Books We Loved, Sep. 2020
Heather Bell Adams, The Good Luck Stone
(Haywire Books, 2020)
Audrey Thorpe, a wealthy museum patron, doesn’t think she needs a caretaker even though she’s ninety years old and living alone. Nevertheless, her family hires Laurel Eaton to watch over Audrey as needed. Even though Laurel and Audrey occupy very different economic niches, the two of them hit it off.
But Laurel has barely settled into her new job when Audrey disappears one night after a gala at the museum. In part out of concern for Audrey, in part from a desperate need to justify her pay check, Laurel sets out in search of Audrey, little suspecting that the clues to the mystery of Audrey’s disappearance lie seventy years in the past.
In general, I am not a huge fan of dual-time novels, since the contemporary story seldom measures up to the dramatic potential of the historical one. Here, though, the characters are so strongly portrayed and Audrey’s distress and disorientation so beautifully captured that the exact opposite is true. The background among US nurses serving in the World War II Philippines assumes its proper place, illuminating the modern narrative without overwhelming it.—CPL
Linda Kass, A Ritchie Boy (She Writes Press, 2020)
The deluge of books on World War II continues unabated, but every so often one comes along that takes a different approach or exposes an element of the war that has so far received little attention. Linda Kass’s debut novel, Tasa’s Song, was one such book—through the eyes of a promising young female violinist in eastern Poland, it revealed a world where the Soviet conquest of territory occupied for a short time by Nazi forces saved lives, even at the expense of political indoctrination and deportation. A Ritchie Boy, based on her father’s life, again takes an unusual and therefore interesting tack.
Eli Stoff, a teenager in Vienna, encounters antisemitism at school and endures the early effects of the Anschluss between Austria and Hitler’s Germany. But he and his parents are lucky: a friend in the United States obtains entrance visas for them, and Eli attends high school and college in Columbus, Ohio. When he graduates, the war is still going on, and Eli joins the US Army. His native mastery of German qualifies him for the Ritchie Institute, and he soon finds himself in Europe, serving as a Ritchie Boy—that is, a member of an elite undercover intelligence force that, until I read this book, I had never heard of.
Told from multiple points of view and interlocking stories, this novel reveals a perspective on the war that goes beyond death camps and combat, showing how the ramifications of Hitler’s aggression affected ordinary human lives far outside the ETO.—CPL
Madeline Miller, Circe (Little Brown, 2018)
Readers will remember Circe from the role she plays in Homer’s Odyssey. On his way home from the Trojan war, Odysseus and his men, all of them exhausted by their previous adventures, steer their disintegrating ship to a small island hoping for a place to rest and time to repair their boat before they continue on their journey. The island, of course, is inhabited by Circe, who has long been exiled there as punishment by Zeus for practicing witchcraft. But Circe’s banishment, in Miller’s version of the story, only serves to enhance her dedication to witchcraft, not deter her practice of it. Her island is full of plants that practically beg for a chance to demonstrate their individual powers, as well as the wolves and lions that are easily tamed and happy to be her constant companions. Circe, who is neither as powerful or as beautiful as many of the other gods, has nothing but time … to perfect her skills, reflect on her mistakes, and contemplate her un-godlike predilection for mortals.
Miller allows Circe to speak to us directly, in a first-person narrative that is poetic, intelligent, and heart-wrenching. It’s also authentically “godlike.” When Odysseus and his men are ready to leave Circe’s island, here called Aiaia, she makes a potion that will enable her to become pregnant and later gives birth to Telegonus. The part of the book that deals with her unwavering love for this mortal child—who screams continuously throughout his babyhood and thwarts her every effort to control him for years thereafter—is a treasure in itself. But Circe is a book of treasures: her discovery of the depth of her empathy (which she first becomes aware of when she witnesses the punishment of Prometheus); her overpowering desire to improve the life of her first love, the mortal Glaucus (who rejects her afterwards); her relationship with a wonderfully drawn Dedalus; her encounter with Penelope and her son Telemachus; and the decisions she makes at the end of the book as a result of all these interactions. Circe provides a truly amazing reading experience.
Find out more from Gabrielle Mathieu’s interview with the author on New Books in Fantasy and Adventure.—JS
Téa Obreht, The Tiger’s Wife (Random House, 2011)
This being a good time for books one meant to read years ago, I picked up The Tiger’s Wife. Natalia, a young doctor in an unnamed Balkan country narrates a lyrical, intense tale verging on magical realism regarding the death of her beloved grandfather, who was also a doctor.
Natalia has volunteered her services in a rural area of shifting borders due to ever-present wars and quixotic leaders. A family there has exhumed the body of a relative following a battle, and Natalia offers to help them with an act to assure the soul’s peace in exchange for inoculating their ailing children. Natalia, a woman of science, was raised on her grandfather’s stories of the tiger’s wife and the deathless man. For Grandfather no conflict exists between science and myth, not just because of his culture but also because of the constant presence of death in their country.
There is a beautiful swing back and forth between the two realities as the characters accept the inevitability of death. Obreht creates vivid characters who people the Balkans—Muslims, Turks, Orthodox, Catholics, all there because of circumstances beyond their control, interacting and merging cultures into one complex world. I hated to leave them at the end of the book, feeling so involved in and part of and at one with that world.—AA