Italian Americans in the 20th Century

The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna Juliet Grames (2019)

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Fair warning:  Most of the men in this novel are brutes. Even the ones who are polite at the dinner table, who bring lovely gifts, and who work hard to support their families still tyrannize women outrageously. The worst of these men is a pervert who engages in criminal sexual activities, but there are gradations of nastiness—sexual, economic, and emotional.

So the women are the stars—especially Stella Fortuna, whose name, as the novelist tells us, actually means “‘star luck’ or maybe even ‘lucky star’.” (4) Stella is beautiful and smart, exceling at computation and at needlework although she’s functionally illiterate. But Stella’s most defining characteristics reside in her personality. She’s argumentative and honest and independent—whoa, is she independent. For a young woman with such a streak of self-sufficiency, it’s not an easy life in Ievoli, a small Calabrian mountain village in the early twentieth century. The rural women of Ievoli are workhorses and baby breeders, performing heavy labor until they go into heavy labor. Most of them submit unquestioningly to their domineering husbands. In these early sections of the novel there are touches of magic realism that some reviewers have found jarring. I thought the magic realism fit perfectly with the Italian Catholicism of the era, its rosaries and religious processions coexisting with charms to ward off the Evil Eye.

Just before World War II, the Fortuna family emigrates to Hartford, Connecticut, against the will of Stella’s mother. Does life get easier? Well, by boarding that ship they do miss the worst of the reign of Mussolini and the wartime marauding of Nazi soldiers. But in America Stella has a battle on her hands to stay single, as she has vowed to do, having figured out about the brutishness of those males. Though life in Ievoli afforded few material comforts, at least the inhabitants were surrounded by stunning natural beauty, which is woefully lacking in the slums of Hartford. Stella daydreams: “She pictured Ievoli, the glowing yellow-green of the citrus leaves in the April sun, the silver-blue of the September olive groves, the sun-baked July rows of bulging tomato stakes marching like soldiers along the terraced mountain.” (328)

The entire novel is framed from the viewpoint of the present day, when Stella is 100 years old. The narrator, a descendant of the Fortuna clan, gets the stories of all of Stella’s close brushes with death from Stella’s sister, Concettina, (“Cettina” in Italy and “Tina” in America). In an Author’s Note, Juliet Grames mentions that memories of her own elderly relatives inspired components of Stella’s life, and I found myself wondering which parts of the novel correspond with Grames’ own family history.

The boisterous, dramatic, hard-partying Italian Americans in The Seven or Eight Deaths are not stereotypes but rather fully realized characters, some saints but many sinners. Every immigrant family (and the vast majority of Americans come from one) has similar characters. Grames has captured the immigrant experience magnificently, using the anticipatory device of the “deaths” to get me to read late into the night to find out how Stella survived yet again. Brava!

For another story about Italian Americans, find a DVD of the classic 1987 movie Moonstruck. And for more of my reviews of books about immigrants, click on “Immigrant Stories” in the column to the right.

A Marriage Bureau Mystery

The Right Sort of Man      Allison Montclair     (2019)

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In the wake of World War II, women who had taken on substantial roles in the war effort were often expected to walk away from stimulating, remunerative work to become housewives. Recently, a number of nonfiction titles, novels, and films have been exploring the ramifications of this cultural shift. For example, in the PBS series The Bletchley Circle a cast of brilliant (fictional) female codebreakers become freelance detectives, solving murders after the war. On this blog I’ve reviewed several novels treating the issue of women adjusting to wartime and to the post-war economy and society; see links at the end of this post.

In the novel The Right Sort of Man, Iris Sparks can’t reveal her wartime work because of Britain’s Official Secrets Act, but she clearly was a spy for the Allies. The story starts in 1946, and Iris reveals her chops through her contacts in high places, her sharp intellect, and her ability to wield a knife against an aggressor. She has met Gwen Bainbridge, a wealthy widow who was so devastated by the loss of her husband in the war that she was confined for several months to a mental institution and lost custody of her young son. Iris and Gwen decide to become partners in establishing a marriage bureau—Iris to have gainful employment as a single woman, and Gwen to reclaim her place in the world. The services they offer are in demand as Britons return to civilian life and seek the comforts of home and family.

Alas, after only a few months of operation, The Right Sort Marriage Bureau loses one of its female clients to murder, and a man whom the bureau has matched her with is charged with the crime. Iris and Gwen have vetted their clients thoroughly and are convinced that the wrong person has been arrested. To see justice done and save the reputation of their firm, they set out to find the real perpetrator. In the course of their investigation, they run into black market gangs finding ways around Britain’s strict war-related rationing laws, which were not fully phased out until 1954.

The action moves forward and the personalities develop primarily through dialogue, and that dialogue is quick-witted, reflecting Iris and Gwen’s intelligence and perceptiveness.  These two women have Sherlockian powers of observation and deduction as well as skills in subterfuge and in the discernment of the truthfulness of those they are interviewing. Some complex sub-plotting centers on Iris’s sex life, which is, to use Gwen’s descriptor, “adventurous.”

Who is the novelist? Allison Montclair is a pseudonym for an experienced fiction writer who’s venturing into the mystery genre with The Right Sort of Man. It’s a highly successful venture, capturing the immediate post-war period in London and unveiling the lives of two women who survived and thrived.

For other excellent fictional treatments of women’s roles in Britain in World War II and afterwards, see my reviews of Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs mysteries (2003-present) and of Anthony Quinn’s Freya (2017). On the American side of the Atlantic, check out Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach (2017), and for women in post-war Germany see Jessica Shattuck’s The Women in the Castle (2017).

Historical Drama in Tuscany

The Tuscan Child     Rhys Bowen     (2018)

Rhys Bowen knows how to write a mystery, having penned dozens of them for her three series—the Constable Evans, Molly Murphy, and Royal Spyness Mysteries. In The Tuscan Child, a standalone novel, she tucks several mysteries into a package that also holds its own as a historical novel.  

The story shifts between 1944-45 and 1973 in alternating chapters. In the World War II sequences, British bomber pilot Hugo Langley lies badly wounded near the fictional village of San Salvatore in Nazi-held Tuscany, tended for many weeks by the kindly Sofia Bartoli. He hides in the ruins of a monastery as he gains strength and tries to plan an escape to the south, where there are Allied forces. 

Readers know that Hugo survives the war, because decades later, Hugo’s daughter, Joanna, is sorting out her father’s belongings after his sudden death near the family’s former estate in England. When Joanna finds a letter, returned as undeliverable, that Hugo wrote to Sofia after the war, she decides to travel to Tuscany herself to unravel the secrets of Hugo’s war service. Tangled in with these two stories are the unknown activities of the Nazi soldiers and of the Tuscan resistance during World War II, the business dealings of a wealthy landowner in San Salvatore, and a surprise murder. In 1973, World War II was still fresh in the memories of the European civilians who survived devastating conflict in their countryside, but they may choose to forget. 

Italian cuisine provides a mouthwatering backdrop to the Tuscan adventures. Raised on English food (think sausage rolls and Yorkshire pudding), Joanna has her taste buds awakened by basil and squash blossoms and homemade pasta and fresh-picked tomatoes. Even Hugo, during the severe privations of the war, learns to love flavorful Tuscan bean soup. Culinary delights prime the characters for amorous adventures.

With brisk dialogue and well-sketched protagonists, novelist Bowen kept me racing through the chapters to find out the fate of that Tuscan child and the resolution of all the other mysteries.

1947 in the US and the UK: 2 Novels

By chance, I picked up from my library two historical novels set in the same year, 1947. In the immediate aftermath of the devastation of World War II, ordinary people on both sides of the Atlantic are trying to get on with their lives. 

The Stars Are Fire     Anita Shreve     (2017)

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In 1947 coastal Maine, an extreme drought contributed to October wildfires that devastated nine small towns and left 2500 people homeless. Into this historical setting, Anita Shreve places a fictional young wife and mother, Grace Holland. Grace’s husband, Gene, joins a group of volunteers trying to fight the fires. Meanwhile, Grace is left to save herself, her infant, and her toddler by crouching with them for hours in shallow water at the ocean’s edge. As much of an ordeal as this is, Grace’s life after the fire poses even more challenges, since she finds herself without a house or any means of support. Kindly friends in a neighboring town take in Grace and her children, while she finds reserves of courage that she didn’t know she had.

There’s some melodrama in this novel, especially in several farfetched plot coincidences. And I was somewhat disappointed by the lack of full development of the character of Gene Holland. The Holland marriage, as it’s depicted in the months before the fires, is not a happy one, and Gene seems to suffer from depression. Shreve mentions that he served in World War II, so maybe he suffers from PTSD (“battle fatigue” in WWII parlance), but this aspect of his personality isn’t explored, so Gene serves primarily as a foil to Grace.  

On balance, however, the positives in this novel outweighed the negatives for me. A strong female lead character makes bold life choices in the face of terrible circumstances, and she’s surrounded by other distinctive female characters. The post-WWII American household is evoked well, right down to the wringer washers.  

The Gown: A Novel of the Royal Wedding     Jennifer Robson     (2019)

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In 1947 London, the severe rationing of the war years is still in effect, and many Londoners are mourning the loss of loved ones, both on the battlefields and in the Blitz. Then the wonderful, cheering announcement comes: Princess Elizabeth (whom we know now as Queen Elizabeth II) is engaged to marry Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten (now Prince Philip). The fashion house of Norman Hartnell is commissioned to make the princess’s wedding gown, which is to be embellished with elaborate appliques and thousands of tiny jewels. These are the historical facts around which novelist Jennifer Robson imagines the lives of two of the working-class women employed as embroiderers by Hartnell—Englishwoman Ann Hughes and a French immigrant who survived Nazi persecution, Miriam Dassin.  

The tale of Ann and Miriam is enlivened by interspersed chapters from the 2016 life of the granddaughter of Ann Hughes, Heather Mackenzie, who lives in Toronto, Canada. Heather inherits from her grandmother a box of exquisite embroideries and an old photo of Ann and Miriam. Researching images that she finds online, Heather discovers that the fabrics look very much like the 1947 wedding gown of Princess Elizabeth, and she travels to London to get some answers. Why did Ann never speak about her stitching on this famous gown? Why did she emigrate to Canada? Who were Ann’s co-workers? What was it like to live in grim post-war London and yet spend your working days sewing fabulous materials for the British royal family? Heather unravels these mysteries from her present-day information, while readers gradually learn the facts from 1947.  

You do not have to know anything about embroidery (I certainly don’t) to appreciate the artistry being described by Robson. I kept turning back to the cover of the book, with its photo from the 1947 wedding of Elizabeth and Philip, to visualize that gown. And with Robson’s help I could easily picture Ann sitting by the wireless, eating gristly meat scraps, her slippers having been warmed in the oven because there was no coal for a fire on a bitter winter night. There’s romance in The Gown, and there’s exploitation, revenge, friendship, despair, and triumph.    

PS—For another novel set right after World War II, try The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck, reviewed here.  

Mysteries from 3 Countries

In this post are reviews of mysteries from Iceland, the United States, and England, offering quite distinctive approaches to the genre. For even more reviews of mystery novels, go to the Archive in the right-hand column and click the “Mystery” category.

The Shadow District     Arnaldur Indriðason     (2017)    

Translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb

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I haven’t read a Scandinavian noir since I raced through all three volumes of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Series (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, etc) a decade ago. Those novels were terrifying for me, but I kept turning the pages. Although Indriðason’s The Shadow District is billed on the cover as a thriller, it’s not scary—or even fast-paced—but it’s a serviceable mystery that I would class loosely as a police procedural.

The novel toggles between present-day Reykjavik and the same city during World War II, when Iceland was occupied by British and American troops. In the present day, a 90-year-old man is found dead in his apartment. Looking for a motive for the murder of this seemingly innocuous elderly person, retired police detective Konrad reopens an investigation into the unsolved murder of a young woman that took place in 1944 in the titular Shadow District. Readers follow the path of the investigators in 1944, but Konrad has to uncover the details painstakingly, because records of this unsolved case have (surprise!) disappeared. One thread of inquiry involves the huldufólk, the elves of Icelandic folklore. As a character explains, stories about the huldufólk “can reveal a great deal about people’s attitudes over the centuries, whether it’s their fear of the unknown or their desire for a better life or dreams of a better world. They can tell us so much directly and indirectly about life in the past.” (207-08) If you want to join the stampede for Scandinavian crime stories but shudder at the usual gore, this Icelandic offering may fill the bill. Note that the translation uses British English, so there are a few idiomatic phrases that may puzzle American readers. And the English-language edition of this book spells the author's surname "Indridason" when in fact the Icelandic spelling is "Indriðason." There's quite a difference, since "ð" is pronounced as "th."

The Last Place You Look     Kristen Lepionka     (2017)

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Now, this novel is truly scary, so I had to skim cautiously over several sections in which the tension built. But it’s well written, and I wanted to read to the end to discover the murderer.

Private detective Roxane Weary is the thirty-something daughter of a recently slain Columbus police officer. She had a conflicted relationship with her father, but she’s devastated by his death and has turned to whiskey for solace. Meanwhile, in an Ohio prison, inmate Brad Stockton has exhausted his appeals and is slated for execution. Brad’s sister, Danielle, hires Roxane to see if there’s anything that can be done to save him. Danielle swears that she has caught sight of Sarah Cook, the daughter of the couple that Brad was convicted of murdering decades ago. Sarah disappeared and is presumed dead also. The case gets exceedingly complex and dangerous as Roxane delves into it, drawing plot elements from actual cases that I’ve seen in the news over the past few years.

I found the first-person narration of The Last Place You Look engaging, revealing Roxane as a hard-nosed yet caring Sam-Spade-like detective. Her sexual liaisons with both men and women are treated matter-of-factly, not as aberrations. Lepionka’s characters have substance, and her plot is cleverly orchestrated.  

Sleep No More: Six Murderous Tales     PD James     (2017)    

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Renowned British mystery writer PD James died in 2014 at the age of 94, so be warned that this small collection of her stories is not new work. Instead, gathered in a slim volume are six stories that first appeared in print between 1973 and 2006. These are classic James mysteries, very much in the tradition of the Golden Age mysteries that James transformed with a signature wit and careful writing throughout her career. Four of the six stories are told in first-person narrative, and the reader should be wary of assuming that sympathy with the narrator is warranted.

Take this PD James collection along on your next vacation, for engaging reading in the airport or train station. If you want more about the writing methods of PD James, see my review of her 2009 nonfiction book, Talking About Detective Fiction.

Historical Fiction: 3 Reviews

The 1917 Russian Revolution, the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, and the 1945 Atomic Bomb: what a trio of topics for historical fiction! Each of these three novels has some flaws, which I note below, but each kept my attention to the end.

The Revolution of Marina M.     Janet Fitch     (2017)

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Marina Marakova starts her first-person bildungsroman with a brief prologue set in California in 1932, so we know that she survives the Russian Revolution. The rest of this mammoth novel is set in Russia, 1916-1919, with the aristocratic Marina prescient from early on: “How precious all this was, how soon it might be gone. It only made it more poignant and beautiful in my eyes.” (183) Marina experiences a sexual awakening against the gruesome backdrop of (a) World War I grinding on its bloody way, (b) the czarist regime toppling, and (c) the victorious revolutionaries battling each other. She’s a poet who seeks out other poets and gets involved in communist activism seemingly accidentally.

Getting through this 800-page novel takes great patience, but I was borne along by Janet Fitch’s amazing range of vocabulary and imagery. For example, in a train station packed with people trying to escape Petrograd, Fitch writes, “The metallic scent of panic, soot, and trains stained the air.” (419) She tosses off hundreds of such evocative comparisons, especially in describing the smells of places. Marina’s analyses of her own actions and of the dramatically shifting society around her are trenchant: “Why did everyone want a boy to hurry up and become a man, but nobody wanted a girl to become a woman? As if that were the most awful thing that could befall her.” (181) I did waver considerably in my reading commitment as the plot went truly wacky in the latter half of the novel. Marina’s wild forays into communal living, smuggling, sadomasochism, astronomy, mysticism, and animal trapping caused my head to spin. I was also disappointed, when I finally reached page 800, to find that no wrap-up was provided. The Revolution of Marina M. is only “Book I” of Marina’s story!

As Bright as Heaven     Susan Meissner     (2018)

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In the Philadelphia of World War I, Pauline and Thomas Bright and their three daughters take up residence with Thomas’s uncle, who is an undertaker. Pauline, reeling from the recent loss of an infant son, has what can only be described as a morbid obsession with death and joins her husband and his uncle in mortuary work. As if the war weren’t providing enough mortality, a virulent influenza strikes in 1918. (Historically, Philadelphia was particularly hard hit by the influenza pandemic, with more than 12,000 deaths, primarily among young adults.) The struggles and successes of the Bright family play out against the ravages of the disease.

I read Part 1 of As Bright as Heaven, about the first two-thirds of the book, to find out who would succumb to influenza and who would survive. Part 2 skips ahead to 1925, and I kept reading in hopes of getting some insight into the long-term effects of the losses on the human psyche. Sadly, the plot resolutions in these chapters strain credibility, veering well into melodrama territory via coincidences. As Bright as Heaven shares some themes with another novel that I’ve reviewed, The Light between Oceans, by ML Stedman, which is the better historical novel.

The Atomic City Girls     Janet Beard     (2018)

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In Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a makeshift city sprang up during World War II, built with federal funds and shrouded in secrecy. This was where uranium was enriched to supply the Manhattan Project, which produced the nuclear weapons deployed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The title of Janet Beard’s book is somewhat confusing; men and women alike labored in this “atomic city.” Readers view Oak Ridge through the fictional lives of four of the workers there: two rural women who take jobs as machine operators, a male physicist from New York who troubleshoots the industrial-scale electromagnetic process, and a male sharecropper who becomes a construction worker on the site. The intertwined stories of these characters draw in several difficult social issues, including racial discrimination in America and the morality of unleashing nuclear energy to destroy civilian targets.

There’s no lyrical prose here, just basic exposition, but I found Beard’s descriptions of the inner workings of Oak Ridge intriguing, especially because her text is enlivened by dozens of remarkable period photographs of ordinary Americans living and working in Oak Ridge, the great majority of them totally unaware of the US Army’s goals in building the complex. In a quiet corner of the middle South, the horrors of the battle fronts and of the Holocaust could seem remote, but the people at Oak Ridge are deeply affected by world events.

Guest Review: Cloaks and Daggers

Hunting Eichmann:  How a Band of Survivors and a Young Spy Agency Chased Down the World’s Most Notorious Nazi     Neal Bascomb     (2009)

Today, as a bonus Tuesday post, another guest review by ethicist and philosopher Paul R. Schwankl!

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Adolf Eichmann (1906-1962) managed the Third Reich’s plans to exterminate Jews. For fifteen years after World War II, he was the most notorious alleged war criminal still at large. In 1960, a team from the Israeli security services smuggled him from Argentina to Israel to be tried for crimes against humanity. These are the bare facts of the case.

As someone who was trained in moral philosophy, I’m interested in analyses of the evil in this man. But I also love cloak-and-dagger stories, so I’m grateful to Neal Bascomb for his magisterial book Hunting Eichmann, based on an immense number of interviews and memoirs, detailing the lucky breaks and good choices that allowed Eichmann to hide—and allowed the Israelis to capture him.

At the end of World War II, the victorious Allies didn’t at first realize how important Eichmann was to the Holocaust. He didn’t run individual death camps; he was the distant overseer who made sure that Jews got to them. Significantly, he hated being photographed. After the war, he got swept up along with millions of other German soldiers and put into a crowded and understaffed prison camp, where he passed as a low-level officer. He easily escaped and worked as a rural laborer in northern Germany. But by 1950 his adversaries had figured out his role in Hitler’s Final Solution, so he made his way to the seaport of Genoa, staying with pro-fascists along his route, including Catholic priests and monks who felt that as long as Eichmann was against communism it didn’t matter how many Jews he had killed. Eichmann sailed to South America and had no trouble entering fascist-friendly Argentina, getting a job, and, in 1952, bringing his wife and three sons over to join him. It seemed that Adolph Eichmann, now named Ricardo Klement, had won.

But a remarkable happenstance, combined with one of Eichmann’s few mistakes, started to unravel his cover. Eichmann allowed his sons to use the surname of their birth; they claimed that their father was dead and that Ricardo Klement was their uncle. In 1956, the eldest son, Klaus, starting dating a German Argentinian, Sylvia Hermann. When Klaus visited her German-speaking home, he assumed that it was safe to brag to Sylvia’s blind father, Lothar Hermann, that his dad had been big in the Wehrmacht. Klaus did not know that Lothar was half Jewish and had gone blind from beatings by the Gestapo. Eventually, Lothar and Sylvia got in touch with Israelis who were still pursuing war criminals. Lothar and Sylvia also, with much difficulty, found out where the Eichmann family lived. In a highlight of the book, Sylvia risked her life by calling on the family and coming face to face with Adolf Eichmann (Ricardo Klement) himself.

From there Israeli operatives largely took over the hunt, first undertaking a positive identification, which was hampered by a lack of photographs. The capture of Eichmann and his transportation to Israel took three years of work. It was an amazing accomplishment by the Israelis, though the details were long kept secret. Argentina complained that the Israeli captors had violated Argentine sovereignty, which Israel admitted they had done. Israel asserted that it was standing for a righteous world in which criminals like Eichmann must not go free. The Jewish state ultimately patched things up with the post-Peronist Argentine government.

In reading Bascomb’s account, I was impressed with the expertise of the career spies and agents who captured Eichmann, but the amateurs and part-timers also did some truly amazing things. For example, one Israeli started wooing a former mistress of Eichmann in Vienna. After several excruciating dates, the Israeli persuaded her to open her photo album, which contained one of the rare pictures of Eichmann. He got the Vienna police to seize the album on the pretext that the woman was hiding stolen ration tickets in it.

 Many war criminals have come and gone since Eichmann’s day, and it is still possible to bring them to trial; an ex-Nazi in his nineties was sentenced just recently. I would like to think that the Israelis’ success with Eichmann helped, by laying an effective foundation separate from the Allies’ work at Nuremberg. Eichmann was hanged and cremated and his ashes scattered at sea; he remains the only person to whom Israeli courts have applied the death penalty. In the United States today, we can all use a reminder that law can indeed rule.

Moral Quandaries in Berlin, Part 2

Here in Berlin     Cristina García     (2017)

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The cover of Here in Berlin tells us that this is “a novel,” but upon opening it you’ll be excused if you mistake it for a collection of short stories. Either way, Cristina García has produced a striking picture of contemporary Berlin by presenting pieces of historical Berlin.

The construct is this:  a Visitor, never named, interviews Berliners, many of them aged residents of a nursing home, and records their stories in their own words. The Visitor also sets down a few third-person accounts of Berliners. In addition, the Visitor records some interviews with Cubans, both in Berlin and in Cuba, as she explores the connections between East Germany and Fidel Castro’s Cuba as those connections existed from the end of World War II until 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down. It had never occurred to me before, but now it’s obvious that there would have been movement of people between these two centers of Communist power in the twentieth century. Students would have traveled from Cuba to study in Berlin, for instance, and transatlantic business would have been conducted.

How did the (fictional) Visitor secure her (fictional) interviews? “The Visitor struggled with balancing what she found with what eluded her. On fortuitous days, stories dropped like gifts out of the windless skies, typically prompted by loneliness, or happenstance. Other stories—the forgotten, interstitial ones she’d come to Berlin to collect—she coaxed from the grist of history. Why was apocalypse so compelling? What did war keep offering that ensured its survival?” (109)

Oh, the stories that emerge! The primary revelations concern the Nazi era and the period of the late 1940s, when Berlin was an apocalyptic landscape of destruction and starvation. Nonagenarians reveal to the Visitor long-hidden secrets of their precarious survival, and slightly younger Berliners recount grim childhoods, when World War II was grinding to a horrific conclusion, with Hitler’s troops fighting to the bitter end and the Russians storming Berlin. The voices are so authentic that you may start to think of the book as documentary rather than fictional.

War crimes are prominent in the stories, as ordinary Germans explain how they were sucked into the Nazi machine. Toward the middle of the book, a former Luftwaffe pilot laments, “We grew old, very old, before our time. Sometimes I think it’s better to remember nothing at all. Memories are selective. We pick and choose what we need to believe, what we require to survive.” (122) The specter of collusion in war atrocities hangs over almost all the speakers. An amnesiac photojournalist explains: “Dear Visitor, the ghosts in Berlin aren’t confined to cemeteries. Listen. Don’t you hear their whisperings? Feel their tugs on your sleeves? Their stories lie beneath the stories that nobody want to talk about. They haunt the present like palimpsests, shaping it with their hungers.” (96)

Over it all, the Visitor tries to pinpoint her reasons for conducting the interviews in the first place. She finds linkages between some of the characters, making Berlin sometimes seem like a small town where everyone knows everyone else. For instance, an ophthalmologist whom the Visitor interviews has a couple of the other story tellers as patients. A Cuban who moved to Berlin and became a geology professor reports his long-ago affair with a crippled German ballerina whom the Visitor also interviews. To fully appreciate Here in Berlin, it helps if you can read German, or at least are willing to Google the meanings that you can’t get from context. Sure, most readers will know that “danke” is “thanks,” but I’m guessing that fewer will recognize “Ku’damm” as the shorthand for “Kurfürstendamm,” the broad avenue of shops in Berlin. A few misspellings in the German are unfortunate editing errors. The bits of Spanish that dot the text are less problematic.

The memories of war cannot be erased by time, it seems, or even by the deaths of the participants. In the gleaming new Berlin, a city of lovely lakes and rivers, heinous acts linger: “Most of the city’s new architecture—dazzling, sleek—has sprung up along these riverbanks. Berlin longs to define itself by the future, yet it remains a hostage to its past.” (88)

For a different take on Germany in the years right after World War II, see my review of The Women in the Castle, a novel by Jessica Shattuck. And for another collection of linked short stories, try Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout.

20th-Century British Women

Freya     Anthony Quinn     (2017)

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My household has a treasured old photo of my husband’s parents in a restaurant on VE Day. My father-in-law is in Navy uniform, and a newspaper proclaiming “Victory in Europe” in World War II is on the table in front of the smiling couple. Roving photographers across the United States probably captured many scenes like this.

May 8, 1945, must have been even more joyous for the people of Great Britain, who had endured six years of war, including widespread bombings of civilian targets and the constant threat of German invasion. Anthony Quinn captures the exuberance of VE Day in London with the opening scenes of his novel Freya. In the celebratory crowd, the title character, Freya Wyley, meets Nancy Holdaway, and this meeting sets in motion a long and fraught friendship.

Freya is already a military veteran at age 20, having served for three years in the Wrens, the Women’s Royal Naval Service, as a radar plotter. This background is key to understanding her career motivations. She was entrusted with highly classified and complex tasks to further Britain’s war effort, often putting in fifteen-hour shifts, but at the end of the war, the need for women to perform such work evaporated. Civilian jobs went to male soldiers returning from battle. Freya had gotten a taste of high-powered career possibilities and had engaged in several brief affairs, so the prospect of attending tradition-steeped Oxford University, which had been holding a place for her, seems, in her words, “trivial.” (22)

“To her the undergraduate routine felt becalmed after the frenetic rhythms of wartime; she missed the perilous excitement of being always on-call in the Wrens. . . It was not the war she wanted back but the sense of a shared endeavor, of knowing her own role in the grander scheme and being good at it . . . It also disheartened her to realise that the age-old accommodations of male chauvinism had not been eradicated by war—merely displaced.” (108)

On that fateful VE Day in 1945, Nancy, at age 18, is fresh out of secondary school in the north of England and is thrilled to be headed to Oxford. To Freya, Nancy at first seems hopelessly naïve and introverted, but as the story unfolds, it’s clear that Nancy has a depth and solidity of character that Freya lacks. Freya is strong-willed and ambitious, priding herself on her verbal banter and profanity, traits that sometimes made me want to grab her by the shoulders and tell her to shut her sassy mouth. Both young women aspire to be writers—Freya as a journalist and Nancy as a novelist.  

In three segments, this novel traces the relationship between Freya and Nancy:  at Oxford right after the war, in London in the late 1950s, and again in London in the early 1960s. The power dynamic between the two women shifts back and forth as each builds her career. Freya senses this early on, as Quinn notes: “It was an enlivening sense of being admired, perhaps even adored, and in consequence a desire to justify that admiration by becoming a cleverer and wiser person than she actually was. She supposed this striving for a better self was rather like being in love.” (77)

Larger-than-life supporting characters enliven the tale, including the louche actor/writer Nate Fane, the dissolute photographer Jerry Dicks, and the befuddled young model Chrissie Effingham. The names of these characters alone will point you to their personalities—“fane” quite close to “fame”  and so on. Freya, Nancy, and the crew get involved in fictionalized versions of the British events of the era, including political sex scandals and criminal prosecutions of gay men. (Some of these events could have been lifted right out of the 1983 biography of Alan Turing by Andrew Hodges, made into the film The Imitation Game in 2014.) All along, Quinn dissects the roles of women in post-World War II Britain with surprising insight.

Freya is oversized in many ways, including its length (556 pages) and theatricality, so I consumed it in great gulps. Although the novel is dialogue driven, Quinn’s prose descriptors are arresting. Here’s one example:  “He was wearing an undershirt and grey trousers with thin braces pooling about his waist like the dropped strings of a marionette.” (258-9) The cover photograph, which does not at all resemble the Freya described in the text, is a disappointment. The publisher, Europa, tends to use vintage photos for its covers, usually with more success.

In recent years, several excellent BBC television series have been set in the 1950s and early 1960s, including Grantchester, The Hour, and Call the Midwife. If you’re a fan of any of these, you will likely enjoy the novel Freya as much as I did.

New York Noir, Plus

Manhattan Beach     Jennifer Egan     (2017)

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Jennifer Egan won the Pulitzer Prize for her 2010 collection of linked short stories, A Visit from the Goon Squad. The form of her fiction before 2017 was unconventional, so critics seem shocked that Egan was capable of producing, with the publication of Manhattan Beach, a traditional historical novel, especially since such novels are not fashionable at the moment. I had never read anything else by Egan, so I approached Manhattan Beach as a seasoned reviewer of multitudes of historical novels, and it’s a good one.

The setting is New York City, first in the depths of the Great Depression and then in the midst of World War II. Keep your finger on the front or back endpapers of Manhattan Beach so that you can refer to the map of the Brooklyn Naval Yard as it existed during World War II. This may help you locate and picture the scenes of the novel that take place there.

The plot? I hesitate to reveal much, since one of the pleasures of this novel is the intricacy of the entangled story lines, which the reader unravels with every turn of the page. The central character is Anna Kerrigan, whom we first meet as a child in 1934, when she accompanies her down-at-the-heels father, Eddie, on a visit to a mobster’s home, which overlooks Manhattan Beach. Both this locale and the title of the book point to the prominence of bodies of water as recurrent images in Egan’s writing. The mobster is Dexter Styles, whose back story we’ll learn. We’ll follow Eddie, too, as well as Anna’s severely disabled younger sister, Lydia. The characters in Manhattan Beach have to confront organized crime, Wall Street bankers, Park Avenue doctors, and Nazi submarines. It ain’t dull!

The main line of interest, however, is Anna, who reaches the age of 19 during World War II and is able, like many women of the period, to secure war-related employment at the Brooklyn Naval Yard. She hates the tedium of taking quality control measurements of small parts and escapes on her lunchtimes to the piers that jut out into the East River. Gazing at the water, she sees a diver in a bulky canvas suit slipping below the surface, and she has an epiphany. “Jealousy and longing spasmed through her. . . she felt a seismic rearrangement within herself. It was clear to her now she had always wanted to be a diver, to walk along the bottom of the sea. But this certainty was fraught with worry that she would be denied.” (62-3) Anna single-mindedly and aggressively pursues her quest to become a diver, repairing the underwater portions of vessels heading out to war. Although Rosie-the-Riveter was welcomed in factories that turned out bombers, Anna-the-Diver has a tougher time convincing the male authorities at the ship yard to connect her to an air hose and let her clamber down the ladder into the depths.  

As Egan has explained in several author profiles (and as her acknowledgements at the end of the novel reveal), she exhaustively researched all the arcane detail in Manhattan Beach, learning not only about diving but also about the New York waterfront,  nightclubs, Irish Americans, gangsters, and merchant marine ships. At times, Egan seems so anxious to assure her readers of the historical authenticity of her novel that she piles on the data, listing, for instance, too many product brand names or too many seafaring terms. This is a small complaint, as is my sense that some turns of plot are clichéd and that the denouement of Manhattan Beach is somewhat abrupt. Still, I was left with the feeling that I’d like to know more about the later lives of the characters, and that’s always a sign that the novelist has done a very good job of constructing those characters.

Manhattan Beach has been touted as one of the great novels of the decade. I wouldn’t go that far in my praise, but I did find it very well-crafted and solidly entertaining. Check it out! And for more New York mystery/adventure, read my reviews of Brendan Mathews's The World of Tomorrow and of Colin Harrison's You Belong to Me.

Irishmen at the 1939 World's Fair

The World of Tomorrow     Brendan Mathews     (2017)

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The cover of this novel depicts the key setting: New York in 1939, site of the World’s Fair, with its theme and slogan “The World of Tomorrow.” When you open the book, the endpapers offer a map of the fairgrounds, with the iconic trylon and perisphere structures, which are also on the back cover.

Brendan Mathews compresses almost all the action of his novel into one week in New York City in early June of 1939, a time when the Great Depression had eased, when the future in America seemed bright, when World War II was still unimaginable to most Americans, despite the actions of Hitler in Europe. Three Irish brothers are at the center of a large cast of characters. Francis Dempsey has fled Ireland after a prison break and a run-in with the Irish Republican Army that left him, unexpectedly, with a bundle of cash. With Francis is his brother Michael, a disenchanted seminarian who has been severely injured by an IRA bomb. Francis and Michael assume fake identities when they arrive in New York, but they do seek out the third brother, Martin, who is married to Rosemary and has two daughters. We learn about Rosemary’s complicated family history in New York, and we also pick up the stories of other characters who will cross paths with the Dempseys. Irish expatriate Tom Cronin is a retired hit man who is called back to the city to retrieve the cash that Francis lifted from the IRA. Lilly Bloch is a Jewish street photographer from Czechoslovakia who’s on a limited visa in New York but is hesitant to return to her home and her fiancé given the Nazi presence in Prague.

The plot can be as rollicking as a slapstick Laurel and Hardy movie of the period, and when Mathews is in this mode, the pages turn themselves, especially in the climatic final scenes at the World’s Fair. However, I did find Mathews’s supernatural elements sometimes hard to swallow. The shell-shocked Michael has long conversations with the ghost of the poet William Butler Yeats. This is a way for readers to know what Michael, who cannot speak, is thinking, but it can get tedious.

Quibbling aside, The World of Tomorrow is serious and well written historical fiction, weaving in the funding of IRA terrorism by Irish Americans, the role of women in the mid-twentieth century, the political corruption of New York, and the competitive jazz scene of the city. Here is Martin, dragging home at dawn from a jazz gig: “. . . the early-morning hours were his favorite. Walking a nearly vacant street, with only a couple slouched against each other in the distance, steam drifting lazily from a manhole, a splash of neon thrown into a puddle, an after-hours bar whose last diligent drinkers hunched over their highball glasses—this was the New York he had come seeking.” (45-46)

Hanging over all the narrative is the reader’s knowledge of what is to come:  “The World of Tomorrow” will be postponed until after a long, devastating war that stretched around the globe. In the closing pages of the novel, Mathews spells this out: “. . . the story of the months and years ahead would be broadcast in boldface headlines and urgent radio bulletins. It would be told in V-Mail and telegrams from the War Department and in prayers offered in church. More than they could know, it would be written in silences, absences, and empty spaces. But the story of those years would also be told in love letters saved and bundled in ribbon, and in songs dreamed up during nights in the barracks, and in the warmth of the spotlight before the first note was sung, and in sunlit hours when it was possible to believe that everyone you had lost was only late, and would be home soon enough.” (546)

Sonata II: A Czech Musical Quest

 The Prague Sonata     Bradford Morrow     (2017)

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“Sonata” is the theme for this Bradford Morrow novel as well as for the novel I reviewed in a recent post, Rose Tremain’s The Gustav Sonata. Yet these two books are totally different in style and plot. 

The Prague Sonata centers on a fictional manuscript of a musical work from the late eighteenth century. Meta Taverner, a musicologist in New York City in the year 2000, is given one of the three movements of this unknown piano sonata by an elderly Czech woman who then promptly dies. Meta sets out on a mission, starting in the Czech Republic, to locate the remaining two movements of the sonata and to determine its composer.

The Prague Sonata is an amalgam of quest and mystery novel. There’s also a good chunk of historical fiction, as we travel back to Prague in the days before and during World War II to meet the woman who separated the three movements of the sonata in the face of the arrival of Nazi troops. Morrow explores the connections between the twentieth-century Czech owner of the manuscript and the twenty-first-century sonata seeker: “Had Meta herself been bequeathed a handwritten sonata from a fond, eccentric father, would she have had the guts and the wisdom to split it into three orphaned movements in hopes of protecting it from the enemy?” (70)

Classical musicians and lovers of classical music (among whom I count myself) will find much to enjoy in The Prague Sonata, which includes details of musical notation and rhapsodic descriptions of performances of the mysterious sonata. Trooping through the streets of Prague with Meta, I became genuinely interested in how the movements of the sonata might be reunited and how the composer might be ascertained. Occasionally, however, Morrow’s musical metaphors become strained:  “Despite her doubts about love at first sight . . . they’d been improvising a duet on either side of the river. A duet that wanted to evolve into a fugue. One whose harmonic and rhythmic structures moved toward the same resolution.” (231)

Morrow also wants to tell us a lot about Czech history, not only from the World War II era but also from the time of the Velvet Revolution against the Soviets in 1989. If these and other background paragraphs had been edited down, the pace of the novel would have picked up. A romance component does add spark to the narrative. Meta’s lawyer boyfriend, who remains behind in New York, is unsympathetic to her quest in the Czech Republic, leaving her open to forming a new relationship. I won’t reveal spoilers!

Late in The Prague Sonata a character brings up Willa Cather’s 1918 novel My Ántonia, arguably the best fictional depiction of Czech immigrants (called “Bohemians”) in the United States: “’This was written years ago, but the heartland of Nebraska and the Bohemians who settled there haven’t changed all that much. Time kind of stands still on the prairie.’” (385-6) I read My Ántonia recently and found this American classic to be surprisingly nuanced. Between My Ántonia and The Prague Sonata you can get a sense of the richness of Czech culture.

Sonata I: The Swiss Character

The Gustav Sonata     Rose Tremain     (2016)

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The setting is Switzerland after World War II and, in flashbacks, before World War II. Author Rose Tremain delves into the traditional stereotypes of Swiss character as well as the fraught issue of Swiss neutrality in the face of Nazi aggression.

With exceptionally spare prose, Tremain propels along the story of Gustav Perle; his widowed mother, Emilie; and his best friend, Anton Zweibel. The novel opens in 1947, when Gustav is five years old, and we learn immediately that Emilie is a harsh taskmaster to Gustav: “He never cried. He could often feel a cry trying to come up from his heart, but he always forced it down. Because this was how Emilie had told him to behave in the world. He had to master himself. “ (4)

Gustav’s life changes the day in 1948 when his kindergarten teacher assigns him as mentor to a new student, Anton, a piano prodigy from an exuberant and friendly Jewish family. Emilie is wary of the boys’ budding friendship: “’The Jews are the people your father died trying to save.’” (17) Well, as we’ll learn later in the novel, that isn’t exactly what happened during the war.

The story of the death of Gustav’s father is complicated, but his involvement with Jewish refugees in the early days of the war was perhaps partly inspired by the true story of a Swiss police officer who broke the law by aiding Jews. The closing of the Swiss borders to Jews in 1938 sent many to concentration camps and gas chambers. I don’t think that it’s accidental that The Gustav Sonata has been published when Europe is once again facing a refugee crisis with profound humanitarian and political implications.

Beyond this back story about Gustav’s father, the novel moves forward in time to the 1990s, when Gustav and Anton are both middle-aged. Gustav is the owner of a small hotel in his home town of Matzlingen. Anton, who could not survive the performance pressures of being a concert pianist, is a music teacher in the same place. One final crisis leads to the resolution of the plot, much as a final cadence ends a musical composition.

In my husband’s family there’s a phrase that’s used to describe the mindset of his Swiss ancestors: “Alles ist in bester Ordnung.”  The literal translation is “Everything is in the best order,” but the underlying message is that the Swiss have a passion for orderliness, for precision, for suppressing conflict and emotion, sometimes to the detriment of human kindness. Gustav, in particular, seems to conform to this Swiss stereotype, but Tremain’s novel shows us how he eventually breaks free.

For another novel that has “sonata” in the title, though with a very different tone and setting, check out my review next Friday!

A Southeast Asian Story

Miss Burma     Charmaine Craig     (2017)

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The dust jacket for Miss Burma tells us that novelist Charmaine Craig is a “descendant of significant figures in Burma’s modern history.” And Craig’s dedication for the book is to the memory of her mother, Louisa, and of her grandparents Ben and Khin. These three are major characters in Miss Burma, so right from the start, I was wondering how much of the story is factual—how much Louisa, as a participant in historic events, told Charmaine directly. Obviously, the novelist had to invent many lines of dialogue in order to create 355 pages.

Charmaine Craig’s grandmother Khin was from the minority ethnic group in Burma called the Karen (kah-REN). Her grandfather Ben (or Benny) was born into a Jewish family in Burma but raised partly in India when he was orphaned. When Benny marries Khin, he decides to identify with the Karen people. The novel follows Khin and Benny’s family through a tumultuous period in Burma’s history, as the country becomes a battleground between the British and the Japanese in World War II and then as civil war among ethnic factions causes further devastation in the following decades. Benny becomes a leading member of the Karen resistance to the majority Burmese. A key event in the narrative is the beauty contest in 1956 in which Khin and Benny’s mixed-race daughter Louisa is crowned Miss Burma. We get Benny’s thoughts at this event: “From the looks of it, these people were prepared to adore whichever girl, of whichever origins, became their queen. Perhaps beauty alone had the power to transfigure people so. And yet, Benny reminded himself with a shudder, there was something insidious about beautifying the country’s image by means of a girl, whatever her background, for somewhere in the darkness beyond the delta, innocent people continued to be shot and killed.” (226)

Louisa herself is sometimes ambivalent about the struggle of the Karen people. We learn that she had “this feeling that it was wrong for anyone to claim exclusive rights to a corner of the earth—wrong for no other reason than that everyone was passing. . . . She was suddenly sure that Burma’s most beautiful feature was its multiplicity of peoples.” (318)

A little Burmese history is helpful if you decide to read this novel. Burma won its independence from Great Britain in 1948. After years of civil war, the current military regime took power and changed the name of the country to Myanmar, though it’s still known as Burma in some political circles. Probably the best known figure in Myanmar is Aung San Suu Kyi, who is now State Counsellor. Her father, Aung San, is portrayed as a character in Miss Burma. Like many other nations, Burma has long been struggling with how to bring diverse ethnic and tribal peoples together. How do you decide on proper representation? Do you set up a separate territory for every minority group? What if territory is disputed? How do you address differences of language and religion? How do you end state-sanctioned genocide and community-based thuggery?

As Charmaine Craig lays out the case for better treatment of the minority groups in Burma, she can get somewhat preachy, and the segments in which she graphically describes brutal guerilla warfare are grim. I preferred the chapters in which she explores the personal relationships of the characters and their ethnic identities, against a backdrop of national chaos, in the lush landscape of Burma. Miss Burma is for readers who like delving into history that’s less well known in the US, especially those who are intrigued by southeast Asia.

Koreans in Japan

Pachinko     Min Jin Lee     (2017)

“Pachinko” is a popular Japanese slot-machine game. You may wonder, until well past the halfway point of this novel’s 485 pages, what pachinko has to do with a saga about four generations of a Korean family in the twentieth century. Have patience.

First you have to be well steeped in the story of Sunja, a poor teenager who is seduced by Hansu, an older Korean gangster, in her village in what is now South Korea. By chance, Isak, a Korean Christian minister, passes through the village. He rescues Sunja from the ignominy of an unwed pregnancy by marrying her and taking her to Japan, where he will work as a missionary. The year is 1933.

Historical events of the turbulent twentieth century constantly buffet Sunja, Isak, and their extended family and friends in Japan, where the bulk of the story plays out. Japan’s expansionist wars of the 1930s and 1940s fuel nativist sentiments in the Japanese  populace. Korean immigrants, who are “zainichi” (foreign residents), are relegated to the most menial jobs and are paid less than Japanese for the same work. Korean children born in Japan do not become citizens—they’re essentially countryless. As one character pronounces: “’This country [Japan] isn’t going to change. Koreans like me can’t leave. Where we gonna go? But the Koreans back home aren’t changing, either. In Seoul, people like me get called Japanese bastards, and in Japan, I’m just another dirty Korean no matter how much money I make or how nice I am.’“ (383)

Once Korea is partitioned into North and South in 1948, the situation gets even murkier: “After the [Korean] peninsula was divided, the Koreans in Japan ended up choosing sides, often more than once, affecting their residency status. It was still hard for a Korean to become a Japanese citizen, and there were many who considered such a thing shameful—for a Korean to try to become a citizen of its former oppressor.” (441)

A few ethnic Koreans living in Japan figure out that they can become entrepreneurs in the pachinko business, and a well-run pachinko parlor can turn a nice profit. Proceeds from pachinko parlors, plus help from that gangster Hansu, pave the bumpy road out of poverty for some characters in the novel. Other characters hide their Korean ethnicity, dressing like the Japanese, learning to speak Japanese without an accent, taking a Japanese spouse. This subterfuge is possible because the physical characteristics of Japanese people and Korean people are often very similar.

The straightforward, direct sentence style in Pachinko suits the themes of the novel, and the Korean and Japanese words in the text give the flavor of the setting without weighing down the narrative. I caught the simple ones, like “kimchi” (the Korean dish of fermented cabbage and radish) and “hanko” (a hand stamp of one’s name, used throughout East Asia). The meanings of other words were obvious from their context, but I had to look up a few as I read.

It would have been easy for novelist Lee to paint the Japanese as always the bad guys and the Koreans as always the good guys, but she does not adopt this dichotomy. Although she lays out the Japanese discrimination against Koreans clearly, her long list of characters includes both Koreans and Japanese who are deceitful and honest, talented and mediocre, wise and foolish, lazy and hardworking, compassionate and heartless, selfish and generous, prejudiced and open-minded. She pulls into her story subplots that touch on issues such as the status of minority Christians in Japan and the evolving attitude toward the place of women in the family and in the workplace over the course of the twentieth century. 

Above all, though, this is a universal story about the immigrant experience—about taking a job that’s far beneath your skill level because you don’t know the language, about being segregated into a slum area, about being subject to complicated rules that you don’t understand, about living constantly with fear. Immigrants enter a game of chance, stacked against them, much like pachinko players.

In her Acknowledgements, Lee tells us that it took her nearly thirty years to write this impressive novel. It was well worth the time.

Amazing Maisie Mysteries

The Maisie Dobbs Mystery Series     Jacqueline Winspear

Jacqueline Winspear has recently published the thirteenth entry in her outstanding mystery series starring Maisie Dobbs, a private investigator working in London (and abroad) in the 1920s and 1930s. If you’re a fan of historical mysteries, you should definitely get your hands on this series. It’s essential that you read the books in order from the beginning, so I’ve included the list at the end of this post.

Maisie gets her start in the detective field in a roundabout manner. At the age of thirteen she goes to work as a maid in a wealthy London household. Her employer, Lady Rowan Compton, finds Maisie reading philosophy texts in the home’s library and decides to support the girl’s education. A family friend, Dr. Maurice Blanche, who is himself an investigator, becomes Maisie’s mentor. In 1914, as she is starting her Cambridge university career, World War I commences. Maisie drops out to train as a nurse and then spends the war in France, in hospital tents right behind the front lines.

The war scars Maisie, both physically and emotionally. Her fictional experiences remind me very much of the factual story of Vera Brittain, whose bestselling 1933 memoir of World War I, Testament of Youth, is a tragic account of the casualties of that war and of the profound impact that the deaths and injuries had on families, particularly women, in England.

On the fictional side, back in London after the war, Maisie experiences  romance and despair and hardship. Following more training with Dr. Blanche, she’s ready to open her own practice as a “psychologist and investigator” in 1929. By chance, she meets Billy Beale, a veteran who had been a patient of hers in France, and ends up hiring him as her assistant.

Other recurring characters in the novels are Frankie Dobbs, Maisie’s father, a former costermonger; James Compton, son of Maisie’s first employer; Priscilla Partridge, an affluent and fashionable friend from Maisie’s Cambridge days; Simon Lynch, a brilliant physician in the war; and Detective Inspector Richard Stratton of the London police.

What I love about the Maisie Dobbs series:

  • the character of Maisie, who is a strong, intelligent, independent woman bucking a society that often doesn’t acknowledge her gifts.
  • the way that Dr. Blanche teaches Maisie to breathe slowly, observe closely, and get an intuitive sense of people and situations in her investigations.
  • the weaving into the stories of Maisie’s romantic attachments, mostly tied in some way to World War I and its aftermath.
  • the secondary plots involving Maisie’s relatives and patrons.
  • the meticulously depicted setting of Depression-era London, including everything from the bread lines to the women’s clothing.
  • the wrap-up of every case, in which Maisie goes back, after the crime is solved, to the places and people involved and seeks closure.
  • the irony of Winspear’s placing of a female detective in the period of the great classics of detective fiction. (See my post on this subject here.)

What annoys me about this series:

  • the assumption that the British nobility in the early twentieth century would actually support the education of a teenage maid in their household. I call this plot device “The Downton Abbey Propaganda,” since the same false assumption of noblesse oblige permeated that story.
  • Winspear’s breaking of the fair-play rule of detective fiction, which dictates that the author cannot ever let the detective in the story know more about the mystery than the reader knows.

I want to emphasize that, despite these two objections of mine, I’ve read and enjoyed almost all of the Maisie Dobbs novels. In This Grave Hour (2017), set at the beginning of World War II, is unfortunately the weakest of the lot, with a poorly designed mystery and repeated authorial spurning of the fair-play rule. But do read the rest of Winspear’s books, starting with the award-winning Maisie Dobbs (2003), and continuing with Birds of a Feather (2004), Pardonable Lies (2005), Messenger of Truth (2006), An Incomplete Revenge (2008), Among the Mad (2009), The Mapping of Love and Death (2010), A Lesson in Secrets (2011), Elegy for Eddie (2012), Leaving Everything Most Loved (2013), A Dangerous Place (2015), and Journey to Munich (2016).   

After World War II

The Women in the Castle     Jessica Shattuck     (2017)

I had sworn off reading more novels set in World War II, because there are enough global injustices in the current news. But I decided that I’d try The Women in the Castle, because it’s set primarily right after World War II. I knew by page 10 that I was in the hands of an capable writer and that I’d stick with this novel. I read it in one day, gritting my teeth through the flashbacks to horrific scenes from the war.

In the spring of 1945, as the Nazi war machine collapses, millions of people are on the move across the European continent: prisoners of war being released, Russian soldiers running amok, civilian refugees returning to ruined villages or settling in crowded camps for displaced persons. They walk unfathomable distances in all weather, beset by injuries, diseases, assaults, and starvation.

Among the roaming throngs are surviving members of the German Resistance movement. These are the men and women within Germany who did not accept Hitler’s vision for their country and who tried, numerous times but unsuccessfully, to assassinate the Führer. Jessica Shattuck tells the stories of three fictional “widows of the Resistance” as they scrape together the fragments of their lives.

Inside Germany, Marianne von Lingenfels and her three children take shelter in a crumbling ancestral castle of Marianne’s late husband, who was part of an assassination plot that led to gruesome execution for him and his fellow plotters. Marianne has made a vow to look after the families of her husband’s compatriots. She’s able to locate the widows Benita and Ania and their children and bring them to the castle, where they all lead a hardscrabble life.

This is the basis of the surface narrative in The Women in the Castle, and that narrative is full of secrets and mysteries, betrayals and senseless deaths, but also great love and kindness. The characters of the three women are distinct and deeply drawn as the plot moves back and forth in time.

The underlying story is more complex. Shattuck considers what it was like in the late 1930s to be pulled into the fascist maelstrom in Germany through something seemingly benign like the Landjahr Lager, a Nazi agricultural training and service program. She looks at how women survived World War II, particularly women in cities, where there was no access to food once all the shops had been bombed. She asks what political resistance really entailed on an individual level, in battle or in a concentration camp. She posits what it may have been like after the war for German resisters to live next door to returning Nazi soldiers—or worse, members of the SS. She explores the reactions of ordinary Germans to the incessant Nazi propaganda that covered up war atrocities. Here is a description of Ania, one of the widows in the novel:  “She knew of the horrors and she didn’t. She half knew—but there is no word for that. She knew it the way you know something is happening far way in a distant land, something you have no control over: earthquake refugees living in squalid conditions or victims in a foreign war.” (259)

I lived in Munich in 1973, one generation after the end of World War II. By then Munich had been rebuilt from rubble and was an immaculate, prosperous city with all the cultural amenities. But reminders of the war were all around in the form of the maimed bodies of many middle-aged and elderly men. No one ever talked about what had happened to the city or its inhabitants during the war. This silence of avoidance is exactly what Shattuck portrays in The Women in the Castle. With her powerful novel, I think that Shattuck is warning us that we must confront the hard truths of the past, lest we, too, be drawn into the xenophobia and bellicosity of a dictator.

An Australian Find

The Golden Age     Joan London     (2014)

I have woefully neglected Australian fiction. Before I happened on The Golden Age, the last Australian novel I’d read was Colleen McCullough’s 1977 melodramatic saga The Thorn Birds, which shouldn’t even count, because it was made into a television mini-series.

Joan London’s poignant novel The Golden Age gains its power from insightful characterizations and an unusual setting. In 1953, as polio ravages the lives of children and young adults around the world, two afflicted adolescents (Frank Gold and Elsa Briggs) meet in a polio rehabilitation center in Perth, Western Australia.

The repurposed building retains the name it had when it was a pub: The Golden Age. The author tells us in a special note that this was the name of an actual children’s polio convalescent home in the 1950s. For me, The Golden Age conjures up many appropriate images. The young patients are like ancient, wise souls—in their “golden years”—because of the life-threatening illness that they’ve survived. Frank and Elsa have a golden opportunity for friendship and love, having been placed in this rehabilitation center even though they’re both older than the other residents. The light in Perth—known for its sunny climate—has a gilded quality that London renders strikingly in descriptive passages.

London anchors her story in real-life events of the period, including the visit of the young Queen Elizabeth II to Perth in 1954. The narrative also includes powerful flashbacks to Budapest during World War II, where Frank and his parents barely survived the Holocaust before emigrating as refugees to Australia in 1947.

But the interior lives of Frank and Elsa, of their parents, and of the head nurse at The Golden Age are the heart of the novel. Here is Frank’s father, Meyer, describing his life as a refugee:

“It was like this. Budapest was the glamorous love of his life who had betrayed him. Perth was a flat-faced, wide-hipped country girl whom he’d been forced to take as a wife. Only time would tell if one day he would reach across and take her hand . . .” (92)

The characters in Frank and Elsa’s love story and in the interconnected sub-plots are genuine, flawed, struggling people. The thirteen-year-old Frank’s thoughts as he falls in love with Elsa build through the novel and ring true. He decides that he is a poet, and this vocation does not seem incongruous for him. He and Elsa scandalize their elders because of their youth, but, hey, Shakespeare’s Juliet was thirteen, and Romeo was probably not much older.

On a practical note, the Australian variants of English are not too intrusive for an American reader. I did look up “brumbies” (free-roaming feral horses), “ute” (utility vehicle), “chooks” (chickens), and “dunny” (outhouse), but context supplied enough meaning even in these cases. At first I was irritated by London’s frequent use of sentence fragments, which give a jerky, rough feel to some of her paragraphs. A few chapters in, however, I began to see this style as perhaps reflecting the erratic, lurching gait of the recovering polio patients, who are portrayed tenderly but with no mawkishness. Or perhaps the fragments express the tentativeness of many of the characters—those who don’t know what to say to polio patients, those who are refugees in a foreign land, those who have been hurt by love.

The Golden Age won several awards in Australia, including The Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction. It deserves more international attention.

Biographies of the Inklings

The Fellowship:  The Literary Lives of the Inklings     Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski     (2015)

Confession:  I find JRR Tolkien’s mythopoeic masterpiece The Lord of the Rings too dark. CS Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, which have enchanted generations of children, hammer the Christian allegory too hard for my taste. Charles Williams’ Arthurian poems in Taliessin Through Logres are impenetrable. As for Owen Barfield, I’d heard of him only vaguely as an odd writer on anthroposophy, of which I’m not a devotee.

So why did I check out from the library a 644-page biography of these four authors?  Because Lewis’s scholarly book The Allegory of Love had enormous influence on me when I was a student of medieval literature. Lewis validated the Middle Ages as producing serious literary works, not just pieces of antiquarian interest—if you were willing to learn its tenets and culture. And my copy of Tolkien’s edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, my favorite Middle English work, has been thumbed so often that it’s falling apart. His glossary for that text, and for Fourteenth Century Verse and Prose, were indispensable when I worked as a lexicographer with the Middle English Dictionary.

I thought that I might skim the Zaleskis’ book The Fellowship for bits on the relation of Lewis and Tolkien and on the context of their era at Oxford. I ended up gobbling the story of the Inklings whole, fascinated by the Zaleskis’ ability to selectively include minute detail and still maintain readability for chapter after chapter, decade after decade of the tumultuous twentieth century. The Fellowship follows the Inklings before, during, and after two world wars and innumerable academic skirmishes. The dates of the four principal Inklings reveal the scope: Lewis (1898-1963), Tolkien (1892-1973), Williams (1886-1945), and Barfield (1898-1997).

The bulk of the biography is dedicated to these four Inklings, whom the Zaleskis have wisely selected for their literary prominence. I was bemused at first about the inclusion of Barfield, since he didn’t seem to write much in the 1930s and 1940s, when the other Inklings were prolific. It turns out that, to make a living, Barfield had to spend decades toiling as a lawyer, finding little time for his own pursuits. Finally, in 1957, he was able to move into semi-retirement and spend the rest of his very long life probing issues of consciousness.

The Zaleskis had to draw a circle around the core of the Inklings, who held weekly discussions for thirty years, but other members and hangers-on enter into the narrative, too. I hadn’t expected that Lewis’s older brother Warren, called “Warnie,” would be a part of the extended group. Warnie, who struggled with alcoholism throughout his life (1895-1973), was a respected historian in his own right and assisted his brother on both practical and intellectual fronts.

Even Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957) comes in for several mentions, although as a female she would not have been invited to join the Inklings. Sayers, who’s a favorite of mine, produced both scholarly works on Dante and popular murder mysteries (the Lord Peter Wimsey series).

Neville Coghill (1899-1980) and JAW Bennett (1911-1981) were other distinguished medievalists associated with the Inklings at one time or another. In fact, a fascination with the medieval period was a hallmark of much of the writing of the Inklings. As the Zaleskis tell us, “Their great hope was to restore Western culture to its religious roots, to unleash the powers of the imagination, to reenchant the world through Christian faith and pagan beauty.” The fields they plowed were fantasy and epic, allegory and myth, philology and theology—all rooted in the past. In 1954 Lewis gave a controversial lecture at Cambridge called “De Descriptione Temporum” (“On the Description of Eras”), in which he argued that the divisions of history into Antiquity, the Dark Ages, the Middles Ages, and the Renaissance are artificial, ignoring the continuities of Western culture. Lewis saw a much more significant break from this culture, which he revered, in the early nineteenth century, with the beginnings of modernism.

Lewis was much sought after as a speaker on ethics who was able to convey complex philosophical principles and Christian religious doctrines in simple language. I hadn’t known that he presented many well-received lecture series on the radio for the BBC, especially during World War II. The account of Tolkien’s literary life also held some surprises for me. He didn’t create Middle Earth solely as a parallel universe in which to situate his non-human characters. His larger goal was to construct an entire British mythology, comparable to that found in medieval Scandinavian literatures.

The Inklings were astonishingly hard-working and well-read, fluent in dozens of ancient, medieval, and modern languages. Yet they all had unsuccessful books, difficulties in their family lives, and crises of faith. This biography doesn’t spare the reader their blunders, their arguments, and their occasional pigheadedness. So, while fans of The Hobbit or of Perelandra will find plenty of background on the genesis of the Inklings’ writings, they’ll also find the brilliant—and flawed—Inklings in The Fellowship