Last Witnesses: An Oral History of the Children of World War II

When Svetlana Alexievich was awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature, she was lauded for “her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.”  I can’t say anything as good as that.  I don’t think anyone could.  I feel foolish for trying, but I’ll tell you what I can.  Last Witnesses, originally published in 1985, is without preamble other than a quote and a question:  the one referencing millions of Soviet children who died during WWII on the Eastern Front, and the other (Doestoevsky) asking what can be justified if “at least one little tear of an innocent child will be spilled?”  And then it begins with Zhenya, “June 1941…I remember it.  I was very little, but I remember everything…”.  The remembrances of adults who, as children, survived the German invasion of Russia and the cruel, bitter times that followed.  They ran when told to run.  Hid when told to hide.  Held on tight and were pulled away.  101 survivors are included here, and you will read them all.  They compel.

Children of Minsk, Belarus, orphanages, concentration camps, the Siege of Leningrad, and Gypsies, the forgotten ones.  Galina remembers the dogs and cats of Leningrad, a city starving under siege for 900 days, and thinks there should be a monument to them.  Vera, afraid of men ever since the war, says, “I never married.  Never knew love.  I was afraid:  what if I give birth to a boy…”.  Her whole life, you see.  And Leonid.  After the war, his grandfather returns to the ruins of their cottage and gathers family bones in a basket.  The bones don’t even fill the basket.  Leonid says, “So I’ve told you… Is that all?  All that’s left of such horror?  A few dozen words…”.  A few dozen words from each of 101 survivors.  Svetlana Alexievich understands power and lets it speak.

Random House reissues this testament available on July 2.  Pre-order from your local indie bookstore or from Amazon.com.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Random House Publishing Group / Random House via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad

The western portion of the Transcontinental Railroad was built almost entirely by immigrant Chinese, 20,000 or so of them.  I expect most of us are vaguely aware of that, and I expect most of us are aware this was hard, dangerous work.  Begun in 1864, finished in 1869, this portion stretches from Sacramento across the Sierra Nevadas, to the desert scrub of Promontory Point, Utah, a distance of 690 miles.  This is history we think we learned in eighth grade.  Gordon Chang takes our tiny tidbit and returns a thoroughly human story, extensively researched and rich in detail.

There was an impression then, and I suspect now, that the “Railroad Chinese” were enslaved workers, but California (the Gold Mountain of the title) was a free state, so it was important that incoming Chinese laborers were not being traded as slaves.  Most of these men were contract workers who came willingly, following opportunity.  However, Chinese women were bought in China and sold here as prostitutes, primarily for the “Railroad Chinese” – hmmm, the sex trade, as old as time and still with us today unfortunately.

All the work was done by hand – men with hand tools, wheelbarrows, black powder (a Chinese invention), horse carts and supply trains as the tracks extended.  Teams of three men using an eight-pound sledge hammer and a pole with crude bit-end could tap roughly three blasting holes a day, mile after mile, for roadbeds and tunnels.  Avalanches, explosions and fire, rock slides, entrapment, maiming injuries that would, as likely as not, ultimately kill a man.  We can only estimate the number of deaths, however.  Complete and/or accurate records of workers don’t exist.  The railroad united our country coast to coast, but, except for a scant few, we don’t even know who these men were – the survivors or the fallen.

After the railroad was completed, some of the “Railroad Chinese” went back to China as they’d planned to do.  Some continued as railroad workers here, in Canada, and elsewhere.  Some remained, took jobs or opened businesses, and their descendants live among us.  However, federal law immigration law prohibited anyone born in China from becoming a naturalized citizen, and that law was not changed until 1943.  Nothing brings today into focus as blindingly as history does, and so I offer you Ghosts of Gold Mountain, a thorough, scholarly work and a good read as well.

Available from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on May 7.  Click here to order/pre-order from your local indie bookstore or, if you prefer, from Amazon.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

The Plaza: The Secret Life of America’s Most Famous Hotel

I’m a Southern girl, me, and I love a stay at a nice hotel, but glamorous New York City hotels have never been a big part of my life.  However, there are hotels, and there are icons – like The Plaza.  Today’s Plaza is actually the second one on the site and opened in 1907, the same year that taxicabs were introduced in New York.  The Plaza.  Let’s do a little name-dropping here.  The first recorded guest – Alfred G. Vanderbilt.  There’s F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda, Conrad Hilton, Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball.  Donald Trump longed to own The Plaza, made a woefully bad deal to get it, and Ivana managed it as their marriage and fortune dissolved.  Hotel as residence was a strange concept to me, but over the years, this grandest of hotels was home to many notable and wealthy folks.  Frank Lloyd Wright was one, and you’ll love the Thirty-Nine Widows who lingered on and on as residents.  Through two World Wars, Prohibition, the Great Depression, New York City’s financial perils, economic booms and busts, The Plaza held on, and its story, as told by Julie Satow, is a wonderfully entertaining one.  Oh, you know who else lived at The Plaza?  Kay Thompson and Eloise!  Visit there or move right on in as you read this delightful book.

Make a reservation for this title at your local bookseller on June 4, or click here to order/pre-order The Plaza: The Secret Life of America’s Most Famous Hotelfrom Amazon.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Twelve Books via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

A Florida State of Mind: An Unnatural History of Our Weirdest State

Had a sampling good time (admittedly not front to back), and “weirdest state” is the author’s opinion, not mine!  However, we had an aunt in Florida, married several times, who had a dog she named Mister.  It gave her a kick to go to the door and call, “Here, Mister, Mister,” she said.  A little weird, I guess.  Mr. Wright lives in Florida and calls this “…a collection of factoids, oddments, stories, and backstories…”.  I call it fun.  Let’s see.  Florida remained loyal to Britain during the Revolution, so no fourteenth colony.  How “oh wow” rich is that laid back Jimmy Buffet who, we’re told, is Warren Buffet’s distant cousin?  What happened to the Florida of Fifties and Sixties vacations, Silver Springs and glass-bottomed boats, the mermaids of Weeki Wachee?  Did Gore or Bush win the contested 2000 Presidential race in Florida, and how many types of “chads” were there?  Ha, there were four identified and named!  One was a swinging chad.  Didn’t you date him?  Florida is known as the “Road Kill State”, and there’s an interesting flipside.  White-tailed deer kill more humans than sharks, alligators, bears, snakes and insects combined.  A recipe for Tang pie is here too.  Check it out on April 30!

Full Disclosure: A review copy of this book was provided to me by St. Martin’s Press / Thomas Dunne Books via NetGalley. I would like to thank the publisher and the author for providing me this opportunity. All opinions expressed herein are my own.

A Torch Kept Lit: Great Lives of the Twentieth Century

Great lives eulogized by Mr. W.F.  Buckley, Jr., himself a true Renaissance man, and collected here for us by James Rosen.  These artful essays are shaped by Buckley’s unique intelligence and insights and, to quote Mr. Rosen, his “…oceanic view of the world…”.  With elegance, humor, irony and his hellacious vocabulary, Mr. Buckley shares with us the famous and infamous, friends and family, presidents and artists, the sanctified and the damned.   From those who changed the course of history to history’s footnotes, praise is given, puffery is punctured, evil is recognized….according to Mr. Buckley.

Full Disclosure: A review copy of this book was provided to me by Crown Publishing / Crown Forum via NetGalley. I would like to thank the publisher and the author for providing me this opportunity. All opinions expressed herein are my own.

The Trial of Lizzie Borden: A True Story

Meticulously researched, carefully crafted and no detail is overlooked.  Particularly loved the commentary of the journalists attending the trial.  But did she or didn’t she?  I know what I think, but what I know for sure is as follows.  It wasn’t 40 whacks or even 41.   Lizzie bought herself a really nice house.  She finally pissed off her sister, and she lived oddly ever after.  With Boston terriers.  And I know for sure that if it’s about Lizzie Borden, I’m all up in it.  Enjoy.

Available now from your local indie bookstore or at Amazon.com.

Full Disclosure: A review copy of this book was provided to me by Simon & Schuster via NetGalley. I would like to thank the publisher and the author for providing me this opportunity. All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother’s Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South

Truevine is a small town in Virginia, and this superb nonfiction work from Beth Macy is the story of the Muse brothers, African-Americans with albinism, who were born there, and into poverty, around the turn of the last century.   As small children, they were lured away/kidnapped/sold to be exhibited in circuses and sideshows as freaks, anything from wild men to Martians.  This was the only life they knew as they grew to manhood and beyond, ultimately lost from family, but never forgotten.  Exhaustively researched and sensitively told.  Loved it.  We wonder, from this vantage point, what life would they have chosen if the choice had been theirs to make.

Full Disclosure: A review copy of this book was provided to me by Little, Brown and Company via NetGalley. I would like to thank the publisher and the author for providing me this opportunity. All opinions expressed herein are my own.