38. The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah. I listened to this on CD; it was an Audie award-winner for fiction in 2016. Wow. Holy crap, this was good. The whole story left me breathless, and the reader Polly Stone captures each individual character to a degree I've heard few other readers accomplish. Fair warning- have tissues on hand, especially towards the end; just when you think things are going to wrap up there are a couple of tear-your-heart-out surprises at the end. But, as painful as these (and other developments) were, they were honest and one dealt with a huge issue where there just were no winners, only losers.
The story is set in France and spans from the start of World War II to the end of the war, with some chapters placed in America in 1995. The book's first chapter starts in 1995, with an elderly woman about to move into an assisted living center. She is going through her things, including an old trunk. The reader (or listener) doesn't know who this woman is for certain, and her identity doesn't come out until the very end. This made for a nice little mystery, and I admit I initially guessed wrong. Much of the story is set in France during the second World War, and follows the lives of two sisters, Vianne and Isabelle. Vianne lives in a quiet village with her husband and her daughter, and is content with her life and surroundings. The quiet, even timid, woman's life is turned upside down when her husband leaves and the Nazis come in, with officers staying under her roof. Vianne had never been one to take charge but now is constantly forced to choose to stand up for her principles and feeding her daughter and herself. Meanwhile, the much younger and idealistic Isabelle joins the Free France movement, and her escapades eventually become legendary -- and puts her in the Nazi government's crosshairs. Each of the sisters is wonderfully fleshed out; they both have their flaws but they also have their own nobility and growth. As readers today, we are more inclined to sympathize with Isabelle's fears and premonitions about the war- she would wind up being more prescient than her older sister. But we have the benefit of hindsight. Also, you see examples of why Vianne would get frustrated with her younger sibling. Their father, too, plays a pivotal role. He's deeply flawed but sympathetic, and in the end redeems himself. Vianne is possibly the most interesting and would be the subject of the most discussion. Many of the things she does would be considered controversial, but I see her as the Everyperson. I think, for better or worse, most of us would be Viannes, especially the Vianne early in the story, and not the more resolute Isabelle. Then again, that may not be entirely fair because Vianne is not just weighing her needs but the needs of her little girl. All in all, a great story. There are many fictional books set in World War II but this gives that pivotal era a look through a fresh perspective.
39. My Schizophrenic Life, by Sandra Yuen MacKay. This fulfills the challenge for reading a book that has a main character with a mental illness. This "main character" is actually an autobiography penned by MacKay, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a teen. She pulls no punches; MacKay is honest about her struggles and shortcomings in dealing with her illness, and the difficulty of her recovery and managing her life. The reader, through her eyes, gets a glimpse of what schizophrenia is like and why it is such a difficult illness to treat. MacKay freely admits she was not always a model patient. But MacKay was able to work through not just schizophrenia but her own inherent insecurities to become an author, a public speaker and an artist. This is a human story, from a point of view that is often not heard. IT might not be the most polished of narratives but I think that's part of its charm and honesty. All in all, it's an insightful and quick read.
Currently reading: Will Write for Food, by Dianne Jacob.