Our Women on the Ground by Zahra Hankir (Non Fiction)

This is a hard book to read, but will open your eyes to whole worlds that exist just across the ocean. These 19 female journalists write about the stories they cover across the countries in the Middle East. From Syria to Iraq to Lebanon to Yemen (and more), they describe the world behind the political and military statistics — the civilian individuals (often women and children) trying to survive in a world gone crazy. From years without power, to the random and constant acts of violence, to the impact of a single car bomb on the rest of the community, these women bring to life a whole realm of existence that is hard for a Westerner to imagine. In many cases, we are reminded of how “normal” life was in the very recent past. It’s a harsh reminder that yes, no place or system or way of life is immune to the possibilities of sudden and violent destruction.

The essays are very personal, in many cases exposing the difficulties of being a female journalist, the impact on her life, the hopelessness of covering what feels like endless stupidity and ritualized anger. Some are heartfelt but rambling, others provide clear, coherent overviews and analyses of the situations, many expose details that enable the reader to understand a little more about how things evolved, and almost all stimulate a compassion that unfortunately have no real place to go.

Definitely worth reading, though give yourself time and take some breaks to keep from sinking into a useless despair.

Thank you to Penguin Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on August 6, 2019.

 

Blue Hours by Daphne Kalotay (Fiction)

Writing: 4 Plot: 3 Characters: 3

How far would you go for a friend? Successful author Mim Woodruff faces this question when a call reveals that a humanitarian aid worker in Afghanistan has gone missing. Once an intensely close friend, Mim has not spoken to Kyra in twenty years.

The novel is composed of two major parts: the first takes place in Manhattan twenty years before the phone call. Mim and Kyra, fresh out of school, finding their way in the world. Kyra stylish, pushing away the wealth that is her birthright, and possessed of a deep, almost painful, awareness of the distress around her; Mim, dreaming of being a writer but instead folding sweaters at Benetton, observing the world around her but always at a remove. A youthful but intense love affair, a shattering experience, and an almost surgical split lays the foundation for events twenty years later.

Part two follows the journey Mim takes into ever-more remote Afghanistan in the search for the missing Kyra. Beautiful descriptions of the physical environment and the people. Well-researched portrayals of the organization of and interplay between the various factions, the military, the aid organizations, and those in remote villages. Stunning portraits of the individuals involved and those they avoid, warily approach, or engage.

The story feels real — messy, inescapable, and somewhat hopeless — and yet giving up really can’t be an option. The tone is emotionally removed, like our central character. While I found the detail and depth of the story engaging, I did not resonate with the characters at all — in fact I really didn’t like Mim very much. As an author describing her observations from an objective viewpoint, she works; As an individual going through deeply personal experiences, not so much. Possibly this says more about me than her!

Thank you to Northwestern University Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 15th, 2019.

Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak (Fiction / YA)

This is an unusual book for me — I couldn’t put it down, became completely involved with the characters, and yet I’m having a very hard time describing it. The “plot” doesn’t half cover what the reading experience is actually like.

It’s about the Dunbar boys — the five sons of Michael and Penny Dunbar. As the novel opens, they are living alone in chaos — their mother having died and their father having absconded shortly thereafter. Written in the first-person by the oldest son, Matthew, they are self described as “a family of ramshackle tragedy.” The primary timeline follows the events of eleven years before, when Matthew, Rory, Henry, Clay, and Tommy were 20, 18, 17, 16 and 13 respectively.

The center of the story is the fourth boy — Clay. Clay is a wonderful character — sweet and caring, deep and loving, vulnerable yet strong, and almost completely internal — he doesn’t say much and rarely laughs.  He’s also amazingly fast.  Clay is the holder of all the family’s stories — the real stories — and while the book moves forward linearly through the events of that time, narrative streams from the present and past are woven throughout, with these stories — and secrets — slowly exposed. The writing is thoroughly engaging. The language is poetic — not in the sense of beautiful language for its own sake, but in the sense of distilling experience and emotion into a single phrase that evokes more than straight words can convey. While I would never say it was a happy book, neither was it depressing, though I did find myself wanting to leap into the story to help.

I was surprised to find this categorized as YA — it reads very well as adult fiction. I love the fact that it is unashamedly focused on boys — how they love, how they cope, how they grow, and how they survive. I tend to read female authors (not intentionally but it works out that way) and I find the descriptions of this family different from what I usually read. Obviously, not all men (or all women) are the same, but I did feel a different perspective emerging from these pages. There is a lot of fighting, roughhousing, work intensity and focus, and physical extremism. Much behavior is explained with “just knew” or “had to be that way” without the associated exploration and understanding of “why.” Each of the five boys (and their father) have distinct personalities, but their very maleness pervades the narrative and is both unfamiliar and appealing to me.

This book is not like any other I’ve read, but aspects of it did remind me of John Irving and the setting evoked the feel of SE Hinton’s The Outsiders.

To Night Owl from Dogfish by Holly Goldberg Sloan and Meg Wolitzer (Middle Grade)

I’ve been reading a lot of depressing (but very good – stay tuned) books lately and decided I needed a happy break — enter To Night Owl from Dogfish. An impressive, fully epistolary (email style) novel, following the grudging friendship developing between two 12-year old girls who have been sent to summer camp by their romantically involved, single, gay dads in order to get to know each other. What follows is a touching and simultaneously funny (and convoluted) story reminiscent of The Parent Trap.

Californian Bett Devlin is afraid of nothing, loves animals, sports, and a lack of rules. New Yorker Avery Bloom is afraid of everything, likes the indoors, and loves for things to be under control and absolutely safe. As their dads head off for a motorcycle trip across China, they communicate via iPad having already decided that they will under no circumstances be friends or even speak to each other at camp! Things head off in unexpected directions (I really didn’t see *any* of the plot developments coming) and include Avery’s previously unknown biological mother and Bett’s (somewhat loony) grandmother from Texas.

A fun read!

The Sentence is Death by Anthony Horowitz (Mystery)

The second installment of Horowitz’ self-referential detective series starring himself as the semi-bumbling, self-deprecating sidekick to the enigmatic Detective Daniel Hawthorne. Horowitz writes fantastic mysteries — they are convoluted in the most delightful ways, are full of interesting characters, and progress at the perfect pace (also — I never do figure it out early!) One of the benefits of this particular series is also gaining some insight into other aspects of Horowitz’ writing life — the production issues for Foyles War, the interactions with agents and booksellers, and parts of the Writer’s Process (as experienced by Mr. Horowitz).

I don’t want to give away *anything* in the plot, but it covers a wide range of places, people, time, and professions — divorce lawyers, (very) expensive wine, literary snobs, interior decorators, spelunkers, forensic accountants, muscular dystrophy, and the NHS. Horowitz does an impressive job of applying diversity to characters with no regard to stereotypical expectations. I did find myself struggling to constantly sift out the fact from the fiction, which told me more about myself and my own neuroses than about the book — it doesn’t matter a bit! A fun read.

Great for fans of Robert Galbraith.

Thank you to Harper Collins and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on May 28th, 2019.

Old Baggage by Lissa Evans (Historical Fiction)

The best thing about this novel is the way it brings the UK Women’s suffrage movement of the early 1900s to life. Historical fiction at its best. Having grown up in the 60s in a family that wouldn’t dream of not encouraging their daughters, I sometimes forget how difficult it was for women to gain something as simple as the vote (as an aside, check out https://www.infoplease.com/us/gender-sexuality/womens-suffrage to see the order in which women got the vote across the globe).

Mattie Simpkin is the larger-than-life, brash heroine who has spent most of her life fighting for Women’s Equality. She was a leader of the Militant Suffragette Movement, and a fair portion of the book covers those experiences along with “where are they now” reunions of those women in the current time (1928, on the cusp of the Act that gave women electoral equality with men). Now Mattie has turned her attention to the young girls who don’t seem to appreciate their newly won rights or understand that the fight for equality isn’t anywhere near complete. She founds a Girls Club with the stated aim of training young girls for lives as “20th Century Women.”

The writing is exquisite — equal skill applied to descriptions of the environment, individuals and their opinions and motivations, and some spectacularly articulate and insightful arguments for women’s equality.  I loved the depth painted in each character — a panoply of realistic people of the time. Although the story is not a comedy, several lines had me laughing out loud (see samples below).

There was an additional plot line overlaid on the broader story that I frankly didn’t care for as much. This focused more on Mattie’s personal development with respect to her feelings towards friends and family and her inability to see clearly into a particular character because of her own history.  However, the bulk of the book is both enjoyable and informative so I am happy to recommend it.

Some great lines:
“People always stared. If one didn’t creep around, if one said what one thought, if one shouted for joy or roared with anger, if one tried to get things done, then seemingly there was no choice but to be noticeable”

“Moodiness had always baffled her — the way that it placed the onus on the other person to gauge which breeze of circumstance was the cause of this particular weathercock twirl. If one were cross about something, then one should simply say so; conversation should not be a guessing game”

“Whereas listening to Mr and Mrs Wimbourne on the topic of their grandchildren is akin to being chlorformed. And servants — do you have any idea of how much the average middle-class woman has to say on the subject of servants? Mrs Wimbourne, Mrs Holyroyd, Mrs Lumb — all ululating on the difficulty of keeping a housemaid.”

“A banshee chorus swelled monstrously and then died away and, for a moment, only the barking of every dog in Hampstead was audible.”

“Churchill had been giving a speech about the miners, his staccato delivery a gift to the astute heckler:”

“It seemed that people like him, people with easy lives, were always assuming things about her: she was stupid because she was a char; she was interesting because she was pretty; she’d be loyal because she was grateful. Nobody except Miss Lee asked her what she really thought.”

“There was a pause, presumably for Mr Wilkes to ensure that any remaining trace of anticipation had been sluiced from the room.”

“If she were a horse, one would advise blinkers”

“Mattie felt as if she were trying to sharpen an India rubber pencil”

“As a method of teaching it lacked variety, but it pummelled my intellect and meant that I dreamed no more during lessons.”

Thank you to Harper Collins and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 16th, 2019.

All For Nothing by Walter Kempowski (Historical / Foreign Fiction)

<New word (to me) stichomancy: divination by opening a book at random >

As explained in the prologue, Kemposwki’s mission in life was to ensure that the detailed history of this time and place did not get lost. He compiled an immense archive of the diaries, photos, letters, and other memorabilia from East Prussia during WWII and its aftermath and used it to inform the characters and plot in the novel.

The book centers on an aristocratic family that has retreated to their country villa to wait out the war. The time is January, 1945 (remember that the war in Europe ended in May 1945); the place a small town in East Prussia. Eberhard von Globig is an officer in the German military — stationed in Italy he is assigned to manage supply (he is currently “busily confiscating wine and olive oil from the Italians” for use by German troops; in the past he has been responsible for requisitioning topsoil from the Ukraine for use in Bavaria!). His wife, Katharina, is a seemingly vacuous beauty from Berlin, an unwilling and incapable mistress of the estate. 12-year old Peter, Auntie, the family spinster, and workers Vladimir the Pole and the Ukrainian girls, Vera and Sonia, complete the household.

The Russians are heading their way and there is a constant stream of visitors heading from East to West. The visitors bring news and their own stories, which they often feel compelled to keep repeating as if otherwise they would be lost completely. While multiple people urge the family to leave soon, there seems to be a lassitude with regards to any real action — or perhaps they don’t feel they have agency in this regard. Everything is carefully controlled by the authorities — nothing is allowed without a permit.

The story is meticulously, yet concisely, detailed. There are no long streams of names and dates and actions, but instead the intimate particulars of lives disrupted by war and imminent invasion. Each character has their own perspective — some pepper their commentary with “Heil Hitlers” and mean it, others warn the family to hide any evidence of Naziism before the Russians arrive; some are appalled at seeing books by Jewish writers displayed, others whisper about the strange prisoners in striped shirts at the local brickworks. There is constant refrain — “Where did these things come from? Where would they end up? Who knows what may happen?”

Things don’t end well — it is inconceivable that they would — but the slow unwinding of events, the minutiae of survival, the confusion of authority, and the unremitting examination of life and attitudes in a failing Germany is incomparable. I found it darkly interesting that while everyone is afraid of the Russians coming (and with good reason), most of the bad things that happen are a result of the Germans and their system — there appear to be just as many authorities ensuring obedience and punishing “bad behavior” as there are those out fighting the enemy.

It is told in an unemotional style — while a character might be thinking “I am terrified,” the reader is not exposed to any of the literary tricks that would evoke a sympathetic emotion within them. I’m grateful for that — those are not emotions I want to feel, even briefly.