Tag Archives: World War II

The Piano Teacher by Janice Y. K. Lee

There are numerous means by which history can be recorded: oral history, paintings, poems, monuments, and, of course, the written word. While they all have their particular advantages and strengths, I find the written word most powerful, especially when put forth in the form of fiction. Experiencing history through the narrative of fictional characters personalizes history and brings it to the level of the individual. In reducing history to mere facts and figures, much is lost, and the novel is capable of preventing such a reduction.

pianoteacherThe Piano Teacher, written by Janice Y. K. Lee, is just such a novel. Set in the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong and alternating between the years 1941/1942 and 1951/1952, the reader is provided prose of the highest caliber with which Ms. Lee effectively recreates pre- and post-WWII Hong Kong, a city teeming with drama of every sort and serving as a nexus between East and West. It is within this setting that the story’s complex characters navigate romances, intrigues, and the general trials and tribulations of life. Of course, romance can manifest itself in many ways, and in demonstration of this point, take, for example, the following dialogue from the novel and between two lovers:

A few weeks later, she asked, “Why me?”
“Why anyone?” he answered. “Why is anyone with anyone?”
Desire, proximity, habit, chance. All these went through her mind, but she didn’t say a word.
“I don’t like to love,” he said. “You should be forewarned. I don’t believe in it. And you shouldn’t either.”

Wow. Now that is pure romance, no?

Of course, once Hong Kong is conquered by the Imperial Japanese Army in December of 1941, romance of any sort takes on quite different trappings. The forty-four month occupation of Hong Kong by the Japanese was quite horrendous, and the reader is not spared the gory details. With such trying and overwhelmingly bleak conditions and with death constantly at hand, the true natures of the characters emerge.

Ms. Lee, by means of her skilled writing, transports the reader to Hong Kong of the 1940s and 1950s introducing a cast of characters who face many difficult challenges and choices, which by itself is very engaging. However and in addition to this, what I found especially interesting were the details of life on the island of Hong Kong before, during and after the war, a segment of history about which I knew very little, something that this novel has, to a certain extent, rectified.

Reviewed by Rob, Crescent Hill

The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story by Diane Ackerman

zookeeper-wife-bookclubThe Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman is a work of non-fiction that centers  on the lives of the Zabinskis’ in World War II. They owned a zoo in Warsaw prior to the war and used this zoo during the war to hide Jewish people. This book originally was brought to my attention when it was mentioned during a documentary about Lutz Heck and his attempt to create perfect animal species with money from famous Nazi leader, Hermann Göring.

The story is mostly is a retelling of Antonina Zabinski’s personal diary from before and during the war. The family’s history and life before the war is introduced in the beginning of the book and tells of how they became owners of the Warsaw Zoo. They were both passionate about animals and rehabilitated many within the zoo. Eventually the war reaches their doorstep and wreaks havoc within the zoo walls. Animals are quickly slaughtered or let loose to roam the streets of Warsaw. The zoo is taken over by many people after the beginning of the war and also takes on many different faces including a farm for pigs at one point.

Antonina and her husband Jan both held the ideal that Nazi racism was “inexplicable, devilish, and a disgust to the soul.” Even though his father was a staunch atheist, Jan had grown up in a mostly Jewish neighborhood and held a high regard for the Jewish people. In the summer of 1940, the Zabinskis’ made the decision to become a part of the Resistance to provide safe hiding places for Jews within the zoo. Even though German soldiers frequented the zoo for a place of solitude, they regarded the Slavs as a highly stupid race that was only fit for physical labor so they never expected them to hiding Jewish people in the tunnels of the zoo.  To allow the “guests” to remain undercover, the refugees were given animal names and the animals were given human names to confuse anyone that may have been visiting the zoo. The zoo took in several families during the following years and saved them from either a life of hard labor or death in the concentration camps.

ZookeeperWife100207This story was an intriguing read and was certainly a different viewpoint of World War II. We often hear about the astounding numbers of deaths of humans in World War II, but not about the number of animals in zoos or homes that were lost. The Zabinskis’ story is one of heroism, humanity and resilience in a war torn country. Without them, many more Jews would have been slaughtered by the Nazi’s. Ackerman, a naturalist by trade, does a decent job portraying the facts and little more. Many reviewers have noted that she does mistake some of her numbers within her research, but the casual reader will probably never notice this while reading this book. I would recommend this book to any history lover and especially those who enjoy tales of true humanity during World War II.

This book is set to become a movie starring Jessica Chastain sometime in 2016.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Warsaw Zoo opened a permanent exhibit honoring the Zabinskis this year on April 11, 2015.

Formats Available: Book, eBook, Audio, Large-Type

Reviewed by Sara, Okolona Branch

Road Trip Essentials: Audiobooks

Summer is the season of family vacations and this means often long road trips accompanied by restless travelers of all ages. Regardless of your reading preference or road trip companions, the absolute best way to pass the time on a long road trip is by listening to an audiobook. Sharing an engaging story with your vacation companions can stave off the repetition of, “are we there yet?” and turn even the most reluctant reader into backseat book critic.

Below you’ll find a few of my favorites from a variety of genres and talented narrators. In most cases I have a personal preference for authors as narrators, but some very talented voice actors are noted below. Most genres listed feature children’s (C), teen (T), and adult (A) titles. Although the adult titles may not be appropriate for children/teens, adults should not restrict themselves to only adult titles. A well-executed audiobook, although geared toward a younger audience, can easily be enjoyed by all ages. No matter the variety of personal tastes filling your vehicle there is an audiobook (or two, or three) that will meet your needs.

Science Fiction/Fantasy

The graveyard book

Realistic/Historical Fiction

Code name Verity

Mystery

The Secret of the Old Clock

Memoir/Biography/Non-Fiction

The ultimate David Sedaris box set

Format: Audiobook

Reviewed by Magen, Highlands-Shelby Park Branch 

In Defense of Comics, pt. 2: Take the Challenge!

In a previous article, In Defense of Comics, I closed with a challenge to those who do not normally read comics to try one out.  Of course, picking a title to get started on can be difficult for the novice.  But as I was working up a best of list for this year’s graphic novels, it struck me that this could be a perfect opportunity to assist the those who would like to take me up on that challenge.

The list below comprises some of my favorite comics which I read in the past year (whether or not they were published in 2014).  There are twelve titles in alphabetical (rather than rank) order.  Many of the titles are ongoing series so I have just named each series as a whole rather than any specific volume.  I have separately given both the author and main artist for each title (except for those titles where the author and the artist are the same person). 

To make it easier still, all of these works can be checked out from LFPL.  You can click the title and it will take you to the item’s record in our catalog.  If it is not available at the branch you wish to go to, you may have the item shipped there by placing a request (using the button on the right hand side of the entry). 

I suggest that one volume (or series) be read each month in 2015 so that you can become comfortable with the medium.  Notice I said medium not genre.  The works below span several genres – and only two can be said to be of the superhero genre – but they are all clearly using the comic medium.

So, here goes:

Bandette by Paul Tobin & Colleen Coover

bandette

Bandette is a teenaged thief but she’s the most stylish and fun thief you’ll ever meet.  Watch as she defies both the police and the criminal underworld with her wits and panache in this giddy adventure appropriate for children but charming enough to capture adult hearts.  Line art by Colleen Coover is in the Franco-Belgian style and colors are applied in a painterly manner harking back to America’s (then-contemporary) view of Paris in the late 1950’s or 60’s.

Battling Boy by Paul Pope

battlingboy

Son of a fierce warrior god, Battling Boy comes to Earth for his initiation rites.  He lands in Acropolis as it is menaced by a series of monsters and quickly becomes its latest hero (now that the city’s former defender, vigilante Haggard West, has recently died).   Paul Pope, both author and artist, brings his edgy punk rock style to this tale that will appeal to superhero, fantasy, and manga fans alike.

Fatale by Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips

fatalebrubaker

Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips continue their award-winning approach to this tale of crime noir (of course) mixed with horror in the vein of H.P. Lovecraft.  The book’s title gets its name from the main character, femme fatale Jo, who is stalked across the 20th Century by an ancient evil power.  The art is perfectly pulpy and creepy as befits a tale filled with crooked cops, Nazi spies, Satanic cults, snuff films, and other dark matter.

Ghostopolis by Doug TenNapel

ghostopolis

Ghostopolis is a boy’s adventure tale.  The protagonist, Garth Hale, is accidentally zapped to the spirit world by failing ghost hunter, Frank Gallows.  In the spirit world, Garth meets his grandfather’s ghost, Cecil, and the two go on a quest to find a way back home for Garth.  Along the way, the evil ruler of Ghostopolis tries to take control of our hero as Garth has manifested powers that the spirits do not have.  TenNapel‘s art is energetic and the page layouts are well-designed to keep the reader engaged in the story and ready to flip to the next page.

The Grand Duke by Yann & Romain Hugault

grandduke

The Grand Duke, gorgeously rendered by Romain Hugault, is a non-fiction tale set in the waning days of World War II.  It centers around a unit of the Luftwaffe and the Night Witches, a real life women’s air corps that flew for the Soviet Union, as they battle it out in the skies over Eastern Europe.  Despite knowing how history turns out, the author keeps the reader engrossed as both sides raggedly pursue war’s end against great material odds and low morale.

Hopeless Savages by Jen Van Meter & Christine Norrie

hopelessavages

The perils of punk rock parenting in suburbia with romance, intrigue, and reality TV are explored in this quirky, hip collection of tales.  Due  to the number of artists that have worked on the series over the years, there is no one style that dominates other than it’s all in black and white.  

Lazarus by Greg Rucka & Michael Lark

lazaruckas
Lazarus is a dystopian tale set in the near enough future that it sometimes feels scary, as if all that it would take for the events in the story to happen is a few bad years where government breaks down and corporations step into the void.  Lazarus’ main character, Forever Carlyle, is her family’s main protector and enforcer of the harsh set of formal and informal rules that keep them in power.  While in many ways a stereotypical strong female protagonist, Forever comes across as very real.  Rucka deftly shows us how her contradictions and weaknesses form Forever’s motivations.  Michael Lark‘s art combines science fiction and crime elements in a perfect blend with colorist Santiago Arcas‘ subtle use of shade and tone.

Peter Panzerfaust by Kurtis Wiebe & Tyler Jenkins

peterpanzerfaust
Peter Panzerfaust is a retelling of the J.M. Barrie classic story.  The setting is World War II and the charismatic Peter helps a band of orphans survive the German invasion of France.  Soon the group is pursued by an SS officer that Peter wounded in their escape but they are also given assistance by members of the French Resistance, including the alluring Tiger Lily.  Tyler Jenkins manages to blend fantasy art and combat action art into a style akin to noir but which is much more lively and fantastic in tone.  His composition moves the story along effortlessly, shifting from standard panels to open space with ease.

Scalped by Jason Aaron & R.M. Guéra

scalped

Scalped is a dark crime noir story that takes place mostly on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, home to the deeply impoverished Oglala Nation (also known as the Lakota).  This is a sordid environment where the very worst in people is explored during an undercover assignment taken on by the reservation’s own prodigal son, F.B.I. Special Agent Dashiell Bad Horse.  Readers are witness to harrowing drug and alcohol addiction, ultraviolence, and spiritual desolation as Bad Horse attempts to bring to justice the reservation’s Chief Lincoln Red Crow, a former Native American radical now turned mob boss.  Grim and dirty – even ugly at times – art by R.M.  Guéra helps convey the sense that the world the characters live in is terribly damaged.

The Superior Foes of Spider-Man by Nick Spencer & Steve Lieber

superiorfoes

Spider-Man is one of the quintessential characters that people think of when they think of superheroes. However, this is not your quintessential superhero book. In fact, neither Spider-Man nor any other superhero appear in the tale much at all. No, this is character-driven book that looks at the other side of the equation, what it would be like to be a supervillain.  Much like another recent Marvel title, Hawkeye, this comic rests on a sturdy foundation of humor and rough art to convey the working class nature of its characters (i.e., the Sinister Six) as they clumsily attempt to carry off a variety of criminal jobs.

Thief of Thieves by Robert Kirkman & various artists

thiefothieves

This is a straight up heist tale about a veteran thief working a last big score with his crew, the comic equivalent of Ocean’s Eleven. One twist is that this veteran, Redmond, is not just working for himself but to save the life of his wannabe yet ne’er-do-well son, Augustus, from a major crime boss to whom Augustus is heavily indebted. The art varies (as different artists were utilized over the run of the series so far) but as a whole, it is a mix of noir and mainstream comic styles that are appropriately gritty.

Watson and Holmes by Brandon Perlow & Paul Mendoza

watsonandholmes

Sherlock Holmes and John Watson together again!  Sort of.  This time, they are a pair of African-Americans who investigate crimes in New York City.  The art is not easy to pigeonhole into one genre though the use of color and setting do clearly give it the feel of a mystery.  Everyone from Doyle‘s classic tales, from Inspector Lestrade to Sherlock’s Irregulars, makes an appearance at some point as the duo are embroiled in a case that involves drugs, gangs, and guns.

Reviews by Tony, Main Library


If you are interested in discussing these titles or other works of sequential art, please join us at one of the following LFPL book discussion groups:

Graphic Novel Discussion Group @ Main

Meetings are held at the Main Library on the second Monday of every month, starting at 6:00 PM.

Graphic Novel and Comic Book Discussion @ Fairdale

Meetings are held at the Fairdale Branch on the first Tuesday of every month, starting at 6:00 PM.

The Allied Invasion of Normandy and the Liberation of Paris

allthelightdoerr

This year was the 70th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Normandy and liberation of Paris. Writers have been busy marking the occasion!  Many readers have heard of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, the story of a convergence of two lives on either side of the conflict: a Parisian girl and a German youth with a gift for electronics.   His beautifully written tale has earned spots on numerous best of lists for 2014.

whenpariswentdark

The only thing that can make a great piece of historical fiction better is a highly readable work of non-fiction to go with it.  To that end, I invite you to try When Paris Went Dark: the City of Light Under German Occupation, 1940-1944 by Ronald Rosbottom.   He tells the story of the city’s occupation from a variety of perspectives: from its people (German commanders to Parisian street vendors) to its high schools (one in particular was a breeding ground for Resistance fighters—I’d watch that teen drama series) and apartments (the labyrinth of interweaving corridors and doorways of Parisian housing played a major role in hiding those at risk).  Rosbottom explores the effects of the Occupation on the French psyche as a nation ponders what it did to resist and if that was enough.

resistance

If Doerr and Rosbottom’s books sound appealing, I also encourage you to read Agnes Humbert’s wartime journal Résistance: A Woman’s Journal of Struggle and Defiance in Occupied France (1946), the story of her years in the French Resistance and as a prisoner in a forced labor camp in Germany.  A curator at the Musée de L’Homme, Humbert was among the first group of organized opponents of the Occupation.  We share her sadness and fear as her beloved city is occupied, its museums violated and its citizens arrested. But like the heroine of a favorite work of fiction, she never loses her spirit. Determined to make her internment productive for the Resistance, she sabotages the parachutes she is forced to make for the German war effort, all the time recognizing the irony of being forced to make artificial silk, a new technology that her mother had invested in before the war.

Despite her circumstances, Humbert keeps her sense of humor and refuses to surrender her humanity.  At one point during her years in slave labor, she ponders what Descartes would think of the factory’s rayon-making machines and the thoughts one has as one is at them.   After her liberation she spends her time helping the American army bring Nazis to justice and coordinating efforts to feed and house residents of the village that enslaved her.  Humbert’s journal reads like an adventure story and I found myself cheering for its inspirational heroine throughout.

Formats Available: Book (Regular Print and Large Type), Audiobook (CD), eBook

Reviewed by Valerie, Iroquois Branch