Currently Reading: Books about World War II in China and Russia
The Distant Land of my Father by Bo Caldwell
The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean
In the last several days I’ve experienced World War II from the cell of a Japanese war prison in China and from the cellar of the Hermitage museum while St Petersburg, then Leningrad, was under siege.
Both stories have been mesmerizing. Both have transplanted me in that way I love to disappear. They have called out to me from my room (or deck chair). I love to be reading something that I cannot wait to get back to.
Also, both stories alternate times and setting from their respective places in the war to modern day on the West Coast of the US. Sarah’s Key, another tragic WWII historical novel, followed this same pattern of jumping between the time of the war and the modern day. I suppose it somehow makes the stories more bearable to a reader who has never experienced the world at war to get a breather from the horror of it by jumping several decades into the future.
Also, somehow it keeps you engaged to know that the person you are following does actually survive the war.
I followed City of Tranquil Light to Bo Caldwell’s other novel, The Distant Land of My Father. This story was completely different yet equally gripping. I am so drawn to Caldwell’s characters in this book. You can get mad at them, but then you still find yourself unable to stop loving them. Also, I am fascinated by the way she captures how much we can get attached to a place, no matter how much “better” another place might be. The father in this book just can’t seem to leave China, because it’s his home. It doesn’t matter that the world is crashing down around him. He can’t take the window of escape. He fights to stay even through the most appalling of circumstances.
The Madonnas of Leningrad might be my new favorite book. First of all, it has the most eloquent prose. I read several phrases over and over.
Secondly, I loved learning so much detail about an event in history about which I previously knew nothing, The 900-day Siege of Leningrad.
Debra Dean is really telling two stories: one is about Marina’s experience in Leningrad in the Hermitage Museum in the 1940s and one is about Marina’s descent into madness as she develops Alzheimer’s. Both stories are so beautiful and so sad. I have been told that I am a glutton for sad stories, but they just take hold of me.
Dean has exquisitely captured one of my favorite ideas in her novel, the irreconcilable paradox that life is so wonderfully beautiful and so disturbingly sad all at the same time.
Here’s a favorite passage:
Green. The word doesn’t begin to describe this.
For the moment, she forgets that she is lost, that she is weak and chilled and the soles of her feet are tender with sores. She pinches a leaf between her thumb and forefinger and holds it up. It is breathtakingly beautiful, the first new green of the world, the light of creation still shining inside it. She studies it. Time recedes, and she floats beyond it absorbed totally and completely in this vision. Who knows how much time has passed? She is beyond the tyranny of time. Dmitri once left her sitting in a chair by the window and returned later to find her still entranced by the dance of dust motes caught in a shaft of late-afternoon sun. He claimed to have done three loads of wash in what felt to her like an instant.
This slow erosion of self has its compensations. Having forgotten whatever associations might dull her vision, she can look at a leaf and see it as if for the first time. Though reason suggests otherwise, she has never seen this green before. It is wondrous. Each day, the world is made fresh again, holy, and she takes it in, in all its raw intensity, like a young child. She feels something bloom in her chest–joy or grief, eventually they are inseparable. The world is so acutely beautiful, for all its horrors, that she will be sorry to leave it.