Prisoners: Caging Skies

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Review: Caging Skies, by Christine Leunens
Overlook, 2019. 304 pp. $26

Johannes Betzler might be like most Viennese boys of the late 1930s. He joins the Hitler Youth, in which he takes great pride, and swallows the Nazi message whole, much to his parents’ dismay. When the war comes, it’s his turn to be dismayed, for he figures out that they’re hiding a young Jewish woman, Elsa, behind a false wall upstairs. Outraged at first, he barely contains himself until, after being disfigured by a bomb during an enemy air raid, he becomes interested in Elsa and, later, consumed by her. When his parents disappear, and his grandmother, who lives in the house, becomes demented, he must care for Elsa’s needs by himself. And Johannes’s obsession grows so great that as the war’s end nears — he expects a Nazi victory — he wonders how to keep her, or what their relationship will be like.

From this simple, bizarre premise comes a bold novel of great fierceness, insight, and emotional savagery. I admire Leunens’s refusal to spare anyone or anything, even as, while reading, I sometimes had to put the book down and pace around the room. But if you stick with Caging Skies, this is what you’ll get. With a sweep reminiscent of A Gentleman in Moscow (and therefore Tolstoy), but decidedly without the humor, kindness, or generosity — this is the Holocaust — Leunens creates a microcosm of Hitlerian thought inside Johannes’s head. The truism about scratching a bully and finding beneath an ineffectual, strutting egotist secretly scared of his inadequacy emerges front and center.

Where other novelists (or historians) tell you that the Nazi creed attracted certain personalities, Leunens shows you why and how. It’s absolutely remarkable how she exposes Johannes as a pitiful, self-satisfying beast, casting the world in his own image, twisting all he sees to fit his vision of himself as victim. This is pure narcissism, but it’s more than that — it’s the far-right mindset, us-versus-them culture, and ultranationalism; that the portrayal seems so vivid and relevant is frightening in itself.

Throughout, Leunens’s prose drives relentlessly forward, as with this passage about Johannes’s training with the Hitler Youth:

In one exercise we were to kill a pen of ducks by twisting their necks with our bare hands. It was stressful because once we freed the latch they came to us in trust and quacked as if we could understand exactly what it was they wanted. One of the ducks was followed by a dozen ducklings and they had to be killed too. It was as if they were asking us to kill our own childhood, somehow. If a boy cried after the deed was done he was so thoroughly mocked that no one wanted to be in his shoes. He ate fowl like everybody else and would enjoy the duck once it was on his plate after others had worked to prepare it, wouldn’t he? He was then nothing but a whimpering hypocrite, a good for nothing!

If I may be clinical for a moment about this chilling scene, notice how the author uses the entire setup as a metaphor, which Johannes literally expresses as killing his own childhood. I like how Leunens employs this technique, sparingly, but to excellent effect, letting the action create the image and then lightly directing the brushstroke — or not.

A central theme of Caging Skies has to do with truth, lies, and being able to tell the difference. Johannes loses his way in that maze right off, though he thinks he doesn’t, and he’s never sure how much anyone knows about him, his thoughts, or secrets that may or may not belong to him alone. Gradually, he comes to sense that the ground may give way any moment, which is how his feelings about Elsa change from revulsion to desire, and more.

But that’s where the novel falters, I think. Their relationship raises several questions, and if Leunens has answered them the way I infer she has, I have my doubts. Is she trying to say that the Jews’ murderers actually love them? Or is it the lust of possession, in which complete power over someone, enough to allow you to dispose of them, makes you feel in love with yourself? I’d sooner believe the second, but in Johannes’s case, he appears to go further — to the extent that he can love anyone.

In reverse, the relationship makes even less sense. To an extent, I understand identifying with the aggressor, but some of what happens tests credulity. And if Leunens is trying to have Elsa stand in for all Jews, that representation feels grotesque and unearned.

But there’s no denying that Caging Skies is an extraordinary novel, and that its author has ranged widely within a contained physical space to tell a penetrating story.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher via Historical Novels Review, in which this post appeared in shorter, different form.

Orgy on the Shore: Cape May

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Review: Cape May, by Chip Cheek
Celadon, 2019. 243 pp. $27

In 1957, Henry and Effie, married straight out of a small-town Georgia high school, honeymoon in Cape May, New Jersey. Borrowing a cousin’s cottage, they arrive at the end of September to find the town deserted — naturally, because it’s a place where the well-to-do summer, and now they’re gone. That’s only the first fact to surprise the innocent, unsophisticated newlyweds, and Effie’s instinct is to go home after a couple days. But Henry, unsure of her, though they’ve known each other for years — he can’t quite believe that the mayor’s daughter chose him — takes her notion to mean that she doesn’t want his company. That insecurity leads to much trouble and the discovery that the Jersey shore is much farther from rural Georgia than the mere distance indicates.

A group of city sophisticates welcomes them next door to a nonstop party, though absorb would be a fitter word. Max, a sometime writer, heir to a shipping fortune, and a lewd drunk, drives the festivities with his lover, Clara, who was in show business at one time. Alma, Max’s sullen, gorgeous half-sister, acts as though she’d rather be anywhere else, but she draws Henry’s eye. At first, he’s more susceptible to this crowd’s invitations than his bride, attracted by the veneer of “civilization,” as he calls it, what these mildly degenerate Yankees represent to him. And in that fever, he loses his common sense and his moral compass, helped by a power outage after a storm (something of a cliché, there).

Cheek’s a terrific observer, especially of social interactions and sexual mores. What could have been a stagey, turgid domestic drama stewing in its own juices feels surprisingly open, fluid, and freewheeling. This requires a subtle touch, the ability to evoke movement even when people are sitting still, and simmering tension below the surface, at all of which Cheek excels. Throughout, there’s a sexual charge, like a humid summer day before a thunderstorm. All of these elements derive from the prose, which does its work simply, never calling attention to itself, yet conveys the mood in vivid, active images:

Through the big windowpanes, now that the inside was brighter than the outside, Henry could see more people gathering in the den, big groups of them, laughing, sipping from martini glasses, smoking cigarettes. He saw the beatnik in the slip take her shoes off and hand them to a man who placed them into a potted plant. He saw a naked toddler run screaming from the archway. He saw an Oriental woman with a complicated bun and a silvery eye shadow. He saw a man with circular sunglasses and a shaved head under a beret.… For the past week he’d felt isolated from the world, and now the world was upon him, or some strange version of it.

For all that, though, Cape May falls short of memorable. I understand Henry, somewhat, but Effie hardly at all, and the sophisticates even less. They seem too brittle to feel anything, rushing from experience to experience to prevent what they most fear, boredom. I would have wanted flashes of depth, glimmers of what they’re trying not to face; though, since the newlyweds provide the only perspectives as naïve observers, that’s difficult to achieve. Cheek seems to be saying that the Georgians’ innocence is also a veneer, that they share their new friends’ desires, and we’re all the same underneath, city mouse or country mouse.

That’s fine, but absent fuller characterizations or any particular connection to time and place — if it weren’t for clothing styles or brief mentions of current events, I would never have known it was the late Fifties — we’re left with what sex means, or what it means to Henry, Effie, and the reader. And as for sex, there’s plenty of it, licit and otherwise. Cheek does well to make the scenes matter-of-fact and realistic — no breathless, inflated bodice-ripper descriptions — though I do wonder how these people manage to get it on after half a dozen gins-and-tonic.

Cheek’s a fine writer whose subject matter and theme remind me of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, also about newlyweds clueless about marriage. But the people in Cape May seem more a collection of attitudes than complex humans, and their plight therefore less than powerful.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher via Historical Novels Review, where this post appeared in shorter, different form.

The Future’s a Riddle: The Almanack

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Review: The Almanack, by Martine Bailey
Severn, 2019. 328 pp. $29

In midsummer 1752, Londoner Tabitha Hart accepts a rendezvous at an inn with a well-to-do gentleman who promises to be an easy mark, only to waken and realize she’s the one fleeced. The loss of her money, jewels, and clothes proves more than a usual setback in the sex-and-petty-theft trade, for Tabitha was planning to bring her mother funds she desperately needs, for herself and the care of Tabitha’s out-of-wedlock daughter, Bess. Worse, when the destitute, half-dressed Tabitha reaches her mother’s cottage in the village of Netherslea, to her shock, her mother’s recent letters pleading for help prove all too prophetic. Mrs. Hart has drowned in the river, a death her daughter refuses to credit, especially given the constable’s explanation, that the old lady’s mind had grown infirm, and she didn’t know where she was going half the time.

Consequently, much as Tabitha longs to return to London, she must restore her mother’s reputation — there are whispers of suicide — and see justice done. Her only clue is her mother’s almanack, in which appear warnings about a certain D, said to be untrustworthy and dangerous. However, Tabitha has few illusions about remaining in her native village, where her reputation is mud, and the sanctimonious, vindictive Parson Dilks would like nothing better than to drive her away. He applies pressure to take the cottage away, because it was granted to her mother as the village “searcher,” the one who laid out dead bodies, inspected them for cause of death, and wrote the results in parish records. Through the intercession of more kindly souls, Tabitha is allowed to inherit her mother’s position, and therefore the cottage, but only temporarily, and Dilks finds other ways to persecute her.

A book of incantations, 1825, from the library of John Harries (d. 1839), a Welsh astrologer and medical practitioner (courtesy National Library of Wales, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Complicating the picture is Nat Starling, a swaggering lush who scratches out a living writing scurrilous stories about true crime and debauchery. Naturally, he falls for Tabitha’s beauty and intelligence right away, whereas he’s just the sort of man who has always been poison to her, which is why she feels drawn to him as well. But she won’t give him what he wants unless and until he helps her solve the mystery about her mother, which he seems to wish to do anyway, having been a friend of hers. But, as with everyone else in Netherslea, Tabitha can’t be sure of Nat, and his dissolute habits raise further doubts.

The Almanack offers a clever mystery, with twists and turns (and “no — and furthermore”) aplenty. Bailey’s a fine storyteller, but she’s done more than build a clockwork plot that keeps striking an odd hour, serving to heighten the tension. Rather, she’s re-created the lore of village life, with its superstitions, back-biting, and feast of gossip. She’s also paid due tribute to feminism, as Tabitha bitterly resents the double standard that calls her a whore but allows men license to do what they wish, further granting them credibility as witnesses that she can never hope to earn.

This intricate homespun tapestry begins with active description, as with Tabitha’s first glimpse of Netherslea on her return:

The riverside path was deserted that morning; from the golden motes in the air, she guessed most folk must be hay-making. Crossing a well-remembered meadow, she drank at an icy brook and breakfasted on bilberries fresh from the earth; the taste of them, tartly sweet, was fresher than any food she had eaten in years. Thereafter her way grew easy and she passed the succeeding miles serenely. She had forgotten the lushness of the Cheshire sward in midsummer; the murmur of insects on the wing, the wildflowers that bedizened her path. Idly she picked meadowsweet, wild rose and ragged robin, twining them into a chain and then winding it in a circlet through her hair.

Bailey takes her carefully delineated ambience one step further. Having researched the eighteenth-century passion for almanacks, which were recycled predictions published yearly and simply plugged into different dates, she makes excellent use of them here. Not only does the infamous D deliver on the ghoulish prognostications in the local almanack, Bailey introduces each of her short chapters with riddles in verse, which contemporary almanacks contained, and which were devoured avidly. The fifty riddles Bailey has chosen — most anonymous, but a few credited to Jonathan Swift, among other notables — predict some aspect of the episode to come. Since the mystery itself is a riddle, and solved through one, everything connects. And that’s part of the delight in The Almanack, which, despite an occasional cliché of character, makes a satisfying tale.

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

What a Mystery Is Man: The Phoenix of Florence

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Review: The Phoenix of Florence, by Philip Kazan
Allison & Busby, 2019. 349 pp. 15£

Onorio Celavini, one of sixteenth-century Florence’s two police inspectors (to use a broad term), has a typical case on his hands, or so it seems. Near a bridge, a man lies dead, the apparent victim of a gang attack, for he’s taken two of his assailants with him. Known as a seducer of other men’s wives, he’s unmourned in many circles, but as a wealthy, powerful aristocrat, his death matters to officialdom — more so when a well-born woman dies soon afterward, the crimes apparently connected.

Celavini has heard this all before and is sick of it; whatever a man has done, a woman winds up paying for it. But that’s life, in Florence or elsewhere, and orders are orders — solve this case, and quickly. So he bends his considerable skills to the investigation, aided by an enviable coolness in the face of danger, product of his years as a mercenary, and his knowledge of Tuscany and its politics, lessons that any successful soldier imbibes in the field.

Giovanni Bellini’s portrait of a condittiero, or mercenary captain, late fifteenth century (courtesy Samuel H. Kress Collection at the National Gallery, Washington DC, via Wikimedia Commons)

However, Celavini gets a surprise when he hears a familiar name associated with the crime, one he knew in his youth but had thought extinct. That brings these murders close to home. But though the investigator’s personal involvement is an old device, it’s different here. Unlike most mysteries, the real puzzle is Celavini himself, and The Phoenix of Florence tells a tale more of revenge than of who done it, more Count of Monte Cristo than Sherlock Holmes.

Don’t let that stop you, and don’t be surprised when the criminal investigation leaves off, and a long section of Celavini’s past takes over — for more than half the book. Kazan is less interested in who killed whom than in why men and women are the way they are, the greatest mystery there is. And I strongly suggest that if you let yourself follow his lead, you will be richly rewarded. Human nature, venal or honest, evil or benign, comes into full view, but the crux of the novel, I think, has to do with strength, weakness, and who perceives them, that perception often having deeper consequences than it should. What Celavini does with this provides both a satisfying story and a fitting ending.

It’s a brave author who departs for two hundred pages from the main narrative, and my regular readers may recall that I faulted Daniel Mason in The Winter Soldier for a much shorter digression. But much as I admire that novel and its author, he had a different purpose. Celavini’s past is the main story. I’ll say that it’s rather violent, so be warned, but I dare give nothing else away — The Phoenix of Florence tests this reviewer’s mettle — so I hope you trust me by now.

One way Kazan grips you, digression or not, is the prose. So many historical novels have been set in Florence (or Venice) that they’re practically a trope by now. But try this:

It was stiflingly hot, and the miasma of the dyeworks and the river mud had finally managed to creep into the house. The stench curled itself around me, ripe with rot and sharp with minerals, as clinging and insistent as the memories that wandered through the empty rooms, whispering in my ears. My nightshirt felt like a lead sheet and itched. When I sat down, the wood of the chair seemed to suck my skin. I went out into the courtyard, but the air was thicker there, and a rat was fidgeting around in the dry fronds of the date palm. At last I lay down on the flagstones in the kitchen and floated in a twilight where the cold stone brought relief but was painful as well; however, I couldn’t have one without the other.

I wish I could say more, but I shouldn’t. Read The Phoenix of Florence and be amazed.

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

Rusalka: The Huntress

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Review: The Huntress, by Kate Quinn
Morrow, 2019. 531 pp. $27

In spring 1946, memories of the war are just beginning to fade — for some. Seventeen-year-old Jordan McBride, who lives with her widowed father in Boston, meets his new fiancée, an Austrian widow. Jordan welcomes her future stepmother and half-sister Ruth and takes them into her heart, luxuriating in the warmth and support she receives in return. Even better, Jordan’s stepmother encourages her to dream of higher education, something Dad doesn’t think a girl needs.

Four years later, in 1950, former British war correspondent Ian Graham; his assistant and translator, Tony Rodomovsky, an American; and Nina Markova, a former pilot with the Red Air Force, join forces in Vienna to track down Nazi war criminals. The Nuremberg Trials have focused on the big fish, but thousands of minnows have swum to safety, whether in various corners of Europe or the New World. They may be former assassins, concentration-camp guards, or petty functionaries who oiled the machinery of murder and appropriation, and Ian and Tony want them all, though they know that’s impossible.

Rare color photo of defendants at Nuremberg, taken by Raymond D’Addario, November 1945 (courtesy U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Nina, however, wants one in particular, a woman nicknamed die Jägerin (The Huntress), with whom she has a score to settle. So does Ian; and in one of the strange but clever twists in this thriller, Nina and Ian are married, though they’ve met only once, five years before for a couple days, and haven’t seen each other since.

Confused? Read The Huntress, and you won’t be. Quinn’s a fine storyteller, and she does an excellent job of stitching together many disparate pieces to make a coherent, exciting whole. The pages turn quickly, nothing happens too easily (except for a happy coincidence or two toward the end), and the stakes are plenty high enough. The reader knows long before the main characters who die Jägerin is, and where, but Quinn strings the inevitable confrontation out beautifully.

Of all the essential elements, I like the plot of The Huntress best. I do salute Quinn for calling attention to the problems of tracking down war criminals after Nuremberg, a forgotten cause. And I also like her attempt to explore the means one is permitted to use to see justice done. Ian rejects violence; Tony wouldn’t mind slapping around a witness or three; and Nina always carries a knife.

She’s the most interesting, fullest character by far. She’s done her best to amputate her heart, yet she comes across in part because she’s the only one with a developed past. Born by the shores of Lake Baikal in Siberia, she styles herself a rusalka, a water witch, the type who drags down the unsuspecting victim. That lake figures heavily in her psyche:

The lake was frozen in a sheet of dark green glass, so clear you could see the bottom far below. When the surface ice warmed during the day, crevasses would open, crackling and booming as if the lake’s rusalki were fighting a war in the depths. Close to shore, hummocks of turquoise-colored ice heaved up over each other in blocks taller than Nina, shoved onto the bank by the winter wind.… Nina stood in her shabby winter coat, hands thrust into her pockets, wondering if she would still be here to see the lake freeze next year. She was sixteen years old; all her sisters had left home before they reached that age, mostly with swelling bellies.

Nina’s half-savage, knows it, and likes scaring her friends. But scaring her enemies feels even better, for in a life lived without sweetness, revenge is the only substitute.

The other characters don’t grab me particularly. Jordan, though she represents feminism in wanting a photojournalism career, lacks angles or corners and seems too all-American. Tony’s too good to be true, a composition of charm, chutzpah, and linguistic wizardry. (The narrative rather dubiously depends on the relative ease with which certain characters pick up, say, fluent German or Russian in a matter of months.) Ian feels like a compendium of elements rather than a complete person, and though his heart’s in the right place, I don’t entirely believe him.

But the story’s the thing, here, and aside from the occasional detail that makes me raise an eyebrow (having mostly to do with photography or firearms), Quinn has researched her ground thoroughly. I note a few present-day idioms that someone should have flagged, and too many bizarre verbs replace said, often followed by unnecessary explanations of what the character means by what she says. But The Huntress is a top-notch thriller with an unusual premise, and I think it’s worth your time.

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

From Auschwitz to Australia: The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted

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Review: The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted, by Robert Hillman
Putnam, 2018. 293 pp. $26

Dutiful, reliable, bewildered by life, unsure what happiness is or whether he’s ever experienced it, that’s Tom Hope — until he meets Hannah Babel. Hometown, Australia, has never seen anything like her, and even in 1968, the changes sweeping the West seem to have skipped this rural, agrarian corner of Down Under. Hannah, an effervescent Hungarian Holocaust survivor (a phrase probably seldom used, but it fits) plans to open a bookshop, of all things, and she hires Tom, a sheep rancher and orchardist, to do welding and carpentry to prepare for the opening. She’s utterly mercurial, older than he by fifteen years, speaks inflected English he can’t always fathom, and when she lets her canary, David, fly freely, the bird settles on Tom’s shoulder, further discomfiting him.

Hannah settles on him too, in a passionate rush that made me think, for a moment, that The Bookshop of the Brokenhearted derives from a male fantasy. But no; though their instant mutual attraction burns intensely, plenty of obstacles stand between them, least of which is that Tom has never read a book. A few years before, Tom married Trudy, a psychologically unstable woman who has left him, twice, and scarred him so badly that happiness is “a fugitive,” to “be roused to confidence, encouraged,” but, if grasped too strongly, might “slip back into the shadows, forever.” (Trudy’s legacy continues in other ways, but I don’t want to reveal too much.) Hannah has had two husbands, both dead, but she suffered her worst loss at Auschwitz, which stays with her, always. Metaphorically, that loss connects her to Trudy, something that neither Tom nor Hannah expected.

Poddy lambs, or orphans, drinking milk at a sheep station (ranch) in Australia (courtesy Figaro at English Wikipedia)

In lesser hands, a premise like this could easily turn sticky with treacle, melodrama, clichéd predictability, or a combination of these. Books, bookshops, and libraries are a hot thing in fiction these days, soon to be a trope, perhaps. Nevertheless, nothing happens here without second thoughts, reversals, mixed feelings, and a sense of dread, collectively the best tonic for treacle. Hillman never loses sight of his characters’ age, maturity, or makeup, and his narrative takes no adolescent flights of fancy, relying on simple prose, grounded in the everyday, again staying in character. Consider this passage early on, just after Trudy leaves, and Tom, in his workshop, wonders whether she’ll write:

With the soldering, it was the work of a good two hours. An old, demented ram he treated as a friend butted him repeatedly as he sanded and primed — not hard, just affectionately. And Beau [his dog] in turn chewed on the old ram’s leg. Tom asked himself aloud: ‘What do you expect her [Trudy] to say to you, you nong? “Hello, it’s a nice day?” For God’s sake.’ He was a practical person who never thought of fate and things that were meant to be. He could take apart an engine, stand surrounded by its thousand parts, find what was causing the problem, put the engine back together. He might daydream, but he knew that the dreams were foolish.

How can you resist a scene like that, which shows another side to a man not given to reflection?

Besides the treacle, it would be easy for a writer to adopt Hannah as a Jew of convenience, visible to a knowledgeable reader as unfamiliar with her own faith, which she’s also conveniently let slide. That’s a favorite device, as I’ve noted before in other posts. But Hillman knows his ground, rendering Hannah’s flashbacks with authority and depicting her Jewishness as well as the casual anti-Semitism of Tom’s neighbors. But their reaction is an aside; Tom has never heard of Auschwitz and has the barest notions of the Holocaust, about which Hannah refuses to tell him. So it’s the hidden past that lies between them, not what the neighbors say, about which Tom wouldn’t care anyway.

Names matter in this novel, at times too obviously. Tom Hope? Check. Does Babel refer to the tower of, given Hannah’s multilingual, sometimes chaotic persona; or Isaac, the great Russian writer murdered by Stalin? No question where Pastor Bligh comes from, a vicious, self-righteous disciplinarian who lives up to his namesake, except that he’s incompetent at his job. I have no sympathy for fundamentalist Christian cultist lunatic sadists, and I suppose that’s fair. Yet I want this man to have a three-dimensional rendering, and he doesn’t get one.

Even so, that’s the major glitch in The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted, a warm, satisfying, decidedly unsticky novel, which I highly recommend.

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

Burning Reason: The Name of the Rose

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Review: The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco
Translated from the Italian by William Weaver
Houghton Mifflin, 2014 [1980, 1983] 579 pp. $16

As Brother William of Baskerville, an English Franciscan monk, nears the Italian abbey where he’s to attend a conclave, he correctly deduces from tracks in the snow and other minute details that the party of brethren approaching him on the road are seeking a horse — whose name he also guesses. Naturally, this astonishes both the search party and William’s companion, his scribe, a German novice named Adso. It also pleases the abbot, who’s delighted to have so keen an observer on hand, because a young monk has died under suspicious circumstances, and the mystery must be solved before the conclave takes place in a few days’ time.

Or, to be precise, the abbot seems pleased, but the readily apparent struggle between truth and expediency dividing the abbey’s occupants, heightened by the anticipated high-level meeting, clouds his motives. The year is 1327, and the church is fighting itself, with one pope in Rome, and the other in Avignon. The expected French envoys — and, menacingly, their accompanying armed force — include a charismatic, unscrupulous inquisitor whom William knows and fears; he was once an inquisitor himself but gave it up because he felt the entire process of hunting heretics was irrational and unjust. Since then, he has openly avowed the empirical philosophy of Roger Bacon and William Occam (he of the famous razor), beliefs that unsettle many other monks and, in their eyes, skate dangerously close to heresy.

Pope John XXII, a protégé of the French crown, lived a princely life in Avignon and opposed the Franciscan doctrine of poverty (image by an unknown nineteenth-century painter; courtesy Palais des Papes, Avignon, via Wikimedia Commons)

Moreover, the abbot has forbidden William to investigate the library stacks, labyrinthine rooms that no one save the librarian himself may enter. This restriction cripples William’s efforts, particularly after more monks die, and he supposes that a hidden text holds the key. So, with Adso in tow, he invades the abbey’s sanctum sanctorum, with ever-startling results.

Adso makes a superb narrator and foil, a Watson scared of where knowledge will lead, to William’s Holmes, who thinks knowledge itself can be neither good nor evil. A weighty theme, and The Name of the Rose tips the scales at almost 600 pages, but Eco does a brilliant job focusing on two issues that, at first glance, seem too ridiculous to kill for, whether for personal motives, to serve the church, or for reasons of state. First, did Christ ever laugh? And second, did he and his apostles choose poverty, the belief on which the Franciscan order rests?

But the narrative, if at length, shows why these questions matter in 1327 and today. If Christ did not laugh, the official reasoning goes, satire, jokes, and humor are either vile, a threat to faith, or both. However, William argues that if a devout person must have only a certain sober, humorless mind, then the inquisitors rule, as in fact they do, and the crucial precept of accepting faith through free will ceases to exist. As William warns Adso, “The Antichrist can be born from piety itself, from excessive love of God or of the truth, as the heretic is born from the saint and the possessed from the seer. Fear prophets, Adso, and those prepared to die for the truth, for as a rule they make many others die with them, often before them, at times instead of them.”

The question of poverty has a more immediate political implication. The Franciscan order has splintered, prompting rebellions against church power, to which the church has responded by burning heretics, charging the use of magic, and accusing their opponents of free love and appalling butchery. But as William tells Adso, the rebels don’t care about church doctrines, especially; they resent the extreme wealth of the church and the regimes it supports, both of which contribute to keep the poor as they are.

Amid all this, monks continue to die, and William must divert his efforts from solving the mystery to play politician during the conclave, standing up for his beliefs while avoiding condemnation. As you may have figured out by now (how did I give it away?), The Name of the Rose is a discursive book, but no less mesmerizing for that:

The creature behind us was apparently a monk, though his torn and dirty habit made him look like a vagabond. Unlike many of my brothers, I have never in my whole life been visited by the Devil; but I believe that if he were to appear to me one day, he would have the very features of our interlocutor. His head was hairless, not shaved in penance but as the result of the past action of some viscid eczema; the brow was so low that if he had had hair on his head it would have mingled with his eyebrows (which were thick and shaggy); the eyes were round, with tiny mobile pupils, and whether the gaze was innocent or malign I could not tell: perhaps it was both, in different moods, in flashes.

The Name of the Rose does what the best historical fiction should: illuminate the past by its own lights and therefore reveal the present. As a mystery, it is excellent; to that, add profundity and power.

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

Big Pharma, 1899: Deadly Cure

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Review: Deadly Cure, by Lawrence Goldstone
Pegasus, 2017. 295 pp. $26

As the nineteenth century lurches to a gaudy, jingoistic close, Brooklyn physician Noah Whitestone has much to hope for. He has a busy, satisfying medical practice in partnership with his father, a fiancée as intelligent and independent-minded as she is devoted to him, and a cause to inspire him: preaching against patent medicines, which kill as often as cure, usually through appallingly large doses of opiates.

Still, Noah carries the scars from the death of his stillborn son and first wife, and worries that though he admires his fiancée, he feels no passion for her, beautiful and vivacious though she is. He’s also piqued that his father and he have to run themselves ragged to earn a living, while Noah’s hoity-toity neighbors consult Dr. Arnold Frias, an unctuous glad-hander far more gifted at politics than medicine.

That envy causes Noah no end of trouble, for when Dr. Frias is busy hobnobbing with Admiral Dewey and other military heroes recently returned from the Spanish-American War, one of said hoity-toity neighbors sends for Noah. Her five-year-old son, just getting over a cough, has taken a sharp turn for the worse. Dr. Whitestone suspects opiate poisoning, but he must stabilize the child’s respiratory difficulties first, and does so with two drops of laudanum, a dose too low to hurt the boy. When Noah returns a few hours later, however, the child is dying, beyond help.

Noah’s convinced that Frias must have prescribed too much dope to cure the boy’s cough; or someone else was concurrently dosing the lad with patent medicines; or both. But such is Frias’s social position that Noah’s left holding the bag. He’ll be lucky not to face prosecution for murder, while revocation of his medical license seems likely.

Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy, as it appeared in Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé, Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz [Flora of Germany, Austria, and Switzerland] 1885, Gera, Germany (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Moreover, a reporter for a radical newspaper buttonholes him and claims that the boy’s death is one of many such, victim of experimentation by unscrupulous doctors testing the effects of heroin, a new morphine derivative. Noah finds that hard to believe, and the reporter’s general political outlook, highly critical of American military atrocities in the Philippines, leaves him skeptical as to motive. But as the trail to discover what killed the boy leads to German drug companies and the deaths of whistleblowers, the good doctor doesn’t know whom to trust.

Having recently read Lucy Inglis’s Milk of Paradise, a rambling, informative history of opium, I learned that the German chemist credited with deriving heroin from morphine was looking for a cough suppressant powerful enough to help even consumptives, yet would not be addictive. Medical science believed that he had succeeded, a persistent, misguided theory that matters here. So does the chemist’s other claim to fame, the synthesis of acetylsalicylic acid, soon to be known as aspirin (a discovery he made the same week as that of heroin, by the way).

The political and medical contexts of these two drugs therefore shape the narrative, with patents and royalties as a possible motive for mayhem. But Noah, who falls easy prey to moral certainties, learns that with lives and money at stake, right and wrong become more difficult to distinguish, so that he winds up doubting himself, his father, and cherished beliefs. The potential involvement of Big Pharma in nefarious activities could be today’s headlines, as could the debate over American behavior in a colonial war.

Goldstone excels at period detail, especially that of medical science, and his authorial voice carries authority. When he writes that Frias’s Benz automobile, specially brought over from Germany, costs a thousand dollars, I’m sure it does, and that it looks exactly as described. Some authors might suggest rather than state, saving themselves the trouble of knowing absolutely everything, but Goldstone sweats these details. When two doctors discuss a diagnosis, for instance, they’re utterly believable as medical colleagues — to this layman, at least. The only slip I noticed was talk about allergies, a word that hadn’t yet entered the language. But overall, he creates a pretty impressive effect.

At times, that zeal for minutiae leads to information dumps, but mostly, the atmosphere keeps you turning the pages — that, and the “no — and furthermore.” Whether it’s new evidence that challenges Noah’s perceptions of truth, or unexpected obstacles that make him stumble, the path to the resolution remains properly bumpy until the very end. Along the way, Goldstone offers priceless dialogue, especially for Maribeth, Noah’s fiancée, and her brother, a medical colleague of his whose iconoclasm made me laugh.

Where Deadly Cure falls short is the absolutely improbable derring-do of the last few chapters, the cartoon villains, and the melodrama that results. Sometimes, when a writer is so convincing about the troubles the protagonist faces, there’s no believable solution. But if you can suspend your doubts, Deadly Cure is an entertaining thriller and a reminder that controversies involving industrial medicine go back a long way.

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

Playing Favorites: The Wartime Sisters

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Review: The Wartime Sisters, by Lynda Cohen Loigman
St. Martins, 2019. 285 pp. $28

Talk about sibling rivalry. From the moment Ruth Kaplan’s younger sister, Millie, first breathes oxygen, the older girl ceases to exist. No one sees her, pays attention, listens, or thinks she has any talents a girl needs. Oh, sure, she’s bright, bookish, and well organized, but since when have those qualities attracted a husband? Not in Brooklyn in the late 1930s, at any rate, when Ruth comes of age, as a serious young woman studying accounting at college. And not so long as thoroughly modern Millie’s around, cheerful, pretty in a way that turns heads, and easygoing.

Do Mama and Papa Kaplan try to balance the rivalry or combat it in any way? On the contrary; they do their best to create and perpetuate it:

Though Ruth’s tiny transgressions were few and far between, they never seemed to escape her mother’s notice. Any misstep Ruth made was a short, shallow wrinkle on an otherwise smooth and pristine tablecloth. Millie’s slipups, by contrast, were like a full glass of burgundy tipped over onto clean white damask. To their mother’s discerning eye, Ruth’s wrinkles were conspicuous. But her sister’s stains were overlooked and hastily covered — anything so that the meal could continue being served.

What a chilly portrait Loigman has created, a premise so simply elegant, with so few moving parts, that there should be no heavy machinery required to create power, poignancy, or depth. Ruth escapes Brooklyn, marrying Arthur, a decent guy, supposedly as dull and plodding as herself, a whiz kid who, in the war years, gets posted to the federal armory in Springfield, Massachusetts, to do weapons research. Millie’s no-good boyfriend, handsome and dashing but worthless to all eyes but hers, marries her and enlists after Pearl Harbor, also leaving behind a young son, Michael.

The Springfield Armory’s experimental workshop, 1923. In the right background, wearing a lab coat, stands John Garand, inventor of the rifle that became standard army issue in World War II (courtesy National Park Service via Wikimedia Commons)

I like this part of the story best. Told in flashback, the narrative shows how the sisters’ estrangement only hardens with time. Kaplan mère is quite a piece of work, vicious and controlling. Love is sweet, she says, but it tastes better with bread, and she preaches to Millie the unalterable fantasy that the girl will marry a fabulously rich man who takes care of all her wants, every single second, smitten by her beauty and charm. My grandmother’s version was, “It’s just as easy to marry a rich girl as a poor one,” which led her to campaign, hard, against my father choosing my mother. So I’m right there with Loigman in all this.

Indeed, when Loigman lets character drive her narrative, which she does until about the halfway point, The Wartime Sisters packs a punch. After that, however, the contrived story takes over. The sibling rivalry, though still essential, gets diluted by the presence of too many other voices, and the narrative descends into predictable melodrama. Loigman might have redeemed this had the sisters confronted one another properly, with a knockdown, drag-out fight that’s been brewing all their lives. Instead, when their obligatory battle arrives, it peters out much too soon — and, even worse, I get the impression that the author has played favorites, tipping the scales. One sister apologizes; one doesn’t, pleading that she wasn’t responsible. Baloney. It takes two to tango.

The prose style reads almost like nonfiction, practically devoid of metaphor. However, I like the dialogue very much, and the author uses it to create short, powerful scenes. The best concern the sisters and, later, Lillian, wife of the commanding officer at the armory, whose upbringing was even more harrowing than theirs and forms a point of comparison. But too many characters seem vacant, whether Ruth’s daughters, the nasty, bigoted busybody wife that probably every military installation must have, or the caricature of Mama Kaplan, a dreadful person with no apparent redeeming features.

Strangely, The Wartime Sisters might have worked had Loigman merely let the sisters slug it out. But once a subplot takes over, the sisters have no chance to get at one another, and the narrative follows the expected route. Ironically, making those extra pieces fit probably demands more work, when filling out the characters already present might have sufficed. It’s too bad; The Wartime Sisters has its moments. I just wish there were more of them.

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

What a Tangled Web We Weave: The Poison Bed

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Review: The Poison Bed, by Elizabeth Fremantle
Pegasus, 2019. 403 pp. $26

In 1615, England’s golden couple, Robert and Frances Carr, face trial for murder, and the only question is whether both will swing or only one. At first glance, their predicament sounds highly improbable, given how far they have fallen and how quickly. Why, it seems only yesterday that Frances was a star at the court of King James I, celebrated for her charismatic beauty, wit, and sharp intelligence. Further, as a member of the powerful Howard family, she’s a force one does well not to dismiss. Her husband, who rose from obscurity as the orphan of a minor nobleman to become the king’s lover, trusted advisor, and a rich man, cuts an equally brilliant figure. (To read what Winston Churchill had to say about that as a historian, click here.) Not only that, he rescued Frances from an abusive marriage — not without help, of course, and therein hangs a tale.

As Robert observes, “If people know what you love most, it is a fault line they can exploit to break you.” And success breeds enemies who’d like nothing better than to bring down the blessed and seize their substance. So as the novel begins, and guards sweep the Carrs away to prison, the narrative gradually leads you to wonder who’s behind the arrests, and why. But nothing’s as it seems. Robert and Frances both love wealth and power, and her family — well, they’re venal and vicious as they come — and maybe the golden couple cut corners (or throats) on their way to the top. So who’s guilty, and what did he — or she, or they — do, exactly? You won’t find out until the very end.

Frances Howard, Countess of Somerset, as William Larkin painted her in 1615 (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

What a brilliant thriller this is, with enough thrust, counterthrust, and deception to make a Jacobean revenge tragedy. (John Webster’s Duchess of Malfi even makes a cameo appearance as a theatrical offering.) Fremantle tells her story in two directions, like halves of a sliding door that roll from opposite sides until they meet. This is exceptionally hard to bring off, and many such narratives feel forced or shoehorned simply to fulfill a literary conceit. Not here. Told in alternating chapters, titled Her and Him, with rare exceptions — all early on — the storytelling feels coherent, almost seamless, despite shifting verb tenses, from present to past, and back.

The Poison Bed succeeds, in large part, because of the prose, which puts the two main characters so vividly on the page, they’re practically sitting next to you. Take, for example, this passage from before their marriage, when Robert sees Frances for the first time in years:

In the intervening years, she’d become a woman. I watched her with [Prince] Henry, laughing about something, their heads flung back, mouths open, but she stopped suddenly, turning away from him, her gaze locking on me, as if she were a hawk and I a hare. I like to imagine it was the force of my desire that drew her attention. I had never seen such eyes, dark glossy ovals. Just a square of white in each, a reflection of the window behind me, and my own tiny form etched there. She said nothing, just smiled, displaying teeth as neat as a string of pearls.

Rest assured that Frances’s view of Robert in the same scene is equally feral. But Fremantle’s approach goes deeper. She extends such metaphors throughout the book, always taking pains to imbue emotional transitions with physical parallels, often concerning animals. During one conversation with the king, while hunting with falcons, Robert’s keenly aware that James’s bird, much larger than his kestrel, could destroy her if it wished, and there’d be nothing Robert could do. That’s the same position he’s in with his monarch. Similarly, when Frances wonders what to do regarding her husband’s anxieties, she watches a groom calming a skittish horse and gets her answer. I like that approach much more than rhetorical questions, such as, What do I do now?

But if The Poison Bed has a flaw, it’s an unfair shift in which it comes out that not all the narration may be trusted. Having called out Samantha Harvey for that in The Western Wind, I’m bound to mention it here, while trying not to reveal too much. When the change first happens, if you’re like me, you’ll resent it and feel manipulated. But if there’s a saving grace, it’s that the revelation can’t be a complete surprise, given the court atmosphere, the power games the characters have played, and the lies they tell themselves in justification — assuming they even bother. In all that falseness, some readers may be put off; after all, for whom is the reader meant to feel empathy?

Still, maybe that’s what Jacobean court life was like — and even if it wasn’t, The Poison Bed has created that world in fine, plausible detail. Despite the rude surprise, it’s one of the most gripping novels I’ve read in a long time.

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