As a child, I looked forward to the long summer days. There was time for everything – hiking, swimming, biking and thrilling games of kick the can as dusk fell. When temperatures soared and it was too hot to be running about, I immersed myself in a book. I devoured the Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden and Hardy Boys mystery series. One year, I whipped through “Harriet the Spy” in a matter of hours.
While I rarely read mystery anymore, I recently enjoyed a Louise Penny Inspector Gamache novel. The Beautiful Mystery is set in an isolated monastery in Quebec. The monks here find God through Gregorian chant, but all is not as holy as the celestial chanting suggests. With the murder of the choir director, Gamache finds himself wondering if the thick abbey doors are intended to “keep the sins of the world out? Or to keep something worse in?”
Leaving the mystery genre behind for non-fiction, The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman recounts the story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski who used the Warsaw zoo to shelter 300 Jews from deportation. The narrative conveys the risks and emotional toll of living one’s moral principles in dark times. Information on the Polish resistance is informative, and vignettes of ordinary people doing the right thing are inspiring. This book left me with a sense of optimism in the goodness of humanity despite the disturbing subject matter.
In the historical-fiction genre, The Undertaking by Audrey Magee looks at WWII through the eyes of a newly married German couple, Peter Faber and Katherina Spinell. There is more than a subtle hint of Nazi eugenics; Katherina selected Peter from an prescribed catalogue of eligible German men. However, the two do fall in love. When Peter leaves for the Russian front, Katherina promises to wait for him. The novel depicts daily life in wartime Berlin, the brainwashing of its citizens, and the atrocities of war. Racism, hatred, and self-interest motivate the characters whose moral compass is off kilter.
Hotel At The Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford is another book that deals with the subject of WWII. This fictional coming of age story takes place in Seattle after the bombing of Pearl Harbour. Two youngsters, Henry, of Chinese descent, and Keiko, of Japanese descent, form a close bond. Outsiders at their elite American school, they are accustomed to racism. Things get worse for both youngsters as internment looms. Through the eyes of young Henry, this book brings to the fore the damage that conflict wreaks on the human heart.
Toni Morrison’s American classic, Beloved, was by far the book that left the greatest impression on me this past year. I listened to the audio book read by Morrison; it was powerful. Past and present interweave in this story set after the end of the American Civil War during the period of Reconstruction. The stories of Sethe and Paul D. illustrate the inhumanity and evil of slavery.
Though fiction, Beloved revolves around an historical incident. In 1856, Margaret Garner and her husband escaped from a Kentucky plantation with their daughter. When fugitive slave catchers caught up with them, Garner killed her daughter to save her from returning to a life of slavery. Sethe is the Garner of the novel, and Beloved is the murdered baby who returns as a ghost.
On the lighter side, I am presently reading a book from Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street series. While I stopped reading serial novels decades ago, I am tempted to read a few more of this one. The Revolving Door of Life is perceptive and delightfully satirical. Matthew’s use of hand sanitizer had me laughing aloud as I recognized something of myself in his behaviour.
It’s heating up out there as I write. Time to pick up a book and escape. Happy summer reading!
Trail resident Louise McEwan is a freelance writer with degrees in English and Theology.