Hunger and Love: I Will Have Vengeance

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Review: I Will Have Vengeance, by Maurizio de Giovanni
Translated from the Italian by Anne Milano Appel
Europa, 2012. 212 pp. $16

Commissario of Police Luigi Alfredo Ricciardi doesn’t need his job, strictly speaking. Financially secure, a rarity in Naples in 1931, and of aristocratic lineage, he could be a gentleman of leisure if he wished, marry a woman with blue blood like his, and live pleasantly, attending parties and the opera. But Ricciardi’s job lends him his sole purpose in life, and the reasons why make him one of the most compelling fictional detectives I know of.

He has no friends or family, save a seventy-year-old woman who was his nanny during his childhood, and who feels free to lecture him on his workaholic habits as she serves him dinner, typically an hour before midnight. Neither sociable nor personable, Ricciardi puzzles most of his subordinates—indeed, most people he meets—and if it weren’t for his brilliant track record, nobody would want to work for him. His brigadier, Maione, is the only policeman on the force to realize how everyone misjudges Ricciardi, whose deep green eyes seem perpetually full of sadness. If anything, the commissario feels too much.

But even Maione doesn’t know why, or what ghosts lurk in his boss’s mind—literally. Ever since Ricciardi stumbled across a murder victim in his parents’ garden as a child, a scene he privately euphemizes as the Incident, he’s been deluged by empathy for the dead. As he walks around Naples, he hallucinates corpses he’s seen in the past, imagines what they felt just before they died, and, remarkably enough, uses that perception as an investigating technique. That’s how Ricciardi lives his work, for he’s known all his life “that crime is the dark side of emotion.”

The Incident had taught him that hunger and love are the source of all atrocities, whatever forms they may take: pride, power, envy, jealousy. In all cases, hunger and love. They were present in every crime, once it was pared down to its essentials, once the tinsel trappings of its outward appearance were stripped away. Hunger or love, or both, and the pain they generate. All that suffering, which he alone was a constant witness to.

And oh, by the way, Ricciardi hates opera and its excess of feeling.

Teatro San Carlo, Naples, the world’s oldest continuously active opera venue (courtesyflickr.com/photos/stojaphotography/18734141725/in/photolist-, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

His singular opinion on that subject for his time and place figures in I Will Have Vengeance, for not only does the title come from an opera, the murder victim is a famous tenor. In life, Maestro Arnaldo Vezzi’s singing and stage presence commanded devotion from adoring audiences, but nobody liked him up close, especially not the managers, cast, and crews who had to work with him, and whom he terrorized. Even so, his star power was such that money flowed in his direction, and wherever he performed, he drew packed houses.

Consequently, who’d kill the goose that laid so many golden eggs? What provocation would push a member of the opera company to commit that murder and sweep all practicality aside? Those are the questions Ricciardi wishes he could answer, for the killing happened in Vezzi’s dressing room during an intermezzo, which points toward a perpetrator who’d have free backstage access.

Besides the hard-working Maione, assisting Ricciardi is a priest who loves opera. Thanks to a network of favors granted and received, Don Pierino Fava manages to witness performances from a spot just behind the curtain, as he does the fateful night in question. At Ricciardi’s request, he explains the opera’s story line and the ins and outs of operatic performance—details that matter to the investigation, dear reader, so pay attention. But it’s not just business between priest and commissario; the good Don Pierino, though flabbergasted that Ricciardi hates opera, also senses the shadow over the man’s soul.

I Will Have Vengeance moves like lightning, without waste motion or words, proving once more that a character-driven mystery can be just as riveting and suspenseful as its plot-centered cousin. As with the opera, every detail matters, and all’s in plain sight, something I appreciate. There are no tricks here, no rabbits pulled out of hats. I also like the departmental politics, and how Ricciardi handles his boss, an incompetent with friends in high places, which is to say that the commissario shows him no respect. Occasionally, that allows de Giovanni to work in subtle political commentary about Mussolini or his Fascist regime.

Another subplot I like concerns the sole outlet for Ricciardi’s softer feelings, a young woman who lives in a building across from his, and whom he likes to watch embroider at night. Trust me, it’s not creepy, and there’s more going on than even the hawk-eyed Ricciardi can guess.

I Will Have Vengeance is a masterful mystery, and I heartily recommend it.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

An account of one’s own

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Here’s another nugget I uncovered while researching my forthcoming novel, Lonely Are the Brave.

In an early draft, I had one of my main characters, Kay Sorensen, open a bank account in 1917 while her husband’s away serving in the army. I thought it only natural, since she’s working for her father’s timber company and dreams of a business career.

Then I happened on an appalling historical fact: almost every state in the Union required a man’s cosignature before a woman could open a bank account. In 1919, when my story unfolds, Tennessee may have been the only exception.

Clarksville, TN, where this late nineteenth-century building serves as a visitor center, was home to the first American bank run by women, 1919 (courtesy Jugarum, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

My research discovery supports a feminist theme of the novel and handed me a point of conflict when Kay’s husband returns from Over There; so much the better. But I was shocked to learn that the laws remained on the books until the 1960s.

The Ugly Guts of Colonialism: The Exiles

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Review: The Exiles, by Christina Baker Kline
Morrow, 2020. 361 pp. $28

Australia, 1840. Mathinna, motherless eight-year-old daughter of the chief of the Lowreenne tribe, has been hiding from the white people who want to take her away. The governor of Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) and his wife wish to keep the girl in their household to see whether they may train her “savagery” out of her. Mathinna distrusts the whole enterprise.

Mathinna, a real historical figure, as rendered in Thomas Bock’s watercolor, 1842 (courtesy http://artyzm.com/e_obraz.php?id=414 via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Meanwhile, Evangeline Stokes, country vicar’s daughter and governess to a London family, has fallen afoul of her employers. A ruby ring belonging to the family is found in her possession, and in the ensuing outcry, she shoves another servant down the stairs. Never mind that her employer’s son gave Evangeline the ring, or that the child growing in her womb is his. Never mind, either, that the servant she pushed was conniving against her out of jealousy, or that the fall caused no physical injury. Larceny and attempted murder see Evangeline to Newgate Prison, from where she’s sentenced to fourteen years’ transportation to Australia.

That’s what happens when your presence embarrasses someone of wealth and social position.

The Exiles tells the story of Evangeline’s journey to Australia and her unlikely friendship with Hazel Ferguson, a young girl sentenced for stealing a silver spoon. Hazel’s streetwise where Evangeline’s an innocent. She also has marketable skills, a knowledge of midwifery and herbal remedies, learned from the mother who otherwise neglected her. Interwoven with the convict narrative is Mathinna’s life as a collected object in the governor’s house, a plaything in which her benefactors, as they believe themselves, may lose interest any moment.

Kline never lets her sympathy for her characters soften their lives; “no—and furthermore” thrives here. She also knows her ground thoroughly, re-creating the Australia of more than a century and a half ago as though it were the air her characters breathe. The ship, the prisons, the work the convicts do, the endemic cruelty and barbarity, the sanctimonious superiority from ordinary citizens and officials—all come through vividly. As a Newgate matron tells Evangeline, best not to count on anyone in life, man or woman. “The sooner you understand that, the better off you’ll be.”

Throughout, physical detail sets the scene:

There were some things she’d never get used to: the screams that spread like a contagion from one cell to the next. The vicious fistfights that broke out abruptly and ended with an inmate spitting blood or teeth. The lukewarm midday broth that floated with bony pig knuckles, snouts, bits of hooves, and hair. Moldy bread laced with maggots. Once the initial shock subsided, though, Evangeline found it surprisingly easy to endure most of the degradations and indignities of her new life: the brutish guards, the cockroaches and other parasites, the unavoidable filth, rats scurrying across the straw.

The moral and legal bankruptcy of colonialism emerges on every page, shown but not told. Kline’s too subtle an author to beat a drum; instead, she lets you hear the music for yourself, and a sorry tune it is. The counterpoint comes from the governor’s mansion, where Mathinna learns to speak French and wear fine dresses. But she’s tolerated—barely—if, and only if, she reflects the image her hosts demand. Any hint of her true identity must be erased. This represents the other side of the system that populates Australia with accused criminals, labeled savages too, though they have white skins.

The two narratives, convict and indigenous child, reveal a complex fabric of prejudices, attitudes, assumptions, determination and energy that helps build a nation. But the convicts have one advantage, an inherent paradox that gives them something to hope for. The servitude that banishes them from England, though brutal and unjust, allows them scope to make something of themselves, what they probably couldn’t have done in their homeland.

No guarantees, mind; they must survive their sentences, swallow their individuality rather than express it, see the correct opportunity should it arrive, and seize it. But Mathinna and her people, as with all the other subdued tribes, don’t even have that chance.

Beautifully written, utterly gripping, The Exiles makes a compelling story from an author unafraid to hurt her characters, a boldness I admire. My only quibble with this otherwise excellent novel is to ask where Mathinna’s narrative fits in, other than thematically, historical truth notwithstanding. I like her portion for itself, for the writing is as clear and persuasive as the rest, and Kline makes the governor, his wife, and daughter three-dimensional, flawed people instead of shapeless villains. Even so, if you remove Mathinna, the plot doesn’t change an inch, which made me question her role and wonder why it wasn’t larger than it is.

Still, that objection doesn’t diminish The Exiles, a superb novel well worth your time.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

When It All Turns to Dust: The Four Winds

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Review: The Four Winds, by Kristin Hannah
St. Martin’s, 2021. 448 pp. $29

The Texas Panhandle in 1921 seems a place thrumming with promise and possibility. But as Elsa Wolcott turns twenty-five, she sees only a life relegated to a forgotten shelf. Stricken by rheumatic fever at age fourteen, she believes herself frail, a theme her parents harp on to keep her isolated and cooped up out of sight. They find her physically unappealing, and apparently that’s grounds to pretend she doesn’t belong to them.

As a result, Elsa’s only friends are books, and her family’s there to remind her that she’s too old and plain to marry. Nevertheless, in her first act of rebellion, she sneaks out one night, latches onto an eighteen-year-old farm boy named Rafe Martinelli, and winds up having to marry him.

Elsa’s family disowns her—natch—but the Martinellis are also displeased, especially since Rafe was headed to college. Still, they’re warm people, unlike the Wolcotts, and Elsa throws herself into farm life, working harder than she’d ever thought possible, shedding her supposed frailty. Rafe and she have two surviving children, Loreda and Anthony, and the land rewards the Martinellis with sustenance and a decent living.

Until 1934, that is, when the soil starts to blow away in what would later be called the Dust Bowl. As their lives and dreams crumble to smithereens, the Martinellis struggle to keep their faith in the land—or Rafe does. Loreda, now twelve, merges his discontent with her own, for which she blames Elsa, having precociously arrived at adolescent logic.

Dust storm approaching Stratford, Texas, 1935 (courtesy National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, George E. Marsh Album, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Hannah’s venture into John Steinbeck territory re-creates the hardships, brutality, despair, and occasional acts of kindness that mark The Grapes of Wrath. I like her physical descriptions very much; you can feel the hot wind, taste the grit in your mouth, feel it in your eyes:

All the trees that lined their driveway were dying. The hot, dry years had turned them a sick gray-brown; their leaves had turned into crunchy, blackened confetti and been swept away by the wind. Only three of them were even still standing. The dusty soil lay in heaps and dunes at the base of every fence post. Nothing grew or thrived in the fields. There was not a blade of green grass anywhere. Russian thistles—tumbleweed—and yucca were the only living plants to be seen. The rotting body of something—a jackrabbit, maybe—lay in a heap of sand; crows picked at it.

The Four Winds works best as a panorama of the Dust Bowl, in which story matters more than characterization, though I admire Hannah’s readiness to test her characters and find them wanting. Where the narrative focuses on the hardships, literally grounding the reader in that grit, putting setback after setback in the characters’ way, this story grabs you. It’s also obvious how the novel evokes present-day hatred of migrants.

Rather too obvious, though, which points out the undercurrent of righteousness that mars The Four Winds. The antagonists are 100 percent villains, motivated solely by snobbery, greed, selfishness, or the inability to love. I believe Elsa’s masochism and utter lack of self-esteem, but I don’t believe the over-the-top parents who shaped her that way.

A subtler psychological portrait could have achieved the same result while adding nuance, maybe granting the parents a redeeming trait or two. (I also wonder how in blazes they named their daughter Elsinore; I can’t help think it’s a literary allusion, and if so, it falls flat.) I’m even tempted to say that the novel should start with the Dust Bowl, though the pages leading up to it do turn quickly. It’s just that the wicked queen/stepmother is an old, old trope and too easy by half.

Likewise, the villains belonging to the latter part of the book have no faces, and though their fiendishness is detestable, I can’t see them as people, only symbols. Since that’s precisely how they view the have-nots gathering at their gates, in a sense, Hannah’s perpetuating the sort of misperception based on prejudice that she decries. A similar broad-brush approach hampers the portrayal of the all-important Elsa-Loreda relationship, in which each character seems to play only a single note, shorthand for the dominant trait that defines them—reduces them, actually.

I wish too I found complexity in several scenes meant to convey tenderness or love, where the language suddenly turns generically sentimental, a contrast to the spare, sharp edge that marks the more compelling scenes of the narrative. Especially toward the not-quite-plausible end, emotional transitions carry a Hollywood tone, as though Hannah can’t bear to leave any negative feelings lying around.

The Four Winds is a decent novel, but the sort that fades once you put it down. I’d have liked it better had the author not pumped the pedal marked “Redemption” quite so hard and given her characters more angles to work with, and against.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

A Houseful of Predators: An Unthinkable Thing

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Review: An Unthinkable Thing, by Nicole Lundrigan
Viking, 2022. 338 pp. $18

Summer 1958 has treated eleven-year-old Tommie Ware cruelly. Not only has someone murdered his beloved Aunt Celia, his guardian and center of his life; within several weeks thereafter, he’s accused of killing the three people who take him into their home.

Set in a barely identified neighborhood presumably in Canada, this remarkably taut tale of psychological suspense unfolds mostly in reverse, peeling one thin layer at a time off Tommie’s recent past in the well-to-do Henneberry household just before the triple murder. I generally avoid child-at-risk narratives, and this one scared the daylights out of me, without a ghost or goblin in sight. The monsters here are human, or pretend to be.

Thomas Mayne Daly, Canada’s first juvenile court judge, 1891 photo. The Juvenile Delinquent Act of 1908 was the country’s first penal reform separating youthful from adult offenders (courtesy Library Archives Canada, PA-025707, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain in both the U.S. and Canada because of its age)

It’s not enough that Tommie’s a child who doesn’t know who his father was or why he didn’t stick around. Even before his Aunt Celia dies, one measure of his heartache is how he realizes she’s promiscuous and scoffs to himself at her claims to have found The One, a “real gentleman.” But his innocent perspective on it gets the reader—or this reader—right between the eyes:

I chewed my cookie and tried not to listen anymore because I knew my aunt wouldn’t recognize a proper gentleman if one jumped up and bit her. Mrs. King [a kindly neighbor] had already explained it all to me. How to charm a girl with flowers or chocolates. Holding open the door. Angling the umbrella so she didn’t get wet when it was raining. But the men my aunt invited up kept their shoes on. Called her ‘dolly.’ Slurped soda through their teeth. One took our Sears catalogue to the toilet after he’d eaten supper and didn’t bother to shut the door. My aunt seemed blind to it.

His mother, Esther, a live-in servant at the Henneberrys’ manse, gave him to Celia to raise but must now take him back. You begin to see why she parted with him in the first place and why his tenure there is untenable, despite her assurances. She cares about her son, but she lacks backbone, and the Henneberrys control her, for reasons Tommie can’t fathom. They control him too, and therein hangs a tale.

Raymond Henneberry, the head of this household, has inherited wealth and a successful dental practice. His philanthropy has kept his less savory side from public view, especially his womanizing and financial shenanigans. He exploits the boy’s presence, which he resents, for his own gain.

That’s partly why his unstable, pill-popping wife, Muriel, takes a shine to Tommie, whose name she can’t always remember. She dragoons him into chores like massaging her feet or joining her on bizarre errands by car, a risky business, given her addiction to drugs that impair her reflexes and sense of judgment.

To Tommie’s bewilderment, Mrs. Henneberry makes much of him, perhaps to annoy her only child, fifteen-year-old Martin, then pushes Tommie in his direction. He’s a most unsuitable playmate, for Tommie or anyone sentient, being a sadist pathologically obsessed with sex.

Were Tommie an adult, he’d have had a bushel of motives to kill the Henneberrys. Ironically, the bits of his trial transcripts that close several chapters reveal nothing of the kind; the victims’ predatory nature is secret. Rather, the testimony paints them as upstanding, tragic figures and young Tommie as cold-blooded, vile, and monstrous, transferring their faults to him. Allegedly, the forensic evidence has him locked in.

I wonder how an eleven-year-old can stand trial, presumably as an adult. I wonder too how the judge seems so variable in his rulings (not as erratic as Mrs. Henneberry, if on the same spectrum). But if you can get past that, you’re in for quite a ride, which doesn’t end until the novel’s final sentence.

Five years ago, I reviewed another fine (altogether different) novel of Lundrigan’s, The Widow Tree, and apparently, she’s written several others. Yet she says An Unthinkable Thing was the most challenging and complicated to write. Without having read the others, I believe her. I admire how she unearths the Henneberry madness grain by grain, in such a way that you understand what Tommie can’t, increasing the tension and your connection to him.

The boy’s passivity is enough to make you scream—I kept wanting to shake him and say, “Speak up, already!” But you also understand how life has undermined him at every turn. I find Esther, and her passivity, less comprehensible. Her opacity serves the storytelling—a drawback, I think—and though she’s on stage far more than her sister, Celia, I feel I know the latter better.

Conversely, Muriel Hennebury is floridly, blood-curdlingly disturbed; no mistaking anything, there. I feel some sympathy for her, but none for her son, who reminds me of a spoiled-brat Fascist-in-training, though that image, if intentional, comes across subtly. The narrative has other political messages, notably the connection between wealth and impunity before the law, and though I’m ready to believe the Henneberrys’ wealth serves to conceal their excesses, I’m skeptical about how far that seems to twist the investigation into their deaths and Tommie’s prosecution for them.

Despite that, An Unthinkable Thing compelled me to finish reading. If you pick it up, I defy you to put it down again.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Creation and Destruction: Otherlands: A Journey Through Earth’s Extinct Worlds

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Review: Otherlands, by Thomas Halliday
Random House, 2022. 303 pp. $29

Every once in a long while, I come across a book that takes my breath away and makes me glad I learned to read. This one tells the history of our planet through sixteen instances of extinction, as awe-inspiring and dramatic a story as there is, narrated with sheer brilliance.

Halliday, a paleobiologist who has re-created these sixteen snapshots in time based on fossil records, leaps around the globe to illustrate how climate, geography, topography, and geology have changed, supported, and often annihilated life over the past several billion years.

Let’s unpack that summary. Paleobiology combines the study of living organisms with the evidence of dead ones; until now, I didn’t even know that discipline existed. When I say leaps around the globe, for each chapter, the author has to reset where the continents have wandered, because they’re never in the same place as before, and almost never where they are now. Things change over 600 million years.

Mark A. Wilson’s photograph of a bivalve fossil from the Logan Formation, Lower Carboniferous, Ohio (courtesy Wilson44691 at English Wikipedia, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Rather than by chronology, Halliday narrates by ecological theme, as with the development of insect and bird calls, the collaboration between different species, or the advent of seasons, so each chapter presents a mind-boggling panorama. To call these snapshots does them little justice, because they appeal to several senses, not just the visual, and they’re anything but static:

By delving deep into the structure of fossils, we can now reconstruct the colours of feathers, of beetle shells, of lizard scales, and discover the diseases these animals and plants suffered. By comparing them with living creatures we can establish their interactions in food webs, the power of their bite or strength of their skull, their social structure and mating habits, and even, in rare cases, the sound of their calls. . . . The latest research has revealed vibrant and thriving communities, the remnants of real, living organisms that courted and fell sick, showed off bright feathers or flowers, called and buzzed, inhabiting worlds that obeyed the same biological principles as those of the present day.

Halliday writes science from the soul of a poet, only fitting, because of his universal themes. You can’t read Otherlands without realizing how nature is even more infinitely varied and variable than you probably thought, and just how ridiculously late we humans arrived to the party. So much happened before we got here, in such complexity, that I can’t read these stories of empires rising and falling without feeling humbled.

One of my favorite chapters recounts the era when the Mediterranean was a hard-rock basin whose surface was hotter than Death Valley. Tectonic plates closed the Straits of Gibraltar, and mountain ranges blocked off several rivers from emptying into the basin; nothing lived on the baked rock save a hardy form of microbe. The Mediterranean, which later washed the shores of the great “ancient” Western civilizations, held no water—and it gives me pause to read that this arid condition occurred on two separate occasions during our planet’s past.

If there’s a drawback to Otherlands, it’s that there’s so much in it. Even if you read only one chapter at a time, as I did, you can’t retain a fraction of what Halliday says, and often I had to pause to think. Sometimes it’s his use of metaphor that’s arresting, as when he compares a present-day freshwater crocodile to Gothic architecture. Other times, he tosses out an astonishing fact, such as why deer suffer a much lower rate of cancer than other mammals, or why we’re related to dinosaurs (it has to do with laying eggs).

Sometimes, I wanted to know more, but I got why he didn’t linger—he’s got worlds to create and destroy, and that takes pages and pages. Often, I shook my head in wonder, as with his explanation for why the colors yellow and black mark certain insects, or the ingenious adaptations of the simplest creatures that had no brains. If you’re like me, you can’t just run your eyes over that and move on; you have to think. I paused for a while over his single paragraph theorizing about the origin of life, in which he rejects the once-popular idea of lightning striking the so-called primordial soup and embraces the current reigning hypothesis, a hydrothermal vent in the ocean deep.

You can’t read about sixteen extinctions without wondering what that means regarding global warming, an issue that Halliday leaves for an epilogue. Refusing to play doomsayer or argue that we must stop exploiting the planet’s resources, he nevertheless presents a concise, authoritative description of where that exploitation has led us. Further, he stresses how people who have profited the least from that exploitation stand to lose the most from our increasingly destructive climate.

He doesn’t assume that science or engineering will solve our problem, though he does marvel at the two microscopic organisms, a fungus and a bacterium, that can break down plastic. Rather, he holds out cautious hope for international cooperation. His plea, like the rest of Otherlands, deserves a hearing.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Song of Worry

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Here’s another nugget I uncovered while researching my forthcoming novel, Lonely Are the Brave.

After the Armistice in November 1918, Americans worried that exposure to big, bad Europe would change (corrupt?) their boys. A hit song of 1919 addressed that fear: “How ’Ya Gonna Keep ’Em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree)?” In the song, which strikes a lighthearted mood, a farmer grins slyly as he tells his wife their boy will come back restless, thirsting for what he’s glimpsed in France.

Albert Wilfred Barbelle’s sheet music cover, 1919 (courtesy http://libx.bsu.edu/cdm/ref/collection/ShtMus/id/725 via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

But you have to ask whether the father’s good-humored acceptance reflects rural attitudes or those of city slickers who wrote popular music.

The slickers in question were composer Walter Donaldson and lyricists Joe Young and Sam M. Lewis; the publisher was Waterson, Berlin & Snyder Co.—Berlin, as in Irving Berlin, who gave us “Easter Parade,” “White Christmas,” “Cheek to Cheek,” and a bazillion other standards.

“How ’Ya Gonna Keep ’Em” appeared on the vaudeville stage and at the Ziegfeld Follies; an early jazz band, James Reese Europe’s 369th Infantry Band, performed the song regularly and cut a hit record. Two well-known singers followed suit.

But not every soldier thought Europe a swell place (or, as Twenties slang later would have it, the gnat’s eyebrows). In April 1919, the Seattle Times interviewed a Washington infantryman who said he was glad to come home to a “real country” and criticized the Belgians for not “dressing like us” and “clinging to their old ways.”

However, if he ever wished to buy an alcoholic drink or a condom, he might have paused to reconsider Europe’s advantages: Both transactions were criminal acts in his home state.

The Company and the Soviet Writer: The Secrets We Kept

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Review: The Secrets We Kept, by Lara Prescott
Knopf, 2019. 344 pp. $27

The most destructive war in history is four years past, yet in 1949, the world feels no safer. In Washington, the infant CIA watches every move the Soviets make—or appear to make—certain that the Cold War adversary is doing the same. In Moscow, the KGB arrests Olga Ivinskaya, the muse and mistress of renowned poet Boris Pasternak; she’s carrying his child.

Unattributed press photo of Boris Pasternak, 1959, the year after he won the Nobel Prize (courtesy https://www.ebay.com/itm/1969-Press-Photo-Boris-Pasternak-dfpd41533/303830392954, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain in the United States)

Having heard that Pasternak is writing a novel critical of the Soviet past, the secret police demand to know what’s in it. (Why they don’t grill the author instead is never satisfactorily explained.) Olga claims not to know, but of course they don’t believe her and, once she miscarries, ship her to the gulag.

Meanwhile, Irina, a young American woman of Russian parentage, is hired for the CIA typing pool, a coveted job, though she has middling secretarial skills. The other typists, underemployed graduates of Radcliffe, Smith, and Vassar, wonder why. But the bosses have plans for Irina, who’s given lessons on how to make a dead drop and other tricks of tradecraft. Gradually, Irina understands that she’s being groomed for a mission involving Pasternak’s novel, which the CIA would like to see distributed.

Irina’s trainer is Sally Forrester, a holdover from the CIA’s wartime predecessor, the OSS. Sally, though a gifted operative, has been shunted aside—note the recurring feminism—until now, which hurts. Sally never feels as though she’s living fully unless she has an assignment, and she’s been waiting to make her mark in the Company, as insiders call the CIA. Sure enough, she’s sent to Milan to suss out Feltrinelli, an Italian publisher believed to have dealings with Pasternak:

Feltrinelli’s nickname was the Jaguar, and indeed, he moved with the confidence and elegance of a jungle cat. The majority of the party guests were in black tie, but Feltrinelli wore white trousers and a navy blue sweater, the corner of his striped shirt beneath untucked. The trick to pinpointing the man with the biggest bank account in the room is not to look to the man in the nicest tux, but to the man not trying to impress. Feltrinelli pulled out a cigarette, and someone in his orbit reached to light it.

As the passage suggests, Prescott knows how to set a scene, has a keen eye, and an able pen. Yet The Secrets We Kept is the sort of novel whose pages turn readily, but which feels lightweight. Whether or not you’ve heard of Boris Pasternak or the history surrounding the publication of his most famous work, the narrative offers few surprises, and what it builds to peters out rather than reach a crescendo.

Four narrators tell the story: Pasternak’s mistress; Sally; Irina, the neophyte typist/operative; and The Typists, an unnamed, collective voice. Only one of this quartet comes through as a full-fledged character, though details of time, place, and profession at times carry the narrative.

I sympathize with The Typists, whose inside view provides an intriguing perspective on the nation’s spy organization. But they add little to the story, and they’re largely featureless and indistinguishable. And even with a relatively small part to play, they undermine a crucial theme: sexual and intellectual freedom.

The typists are warned not to discuss the documents they type. But these women, who wish they earned respect for their minds, could at least have an opinion about the world around them or a book or an idea. Instead, when they socialize, as they do often, they gossip about who’s wearing what, who’s sleeping with whom, and office politics. No doubt, Prescott intends no disrespect; yet doesn’t this portrayal match how their male bosses likely think of them?

Olga, Pasternak’s mistress, has a harrowing story of arrest and persecution to tell, yet I’m not persuaded that his magnetism has earned her loyalty, come what may. She revels in his celebrity and the influence that lends her, but that can’t be enough. Likewise, with Irina, I don’t know what she wants from life, or why she does what she does.

That leaves Sally, who comes across most vividly. Yet the subplot of her private life, though thematically relevant, has little or no bearing on the story. Prescott, who knows her ground (and even bears the same first name as Pasternak’s heroine), is a capable author, but she’s written her narrative as though she senses that the main plot doesn’t fill the novel and carries less impact than it promises.

As a result, at times, Sally and The Typists feel like add-ons. Partly, this is the limitation of history, because the story can’t invent drama that didn’t happen. Her point seems to be how women take the blame for men’s mistakes, and I agree. Nevertheless, The Secrets We Kept amounts to less than the sum of its parts.

Disclaimer: I obtained a reading copy of this book from the public library.

Holocaust Superwoman: The World That We Knew

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Review: The World That We Knew, by Alice Hoffman
Simon & Schuster, 2019. 365 pp. $28

In spring 1941, those Jews still left in Berlin live from hand to mouth, managing each day as best they can. But Hanni Kohn, who recognizes her end is near, determines that her twelve-year-old daughter, Lea, will escape. Hanni visits the household of a famous rabbi, seeking a miracle, but he’s not to be disturbed. It’s his seventeen-year-old daughter, Ettie, who agrees to help, and the task is most unusual and occult: to create a golem, who’ll protect Lea and see her to Paris, where she has distant cousins.

The golem, a centuries-old figure in Jewish mysticism and folklore, is a creature made of dust or clay with a human appearance, no soul or feeling, yet with physical powers craved by a people who live in peril. Sixteenth-century Prague provides a famous example of the legend, which Mitchell James Kaplan borrowed for his novel the Fifth Servant. But you can also link the golem to 1930s superheroes, fighters for freedom, and the rule of law in a world tearing itself apart.

Hoffman, however, has a slightly different game in mind:

The figure had cooled into the shape of a woman. She was tall, with long legs and a well-proportioned body. Her hair was flowing and dark, the color of damp soil. The form had been given ruach, the breath of bones, the life force that animates every creature on earth. Its lack of a soul would allow it to perceive the spiritual aspects of the world that no human could ever know or see. Good and evil appeared in their truest forms to a golem, death was easy to perceive and the spirits of the dead could be summoned.

Aptly named Ava, for she can speak to birds, she’s tasked with guiding Lea, Ettie, and her sister, Marta across the border, then to Paris. But Ava’s existence is an affront to God, and as such, must not outlast her usefulness. Once the war ends, she must die.

The narrative therefore relies on magical realism, Hoffman’s trademark, a genre I’ve never taken to. Yet The World That We Knew is a beautiful, passionate novel about life and death, love as miracle and sacrifice, and the nature of grief. It’s also a page-turner.

Just as the escape fails to go as planned for all parties involved, reaching Paris offers less shelter than the refugees hoped. After all, the Germans have invaded, and the French police vigorously help them round up Jews for deportation. Further, the cousins want no part of the refugees, though the younger son, Julien, falls for Lea.

Consequently, “no — and furthermore” abides in these pages, and though the increasing cast of characters has more than its fair share of luck, they suffer losses too. The realism has a magical component but also a satisfyingly hard edge.

Two women in Paris, June 1942, wearing the yellow star that marks them as Jews (courtesy German Federal Archive,
Bild 183-N0619-506, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

At times, the expository storytelling style bothers me, in which Hoffman explains the action. I want to be allowed closer, to be shown what’s happening. Similarly, the historical passages that teach the Holocaust in France sit wrong; they read like lectures and occasionally err in surpassing the knowledge people had at the time, particularly the precise destination of the trains full of deportees and what would happen to them once they got there.

Nevertheless, I understand Hoffman’s temptation to impart this information. I grew up conversant with the Holocaust, partly because my parents came of age during the war, an exposure that today’s generations lack. The author apparently wishes to redress that.

Fortunately, around the time the refugees leave Paris, the narrative kicks into a higher gear, and when it does, the storytelling shifts as well, showing more and explaining less. My favorite character is Ava, who comes to appreciate what life is, why humans cling to it, and its advantages and disadvantages. I like her transformation from unfeeling clay to sensibility very much. With evil pervading the world, it takes courage even to see what’s worthwhile, let alone to act accordingly, the problem the human characters face.

But that issue touches Ava too, in her own way, not least in her relationship with a heron, with whom she dances when his migration flight brings him through France. Also, she has a skill that comes in handy: her ability to perceive the black-robed angel of death, Azriel, as he hovers, waiting his chance to inscribe a victim’s name, a ledger in his hands. This image will stay with me; I think it comes from folklore.

As my regular readers know, I’m particular about Holocaust novels and won’t touch those in which Jews seem mere historical artifacts, depicted for narrative convenience. I’m pleased to say that The World That We Knew swept me away for its moral evocations, characterizations, and sheer imagination.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Adoption by Blackmail: The Myth of Surrender

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Review: The Myth of Surrender, by Kelly O’Connor McNees
Pegasus, 2022. 313 pp. $26

Chicago, 1960. Doreen, eighteen, slips out of the house one night and goes to the movies in what her mother would call the wrong part of town. There, she meets what Mother would call the wrong sort of young man, a Black college-bound student; eventually, Doreen sleeps with him. The first time, he uses a condom, but not subsequently.

Meanwhile, Margie, sixteen, works part-time at a jewelry store, and one day, her boss inveigles her to a basement. She has no idea what he’s after, or even how intercourse works, but she does know she doesn’t want it, only she’s not strong enough to repel him.

After these two young women discover they’re pregnant, they cross paths at a maternity home run by the Catholic Church. There, in return for agreeing to give up their children for adoption, they’ll receive free room and board, medical care, and absolute discretion.

Jacob Riis’s photo of Sister Irene and children at New York Foundling orphanage, 1888, about seventy years before this novel takes place (courtesy Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

The prospect of returning to their previous lives as though the shame and burden never happened relieves Doreen and Margie, at least at first. However, if they decide, after all, to keep their children, they’ll have to repay the money spent on their care. As with the other young women there, neither Margie nor Doreen could afford that.

Moreover, the nun running the home, Sister Simon, tells them the same message every day, seemingly intended to make sure nobody becomes attached to her newborn. Each girl there is morally depraved, Sister Simon says, unfit to mother that child conceived in sin, whereas the prospective adoptive parents deserve their good fortune and will raise the child better than the sinful girl ever could. Young, frightened, without family support, and impressionable, the expecting young mothers tell themselves all this must be true, and they wouldn’t have things any other way.

Margie and Doreen strike up an unlikely friendship, the younger girl a goody-goody afraid of her own shadow, the elder having practiced a different sort of life.

Whether she was eager or trying not to be, Doreen thought, the result was the same: the trying. Margie tried so hard at everything. Her whole life seemed calculated for the sake of the judges she imagined sat on a dais she dragged with her everywhere she went. But the score never came in. The reward for all that trying was simply getting to do it all over again the next day.

But we’re not talking about doormats here. McNees has several twists in store, all credible, which kick the narrative into higher gear. For the two protagonists, their stay at the maternity home shows them, in ways they can’t ignore, how powerless they are. (A telling example is the “expert” medical care they receive, from a sadistic brute of a doctor who begrudges them every second of his time and who leaves no doubt of his contempt for them.) How Doreen and Margie handle their powerlessness enlarges the narrative beyond a poignant moral tale into a struggle for freedom.

Also trailing them into their futures are the secrets both guard with their lives, including, but not limited to, the identity of their babies’ fathers — and recall that Doreen’s lover is Black, therefore unacceptable to her family. But the greatest lie that Sister Simon tells them concerns the children they’re supposed to forget and whom they’re forbidden by law to trace. The assurance that accompanies such falsehoods doesn’t go entirely unquestioned, however. One young woman actually dares ask, “How would you know?” a rare instance of backtalk, for which she’s immediately punished.

Consequently, from a shameful problem as old as our alleged civilization, The Myth of Surrender spins a potent story that grabs you from several directions. Heightening the effect, McNees shows her terrific eye for mother-daughter relationships and family life in general. If either young woman ever thought passing through the maternity home would spell the end of their problems, they are sorely mistaken.

I do think Sister Simon makes an over-the-top villain, just as Sister Joan, another nun, plays good cop to the other’s bad one. I’d have liked a subtler, more artful approach there. I also think McNees could have omitted the brief sections titled “We” between those chapters narrated by her protagonists. They’re essays, and though I have no quarrel with what’s in them, they’re not part of the story, which speaks loudly enough.

But these are quibbles. The Myth of Surrender is a terrific novel, based on an astounding fact the author cites in an afterword: Between 1945 and 1973, the year of Roe v. Wade, 1.5 million pregnant girls and women gave up their children for adoption at maternity homes run by various charities. This may be an old story, but McNees’s interpretation of it is as timely as ever.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.