Review: When Books Went to War: The Stories that Helped Us Win World War II by Molly Guptill Manning

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Image courtesy Amazon.

When Books Went to War: The Stories that Helped Us Win World War II, by Molly Guptill Manning, is the first non-fiction book I have reviewed for Voraciously. As such, the style and format will be a bit different. This particular novel had no spoilers (unless you somehow didn’t realize that WWII happened), so I’ll just jump right in.

In When Books Went to War, Manning gives a chronological recount of how America decided that books were an important morale booster for the troops. The novel begins with Goebbels’ book burnings in Nazi Germany. Librarians, authors, and book lovers across the rest of the world were understandably disturbed by the incineration not only of books, but also of the ideas, stories, and freedoms they represented. Simultaneously, copies of Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf, were shoved in the hands of every German citizen. The US troops being mustered at home prior to their entrance into the war were in sore need of morale-boosting recreational activities, a need that would only grow as the war continued. The government worked to organize a series of book collections for the troops, eventually commissioning books to be printed for the armed forces, embracing paperback technology and special editions. These books were widely regarded as lifesavers by the troops.

I found this novel quite interesting. Not only did I learn some information about World War II that I didn’t know before, but I also found the various efforts of the US to get the books to the troops to be intriguing. WWII has never been billed to me as a war of words and ideas, but this book made a satisfying case for that notion. Having recently read The Book Thief, I was already considering the implications of reading and words on those in the war, but this book taught me a lot more. I had never learned about the overwhelming amount of propaganda that Hitler utilized to subvert the ideals and morale of his enemies prior to even attacking them physically. He even helped the Japanese do this in the Pacific.

When Books Went to War managed to escape being dry or clinical, as it gave a lot of examples of the soldiers and authors speaking with one another and how it felt to have something to do in the time between the comparatively few moments of (unwanted) excitement. The pure boredom and loneliness of the troops was expressed well, and even the descriptions of the bureaucratic red tape that needed to be traversed in order to get books to the troops wasn’t too dense.

I did find that there were an excessive amount of examples of the point that the troops enjoyed the books. While I understand that the work was about the value of books to the troops, at times I felt like Manning was hammering that notion into my skull. There were also a few times when I felt the author was searching for content to populate the book, and threw in a few more descriptions of soldiers enjoying books to help it out.

In a certain sense, When Books Went to War also follows the emergence of the paperback and technology surrounding a line of smaller, cheaper books. The introduction of books and Armed Services Editions to the troops during WWII really inspired a reading revolution in the US, changing the minds of many Americans on what they should read, how they should read, and if they should read. It was a positive change, in my mind, even in the tragedy of war.

Overall, I would recommend this to any book lover with an interest in history. It’s very approachable and not too steeped in people and place names, like some historical works. It is also refreshing, to an avid reader, to see books become companions to those in dire need. For non-readers, I think it’s hard to imagine the escape a book can provide. Manning and the soldiers’ letters capture the power of that experience beautifully. I’ll call this a READ WITH CAUTION, as it is a solid read, but not everyone will be interested in WWII or a non-fiction work.

It’s Okay to Think it Sucked

belle“That book was so good. I couldn’t put it down!” – your friend

“Groundbreaking work of fantasy. Excitement on every page!” – fancy publisher statement

“A great read.” – your librarian

From all the information you gathered before checking it out, purchasing, or borrowing this book, it should have been great. Everyone you know that has read it enjoyed it, the Amazon and Goodreads listings tout five-star ratings, and even your library has it featured on a front table with not enough copies to go around. It’s the genre you prefer, and you feel generally good about sitting down to crack the cover or wake the device. You’re in for a nice, enjoyable reading session.

Except, it’s everything but that.

The prose seems a little slow. The beginning of the novel is dense and heavy, filled with what seems to be superfluous information. The main character seems like a caricature of his or herself, rather than a fully-developed, changing person. The story drags, or goes too fast, and you find your attention wandering. You’re only thirty percent in, though. Maybe it gets better.

It doesn’t.

Sure, there are redeeming qualities; there are almost always a few of those. But the more you read, the more dissatisfied you become. You’re restless. You want to finish the book for the sake of knowing what happens and for the pure sake of finishing it. You want to be able to report back to those places you got advice about the book from and tell them what you thought. But it just seems a shadow of what you thought it might be.

Why not Zoidberg?

That creeping thought sneaks in: is it me? Are over six thousand people on Amazon with glowing, enthusiastic reviews wrong? Is the librarian, whose job certainly requires familiarity with books, incorrect? Or is it you? Are you being overly critical and nit-picky?

Breathe. The answer is no.

I often have this problem, as does my boyfriend. A lot of books we read turn out to be mediocre for a myriad of reasons. It’s important to remind yourself that this is okay. Here’s a few reasons I’ve come up with:

  • Reviewers are moved by strong emotion.  Most of the folks that leave a review are either really jazzed about the book or thought it was horrible. It takes a pretty diligent reviewer to write about something they just sort of liked, or something they found mediocre.
  • People read in different amounts. In my opinion, people who read a lot more books are going to be a bit more picky about what they like or dislike. I find that as I read more and more in the fantasy genre, I’m jaded to some of the more common tropes. I truly think they can still be done well, but it takes a lighter hand than some writers have.
  • Sometimes, it’s easier. Oftentimes, recommending something as good or decent is a lot simpler than saying it was awful, simply because people are less likely to question it. Especially if you get asked for recommendations frequently, sometimes a shorter conversation is better.
  • Positive fading. This is a phenomenon that explains a lot in life, but basically, we tend to remember the better parts of things (see fading affect bias). So, that book you read a few months ago had a really solid story but some awkward prose. As time went on, your brain glossed over the chunky sentence structure and positively recalls the story.

There are probably several other reasons out there. The important thing to remember is that it’s okay not to like things. Sure, some folks might take it personally if the book was super meaningful to them, but opinions that differ are what help us stay sharp and learn to look at other sides of a situation. Be polite and consider why a person may have liked something, rather than responding with vitriol.

Have you ever read a book that everyone else loved, but you thought was merely okay? Let me know what you think.

Review: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Spoiler-free Snippet

Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie, can be considered science fiction but is more appropriately represented as a space opera. The Radch Empire rules all and has done so for over a thousand years using incredibly well-developed ship AIs that can simultaneously control captured living beings, renamed ancillaries. The book, in its most basic sense, is a space opera about gendered pronouns. It’s tough to start reading until you get used to the style of the author and narrator.  For about 70 percent of the novel, it was fairly mediocre. It did, however, keep me reading. The ending was pretty abrupt, as well. Overall, I’d say that the novel has a lackluster story with unique elements, making it a READ WITH CAUTION.

Here, There Be Spoilers!

Ancillary Justice is a long read. In a basic sense, it’s the story of an AI living in a human body trying to carry out a mission that may or may not fracture the thousand year old civilization currently ruling the universe. The story mostly runs in alternating chapters of present and past, with every other chapter detailing the history of the AI and how it got to its current point in time. The other chapters tell what is currently happening with the AI. This system is easy enough to figure out as a reader, but a large amount of the information you’re given about the past seems infinitely superfluous.

It’s definitely a space opera in the sense that technology is present, but not really explained. In fact, technology hasn’t changed much in the ruling empire’s culture for over a thousand years, which seems fairly odd.

The biggest feature of the book for me was the use of gendered pronouns. It felt like a gimmick that the author wanted to explore, and then wrote the book to fit. While I find it interesting to examine cultures with fluid genders and the intricacies of different languages that do have gendered words, it felt like a large portion of the book only had that novelty to offer.

The characters from the Radch Empire don’t distinguish gender in their language or culture, so the narrator refers to everyone as she, unless in a different culture where a distinction needs to be made. To have my own notions of gender tested in that sense, with my brain trying to determine gender without the appropriate pronouns, was enjoyable. I feel like a culture so immersed in gender fluidity (over a thousand years of it) wouldn’t bother with gendered pronouns, though.

The main character, Esk Nineteen, is quite obviously struggling with no longer being in charge of a collective ship’s AI. She (she refers to herself in this way) tries to understand her motives and wonders at her blindness to the world without being able to see it from 20 different points of view. Esk struggles with the languages and cultures of the worlds she encounters, as she was created in the gender neutral zone of the Radch Empire.

This came off as a little phony. A super-intelligent AI, capable of flying a ship and simultaneously controlling 20 ancillaries for a thousand years shouldn’t have trouble with picking up on gender differences in cultures she encounters and are studied by the empire; she should implicitly have this knowledge in her memory. Even so far as being separated into a single unit, Esk has had 20 years to make the adjustment. Though it could be argued that to her, 20 years is like the blink of an eye, I still feel that the logical, precise demeanor with which Esk functions demands a bit more than the floundering sense of direction and purpose with which the character is written.

Most of the other characters are archetypes for human nature. The Radch culture seems to be based on imperial Britain, though apparently the author feels as though she created it all from scratch. I felt that the similarity was quite strong, specifically based on the need for proper dress, proper food, proper tea, and proper religious observances. The citizens of the empire were considered a different class than anyone not a citizen, making those not part of the empire sub-human.

The ending thirty percent was much more interesting than the first seventy, because it felt like things actually happened. Regardless of what felt off about the book that I can’t pin down here, it was good enough to make me want to finish it. That stands for something, I guess.  In all, this book is a READ WITH CAUTION.

Review: The Girl With All The Gifts by M.R. Carey

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Courtesy: Goodreads

Spoiler-free Snippet: READ WITH CAUTION

The Girl With All The Gifts, by MR Carey, is basically zombie lit clothed as a dystopian sci-fi. It is somewhat refreshingly different than most, even if it does manage to still include the military and people making bad choices. The story follows Melanie, a special child living in a government facility. You quickly find out that she is different; she is one of the hungries that plague humanity and have all but taken over the world. I enjoyed the cause for the zombie plague and following Melanie’s growth, but many aspects of the book were mediocre. The writing style is a little odd as well, perhaps because of its British author’s background in comic books. In all, I’m not too sure why it won all the awards it did.

Here, There Be Spoilers

I decided to pick up this novel based on a recommendation from a guy that works with my boyfriend. The story begins from the point of view of a young girl, Melanie, who tells the reader about her life. It is quickly evident that she isn’t a normal child and things are not as they seem. The fact that she’s a hungry (the book’s word for zombies) and living in a government research facility is revealed soon enough, which is very interesting.

The book quickly devolves into basic action, with characters acting predictably and things going as you might expect. This isn’t to say the book didn’t have a few interesting ideas in it, though. I enjoyed the use of the Cordyceps fungus as the cause of the zombie plague. It actually exists and is terrifying in real life, so that hint of realism added in was a nice touch. The idea of the surviving outliers of society repurposing the hungries to fight for them was pretty interesting and what I think could potentially be a legitimate scenario.

Melanie is very intelligent, and truly seems to be a child with a creepy attachment to her teacher. I felt that the thought processes she explored while learning that she, in fact, was a hungry and dealing with the overwhelming hunger when she could smell those she was with were well done. Knowing that you don’t want to eat the people you’re with (mostly) and having to choke back an incredible urge to do so is a pretty compelling inner conflict. She’s also ruthless with her logic, which is refreshing. At the end of the book, she manages to neatly secure the world for herself and those like her, while still probably following the biological imperatives set forth by the fungus.

One issue I had with the book was the word “hungries” to describe the zombies. It just seemed silly, like what a small child might call them, but not the government and adults. It also caused some confusion when one of the characters would refer to Melanie as “the hungry girl.” Is she hungry? Is she a hungry? What meaning are you using here?

Two of the main characters, Justineau and Caldwell, have little to no growth over the entirety of the book. Caldwell remains the scientist that doesn’t care about morals so long as she finds the cure, and Justineau is the tortured soul making up for what she’s done in the past. It was satisfying to see their ends, but not in quite the way that they truly happened. The token military man does grow, however, and ends up becoming one of the better characters, in my opinion.

I liked the ending, though I question some of the soundness of it, especially set against the author’s adherence to specifically naming scientific equipment and devices previously. Too often, these stories end with the dawn of humanity recovering, just as it was. A cure will be found, or there is a place where everyone can be safe, or they find a magical grove of zombie-exterminating unicorns. Here, we see humanity surviving as a symbiote to another dominant organism–the fungus. Melanie and those like her will ostensibly populate the world, though you have to ignore how the hungries manage to have sex and rear children. Even extremely hearty human children are required to have some level of care. Perhaps the fungus keeps them in some sort of cocoon until it is time?

Even with all those questions, I enjoyed the ending of the book. It wasn’t a bad read, though it probably could have lost about 50 to 100 pages and been a bit better. I wouldn’t call this great for dystopian readers, but if you like zombie lit or post apocalyptic societal stuff, you might enjoy this one. If nothing else, it was a change from a lot of other stuff along these lines that i’ve read. I’d rate this as a READ WITH CAUTION.

I mean, really. What’s wrong with zombies being called zombies?

Review: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

With a nod to my boyfriend’s book reviewing technique (seen at A World in Words) and in the hopes of presenting a short, spoiler-free snippet of review for those that don’t want any details revealed prior to reading a novel, I’m slightly altering how I do my reviews. You’ll see what I mean, hopefully, below.

Courtesy: Wikimedia.

Spoiler-free Snippet Review

The Book Thief tells the tale of a young girl in Nazi Germany who loves books. As one might expect (because of the setting), the novel is full of both happy and sad moments. Though the story-telling style is a bit odd and jarring at first, it becomes easy enough to understand, especially as the characters make you want to keep reading. The story jumps around and reveals information in an odd way at times, but it all works in a unique way to both blunt and sharpen the pain and joy of the world in which Liesel resides. In all, I would definitely mark this book as READ.

Here, There Be Spoilers

The Book Thief was suggested to me by a friend from work who has pretty good taste in books and likes history. I picked it up from my library without really knowing what it was about, other than World War II and books.  I am very pleased to have read it for many reasons, but the main is that it provides an excellent look a humanity stretched to the brink of survival, with all the grey areas of good and evil laid bare in the muck of living.

It’s pretty obvious from the onset of the book that the narrator is some incarnation of Death, a reaper of souls. After a pretty abstract and almost absurdly poetic look at sky colors and their distractible nature, the narrator tells the reader of his encounter with the book thief and obtaining her autobiography. After this, the novel jumps around to the point of view of several people; however, it does so in a fluid manner that isn’t overly jarring.

One very interesting aspect of this story is that you get an inside look at what it was like to live in Germany during the height of Hitler’s reign. I’ve read and seen many things written from the point of view of a concentration camp survivor or soldier, but I hadn’t seen what it was like to be a German citizen just trying to survive. This was what, in my opinion, added such a human element to the story. Liesel’s family survives by staying under the radar, even as her adopted father toes the line again and again. Living in fear will make humans do many things.

Liesel learns that there is good and bad in everyone, and sees several examples of this duality around her town. It’s great to see her grow up as a sort of German Scout Finch, where each new event triggers a new outlook on life coupled with a love and hate for words.

The power of words is also shown to be of utmost import in this work, which I really enjoyed. It shows how Hitler was able to lift up his followers with words, which I think is a pretty important lesson. Liesel writes down her own story in order to give power to her existence, and Max is able to write a simple story to show Liesel how important she was to him.

In all, The Book Thief reminds us that there is light in the dark, and dark in the light, and that neither is mutually exclusive. Though the style was a bit rough to get used to at first, the story is definitely worth the read. I would definitely put this in the READ category.

The 2015 Reading Forecast

I’m not the type to make resolutions. While I do embrace the new year as a time for a fresh start, I don’t feel that making vague declarations is the key to success. Much as the beginning of a new week or month can be inspiration, the new year can also help spark the desire to do things differently.

As many of you probably know, nebulous goals are rather useless. Phrases like “lose weight” or “be a better person” are well intentioned, but rarely are we able to truly measure these things. I might visit the bathroom after coffee one day and technically lose two pounds. Haven’t I lost weight? Let’s not even get into the classifications of being a “better” person.

As such, I’m not here to make any reading resolutions. There are a few things I’d like to accomplish pertaining to the act of reading, but I consider them goals more than so-called resolutions.

Read at least five books way outside my preferred genres. In past posts where I’ve discussed the end of year reading slump, I spoke about the potential for needing new content. I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy, sprinkled with historical fiction, urban fantasy, and the occasional literary fiction. I’d like to branch out and try some non-fiction on for size, as well as potentially some poetry.

Read at least five books I “missed” during my education. Each curriculum is different, often from county to county and state to state in the US. A lot of people absolutely read some things (To Kill a Mockingbird, Romeo and Juliet), but there are definitely a few books, authors, and poets that I’d like to  experience that I never got assigned to read in class.

Re-read (or read) at least three books as an adult. This piggybacks off the “missed” books notion, here. I’ve read many books that I don’t feel like I truly appreciated. After re-reading To Kill A Mockingbird this summer and having a variety of insights about the characters and story that I didn’t have in ninth grade, I feel as though I should re-read some of the other works I might have missed the point of completely. This would include, almost definitely, The Great Gatsby, but also potentially things like The Crucible. I really disliked All The King’s Men, but then again, maybe I should give it a second chance.

Re-read and review three favorites. I’d like to publish reviews about some of my favorite books that I simply haven’t read while writing reviews for this blog. I’m not sure what this will consist of just yet, but I expect to have 1984 be one of those.

Overall, I’m just hoping to abolish this reading slump once and for all. It’s damned annoying, if nothing else.

Do you have any reading goals for this year?

Review: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is one of those books that many people read in high school. I never had it assigned to read, so I’d never really picked it up. I was coming out a reading slump, I decided to check it out, since many consider it a classic. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting.

Fahrenheit 451 follows Guy Montag, a firefighter in a dystopian future where his profession is to burn books rather than put out fires. The world is your typical bleak dystopian world where large screens are in, wars are raging, and free thought is in short supply. Here, literature is considered illegal. Guy’s life is thrown off balance by a new neighbor that makes him question his existence and thereby turns his world upside down.

First of all, I found Bradbury’s writing style in this book to be a bit much. Some of the sentences were long and somewhat convoluted. From a stylistic point of view, I think he was emphasizing Guy’s confusion with his role in the world, as well as the confusion and buzz the world around him had to offer. For me, however, this style simply muddled what was happening in the story and made it difficult to follow what exactly was taking place.

The tones in the story changed sharply from paragraph to paragraph, giving way to a very disorienting read. Books are considered contraband in this world, yet when Guy whips out a book and begins reading to his wife and her friends, the friends only seem mildly disturbed. Perhaps it’s a sign of how disillusioned or tuned out the people of the society are, but I still feel that if you whipped out a brick of cocaine in a room full of teens that you made put down their cell phones today, they’d freak out a bit.

Things seem a little convenient for Guy as well. He just happens to have spoken to a man a long time ago that will help him not only get an extra print of a book he’s found to turn in to his boss, but that also has been tinkering around with technology that lets him build a tiny earpiece for Guy to use in their plans.

Overall, it was a decent read. I felt it was a pretty run of the mill dystopian novel, though. The message that the world has been rent asunder by a lack of interest and subsequent outlawing of books is not as strong by the end of the novel, when the theme moves more towards the fact that humanity keeps screwing itself over, books or not.

To me, this novel wasn’t about books being necessary, but more so awareness being necessary. I’m not sure I’d equate works of literature to awareness, because there are plenty of books out there that are just as mindless as TV, movies, and the media in general. You have to be aware of the world to really understand what’s happening in it, and even then, it’s hard to comprehend more than your tiny slice.

I would call this a READ WITH CAUTION. This is definitely one of those instances where the moniker of “classic” doesn’t do it for me. It’s mostly just opinion and preference, though. I support many of the notions that come out of the book, but the actual story and reading experience fell short.

The Reading Slump: A Blog Post of Complaint

A reading slump is a pretty annoying occurrence for an avid reader. Sometimes, though, life just throws you moods and novels that don’t agree. Some of you may have never experienced this, but unfortunately for me, it comes around a couple of times a year as of late.

When I’m in a reading mood, I really read. I chew through books at a startling pace, often reading one to two 300 or more word books in a week. As such, I go through material quickly and I’ve started perusing my library’s ebook selection, so as to not spend all the mortgage on books.

Ever since the end of summer, I’ve been having trouble finding books that are really all that interesting to me. If you’ve taken a gander at this blog before, you’ll know that my pet genres are science fiction and fantasy. Specifically, I like dystopian and speculative fiction.

But everything seems alike. Even the novels that are pushing five stars on Amazon and much-applauded by friends and other reviews leave me feeling like they were only mediocre. I’ve started and not finished a few books recently, which is pretty out of the ordinary for me.

The last book I really enjoyed reading was my re-read of To Kill A Mockingbird, this summer. Since then, I tried to find a new author or book to enjoy. I got The Way of Kings for free, which is a 4.7 out of 5 stars on Amazon. I read about 30 percent of it before I gave up to focus on my October reading, because it just wasn’t pulling me into the story. It was interesting enough, but I had no qualms moving away from it. I read my October picks (a yearly read of classic horror) and then moved on to a book called Tower Lord. I had read the first in that series two years ago (Bloodsong), which is a fantastic book. Tower Lord fell horribly short within the first 20 percent, and I quickly ditched reading that. Now I’m working through Storm Siren, though I feel that it’s fairly generic and I would gladly abandon it for something else.

What I really want is a series or book I can get excited about. I’m not really drawn to much literary or contemporary fiction, but I feel like maybe I’ve just burnt myself out on the whole sword and sorcery genre (though I still find the story my boyfriend is writing to be very interesting, and it falls under that heading, so perhaps not). I had tried a few different approaches, but I don’t want to read anything too sad or emotionally trying, because my grandma passed in the end of October and I’m still a little emotionally raw from that, especially with the holidays.

It’s so weird to say that I can look through books and not find something that interests me. Even some of my go-to re-reads haven’t been intriguing me (The Book of Lost Things). I don’t know if it’s my mood, the books, or life itself, but this slump is pretty annoying.

I’m thinking that I’ll step outside what I normally read and try something different to see if that will re-trigger my interest in books. Perhaps a non-fiction or literary fiction work. I may even try to go with a classic I haven’t read in years that has little of the fantastical in it, or force myself to read something that is emotionally trying, even though I shy away from it.

I need something to help me get back the feeling of excitement that I had for new books. Any suggestions?

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