Posts Tagged historical fiction
I read 87 books this year– 84 by women; three by men; 32 by BIPOC authors. The shortest book I read was Intimations by Zadie Smith. The longest book I read was Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Here are the best books (5/5*) that were published in 2020 that I read.
Intimations by Zadie Smith
Penguin Books, July 2020. 97 pg.
A slim collection of essays–about aging, community, race, COVID 19, writing– that Zadie Smith wrote during the pandemic. There’s much to consider within these pages of thoughtful, personal and universal essays. She explains: “Talking to yourself can be useful. And writing means being overheard.”
fantastic, creative and timely novel addressing the current climate crisis and the impending apocalypse. it’s from the point-of-view of a middle-aged woman –so definitely relatable to me (I want to read more novels about older women). She’s married and has a son. Her brother is a recovering drug addict and she’s had to care for him throughout the years. Jenny Offill excels at this observational narrative. It’s short, riveting, potent. It’s really the perfect thing to read during this COVID-19 pandemic and quarantine we’re all experiencing. Plus it’s quite relatable to middle-aged spinster GenX me: “The woman has just turned fifty. She tells me about her blurriness, the way she is hardly seen. She supposes she is not so pretty anymore–fattish, hair a bit gray. What she has noticed, what gives her a little chill, she tells me, is how if she meets a man out of the context of work, he finds her to not be worth much. He looks over her shoulder as he talks or pawns her off on a woman her own age.”
I loved this amazing work of historical fiction so much and don’t know why I waited so long to write about it! It covers an intriguing aspect of history that I’ve not read much about. Based on actual events, the novel focuses on a ship of female convicts traveling from England to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) in the 1850s. Although Aboriginal people have occupied Australia for thousands of years, the British government views the native people as nuisances and the land to be uninhabited and available for their use. It’s amazing to think about some of the low level crimes for which many were sentenced as well as the harrowing passage. “Evangeline recalled seeing small items in the newspaper over the years about the incorrigibles– men, she thought– transported on convict ships to Australia. Murderers and other deviants exiled to the far side of the earth, ridding the British Isles of the worst of its criminals.” Evangeline is a governess accused of stealing a ring which had been given to her by the family’s older son with whom she’d become romantically involved. She’s well-educated and her late father was a minister. The other staff members didn’t like her. “She was, by temperament, much like her father: diffident, with a shyness often mistaken for aloofness, a bookishness perceived as snobbery.” She’s sentenced to 14 years in prison. She’s pregnant and gives birth to a daughter onboard. Sadly she’s thrown overboard by a crew member who she’d stabbed to protect Hazel, who he’d been sexually assaulting. Hazel is a scrappy convict whose midwife mother taught her many potions and remedies. Mathinna is a native woman who knows how to read and learns to speak French. She’s taken from her tribe by Van Diemen’s governor’s wife on a whim. She considers her a project. It doesn’t work out well. The novel’s a complete page turner and I became so invested in these women I didn’t want it to end.
“My closest neighbors don’t quake in their boots. They have no worries, don’t fall in love, don’t bite their nails, don’t believe in chance, make no promises, or noise, don’t have social security, don’t cry, don’t search for their keys, their glasses, the remote control, their children, happiness.”
I walk in cemeteries fairly often. There’s one in my neighborhood. When I was in grad school, I would drive to the Arlington National Cemetery to take walks through it. I liked the quiet and solitude. I sometimes wonder about the people whose names I see on gravestones. Violette Toussaint is a cemetery caretaker in the small French town Bourgogne. She lives on site. She takes notes on everyone who’s buried there. She’s close friends with three gravediggers, three groundskeepers and a priest. She feeds the stray cats that roam the cemetery. She reads. She bakes. It sounded fairly idyllic to me. I love the writing and this character. Violette is different, interesting, smart, thoughtful. I found myself deeply connected to her– “I don’t fit into boxes. I’ve never fit into boxes. When I do a test in a women’s magazine– “Get to know yourself,” or “Know yourself better”–there’s no clear result for me. I’m always a bit of everything.” I don’t fit in boxes either.
“I’m not after a love story. I’m too old for that. I’ve missed the boat. My meager love life is an old pair of socks shoved to the back of the closet.”
Julian Sole, a police detective, arrives one day and tells Violette that his mother wanted her ashes spread on someone’s grave who wasn’t her husband. He wants to know why. Violette reflects on her own husband who had numerous affairs and left her. She recalls: “He turned our bed into a paradise, was considerate and sensual when making love, but as soon as he got up, was vertical, left our horizontal love behind, he lost a good deal of color. He had nothing to say, and was interested only in his motorbike and video games.” Violette’s mother abandoned her and she was pregnant at 18. Drawn to each other, Violette and Julian spend more time together as they help reconcile the past. There are more secrets of the dead and the past revealed but I can’t give too much away or I’d ruin it. The novel unwinds with several twists. It’s smart, funny and dark. Just what I like. It’s a full reflection on life and death and everything involved.
Julian Sole, a police detective, arrives one day and tells Violette that his mother wanted her ashes spread on someone’s grave who wasn’t her husband. He wants to know why. Violette reflects on her own husband who had numerous affairs and left her. She recalls: “He turned our bed into a paradise, was considerate and sensual when making love, but as soon as he got up, was vertical, left our horizontal love behind, he lost a good deal of color. He had nothing to say, and was interested only in his motorbike and video games.” Violette’s mother abandoned her and she was pregnant at 18. There are more secrets of the dead and the past revealed but I can’t give too much away or I’d ruin it. The novel unwinds with several twists. It’s smart, funny and dark. Just what I like. It’s a full reflection on life and death and everything involved.
A 42-year-old English teacher at a prep school in Maine grooms then rapes his 15-year-old student. Although it’s a story that ‘s been told numerous times, it’s a remarkably strong perspective that’s completely engrossing. The story alternates between 2000 and 2017 where adult Vanessa finds herself finally recognizing the level of abuse and how it’s affected her. I have a memory from high school of being in gym class and one of my classmates going up to a (very attractive) teacher and unbuttoning a button on his shirt and commenting something about the full buttoned up style. It was so bold. That was how this popular student commanded attention. I didn’t even kiss a boy until college. Vanessa is incredibly naïve as a student: “It wasn’t about how young I was, not for him. Above everything else, he loved my mind. He said I had genius-level emotional intelligence and that I wrote like a prodigy, that he could talk to me, confide in me. Lurking deep within me, he said, was a dark romanticism, the same kind he saw within himself. No one had ever understood that dark part of him until I came along.” Vanessa writes poetry. Mr.. Strane gives her Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay to read and then he gives her Lolita. As an adult, Vanessa recognizes: “I still feel different from others, dark and deeply bad, same as I did at fifteen, but I’ve tried to gain a better understanding of the reasons. I”ve become an expert on the age-gap trope, consuming books, films, anything featuring a romance between an adult and legal child. I search endlessly for myself but never find anything truly accurate.” She’s also finding it difficult to have relationships with me. She notes: “There are men who never turn into boyfriends, who peer behind the curtain and see the mess of me–literal and figurative: the apartment with a narrow path through the clothes and trash leading from bed to bathroom; the drinking, endless drinking; the blackout sex and nightmares.”
Antonia is a recently widowed, retired English teacher who lives in Vermont. One night she arrives home to find an undocumented pregnant teenager on her doorstep. Then, her sister, who suffers with Bipolar disorder, goes missing. “You’re the most American of us, her sisters have commented to Antonia in an accusatory tone. Just saying, they said smugly when she asked what was wrong with being whoever she was. Admittedly, she was the worrier, the insomniac, the most anxious and disciplined of the sisters.” Through gorgeous prose and astute observations, Julia Avarez examines a woman’s struggles to maintain her individual identity as well as to navigate relationships with her three sisters and her immigrant community.
I gasped excitedly when I walked into the break room at my bookstore job and saw the ARC of this novel. I tore through this book in two days. Leaving Lucy Pear is one of my favorite novels and now after reading this I’ll count Anna Solomon as a favorite author. This novel focuses on three Jewish women– Lily is a mother, second wife and writer in 2016. Vivian is a political wife during the Watergate-era. Esther is an independent woman in ancient Persia. They’re all strong, independent-minded women. and Solomon fully explores each character’s motivations, desires, needs, struggles, commonalities and connections across the centuries.
I only read one book by a white male author and this is it. I have a handful of favorite cis white male authors and Peter Stamm counts as one of them. I read them immediately. I appreciate his gorgeous, melancholy writing. This one is short and interesting– a writer, Christoph, meets a woman, Lena, who is the doppelganger of his former lover, Magdalena, who inspired his first novel post breakup. Lena recognizes her own relationship with a writer named Chris in the story she’s told. This one blurs past and present, fiction and reality. How much does reality influence fiction and fiction influence reality? He comments: “With youthful pathos, I had believed I had to decide between her and my writing, between freedom and love. Only now did I understand that love and freedom were not mutually exclusive, but mutually entailed: the one wasn’t possible without the other.”
The Accidentals by Minrose Gwin. William Morrow| August 2019| 381 pages | $16.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-247175-8
–review by Amy Steele
“That fall June and I had at long last begun to plumb the depth of our mother’s unhappiness.”
In 1957, Olivia McAlister chooses to have an abortion in Mississippi. Illegal at the time, the only options for abortion were often cheap, quick back-alley abortions. Olivia longed to return to New Orleans and feels like an “accidental”—a migratory bird flown off course. Olivia dies leaving her two daughters, Grace and June, and her husband Holly on their own, the effects far-reaching throughout their lives. Holly becomes obsessed with building a bomb shelter. The daughters struggle to find their place in the world.
As a teenager, Grace becomes involved in a love affair with two boys. When she becomes pregnant, she’s sent away to have the child. Originally the aunt had planned the raise the child as her own but the child’s born with a facial defect—a cleft palate—and the aunt gets scared away. At an orphanage, the baby has an accident and is presumed dead. Ed Mae Johnson, an African-American care worker ends up taking the child home and raising her. Grace goes to college and later grad school. She travels the world studying ancient texts—“Here I am, fluent in Greek and Latin and Arabic. I can examine a piece of papyrus and give you its age within twenty years . . .” She works as a professor. She bird watches and feeds the wildlife in her backyard.
“One of the few things I’d come to pride myself on was having learned to take pleasure in things nobody else would think twice about. I had no expectations so I was constantly surprised by small pleasures. A thick peanut and butter and jelly sandwich, flocks of blackbirds flashing their red-tipped wings as they swooped down on the corn, Elsa’s celery smell at the end of a day in the kitchen. The first snow of winter, which had fallen just the past week and melted the next day.”
June finds religion as a teenager. She goes to church with a friend and gets baptized. She practices kissing with a female friend until that friend gets a boyfriend. She attends college and works as a journalist. She notes: “… I am the bona fide reporter, hardcore police beat and such, first woman in my paper’s history to work the news desk.” June unhappily marries and has a son. After undergoing cancer treatment, she starts fostering and adopting dogs—“These dogs of mine, they weren’t pretty to look at, and after Noel left, I made a point to choose the ones I know didn’t have a rat’s chance of getting taken.”
Everyone ends up in Nashville, Tennessee at the end. After many years with little communication or contact, June moves to help Grace after she’s diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Grace’s baby, now grown, lives in the city too. They may have already met. The Accidentals packs in plenty of details as chapters alternate points-of-view. It’s a lovely story about resilience, forgiveness and family bonds.
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from William Morrow.
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.
quite delayed on posting my year-end list.
here are the best books of 2016 [not ranked]:
An Abbreviated Life: a memoir by Ariel Leve [Harper]
–gorgeous writing, sad story. resilience. My parents got divorced when I was around the same age and I only have a few isolated or vague memories.
Alligator Candy: a memoir by David Kushner [Simon & Schuster]
—David Kushner’s older brother Jon disappeared one day on a bike ride to get candy and two men savagely murdered him, sodomized him postmortem and mutilated his body. It’s a horrific event to happen in one’s family. Only four at the time, Kushner didn’t quite understand the full impact. He missed his brother but didn’t know the complete details. Now a journalist, he decided to revisit the case and provide a voice for and memory of his brother. Through compelling prose and devastating emotion this memoir potently addresses murder and its effect on the family. full review.
Future Sex by Emily Witt [Farrar, Straus and Giroux]
—Future Sex reads as a fascinating sociological study on sexuality that delves into orgasmic mediation, internet porn, webcams, Burning Man and polyamory. Witt combines personal experience with research and reporting in a darkly amusing, honest and real manner. Witt investigates sites I’d barely heard of: Chaturbate; Porn Hub; Kink.com; Fetlife. She attends an orgasmic mediation workshop [looked up on YouTube and there are tutorials] and travels to Burning Man. She interviews tons of people such as polyamorous Google employees, the founder of OKCupid, a 19-year-old webcammer as well as a woman who creates female-centered porn. Witt doesn’t make a spectacle of what may be absurd. Instead she writes analytically, astutely with brevity and a sharp edge. full review.
Girl Through Glass by Sari Wilson [Harper]
—A former ballet dancer, Wilson provides intimate details about New York’s ballet scene. While this isn’t solely a novel about the ballet world, girls straddling the line between youth and adulthood provides fascinating reading. The novel flawlessly describes the razor sharp focus on becoming the best, earning a particular status and securing one’s place in this strange world overflowing with beauty and sacrifice. And what happens to all those girls who aren’t’ quite the best? Those girls who do not make the right school or earn a place in a prestigious ballet company? This absorbing, riveting novel does what a wonderful novel can do: it completely transports readers to a specific time and place in such an effective and specific manner that one thinks about the subject and characters well past finishing the last page. full review.
Heat & Light by Jennifer Haigh [Ecco]
—Returning to Bakerton, Pennsylvania—the setting for the 2005 best-selling novel Baker Towers—author Jennifer Haigh again focuses on an energy source and its effects on a small community. full review.
Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer [Farrar, Straus and Giroux]
–phenomenal writing. for some reason I waited to read this (maybe because it’s quite long and dense). immediately engulfed in the story of a family coming apart. numerous other elements including being Jewish and Middle East politics. amazing.
Lazaretto by Diane McKinney-Whetstone
—Set in post-Civil War Philadelphia, this historical fiction novel beautifully explores race, class, gender and family. full review.
Leaving Lucy Pear by Anna Solomon [Viking]
—An engrossing and gorgeous work of historical fiction, this novel effectively weaves together issues of class, feminism, wealth, power, mental illness and motherhood. The setting: Cape Ann, Massachusetts, a working class fishing community as well as a lovely coastal summer getaway for Boston’s wealthy. In 1917, the unwed teenage daughter of a wealthy family abandons her newborn daughter under a pear tree outside her uncle’s estate on Cape Ann. A decade later, Beatrice finds herself unexpectedly reunited with the Irish woman raising the determined and spunky Lucy Pear. full review.
Modern Girls by Jennifer Brown [NAL]
–The novel focuses on a strong mother-daughter relationship. Brown incorporates historical details which strengthen the plot, setting and characters. For instance in a meeting Rose attends, she urges her comrades to write letters to their Senators to repeal 1924’s Johnson-Reed Act which instituted quotas on the number of Jews that could enter America. While Rose and Dottie don’t share every detail with each other they’ve developed a solid bond and care deeply about each others well-being. Mother and daughter respect and support each other. Despite the decade, the restrictions against women and standard domestic expectations, these women remain strong feminist characters. A sequel set 10 or 15 years on would be greatly welcomed. These characters must be followed up on. Clear your schedule and brew a pot of tea. Once you start this wonderful, detailed novel you’ll want to read straight through. full review.
The Other Woman by Therese Bohman [Other Press]
—This novel bursts with intellectual prowess. It’s witty, provocative and thoughtful about money, class, what it is to have less and desire more, to be educated and smart but not particularly suited to anything. Swedish author Therese Bohman examines societal expectations of what makes a complete life: a good job; a happy coupling; a nice place. All the things by which we define ourselves but realize the innate superficiality of it all. If we focus on the having and not the feeling and the experiencing then we lack integrity, depth and strength of character. full review.
Pull Me Under by Kelly Luce [Farrar, Straus and Giroux]
—Pull Me Under is an exquisitely dark psychological thriller which examines identity and place through its compelling protagonist and story. read my complete review.
Rare Objects by Kathleen Tessaro [Harper]
–lovely historical fiction set in Boston. Author Kathleen Tessaro adeptly describes both the immigrant North End and wealthy mansions with vivid detail. Superb writing and research merge to tell this wonderful story. a page-turner about class, friendship and the things and people we value most. full review.
The Sun in Your Eyes by Deborah Shapiro [William Morrow]
–There’s that saying that you can’t tell a book by its cover. Book covers visually connect a potential reader to the book. The cover image makes you wonder what the book will be about. A beautiful, cool book cover sets expectations. On the cover of The Sun in Your Eyes is a photo of two women with a definite 70s rocker chic. What’s going on between these two women? It’s a 1974 photograph by William Eggleston and drew me right in. I’d also just seen the photo in the documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me which features this photo. The blonde was Alex Chilton’s girlfriend. full review.
The Vegetarian by Kang Han [Hogarth]
–I’ve been a vegan for about eight years and am not too thin. Due to psychiatric meds I need to lose weight. I stopped eating red meat at 12!/everything but fish at 18 then went vegetarian to vegan. So the being deprived and malnourished because she’s not eating meat is bothering me a tad. Otherwise, the writing is great. It’s dark and suspenseful. Entirely original and engrossing.
We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge [Algonquin]
–a thoughtful and provocative novel which effectively and creatively winds together numerous subjects from coming-of-age, first love, adolescence, sisterhood, race, anthropology, history and family dynamics. In 1990, a family relocates from Dorchester, Massachusetts to the Berkshires to teach sign language to a chimpanzee at the Toneybee Institute for Great Ape Research. full review.