fiction · historical fiction · YA

Book Review: They Went Left by Monica Hesse

When I was in my early 20s, I picked up a copy of After the War by Carol Matas, about a group of Jewish teenagers and children making their way to Palestine after surviving the Holocaust (this is an excellent book; I highly recommend it). Upon reading this, I realized that most books about the Holocaust focus on the horrors of the concentration/death camps; they mostly end when the camp is liberated, and few books talk about what happened next. What happened to those people who lost everything, who witnessed unspeakable nightmares every day for years? How did they move on with their lives? Could they even move on? This period of history, post-WWII for the survivors, has intrigued me ever since, and that was how They Went Left by Monica Hesse (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2021) ended up on my list. I was glad to learn of its existence.

18 year-old Zofia Lederman has survived- survived the war, survived the Gross-Rosen concentration camp, and survived most of her family. Separated upon arrival at the camp, she was sent to the right; the rest of her family went left. But Zofia is broken; her body has been ravaged by starvation and brutal workloads, and her mind has fractured as a result. She can no longer remember the last time she saw her younger brother Abek, and so she leaves the hospital early and begins to search for him, her only remaining family member.

Her search leads her across multiple countries, to orphanages and displaced persons camps, where people are struggling to rebuild shattered lives, some with more success than others. Zofia marvels at the ones who have picked up and moved on so easily; how is it that they are able to keep living, when she’s barely hanging on? After a while, it seems Zofia is one of the lucky ones…or is she? With the help of her new friends and the lessons she learns from them, Zofia is able to find a future in the unexpected, even if it does mean heartbreak and coming to terms with everything’s she- and everyone else- has lost.

This is a powerful book. Monica Hesse cuts no corners in painting pictures of the brutality suffered during this period of time. Mass graves, murdered babies, horrific medical experiments, survivors committing suicide after Liberation, sexual favors exchanged for survival or better work details, she leaves nothing out. This is not a light and easy novel; this is an in-your-face exposé of all the ways Jews were tortured and reaped of their dignity and their lives throughout the Holocaust. There is suffering and pain on every page, and it’s all thoroughly researched and well-woven into this story.

I appreciated that Zofia wasn’t just another strong character. She’s deeply broken at the beginning of the story, losing time and lapsing into what she’s not sure are memories or just wishful fantasies. The search for her brother is a nightmare in and of itself; we’re so spoiled today with the internet and cell phones, with such instant communication. All families had back then were unreliable phones, letters (likely with a slow, unreliable post at the time), and placing names on lists of organizations (none of whom communicated with one another). Imagine trying to find one person out of millions in that manner, when millions of your people had been slaughtered. The desperation of this method of searching is highlighted throughout this book, and the whole thing just broke my heart.

I’m not sure any book about the Holocaust can truly have a happy ending- even the few whole families who managed to survive still lost homes, friends, communities, their entire way of life. The best, most powerful books end with resolve, and that’s what They Went Left offers: the digging deep and reaching out to find what one needs to keep living. Monica Hesse has created a novel that offers exactly that.

Visit Monica Hesse’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · historical fiction

Book Review: Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

Who doesn’t love reading about a good plague? (Just open any news site, and…) I was waiting for my next interlibrary loan holds to arrive and grabbed a book off my own shelves, one that’s been sitting there for quite a while (as have most of them, sadly!). The book happened to be Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks (Penguin Books, 2002). I’d barely gotten into it before I realized the story was set in a small English town in 1666…during the time of the Bubonic plague. Yiiiiiiiiikes. I momentarily considered choosing another book- haven’t we had enough plague already???- because I wasn’t sure I’d be able to handle it, but I decided to keep going, and I’m glad I did. I’d read and enjoyed Ms. Brooks’s People of the Book a few years ago, and I’m pleased to say that my enjoyment of her writing as a whole continues. Despite its heavy subject matter during these times, Year of Wonders is a beautifully written novel.

Anna Frith is a young widow, living in a small English village with her two young boys in 1666. Cobbling together an existence from her flock of sheep and her work as a servant for one of the wealthier families in town and at the rectory, she finds joy in her sons but keeps mainly to herself. She takes in a boarder, a young male tailor, in order to supplement her meager income, and just as it seems as though the two of them might have a future together, he succumbs to a terrible illness. Soon, as more people fall ill, rumors begin swirling that people are fleeing the bigger cities, trying to outrun this deadly disease, and the town’s minister helps the townspeople come to an agreement: they’ll seal off the town and remain within its borders in order to prevent the spread of disease to the towns and villages beyond.

What follows is a tale of terror and exhaustion, one far too many of us know well after this past year, of death beyond measure, of people acting hysterically and abandoning their fellow man in his hour of need, of taking advantage of others’ fears and pain. But it’s also a story of bravery, of care and love beyond what could possibly be expected, of pushing ourselves to the point of exhaustion in order to provide what others cannot. Anna’s deep friendship with Elinor, the minister’s wife, provides moments of solace and hope; her growth throughout the novel reminds readers of what they’re capable.

This is a beautifully written book. Normally, I tend to shy away from novels that skew more toward the literary end of the spectrum, but with Year of Wonders, I can confidently call myself a fan overall of Geraldine Brooks. Her skill in immersing the reader in the year 1666, of painting such vivid pictures of the landscape and houses and possessions of the people who lived at this time is remarkable; this is an easy book to get lost in, and the amount of research necessary to so fully recreate such a world must have been staggering. What a gift Ms. Brooks possesses.

I worried that the exhaustion of the past year would have made this difficult to read, but there are enough differences in the behavior of today versus the behavior of Anna’s fellow townspeople that I needn’t have been concerned. Over half the people in Anna’s town died, and they do so at home, in full view of those who live there, compared with today, where we tuck the sick away and have laws about patient privacy (and thus we haven’t seen much of what Covid wards actually look like, which conceals a lot of the horror from Covid deniers). Regular townspeople are tasked with burying the dead; there are no crematoriums on the edge of town that people can ignore and pretend aren’t in operation day and night in order to keep up with the exploding death toll. In some ways, perhaps forcing people to confront the reality of the situation is a more effective means of dealing with a deadly epidemic (although, given the article I saw where a woman shrieked at the medical staff on the Covid floor where her husband had just died, that they were all a bunch of crisis actors and Covid wasn’t real, perhaps not…). There’s a bit of a twist at the end that I didn’t quite see coming, but that I felt fit in well with the rest of the story, and it wound up making the ending much more pleasant than I had foreseen.

I never expected a book so full of terror and death to be so beautiful, but Ms. Brooks’s writing makes it so. This is only my second Brooks book; I’m looking forward to reading the rest of her books, because I’ve enjoyed the two that I’ve read so very much. The Secret Chord is specifically on my TBR, so that’ll probably be my next of hers.

Visit Geraldine Brooks’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · historical fiction

Book Review: The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

A reread! I don’t often reread books, mostly because there are just so many books out there I haven’t read, and I have a limited amount of reading time (especially these days!), so I have to spend it wisely. But my parenting group’s reading challenge this year included a prompt to reread a book by a favorite author. There were so many ways I could have gone with this, but I ended up killing several birds with one stone here by choosing The Red Tent by Anita Diamant (St. Martin’s Press, 1997). It’s a book I’ve already read by an author from whom I’ve read and enjoyed multiple books in the past, it’s a book from my own shelf (woohoo!), and it’s a beautifully written example of modern-day feminist midrash (Ms. Diamant has argued that her story doesn’t count as midrash, but others disagree, and that’s okay! I love seeing the difference of opinion here; it makes my soul so happy!).  

The Red Tent is a retelling and an expansion of the biblical story of Dinah, the daughter of Leah and Jacob. Dinah is best known, sadly, for being raped, and little else is said about her. Anita Diamant has reimagined and expanded upon the story of Dinah’s life, painting a vivid picture of what her days were like growing up the only daughter, with four mothers and an entire pack of brothers, and has given her more agency, instead of being seen solely as a victim. The complex relationship between Leah and Rachel features heavily, as does Dinah’s observations of her father and his relationship with each of his wives.

Dinah’s rape is retold as a love story misunderstood by her brothers and father, and the effects of this are massive and widespread. It changes everything about everyone’s lives, and though it isn’t easy and it takes many years, Dinah is able to rebuild her strength and her life, with the help of the strong women she’s lucky to meet and with the gifts she received at the feet of her mothers.

I first read this back around 2008, but to be honest, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I did during this reread. These days, I’m much more familiar with the stories and Biblical characters depicted in this book; I understand the concept of midrash a lot better; I’m a better, deeper reader, more mature in years and more focused than I was during my first read. This has been an excellent example of how we bring so much of who we are to the books we read, and how we read a book and what we get out of it changes as we change. There are some books that I find something new in each time I reread them: The Great Gatsby is one of those; Till the Stars Fall by Kathleen Gilles Seidel is another. I think The Red Tent will have to go on that list as well. I love Ms. Diamant’s ability to recreate Dinah’s world, expanding upon her story while also bringing all the women’s stories, so long ignored or silenced, come to life.

The book was made into a two-part television miniseries that was originally broadcast on the Lifetime Network. If you managed to catch it, I’d love to know what you thought. It appears my library has it on DVD, so I may grab it at one point to watch when my husband and daughter go camping!

Visit Anita Diamant’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · historical fiction · YA

Book Review: Resistance by Jennifer A. Nielsen

I’m absolutely trying to be better about reading books from my own shelves, but when I ran across a copy of Resistance by Jennifer A. Nielsen (Scholastic Inc., 2018), it leapt from the library shelf directly into my bag and there wasn’t anything I could do about it, sorry. I read Ms. Nielsen’s A Night Divided in 2018; it’s a novel about life behind the Berlin wall, something I knew very little about, and I was hooked. I was curious to see if her skill from that book transferred to this one (and my goodness, check out this powerful cover!).

Chaya Lindner is Jewish in Poland during the second World War, and she’s on the run, working with the resistance as a courier. She passes easily for Polish and is able to smuggle food, medicine, and papers into the ghettos where her people are struggling to survive and the death counts mount on a daily basis. It’s difficult and dangerous, made more so by the separation from her parents (who seem to have given up on life) and the likely death of her two siblings, but Chaya refuses to give in.

Being teamed up with Esther, an inexperienced courier who doesn’t pass as well as Chaya does and who fumbles often in ways that place their group in danger, doesn’t bode well for Chaya’s hopes of living through the war, but a terrifying new mission is assigned to the two girls: sneak into the Warsaw Ghetto to determine if there’s enough will to launch an uprising there. The risks are massive and their lives are on the line with every breath, but Chaya’s willing to risk it all for her people. Is Esther?

This is pretty close to edge-of-your-seat reading, so if you’re not ready for that right now, hold off. Chaya finds herself in a dicey situation in nearly every chapter; there’s an occasional moment of downtime, but it’s rare and doesn’t allow the reader many breaks, placing you right there beside her, on the run for your life and for the lives of the Jewish people. It’s cold, relentless hunger, murderous Nazis, and indifferent townspeople at every turn. On occasion, Chaya and Esther do run into someone who wants to help, but even that is fraught with fear: are these strangers really helpful, or are they trying to trick the girls into revealing their identities? No one can be trusted outright, and Ms. Nielsen illustrates the exhaustion inherent in living this way on every single page.

Being set where it is, during this time period, and among people fighting with everything they have just to exist, there’s a lot of death in this book: death by starvation, death by disease, murder, and all of it caused by outright cruelty or indifference. Chaya is sixteen but has been forced to abandon every vestige of childhood in her fight to live; I’d put the audience for this book at mature fifth grade on up due to its setting and themes of violence and suffering, but there’s a lot to learn and understand  for all mature readers.

No matter how much I read about this period of time, I don’t ever feel like I understand it, or that I ever will. I understand the townspeople who felt helpless and felt as though there was nothing they could do- I’m sure it’s a similar feeling to how I feel when I read about some of the atrocities our own government commits against both immigrants and citizens alike; I do what I can in terms of contacting legislators and supporting people who can protest (I don’t trust my bad back), but it’s not enough, it’s never enough when human suffering is on the line. I don’t understand not caring, I don’t understand ambivalence, I don’t understand the hatred some people feel for others simply for existing. I don’t know that it’s possible to fully understand something so terrible, but I’m thankful for Ms. Nielsen and other authors who continue to try to understand and who try to help us understand. We’re obviously in dire need of constant reminders these days.

Visit Jennifer A. Nielsen’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · historical fiction · YA

Book Review: The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf

I’ve had The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf (Salaam Reads, 2019) on my TBR list for ages, both because the premise sounded intriguing and also because Hanna Alkaf is wonderful on Twitter (you really should follow her!). It was never in at the library when I checked…and then I finally realized it wasn’t shelved under Alkaf, Hanna, but under Hanna, Alkaf. Whoops. (I’ll ask the library worker about that when I return it, because this needs to be easier to find.) Once I realized the mistake, I located the book and slipped it into my bag.

Everyone knows about the Holocaust. You’re probably also familiar with the Rwandan genocide in 1994, and the Cambodian genocide from 1975 to 1979, and maybe you’ve even learned about the Armenian genocide. But what do you know about what happened in Malaysia on May 13, 1969 and the days that followed? I knew nothing, had never even heard about it (have I ever even read a book set in Malaysia before this? I honestly don’t think so), and that’s one of the reasons I knew I had to read this book.

Melati has OCD in a time where there’s no word or phrase to describe her incessant need to count, usually in groups of threes, in order to protect the people she loves. She pictures the forces compelling her to count as a djinn, cackling at her distress to appease him. It started after her father died; her mother, already stressed over the loss of her husband, doesn’t know how to handle her daughter’s mysterious and shameful problems, and so Melati works hard to hide her compulsions from her.

So life is already tough for Melati, and then the world around her explodes in violence. Separated from her best friend by a group of men wielding knives and wearing sinister smiles, she has no knowledge of where her mother is, no ability to get home, and no idea if she’ll survive the bloodshed. As the bodies pile up in the streets, Melati will need to depend on the kindness of strangers and her own quick wit to not only defeat her own djinn but the evil and hatred that has suddenly pervaded her society.

Ms. Alkaf begins the book with a necessary content warning (told you she’s awesome); this is not an easy book to read for so many reasons, but I think it’s a necessary one if you have the mental space for it. There are a lot of parallels to things going on today, of the way far too many people view those different from them, and the events described in this book are devastating and worrying as a potential conclusion to those levels of hatred. Melati’s OCD is also tough to read, in that it causes her so much distress. I’ve dealt with some OCD tendencies (which were much worse when I was young), so reading her struggles made me want to scoop her up and hug her.

Her growth throughout the novel is admirable and inspiring; it’s hard-fought and incomplete, since OCD is a beast that must be continually tamed, but it’s real. And as in real-life crises, there are no full conclusions, just a sober understanding (as much as that can be possible) of what happened, along with the determination to carry on while never forgetting those who have been lost. It’s heartbreaking and should be eye-opening to any reader, imploring them to examine their biases, delve deeply into their prejudices, and pick apart the reasons why they believe the things they do. Because the outcome of hatred and prejudice is often devastation and death, and at this point in history, with far too many painful examples to illustrate the point for us, we should be better than that. Ms. Alkaf has penned a fictional account of real history that serves as a warning point; don’t let this happen to you, to your country, to anyone.

Excellent book; highly recommended. Just wait until you’re in a good mental space so you can fully process this story, because it’s heavy.

Visit Hanna Alkaf’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · historical fiction · YA

Book Review: The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe, translated by Lilit Thwaites

I hesitated for a really long time before putting The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe, translated by Lilit Thwaites (Henry Holt, 2017) on my TBR. Books about the Holocaust are increasingly difficult for me to read; reading isn’t exactly easy right now anyway; and reading a difficult subject right now? Oof. But this was on my list, it was in at the library, and I decided to finally take the plunge. This book is historical fiction based on a real-life story, and these stories deserve to be told and read.

The Librarian of Auschwitz is told by multiple narrators, but its main focus is Dita Kraus, a young teenager who survived the ghetto of Theresienstadt, only to be sent to Auschwitz and, later on, Bergen-Belsen. In Auschwitz, she worked to protect and distribute the eight illegal books prisoners had managed to smuggle in, handing them out to teachers in the family camp’s secret school, repairing them when necessary, getting lost in the pages of several of the books as an escape from the brutal conditions around her.

Surviving each day is a miracle in and of itself, and Dita and her fellow prisoners struggle against impossible odds, watching their friends, family, and neighbors disappear in clouds of ash that flutter down upon the survivors like a devastating snow. The books keep the children learning, they give Dita a sense of purpose and a reason to go on, as the world descends further and further into madness. Fear, hunger, and devastation rule, but Dita carries on, her courage and determination a stark reminder of what it takes to retain our humanity even as the forces of evil remain desperate to choke it out of us.

What a devastating, heartbreaking book. There’s triumph as well, but at such terrible cost. It pained me to read this, to read how casually human life was treated, how easily it was thrown away, especially in light of everything going on in the world today. We’re still ready to throw people away, just in different ways (…mostly…). There’s a scene where, after a selection, ash rains down on the survivors, who recognize that their friends and family who were murdered by the Nazi soldiers will remain forever in Auschwitz, and…It’s a hard read. This whole book is a hard read.

But it’s necessary, and this is a book I recommend picking up when you’re able to handle it. We’re losing Holocaust survivors every day, and soon there won’t be any first-generation survivors left to tell their stories. Even fictional stories that recount the manmade horrors and suffering are important.

The Librarian of Auschwitz is a story of devastation and courage, and it will gut you if you let it- and you should. Only by reading these stories and understanding the devastation of hatred will we be able to recognize its presence in our own times and fight to end it.

fiction · historical fiction

Book review: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

You ever start reading a book, then get distracted and put it down and don’t pick it up for another…oh, nine years or so? That was Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See (Random House, 2006) for me. I can’t remember if a friend gave me her copy or if I got it from the library, but I got to the parts about the process of foot binding and needed some time. I put the book down, got distracted by another book, and never returned, but I always wanted to. And with the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge having a prompt for a book set in a country beginning with ‘C’, my return trip to historical China through Lisa See’s eyes was booked.

Set in nineteenth-century China, seven year-old Lily is deemed special enough to be matched with a laotong, a lifelong best friend, after her foot binding. The connection between Lily and Snow Flower is immediate and lasting, though Snow Flower’s more refined behavior and education are obvious next to Lily’s poor country learning. But together, the girls forge not only a deeply emotional relationship, but a mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge: Lily absorbs Snow Flower’s more elegant training, while Snow Flower learns the rougher chores of Lily’s daily life: water-hauling, cooking, cleaning. Lily’s unsure how this is in any way equal- when on earth will the more privileged Snow Flower need to know any of this?- but nevertheless, she basks in her friend’s love, the only person who seems to feel that way about her in a world where girls are viewed as ‘useless branches’ and even wives are looked on as little more than servants and a means to an end in the singular goal of everyone’s life- creating male heirs.

As the girls grow, get married, and leave their parents’ houses for the homes of husbands they don’t even know, Lily learns the hard truth about Snow Flower, what her life has been like all along, and the shame of what her life is like now. What Lily does with this information will affect both of their futures, and the futures and status of their families, a tale of deep love, betrayal, pain, and the true power of friendship.

Lisa See’s writing flows so beautifully that while Snow Flower and the Secret Fan makes for an easy read, there are so many nuanced layers in this novel that it will leave the thoughtful reader with much to consider. The society that Lily and Snow Flower grew up in was so restrictive for women, binding their feet so that an adult woman’s foot was only three or four inches in length, crippling her and forcing her to remain indoors- mostly confined to one single room- for the vast majority of her life. Any kind of interest in the world at large was frowned upon, and women, illiterate in men’s writing, communicated in nu shu, secret women’s writing (dismissed by men as lesser; besides, what could women possibly have to think and thus write about?).

Lily and Snow Flower’s friendship is complex, and Snow Flower is a deeply enigmatic character, something Lily never quite holds a focus on and finds reasons to dismiss until it’s too late to ignore. One of the questions in the reader’s guide at the end of the book asks if Lily is the hero or the villain in the story, and I think she’s neither, she’s just human. We see things through the lenses of our own experiences, we dismiss information and ideals that don’t fit in with what we expect from the world, we react emotionally when deeper consideration is needed. Could Lily have done better, tried harder? Possibly, but maybe not, and even though her mistakes had harsh consequences, I can’t find it in myself to demonize her for her behavior. She did the best with what she had at the time. Not every choice we make, even when it’s the best we can do, works out in the end.

This is a devastating novel of not only the strengths and difficulties of friendship, but of the weight everyone carried in nineteenth-century China. While its focus is on women in particular, the men’s lot- responsibility for the crops, for the family’s standing in society, for earning enough money to feed the multiple generations residing in their home and never showing emotions of any kind- wasn’t much better, something that is made obvious, though not necessarily in an outright manner, in the book. War and rebellion, disease and death, starvation, Lisa See flawlessly incorporates the tragedies of the wider world into the constricted women’s sphere occupied by Lily and Snow Flower, in a devastating emotional punch that will have you reaching for the phone to call your best friend in order to bolster your own connection.

The chapters that deal with the process of foot binding are difficult to read- I won’t sugar coat that; it’s what made me need to put the book down the first time I attempted to read it. Be warned if you get squeamish easily. I had an easier time this time around, probably because I knew what to expect.

Have you read this? I’d love to hear your thoughts. This is one of those books that’s layered like an onion and I have the feeling it’s going to be on my mind for a long, long time.

Visit Lisa See’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · historical fiction

The Lost Girls of Paris- Pam Jenoff

This month’s pick for the library book discussion group (which will be tacked on to whenever we meet next, whenever that is!). The Lost Girls of Paris by Pam Jenoff (Park Row, 2019) isn’t something I would have picked up on my own. There’s something about it that just didn’t really appeal to me based on the premise, but I like the group and I’ll read anything they’re going to discuss. Plus you know how I feel about stretching and growing as a reader. 🙂

Told in multiple viewpoints, The Lost Girls of Paris is the action-packed story, based on a true story, of a group of women who worked as undercover radio transmitters in enemy territory during World War II, the woman who headed their unit, and the civilian widow trying to piece together the story of this group after the war has ended. After taking photographs from an abandoned suitcase she found in a train station, Grace is intrigued by them and sets out to find who these women in the photos are. To her shock, she learns the owner of the suitcase was the woman killed in an accident that waylaid her the day before, and suddenly she feels a certain responsibility to both that woman and the women in the photographs. Who were they? Why was the owner of the suitcase in New York City?

Eleanor Trigg has been placed in charge of a group of women she’s recruited to act as spies in dangerous enemy territory. Marie is one of her recruits, a single mother who’s accepted this job for financial reasons, along with a sense of duty. With the clock ticking and the Nazis closing in, terrible discoveries about the recruits’ expendability will be discovered. War truly is hell.

This was…pretty grim, to be honest. I didn’t dislike it, but it wasn’t exactly an uplifting read, so don’t go in expecting a ton of happy endings (there is one, but a lot of the stories are pretty dark). There’s bravery and pluck, and a whole lot of grit from women who never saw themselves in a role like that before the war, but there’s also a lot of dismissal that leads to death (of which there’s also a lot of), and a lot of, “You’re women, why would you think you could do that?” attitude coming from the top. Historically accurate, but perhaps not the lightest read at a time like this.

Short review today; I’ve had this half-written on my computer for about a week and a half when crap started to hit the fan. We’re well-prepared here in my family and our state is on shelter-in-place orders starting tomorrow, which is basically the way we’ve been living for a week, but my time is spent mostly homeschooling my kindergartner, cooking everything we eat, and cleaning so that we don’t feel too stir-crazy in a cluttered home (seriously, clutter and mess is the #1 way for me to feel anxious and terrible, so keep your spaces tidy and this will all be a little more bearable!). I don’t know blogging will look like for me these next few months; I’ve barely had any time to read since I’m so focused on maintaining my daughter’s education, but I’ll do my best to pop in as I can!

Be well, all of you!

Visit Pam Jenoff’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

historical fiction

The Only Woman in the Room- Marie Benedict

It’s a new year, so that means new ambitions, and I’ve resolved to go back to the library book discussion group! I got away from it last year after schedule conflicts and being sick, but with my daughter being in school, I can always hit the Wednesday afternoon group if I have a schedule conflict with the Thursday night group. This month’s selection was The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict (Sourcebooks Landmark, 2019), a fictionalized account of the life of Hedy Lamarr, the Austrian-American actress and inventor of a radio frequency-hopping system for torpedoes. And because of her inventions, which were eventually used by the Navy and which formed the basis of today’s wi-fi, I’m counting this as PopSugar’s 2020 Reading Challenge prompt for a book about or by a woman in STEM.

The novel covers Hedy’s life from about age nineteen, during the height of her Austrian stage career and just as she was beginning her courtship with Friedrich Mandl, an arms dealer and one of the richest and most powerful men in Austria, through the middle of the Second World War. Even before their marriage, red flags abound, and Mandl quickly turns out to be violent, abusive, and controlling, even going so far as to lock her in their ostentatious home. Hedy uses her intellect to gather intel from various visiting guests, occasionally earning Mandl’s favor, but it’s never enough to change him into the husband she’d hoped he would be. During her house arrest, she learns as much as she can about munitions and radio technology, feeding the insatiable curiosity she developed as a child listening to her father explain the world.

Her flight from the encroaching Germans and her marriage lead to her eventual move to the US, where her film career takes off. Desperate to help the Jews of Europe during this dark time, she works with a musician friend to invent a better torpedo system, but Hedy’s pretty face and the intense sexism of the time lead to nothing but rejection and dismissal.

Hedy Lamarr’s story is one of both triumph and tragedy, and both are shown in Ms. Benedict’s book, though her portrayal of Lamarr’s life ends during World War II. The chapters are fairly short, which makes this an easy read, but I really wish it had gone into more detail and shown more depth. There’s so much to fit in here that the story occasionally feels rushed and devoid of emotion, and there’s so much of Lamarr’s life that she didn’t cover. Her studies and thirst for knowledge are mentioned only incidentally and feel a bit glossed over. During her later life, a period not covered by the book, Lamarr had multiple marriages (only two are covered here; she had six total) and had an estranged relationship with her children (the parentage of one seems to be a controversy, which also isn’t mentioned here and which I was surprised to learn about in further research). A botched plastic surgery led to her becoming a recluse, and she never really gained the recognition for her intellect that she so badly craved.

What the book does cover, however, albeit it a little more blandly than I think deserves, was her shockingly abusive marriage to Friedrich Mandl (obvious content warnings exist for this, including several on-page rape scenes, though none of them are descriptive). Half the book is devoted to her imprisonment at his hands, and it’s a sad, depressing tale, though her resilience is admirable. Mandl is a whole sack of trash, however, switching loyalties based on who makes him the most money and being hideously controlling, jealous, and abusive to his wife. Her mother is no help either, averting her eyes and citing ‘wifely duties’ whenever Hedy shows up for a visit at home covered in bruises.

This book brought to mind a library book discussion group pick from last year, Circling the Sun by Paula Mcclain. Hedy Lamarr and Beryl Markham had a lot of similarities: multiple marriages, estrangement from their children, tense (or nonexistent) relationships with their parents, authorship controversies surrounding books each had written. I’m wondering if this selection was on purpose, in light of our group having read this last year, and I’m really looking forward to the discussion on this particular point.

While I enjoyed this book for giving me a glimpse into Hedy Lamarr’s life, I wish it had gone into greater detail and covered more of her life. What a fascinating, tragic woman.

Visit Marie Benedict’s website here.

historical fiction

The Solace of Water-Elizabeth Byler Younts

After finishing (and loving!) a novel about an older woman having a relationship with a mega-famous boy bander, I turned around and fell into a multiple narrative historical fiction about grief and an unlikely friendship between three hurting women, two black (one a teenager), one Amish, in the 1950’s.

Is literary whiplash a thing? It should be. But it’s not a bad thing. I’m a big fan of reading widely, reading weirdly, reading all sorts of stories, fiction and non, and there’s nothing I like more than reading stories by people who are different from me, or who live differently than I do. The world is such a fascinating place. The Solace of Water by Elizabeth Byler Younts (Thomas Nelson, 2018) ended up on my TBR list thanks to another blogger’s review, and I’m glad it did, because it’s a lovely read.

Dee Evans is grieving hard after the accidental drowning of her four year old son Carver. Her older daughter, Sparrow, was tasked with watching him that day and got distracted by a boy; now Carver’s gone, Dee is nearly paralyzed with grief and barely able to tolerate being near Sparrow, and the whole family is moving to Pennsylvania, where Dee’s husband will take over preaching at his childhood church. Things are different in Sinking Creek: not necessarily better, but different, and Dee isn’t sure how to relate to the white townsfolk when there are no signs telling her what she can and can’t do.

Her Amish neighbor Emma is another mystery. While Emma’s church’s stance is to not get involved in the racial tension amongst the English, Emma can’t help but find herself drawn first to Sparrow, then Dee. Emma carries multiple heavy burdens of her own and recognizes the pain that her new neighbors carry. Sparrow, however, is carrying more pain and stress than she lets on. While she strikes up an innocent but secret romance with Emma’s son Johnny, she also copes with other, more unhealthy measures, ones that will almost cost her everything when her pain, Dee’s grief, Emma’s desperation, and the town’s racial tension come to a head.

First off, major content warnings for this book. Child death via drowning, stillbirth, alcoholism, self harm, and racial tension and violence are all front and center in this book. If now is not a good time for you to read about these subjects, be gentle with yourself and choose something easier on your soul.

Dee’s grief is a terrible burden, and her anger at Sparrow is perhaps even worse. Because Carver’s death happened on Sparrow’s watch, Dee’s inability to forgive her daughter and Sparrow’s guilt combine to make an absolutely gut-wrenching maelstrom of emotion. At times, each woman’s anguish and desperation are tough to read, but Ms. Younts handles it with aplomb. Also carefully treated is the tension between blacks and whites that simmers in the town; it hadn’t occurred to me that black people who moved from the overtly racist, pre-civil-rights-era south, might be confused and apprehensive about the rules of the not-as-overtly-racist-but-still-very-racist north, and I appreciate the perspective on that that this gave me. I still have so, so much to learn.

Emma’s burden, while different, is no less. Her pain over the loss of her infant daughter, combined with so many years of keeping both her husband’s and her own secret, alienated her from her family, her community, and what she truly wanted in life, and it was easy to both sympathize with her pain and feel her joy at the connection she made with Sparrow and so desperately wanted to make with Dee. While I have no desire to be Amish, reading the descriptions of Emma’s simple ways resonated with me and ended up affecting my next book choice! I love when that happens.

With Emma being Amish and Dee being a preacher’s wife, The Solace of Water is heavy on Christianity and Christian themes like forgiveness, but without being heavy-handed. Thomas Nelson is a Christian publisher, yet I didn’t find this to be overly preachy or even overly religious; the religion and beliefs of the characters are merely part of their lives and not something the author is trying to sell to her readers, which was something I very much appreciated.

The Solace of Water is a cathartic novel, full of pain, desolation, secrecy, and the capacity for suffering and loneliness, but ultimately, it’s a novel of friendship, forged connections, redemption, and forgiveness of self and others. I’m so happy that it ended up on my TBR list, because despite its heavy subject matter, it made for a thoroughly enjoyable weekend read.

Visit Elizabeth Byler Younts’s website here.