A Welcome Escape to England on the Brink

  • imgres-4The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson (Random House, 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: A young schoolteacher arrives in Rye as the townspeople reconcile to the inevitability of WWI. Simonson paints an engaging portrait of Sussex society and the class and gender stereotypes against which the characters rail.
  • Genre: Historical fiction
  • Locale: England, France
  • Time: 1914-15
  • Read this to travel back in time. Simonson’s attention to detail in setting, character, and story make this a terrific novel to read and share.

Beatrice Nash traveled the world with her father, a writer and educator, learning from him and running their household.  After his death, Beatrice is placed in the guardianship of distant relatives. When she spurns the offer of marriage encouraged by her relatives, she must set out on her own and secures a position as the Latin instructor in the Sussex village of Rye.

Even before alighting from the train, Beatrice is introduced fellow resident of Rye. One by one, the reader meets the local residents – from the gentry to the Roma travelers that work the annual harvest. the gentry to the Roma travelers that work the annual harvest. Agatha Kent is her champion and sounding board, ensuring the stability of her position and introducing her throughout the community.

Married but childless, Agatha and her husband have parented their two nephews, Daniel a poet, and Hugh on the verge of completing his surgical studies. As World War I threatens, each prepares for the future. After the invasion of Belguim, the village bands together to resettle refugees. Beatrice does her part and then some, despite her limited means. Simonson’s array of village residents play a part in all the community locales from the fields to the school to the vicarage, providing a wonderful sense of place.


The latter section of the book takes a number of Rye’s men to the front in France. The descriptions are suitably grim and homefront conflicts resurface, disproving that all men are equal in the trenches.

World War I in many ways delineates the end of the European aristocracy. Helen Simonson rich descriptions and deft hand with character development turn the written page into theater. Simonson captured the changing roles of women, particularly as the men leave for war.  Beatrice, Daniel, and Hugh each wrestle with personal relationships that are key to their characters and to the progression of the plot. The Summer Before the War is a rich and fulfilling novel. With it and Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, Helen Simonson has established herself as an author to add to your personal watch list.  


Incredible heroism in wartime Warsaw in two versions

  • unknown-14Irena’s Children by Tilar J. Mazzeo (Gallery Books, 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: Irena Sendler, a Polish social worker, developed an extensive network that saved 2,500 Jewish children and countless adults, under the eyes of the Nazis. An extraordinary narrative look at the individuals and their actions from interviews, diaries and documents.
  • Genre: Nonfiction
  • Locale: Warsaw, Poland
  • Time: World War II; limited material through her death in 2008
  • Read this for an intimate look at Irena Sendler, and those she recruited, their extraordinary actions and the obstacles they overcame. Not a canonization, this book portrays Irena and others as people with personal motivations and failings.
  • unknown-13Irena’s Children by Tilar J. Mazzeo, adapted by Mary Cronk Farrell (Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: Pulling no punches, the Young Readers Edition focuses on the events in Warsaw during the war and the actions Irena Sendler took to save thousands of lives.
  • Genre: Nonfiction
  • Locale: Warsaw, Poland
  • Time: World War II
  • Read this for a clear narrative of Irena Sendler’s life and actions from 1939 through 1944. Note, while the language and presentation are suitable for readers 10 and older, adult guidance is strongly recommended because of the disturbing information presented.

Please bear with me. Neither these books nor the author fits the mold of usual Holocaust histories or biographies, if there is such a thing. Tillar Mazzeo is a cultural historian and professor, brought to the reading public through her books about Madame Cliquot (champagne) and the history of Chanel No. 5, arguably the world’s most famous perfume. Her path to writing about Irena Sendler was far from obvious.

In 2009, Mazzeo visited family posted to Krakow, Poland, with the State Department. She noticed a wide expanse of open parkland adjacent to a forested area near the international school where her sister worked. Mazzeo wondered why the land was left to go wild. Her sister told her the trains to Auschwitz traveled through there and it remains a reminder, coming to life on November 1 when the local citizens come with candles and flowers to memorialize all those lost. Offered the chance to visit Auschwitz, Mazzeo declined, but when her sister told her about Irena Sendler a few years later she decided it was important for her story to be told.

Within the last decade, Sendler’s extraordinary actions to save approximately 2,500 Jewish children and countless other persons persecuted by the Nazis in Poland during World War II have become better known. Though recognized at Yad Vashem in 1965, her story was little known previously for many reasons – she sought no recognition, Poland came under Soviet control after World War II, her actions and motivations were not consistent with Poland’s government’s interests, she wanted a “regular” life, and she was a woman.

Irena Sendler was a young social worker in Warsaw when the Germans invaded on September 1, 1939. The daughter of a doctor who died as a consequence of tending patients in the most difficult circumstances, she became a dedicated Socialist, pursuing her principles through the university and in her profession. Her circle included a mix of social action-oriented Catholics, Socialists and Jews, doctors, nurses and other social workers among them, who became the foundation of an extensive lifesaving and resistance network.

Irena Sendler and her compatriots took advantage of the extensive system the Polish/German government to provide false documentation and secure medication for those in the Ghetto. Sendler took complete responsibility for maintaining information on each of the children taken from their parents and placed in homes, orphanages and other locations. Through a combination of extensive planning, lucky breaks and many people looking the other way, Irena Sendler avoided arrest until late in 1943. As the lynchpin of the network, her capture endangered the safety of the resistance network and all the identity information about the children. Her escape on the day slated for her execution was purchased by the resistance.

Mazzeo’s research and writing and Farrell’s adaptation are both strong additions to the canon of Holocaust literature. While it is at times difficult to keep track of the many individuals involved in the rescues, in hiding, and providing assistance, those details provide a sense of the magnitude of the undertaking. So why two versions? The original version delves deeply into the personal life and motivations of Irena Sendler. Her personal and family relationships were complicated. At times she ignored her family to their detriment while attending to her network. It also contains extensive footnotes documenting the narrative.

The Young Reader Edition focuses on the events and actions of Irena Sendler and her network. Since it is intended for those with less knowledge or exposure to the history, there is context and background provided. The language, while appropriate to the audience, is far from juvenile. This version would be ideal for intergenerational book groups. While it includes a great deal about many aspects of Sendler’s life, there are personal relationships and familial issues that are omitted. While they may have influenced her choices, they do not change what she did.

I read both and I would recommend both wholeheartedly.

My Day at the LOC National Book Festival

It’s my own special holiday, anticipated far more than my birthday. For the last 16 years, each September, authors of all stripes have come to Washington to speak of their craft before thousands and thousands of book lovers and visitors who just wandered by. I miss the days when it was on the mall, rain or shine or beastly heat.  There is something about the big tents with people crowding at the edges after all the seats are gone, that bring to mind a mash-up of a country fair, a Chautauqua festival, and a revival meeting, all focused on the power of the written word.thumb_img_4586_1024

I was among the early entrants to the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, (as was Stephen King!) thumb_img_4580_1024quickly picking up the complimentary tote bag, poster and schedule of events. Thirteen speaker venues on four levels plus extensive exhibition space, devoted to literacy and educational resources rather than tchotchke sales, have attendees making tough choices from 10 am to 10 pm. Add in the thousand plus volunteers and you get an idea of the sheer size of the event.

Many of the programs I attended were on my “A” list, some were just good fortune. And timing or space constraints prevented me from others I would have definitely enjoyed. So here’s my day, chronologically:

  1. Marilynne Robinson, 2016 winner of the LOC Prize for American Fiction was introduced by Carla Hayden, the newly sworn in Librarian of Congress. Ms. Robinson was interviewed by Marie Arana and they spoke about the characters that have developed and changed through her trilogy of Gilead, Home, and Lila. Robinson is deeply religious. Rural life, theology and the institutions of religion play an important role in her novels.  unknown-12Long a professor of English and creative writing, she has recently retired from teaching at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She talked about her characters speaking to her, directing their way through her novels. Robinson has a gentle sense of humor and looks like many of the teachers I had in elementary school. Her manner is very consistent with the settings of her writings, approachable, open and interested in everything around her, storing impressions of the world around her to be adapted in her writing.
  2. Yaa Gyasi debut novel, Homegoing, has been receiving raves everywhere. unknown-9Shame on me to not have picked up a copy at Book Expo! The author is only 26 but worked on her novel for seven years. Listening to her speak about the story of two half-sisters born in the 18th century, unknown to each other, in West Africa. It’s a story that travels from the villages and palaces of West Africa to the slave ships to Baltimore and Harlem. Gyasi’s voice is lyrical. This is moving way up on my to-be-read pile.
  3. Winston Groom, of Forrest Gump fame, and Colson Whitehead, author of The Underground Railroad, were interviewed by NPR’s Audie Cornish. Groom, whose new book is El Paso, and Whitehead were brought together since each incorporates actual historical figures in their books despite the books veering far unknown-10unknown-14from historical reality. Whitehead’s title, the August pick for Oprah’s Book Club, reimagines the Underground Railroad as an actual transit system, changing at state borders. Through the eyes of a single slave, the story unfolds across time, geography and circumstance from the bringing of slaves to the US through the present day. And a slave catcher is giving chase. Groom’s El Paso is about a lesser known period of history, 1916 in Texas on the Mexican border. An industry magnate’s family members are kidnapped and he has to recover them. Icons of early 20th-century industry and politics are woven into the story. After what he did in Forrest Gump, I’m sure the reader is in for some ride.
  4. I couldn’t miss the chance to hear Carlos Ruiz Zafón speak about his novels. The Shadow of the Wind was one of those revelatory reading experiences for me. I’m not one to read the fantastical, but he caught me up from the very beginning. Zafón spoke about his writing, both for adults and young adults, as well as hisimages-3 experiences as a screenwriter. He is grateful to have left screenwriting behind. There were questions about the translation process and the level of input he has as an author – completely involved with his English translator, a matter of faith with the Korean. His works have been published in more than 40 countries. In his case, he is a wordsmith, whether in Spanish or English.
  5. unknown-11Adam Gopnik‘s presentation was a cross between stand-up and storytelling. There were riffs on food, family differences, New York, with a touch of politics thrown in. For example, Gopnik told how a crisis occurred when he seared tuna and served it rare. His wife and son asked that he go back and cook the fish. This so offended his sensibilities that he left the house in a huff, not before his wife told him to come back when he was ready and to cook the fish.
  6. The final event in my #NatBookFest day was Co-Chair David Rubenstein’s interview of Bob Woodward, award-winning journalist and author. In the hour-long discussion, Woodward told how his time in the Army and as aunknown-13 reporter for the Montgomery Sentinel led to a second (and successful) tryout with the Washington Post. As low man on the staff, he was sent to a burglary arraignment on a beautiful June morning, and so the Watergate break-in saga began. Rubenstein asked his impressions of this year’s candidates and many other leaders Woodward has interviewed over the years. I’ll have a lot of catching up to do if I want to read all of Woodward’s eighteen books.

For those who wish they could have been there, the Library of Congress usually posts videos of a number of the events on the website (www.loc.gov/bookfest) shortly after the Book Festival has concluded. I will be looking there, too, to see some of the speakers I couldn’t squeeze into my schedule. Let’s hope our next president continues this wonderful literary event, initiated by Laura Bush and supported by corporations, nonprofits, government agencies, foreign embassies and individual donors.

Afghani Women Showing Their Strength

  • unknown-7The Pearl that Broke its Shell by Nadia Hashimi (Harper Collins, 2014)
  • In 40 words or less: Two young Afghani women, separated by four generations,  struggle to find their rightful places in their families and society.
  • Genre: Historical fiction
  • Locale: Afghanistan
  • Time: Early 20th and early 21st centuries
  • Read this to better understand the historical issues for women in Afghanistan, regardless of who is in power.

“I was a little girl and then I wasn’t. I was a bacha posh and then I wasn’t. I was a daughter and then I wasn’t. I was a mother and then I wasn’t.” Rahima at 15

At every turn, the women of The Pearl that Broke its Shell consider their naseeb or destiny. Nadia Hashimi novel reminds the reader how difficult it is for someone to break out of a preselected gender role where power and control are asserted physically and an ingrained belief in fate can quash any measure of independence.

Nadia Hashimi’s life experience is about as far from that of her character’s as one could get. Born in the U.S., she wrote this, her first novel, while a pediatric emergency physician in Washington, DC. Hashimi tells the tortured story of life in Afghanistan through the voices of Shekiba, a young girl orphaned in the early 20th century, and Rahima, her great-great-granddaughter born about a century later.

The world of Afghan women is dictated by strict societal norms. Arranged marriage at a very young age to someone chosen by male elders; bearing and raising children (preferably male); cooking and maintaining the collective home along with sisters-in-law and, possibly, other wives; bowing to the will of her husband, mother-in-law, and any senior wives. The wives are dependent upon one another for assistance and companionship, sharing family stories among themselves and with their girl children. And they are their sole source of knowledge about marriage, childbearing, and childcare since they often marry at thirteen or even earlier.

Shekiba was the only daughter of the outcast son in a large family that lived off the land. Maimed after a cooking accident, her father protected and educated her. After all of her immediate family succumbs to cholera, she is grudgingly taken in by her uncles, and grandmother and their families, becoming the house servant. She is tall and strong, so when the opportunity arises to better the family position, she is given to the ruler as a guard for his large harem. When it’s discovered that a man has entered the harem, her life changes yet again. All seemingly well before the age of twenty. And her life was just beginning.

Rahima is the third of five daughters, hearing the family stories from her unmarried great-aunt. Her father is often gone, a warring clansman for the ruler of the local area. Much of his pay is in opium, making life for his family even more difficult. Too often families prohibit girls from attending school or leaving their homes out of concern for interaction with local boys. Some families with only girls engage in a “wink-wink” subterfuge, dressing a girl as a boy to enable her/him to be educated, to take care of tasks such as going to the market, and possibly doing odd jobs to augment the family’s earnings. Rahima becomes one of such girls, a bacha posh, the existence of such a status indicating its acceptance. But before she even reaches puberty, she and her two older sisters are given in marriage to the ruler and his brothers to enrich her father’s family.

In The Pearl that Broke its Shell, juxtaposing the lives of individuals a century apart reminds the reader that despite the strides taken to improve the lot of women in Afghanistan, the tribal culture remains repressive and often dangerous. By creating brave and vivid female characters, Hashimi raised the awareness of the plight of many Afghani women in a way that news articles rarely do. This was a wonderful discussion book for a group I led earlier this week.

Goodreads and Amazon reviews: bane or boon?


In the good old days, if you were curious about whether a book, a vacuum cleaner or a new brand of coffee might work for you, you’d ask your friend, neighbor, shopkeeper or mother. It’s now the era of big data so few decisions are made without some form of crowdsourcing, a term created barely a decade ago.

Of course, readers have been curious about the latest and greatest titles for years. The first US bestseller list appeared in New York in 1895 and made its way to The New York Times in 1931. When Amazon.com changed the face of bookselling in 1995, it also changed the nature and roles of bestsellers lists and reviews. In the age of Amazon, anyone can be a reviewer and there are multiple ways to slice and dice any bestseller list.

Goodreads.com is one of the earlier virtual communities for readers. Created in 2006 by descendants of the family that founded The Los Angeles Times, its goal was to encourage readers to learn about and share their passion for books. While it received some funding early on when people bought books via online links, it was primarily a means for readers to track their books and connect with others. In 2011 Goodreads began suggesting titles based upon the information each reader entered. And in 2013 the entire system was purchased by Amazon allowing them to influence and manage the largest online reader community.

For some, Goodreads is just a repository for to-be-read lists and to record completed books. They ignore the suggested titles for purchase and the reviews and lists by other Goodreads members, sometimes rating but not reviewing those read. Many are networked to their other social media contacts on Goodreads and can still influence their contacts’ reading choices via notifications of titles added to their friends to-be-read, ratings or reviews. Other people use Amazon and Goodreads reviews to dictate their reading choices.  I’m not sold.


So getting down to business, it’s time to judge for yourself:

  1. Grade inflation – On both Amazon.com and Goodreads.com reviewers see the average rating before clicking in to make a rating. Can people justify rating a book they finished a 1 or 2? While 3 is the statistical average, it is the rare title with any measure of popularity that has an average below 3. All ratings are whole numbers and each person’s perception of the scale is subjective. Does the fact that there are 5,000 reviews of 4 or better really tell you more than if there were 500? Remember, Amazon sells to hundreds of millions of people.
  2. Even a 4.5 rated title may not be for you – It is vital to remember that those interested in rating a book usually come from those interested in the genre or theme. Often the classification (fiction=>historical fiction=>WWII) will provide ample hints, but not all the time. Whether it is based on a publisher’s information or a scanning algorithm, mistakes happen. And then there is the author/publisher that believes the title is genre/audience crossing when it’s not.
  3. Small sample – There are several reasons for very few ratings or reviews. It may be just published or pre-publication, from a small press or self-published, esoteric in theme, out-of-print or published prior to the advent of Amazon/Goodreads reviews.  As a reader, you must carefully read almost all the reviews to tease out how any comments jive with the description of the book. Be aware that there are many people, myself included, that receive advance copies of books gratis in hope of a positive review. For those reviewers who are genuinely independent, reviewing a book way outside his/her wheelhouse may result in a dissonant review.  The upside is these truly independent reviews is they are not biased by either the major newspaper/website reviewers or widespread public opinion. But then there is the flip side;
  4. Stuffing the Ballot Box – Every writer, myself included, is in search of readership. Newly published authors, particularly those who self-publish or engage services that assist individuals in publishing their work, often will ask their friends and/or family to post enthusiastic reviews. How do you spot them? Well, look for a limited number (50 or so) written in a short period of time (maybe 3 months) of approximately the same length, commenting not only on the topic but on the insight of the author, and often with almost a unanimous 5-star rating. Amazon has made great inroads in reducing pay-for-rating services where someone would be hired to rate a book or other product in exchange for money. Also be aware that those who operated self-published and/or vanity presses are individuals that may also rate a title highly.  Clearly, even if the review is heartfelt there is a conflict of interest the reader cannot know.

Finally, my take: I’ve always tilted at windmills and backed the underdog. My preference is to go to trusted sources (newspaper and selected web reviewers), people I know and to independent booksellers, wherever I can find them. Matching readers and titles requires listening, capturing the essence of a title, and a bit of magic.

Goodreads and Amazon have developed algorithms based on what you may have looked at or bought and popular items. But those algorithms don’t know if the search was for my use or as a gift for someone with dissimilar tastes.  It doesn’t know which much-loved books are sitting on my shelf or which ones have been abandoned, those I bought on my travels, was given or received through my “bookie” activities.

In the last month, I restarted posting some ratings on Goodreads, but only from the “In the Nutshell” section of my reviews or for titles I’ve chosen not to review here. If I wish to be part of a larger community, I am obligated to participate in it, even if on a limited basis. I am encouraged that independent bookstores and print books are making a comeback. And I hope we continue to share the books we like, analyze why we disliked others and discuss the ones that make us think.