Posts Tagged historical fiction

STEELE PICKS: Best Books of 2016

quite delayed on posting my year-end list.

here are the best books of 2016 [not ranked]:

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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

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

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.

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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.

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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

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

Lazaretto by Diane McKinney-Whetstone
Set in post-Civil War Philadelphia, this historical fiction novel beautifully explores race, class, gender and family. full review.

llucy pear

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

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

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.

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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.

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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.

sun in your eyes

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.

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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.

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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.

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book review: Lady Cop Makes Trouble

lady copyLady Cop Makes Trouble by Amy Stewart. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt| September 2016| 320 pages | $26.00| ISBN: 978-0-544-40994-1

RATING: ***/5*

This was an overall fun and enjoyable read. I didn’t read the debut Kopp Sisters novel Girl Waits with Gun so maybe it wasn’t a good idea to read the second book. I do think that even in a series each book should be a stand-alone that anyone can pick up to read and figure out what’s going on. Despite not knowing the case from the first novel which did carry over to this novel–at least in consequences for Constance Kopp and her position as deputy sheriff—I could mostly piece together what I needed. The youngest sister Fleurette confused me at first and I didn’t know if she was a daughter or niece. I absolutely admire and appreciate that Amy Stewart found clips in which to base this case and that Constance Kopp was a real person. Stewart explained, “I’m lucky enough to have a huge treasure trove of newspaper clippings covering 1914 and 1915. Constance was in the paper all the time. This book covers one particular incident that made headlines nationwide: the pursuit of a convicted criminal.” This is a delightful description of Constance’s duties for the New Jersey sheriff’s department: “I wasn’t just a chaperone for wayward girls. I carried a gun and handcuffs. I could make an arrest, just like any deputy. I earned a man’s salary. People did find it shocking and I didn’t mind that one bit.” Constance stands as a strong, determined female working in the male-dominated field of law enforcement. She doesn’t seem deterred when men don’t know how to speak with her or how to react to her as she carries out her varied responsibilities. She lives with her sisters, Fleurette and Norma, in the countryside in New Jersey. Norma seems content to raise homing pigeons and not venture far from home. Fleurette dreams of the stage and for now acts in a local production. The sisters look out for one another and serve as sounding boards for each other. Not having sisters it seems a wonderful thing. This case didn’t quite enthrall me enough for a mystery/thriller, fortunately the strong female lead makes up for my lack of interest and sometimes confusion in the case. I rooted for Constance and her sisters to fight the system and to fight sexism.

–review by Amy Steele

 FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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book review: The Muse

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The Muse by Jessie Burton. Ecco| July 26, 2016| 416 pages | $27.99| ISBN: 9780062409928

RATING: ****/5*

Sometime I might want to read (or perhaps write) a novel from one viewpoint in one time period. Historical fiction does draw me in particularly with vivid descriptions, an established sense of place and depth of character. The Muse intrigued me by its lovely black cover, the title and the settings: 1960s London and 1930s Spain. A muse generally refers to someone who influences one’s art. Author Jessie Burton created two independent-spirited and determined women despite their circumstances and the time periods. But who’s kidding anyone? Women still have it tough in 2016. In this novel I didn’t think a muse existed. Although without giving anything away there might be an unexpected muse. Flip the expectations for a muse. This is Burton’s second art-focused historical fiction novel. The Minaturist came out in 2014. I wanted to adore it but just couldn’t. It was quite well-written but a bit too melodramatic. The Muse fares much better mainly because the characters pursue their own artistic goals.

“Ever since I could pick up a pen, other people’s pleasure was how I’d garnered attention and defined success. When I began receiving public acknowledgement for a private act, something was essentially lost. My writing became the axis upon which all my identity and happiness hinged. It was now outward-looking, a self-conscious performance.”

An exclusive London art gallery hires Odelle Bastien, a well-educated immigrant from Trinidadian, as a secretary. Her interesting manager Marjorie Quick quite likes the young woman and they commence a friendship of sorts. Odelle aspires to be a published writer. At a wedding she meets the dashing, sophisticated Lawrie Scott who brings a painting to the gallery for appraisal. The painting causes quite a stir. The narrative turns to 1930s Spain where Olive Schloss lives with her family in the small town of Arazuelo. Her father, a Jewish art dealer, fled Vienna in advance of Nazi persecution. A talented painter, Olive Schloss earned acceptance to the Slade School of Art but her father doesn’t think highly of female painters. Olive never tells her father. Burton describes how Olive feels after finishing a painting: “She had made, for the first time, a picture of such movement and excess and fecundity that she felt almost shocked. It was a stubborn ideal; a paradise on earth, and the irony was it had come from a place to which her parents had dragged her.” Half siblings Teresa and Isaac Robles become ensconced in the Schloss family. Isaac Robles paints as well as carries out revolutionary missions in Spain. For Olive who becomes involved with both there’s deceit, betrayal and secrets galore. Burton connects the two women through this one mysterious painting and its back-story.

As often happens I preferred one time period and character arc (the 1960s story-line) to the other. The chapters involving Odelle definitely captivated me the most. She’s from Trinidad, a country under British rule during the 1940s when she was a child. She’s dating a white guy. Burton’s writing in Odelle’s voice –the Trinidad speaking-style with her friend as well as focusing on how others react to Odelle, how the young woman feels and how she finds her place enhances this novel. Burton writes: “I hadn’t scrapped with the boys to gain a first-class English Literature degree from the University of the West Indies for nothing.” I’d have preferred an entire novel about Odelle. I understand the need for this intrigue or a desire to examine several time periods but Olive’s story-line became a bit trite and dull. Odelle stays true to herself at all times while Olive falls for Isaac and allows her art to become influenced and overshadowed by him. A definitely strong summer read, pack this one on your next long weekend getaway.

–review by Amy Steele

 

<em>FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Ecco. </em>

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best books of 2016 so far

Best Books of 2016 so far. I read a lot of historical fiction and memoir so not surprisingly that’s mostly what makes my list. These are listed more or less in the order read.

the other woman

The Other Woman by Therese Bohman [Other Press]

–from my review: 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.

alligator candy

Alligator Candy: a memoir by David Kushner [Simon & Schuster]

Through compelling prose and devastating emotion this memoir potently addresses murder and its effect on the family. review.

rare objects

Rare Objects by Kathleen Tessaro [Harper]

–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. Rare Objects is a page-turner about class, friendship and the things and people we value most. full review.

lazaretto

Lazaretto by Diane McKinney-Whetstone [Harper]

–Set in post-Civil War Philadelphia, this historical novel beautifully explores race, class, gender and family. complete review.

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The Vegetarian by Kang Han [Hogarth]

The Man Booker International Prize 2016 Winner It’s dark and suspenseful. Entirely original and engrossing. I’ve been a vegan for nearly 10 years and am not too thin.  I stopped eating red meat at 12 and everything but fish at 18. So the being deprived and malnourished because she’s not eating meat is bothering me a tad.

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Modern Girls by Jennifer Brown

Clear your schedule and make a big pitcher of iced tea. Once you start this wonderful, detailed novel you’ll want to read straight through. review.

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We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge

We Love You, Charlie Freeman stands out as 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. complete review.

heat and light

Heat & Light by Jennifer Haigh [Ecco]

At turns fascinating, sad, infuriating, provocative and authentic, Heat & Light pulls in the reader from the jump. This well-researched, impressive novel exposes many angles of fracking. In order to capture this present day dilemma, Haigh effectively dips into the past with the Three Mile Island disaster as well as coaling. The novel generously addresses an important hot-button topic with sharp prose and a stellar cast of characters as well as an intriguing story-line. complete review.

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An Abbreviated Life: a memoir by Ariel Leve [Harper]

–stunning memoir about an adult daughter coming to terms with her childhood and relationship [or lack of] with her mother..

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The Sun in Your Eyes by Deborah Shapiro [William Morrow]

–from my review: Shapiro delves into the women’s college friendship and its connection to the present. She offers insight, detail and vivid descriptions that allow the reader to understand each woman, their bond and reliance upon one another. Women’s bonds often become broken due to relationships with men (or marriage and families). To this many women (and likely men) will relate. Vivian’s relationship and later marriage to Andy created a rift between the friends. The road trip allows the women to examine their friendship and determine whether or not they should rekindle their friendship, however tumultuous it may have been at times. Jealousy and differing goals certainly pushed and pulled at its core.

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book review: Lazaretto

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Lazaretto by Diane McKinney-Whetstone. Harper| April 2016| 352 pages | $26.99| ISBN: 9780062126962

RATING: *****/5*

“Sylvia flinched when Nevada said she was pleasing to the eye. She thought her smarts and her sincerity her best qualities, not her looks. She was oak-toned of complexion with a pouty mouth and polite nose and slender build. She had a wide smile that opened her lean face and rounded the severity of her cheekbones. She was often complimented on her smile. Still, she thought her appearance average; certainly didn’t think herself pretty like Nevada was pretty in a way that grabbed men by the collar and said keep your eyes peel on me Mister Sir.”

Set in post-Civil War Philadelphia, this historical fiction novel beautifully explores race, class, gender and family. At the novel’s start, a teen-aged Sylvia assists a young black woman named Meda give birth to a child fathered by her wealthy white employer. The man plans to take the infant away and forces Sylvia to lie to Meda that her newborn died. The event affects both women for the rest of their lives. Sylvia becomes consumed by her medical career while Meda takes care of two orphaned white boys as if they were her own. When the boys grow up and leave the area they maintain a strong bond with each other and with Meda.

Author Diane McKinney-Whetstone creates layered, intriguing characters with flaws, aspirations and strength. She expertly weaves the stories of several families throughout the novel. Sylvia’s friend Nevada isn’t as educated as Sylvia and lives in a rougher neighborhood fueled by booze and gambling. This allows for a stunning contrast with vivid scenes. These descriptions allow readers to understand characters and their temperament and attitude. Sylvia proves to be a dedicated nurse– “She’d get a rush at times when she’d conjure up a cure, often absent the doctor. She thought that marriage, keeping house, would hinder her ability to work; might curtail it completely.” –as well as a loyal friend. Sylvia absorbs her surroundings and effectively adapts as needed: “She called on her innate sense about people as she watched the mostly white people coming and going. They glanced at her as if they were glancing at a barrel, a cart, a post, some inanimate thing that did not breathe or think or feel.”

Sylvia decides to take a position at Philadelphia’s immigrant processing and quarantine station, Lazaretto. Of the new opportunity: “She thought the position beneath her abilities, she was a fully trained nurse after all, but the possibilities inherent in the position enthralled her. Since every ship hoping to enter the Port of Philadelphia had to be cleared through the Lazaretto during the summer months, she might see firsthand the exotic diseases she’d only read about. She would live there for months at a time. She especially welcomed that. The Lazaretto might prove an escape hatch from a conventional life.” When two staff members plan to marry on the compound, a discriminatory attack disrupts the weekend. People discover themselves confronting long-ignored truths, secrets and their place in the world with Lazaretto on lock-down. A superb read and one of the best novels I’ve read this year.

–review by Amy Steele

 FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Harper Collins.

purchase at Amazon: Lazaretto: A Novel

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book review: Modern Girls

modern girls

Modern Girls by Jennifer S. Brown. New American Library| April 5, 2016| 366 pages | $15.00| ISBN: 978-0-451-47712-5

RATING: *****/5*

It’s 1935. America’s coming out of the depression and Europe’s heading for WWII. Years before, Rose immigrated from Russia, met her husband Ben and they raised a large family—four sons and one daughter in the Jewish tenements on the East Side of Manhattan. She’s particularly close with her bright 19-year-old daughter Dottie who works as a bookkeeper at an insurance company and just earned a promotion. Dottie excels at math and her mom’s been saving money so that she can attend college. Rose notes: “In my dreams, Dottala went to a fancy college, a place where she could spend her entire day learning, immersing herself in books.” The delight with these characters is that they’re progressive and believe in women’s equality as much as possible in the 30s. Committed to the socialist party for years, Rose wants to return to activism since her children don’t need as much attention. She’s concerned about her brother trapped in Poland as Jewish persecution escalates. She needs to assist in the impending war as much as she possibly can. There’s also a Women’s Conference against the High Cost of Living with which she wishes to be involved. Rose also embraces her Jewish heritage and religion and keeps up with traditions like Shabbat dinner.

While Dottie dreams of marrying her strictly religious boyfriend Abe, she also plans to continue working. She thinks: “I knew I would have to take on the same tasks when Abe and I married, but I didn’t relish the idea. In my dreams, I kept working—either at his store, or perhaps, now, at the insurance office—and hired a girl to take care of the house. But those were fantasies.” Dottie’s new thinking might not mix that well with Abe’s old-school attitudes. When her mother tells her that she’s saved up money for her to attend college and study accounting the idea thrills her as she adores math and the increasing responsibilities in her work. Dottie explains: “How wonderful would it be to sit in a classroom, surrounded by numbers. Were there new numbers to learn? New worlds of calculations to discover?” A woman focused on gaining an education and concentrating on a career makes Dottie an intriguing character. She enjoys earning her own money. She helps her family and likes to keep up with the latest fashion and make-up.

Unfortunately, when both women become pregnant their future plans may suffer. The women must contemplate what’s important to them and make complicated decisions. At first Rose thinks that she might be going through menopause even though she’s only 42. Dottie realizes that her pregnancy resulted from a one night liaison with a wealthy and rather womanizing young man at a Jewish camp in upstate New York. She and her boyfriend of three years have yet to have sex. Abe remains religious, studying Judaism constantly, and intends to wait until marriage to have sex with Dottie. However Abe and Dottie have dated for three years and Abe doesn’t seem all that interested in marrying anytime soon. As Dottie just earned a promotion and isn’t pregnant with her boyfriend’s child, wants to attend college, her mother decides to take some of her savings to pay for an abortion.

Revisiting the past often connects us with the present in unexpected ways. In this debut novel, author Jennifer S. Brown, developed layered and complex characters. We learn the women’s personalities through present and past events. Brown makes Dottie and Rose women you could imagine getting together with for a cup of tea and a blend of conversation. Being younger and born in America, Dottie enjoys a bit of pop culture and trends but she’s also focused on a career. Rose remains partly in the old world while remaining active in her new environment. She’s making the best home and best life possible.

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.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from New American Library.

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purchase at Amazon: Modern Girls

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book review: Terrible Virtue

terrible virtue

Terrible Virtue by Ellen Feldman. Harper| March 22, 2016| 272 pages | $25.99| ISBN: ISBN: 9780062407559

RATING: ****/5*

“It wasn’t enough to teach a handful of desperate women specific methods. I needed to overthrow archaic laws, reshape public opinion, and enlighten, or at least outsmart, the men in power who were determined to keep us in chains. But how? Should I break the laws in order to win judgments in the courts or lobby legislators to write new laws? Should the issue be free speech or women’s rights or public health, which was just beginning to garner attention?”

How infuriating that there’s no Equal Rights Amendment and abortion and women’s health remains under attack almost as much now as in the early 1900s! Terrible Virtue is the perfect novel to read for Women’s History Month. Written like an autobiography in first-person and then commentary/testimonials from various people in her life—her husband, lawyer, sister, son—at first jarring but by one-third of the way through the novel it worked. This is one engrossing novel.

A sign of quality historical fiction for me is when I want to know more. I want to read Margaret Sanger’s autobiography. I learned many things in this fictionalization but I have many questions. A historical fiction novel’s author must choose which aspects of the person’s life to focus on. If it veers in too many directions, it’s confusing. Author Ellen Feldman succeeds with Terrible Virtue by providing a colorful and detailed characterization of women’s rights and women’s health activist Margaret Sanger. She’s bold. She’s unapologetic. She’s a trailblazer. She’s an independent spirit.

Sanger was one of 11 children. Her mother died at age 50 from tuberculosis after 18 pregnancies in 22 years. Her alcoholic free-thinking father did not believe in birth control. Her upbringing led her to want more and to want to change the status quo for women. She chose to assist impoverished women in avoiding pregnancy. It became her mission. Although she and her sisters declared they’d never marry, Sanger married artist Bill Sanger. Together they join the socialist party. Of marriage to Bill she said: “Perhaps that was another reason I married Bill, to break silly rules and defy foolish prejudices. My marital status would have no effect on my nursing ability.” At the time Sanger is in nursing school. She gets pregnant and cannot complete the program however becomes a birth control advocate traveling the world to research various birth control methods. She started clinics where poor women could be treated. She and Bill had two children (one dies) but Margaret was accused of neglecting her children to focus on her career.

After a brief stint in the suburbs, the couple moved back to New York. “We told people we wanted to be at the heart of the radical movement and the world of art. That was true. Ideas and isms raced through the city faster than the flames that had whipped through the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. On street corners, labor leaders and anarchists and socialists climbed up on soapboxes and made the ground tremble beneath their feet.”
Sanger insisted on an open marriage, perhaps more so than her husband. Many gossiped about her numerous affairs but as long as it didn’t interfere with her goals she just didn’t care. “Ours would be a different kind of union, a melding of two equals based on love, mutual respect, and total freedom. We were committed to sexual equality.”

She began talks for women about birth control and the connection between their bodies and minds. “I merely explained the facts of life. It’s shocking how few women are acquainted with them. They know about demanding husbands and agonizing deliveries and painful menstruation, but they understand little of the connection among those things.” Soon Anita Block of the Socialist Party asks Sanger to write a series of articles for the Call, the New York socialist daily which leads to her publication of a magazine. The Society for the Suppression of Vice began to monitor and censor Margaret. Her Captain Ahab was a man named Anthony Comstock, described as “a big brutal bully with a dirty little mind.” Sanger was arrested in 1914 for distributing a pro-contraception magazine, The Woman Rebel, through the mail. Then in 1916 she was arrested for running a clinic to disseminate the information. She’s arrested many more times. Sanger escapes to Europe but does serve some jail time once back in the states. She also finds ways around the regulations. A superb read!

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Harper Collins.

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book review: Tightrope

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Tightrope by Simon Mawer. Other Press| November 2015| 512 pages | $15.95| ISBN: 978-1-59051-723-9

RATING: 4.5/5*

In Tightrope, author Simon Mawer focuses once again on Marian Sutro, the central figure in 2011’s Trapeze which details Marian’s experiences during WWII. It’s a novel I recall fondly—a magnificent story that tracks Marian’s training and challenges working in espionage during the war.

Bilingual [French mother and English father] and well-educated Marian Sutro worked in Special Operations for Britain in WWII. After her release she returns to her parents’ home in Great Britain and begins to forge a post-war existence for herself. As many returning from a war, she finds herself distant from her family and unsure about her place in the world. She wants independence but isn’t sure about her identity at times. Is she a war hero—she has the awards to prove it—or is she just another woman chasing contentment? She finds work for a peace-keeping organization.

While I adored Trapeze it came out three years ago and I don’t remember minute details so I’m not sure how this can qualify. Is it a sequel? The novel stands alone so I’m not sure I’d call it that. However, it’s the second novel about the same character so by definition, it’s a sequel. When I tweeted about this I got a response from the author himself so it should be considered sequel. I got slightly confused by the narrator at times, a man who knew Marian when she was a teenager. He’d always had a crush on her. I’m not sure why the novel needed this narrator. At one point I forgot who he was and had to turn back to the novel’s beginning for a reminder. But then I decided I’d not let it bother me and just appreciate Marian Sutro and this novel. Mawer writes exquisitely and Tightrope draws you in to Marian’s life, the consequences of her actions during WWII and how she copes in the present.

Why is Marian Sutro a superb literary character worth revisiting? Mawer writes: “Try to see yourself as this lot see you. A stunning woman, dressed like a film star, who has done things no one here would dream of. Parachuted into occupied territory, lived a secret life, been captured and I don’t know, tortured probably.” She’s an independent spirit. She’s a feminist. She has lavish style and intensity. You want to be her or be friends with her. She exudes a magnetic charm and fierceness. Her military experience forces her into a gray zone. Whose side is she on? She was a spy and POW in WWII. She has sex with whomever she wants. She married a man who intensely pursued her, not particularly for love but perhaps for companionship. It doesn’t keep her from affairs with other men during her travels. On the cover, Marian looks like she’s in a Tamara de Lempicka painting. She’d be an ideal subject for the bold artist.

Mawer includes cold war fears, atomic bombs, a gay scientist (Marian’s brother) as well as Marian’s love affair with a Russian Jew. On this relationship, Mawer writes: “In Absolon’s presence she no longer thought of Benoit, or Clement, or Veronique or Alan. They all seemed irrelevant. And she no longer contemplated death and betrayal but speculated instead on the possibility of staying with this man, Absolon, for the rest of her life, in Canada maybe, under an assumed name. Absurd, of course, but she had these thoughts.” Marian’s brother is one of the scientists working on weapons and, more importantly, bombs. He’s gay during a particularly dangerous time to be gay in England. Marian scoffs at his choice of lover: “Her brother queer, the lover of some skinny, common youth.”

Plenty of elements keep you intrigued. It’s not the confusing John Le Carre-type espionage plot which I could never follow. This novel remains character-driven with lovely descriptive passages and a riveting narrative.

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Other Press.

 

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book review: The Muralist

the muralist

The Muralist by B.A. Shapiro. Algonquin| November 3, 2015| 352 pages | $16.95| ISBN: 9781616203573

RATING: *****/5*

When you think every WWII story has been told, an original narrative comes along and you realize there’s a plethora of war stories remaining to be explored and shared. Abstract expressionist art, French refugees and the WPA collide in this riveting historical fiction novel that focuses on the sudden disappearance of young Jewish-American artist Alizée Benoit. Post-depression and pre-war, Alizée works alongside Lee Krasner on murals for government-funded WPA. The Works Progress Administration], established as part of the New Deal, hired the unemployed for public works projects and hired artists, writers and actors to develop arts, media and literacy projects]. Alizée vanishes amidst personal and political turmoil.

Author B.A. Shapiro drops this fictional character in among real historical figures such as Krasner, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and William de Kooning, well-known abstract artists in the 40s. This only works when you believe that the fictional character could have truly existed and with the outstanding depiction and details. Readers become involved in Alizée’s story and in her quest to expose the truth about the war and save her family from impending atrocities the Nazi Party will commit in France [Alizée’s family lives in France] before the United States became involved in the great war. While she falls into an affair with Mark Rothko she remains focused on her art as well as helping refugees flee Europe while the Nazis begin to evoke terror.

Rothko seems the most understanding being Jewish and having depression: “Whenever they passed one of the many restaurants in New York with a RESTRICTED sign in the front window, indicating that neither Negros nor Jews would be served, Mark was the first to say that he wasn’t interested in eating anywhere he wasn’t wanted. But there was always a particular set to his mouth, a hardness in his eyes, as they passed on.” Her friends including Pollock and Krasner support her and even assist her to create one political mural but fear losing their livelihood as artists by becoming too politically-involved. Shapiro writes: “Alizée understood they felt safe and secure on their side of the Atlantic, content with a worldview that didn’t cross over much to the other.”

By day she works for the government-funded WPA and in her free-time Alizée remains part of the counter-culture. She meets Eleanor Roosevelt [“Mrs. Roosevelt was a moving force behind the WPA/FAP, and every artist on the floor revered her for that] who purchases several paintings and becomes quite impressed with Alizée’s talent and desire to use her art to convey messages. She belongs to a communist anti-war group, Americans for No Limits. Alizée saves all her money to purchase visas for her family to leave France. She’s met with many roadblocks. Shapiro notes that there’s a young congressman (Lyndon Johnson) secretly transporting refugees to Texas. Unfortunately he’s not focusing on France at that time.

This clash of ideals makes Alizée a target and puts her into increasingly dangerous situations. President Roosevelt didn’t want the United States to become engaged in the war and to that end didn’t seem interested in assisting political (Jewish) refugees either. Honestly not that different from the United States willingness to bring Syrian refugees here. Alizée makes enemies with Eleanor Roosevelt’s isolationist enemies– Joseph Kennedy, Charles Lindbergh and Breckinridge Long.

In present day, Alizée’s great-niece Danielle Abrams works as a cataloger at Christie’s auction house. She gave up her plans to become an artist years ago. Instead she works to research and authenticate remarkable art for auction. Danielle discovers paintings hidden on the backs of potential masterpieces by Pollock, Rothko and Krasner which she believes might belong to her great-aunt. So begins a mystery which forces Danielle to follow her great-aunt’s tracks even traveling to France. Her family, particular her grandfather and Alizée’s brother, never revealed that much about Alizée who disappeared and devastated her brother prior to the war. Although he eventually made it to the United States, Henri never found out what happened to his sister.

Clearly Shapiro conducted extensive research and concocts a brilliant story that allows readers to learn about some of the government programs and policies prior to WWII. It’s an exciting and vivid imagining of what might have occurred during this tense and difficult era. Besides Alizée’s political involvement, there’s much about Rothko’s depression and a stint that Alizée spends in a mental institution. Her friends see her for the final time before Rothko drives her to be admitted. There’s much discussion between mental illness, self-medication, mental breakdowns, creativity and artwork.That’s fascinating and could be a novel in itself. When Danielle discovers that her great-aunt Alizée spent time in a mental institution she finds out that “there’s a strong statistical association between what we consider the artistic soul and the disease; compared with the general population, creative people—writers, painters, dancers, musicians, actors, directors—are much more frequently diagnosed with a psychiatric condition.”

Alizée is independent, brave, determined and talented. Much like her aunt, Danielle is a strong, outspoken and a confident woman. From page one I became engulfed in both Alizée’s and Danielle’s stories and how their lives intertwined. I learned many aspects about this time period of which I’d been unaware. This is a must-read for fall. It’s the November 2015 Indie Next #1 Great Read.

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Algonquin.

B.A. Shapiro will be at Brookline Booksmith on Tuesday, November 3 at 7pm and Concord Bookshop on Thursday, November 5 at 7pm.

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The Muralist: A Novel

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book review: The Green Road

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The Green Road By Anne Enright.
W.W. Norton| May 11, 2015| 304 pages | $26.95| ISBN: 978-0-393-24824-0

Rating: *****/5*

A perfect novel with imperfect characters that spans decades and continents. Dublin author and Booker prize winner Anne Enright [The Gathering] writes beautifully constructing plausible and faulty characters, of which one wants to read more, know more and become attached. The Green Road is where the family matriarch Rosaleen Madigan enjoys taking long walks. Rosaleen is strong-willed, unyielding and resilient particularly after becoming a widow. In Ardeevin, County Clare, Rosaleen raises four children—two daughters Hanna and Constance and two sons Dan and Emmet. The children move away from their childhood home and live varied lives throughout the world.

Dan becomes a priest but then moves to New York with a fiancée. He carries on a relationship with the handsome Billy lying to himself that he’s gay only for Billy. Enright writes: “Two nights later, at eleven forty-five p.m., Dan the spoilt priest was outside Billy Walker’s door, looking for sex. Again. And sex is what he got.” During the early 90s he’s in the midst of New York’s gay scene at the height of the AIDS epidemic. Later he finally admits he’s gay and marries a man in Canada. Emmet travels the world to aid the impoverished and fulfill his wanderlust. He never has to commit to any one place or one person for long. He travels to war-torn, medically inefficient countries to work to help improve their living conditions. At one point he’s living with a woman in Africa. His relationships are always tenuous and he cares more for his own happiness and the people he’s helping on his various missives than any long-term coupling. Constance remains close to home to raise a family after somewhat settling in marriage. She once considered moving to America but didn’t get on the plane. “Constance still liked Ireland, the way you could talk to anyone. I would not be the same in America, she thought, and tried to remember why she failed to get on the plane.” Hanna gives up her love of theater and the potential for a career when she gets pregnant. These are flawed, struggling children that Enright describes and develops with compassion.

In 2005, Rosaleen summons her children home for one last Christmas as she’s decided to sell the family home. “She had been waiting, all her life, for something that never happened and she could not bear the suspense any longer.” This brings out the inner child in the four siblings and makes for a messy homecoming. Enright writes: “The truth was that the house they were sitting in was worth a ridiculous amount, and the people sitting in it were worth very little. Four children on the brink of middle-age: They had no money. Dan, especially, had no money, and he could not think why that was, or who might be to blame. But he recognised, in the silence the power Rosaleen had over her children, none of whom had grown up to match her.” No one wants the family house sold. No one wants that disruption. Nobody wants the truth. As Rosaleen thinks: “Such selfish children she had reared.”

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from W.W. Norton.

Anne Enright will be reading at Harvard Book Store May 13, 2015 at 7pm.

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The Green Road: A Novel

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