Back in 2012 I offered up my impressions of Tracy Chevalier’s 2001 best-selling novel Girl With a Pearl Earring, a thoroughly enjoyable historical novel I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t read until 10 years after it was published. Later, in 2013 I featured her 2003 follow-up The Lady and the Unicorn. While I didn’t enjoy Chevalier’s follow-up as much as its predecessor, it entertained me nevertheless. But more importantly it left me hungering for more of her fiction.
Luckily for me my local public library has a nice selection of her novels, one of which Remarkable Creatures, has intrigued me ever since I read reviews of it almost a decade ago. The story of two British women in mid-19th century England whose shared passion for ancient fossils puts them at odds with both the male-dominated scientific community and the local churches is too good a story for me to pass up forever. So, a few weeks ago during one of my weekend library visits I finally borrowed a copy of Remarkable Creatures and later that day went to work reading it. And just like with Girl With a Pearl Earring, I kicked myself for waiting so many years to finally read it.
Roughly 20 years before the publication of Darwin’s Origin of the Species, Mary and Elizabeth spend their days hunting for fossils along the beaches and hillsides of a small English coastal town. Mary, the younger of the two is a local and blessed with “the eye”, that is the uncanny ability to spot fossils that no others can. Elizabeth, a middle age “spinster” originally from London but shunted to the remote English coast by her family shares Mary’s love of fossil hunting but also serves as Mary’s mentor as well as go between, helping the lower class Mary navigate the confusing and intimidating world of the British upper class. Their passion, hard work and self-taught paleontological knowledge eventually reap significant rewards and led to budding notoriety. But alas, 1830s Britain is firmly a man’s world, and Mary and Elizabeth like all women in that age are not treated as intellectual equals no matter how talented they might be.
Reading this novel as a former evangelical Christian, it was the faith versus science aspect of the novel that intrigued me the most. As Mary and Elizabeth uncover more and more fossilized remains of strange and never before seen creatures they and other fossil aficionados begin questioning their religious beliefs. Why would God create a species of animal just to let it die out? If, on the other hand, the fossils are of animals that haven’t gone extinct, why is it no one has seen any of these animals alive anywhere in the world? Lastly, with the very existence of fossils indicating the earth is hundreds of thousands if not millions of years old, could it be the world wasn’t created in six days and isn’t 4000 years old?
While I enjoyed Remarkable Creatures more than The Lady and the Unicorn I must say Girl With a Pearl Earring is still my favorite of the three. It’s left me wanting to read more of Chevalier’s fiction. Thanks to my public library there’s a good bet you’ll see more of her novels featured on my blog.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I’m a huge fan of Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. Over the years she’s encouraged us to read as many books as possible that are set in, or about different European countries or by different European authors. With one country per book and each book by a different author, over the course of the year participants find ourselves moving from book to book across Europe, like some post-modern armchair version of a Bella Époque grand tour of the Continent.
Last year was a pretty good year for me since I read and reviewed 18 books. Unfortunately, this year I didn’t do as well with only 15. Just like in past years, a variety of countries are represented, ranging from large counties like Russia and Germany, but also smaller ones like Croatia, Lithuania and even the micro-state of Vatican City. Unlike last year, this year’s selection is almost exclusively nonfiction with only The Hired Man, The Lady and the Unicorn and The Little Book being works of fiction. As for the nonfiction, a lion’s share of the books deal with World War II and the Holocaust or the Cold War or both. Lastly, The Little Book made my year-end Favorite Fiction list while The Book Smugglers and God’s Secretaries made the Favorite Nonfiction one. Overall, from top to bottom it’s a great assortment of quality books.
- The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis by David E. Fishman (Lithuania)
- The Dark Heart of Italy: An Incisive Portrait of Europe’s Most Beautiful, Most Disconcerting Country by Tobias Jones (Italy)
- The Last Palace: Europe’s Turbulent Century in Five Lives and One Legendary House by Norman Eisen (Czech Republic)
- Shepherd of Mankind: A Biography of Pope Paul VI by William E. Barrett (Vatican City)
- The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna (Croatia)
- In the Darkroom by Susan Fuladi (Hungary)
- The Man with the Poison Gun: A Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy (Ukraine)
- The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier (Belgium)
- The Bielski Brothers: The True Story of Three Men Who Defied the Nazis, Saved 1,200 Jews and Built a Village in the Forest by Peter Duffy (Belarus)
- God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible by Adam Nicolson (United Kingdom)
- The Nazi Officer’s Wife: How One Jewish Woman Survived the Holocaust by Edith Hahn Beer (Germany)
- The Retreat: Hitler’s First Defeat by Michael Jones (Russia)
- The Little Book by Selden Edwards (Austria)
- The Alps: A Human History from Hannibal to Heidi and Beyond by Stephen O’ Shea (Switzerland)
- A Secret Life: The Polish Colonel, His Covert Mission, And The Price He Paid To Save His Country by Benjamin Weiser (Poland)
Like I said at the start, I’m a huge fan of this challenge and encourage all you book bloggers to sign up. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.
As I’ve said time and time again, Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge has inspired me to read books representing the length and breadth of Europe. Sometimes, when it comes to the smaller countries this can be challenging. But no matter how small they be, somehow I find a way. One of these relatively petit states is the former Yugoslavian republic of Croatia. In 2017 I featured Sara Nović’s 2015 novel Girl at War and a few years before that in 2014 it was Slavenka Drakulic’s 1994 offering Marble Skin. This time around it’s Aminatta Forna’s 2013 The Hired Man. It’s yet another book I found at the public library (perhaps initially taken in by its oddly intriguing cover art) and after seeing I could apply it towards the European Reading Challenge quickly opted to borrow it.
Day to-day life for Duro, a forty-something bachelor living in the small Croatian village of Gost, is pretty mundane. Having never attended a university or trade school, or underwent an apprenticeship nevertheless is one of those guys who, thanks to his decent work ethic and intelligence always manages to secure meaningful employment as a handyman or construction kind of guy. One day, his quiet existence is interrupted by the arrival of Laura, a British woman and her two teenage kids. Like an episode of House Hunters International, Laura and her husband have purchased a local farmhouse and soon find themselves in need of a talented and reliable fix-it man. Duro, cautious at first offers to help Laura repair the farmhouse. While getting the long-abandoned property back in shape he gets to know Laura as well as her two children. As novel unfolds we learn that Gost wasn’t always a sleepy and uneventful place. Bit by bit ghosts from its dark past begin to haunt Duro and his newly arrived neighbors.
The Scottish and Sierra Leonean writer Forna is not Croatian but alas this doesn’t stop her from writing a decent novel set in that particular part of the world. Kudos to Forna for doing her research. (At the end of the novel she credits, among many both Misha Glenny and the above-mentioned Slavenka Drakulic.) After reading The Hired Man I’d like to read her other novels. Therefore don’t be surprised if you see more of her stuff featured on my blog.
As the year known as 2018 finally draws to a close, it’s time for me to look back and announce to the world my favorite books of the year. Just like last year, I’ll start by talking about the outstanding fiction I read over the course of the year. Later, I’ll follow it up with another post dedicated to my favorite nonfiction. Of course, this year just like in previous ones, it doesn’t matter when the books were published. All that matters is they’re excellent.
The bad news is I didn’t read a lot of fiction this year. As a result, there’s only six books on my list. The good news is I read some great stuff. So, in no specific order of preference here’s my favorite fiction from 2018.
As for declaring an overall winner, it wasn’t easy since all six are fantastic. In the end, City of Thieves narrowly edged out The Little Book my favorite. As high as my expectations were for this novel, I was not disappointed.
And a diverse collection of novels indeed. With The Gustav Sonata set in Switzerland, City of Thieves Russia and The Little Book Austria the armchair traveler in me was duly satisfied. So also was my inner historian, with all of them but The Senator’s Wife set wholly or partially during World War II or, in the case of The Little Book fin de siècle Vienna. Lastly, just like last year several of the above-mentioned titles are first time novels. Hats off to these authors for their outstanding inaugural efforts.
It’s been 10 years since I heard Sue Miller, the author of the novel The Senator’s Wife interviewed on NPR. As Miller and program host Linda Wertheimer discussed the novel, much to my surprise I found myself intrigued. So intrigued was I that I vowed to read The Senator’s Wife someday. Well, after all those years I’m happy to say a few weeks ago I borrowed a copy from my public library. After waiting so long to read, naturally I was afraid I’d experience a let-down. But alas, there was none since The Senator’s Wife did not disappoint me.
After a newly married couple purchase one half of a double town house in New England the two of them discover their neighbor, a retired age woman with a stately demeanor is the wife of a former US Senator. While the two households share identical floor plans, their respective inhabitants live in completely different worlds. Nathan, a young political science professor is married to Meri, a reporter for a local NPR station. While not exactly honeymooners, their marriage is fresh and on an uncertain yet hopeful trajectory. Next door is Delia, aloof at first but soon becomes a mother figure to Meri. Beneath Delia’s calm facade however lie a lifetime of painful wounds thanks to her senator husband’s years of infidelities.
I credit Sue Miller for taking what could have been an average novel at best with a ho-hum storyline and turning it into something greater. I consider The Senator’s Wife one of this year’s pleasant surprises and could very well make my year-end Best Fiction List.
Some of you might remember from an earlier post that appeared last September in which I spotlighted a half-dozen books borrowed from my public library. On of those books happened to be Aharon Appelfeld’s 2017 novel The Man Who Never Stopped Sleeping. In that post, I claimed I’d never read anything by Appelfeld. Later, after I remembered I’d read one of Appelfeld’s earlier novels specifically his Badenheim 1939. But alas, as much as I wanted to read it The Man Who Never Stopped Sleeping, I had return it a few weeks later ignored and unread. But after reading awhile back in the New York Times Appelfeld passed away I once again borrowed a copy from my public library. Unlike last time, this time I managed to read it.
The Man Who Never Stopped Sleeping is an odd kind of novel. World War II has come to an end and Erwin, a young Holocaust survivor from Eastern Europe has been brought to a displaced persons camp in Naples. He remembers little of his journey across Europe since he’s been asleep the whole time, carried along by his fellow survivors. Eventually, he makes his way to British-ruled Palestine where after statehood he’s absorbed into the Israeli army. During a military operation he’s gravely wounded in his legs which earns him a long recovery period and a series of medical procedures designed to get him walking once again. While convalescing Erwin begins flexing his young literary muscles by deepening his understanding of Hebrew, his new language in hopes of becoming the writer his father always dreamed to be.
If I place Badenheim 1939 side by side with Appelfeld’s final novel The Man Who Never Stopped Sleeping they form a pair of bookends encapsulating modern Judaism. Badenheim 1939 depicts the beginnings of the Holocaust, which would lead to the destruction of much of European Jewish Civilization. In The Man Who Never Stopped Sleeping Jewish civilization is painfully reborn, not in Europe but in Israel. If that’s the case then perhaps it’s only appropriate The Man Who Never Stopped Sleeping was Appelfeld’s last novel.
When I spied Stuart Rojstaczer 2014 novel The Mathematician’s Shiva first the title caught my eye. After that, it was its cool cover art. In the end however, it was it the premise that sold me. It’s horrible enough Alexander “Sasha” Karnokovitch has to deal with the recent death of his mother Rachela, a famous Polish émigré mathematician and professor at the University of Wisconsin. But when word gets out she’s possibly solved the million-dollar, Navier-Stokes Millennium Prize problem (imagine the Nobel Prize for mathematics) mathematicians from around the world descend upon the late Rachela’s home, hoping against hope she left notes proving she solved it as opposed to taking its secrets to the grave. So much for a quiet, dignified, private Shiva with family in frigid Madison, Wisconsin.
The Mathematician’s Shiva is another of 2018’s pleasant surprises. It’s funny in a dark, train wreck kind of way. Just because a family might be highly educated and accomplished, it doesn’t automatically mean it’s happy. If Tolstoy taught us taught anything, it’s that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. And the Karnokovitchs are no exception.
I gotta hand it to Rojstaczer, he’s written a heck of a debut novel. No wonder it won a half-dozen or so awards including National Jewish Book Award for Outstanding Debut Fiction. There’s a strong likelihood you’ll see it included in my year-end Best Fiction List in a couple of weeks.
Filed under Fiction, Judaica