Tag Archives: historical fiction

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

Everyone in Brooklyn was a Dodgers fan at Ebbots Field, at least until the team moved to Los Angeles. If you lived in this borough of New York City from 1951 to 1952 you probably attended Brooklyn College (my father did) and spent time at Coney Island eating a hot dog at Nathan’s. The sand was hot, the ocean cold, the beach was so crowded you had to stake out a good spot, but it was home.

In Brooklyn you lived in a building, often in tiny apartments, saving up money to move where you could have a plot of land of your own. (Actually our apartment was large, inherited from my grandmother who was the original tenant – gotta love that rent control). Having a house with a yard was a dream which every child carried in their heart (and we had to move to a suburb in Buffalo to get that house).

Despite being a large, crowded city, the neighborhoods kept life intimate. You knew the people in your building and the vendors in the local shops, mainly family owned. Yet in between was the busyness of Brooklyn which carried a flavor not found in the surrounding small towns in upstate New York.

Being a diverse metropolis, the rules were a little different. While the various ethnic groups congregated amongst themselves, the shopping centers had to be open to all, whether Irish, Italian, Jewish, Hispanic, or Black, especially here where so many immigrants settled after making the trip across the Atlantic.

This is the city where I was born (at the Caledonia Hospital on Caton Ave). It’s not necessarily the exact place described in Brooklyn by Colm Toibin, but my childhood occurred a few years later. (My grandparents were also born in Brooklyn, but their folks came over from Eastern Europe at an earlier, even more desperate time in the late 1800s). Yet, the feel is recognizable.

Enter Eilis Lacey, an Irish immigrant from the small town of Enniscorthy, who is sponsored by Father Flood in her move to his Irish Parish. He sets up a room for her in an Irish Boarding House with 5 other Irish girls, and arranges for a job as a salesgirl at Bartocci’s, a local department store. Then when Eilis gets homesick, he signs her up for night classes at Brooklyn College to earn her certificate as a bookkeeper, a subject she studied back in Ireland. She meets a nice boy at the Friday Night Dances at the Parish and her life seems perfect, but “stuff” happens.

Eilis is the type of person who goes along to get along. She’s from an era and a culture where women don’t have much of a say in their lives. They are obedient children who marry, keep house, and have children of their own. Ellis seems to go with the flow, unable to speak up when events spin out of control forcing her on a path which she isn’t sure is the right one for her. Her first job back in Ireland is at a local grocery store and the owner simply sends for her, unasked, when she discovers Ellis has a talent for figures. Rose, Ellis’ older sister, arranges for her to travel to America, and “surprises” her with the “fait accompli”. Her behavior at the rooming house is dictated by the owner, and her free time is guided by her housemates. It takes feigning an illness to get out of the Friday night dance, since Ellis doesn’t have the courage to outright refuse to go. Even her beau decides when their relationship should go to the next level and she just guesses that this is okay, although in her heart she is unsure. Fate seems to be her guideposts, and the tide of life sweeps her along its path to the next steps on the most convenient road.

I’m not judging, since her life doesn’t seem to be a hardship, one just wonders what “might have been” and the author even gives us a taste of that before he pulls the rug out from under the reader and has circumstances steer Ellis’ direction back on track.

A delightful and easy read on a bygone era in a beloved (for me) spot. Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) by Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa translated by Archibald Colquhoun

What pushes a piece of literature from a mere book into a work of art? Is it the ability to construct a significant moment in time transporting us to another era? Is it the exquisitely expressive language making the surroundings come alive? Or is it the richness of the characters spawning a three dimensional persona which transcends the words on the page?

Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) by Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa is a novel which demonstrates all of the above and more. Perhaps it’s because the story is based on the life of Lampedusa’s Great Grandfather as well as the Palace outside his home of Palmero which was bombed during World War II. Perhaps it’s because The Leopard explores the ramifications of the reunification of Italy, focusing on Garibaldi who overthrew the monarchy and was then himself overthrown. Perhaps it’s because the author had lived through two world wars and was full of memories of a different time when being an aristocrat represented a noble dignity which was revered by the common folk.

In any case, Lampedusa spent the last few years of his life creating a piece of literature which was eventually considered one of the greatest Italian novels of the twentieth century, winning the Premio Strega in 1959. Unfortunately, these accolades came too late, since he was unsuccessful in finding anyone willing to publish this book during his lifetime.

Don Fabrizio is a Sicilian Prince from Salina watching the aristocratic way of life fading away during a series of political upheavals in 1865. A dreamer, forced to focus on his day to day responsibilities, he finds refuge in watching the stars and studying mathematics, a past time disdained by the common man but excused in someone so distinguished and revered. The Prince has been brought up with refined sensibilities, polite to a fault, and observing all the niceties of nobility, attributes he finds lacking in his own sons. It’s his charismatic nephew, Tancredi Falconari, who has the qualities to carry on the tradition. Fabrizio, at the age of forty five, looks back on his life contemplating the past and reliving the glory days via the romance between Tancredi and the bewitching Angelica Sedara. When Angelica kisses the middle-aged Don on the check and calls him uncle, he gladly gives her a piece of his heart.

The climax of the plot is not the Leopard’s death at the age of seventy +, but the ball he attends where he sees his former lovers, now old like him, and laments his lost youth. Hiding away in the library, Tancredi and Angelica find him and drag him back to the party where he, an excellent dancer, has one waltz with his beautiful niece-to-be, becoming the focus of attention for a roomful of admirers who spontaneously break into applause. Not wanting to be a third wheel, he resists their pleas to join them for supper and instead stands in the corner watching their mutual devotion while eating a decadent dessert. In the movie, starring an all Italian cast (except for lead actor, Burt Lancaster), this scene is the major focus of the film.

In the end all that’s left are his elderly three daughters trying to hang on to what remains of their family dignity via the private religious services in the family chapel. Connecting their bittersweet past to “modern times” is the pelt of their long deceased papa’s favorite dog, Bendico. In order to move forward, leaving unrequited grievances behind, this symbol must be discarded. After all, it’s all about things “changing in order that they may remain the same”.

This book is so rich in imagery and content that my remarks fail to do it justice. Amazingly, Archibald Colquhoun captures the melancholy essence of Lampedusa’s words in his translation. In fact, the reader would never guess that the original was not written in English. While there isn’t a lot of action, the strong presence of the characters, especially The Prince, carries the plot. Five stars.

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

Since The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton is a murder mystery of sorts, it’s difficult to summarize without resorting to spoilers. Suffice it to say that daughter Laurel Nicolson witnessed her mother Dorothy murder a man when she was sixteen and now that her elderly mom is on her death bed, the sixty plus year old daughter decides this is her last chance to discover the truth. Her brother Geoffrey, a babe in his mother’s arms, was celebrating his second birthday, so he only has a vague feeling that something untoward happened on that date. Now, fifty years later, Laurel decides it’s finally time to clue him in so they can work together to figure out the details of their mom’s past.

Moving back and forth through time, from the present (2011) to the strife of wartime London (1941) to life as part of a loving family with five children (1961) and various years in between, the plot unfolds giving us bits and pieces of the tale – like a giant jig saw puzzle which has just enough blank spaces so that the big picture remains unrecognizable. Unfortunately, it takes way too many pages to discover the truth, and not until the disconcerting ending does the story finally come together.

While there are some obscure clues at the beginning of the book, by the time their relevance is revealed we’ve forgotten the details. With a slow start which doesn’t pick up until much later in the narration, I feel the main problem is the characterizations. The self absorbed Dolly is just plain unlikeable and at times her actions are despicable. She’s not the only one portrayed in a bad light. Laurel, a famous actress, is not a warm and fuzzy figure, even if the reader is sympathetic to her quest. Her numerous siblings are one dimensional, although the quirky Geoffrey has been fleshed out a bit. While the main focus was developing the convoluted plot (there’s a lot of tragedy along the way providing some sort of logical explanation for the evolving action), I felt more time should have been spent providing some depth to the secondary personalities. In my mind, any book over four hundred pages needs to justify the extra length and despite the surprise ending, this one fell short.

Four stars (just barely and only because of the “twist”) but it could have been so much better with a little tweaking.

The Hunger by Alma Katsu

Everybody has a secret, but when someone’s past interfere with the lives of others, it’s no longer a secret, it’s a crime. Then to make it all more interesting, add in a twist of the bizarre – perhaps a freak of nature, perhaps a supernatural phenomena, perhaps a curse perpetuated on all mankind hidden away until the right time to strike.

When would such an evil manifest itself? Just look at the hidden endangerments of our past, such as out in the wilderness of the California Trail from 1946-47 where travel was already fraught with jeopardy from the varieties of both human nature and the elements. Take a true story such as, The Donner Party, which already has a tendency to make the reader squeamish, then come up with an alternate explanation for the tragedy which took the lives of half the pioneers heading west through the treacherous Hastings Cutoff and the Sierra Nevada, made even more deadly by the brutal winter, and add in an evil lurking along the trail.

The Hunger by Alma Katsu intertwines historical facts with a fictional explanation to create an aberrant account depicting the lives of a group of travelers heading to California. Put ninety people (young and old, haves and have nots, families and loners) together and there’s bound to be trouble, even without a danger lurking in the background. Warning: don’t get too attached to any of the individual members of this trip, even the ones who sense what is happening, because their chances of survival are minimal.

At first I thought this was just another take on the Donner Party catastrophe, but then I began to realize this particular quirky tale was perhaps a bit more. The breezy style of the author rounded out the personalities of the numerous characters, adding extra details and motivations via letters or backstories from an earlier time. Although I knew the foregone conclusion, the author was able to put a different slant on the saga to keep me guessing right up to the end. My major complaint was the difficulty I had keeping track of all the names and identities of everyone in the story, which could have been easily solved by a brief annotated list or family tree of all the participants in the caravan. It need not be stated that the unanticipated shortage of supplies, along with an enemy with a voracious appetite, leant itself to a title indicating the need for food.

Four stars and a thank you to Edelweiss and Putnam Sons for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn

Kate Quinn takes her time telling her story, but that’s okay, it’s quite a story to tell. The Alice Network is the tale of three broken people who through a common cause are able to help each other heal their wounds.

A slightly pregnant Charlie St Clair is on her way to Switzerland via a stop in England to take care of her little problem. At least that’s what her mom thinks, but Charlie has a different idea on how to take advantage of the situation. With an address and a mission, she locates a gnarled-handed, disheveled old drunken woman – Eve Gardener, the unlikely key to answering her questions. Somehow Charlie perseveres and convinces Eve to join her quest, not realizing that her guide has a similar goal in mind. Eve’s driver, the Scotsman Finn Kilgore, assists the two unlikely travel companions in their attempt to find the whereabouts of Rose, Charlie’s cousin who disappeared during the horror of the German occupation. Just two years after the war, the motley crew makes their way to France to track down the clues revealed to Eve via her contacts from a mysterious past.

Don’t be fooled. Eve has her own sad tale to tell, dating from her days as a spy in France during the German occupation in World War I. Eve was a part of The Alice Network, an auspicious group of women who used their wits to extract military secrets from the enemy. Eve’s subtle wiles were beneficial while on the job at Le Lithe, an upscale bistro frequented by the top German military brass, facilitated by Rene Bordelon, a self centered profiteer who relished the good things in life and didn’t care if the paying customers were the enemy, as long as his elaborate needs were met.

Quinn alternates between Eve and Charlie telling their back stories until the subplots intersect as their search expands to the next level and truths are revealed. 3/4 of the way through the reader thinks “well that’s it, what more is there”, yet there is so much more to be told. Interweaved throughout the narrative is the budding romance between Charlie and Finn (who must contend with his own demons), with their mutual allegiance towards Eve expanding to an even higher regard for one another as the search continues throughout the French countryside as the three pursue a resolution to past wrongs.

Quinn perfectly masters the intertwining of past and “present” in her fictionalized tale of true events. While the main characters are fabrications used to move the plot forward, the details of the Alice Network and the subsequent capture of its participants are historically accurate. Even more impressive is the clever commingling of truth and fiction to create a flawless story. Whether or not you like any of the three main characters or approve of their actions, this historical novel is a compelling tale difficult to put down in spite of its 500 plus pages. A must read! Five stars.

In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende

In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende explores three individuals whose lives inexplicably intersect via a freak winter storm, a sick cat, and a run to the market for diapers. There’s 60 year old Richard Bowmaster who is living in a fog after tragically losing his Brazilian wife and child. His coworker and tenant, 62 year old Lucia Maraz, has survived her own life of upheavals in Chili, escaping the danger by moving to Canada and emigrating to the United States. Finally there’s 23 year old Evelyn Ortega, an undocumented refugee from Guatemala assisting a disabled boy whose father is involved in questionable business practices.

When Evelyn “borrows” her boss’s Lexus for a quick run to the supermarket, she’s caught in the “wrong place at the wrong time” when Richard’s car skids into the rear of the vehicle. Panicking, she ends up at his home, terrified of the consequences when her temporarily out of town employer returns home. Somehow Louisa and Evelyn end up with Richard in his apartment huddling together through the night while a freak blizzard rages across Brooklyn and into the surrounding regions. It’s not just the minor fender bender, but what’s inside the trunk that has them all in a sweat despite the cold.

Thus begins a bizarre road trip to an isolated location far away from the boundaries of the “incident” to get rid of the evidence. Close quarters and fear create the perfect environment for confidences as the three tell their personal stories and develop an unbreakable bond through this illicit deed. Back in Brooklyn is the “rest of the story” providing closure long after the threesome have resolved their accidental dilemma.

I’d like to highlight Lucia’s tale involving the Military coup d’etat in Chili in 1973 where President Salvador Allende was overthrown by armed forces and the national police. It is not a coincidence that the author’s last name is also Allende since this leader was Isabel’s “uncle” which endangered not only her life, but those of loved ones. I’m sure this particular tale invoked some strong emotions from Isabel’s past when she was actively involved in helping those on the “wanted” list find safe passage, which is inherently reflected in the attitudes and behaviors of the characters in this novel.

There was a lot to take in (almost too much to absorb) as the atrocities in Lucia’s and Evelyn’s childhoods are revealed. It is almost impossible to imagine living a life of terror, waiting for someone you love to be killed, or worse, not knowing whether or not the missing are still alive – not to mention your own dangers in an unstable country. Intertwined is the scenarios of those loved ones who influenced the decisions of the trio.

Without maintaining a specific focus on the immigration issue which is currently stalled in Congress, the reader is still left to ponder the attitude of American society towards undocumented workers who have fled their beloved homeland in order to stay safe, as well as the belligerence towards their children who were brought up in this country and know no other home.

While these timely issues make this a must read book (please note the President mentioned the violent M-13 in his 2018 State of the Union Address), I did have difficulty with the choppiness of the story as the plot flipped back and forth between the three main characters revealing their backgrounds piecemeal. I actually cheated and skipped ahead to read each biography in full (one at a time) which gave me a better understanding of their motivations. Oops, sorry Isabel. Allende had the difficult task of condensing their lives into a relatively brief narrative when each of the characters could have easily filled the pages of their own book (including some of the minor players). The conclusion neatly wraps up the details with a bit of poetic justice and a touch of romance thrown into the mix.

Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley for proving an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Savannah or A Gift for Lincoln by John Jakes

If you are looking for one of John Jakes sweeping sagas, then Savannah is not the book for you. This quaint little (by Jakes’ standards) Christmas story, if you can call any book set during Sherman’s March to the Sea “quaint”, Is a somewhat quiet interlude lasting from the newly established Thanksgiving, 1964, through a couple of weeks into the new year. Yes, there is looting and destruction by both Yankees and Rebs, but Savannah plays the perfect host, welcoming their enemies hoping to avoid the burning experienced by the neighboring city of Atlanta. Here we meet General William T Sherman, an unusual type of soldier, slovenly in appearance but determined to end this war once and for all.

Yet, Sherman is not the main event. This is the story of twelve year old Harriet and her widowed mother, Sara Lester, who are forced to leave behind their rice farm and move into Savannah when the fields are flooded by the rebs to help slow the advance of Sherman’s army. Moving in with her best friend, Mrs Vastley Rohrschamp (who both fears and secretly welcomes the idea of being somehow defiled by the enemy), the three women try to get by as best they can in times of uncertainty and poverty. Hattie, a headstrong, reckless young lady, is the main focus as she wages her own battle against the Yankees, even going so far as to kick General Sherman in the shins. His reaction surprises her, and afterwards she feels comfortable enough to ask him for assistance when the need arises. Still, Hattie admits they can never be friends since her heart belongs to Dixie and she cannot forgive the deaths of her father and others who were killed in the war.

There’s some violence, some love, some evil doers, and some kindhearted gentlemen looking out for the three companions. As I said, a sweet little wartime Christmas story.
This one was perfect for listening, with an abridged audiobook read by Dylan Baker.

Oh, and the subtitle “A Gift for Lincoln” refers to the telegram Sherman wired to President Lincoln on December 22nd with the message, “I beg to present you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah, with 150 heavy guns and plenty of ammunition, and also about 25,000 bales of cotton.”

Three stars.