Posts Tagged historical fiction
The Tenth Muse by Catherine Chung. Ecco| June 2019| 304 pages | $26.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-257406-0
–review by Amy Steele
“A mathematical proof is absolute once it has been written and verified: if the internal logic of a proof holds, it is considered unassailable and true. The underlying structure of my family was something I’d never questioned. It had formed the foundation of my life. When it suddenly dissolved, I was unmoored. It had never occurred to me to question my mother’s love for me, or our relationship to each other. I had believed these things were absolute.”
Who would expect a novel about a young math prodigy working on the Riemann hypothesis and uncovering her family history in the process to be so riveting? The Tenth Muse is the best novel I’ve read this year. It’s an engrossing work of historical fiction with gorgeous writing, unforgettable characters and events. It’s a sprawling page-turner set in academia.
Katherine always loved problem-solving and equations and that’s what drew her to math: “Math had always seemed miraculous to me because of the beauty it revealed underlying nature, because of the deep sense of rightness that came over me when I understood something all the way through, as if for a moment I’d merged with the grace I only ever caught glimpses of.” Katherine is a brilliant mathematician working in a male-dominated field. During college and graduate school, her classmates remind her that there are few noted female mathematicians throughout history, notably Emily Noether and Sofia Kovalevskaya. She recalls: “But by then I was resigned to these jokes, to the constant reminder that I was an anomaly, an outsider, a kind of freak. I was aware that even if I contributed to our field, my name would also become a punch line. I didn’t know how to resist, except to make clear that I wasn’t trying to fit in, that I knew I was different and to highlight that difference to make it clear.”
I especially loved all the scenes focusing on Katherine’s academic studies. Reading about books, academia, college and university settings greatly appeal to me. Author Catherine Chung provides plenty of real-life math references and establishes a clear sense of Katherine’s struggles as well as her inspiration. Being one of the few women in a male-dominated field, Katherine is constantly questioned, undermined and often taken advantage of by her colleagues. She has several pivotal love affairs, one with a professor during graduate school.
The novel ultimately centers on Katherine’s identity and I can’t reveal too much. It gloriously unfolds. When Katherine decides to tackle the Riemann hypothesis and it leads her to discover her family story and its connection in World World II. Her Chinese immigrant mother remained an enigma to Katherine throughout her life. Living in Michigan and married to Katherine’s white father, she faced extreme prejudices in post-WWII America. “I heard her called a dirty Jap once, and China Doll, and Red China, and while I flushed red with shame, my mother never so much as flinched at the slurs, so that I was never sure that she heard them.” When Katherine travels to Germany to study abroad, she discovers some shocking information about her family connected to both mathematics and WWII. Don’t think you need to be a math whiz for this book to make sense. There’s so much beauty and bravery within these pages.
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Ecco.
The Quintland Sisters by Shelley Wood. William Morrow| March 5, 2019| 384 pages | $15.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-283909-1
“Their similarity to one another is eerie, even with nothing but their tiny heads poking out of their blankets. All of them have black hair and long, dark eyelashes, too thick, it seems, for their sunken cheeks. The longer I watched them, the more I could see that each one of them has something distinct, something to tell her apart from her sisters. I took out my scribble book in the hopes of capturing them. The one that came first has one eyelid bigger than the other. The second has a tiny crinkle in the upper cusp of her right ear. The third has the smallest nose, and the fourth has the most hair, which seems to curl in the opposite direction from that of her sisters. The fifth and last—she has nothing that looks markedly different, but she is the only one with any wriggle in her.”
Long before Kate Plus Eight or the Octomom, there were the Dionne Quintuplets, the first quintuplets to survive their infancy. They were born in French-speaking, rural Canada in 1934. Their parents had five other children. They were shamed for it. People also sent money and fan mail. The government took custody of the girls, leading to many disputes over the years. A doctor and his crew of nurses took over care of the girls.
The Quintland Sisters tells the story of the first few years of the quintuplets lives from the perspective of a young woman, Emma Trimpany, who works as a nurse to the girls. Born with a large birthmark on her face, Emma is used to being overlooked and disregarded. “This is something I’ve managed to pull off my whole life, to make myself invisible and unremarkable—no mean task with a crimson stain covering half my face.” Her mother sends her over with the midwife the night that the quints are born, thinking it might be a suitable profession for her disfigured daughter.
Emma gets sent to nursing school so that she’s properly trained to assist in their care. She becomes attached to the girls and friendly with several nurses, particularly Yvonne Leroux (known to everyone as Ivy), who she remains friends with even after she leaves. Emma enjoys drawing and this turns into a side-gig as she sells pictures of the girls to advertisers. Someone suggests she apply to art school and it seems this smart and determined young woman will find contentment. The story unfolds through journal entries, letters and news reports.
“I am the one the girls turn to now. A stubbed toe, a puzzling toy, a masterpiece of finger painting that requires praise and admiration—it’s me they seek out. Nurse Noel is the game master who won’t take no for an answer, Miss Beaulieu is the instructor with strict rules and plastic smile. Nurse Sylvie Dubois is the latest practical nurse they’ve brought in to help with all the record-keeping and measurements—she has not yet earned the girls’ trust, let alone their affection, although she is cheery and pretty. Meanwhile Mme. Dionne has been scarce since the autumn, every since Nurse Nicolette’s departure, and I haven’t seen M. Dionne since that awful moment in the courtroom. How ridiculous, but also wonderful, that I, who have always insisted I was not cut out for motherhood, have ended up as a de facto mother of five.”
It’s fascinating to read about their care. Can you imagine caring for so many infants? It definitely takes a team. No one even believed they’d survive past the first week. It was humorous to read the doctor and some of the nurses commenting on the likelihood of the girls’ survival. They gave one of the girls rum to “stimulate” her heart. Before they received a shipment of breast milk, the girls were fed a mix of corn syrup, cow’s milk and boiled water. They kept records of everything.
The quintuplets generated income from visitors as well as through endorsements. It’s not a new Instagram era thing to earn money this way. There was a court case between several corn syrup companies to determine who would have exclusivity. [“The ridiculous thing is, we don’t even feed the babies corn syrup. Dr. Blatz believes sugar in any form is bad for children. I should tell that to the newspapers.”] Several films were made about them. There was a custom-built playground that allowed for spectators. There were 6,000 daily visitors! Celebrities such as Amelia Earhart visited. They sold souvenirs! It was a real money-making business. Unfortunately, not everyone cared for the girls and their future. Celebrity and money attract deceitful people wanting to take advantage of the situation. Many nefarious incidents occurred over the years.
It’s a meticulously researched novel and why I’m a fan of historical fiction. I love having a fictional character introduce me to real people and actual events. I really want to know what happened to the quintuplets as adults. What were their lives like at that time?I made myself not Google while reading. But I’m intrigued and need to investigate.
When it’s done well, historical fiction transports you to a particular time, place and setting through the eyes of its characters. The best historical fiction makes me want to learn more about the period or the characters. I try to refrain from googling while reading a book but if I’m itching to look something up, I know the author succeeded in transporting me to another time. That’s one of my favorite genres. Two compelling novels came out recently which center around independent and unconventional women, one real and one fictional.
Learning to See focuses on Dorothea Lange and her photography in the 1930s. I’m familiar with Dorothea Lange’s Dust Bowl photographs but not much else. In this thoroughly researched novel, author Elise Hooper brings readers into Lange’s world. Told from Lange’s point-of-view, the novel follows her burgeoning career as a photographer at a time when women weren’t pursuing careers, they were focusing on raising children. After moving to San Francisco with a friend, Lange finds work at a photography shop. She soon opens her own portrait studio and amasses clients. She’s friends with a group of photographers and artists which includes Ansel Adams. She marries rather volatile artist Maynard Dixon. They travel to Arizona so that Dixon can work on some painting. Lange notes: “Our first few days were spent examining the terrain, so different from everything I’d ever known: wide sweeps of empty desert, soaring sky, endless clouds. It felt timeless, nothing like the city. The simple geometry of the landscape’s lines and bold shouts of color left me awed. During each sunrise and sunset, under a sky bruised with purples and rippling with flames, the desert was reborn. The air thrummed with possibility.” Lange is an independent, strong woman determined to use her skills to benefit others in a deeper manner than merely taking pretty portraits. Navigating her way as a working mother, wife and professional photographer, Lange faces many challenges including her husband’s alcoholism and affairs. When her marriage and the nation’s economy begin to decline, she decides to take a position with the government taking pictures of the country’s disenfranchised, the photographs she’s known for today. She photographs migrant workers and Japanese Americans in camps during World War II. Hooper effectively allows readers the opportunity to see the time period through Lange’s lens.
Learning to See by Elise Hooper. William Morrow| January 22, 2019| 384 pages | $15.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-291035-6
This wasn’t on my radar but the title and cover intrigued me so I started reading it one day and became completely absorbed by it. After immigrating to the United States from Ireland, three siblings forge their path in antebellum Cincinnati in The Eulogist. James establishes a successful candle-making business, free spirit Erasmus becomes a traveling preacher and independent, open-minded Olivia challenges a conventional life. These dissimilar siblings function like the id (Erasmus), ego (Olivia) and superego (James). I became completely charmed by Olivia, by her loyalty, curiosity and determination. She attends lectures by feminists and abolitionists and questions women’s expected roles during that time: “That summer of 1829, culture and curiosity came over the city like the quickening of a maiden’s heart. Cincinnati was overrun by fanatics and intellectuals trying to make their case: Caldwell’s discourse on phrenology; Miss Fanny Wright on slavery and marriage; Dr. Alexander Campbell and Robert Owen battling the fundamental relationship between godliness and goodliness.” She’s not particularly interested in marriage [“I have never been one to pine for marriage, nor did motherhood enchant me. As I saw it, marriage was a function of economic dependence, and wrongly, too, since women rarely had money of their own.”] or starting a family. She does end up marrying a doctor who she falls in love with after spending time with him performing autopsies and doing research on corpses. When he dies, Olivia returns with his body to Kentucky to find her brother-in-law heavily involved in slavery. She’s determined to save a young black woman who has been living fairly free in Ohio from being returned as her brother-in-law’s property. She enlists the assistance of both her brothers. Through detailed descriptions and strong character development, I found myself completely engrossed. Taking place in the decades preceding the Civil War, slavery was illegal in Ohio, the first state created from the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. Ohio was active in the Underground Railroad. I recently found a family tree my grandmother created which traces several generations in Ohio and I’d like to conduct research someday to see if any of my ancestors had any involvement in the Underground Railroad.
The Eulogist by Terry Gamble. William Morrow| January 22, 2019| 320 pages | $26.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-283991-6
–review by Amy Steele
Disoriental by Negar Djavadi. Europa Editions| April 2018| 352 pages | $18.00| ISBN: 978-1-60945-451-7
“Our memories select, eliminate, exaggerate, minimize, glorify, denigrate. They create their own versions of events and serve up their own reality. Disparate, but cohesive. Imperfect yet sincere. In any case, my memory is so crammed with stories and lies and languages and illusions, and lives marked by exile and death, death and exile, that I don’t even really know how to untangle the threads anymore.”
“I have become—as I’m sure everyone does who has left his or her country—someone else. Someone who has translated myself into other cultural codes. Firstly in order to survive, and then to go beyond survival and forge a future for myself.”
A gorgeous, exquisite, smart and meditative novel about an Iranian family and its struggles and triumphs. As Kimia Sadr sits in a fertility clinic in Paris she reminisces about family myths and ancestry. She ponders how she got to be where she is at this moment. She recollects her family history as well as Iran’s history and how it’s made her who she is today. Kimia is a lesbian and she’s decided to have a baby with a man that she met during her travels. He’s HIV+ and so they need to use the clinic. Kimia’s been wandering for years in an attempt to figure out where she belongs. It’s perhaps not in her birth country where she spent the first ten years of her life and it’s not in her adopted country to which she and her family exiled. Being in one’s twenties and figuring out our place in the world can be complicated enough but Kimia had her sexual identity and cultural identity to figure out.
“Raised in a culture where the community takes precedence over the individual, I’d never been so tangibly aware of my own existence. I finally felt like I was in control of my own life. I could make decisions that had nothing to do with the past, or the way an immigrant has to act in order to gain legitimacy in their host country.” And “I was putting myself back together again, rediscovering happiness, getting back on my own two feet, as if after a long illness.” It’s fascinating that Eastern society stresses community and Western society focuses on individuals. Kimia faces prejudices in facing stereotypes of Iran and the Middle East: “Then a long silence, during which I could see in my interlocutor’s eyes that their Iran was located somewhere between Saudi Arabia and the Lebanese Hezbollah, an imaginary country full of Muslim fundamentalists of who I suddenly became the representative.”
For those unfamiliar, it’s the ideal primer to Iranian revolutionary history. Abundant information gets beautifully shared throughout this novel in an accessible and manageable manner. It’s definitely a challenging yet completely rewarding read. In reading Disoriental I was reminded of the memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi which also focuses on the disdain for education and intellectualism and its impact on the Iranian Revolution. It’s not that different from our current political climate where well-educated people tend to be less likely to blindly follow a leader. You’ll understand and relate to this novel. Disoriental has been nominated for a National Book Award for Translated Literature. I’m rarely disappointed in Europa editions titles and I need to read them more often.
–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Europa Editions.
Tangerine by Christine Mangan. Ecco| March 20, 2018| 320 pages | $26.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-279213-6
–review by Amy Steele
“It is in these moments—when the air is thick and hot, threatening—that I can close my eyes and inhale, when I can smell Tangier again. It is the smell of a kiln, of something warm, but not burning, almost like marshmallows, but not as sweet. There is a touch of spice, something vaguely familiar, like cinnamon, cloves, cardamom even, and then something else entirely familiar.”
With another March snowstorm predicted for New England, most of us are more than ready to welcome spring and warm weather. Set in Morocco in 1956, Tangerine is the perfect antidote to winter restlessness. It’s super interesting for Americans to be in this North African country on the brink of its sovereignty. Alice moved to Tangiers with her new husband. She’s still acclimating when her former college friend Lucy makes a surprise visit.
During college something pushed the roommates apart, to such a degree that Alice isn’t happy to see her. They met at Bennington College which in itself provides lots of information for the novel’s characters. Alice is from a wealthy British family while Lucy is a scholarship student from a neighboring town in Vermont. Alice’s mother graduated from Bennington and then moved to England and married a Brit. Apparently the two immediately hit is off with Alice treating Lucy as she would her wealthy peers. Of their friendship, Lucy thinks: “The relationship that Alice and I had formed after only a few short weeks, the partiality that we felt for one another—it went beyond any rational description. Affinity, I decided, was a good enough start.” This sets up a perfect scenario for jealousy and competition and obsession. As open-minded as Alice might be, her circumstances provide her with a level of comfort which Lucy won’t have. It becomes increasingly clear that Lucy feels romantically attracted to Alice, that she’s become possessive of Alice and she becomes upset when Alice doesn’t feel the same.
They bond over their tragic childhoods and become inseparable friends until Alice’s new boyfriend pushes them apart. Lucy grows jealous that Alice spends more time with the boyfriend than she does with her. That boyfriend dies in a car accident. But was it really an accident or something more sinister? Lucy enjoys the perks of her friendship with Alice: “I had shaken my head then, had told myself no, I could not be made to go back, to return to my full little life, a life of obscurity, of mediocrity.
Generally overwhelmed by Tangier, Alice remains in her apartment most days. She warily ventures out once a week to the market. She doesn’t even know what her husband does for work. The couple met and married rather quickly. John seems to be the standard scoundrel, a good-looking manipulative man Of John: “John was bad at money, he had once told me with a grin, and at the time, I had smiled thinking he meant that he didn’t care about it, that it wasn’t a concern for him. What it really meant, I soon learned, was that his family’s fortune was nearly gone, just enough remained to keep him well dressed, so that he could play at pretending to still claim the wealth he once had, that he had been born into and still felt was rightfully his.” At one point, John admits to Lucy: “We need each other, Alice and I. Haven’t you already figured that out? I need her money—well maybe not need, perhaps appreciate would be the better word. And she needs me to keep her out of the looney bin.” Lucy manages to encourage Alice to venture out and explore the city, to drink mint tea at a cafe, to walk around and to even hear music and a nightclub. When John disappears, it forces Alice to delve into that dark incident in the past and question her friend’s motives. “It seemed to hang: thick and humid. Languid. That would be the right word to describe it, I decided.” This novel unfolds in a languid manner. Author Christine Mangan wrote her PhD thesis on gothic literature and her expertise translates to a smart, engrossing read.
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Ecco.
A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline. William Morrow| February 2017| 309 pages | $27.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-235626-0
“Do our natures dictate the choices we make, I wonder, or do we choose to live a certain way because of circumstances beyond our control? Perhaps these questions are impossible to tease apart because, like a tangle of seaweed on a rock, they are connected at the root. I think of those long-ago Hathorns, determined beyond all reason to leave the past behind—and we, their descendants, inheritors of their contrarian tenacity, sticking it out, one generation after the next, until every last one of us ends up in the graveyard at the bottom of the field.”
In the gorgeous and mysterious 1948 masterpiece Christina’s World, Andrew Wyeth depicts a woman crouching on a hill looking toward a weathered farm house. Looking at the painting, one might wonder whether the woman is coming or going. She seems far away and in such a twisted, crouching position with her hair blowing a bit in the wind. I never knew that Wyeth painted this on a farm in Maine. Author Christina Baker Kline creates a riveting story of the artist’s muse. Christina Olson lives a rather solitary, quiet and isolated existence in the small coastal town of Cushing, Maine on her family’s farm with her brother. Christina lived at a particular time in particular circumstances and suffered an illness as a child which led to increasingly physical debility. At school she develops an affinity for Emily Dickinson’s poetry. Her father insists she quit school after eighth grade to help on the farm. Christina wanted to be a teacher. When young painter Andrew Wyeth asks if he can paint the farm, Christina and her brother welcome the distraction and attention.
This masterful work of historical fiction—told through first-person narrative– allows readers to feel Christina’s pain, disappointment and glimmers of hope throughout. In her youth, Christina dates a young man who summers nearby. But after several years he becomes engaged to another woman. He never intended to foray into a serious relationship with Christina. She’s devastated as she’s looking to be understood and accepted and just seen by somebody. Something many people seek. Readers feel empathy for Christina but not pity. She’s resilient and resourceful. She’s managing her situation. Writing with exquisite detail, Kline transports us to Maine and effectively moves from 1940 to the early 1900s to reveal the personal history of the woman immortalized by a classic American work of art.
–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from William Morrow.