What I’ve Been Reading

I also believe that there is no book so bad that you can’t find anything in it of interest. You can learn something from the very worst books . . . even if it’s just one gleaming insight in a muddy river of words.
Will Schwalbe, Books for Living

I agree with Will Schwalbe. Although I don’t love every book I finish, there’s something to appreciate, enjoy, and learn in each one. Usually, if a book isn’t working for me, I won’t finish it — but sometimes, I persevere because reviews have led me to believe that it’s going to improve. This is like heading outside with no raincoat or umbrella as black storm clouds gather. Here are some mini-reviews of books I’ve read recently, starting with my favorites.

33135584My favorite book this year (so far):

Educated: A Memoir (Tara Westover) — This is my first “I couldn’t put it down” book of 2018. It’s the amazing true story of a young woman raised off the grid in a strict fundamentalist/survivalist family. Not allowed to attend school or visit doctors, Tara Westover was used as slave labor in her family’s scrap business, suffering life-threatening injuries multiple times. Through incredible strength and some lucky breaks, Westover got herself to college and eventually to graduate school at Cambridge.

9780735213180My favorite novel so far this year:

The Immortalists (Chloe Benjamin) — Reading the jacket copy might make you think this book is a work of magical realism, but it’s really a family story — but a very creative one. Four children visit a fortune teller who claims to be able to predict the day each of them will die. The rest of the novel follows each sibling’s path through life, asking the question: how much control do we have over the trajectory of our lives?

Terrific narrative nonfiction:

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI (David Grann) — The author of The Lost City of Z, which I loved, has written another outstanding  “truth is stranger than fiction” page-turner about a buried piece of history. In the early part of the twentieth century, the Osage Indians, who’d been banished to what the government thought was a useless piece of land in Oklahoma, discovered oil. Their newfound wealth led to a shocking and cold-blooded plot to murder many of them — a plot that was uncovered by the fledgling FBI. The photos of the people involved (victims, and their family members, villains, and heroes) add to the tragic and compelling story.

The perfect gift for your sister, mother, daughter, or friend:

Tell Me More: Stories About the 12 Hardest Things I’m Learning to Say (Kelly Corrigan) —  Corrigan’s trademark wisdom and self-deprecating humor shine in this series of personal essays.

9780399592065For anyone who loved When Breath Becomes Air:

Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved (Kate Bowler) — At age 35, Kate Bowler, a divinity professor and new mother, found she had Stage IV cancer. A scholar of the American prosperity gospel, which asserts that God will bless the deserving with health and wealth, Bowler is forced to confront uncertainty. She laces her heartbreaking memoir with wit and humor. Start at the end of the book — Appendix 1 (“Absolutely Never Say This to People Experiencing Terrible Times: A Short List”) and Appendix 2 (“Give This a Go, See How It works: A Short List”).

97807352122062017 Man Booker Prize finalist, new in paperback:

Exit West (Mohsin Hamid) — Some books are best enjoyed and appreciated by solitary readers, while others demand discussion. Exit West, a finalist for last year’s Man Booker Prize, is one of the latter. It’s the story of a young couple, Saaed and Nadia, who escape their war-torn country through a series of magical doors. Fans of The Underground Railroad will love this novel.

I should have read it in 2017 . . . but I’m glad I finally got to it:

Sing, Unburied, Sing (Jesmyn Ward) — Last year’s National Book Award winner is a beautifully written story about, among other things, the legacy of slavery. I had to slow myself down while reading it to savor the language. Usually, when ghosts show up in a book, I put the book down in disappointment — but I can’t imagine this novel without the ghosts.

34275229To keep on your bedside table:

Mothers of Sparta: A Memoir in Pieces (Dawn Davies) — A collection of essays about parenthood that will have you chuckling one moment and choking up the next, Mothers of Sparta is a raw and beautiful book. The titular essay, about the challenges of raising a severely handicapped son, is particularly moving. Davies intersperses the story of her son’s difficult childhood with the story of mothers raising sons to be Spartan warriors.

Oprah’s recent book club choice — I thought it was pretty good:

An American Marriage (Tayari Jones) — Married just a year, Roy and Celestial are adjusting to marriage when Roy is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit and sentenced to a lengthy prison term. Through letters, we see Celestial’s commitment unraveling, and when Roy is released early, matters come to a head. This is an insightful portrait of flawed but appealing characters facing a no-win situation. I was a little bothered by a plot hole and would love to discuss this book with other readers.

Written by a publishing insider:

The Woman in the Window (A.J. Finn, pseudonym) — This is a solid suspense novel that doesn’t quite live up to the hype. But what could? It kept me engrossed on a long plane trip, even if  I didn’t find the ending completely surprising. Hitchcock aficionados will enjoy the film references.

38330854For fans of domestic thrillers:

The Perfect Nanny (Leila Slimani) — Plenty of controversy has surrounded this French bestseller which is loosely based on a real-life case in New York City in which a nanny murdered her charges. The author has been accused of making judgments about working women and of exploiting a tragedy (see this article in the New York Times). I thought it was a realistic, if horrifying, glimpse into the mind of a person descending into insanity.

Novel that our YA book group enjoyed discussing:

Far From the Tree (Robin Benway) — The National Book Award winner for Young People’s Literature in 2017, Far From the Tree tells the affecting story of three siblings, given up by their birth mother, who find one another as teenagers. I’m a little surprised this won the National Book Award — it’s very good but not exceptional.

Currently #1 on the New York Times bestseller list — but why?

The Great Alone (Kristin Hannah) — Hmmm. This novel about PTSD, domestic abuse, and the Alaska wilderness kept me turning the pages on a recent beach vacation, and the Little House in the Prairie fan in me loved learning about twentieth century homesteading. But the writing is subpar — lots of blankets of snow and buttery sunshine — and the characters were stereotypical and uninteresting.

Heather, the Totality (October 2017) by Matthew WeinerThe shortest hardcover book I’ve ever read: (144 pages, lots of white space):

Heather, the Totality (Matthew Weinstein) — This is a very weird little book. I can’t decide if it’s brilliant or just plain bad, and the reviews are equally divided. (See the article in Library Journal, “What to Make of Heather, the Totality.”) Perfect for book clubs, especially those looking for short books. Our group joked that we spent more time discussing the book than it took to read it. The author is the creator of Madmen, which is interesting because there’s hardly any dialogue in the book.

Skip this one — but read the author’s earlier novel, Black Chalk:

Grist Mill Road (Christopher Yates) — This ambitious novel starts out with a bang — literally, as a teenage boy repeatedly shoots a female classmate with a BB gun as another boy watches, leaving  her for dead. Soon, the characters are introduced as adults and we learn that the victim and the observer are married to one another. Through each character’s version of events, we go back to the day of the crime, eventually learning what really happened and why. The twist was a big disappointment, and I closed the book feeling that I’d been cheated.


What Fiction to Read Next — Fall 2017

tom_stedfast_reading_by_the_fireAnd indeed, what is better than to sit by one’s fireside in the evening with a book, while the wind beats against the window and the lamp is burning?
Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary

Publishers love to release their big, prestigious books in the fall, just in time for holiday shopping. And people claim to love summer reading, but the cooler months are the best time to curl up with a good book. The problem every fall is that there are too many books getting lots of buzz. How do readers determine which of these books are overhyped, overlong, or overambitious?

Nearly every publication that covers the literary scene, print and online, assembles a list of “must-read” books every fall. The same titles pop up again and again, as an article in Literary Hub (The Ultimate Preview: The Most Recommended Books of Fall) points out. Literary Hub looked at seventeen articles, including The Most Anticipated Books of Fall 2017 (Publishers Weekly), 27 of the Best Books to Read This Fall (Elle), 28 Exciting New Books You Need to Read This Fall  (Buzzfeed), and 28 New Fiction Books to Add to Your Must-Read List This Fall (Huffington Post). Why 27? Why 28? Who knows.

One of the more peculiar lists is Today.com’s 6 Must-Read Books for Fall, which includes Sing,Unburied, Sing and Manhattan Beach, of course, but also the actress Anna Faris’s debut literary effort, Unqualified, in which she “shares lessons she’s learned along the way.” (Note to the Today.com writer who assembled the list: Faris’s soon-to-be ex-husband, Chris Pratt, wrote the FOREWORD to the book, not the FORWARD.)

Since I prefer lists of ten, here are the ten works of fiction that appear most often on Literary Hub’s fall previews:

  • Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan (mentioned on nearly every list)
  • Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
  • Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward (finalist for the National Book Award)
  • Fresh Complaint by Jeffrey Eugenides (short stories)
  • Five Carat Soul by James McBride (short stories)
  • My Body and Other Stories by Carmen Maria Machado (short stories)
  • Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss
  • The Golden House by Salman Rushdie
  • Dinner at the Center of the Earth by Nathan Englander
  • The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott

34467031I’m currently reading and enjoying Manhattan Beach — but it’s very different from Jennifer Egan’s earlier novels, which experimented with form and content. According to an article in the New Yorker, “Jennifer Egan’s Travels Through Time”, Egan “is a realist with a speculative bent of mind, a writer of postmodern inclinations with the instincts of an old-fashioned entertainer. She’s known for her roving, unpredictable imagination, and for the dazzling ingenuity of her narrative conceits.” Manhattan Beach is straightforward historical fiction, focusing on Anna Kerrigan, who becomes one of the U.S. Army’s first female deep-sea divers during World War II. Egan spent nearly fifteen years writing the book, doing prodigious amounts of research and producing draft after draft.

It’s interesting that three of the books most frequently recommended are collections of short stories, because in my experience hardly anyone wants to read short stories. I’m not sure why, because short stories are perfect for those times when you’re between books, or don’t have the time to immerse yourself in your current book. It can be very satisfying to read a thoughtful, well-written story. You feel like you’ve accomplished something. And there are many stories you can read in 10 or 15 minutes . . . stories that you will be thinking about for much, much longer than that. But they’re a tough sell. To read my sales pitch for short stories, check out Five Reasons to Read Short Stories.

I had the pleasure of hearing Nicole Krauss discuss Forest Dark at a local bookstore event. One of her earlier books, The History of Love, is on my list of all-time favorites. My reaction after reading Forest Dark: Wow, this is a brilliant book. My reaction after listening to Krauss speak, and read from her novel: Wow, she is brilliant. The New York Times calls her “an incisive and creative interpreter of Kafka”; the Guardian says Forest Dark is “blazingly intelligent, elegantly written and a remarkable achievement. Yes, but . . . this is a novel that I admired more than I loved.

33931059On the other hand, I loved Alice McDermott’s The Ninth Hour. McDermott is one of my very favorite writers, and I’ve had to wait four years for The Ninth Hour. (Someone came out in 2013). Every time I read one of her books, I think, This one is her best, and that’s exactly what went through my mind when I finished The Ninth Hour. In Brooklyn, about one hundred years ago, a young husband commits suicide, leaving behind his pregnant wife. His widow, Annie, and his daughter, Sally, are taken in by nuns in the nearby convent. Sally marries a local boy, Patrick, and their children and grandchildren are the narrators of this beautiful and poetic novel.

81bfa5_e351e59e2bca4560b16e670e16b69be0mv2I can’t stop raving about Little Fires Everywhere. It’s hard to believe that Celeste Ng could top Everything I Never Told You, her debut novel, but I think she has. In many ways, the books are similar. Everything I Never Told You starts with the mysterious death of a teenager; Little Fires Everywhere starts with a mysterious house fire. Both novels are concerned with the secret lives of teenagers and clashes between cultural groups. But Little Fires Everywhere adds even more layers of depth, with more characters and subplots. Don’t start this book until you have plenty of reading time ahead of you — you won’t want to stop. By the way, Little Fires Everywhere was Reese Witherspoon’s September pick for her book club. She often chooses terrific books — Alice Hoffman’s The Rules of Magic, which is next up in my TBR pile, is her selection this month.

32223884One book I haven’t seen on any of the fall preview lists is Rene Denfeld’s The Child Finder, and I don’t know why, because it’s one of the best books I’ve read all year. If anyone thought Denfeld was a one-hit wonder (The Enchanted) — don’t worry, The Child Finder is spectacular. The “child finder” of the title is Naomi, a private investigator who has a mysterious gift for finding missing children — and who was once a missing child herself. A heartbroken couple hires her to find their little girl, Madison, lost when they were cutting down a Christmas tree in Oregon’s Skookum National Forest. As Naomi searches for Madison, she comes closer to discovering the secrets of her own past. Echoes of fairy tales resound throughout this gorgeous novel, reminding the reader of the power of stories and imagination to heal and redeem. I can’t wait to meet the author at a Lake Forest Book Store luncheon this Wednesday.

What are you reading this fall?



Award Season

The book trade invented literary prizes to stimulate sales, not to reward merit.
Michael Moorcock

5194744409_f6d5829a19_bAlmost every year, when the nominees for the major literary prizes (Man Booker, National Book Award, and Pulitzer) are announced, I am bewildered. There’s always at least one book that I think is a masterpiece that the panels overlook, and there’s always at least one book that I think is mediocre that makes the shortlists.

The selection process for each of the prizes is different. For the National Book Awards, publishers submit nominations to the National Book Foundation, paying an entry fee for each book. There are four categories — Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, and Young People’s Literature — and each category has five judges. The judges receive the books by July 1, announce a longlist in September, choose finalists in October, and present the awards at a ceremony in November. According to the National Book Foundation’s website, “Each panel reads all of the books submitted in their category over the course of the summer. This number typically ranges from 150 titles (Poetry) to upwards of 500 titles (Nonfiction).” This year, publishers submitted 394 titles for the Fiction prize.

34467031Wow — that’s a lot of summer reading. It seems like the Poetry judges get off easy! The judges are authors, booksellers, librarians, and critics. This year’s Fiction judges are authors Alexander Chee, Dave Eggers, Karolina Waclawiak, and Jacqueline Woodson (chair), and bookseller Annie Philbrick. Last week, they chose ten novels that include works by established authors and past winners (Manhattan Beach by 2001 finalist Jennifer Egan, to be published October 3, and Sing, Unburied, Sing by 2011 winner Jesmyn Ward) as well as by debut authors (The Leavers by Lisa Ko, A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton, Barren Island by Carol Zoref).

According to Bustle (an online women’s magazine that covers the literary world, among other things), “These are the best of the best, book nerds, so get ready to read them all.” But are they really? I’m not actually qualified to say — I’ve only read two of the ten books, Ko_TheLeavers_HC_rgb_2MBThe Leavers and Pachinko (by Min Jin Lee) — but it’s hard to believe that those two novels are “the best of the best.” I enjoyed them both, but do they deserve to be National Book Award nominees?

Pachinko is the engrossing story of a Korean family, starting in in Japanese-occupied Korea in the beginning of the twentieth century and ending in Japan in the 1980s. It’s the sort of multigenerational saga that I adore, with the added benefit of covering unfamiliar territory: the experiences of ethnic minorities in Japan, and the culture of the pachinko parlor. Pachinko grabbed me from the beginning and wouldn’t let me go. However . . . I didn’t love the writing style. I was frequently distracted by oddly structured or ungrammatical sentences.

round-midnight-9781501157783_hrThe Leavers, about a Chinese immigrant woman and the son she abandons, also addresses cultural differences. It’s a worthwhile and enjoyable novel — but is it better than Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, or Everybody’s Son by Thrity Umrigar? Those excellent novels also concern themselves with adoption, race, and class. Actually, so does ‘Round Midnight by Laura McBride, which will definitely make my list of favorite novels at the end of 2017. McBride brilliantly weaves together the stories of several characters with Las Vegas as the backdrop. The writing is gorgeous and the story is perfectly paced and constructed, with surprises at every turn.

9781101870365Julia Glass’s A House Among the Trees is another of my favorites that didn’t make this year’s National Book Award longlist. Inspired by the life and career of Maurice Sendak, this compassionate and insightful novel explores art, truth-telling, and loyalty, while telling a well-plotted story. Glass won the National Book Award for her debut novel, Three Junes, in 2002. surprising the literary community. According to an article in New York magazine titled “Cinderella Story,”:

Jaws dropped when unknown author Julia Glass beat a field crowded with literary luminaries to win the National Book Award . . . She was selected over such best-selling competition as Ann Packer (The Dive From Clausen’s Pier) and Alice Sebold (The Lovely Bones), and such hip lit boys as Jonathan Safran Foer (Everything Is Illuminated), Mark Costello (Big If), and Adam Haslett (You Are Not a Stranger Here).

Ann Packer, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Adam Haslett have had successful careers since 2002, but Mark Costello hasn’t published another novel and Alice Sebold has only published one (The Almost Moon) and it was pretty awful. Julia Glass, on the other hand, has published five more very good books.

It’s anyone’s guess who will win this year’s National Book Award for Fiction. Last year’s choice, Colson Whitehead (The Underground Railroad), was the expected winner, but in 2015, Adam Johnson won for his short story collection, Fortune Smiles, beating  favorites Hanya Yanigahara (A Little Life) and Lauren Groff (Fates and Furies).

29983711Here’s the 2017 longlist for the National Book Award in Fiction — cast your vote, and we’ll see what happens in November. And if you’ve read any of those, I’d love to know what you think.

Dark at the Crossing by Elliot Ackerman
The King Is Always Above the People: Stories by Daniel Alarçon
Miss Burma by Charmaine Craig
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
The Leavers by Lisa Ko
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Her Body and Other Parties: Stories by Carmen Maria Machado
A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesymn Ward
Barren Island by Carol Zoref


Sons and Soldiers — Book Review

In occupied Germany, the refrain “We didn’t know” was becoming as common as “Ich bin kein Nazi” (I am no Nazi). The Germany Manny had left when his mother put him on a train as a fourteen-year-old to join other Jewish refugee children on a ship to America had lots of flag-waving Nazis. Now that the Thousand Year Reich had fallen, where had they all gone?
Bruce Henderson, Sons and Soldiers, describing the wartime experiences of Manfred Steinfeld, 82nd Airborne Division

fullsizeoutput_35caThe subtitle of Bruce Henderson’s Sons and Soldiers is The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazis and Returned with the U.S. Army to Fight Hitler. (Is it my imagination, or are the subtitles of nonfiction books keep getting longer and longer?) This workmanlike subtitle not only summarizes the book, but tells readers two things about Sons and Soldiers: 1) It’s one of a seemingly endless stream of books about fascinating but little-known aspects of World War II; and 2) The writing will be competent but not brilliant.

I will read almost anything about World War II, and I’m particularly drawn to relatively undiscovered stories, nonfiction and fiction. Sons and Soldiers, which tells the story of more than 2,000 German-born Jews who escaped Nazi Germany and joined the United States Army as military intelligence specialists, is exactly the kind of book that appeals to me. While It didn’t disappoint me –I found the stories of these extraordinarily brave men compelling and inspiring — Sons and Soldiers is not one of the best World War II books I’ve read. Henderson did an amazing amount of research on the Ritchie Boys, working with a team of researchers for two years to uncover their stories, and interviewing many veterans. Although he says, “Narrative nonfiction starts and ends with rigorous research, which allows an author to be meticulously selective in using only the material that adds to the impact of the story,” I thought he sometimes included too many details. I could have done without some of the long descriptions of battle scenes; I just wanted to know what the Ritchie Boys were doing.

What interested me most in the book were the stories of each of the Ritchie Boys that Henderson follows through the war years — their childhoods in Germany, their journeys to America, their wartime heroism, and the eventual fates of their families. I was captivated by Henderson’s account of the unorthodox interrogation technique that Werner Angress used during the Battle of the Bulge on a tough, battle-hardened German sergeant who, unlike most of his peers, refused to supply any information other than his name, rank, and serial number:

Werner shrugged and sat back . . . he inquired in German just how such an experienced old bird like him was taken prisoner by a bunch of green young Yankees. Offended, the prisoner began to stutter in response, then exploded in indignation. As the sergeant spewed an angry torrent of words, Werner interrupted with brief technical questions, all of which were promptly answered before the sergeant continued his diatribe. In this way, Werner soon knew the identity and strength of the sergeant’s unit, the names of his commanders, and other information . . . where the sergeant’s regimental headquarters were located, where their machine guns were placed, and even where the German soldiers lined up to get their chow.

After the war, the Army estimated that more than sixty percent of the credible intelligence gathered in Europe came from the Ritchie Boys. Their interrogation techniques relied not on bullying and intimidation, but on understanding the culture and psychology of the men they were interrogating.

The narrative isn’t linear, but jumps around as Henderson focuses on various Ritchie Boys — each of whom has a more incredible story than the next. I was sometimes confused, since one of the main characters would appear on one page and disappear for several chapters, only to show up in a different time and place. For example, the book opens with the arrest and deportation to Dachau of twelve-year-old Martin Selling. A couple of chapters later, he is released from Dachau and manages to obtain an exit visa from Germany. In the intervening chapters, we’re introduced to several other young German Jews whose families are trying desperately to get them out of the country, so when Martin reappears, most readers will find themselves flipping back to the beginning to reacquaint themselves with his story.

Despite my occasional frustration with the flow of the book, I couldn’t stop reading it. The courage these men displayed is almost unbelievable. As boys, they left their families behind, not knowing if they would ever see them again, and as young men, they risked their lives repeatedly, often turning down relatively safe assignments for dangerous missions. They all knew if they were captured by the Germans they wouldn’t be treated as American prisoners of war, but would be executed as Jews.

Stephan Lewy, one of the Ritchie Boys profiled in Sons and Soldiers, has spoken to more than 20,000 schoolchildren since he retired in 1991. One child asked him, “Are you like a cat with nine lives?” — a question that could reasonably be asked to any of the Ritchie Boys. Lewy, now ninety-one years old, has found it therapeutic to share his story, saying:

When I look into their faces as they listen to my story, I have hope that I can make a difference. My story shows what can happen if people do not act. Perhaps if enough people hear these stories, history will not repeat itself. I only hope the world has learned a lesson.



The Women in the Castle — Book Review

The Women in the Castle coverAlbrecht had not approved at first. Assassination. Murder. It was not the culmination he wanted for the resistance movement. In his estimation, injustice could be fought only with justice — he was a lawyer to the core. Murder was evil. This was an absolute. But if it would end the war and prevent the murder of thousands? Even millions? They had debated this often deep into the night with him probing his own convictions and Marianne playing devil’s advocate. Although in fact, she was not the devil’s advocate. She believed Connie and von Stauffenberg and the others were right. Hitler must be killed.
Jessica Shattuck, The Women in the Castle

The “women in the castle” are widows of three of the men who participated in the failed plot to assassinate Hitler in July 1944. In the aftermath of the war, they and their children take refuge in Burg Lingenfels, an ancient, crumbling castle in Bavaria. Their only common bond is that their husbands sacrificed their lives in a futile effort to save their country from Hitler. Marianne von Lingenfels, the moral center of the novel and “the product of an oppressively proper Prussian upbringing”, shelters her fellow war widows and their children in the safest place she knows, a fortress once famous for parties that celebrated “liberal, bohemian culture.”

The novel opens on November 9, 1938, the date that Nazis carried out pogroms against German Jews in the infamous attacks that would later be known as Kristallnacht.  That night, at a party at Burg Lingenfels, the news reaches Marianne, her husband, Albrecht, her close childhood friend, Martin Constantine (Connie) Fledermann, and others who oppose Hitler. Shocked and saddened, they “commit to active resistance from this day forward”. Although she is insulted by the men’s chauvinism, Marianne agrees to be “the commander of wives and children”, a role she takes seriously, “long after Connie was dead, Albrecht was dead, Germany itself was dead, and half the people at the party were either killed, destroyed by shame, or somewhere between the two . . .”.

The novel jumps to June 1945, when Marianne rescues Connie’s widow, Benita Fledermann, a young and uneducated woman from a small village, who has been held captive by the Russians in Berlin, along with her young son, who spent the war in a “Children’s Home” run by the Gestapo. Later, Marianne tracks down Ania Grabarek, widow of Pietre Grabarek, a Polish resister, in a displaced persons camp and brings her and her two sons to the castle.

The rest of the novel is devoted to the women’s experiences during and after the war, as Jessica Shattuck skillfully shifts points of view and time periods. The story, which both begins and ends at Burg Lingenfels, is not a traditional plot, but the unfolding of the women’s lives as they grapple with the guilt they feel for their wartime actions. In this way, they are emblematic of the German people, faced with their complicity in Nazi war crimes. But each of the women emerges as a believable, full recognized character. Readers may not agree with some of their choices, but they will understand.

In an interview, the author describes the origins of her novel: her German mother and Nazi grandparents. She spent a summer during college interviewing her grandmother, who was remarkably open about Nazism. (Shattuck’s grandfather, a “difficult and intimidating figure” was not as forthcoming.) Shattuck realized that many, if not most, members of her grandparents’ generation (“ordinary Germans”) were enthusiastic Nazis. Her grandmother wanted to talk about how this could have happened:

And she wanted to explain how it was possible that she could have been swept up in a movement that later became synonymous with evil. She did not want to be forgiven. She wanted to be understood. This is, I think, an important and often confused distinction. And in some ways, it formed the foundation of my novel.

Another source of inspiration for The Women in the Castle was a reunion of the wives and children of resisters that Shattuck attended:

One of my mother’s best friends was the daughter of a man executed for his role in the July 20, 1944, plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. The summer after my mother died, I accompanied this friend to her mother’s eightieth birthday party . . . Suddenly I was surrounded by people who had a wholly different connection to their German past: their loved ones had been heroes rather than villains.

647492Shattuck says that although “The Women in the Castle centers on three widows of resisters, it is as much a book about complicity as it is one about resistance.”  Franz Muller, with whom Benita falls in love, is tortured by his complicity in atrocities. I wasn’t surprised to read in Shattuck’s Acknowledgments that Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland by Christopher R. Browning was one of her sources. One of the most powerful and thought-provoking books I’ve ever read, Ordinary Men describes how a group of middle-aged men willingly murdered thousands of innocent Jews, even though they would suffer no negative repercussions if they refused to participate.

We’d all like to think that if we were Germans in 1938, we would have seen Hitler’s evil as clearly Marianne von Lingenfels and her fellow resisters did. But would we?

Readers who appreciate character-driven novels and want to understand World War II from a different perspective will love The Women in the Castle. I’m adding to my list of favorite World War II fiction, along with All the Light We Cannot See (still my #1!), Lilac Girls, Salt to the Sea, and The Invisible Bridge.







Time for Spring Break


March 31


April 1

According to the saying, March goes out like a lamb. I don’t know about that, because yesterday as I looked out the window on the 18th floor of a Chicago high-rise I saw low-lying gray clouds obscuring the tops of skyscrapers, cold waves crashing dangerously close to Lake Shore Drive, and rain blowing sideways. Today, on April 1, the sun is shining and runners are once again crowding the sidewalks and paths, so maybe spring is on its way. I’m going to take a “spring break” from blogging for a few weeks, but here are a few books I enjoyed that have just hit the shelves.

You’ve probably heard about two of this spring’s “big books”, The Women in the Castle and The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane.

25150798I loved Lisa See’s breakout novel, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, but didn’t think her subsequent books were quite as good. The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane is on a par with Snow Flower. The story, centered on a Chinese peasant woman and the daughter she’s forced to abandon, who is adopted by an American family, is terrific — and the novel is packed with interesting information about Chinese hill tribes and the tea industry. When I started the book I assumed it was set in the past, and was shocked when I realized the tribal culture See describes so well has only recently faded away as modernization has entered the most remote areas of China.  (By the way,  On Gold Mountain, the chronicle of the See family’s history in the United States, reads like a novel and might be my favorite of all See’s books.)

y648Jessica Shattuck’s debut novel, The Women in the Castle, has received a lot of pre-publication hype — deservedly so. If you think you’ve read more than your share of World War II novels, think again, because The Women in the Castle provides a fascinating perspective unfamiliar to most readers. The “women” of the title are the widows of three conspirators who plotted to assassinate Hitler. I’ll post a full review on April 20.

5d1367e3f15a78dddf64c5f28d93d06eI’d like to recommend a smaller novel you may not have heard about — The Devil and Webster by Jean Hanff Korelitz. (For those who are wondering, the author is a cousin of Helene Hanff, author of 84 Charing Cross Road.) I read this book almost without stopping, and when I reached the very satisfying ending, I actually wished the book were longer. Often, when I finish a book, I think, Didn’t anyone edit this book? I could have cut out a third of it.

Not only is Korelitz a marvelous writer, whose sentences inspire admiration, she’s spun a clever tale about a topic of great interest to me: political correctness and dissent on college campuses. Readers of The Sabbathday River, a thriller Korelitz published almost twenty years ago, may remember the character of Naomi Roth — I actually did, which says a lot about the strength of Korelitz’s writing. Naomi Roth reappears in The Devil and Webster, this time as the president of a prestigious liberal arts college in western Massachusetts, struggling with a student protest that threatens both her career and her relationship with her daughter.

The student protestors are irate that a popular professor, whose field of study is “folklore” and is known for his entertaining lectures and easy A’s, has been denied tenure. What they don’t know, and the college administration can’t legally share with them, is that he is guilty of academic dishonesty:

Plagiarism, plagiarism, Naomi thought, scanning the printout from the website, which Kinikini had brought for her. It was an ugly word, ugly to anyone who’d ever attempted the delicate but gut-wrenching task of setting words onto paper (or its technological equivalents). Words might feel universal, but they were not, because when they were put together they made patterns, and those patterns were as personally composed as any line of music or labored-over pigment on a canvas.

Anyone who’s a fan of campus novels or social satire will love The Devil and Webster. I’ve enjoyed all of Korelitz’s earlier books (unlike her famous cousin, Helene Hanff, whose response to Korelitz’s first effort was “Why would you write this?”), particularly Admission and You Should Have Known (read my review here). Please let me know what’s on your reading list this spring!


A Piece of the World — Book Review

a-piece-of-the-world-coverThis is a girl who has lived through broken dreams and promises. Still  lives. Will always live on that hillside, at the center of a world that unfolds all the way to the edges of the canvas.
Christina Baker Kline, A Piece of the World

Born just before the dawn of the twentieth century, middle-aged Christina Olson has spent her life on a remote and primitive farm on the coast of Maine. Time stands still for Christina, who suffers from a mysterious degenerative disease, and her bachelor brother, Al. They live as their ancestors did, hauling water from a nearby spring, making soap, chopping firewood, growing vegetables, and tending animals.

Christina’s father forces her to leave school after eighth grade, despite her quick and curious mind. “The wider world is no place for her,” he declares.  When Christina takes refuge in a book of poems by Emily Dickinson, her mother “dumps a basket of air-dried sheets” in her lap, admonishing that there’s “no time for lollygagging.” Throughout the novel, the reclusive poet’s puzzling lines resonate with the lonely Christina.

One summer afternoon, a young painter named Andrew Wyeth asks her for a glass of water. Summer after summer he returns, setting up his studio in an empty room in the farmhouse. “Andy” is fascinated with Christina and Al’s circumscribed life, asking questions not only about their habits and routines, but about the reasons they live as they do: “. . . Over time his inquiries became more personal. Why do Al and I live here alone, with all these empty rooms? What was it like when it was full of people, before most of the fields went to flower? . . . Did you or Al ever want to live somewhere, anywhere, else?”

6198741820_ebb42d5f9c_bOver the years, the artist and his subject develop a close and trusting relationship. Christina, a bitter woman whose life has brought her many disappointments, is difficult for most people to like. She rejects the kind, if awkward, attempts of neighbors to befriend and help her. But she and Andy are kindred spirits, in a way:

Later I reflect on the things we have in common and the things we don’t. Our stubbornness and our infirmities. Our circumscribed childhoods. His father kept him out of school; we’re alike that way. But N.C. trained him to be a painter and Papa trained me to take care of the house, and there’s a world of difference in that.

one_more_step_mr-_handsWhen Christina first meets Andrew Wyeth, he’s introduced as N.C. Wyeth’s son: “‘You know N.C. Wyeth. The famous illustrator? Treasure Island?'” Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic adventure novel stands in contrast to the story of Christina’s life, in which a trip to Boston is an exciting experience. Al, who longed to make a living on the sea and whose forebears traveled the world on sailing ships, read Treasure Island a dozen times — “Might be the only book I ever actually finished, now that I think about it,” he says.

“Treasure” is a motif that recurs throughout A Piece of the World. As children, Christina and Al are fascinated with the legend of nearby Mystery Tunnel, where pirates hid their treasure. Christina’s summertime boyfriend, Walton, refers to her as a treasure. Christina’s nephew, John, visits “Treasure Island” in the Pacific on his way home from naval duty in World War II. The real treasure in the novel is Wyeth’s painting, “Christina’s World”, which shows “what no one else can see”.  Art — Andrew Wyeth’s paintings, Robert Louis Stevenson’s and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novels, Emily Dickinson’s poetry — is valuable beyond measure. It brings us the world, and it endures.

Christina Baker Kline’s lovely novel is not a page-turner, but I didn’t want to put it down. The narrative drive comes not from plot but from the portrait Kline paints of Christina Olson and her friendship with Andrew Wyeth. Kline’s decision to tell the story entirely from Christina’s point of view gives the novel a sense of intimacy and helps the reader connect with a character who may inspire sympathy but not affection. Kline says she that Wyeth “managed to get at the core of Christina’s self”. The novel imagines the details and background that make up that essence, giving a face to a woman whose face we’ve never seen.