Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Reading historical fiction in search of meaning, a guest post by Linda Kass, author of Tasa's Song

Author Linda Kass has contributed an essay about her methods and intent in writing historical fiction, and what readers can gain from reading in the genre.  Her debut novel Tasa's Song is published today by She Writes Press.

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Reading Historical Fiction in Search of Meaning
Linda Kass

In historical fiction, the details of an era, and the particularities of settings during that time period, must ring true. All the more necessary when the context is universally known, such as a major historic event. Certain facts need to ground historical and realistic fiction, but those facts cannot overpower the story itself.

My novel, Tasa’s Song, is based on the true events of my mother’s early life in eastern Poland during the gathering storm of World War II, a backdrop that has been called the most significant war the human race has ever waged. My protagonist, Tasa Rosinski, is a violin prodigy. She has an extended family. Life amid war produces movement for all of the characters from one place to another. My challenge was to portray Tasa, a fictional and unique character, in a specific historic context and setting while she faces known circumstances.

As a journalist, I am attached to facts, but as a novelist, I can only use them to create a verisimilitude on the page. For Tasa’s Song, I researched facts in order to write authentic scenes and dialogue and action. What did Tasa’s small village in Podkamien look like? What foods did she and her family eat? What clothing did they wear? How did people get around then? What did Polish farmers grow on their land? How did people learn about what was going on at that time? What did they listen to on the radio? What books did they read? What musical compositions might Tasa have played as her talent developed? What historical events would be topical to Tasa’s family in 1935, 1941, or 1944?

author Linda Kass
(credit: Lorn Spolter Photography)

As a writer of historical fiction, I needed to understand the concrete world in which my characters lived and interacted. But the writer’s task when creating a story set in a particular time and place is not to be true to the facts as recorded in source material. That’s the role of the historian. The historical novelist exposes the reader to the inner lives of people across time and place, and in doing so illuminates history’s untold stories, allowing the reader to experience a more complex truth.

The essence of any fictional story is its characters. They are vivid because, while participating in the flow of historic events, they make their own choices, have their own thoughts, experience joy or suffering in their own way. For Tasa, she endures through the solace of music, the love for her family, and the memories she holds inside. The fact of history tells us that many people suffered during World War II. The character of Tasa reveals her unique emotional suffering.

Reading history allows us to understand what happened. Reading historical fiction allows us to be moved by what happened. Yet, even after we know the facts, we continue to search for sense and meaning. That is at the essence of our humanity.

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Linda Kass is a writer who worked as a magazine reporter and correspondent for regional and national publications early in her career. In her community, Ms. Kass is a strong advocate of education, literacy, and the arts, and is a long distance road cyclist who rides in an annual event to support cancer research. Her past experience as a trustee and board chair of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra fed into much of the music that fills the pages of Tasa's Song (She Writes Press, trade pb/$16.95). She is at work on a second novel. You can learn more at http://www.lindakass.com/.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

A guide to the historical novels at BEA 2016

Here’s my 7th annual guide to the historical novels at BEA. This is a work in progress, pieced together from BEA’s autographing schedules, Publishers Weekly’s adult “galleys to grab” guide, posted schedules from publishers, Twitter, etc.  I've added booth numbers, book descriptions, release dates, etc.  It will be updated periodically up until I leave for Chicago on May 10th, so if you plan to print it out, I suggest waiting until just before the show; Library Journal's forthcoming galley guide (out around 5/9) should list other relevant titles.

Additions and corrections are welcome.  Leave a comment below or tweet me @readingthepast.
Last updated:  Tues 5/3.

~Galleys to Grab~

Algonquin (Workman) - booth 1829

Caroline Leavitt, Cruel Beautiful World - novel of sisterhood, family, and responsibility in the late 1960s.  Oct.
Susan Rivers, The Second Mrs. Hockaday - love, the desperation of wartime, and a mysterious crime, set during the Civil War.  Jan 2017.

Bloomsbury - booth 1859 (see full schedule)

John Pipkin, The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter - love and scientific discovery in late 18th-century Ireland.  Giveaway Thurs 5/12, 3pm.  Oct.
Kate Saunders, The Secrets of Wishtide - crime novel featuring a widow in 19th-century Lincolnshire. Giveaway Thurs 5/12, 1pm, and Friday 5/13, 10am.  Sept.

Europa - booth 1945

Joan London, The Golden Age - a convalescent hospital in Perth, Australia, is the scene for healing, love, and dislocation in the postwar era, from a well-known Australian novelist. Aug.

Hachette - booths 1716, 1717

Emma Donoghue, The Wonder - a mysterious child who claims to live without sustenance in 1850s rural Ireland may be a fraud.  Little Brown, Sept.
Robert Hicks, The Orphan Mother - the story of Mariah Reddick, former slave of the heroine from The Widow of the South.  Grand Central, Sept.

HarperCollins - booths 2140, 2141

Jessie Burton, The Muse - the Spanish Civil War and 1960s London intertwine in a tale of art and mystery.  Ecco, July.
Helen Sedgwick, The Comet Seekers - the past, present, and future of two lovers in modern Antarctica; literary, centuries-spanning epic. Harper, Oct.

Macmillan - booth 1958 (see full schedule)

Ronald Balson, Karolina’s Twins - giveaway 5/13, 11:30am - a modern search for two Polish sisters lost during WWII; multi-period.  St. Martin's, Sept.
Andrew Gross, The One Man - giveaway 5/13, 11:30am - historical thriller set during the Holocaust.
Lian Hearn, Emperor of the Eight Islands - giveaway 5/11, 3:30pm. First in her new Japanese historical fantasy quartet.  FSG, April.
Rae Meadows, I Will Send Rain - giveaway 5/11, 4:30pm - a woman fights to save her family in Dust Bowl Oklahoma.  Henry Holt, Aug.
Steven Price, By Gaslight - giveaway 5/12, 2:30pm - American detective William Pinkerton investigates a murder in 1885 London.  FSG, Oct.

Penguin Random House - booths 2433, 2441

Jennifer Chiaverini, Fates and Traitors - a novel of John Wilkes Booth, as seen from four women’s perspectives. Dutton, Sept.
Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow - in 1922, a Russian aristocrat endures house arrest in a hotel across from the Kremlin. Viking, Sept. See also under signings.

Sourcebooks - booth 2333 (see full schedule)

Marie Benedict, The Other Einstein - the little-known story of Mileva Maric Einstein, a physicist in her own right. Oct.  Giveaway Fri 5/13, 9am.
Cuyler Overholt, A Deadly Affection - historical mystery set in early 20th-c NYC.  Sept.  Giveaway Wed 5/11, 1pm.
Greer MacAllister, Girl in Disguise - Kate Warne, the first female Pinkerton detective, and her adventurous life during the Civil War years. Mar. 2017.  Giveaway Fri 5/13, 1pm.

~Author Signings~

Thu May 12

10 - 10:30am, booth 2433 (Penguin Random House)
Graham Moore, The Last Days of Night - historical thriller about the battle between Edison and Westinghouse to electrify America, from the author of The Sherlockian. RH, Sept.

10:00-10:30, Table 1
Jennifer Chiaverini, Fates and Traitors - see above under Galleys. Dutton, Sept.

10 - 10:30am, Table 6
Affinity Konar, Mischling - twin sisters endure Auschwitz, Mengele’s experiments, and the aftermath of war. Little Brown/Lee Boudreaux, Sept.

11:30am, Booth 2333 (Sourcebooks)
Marie Benedict, The Other Einstein - see above under Galleys.

2-2:45pm, Booth 1204-1205 (Grove Atlantic)
Andrea Molesini, Not All Bastards Are From Vienna - a family in a northern Italian village has their villa requisitioned by enemy troops during WWI. Grove, Feb.

2-2:30pm, Booth 2366 (Counterpoint)
Kim Brooks, The Houseguest - in 1940s America, a Russian immigrant takes in a glamorous refugee. Apr.

3:30-4pm, Booth 2433 (Penguin Random House)
Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad - one woman’s quest to escape the bonds of slavery in 19th-century America. Doubleday, Sept.

4-4:30pm, Booth 2433 (Penguin Random House)
Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow - see above under Galleys.

Fri May 13th

10-11am, Table 4
Robert Hicks, The Orphan Mother - see above under Galleys.

10:30-11:30am, Booth 2433 (Penguin Random House)
Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing - a literary epic spanning centuries in Ghana and America. Knopf, May.

Signings TBA (in the PW galley guide, but no date/time listed):

Simon & Schuster

Chris Cleave, Everyone Brave is Forgiven - ordinary people trying to survive the London Blitz and its aftermath.  S&S, Apr.
Thomas Mullen, Darktown - a police procedural set in postwar Atlanta as two black policemen pursue justice for a murdered woman. Atria, Sept.

WW Norton 
Winston Groom, El Paso - historical epic centering on the Mexican Revolution of the early 20th century. Liveright, Oct.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

On Romney Marsh: a guest post by AJ MacKenzie, author of The Body on the Doorstep

The authors who write as A.J. MacKenzie are stopping by with an essay (accompanied by some gorgeous photos) about the beautiful and atmospheric Romney Marsh.  This landscape figures in their new novel The Body on the Doorstep (Zaffre, hb and ebook), first in the appropriately-titled Romney Marsh Mysteries set in the south-east of England in the 1790s.

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On Romney Marsh
A.J. MacKenzie

‘The Fifth Continent’ is how a nineteenth-century clergyman once described Romney Marsh, and even today that sense of separateness and isolation is still there. A major road now crosses the Marsh, and you can drive across it from Rye to Hythe in just a few minutes. But the Marsh is still a distinct place. The hills of the Weald of Kent close off one side of the triangle of the Marsh, marking the beginnings of a distinctly different landscape; on the other two sides is the sea, sweeping up onto beaches of sand and shingle.

Get off that main road, and Romney Marsh is quiet. Inland, the villages are small and peaceful. Many are little larger than they were in the Middle Ages; some are actually smaller, and some of the old settlements have disappeared entirely. Hope was once a thriving village not far from New Romney; now, only the crumbling remnants of its church still stand. St Mary in the Marsh, the central location of The Body on the Doorstep, is mostly new buildings; only the church and the Star Inn still survive from earlier days.

St. Mary in the Marsh churchyard, looking west to Hills at Appledore

There is of course much new building on the Marsh. You only need to turn your eyes south, to the great blocky shape of Dungeness power station and the white towers of the wind farm on Walland Marsh, to see this. But it is also quite easy to strip away the accretions of time. Maps help; we found several late eighteenth century maps of Romney Marsh, and with these it is easy to see how the coastline has changed and settlement patterns have shifted.

St. Mary in the Marsh tower

And apart from that main arterial road, the Marsh is also quiet. The roads are empty. It is possible, if you want to drive at the speed of a trotting carriage to see how long it will take to ride from Appledore to St Mary, to do so, and no one will bother you. You can abandon your car and walk the tracks and footpaths where Hardcastle and Mrs Chaytor walked, and the loudest sound you will hear is the twittering of birds or in spring, the baa-ing of lambs. Behind the roads and houses and power stations, the Marsh’s past is there, plain to see.

Romney Marsh, with Hills of Lympne in the distance

The weather impacts on Romney Marsh like few other places in England. The flat land offers no breaks from the wind; storms from the Channel roar over the Marsh with nothing to stop them. In the heat, there are few trees to offer shade from the sun. When it rains there, it really rains. The weather is dramatic, and it sets the mood. It will be no surprise to anyone who know Romney Marsh that weather plays a big part in The Body on the Doorstep.

St. Mary in the Marsh, taken from the West

Most of all, the Marsh is beautiful. We don’t know whether JMW Turner ever painted there or not, but it would not surprise us; it is the sort of austere space of land and sky and sea that he loved. In The Body on the Doorstep, Turner went to Romney Marsh seeking inspiration; Hardcastle went seeking peace; Amelia Chaytor went to find solitude. We went, and found a story.

~

A.J. MacKenzie is the pseudonym of Marilyn Livingstone and Morgen Witzel, a collaborative Anglo-Canadian husband-and-wife duo.

Between them they have written more than twenty non-fiction and academic titles, with specialisms including management, medieval economic history and medieval warfare.  See their website at http://www.ajmackenzienovels.com.

This essay forms part of the authors' blog tour; see the other stops as listed below.   (photo credit: Vicky Stottor/Shuv Williams)

~


Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Interview with Mary Sharratt, author of The Dark Lady's Mask

Today I'm speaking with Mary Sharratt about her newest work of historical fiction, The Dark Lady's Mask: A Novel of Shakespeare's Muse, which delves into the life and times of Aemilia Lanier, England's first professional woman poet, and imagines her relationship with William Shakespeare.  I've known Mary for many years through the Historical Novel Society and have spoken with her twice previously for this blog, in 2010 (about Daughters of the Witching Hill) and in 2012 (for Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen).  She always has interesting insights into writing historical fiction, specifically about women's lives.  The Dark Lady's Mask is published today (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 416pp, $26 hb/$12.99 ebook).

How did Aemilia Lanier and her work first come to your attention, and later compel you to write a novel about her?

My motto as a historical novelist is “writing women back into history.” I’ve long been frustrated by the fact that the average intelligent, literate person can’t name a woman writer before Jane Austen. The Dark Lady’s Mask is my love letter to literary pioneer Aemilia Bassano Lanier, England’s first professional woman writer. I want to draw her out of the shadows and into the spotlight.

I first discovered her when researching the lives of Renaissance women. The daughter of an Italian court musician who may have been a Marrano, or a secret Jew living under the guise of a Christian convert, Lanier was one of the most highly educated women of her era. She certainly had the talent and expertise to write plays or secular poetry. However in England at that time, the only genre considered acceptable for women was religious verse. Lanier’s female literary predecessors like Mary Sidney wrote poetic meditations on the Psalms.

But Lanier turned the tradition of women’s devotional writing on its head. Her epic poem, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (Hail God, King of the Jews), published in 1611, is nothing less than a vindication of the rights of women couched in religious verse. Dedicated and addressed exclusively to women, Salve Deus lays claim to women’s God-given call to rise up against male arrogance, just as the strong women in the Old Testament rose up against their oppressors.

The possibility that Lanier may also have been the mysterious Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s Sonnets only adds to her mystique.

My intention was to write a novel that married the playful comedy of Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard’s Shakespeare in Love to the unflinching feminism of Virginia Woolf’s meditations on Shakespeare’s sister in A Room of One’s Own. How many more obstacles would an educated and gifted Renaissance woman poet face compared with her ambitious male counterpart?

In The Dark Lady’s Mask, I explore what happens when a struggling young Shakespeare meets a struggling young woman poet of equal genius and passion.

In the afterword, you mention the research you did on site in Venice and in Bassano del Grappa. What insights did you take away from your visits there?

My Italian visit was absolutely essential for me in both understanding Aemilia’s character and Shakespeare’s “Italian” plays. Italy was the cultural epicenter of Europe. Shakespeare’s comedies owe a huge debt to the commedia dell’arte. Many of his most popular plays are set in the Veneto region of northern Italy—Aemilia’s ancestral homeland. In Romeo and Juliet, the nurse’s plea, “Give me some aqua vitae,” (Act 3, Scene 2) is a direct reference to the famous strong spirits distilled in Bassano del Grappa, the birthplace of Aemilia’s father. Italy was literally her patrimony.

My novel explores the scenario that Aemilia and Will traveled through Italy together and fell in love.

But, alas, Italy is not all romance. There’s strong circumstantial evidence to suggest that Aemilia’s father and his brothers were banished from their hometown of Bassano because they were Jews. Fleeing to Venice, they assumed the guise of Marranos, or Christian converts, which was an uneasy and not particularly safe existence. Deliverance came in the form of Thomas Seymour, brother to Jane Seymour, that short-lived queen. The highly talented Bassano brothers became royal musicians for King Henry VIII and later for Elizabeth I.

I believe that Aemilia’s double identity as an Italian Jew compelled her to write so boldly in defense of the oppressed. Her Italian background also provided creative female role models that her English sisters lacked. Italian women enjoyed much greater artistic freedoms—they acted on the public stage, unlike in England where boys performed the female roles. Italian women wrote in a wide variety of literary genres. There were even women playwrights, such as the famous and successful Isabella Andreini whose patrons were the Medicis.

You’ve brought a number of historical characters to life in your novels, but William Shakespeare must be the most famous. Did you find it at all daunting to imagine his personality and part of his life on the page?

Daunting doesn’t even begin to describe it! Readers can get very, very contentious when you write fiction about a historical icon like Shakespeare. Because, in essence, writing believable fiction means taking great cultural icons off their pedestals and humanizing them, giving them the same yearnings and foibles as the rest of us mortals. I hope I’ve also made him damn sexy.

Beautifully incorporated into the novel was the possible background to the writing of many of Shakespeare’s plays. Do you have favorites among them? 

I adore Shakespeare’s sunlit Italian comedies with their strong, free-spoken heroines. I never get tired of following the adventures of Rosalind in As You Like It, or listening to Beatrice and Benedict spar in Much Ado About Nothing.

For me, as an educator, it was refreshing to read a novel that celebrates not just women’s learning but a humanist education and the value of the liberal arts. Did you have this contemporary resonance in mind as you were writing? 

Yes, indeed. I’m very saddened by the funding crisis at your university and the way good teachers in the UK are being pressured to tick government boxes instead of pouring their soul into educating and inspiring their students. In Aemilia’s day, education was the preserve of the elite. Let us not allow it to become so again. The foundation of Western civilization was built on the liberal arts. Yes, vocational training and business studies are important, too, but if we don’t teach our children to love literature, art and theatre, we have only ourselves to blame if they never put down their iphone or read a single unassigned book.

For a good part of the novel, Aemilia’s observations on her environment are those of an outsider, whether she’s either being educated or serving as a teacher in noblewomen’s homes, or when paying a visit to Italian relatives. Did your own experiences living outside your home country inform your writing of Aemilia’s experiences?

Very much so. Being a lifelong expat made me a writer. I left the USA to study in Freiburg, Germany in 1986 and never came back to live permanently in the US. Now I’m a dual US/UK citizen. I will always be an outsider wherever I live—even if I return to the US. I’ve lived abroad so long that I’m forever changed. I believe those who are “foreign” glean insights on a culture that its native born inhabitants might miss—we tend to take the familiar for granted.

As an Anglo-Italian, I’m sure Aemilia felt the same. I imagine she stood out as different and “foreign” wherever she went. Her father’s secret Jewish identity would have weighed on her heart, as well. In my novel, when she visits the Venice Ghetto and disguises herself as a man to go inside a synagogue, she feels even more exiled from her father’s culture and religion when she realizes that she could never truly fit into this world either. Caught between faiths and cultures, she is fated to be eternally betwixt and between.

This is why masks play such a huge role in the novel. Everyone in the book is wearing some kind of metaphorical mask. But because Aemilia is the eternal outsider, she can see through these masks in a way that others can’t.

Religion was a central part of daily life in history, yet this aspect is often neglected in mainstream historical fiction. As was the case with Hildegard von Bingen in Illuminations, I admired how you recreated your characters’ religious lives in a way that makes them feel spiritually rich and authentic to the era yet relevant for modern readers. How did you delve into the religious beliefs of Aemilia as well as her later-in-life mentor, Margaret Clifford?

First of all, thank you very much for the compliment. I agree that it’s impossible to truly get inside the mindset of people who lived before 1900 if you don’t address their religious beliefs as part of their core life experience. But how do you do that without alienating modern, secular readers? It’s a huge challenge, especially for someone like Aemilia. A Jew’s daughter, she was educated by Puritans, lived her life in what was essentially a Protestant police state, and wrote devotional Christian verse. Where did her true spiritual loyalties lie?

Her great friend and literary patron, Margaret Clifford, was an intensely devout Anglican who lived estranged from her abusive husband. She devoted the last years of her life to fighting for her daughter Anne’s inheritance after Anne was disinherited because of her sex, although she was her father’s only child.

Aemilia’s love for Margaret and Anne and her anger at the injustices they faced are the bedrock of her poetry. In Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, she describes the passion of Christ from the viewpoint of the women in the Gospels. In comparing the sufferings of women in male-dominated culture to the sufferings of Christ, she upholds virtuous women as Christ’s true imitators.

Aemilia’s protofeminism is inseparable from her religious sensibilities. Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum is essentially 17th century liberation theology—a corpus of poetry celebrating female and divine goodness, penned by a poet who found her own sense of salvation in a community of women who supported her and believed in her. 

Friday, April 15, 2016

Book review: The Moon in the Palace, by Weina Dai Randel

Few could guess that the heroine of Weina Dai Randel’s debut novel, young Mei, would emerge into an illustrious future.

For readers, there are two hints. In the first few pages, a monk visiting her father, governor of Shanxi Prefecture in China of 631 AD, makes a fabulous prediction about the five-year-old child: that she would “eclipse the light of the sun and shine brighter than the moon… She would mother the emperors of the land but also be emperor in her own name.” The other is in the book’s subtitle: “A Novel of Empress Wu.”

Those unacquainted with the history should avoid googling, since Mei’s path to power is as unusual as it is fascinating to observe. Seven years later, after her father dies under mysterious circumstances, she and her family fall into penury and are forced to move to Chang’an, home of her half-brother, Qing, as well as Emperor Taizong’s glittering palace. By a stroke of luck, her late father’s wish for her is granted, and she’s given a place at the Emperor’s Inner Court as one of his concubines. She hopes to use her status to regain her family's fortunes.

More familiar with Sun Tzu’s The Art of War than delicate embroidery or facial creams, Mei hardly fits in with her fellow maidens, but her acumen brings her to the attention of high-ranking courtiers – as well as enemies who hide their guile behind masks. The many setbacks she encounters, in her quest to become the Emperor’s Most Adored, test her resolve and give her the mental stamina she’ll need for the future.

Far from a standard tale of royal intrigue, The Moon in the Palace provides entrance into a formal yet sumptuous world where the Emperor’s wardrobe is strictly regulated, his amorous pursuits are determined by the "court bedding schedule," and his many ladies are grouped into hierarchies – and Mei sits at the lowest tier.

One of the attractions of novels set in a distant place and era is the different outlook they provide on the world. Randel was born and raised in China and, to create a realistic historical background, conducted research in ancient Chinese texts. She also spices her writing with original, setting-appropriate forms of expression. One prince’s eyebrows “looked as if a calligrapher had lost control when he drew them.” An exclamation of surprise is “Holy ancestors of nine generations!”

There’s also love story, though here, too, but Mei can hardly pursue a romance with Pheasant, a handsome young man who's good with horses, when she’s destined for the Emperor. Or can she? The story is an accessible and expertly plotted introduction to a powerful woman of ancient China, the country's first and only woman to rule as emperor.  For those who want to continue Mei’s story, part two (The Empress of Bright Moon) is also newly available.

The Moon in the Palace was published by Sourcebooks in March ($14.99, trade pb, 400pp).  Thanks to the publisher for sending me an ARC at my request last fall.

Monday, April 11, 2016

The triumph of love: Péter Gárdos' Fever at Dawn

Gárdos’ concise first novel tells an incredibly moving and hopeful love story. The plot dramatizes the unusual real-life circumstances that led the author’s parents to find one another.

Miklós Gárdos and Lili Reich, both Hungarian concentration-camp survivors, are sent to different rehabilitation hospitals in Sweden following their rescue after WWII. Although Miklós is seriously ill with tuberculosis, and his doctor expects he won’t survive, he refuses to believe this diagnosis, instead choosing to grasp a chance at happiness.

He pens identical letters to the young Hungarian women from his home region who are recuperating in Sweden—all 117 of them, intending to marry one.  His letters’ flirtatious tone is delightful, and Miklós receives many replies, but his lively and humorous correspondence with Lili is clearly special.

Both have supportive friends, but some complications ensue.  The author also sensitively explores Lili’s religious dilemma, as she feels that her Jewish faith let her down. This is a beautiful tale about two young people joyfully writing a future together when their past is too painful for words.

Péter Gárdos' Fever at Dawn, translated from Hungarian by Elizabeth Szász, is published tomorrow by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt ($23, hardcover, 240pp).  This review first appeared in Booklist's March 15th issue.

Read more about the background to this novel in an article from Reuters. "I don’t think this is a Holocaust novel, it’s a story of love," Gárdos says in the interview. "I needed to tell the story of their defiant desire to live, that there’s life after death and how important love was."

A film based on Fever at Dawn, with Gárdos (a renowned film director) directing and co-writing the screenplay, was released last December in Hungary. See the trailer below.

Friday, April 08, 2016

Book review: Modern Girls by Jennifer S. Brown, set in NYC's Jewish tenements in the '30s

Set amid the Jewish immigrant community on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 1935, Jennifer S. Brown’s engrossing debut novel, Modern Girls, features the intertwined voices of two women, mother and daughter, who both find themselves in the family way. Neither is happy about it.

For Rose Krasinsky, worn out from raising five children, a new pregnancy at 42 means her hopes of increased involvement in Socialist activism (and for more time to help rescue her brother, trapped in Europe with his family) must be set aside in favor of more childcare and never-ending housework. And for her 19-year-old daughter, Dottie, finding herself pregnant after an unexpected one-night stand means the end to a promising bookkeeping career – and, most likely, to her future with her longtime boyfriend, Abe.

The author beautifully re-creates the vanished world of Yiddish-speaking immigrants in Depression-era America. (Rose’s husband, Ben/Beryl, shares his name and heritage with my own great-grandfather, which was an added treat; many other family names appeared in the story, too.) The Jewish tenements of 1930s New York are crowded, bustling places where cooking smells spill over into adjacent apartments, Rose’s kosher kitchen ensures her family is properly fed, and residents cart their bedding to their building’s rooftop on muggy summer nights.

Among others who share their background, these characters feel at home, but assimilation into mainstream society isn’t easy even for first-generation Americans. An intelligent career woman, Dottie may be a whiz with numbers, but her status as the only Jew in her workplace doesn’t make her popular with the other gals.

Those seeking insight into the day-to-day lives of women from the last century will find themselves fully involved in the agonizing struggles Rose and Dottie endure as they ponder their choices. Although both live in the modern era, in a modern city, the options for women with an unwanted pregnancy are limited, and it’s not a secret they can keep for very long.

Complicating matters for both is that neither understands the other’s reality. Sacrifices made by Rose, as a young woman in Russia, have shaped her character; she loves her daughter but sees Dottie’s life as luxurious in comparison. Likewise, Dottie can’t imagine that her strict mother could ever comprehend how her situation came about. Through the double narrative, readers can sympathize with both simultaneously. The way each woman handles her dilemma is not resolved predictably – another of the pleasures of reading this warmhearted yet realistic novel – but in looking back, their choices make perfect sense for who they are.

Modern Girls was published by NAL this week ($15.00/C$20.00, trade pb, 363pp). Thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy at my request.