The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story
By Diane Ackerman
Here is an interesting nonfiction account of the German occupation of Warsaw during World War II. I have read a number of books about the Warsaw Ghetto and the treatment of the Jews by the Nazis, but this book about the zoo in Warsaw and the Polish family who ran it is fascinating. Jan and Antonina Zabinski devoted their lives and careers to building a world-class zoo, one that was humane and responsive to the needs of its residents. Jan, a well-respected scientist, and Antonina, an author, were known throughout the zoo community for their efforts. When the Germans invaded Poland, they thought that perhaps their zoo might be spared from attack. However, they were quickly disillusioned by bombing that destroyed many of the animal habitats, killing some of the animals and allowing others to escape.
When a Nazi officer whom they knew as the curator of the Berlin zoo showed up, offering to take some of their rarer species back to Germany—just on loan for safekeeping, the Zabinskis knew they had no choice. The Germans coveted these rare animals as examples of purer Aryan breeds and wanted to use them in their efforts to reestablish them in the wild—all part of the crazy Nazi eugenics programs. Left with very few animals to care for, the Zabinskis turned their attentions to the people of Warsaw who needed their help: the Jews in the Ghetto. Their villa at the zoo became a refuge for Jewish refugees who were waiting to escape to safer places—a very dangerous enterprise for the Zabinskis and their young son Rhys.
I enjoyed this war story because it provided a viewpoint I was unfamiliar with, that of non-Jewish Polish citizens in their occupied country. The author, a naturalist, also uses her familiarity with the animal world to infuse her work with great stories about the Zabinskis’ pets and the art of zoo keeping.
The Man Who Saved Henry Morgan by Robert Hough
Published by House of Anansi Press Inc., 2015
Interested in pirates? The seafaring life? Rapscallions? 17th-century life? All of these form the basis for The Man Who Saved Henry Morgan by Robert Hough, a pick as the best adult book for high school students in 2016. Benny Wand, a young English criminal whose life has gone from bad to the absolute worst, is deported, as a result of his latest activities, to Jamaica. After a tenuous life on the beach with other criminal types, he is one of many recruited to work for a privateer named Captain Henry Morgan as he raids Spanish settlements in the Caribbean.
Morgan takes many risks to defeat the Spanish, some that Benny thinks are ill-advised. When Benny tells some of the ranking officers of his concerns, word gets back to Morgan who takes a closer look at Benny. What Morgan discovers is that Benny is a chess prodigy, a fact that Benny had used to cheat many men out of a lot of money, and, as a chess prodigy, Benny can see the end game in a match of wits with the enemy. Morgan appreciates Benny’s abilities, and the two of them form an unlikely friendship with Benny serving as advisor and chess partner for Benny.
Morgan’s descent into what can only be called a kind of madness is paralleled by Benny’s ascent into an adulthood that demands ethics and compassion. This novel is a study in how the choices people make about the situations life/fate hands them defines the lives they ultimately lead. Benny and Morgan, although alike in their problem-solving approaches, reach different conclusions about how to handle obstacles and difficulties.
Hough’s novel, based on historical fact, takes the reader to a different world, one which often sounds glamorous and exciting. However, that world, albeit exciting, was not glamorous, and the nitty-gritty details of the survival of this young man paint a picture of loneliness, uncertainty, and questioning the values of a society based in poverty and injustice.
Just One Damned Thing After Another: the Chronicles of St. Mary’s
First Night Shade Books (Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.) 2013
Best Adult Book for High School 2016
Did you enjoy Michael Crichton’s novel Timeline, the story of archeologists who travel back in time only to meet with disaster? Or Jasper Fforde’s series about Thursday Next, the literary operative who jumps in and out of novels? Or the series The Librarians which has been on TNT TV? If you did, you will also enjoy reading the first in a series of novels about a time-traveling historian named Madeline Maxwell.
Madeline is recruited to the University of Thirsk’s Institute of Historical Research by her former teacher Mrs. De Winter. The Institute’s purpose is to travel back to specific historical events and validate what history says occurred, and, of course, this is to be accomplished without changing the course of history. After some rigorous and, oftentimes frightening, training Maxwell is ready to embark on her new career. But, the title of the novel gives away a main component of the plot. Nothing ever goes smoothly or as planned. One particularly hairy adventure is when the historians travel back to the age of dinosaurs, where they find some dastardly time-traveling villains who are using the dinosaurs as targets for big game hunters. Needless to say, that doesn’t go well for Max, and the historians return to the Institute at St. Mary’s bloody and frightened.
The time-traveling villains soon make themselves known at the Institute itself, and Maxwell finds herself fired and separated from her associates, who have become her family, and from the man with whom she has fallen in love. Once again Mrs. De Winter intervenes to help Max rid the Institute of the ones who would destroy it. The novel’s conclusion leaves the reader wanting more and the historians ready to go back in time to save some of history’s most important items (think the manuscripts at the Library at Alexandria).
Full of excitement, wonder, and humor, this is also the story of a young woman finding herself and her strength.
I have not been able to make myself write while I have been substitute teaching because my brain is fried by the end of the day, but here is a list of books I recommend.
Anne Perry’s novel is one in a series about a police detective in Victorian England. Very atmospheric and full of angst for the protagonist who has lost his memories of an earlier life. Anne Perry is a prolific writer whose characters grapple with the constraints put on them by society.
Markus Zusak is a poet living in a novelist’s body. His books Messenger and The Book Thief are also worthy of mention, especially The Book Thief which was made into a movie that is very faithful to the novel. His newest Bridge of Clay presents a challenge in the narrative, skipping around in chronology and place, but it is one of those novels that makes you love the journey to the climax and the tying up of loose ends. This one has beautiful considerations of love, friendship, family, dying, and brothers.
Dry is a warning, a warning about climate change and what happens when government and citizens ignore scientists. In this YA novel, the Shustermans give us a cast of young people who have to deal with the consequences when water from the Colorado River is stopped on its way to southern California. Not only is life without water filled with dreadful decisions, but life is filled with the dreadful behavior of humans who are frantic for their very existence. Read this and you might think twice before taking a 20-minute shower.
Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor is a beautifully written fantasy about a legendary land that was conquered and cruelly ruled by a race of gods. Now, the gods have been slain, and the Godslayer has gathered a group of inventors and thinkers to rid the city of Weep of the huge statue of an angel that hovers over the city blocking the sun. This is a love story, a story of young people finding their purpose, a story of bravery–all of it enthralling. But, I was dismayed when I reached the last chapter and realized there will be a sequel. Damn.
In August, I agreed to substitute for a teacher who would be taking maternity leave at the end of January. At the time, I thought, “Sure! Sounds like fun!” And, even though it is fun, what on earth was I thinking? I have been substitute teaching for a day or two a week for the last year and have enjoyed myself immensely. What is better to a teacher than getting to know students without having to plan or grade papers? And I could pick and choose what days I would work. Welp, done with all of that until the end of March.
The person I am subbing for has left lesson plans and materials to use–which is fantastic. That definitely makes my life easier. What I wasn’t prepared for was the reconditioning of mind and body to being with teenagers 7 hours a day, five days a week. Friday night I felt like someone had drained all of my life forces and left me a husk of a person. I had conveniently forgotten that at the beginning of every school year there is a period of becoming conditioned to the demands of the classroom. Wow.
The good news is the students have been lovely (I hope I haven’t jinxed myself by saying that), the other teachers are glad to see me, and I am teaching a subject that is fairly closely related to my normal area. Another positive is that a check of the school calendar shows that only four of the eight sub weeks are full weeks. There are some days off for winter break, girls and boys state basketball, and a couple of professional days. I can do this. It’s all in the attitude.
The person I am subbing for has a beautiful baby girl, and I really, truly am happy I can give her time to learn all about her daughter. But, warning, if someone asks you to do a long-term sub, give it more serious thought than I did. The money is pretty good, but be certain you are ready for a huge change to your retirement schedule!
I might rather be here than in the classroom. Ah, memories of warm, sunny Sitges, Spain. Tickets to Europe are cheaper in January, February, and March. I will remember that if someone asks me to do this long-term sub gig again.
Swedish author Fredrik Backman has become one of my favorites. This young-ish (37) author conveys so much about the very real struggles of being human that it seems he is wise and experienced beyond his years. My introduction to Backman’s work was A Man Called Öve, which my husband and I listened to on a trip to Minnesota. We found ourselves laughing at loud at the inept attempts of this grieving widower to end his life so he could join his wife in death. Yes, we laughed. We also shed a few tears as Öve finds new meaning in his life through his interactions with his neighbors. Only a skillful wordsmith could create such humor from this depressing situation. We loved it.
I next read Britt-Marie Was Here, another tale of a woman who has been devalued by her husband finding new life and purpose. The characters are well-drawn and treated affectionately by the author. My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry takes us along with a young girl who is tasked by her dying grandmother to go talk with people in the grandmother’s past. The grandmother, who is difficult and independent, has had contentious relationships with many of those who shared her life. As the girl interacts with these people, she discovers the woman her grandmother was, and she herself learns how to navigate the world. Once again, the characters are engaging and memorable. The individual stories in these two novels reaffirm one of my friends’ favorite maxims: Everyone is having struggles that we aren’t aware of. But in addition, it reaffirms that each of us is part of a complex web of actions and interactions, and we really can’t foresee how that web of relationships will play out.
Backman’s latest efforts, Beartown and its sequel Us Against You, are my favorites, even though they are darker with much less humor. I really wish I had a group of teenagers with who to read and discuss these novels. In fact, I have recommended them to my former colleagues who are still teaching high school. There are so many topics in these novels that touch on facets of life that teens face every day: rape, parental expectations, immigration,friendship, alcoholism, bullying, sports, death, fear of failure, coming out. Many reviews of the novel compare it to Friday Night Lights in terms of its examination of the effects of high school sports on a community. Beartown explores the more immediate reactions of a small town, whose fame and future is based on its hockey team, when the daughter of the general manager of the hockey team is raped by the star hockey player. Sides are taken and lines are drawn in the high school and in the community. Into this conflict throw a rivalry with the neighboring town and its hockey team. Us Against You examines the more long-term consequences of the actions in the previous novel and shows us both the damage done to the characters but also the strength that some of them show in their attempts to heal. This is a powerful pair of novels. The novels have been optioned for a tv series.
Leonardo’s Shadow: Or, My Astonishing Life as Leonardo da Vinci’s Servant by Christopher Grey
This fascinating historical novel was one of the ALA Best Books for Young Adults for 2008, but don’t let that label fool you—it’s also an enjoyable book for adults.
The narrator is 15-year-old Giacomo, an orphan who was rescued by da Vinci when the boy was a small child. Giacomo wants two things very much: to know who his parents were and to have da Vinci teach him to paint. Neither thing seems likely for Giacomo because he is caught up in da Vinci’s financial problems. The Duke of Milan has promised da Vinci a huge sum of money for painting a picture of the Last Supper on the wall of the church where the Duke’s wife is buried. The problem? The Duke has given da Vinci no money. Without the money, da Vinci won’t paint—it’s a conundrum, one that Giacomo helps solve.
Throughout the novel, the author weaves in historical information about life in 15th-century Milan, its politics, and how people lived. He also uses information that da Vinci left in his notes to tell the story of da Vinci’s flying machine and why there is no record of him ever trying to see if it would fly.
Giacomo’s story is fictional, of course, except that da Vinci refers to Giacomo in his notes—Grey has used that as a jumping-off point for this coming-of-age story. Giacomo, a clever young man, finds ways to improve his life, all the while taking care of da Vinci despite the painter’s prickly manner and apparent unconcern for the well-being of his home and servants.
I was quite taken with this novel and the story of the painting of a masterpiece—and the explanation of why the painting has not survived the centuries in its original condition. Young people or adults who like art or history will enjoy this novel.
Beginning March 1, 2019, you can go to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science to see the traveling exhibit entitled: Leonardo Da Vinci: 500 Years of Genius. Quoting from the 303 website: “Through high-definition motion graphics and surround sound, combined with authentic photography and video footage, the Leonardo da Vinci will also provide a cinematic experience will provide a breathtaking display of his codices, computer-generated imagery and art. Guests can even test a da Vinci-inspired catapult and create their own codex page with a self-portrait or still life. The Museum’s historical enactors will also be on hand, to present characters who bring a personal perspective to the story of Leonardo.” The exhibit runs through August 25, 2019. It’s on my list of things to do. Member tickets to the show are now on sale on the museum’s website.