Emma Donoghue has a thing for mothers

  • The Wonder by Emma Donoghue (Little, Brown and Company, September 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: A nurse trained by Florence Nightingale travels to rural Ireland to confirm/refute that a young girl is surviving on faith and water alone.
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Locale: Rural Ireland
  • Time: 19th century
  • In both her earlier novel, Room, and here, Emma Donaghue creates women characters desperate to protect children in their care. The Wonder juxtaposes faith and science, the authority of men versus women, and the power and damage of keeping secrets.

Many readers shied away from Donoghue’s Room. Most of that story took place out of sight, in a bunker where a young boy was raised by his mother, both captive to her rapist. In The Wonder, Lib, a Nightingale-trained nurse travels from London to the Irish countryside to observe a phenomenon -a young girl, Anna, seemingly surviving for months without consuming any food. Visitors have been flocking in search of blessings. The church and local leaders are concerned about the spectacle and the possibility of a hoax.

Lib and a Sister nurse are charged with observing Anna round the clock, documenting her physiological status and any possibility of food being provided. The nurses are charged to observe and record, not consult. Any judgments are to be left to the community leaders.

Lib is a fish out of water. A Londoner through and through, it is unclear why she would take this position. She has little good to say about the community or its people. And there is no evidence of contact with family or friends, seemingly both physically and emotionally alone. Only with the arrival of a journalist does she appear to have a connection in the community, though with risk.

In many ways, this is a novel of silence and secrets. The question of Anna’s family’s honesty is at the crux of the plot. The family had recently experienced the death of Anna’s brother, to whom she was devoted but it is barely noted. As the narrator and a main figure in the novel, it might be expected to learn about Lib but she is a closed book in public and in private. It is only by coming to grips with their secrets that each can be saved.

Emma Donoghue is very skilled in building tension in her stories. In Lib she has created a watchful and intelligent protector who sees her responsibility as much to Anna as to those who hired her. Anna is at the same time angelic and strong as steel, unwavering and faith-filled. Neither friends nor adversaries, each holds her own as the novel unfolds.

The Wonder was chosen by many critics as a top book of 2016. It is impossible to separate the essence of spirituality from the plot of the narrative.  As a reader, one’s individual connection with the spiritual likely will have an impact on the appreciation for the book.

 

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Taking in the big picture with ‘The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem’

  • The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem by Sarit Yishai-Levi (Thomas Dunne Books, translation 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: A window into the difficult life in Jerusalem primarily between the end of WWII and the beginnings of the State of Israel.  Yishai-Levi weaves together stories of four generations of a family descended from the exiles of the Spanish Inquisition.
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Locale: Jerusalem
  • Time: 20th century
  • This book, a bestseller in Israel, is a cross between a love letter to the seven generations of Jerusalemites in her family before her and a revelation of genuine cultural elements that created the boundaries in which her characters lived. Ideal for book group discussion.

Sometimes the appeal of a book goes beyond the story.  Sarit Yishai-Levi’s novel is rare in time, setting and community.  For those Israelis descended from Spanish Jews who migrated to Jerusalem in the early 19th century or earlier (often via Greece), the language and culture of the Ermosa family and their neighbors ring true.

In the Spaniol community, it is vital that marriage partners come from within the community. Many of the marriages are arranged, formally or less so. For several generations, it has been the curse of the Ermosa men that they fall in love with unsuitable women. Reined in by their parents, they marry more “suitable” partners and live with a longing for what they have lost. This disaffection is similarly passed down from generation to generation.

The pivotal character in The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem is Luna, the eldest and most beautiful of the three Ermosa daughters. Luna is her father’s favorite but a thorn in her mother’s side. She aspires to a fashion magazine lifestyle, separating herself as much as possible from the expected path.

The family’s life is circumscribed by the neighborhood and the family business. The expectation is that daughters will receive a basic education, get married and settle near family, working in the store only if truly needed. Everyone lives in close quarters with none of the conveniences one might imagine of a merchant family in the 1940’s. Their world begins to change dramatically as local boys return from serving with the British in WWII. These young men are looking to establish themselves and to choose their partners. Some become a part of the growing cells working to undermine the British Army enforcing the Mandate. These are some of the external forces compelling change in Luna’s generation.

Most Israeli novels seen in the US marketplace have been written by men. These men are usually the sons or grandsons of Eastern European immigrants that arrived either in the pioneer days or came as a consequence of the Holocaust. Less frequent are writings by the descendants of Jews of the Middle East, North Africa or the Iberian peninsula. The strength of The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem is the window it provides into the lives of the deeply rooted community where Ladino, not Yiddish, is the language of the home, and the cultural orientation is to the Middle East, not Europe.  The success Yishai-Levi has received with this novel is as much a testament to the love she shows for her Sephardic roots as it is for the story she has told.

 

Sharing books with Mom

Regardless of where you sit on the family tree, there is likely a mother (daughter, sister,  in-law, or you) in your life that is deserving of recognition. Just as I’ve shared suggestions of books for Dad in the past, mothers should have equal time.

For Mother’s Day, you want to give (or get) just the right thing.  One thing likely has not changed from the days when a handmade macaroni necklace was perfect – it’s the thought you put into it that counts. There are more pluses to giving books than the obvious reasons.

When you select a book you are opening a conversation. Are you giving a book you’ve enjoyed or one that reminds you of a shared experience? Is it by Mom’s favorite author or takes place in a city she loves? Whether it becomes her new favorite or not, talking books is usually interesting, often more so if you disagree about merits of a title.

Before I give some of my picks, I’d suggest you think about those titles that you’d read again, either because they entertained or informed you. They may be a perfect choice for gift giving. Please share your picks in the comments.

Here are some titles and authors my mother may see if she hasn’t already. Titles with links have my reviews:

  • Helen Simonson’s  The Summer Before the War or Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. Two novels of English small town life with endearing characters, the first WWI-era and the second contemporary.
  • The Girls of Atomic City is a fascinating look at the integral secret role women played in the development of the atomic bomb. Oak Ridge was created almost overnight from nothing and was at the forefront of research (and social engineering) during the latter days of WWII. By Denise Kiernan.
  • Geraldine Brooks really does have something for every Mom! My favorites are Year of Wonders, a fictional account of a real community that isolated itself during the plague, and Foreign Correspondence, her memoir of her beginnings as an Australian schoolgirl whose pen pals set the stage for her career as a journalist and author. March and People of the Book are also great choices!
  • Israeli novels in translation are a favorite of mine. Three picks are The English Teacher by Yiftach Reicher Atir, a novel about the high personal price of life in the intelligence service, and The Hilltop by Assaf Gavron, a contemporary story of the complexities and absurdities of life in an Israeli settlement. Lastly, The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem by Sarit Yishai-Levi is a novel about life in Palestine/Israel at the end of WWII and the beginnings of the State told in the rare voices of generations of a Sephardi family. This view has made it a huge bestseller in Israel. My review will appear soon.
  • Three very different historical fiction stories of strong women are The Girl Who Wrote in Silk by Kelli Estes (19th/21st century), The Pearl that Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi (20th/21st century), and The Widow’s War by Sally Gunning (18th century).
  • Start her on Louise Penny’s Three Pines/Inspector Gamache mysteries and she will have books to keep her busy for months. A Great Reckoning was just released in paperback, or start at the beginning with Still Life. Rich characters that deal with life’s big issues in a setting you wish you could visit. There are many reasons her fan base is so loyal.
  • Perla, Carolina deRobertis’s magical novel about seeking identity during Argentina’s “Dirty War” will send her searching for information about the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, the women who demonstrated and sought out information about their children and grandchildren “disappeared” by the government.
  • For something totally unexpected, share one of these stories about the American West immediately after the Civil War. News of the World is a beautiful small book by Paulette Jiles about a newsreader and a young girl rescued from Indian captors. EpitaphMary Doria Russell’s novel about the legendary Earp brothers and Doc Holliday, has just been optioned for a movie. I’d stand in line to see either on the screen.
  • Speaking of the screen, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Smoot and The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman are wonderful nonfiction titles have been adapted recently.
  • I love Venice and I’m a sucker for detective stories. Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti keeps me coming back to explore that wondrous city. There are now 26 titles in the series. While the principals have aged some since the beginning, it is not critical to read them in order.
  • If you, or the mother in your life, enjoys short stories, travel, and mysteries, check out the Akashic Noir series of titles. There are books for cities from Baltimore to Belfast to Beirut and beyond, each with stories written by local authors.
  • Finally, some “drop everything and read” titles that are perfect for getting away. Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney is a new gem, based in part on the life of the top female advertising copywriter in the first half of the 20th century. The Truth According to Us is Annie Barrow’s story of long-held family secrets wrapped up with lots of information about the National Writer’s Project which employed writers to tell the histories of small-town America during the Depression. Before Me Before You, Jojo Moyes penned The Girl You Left Behind, a novel of life in the French countryside during WWI, a painting, and questions of its ownership almost a century later.

This lengthy listing barely touches on the possibilities. I specifically avoided WWII/Holocaust historical fiction. There are many, many wonderful and well-promoted books in this genre. Cookbooks and food memoirs with rich stories would be great for foodies but they are specific to individual tastes (excuse the pun!) Short story collections are making a big comeback, as are narrative nonfiction titles. While a few biographies or memoirs have been included, an entire list could be made of this genre. Still looking for something else? There are many recommendations on the website.

A delicate balance in historical fiction

  • Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly (Ballantine Books, 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: Ravensbrück and the medical experimentation there are among the lesser known atrocities of WWII. Kelly’s book tells of the female doctor charged with doing these experiments and an American socialite who supported the Free French and brought the “rabbits” of Ravensbrück to the US in 1958.
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Locale: New York, Paris, Poland, Germany
  • Time: 1939 – 59
  • Read this for a skilled portrayal of the horrific and little-told events of Ravensbrück during WWII.

Caroline Ferriday was an exotic creature in New York on the brink of WWII. A socialite and former actress, she was a true francophile, volunteering her efforts to aid French citizens seeking entry to the US and orphaned children sheltered in French convents. In Lilac Girls, Martha Hall Kelly aptly captures her vivacity and generosity of spirit, as well as the differences between her and many of the other upper-class young women in New York at that time.

The selflessness of Ferriday is contrasted in the other real women portrayed in Lilac Girls. The Ravensbrück labor camp was a model facility for the Nazis. Primarily populated by Polish political prisoners, it quickly became a showpiece for the Red Cross and the laboratory for horrific experimentation into the effects of untreated wounds and infections. Herta Oberheuser was completing her medical training as the war broke out and was the only woman doctor assigned to the medical staff at Ravensbrück. Initially assigned to minor ailments, she wanted to use her surgical training. Already set apart from the male doctors, she was the perfect choice for a clandestine project to infect and maim healthy young women to simulate battlefield infections and wounds. Over 70 young Polish women became test “rabbits”, intentionally untreated and reinfected to see the course these injuries and illness would take.

Herta Oberheuser was joined in her mistreatment of prisoners by a sadistic matron-like figure and an assistant out to get her. Wherever possible, Kelly has used actual names and information, made possible by the extenisve recorkeeping of the Nazi regime. After the war, Dr. Oberhauser was one of few women brought before the Nuremberg tribunal. Found guilty, she excaped execution and was imprisoned, only to be released after about 5 years.

Although the names of many of the “rabbits” are known, Kelly chose to create fictional women and in doing so provides rich backstories and intricate relationships among the sisters she has highlighted. The complex mix between real and fictional characters begs the reader to search out more about the people and Ravensbrück.

There is a vast continuum of titles that fall under the historical fiction genre. Historical figures make cameo appearances in fictional stories, and well-reasearched narratives have augmented dialogue to move actual events forward. In telling the stories of Ravensbrück and of the hardships of the Free French, Martha Hall Kelly has broadened the understanding of those beyond the Jews who were subjugated and often killed by the Nazis. If fault lies in the telling of the story, it is the conflation of Caroline Ferriday’s deeds with a love story involving her with a fictional French actor. This thread is a major element in the novel though it does not seem to have any historical basis. It does enrich the reader’s connection to Caroline and provides a view into what did occur in France during and immediately after the war. I would have preferred to see Caroline’s strength shown on her own.

Many readers I know have no interest in reading any more books, fiction or nonfiction, on the Holocaust. Though the events portrayed are horrific, there is benefit to reading the lesser-known stories. Martha Hall Kelly has done a great service by bringing to light the tragedy of Ravensbrück. And Caroline Ferriday should not be relegated only to archives.

 

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.

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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.