Companion Reads: ‘The Monuments Men’ and ‘Agent Zigzag’


I’m not entirely sure why, but I often find myself reading about World War II when I travel. It isn’t a topic I usually find myself gravitating to, but for some reason when you put me on a plane destined for far-off shores, I turn to WWII.

For my most recent holiday, I ended up reading The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History (by Bret Witter and Robert M. Edsel) and Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal (by Ben Macintyre) within a few days of each other. Unsurprisingly for two books about various intrepid “good guys” triumphing over various forms of Nazi horribleness, they pair together quite well.

Both books are what might be categorized as “popular history,” i.e. lighter historical fare intended for the general public. In addition to presenting big stories in a more digestible form, these books are liberally sprinkled with factoids and usually insert dialogue throughout to make the overall book feel a lot like an adventure novel. Accordingly, they’re easy, interesting, comulsively readable books. I devoured two in three days! (more…)

March 17, 2017 at 6:41 am Leave a comment

A Hundred Pieces of Me by Lucy Dillon

I know what you’re thinking. Cute dog on the cover, sort of cutesy title, a font that screams, “Hey, I’m a book for women, but not one of those books for women.” But A Hundred Pieces of Me by Lucy Dillon is a damn good book.

It starts with our hero, Gina Bellamy, who discovers her husband is having an affair. Not only is he having an affair, it’s Christmas, her first Christmas in the perfect house they have renovated together, and she’s wondering what will be the next big project to bring them together. Nothing, apparently, as he is sleeping with a younger blonde.

Flash forward, and Gina is in her new apartment, boxes and boxes of stuff from her old life crowding her new one. Overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of things, she decides that she’s going to only keep 100 crucial things. She also nails a sweet new job restoring her dream home, which happens to be inhabited by a very handsome (though married) photographer. And yeah, there’s a dog.

But this book is more than the sum of its parts. (more…)

March 15, 2017 at 6:33 pm 2 comments

‘The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry’ by Gabrielle Zevin

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry has been sitting on my shelf for almost three years. It was given to me when I lived on Nantucket largely, I believe, because it’s about a bookshop on a small island off the coast of Massachusetts. In addition, Fikry is billed as a book for book-lovers, an ode to the delights of a good independent bookstore.

This all sounded very much up my alley and so an astute coworker got it for me for my birthday years ago.

And indeed, the fictional bookshop of Fikry, called Island Books, will seem very familiar to anyone who has ever shopped at Mitchell’s Book Corner in Nantucket. With its small children’s section, the smaller upstairs area, and apartment above, Island Books must have been inspired in part by a visit to Nantucket.

And indeed, the book does dwell on the kind of curmugeonly book-love that borders on snobbery with which many bibliophiles will be intimately familiar. Our hero, A.J. Fikry, owner of Island Books, disdains anything with vampires, young adult books as a rule, and sappy novels about widowers.

Fikry also dutifully resurrects the old e-book vs. physical book debate that used to feel like such a civil war in the reading community. (A.J. is, unsurprisingly, one of those “I’ll be damned if I use one of those contraptions!” / “E-books are killing bookstores!” people.) I like to think we’ve moved beyond this sort of reductiveness; one can like multiple formats and each has its own benefits.

But, for all that Fikry is about an island bookstore and however much the characters love books, I was stunned and disappointed to discover that it is, at its mushy heart, actually that which A.J. himself disdains: a sappy novel about a widower. (more…)

March 9, 2017 at 6:19 am 2 comments

‘The Muse’ by Jessie Burton

Jessie Burton’s back, people!

Some of Literary Transgression’s more loyal readers may recall my, ahem, lukewarm reaction to her, shall we say, disappointing The Miniaturist back in 2014. There was a lot of hype surrounding that book and, in the end, a lot of misplaced expectations. After reading it, I was actively irritated and very nearly swore never to read Jessie Burton again.

Despite that fiasco, however, I decided to give her a second try when this beautiful piece of Library Loot came my way. (more…)

March 6, 2017 at 4:18 pm 2 comments

The Geek Feminist Revolution by Kameron Hurley

81jorxit7slIt’s hard to review Kameron Hurley for a few reasons, not the least of which is that she’s bound to read that review at some point. Criticizing books is easy when you feel like the author won’t ever read what you’re writing, let alone care about some woman shrieking into the abyss of the internet. Hurley, as she points out, has been that shrieking woman, and so the odds of her hearing your wailing are markedly increased.

Pulling punches is not what this blog is about, however. And I genuinely enjoyed The Geek Feminist Revolution, Hurley’s manifesto (or so it’s described) about feminism in fantasy and sci-fi. Hurley is a prolific sci-fi writer with a day job who also happens to be a woman, which means she’s forced to defend herself on a daily basis from the legions of Sad Puppies who think that women shouldn’t write sci-fi. She must be exhausted. Seriously.

Sometimes, I thought she was being a little whiney or self-congratulatory. Why did she have to talk about how hard she works? I wondered. Why go on and on, and then brag about how much she writes and how great her characters are?

Prompted by Hurley’s book itself, I began thinking about how much differently I had just treated On Writing by Stephen King. The books’ goals are disparate: King’s work is half memoir, half instruction manual, while Hurley’s is meant to raise a little hell and push women to action. But both of the authors talk about their personal history of writing and how they came to be where they are. Both worked incredibly hard–both racking up debt, King as he tried to support a family and Hurley as she tried to escape abusive relationships, come to terms with her sexuality, and deal with a chronic illness.

Did I find King’s work a little self-indulgent at times? Sure. Did I ever think of it as whiney or self-congratulatory? No, not even when he’s talking about how he never plots stories out and just “lets the characters take him there.” (God, that’s annoying.)

And that’s where my own flaw in thinking comes in. Because even as I found Hurley’s tone off-putting, I realized that I found it off-putting because 1) I’m not used to hearing a woman express how proud she is of something she created, and 2) I didn’t like hearing that a woman has to work so hard to be successful. (more…)

February 27, 2017 at 1:34 pm Leave a comment

‘The Adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle’ by Russell Miller

adventures-conan-doyle
I’m ringing in the new year with biographies, which are proving an excellent ladder out of my non-reading pit of the last few months. Russell Miller’s The Adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle is the first on my list and it proved to be an appropriately entertaining biography to end 2016 and ring in 2017.

Miller, the first biographer given access to papers held by the Doyle family, divides Conan Doyle’s life into three, roughly equal parts: the Doctor, the Writer, and the Spiritualist. The first is the most satisfying as Miller’s unexcitable style fits best in retelling the childhood and early career of a country doctor. The latter two sections are slightly more dissatisfying as Miller continues to present the facts with little embellishment or noticeable excitement despite the increasingly noteworthy happenings in his subject’s life. (more…)

January 2, 2017 at 1:27 pm Leave a comment

The LT Year in Reading: 2016 Edition

darkershade 9780141199795

It’s that time of year again: what topped our list in 2016? And what did we absolutely despise? Check out Kate and Corey’s picks for their best (and worst!) reads of 2016:

Best Library Loot
Corey: Definitely A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cossé. It was one of those serendipitous library reads that you magically happen upon and turn out to be incredible. I was so lucky to find this one in the stacks this year!

Kate: Hmm. Probably A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it was not a book of short stories by a recovered alcoholic that hopscotched all across the Southwest. Just wonderful.

“Hey, I didn’t know that!” Award for Best Nonfiction Read
Kate: Can I take a second to brag about the fact that I really tried to branch out into nonfiction this year? And still, somehow, only read a few. But Cooked by Michael Pollan was the best of them, probably, filled with compelling stories and facts about the food we cook and how we eat it.

all-the-single-ladies

Corey: Rebecca Trainster’s All the Single Ladies was so chock-a-block full of “hey, I didn’t know that!” moments, I think I irritated pretty much everyone I ever happened to be reading this book next to; I couldn’t stop myself from shouting out tidbits and marveling at Trainster’s research.

Best Reread
Kate: The Likeness by Tana French. Shades of Donna Tartt and Kate Atkinson. Plus, it takes place at Trinity and just outside Dublin, so I got to feel all nostalgic.

Corey: I only reread one book this year — Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone — and it was, as usual, a total delight. (more…)

December 29, 2016 at 6:37 am Leave a comment

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