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Posts Tagged ‘historical fiction’

Hala Alyan is a Palestinian American poet and a psychologist, and both her vocations and her heritage are evident in her debut novel Salt HousesShe has a poet’s sense of imagery and language, her book is the story of Palestinian displacement over several generations, and her insights into the psychological wounds of war, statelessness, and resettlement are astute and moving. While I haven’t experienced being a refugee, I’ve volunteered with resettlement so I’ve enjoyed the hospitality of people who are at once American and something else, people who feel they belong everywhere and nowhere.

The main characters of Salt Houses are the progeny of Salma, matriarch of a family living in Nablus when the book opens. It is 1963 but the pain of fleeing Jaffa fifteen years earlier is fresh for Salma. Her younger daughter Alia is about to marry Atef, who is Alia’s brother Mustafa’s best friend. They live well in Nablus, even though Salma is a widow. The book moves forward a few years at a time, and in 1967, Nablus, too becomes a part of their past, when the Six-Day War scatters them. Salma goes to Amman, Alia and Atef join Alia’s older sister and her husband in Kuwait City. As you may recall, Saddam Hussein attacked Kuwait City in 1990, and so Alia’s generation is the next to flee a war with a fraction of their belongings, leaving behind jobs, neighbors, and a home. Alia’s children end up even more scattered, in Paris, Boston, Beirut, and Amman. In Beirut they again experience war, although they don’t flee. By the end of the book, Alia’s grandchildren travel from many countries to visit with her and Atef. Life goes on around them, but each generation retains the sense that within themselves, they are never far from where they come from, wherever they go. And where they come from, originally, is Palestine.

Through it all, Atef lives with trauma from the 1967 war that he can manage only by writing letters in secret in his study, letters he can never send. He also copes by focusing on his children, being present with them so that he doesn’t slip into the past. Alyan describes Atef’s feelings for his firstborn, “. . . he loves Riham beyond reason, a love tinged with gratitude, for when she was first placed in his arms, tiny and wriggling and red-faced, he felt himself return, tugged back to his life by the sound of her mewling. The arrival of Riham restored something, sweeping aside the ruin of what had come before.”

These family relationships form the heart of the story, which Alyan tells well. You want to know whether the tempestuous Alia and her equally strong willed daughter Souad will make peace, whether gentle Riham, so like her grandmother Salma, will be happy with her much older husband. Will Abdullah become radicalized? Will Manar find what she’s seeking? The many small dramas that make up a family’s life provide plenty for the reader to savor as the pages turn.

What makes this much more than a standout family saga is the greater narrative: the story of ordinary Palestinians – professional people, whose children watch too much TV and eat too much sugar, who work and worry about the same things families like theirs worry about around the world —  caught in a cycle of loss and displacement, the shadow of each generation’s pain resting on the next. They are resilient, and fortunate in many ways, but also perpetually grieving for what could have been, perpetually speaking with the wrong accent, and yet perpetually seeking and making home wherever they are.

This is a beautiful book and an important one. I think it’s safe to say that most Americans have only a tenuous understanding of the Middle East, and even though this is a novel it gets at human truth in a universally recognizable way.  Definitely, we should all learn the facts of the region’s history and geopolitics, but it can’t hurt to also try to understand the feelings of people who just want the best for their families, as my wise grandmother used to say. whenever we talked about places caught up in conflict. Salt Houses offers one way to begin to understand.

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I order fiction at my academic library, and I like to order novels whose characters work in fields our students are studying. That is why Paradise Lodge caught my eye. Lizzie, the book’s heroine, becomes an “auxiliary nurse” at a nursing home in a former grand home in England in the 1970’s, because she wants to earn money and because a classmate is going to apply and she tags along. Lizzie soon learns that she likes working more than she likes school. Her mother wants her to study for her “O” levels, but she is drawn into the life of Paradise Lodge as it faces a crisis. The owner’s wife has gone to run a rival facility, and lures staff and potential patients away.

Stibbe peoples her novel with interesting characters — Lizzie’s free-spirited mother, a smart nurse manager, Sister Saleem, who is recruited to rescue Paradise Lodge, Matron, who may have had a tough life or may be a pathological liar (or both), the elderly residents. The story is a coming of age tale, following the ups and downs of fifteen year old Lizzie as she navigates her concerns for her family, a crush on her friend’s boyfriend, and her indecision about her future. It’s also a humorous examination of human nature, one that reminds me of Charles Dickens and Jane Austen and Margaret Drabble. Both the characters and the emotional tenor of the story seem spot on.

An altogether satisfying read. I hope it will be adapted to for film or television.

 

 

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I’d heard so many rave reviews of this book that I was both curious and skeptical. But I’ve spent the last couple of weeks reading it and it didn’t disappoint. The Nix is a debut novel, which makes it’s complexity and success even more of a wonder. If you’ve followed this blog you know my highest praise consists of one of three things: that a book uses no extra words, that it is a well-told story, and that it says something “Big T” True that makes me think, to paraphrase Paul Harding, “I’ve always known that to be true but I’ve never heard it said it quite the same way.”  The Nix hit the sweet spot on all three of those criteria.

It’s a wild story. Samuel is a college professor although his heart’s not in it, and he escapes into Elfscape, a game much like World of Warcraft. He is escaping his increasingly unsatisfying job, but also trying to forget the book he is years overdue on; his mother, Faye, who abandoned him and his father; and his first and only love, a famous violinist. He hasn’t seen Faye since he was 11, but one day he realizes that she is the “Packer Attacker” on the news — an older woman who has thrown gravel at a gun-toting Presidential candidate in Chicago. What he hears on the news is that she was a sixties radical arrested during the 1968 Chicago protests, but this doesn’t line up with what he thinks he knows about her. Then he hears from his editor/publisher that he’s about to be sued for never writing a book he received an advance for.

Samuel sees an out– he’ll write a tell all book, an estranged son’s view of his mother’s story. He just has to learn what her story is, first. The novel unfolds around this quest, supported by very well-drawn characters who illuminate both Samuel’s and Faye’s childhoods. Through their dual coming of age stories, and the lives theirs are tangled up with, Hill spins a story that isn’t just about Samuel and Faye and their family and friends, but about growing up, choosing a path, leaving a mark in the world, being with others. In other words, he writes about the experience of being human in a world of impermanence and finding reality among the shadows. Particularly the shadows of the stories families tell.

Towards the end of the book, reflecting on what one of his Elfscape friends told him, “that the people in your life are either enemies, obstacles, puzzles, or traps,” Samuel thinks “. . . you cannot endure this world alone . . . and if you choose to see people as puzzles, and if you see yourself as a puzzle, then you will be constantly delighted, because eventually, if you dig deep enough into anybody, if you really look under the hood of someone’s life, you will find something familiar. This is more work, of course, than believing they are enemies. Understanding is always harder than plain hatred. But it expands your life. You will feel less alone.”

I loved this book, for the three reasons I mentioned above, for the way it weaves social history and culture and folklore together with the story of people and their relationships with one another, and for the lovely writing. Also for the humor, a pleasant surprise in a book about large and serious themes. Hill is willing to see a little bit of brilliance in both poetry and MMOs, political protest and advertising. He sees the humans behind inhumane things, the complications and impurities of anything so sprawling as a “movement,” and he is fair to it all. Even the deplorably manipulative student who has Samuel fired gets some grudging credit — she is a creature of our culture, and she’s good at what she does, in her way.

If you’re looking for a book that will keep you entertained and also make you think, and will take more than a couple of nights to read, you can’t go wrong with The Nix.

 

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I’ve been wanting to read Brooklyn for some time but like many other books that slip down my to read list, I’d sort of forgotten it. Then it was found several shelves away from it where it was supposed to be after having gone missing in the library, and so when it turned up, I was reminded, and checked it out.

Brooklyn  is the story of Eilis, a young woman in a small town in Ireland in the 1950’s, whose sister Rose arranges her passage to America with a priest, Father Flood, visiting from Brooklyn. Rose and Father Flood set the plan in motion and soon Eilis has a job at Bartocci’s department store and a room at Mrs Kehoe’s boarding house. Eilis isn’t sure this is really the life she wants, but she lets the plans proceed rather than hurt her mother or Rose.

The novel follows her on the voyage, her first days in Brooklyn, her life among the women at work and at Mrs. Kehoe’s. We see her grow into her new life, taking courses in accounting, having a serious boyfriend. It’s a quiet book, closely examining her feelings and observations.

Even though I sometimes wanted to take Eilis aside and tell her to make up her mind, there were things about her that felt familiar and evoked my empathy. The way she did not quite know how to deal with men’s attentions, and how she wanted to be careful of other people’s feelings, for example. Still, even though she grows up a little, she mostly lets life happen to her, unless someone else brings pressure to bear, and then she is redirected.

The ending did leave a few things unpleasantly unresolved — I am not after a tidy ending every time, with i’s dotted and t’s crossed, but Brooklyn ends with several characters lives about to be impacted, and I wanted to know more. I enjoyed the historical details, and the atmospheric feel to the novel, enough to want to see the movie. A diverting, well written book, satisfying enough for a couple of nights.

 

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I saw a review of Radio Girls somewhere, and thought it was just the thing after my Infinite Jest fail and an interesting but not exactly light nonfiction read. I was right. Sarah-Jane Stratford based her novel on some real people — especially Hilda Matheson and her friends (who included Lady Nancy Astor and Vita Sackville-West) and the BBC Director General John Reith — and some fictional characters. Her heroine is the fictional Maisie Musgrave, who was born in Canada, grew up in New York, and ran away to become a WWI nurse even though she was underaged. When we meet Maisie, it’s 1926, and she is back in London after attending secretarial school in New York, and is trying to find work. Maisie is young and fairly adrift, having never known her father and never really felt any love from her mother.

She becomes a secretary at the BBC, working for both the Director General’s assistant and Hilda Matheson, who heads the Talks Department. The novel follows Maisie’s ups and downs as she discovers she doesn’t have to be mousy, she loves radio, she’s capable, and she longs to write. It’s her story, but it’s also the story of her time, and the BBC at that time, especially the development of the Talks. I enjoyed the parts about political events, especially the passage of universal suffrage and the first vote for all British women. Maisie also finds her way into a mystery that leads to a brush with spying and to a subplot about British fascists who want to take over the press. And she learns a great deal from Hilda.

In her author’s note, Stratford tells readers that many of the bits about the BBC, its inner workings and growing pains, Hilda Matheson’s accomplishments, and Reith’s actions at the helm are true. So are some of the facts about British fascists, although the story Maisie uncovers is fictional. Also true are the parts of the book about women having a hard road to advancement or even to working after marriage. Some of the plot gets a bit far fetched but it’s a fun read. I came away wanting to read more about Hilda Matheson — what a woman! —  and about the BBC.

Radio Girls isn’t perfect — some of the plot is far-fetched, and some of the language is a bit stale, with characters turning “bright red” or “white” whenever they are expressing shock or anger, for example. But I really enjoyed this debut and kept thinking it would make a wonderful Masterpiece production. Maisie is a delightful character.

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My college friend Marybeth asked me a little while ago to ask if I would read a novel called Mine that her friend’s sister, Katie Crawford, wrote. I didn’t know anything about it, except that Marybeth had read the first chapter and liked it. I finished yesterday morning and I can tell you this: it’s better than most of the books Kirkus has sent me to review in 2016.  I really enjoyed it and I think it deserves a wide audience.

Those of you who read my blog regularly will not be surprised to learn it’s published by a small press, Deeds Publishing in Athens, Georgia. I know there are some good books being published by the big five and other large publishing houses, but I will continue to remind readers as often as possible: there are really good writers being published by independent small presses all over the place, and if you go to your nearest independent bookstore the booksellers can hook you up with some wonderful books you will very possibly not hear of otherwise. Ok, plug for indies over (for now).

Mine is the story of two sisters in a small mining town in Pennsylvania, Janie and Maggie. The story describes their bleak childhoods and how that upbringing impacts both of their lives. The most important events that inform everything that happens to them for the rest of their lives are their parents’ deaths and Janie’s becoming pregnant by a priest who was himself abused by a priest as a child.

I don’t recall reading a date, but hints in the story and the timeframe in which the mines closed (which they have by the end of the novel) make me think the girls’ childhoods might be in the fifties or sixties? As would have been common at the time, Janie is sent away when her pregnancy becomes obvious, to some nuns who take care of “fallen” girls; refreshingly in this novel, the nuns are very kind and caring. But she’s made to give the baby up. About a year or so later, Maggie & Janie move to Philadelphia, where Maggie’s new mother-in-law lives. But Janie is faithful, visiting both the hospital room where she last held her infant daughter and her parents’ graves every week.

I don’t want to give away the rest of the plot, but I do want to recommend this moving book. It would make a good vacation read because it’s one of those books you don’t want to stop reading. The ending is satisfying without being tied up in a bow. The writing is compelling. You probably know older women who were a little like Janie when they were young; no amount of personal tragedy could dim her faith or her kind-heartedness.

This would also be great for a book club. I’d recommend pairing this novel with the movie Spotlight; we finally watched it last weekend and Mine made me really think about not only the Catholic Church’s complicity but also the enormity of the human tragedy — this book reveals just a few victims, and when you scale that up worldwide, it’s pretty mind-boggling.

But I digress. Go get this novel. If you like fiction about women’s lives, historical fiction, or just reading something that’s not on every airport bookrack, ask your local bookseller for Mine, or suggest your library purchase it.

 

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I love the ALA Center for the Future of Libraries Read for Later.”  In the most recent issue I took a link to a Wired piece about “bingeing” on books. That to me sounded like a dream weekend, but the article was actually about a publishing format that was hot in the 19th century and is coming back in style: serialized fiction.

Which reminded me that I could download the final chapter of Julian Fellowes’ BelgraviaYes, that Julian Fellowes. His latest project is a 19th century story published 21st century style — via either the website or an app, in weekly installments. I subscribed as soon as I heard about it, which means that for eleven weeks I read a short chapter and then felt a little inconvenienced at being left hanging.

The app itself was seriously annoying — it won’t remember login information, so every week I had to enter it anew, which is problematic both in terms of remembering exactly what strange combo of capitalization, numbers, or characters I’d added to make the password fit the app’s requirements, and typing it all accurately on my iPad, something I always manage to screw up. Also sometimes the latest episode wouldn’t download, or would close while I was reading it.

The book itself is soapier than I would usually enjoy, but coming from the creator of Downton Abbey it’s highly entertaining and filled with historical details. At this point if you buy it I think you’ll get all eleven chapters at once, and if you don’t like eBooks, the print version will be published in early July. The book “opens on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo, 15th June 1815, when the Duchess of Richmond threw a magnificent ball in Brussels for the Duke of Wellington.” From this real event, Fellowes spins a tale of love and betrayal, social aspiration and accomplishment. History and social commentary are the backdrop, but Fellowes’ characters are fictional, and in many ways very modern.

The main characters are the family of a self-made man who made his mark as Wellington’s supplier during the wars with Napoleon and went on to build great houses in London, and the family of his daughter’s love interest, aristocrats whose son was killed at Waterloo. There is plenty of family and social drama, and just plain human nature, and I enjoyed it as a pleasant diversion. I’d love to see a Masterpiece adaptation.

But reading Belgravia affirmed that I don’t love eBooks — I really didn’t even find the “bonus” features like links to information or photos all that engaging. I’m a narrative fan, and I don’t want to “binge” episodes, I want to read an entire novel at whatever speed I choose. But, that’s me. I’m all in favor of reading choices. If serialized fiction engages readers who otherwise don’t believe they have the time or attention span to read a novel, I hope the trend grows. But I’m hoping the print edition of Belgravia does even better than the serialized app, and that publishers use this trend as a hook, but continue to provide those who like to savor rather than binge with novels-in-full, in all formats, including print.

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