War, Crime, New York, and Great Writing in "Manhattan Beach", by Jennifer Egan - Book Review

I stayed awake nights to read this.  I couldn’t wait to reach the end, then hated when it was over. It’s that good.  I read Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad several years ago and liked it well enough.  Egan’s latest, Manhattan Beach, far exceeds its predecessor. 

Egan's first work of historical fiction was diligently researched over several years, and takes place in New York as World War II breaks out. It crosses time and oceans chronicling a famous gangster longing to do good; a father entwined in a gangster’s life he cannot sustain; and our imperfect heroine, whose strengths and smarts lead her from childhood to adulthood. The war itself is a character as well, propelling the lives of those left at home to support the “innocents” sent to fight, manifesting patriotism in even the most cynical, and fastening together the diversity of New York that would otherwise remain apart.

Manhattan Beach: A Novel
By Jennifer Egan

Anna is a child when the story begins, her father, Eddie, making ends meet as a bagman for a small time gangster. A loving relationship, Eddie takes Anna along for many of his drops. This ends suddenly however, when Anna turns 14, and Eddie begins employment for one of the most prominent gangsters in New York, Dexter Styles.  A dangerous path, clearly, but it allows Eddie to financially provide for his family, including Anna’s younger, disabled sister Lydia.

One day, Eddie doesn’t return home. Years pass, and after Pearl Harbor, the war effort is in full swing. Anna fills a role in the Brooklyn Naval Yard measuring ship parts; a job much too mundane, but she enjoys being part of the war effort.  Through mighty will and perseverance, she becomes the first female naval diver, making ship repairs underneath the water’s surface.  As Anna is discovering herself as a strong woman in very much a man’s world, she navigates the extreme chauvinism of the 1940’s, acceptance of her father’s disappearance, and meeting the gangster with whom her father was involved. Along with a supporting cast gleaned from interviews of people who lived and worked in Brooklyn supporting the Naval Yard, Egan weaves their real stories into a captivating plot.

Egan’s characters are beset with intersecting conflict and humanity; her writing and pace excels. She has uncanny ability to surface and convey emotions in the subtlest of ways; possibly the best feature of her writing.  Manhattan Beach is without a doubt, one of the best books I’ve read in a while.

Published: 2017
Publisher: Scribner

Vickie’s rating: 5 stars

True Story of an American and His Heroic Family in "Avenue of Spies", by Alex Kershaw - Book Review

An American doctor and his family live out Hitler’s destruction during WWII in Paris. Writer Alex Kershaw, a journalist and historical author has conducted a deep inquiry into a particular family’s involvement in the French Resistance in under German occupation.  Avenue of Spies is the completely absorbing result. 

American Sumner Jackson is a surgeon at the American Hospital in Paris and provided medical care during the first world war, so he is no stranger to combat wounds and care. His is married to Swiss-born Toquette, and they have a son, Phillip. They live on a very posh street in Paris - Foch Avenue. The street is an important setting, as many of the homes become the headquarters for Hitler’s SS, the Gestapo - spy hunters and gruesome torturers.

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"The Nightingale" By Kristin Hannah

The Nightingale is a beautifully written account of WWII France - a broken family, German occupation and survival.  This is my first time reading Kristin Hannah’s work, and I was more than pleased.  From the beginning, it was difficult to put this book down.

The epic opens with this wonderful line - “In love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are”.  Sisters Vianne and Isabelle have lived very different lives - one with love and comfort, the other alone and impetuous.  Each gets caught up in their own stories of survival when the Germans march in to occupy France. The book follows these sisters and their different paths in a tale that describes the women’s war, heartbreaking loss and the will to live.

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"City of Thieves" by David Benioff

What a surprising delight “City of Thieves” was to read. Not that I expected David Benioff’s novel to be bad, but I did not expect to enjoy it in so many ways.  This 258-page book is set in 1942 war-torn Leningrad, where the residents fear the German siege, their own forces and each other.  It’s a dangerous place for a 17-year-old boy who reluctantly finds himself with a new best friend on an impossible mission for a Soviet colonel.  

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