Miller’s Valley and The Zookeeper’s Wife

It was a busy a week, and I’m a bit behind these days, but I’ll catch up, so bear with me if I haven’t stopped by your site recently. I hope everyone had a nice and safe St. Patty’s Day. Spring is coming, I’m very excited. I wanted to congratulate Louise Erdrich for winning the 2016 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction for her novel “LaRose.” It’s a book I plan to get to and one that Judy over at Keep the Wisdom had  wonderful things to say about. For now, I will leave you with a few reviews of what I finished last week.

Miller’s Valley by Anna Quindlen, 2016, 272 pages

I picked up this novel when I saw it lying around my parent’s house when I was traveling a couple weeks back. After the first 80 pages or so I didn’t think it was going to be for me — it’s a coming of age, family saga that seemed to start off a bit slowly and the material appeared a little thin. Maybe it seemed too quiet, or character driven? But sometime after that the story crept up on me and I became much more invested in it.

In the novel, Mimi Miller recounts her young life growing up in a small Pennsylvania town in the 1960s with her family who’ve lived on a farm there for generations. There’s talk that the government wants to relocate their community, which is susceptible to floods, to make way for a reservoir, while her father and others are dead set against it.

Like her few friends, Mimi’s family is a bit of a mixed bag. Her mother is a nurse, and her father is a fix-it man; she has a successful older brother who’s married and moved away, and another brother she idolizes who parties through high school and then enlists in Vietnam to escape the stagnancy. There’s also Mimi’s reclusive Aunt Ruth who lives in a small house on their property but never goes outside.

All the while, there’s little money or future prospects, so Mimi loses herself in her school work, farm chores, and a sexual relationship. In many ways, the story is not uncommon to a lot of coming-of-age tales with family secrets, setbacks, and heartbreaks, but what I liked about it was Mimi’s narration, which gives it resonance with her insightful thoughts about what’s happening around her. Her sensibility piqued my curiosity into what would happen to her and the fate of the town and her family members.

I liked its themes too of home and place and the people who you grow up with. As Mimi says, “No one ever leaves the town where they grew up, even if they go.” I guess I shouldn’t have doubted the quiet power of an Anna Quindlen novel as the couple I’ve read usually have resonated quite a bit.

The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story by Diane Ackerman, 2007, 384 pages

Meanwhile I listened to this nonfiction book on audio, which took a couple weeks of deeply concentrated dog walks with my headphones on (ha). I was glad to get to it before it comes out as a film at the end of the month starring Jessica Chastain. The movie was filmed in Prague, which stands in for Warsaw in the story. In retrospect, maybe it would have been easier to follow reading it in print, instead of listening to it, as the book covers so many different things pertaining to the Zabinskis’ lives and the war in and around Warsaw. But then again the narration of it on audio was so beautifully done by Suzanne Toren with all the accents and Polish words and ideas, which I liked. So I guess a combination of both perhaps would have been optimal.

The book is about the true WWII story of Jan Zabinski, the director of the Warsaw zoo, and his wife Antonina, who sheltered and hid about 300 Jews and Polish resisters during the war in their villa and in the animal cages and sheds. The author used Antonina’s diaries, and other sources and research to shed light on the Nazi occupation of Warsaw, the ghetto, the uprisings, and how the Zabinskis managed and were able to do what they did.

It’s a remarkable story, but as many have found the book is not exactly an easy read or listen. Judging from what others have said on Goodreads, many abandoned or didn’t care for the book because they found it disjointed or scattered from the main story of the Zabinskis. In the book for example, the author will be telling about an incident with Jan or Antonina or their young son and then often go on a tangent idea about Polish customs or music or Nazi ideology or whatnot. So you have to hang with it a bit for the author to circle back around to the incident she was initially talking about.

It’s a book with a lot stuffed in it. Not only do you learn about the Zabinskis and what they were like, but there’s also a lot in it about nature and animals, what zoos were like at the time, Polish history, language and customs, Warsaw life, and Nazi ideology. It brought to light new things much of which I didn’t know. It also talks about various people who were pertinent to the Zabinskis during the war such as the spiritual head of the ghetto, the duplicitous director of the Berlin zoo, and others in the underground resistance.

I found the author’s research and broad scope phenomenal and fascinating. It might not have made for the easiest storytelling to follow, but sticking with it I found it rich and rewarding. I feel like someday I’ll have to return to the book to scoop up additional facts and tidbits from it. The writing too is often quite poetic and alluring, which I guess is not uncommon from the author, who’s known for this in her naturalist writings. Her love of animals and nature is definitely evident in the book, and makes for a new angle on WWII, which I haven’t heard about much before.

Other things I took away from “The Zookeeper’s Wife” was the courage of these regular people to do what they felt was right and help people despite the threat to their lives, as well as the ingenuity of many of the Polish people and Jewish resisters who thwarted the Nazis. They seemed far from idle or resigned to their fate under the occupation, and their resistance movement and uprisings are quite legendary. I was in awe of them throughout this book. I recommend the book for those who are interested in such tales of WWII resistance but know it’s probably not for every reader.

Finally last week we rented the movie “Jackie” and I thought it was quite interesting and much better than I thought it would be. I guess I thought it would be just a lot of grieving and mourning over the assassinated President Kennedy — and a portrayal of a horrified, stunned Jackie in her bloody outfit, but there’s more to the script than that. Somehow it captures quite a bit of what was going on at the time, as well the perceptions and myths, and it gets to every side of Jackie. It’s more multi-dimensional than I would’ve believed.

It’s also quite a provocative and beautiful film. And despite the flak I might have heard about Natalie Portman’s performance as Jackie, I thought she was terrific and dug deep for the role. How she didn’t win the Best Actress Oscar award over Emma Stone in “La La Land,” I’ll never know. Emma was good, but in my mind didn’t dig as deep as this.

What about you — have you read these books or seen this movie, and if so, what did you think?

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33 Responses to Miller’s Valley and The Zookeeper’s Wife

  1. I listened to Miller’s Valley and thought it was terrific. I’ve avoided Jackie because I heard the soundtrack ruined the movie. I’ll have to watch for it streaming.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Kathy, I’m really glad you like Miller’s Valley. By the midway point of it, I was fully onboard with its story. I would be interested to hear what you think of Jackie; see it if you get a chance.

  2. Carmen says:

    I put The Zookeeper’s Wife on my wishlist when I saw there was a movie based on it, but after your thoughts I’m not sure it is for me; I don’t like “disjointed and meandering” in my reading.

    I have not seen Jackie yet. I still have a batch of six movies that I want to watch/review before I move on. In the Best Actress category I would not have nominated Ruth Negga and Meryl Streep. I feel Amy Adams was amazing in Nocturnal Animals and Arrival to be snubbed like that. While Negga and Streep breathed life to otherwise ordinary movies, I don’t think their performances​ were that remarkable given that their movies were only so-so in my opinion.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Carmen, yeah I don’t think The Zookeeper’s Wife as a book is for everyone, but the movie might be quite good; we will see. I agree that Amy Adams was snubbed by the Oscars; she’s always quite good in what she does, and those two roles were quite interesting. I look forward to what you might think of the movie Jackie and Portman’s performance in it. Enjoy your week.

  3. Miller’s Valley was a favorite last year. I thought it was Quindlen’s best novel since One True Thing. I’ve had a copy of The Zookeeper’s Wife (purchased at a library sale) for several years. The upcoming movie has renewed my interest and since I’ve enjoyed Suzanne Toren’s work, I may go the read/listen combo route. Didn’t realize Jackie was out on DVD… I’d like to see it!

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi JoAnn: Yeah I recall you liked Miller’s Valley; it really got me by the midway point. I did like One True Thing too. I think a read/listen combo is a good way to go on The Zookeeper’s Wife. It’s not an easy book; it is quite elaborate. But still it’s worthwhile!

  4. Brian Joseph says:

    The Zookeeper’s Wife sounds very interesting. I tend to like books that have unconventional structure. On the other hand, such works can be challenging and sometimes get in the way of the story so I understand the frustration that some have expressed. The subject matter of this book also sounds fascinating. Thus it is something that I would like to read.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Yeah Brian, I see you liking this complex book. There’s so much in it! One could post for weeks on the various topics it talks about. I’m amazed that almost all the people they hid as well as the Zabinskis themselves survived the war despite how many were killed in Warsaw.

  5. I loved Miller’s Valley, but yes, it did start out slowly.

    I am curious about The Zookeeper’s Wife…but I never listen to books. I am too easily distracted…plus, I can read a book faster. I don’t have the patience to listen.

    As for Jackie…I saw it again…and my same criticism remains: her accent…wrong!

    But…otherwise, a great performance. And I definitely would prefer her performance to Emma Stone’s…she is irritating, IMO. LOL.

  6. Judy Krueger says:

    Thanks again for the shout out! I am very happy for Louise Erdrich.
    I read The Zookeeper’s Wife a while back and had some of the same quibbles as you, but agree that all said, it is an amazing story not told by anyone else. Here is a link to my review:
    Jackie blew me away, including the sound track. That descending line of sounds repeated over and over, I thought, echoed Jackie’s inner life so well. And Natalie Portman was amazing, as always. I too cannot understand the Oscar win for Emma Stone. I think Emma is an awesome actress but did not get to show her talents in La La Land.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Judy, I didn’t realize you had seen Jackie, but I’m glad to hear you thought it was done well too. It is a bit strange Portman didn’t win the Oscar. I thought the film was interesting. As for Ackerman’s book, it was pretty robust — all the things she goes into! Thx for leaving me the link of your review. We seem to be on the same wavelength about it.

  7. While living in England and walking a lot, I have joined as a trial, and it’s wonderful if an easy to follow book has a terrific narrator like The Hate U Give, but I’ve exchanged other good books due to poor narration. It’s hard to find the right book for that format so I like how you include that aspect in your reviews.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Thanks Sarah, I have gotten into audios in the last couple years. Usually I download them from the library. You’re right the narrator makes all the difference; if that is off, the story won’t work. Sometimes I sample them first. But I’m surprised how good some of the narrators have been.

  8. Anna Quindlen is one of those authors who I like and dislike. I like her nonfiction but I’m not wild about her fiction. Probably just me.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Deb, yeah sometimes I’m that way with authors. I think I’ve only read one of Quindlen’s nonfiction books which was about her dog, Good Dog Stay. It was excellent.

  9. Ti says:

    I’ve not read any of these books or seen Jackie. You made the Quindlen book sound quite good though.

    Ulysses threw my reading schedule off so I am playing catch-up right now. Haven’t seen any new movies. I really want to see that movie Get Out. It’s gotten such good reviews but I don’t “get out” for movies that often. See what I did there?

    I am a bit busy in the evenings these days but it’s all good stuff. I think as I age though I am not handling my schedule as well as I used to.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Ti,
      Yeah you have a busy schedule, but I think you seem to handle it quite well. Ulysses was a big undertaking too! I know that Get Out movie looks quite wild by the preview; I’m sure I’ll see it sometime. We still need to catch up on the Walking Dead; I think we’re behind a few episodes. Can’t miss the finale whenever that is.

  10. Rebecca says:

    I still have not read The Zookeeper’s wife and I feel guilty about it. I love WWII books. I must get one this!

    • Susan Wright says:

      It’s a complex read, but it is pretty amazing research-wise. I had not heard of the Zabinskis before this, but they saved a heck of a lot of people.

  11. Michelle says:

    The Zookeeper’s Wife sounds perfect for me! I love that era, I love learning about new things, and I love anything portraying resistance in the face of almost certain death if found. Off to go find myself a copy!

    • Susan Wright says:

      I’ll be interested to hear what you think of it Michelle. The audio is quite good as well. The author does go off on side tangents which can be frustrating but still it is worth it.

  12. Glad to hear that at the end you enjoyed
    Miller’s Valley. You know what, Susan? this book looks like a very nice and interesting reading. And I totally agree with what Mimi says, “No one ever leaves the town where they grew up, even if they go.”
    The Zookeeper’s Wife sounds really interesting.
    Goodness gracious me…I can’t believe that Jackie is out on DVD…Ciao 🙂

    • Susan Wright says:

      Thanks RT, yes both books turned out good, and I agree with what Mimi says about home! I look forward to hearing what you think about Jackie. Cheers.

  13. I really hope I get a chance to read LaRose this year! I’ve been wanting to read Louise Erdrich for a while now and that sounds like a good book start with.

    I am very much looking forward to seeing the film adaptation of The Zookeeper’s Wife. I don’t think I’ll read the book, but the story sounds amazing.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Yeah Kate, the movie the Zookeeper’s Wife might turn out better or more focused, but we will see. I too need to read Louise Erdrich’s books. She’s been on a roll! Thx for stopping by.

  14. JaneGS says:

    Both books are very appealing to me–I like stories that slowly unfold and it’s always a lovely surprise to find that a book you initially thought was ho-hum packs a punch. And, I honestly don’t think I can read enough about WWII–there are so many stories and perspectives, and I like those that are based on actual people and events.

    I want to see Jackie also–I was a Jackie fan from my childhood. Our family had a copy of the AP book The Torch is Passed, and I used to pour over the photos in that book until I had them memorized.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Jane, I think you would like the Jackie movie if you are a fan. I found it a bit fascinating. The books as well are quite interesting. Thanks for stopping by.

  15. Naomi says:

    Hearing you talk about Miller’s Valley makes me want to read an Anna Quindlen book. It’s been a long time since I read one!
    I was one of the readers who ended up abandoning The Zookeeper’s Wife, but mostly because I wasn’t expecting it to be so time consuming, and it had to go back to the library. The story is amazing, and I can’t wait to see the movie!

    • Susan Wright says:

      Yeah Naomi, I admit I haven’t read many Quinlen books. I think this one is my third of hers. I almost abandoned The Zookeeper’s Wife at various points because it is convoluted in its telling, but somehow I kept on, and was glad I did. I’ll be curious about the movie. I think it will simplify the story much more, which could be a good thing.

  16. Rachel says:

    I haven’t seen Jackie but I’m sure she did deserve to win over Emma Stone. I think any of the other women nominated probably did. I don’t think she had to show much of any range in that role.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Rachel: I did like Emma Stone’s performance, as any actor who plays a singing & dancing role, I find pretty courageous. But the amount of involvement Portman seemed to delve into to play Jackie was pretty incredible I thought and better than Stone’s. Let me know what you think when you see the film.

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