Half of a Yellow Sun

Half of a Yellow SunHalf of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2006)

Summary

The lives of five characters are transformed during Biafra’s struggle for independence from Nigeria during the 1960s.

Review

While it was interesting to read about something I knew little about, I felt like I had to power through this book. I liked the beginning, but it fell flat. I wasn’t engaged and it seemed… shallow. Maybe it would have been a better book if it had been condensed.

You might like this book if you are interested in…

  • Nigeria & The Biafran War
  • Multiple POVs
  • The Igbo people
  • The word “ignoramus”
  • Kwashiorkor

My Story: A Personal Testament

My StoryMy Story: A Personal Testament by Michael Haas (2015)

Summary

Dr. Michael Haas tells the story of his life, growing up as an ethnic German in a small country village in what is now Serbia, enduring life in Europe during and after World War II, and ultimately moving to America and becoming a doctor.

Review

This is an autobiography that a relative of mine wrote and self-published for his family, so I’m going to leave out a review. It’s pretty cool to read the life story of someone you know.

You might like this book if you are interested in…

  • Autobiographies
  • Europe during World War II
  • Danube Swabians
  • Overcoming hardships
  • Immigration to America
  • The life stories of my relatives

Dead Wake

Dead WakeDead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson (2015)

Summary

In May 1915, a luxury ocean liner called the Lusitania left New York for Liverpool, full of passengers. Believing the Lusitania to be safe from attack, passengers and crew traveled through a U-boat-infested war zone, ignoring German warnings. A single German torpedo took out the world’s largest passenger ship, claiming the lives of 1198 people.

Review

Dead Wake is an extremely well-researched non-fiction book. It tells the story of the sinking of the Lusitania through its passengers and crew, as well as the German U-boat captain who torpedoed the ship, a top secret British intelligence unit, and President Woodrow Wilson. I liked all the various perspectives, though there wasn’t enough to become attached to any of the characters. I also felt that including Woodrow Wilson’s courtship of Edith Galt should have been left out.

It was a good book and I respect the research that went into it, but I didn’t love it.

You might like this book if you are interested in…

  • The Lusitania (duh)
  • Well-researched non-fiction
  • World War I
  • American and/or European history
  • Sinking ships
  • U-boats

All the Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot SeeAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (2014)

Summary

Marie-Laure is a girl living in Paris with her father, who works for the Museum of Natural History. When she goes blind, her father makes her a model of the city that she learns by touching the miniature buildings and roads. When the Nazis invade Paris, Marie-Laure and her father flee with what may be the museum’s most treasured jewel.

Meanwhile in Germany, a young orphan boy named Werner tinkers with radios for fun and becomes an expert at how they work. He attracts the attention of a German official, who gets him a spot in an elite Hitler Youth academy, which leads him into the German military.

The two stories converge in the small coastal city of Saint-Malo, France.

Review

All the Light We Cannot See goes back and forth in time, following the two characters throughout World War II. The writing is beautiful and the ending is sad, but fitting. Having studied both German and French, I give it bonus points for throwing in occasional words and phrases in the two languages. Overall, I liked it and would recommend it if you like historical fiction.

Here’s a part I enjoyed, where a Frenchman talks about coal in a radio broadcast for children:

Consider a single piece [of coal] glowing in your family’s stove… That chunk of coal was once a green plant, a fern or reed that lived one million years ago, or maybe two million, or maybe one hundred million… Every summer for the whole life of that plant, its leaves caught what light they could and transformed the sun’s energy into itself. Into barks, twigs, stems. But then the plant died and fell, probably into water, and decayed into peat, and the peat was folded inside the earth for years upon years… And eventually the peat dried and became like stone, and someone dug it up, and the coal man brought it to your house, and maybe you yourself carried it into the stove, and now that sunlight — sunlight one hundred million years old — is heating your home tonight.

You might like this book if you are interested in…

  • World War II
  • Beautiful prose and metaphors
  • Childhood interrupted by war
  • Blindness
  • Electronics (especially radios)
  • Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne
  • Snippets of German and/or French languages

Slaughterhouse-Five

This week, I read Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, which was #15 on my book list. I knew it was a war novel, but I wasn’t expecting science fiction. Because of this, my interpretation of the book might from others.
Slaughterhouse-Five

Plot Summary

The story of Billy Pilgrim (the book’s protagonist) doesn’t actually start until Chapter 2. Vonnegut used the first chapter as more of a preface, written in his own voice to introduce the the story that follows. Billy Pilgrim is an optometrist who finds himself thrust into World War II in Germany. Billy is a flawed and pathetic character who gets captured by the Germans and taken to a slaughterhouse in Dresden, along with other prisoners. Shortly after arriving in Dresden, there is a bombing and ensuing firestorm that destroys the city. Billy and the other prisoners survive, but 135,000 of Dresden’s residents were killed (the actual number is estimated to be around 25,000). So it goes.

What makes Billy unique is that he can (or believes he can) travel through time. He is abducted by aliens from the planet of Tralfamadore, where he is put in a zoo to entertain the Tralfamadorians. The Tralfamadorians don’t see time as linear, like humans do; instead, they see all moments in time simultaneously. They are fatalists, cognizant of what we perceive as the past, present, and future, but powerless to change it. Billy adopts their philosophy and, eventually, the Tralfamadorians return him to earth.

Although I’ve written the plot summary linearly, in the book, it’s told entirely out of sequence because of Billy’s frequent jumps through time. He experiences pre-war, war, and post-war events out of order, without having control over the jumps.

My Thoughts

Who knows if Billy Pilgrim really experienced time travel or if it was all in his head. It seems likely to me that it was a coping mechanism. Billy experienced some very traumatic events in his life, most notably during the war (especially the bombing of Dresden), but also outside of the war, in events like the plane crash. I think Billy was driven mad by the trauma and unconsciously used the Tralfamadorians and time travel as a way to comfort himself, especially because aspects of his delusions (if that’s what they were) seemed to echo things he saw or experienced in real life.

Billy’s new way of looking at life was to see it as something timeless, with moments from the past just as alive as moments in the present and future. He learns to accept the things he can’t change, even when they’re senseless tragedies like the Dresden bombing.

My favorite part of Slaughterhouse-Five was when Billy was watching a movie backwards about American bombers in World War II:

American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.

The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.

When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody again.

Ender’s Game

Ender's GameI’m always looking for books to read. I usually find books based on recommendations from friends and family or online sources like /r/books. Over the last few weeks, I’ve put together a spreadsheet (have I mentioned I love spreadsheets?) that’s a compilation of half a dozen “Top 100” book lists I found. My favorite genres are science fiction and fantasy, so a few of the lists are heavily sci-fi/fantasy based. I then came up with an equation that rates books based on their rankings in the list, with the most liked books at the top. My long list of books will definitely keep me busy for a while. 🙂

Ender’s Game was #3 in my list (behind The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the Dune series, which I’ll read soon) and it’s one that always seems to show up in discussions of favorite books. I decided to read it, knowing nothing about it other than the fact that it’s a well-loved sci-fi book.

Ender's Game (Movie)
Still from the Ender’s Game movie

Ender’s Game is set in a futuristic Earth and is about a young boy named Ender, born a third child in spite of Earth’s two-child policy. Earth had been attacked twice by an insect-like alien race dubbed the “buggers.” Fearing a third invasion, the International Fleet (IF) seeks a strong commander and strategist. In hopes that Ender might be the leader they were looking for, they send Ender to Battle School for training. In spite of his age and size, Ender does well in school and exceeds expectations, overcoming all obstacles thrown at him… but is Ender capable of protecting Earth from the buggers?

While I enjoyed Ender’s Game and thought it was worth reading, I wasn’t blown away by it quite like I was expecting. Nevertheless, I’m looking forward to reading Speaker of the Dead, sequel to Ender’s Game.

Also worth noting, the Ender’s Game movie is due to be released November 1, 2013. It’s always interesting to see Hollywood’s take on the books I’ve read.