Posts tagged ‘Historical Fiction’

When You Make Assumptions…- “Lilac Girls” by Martha Hall Kelly

This book, like approximately 60% of any book being published right now, is set during World War II.   While I do understand that WWII as a device is extremely compelling for writers I  wonder when this trend will begin to tamper off.  Honestly, it is getting a little wearisome.  And this was my mind-set when I started “Lilac Girls” – oh look another WWII book.  Which is too bad because this book is well researched, well written and two of the characters are based on real people.  Unfortunately, at the time I read this book I did not know it was based on real people. So please forgive my assumptions which will be included in this review for your amusement.

25893693.jpgThe novel covers the life of three woman during WWII, dedicating each Chapter to one of the woman and the story flits back and forth.  There is Caroline, a former broadway actress and blue-blooded New Englander, who lives in New York City and volunteers her time for the French Consulate helping French orphans.  Across the ocean, Kasia Kuzmerick is living in Poland and is one-quarter Jewish when the Nazis invade her town.    Herta Oberheuser is a young German doctor looking for employment and a way to be independent and financially secure.

The three lives come together in both harrowing and beautiful ways.  Kasia becomes a part of the Polish resistance, only to eventually be taken to Ravensbrück when captured by the SS.  Herta finds a position at a wonderful spa-like resort (also Ravensbrück) doing medical experiments on political prisoners, including Kasia which she seems to excuse by the mind-set that are meant to be executed anyway.  And Caroline falls in love with a married man, prunes lilacs and after the war raises money for the women who suffered from the experiments of Dr. Herta Oberheuser.

As apparent by my description, as I read the book, I found Caroline’s story to be the least interesting and the most drawn out. Again, I had no idea this was based on a real life, so I was a bit confused as to why this character’s story mattered.  Now that I am not as ignorant as I was before realize that Kelly had some limitations here with Caroline.  Her real story does indeed have a lot of parts to it, as most lives do, and I admire Kelly for trying to write so much about Caroline.  She was quite the hero in multiple ways through-out the war but particularly in helping the women who had cruelly suffered both medically and psychologically from the camps. So I am that jerk who feels like her story lags a bit (I really am sorry about that).

I do think one of the short-comings of the book is Herta’s story.  At the beginning, Kelly seems committed to examining Herta’s choices and explaining how she ended up becoming who she was and doing what she did.   But in the middle of the book, Herta’s voice seems to end. I am unclear if Kelly wrote chapters here that were removed or if she just felt like she couldn’t push that envelope further.  Either way, it seems that it would have been interesting to follow Herta through her arrest and her time in prison to her release and reentry into society.  If the book starts with these three stories then it seems disjointed that it somehow become two stories instead.

To Kelly’s credit, this first book is quite a feat.   I will also admit I came to this book with assumptions and a bit of an attitude.  Needless to say, Kelly as a writer has my attention and I look forward to her next book.

But seriously writers, there really are other wars to write about. I promise…

 

October 12, 2016 at 6:31 pm Leave a comment

The Courage to Plant your Feet – “Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League” by Jonathan Odell

This author is just good.  He is a great storyteller and his writing is well suited for the story.  But his writing goes deeper than that – you can see in his writing that this author has a story all his own.  I really liked his book “The Healing” and was happy to come across this book at my favorite local book store The Book Loft (little plug for the independent bookstore).

516bMIYk55L._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_Don’t be fooled by the summary, this is a story you think you have read before, but it just isn’t.  Is the late 1940s and Hazel is a poor, white trash Southerner.  She is plain and stooped and doomed to be a farmer’s wife.  But convinced she is destined for more, Hazel teaches herself how to stand up straight, how to apply make-up, how to do her hair just so.  And so she becomes the desirable woman that Floyd is looking for when he walks into local Dairy Barn Diner.  Floyd sweeps Hazel off her feet.  They marry and move to Delta, Mississippi where, through the power of positive thinking, he is going to make all of their dreams come true.  By the 1950s, Hazel has two children, a house bigger than she ever dreamed, and a hole inside of her that she just can’t seem to fill.  And so, she drives around town and all over the countryside with her two boys in the back and a flask of whiskey in her lap.

By the time, Vida is hired as the housekeeper, Hazel has lost one son to an unfortunate jump off the porch and has been hospitalized multiple times for nervous breakdowns.  And while Hazel’s story is a sad one, it pales in comparison to Vida’s, which is not unlike the story of many Southern black women growing up in the 1940s and 50s.  She is a woman who was raped by the white sheriff, lost her son (who looked too much like the sheriff), and then lost her home.  Because of this, Vida has replaced her sense of self and her security (what little there was) with a quiet but deep-seeded rage.  It is an interesting parallel. While one woman, Hazel, is trying to fill a void that is slowing killing her, the other is trying to find an outlet for her rage that she is willing to let destroy her as long as she gets revenge.

The way Vida and Hazel’s lives intersect is not an unusual story, black housekeeper working for a sad rich, white lady, but their need for each other is what makes the story more interesting than others of its ilk.   The white woman doesn’t save the black woman here.  Or really vice versa. But they do help each other accomplish what they need to in order to fill those holes in themselves that were slowly and methodically destroying them.  That combination makes the story powerful and worthy of telling.

As in “The Healing,” Odell spends a lot of time with his female characters.  And, not even just for a male writer, he excels at it.  I recently heard Gillian Flyn (author of “Gone Girl”) speak and she said that sometimes when writing from the female prospective, male authors really push it. And then you are stuck with some ridiculous line like “and then I got my period” so you can feel like the male author really knows women.  But Odell does not need to rely on the triteness of this kind of writing, because quite frankly he is skilled – and that, perhaps sadly, is refreshing.

The topic is a tough one. Let’s be honest here, how much whining can a rich white woman do – particularly in the presence of such extreme racism in the 1950s South?  But somehow, because of the way Hazel pulls out of her slump to help the black women in her community, the reader can feel okay about Hazel’s hardships.  And as always, Odell’s afterward is key to the story.  We haven’t heard enough about women in the Civil Rights movement. Great numbers of women boycotted buses, suffered beatings and rapes and police dogs.  They linked arms and walked to demeaning jobs in white households, sometimes just to spy on their employers to forward the equality movement.  They have stories and those stories are important.  As Odell so insightfully points out, Mrs. Parks, on the day that she refused to move on that bus, “showed a million women where to plant their feet.”   And they did, time and time again.  I can only hope, when the time comes, we all have the courage to do the same.

As for Jonathan Odell, I just hope he keeps writing.

November 8, 2015 at 1:21 pm Leave a comment

Why is a Raven like a writing desk* – “Mrs. Poe” by Lynn Cullen

One of our favorite American writers gone wrong is Edgar Allan Poe.  His stories are haunting but maybe equally as
interesting is his bizarre marriage to his 13-year-old cousin and his death which is surrounded by urban legends of drunkenness, being found homeless in the street, etc.  “Mrs. Poe” is Cullen’s historical fiction novel about Poe’s affair with the little known poet Frances Osgood.  It all should be the formula for a pretty intriguing book.  But somehow Cullen is deftly able to skirt the intrigue and make this book a mundane and strangely redundant story.

mrs-poeIn 1845, Poe had become quite popular with his publishing of “The Raven.”  His wife, Virginia, was suffering from declining health as she and Poe made the rounds of the literary circles in New York City.  Like the Poes, Frances Osgood spent many evenings socializing in parlors with Whitman, Atwood and a whole other host of literary giants when she finally met Poe.  Frances and Poe seemed to have an immediate connection.  While Frances is married, her husband is a well-known philandering artist. She is lonely and destitute, hoping to publish some of her work.    She and Poe form a fast friendship which quickly grows into more.

There are clandestine meetings where gloves are left behind, whispers in crowded rooms, jealous spouses, gossiping neighbors.  And then there are more clandestine meetings, more rumors, love poems exchanged, societal gossip, some weird behavior by Poe’s wife, etc.  If you read the first one hundred pages of this book, you really can either read those pages again or read the second 200 pages because it is really all the same.  I hope I don’t ruin anything by sharing that they all do die at some point, so the cycle does end…eventually.

I am not trying to diminish  the research and work Cullen must have put into this book, but truly it is baffling how she has made her characters so predictably repetitive and mundane.  I have a young adolescent crush on Poe. He was one of the first writers I read that really scared me.  And the man himself has always been a bit of a puzzle.   But this book is just more of a curiosity then an insight into who Poe was.  I guess sometimes the riddle of the writer is best left alone.

*The unanswered riddle from “Alice in Wonderland”

October 21, 2015 at 12:44 pm 2 comments

Sometimes all you can do is just eat the cherry cobbler – “Redeployment” by Phil Klay

This collection of short stories is bitterly heartbreaking, comical, insightful, and some of the stories are simply amazing.  Phil Klay served in Iraq for 13 months as a Public Affairs Officer and his writing is beautiful.  Don’t get me wrong here, it is rough, harsh, and descriptive in a way that makes you wince, but it is beautiful.  Not to grandstand, but this is a book that everyone, particularly Americans, should read.

The stories begin with a marine returning home to his wife after a tour in Iraqi.  His long anticipated return is awkward and not exactly what he had been looking forward to:

“Getting back feels like your first breath after nearly drowning. Even if it hurts, it’s good.”

They had been thumbs_military_policemen_on_security_patrol_outside_tq_-_shooting dogs in Iraq for sport and the soldier returns to his beloved dog who is old and sick.  It is awful to think of shooting dogs, so this book was a rough start for me, but there is an important point Klay is making.  This is who the soldier becomes. The man, who has a dog that he loves and misses and cares for at home, can put that piece of himself or herself away and think of dogs as target practice.

And the stories take you through all these pieces of being a soldier – the mundane day to day tours, the house raids, the mind-numbing administrative positions, the frustratingly stupid foreign politics, etc.  Klay doesn’t miss the ridiculous either, the all Iraq needs is baseball or widow beekeepers to recover moments are in there and they are head-shakingly funny.   But most compelling for me is how we place these people in extraordinary situations, with guns and death and nightmares in the making, and then we expect them to be able to handle the “normal.”   Once you go through this experience a simple trip to the mall with crowds of people takes on a whole different meaning of awareness.

The story that really seemed to the best example of that expectation of normal  was early on in the book. After a raid on a Iraqi home, after cleaning off the blood of Iraqis and fellow soldiers, the men sit down in the mess hall to dinner with their choice of any kind of cobbler.  For one young kid this was the first time he had killed anyone and he just sits there staring.  The other guys get him cherry cobbler, it is supposed to be the best, and hand him a spoon.

It is the best illustration that there are these moments in life where all you can do is keep going, even if that means you are just committing to do a small everyday thing.  Because really, if you think about it, we were told we were fighting this war to hold onto the small everyday things that make our lives meaningful.  Even things as simple as cobbler.

“Maybe you didn’t understand American foreign policy or why we were at war. Maybe you never will. But it doesn’t matter. You held up your hand and said, “I’m willing to die for these worthless civilians.” 

August 30, 2015 at 9:21 am 3 comments

Round peg meet square hole – “Dollbaby” by Laura Lane McNeal

UnknownLet me begin this review by saying please publishers, for the love of all things holy, stop comparing every book where there are African-American servants to “The Help.”  That was not the first book written about the topic and we are not all looking for the next great book that is like “The Help.”  It was a fine book but it did not redefine the literary world or create a ground-breaking forum for racial discussion. Okay, now onto this book (which has been compared to “The Help”).

After her father dies in a bike accident, Ibby (Liberty) Bell finds herself dropped off by her unstable mother at her grandmother’s house in New Orleans.  Ibby has never met her grandmother before and finds her awkward teen self living in an old house with weird decor and African-American servants who teach her about life and her family’s history. Yep, that about sums it up.

This novel is McNeal’s first and it is just crammed with a bunch of stories, deaths (way too many to be believable), mental illness (also, a lot of this interlaced with the death thing) and poorly crafted descriptions.   Nothing seems to fit right.  The author tries to make the story relevant by setting it during the Civil Rights movement and having Doll, one of the African-American servants, protest at a Woolworth’s counter. But that part of the story line never goes anywhere so I am not sure why it was even necessary.   The characters did not resonate with me either, and I found myself wishing I cared more about someone, anyone, so I could connect better with the story.

McNeal also has a narrator problem. While it would seem we are crafting a story told by a third person omniscient narrator, the omniscient part of the narrator comes and goes.  So at times, there is a whole back story that is thrown in  while at other times, well, who knows what anyone is thinking or why they are doing what they are doing – and what is behind door number 2 on the second floor.  It is just awkward and confusing.

Perhaps equally bizarre is the author’s note that this is a tribute to New Orleans, when in fact there really were not a whole lot of descriptions of New Orleans as a city and most of the story takes place in Ibby’s grandmother’s old, rickety Victorian home.  I really don’t know what to make of it.

This book is like a patchwork quilt without any kind of plan – and the result is just uncomfortable and sad, because you know it took a lot of work.  But even knowing all the work that went into it, you still want a quilt to look pretty and a book to tell a well-crafted story.

Oh well, onward.  Have you heard about a book called “The Help”…

June 8, 2015 at 4:24 pm Leave a comment

The Schools out It’s Time to Read List

I have been reading a lot, and a lot of the books have been fun.  So here is what I think you should be reading while malingering by the pool.

1. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel: This was one of those big hype books that never sounded particularly like my kind of genre.  But it is just so good. Admittedly, it is another of those futuristic, lots of people die from a disease, stories. But the way the story is linked with the life of a celebrity actor is just fascinating.  The novel also takes  an interesting look at theater and how it changes as the world changes. Celebrity acting is such a disconnecting/lonely thing but a traveling troupe of actors connects people and towns.  I can’t guarantee your money back or anything, but this book is worth the leap of faith.

2. The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon: This book is creepy and scary and all of those good things that a creepy-scary book should be.  Below the floor boards in an old house, surrounded by encroaching woods,  someone finds the diary of a woman who was murdered in 1908.  This is really all I need to say, right?

3. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng: You know from the first sentence of the book that Lydia is dead but her family does not.  Lydia is the teen daughter of a mixed-race marriage in the 1970s.  Her father is Chinese and her mother is Caucasian.  While it is a mystery through-out how Lydia died, it is not the driving force of the book. It is instead driven by the dreams that parents have and how the unspoken force of these dreams can do great harm, even when they are meant with the best intentions.  This novel was amazingly insightful, particularly in how Ng examines how broken people carry their brokenness into parenthood.

4. At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen:  I didn’t think this was a stunning novel.  And it was extremely predictable, almost painfully so, but it took place in Scotland and that made me inexplicably happy.  It is set during WWII, when three American socialites Maddie and her husband Ellis, along with his friend Hank, decide to head to Loch Ness to find the infamous monster.  They are spoiled, rich kids with a ridiculous plan.  While Ellis and Hank spend their days drinking on the shores of Loch Ness, with binoculars, Maddie sits at the pub and waits.  There is a sully maid and a burly pub keeper – so one gets in a fight, another woman gets pregnant, etc.  I think you get the idea but it is a fun, mindless read for the summer.

IMG_0498Swim, read. Work, read. Have a cocktail, read. Have two cocktails, read.  Whatever happens just make sure it ends with a book. Cheers.

May 26, 2015 at 7:05 pm Leave a comment

Cider, Crepes and Street Dancing – “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr

“All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr, Published in 2014

In the Summer of 2003, my husband and I took a trip to France.  Somehow, we ended up in the beautiful, walled city of St. Malo.  It was touristy – there were a lot of fat, shirtless Frenchimages-1 men, sticky children, street vendors and sunburns.  We also got to see some very bad, but terribly amusing, street ballet.  I am really using the term “ballet” loosely here.  But the streets, the city walls, the beach, all of it is beautiful.  And I had the best mushroom crepe and bottle of cider of my life in that city – something I have tried multiple times to replicate but have failed miserably.  So this book, which opens with a scene in St. Malo, made me so happy to remember that crepe and bottle of cider that I was instantly in love with it – I guess I am just that simple really.

At the outset of WWII, Marie-Laure lives in Paris with her father, a locksmith for the Museum of Natural History.  At the age of six, Marie-Laure becomes blind and finds herself having to experience her world through her hands, her feet, her sense of distance – everything is a tactile experience.  At the same time in Germany, young Werner is growing up in an orphanage with an amazing propensity to understand the interworkings of radios.  He quickly finds himself swept up by the Hilter youth and the propaganda, yet always with that feeling that something is just not quite right.   As the Germans begin to invade France, Marie-Laure and her father must flee Paris and they find themselves on the doorstep of Marie-Laure’s eccentric great-uncle in St. Malo.  Werner eventually finds himself in St. Malo as well and the two stories intertwine.

This story didn’t grab me when I read what this book was about on the back cover of the jacket.  And when I read what I wrote above it still doesn’t. But don’t let that fool you, this book is a piece of art.  Doerr is able to take the reader into the world of blindness and somehow make everything seem brighter.  He can describe Marie-Laure’s world of touch, and all her senses, in such a way that it makes the reader feel like they are missing out on too much beauty by relying on their eyes.

To really touch something, she is learning—the bark of a sycamore tree in the gardens; a pinned stag beetle in the Department of Etymology; the exquisitely polished interior of a scallop shell in Dr. Geffard’s workshop—is to love it.

On the other side of the story, Doerr has taken a very complicated situation like Nazism and the baffling question of how it swept nations in its cruelty and evil and with Werner  has shown how maybe, just maybe, when all of the circumstances are just so, it is scarily easy to get wrapped up in something.  Doerr also astutely writes about the consequences of Germany and being German, both during and after the war, in a way that I found enlightening and thoughtful but without making excuses or defending the indefensible.  It is done with gentle story-telling and simple detail, something that, in my humble opinion, makes a writer truly great.

It is inspiring that Doerr has taken one of the darkest times in modern history, and uses the characters of a blind girl and a powerless orphan soldier, perhaps the seemingly least important people, to show how bright and intricate and important our world and our lives are.  Even without a crepe and a bottle of cider or even really awful street performing, I am so happy to be reminded of that.

Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.

Unknown

 

March 7, 2015 at 6:43 pm 2 comments

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There is some great literature out there, but there is a lot of bad literature as well. We shouldn't all have to read it. These are my recommendations and thoughts about the books I read.

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