A Fierce Radiance by Lauren Belfer (Historical fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Characters: 5/5 Plot: 4.5/5

How have I never read this book? This will definitely be one of my top reads of 2022. Historical fiction immersed in the drive to commercialize the production of penicillin for the troops. Here’s a shocking statistic — over 50% of the deaths in the Civil War were from infection; over 30% in the “Great War.”

The story opens with Claire Shipley — photojournalist for Life magazine — covering the story of early trials on penicillin for humans. 1941 — just days after Pearl Harbor — a man makes an almost miraculous recovery from near death by the injection of penicillin — only to die days later when researchers literally run out of the drug: it is that difficult to produce. Together the U.S. Government, the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research (a real place — look it up), and reluctantly drafted pharmaceutical companies race to find a process to produce enough of the miracle drug to save the men on the front.

Part love story, part murder mystery, part home front war story, and part industry story, the author does an incredible job of making war-time New York City come to life. New York is a great setting for historical fiction as it is and always has been teeming with people, innovation, and secrets. While the main characters are fictional, the historical characters (e.g. Vannevar Bush, Henry Luce, Claire Booth Luce, Margaret Bourke-White, Margaret Sanger, Jack Reed) are presented realistically (without any fictionalized access to their inner thoughts). Beautiful writing — I highlighted a lot of quotes in the (physical) book but I was too lazy to transcribe them 😦

In addition to the description of the historical setting, what I loved about the book were the characters. Each had his or her own passion, and the author explored the depth of their work, their attraction to it, and the kind of personalities and background that made them so suited to it. The descriptions of Claire and her photos were completely absorbing and beautifully described; Dr. James Staunton leading the research at the Rockefeller Institute; his sister Tia the mycologist, exploring dirt samples from around the world to find other antibacterial “cousins” to penicillin; and Edward Rutherford, one of the very earliest venture capitalists, describing the process of making money from opportunity.

Completely captivating. This was her second novel, published in 2010. Novels 1,3, and 4 are all excellent as well!

The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing by Mira Jacob (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Plot: 5/5 Characters: 5+/5
Loved this book — 500 pages and I read it in a day and a half — I couldn’t stop!

A skillfully constructed family drama pulsing with life, love, relationships, tragedy, and personality — yet (thankfully) never crossing that line into the minefield of melodrama. Amina Eapen is a talented photojournalist who fled to the safety of weddings and quinceaneras after taking a stunning suicide photo that led to both massive acclaim and massive recrimination. A second-generation, Indian-American immigrant, this story features some of the immigrant flavor, but primarily throws stereotype aside to focus on intricately drawn individuals with so much detail I feel I know them better than I know myself. The action takes place primarily in Albuquerque and moves between the present (1998) and (well sign-posted) pieces of personal history.

I always hesitate to give anything away because the stories unfold at the perfect pace and you should get to enjoy the uncoiling. Suffice it to say that this is a book about family relationships, concomitant personal growth for all, love and loneliness, life and death. Characters: Amina’s father Thomas, the brain surgeon who prefers life in the U.S.; his wife Kamala who wants nothing more than to go back to India; brother Akhil, angry and ranting until he meets his perfect foil; and their extended families — the biological portion left in India and the even closer family created locally.

The writing is beautiful and manages to be funny and poignant at the same time. One of those books where I highlight phrases on most pages (see samples below). I thought the last line of the novel was absolutely perfect. Some comprehensive and edifying descriptions of the process of creating artistic photography which I found fascinating.

As an aside, I learned about a group of Christians that was completely new to me: Amina’s family are part of the Syrian Christians of India who trace their conversion to the 1st century AD after a visit from Thomas the apostle. This plays only a tiny role in the book but I love a good historical tidbit.

It reminded me a little bit of A Place For Us — which I also loved — probably because both are 2nd generation immigrant family dramas that do not claim to represent the category but are splendidly unique and have that amazing character insight that draws me in.

Some quotes:

“Amina nodded calmly, trying to keep her face from registering any hint of worry, but something in her chest bunched up on itself, like a cat being cornered.”

“It wasn’t that she doubted their love or intentions, but the weight of that love would be no small thing. What would they do with everyone else’s worry on top of their own? Thomas did not weather other people’s concern well. He was not going to be happy with her.”

“Cool, flabby arms squeezed her round the middle hard, more a Heimlich than an actual greeting.”

“A minute later Amina set everything on the counter between them and sat down, instantly more jittery, like there was a panic button on her ass.”

“It resembled nothing as much as a set of monster’s dentures fallen from some other world and forgotten on the dusty side of the thoroughfare”

“Her mother’s convictions that movies continue in some private offscreen world had always been as baffling as it was irrefutable. Whole plots had found themselves victims to Kamala’s reimagining, happy endings derailed, tragedies righted.”

“Like plumage that expanded to rainbow an otherwise unremarkable bird, Kamala’s ability to transform raw ingredients into sumptuous meals brought her the kind of love her personality on its own might have repelled.”

“…she would not destroy another creature’s carefully wrought world. If she were God, she’d be a little fucking kinder.”

“Why is it that fathers so often ensure the outcome they are trying to avoid? Is their need to dominate so much stronger than their instinct to protect? Did Thomas know, Amina wondered as she watched him, that he had just done the human equivalent of a lion sinking his teeth into his own cub?”

“… it was that every part of Paige, from her conscience to her politics to her grown woman’s body, was suffused by an optimism so assured that to stay with her, Akhil had to stop being such an angry dick.”

“Her cigarette had a thumb-tip-sized ash growing on it. She flicked it, stuck it between her lips like a straw, and sucked. A cat with its claws out skidded down her trachea.”

“Why bother? Once rewritten, Kamala’s history was safer than classified government documents.”

“It was one of Dimple’s favorite theories, how thousands of years of obsession with a Christian God in a subcontinent of more dynamic religions had petrified the Syrian Christian community, turning them into what she alternately called ‘the stalest community on earth’ or ‘Indian’s WASPs.’ “

“She hated seeing her own face right next to Simple’s — all beak and long chin and awnings for eyebrows, where Dimple’s was a crisp, pert heart.”

“She imagined all of it gone, undone, erased back to 1968, when the city was nothing but eighty miles of hope huddling in a dust storm. She imagined Kamala on the tarmac, walking toward a life in the desert, her body pulled forward by faith and dirty wind.”