Monthly Archives: February 2019

We Were the Lucky Ones, by Georgia Hunter

luckyonesThis is probably the only time I’ve ever hesitated over whether to class a book as “historical fiction” or “non-fiction.” I went with historical fiction because the book clearly follows the conventions of that genre: it gives us the inner thoughts, private conversations, and other tiny details a writer of non-fiction could never really know, vividly bringing the story of the Kurc family to life as only a good piece of fiction can. But as the Author’s Note at the end makes clear, this book is not just “based on a true story”: it is an amazing true story, built on the author’s meticulous research into the experiences of her grandfather’s Polish- Jewish family during WW2.

The story begins in the spring of 1939. The Kurc family are middle-class, assimilated Polish Jews living in the city of Radom. The parents, Sol and Nechuma, are in their early 50s, and they have five grown children: Genek, Mila, Halina, Jakob and Addy. Two of the children are married, one (Mila) with a child of her own; all except for Addy live near their parents’ home in Radom. Addy, a musician and engineer, is living and working in France but planning to come home for Passover as usual, when anti-Jewish sentiment in Poland and the growing thread from Nazi Germany leads his mother to suggest he stay in France for the holiday. Little does Addy know it will be nearly 10 years before he sees any of his family members again.

The story traces the experiences of each of the five Kurc children, their parents and their partners, throughout the years of horrific suffering that follow. Some parts of the story — as Jews are forced out of their homes, into ghettos, forced into cattle cars, taken to unknown and sinister destinations from which no-one returns — are familiar. Other parts will be new to anyone who hasn’t made a specific study of WW2 Poland: the way in which the country was divided between German and Soviet invading forces; the differences for Jews in the German and in the Soviet zones; how Jews who used fake ID papers to live under a non-Jewish identity survived; the story of “Anders’ Army” of Polish exiles who were sent by the Soviet Union to fight for the Allies in Italy. This is an amazing story of suffering, endurance, and survival.

There’s a fairly major detail that makes We Were the Lucky Ones unique among Holocaust stories, and while it’s pretty clearly telegraphed and covered in a lot of the interviews and press around the book, some people do consider it a spoiler, so I’ll spoiler-tag it here and say: if you like to remain free from any kind of spoilers and you want to read this book, you can stop reading here ….

SPOILER ZONE AHEAD!!

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There There, by Tommy Orange

There ThereThere There is a book I’ve heard people talking about for the past year, and it really is amazing. The novel has a huge cast of characters, especially for a short book. The characters are all First Nations people (they, like lots of First Nations people in the US, usually refer to themselves as Indians and of course people get to pick what they are called; it’s just that as a settler-descended white Canadian it feels weird to type “Indian” when that term is sometimes seen as pejorative in this country), mostly living in contemporary urban settings in and around Oakland, California. They are all kinds of people — those fiercely proud of their native heritage and those completely cut off from it; powwow dancers and activists; criminals and addicts; people who want to build something and people who want to tear something down. And none of those categories is discrete, because these are real, complex, flesh-and-blood people.

The pace of the book seems dizzying at first — you meet character after character in short chapters, and at first these characters seem to have little or nothing to do with each other and the book reads more like a collection of loosely linked short stories — linked, perhaps, by the experience of being Native American in today’s America and, more specifically, in today’s Oakland. But soon you start to see links and connections, see how some of these characters’ stories are woven together. Some connections are direct — members of an estranged extended family who may not even realize they are related — while others are indirect. The most important connection, it turns out, is that all these people are going to the same event: a powwow held in a local arena. They’re all going for different reasons, but when the trajectories of their journeys begin to converge, the pace of the story picks up. The multiple points of view continue, but the chapters get shorter, the camera shifting from one character to another as we see how events play out, leading to a climax that’s shattering in every sense.

There There is a beautiful piece of writing (and a master class in how to handle multiple points of view), but it’s also the kind of writing by Native American/Indian/First Nations writers that more settler-descended people like me need to read. It’s one thing to toss around phrases like “intergenerational trauma” but another to see so vividly and viscerally depicted the impact of generations of dispossession and discrimination. This was an important, overpowering, almost overwhelming piece of fiction.

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Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, by Reza Aslan

zealotIt’s been a long time (like 10+ years) since I went on a binge of reading a lot of books from a lot of different perspectives about the historical Jesus, the Jesus of the gospels, Jesus as seen through different lenses, etc etc etc. That was something I thought and read a lot about in the early 2000s and had kind of moved on from (not from Jesus, obviously, but from various historical and textual analyses of who he “really” was). However, I was intrigued by the fact that Zealot is written by Reza Aslan, who I’ve read before in his book about the founding of Islam, and I was curious about what a Muslim writer who briefly flirted with evangelical Christianity in his youth might have to say about Jesus against the background of Jewish politics in the first century.

Zealot has quite a lot to say — not just about Jesus, but about Judaism under Roman occupation before Jesus’ time, and the development of early Christianity afterwards. The book spans about 200 years of history, and its real invaluable contribution to popular thinking about Jesus is, I believe, to clearly centre the life of Jesus in the political mileu of his time. Modern readers, especially devout Christians who are so steeped in the story we think we know it, often read about Jesus in an ahistorical, apolitical way, extracting timeless truths from his teachings while forgetting that he lived in a very specific time and place. Aslan’s overview of that time and place, and the various movements that fought to free the Jewish nation from Roman control during that time, is extremely helpful in contextualizing Jesus, his movement, and his followers.

When Aslan turns from that broader historical context to analyzing the actual words and actions of Jesus insofar as we can know them, he commits the same fault regularly committed by both conservative Christians and liberal scholars. He has a pre-ordained notion of who Jesus was (based on his reading of the historical context) — in this case, a “zealot,” by which he means not a member of the later Zealot party, but a Jewish nationalist primarily focused on independence from Rome and on declaring himself king of a new Jewish nation, and willing to support the use of violence to achieve that end. With that “Jesus” firmly in mind, he interprets the Gospel accounts through that lens, accepting as authentic any sayings or actions attributed to Jesus that support this reading, and dismissing as later inventions of the Gospel writers any that don’t. As with any attempt to fit Jesus into a specific writer’s mold — whether that of Jewish revolutionary or peace-loving hippie or divine being who came only to bring something called “salvation” — this requires the writer to dismiss quite a lot of sayings that don’t fit the picture — not on any basis of authenticity that can be determined from within the text itself, but on whether or not it fits the picture that’s being painted. This leads Aslan to look at a single verse or scene from the gospels — for example, Jesus preaching in the synagogue at Nazareth — and dismiss one element of the scene as being pure fiction while taking another as absolutely central to his thesis, without needing to explain why one part of the text should be privileged over another.

So I was not convinced by Aslan’s portrait of Jesus as a violent revolutionary, or as a Jewish nationalist whose “love your enemies” was only directed towards conflict with other Jews, not towards the Gentiles whom he certainly must have hated. But I did find some of the historical context he provides a useful corrective to a Christian vision of Jesus that strays from the truth too far in the opposite direction — making Jesus a non-Jewish, “universal” figure utterly divorced from the turbulent time and place in which he lived, uttering universal precepts in no way influenced by the world around him. The “real” Jesus of the Gospels is, as always, more complicated and difficult to define than any of these attempts to put him in a neat box.

 

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Something for Everyone, by Lisa Moore

somethingforeveryoneLisa Moore is almost certainly the most nationally celebrated and critically acclaimed author to come out of the Newfoundland literary scene in my generation, and of the four of us who are up for this year’s NL Reads award, she’s the only one who could be considered a literary household word. Her latest collection of short stories, Something for Everyone, provides what her readers have come to expect: stories whose insight into the human experience (centred almost always in contemporary St. Johns, though there is, unusually for Moore, one historical piece in this collection) is mediated through richly layered metaphor and detailed observations. Some of her short stories feel as much like prose poems as like short fiction.

There are times, in the midst of a Lisa Moore story, when I feel I’m almost drowning in sensory detail. I can find myself submerged in paragraph after paragraph of incredibly detailed description of — to pull one example from a story in this collection — a hotel caretaker using a long-handled net to pull debris from an outdoor pool, a description so minute it includes the sentences: “The pole he has is made of sections joined by plastic cuffs that screw together. Some blue sections, some silver, joined together without consideration for alternating colour.” Swimming through sentences like that in the midst of four paragraphs of the caretaker cleaning the pool (that’s four paragraphs just at that point in the story — Moore will bring us back to this description later, more than once) can leave a reader a little breathless. You can love the attention to detail but also wonder if this story is going anywhere or whether it’s just flowing from one visual image to the next in non-linear fashion. Then, two-thirds of the way through the story that contains the pool caretaker, you’re suddenly reminded of a tiny detail in the first sentence of that story, a detail you almost forgot: “Orlando, Florida. I’m here with a conference of twenty thousand librarians from all over North America, two weeks after the Pulse massacre.” When you’re suddenly reminded of the when and where of this story and (at least part of) the why, it’s like being yanked out of that warm pool of sensory detail, gasping for breath in the sudden sharp air of human tragedy.

Possibly because I generally prefer novels to short stories, my favourite part of this collection was the last story, Skywalk, which is really a novella in five chapters. It begins with a chance encounter between two young university students: the girl, newly come to St. John’s to study nursing, is nervous about crossing the parkway skywalk at one a.m., and asks a boy standing nearby to call her and stay on the phone till she’s made it safely across. From that single brief encounter, the story spirals out like the arms of a starfish, reaching backwards into the girl’s past, and the boy’s, forward into their futures, each piece of the story unfolding gradually against the backdrop of a series of horrific crimes being committed in St. John’s. Every character, every encounter, every piece of dialogue, and yes, every lovingly-detailed sensory description, is note-perfect in this piece.

Maybe it’s just because so many of these stories are set on the same streets where I live and work and walk every day, and those streets and the people who frequent them are so vividly depicted (though sometimes with jarring changes presumably for fictional purposes — I wasted far too much time trying to figure out where Chelsea’s bus stop was, sure it was in my neighbourhood but that it couldn’t logically exist within the parameters given, until I reminded myself that Lisa Moore has a poetic license and the right to use it), but to me the strength of these stories is how real some of the moments within them feel. They feel like slices of life that seem to be lifted directly from a spot right next to me, where I might have been standing a moment ago. 

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Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma, by Camille Townsend

pocahantasI guess it’s kind of inevitable that while I’m working on a novel, this book blog is going to reflect some of the reading I’m doing as part of my research process. Along with novels set in the early 17th century, I have of course been reading a lot of non-fiction, and while many of these are books I don’t bother to review because I only dip into them for the sections that are relevant to what I want to learn, one occasionally comes along that I read cover-to-cover because it’s fascinating in its own right.

Such a book is Camille Townsend’s Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma, which I discovered while trying to learn more about First Nations-settler relations in the early colonial period. Townsend carefully examines all the historical accounts relating to Pocahontas and constructs a picture of what her life might have been like and what her attitude may have been towards the English settler community with whom she interacted and into which she eventually married. The legendary aspects of her relationship with Captain John Smith are ruthlessly debunked from primary sources, and Townsend explores what we know of her relationship with the English settler she eventually did marry, John Rolfe. Townsend’s argument is that, while in the lack of primary documents from Pocahontas herself we can never be entirely sure of her perspective, it is most likely that she viewed herself as a royal ambassador from her people to the English, making a political marriage that she hoped would improve relations between Powhatan’s people and the colonizers.

I found this an intriguing and well-researched account of a woman whose short life has been so mythologized that we (especially those of us who are descendents of settlers) may find it hard to imagine who she was and how she really saw herself, her people, and her role in the world. We can never know for certain, but Townsend’s work does a very good job of reconstructing all the possibilities, based on what we do know from surviving documents of the time.

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Dancing in the Palm of His Hand, by Annamarie Beckel

dancingIn my current run of reading novels about women’s lives in the early 1600s (which you’ve already heard about if you’re following my reviews), Annamarie Beckel’s Dancing in the Palm of His Hand pairs in really interesting ways with Mary Sharratt’s Daughters of the Witching Hill. Both are fictional re-tellings of real historical witch trials. While Sharratt’s novel deals with the trials of 12 accused English witches, Beckel’s explores a much larger outbreak of witch-hunt hysteria in Germany during the same era, in which hundreds of accused witches were tried and (mostly) found guilty and executed.

Dancing focuses on the story of one accused witch, a widowed baker named Eva Rosen, and two of the men who have a part in questioning and judging her. One man, Wilhelm Hempelman, is conflicted by his desire for Eva, while the other, Franz Lutz, is torn by his doubts about the entire process by which these mostly poor, powerless women are tried and condemned. 

The reason I found it an interesting book to read so soon after Daughters of the Witching Hill is that Sharratt’s book allows in elements that we might consider fantastic or magical: her witches really do have familiars, and powers, of the kind rooted in the folklore of their time and place. So the accusations against them, while unjust and clearly rooted in religious and political power structures, are not entirely baseless: these women are “real witches,” in a way, and have sometimes used their powers to harm as well as to bless others. Dancing in the Palm of His Hand takes a more modern and strictly realistic approach to the witch-hunt phenomenon; the witches are clearly innocent victims of prejudice and superstition. The only hints of the supernatural occur in the “visions” (which may well be hallucinations) seen by Eva’s disabled daughter Katherina, and in a few chilling chapters narrated by the Devil … who, while much referenced and feared throughout the book, is clearly a construct of the very human fear and superstition that drives the witch trials. 

This book was an intriguing and important addition to my reading about this time period and subject matter.

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Hysteria, by Elisabeth de Mariaffi

hysteriaI hesitated for a moment over whether to class this as “historical fiction.” I mean, it obviously is; it’s set in the past, but sometimes people slap an arbitrary definition of how many decades before the time of writing qualifies a book as historical fiction, and I’m not sure if everyone considers the 1950s “history.” But it is, and in fact, as this book illustrates, it can feel so distant it’s like another world.

Hysteria actually begins in the aftermath of World War Two, when young Heike and her younger sister Lena escape the devastated city of Dresden on foot. Heike makes it to the safety of a Swiss convent where she is cared for by nuns, but Lena is lost in the forest (not a spoiler; this happens in the first couple of pages of the book) and this loss — not just of home and family and past life, but of a child she loved who was in her care) haunts Heike throughout the book and lays the foundation for much of what happens to her within the story.

Still, when we meet Heike ten years later as the main plot of the novel begins, she seems to be relatively well-recovered from her trauma (there’s actually even more trauma in Heike’s post-war experience than the escaping-Germany flashback reveals, but this takes time to come out). She is living in upstate New York with her doctor husband, the mother of a little boy named Daniel, living a life of comfort and leisure with few expectations on her. Her marriage does not seem entirely happy, but she takes great comfort in her son. The fact that her husband is heavily focused on developing and experimenting with new psychotropic drugs doesn’t seem terribly sinister … at first. 

But of course, it is.

Things start unravelling for Heike when she and her son, on a day’s outing, meet a little girl with whom her son plays, who doesn’t seem to be entirely real. The encounter has Heike questioning her own memories and senses, a process helped along by a husband who clearly appears to be gaslighting her.

Although the “historical” aspect of this novel is relatively recent, it’s actually one of those settings that seems most distant and difficult for me to read about — the world of upper-middle-class white women in post-WW2 America, women who lack jobs, independence, purpose or agency, who are often manipulated by their husbands or other men in their lives. Heike seems so passive throughout much of the book, and even after a shattering loss threatens her child, her reactions seem out of sync with what we’d expect or find normal. Why doesn’t she swing into action, take control of events, start solving her problems? At this point the reader may want to shake Heike, but the backdrop for her bizarre passivity has been well laid — by the trauma of her past, by what we know about her husband and his profession, and also by the systemic sexism of the world in which she lives.

I read this book, which I can best categorize as a literary psychological thriller, very quickly, and found the plot compelling and often hard to put down. If your pleasure in a thriller depends on being surprised by an unexpected plot twist, you may have a problem with this one: there’s a fairly huge twist, but it’s one that I and a lot of other readers figured out way ahead of the reveal (and trust me, if I figure out a twist, it’s not hard to figure out, because I am the dumbest reader when it comes to figuring out the curves and bends in a plot. I never know whodunit). However, figuring out the big twist didn’t diminish my pleasure in this book — rather, I was reading to find out if I was right about what I thought I’d figured out, and if so, why? How? Did all the pieces fit together in a way that gave me that satisfying “Aha! It all makes sense now!” reaction? And I found that it did — the ending was both satisfying and hopeful. 

If you like a twisty psychological thriller with some literary flair and some serious thoughts about how trauma and sexism can interact to keep a woman a virtual prisoner, you should pick up Hysteria.

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