Review #11: To the Slaughterhouse by Jean Giono

NOTE: I read this novel in the original French.

To the Slaughterhouse is set in rural Southern France during World War I. Joseph, a young newlywed, leaves his family (his wife, sister, and father) to join the army at the onset of the war. The book then splits into two narrative lines, both spread over a period of several years, one telling the story of Joseph and his fellow soldiers on the battlefield, and one telling the story of his family back in the village. This dual narrative works very well to illustrate the horror of war on a large scale, affecting both those doing the actual fighting, and those who have been left behind. Both groups must struggle to survive in their own ways, and Giono’s message is clear: the pain and suffering of war spares no one.

This book is so powerful, and both narratives work well. The scenes of battle are vivid and truly horrifying, which makes sense, as they are based on the author’s own experiences as a member of the French army during WWI. The sections set in the village were my favorites, though, as they are female-centric and give a really unique and interesting perspective on the impact of war. These women aren’t just sitting around moping for their provider to come home; they’re taking their futures into their own hands. Julia, Joseph’s wife, is tough and strong–she takes on the work typically done by males, runs the household, and owns her sexuality. She’s an awesome character, and really helps shape the story into something completely new and compelling. This a beautiful and engaging book, and I highly recommend it.

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Review #10: Mistress of the Sun by Sandra Gulland

Sandra Gulland’s Josephine B. trilogy remains one of my favorite works of historical nonfiction of all-time. I first read it when I was twelve or thirteen, and regularly revisit it every few years because it is just so good. When I realized Gulland had published another book after the trilogy, I knew I had to get my hands on it.

Mistress of the Sun is the story of Louise de la Vallière, more commonly known as Petite. After her father’s death in her early childhood, Petite joins the court of Louis XIV, the king of France, as a maid of honor to his sister-in-law, the Princess Henriette. She soon captures the King’s attention, and they begin an affair that would last years.

I really liked this book, although not quite as much as I loved the Josephine B. books. For one, I think this book would have worked better in first-person narration–I think Gulland’s style and tone lend itself better to it, and I found the third person narration here a little distracting and alienating. Other than that, though, this book was great. Louise de la Vallière is a pretty obscure historical figure, so it was cool to read more about her (and now the book has gotten me interested in a time period I knew little about, which is always good!). Petite is a compelling protagonist–smart, stubborn, and strong. I really felt myself relating to her, and feeling the frustrations she must have felt as the true love of the King, while still having to live a life of secrecy. There’s also a really interesting supernatural element to the novel that I won’t give away, but gives the plot a unique twist, which I liked.

Overall, this is a fast, engaging read that I definitely recommend to anyone who likes well-written historical fiction.

Review #9: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

I’d only heard awesome things about this book, and the wait list for it at the library has been crazy long since it came out, so I was excited to read it.

Henrietta Lacks was a black woman who, in the 1950’s, went to the hospital to have a cervical tumor removed. During the operation, several small pieces of the tumor and her cervical tissue were taken to be used in research. These cells (known as HeLa)went on to become one of the most important scientific tools of modern medicine, aiding in virtually every major medical discovery of the last sixty years. The book is partially the story of those cells, but it focuses primarily on Henrietta, as well as her family. Skloot set out to tell the story of a woman long unacknowledged for her contribution to story, and ended up becoming close to her children, particularly Deborah, her youngest daughter. Through this relationship, Skloot provides a fascinating commentary on race, poverty, and medical ethics.

This was such an interesting book. I know little to nothing about cell research, beyond what I learned in high school biology, but Skloot presents complex information in an approachable, engaging way. I love how she melds science with story–she switches back and forth between the two narrative threads deftly, handling her (very large) cast of characters skillfully, never letting the reader get overwhelmed. The background she provides on medical research from the early-mid 1900s is captivating–she brings up a lot of scandals and horrific experiments that I’d never heard of before. The best part of the book, though, is her portrayal of Deborah–an uneducated and disabled woman barely scraping by. She is fascinating: passionate, eager to learn, and focused on getting the recognition her mother (who died when she was a very young child) deserved. This is Deborah’s story, more than anything, and Skloot absolutely does it justice.