Monday, December 25, 2017

My Favorite Books of the Past Year

I’ve decided to depart from my usual routine of reviewing a single book and instead talk about my favorite books over the past year. I make almost no attempt in my reading to stay current with what is being published. Thus, in 2016, I discovered Kent Haruf who had died just before I began reading him. I quickly read up everything he had written. My discoveries this year were Mary Lawson and William Boyd (though Boyd has been writing for decades and I had not read him at all until a friend from Austrailia recommended him to me. 

Mary Lawson
I will begin my list with all three of Mary Lawson’s wonderful books: Crow Lake, Over the Bridge,  and Road Ends. The reader who loaned me Crow Lake is still a bit miffed at me, because I loaned it out before getting around to returning it, and then forgot to whom I had loaned it. Lawson is a quiet writer, who makes manifest the extraordinary in ordinary lives. One reviewer gets directly to the heart of the matter. “Like her fellow Canadians Alice Munro and the late Carol Shields, Lawson is a master of the quiet moment made significant.” Just so and she belongs in that select company of Munro and Shields. Like Kent Haruf, she writes about a single small town and her characters overlap from one book to the next. I suggest you begin with Crow Lake and read all of her novels, though one can start with any one of them.

Eowyn IveyNext I will mention again a book I reviewed a short time ago, and one that charmed me so that I have already given away or loaned a half dozen copies, The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey. Based on a Russian fairy-tale, this is a book you will want to share with or read to your children. I should mention however that the content is complex and sometimes troubling. I was reminded of this when one of my reader friends read it to her six-year-old, and while she is glad she did, and the young boy loved the book, it did provoke very serious discussions about death, our relationship with the animal kingdom and the nature of human love. I rarely read fantasy fiction, but this is a book I am so glad I happened on to.

Next, let me talk briefly about William Boyd whose imagination continues to astound me. I just yesterday finished the last of his books that I had not already read, Armadillo, and like The Blue Afternoon, The New Confessions, Brazzaville Beach and others, I was swept into the complicated  life of his main character. Many of his novels are either mysteries or war stories, and each is carefully researched, and yet one never knows what to expect when moving from one novel to the next. I would suggest starting with Any Human Heart since I believe it is the most autobiographical of his many novels written over the past two or three decades. Again, one can start anywhere in his twenty some novels.

Although I am not attempting to rank these in any particular order, the next on my list is Amor Towel’s novel, A Gentleman in Moscow, a thoroughly researched book about the early days in Russia after the revolution. I would also recommend Towel’s The Rules of Civility, about as different from Gentleman in Moscow as could be. Incidentally, this latter book has a woman as its main narrator, and several of my reader friends (including myself) thought as we were reading that certainly the author must be a woman.

Next on my list is yet another male author which surprises me some, since I have been reading and reviewing mostly women writers for the last ten or twenty years. The book is Brooklyn, and the author is Colm Toibin. This is the story of an Irish girl who comes to this country with little money and very little training. It is in many ways a simple story of a very courageous young woman. You may already know Toibin as the the author of The Master, a book based on the life of Henry James. 

jennifer egan
Next on my list, and perhaps the best book of 2017, is Manhattan Beach, by the superb author Jennifer Egan (author of A Visit From the Goon Squad). This is an historical novel that focuses on the role women played in shipyards and factories during World War II. It shows again that Egan is in the very front ranks of living authors.

Although I don’t read (or review) many mysteries or thrillers, I was very impressed with Tara French’s The Trespasser. This is again about thee Murder Squad in Dublin, and Detective Antoinette Conway is as tough as they come. While it is a serious mystery, it is also often very funny, and describes well the difficulties of being a woman cop surrounded by men who want to see women fail. 

Just two more, and I will stop for now, although I have read so many excellent books in the last year. Alice McDermott published another fine novel (all of her work is extraordinary); this last one is titled The Ninth Hour and I reviewed it just last month. I see her as an extremely perceptive feminist author, and enjoy reading of her tempestuous relationship with Catholicism.

Finally, if you have not read Alice Munro, whom I consider the finest fiction writer alive today, I would recommend to you a new collection of stories she, herself, put together selected from her many previously published short-story collections. Its title is Lying Under the Apple Tree, and although it contains no new stories, it was a pleasure to revisit some of her tales and especially ones that she selected, and would serve as a fine introduction to her work. 

Monday, November 13, 2017

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

I want to talk to you this morning about a startlingly good book by the Pulitzer Prize winning author, Jennifer Egan. The Pultizer winning book, A Visit From the Good Squad, was a daringly different, even shocking book, but what is surprising about her newest novel, Manhattan Beach,  is that it is a straight-forward historical novel. As one commentator says, 
After stretching the boundaries of fiction in myriad ways…Egan does perhaps the only thing left that could surprise: she writes a thoroughly traditional novel. Realistically detailed, poetically charged, and utterly satisfying; apparently there’s nothing Egan can’t do. 
The novel begins as Anna who is 11 accompanies her father, Eddie, to the home of a rich man, Mr. Styles. Turns out that Eddie takes his young daughter with him often on his rather mysterious business calls. As we come to learn as the novel progresses, Dexter Styles is a gangster, and Eddie Kerrigan works as a messenger for a powerful longshoreman union boss. Anna is a clever girl who could “feel the logic of mechanical parts in her fingertips; this came so natural that she could only think that other people didn’t really try. They always looked, which was as useless when assembling things as studying a picture by touching it.” 

Anna finds herself torn between the life of her mother, sister Lydia, and her Aunt Brianne and the bigger world life of her father. Lydia has a severely crippling disease which renders her unable to care for herself or even to walk and talk, and her mother devotes most of her life to caring for this strangely beautiful but crippled daughter. When Eddie hears the festive gaiety of his wife, sister-in-law and daughters, and notices how things abruptly change at his entrance, he finds himself wondering if the girls and women were easier and happier without him. 

Soon enough, and for reasons that emerge slowly in the novel, Eddie is suddenly gone from the scene and his family has to fend for themselves. This is all occurring in the 30s, and as World War II increasingly consumes the world, Anna seeks employment in the naval shipyards. Eventually she becomes intrigued by the divers who work on the damaged ships, and given the shortage of men, women are hired in many of the traditionally male jobs in the shipyards. Although faced with the sexist behavior of both officers and enlisted, she preservers in her attempts to be certified as a diver. Armed with a letter of recommendation from her supervisor, she is granted an interview with the officer in charge of the divers, although he assumes from the beginning that the supervisor only recommended her in exchange for sexual favors. He accepts her into the program only because he is convinced she will fail. “Ah, your supervisor. Mr…Voss. He drew out the name as though its syllables were the last bits of meat he was sucking from a bone. Then he grinned. ‘I imagine he’s just as eager to please you as you are to please him.’”

Despite being set up to fail, Anna manages to move in the diving dress that weighs several hundred pounds, and she also passes the underwater test that she is meant to fail. Egan manages to portray the sexist attitudes of the time in very clever and understated ways, and the feminism she illumines is a high point of the novel.

Although Eddie Kerrigan is gone from his family, he remains an important part of the novel. After living as essentially a bagman for gangster Dexter Styles, his disappearance seems to be at the hands of the New York mob, and much of the later parts of the novel are taken up with Anna’s attempts to discover how and why he disappeared. While Anna is the primary narrator of the book’s action, Eddie, who somehow escapes his fate at the hands of gangsters, resurfaces as a sailor in the merchant marines and subsequently survives the torpedo sinking of his ship and a harrowing lifeboat adventure. 

I feel I am already revealing a bit too much of the interwoven stories. Besides telling an utterly fascinating story in this novel, Egan also displays the very substantial research she did in order to produce such a riveting account. Her portrayals of life on the docks, women workers in the naval shipyards and even of mob activity in New Jersey and New York all ring with an authenticity due to her very considerable talents as a researcher. She says in her acknowledgments, “I was heartened, during the years I spent circling Manhattan Beach, to know that if nothing more came of the endeavor than the pleasure of having researched it, I would count myself lucky. And we readers are lucky as well that her research ended with this excellent novel. One commentator is moved to exclaim that she may well be the best living American novelist, and another that the book shows she is dizzyingly inventive. Inventive indeed, and also wise and insightful. She has produced a first-rate historical novel that I think will be remembered as much for it historical account as for its fast-paced mesmerizing plot.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Last Bus to Wisdom by Ivan Doig

I want to pay tribute to one of the really memorable writers of the last century and the first part of this one. Ivan Doig was born in 1939 and died in 2015. His last novel Last Bus to Wisdom, was published in the year he died. While I want to pay tribute to his entire oeuvre, I will focus in on the final work.

Doig said of himself “I come from the Lariat proletariat, the working-class point of view.” And certainly his novels that dealt with the massive Anaconda copper mine in Montana made it clear that his sympathies lie with the miners, the sheep herders, the homesteaders and not with huge agri-businesses and ranches that came to dominate the western frontier.

I have to admit I came to Doig rather slowly. I found his early novels interesting as stories of the immigrant settlers of Montana, but spoiled reader that I am, I at first saw his writing as a little too simplistic, even rustic. I was used to marvelous women word-weavers like Edith Wharton and Willa Cather. Indeed, I felt I had been short-changed in my university literature courses which focused almost entirely on male writers, and when I discovered I had been assigned the long and rather dull Theodore Drieser novels when I might have been reading the the far superior Wharton, I pretty much gave up reading male novelists and concentrated instead on filling the huge gap in my reading, namely, that of women writers.

Still, Doig represented an important inroad for me back to male writers of the late 20th and early 21st century. Judging from his writing, I would say Doig is a good man, even a sweet one, and while I would not characterize him as a political novelist, he certainly wrote of and for common people. I have come to see almost all of his work as quite closely autobiographical. He was one of those rare writers who had best sellers in both fiction and nonfiction.  His superb portrayal of Montana, the nonfiction This House of Sky, is overtly autobiographical, but almost all of his novels have a young male narrator, and a manner of speech, even a type of humor that run like a vein through his works.

In his final novel, the boy narrator, Donal, is orphaned at an early age and raised by his grandmother who is a cook at various restaurants or for cattle and sheep ranches. Although she is a skillful and in-demand cook who could make a lot more money working in restaurants, she takes on the job of cook for the Double W ranch in order to have Donal at her side rather than with sitters. Although I won’t reveal too much of the story, I will reveal that his much-loved grandmother gets cancer and needs an operation and then a place to convalesce. While some nuns in their small Montana town agree to care for her after her operation, Donal has to be found a home until  she recuperates enough to go back to work and reclaim Donal.

He is put on a Greyhound bus which he calls the dog bus and sent clear across country to Wisconsin to live with his only other relative, his Aunt Kitty and her husband Dutch. About the first third of the novel is devoted to his cross-country bus-ride and the many people he meets and gets to sign his autograph book, which he hopes will someday win the Guiness Book of Records for most autographs. Donal is a bit like Lily Tomilin’s character, Edith Ann who is accused of making up stories. When she objects saying that grown ups mean by making up stories, lying, and she doesn’t lie, she then continues, “but you can make up the truth if you know how.” Donal is certainly in this class of storytellers, and his heartwarming and wise story is so full of down-to-earth humor and naïve goodness; he (and Doig) clearly know how to make up the truth.

Unfortunately, his Aunt Kate is a self-absorbed and selfish woman who has no real feelings for her grand-nephew and no idea of how to care for a young boy. Her only use for him is to teach him how to play canasta in order to fill in for one of a foursome who has droped out. Between her screaming at her husband, Herman (aka Dutch), and riding herd on poor Donal, he is facing a long and very boring summer. Turns out Herman (who is German rather than Dutch) is obsessively interested in stories of the wild west, and has spent a great deal of time reading a German author who writes of the shoot-um up west.

It does not take Aunt Kate long to repent of her impulsive offer to care for Donal, and long before the summer is over, she simply sends him back to Montana, though she knows that her sister is no condition to care for him, nor is there a place for him to stay. What could have been a sad and worrisome ride home on the big dog bus becomes a wonderful, rollicking trip when Uncle Herman decides to make his escape from his wife, whom he calls “the Kate,” by accompanying Donal. They head first for a big Indian carnival so Herman can finally see some Indians for himself.

Doig writes about what he knows, and that means about sheep and cattle and the workers who tend them. There is a quiet wisdom that bubbles up from the characters and events in his stories that would be difficult to put in capsule form. Suffice it to say that the more I read him, the wiser he seems, and I also have come to realize his rather plain style of writing serves very well for the stories he wanted to tell. While there is much heartbreak and hardship in all his works, there are also shining examples of loyalty and solidarity. 

Doig resisted the title western writer, and I can understand why. Yes, he writes of the west, of the people, but what he reveals is much wider than simply stories of the west. I am so glad that I allowed him to guide me back into at least a somewhat more balanced set of writers in terms of gender. Like Alice Munro and Elizabeth Strout, Doig reveals the extraordinary in ordinary people and so-called ordinary lives.

Monday, August 28, 2017

White Fur by Jardine Libaire

I started a novel a few weeks ago I was sure I would put down in a few pages: poor girl meets rich college boy and romance flares. The novel in question is White Fur, and I knew after not many pages I would be reading it clear through. The writing is gritty and glamorous, much like its heroine, Elise.

The boy in question, Jamey, is not only very rich, he is also handsome to the point of being beautiful. Jamey’s roommate’s girlfriend reacts to him as most women do. 
She’s scared, in a titillating sense, which is how most girls feel near Jamey. He’s not charming—it’s something weirder, more potent, dangerous. He’s so convincingly disconnected from his beauty that people look away, not wanting to be the one who tips him off with their gawking.
Elise is also arresting but not in a cute, well-dressed way. Instead wrapped in her white fur coat (thrift shop, and probably rabbit fur), she appears disdainful of the male attention directed her way.
Aficionados of sex see her in a crowd. Some guys stumble upon her and crudely realize their luck halfway into it. Some have no idea, and turn her out of bed as if they did what they’d come to do, not understanding they hadn’t even started. Those dudes smoked and hummed while they dressed and she felt sorrier for them than she felt for herself.  
Elise never separates things into day and night, rarely thinks about being a boy or girl, or alive or dead. Without division, there’s less work to do. She floats, free in a cheap and magic 
What Jamey goes for in Elise is her sense of freedom and her expansive knowledge of sex. Although he has been a very good student in the past, once he meets Elise his interest in school evaporates. His ivy league education he equates with his parents and their wealth, and all of it he feels as restriction. Still, when he first takes up with Elise he has no intention of inviting her into his family life, or even into his circle of friends. At first he thinks it’s just the sex.

Although the novel seems to borrow from earlier impossible romances: Romeo and Juliet,  or the star-crossed couple in Westside Story, Libiare brings in the real grit of city life in White Fur. Jamey’s attempts to escape from the pull of family by first giving up school, and then in a more desperate attempt by giving up his trust fund. Still, his family will not let him go, and he finally finds himself locked up in a psychiatric unit and given drugs that threaten to in fact throw him over the edge. 

As a reader of this novel, I was certain on some level that the romance would end, the family and the power of money would win out. And certainly the author is well aware of how power and money go together; she is also aware of the shallowness of the lives of trust-fund kids, and she displays it with great clarity in this rather long love-story.

In one scene when Elise leaves Jamey, and orphan that she is, he thinks he has no way of finding her, 
He think this whole thing looks like a prank. 
It always struck him as suspicious—how she showed up, the girl next door, and kept after him until he fell in love, this choosing between her and his family—it’s too biblical, too tragic, too concise a conundrum for a life as amoral as his. 
He’s never had to be moral. He falls into one of those crevices: a certain kid in a certain society in a certain generation where no decisions remain because his ancestors have finished every single thing within reach…he feels a revelation like adrenalin. If everything is already done, maybe I’m here to undo things.
Alas, things are not as easy to undo as he had thought, and the reach of his family is even wider than he had believed. 

But the family is not aware of the strength of Elise, of her cool contempt for their wealth. Even when the family essentially has him committed, since who, after all, gives up a trust fund and an easy life for a trashy girl in a rabbit coat, unless they are crazy? Elise finds a way into the private clinic and befriends some staff. In one of the most captivating scenes in the novel, she simply walks him out of his prison, and decides she will be able to bring him down from the drug dependency the clinic experience has brought on, and shelter him until they can escape for good.

An unlikely romance for sure, and it may test the credulity of some readers, but I found this to be a powerful and beautifully written book, and I could not help but hold out hope for the lovers. I’m not about to tell you how the story ends, but I hope you will pick up the novel and find out; you will be glad you did.

Monday, July 17, 2017

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

I almost never read fantasy literature, and am even less likely to review it. However, I was so charmed by Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child, that besides buying several copies to send to nieces and nephews, I find I want to talk to you readers about the book this morning. I had never heard of the book, nor the Russian fairytale from which it is spun, but I’m finding many of my reader friends have and have been as struck with it as I.  Part One of the book is headed by a quote from Arthur Ransome’s Little Daughter of the Snow:
“Wife, let us go into the yard behind and make a little snow girl; and perhaps she will come alive, and be a little daughter to us.”
“Husband,” says the old woman, “there’s no knowing what may be. Let us go into the yard and make a little snow girl.”

Ivey is from Alaska, and this is her debut novel. A story of a couple in their fifties who decide to move to Alaska and to farm there. It is the wife, Mabel, who lobbies strongest for the reclusion, but both seem attracted to a life distanced from others. Her husband and husband’s family own a farm in the eastern United States, so he knows farming. Her parents are educators, and are flabbergasted by their daughter’s moving into a remote unknown. This is 1920, and the growing season in Alaska is very short, tough place to homestead.

What the reader comes to discover is that Mabel is childless and her husband Jack’s family is teeming with children. “There had been the one. A tiny thing, born still and silent. Ten years past, but even now she felt herself returning to the birth…” 
Mabel had known there would be silence. That was the point after all. No infants cooing or wailing. No neighbor children playfully hollering down the lane. No pad of small feet on wooden stairs worn smooth by generations, or clackety-clack of toys along the kitchen floor. All those sounds of her failure and regret would be left behind, and in their place there would be silence.
The silence and loneliness in fact lead to Mabel’s being suicidal. She even ventures onto ice that covers a deep hole in the river, daring it to break and let her float away like the maple leaf she sees floating below the surface of the ice. The growing distance between her and Jack is   highlighted when she tries to tell him that she had ventured onto too-thin ice, and he simply doesn’t hear her. Instead, on a winter snow day (after a long and dry summer and fall), there is a perfect snow–covering everything with a mantel of light and purity. Jack finds the snow is packable,  and in a moment of levity, suggests that they make a snowman. ‘“A girl. Let’s make it a little girl,” she said. “All right.”’Jack, who has some artistic talent, uses his pocketknife to craft a nose, and lips for their snow-girl—they even use cranberry juice to color the lips. Mabel finds a red scarf and mittens.

In the sunny morning there is only the base snow left, the scarf and mittens are gone. But there are fox tracks and what appear to be a child’s barefoot tracks.  Jack has already spotted a fox very close to the farm on several occasions, and fears for their chickens. Soon, both Mabel and Jack begin to see glimpses of a young girl in the woods, just a flash of red and blue, gone as quickly as it appeared. And the magical story begins. There is a girl running through the woods, and the fox is hers, raised from newborn pup by her. The magic of the story, and the beauty of the descriptions of the Alaskan landscape continue throughout this lovely tale, and easily allow the suspension of disbelief the tale requires. 

At first, when each of the couple acknowledges to the other that they are seeing a girl in the woods, they suppose it must be a girl from a neighboring farm, a girl actually lost in the woods in winter. And that they must save her. But there are few families in the area, and no children missing, and soon enough they discover that the snow-girl is quite able to fend for herself (and her fox) in the frozen woods.  Explanations are hatched or presented to explain how she can live in such conditions, and how she came to be there. Eventually she comes to them, sits with them, eats with them, but only in the winter. When springs comes, she disappears back into the woods and to higher elevations. 

I fear I’m already telling too much of the story, and Ivey tells it so well that you need to read it in her words. And read it to your children in her words. I can visualize so clearly the girl, Faina, hunting with her red fox at her side. I understand on such a deep level the couple’s wanting to keep her to them, and her understanding of why she must remain Faina of the woods. 

Despite Mabel’s rejection of almost any form of attention or sympathy, she is more-or-less forced into accepting a neighbor woman as a friend. The friendship and conversations between the two add substance to the novel. 

While this is a fairytale, it is one with many twists, twists of mystery, twists of romance. As one commentator suggests, it never goes where you expect it to go. And it is a lovely tale of Mabel’s existential awakening, that we are being-with (one of the universal and necessary conditions of what it is to be human). {Heidegger called these existentialia}

I read this a couple of weeks ago, and would not have planned to review, but it is still so much with me, so charming (and informing), so full of delight. If I had children, I would read this to them eagerly, though it is long story. A story for camping, for imagining and wondering.

Monday, May 15, 2017

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

I want to talk to you this morning about an intricate novel by Amor Towles, entitled A Gentleman in Moscow. I’m tempted to call it a historical novel, but I’m certain the novelist does not consider himself an historian. He is however, a man fascinated with Russian culture, especially the literary works of Turgenev, Gogol, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy.

The story is of a Russian Count who a Bolshevik tribunal determines to be an unrepentant aristocrat, but unlike many who are simply killed or sent to prison, Count Rostov is placed under house arrest for life. He returns from Paris after the Russian Revolution although he could have remained in exile.  He would have seen it as cowardice not to accept the fate of his family and countrymen after the fall of Czarist Russia. As we learn from the novel there is a long tradition in Russia of house arrest. Count Rostov is staying at the famous hotel Metropol, directly across the street from the Kremlin when he is arrested and brought to trial, so that is the ‘house’ he is confined to after the tribunal.  

In 1922, Rostov is thirty years old, very well educated and traveled, and somewhat famous as a poet (which may account for the house arrest instead of a firing squad). Confined to an attic room in the great hotel, he is at first stunned by his greatly reduced circumstances. How is this cosmopolitan man to live with such restrictions. Much of the early part of the novel focusses on the first few days of his incarceration, but as the decades of tumult unfold in Russia, Towles revisits Rostov at yearly intervals, and then begins to double the time frame: two years, four years, eight years and in the final section retains the eight year intervals. 

Instead of languishing away, idle and bored, Rostov becomes more and more a part of the hotel, especially the kitchen.  It is the many guests who pass through the hotel who provide him with news of the world. As in his debut novel, Rules of Civility, Towles displays an emotional intelligence that I find rare in male authors, so that this second novel is as much a psychological study as it is an historical one. 

Eventually, an old friend who turns to Rostov for help when he is in desperate political trouble; begs Rostov to look after his young daughter while he is serving a prison term. When what is supposed at first to be an arrangement of a week or two, at most a month or two, becomes permanent, Rostov has a bright and very curious accomplice in his investigation of the vast hotel and its many famous guests. Nina is soon regarded as his adopted daughter, and she roams the hotel and learns of its secrets even more thoroughly than Rostov. While this twist of fate somewhat tests the credulity of readers, Towles manages to make it seem  quite natural for the lives of these two to be combined, and certainly the novel is much richer for this addition of a second set of eyes and investigative curiosity.

Via his intimate knowledge of the hotel staff and some of the guests who return each season, Rostov manages to live a varied and interesting life. So much so, that at one point his old friend Mishka says, “Who would have imagined when you were sentenced to life in the Metropol all those years ago, that you had just become the luckiest man in all of Russia.”

In the course of this longish novel, Towles speculates about why the German offensive aimed at the taking of Moscow fails in spite of the very rapid advances in the early weeks and months of that campaign, and speculates as well about the tendency of Russians to destroy and dismantle, name and rename, only to rebuild on the ashes of what has been torn down. St. Petersburg becomes Leningrad only to become St. Petersburg again as leaders rise and fall. 

The novel is meticulously crafted, and displays quite an in-depth understanding of Russian history and what the author calls the psychology of Russia. While it is occasionally obvious that the author did much of his research after writing a first draft of the novel, the narrative is seamless and the historical asides do not seem intrusive; instead they add depth to the story. 

Towles is now a full time writer, and I think we can expect further fascinating and well researched tales to follow his first two novels. 

Monday, April 17, 2017

The Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly

I want to talk to you about a book that is sometimes so horrifically sad I almost gave up on it several times, and it is with some hesitancy that I recommend it to you. While it is a really good and important book, I feel somehow responsible for recommending reading experiences of this sort. The book has a disarmingly sweet title, Lilac Girls; it is very well researched and based on historical figures. There are three central narrators: Caroline Ferriday, a New York socialite and liaison to the French Consulate; Kasia Kuzmerick, a Polish teenager; and Herta Oberheuser a young German doctor. The story begins in 1939 with the German invasion of Poland. Kasia becomes involved in the Polish underground as a courier, which eventually leads to her arrest along with the arrests of her sister Zuzanna and her mother. After being introduced to Kasia and her girlfriends in the Polish town of Lublin, very soon the action switches to Ravensbruck, the German concentration camp for women, allegedly a re-education center where women are to be corrected and repatriated.

In fact, the conditions at Ravensbruck are deplorable from the beginning.  Beneath a façade of pretty flower boxes and rows of linden trees, the sadistic woman guards with their ferocious Alsatian guard-dogs do as they please with the women prisoners. Herta Oberheuser is an ambitious and bright young doctor, but in spite of Hitler’s claim that men and women professionals will be equally respected, Gerta is sent to Ravenbruck almost as a punishment, and she vows on her first day there that she will be gone by sunup. Instead she decides to wow her male bosses and to show them she is the most accomplished doctor at the camp. 

Without dwelling too long on the horrendous experiments carried out at Ravenbruck, let me say simply that in attempting to mimic traumatic battlefield injuries, many of the women and young girls were operated on, without sulfonamide drugs and with intentionally introduced foreign objects and bacteria during the surgeries, and then simply observed to see how many would die and just how some recover in spite of the horrible infections in the wounds. The women who are operated on in this barbaric way are called rabbits, both because of the way they hop and and limp around the camp after the operations and because they are treated as experimental animals. 

The novel covers twenty years in the lives of the women who survive the camp and of Herta who is eventually the only woman doctor who is tried for war crimes at Nuremberg. Carolyn Ferriday becomes a champion for the rabbits both during the war and in its aftermath. Kelly, the author, talks in an afterward about her many years of research in writing Lilac Girls. 
I moved from Connecticut to Atlanta in 2009 and began writing at first sitting in the concrete and chain link dog kennel behind our home, hoping it would evoke what it was like to be imprisoned, to feel what the Ravensbruck Ladies felt. But as I read more firsthand accounts of the women’s stories, I realized I didn’t need to sit in a cage in order to feel their story. They brought me there all too well. The terrifying uncertainty. The rip of losing their friends and mothers and sisters. The starvation. I found myself eating constantly, trying to eat for them. 
Fortunately, the last section of the book is about the lives of these women after the war when Caroline brings a group of them to the U.S. for restorative surgery and to treat the after-effects of their experimental surgeries. And while the entire novel is tough on the reader, the bravery and camaraderie of the women is inspirational. And while there are incredible hardships for the women, there are also times of laughter and dancing and deep love. 

Some of the women are able to forgive and move on after the war, others not. In a conversation between Kasia and her older sister Zuzanna (both part of the experimental surgeries).
“At least now Herta Oberheuser is in a cold cell eating beans from a can,” I said.
“You might think about a letting it go Kasi.”
“I’ll never forgive them, if that’s what you’re saying.”
“It only hurts you to hold on to the hate.”
My sister seldom bothered me, but her positivity could be irritating. How could I forgive? Some days the hate was the only thing that got me through.

While I am grateful to have read this incredible story of courage and sacrifice, it is not likely I will pick this book up again. I recommend it to you as an excellent historically based novel, but also a ‘Handle with care’ injunction.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

I only discovered Colm Toibin last year when I read his superb novel, The Master, a novel about the life of Henry James. In his short, exquisitely written 2009 novel, Brooklyn, he creates such a quiet masterpiece that the reader is left wondering at the end how he did it. This novel is about a young Irish girl who leaves her home in a small village to venture to Brooklyn. The girl, Eilis, has completed a course in bookkeeping and is known to have a good head for figures, but there is no work for her in the village in which she grows up.  Through the efforts of her older sister, Rose, and a Catholic priest who takes an interest in her, she books third class passage on a ship bound for New York where she will come of age isolated from the only people she knows. 

Eilis doesn’t really want to leave her mother and sister, and yet she would not dream of telling them that as it would appear that she is ungrateful for their attempts to give her a better life.
She has already packed one case and hoped, as she went over its contents in her mind, that she would not have to open it again. It struck her on one of those nights, as she lay awake, that the next time she would open that suitcase it would be in a different room in a different country, and the thought came unbidden into her mind that she would be happier if it were opened by another person who could keep the clothes and shoes and wear them every day. She would prefer to stay at home, sleep in this room, live in this house, do without the clothes and shoes. The arrangements being made, all the bustle and talk, would be better if they were for someone else, she thought, someone like her, someone the same size and age, who maybe even looked the same as she did, as long as she, the person who was thinking now, could wake in this bed every morning and move as the day went on in these familiar streets and come home to the kitchen, to her mother and Rose.
The story of her voyage and the horrible seasickness that strikes all the third-class below-deck passengers, and of her eventual arrival at a boarding house run by a kindly Irish woman is so patiently and slowly told that is almost as if it is only between the lines that the reader learns of her terrible homesickness. Again, Eilis is unwilling and unable to express her loneliness even in letters home, since to do so would make her seem ungrateful for all that has been done for her. 
Nothing here was part of her. It was false, empty, she thought. She closed her eyes and tried to think, as she had so many times in her life, of something she was looking forward to, but there was nothing. Not the slightest thing. Not even Sunday. Nothing maybe except sleep, and she was not even certain she was looking forward to sleep. In any case, she could not sleep yet, since it was not yet nine o’clock. There was nothing she could do. It was as though she had been locked away.
Already my rendering of the story is much more sentimental than Toibin’s. Even the pathos of the story is so patiently and quietly spun out and the language so plain and simple that the tremendous emotional effect comes almost as a surprise. 

Although the story develops very slowly, it does build to a kind of climax and with an element of mystery in it that I would not think of divulging to you. 

The only novel I can compare this with in terms of its quiet profundity is Julian Barnes’ masterpiece, The Sense of an Ending. Despite the loneliness and homesickness of Eilis, and the fears that lurk just below the surface, this is also an uplifting and positive work. In many ways a historical novel about old New York, I believe readers will remember it most for its intricate portrayal of a young woman caught between two worlds, or as The New Yorker put it in a review:
Toibin creates a narrative of remarkable power, writing with a spareness and intensity that give the minutest shades of feeling immense emotional impact…Purging the immigrant novel of all swagger and sentimentality, Toibin leaves us with a renewed understanding that to emigrate is to become a foreigner in two places at once.

This is probably the best book I have read so far this year, and I have read a lot of excellent novels. I think you will love it for its slow intensity and its intricate detail about a lived life.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Quicksand by Nella Larsen

In honor of Black History month, I want to talk to you about an author I suspect most of you (even the avid readers) have not heard of, Nella Larson, and her short but powerful novel, Quicksand. Associated historically with the group of artists grouped together as the Harlem Renaissance, I suspect that this novel made a lot of people, both people of color and white, quite uncomfortable. The title is singularly appropriate, for Helga Crane saw her life (and the lives of many, perhaps most) Blacks as lives caught and slowly sinking into Quicksand—lives in which even the struggle to get out, get ahead, get going was destined to pull people down, snaring and suffocating them mentally and spiritually.

Helga has a Danish mother and an African-American father, and from early on feels that she belongs nowhere. The reader picks up her life when she is twenty-two and teaching at a well-respected Negro school. She is engaged to another teacher, and thought of highly by the school’s president, but she is profoundly unhappy and thinking of leaving her position. She had that afternoon “had to listen to the banal, the patronizing and even insulting remarks of one of the renowned white preachers of the state,” and that speech along with her daily routines have brought her close to a decision to resign from her post.
This was, he had told them with obvious sectional pride, the finest school for Negroes anywhere in the country, north or south; in fact, it was better even than a great many schools for white children. And he had dared any Northerner to come south and after looking at this great institution to say that the Southerner mistreated the Negro. And he said that if all Negroes would only take a leaf out of the book of Naxos and conduct themselves in the manner of the Naxos products, there would be no race problem, because Naxos Negroes knew what was expected of them. They had good sense and they had good taste. They knew enough to stay in their places, and that, said the preacher, showed good taste. 
Helga’s answer to this is “No forever!”  And though she has very little money or prospects, she decides to leave the school and her fiancé, in spite of the president’s attempt to keep her there, telling her she is just the sort of person the school needs. Her fiancé, who feels fortunate to have a position in the school remains, and Helga trains north to make a living in whatever way she can. She is frankly and deeply confused by the whole issue of color.
For the hundredth time she marveled at the gradations within this oppressed race of hers. A dozen shades slide by. There was sooty black, shiny black, taupe, mahogany, bronze, copper, gold, orange, yellow peach, ivory, pinky white, pastry white. There was yellow hair, brown hair, black hair: straight hair, straightened hair, curly hair, crinkly hair., wooly hair. She saw black eyes in white faces, brown eyes in yellow faces, gray eyes in brown faces, blue eyes in tan faces....
Of course, life in the north is no better; besides the meaningless service jobs she has to accept, she also has to deal with men who want to save her. Finally, through happenstance, she finds a way to go to Denmark, and for a while things seem much better. Living there with an aunt, she is more than accepted into the community, but as a kind of exotic novelty. She is even courted by a famous artist who expects her to swoon when he offers marriage, “But you see, Herr Olsen, I’m not for sale. Not to you. Not to any white man. I don’t at all care to be owned, even by you.”

Finally, surprising even herself, she returns to America, though she dreads it. Without telling too much more of the story, I will tell you that she finally goes through an existential crisis, and for a short time decides that religion is the answer for her. She marries a preacher, has children and is soon engulfed in that life of mothering, though she very soon loses respect for the adored-by-others preacher.

No happy endings here; after an illness that almost kills her, and with a dawning awareness that religion is not the answer, that she must find a better more rebellious way, “…hardly has she left her bed and become able to walk again without pain, hardly had the children returned from the homes of the neighbors, when she began to have her fifth child.”

Yes, this is a sad little book, but I think a profound one.