Another Great Book Reviewed

 

I’ve been asking myself why I’m drawn to novels whose characters are caught up in the crises of our times. By “our” times, you understand, I mean in my lifetime, which may be “historic” to many of you. In any case, the book I’m reviewing today, Carey Harrison’s Justice, shed light on that question. It is because, in Harrison’s hands, such times reach deep into the human soul, its capacity for both evil and redemption.

 

 Justice Carey Harrison

 

Set in a small Italian coastal village whose hills, paths, beaches, and townspeople are so real they become home to us, Miri Gottleib, daughter of socialist London Jews, marries communist Count Piero. They settle into Casa Rosa, the Count’s family home, and give birth to Vittorio just as fascism begins to rumble across Europe and El Duce was rising to power.

So beautifully is the story of their marriage told, that Casa Rosa seems inoculated from both the village and the world beyond until the forces burst upon them, bringing tragedy and loss “that blackens the calendar.” This is not the end of the story, but the middle. Miri’s road back, driven by revenge, the words that restrain her, the rubble of villagers’ lives, to redemption is the heart of the book. It is truly a story of return from the depths.

It is my hope that as women begin to feel more at home in the world-at-large and therefore see lives as pushed and pulled by cultural, political, and historical forces, we will see more books like this from female authors. We are talented at creating characters, and at relationships, but we haven’t seen ourselves as movers in the world beyond the personal. This restrictive view shows in women’s fiction, and it’s time to move beyond.

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Election Day: a New Story?

 election day

 

This week we voted. Not really. Washington State now has mail in- ballots, so the sense of community action is lost—among other things. I found the picture above, labeled, “Presidential Election, 2016,” in the midst of hundreds exploding in the red, white, and blue celebration of the day. Grim and gray, it expressed my feelings about the state of politics today–what we’ve come to.  Now the election is over. Can we hope for something different?

Once upon a time, I went to a college that believed exposure to contrary opinions was a necessary step to adulthood and citizenship. Starting with the Constitutional Convention of 1787, we read the debates that shaped the nation. Nothing was more basic to American citizenship than debate. After Obama’s election in 2004, at a Democrat meeting, I suggested talking with local Republicans, but the idea bombed. They confessed they didn’t know how to talk to them about politics. Last week, a column in our local paper asks readers how long it had been since they exposed themselves to any opinion that did not agree with theirs. Where did it go? When did we start treating each other as enemies instead of opponents?

cockfight

 

For me, it began when President Truman proposed National Health Care (no, not Obamacare) and my classmates called me a “commie” because my father, a physician, was on salary, not in private practice. I was twelve. I was seventeen when Senator Joe McCarthy sent his investigators to campus because the University of Chicago refused to make its faculty sign loyalty oaths and because we studied the Communist Manifesto. Reading it made us traitors.

It’s all in the language and language shapes the way we think. If “opponent” becomes “enemy,” disagreement becomes a “threat to our way of life,” agreeing with the opponent about anything becomes “selling out,” Closing your mind to all ideas other than those of your group becomes “loyalty,” “sticking to your guns,” “standing up for principals.”

When the Sixties came along, the Left picked up the war lingo they’d inherited. They talked of “revolution,” declared “war” on the establishment, and anyone liberal whose ideas differed in any way became “patsies of the establishment,” or “sellouts.”

Those were tumultuous times, filled with violence and multiple assassinations. Again language was inflamed—the glory of battle on the one hand, the fear of disintegration on the other. We survived changed. Split by fear and anger created in large part by our own inflammatory rhetoric. In the universities where I taught, there was no debate between theories of politics or anything else. One school supported one theory and another another. Those crossing the line were stigmatized and isolated. On both left and right solidifying of opinion became “unifying,” silencing the middle—“wishy-washy patsies” who don’t know their own mind.

To me, as a Democrat, this change in university life was bitter. I’d been active in politics before the Sixties, working for candidates, even running campaigns, but found myself silenced because I held view other liberals deemed “incorrect.” My heritage—both family and schooling—has taught me to doubt anyone who claimed their views were Truth. But the Sixties had left liberals in closed ranks and for me closed ranks make closed minds.

We blame Washington for it all, but let’s face it, the language of war is exciting, the glory of battle exhilarating, unifying, powerful. Our politicians tell us what we want to hear, and we’ve used the rhetoric of war rather than the language of debate for so long we’ve forgotten what talking with an opponent, much less, opening our minds to another way of thinking is like. Almost seventy years have passed since that schoolmate called me a “commie,” and every year exchanges debate disintegrate further into name-calling. Perhaps we’ve gotten what we deserve. Closed-minded rants that cycle over and over in their own little world until the rest of us clap our hands over our ears and stick our heads in the sand.

We need James Madison—the man who brought bitter factions together sufficiently to give us a Constitution. He wasn’t on the ballot, but the talk on the media was all about “working together,” and everything I’ve read about the mood of the nation tells me we are all sick of the battle that goes nowhere. Let us hope his brains, talent, and perspective will appear in the new group that leads the nation. And let’s hope the people will rediscover their citizenship.

A Rich and Satisfying Read

The Prodigal 

 

If you’re a fan of sea legends, like the Flying Dutchman, or puzzles from the past, like Dan Brown’s Da Vince Code, I invite you to read Michael Hurley’s The Prodigal, a novel that mixes the aura of such mysteries with parables and romantic suspense for a lively and absorbing read. Kirkus reviews calls it “Stirring, romantic, and evocative of the sea’s magic,” BookTrib writes that it is “a glorious, satisfying read the overnight lept onto this constant reader’s ‘Top 5 of 2013’ list,” and it is the winner of Chanticleer Review’s Grand Prize for fiction of 2013. It is a must read.

 The novel opens on Ocracoke Island, 2010: “And so Aiden, the proud one, a man who refused above all else to learn from his own mistakes much less the errors of history, came at last to this island.” After a drunken weekend on the island followed by a disaster in the courtroom, star lawyer, Aiden Sharpe, finds himself exiled to Ocracoke to recreate his life among fellow prodigals: Father Marcus O’Reilly, exiled by a bishop exasperated by Marcus’s habit of speaking his mind; Sarah, a naked blond beauty, half real, half illusion, who is either a seer or insane; Bobbi Baker, a recovering alcoholic who runs the general store; Molly McGregor, red headed tow-boat captain who broke her wealthy father’s heart by choosing a solitary life on the island; Ibrahim, a Bahaman escaping wrongful conviction for murder. And finally, an ancient sloop whose history goes back to Biblical times. All are caught in the mystery of the boat and the possibility of racing it against Rowdy Ponteau, drunken son of wealth, who arrives regularly to bully the inhabitant of the isle.

 Hurley tells this tale from the omniscient point-of-view, giving each character’s story full weight, and, with the elegant prose of the line above, weaves current time (2010) with past ages. It is, as his reviewers say, masterfully done. If I had any problem with the book, it is with the ending, which I found unnecessarily pat, but others will no doubt find it satisfying, and it doesn’t affect my very high opinion of the book.

Take a Break: Read a Short Story

 

 Reading
 

I’ve been writing novels (for forty years or so) and blogging about them for quite a while. High time for a break. I love short stories and have always long to master them. For writers, they are a wonderful antidote to wordiness, an astringent for the mind. They remind us of the power of the single phrase. For readers, they are refreshing and bring home the power of the moment. Currently, in response to our readers’ fragmented multitasked lives, authors seek to tell a story in fewer and fewer words. Here’s one of mine in under 500.

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Night Winds

Storm clouds

 

      The wind throws handfuls of ice at the windows, and the room goes black. Just like that, I’m sitting in a vacuum with no defenses against the howl of the storm. Without the television to blot out the voices in my head—my sister’s voice, forever warning me …

     “No, no Agatha you don’t know what you are doing!”

     A door slams upstairs, coming out of nowhere, like Roland’s rages.

     “You’re gone,” I yell. “Gone forever.”

     A shutter slaps at the back of the house.

     “‘It’s nothing but the raven, pecking at my windowsill.’” I assure myself.

     “No one wants that old place,” my sister’s voice comes again, “it’s nothing but a heap of rotting wood, way out there away from any living soul except the coyotes—you’re a fool, Agatha—a fool!”

     I jerk to my feet in defiance, ignoring the beating of branches at the window. “I’m not letting you in, not listening,” I say aloud, heading for the kitchen and candles. “Big sisters are a pain in the ass.”

     My fingers grasp a candle, fumble with matches as the coyotes howl from the hill. “Cut it out. You always did love to scare me, but you’ll never scare me like he did, laughing one minute, throwing things the next.”

     More bursts of ice hit the windows. “You’re gone!” I yell at him, “You can’t get in.” The bursts quit, but the smatter of sleet on ice-covered snow is unstoppable. The wind moans through the slats in the fence. “So what?” I yell.

     “So you’re alone—way out there with nobody,” my sister’s voice answers.

     “That’s right,” I say, setting the candle on the table next to my chair. “I am. I want to be. I’m not like you, putting up with anything just to stay married, just to have someone.”

     I plop down and open my book, determined to drive her away. The words flicker in the candlelight, teasing. The fire in the cavernous fireplace hisses, a cold draft brushes my legs, like the ominous moments before one of Roland’s mood changes.

     A bang on the front door brings me to my feet, but Roland doesn’t appear. The bang comes again. It’s the storm door, blowing open as it always does in a storm.

     “No one,” my sister moans. “No one to close it but you.”

     “That’s right,” I retort, striding to the door. The ice slaps my face, tears at my hair, but in a flash I grab the swinging door and pull it to.

     “There.” I close the heavy oaken inner door and lean against it, gazing into the blackness. Silence. All has fallen quiet. I laugh. “You see, sister,” I say, “I can beat you now. Alone.” I walk back into the living room and gaze out. The moon emerges from behind the black swollen clouds, lighting up a crystal world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Must Read Mysteries

Mysteries make good reading. Some are perfect for an afternoon at the beach, and some challenge your logical expertise. A third group absorbs you thoroughly, solving the mystery by a slow unraveling of the characters’ inner life. For me, this is the group that is memorable, for they open new areas of the human soul. A good many mainstream novels that are driven by unanswered question (what good book isn’t?) might be included in this category, but for convenience I’ll limit it to those that explore violent death. Here are a couple of masterfully done by Thomas Cook, a suspense writer who has won about every award .

The Crime of Julian Wells

The Crime of Julian Wells

The story opens with Julian Wells’ suicide. The act is inexplicable to his best friend Phillip Anders, for Wells was a successful crime writer at the height of his career. Even more baffling is the dedication in Wells’ book: “For Phillip who is the sole witness to my crime.” The search for an answer starts with scant evidence—a change in Julian’s mood after returning from Argentina and Phillip’s memories of that trip—and follows Julian’s path through the crime scenes Wells sought out for his books. The path, a slow turning whirlpool, circles back to its vortex in Argentina, where his friend was transformed from an exuberant, life-loving, brilliant author into a doomed specter of himself. The answer, when it comes, settles in slowly and spreads. This is truly the exploration of a soul.

 

Sandrine's Case

Sandrine’s Case

Sam Madison is on trial for the murder of his wife, Sandrine. As the prosecution unfolds the details of her death and the evidence against him, Sam relives their marriage. From the awkward doctoral student blown away by the love of the beautiful Sandrine, to their lives as professors at a small college and the brilliant rise of Sandrine as a Cleopatra scholar, to his own failure to write the novel that was his life’s ambition. Sam’s character emerges alongside the courtroom scene and the cleverness of his lawyer in casting doubt on each witness that takes the stand. It is the story of a man’s slow confrontation with himself. Whether he committed the crime and whether the jury convicted him, I’ll leave to the reader to discover.

Back to Reading

My apologies to anyone trying to read my blog in the last couple of weeks. We were having technical difficulties and it took a while to solve them. Also, I’ve been off to writer conventions—The Pacific Northwest Writers Association in Seattle and the Chanticleer Reviews in Bellingham—getting refueled. My own latest book, Home Fires, was a finalist in the PNWA Nancy Pearl Award contest and won an honorable mention in the Readers Favorite International Award for realistic fiction, which have clearly distracted me also.

HOME FIRES, Judith Kirscht's third published novel

 

                           P1010333

honor-shiny-web

 

 

 

 

However, thanks to my persistent tech guru, Kate Williams, I’m back on-line. The title of this blog is a bit of a misnomer, since I’ve been buried in books (and authors) all summer, and left me wondering anew how readers can possibly make choices. I understand why readers cloister themselves in one genre or another and close the doors to keep the hoards at bay even though I think they greatly restrict themselves by doing so. I also wonder how many people have given up reading, overwhelmed, on the one hand, by the demands of the tech revolution and by the flood of self-published books on the other. One statistic I picked up (sorry, I didn’t note the source) reports 80% of Americans haven’t read a book in the past year, but 85% want to write one.

Make of that what you can. For me, the first figure says the social world of the Internet has flooded our lives—it has flooded mine—washing away the hours we used to spend reading, and the second says everyone has a story to tell. We’re going to have to regain our footing, wake up to the lost hours, and focus on those spots in the digital world that feed our particular needs, letting the rest slide by. If human history is any guide at all, sharing stories is one of those basic human needs. Another truth picked up at the conventions: word of mouth remains the most effective way to spread the word.

So please, if you’ve read a good book, share the news—not only to your friends, but with your local library, your independent bookstore, and the web as well. You don’t have to be a computer guru to post a review on Amazon or Goodreads. Finally, comment on this blog. Tell me the best book you’ve read this year, and I’ll post the news here.

Let me start the ball rolling (again) by adding a book to the list of novels I started earlier: novels whose characters are caught up in the crises of our times. Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See.

All the Light We Cannot See_

 

The time: August, 1944. The setting: the historic walled town of Saint-Malo, on the Brittany coast north of Normandy, occupied by the Germans. The characters: twelve-year- old Marie-Laure, blind since she was six, takes refuge under the bed as allied bombers seek to drive the Germans out. Her great uncle, who is her sole remaining guardian, has not returned. In a hotel five blocks away, Werner Pfenning, a German private, seeks shelter in the cellar. “Is this it?” he calls out. No one answers. A third and equally important character: the radio. Finally, an enormous diamond, Marie’s father and others are determined to save from the Germans despite its legend that anyone who possesses it is cursed—the possessor will live forever but calamities will befall his or her loved ones until it is returned to the sea.

Doerr takes us to the past to trace the stories of Marie and Werner, gradually bringing us back to this desperate scene and the post-Normandy defeat of the Germans. The deeply personal development of these characters brings the trauma of war home—we live it. We are pulled through with the characters by hope in the form of the radio. Doerr opens the story with a quote from Goebbles: “It would not have been possible for us to take power or to use it in the ways we have without the radio.” But the “us” in the quote is far more universal than Goebbles intended; the radio gives everyone power. This, along with the Braille Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, which is Marie’s vision of the world beyond, become the light we cannot see. And the role played by the gem? Read the story and conclude for yourself whether you believe the legend or not. Whether you do or not, you won’t regret the read.

Racial USA and The Inheritors

 

Fifty years after the Civil Rights movement, race has once again hit the first page in the form of riots and police violence. But this time the Wall Street Journal of August 25th,”In Ferguson, Multiracial Neighborhoods Defy Image of Strife.”  stressed the multiracial peace that characterizes many neighborhoods in Ferguson Missouri. And today, multiracial people as well as neighborhoods are becoming a significant group in the US.
Our President, of course, drew attention to this group of citizens, but until 2010 our census gave no way of counting them. Now, according to the Latin Post, August 25th 2104, “Multiracial USA,” if you add this group to those who identify themselves as 100% non-Caucasian, our non-Caucasian percent comes out a whopping 49.9. One third of the grandparents in the US have a grandchild of a different race.
“American” is always in the process of coming to be. The term “multiracial” has replaced “melting pot” in descriptions of this process in order to stress that people preserve their home cultures rather than simply striving to adopt the mainstream. I applaud that distinction, but unfortunately, the word excludes nationality and religion. If you add nationality and religion to racial difference, the melding of groups has been going on since the birth of the country. That we no longer look on those other categories as “differences” may be due to that melding process itself. Many if not most of us, if we look at our own family history, see ourselves or our children as the product of such conflicts and their eventual resolution, the pain of becoming now forgotten. I was born and raised in Chicago, a city created by the successive floods of immigrants, and I believe that it is those of mixed nationality, race, or religion who carry this growth forward. If we look at today’s conflicts as a part of the process that created us we will the road to resolution and, as a result, re-see our own identity as “American”.

The Inheritors

It is in this mode, I’d like to reintroduce THE INHERITORS the story of Alicia Baron, Chilean/Caucasian woman raised as Hispanic who discovers her heritage in an abandoned mansion in Chicago. Here are some excerpts from its reviews.
Chanticleer Reviews
“Kirscht deftly tackles the sensitive issues of racism, cultural bias, and discrimination from, what may be considered by some, a new and different perspective. She shows through The Inheritors timeline the ever changing nature of ethnicity, culture, and belonging. Readers are instantly dropped into the changing culture of Chicago under the prism of the 1960s through the 1980s …”

Maria Beltran, Readers Favorite
“The Inheritors” by Judith Kirscht’s powerful novel centers on the conflict between races and nationalities in Chicago. It explores the character of a woman who is subjected to racial, class and family conflicts. Above all, “The Inheritors” is the story of love, the great love of a mother who is willing to sacrifice even her past to protect her unborn daughter as well as Alicia’s love for Ricardo.”

Kristin Nathan, Chicago Literati

Home Fires has multiple reasons to be admired as a novel. It steps into the territory of the taboo and brings to light topics often easily and quietly swept under the rug by igniting them with a relatable plot and cast, a typical all-American family. Too often these crimes go ignored and unjustified due to the shame of coming forward and lack of proof. Whether this story encourages someone to speak out with their own, or feel less shame because they realized this can happen in even the most “normal” appearing situations, Judith Kirscht wrote a story worth sharing.

 

 

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Why Read Book Blogs?

 

Books & tree

 

I’m sitting here wondering what to write about for my next blog—and the one after—and the one after that. My brain is in neutral, so I bounce about other people’s blogs hoping to spark a response, or a topic. They say you should pretend you’re at a cocktail party, flitting between groups, picking up bits of conversation, hoping to find one you can participate in. But I’m terrible at cocktail parties; I can’t do small-talk. And let’s face it; most of the conversations at cocktail parties are small talk. In fact, a lot of the small talk today is about what website or blog provides the answers whoever brought up the topic was looking for. Each carrying a personal internet around connecting to other webs.

So what’s it about, this vast need for spider webs? To find others like ourselves, I think, and this need I understand. Writers seek writers, cooks seek cooks, photographers seek photographers, and form close little groups, immune from the view of others. Criminals seek criminals, too, of course, pedophiles seek pedophiles, and reveal that this act of closing ourselves into cells may not be altogether healthy. This need explains a lot, but not cocktail parties.

People who go to cocktail parties, I think, are casting their webs outward—seeking, seeking. But if the harvest is small-talk, I don’t see the rewards. The kind of talk I find rewarding takes place between two, three, or four friends—not of the virtual sort. A friend and were I talking, the other day, about books that moved us—changed us, spoke to our inner-selves. That led us to open and find commonality in our deeper selves. That’s the kind of interaction I seek and believe others do also. That’s why I write book blogs and hope to attract the sort of surfer who is looking for that deeper reward.

There are books that are like cocktail parties, too, of course. Or theme parks. They lighten the day, bring us the thrill of the chase, fear of the unknown stalker. I read them for that—for taking a break. But the books I write blogs about are those that for whatever reason make me stop, settle, open my inner self. Maybe because the protagonist speaks to that self, maybe because the experience is one I’ve had in my life, but neither are necessary.  I truly believe it’s because the author has the gift of language combined with insight into human behavior that cuts through to the heart of the matter. By this I don’t mean  language that point to its own art. Quite the opposite. I mean language that is transparent to meaning—so clear you are not aware of it at all.

Wait for a few examples of this gift in my next blog.

 

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Race in America—in Fiction

 

Earlier in this series of blogs, I talked of the rewards of reading novels whose characters are swept up in the crises and “hot topics” of our times. In the discussion, I sympathized with readers who find topics such as the Holocaust and race done to death and given to ideological preaching. I recommended novels that break those bonds, give fresh new perspective on those outworn topics and move us to a new place. World War II and the Holocaust were the topic last week. I told of my own personal response to those books as an example of the rewards of reading them. This week, I will do the same for novels on race in America.

The Civil Rights movement opened the doors of publishing houses to minority writers, and we have since had an explosion of novels on the American experience from the non-white side of the coin. Some of them, such as Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, Alice Walker’s, The Color Purple, Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, John Nichols’, The Malagro Beanfield War, T.C.Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain, have forever changed our view of America and its people. If you have missed any of those titles, you should add them to your bucket list, for they are powerful movers as well as classics.

However, few white or mixed race writers have tackled race, probably out of fear of being seen as racist. That same fear has silenced an important topic, for surely white attitudes shape the country’s experience as well. Therefore, I’ve focused this blog on stories that give us the experience of living through racial strife from the inside and from across the racial spectrum.

The HelpKathryn Stocket, The Help
This best seller mixes bitterness and humor with such gift it lifts readers hearts. The southern story of a maid and her socialite mistress gives us heartbreak and laughter on both sides of the racial divide. Not only does it reach deep inside Southern tradition, it gives us characters–both white and black–who reach beyond those traditions to justice—and so move us.

 

Half A heartRosellyn Brown, Half a Heart
A woman dedicated to civil rights takes in the daughter of her conservative sister. I related personally and intensely to this story because it reaches deep inside the family bonds and its characters struggle with the conflicts that split this family. There is no preaching, no good guy/bad guy, simply humans struggling. Thus, it is an intimate story of what it’ like to cope with the polarization of our times. A similar need gave rise to the next book, Nowhere Else To Go..

Nowhere-Else-To-Go-Cover-thumbnailJudith Kirscht, Nowhere Else To Go
This is the story of a college town torn apart by the movements of the Sixties, and was borne of the effect of those days on my young children, their school, and our neighborhood. It is told from the point of view of the junior high school principal whose school and marriage are at stake, of the children of an integrated neighborhood, of parents of both races. It gives a very different, anti-ideological, view of the Sixties. I think anyone who finds themselves split between ideologies, cultures, or religions—and most Americans are, at some point—will relate to this story.

Sweet Song-cover-lowTerry Persun, Sweet Song
A compelling story of a mixed-race boy’s struggle to find identity in post-Civil War America explores the heart of our racial past and speaks truths that resonate with our racial present. Again, if you’ve heard enough about race in America, don’t be put off. This, too, is a very different take. In an account Terry Persun wrote for my blog, he says his interest in race was personal—his father is of mixed breed (aren’t we all, he asks) and as a child, he was identified by others as of one race or the other. Years later, as he read about growing up along the Susquahanna River near Williamsport, a stopping place on the underground railroad, he was moved to understand his racial past more deeply.

The Inheritors by Judith KirschtJudith Kirscht, The Inheritors
I relate very personally to Terry’s story because I think this novel was born of my own need to understand my racial attitude, which was always at odds with my fellow liberals. By hindsight, writing The Inheritors brought me to an understanding of why. Like Terry, the story took me home to Chicago, where I grew up. Like Terry, I created a mixed-race protagonist, a heroine in search of her identity, the like Terry, I never intended to write an historical novel, but was carried into Chicago’s immigrant past. Both of these books move the reader out of the rut racial topics have fallen into. When Terry says “Aren’t we all?” he clearly refers to the fact that to be an American is to be a mutt—who do you know who hasn’t experienced mixed cultures, mixed nationalities, mixed religions, mixed social class. This is what the reader brings to these books—they join their own histories to them.

 

Reading Beyond the Familiar

Last week I talked about the disadvantages of fencing yourself into reading categories such as “mystery,” “romance,” etc. and about the rewards of reaching beyond those walls to find books that sweep readers into characters lives and move them to a different perception of the world or themselves. I discussed my own writing and reading topics—characters caught up on the crises of our times. “Our times” here means in my lifetime, of course, from the Depression to the current tech revolution and world conflicts.

The problem with offering such stories is that the topics have been done to death. Ideological positions frozen in time have become stale, and fiction readers too often find themselves preached to. I throw down any book driven by the author’s ideology. In fact, I throw it away. So the novels I offer break out of the worn out ideological boxes, free us from them, tell a story that needs to be told, move us to fresh perceptions.

Today’s topic is World War II and the Holocaust, and I gave Schindler’s List as an example of a story that breaks out of common perceptions of the German people at this time in history. I offer these additional titles:

Stone from the RiverUrsula Hegi. Stones from the River
The story of a woman living in a small town in Germany during the rise of Hitler. She is a dwarf, but this is not a story of a victim. Rather, she tells it simply as a resident of her town; however, she is clearly both insider and outsider. These people are no different from you and I. The story gave me a very different feel for the German consciousness during that period and why the nature of Hitler broke on the German population so slowly.

 

The Storyteller by Jodi PicoultJodi Picoult, The Storyteller About a woman grieving for her mother’s death, and in befriending a fellow member of her grief support group finds herself carried into the past. Her own story intertwines with that of her grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, andthat of the officer who ran the concentrations camp. The intertwining stories confound the neat lines between good and evil and return again and again to these questions: What is the worst thing you have done? How do you live with it? What does it take to forgive? To be forgiven? I found this book compelling, first because Picoult is such a master at interweaving tales—a talent I aspire to—and secondly, because my latest novel, Home Fires, also reaches into the murky depths where right and wrong are far from clear and resolution forces us beyond normal capacities

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Madonnas of LeningradDebra Dean, The Madonnas of Leningrad
This aging woman has lost her grip on the present and is facing a nursing home. But in the blink of an eye, she carries us back to the siege of Leningrad and the days when she was a starving young Russian watching for incoming German planes from the rooftop. Not only do we live, with her, the hardship and heroism of those residents, we also leave with a powerful and very different understanding of the lives our aged carry within.

 

What “Sort of Book” Do You read?

An all to frequent response to my books is, “I don’t usually read that sort of book, but I really got into it.”

So what “sort of book” do I write?

Stories that sweep you into the life of the characters and move you, change your perceptions or your sense of your own life. But that, of course, isn’t the answer such readers are looking for.  They want to know what cubbyhole they fit into: mystery, romance, historical, fantasy, science fiction, etc.. I understand the need for labels. They give some guidance in the chaos of books coming off the press these days, and they tell bookstores and libraries where to shelve the books. The problem is, the label likely to be attached to my “sort of book” is “General,” which isn’t very helpful, “Literary”–which means some English teacher scared you off–“Serious,” which means no fun to read and certainly not a book for escape, or “Good” which has a moralistic or judgmental tone. None of which means a story you really get into.

Moreover, readers also label themselves. “Well, I’m a mystery reader,” “I read romances,” or “paranormal is my thing.” I’m not so sure where this need comes from, perhaps from our need to fit in. But I would argue against walling reading habits in. Used this way, labels imprison us. They protect us from chaos, but they make the world beyond our self-made fortress a scary place inhabited by strangers. Worse, the industry urges writers to write into these pigeon-holes, reinforcing them.

And so we move away from each other and become strangers. Polarization is a sad truth of our times, and I think in some way that’s the reason I read and write about characters who refuse to be imprisoned by the forces of their times, who moved beyond boundaries. Move me to a different place, a different understanding of myself.

The interesting thing is, despite reader self-labeling, such books often become best sellers, such as Kahled Hosseini’s Kite Runner  or Garth Stein’s Art of Racing in the RainOr they are transformed into movies, such as Schindler’s List  or The Life of Pi.

The kite Runner       Life of PiArt of Racing in the RainSchindler's List

Why?
Because they sweep the reader into the life of the character. I think the public responds to good stories—and by “good” I mean stories that move them, speak to their own lives in some way. Hosseini’s hero is driven by guilt for betraying a childhood friend. The dog narrator in Racing in the Rain must carry his master through loss and into life again. It’s no fluke its hero is a dog. Schindler’s List is set during WWII but is about unsung hereos faced with huge destructive forces.

We live in a time of huge social, political, and geological upheaval. Life is tough, and too many if not most of us struggle through our personal hard times alone. The growth and success of support groups speak to the unfortunate truth that troubles isolate us. For that, reading of others facing similar crises, regardless of time and place, is a great balm. Reading of others struggling with fear, guilt, shame, anger, and loss relieves that isolation. We are not alone.

I believe it is the source of my own writing, and I think the rewards of writing are not that different from the rewards of reading. My topics focus on  conflicts of my own times, stretching from the Depression through the tech revolution. In the following blogs, I will talk about this “sort of book” and my very personal response to them. I invite readers to share more titles, give a brief description of the story’s central conflict and share their effect on you.

 

Book Review: The Weird Sisters

As another of a series of reviews on the rewards of reading “reality” or”serious” fiction, let me introduce Eleanor Brown’s New York Times bestseller, The Weird Sisters

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“We came home because we were failures.” So Eleanor Brown opens her debut novel of three sisters, born in a college town of a father immersed in Shakespeare—so immersed that he has named his daughters, Rosalind, Bianca and Cordelia. The family communicates with lines from the Bard and Bianca and Cordelia have returned home after receiving letters whose Shakespearean lines tell them their mother is ill. If you know Shakespeare,  it will add to your reading pleasure, but such knowledge isn’t necessary for a good read.

What follows is the story of the two younger sisters’ attempt to emerge from “the sandstorm of Shakespeare in which we were raised” and create a new identity. Bianca (Bean) headed for New York and a life of urban sophistication, Cordelia (Cordy) set a course for anywhere and became a nomad. For each, the attempt ended in disaster and terror. The elder, Rosalind (Rose), has not dared to emerge at all, which heads her toward another sort of failure.

Rudderless, Bean and Cordy struggle to integrate their lives in the great world beyond with the ivory tower of their childhood and evolve into the individuals they truly are. Because we find them back in the college town, the events of their lives in the world stand in contrast to the cloistered fortress and carry the harsh, lonely terror of the unprepared chick cast from the nest. For each, the return is indeed failure, though for the reader it is the beginning of true adulthood.

Brown has created a caricature of the academic family, and perhaps I relate more closely because I came from such a family and know well the sense of isolation from the world at large. Her characters are extreme enough to give us distance and the narrator’s humor makes us laugh. At the same time, this lively and highly original story is also the story of every family, for families are unique organic wholes, and our place in that organism shapes our sense of ourselves, our language, and our expectations of ourselves. To Bean’s and Cordy’s flight from the nest, we see our own, with all its terrors writ large. In Rose, we find that part of ourselves that never left home at all. In all we find the expectation of our culture—that we fly free to create a self that is unique, brilliant, and profound—in all ways superior to our beginnings. And then we land.

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