I remembered Janie's three husbands (Logan, Jody, and Tea Cake) before I was re-introduced to them. I knew each one would be flawed but that the last one would be the best. And Janie saved her best self for the end as well. According to Tea Cake, "God made it so you spent your old age first with somebody else and saved up your young girl days to spend with me." I thought that was so sweet.

This time I was struck by the characters of the three men: Logan's biggest fault was that he was old and boring, something that wasn't exactly under his control. Jody's was that he wanted all good things to be credited back to him, no matter the cost. And Tea Cake's was that, for all of his love, he was still a bit immature. (I had forgotten the two big scenes that really highlight this weakness: the time he spends all of Janie's money having fun while she is home worrying; and the night he physically hurts her to prove to the world how much he loves her. Tea Cake was so likeable, and it was hard to see him make stupid choices, but they made him more real.)

Incredibly, I had forgotten how the book ends until I was literally right there, in the room with Tea Cake and Janie, both of them with a gun in their hands. Sometimes I am annoyed with my poor memory, but in moments like this, it means I get the full emotional impact all over again.

The other thing that surprised me was how little phrases from the book pinged with recognition inside me, like this one: "She stood there until something fell of the shelf inside her." I couldn't have quoted it, but once I heard it again, it registered as something I'd heard (and loved) before. The writing is just so good.

I'm guessing I shared this in my review the first time because I think it's one of the most beloved quotes from the book, but it's worth sharing again because it sums up the theme so beautifully: "Love is like the sea; it's a moving thing. But still and all, it takes its shape from the shore and changes with every shore it meets."

If you've somehow missed reading this classic, I highly recommend it.

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg

When Mike and I decided to go to New York for our anniversary, I had a sudden longing to revisit Claudia and Jamie's adventures. Originally, the Met was on our itinerary, and I thought it would be so fun to have this story in my head while we walked through the museum (even though many of the referenced landmarks are no longer there). Even though we ended up needing to cut it due to lack of time, this story still made an excellent companion on the flight there and back. I had forgotten how much I loved it.

I actually never read this book as a child. I know we owned a copy, but frankly, the cover did absolutely nothing to make me want to read it. (I actually just looked it up to see if it was as bad as I remembered. It was the 1976 edition, and yes, it was.) I had no idea what I was missing, but finally as an adult in 2009, I read it for the first time, and it was marvelous.

Claudia Kincaid feels unappreciated at home and decides it would be best to run away so her family realizes how much they would suffer without her. She carefully and methodically makes plans: She settles on a place (the Metropolitan Museum of Art), a time (on her way to school), and a companion (her middle brother Jamie--mostly because he has enough money to fund the entire grand scheme). Once they are well settled in a 16th-century bed, Claudia decides she can't go home until she has done something noteworthy, and figuring out if the Museum's newly acquired angel statue is really an early work of Michelangelo seems like just the thing.

One of the best parts of this book is the relationship between Claudia and Jamie. They start out as two normal siblings with plenty of arguing and bickering and not a lot of shared goals. But gradually, things come into alignment until something clicks. Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler explained it this way:
"What happened was they had become a team--a family of two . . . Becoming a team didn't mean the end of their arguments, but it did mean that the arguments became a part of the adventure, became discussions not threats. To an outsider, the arguments would appear to be the same because feeling like part of a team is something that happens invisibly. You might call it "caring." You could even call it "love." And it is very rarely indeed that it happens to two people at the same time, especially a brother and a sister who had always spent more time with activities than they had with each other."
The other really masterful part of this story is Claudia's subtle, almost invisible, transformation. When she runs away, she really gives no thought to her parents. She wants them to be sorry she's gone, but she doesn't have any idea about the mental and emotional anguish she will put her parents through when she and Jamie suddenly vanish without a trace (and, as a side note, I couldn't help thinking that even in 1967, this story was probably somewhat unbelievable. But in 2019? It could never happen. Those two kids would have been found within hours of leaving). But then it becomes more about making some sort of impact or contribution before she goes home so her time will be well spent. But eventually, she realizes that she can go home and still be plain, sensible Claudia Kincaid and that that will enough (especially once she has the secret of the statue secured). In the words of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler: "Happiness is excitement that has found a settling down place."

Even though we didn't get to visit the Met, there was still something about being in New York with this story bumping around in my brain that just made it so much more special and fun. Also, it put me in an E.L. Konigsburg sort of mood. I need to read some of her other books.

What have been some of your recent rereads? Did your opinions change or stay the same?
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