Category Archives: Twentieth century

Sunday Review: The Reading by Barbara Monier

This is a novel about taking stock of one’s life—and perhaps finding the courage to jettison our defense mechanisms. Esmé, a writer in her sixties, is experiencing a prolonged creative paralysis. Instead of working on a new novel, she’s put off dealing with her writer’s block by continuing to give public readings of her last published work. Then one night someone from her past shows up in the audience, and the unexpected encounter propels her into reviewing both the childhood loss that scarred her and her first year of college, which she views as the worst year of her life. The two events have combined to turn her into a defensive person who deliberately avoids both memory and commitment.

Her voyage of reminiscence occurs at the same time that she faces an upheaval to her current life as major as her long-ago enrollment at a strange university in an alien part of the country. Her lover, Gino, has asked her to live with him, a move that will force her to leave the carefully constructed routine and cocoon that have surrounded and cushioned her for decades. Esmé makes the physical move, but can she risk the psychological and emotional shifts that will be necessary to commit herself to Gino? Or will she once again retreat?

Esmé is a sharply drawn character who makes mordant observants about the world and records her experiences in memorable detail—in sentences such as this one about a childhood visit to Pittsburgh: “The Sound of Music on a screen so immense that I felt pressed back in my seat by a barrage of pictures and sounds—I had nightmares about the Baroness’ nostrils and the way the peals of thunder rattled inside of my chest.”

The COVID-19 pandemic makes its appearance, but instead of dominating the narrative, it works on Esmé as it did on so many of us—as a catalyst toward reevaluating our lives. I found myself rooting for Esmé the entire novel, and the ending felt satisfying without being too tidy or forced.

The publication date for The Reading is September 27, but the Kindle version is available for preorder on Amazon, and the paperback can be preordered at Amika Press.

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Filed under Book Reviews, contemporary fiction, Twentieth century

Sunday Review: Fiction about Argentina’s Dirty War

For those who don’t know the history of the Dirty War, I am going to begin with some background. (If you already know, skip to the fifth paragraph.) From 1974 to 1983, Argentina conducted a Dirty War that consisted of state terrorism against its citizens. The government hunted down political dissidents, leftist guerillas, socialists—and any students, intellectuals, and activists the junta feared might become threats. 

People were snatched from school, work, home, the street. They were tortured for information and for punishment. They were beaten, shot, and buried in mass graves. They were drugged and thrown from airplanes, still alive, over open water. Even today, they are known as los desaparecidos, the disappeared. Pregnant women who were taken were held until they gave birth and then disposed of; their children were given to government officials or military officers who wanted to adopt. 

An estimated 30,000 Argentinians were disappeared, and an estimated 500 babies were stolen. Many of the grieving families still have no answers. Many of the perpetrators of these crimes against humanity were pardoned. Not until the 2000s did the Argentine government revoke the amnesty laws and begin prosecution. 

Because of my work on world history textbooks, I’ve known about the Dirty War for decades, but not until recently did it occur to me to read fiction about it. 

In the last two weeks, I have listened to audiobooks of two of them: On a Night of a Thousand Stars by Andrea Yaryura Clark and Perla by Carolina de Robertis. 

Purely by accident, I chose books that have several plot points and themes in common. Both have main characters who are young women, born during the Dirty War and raised in families that are part of the Argentinian elite. Both Paloma and Perla begin knowing little about their country’s terrible past. Both find romantic partners who help them learn the shocking history their parents hid from them—and their families’ own roles in the Dirty War. 

And yet, the two books are also quite different. On a Night of a Thousand Stars is the more straightforward narrative. It’s a dual timeline novel. One story focuses on Valentina, a young woman who attends college and then begins working as an architect during the opening years of the government campaign of terror. The other story, set twenty years later, focuses on Paloma, a young woman who is raised by Argentinian expats in New York City. Because her knowledge of Argentina has been gleaned mostly from visits to her grandfather, she starts out understanding little about the Dirty War, but she makes some discoveries that motivate her to find out what if any role her father played in combatting the oppression. Paloma’s father, who was once Valentina’s lover, is the link between the two time periods. 

Perla, on the other hand, has elements of magical realism, which felt entirely appropriate for the South American setting. The main character is the daughter of a naval officer, which is a huge red flag to the knowledgeable reader that her family has dark secrets to hide. Perla’s lover, an investigative journalist, nudges her to question her parents, but she can’t—and her inner conflict causes her to break up with him. Then, while her parents are away, she is visited by a mysterious man, who smells of rotting debris on a beach and who constantly sheds water on the parlor floor. This uncanny intruder is the catalyst that helps Perla intuit her past. 

I enjoyed both novels. My personal favorite was Perla, which was more literary and, for me, better conveyed the tragedy of Argentina’s past. But for readers who don’t enjoy magical realism, I can recommend On a Night of a Thousand Stars without hesitation. 

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Filed under Book Reviews, contemporary fiction, Historical fiction, Twentieth century

Sunday Review: The Paris Bookseller by Kerry Maher

This historical novel tells the story of Sylvia Beach, founder and owner of the famous Shakespeare and Company English-language bookstore in Paris. Although this is a single-timeline novel, there are a couple of important threads to the story: Beach’s love affair with the French bookstore owner Adrienne Monnier and her interactions with the writers and artists who flocked to Paris in the 1920s, most importantly James Joyce.

Beach knew Joyce at the time he was writing his masterpiece Ulysses. Excerpts had been published in literary journals, and Joyce’s frank depictions of bodily functions and human sexuality caused American officials to deem it pornography, making it a crime to sell or even send through the U.S. mails. Beach believed strongly in Joyce’s art, so she decided to publish the novel in Paris, even though she had never published anything before.

As portrayed in the novel, the relationship between Beach and Joyce is tremendously complicated. Joyce is grateful, in his own way, but he also has the kind of entitled personality that just accepts the things that other people do for him. One of the interesting questions of the story is this: does Joyce take advantage of Beach, or does Beach fail to stand up for herself? Or is their relationship an unhealthy combination in which both are true?

Other prominent literary figures wander through the pages, among them Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein. Beach was more than just a bookstore owner; she promoted the groundbreaking literature of the time, and many people felt that she played a pivotal role in nurturing their careers.

Beach’s relationship with Monnier is beautifully depicted. The two women have a deep and abiding love, but as they live through legal hassles, economic hard times, and World War II, the stressors they experience affect them in different ways, and they begin to grow apart. I never lost my sympathy for either of them even when I wanted their choices to be different.

This is an excellent novel for lovers of Paris and of American letters.

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Filed under Book Reviews, France, Historical fiction, Paris, Twentieth century

Sunday Review: The Diamond Eye by Kate Quinn

Kate Quinn’s latest novel is a World War II story with current relevance: it is about Mila Pavlichenko, a young woman from Kyiv, Ukraine, who gives up her quiet life as a mother, librarian, and grad student writing a dissertation on the history of Ukraine to help protect her homeland against brutal invaders. She becomes such a proficient sniper—with 309 official kills to her name and many more unrecorded—that she becomes a national hero known as Lady Death.

Mila is sent on a goodwill tour to the United States, where she develops an unlikely friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt (which really happened) and gets involved unwittingly in a plot to assassinate FDR (a fictional device with enough historical precedent to be plausible).

This is one of my favorite novels by Quinn. Instead of the multiple perspectives / time lines she has employed so often, this novel sticks with Mila throughout, and I thought the laser focus was well suited to a story about a sniper who had a legendary “diamond eye” with a rifle sight.

I also enjoyed the journey Mila takes from a frustrated, somewhat helpless young woman, unable to stand up against her domineering and thoughtless older husband, to a military officer who knows her abilities and is able to win the respect of the men under her command.

The detail about the sniper’s craft and the descriptions of the settings also serve to make this a riveting tale.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Historical fiction, Twentieth century, World War II

Sunday Review: And by Fire by Evie Hawtrey

Evie Hawtrey’s debut And by Fire crackles with as much energy as a well-tended blaze, one that Hawtrey maintains control of from start to finish. 

There are two related storylines in this novel. In 1666, Margaret Dove, lady-in-waiting to the queen of England, wishes she dared pursue a forbidden life, becoming a female scientist and casting off her noble heritage to marry the man she loves, King Charles II’s fireworks maker. When the Great Fire of London breaks out, the two lovers survive but lose track of a friend in the freak explosion that ruins St. Paul’s during the conflagration. What they discover when they seek to find out if their friend is alive or dead casts a possible shadow over the reputation of one of the most prominent men of the age.

In the present day, DI Nigella Parker specializes in cases involving fire. When a serial arsonist begins to set fires in London, hoping to win fame for himself and for a historical figure he believes was overlooked, she and her partner DI Colm O’Leary must brush aside any awkwardness from a past relationship and find the firebug before his crimes escalate. 

The book is fast-paced but with enough character development to make the protagonists seem fully human. Highly recommended.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Crime, Historical fiction, Twentieth century

Sunday Review: The Masterpiece by Fiona Davis

Fiona Davis specializes in writing historic fiction about well-known buildings in New York City, and I have loved several of her novels. This time she focuses on Grand Central Station. The Masterpiece is a dual-timeline story set in the late 1920s and the mid-1970s.

The 1920s timeline focuses on Clara Darden, a young artist from Arizona who came to New York to study at the Grand Central School of Art. (Did you know there was once an art school on one of the upper floors of Grand Central? I didn’t.) Now working there as an instructor, she has to fight against two kinds of bigotry—sexism and the ingrained belief that illustrators are less-talented and less-important than “serious painters.” She meets and becomes involved with two very different men: a wealthy young poet and a fiery experimental painter from Armenia. Little do any of them know that the high life of the 20s can’t last forever; the economy is heading for a crash that will turn the country upside down and make art a dispensable luxury in a grim new world of standing in soup lines and making do with frayed, years-old clothing.

The 1970s story focuses on Virginia Clay, a women who is recently divorced and struggling to support herself and her daughter. She fails to qualify for the secretarial job she interviews for and ends up working at the Grand Central information booth. By this time, the depot is dirty and neglected—no longer the beautifully decorated showplace it was in the 1920s—and it’s home to drug addicts and other unsavory types, causing passengers to spend as little time there as possible. The building is in danger of being torn down, with only the lower sections incorporated into amuch larger structure.

One day, Virginia happens upon the abandoned art school and discovers a long-forgotten painting that speaks to her deeply. It also reminds her of a painting she saw in a magazine: a piece of art by the painter using the pseudonym Clyde, which is about to go on auction for a fortune.

The art school is the obvious tie between the two storylines, but as Virginia works to both save Grand Central and uncover the truth about the painting she found, more links between the two stories emerge. I found this a very enjoyable read.

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Filed under American history, Book Reviews, Historical fiction, Twentieth century

Sunday Review: Paris Never Leaves You by Ellen Feldman

For the most part, I’m weary of all the historical novels set during the world wars, but once in a while, the premise of one will intrigue me enough to give it a chance. Paris Never Leaves You is such a novel. The story is told with the popular device of dual timelines—New York publishing during the 1950s and World War II in Paris—but it feels less disjointed than many such novels because one main character anchors both periods.

In the WWII storyline, Charlotte, a French war widow with a very young daughter, runs a bookstore with a friend during the German occupation of Paris. When the friend is arrested, Charlotte must survive on her own. She reluctantly forms a relationship with a German officer—a frequent bookshop customer—who can provide much-needed food for her child, but it is relationship riddled with danger for both of them.

During the later storyline, Charlotte is trying to live a low-key life in New York, doing her work as an editor and raising her teenage daughter Vivi. However, Charlotte faces an unexpected challenge when Vivi, who knows that in the last days of the war, she and her mother were imprisoned in a camp for French Jews, develops a sudden interest in exploring her Jewish heritage despite her mother’s agnosticism.

I’m reluctant to say more because the novel contains some surprise revelations—portrayals of survival strategies I haven’t seen in other novels set in this time period. Suffice it to say that it deals with the short-term and long-term costs of making moral compromises to stay alive.

For me, the book is a solid 4-star read. Not all of the relationships ring completely true to me, but they were plausible enough to keep reading and enjoy other aspects of the story.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Historical fiction, Twentieth century, World War II

Sunday Review: A Woman of Intelligence by Karin Tanabe

This novel seemed like an appropriate choice to follow up Stephanie Marie Thornton’s A Most Clever Girl because both deal with women in the intelligence game in mid-twentieth century United States. The premise intrigued me enough to overlook my qualms about the cover image: “It’s stunning,” I thought, “but that outfit is more 1962 than 1952.” In this case, I absolutely should have judged the book by its cover. The story never felt authentic to me.

Katharina, the daughter of immigrants, grew up speaking four languages and has since become conversational in at least one more—Russian. The novel opens in the early 1950s with Katharina and a friend watching their very young children in Central Park. The friend seems to have taken to motherhood effortlessly; she’s calm, empathetic, and decisive in dealing with her daughter and any crises that arise. In contrast, Katharina is easily overwhelmed by her rambunctious toddler and crying baby.

Once her “present-day situation” is established, we go back in time to her life just after World War II. Because of her skill set, Katharina gets a job as a simultaneous translator at the UN (similar to Audrey Hepburn in the movie Charade, which is one of my all-time favorites, so I was intrigued). However, from the start, I found it hard to relate to Katharina. Even though she mentions in passing that translating the important discussions at the UN helps her feel that she is contributing meaningfully to world peace, that doesn’t truly seem to be what she loves most about her life. Rather, she rhapsodizes about being single and going out with her French friend, eating great food, drinking all night, and flirting with men, often going to bed with them. She comes across as a shallow hedonist.

Unlike many young women of the time period, she is not pursuing marriage. However, when she meets handsome Tom Edgeworth, a devoted and much-loved pediatric surgeon, she falls for him and he for her. They marry, not exactly in haste, but without much effort to discover if they are truly compatible as life partners, not just dinner partners and bedmates. Tom has made it perfectly clear that he expects the woman he marries to provide him with children as quickly as possible and to devote herself to them full-time. It seems to me that if Katharina is half as intelligent as we’re supposed to believe, she would have seen the red flags right away. Her French friend certainly tried to get her to view the prospect realistically. Yet Katharina marries Tom with a disturbing lack of concern.

Faster forward to motherhood, and Katharina is miserable, “trapped in a gilded cage” as the book jacket says. When she develops insomnia and starts drinking heavily and behaving erratically, Tom has little sympathy for his wife. Instead, he grows even more rigid even though he suspects she is having a breakdown.

Suddenly, in the midst of this increasing discord, the FBI recruits her. They plan to arrange things so she’ll encounter her former college lover, Jacob Gornev, in hopes that she will eventually be able to spy on him—because he is highly placed among American communists. (Is it just a coincidence that his name is so similar to Jacob Golos, the real-life communist spy who played such a prominence role in A Most Cleve Girl? I doubt it.)

Katharina’s main contact at the FBI is Turner Wells, a black agent who is spying on a civil rights group because, although he believes in civil rights, he’s afraid of too much communist influence on the movement. (A situation I found to be really distasteful and rather peculiar for a white author to place her one prominent and supposedly sympathetic character of color in.) To add one more bit of spice to this improbable stew of ingredients, Tanabe decided to have Katharina feel an almost instantaneous but forbidden sexual attraction to Turner.

The feminist exploration of motherhood might have worked on its own or with a different partner story, and the tangled loyalties of FBI agents could have been quite interesting. But the two storylines felt forced together in a marriage that was as incompatible as Katharina and Tom’s.

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Filed under American history, Book Reviews, Historical fiction, Twentieth century

Sunday Review: A Most Clever Girl by Stephanie Marie Thornton

This historical novel is based on the life of Elizabeth Bentley, an American who was recruited into the American Communist Party by friends. Soon thereafter, Bentley discovers a valuable role she can play for the party, a role that she believes will also help her country. Bentley falls in love with her handler, Jacob Golos, and together they form the largest foreign spy ring in the United States. All through World War II, she tells herself that she is not a traitor to her country because the Soviet Union is a U.S. ally so to help one is to help the other.

Things become much more perilous after the war when the United States and Soviet Union enter the period of hostility known as the Cold War. Events test Elizabeth’s loyalties until eventually she must irrevocably choose sides.

Bentley’s life is fascinating, and she certainly played a pivotal role in the mid-twentieth-century history. However, my enthusiasm for the novel was blunted a bit by its format. It is told as a dialogue between Elizabeth and a young woman who is searching for answers about her biological mother, whom she believes was one of Elizabeth’s associates. I think the story would have been more vivid if it hadn’t been spun in this retrospective way.

Despite that quibble, I recommend A Most Clever Girl to anyone interested in the era of Red scares, McCarthyism, and the Cold War.

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Filed under American history, Book Reviews, Historical fiction, Twentieth century