The Nightingale (Takes My Breath Away)

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“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Isabelle. Paris is overrun. The Nazis control the city. What is an eighteen-year-old girl to do about all of that?”

In a few simple lines through the mouth of Vianne, Kristin Hannah shows her readers the depth of frustration, impotence (pardon the entendre), and conflict between sisters in the face of unfathomable threat – the rise of Hitler’s Germany and the upending of France as they know it. The Nightingale is the wrenching story of two sisters, one desperate to survive the war, the other committed to fighting it. And yet both are head-strong, iron-willed, and steely-eyed, and both form their own resistance to the evils at hand.

Here is a story told for generations; and yet, Hannah makes it all new. Hers may not be the first story of World War II through the eyes, voices, and toils of women, but it is a magnificent and unforgettable one. And I believe it is the first one I’ve encountered. Here women are the heroes, not just the victims. I felt myself asking over and over again, why is this new? Why do I struggle to come up with a long list of examples of such stories? And then, towards the end of this very book, Hannah turns to the reader and has her protagonist answer this very question:

“Men tell stories,” I say. It is the truest, simplest answer […]. “Women get on with it. For us it was a shadow war. There were no parades for us when it was over, no medals or mentions in history books. We did what we had to during the war, and when it was over, we picked up the pieces and started our lives over.”

This book had me gasping, covering my eyes, and reading “just one more page”. Truly a noteworthy work. Perhaps I will have read and predicted the Pulitzer Prize winner for the third year in a row?

Eleanor and Park (and young love)

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Let me start with the obvious: I am a grown-assed lady who likes to read Children’s and Young Adult fiction. I am filled with it, moved by it, in a way different from other genres. Maybe it is nostalgia – remembering how deeply books touched me and shaped who I was becoming when I was young. If it is nostalgia, it is a special, visceral kind of nostalgia, because often times reading these books as an adult still turns me inside out, gives me goosebumps, infects my dreams, and makes me snivel like…well, like me.

Reading Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell was a stomach-twisting, swoonful (yes, that’s a word now) delight. Here, two teenage outsiders find each other and themselves with such electricity and believability that I felt with them and fell for them. Eleanor is bare, raw emotion – with her tangled self image and her sense of self constantly denigrated by a superficial world, a mother deeply subjugated in an abusive relationship, a father who is less than disengaged, classically cruel high schoolers, and a diabolical step-father. She is complicated and full of beauty.

All respect to Wally Lamb and his amazing effort in She’s Come Undone, this book is Exhibit A in the case of why women’s voices are essential to capture and reflect true female experience. There is something extra special…extra authentic…about Eleanor through the voice of Rainbow Rowell.

Minding the Body: Women Writers on Body and Soul

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What more appropriate way to kick off this year-long adventure than with Patricia Foster’s collection “Minding the Body: Women Writers on Body and Soul.” In this beautiful, decades-old work, twenty women contribute essays on a variety of topics, issues that seem at once universal and yet particular to the female experience. From weight issues, motherhood and fertility, race, and self-esteem, these women share personal anguish and triumph.

As Nancy Mairs writes in her essay “Carnal Acts”, “The voice is the creature of the body that produces it.” Just so, this collection is full of distinctly female voices sharing thoughts on the bodies that made them. And it is heart wrenching and heart-warming all at once. I feel I can’t improve upon the words I’ve read. I struggle simply to tie a few selections together as I let my mind continue to mull the messages it has received. And so, for now, I take the easy way out, closing this entry with two excerpts from Lucy Grealy’s essay “Mirrors”.

“On one level I understood that the image of my face was merely that, an image, a surface that was not directly related to any true, deep definition of the self. But I also knew that it is only through image that we experience and make decisions about the everyday world, and I was not always able to gather the strength to prefer the deeper world over the shallower one. I looked for ways to relate the two, to find a bridge that would allow me access to both, anything no matter how tenuous, rather than ride out the constant swings between peace and anguish. The only direction I had to go in to achieve this was simply to strive for a state of awareness and self-honesty that sometimes, to this day, rewards me and sometimes exhausts me.”

“I once though that truth was an eternal, that once you understood something it was with you forever. I know now that this isn’t so, that most truths are inherently unretainable, that we have to work hard all our lives to remember the most basic things. Society is no help; the images it gives us again and again want us only to believe that we can most be ourselves by looking like someone else, leaving our own faces behind to turn into ghosts that will inevitably resent us and haunt us.”