Friday, October 30, 2015

Snow Moon Rising, Lori L. Lake

The atrocities committed against the Jewish people in Europe during World War II are well-covered ground in the literary world. The history of the Jewish genocide is well-documented in history books, and the human toll of the war and its depravity are demonstrated through the thousands of fictional accounts that have been written in the decades since the concentration camps were liberated. This is as it should be. The extreme example of xenophobia, greed, and racism displayed by Hitler and his Nazi followers is something that should never be forgotten.

(We often say that the Holocaust should be remembered so that we as a global community can make sure it never happens again. Sadly, we as a human family have failed in this aspiration time and time again-the Rwandan genocide, the crisis in Darfur, and the massacre at Srebrenica are but a few of the examples of modern day ethnic or religious violence.)

While the experiences of the Jewish people of Europe during the Holocaust is very well known, less talked about are the experiences of other groups that were persecuted and brutalized by the Nazis. Physically and mentally disabled children, Jehovah's Witnesses, the Roma people, and homosexuals were some of the groups that were singled out for "special" treatment. It is the Roma, known pejoratively as Gypsies, that are the subject of the book Snow Moon Rising.

The Roma people were a nomadic group, traveling the roads between European countries in large family groups called kumpania. The kumpania, made up of caravans and carts which were both the homes and workplaces of the Roma people, traveled from village to village, finding work when possible, hunting and gathering when work was hard to find. Some members of the caravans became artisans and craftsmen, selling their wares along the way.

Unfortunately, the Roma developed a reputation as thieves and con men. During the early part of the 20th century, many countries had laws banning the Roma people from traveling to certain places, or from being allowed to do certain jobs in the community. There was a deep distrust of the Roma, who were seen as a race separate from the "purer" European people, and were considered inferior, much like the Jews were.

It is into this culture that we are dropped when we read Snow Moon Rising. The book follows two
women, Mischka and Pippi, during the time period from World War I through World War II. Mischka is a young Roma girl at the beginning of the book, already chaffing against the rigid gender expectations of her clan. Pippi is the sister of a young German soldier who is rescued by Mischka's kumpania after he stumbles away from a bloody battle. Mischka and Pippi meet and become bonded in a way that is more than just friendship. Fast forward to World War II, and Mischka ends up in a German labor camp. Pippi, who must pretend to be a a German loyal to Hitler to survive, is sent ot the camp to oversee the production of uniforms for German soldiers. Here, the two women are reunited, and must work together to ensure that the prisoners get out of the camp alive. But the end of the war is not the end of the challenges for these women, because Europe is soon divided between the Soviets and the rest of the western world. Will Mischka and Pippi find a way to be together?

I found the description of the Roma way of life and the persecution they suffered fascinating. It also led me to many a discussion during this Halloween season as to why "gypsy" costumes were maybe not a good idea. Aside from being an exploration of the experiences of the Roma during the first half of the 20th century, this book is a lesbian love story. Mischka and Pippi take turns telling the story, which is actually a series of flashbacks spun out over the course of one evening to their grandson, who has never heard the story of his family's journey to America. Aside from the Roma history I learned, I appreciated an insight into what the life of the average German may have been during World War II. The final scenes of the book left me in tears for all the right reasons.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Wake, by Anna Hope

There is no shortage of novels set in World War I or World War II. Those two conflicts, along with the Viet Nam War, defined most of the 20th century. The collapse of colonialism, the Cold War, the rise of America as a world power; so many things can be traced back to the wars and their aftermath. You'd think that over time those books would all start to blur together; that there wouldn't be anything new or different that could be said on the matter. And sometimes it does seem like the same story told over and over again in an endless stream of arrogant generals, miserable soldiers, and grieving mothers and widows. But sometimes an author takes a new approach to the subject that takes the reader to a part of the well-traveled path that is less well known.

Anna Hope manages this feat with her book, Wake. The story takes place three years after the end of
World War I. It follows three different women, all of whom lost something in the war. Ada, the grieving mother; Evelyn, the woman who's lover never returned; and Hettie, a young girl whose brother has come home from war physically unharmed, but emotionally wrecked. The stories of these women are connected by their experiences of war, and through the lens of the return to England of the Unknown Warrior (what we in America would call the Unknown Soldier). The perspective shifts from woman to women in the narration of the story, interspersed with the journey of the Unknown Warrior from a grave in the French countryside to a special resting place at Westminster Abbey.

The title seems to have two meanings. The most literal is that the entire country of Great Britain is having a wake for the Unknown Warrior as he finally returns home from war. This one soldier comes to symbolize all of those lost on fields of France and Belgium, and each person who watches the body in its ornate coffin travel by ship, train, and finally carriage to it's final resting place assign him meaning based on the people they lost in the war. But I think that the title also represents the awakening that the women in the novel have as they learn to accept and move past the grief and depression that four years of war and its aftermath wrought. These women learn to let go, each in their own way, of whatever is holding them back from moving forward with life. Ada must learn to let go of the fantasy that her son is really alive, and find a way to reconnect with her husband. Evelyn must find a way to let go of her hopes for the future with her beloved Fraser, and take the first steps towards finding new love. Hettie, who works in a dance hall to help her family survive financially, wants nothing more than to move away from her mother's oppressive beliefs and find her first love. More than anything she searched for freedom and joy in a world where most of the men of her generation have returned from war damaged emotionally and physically.

The men in the novel represent various classes of soldiers, officers and enlisted men alike, and there are some fairly dark descriptions of the horrors they witnessed. Each has come home, but none of them are able to just pick up their old life. Hope does a good job with her portrayal of how youthful enthusiasm and patriotic action was twisted and mangled into fear, cynicism, resentment, and hopelessness. As the Unknown Warrior reaches his final resting place, so too does the book reach its end, and like the citizens of the UK, the reader is left feeling ready to move on to a future that is brighter than the tragic past.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Where is Coco Chanel When You Need Her?

Coco Chanel once famously said, "Once you've dressed, and before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take at least one thing off". While she was talking about fashion, I think there is some relevance in that quote for writing as well. While good fiction can be mutli-layered and complex, adding more characters, more plot lines, more words just for the sake of them can take a decent story and put it over the top.

I think that Kristin Hannah should have taken that advice when writing The Magic Hour. It is the
story of a psychiatrist named Julia who must flee her practice in disgrace after a scandal involving a patient of hers who perpetrated a violent act at school. When her sister, the sheriff in the small town where they grew up, calls her to consult on a case, she sees both an escape hatch and a chance to earn some redemption. A little girl has shown up in the town-battered, bruised, malnourished, non-verbal, and animalistic. The sheriff wants Julia to assess the girl, and get her to tell them who she is. As Julia begins to work with the girl, she realizes that she has stumbled upon a feral child-a child who has essentially been raised  without any normal human socialization. As Julia becomes closer to the girl, she is determined to protect her from any and all outside influences that might want to exploit her.

This is the first Hannah book I've read, and I will admit that the kind of women's fiction she writes (a la Lifetime movie) is not really my jam. But I was intrigued enough with the premise that I think I would have been OK with the book if only she had followed dear old Coco's advice. There is a LOT going on in this book. There's the scandal that sends Julia away from her lucrative Los Angeles practice; the feral girl; a love story between Julia and one of the doctors in town, who in turn has his own secret that he is protecting; a love story between the sheriff and one of her deputies; a rocky relationship between the two sisters that must be resolved; a group of psychiatrists who want to study the girl like a specimen in a jar; and finally, the girl's father. The girl's father and his back story was the last straw.  See, the girl's father was a man who was accused of killing his wife and child (the girl) when they disappeared years before. Convicted of their murder, he was in jail until DNA tests determined that the girl was really his "murdered" offspring. When he comes to collect her, there is a war of wills between him-rich, arrogant, self-centered-and Julia-caring, nurturing, mama-bear like. It was just one thing too many. The love stories were irrelevant to the main plot, and the added convolution of the father being a convicted killer who maybe isn't a killer but is still a "bad guy" pushed it into the absurd.

Bottom line, I wasn't really feeling this one by the end. But I did finish it, so that's something, I suppose. So, lovers of Lifetime movies, have at it!

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Review of The Art of Forgetting, Wherein I Find a Chick Lit Book I Didn't Hate

I tend to shy away from anything that could be considered "chick lit" . As a lesbian in her mid-40s, the stories of young women in search of a man, a career, and the perfect size 2 don't really speak to me much. So when The Art of Forgetting by Camille Pagan appeared as an unsolicited review request in my mailbox, I almost put it right in the donation bin. But something stopped me from sending it back out into the universe to find a more receptive reader. I've always been fascinated by the mysterious workings of the human brain. There is so much that we don't understand yet about how it works, about how much of what makes us "us" is merely structural or chemical in nature. This novel, while not heavy on scientific explanation, does at least present a rather unique take on the friendship story.

The main character and narrator, Marissa, has always played second fiddle to her charismatic best
friend Julia. Ever since junior high, when the popular Julia chose the rather unassuming Marissa as her best friend, the two have been inseparable, but there has never been any question of who is the more dominant in the relationship. Now young adults, Marissa and Julia live in New York. Julia is a talented ballet dancer, and Marissa is an editor at a magazine. Despite her career success, Marissa is still insecure in many ways. She is in a safe, happy, but not super-passionate relationship. She worries about her weight, and her clothes, and she second guesses her instincts at work. One day, Julia is hit by a car crossing the street. While her physical injuries are minor, she sustains brain damage that affects her memory, mood, and personality. Suddenly, it is Marissa who must take the lead in their relationship, causing her to finally deal with her feelings about a long-lost love she gave up in college because Julia told her to.

As you can imagine, said long-lost love shows back up in their lives, Marissa has to decide if she wants to give it a try with him or stay with her loyal but slightly boring boyfriend. She has to figure out who she is without Julia there to define her. She has to decide whether to stay in her current job, or take a chance that could bolster her career. Meanwhile, she is forced to go back home to Michigan, where she also has to deal with her weight obsessed mother and the feelings of inferiority she learned from her. Basically, everything that I usually don't like in a book finds a home in The Art of Forgetting. But for some reason, this time it mostly worked for me. I didn't get annoyed by the constant focus on weight, looks, and size. I wasn't impatient with the "I have to choose between this man and that man, because obviously NO man is not an option" storyline. I felt empathy for Julia, even though she was annoying before the accident left her sort of bitchy. There was enough heart behind the writing that while this book won't make any of my top ten lists, it did keep my attention, and overall I enjoyed it.

Friday, August 28, 2015

The First Thing, and the Last

Katherine Stuart lived every day in fear. Fear that her husband would finally kill her, or turn his abusive attentions to her young son. After a brutal argument and knife fight in their Boston kitchen, Katherine's husband and son both lie dead on the floor.

Hundreds of miles away in Vermont, Lucy Dudley reads the newspaper accounts of Katherine's tragedy, and feels drawn to reach out to her. Lucy, an elderly woman living by herself on a small farm in rural Vermont, feels an immediate kinship with Katherine. She is carrying her own scars, and a secret that she has kept for almost five decades. Despite the two women being complete strangers, Katherine accepts Lucy's invitation to recover on the farm, and a beautiful relationship begins to take shape.

Readers who are interested in issues of domestic violence and their aftermath should find lots to interest them in Alan G. Johnson's novel, The Thing and the Last. Johnson, who was best known to me as the author of The Gender Knot, a non-fiction book about unraveling patriarchy, does an excellent job writing female characters who humanize the travesty and tragedy that is domestic violence in modern American culture. While the first chapter moves at lightning speed, the rest of the action of the book is slow and measured, much like recovery itself. Katherine is so broken by her experiences that she is not sure whether she can ever find a life for herself worth living. Lucy, as constant and stubborn as a boulder, provides both a soft place for Katherine to land, and a strong foundation for rebuilding her shattered life. How can Katherine give up on herself when Lucy never does?

While I have never had the experiences Katherine or Lucy have lived through, I couldn't help but think as I read that EVERYONE needs a Lucy in their life. A person who doesn't judge, but accepts you with all of your flaws. A person who is a constant comforting presence, just by the very fact of her existence in your life. Bit by bit, Lucy helps Katherine manage her grief, providing the compass for getting through the darkness, and finding at least a glimpse of the light. This book is a beautiful testament to the power of friendship and platonic love between women, and the power of forgiveness and redemption.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015


Black on black crime.

If that phrase made you cringe, you know how I felt when I started reading Ghettoside, by Jill Leovy. As someone who strives to be anti-racist, and who has been very dialed in to the Black Lives Matter movement, I was immediately put off by the use of this phrase in the forward. Saying that the black community has no place demanding redress for police brutality until they "stop killing each other" is the worst kind of victim blaming. "We (white supremacist power structures and the white folks who perpetuate them) have ghettoized your communities and cut you off from economic and social advancement. We are shocked-SHOCKED-that this might lead to communities in crisis". I almost stopped reading the book without ever getting to the first chapter.

But I am glad I persevered (thanks, Mom-the fact that you read it and sent it to me was the only thing
to get me through). Leovy is not blaming the victims for the systemic racism in law enforcement. She is laying the blame for the high rate of black (and brown) people killing other black (and brown) people squarely on the shoulders of the racist policies of decades of policing in urban centers. Leovy's premise is that through overpolicing minor, non-violent crimes, and underpolicing/under prosecuting assaults and murders, law enforcement policy has encouraged the creation of informal systems of "justice". This "justice" system is predicated on neighborhood affiliation, with respect as currency. In this shadow system, revenge takes the place of criminal prosecution of perpetrators. Leovy explores this idea through the lens of a true story-the murder of the teen-age son of a police officer from South Central LA, otherwise know as Ghettoside by the officers who work there.

Most of the book follows a few dedicated homicide detectives working in the poor black communities in South Central LA.  One of the things that I liked about the book was the even-handed way in which the author portrays both the police detectives and the residents of the community. There is no hero and villain dichotomy, at least not at an individual level. The homicide detectives profiled are all guys who want to do their best to close cases, and the community members the author writes about are shown as multi-faceted people, rather than caricatures of "thugs" and "ghetto rats". Leovy saves her real venom for the systems and policies that have hampered the efforts of the well-meaning detectives to solve cases, and for the deep lack of understanding of the social dynamics of the communities they serve exhibited by the higher-ups who determine policy and staffing levels.

My one criticism is that the story is told primarily through the experiences of the detectives themselves, and Leovy's descriptions of their work ethic and dedication occasionally veered towards the "white savior" archetype (think the teacher from the movie Dangerous Minds), but that did not take away from the impact of her argument. Step by step, she took us through the murder case that frames the book, and through the historical and contemporary circumstances that have led us, as a nation, to where we are today in terms of urban law enforcement. As much as I hate the phrase "state monopoly on violence", that is exactly what is at play in our safer, whiter neighborhoods. As a white resident of a middle class community, I have every expectation that if I were assaulted, or God forbid murdered, that the police and the justice system would do everything in their power to prosecute the perpetrators. People living in poor black and brown neighborhoods have no such expectation. This book is thought-provoking, and provides another piece to the complex puzzle that is racism in America.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Revival, Stephen King

Stephen King's latest novel continues his long tradition of using events from his own life to inform the lives of his extremely well-crafted and believable characters.  Revival is the story of fanaticism and addiction and magic (or science?  Magical science?  Scientific magic?).  The main character is Jamie, who first meets Rev. Jacobs when he is a young boy living in a small town with his parents and siblings.  Rev. Jacobs and his young wife take over the struggling church in town, and turn it into a thriving congregation, complete with an active youth ministry.  All of the young people in town love Rev. Jacobs and his beautiful, talented wife, and they are taken in by his adorable little boy.  When tragedy strikes the Jacobs family, Rev. Jacobs preaches a sermon that gets him driven out of town.

Years later, Jamie is a strung-out rock guitarist who is one high away from being incarcerated or dead. When he stumbles upon the Rev. Jacobs at a carnival, he can barely believe what he's seeing. The former minister has taken his lifelong fascination with electricity and devised some truly amazing optical illusions.  But that's not all Charles Jacobs has discovered.  The man formerly known as Rev. Jacobs thinks he can help Jamie with his little addiction problem, but the help will come at a price that Jamie isn't sure he's willing to pay.

King himself famously dealt with an addiction to pain killers after a near-fatal car accident left him in near constant pain for years as he recovered.  Jamie's drug addiction certainly mirrors his experience to a certain extent, but it is Rev. Jacob's addiction that is the truly frightening part of this story.  While this story is not horror in the traditional sense, there is that element of the supernatural that infuses almost all of King's works in some way.  This time the "magic" is presented in the guise of science that we don't yet understand, and highlights the dangers of playing around with natural forces without really understanding the possible consequences.

The story also explores the nature of faith, both in the opening section when Jamie is a child, and later in the book when the Rev. Jacobs becomes a faith healer.  The power that Jacobs had was terrifying, but couched in the language and ritual of religion people were more than willing to be taken in.  People who are desperately searching for an end to their fear, pain, and despair become easy marks for a con man.  But was it a con?  If people really were healed, did it matter where the power came from? When Jamie discovered that the people who were healed didn't always stay that way, he became determined to stop Jacobs.  Determined, that is, until it was his own high school sweetheart who needed help.  As usual, King shines a light on human nature in all of its flawed beauty.