Sarah’s Key

Sarah's Key As many of you know, WWII historical fiction is right up my alley. A majority of my “Want to Read” fiction on Goodreads consists of WWII fiction. I even have a book in my mind that I will write someday. So I went into this thinking it would be a layup.

It starts with two stories: the 1942 story of the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup of Jews by the French police. It is the story of one ten-year-old girl and her family and their tragic separation. The second is a modern-day journalist studying the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup (nearing it’s 60th anniversary) and finding her own link to the history there. The chapters go back and forth between these two stories.

The 1942 story is wonderful. It draws you in and you picture what is happening in your mind; you put yourself there. You do it despite the writing. The 1942 story is told from the third person: The girl did this, the girl thought that, etc. It detaches the reader from the story, but despite this, you enter in.

The modern-day story of the journalist, however, is told in the first person. Yet I found myself struggling to relate to her. I didn’t understand her. I didn’t really even like her that much, though she gave me little to like or dislike. She, and her story, was bland. About half way through the book the 1942 story ends, and the rest of the book is the modern day story, which by now has intertwined with the story of the past. I remember getting to that first chapter that didn’t take me back to 1942, back to the little girl- my heart sank. That was the story the reader wants to hear.

In literature, there is story, and there is beautiful writing, and a handful of times, you find a gem that combines the two. This one absolutely leans toward story- there is nothing beautiful in the prose. It doesn’t read like music, it isn’t moving, it doesn’t create a scene you are entranced with. It is plain and tells a story. This is ok when the story is fantastic. This story could have been fantastic. But in the end, it wasn’t. Rosnay had a great beginning in her mind, one with amazing potential. But in the making of it, too much was lost. I wish she had stuck with the 1942 story and seen it through to the end. I wish she had made that the only story, the first-person account. It could have been….so much more.

(If you, like me, love WWII fiction, I recommend instead reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.)

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The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore This book took the majority of my reading time for two months, and it is one of the best books I read all year. As I shared in another post, I am doing self-directed schooling with a friend. I have, historically, stuck rather closely to fiction. I am so driven by story that instructional nonfiction is difficult for me. But I want to get better, so I am bridging my way into nonfiction with books that still contain story, like biographies and memoirs. In several books I was reading, mentions of Theodore Roosevelt abounded. Knowing little about him, I began to feel that I would enjoy him very much. So for my passion assignment, I decided to read this book and practice some letter writing between Roosevelt and some of his closest companions, working at writing from different voices, both male and female, as well as from a different time period. When the book arrived at my house and I saw that it was nearly a thousand pages, I considered changing my assignment. I still carried memories of the Bonhoeffer biography and, though I am fascinated with WWII, it took everything in me to trudge through that giant book. This book, in contrast, took as much work as sailing on a breezy summer day- so enjoyable one hardly notices the effort. The wind simply carried me where I wanted to go.

One reason for this, no doubt, is Theodore himself. He is a difficult man to be neutral about. Then as now, one either loves him or hates him. And despite my being in the former category, I was able to find many actions or ways about him I disapproved of. Edmund Morris did a wonderful job of describing both the strengths and weaknesses of his peculiar personality. He depicted Roosevelt enthusiastically but neutrally, with few exceptions. Roosevelt made this easy to do because of how public he made his life: befriending countless journalists, having written thousands upon thousands of letters, and consistently journaling from a very young age.

I especially enjoyed his youngest years: traveling with his family, the boundless energy, the early fascination with ecology, and more. I attended Harvard with him, where he began to stand out amongst his peers, grieved with him over the death of his parents, his wife, his brother and sister-in-law. I rode West with him through the Badlands, becoming a cowboy, rallied with him for justice in the Civil Service Reform, prowled the streets of New York in the middle of the night as the Police Commissioner, prepared and potentially provoked war as Assistant Secretary to the Navy, only to head the Rough Riders and lead out in battle amidst the jungles of Cuba. I returned with him to take the Governorship of New York, quickly succeeded by the Vice-Presidency, and only months later, the day in which he became the youngest President of the United States, following the assassination of William McKinley. That is where this book ends. To read more (as I will) you can follow him through the Presidency and the after years of his life.

If you enjoy biographies, this is a fantastic one, having won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, as well as being selected by the Modern Library as one of the top 100 nonfiction books of all time. I enjoyed every hour of it.