Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Włodawa's Wars

In the Land of Armadillos by Helen Maryles Shankman

If you think that yet another book about the Holocaust is just too much, when it comes to this collection of eight short stories, I'll have to disagree - both emphatically and respectfully. No, this book doesn't take place in any concentration camp or even in the depths of some resistance stronghold. Instead, Shankman tells us about the area of Włodawa, Poland - located on the Bug River, which is near today's Belarus and the Ukraine. While the Jews and those who helped them there didn't suffer any less because of their being in such a strategically located area, these stories of those allowed to stay there are no less poignant.

What distinguishes this from other Holocaust historical fiction books are the many intermingled characters that appear in almost every story here, many of whom are Germans or collaborators. Furthermore, although Shankman never denies or shies away from their despicable treatment of the Jews, most of these stories reveal surprisingly human aspects of some of these Germans and collaborators. While many might find showing the positive side of people we think of as monsters as hard to swallow, remember that Shankman based these tales in documented facts as well as the stories told to her by her own Holocaust survivor family members.

Take for example Reinhart, the protagonist in her story "A Decent Man." Reinhart really has no problem with Jews, and moves happily into his position in Włodawa since that's what they've given him. That he's given a palace in Adampol as his headquarters, with access to luxuries and expert workers, certainly doesn't hurt. His slow, but sure ingathering of as many Jews as he can possibly accommodate only goes to his credit. This story illustrates how self-preservation (and sometimes greed) can be far stronger than ideology or principles, even though sometimes, they're just under the surface, waiting to burst out and take over. Shankman's story "The Jew Hater" demonstrates the other side of this coin, with the man who personifies everything the Nazis stood for, until a young Jewish girl (forcibly) placed in his care brings out a compassionate side he never knew was there.

All together, these stories show a side of the Holocaust that isn't usually told, and Shankman's loving hand in telling them is ultimately evident at every turn. That said if I have any criticism of this book, it would be that some of the stories could have been shortened, and in several of these stories I found myself surprised that they continued after what I thought would have been an excellent conclusion. This is particularly true for the parts when Shankman referenced events that are more contemporary. That doesn't mean that the final story "New York City, 1989" was out of place. To the contrary, I think Shankman's inclusion of that tale was an excellent addition to the collection. I should also mention that I didn't even mind some of the magical realism that popped up in several of these tales. If you think about it, over the generations, most family stories take on fairytale-like qualities, with elements that defy logic and science, so why not allow them here. In short, I highly recommend this book and believe it deserves a very healthy four and a half stars out of five.

"In the Land of Armadillos" by Helen Maryles Shankman, published by Scribner, released February 2, 2016 is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Tell me who you love

A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale

After Harry's father died, leaving him and his brother Jack orphans, Harry finds his inheritance will keep them both far from poverty. With their good education and status, they are good catches to settle down with any moderately well off Edwardian women, so that's exactly what they do, with two of the Wells sisters. However, when his brother-in-law discovers Harry's homosexual affair, he insists Harry leave, or risk ruining all their lives and landing Harry in jail for buggery. Harry soon discovers that the government is helping colonize Canada with the offer of land to anyone willing to work there long enough and can not only survive but also make their homestead succeed.

One of the most interesting things about this novel is how gently Gale portrays his protagonist, Harry. Gale notes that he isn't a big man, which should be a disadvantage. However, his inner strength is what helps him weather the physical difficulties he encounters. This works perfectly with how Gale shows his earlier life as one of being mostly isolated. Even when Harry is with his brother or his wife and daughter, Harry seems to be observing his life from the outside. On the other hand, once Harry allows himself to connect with someone else fully, he is suddenly actively part of the world around him. Watching how Gale builds the character of Harry, showing his growth with such fluidity combined with natural tension is precisely the type of artistry that I've come to admire so much in Gale's writing.

What I mean by this is that Gale's characters are real, human, honest and flawed to perfection. Yes, they do stupid things, but just as often, they act responsibly. What's more, his characters are hardly ever predictable, and that's what makes us read on in anticipation. Of course, Gale pays just as much much attention to his minor characters, as they play off and against each other as they do within Harry's life. This spills over equally to Gale's landscapes, which in this area of Canada are wild and harsh as they are picturesque with their rawness of nature. Together, Gale fills a world that is alive and breathing, with both ugliness and beauty, both from within and from without - in a word, splendid!

It seems futile to continue talking about this novel, since I'll only become more effusive if I do, and that's terribly boring. In short, I can find fault with absolutely nothing here. Gale's writing, characters, story and settings all come together to make for a compelling read that I cannot recommend more highly, and it deserves a full five out of five stars!

"A Place Called Winter" by Patrick Gale is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris as well as from an IndieBound store near you.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Through a Darkened Lens

The Photographers Wife by Suzanne Joinson

In one of the most beautifully written works of historical fiction, Joinson goes from Jerusalem in 1920 to Shoreham, England in 1937 through Prudence (or Prue). Prue at 11 in Jerusalem is with her architect father and his plans to chart and change the city, with the help of Eleanora Rasul's aerial photographs. When William Harrington, the pilot hired to fly Eleanora, comes to see Prue in 1937 in Shoreham, her past comes with him.

I have to reiterate just how impressed I was with the writing of this novel. Joinson is one of those writers who infuses her narrative with evocative phrases and nuance of language that rivals even such masterful artists as Ondaatje. Every setting gets its own treatment, and comes to life through her prose. Moreover, Joinson gets into the minds of her characters and allows the images of their wandering thought processes to gain their own voices. This is the main reason why once you pick up this novel, you'll probably want to read it to the end.

With such praise, you might be wondering why I'm not giving this book a higher star rating. The fact is, despite the luscious writing style, there were things about this book that didn't work for me. For example, Joinson writes all of the 1920 sections using third person, while most of the 1937 parts are in first person, from Prue's point of view. While this helps the reader identify the era of the action with ease, this also somewhat distances us from the characters we meet in Jerusalem. Since the bulk of the action takes place during that period, the use of third person disconnects us from the story as a whole. In addition, the sparseness of the 1937 parts of the story, despite being in Prue's first person voice, doesn't make us feel much closer to Prue.

I think it's important to note that Prue is the main protagonist in this book, but she isn't the photographer's wife. That character is Eleanora, and in fact, it occurred to me that she is actually Prue and William's protagonist. While this explains the title of the book, it was confusing to me, since I kept wondering why we didn't get to know more about Eleanora. Furthermore, there's even a point in the story when Eleanora, and what became of her after 1920, suddenly seems like an afterthought, if not totally forgotten. I would have thought that the titular character should have gotten more respect than this, and if not, then the title is misleading. (Anyway, haven't we had enough books entitled "The {insert profession/type of person here}'s Wife" by now?)

I should also mention that I am doubtful of certain aspects of the history here, and know that at least one piece was just plain wrong. Yes, we allow a certain amount of poetic license in historical fiction, but there are some undeniable facts that fiction should never change. (For example, you can't let the Titanic cross the Atlantic without hitting the iceberg, unless your story takes place in an alternative universe where that didn't happen.) In this particular case, my own knowledge probably worked as a disadvantage, because unless you have a fair amount of knowledge of the history of British Mandate Palestine, you probably won't catch this mistake. However, to her credit, Joinson must have done some research; otherwise, she would never have known that the winter of 1920 saw historically heavy snowfalls in Jerusalem (to date, that was the heaviest snowfall for the city in recorded history).

However, my biggest problem with this book is that for me, the story just wasn't compelling enough. I had a hard time feeling as if I knew or understood the characters - partially because of the changes in the point of view. More importantly, I often felt that Joinson let her lovely poetry get in the way of both the characters and the story line. To be brutally honest, if Joinson's lyrical writing style hadn't been so enjoyable, I probably would have quit reading this book half way through. Therefore, while I'm glad this book introduced me to Joinson's talent, and recommend this book to anyone looking for wonderful writing; I can't give it more than three and a half stars out of five.

"The Photographer's Wife" by Suzanne Joinson, published by Bloomsbury, released February 2, 2016, is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK (pre-order), Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for giving me an ARC of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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