Thursday, September 29, 2011

Guest post from Monika Schröder: Obituaries, Advertisements, and War Bulletins...

Today's guest post from Monika Schröder speaks to the historical background of her novel My Brother's Shadow, reviewed here on Tuesday.  How did her archival research with Berlin newspapers inform her work, and how did she consult these primary sources while living half a world away?  As a librarian who likes helping researchers with requests for older material, I found her essay especially enjoyable.

Obituaries, Advertisements, and War Bulletins – How Reading Berlin Newspapers from the Fall of 1918 helped me write My Brother's Shadow, by Monika Schröder

My new novel of historical fiction, My Brother's Shadow (Frances Foster Books/Farrar Straus Giroux, September, 2011), is set in Berlin 1918 during the last months of World War One. The book explores how war and the political transition following WWI affected regular people and children in particular.

From reading secondary sources I had gained basic information about the situation among German civilians, but I needed to find more details of daily life in Berlin. A few excerpts of the Berliner Tageblatt and Morgenpost were available online, but most of those consisted of the front pages announcing important events such as the Kaiser’s abdication or the armistice. I didn’t find any searchable database that would give me access to the original Berlin newspapers of the year 1918.

When I contacted the German Newspaper Archive in Berlin, I learned that the digitization of most of the papers I was interested in had not been completed. The nice lady at the front desk invited me to visit the archive, explained which subway stop to get off and how much it would cost to make copies. I told her that I lived in New Delhi and wouldn’t be able to come personally to the archive until the following summer.

But I needed those papers right away. I must have sounded desperate as she connected me to the director of the archive to whom I explained my predicament. I expected a tart ‘no’; instead he told me that the archive had finished digitizing through the end of 1919 the Vossische Zeitung, an important liberal paper, published in Berlin. That was good news!

But when he asked how I could get to access the Vossische Zeitung from October 1918 to January 1919 he told me that they were not available online yet.

Now so close to my goal I was not ready to give up. “If you have them in digital format,” I said. “Could you burn them onto a CD and send them to me?"

After a pause, he said, “That would be very expensive.”

“How much?” I asked.

I won’t disclose the sum. Let’s just say he was right in his cost estimation, but I ordered them right away and three weeks later I was delighted to receive a package in the mail with the digitized editions of the Vossische Zeitung from October 14, 1918 to January 20, 1919.

I loved reading the newspaper. The official war report was printed daily on the front page, usually under an upbeat headline. But by the middle of October a discerning reader could see that the army leadership slowly began to disclose more and more of the German Army’s dismal situation. The paper also printed obituaries. Every day numerous black framed notices informed the reader of the death of a young Karl or Friedrich who died “in honor of the fatherland” in France, Russia or Belgium.

I also studied the advertisements, which were very interesting and revealing. Due to the British blockade of the German harbors, Germany experienced severe food shortages. By 1918 many raw materials like coffee or cocoa were not available, and the lack of these products forced Germans to be inventive. Many “ersatz” (replacement) products were advertised. For example, I found an ad offering a class for housewives who wanted to learn how to make coffee from chicory and other ingredients. There were also numerous official calls for the collection of raw materials, such as metal, rubber, and cardboard. Others asked children to bring cherry and plum pits for a “Make Oil from Fruit Pits” campaign.

Commercial ads also illustrated the changing role of women in the war economy following the shortage of men. Traditionally considered the “weaker gender,” women now were drafted to work in ammunition factories and conducted streetcars, and delivered milk and mail or moved heavy equipment as the woman in the following advertisement.

I was so fascinated by what I had read that the newspaper became an important part in the story. As an apprentice in a print shop of a Berlin newspaper, Moritz, the main character, reads the headlines of the paper he just helped print and thereby informs the readers of the state of affairs in Germany, October 1918. On the first page of the novel Moritz studies an official war report, knowing that the government is not allowing the truth to come out. He then meets Herr Goldman, a journalist who works for the paper and who takes a liking to Moritz and ultimately helps him to fulfill his dream to become a reporter like himself. When Moritz is sent out to report on an illegal demonstration he sees his mother among the speakers. He witnesses the police disturb the meeting, disperse the crowd and arrest the leaders. What happened to Moritz’s mother? Read My Brother's Shadow to find out.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Book review: My Brother's Shadow, by Monika Schröder

In her young adult novel My Brother’s Shadow, Monika Schröder creates a starkly realistic vision of Berlin at the end of World War I.

In 1918, sixteen-year-old Moritz Schmidt works as a printer for the Berliner Daily, which is obliged to publish patriotic bulletins from the German Reich even though its people know they’re losing the war. With food rationing in place, a hearty meal is a distant memory. Instead, citizens stand in lines for bread and stretch their supplies by consuming turnip soup and ersatz coffee.

Moritz's home life is difficult. His father was killed at Verdun, his older brother Hans is off fighting at the Western Front, and his frail Oma (grandma) suffers from dementia. At the same time, his mother and sister attend secret meetings of the Social Democrats, who work to bring down the Kaiser and his oppressive regime. This introduces a note of hope into the narrative but causes confusion for Moritz, who doesn’t know who to believe.

Succumbing to peer pressure and missing his brother, Moritz joins Hans’s old gang, a group of bullies and thieves. After they threaten trouble for a new friend of his, a Jewish girl named Rebecca, his conscience begins to awaken. He also starts paying attention to his mentor at the paper, who sees potential in him as a journalist, and who considers his mother a hero for her outspoken stance. Then Hans comes home – crippled, angry, and eager to find a scapegoat for his and Germany’s losses.

Moritz narrates the tale in a non-intrusive present tense. His innocence can make him seem younger than his years, but his honesty and openness draw readers into his gripping story. The pacing is brisk, and tension builds out of the bleak atmosphere.

Not surprisingly given the author’s background (she grew up in Germany), she paints a detailed picture of the local geography and culture. Teenagers may find Moritz’s coming-of-age journey and growing romance with Rebecca the most compelling, but adult readers may discover that Anna Schmidt, the woman he calls Mama, steals the show. She is strong, courageously optimistic, and devoted to her family, but not even she knows how to cure her wounded elder son.

This wise and provocative read doesn’t offer up easy answers, which may be its greatest strength. The sobering ending makes it plain that for these characters and for Germany, the tale is far from over.

My Brother's Shadow was published today by Frances Foster Books/Farrar Straus & Giroux at $16.99 (hardcover, 217pp, with detailed author's note on the historical background).  Look for a guest post by Monika Schröder later this week about the research process for her book.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Langum Prize for American Historical Fiction: 1st shortlist announced

The Langum Charitable Trust, sponsor of the annual Langum Prize for American Historical Fiction, has announced a change in procedure.  They have begun a shortlist process; the first shortlist will cover novels published in January-June of the prize year, and a second list will cover novels published in July-December.

For the first half of 2011, the shortlisted titles are:

Geraldine Brooks' Caleb's Crossing, set in 1660s Martha's Vineyard and Cambridge, Massachusetts, and centering on the friendship between a minister's daughter and a young man of the Wampanoag tribe;

Susan Vreeland's Clara and Mr. Tiffany, about Clara Driscoll, Louis Comfort Tiffany's chief designer at his New York glass studio in the 1890s.

For more on both books, see the Langum Charitable Trust.  To submit a novel for consideration, view the directions available at the site.

The prize is awarded annually to the "best book in American historical fiction that is both excellent fiction and excellent history."  Recent past winners include Ann Weisgarber's The Personal History of Rachel DuPree, Edward Rutherfurd's New York, and Kathleen Kent's The Heretic's Daughter.

Monday, September 12, 2011

An Australia & New Zealand historical fiction showcase

This post is thanks to Marg because in the comments for one of my recent posts, she told me about FishpondWorld, an online Aussie bookstore that ships free internationally.  The one thing that's prevented me from buying more historical novels from Australia and New Zealand is the outrageous postage charges, which are often higher than the books' cover price.  Getting them via interlibrary loan isn't really practical from the US.  So, having just gotten paid for an article I wrote, I clicked onto this new site and went to town.

A couple of these were actually recent purchases from Bookcloseouts, but they fit the subject and I figured I'd add them to the pile.

The books look even more appealing when you see the covers, so here they are below.

This is a huge trade paperback, 550pp long.  Belinda Alexandra is an Australian historical novelist who has set her novels all over the world.  I'd call them romantic epics.  Tuscan Rose centers on a young woman living in Florence, Italy, in the 1930s and '40s, who is compelled to uncover her true identity at a time when Fascism takes hold of her country.  HarperCollins Australia, 2010.

An unlikely love story unfolds in the gold rush settlement of Arrowtown in 19th-century New Zealand, as a young Chinese woman named Ming Yuet disguises herself as a miner.  Penguin New Zealand, 2008.

This is another gold rush-era romantic story set in Old Ballarat, a mining boomtown near Melbourne.  I won't reveal more of the storyline, because this is 3rd in a series after Kitty and Amber, tales of strong women during the early days of Australia and New Zealand.  HarperCollins New Zealand, 2010.

I just love this cover design.  The tagline says: "A daring heroine tests her wits against secrets, spies, and smugglers on a remote Australian island."  Mary Watson was a real person from 1879 Queensland, an adventure-seeking woman who left behind a few brief diary entries hinting at her fate.  This literary fiction novel picks up where those fragments leave off.  4th Estate, 2011.

This compact little novel (311pp but dense in terms of weight) tells the historically-based story of the migrations from Nova Scotia to Australia in 1817, and the colony's subsequent settlement in New Zealand in 1854, under the leadership of Norman McLeod.  Kidman tells the story from the viewpoint of three generations of women, whose stories date from 1812 to 1953.  Vintage New Zealand, 1988.

This is one of the most gorgeous covers I've seen anywhere, and it's on a book I'd been looking to buy for over a year.  Fiona McIntosh is best known as a fantasy writer, and this is her first installment of a family saga based on her the history of her ancestors. It begins at the end of the Great War.  "From the windswept clifftops of the Cornish coast to the goldmines of southern India, this is a page turning story of high adventure, devastating tragedy and enduring love."  Penguin Australia, this edition 2011.

And here is the back cover, which is just as spectacular.

I first read about La Rochelle's Road at Cat's blog Tell Me a Story; she's a NZ blogger who specializes in historical fiction.  In 1866, Hester Peterson discovers the journal of a past resident of her family's home - Etienne La Rochelle, who caused a scandal by taking a Maori lover. What she learns sets her on a dangerous path of beauty, darkness, and illicit love.  Black Swan (NZ), 2011.

Now which one should I read first?

A look at Elle Newmark's The Sandalwood Tree

Elle Newmark's The Sandalwood Tree is an engrossing novel set during two pivotal periods in the history of colonial India.

Evie Mitchell arrives in India in 1947 with her historian husband, Martin, and their five-year-old son, Billy.  The recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship, Martin is eager to document firsthand the last days of the British Raj.  Evie hopes that their staying together as a family in this unfamiliar land will repair their strained marriage and teach Billy about respecting other countries' beliefs.

Things don't turn out as she planned.  Martin refuses to discuss his wartime experiences with Evie and, with the timeline for India's Partition moved up unexpectedly, worries about their safety.  Evie doesn't fit in with the bigoted expatriate community and is left to her own devices.  Tired of what she feels is Martin's paranoia, she feels lonely and restless.

Then, concealed within their bungalow in the village of Masoorla, just outside Simla, Evie discovers fragments of personal letters between Felicity and Adele, two Victorian-era friends who lived in her house 90 years before.  She gets caught up in their lives and determines to find out what happened to them.  Their story, a tale of daring female adventure and several instances of forbidden love, is revealed piece by piece and intertwines neatly with Evie's narrative.

Newmark's vibrant portrait of India details its opulent beauty, its appalling poverty, and the difficult paths to cross-cultural understanding. The tension level rises as the relaxing atmosphere of remote Masoorla braces up against the violent Muslim-Hindu conflicts before Partition in the later timeline, and the tragic aftermath of the Sepoy Mutiny in the earlier one.

This isn't the type of historical novel that glorifies unconventional behavior during a restrictive time.  It's more realistic than that.  Both Felicity and Adele flout their families' expectations, each choosing personal happiness over society's approval.  As she learns more about them, Evie comes to admire them as trailblazers, but they're considered scandalous by their contemporaries.

I read The Sandalwood Tree in just over a day, immersed in the Indian setting and the dilemmas faced by all three women.  Sadly, the quote at the very beginning of the novel, Adele's remark that "death steals everything but our stories," could be the author's epitaph.  She passed away in June after a two-year illness.  Newmark became a successful author late in life, and her journey from aspiring writer to self-published novelist to international bestseller is truly inspiring.

The Sandalwood Tree was published by Atria in April at $25.99 ($29.99 in Canada) and by Black Swan (UK) in August at £7.99.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Borgia Betrayal contest winner

I'll be posting more later today or tomorrow, but for now -- I've just drawn the winner of Sara Poole's The Borgia Betrayal, with the help of  Congrats to Sam from Tiny Library!  Looks like this copy will be winging its way over to the UK soon.

In her comment, Sam wrote that she's my newest follower (thanks for reading the site!).  After reading her recent review of Elle Newmark's The Sandalwood Tree, I decided to pick it up next.  The review copy's been on my pile for a few months, and it looked like a good book to lose myself in after a very busy work week.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Book review: Deborah Lawrenson's The Lantern

In her modern Gothic mystery, her first novel to be published in America, Deborah Lawrenson plunges readers into the atmosphere of rural Provence, a place both entrancing and chilling.

When Eve, a young freelance translator, meets Dom, an older musician, at a chateau along Lake Geneva, both are at low points in their lives. They unexpectedly fall in love, and together they purchase a huge, crumbling farmhouse, Les Genévriers, nestled in the Luberon Mountains of southern France. Here they delight in the pleasures of the region and in each other, but as the seasons change, shadows appear in their relationship. Dom refuses to speak about his former wife, Rachel, and withdraws more and more into himself. His coldness arouses Eve’s curiosity and alarm and incites her to search for answers.

In alternating chapters that don’t mark the change of narrator (but which aren't confusing for the switch), an elderly woman named Bénédicte Lincel speaks of growing up at Les Genévriers in the 1930s and 40s. Her glorious childhood is marred only by the cruelty of her older brother, Pierre, and her family’s decline into poverty during the postwar years. Both Eve and Bénédicte catch glimpses of what they believe are ghosts on the property, and apprehension builds as the tragedies in their lives are slowly uncovered.

Reflecting the bounty of the land, the language is ripe and sensual (tomatoes are "as ribbed and plump as harem cushions"). The regional specialties, like vin de noix – sweet walnut liqueur – sound mouth-wateringly delicious. Armchair travelers will revel in Lawrenson’s lush descriptions of the lavender harvest, an event in which Bénédicte participates in order to share the experience with her blind sister, Marthe, who grows up to be a renowned parfumeuse. The cycle of life is evoked in full, from birth and growth through death and decay – as it affects local crops, the structure of Les Genévriers, and the affairs of its human inhabitants.

The Lantern is setting-driven before it becomes character-driven, as if to imply that one must get to know the terrain before knowing its people. Everyone is holding something back, and Eve herself acknowledges the uncanny similarities between her life and the plot of Rebecca. To enhance the parallels even more, “Eve” is merely Dom’s nickname for the modern narrator; her real name is never given.

A few scenes take the easy way out during an otherwise complex reading experience. Pierre is a stereotypical bully, and his malicious actions can be predicted from miles away. But apart from this, the author displays smart plotting and a good sense of timing. She gently manipulates readers along a suspenseful path, culminating in an astonishing revelation that Du Maurier couldn’t have imagined.

Those who enjoy Kate Morton’s novels and other Gothic family sagas should enjoy this book as well, although its pacing is more drawn out in the beginning, and its phrasings have more of a literary flair. Darkly evocative, beautifully written, and overflowing with the sights and scents of the Provençal countryside, The Lantern takes a powerful look at the haunting presence of the past.

The Lantern was published by Harper in September at $25.99 (hardcover, 384pp).  In the UK, it's available from Orion in either hardcover (£18.99) or paperback (£7.99), with a very similar cover.