Monday, August 08, 2022

Review of Trust by Hernan Diaz, an intricate literary puzzle-box set in early 20th-century New York

Pulitzer finalist Diaz’s brilliantly layered epic unfolds through a quartet of accounts, each of which adds new meaning to the ones that have gone before—much in the vein of Iain Pears’ An Instance of the Fingerpost, but set in the world of early 20th-century corporate finance. The authors of the four tales are given up front, but the less said about how they relate to one another, the better. Readers will derive the greatest pleasure if they uncover the revelations themselves.

First is a short novel called Bonds by Harold Vanner, a pointed morality tale about New York stock market whiz Benjamin Rask, who accumulates great wealth while remaining isolated from its impact on others. Rask’s marriage to wife Helen, an intellectual from an old Albany family, is an agreeable if emotionally distant union, and they both like it that way. In a style reminiscent of Edith Wharton, Vanner draws readers into Rask’s money-making ventures and the scandal that befell the couple after the 1929 crash.

Next comes the incomplete autobiography of financier Andrew Bevel, who puts pen to paper—with eye-opening pomposity—to counter rumors about his investments and to honor his late wife, Mildred. Paired with Vanner’s novel, Bevel appears to cover similar ground, which may cause some confusion—but keep reading.

Up third, the memoir of Ida Partenza, an Italian anarchist’s daughter, is hugely satisfying as it brings the first two accounts into focus while leaving some mysteries for the last section to reveal (which it definitely does). Each part feels smoothly calibrated to its author’s personality and historical setting as the story continues to provoke questions about which person’s truth can be relied upon. Not only a powerful commentary on the effects of unfettered capitalism, Trust also exposes the complex art of mythmaking engineered by the rich and powerful, and those erased in the process.

Trust was published by Riverhead in the US in May; the UK publisher is Picador. I read it from a NetGalley copy for August's Historical Novels Review.  I'll just add that corporate finance hasn't ever been a particular fascination of mine, but the story was riveting.  I've seen numerous spoilers in other reviews, so be aware!

Thursday, August 04, 2022

Reading the Past in a Single Document, an essay by Judith Berlowitz, author of Home So Far Away

Historical documents may be inanimate objects, yet they can still speak to us, revealing vital information to novelists writing about their subjects decades later. In the following essay, author Judith Berlowitz (Home So Far Away) explores how she gleaned details about the life of her protagonist, Clara Philipsborn, through a single document from a Spanish archive.


Reading the Past in a Single Document
Judith Berlowitz

By the time I retired – as a PhD teaching Spanish language and world cultures – I welcomed the opportunity to concentrate on other interests. Search for my ancestral origins had widened, and tools learned in academic research had led to some dizzying discoveries. At the same time, I was noticing that the standard canon of utilizing sources was also widening, shifting, fluid.

Searching the Internet for my Philipsborn relatives, I came upon an article that mentioned Clara Philipsborn, an anti-fascist volunteer translator in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). I completed the Philipsborn project, keeping in mind the compelling need to find Clara. I soon contacted people via Facebook who followed various aspects of the Spanish Civil War and was introduced to the concept of Historical Memory, a movement that arose in reaction to the Pacto del Olvido – the Pact to Forget – imposed on the people of Spain at the death of the dictator Franco in 1975.

Clara, 1910 Wildbad
(credit: Gene Dannen,
originally posted
on his website 
These friends assisted me in locating documents about Clara in Soviet archives, which were conflicting, as were stories from other relatives I was able to reach. There were grave accusations against which she could not defend herself. I had to give her a voice that would break through the Pacto del Olvido. I would write her diary, as an homage to historical memory. The result is my first novel, Home So Far Away, published by She Writes Press, June 2022.

An institution in Spain called the Centro Documental de la Memoria Histórica found and sent me a precious document, Clara’s identity card from the Fifth Regiment of Popular Militias. Each of the static images on the document served as doors that opened to yet more sources, more material for Clara’s story:

• Clara’s typed name – her surname in all caps, is spelled correctly, in contrast to many other documents about her. This fact adds credibility to the source.
• The number at the top shows me that there were 6835 volunteers to the Fifth Regiment who applied ahead of Clara.
• Clara’s photograph reveals her attention to her appearance. The pressed hair, the tweezed eyebrows: a major departure from the wild look shown in photos from her youth. Clara’s hair plays a significant role in my novel as it connects her to her Jewish identity.
• Clara’s address as typed detracts from the credibility. There is no “Dionisio Cortes” Street in Madrid. But a search revealed the correct name, “Donoso Cortés,” and I was able to visit the location at number eight.
• Clara’s marital status is listed as single. Correct.
• But her age? She was born in Kiel in 1890, according to all German records. Other records from Spain show wildly varying dates, definitely material for my novel!
• Clara’s profession is first typed (with carbon paper) as a registered nurse, with the later addition – entered twice – of her title or degree of practicante, practitioner or PA, rare for women of this time and representing more prestige and more advanced duties.
• The space for the organization Clara belonged to is left blank and replaced by the inserted fragment of the colored stamp of the elite Fifth Regiment. This item opened up hours of research on this renowned unit.
• The date of Clara’s enrollment in the Regiment is added: just three days after the uprising against the elected government of the Spanish Republic. Essential proof of Clara’s eagerness to dedicate her skills to defend her new homeland. And the August date marks the beginning of Clara’s duties.
• Clara’s assignment to La Cabrera opened up research on a tiny town in Madrid’s Sierra Norte. The wartime field hospital was created in a monastery taken over by the Loyalists. Contact with the local high school history teacher informed me that the famed Rosario “la Dinamitera” had been treated there, leading to my placing her under Clara’s care during the necessary amputation. And a Facebook friend provided me with a copy of the surgeon’s report, providing me with that important name and with Rosario’s political affiliation.
• Clara’s clear signature completes the card, as if authorizing me to venture through all the doors it has opened.


About the novel:

A fictional diary set in interwar Germany and Spain allows us to peek into the life of Klara Philipsborn, the only Communist in her merchant-class, German-Jewish family.

Klara’s first visit to Seville in 1925 opens her eyes and her spirit to an era in which Spain’s major religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, shared deep cultural connections. At the same time, she is made aware of the harsh injustices that persist in Spanish society. By 1930, she has landed a position with the medical school in Madrid. Though she feels compelled to hide her Jewish identity in her predominantly Christian new home, she finds that she feels less “different” in Spain than she did in Germany, especially as she learns new ways of expressing her opinions and desires. And when the Spanish Civil War erupts in 1936, Klara (now “Clara”) enlists in the Fifth Regiment, a step that transports her across the geography of the embattled peninsula and ultimately endangers a promising relationship and even Clara’s life itself.

A blending of thoroughly researched history and engrossing fiction, Home So Far Away is an epic tale that will sweep readers away.

About the author:

Author Judith Berlowitz at Clara's Madrid home. 
Photo by Armando Mauleón, 2018, with his permission.
Los Angeles–born author Judith Berlowitz had just retired from her Spanish-teaching position at Oakland’s Mills College when her genealogical research uncovered a Gestapo record mentioning a relative, Clara Philipsborn, who was the only woman anti-fascist volunteer in the Spanish Civil War from the German state of Schleswig-Holstein. The few details of the report led to more research, which led to Home So Far Away. In addition to her career teaching Spanish and world cultures, and a stint as a tour guide, Judith is a card-carrying translator and has published in the field of ethnomusicology (Sephardic balladry) and Jewish identity. She sang for years with the Oakland Symphony Chorus and is now a member of the San Francisco Bach Choir. She lives in San Francisco with her husband, not far from her three daughters and three grandsons.

Friday, July 29, 2022

The Crimson Thread by Kate Forsyth tells a multilayered story of WWII Crete

Partway through reading The Crimson Thread, which takes place on Crete during WWII, I exclaimed to myself, This is a retelling of the Greek myth of Ariadne and the labyrinth! I had read the US publisher’s blurb, which didn’t include this, but the Australian publisher does. Kate Forsyth is known for her creative reworkings of ancient tales (she has a PhD in fairytale studies), so I should have figured this out sooner. Knowing the underlying structure added even more dimension to a story I had already been enjoying.

Among the abundance of WWII novels, I seek out those with underexplored characters or settings, and this one qualifies. The story focuses on the underground resistance on Crete and three young people caught in a love triangle while trying to survive and repel the Nazi invaders.

Alenka Klothakis lives near the Ariadne Villa in the village of Knossos and works as a translator for the curator at the archeological site there. With her mother near-mute after past trauma, and her twelve-year-old half-brother Axel, whose father was German, obsessed with Hitler and sympathetic to the Nazis, Alenka’s home life is tense. She is at heart a rebel (“It infuriated her that Greece was the home of democracy, but she was not allowed to vote”), and when her life becomes entwined with two Australian soldiers, she risks much to save them both.

Teddy Lloyd and Jack Hawke were childhood friends and fellow Classics students at the University of Melbourne before deciding to join up. Otherwise, the men are very different; Teddy is dashing and flirtatious, seeing Alenka as a possible conquest, while Jack is thoughtful though no less courageous, and he has a special affinity for the history and stories of the Greek isles—as does Alenka. Their connection ignites Teddy’s jealousy and leads him to lash out against his supposed “best mate.” Meanwhile, Axel moves from bratty adolescent rebellion to actual collaboration with the enemy.

author Kate Forsyth
The novel spans the entirety of the war, beginning with the German invasion and subsequent occupation to the Allied forces’ retreat over the White Mountains and the evacuation from Crete—which Teddy and Jack are unable to join, for separate reasons. The on-the-ground action feels vividly real, but what sets the novel apart is the cultural history and symbolism woven through the story in the form of music, dance, and colorful embroidery.

Jack has a talent for playing the lyra and finds that the stammer he has when speaking disappears when he sings. And Alenka, an experienced needlewoman, employs her skill in her work with the Resistance, literally and figuratively deciding which threads to spin—and which to snip. She is a wonderfully nuanced character, a young woman torn between caring for her family and saving her homeland, and she hates the idea of being any man’s possession.

Steeped in the alluring history of Crete, both ancient and modern, The Crimson Thread can be appreciated on many levels. It is a worthy addition to the author’s oeuvre and to WWII-era historical fiction.

The Crimson Thread is published in the US by Blackstone; it's also out from Penguin Random House in Australia. I reviewed it from a NetGalley copy as part of the blog tour with Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours.

blog tour banner

Saturday, July 23, 2022

A look at Addison Armstrong's The War Librarian and the courageous American librarians serving in WWI

If one can measure a novel’s success by the emotions it draws from readers, the sophomore work by Armstrong (The Light of Luna Park, 2021) is very effective indeed. The trials her protagonists undergo, while pursuing their dreams and holding onto their integrity, evoke admiration and passionate fury on their behalf.

In 1918, Emmaline Balakin leaves her sedate Dead Letter Office job to serve in France as a hospital librarian. The injured soldiers at Bazoilles-sur-Meuse are truly grateful for the reading material, though Emmaline is aghast at the treatment of Black servicemen and dismayed by the American government’s censorship regulations.

In 1976, Kathleen Carre, granddaughter of Emmaline’s friend Nellie, breaks gender barriers by enrolling in the U.S. Naval Academy. Between ridiculous uniform requirements (three-inch heels!) and torturous hazing from male classmates, the system seems determined to break her, but she persists.

Romance and long-held secrets provide additional intrigue in this increasingly powerful story. The values of intellectual freedom, antiracist activism, and female friendship are illustrated within their historical contexts, yet these themes couldn’t be timelier.

The War Librarian will be published on August 9th by Putnam in the US. I wrote the review above for Booklist's historical fiction issue (dated May 15th). My editor gave me the opportunity to select books from a list of options, and this was one of them. I chose it not only because the subject interested me, being a librarian myself, but also because the personal story of my library's namesake is relevant to the book's subject.

Mary J. Booth in her
WWI uniform
The library where I work, Booth Library at Eastern Illinois University, was named after Mary Josephine Booth (1876-1965). She was head librarian there for 41 years, from 1904-45, aside from the period (1917-19) when she served overseas during WWI as a volunteer with the American Red Cross and, later, the American Library Association.  During her tenure at Eastern, the library was housed in the main administration building, and she campaigned tirelessly for the campus to construct its own freestanding library. Plans were formulated in 1942, and the new Mary J. Booth Library was finally open for business in 1950, five years after her retirement.  

Over my own time at Booth Library, I've given many tours covering different aspects of the building's history, including Miss Booth's wartime service, but I hadn't realized how rare an accomplishment this was until I read The War Librarian. "Very few female librarians were sent to France before the end of the war," Armstrong writes in her author's note.  In Paris, Miss Booth worked to catalog American books shipped overseas for U.S. soldiers, selecting reading material for men in hospitals and in the trenches. She also cataloged the books at General John Pershing's headquarters at Chaumont.

Needless to say, I'll be purchasing a copy of The War Librarian for my library's recreational reading collection once it's published!

Read more at these external sites:

From NPR: When America's Librarians Went to War.
From the Library History Buff Blog: Women Librarians and ALA's Library War Service in WWI (which has a photo of Miss Booth)
From the Daily Eastern News: Booth's name honors former librarian 

Friday, July 15, 2022

Jessie Burton's The House of Fortune continues The Miniaturist in early 18th-century Amsterdam

Burton’s The Miniaturist (2014) was an international bestseller with a subsequent TV miniseries, and this keenly awaited sequel should more than fulfill expectations. Exhibiting the same finely etched atmosphere of historic Amsterdam, it deepens characterizations by bringing the action forward while illuminating the childhood of the original protagonist, Nella.

In 1705, secrets flourish in the Brandt house on the Herengracht canal. Nella’s mixed-race niece, eighteen-year-old Thea, who knows little about her mother or events before her birth, conducts a furtive romance with an unsuitable man. With money tight, Nella hopes to find Thea a rich husband who will improve their fortunes.

Thea’s father, Otto, has his own ideas, and their competing plans clash dramatically. Meanwhile, the miniaturist from the first book, whose designs are unnervingly perceptive, has returned, with gifts for Thea.

With an artistic eye, Burton explores women’s lives, socioeconomic concerns, and the ways they intersect. This volume has few supernatural elements; rather, the story emphasizes the effect of the miniaturist’s creations. Both heroines grow and change in this smartly written tale about family relationships and recognizing truth.

The House of Fortune was published on July 7 in the UK by Bloomsbury. North American readers will have to wait a little longer; it's published here on August 30th, also by Bloomsbury. 

I wrote this review for Booklist's historical fiction issue, which came out on May 15th.  You might notice a pineapple on the US cover, at the top, and (without providing spoilers), this plays a role in the story.

Saturday, July 09, 2022

Hilary Mantel examines her childhood via fiction in Learning to Talk

Two-time Booker winner Mantel explores the haunted landscapes of her childhood in this anthology, first published in Britain in 2003. The six stories, set in 1950s-70s industrial northern England, read like personal essays but sifted through a fictional lens: she calls them “autoscopic” rather than autobiographical.

The narrators closely observe their young lives amidst many adult tensions and secrets, such as marital scandals and class, racial, and religious differences. Children’s playground squabbles become a microcosm of Protestant-Catholic frictions, and two girls’ experience getting lost in a junkyard induces musings on emotional rootedness. Standouts are the title story, about elocution lessons for social mobility, and “The Clean Slate,” which delves into the mutability of historical memory through reflections on a drowned village.

Mantel carves beauty out of bleakness, crafting brilliant metaphors with penetrating human insights. “The country through which they move is older, more intimate than ours,” she writes about children’s innate knowledge of deducing truth about their world. Read this collection alongside her memoir, Giving Up the Ghost (2003), for additional insight into her life and creative process.

Learning to Talk was published in the US by Henry Holt in June and has been receiving a great deal of critical attention for a book nearly two decades old; this marks the first US publication. Can the stories be called historical fiction?  This depends on your definition. Some aspects take place close to 50 years before the time of writing, while other stories are more recent. I wrote this review for Booklist Online (published online on June 30). Mantel wrote a new preface for this latest edition.

Thursday, June 30, 2022

The Research for The Valley: Researching a World That Never Was, an essay by A. M. Linden

Thanks to author A. M. Linden for contributing an essay on creating a plausible historical world for her new novel, The Valley, second book in her Druid Chronicles series set in the British Isles in the 8th century. The Valley was published by She Writes Press on June 28th.


The Research for The Valley:
Researching a World That Never Was
A. M. Linden

Book 2 of The Druid Chronicles expands on the premise that the remnants of a once powerful pagan cult have survived into the last years of the eighth century, a time when the conversion to Christianity is all but complete throughout the rest of the British Isles. While the other four books of the series are set in fictional but historically based Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, Llwddawanden, the valley of the book’s title, is entirely hypothetical—a place I conceived of as a lost world where its inhabitants live according to a system of beliefs dating back to the Iron Age. That said, it was always my intention to make this part of my characters’ story at least plausible, and I began my research with a broad review of the relevant academic and popular literature.

Although Druids do not appear in the historical record after the Roman conquest of the Gauls on the European continent, and the Celts in what is now England, they are described by Julius Caesar and others as members of a priestly class of polytheistic Celts that performed functions as bards, oracles, and healers as well as serving as judges and political advisors. Caesar further reported that becoming a Druid required a training period as long as twenty years. With that to go on, I turned to ethnographic studies of societies with comparable social roles and to the works of folklorists who have recorded and studied epics and folktales from around the world—focusing on creation stories, epic poetry, and folktales conveying cultural mores.

By then I knew that one of The Valley’s underlying issues was to be the internal tensions of a persecuted minority struggling to survive and to pass on deeply held beliefs, and I had settled on the three main protagonists—Herrwn, the shrine’s master bard, Ossiam, their oracle, and Olyrrwd, their physician—who shared a collective responsibility as advisors to the shrine’s chief priestess and as judges on its councils.

Herrwn, the novel’s viewpoint character, had his origins in what I’ve learned about bards as the keepers and transmitters of cultural traditions through oral sagas and poetry, Ossiam is more of a mix, part-shaman, part-trickster, while Olyrrwd has his counterparts in non-western healers as well as in pre-nineteenth-century medical practitioners.

From the first, I intended the series’ major conflict to be between my Druid cult’s devotion to the worship of a supreme mother goddess and the paternalistic monotheism of the Christian world outside their secluded sanctuary. There is documentation of goddesses having a significant role in pre-Christian Celtic religions but, to me at least, their function was not as dominant as I had in mind, so again I looked at the larger literature—ranging from speculation about the paleolithic “Venus” figurines found across the Eurasian continent to the views of modern-day Wiccans—blending what I learned into the theology that would govern life in the imaginary valley of Llwddawanden.


Ann Margaret Linden was born in Seattle, Washington, but grew up on the east coast, returning to the Pacific Northwest as a young adult. She has undergraduate degrees in anthropology and in nursing and a master’s degree as a nurse practitioner. After working in a variety of acute care and community health settings, she took a position in a program for children with special health care needs where her responsibilities included writing a variety of program related materials. In a somewhat whimsical decision to write something for fun, she began what was to be a tongue-in-cheek historical murder mystery involving Druids and early medieval Christians. It wasn’t meant to be long or involved, but the characters seemed to acquire lives of their own and their story grew to become The Druid Chronicles. Prior to her retirement, this remained an after-hours endeavor that included taking adult education creative writing courses and researching early British history, and was augmented with travel to England, Scotland, and Wales. Since then, the insistence of those characters on getting themselves into print has prevailed. Currently completing the final draft of the last book, the author lives with her husband and their cat and dog in the northwest corner of Washington state.

For more information, visit the series website.