Well, as usual, this is merely a placeholder post for me because I have once again not finished my Newbery Through the Decades book for the month. I’ll be back! Share yours in the comments, either by linking your post or by sharing your thoughts.
The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman is a book I picked off a display at the library marked “Books To Be Made Into Movies in 2017.” I’m not a big movie watcher and thus would’ve probably avoided the shelf altogether, but the subtitle of the book caught my eye: A War Story. It turns out the war is World War II, which is one of my biblio-interests, so I took it home. This piece of very literary nonfiction is the story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski, directors of the Warsaw Zoo at the outbreak of World War II. It chronicles the story of their life with animals, and then as the Nazis take over Poland, their involvement in the Polish Underground. Woven into the story is all sorts of information about various and sundry Polish, animal, and World War II-related minutiae.
At the hub of this great wheel is the zoo, and at the heart of the zoo is Antonina. Ackerman uses personal accounts and Antonina’s own diaries/memoirs to reconstruct what life was like in their home and its most interesting environs. Antonina had the remarkable ability to almost get inside the animals’ heads and communicate with them somehow (or perhaps empathize and understand them would be more accurate). She loved them and took them into her home, when necessary: sick and orphaned animals had the perfect surrogate mother in her. This empathy found its object in people as the occupation of Poland progressed into annihilation.
The thing that makes this book very memorable, aside from its subject matter, is Ackerman’s writing. It positively sings. I marked so many passages to share here that I’m having a hard time picking just a few exemplary ones.
Basic concerns for zoos both antique and modern include keeping the animals healthy, sane, safe, and above all contained. Zoos have always faced ingenious escape artists, leggy lightning bolts like klipspringers, which can leap right over a man’s head and land on a rock ledge the size of a quarter. Powerful and stocky with an arched back, these nervous little antelopes only weigh forty pounds, but they’re agile and jump on the tips of their vertical hooves like ballet dancers performing on their toenails. Startle them and they will bounce around the enclosure and possibly leap the fence, and, like all antelopes, they pronk. Legend has it that, in 1919, a Burmese man invented the closest human equivalent to pronking–a hopping stick for his daughter, Pogo, to use crossing puddles on her way to school. (30)
And this, about an insect collection:
An insect collection is a silent oasis in the noisy clamor of the world, isolating phenomena so that they can be seen undistractedly. In that sense, what is being collected are not the bugs themselves but the deep attention of the collector. That is also a rarity, a sort of gallery that ripples through the mind and whose real holdings are the perpetuation of wonder in a maelstrom of social and political distractions. “Collection” is a good word for what happens, because one becomes collected for a spell, gathering up one’s curiosity the way rainwater collects. Every glass-faced box holds a sample of a unique collector’s high regard, and that’s partly why people relish studying them, even if they know all the bug parts by heart. (152)
And this about the Zabinskis’ involvement in the Underground:
Officially, as spoken truths, Antonina knew few of Jan’s activities; he rarely told Antonina about them, and she rarely asked him to confirm what she suspected. She found it essential not to know too much about his warcraft, comrades, or plans. Otherwise, worry about pollute her mood all day and interfere with her equally vital responsibilities. Because many people relied on her for their sustenance and sanity, she “played a sort of hide-and-seek game” with herself, she noted, pretending not to know, as Jan’s shadow life floated around the edges of her awareness. “When people are constantly on the brink of life and death, it’s better to know as little as possible,” she told herself. But, without meaning to exactly, one still tends to conjure up scary scenarios, their pathos or salvation, as if one could endure a trauma before it occurred, in small manageable doses, as a sort of inoculation. Are there homeopathic degrees of anguish? With sleights of mind, Antonina half fooled herself enough to endure years of horror and upheaval, but there’s a difference between not knowing and choosing not to know what one knows but would rather not face. Both she and Jan continued to keep a small dose of cyanide with them at all times. (262)
As much as I positively love Ackerman’s style, diction, and tone, I found it distracting from the story itself. I don’t really mean that I didn’t enjoy the book because it is so well written (ha!); what I mean is that I would’ve comprehended the information contained in the book if it had been written in a straightforward style. Instead, I focused on the beauty of the language and imagery and got lost in that. I found myself re-reading a lot in order to grasp the information. Also, I found the detached tone a little distracting for a piece of nonfiction that seems like a novel. I guess I feel like the book has something of an identity crisis.
After that negative paragraph, I need to say this: I would absolutely recommend the book, and I will consider watching the movie when it is released. The biggest thing I took away from it is that there’s a whole lot more about World War II that I don’t know and some I have never even heard of. I want to know more about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Poland in general, the Nazi program/plan for the resurrection of three species of animals (the aurochen, the European bison, and the tarpan), and Henryk Goldszmit (pen name: Janusz Korczak), a pediatrician and writer who chose to stay with the children in the Warsaw Ghetto even when he could’ve escaped, to name just a few things. I’d also be interested to reading more of Diane Ackerman’s beautiful prose. Highly Recommended. (Norton, 2007)
There aren’t many books I’d call perfect, but Charlotte’s Web tops this elite list. I just finished reading it aloud for oh, I don’t know–the third time, maybe, this time to a very interested six year old and a squirrely three year old. No matter the audience, the story never gets old; in fact, I’d say that there are so many nuances about it that I am only now old enough to appreciate: the changing of the seasons, the fleetingness of childhood, the nature of friendship and loss.
What I really want to say about it, though, is this: E.B. White’s descriptions are beautiful, as in take-my-breath-away when I read them again after not having read them in a while. I just want to share a few of them here. This, from chapter two:
The barn was very large. It was very old. It smelled of hay and it smelled of manure. It smelled of the perspiration of tired horses and the wonderful sweet breath of patient cows. It often had a sort of peaceful smell–as though nothing bad could happen ever again in the world. It smelled of grain and of harness dressing and of axle grease and of rubber boots and of new rope. And whenever the cat was given a fish-head to eat, the barn would smell of fish. But mostly it smelled of hay, for there was always hay in the great loft up overhead. And there was always hay being pitched down to the cows and the horses and the sheep.
The barn was pleasantly warm in winter when the animals spent most of their time indoors, and it was pleasantly cool in summer when the big doors stood open to the breeze. The barn had stalls on the main floor for the work horses, tie-ups on the main floor for the cows, a sheepfold down below for the sheep, a pigpen down below for Wilbur, and it was full of all sorts of things that you find in barns: ladders, grindstones, pitch forks, monkey wrenches, scythes, lawn mowers, snow shovels, ax handles, milk pails, water buckets, empty grain sacks, and rusty rat traps. It was the kind of barn that swallows like to build their nests in. It was the kind of barn that children like to play in. And the whole thing was owned by Fern’s uncle, Homer L. Zuckerman.
This makes me want a barn like this, doesn’t it you? Reading an description like this, I take note of the diction and rhythm, the lists and imagery. Again, perfection. It makes me want to pay attention to every sentence. It makes me want to ferret out my copy of Strunk and White and actually read it for once.
Reading this description from chapter ten makes me long for a childhood I only had a glimpse of while playing with older cousins in my papaw’s barn, sliding down stacked bales of hay:
Mr. Zuckerman had the best swing in the county. It was a single long piece of heavy rope tied to the beam over the north doorway. At the bottom end of the rope was a fat knot to sit on. It was arranged so that you could swing without being pushed. You climbed a ladder to the hayloft. Then, holding the rope, you stood at the edge and looked down, and were scared and dizzy. Then you straddled the knot, so that it acted as a seat. Then you got up all your nerve, took a deep breath, and jumped. For a second you seemed to be falling to the barn floor far below, but then suddenly the rope would begin to catch you, and you would sail through the barn door going a mile a minute, with the wind whistling in your eyes and ears and hair. Then you would zoom upward into the sky, and look up at the clouds, and the rope would twist and you would twist and turn with the rope. Then you would drop down, down, down out of the sky and come sailing back into the barn almost into the hayloft, then sail out again (not quite so far this time), then in again (not quite so high), then out again, then in again, then out, then in; and then you’d jump off and fall down and let somebody else try it.
I’m terribly afraid of heights and just a big chicken to boot, but that description makes me want to swing on the Zuckerman swing.
Today’s reading of the last couple of chapters of Charlotte’s Web was well-timed, for a group of my friends did something incredibly kind for my family today. It occurred to me how these kindnesses, even small or anonymous ones, really do matter–they add up to something really beautiful. What a testimony to the power of friendship!
The Fair Grounds were soon deserted. The sheds and buildings were empty and forlorn. The infield was littered with bottles and trash. Nobody, of the hundreds of people that had visited the Fair, knew that a grey spider had played the most important part of all.
Ah, the poignancy of this story. I hope I never read it with jaded eyes. I’m glad I have at least one more chance to read it aloud.
Related posts at Hope Is the Word:
- My review of The Story of Charlotte’s Web by Michael Sims
- “He’s appealing to your stomach, Wilbur!”
- Charlotte’s Web audiobook
**My copy of the book is one I received as a gift from my cousin on November 21, 1983, while I was in the hospital with a broken leg. What a treasure!
I’m always on the lookout for something that piques the curiosity and interest of Lulu, age twelve-going-on-twenty. I have a sneaking suspicion that mystery might be her genre, though fantasy is her current interest (well, that and all things 39 Clues). In anticipation of a short road trip she and I were to take together, I checked out the audiobook of an Enola Holmes mystery by Nancy Springer. So far as I could tell, The Case of the Left-Handed Lady is one of the first in the series, so I thought we shouldn’t have any trouble following it. It turns out that this was certainly true–we were engrossed! Enola Holmes is the much, much, much younger sister of Mycroft and Sherlock Holmes, and at the mature age of fourteen she has been granted her independence by her forward-thinking mum and has quite a life on her own in London. Like her older brother Sherlock, Enola has quite a knack for solving mysteries, but she’s so much more than that! She has learned how to navigate a man’s world in London by her own wits. She has a small but effective collection of disguises and alter-egos, and she goes about London both solving mysteries and doing good. In this particular volume, she works to both solve the mystery of wealthy young woman’s disappearance, all the while communicating via cipher with her mother and staying clear of her brother Sherlock, who’s in cahoots with Mycroft to make a proper young lady of her.
There’s much to love about this book, and I would assume by conjecture, about the series. Set in Victorian England, it has just the right flavor for me. Wikipedia calls it a pastiche of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, and I’ll admit it makes me want to delve into Sir Arthur Conan Doyle a bit and see if I like the originals. It’s well written–what I’d call both clever and witty. I loved pointing out to Lulu when Enola used deductive reasoning as Lulu has been learning about inductive versus deductive reasoning in her math studies. (She, on the other hand, wasn’t quite as thrilled about it. 😉 ) The historical setting of the story is quite developed. Enola Holmes is a first wave feminist, her birthright as the daughter of a rather avant garde mother. This particular story goes into class warfare, Social Darwinism, labor strikes, etc. I enjoyed that part a lot and hoped against hope that Lulu was taking it all in. 😉 I’d definitely classify this as young adult rather than juvenile fiction; there’s some violence as well as veiled references to the seedy underbelly of Victorian London. I really wish that our libraries had them in book format; instead, I’ll either have to buy them (something I’m trying to do less of these days) or just stick to the audiobooks. It’s a good thing they’re well done! Katherine Kellgren does a fantastic job as the narrator of this particular tale. We first fell in love with her voice via The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, and I have to say that it’s just as fitting as Enola Holmes and her various aliases as Penelope Lumley. We give both the story and the audiobook a Highly Recommended!
My girls and I are in the middle of our Year of Anne, and we just finished book three, Anne of the Island. It has been twenty-plus years since I read this one, but I had plenty of fond memories of it, and I have to say that it mostly lived up to what I remembered: deep, meaningful friendships, in the setting of the utterly delightful Patty’s Place. I remembered with fondness the china dogs, Gog and Magog, as well as the “globe-trotting” owners of Patty’s Place knitting their way across Egypt. Such an image! 🙂 Reading it as a bonafide adult this time for the first time since I was married (way back seventeen years ago tomorrow!) was curious for me. It made me a little wistful to note how often Anne said or thought, upon returning to Green Gables, how different it was for her, and how she longed to be back at Redmond. Also, the whole Roy Gardner affair was (again) a bit much for me. It is so remote and distant-feeling–anyone can see that Roy isn’t the man for her. Maybe because Gilbert is such a foregone conclusion (though he wouldn’t have been at the time of publication, of course)–that part just rings a bit hollow. The thing I love best about Montgomery’s writing–all the vignettes–is as much a part of this story as all the others, so it was an entirely enjoyable experience for me to share it with my girls. One little bit of wisdom jumped out at me as I read this time, and I wanted to note it here for posterity. This, from Rachel Lynde about Aunt Atossa, upon the occasion of her funeral:
“Nobody except her parents ever loved poor Atossa, not even her husband”. . . “She was his fourth wife. He’d sort of gotten into the habit of marrying. He only lived a few years after he married her. The doctor said he died of dyspepsia but I shall always maintain that he died of Atossa’s tongue, that’s what. Poor soul, she always knew everything about her neighbors, but she never was very well acquainted with herself.”
To never be acquainted with oneself is tragedy indeed.
Lastly, I have to say something about the cover of the paperback I have. I have had this set of books since I was a young teen, so they’re over twenty-five years old. It’s pretty special to me to be reading these to my girls. Anyway, I think this particular cover is perfectly dreadful. Do either of these individuals look like college-aged students? I don’t think so. Yes, Roy Gardner is a bit older than the typical college student, but he’s certainly NOT a middle aged man! (And let’s not even consider that this is supposed to be Gilbert! Eeeek!) I definitely prefer the cover linked above.