An Address in Amsterdam, Mary Dingee Fillmore

When I was nineteen, I spent two days in Amsterdam. I was on an art history trip with eighty classmates (my university had a study abroad program in the Netherlands, and during our semester, we took two trips as a group – one to Paris and one to Amsterdam). It was late September, and we hadn’t been in Europe long. While I made use of the fact that the drinking age was lower than at home, I had no interest in seeking out any of Amsterdam’s seedier attractions, and a few friends and I happily spent our time at the Van Gogh Museum, renting bicycles (completely in awe of such a bike friendly city, having come straight from Boston, where cyclists must be at least half mad to compete with traffic), and standing in front of the Anne Frank House. I remember the keen disappointment mixed with relief that the museum was closed for repairs. I desperately wanted to see it, but I also remembered how sobering it had been a year before when I visited the Holocaust Museum in DC on spring break with the very same women standing beside me.

an-address-in-amsterdam3I’ve always found World War II to be a fascinating period of history. My grandfathers both fought – my mother’s father, a firebrand even onto his death at 90, told me about being a part of the liberation of Dachau, of how he carried chocolate bars to give to the children there (it only occurred to me recently that he must have left out many details too horrific to relive, or to speak aloud to his granddaughter), while my father’s father, always a gentle and courageous man more comfortable behind the scenes, found his place teaching others how to parachute out of planes. When I was in school, WWII was a topic covered in history every year, and yet it’s only as an adult that I’ve read and learned the stories that have sunk into my heart and haunted me.

This book, borrowed from my best friend, a passionate Jewish woman who has, since we were ten, been teaching me to examine the world from uncomfortable and worthwhile perspectives, is one of the stories that will hover just outside my conscience for the rest of my life. The story evokes Amsterdam – an Amsterdam before the death of 100,000 of the 140,000 Jews who lived in the Netherlands – with such prismic clarity that I was transported. It was such an exquisite city when I visited, and yet the world as Dingee Fillmore creates it is infinitely more special.

Her heroine, Rachel Klein, is so similar to the girl I remember being when I walked the streets of Amsterdam. She was carefree, a good student, surrounded by loving friends, and anxious to have a boyfriend. She is a good daughter not because she has to be, but because she loves and respects her parents, and their opinion of her matters. She exists in a bubble that every teenager deserves to experience – one where the most exciting and important things in her life are tantalizingly out of reach – but in a present that is still sweet and special and intoxicating.

The Rachel we meet at the beginning of the story and the one we leave at the end are hardly the same person. She is a woman who has watched as one by one, her rights and opportunities have been stripped away, leaving her with nothing but memories of friends and neighbors being beaten and stolen and tortured for the amusement of others. In one of the book’s most poignant moments, after Rachel has just barely escaped yet another belligerent encounter with the Dutch police, she has a moment of bitter insight:

If she had been alone in the world, Rachel would have leapt at him and hit him the way Joost had taught her. They would have locked her up as another crazy Jewish terrorist. Yes, terrorist, she thought, the more they brutalize and go after us, the more they accuse us of being the aggressors. And a terrorist is someone every civilized person is authorized to hate. (p 147)

When I finished this book, I immediately called my friend to let her know how heavy my heart was, how it felt as though it were straining to take in so much sadness, and how it was desperate for fresh air and bright skies. She and I talked, as we have a few times before, about how different a book like this is for each of us – for her, hearing the voices of her people silenced in a number so staggering as to be as incomprehensible as the stars, and for me, buried in guilt wondering if I would have resisted, if I would have helped to save my neighbors, or if I would have stayed safe.

When I was a kid, another dear friend’s mother had posted this quote by Martin Niemöller, a Protestant minister, on her refrigerator, and I remember staring at it every time I was in her kitchen:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out
because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out
because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.

Back then, the part that chilled me was the idea that no one would be left to stand up for me, but as an adult, it is the sick fear that I might not do so for my neighbors. The world we share is not so different from the one Dingee Fillmore paints – the gap between privilege and oppression is as razor thin as it was in 1940. The resistance people like Rachel were brave enough to put up is viewed differently in hindsight than it is in any given moment. Those who are comfortable will always be made nervous by upheaval to the status quo, and those who ignore hatred in its many forms will always be caught unaware when the day of reckoning arrives.

It frightens me anew to read about how insidious and normalized oppression can be, how it slips through cracks until it has wound itself into and around everything, choking out reason and freedom. Dingee Fillmore includes certain details – the purchasing of Stars of David, the signs forbidding Jews from entering shops, the loss of access to bikes and public transportation – as almost an afterthought, as surely they must have seemed to many people at the time. When rights are taken away gradually, people accept the new normal much more willingly, even though to us, it’s obvious what it was – a chilling shift in political perspective. Instead, the moments seared into Rachel’s brain, as they undoubtedly would have been for most people, were seeing a friend’s home ransacked, or listening from behind closed curtains as families were dragged into the street in the middle of the night, or watching as her parents argued and grew thin under the occupation.

This book is truly a love story between a young woman and Amsterdam. It is about her incredible resilience and the undeniable horror she had to face. Rachel is just one woman, but her experiences remind me of all the untold stories – the victims and persecutors, those who were complicit in their silence, and the ordinary people who lived and fought and died, transformed into heroes through their willingness to risk everything for justice and freedom.

To read more from Mary Dingee Fillmore, head here.

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, Alan Bradley

When I was visiting my family in January, I gave my brother (as a belated Christmas gift) a kindle loaded up with books from my Amazon library. After flipping through the titles, he noticed that I had the Flavia DeLuce series, and he got excited because the newest one was due to be released the following Tuesday. He asked if I thought I would buy it, and I told him not to fear – it was pre-ordered and would be waiting for him come 12:01am. What I was thinking then though, and what I haven’t been able to stop thinking about since is that I can never remember, in all my life, reading the same book as my brother.

I’m sure there has been overlap that I’m not aware of. If I looked back through books we both had to read in school for instance, or considered books our parents purchased which we pulled off the shelves for our own enjoyment, I’m sure there would be a few. Also, I could count the books we read aloud as a family at dinner, but I don’t because that was an entirely unique experience (not “unique” as in no one else has ever done it, but rather, a unique opportunity  for our parents to share books mainly of their choosing with us).

The thing is, I can’t recall a single instance of us discussing a book that we both read, loved, and were a little giddy over. It just hasn’t happened before, which is a little weird considering how much we both like to read. The thing is, this was an awesome discovery. I loved how his face lit up when he realized he could read the rest of the series, and for me, it felt like Christmas morning to be able to talk to him about the books without having to explain the premise or justify exactly why they were fantastic.

It was a little surreal, actually, and the end result was that I really savored this latest installment. I wanted to prolong that feeling of kinship, and in doing so, I was drawn into the struggle, in this book especially, between Flavia and her sisters. The tension, the pull between them, and the love that exists just beneath a troubled surface becomes increasingly more central to the Flavia’s story.

Bradley has managed a remarkable feat. He has transitioned his series from a couple of excellent one-off murder mysteries into an even more compelling long game. He’s set it up for a change of scene perfectly in the upcoming book without wasting this gem of a novel meant to bridge Flavia’s youthful adventures and her increasingly high stakes education abroad. And he’s managed to do so while writing books that two people with almost zero literary overlap both love. Now that I think about, I suspect witchcraft might be involved…

“What are we going to do, Dogger?”

It seemed a reasonable question. After all he had been through, surely Dogger knew something of hopeless situations.

“We shall wait upon tomorrow,” he said.

“But— what if tomorrow is worse than today?”

“Then we shall wait upon the day after tomorrow.”

“And so forth?” I asked.

“And so forth,” Dogger said.

It was comforting to have an answer, even one I didn’t understand. (loc 3515)

For more about Alan Bradley, head here.

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared (part the second), Jonas Jonasson

I finished this book last week just before heading out for the holiday weekend, and I have been wracking my brain for something brilliant to add to my post from the 1st. Usually, when I finish a book, I feel differently about it than I did partway through, or I’ve had some revelation either for or against it. I’ve waited eagerly for five days, and nothing has come to me.

The only thing I know for certain that I didn’t a week ago is that I’m going to give this book to my brother when I see him at the end of the month. I think he’ll enjoy both Jonasson’s subtle humor and the fact that more than half the book is political historical fiction. I’m guessing he already knows more about the actual events related in the novel than I did (for example! I learned how North and South Korea were created! Ditto on East and West Germany! Also, how President Roosevelt died!). He’s always been the kind of political junkie who bothers to find out how current events are connected in the past (wow – just typing that made me simultaneously yawn and feel guilty for my own ignorance).

Also, the protagonist, 100-year-old Allan Karlsson, reminds me of my father’s father. Even though he lived until I was twenty, I never felt like I understood him very well. He was quiet and patient and diligent (three words that have only ever been applied to my person by those who don’t know me well). He’s in the background of so many memories from my childhood – meticulously tending his lawn, making sure the badminton net was set up when we came to visit, caring for the dog – and in all those years, I can’t think of a single time when he was unpleasant. He never raised his voice; instead, when he was annoyed, he would throw us a wink and with a secret smile, simply disappear for the next few hours.

My brother adored him. I suspect he loved that there was one person in our family he could spend time with who wouldn’t demand conversation. When the two of them were together, they could work in silence with perfect contentment. After reading The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, I can actually comprehend the benefit of that. I also better understand the value of being the type of person who relaxes in the face antagonism, who shrugs off the decrees of others and goes right on doing what needs to be done anyway.

Of course, that will never be me. I will forever take after my stubborn, loud-mouthed, arrives everywhere 30 minutes early grandfather. I’m much more like the people who come into Karlsson’s life and are constantly teased for their brash idiocy. Fortunately, the world needs all sorts of people in order to tell its stories…

Now, on a somewhat unrelated note, I had already decided I wanted to share the (rather long) passage below, and I’m still going to even though it doesn’t have anything to do with what I’ve ended up discussing. It’s a lovely example of Jonasson’s work and a better indicator than I am for whether you’ll enjoy his novel as much as I have.

To provide a bit of context, this story is told, not by Allan, but by a new acquaintance of his over dinner with friends. Bosse is sharing the history behind his possession of several pallets worth of “damaged” Bibles, and how he had ended up reading one of the copies from cover to cover in order to find a single misprint:

Then one evening he reached the last chapter, and then the last page, the last verse.
And there it was! That unforgivable and unfathomable misprint that had caused the owner of the books to order them to be pulped.

Now Bosse handed a copy to each of them sitting round the table, and they thumbed through to the very last verse, and one by one burst out laughing.

Bosse was happy enough to find the misprint. He had no interest in finding out how it got there. He had satisfied his curiosity, and in the process had read his first book since his schooldays, and even got a bit religious while he was at it. Not that Bosse allowed God to have any opinion about Bellringer Farm’s business enterprise, nor did he allow the Lord to be present when he filed his tax return, but – in other respects – Bosse now placed his life in the hands of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. And surely none of them would worry about the fact that he set up his stall at markets on Saturdays and sold bibles with a tiny misprint in them? (‘Only ninety-nine crowns each! Jesus! What a bargain!’) 

But if Bosse had cared, and if, against all odds, he had managed to get to the bottom of it, then after what he had told his friends, he would have continued:

A typesetter in a Rotterdam suburb had been through a personal crisis. Several years earlier, he had been recruited by Jehovah’s Witnesses but they had thrown him out when he discovered, and questioned rather too loudly, the fact that the congregation had predicted the return of Jesus on no less than fourteen occasions between 1799 and 1980 – and sensationally managed to get it wrong all fourteen times.

Upon which, the typesetter had joined the Pentecostal Church; he liked their teachings about the Last Judgment, he could embrace the idea of God’s final victory over evil, the return of Jesus (without their actually naming a date) and how most of the people from the typesetter’s childhood, including his own father, would burn in hell.

But this new congregation sent him packing too. A whole month’s collections had gone astray while in the care of the typesetter. He had sworn by all that was holy that the disappearance had nothing to do with him. Besides, shouldn’t Christians forgive? And what choice did he have when his car broke down and he needed a new one to keep his job? 

As bitter as bile, the typesetter started the layout for that day’s jobs, which ironically happened to consist of printing two thousand bibles! And besides, it was an order from Sweden where as far as the typesetter knew, his father still lived after having abandoned his family when the typesetter was six years old.

With tears in his eyes, the typesetter set the text of chapter upon chapter. When he came to the very last chapter – the Book of Revelation – he just lost it. How could Jesus ever want to come back to Earth? Here where Evil had once and for all conquered Good, so what was the point of anything? And the Bible… It was just a joke! 

So it came about that the typesetter with the shattered nerves made a little addition to the very last verse in the very last chapter in the Swedish bible that was just about to be printed. The typesetter didn’t remember much of his father’s tongue, but he could at least recall a nursery rhyme that was well suited in the context. Thus the bible’s last two verses, plus the typesetter’s extra verse, were printed as: 

20. He who testifies to these things says, Surely I am coming quickly. Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus! 21. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen. 22. And they all lived happily ever after. (p 198)


For more about Jonas Jonasson, his site is here.

I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, Alan Bradley

Although I had planned to spare you all another Flavia deLuce novel review, I felt moved to write about this one (the fourth in the series) not because I liked it better than the others, but because it uses an interesting device and I wanted to talk about it. This is Bradley’s Christmas book, and he chooses to bring a huge number of characters (a film crew and half the town) to the deLuce family home (a dilapidated country estate called Buckshaw) and then traps them there with a massive snowstorm that knocks out phone lines and makes roads and even footpaths impassable. Murder, of course, ensues, and the whole story is played out, not just on the property, but within the manor itself.

I don’t think this idea appeals to me strictly because I was sick for over a week and “trapped” in my own small home, although I certainly could empathize with the frustration of these people after having been together for a few days. No, I actually have a very bad novel I wrote in 2010 that is proof that this particular device has been on my mind much longer than this ridiculous cold has been sitting in my chest. I have tried to salvage that novel many a time, and whenever I pull it out to see what I can make of it, I discover that writing a compelling story where the characters are limited to one small space is incredibly difficult. The tiniest action affects every person – even a slight alteration in mood is enough to throw a wrench in the best laid plans. I imagine anyone who has undertaken a days or weeks-long car trip can attest to this. There is just something inherently stressful about shoving people into a small space; it’s ridiculous to assume they will behave as they always do under those circumstances.

When I was reading I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, I kept being reminded of the movie “Clue.” It was a film I both loved and hated as a child because even though it was a comedy, it did an excellent job creating dramatic tension. What made that story ultimately more successful than this book, for me, was that it limited the cast of characters. There were enough suspects to keep the audience guessing, and to create a number of meaningful interactions between different parties, but not so many that it felt like a block party. Bradley’s mistake was in introducing too many people into what should have been a tightly constrained scenario, even though the reader and Flavia, as our eyes and ears on the ground, as it were, know that Bradley isn’t one for sacrificing his villagers. We may not like all of them, but the chance of one of them committing a brutal murder is low…which is great, if you happen to live in Bishop’s Lacey and want some reassurance that you won’t be killed by the minister’s wife or the pot-boy at the pub. It’s slightly less great if you’re assembling a group of suspects and want to build tension to its breaking point.

Having so many extra characters hanging around dilutes that essential uneasiness Bradley manages after the murders in his earlier novels. The story itself is still charming, but the element of suspense gets lost with all those completely non-shifty people wandering around. I found that disappointing because this setting was so different from the earlier books; normally, Flavia spends as little time as possible at home. Her energy, completely believable in a ten-year old detective, takes her all over the countryside on her bicycle, and Bradley has proven again and again that he’s capable of making even a bus stop seem creepy when the girl is on her own. On her adventures, it’s easy to forget that she’s a child, right up until the moment when she’s put into a position where a small girl’s physical strength is a massive disadvantage. It’s that balance of Flavia’s ultra-capability with the more realistic consequences of investigating gory crimes that makes these books so enjoyable. Once she is surrounded (practically smothered by) sensible adults, the fun of it sort of fades.

It’s really a trap of the location. While it seems like a brilliant, spooky plan to confine sixty (plus) people to one place, really, he would have done better to cut the number to about twelve. Of course, that doesn’t make sense with the story as it stands, but it would have done a world of good for this particular device. I would actually read a second attempt by Bradley if he took this idea and tweaked it – I like his style and core characters that much – and I’m curious to know if anyone has a suggestion for a particularly successful book in this “genre.” There are certainly novels like The Maze Runner or Lord of the Flies that do a lot with a slightly larger but still contained setting, but what I really want is a book where square footage is at a premium. Feel free to leave any suggestions in the comments.


For more about Alan Bradley, go here.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, Alan Bradley

What intrigued me more than anything was finding out the way in which everything, all of creation—all of it!—was held together by invisible chemical bonds, and I found a strange, inexplicable comfort in knowing that somewhere, even though we couldn’t see it in our own world, there was real stability.

I didn’t make the obvious connection at first, between the book and the abandoned laboratory I had discovered as a child. But when I did, my life came to life—if that makes any sense. Here in Uncle Tar’s lab, row on row, were the chemistry books he had so lovingly assembled, and I soon discovered that with a little effort most of them were not too far beyond my understanding.

Simple experiments came next, and I tried to remember to follow instructions to the letter. Not to say that there weren’t a few stinks and explosions, but the less said about those the better.

As time went on, my notebooks grew fatter. My work was becoming ever more sophisticated as the mysteries of Organic Chemistry revealed themselves to me, and I rejoiced in my newfound knowledge of what could be extracted so easily from nature. My particular passion was poison. (p 4)

This book is about a ten-year old girl in 1950 who uncovers a murder and goes about solving it using, primarily, her extensive skills in chemistry. Are there other novels written about great detectives? Obviously. About women? Sure. And scientists? Indubitably. But how often does one run across a protagonist who is all of these things at once? Rarely.

Matilda comes to mind, although she’s a very young genius (and not specifically a scientist)  and one of the characteristics I particularly like about Flavia de Luce is that she’s not. She’s inquisitive, of course, and fannishly dedicated to her field of study, but she isn’t so different from her peers in other respects. She fights terribly with her two old sisters. She goes off exploring on her bicycle for hours at a time. She hates the food she’s made to eat. All very normal, relatable quirks. She does have a way of unsettling adults with her precocious interest in the murder that has occurred (unlike Nancy Drew, who somehow managed to solve murders and be considered absolutely darling at the same time), but I know plenty of unsettling (and precocious) children.

I actually found myself fantasizing about a book where she and Christopher Boone meet – difficult to picture since both of them prefer their own company to socializing – but delightful none the less. It then occurred to me that I’ve manage to read three (ostensibly) YA books in a row set in England  (although Bradley is Canadian, whereas Haddon and Pratchett are British), and each one has been remarkable in its own way. The funny thing is, I’ve actually owned The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie since I got my first kindle back in August of 2009. It was a new release, and in my frenzy to collect books I might someday read on this novel device, I bought it and it has languished there ever since.

Well, that’s not exactly true. I actually tried to read this book four or five times in the past, and I had never gotten past the first chapter. I’m a firm believer in the patience of books though, and when, this past Friday, I was looking for something to curl up with, here it was. This time, I had no problem getting past the first few pages.  What I did have difficulty with was getting laundry done, baking bread for dinner, doing the dishes that piled up stickily in our sink…

I was completely enthralled. It was physically painful to put this book down and go on to other things – important things, things that couldn’t be avoided at all, but which I desperately wanted to forget about in favor of this book. And that, of course, meant I finished it far too quickly. I was moping around, thinking maybe I should have slipped a few of those critical tasks in just so that I could have spent a little longer with Flavia when I discovered that Bradley’s written more books about her. More! More Flavia? More science?! And poison! And well-wrought revenge?!! This was simultaneously the best and the worst news I could have gotten…or possibly that “very important things” could have received.


Alan Bradley (and Flavia) can be found here.

Dodger, Terry Pratchett

A couple of weeks ago, when a discussion popped up in the comment threads about Terry Pratchett, I asked for a good starting point when it comes to his work, since I’ve only read his collaborative novel with Neil Gaiman, Good Omens. I had no idea that he had written over forty books, many of which take place in the interconnected series Discworld. As much as I wanted to dive right in to the treasure trove of his collection, I was intimidated by the possibility of liking him so much that I had to read all of them immediately, which would really be more of a problem for you than it would be for me. I have an inkling that some of you might even get excited about a prolonged obsession like that, but probably the majority would prefer diversity in my selection (or possibility that my obsessive reading follow another author entirely). Whatever the case may be, one of the restrictions when writing a blog like this is that I feel an obligation to explore a more varied reading list rather than becoming completely immersed in one area.

The problem was, I couldn’t stop thinking about Pratchett. Although I didn’t know it back in the sixth grade when I was first introduced to Good Omens, much of the humor I loved in that novel undoubtedly came from Pratchett and not Gaiman (not that Gaiman doesn’t have his own brand of humor, but it’s one I appreciate more as an adult than I did as an eleven year old). A solution to my problem, however, presented itself, most fortuitously, in the form of Dodger, a new Pratchett novel that my mother recommended to me about a week ago.  Because it was unattached to a larger series, I felt it was as safe a spot as any to dip into the ocean of his work.

I found the book captivating in that way only a particularly endearing YA novel can be. I’m not sure whether his intention was for it to appeal to that age, and it’s certainly a wonderful read for anyone, but it did remind me of a certain coziness I found in books when I was young.  In fact, Good Omens has much the same element of comfort to it, and I think that if I reread it now (for the nineteenth or so time), it would be even clearer to me where the two men’s work overlap.

I was surprised though that I didn’t find the book laugh out loud funny. I was expecting it to be, possibly because the recommendations I got for his older novels hinted strongly at such a reaction. (I plan to find out just how hilarious he is when I get home and can pillage the bookshelves of several friends who are fans.) I wondered if it was related to the shift (necessitated due to early onset Alzheimer’s) from typing his own books to telling his stories via dictation.

It wouldn’t shock me at all to find a change like that had naturally occurred over the last few years. Dealing with the day-to-day reality of that particular disease while still writing one or two excellent, popular books a year? Honestly, I’m not sure he’s human. Both of my grandfathers died after many years living with Alzheimer’s, and I know all too well what that illness does to the brain. It chews it up and leaves a different person behind. It’s not a pretty thing, and having met people in their forties and fifties with early on-set Alzheimer’s, I know how quickly it can move. Pratchett’s book made me smile, it compelled me page after page, and it forced me to check Wikipedia to glean more information about the London history he was sharing; the fact that he can write such a wonderful book, whether it makes me laugh or not, after almost five years with this disease is nothing short of inspiring.

It reminds me of a truth that had gotten lost in the fog since their deaths, which is that even as my grandfathers got sicker, they still told stories. In fact, as conversation grew more difficult for them to follow, it was one of the only ways they could communicate. Those stories were a combination of memories, dreams, and a hint of reality – and if Dodger is anything, it is that. Pratchett creates a London that hovers playfully on the edges of history, and he writes a protagonist it’s impossible not to love.  When I imagine him spinning this story aloud, I get lost in the tremendous potential of the human spirit, and I’m amazed anew at what a gifted storyteller can do.


For more about Terry Pratchett, head over here.