The Summer Before the War

Helen Simonson


In the summer of 1914, in the small town of Rye, England, Beatrice Nash arrives to start teaching Latin in the Fall. A woman has never taught Latin before, but she is sponsored by a woman of good standing, Agatha Kent. Agatha is married to John who works in the Foreign office in London. Agatha has two grown nephews, Hugh and Daniel, who have grown up spending their vacations and holidays with Agatha. They are very different but are more like brothers. Daniel is a writer of poetry. Hugh is studying and training to be a surgical doctor. Beatrice arrives at the station and is picked up by Hugh. She is taken to Agatha's for the night and a friendship begins among Beatrice, Daniel, and Hugh.

After the passing of Beatrice's father, Beatrice was left with no money of her own as it has been left in a trust for her Aunt to dole out to her as needed. Beatrice took the opportunity of teaching in Rye as a way out of her Aunt's care and to have her own independence. She also writes and wants time to write a book featuring a collection of her father's letters and their adventures. Not only does the time period dislike women in teaching roles such as Latin, women aren't realized as valid writers either. Beatrice sees an opportunity of perhaps publishing her book when she meets famed poet and author Mr. Tillingham.

During the summer, Beatrice tutors three boys in Latin before the school year begins. One boy, Snout, a gypsy boy, has taken a keen interest in Latin and its novels. Beatrice will also attend picnics and parties where she will meet other important members of the school board and residents of Rye. As the summer winds down and school begins, it becomes more evident that England with be joining the war. Many men, including Hugh, Daniel, and Snout, will join the fight.

There are many other story lines and characters in the novel. The story concludes with a battle in France, where most of the characters that went to war are all together. After the battle, those that are able, return home.

Beautiful Ruins

Jess Walter


It is April, 1962, and Pasquale Tursi is out in the water of the Ligurian Sea on the Italian Coastline. The sea and beach fronts his small inn which he inherited from his father. His mother and aunt still reside there. As a boat approaches the inn, Pasquale sees a vision of beauty on the boat. A young, blonde, slight of build, American actress is coming to stay at his inn. Her name is Dee Moray. He finds out that she is sick and dying. She had been in Rome filming Cleopatra with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton when she became ill. The film producer, Michael Deane, sends Dee to this small and remote hotel for privacy. The films doctor has told her she has cancer. During her stay there, Pasquale and Dee become friends. They take walks around the village and discover up on a hill, a small cave used during the war as a look out post for soldiers. The view is beautiful and the inside walls have various pictures painted by one of the soldiers.

During a bout of sickness, Pasquale calls a local doctor to examine Dee Moray. When he tells Pasquale the true diagnosis of her illness, Pasquale goes to Rome to tell Micheal Deane about this. A few things happen between then and later, but Pasquale is given Micheal's card and told if he ever needs anything, to contact Micheal.

Jump ahead to 2008. Micheal Deane's assistant, Claire Silver, is reading scripts and hearing pitches for possible new shows for Micheal to produce. People will randomly come in with a card that Micheal had handed them, hoping this will open the door for an opportunity. One day, a very elderly Pasquale walks in the door with his card. He has come from Italy. He wants to see Michael. He wants to find Dee Moray.

The rest of the book is filled with characters and happenings that take place in 1962 Italy. It then jumps to 2008 America where we now catch up on Dee and her life. A character from the past had gone to America and been a part of her life there until his pasting.

The book concludes with the author neatly wrapping up every story line.

Being Mortal
Medicine and What Matters in the End
Atul Gawande


This book addresses the issues we must all face at the end of one's life, Whether it is from an illness or old age, the body declines and adjustments to oneself, way of life, home care, and family dependency become apparent.

Years ago, people didn't generally live to be over age forty-five. People died from disease, accidents, and natural causes. The discovery of medicines and knowledge in the health industry, people started to live longer.

There are different options the elderly now have. Many remain healthy and are able to live independently on their own. It is not until an illness, dementia/alzheimers, or falls start, that it is no longer safe for a person to stay home on their own. Sometimes family members will take in a parent or loved one, but for some, that is not an option. For those who need some assistance, self assisted living apartments are available. For others, the only options for the care they need is a nursing home.

Dr. Gawande writes of the many interviews he conducted with elderly patients and the various nursing homes and self assisted living complexes that have sprung up across the country. He writes of the importance of keeping a person physically and mentally alert through various stimuli. The elderly need a reason to get up in the morning and to feel like they have a purpose in life.

Then there are those who are able to stay in their home. They will remain and eventually die at home with the help of family and hospice to provide "comfort care".
It is not only the elderly who must face the end of life decisions, it is the terminally ill. Dr. Gawande interviewed patients who were facing cancer and the treatments they had to have in order to survive. There comes a time though when a treatment no longer works, and the hard decision is when to stop treatment. It becomes a matter of quality or quantity of time.

Dr. Gawande discusses the difference between doctors. One doctor may be all facts, cut to the chase, this is what it is, and this is what must be done. Some people may like that. But, for the most part, patients want to know their options. They want to be apart of making the decisions. The ideal doctor, and isn't that what we all want, will explain everything and ask us about ourselves. What do we want? How much pain and suffering can we go through before we say, "Enough"?

This book opens the door for conversations with your spouse or elderly parents as unfortunately, that time will someday come.
The Dressmaker's War
Mary Chamberlain


Ada Vaughan is eighteen years old and lives in London. She is an extremely talented seamstress and designer who hopes to open her own fashion house someday. She is hired to be a mannequin in an upscale fashion house working for Mrs. B. One night as she steps out into the rain, a handsome gentleman appears with an umbrella. He offers to accompany her home, but as she is embarrassed for him to see where she lives, she declines. He offers to take her to Tea at the Ritz. That is the beginning of their relationship.

His name is Stanislaus von Lieben. He is from Hungary and he tells her he is a Count. He sweeps her off her feet, taking her to nice restaurants and nightclubs. She sews her own dresses and appears very glamorous. This is all very new to naive Ada. He promises her a trip to Paris and to help support her in having her own fashion house. As the war is about to break out, he asks her to go to Paris. Although everyone warns her that the war is coming, she ignores them and travels to Paris with Stanislaus. He does not have his passport on him. She is his means to get into the other country.

Upon arrival in France, the war breaks out. Ada is trapped there totally dependent on Stanislaus. She soon finds out he isn't who he said he is.
They need to escape France and head to Belgium. Once there, there is a turn of events which leaves Ada alone and broke. She finds herself at a convent which soon becomes occupied by the Nazi's. She is now a prisoner of war. Because of her ability to sew, she is transferred to Berlin where she is held prisoner for seven years.

After the end of the war, she is able to return to London. She tries to get back on her feet, but her hope to open her own fashion house, the desire to be fashionable and wanted, leads Ada down the same path that she was on when she eighteen.

Some lessons are never learned.

The Nightingale
Kristin Hannah


It is April 9, 1995 on the Oregon Coast. The narrator of the story is an elderly woman who is packing up her home to move to a retirement center. She is going through her belongings when her son sees a name on a piece of paper and asks, "Who is Juliette Gervaise?". The memories unfold.

Vianne was fourteen and Isabelle four, when their Maman died. Two weeks later, their Papa dropped them off at the summer house in Carriveau, unable to deal with his grief along with the fact that he was never the same after he came home from the war. He limped, drank, argued with his wife, and became distant. He was void of having any feelings for his daughters. He left them with a stranger to care for him. Vianne was dealing with her own grief and Isabelle was inconsolable. Vianne met a young neighbor boy, Antoine, and became pregnant when she was just sixteen. Isabelle was shipped to numerous schools, always running away from each one, only to be rejected by her Papa once more, to be sent to another.

It is now August 1939 in France. Vianne and Antoine have a daughter Sophie who is ten. Antoine is mobilized, along with most of the men in town, and now is a soldier for the French. They hear of a war coming but do not believe it will infiltrate France. Sadly, soon it does.

Isabelle returns to stay with Vianne as her Papa rejects her once again. Isabelle is strong minded and wants to fight against the war in someway. The Germans soon take over France. When a German soldier, Beck, billets their home, Isabelle is very angry and Vianne worries that Isabelle will put her family at risk. Soon, Isabelle finds some local resisters and she begins to deliver pamphlets in the middle of the night to local citizens. It is a very dangerous job but Isabelle is determined to do something. Isabelle leaves to go to Paris to help more with the resistance. This relieves the tension in the house.

Vianne has her own heartache to go through. She stands in long lines hoping to use her ration cards to find some sort of food for Sophie and herself. Her best friend Rachel, who is Jewish, is sent away leaving her son with Vianne to care for.

As the story goes on, we read of the bombings throughout France and Germany. The rounding up of all the Jewish families and their treks to various camps.
Isabelle becomes a hero, saving 117 airmen form various countries, by crossing them over the Pyrenees into Spain. Vianne becomes a hero as well saving nineteen Jewish children from going to the camps. There are many other characters in this story. With the men off to fight the war, the women are left to take care of the home, find food for the family, work at jobs, and when the men do come home, go back to their previous life as if nothing had happened or their own sacrifices acknowledged.

Kristin Hannah, while researching for another book she was writing, came across the story of Andree de Jongh, A Belgium woman who saved 118 airmen during the war. She based this novel on that premise. It is a very well written book.

Tarzan of the Apes
Edgar Rice Burroughs


Lord Clayton Greystoke was commissioned to set sail for the British West African Colony to investigate the fighting and slavery that was happening in the colony. He took with him him his new bride, Lady Alice Greystoke. There was a mutiny on the ship and the couple were left to fend for themselves on a beach. They only had a few supplies that were left for them. In order to survive, Clayton had to provide shelter for himself and Alice against not only the elements of the weather, but the beasts of the jungle. He built a strong cabin with a door that locked. Within the first year, Alice gave birth to a son.There was a strong ape tribe living in the area and it wasn't long before the apes descended on the cabin. As Clayton was being attacked by a giant ape, Alice shot the beast. The ape came after her but died by he time he got there. Alice was never the same after that, and soon died. Shortly thereafter, the ape came back for Clayton, leaving the baby alone without parents.

At the same time, Kerchak, the head of the ape tribe, was on a rage. He spotted Kala, carrying her babe, and went after her. As she swung through the trees to get away from him, the babe slipped from her arms and died. She continued to carry the dead babe and joined the tribe on its way to the cabin. She heard a baby crying and when she went into the cabin, she picked up the crying baby from the crib and placed her dead baby ape in the crib. She held the baby close and as nature takes over, the baby began to nurse from Kala. This baby was to be Tarzan of the Apes, and Kala was his mother. He learned everything from her; hunting, swinging, communicating, and living the life as an ape. He knew no difference.

As Tarzan grew up, he became a fierce fighter among the other apes when he or others were threatened. He learned how to kill other beasts that were after the apes.

Years later, another ship showed up on the beach and again, left the party aboard to fend for themselves. They found the cabin on the beach that Tarzan's father had built. In the cabin, remained the skeletons of Alice, Clayton, and the baby ape.  Tarzan had been going back to the cabin throughout the years and inside found books with pictures and letters. From these, he learned how to read, but he did not know how to communicate verbally other than in ape gestures and sounds.
Tarzan kept an eye on the new white, hairless people. He was very curious about the white woman, Jane. Jane was accompanied by her father, a professor, looking for a lost treasure chest. He was also accompanied by a companion and a young man, Clayton Greystoke, Tarzan's cousin. As the party ventured into the jungle, Tarzan needed to rescue them may times from danger.

As everyone knows by now, Tarzan is in love with Jane, learns to communicate, and becomes domesticated, so to speak. Burroughs wrote twenty-three Tarzan books and this is the first one. It is a classic and has been made into many alternative books, comics, movies, and cartoons.

The Good Lieutenant
Whitney Terrell


The book begins with Lieutenant Emma Fowler leading her platoon into a field to search and recover the body of a fellow soldier, Carl Beale. They were in the Iraqi back country, west of Baghdad. Beside her was a fellow soldier, and who at one time she had had a romantic relationship, Lieutenant Pulowski. As they drove through the field, an IUD exploded, knocking the Humvee over. Pulowski was injured as were others. Fowler caught site of a young Iraqi waving a gun so she shot him.

From there, the story reverses itself in time until you get to the end to learn how their relationship began back in Fort Riley, Kansas. And, how they found their way to that field of explosion.

Whitney Terrell went to Iraq many times as a reporter. Therefore, in this book, he was able to draw on his experiences. This book needs to be read twice since the book is written backwards, it was confusing to many in our club. But, it is worth the second read. He did an excellent job describing the war and the behind the scenes crap that happens in a platoon with a female in a lead position of men. This book was listed as a must read in many newspapers and literary posts.

Aurangzeb: The Life and Legacy of India’s Most Controversial King
Audrey Truschke


Audrey is the daughter of one of our book club members. This is her 2 nd
published book. She studied Sanskrit and Persian and majored in Religious
Studies at the University of Chicago, before earning a PhD at the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies at Columbia University. Her research focuses on early modern India, especially the Mughal period and cross-cultural interactions therein. She is an Assistant Professor of South Asian History at Rutger’s University.
Summary of the book in Audrey’s words: “In 1700, the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb was arguably the richest, most powerful man in the world. He ruled for nearly 50 years, from 1658 until 1707, over a vast empire in South Asia that boasted a population exceeding the entirety of contemporary Europe. Today, he has been forgotten in the West.

In modern-day India, however, Aurangzeb is alive in public debates, national politics, and people’s imaginations. From Mumbai to Delhi to Hyderabad, Indians debate his legacy and, overwhelmingly, condemn him as the cruelest king in Indian history. The list of charges against Aurangzeb is severe and, if they were all true, shocking. Aurangzeb, a Muslim, is widely thought to have destroyed thousands of Hindu temples, forced millions of Indians to convert to Islam, and enacted a genocide of Hindus. As I am reminded daily on Twitter, many Indians sincerely believe that Aurangzeb was Hitler and ISIS rolled into one with a single objective:
to eradicate Hindus and Hinduism.
Aurangzeb is controversial not so much because of India’s past but rather
because of India’s present. Twenty-first- century India is plagued by religious-based conflict, especially between Hindus and Muslims, India’s religious majority and its largest religious minority, respectively. As the minority, Indian Muslim communities are in the weaker position. They are often demonized as anti-national, less Indian than Hindus, and tend to bear the brunt of religious-based clashes in terms of the loss of human life and livelihood.“ (end of quote)

We found Audrey’s book very “readable” and we learned a lot about a
time/place that few of us had previously known, i.e. Indian culture and history. We felt Audrey made a good case for a reconsideration of Aurangzeb’s legacy as a man of his times and one who should not be judged by the standards of our own.

Because of India’s current political climate, Audrey’s book has generated much discussion and passion there; her book is a bestseller on AmazonIndia! She has become somewhat of a hate figure for India’s Hindutva wing on social media and Twitter, where she patiently rebuts the trolls. If you Google her book, 3 pages of reviews are listed, from the India Times to the Wall Street Journal.

To close in Audrey’s words: "The past is rarely, if ever, only about the past. But when we allow modern interests to constrain and dictate our view of the past, then we are engaging in mythology that, however powerful, is not history."

Pretend I'm Not Here
Barbara Feinman Todd


In 1982, Feinman went to work as a copy editor for the Washington Post. She became a research assistant for Bob Woodward and later become his personal researcher for his book. She later moved on to aid Carl Bernstein with his book. From there she was asked to assist the editor of the Washington Post, Ben Bradlee.
When First Lady Hillary Clinton needed an assistant to help her write the book, "It Takes a Village", Feinman was hired. She spent many days, even overnights, at the White House. She sat in on important meetings. In her contract, it was written the Feinman would be acknowledged in the credits. When the book was published, there was no mention of Feinman anywhere in the book. This fact was widely publicized. Clinton had to prove that she wrote the book herself with little help from Feinman. It would take Feinman twenty years to finally read Clinton's book, (really?), to compare her manuscript to what was written in Clinton's book. Seventy-five percent of the book was in Feinman's manuscript. While Feinman was working on the Clinton book, Ben Bradlee was working on his own book. While conversing with Feinman, he used his interview skills to get Feinman to divulge personal matters about Clinton. Bradlee included this information in his book. Feinman was shocked that he would do this and although he implied that the information came from other sources, everyone knew that it was Feinman who told him.

The book was informative as to what a ghost writer does and what type of recognition one gets. It was interesting reading about the politics of D.C., going back to John F. Kennedy and his affair with a mistress of a mafia boss while he was in the White House.

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid 
A Memoir
Bill Bryson


Bill Bryson is a master storyteller. He grew up in Des Moines, Iowa. He was born in 1951. It was a time when manufacturing was booming. The automobile industry, appliances, the invention of the tv dinners along with the tv tray tables, all of these things that made life easier and better for the all American family. After the war when men returned home to their jobs, many women wanted to stay in the workplace. Now that there were two income families, more money was being made which meant more money was being spent. This was great for the economy.

Bill Bryson's parents worked. His father was a sports writer for the local paper and his mother was the editor of the home furnishing section of the same paper. Bill would travel with his dad out of town to attend baseball games that his father would be reporting. His mother, according to Bill's memories, was not a very good cook and was very forgetful, as was Bill. Bill had a variety of friends, all very different. He writes about his experiences with all of them, sometimes getting into trouble.
Woven into his memories, he writes of the climate of our country. It was a time of the threat of nuclear war. In school, there were fire drills and there were also drills in case of war. An alarm would go off and children would have to duck under their desks. Of course, Bill didn't do this. He figured if everyone else was under their desk, he didn't need to and no one would notice. That is, until he got caught and was sent to the office. Nuclear tests were going on all over the world. The fallout of radiation was never considered. One test caused death within hours on a small island. When they moved the testing to Nevada, people would go to watch the explosions until it was found they had radiation in their bodies. After that, people were no longer allowed to observe. DDT was considered safe and so was smoking. It was the time of the McCarthy hearings which was a witch hunt against communists. Whether a person was one or not, proof did not matter and many people had their careers ruined.

Bill Bryson's memories and observations growing up in the Midwest, during the fifties, gives us a look back in time in an informative and delightful view.

Last Days of Night
Graham Moore


The year is 1888. Paul Cravath has just passed the bar and is a graduate of Columbia Law School. He is hired by the law firm of Carter and Hughes. Carter is the senior lawyer and Hughes is Carter's son-in-law. George Westinghouse has hired the firm to represent him in several lawsuits filed by Thomas Edison. The main suit is whether or not Edison did indeed invent the light bulb and does that include every type of light bulb after that. Cravath is sent to meet Westinghouse in Pennsylvania at Westinghouse's home. After the meeting, Westinghouse hires Cravath to be his lawyer. Having never tried a case before, Cravath sets out to prove that there are different types of light bulbs and that Edison's patent, was not the light bulb that he first described to the world.

Nikola Tesla, a Serbian immigrant, is a brilliant scientist and inventor. He sees visions of what he wants to invent. He worked for Edison until a big row sent him fleeing. Cravath was informed by Fessenden, a former Edison employee now working for Westinghouse. He tells Cravath that if he wants some dirt on Edison, that Tesla might be the man. As it turns out, Tesla has quirks, which today would be diagnosed as autism, manic-bipolar, and/or schizophrenia. Tesla is working on his own invention to prove that AC/DC current is safer and travels farther than DC current which is what Edison is trying to prove.
During his long hardworking hours, a new client walks into Cravath's office. It is Agnes Huntington, a famous and beautiful opera singer. She wants Cravath to represent her in a contract dispute with an employer.
Tesla is working on his own project in a private lab when Cravath finds him. As Tesla is showing him his new invention, the building is set on fire and the roof collapses on Tesla and Cravath. Cravath is pulled to safety but Tesla's body is nowhere to be found. Cravath has injuries that puts him in the hospital for some time. Once recovered, he is determined to find out what happened to Tesla, continue the lawsuit for Westinghouse, and renew his acquaintance with Agnes.

What comes next and in between all of the above, brings all the people in the novel together in the end. The cast of characters also includes Alexandrian Graham Bell, J.P. Morgan, and  Charles Coffin. This book is historical fiction based on true events. In the back of the book, Moore lists the true facts and how he combined events, timeline, and changed facts, in order to write the novel. While reading, it's hard to discern which is true and what is not. It is very well written and there is much to learn about the Edison/Westinghouse feud.