Review: The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead

Review: The Nickel Boys, Colson WhiteheadThe Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
Published by Doubleday Books ISBN: 0385537077
on July 16, 2019
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 214
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
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five-stars

In this bravura follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize, and National Book Award-winning #1 New York Times bestseller The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead brilliantly dramatizes another strand of American history through the story of two boys sentenced to a hellish reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida.

As the Civil Rights movement begins to reach the black enclave of Frenchtown in segregated Tallahassee, Elwood Curtis takes the words of Dr. Martin Luther King to heart: He is "as good as anyone." Abandoned by his parents, but kept on the straight and narrow by his grandmother, Elwood is about to enroll in the local black college. But for a black boy in the Jim Crow South of the early 1960s, one innocent mistake is enough to destroy the future. Elwood is sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy, whose mission statement says it provides "physical, intellectual and moral training" so the delinquent boys in their charge can become "honorable and honest men." In reality, the Nickel Academy is a grotesque chamber of horrors where the sadistic staff beats and sexually abuses the students, corrupt officials and locals steal food and supplies, and any boy who resists is likely to disappear "out back." Stunned to find himself in such a vicious environment, Elwood tries to hold onto Dr. King's ringing assertion "Throw us in jail and we will still love you." His friend Turner thinks Elwood is worse than naive, that the world is crooked, and that the only way to survive is to scheme and avoid trouble. The tension between Elwood's ideals and Turner's skepticism leads to a decision whose repercussions will echo down the decades. Formed in the crucible of the evils Jim Crow wrought, the boys' fates will be determined by what they endured at the Nickel Academy. Based on the real story of a reform school in Florida that operated for one hundred and eleven years and warped the lives of thousands of children, The Nickel Boys is a devastating, driven narrative that showcases a great American novelist writing at the height of his powers.

As soon as I heard about the impending publication of The Nickel Boys, it went on my to-read list. Whitehead’s last novel, The Underground Railroad, is one of the best books I’ve read in the last few years. One of the things I appreciated most about The Nickel Boys is that it amplified the stories of the boys who attended the Dozier School for Boys, also known as the Florida School for Boys, and their stories should not be lost. Their stories are horrific, but we owe it to ourselves not to look away—to face what we have done as Americans. Plenty of people knew what was happening in this prison, for calling it a school is inappropriate. Many of the stories out of Dozier are coming from white men who suffered indescribable horrors at this school, but Whitehead’s novel shares the stories of their Black counterparts, who suffered the same atrocities with the additional indignities of Jim Crow, segregation, and racism.

While this novel shines a light on the abuse endured by the boys at Dozier, renamed Nickel in this book, this book is really about a young man, Elwood Curtis, hanging on to his dignity as a human being, attempting to maintain his feelings of self-worth, and passing that regard on to his friend Turner, who thinks people are basically irredeemable (where has he had the opportunity to learn otherwise?) and that the best way to make it through is to keep your head down, and scheme for what you can get. The tragic thing is that places like Nickel have crushed young men like Elwood, and they are doing it as I write this, too. America needs to come to terms with the school-to-prison pipeline and the injustice in sentencing that disproportionately punishes Black and Brown men. My personal opinion is that it’s time, past time, to talk about reparations. Like Ta-Nehisi Coates says, we allow the “how” of reparations stop us from considering the “why,” and books like The Nickel Boys provide plenty of evidence for why. 

Ben Montgomery and Waveny Ann Moore ask in their expose on Dozier, “What is the cost to society of such a place?” As the authors argue, “boys went in damaged and came out destroyed.” A former psychologist at Dozier said, “Anytime you’ve got human beings together, you’re going to have people abusing each other.” But we cannot dismiss what happened like that.

Further Reading:

five-stars

Midyear Catchup Reviews

Riss Design

Grad school has certainly cut into my reading, but I knew going into my degree program that something would need to give. I am still doing a ton of reading, but it’s mostly scholarly articles and research. I did manage to read a few things I haven’t had a chance to review on my blog, though.

My husband and I listened to Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black, read by Dion Graham, who was an excellent narrator. The novel is the story of Washington Black, who is enslaved on a sugar plantation in Barbados when he meets Christopher “Titch” Wilde, a scientist and inventor who changes Washington’s life. The two men embark on an adventure in a balloon that takes them all the way to the North Pole.

I really liked this one. It’s part historical fiction and part fantasy and part road trip. Some reviewers I’ve read mention the book drags a bit in the second half, and I would agree with that assessment, but nothing put me off wanting to finish it. If you haven’t read it, definitely pick it up, and I can’t recommend Dion Graham’s narration highly enough. Rating: ★★★★★

Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans is a children’s book that came across my radar at an English teacher conference I usually attend each year. This book is an incredibly illustrated series of vignettes in African-American history as told by a grandmotherly narrator. Kadir Nelson both writes an illustrates the story. I plan to use it as a mentor text in my Social Justice class next school year. This is one of those books I wish I had as a kid. I loved reading about science and history, and I believe this one would have fascinated me. What I loved most about it is that anyone of any age can enjoy it. It’s perfect to share with children, but it’s one of those books I think the adults would enjoy as much as the kids, and it would be perfect for storytime. An instant classic! Rating: ★★★★★

Kwame Alexander collaborated with Kadir Nelson on The UndefeatedThis is another book I bought as a mentor text for my students. The Undefeated is a poem by Kwame Alexandar that celebrates the strength and resilience of African Americans. Once again, this is a children’s book that will appeal to all ages. Adults will enjoy the references to historical figures, and children will enjoy the wordplay and images—actually, adults will enjoy those, too. Kadir Nelson’s artwork is brilliant, yet again, and reading these two books made me want to search out everything he writes and/or illustrates. You can check out a video trailer for the book below. Rating: ★★★★★

 

 

Review: The Daughters of Temperance Hobbs, Katherine Howe

Review: The Daughters of Temperance Hobbs, Katherine HoweThe Daughters of Temperance Hobbs by Katherine Howe
Published by Henry Holt and Co. ISBN: 1250304865
on June 25, 2019
Genres: Historical Fiction, Fantasy/Science Fiction
Pages: 352
Format: Hardcover
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five-stars

New York Times bestselling author Katherine Howe returns to the world of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane with a bewitching story of a New England history professor who must race against time to free her family from a curseConnie Goodwin is an expert on America’s fractured past with witchcraft. A young, tenure-track professor in Boston, she’s earned career success by studying the history of magic in colonial America—especially women’s home recipes and medicines—and by exposing society's threats against women fluent in those skills. But beyond her studies, Connie harbors a secret: She is the direct descendant of a woman tried as a witch in Salem, an ancestor whose abilities were far more magical than the historical record shows.

When a hint from her mother and clues from her research lead Connie to the shocking realization that her partner’s life is in danger, she must race to solve the mystery behind a hundreds’-years-long deadly curse.

Flashing back through American history to the lives of certain supernaturally gifted women, The Daughters of Temperance Hobbs affectingly reveals not only the special bond that unites one particular matriarchal line, but also explores the many challenges to women’s survival across the decades—and the risks some women are forced to take to protect what they love most.

I happened upon The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane in a bookstore shortly after it was first published and snatched it up immediately. Salem? Witches? Academia? Right up my alley for sure. As soon as I found out its followup, The Daughters of Temperance Hobbs was coming out, I preordered it, which is something I rarely do. You do not have to have read The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane in order to enjoy its followup, but I think you will enjoy it more if you do. In fact, after finishing The Daughters of Temperance Hobbs, I want to go back and read The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane again.

This book offers a bit more of Deliverance’s backstory, but mainly focuses on her descendants Connie, as Physick Book did, and Temperance (also Connie’s ancestor). Readers are also treated to peeks inside the lives of each generation of the family going back to Deliverance’s parents in England. I had to go back and make a family tree for myself, but it’s a bit spoilery, so I’ll put it at the end for those of you who want to read the book first.

Just as I did with Physick Book, I connected personally in many ways with this book. Just like Connie, I called my own grandmother Granna, and I thought I’d invented the name. When I told Katherine Howe this story years ago, she said she thought she had made it up, too! Prudence’s diary reminds me a great deal of my own ancestor Stella Bowling Cunningham’s diary, and Katherine Howe shared she had been inspired by Prudence Ballard’s  A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812. This book has some other interesting connections. Connie is working on obtaining tenure as a history professor at Northeastern University, where I am currently pursuing a doctorate in education.

This next bit is maybe the tiniest bit of a spoiler, but I don’t think knowing it in advance hurts anyone’s enjoyment, so I’ll spill. There is a sort of interesting parallel for me in that Connie considers applying for a position at Harvard, but realizes it would not work for her. I actually applied to Harvard’s Graduate School of Education doctoral program. I didn’t get in (it’s at least as selective as undergraduate admissions, though I hear getting into their master’s program is pretty easy—but I already have a master’s and didn’t want to work on another one, even at Harvard). I was really bummed out about it, but I had a conversation with a friend of Steve’s, who made me feel better about the rejection and also encouraged me to apply to another program. I applied to the program at Northeastern. I was really attracted to it in the first place when I was making a list of graduate schools to apply to, but I think I was charmed by the idea of attending Harvard, just like Connie is initially charmed by the idea of the assistant professor job at Harvard, even though she knows it will not lead to tenure, and the job at Northeastern will. It’s so weird!  I know now that the program at Northeastern is much more suited to what I want to do, where I am in my professional life right now, and the goals I have for the future. Just like Connie. I know it’s a minor similarity, but I connected to it.

One of the things I like about Katherine Howe’s writing is her eye for the tiny detail—the way someone leans against a countertop or plays with their hair—it brings her characters to life. I feel like I can really see everything she is describing. Her characters are also interesting and likable. I really liked Connie’s protege Zazi Molina. Temperance herself is an awesome character as well. As in Physick Book, the book’s settings themselves, from the old house on Milk Street in Marblehead, to Connie’s apartment on Mass Ave. in Cambridge, to the probate office in Salem, all the settings come alive. This is a fun and engaging read, but you’ll also learn something about history into the bargain.

Here is the family tree if you want it. Mild spoilers.

Deliverance Hasseltine Dane (parents are Robert and Anne Hasseltine)
+Mercy Dane Lamson
++Prudence Lamson Bartlett
+++Patience Bartlett Jacobs
++++Temperance Jacobs Hobbs
+++++Faith Hobbs Bishop
++++++Verity Bishop Lawrence
+++++++Chastity Lawrence
++++++++Charity Lawrence Crowninshield
+++++++++Sophia Crowninshield Goodwin
++++++++++Grace Goodwin
+++++++++++Constance “Connie” Goodwin

five-stars

Review: Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi

Review: Homegoing, Yaa GyasiHomegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Published by Vintage ISBN: 1101971061
on April 7, 2017
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 305
Format: Paperback
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Ghana, eighteenth century: two half-sisters are born into different villages, each unaware of the other. One will marry an Englishman and lead a life of comfort in the palatial rooms of the Cape Coast Castle. The other will be captured in a raid on her village, imprisoned in the very same castle, and sold into slavery.

Homegoing follows the parallel paths of these sisters and their descendants through eight generations: from the Gold Coast to the plantations of Mississippi, from the American Civil War to Jazz Age Harlem. Yaa Gyasi’s extraordinary novel illuminates slavery’s troubled legacy both for those who were taken and those who stayed—and shows how the memory of captivity has been inscribed on the soul of our nation.

Homegoing took my breath away. At times, I had to put it down for a little bit just to think about what I had read, and other times, I couldn’t put it down. I finished it in about three giant gulps over a couple of days. While Gyasi’s prose isn’t flashy, the story she tells pierced me right through the heart. I think it’s changed my life. Ernest Hemingway said once, “All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse, and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was.” That’s how I feel after reading this book. That it’s truer than if the stories it told really happened and that those stories now belong to me in some way. I can’t find it now, but I swear I’ve read a quote by some famous smart person that said something along the lines of this: every once in a while, you encounter a book, and it becomes such an important book to you and leaves such an impression, that you can mark your life before you read it and after.

The book is drawing inevitable comparisons to Roots, and for good reason. One criticism I’ve read of Gyasi’s writing in several reviews is that many of the experiences of the African-American branch of the book’s family seem sort of “shoehorned” into African-American history. In a sense, I can see it, but to me, it never felt inauthentic. I mean, it wasn’t like Forrest Gump. In a way, I saw some of these passages as connections to African-American literature, such as James Baldwin’s story “Sonny’s Blues” or the American legend of John Henry. Isabel Wilkerson criticized Gyasi for perpetuating a stereotype:

And there is a jarring moment when the last of the West African line, a young girl named Marjorie, immigrates to America with her parents, settling in Huntsville, Ala. (as did Gyasi’s family). There, she learns that the people who look like her “were not the same kind of black that she was.” The only African-American student we meet is a girl named Tisha, who ridicules the studious Ghanaian. “Why you reading that book?” Tisha asks her. When Marjorie stammers that she has to read it for class, Tisha makes fun of her. “I have to read it for class,” Tisha says, mimicking her accent. “You sound like a white girl.” It is dispiriting to encounter such a worn-out cliché—that ­African-Americans are hostile to reading and education—in a work of such beauty.

I totally understand Wilkerson’s pain at encountering this stereotype. Yet, the incident as described in the book smacks of something that really happened to Gyasi. One has the feeling that as a Ghanaian immigrant, she did feel different and was treated differently. I certainly don’t mean to discount Wilkerson’s criticism. When I read the scene, I felt the same way as Wilkerson, and yet, I also sensed it was possible an uncomfortable true story was fictionalized for Gyasi’s character.

Gyasi is at her most brilliant in describing the relationships between parents and children. It’s maddening and frustrating that the reader knows the stories of the ancestors unknown especially to the African-American family, but also to the African family as well, and in their case, because of choices made by the characters. So much loss. It’s difficult to comprehend. Some studies suggest that trauma leaves an intergenerational impact. And when you have a situation in which trauma is re-inflicted, for generation after generation, recovery seems almost hopeless. But empathy—telling our stories, and especially listening to the stories of others—is one path forward.

I had a feeling about the way the story might end up, and it was gratifying and redemptive. While parts of this book are difficult and grueling—Gyasi does not flinch from the realism of the characters’ experiences, and she forces us to look, too—there is also much joy and love, and it’s hard not to feel hopeful after reading the end. This is one I think I’ll be recommending to everybody.

Review: Sky in the Deep, Adrienne Young

Review: Sky in the Deep, Adrienne YoungSky in the Deep by Adrienne Young
Published by Wednesday Books ISBN: 1250168457
on April 24, 2018
Genres: Fantasy/Science Fiction, Young Adult
Pages: 352
Format: Hardcover
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three-half-stars

OND ELDR. BREATHE FIRE.

Raised to be a warrior, seventeen-year-old Eelyn fights alongside her Aska clansmen in an ancient rivalry against the Riki clan. Her life is brutal but simple: fight and survive. Until the day she sees the impossible on the battlefield—her brother, fighting with the enemy—the brother she watched die five years ago.

Faced with her brother's betrayal, she must survive the winter in the mountains with the Riki, in a village where every neighbor is an enemy, every battle scar possibly one she delivered. But when the Riki village is raided by a ruthless clan thought to be a legend, Eelyn is even more desperate to get back to her beloved family.

She is given no choice but to trust Fiske, her brother’s friend, who sees her as a threat. They must do the impossible: unite the clans to fight together, or risk being slaughtered one by one. Driven by a love for her clan and her growing love for Fiske, Eelyn must confront her own definition of loyalty and family while daring to put her faith in the people she’s spent her life hating.

I received a signed first edition of this book in my Owl Crate box subscription. The cover and premise of the book intrigued me. Sky in the Deep is unusual in that its Viking-inspired setting and warrior heroine aren’t often found in YA fantasy. The book’s trailer does a good job capturing the setting, the real star of the novel:

The egalitarian society Adrienne Young describes in the book is one of its more interesting aspects. Women and men both can be warriors, healers, spiritual leaders. Eelyn, the novel’s heroine, is a warrior, and based on descriptions of her prowess, a pretty good one. Despite a lot of wishful thinking, I believe the jury is still out on the extent to which shieldmaidens were a real thing in the Viking era, though a quick glance at Norse myth supports the idea at least in part. I liked the Riki characters Eelyn winds up living with, but one can’t help cry foul over the Stockholm syndrome. I’m not sure how healthy it is for YA books to continue with the trope of the woman who falls in love with someone who captures and in this case, abuses the protagonist—he has his blacksmith fit her with a slave’s collar. Fiske never emerges as very interesting to me anyway; though he’s written in that swoony way you see in a lot of YA fiction, it’s not overdone (to the author’s credit). I loved that the author didn’t try to make the reader fall in love with Fiske.

In any case, the book is a quick, fun read. Be warned: it’s pretty violent. Young doesn’t flinch from describing this warrior culture in full detail. Many of the names—both people and places—come from Old Norse and are still in use today. In searching out some of the names in the book, I stumbled on the author’s Pinterest board for inspiration. Of course, now I’m looking for it to link it, I can’t find it again. I halfway wonder if she’s made it private in the days since I found it. I am not sure why, but discovering that Pinterest board of inspirational images utterly charmed me.

This book is different from typical YA in many ways, and it’s easy to keep turning the pages, and though the plot unwinds in a fairly predictable fashion, the ride isn’t any less fun. I probably would have loved it had I read it as a teen, and given that is who the audience is, it’s worth giving it a try if you’re in that demographic. If you’re not, you still might enjoy it.

Though it might be more accurate to describe this book as Viking-inspired fantasy, I’m still going to count it as historical fiction also because I think it fits that genre, even if the story is not strictly based on true historical events. For the Literary Voyage Challenge, I’m settling on Norway as a setting.

 

 

three-half-stars

Review: The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen

Review: The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh NguyenThe Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Published by Grove Press ISBN: 0802124941
on April 12th 2016
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 384
Format: Paperback
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four-stars

Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, The Sympathizer is a Vietnam War novel unlike any other. The narrator, one of the most arresting of recent fiction, is a man of two minds and divided loyalties, a half-French half-Vietnamese communist sleeper agent living in America after the end of the war.

It is April 1975, and Saigon is in chaos. At his villa, a general of the South Vietnamese army is drinking whiskey and, with the help of his trusted captain, drawing up a list of those who will be given passage aboard the last flights out of the country. But, unbeknownst to the general, this captain is an undercover operative for the communists, who instruct him to add his own name to the list and accompany the general to America. As the general and his compatriots start a new life in Los Angeles, the captain continues to observe the group, sending coded letters to an old friend who is now a higher-up within the communist administration. Under suspicion, the captain is forced to contemplate terrible acts in order to remain undetected. And when he falls in love, he finds that his lofty ideals clash violently with his loyalties to the people close to him, a contradiction that may prove unresolvable.

A gripping spy novel, a moving story of love and friendship, and a layered portrayal of a young man drawn into extreme politics, The Sympathizer examines the legacy of the Vietnam War in literature, film, and the wars we fight today.

I’ve been working on finishing this book for a long time, and I am trying to figure out why it was so hard to pick back up again on the occasions when I put it aside because I did like the book. I don’t have to sympathize with the main character in order to like a book (I love Wuthering Heights and find all the characters difficult to sympathize with). So, even though the narrator can be difficult to “like,” I don’t think that is the problem. I can appreciate a finely tuned sentence. I think ultimately, however, the plot really needs to move along, and in some places, the plot of The Sympathizer plods. Two notable exceptions are a chunk of the middle of the book when the unnamed protagonist is consulting on a Vietnam War movie, The Hamlet, that is clearly modeled after Apocalypse Now and Platoon and again towards the end after the protagonist is captured upon returning to Vietnam. I recognize Nguyen’s argument that the Vietnam War is exceptional in that the war’s defeated have controlled the narrative about that war, starting with movies like Apocalypse Now and Platoon and continuing with novels like Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. I love that novel, but it erases the Vietnamese people entirely from its narrative. In my favorite passage in the book, the protagonist reflects on his failure to reclaim the narrative through working with the director of The Hamlet:

I had failed and the Auteur would make The Hamlet as he intended, with my countrymen serving merely as raw material for an epic about white men saving good yellow people from bad yellow people. I pitied the French for their naïveté in believing they had to visit a country in order to exploit it. Hollywood was much more efficient, imagining the countries it wanted to exploit I was maddened by my helplessness before the Auteur’s imagination and machinations. His arrogance marked something new in the world, for this was the first war where the losers would write history instead of the victors, courtesy of the most efficient propaganda machine ever created (with all due respect to Joseph Goebbels and the Nazis, who never achieved global domination). Hollywood’s high priests understood innately the observation of Milton’s Satan, that it was better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven, better to be a villain, loser, or antihero than virtuous extra, so long as one commanded the bright lights of center stage. In this forthcoming Hollywood trompe l’oeil, all the Vietnamese of any side would come out poorly, herded into the roles of the poor, the innocent, the evil, or the corrupt. Our fate was not to be merely mute; we were to be struck dumb.

The Sympathizer is brilliant. I think it suffers a bit from some of its own good press. For example, Ron Charles (who writes brilliant reviews for The Washington Post), described this book as “a cerebral thriller around a desperate expat story that confronts the existential dilemmas of our age.” So, I was expecting a thriller. It’s not, really. As to the rest of Charles’s description, it’s accurate, and his review will give you an excellent idea about what makes the book great. Ultimately, it dragged in some places for me, but I can appreciate what Nguyen has done with this novel.

 

four-stars

Review: The Movement of Stars, Amy Brill

Review: The Movement of Stars, Amy BrillThe Movement of Stars by Amy Brill
Published by Riverhead Books ISBN: 1594487448
on April 18th 2013
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 380
Format: E-Book
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four-stars

A love story set in 1845 Nantucket, between a female astronomer and the unusual man who understands her dreams. It is 1845, and Hannah Gardner Price has lived all twenty-four years of her life according to the principles of the Nantucket Quaker community in which she was raised, where simplicity and restraint are valued above all, and a woman’s path is expected to lead to marriage and motherhood. But up on the rooftop each night, Hannah pursues a very different—and elusive—goal: discovering a comet and thereby winning a gold medal awarded by the King of Denmark, something unheard of for a woman.

And then she meets Isaac Martin, a young, dark-skinned whaler from the Azores who, like herself, has ambitions beyond his expected station in life. Drawn to his intellectual curiosity and honest manner, Hannah agrees to take Isaac on as a student. but when their shared interest in the stars develops into something deeper, Hannah’s standing in the community begins to unravel, challenging her most fundamental beliefs about work and love, and ultimately changing the course of her life forever.

Inspired by the work of Maria Mitchell, the first professional female astronomer in America, The Movement of Stars is a richly drawn portrait of desire and ambition in the face of adversity.

Amy Brill’s writing reminds me a bit of that of Tracy Chevalier, though perhaps not quite as deft. As the inspiration for Brill’s Hannah Price is Maria Mitchell, I wonder why Brill didn’t just write about Maria Mitchell. I assume she wanted to take some artistic license with the story, especially perhaps in bringing in Hannah’s student Isaac Martin. I might have appreciated the storyline the more if Hannah had continued to view Isaac as a friend a pupil. I didn’t necessarily need a love story. And the love story was impossible for their times in any case.

Brill explains in her author’s note that she changed some dates. For example, Maria Mitchell met Mary Somerville in 1858, but Brill placed the meeting between Somerville and Hannah Price some eleven years earlier. Hannah’s friend photographs Mizar and Alcor in 1847, but the real photograph was taken a decade later. After I read that, I wondered if the technology to take the photograph even existed in 1847. If not, that’s a pretty large issue. Brill paints the setting of Nantucket well, and I enjoyed her characters, especially Isaac.

I initially started reading this book some time back and put it down for a while. It had been a long time since I’d put it down, so I just started over again. My reason for reading it now is that the Monthly Motif Challenge theme for April is “Read Locally.” I couldn’t really find much of anything to read that’s set in Worcester, but Worcester does get a mention in this book when the third-person narrator explains that many Nantucketers had moved to find work in the Worcester mills. Close enough!

four-stars

Review: The Miniaturist, Jessie Burton

Review: The Miniaturist, Jessie BurtonThe Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
Published by Ecco ISBN: 0062306847
on June 2nd 2015
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 416
Format: E-Book
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four-stars

Set in seventeenth-century Amsterdam—a city ruled by glittering wealth and oppressive religion—a masterful debut steeped in atmosphere and shimmering with mystery, in the tradition of Emma Donoghue, Sarah Waters, and Sarah Dunant.

"There is nothing hidden that will not be revealed . . ."

On a brisk autumn day in 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam to begin a new life as the wife of illustrious merchant trader Johannes Brandt. But her new home, while splendorous, is not welcoming. Johannes is kind yet distant, always locked in his study or at his warehouse office—leaving Nella alone with his sister, the sharp-tongued and forbidding Marin.

But Nella's world changes when Johannes presents her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home. To furnish her gift, Nella engages the services of a miniaturist—an elusive and enigmatic artist whose tiny creations mirror their real-life counterparts in eerie and unexpected ways . . .

Johannes' gift helps Nella to pierce the closed world of the Brandt household. But as she uncovers its unusual secrets, she begins to understand—and fear—the escalating dangers that await them all. In this repressively pious society where gold is worshipped second only to God, to be different is a threat to the moral fabric of society, and not even a man as rich as Johannes is safe. Only one person seems to see the fate that awaits them. Is the miniaturist the key to their salvation . . . or the architect of their destruction?

Enchanting, beautiful, and exquisitely suspenseful, The Miniaturist is a magnificent story of love and obsession, betrayal and retribution, appearance and truth.

I can’t remember when I bought this book for my Kindle. I think maybe it was one of those deals, and the book had caught my eye in any case because of its cover. However, it looks like it’s been shelved on Goodreads since June 2014, which is around the time it was released, I believe.

I read most of this book (nearly 2/3 of it) today in one pretty big gulp. It takes a little while to get going, but once it does, things seem to be happening left and right. The book feels well-researched, with strong historical details that ring true. The book even has a glossary detailing further information about economics and Dutch terms from the seventeenth century. The characters are also vivid and interesting. One thing that struck me as I finished this book is one constant in human history is man’s inhumanity to man as well as the perseverance of strong women in the face of the world’s cruelty. On the other hand, some details don’t ring true—women characters in historical fiction are often more a reflection of our own times than theirs, and I can see why. I don’t really want to read about a meek woman who keeps her mouth shut and does as she is told, either. Perhaps the least plausible aspect of the book is Nella’s devotion to Johannes. He hasn’t been all that great of a husband, truth be told. And while certain aspects of his behavior would be viewed differently today than in seventeenth-century Amsterdam, the way that he consistently ignores Nella and her feelings didn’t engender a whole lot of sympathy from this reader.

Many times when I am reading a book, I am curious what others on Goodreads have to say about it, and in the case of this book, one reviewer noted she thought the conceit of the miniaturist was unnecessary. This might merit a spoiler alert, but really, we never do learn much about the strange miniaturist who knows so much about Nella’s home and the dangers coming or what motivates the miniaturist, so in that sense, I can understand why some might consider the character unnecessary. I am undecided, myself. Mainly, I was curious as to what inspired the book, because it reads like something definitely inspired it, and I found this snippet from an interview Jessie Burton gave in advance of the BBC’s miniseries based on The Miniaturist:

I was in Amsterdam on holiday. We went to the Rijksmuseum and that’s where I first saw the real dolls’ house, which is actually called a cabinet, which became the symbol of the novel and my point of focus for writing it. I was immediately struck by how beautiful it was and how imposing it was, as well as intricate and intimate. Then when I found out that the woman who owned it, Petronella Oortman, spent as much money on it as a real house, I became interested in the psychology of the cabinet house and what it symbolised, both in regards to the city of Amsterdam and this woman is her domestic, claustrophobic existence. It took her 19 years in total to complete it and she hired the services of over 800 craftsmen and women in the city of Amsterdam and beyond. In my mind’s eye all I could see was one woman, Nella, turning up at this imposing merchant house in Amsterdam.

Using the real Petronella Oortman as inspiration, Burton invented Petronella Oortman Brandt. I didn’t realize it had been made into a miniseries before searching for information about the book’s inspiration. I don’t believe the miniseries has been released in the USA.

In all, I enjoyed the book quite a bit for what it was—an interesting peek into the life of a merchant’s wife in seventeenth-century Amsterdam rendered with some very nice passages of good writing.

  

This book counts for the Literary Voyage Around the World Reading Challenge, the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge, and the Monthly Motif Reading Challenge due to its setting of seventeenth-century Amsterdam, Netherlands. March’s motif for the latter challenge is “Travel the World.”

 

four-stars

Review: In the Shadow of the Banyan, Vaddey Ratner

Review: In the Shadow of the Banyan, Vaddey RatnerIn the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner
ISBN: 1451657714
on September 1st 2012
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Historical Fiction
Pages: 322
Format: Paperback
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four-half-stars

A beautiful celebration of the power of hope, this New York Times bestselling novel tells the story of a girl who comes of age during the Cambodian genocide.

You are about to read an extraordinary story, a PEN Hemingway Award finalist "rich with history, mythology, folklore, language and emotion." It will take you to the very depths of despair and show you unspeakable horrors. It will reveal a gorgeously rich culture struggling to survive through a furtive bow, a hidden ankle bracelet, fragments of remembered poetry. It will ensure that the world never forgets the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge regime in the Cambodian killing fields between 1975 and 1979, when an estimated two million people lost their lives. It will give you hope, and it will confirm the power of storytelling to lift us up and help us not only survive but transcend suffering, cruelty, and loss.

For seven-year-old Raami, the shattering end of childhood begins with the footsteps of her father returning home in the early dawn hours, bringing details of the civil war that has overwhelmed the streets of Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. Soon the family’s world of carefully guarded royal privilege is swept up in the chaos of revolution and forced exodus. Over the next four years, as the Khmer Rouge attempts to strip the population of every shred of individual identity, Raami clings to the only remaining vestige of her childhood—the mythical legends and poems told to her by her father. In a climate of systematic violence where memory is sickness and justification for execution, Raami fights for her improbable survival. Displaying the author’s extraordinary gift for language, In the Shadow of the Banyan is a brilliantly wrought tale of human resilience.

In the Shadow of the Banyan is a moving debut. Ratner is a survivor of the Cambodian genocide of the late 1970’s and later came to America. She says in her author’s note that this novel is her own story with some details compressed or changed. It’s quite a lyrical and moving account of the horrific story of the Cambodian Killing Fields from the viewpoint of a child.

Where the novel suffers, if it does, is the focus. Ratner explains she wanted to show us Cambodia as it was before its destruction at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, but as a result, the novel takes a while to get going. The bulk of the first half is devoted to the first few days and weeks after the Khmer Rouge sends citizens of Phnom Penh into the countryside, and the last several years are compressed. For example, in an interview in the back of the book, Ratner says her journey escaping to Thailand was more fraught and would rate a book in itself. While I wasn’t looking for the worst of the story at the expense of fonder memories, it felt a bit of a cheat to magnify some events at the expense of others that might have been more compelling. As a result, the novel feels uneven; however, as a debut, it’s quite powerful with some poetic moments and beautiful storytelling as well as an emphasis on the importance of living and telling your story.

I read this book for several reading challenges:

Due to its late 1970’s setting in Cambodia, this novel counts for the Historical Fiction Challenge. It’s also my third country stop for the Literary Voyage Around the World Challenge. As I enjoyed several cups of tea, mostly Bigelow’s Constant Comment and at least one cup of Simpson & Vail’s Jane Austen Black Tea Blend, it also qualifies for the Share-a-Tea Challenge.

four-half-stars

Review: Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood

Review: Alias Grace, Margaret AtwoodAlias Grace by Margaret Atwood
Published by Doubleday Nan A. Talese ISBN: 0385475713
on November 2, 2017
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 468
Format: Audio
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five-stars

From the number one New York Times best-selling author of The Handmaid's Tale

Soon to be a Netflix Original series, Alias Grace takes listeners into the life of one of the most notorious women of the 19th century.

It's 1843, and Grace Marks has been convicted for her involvement in the vicious murders of her employer and his housekeeper and mistress. Some believe Grace is innocent; others think her evil or insane. Now serving a life sentence, Grace claims to have no memory of the murders.

An up-and-coming expert in the burgeoning field of mental illness is engaged by a group of reformers and spiritualists who seek a pardon for Grace. He listens to her story while bringing her closer and closer to the day she cannot remember. What will he find in attempting to unlock her memories?

Captivating and disturbing, Alias Grace showcases best-selling, Booker Prize-winning author Margaret Atwood at the peak of her powers.

The miniseries Alias Grace is a Halfire Entertainment Production made for CBC and Netflix.

I think I’ve mentioned this before, but my husband and I like to listen to audiobooks while we cook dinner, and I have picked most of them. We made a deal that I would pick one more, and I was supposed to surprise him and pick whatever I wanted, and then it would be his turn. We had tried to listen to Lincoln in the Bardo, but I just couldn’t follow the story in audio. That was the last book my husband picked, I think. I thought long and hard about which book to pick. I almost picked The Handmaid’s Tale because I don’t think he’s read it, but I have read it, and I had wanted to read Alias Grace. I thought maybe my husband would like it because it is based on a true crime story, and he is something of a true crime aficionado.

Both of us liked the novel quite a lot. I think we are planning to watch the Netflix series, too. My husband remarked several times about what an excellent writer Margaret Atwood is. I am not sure if we were meant to think about Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, which was also based on a true crime. To my way of thinking, Alias Grace has more than a healthy dose of Naturalism as well. It explores themes of mental health, treatment of women, sexuality, and gender as well as social issues involving Irish immigrants. Grace emerges as a sympathetic character, but at the same time, it’s difficult to know who she really is, especially by the end. Atwood weaves the narrative together well through the frame device of Dr. Simon Jordan, an American interested in mental health issues, who visits Grace to learn more about her story and the infamous murders that resulted in her imprisonment as a teenage girl.

Sarah Gadon plays Grace Marks in the Netflix adaptation of the novel, and she does a worthy job with the narration of this novel as well. This one is definitely worth a listen.

five-stars