“Isadora” by Amelia Gray

Pub. Date:  May 23, 2017

Publisher:  Farrar, Straus and GirouxIsadora

In this unusual historical fiction, we meet Isadora Duncan (1878-1927).  She was a controversial and successful American dancer who performed throughout Europe.  Breaking with conventional ballet, she spearheaded a cutting-edge technique that accentuated a natural and free-flowing style over traditional inflexible ballet. Today she is known as the “Mother of Modern Dance.”   The author, Amelia Gray, lets us know that in both Duncan’s professional and private lives, she disregarded convention.   Her children were born out of wedlock by different men.  On stage, she was barefoot wearing scarves inspired by Greek imagery that peeked at her breasts, which sometimes resulted in banned performances.  She was the epitome of a bohemian.  (Think of the artists Frida Kahlo).   I was hoping Gray would focus her novel on the notorious dancer who lived and loved without boundaries.  However, Gray did not.  The novel only concentrates on the aftermath of her children’s death.  In 1913 Paris, her children and their Nanny drowned when their runaway car went into the Seine.

When I began this book I wasn’t aware that the author’s formatting was different than any other historical fiction that I have read.  Each chapter starts off with a concise heading that clarifies what we are about to read. Then after the heading, each chapter reads like a disturbing stream of consciousness narration.  I confess I was often confused.  Gray’s writing made me feel as if I were having a particularly intense bad dream.   And I believe that was her goal.  I have never read Gray’s short story, “Museum of the Weird” but I have the feeling that “weird” may be her style.   Yet for myself, while reading “Isadora,” I often I felt as though I was perusing a poem that I couldn’t quite grasp.  It left me feeling disappointed because the words sounded splendid, possibly brilliant, although I just didn’t get most of it.  (Because of this, I now intend to watch the film “The Loves of Isadora” with Vanessa Redgrave playing Isadora).  However,  Gray did a great job in helping me understand that Duncan grieved as she lived, full of melodrama and spinning out of control (like the car that took her children’s lives), bordering on the edge of insanity.  I will not tell you what she did with her children’s ashes.

In this story, there were narrators other than the protagonist.  There were also observers written in the third person.  (I think Junot Díaz is the master of this kind of hybrid style of writing).  You will need to be on your toes to follow the quick changes.  Still, Gray does manage to pull it off.  One voice was her sister Elizabeth who had a leg limp not allowing her to dance.   Instead, she ran the dancing schools her sister founded.  Elizabeth was totally reliant on Isadora and loathed her for that reality.  She appeared to be the level-headed sister until you catch on that her supposedly great loves were merely her friends, and the romances were actually all in her imagination.  We also get a good glimpse on Duncan’s grief-induced turmoil in her letters to the father of one of her children.   In these letters, Isadora’s sentences fringe on insanity.  Paris Singer, the heir to the Singer sewing machine empire, was the father of her other child.   Duncan was living with him at the time of the car accident.  To hear it from Singer, he was the brains and she was the temperamental artist.  Duncan would have disagreed, but it may have been true as he was influential in her many triumphs.   These different viewpoints enhance the story of a dazzling self-destructive dancer who found fame on the brink of World War I.  Shades of the coming war were only hinted at in this tale.  The focus was all on Duncan’s anguish.  Personally, I would have enjoyed reading about the historical moments that took place during her lifetime.  As I mentioned, I honestly only comprehended sections of the book due to the dysphoria-like writing style, which I always have trouble understanding.    But if you enjoy that genre, and you can handle absurdism in a historical fiction then this book is for you.

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“The Witchfinder’s Sister” by Beth Underdown

Pub. Date:  April 25, 2017The witchfinder's sister

Publisher:   Penguin Books

In this historical fiction the character of the sister is fictional, but her brother, Matthew Hopkins, was a real person, and a real witchfinder.  He even had the title of “Witchfinder General” during the English Civil war (1642-1646).  (I had to google this to believe such a title existed).  I was hoping to learn a bit more about the war between the Royalists, supporters of King Charles I and the Parliamentarians, supporters of the rights of Parliament, but the author decided to just educate the reader on how the fear of witches was pronounced by the general fear in England at this time.

The story is narrated by the sister who is widowed and forced to move back home with her brother.  She quickly learns that home is no longer a safe place and that her brother has grown into an evil man who longs for power.  He insists that she be a part of his witch investigations.  The tale reads like a psychological horror story, but is all the more terrifying knowing that such events in history did indeed happen.  Hopkins was a frightening monster. “My brother, Matthew set himself to killing women…but without once breaking the law.”Matthew-Hopkins

The inhuman methods that Hopkins used in his investigations are difficult to read.  Women were tied to a stool and not allowed to sleep for hours, which often led to sleep-deprived confessions.  Females accused were pricked with special needles in their vaginas and if an animal licked the blood they were considered witches.   Another example where death was the only outcome was when suspects were tied to a chair and thrown into water: all those who “swam” (floated) were considered to be witches and were then hung.  Of course, when the innocent didn’t float they died a watery grave rather than by the gallows.  I believe we are all familiar with the days of the witch hunts, still, I didn’t expect to gasp in horror, as I did when reading exactly what went on during the so-called investigations.

The author, Beth Underdown, does an impressive job in taking the reader back into this ghastly time in history.  (Think of the Arthur Miller play and the 1996 movie version of the play “The Crucible”). I could feel the uncertainty and fear in the villages caused by a righteous lunatic.  Who would be next?  One daughter gave false evidence against a group of women who lived in her village with the promise that her mother might be spared.  I will leave you to guess if mother and daughter lived.

Underdown makes it easy to read between the lines, that the Hopkins’ witch trials had more to do with politics than potions, not to mention gender issues.  Now here we are in the year of 2017 and despite all that we know, we still can breed the hysteria that can create a monster.  I can’t help but wonder if humankind will ever learn.

 

 

 

“The Last Neanderthal” by Claire Cameron

Pub. Date:  April 25, 2017The Last Neanderthal

Publisher:   Little, Brown and Company

This is a novel about the makings of the female species. There are two female protagonists. One lives in the present and the other lives forty thousand years ago. The author, Claire Cameron, weaves the two females’ very different lives together in flashbacks and flash-forwards. Cameron writes her novel as if it is a thesis, with a theory that needs to be proved. Her hypothesis is that our ancestors were strikingly similar to the humans of today. Her end notes have an impressive list of references on the subject, showing that she did her homework. In the hands of a lesser author, this dissertation-like focus could be the book’s weakness. Instead, her storytelling skills are so good that it is the book’s strength. It reads as a historical fiction, a mystery, a fast-paced suspense tale with taboo sex, and a love letter to the human race, with an emphasis on the female ability to create life.

The modern day woman is a pregnant archaeologist who is racing to get grant funding to continue her work on Neanderthal artifacts before her baby is born. The bones she finds in her dig are of two bodies and they are a shocking discovery because they are of a female Neanderthal and a human male buried together, positioned as if embracing. In the distant past, the Neanderthal teenage girl is also pregnant. She is racing to find shelter before her baby is born. It is crucial that this baby lives since she knows that her species’ numbers are low. Her mother taught her that her reason for being born is to reproduce so the “family” can continue. (Family here can mean their immediate family but is also used as their word for all Neanderthals). It is clear to the reader that the female bones found by the archaeologist are the bones of the female Neanderthal protagonist. Both the Neanderthal girl and the modern day woman have very difficult births, one without her partner, in a country where she doesn’t speak the language, and the other alone in a hole in the earth during a snowstorm. Both almost lose their life giving birth and have to decide whether to save their own life or the life of their unborn baby. This type of choice always makes for a thought provoking and heart-tugging read.

By itself, the story of the modern day heroine would have been a good feminist tale, asking if working women can have it all—a fulfilling career and family life? The author adds in a postpartum psychosis episode, and the Archaeologist begins to think about killing her baby. This temporary madness makes for an interesting story but it has been written before in “All She Ever Wanted” by Rosalind Noonan and other stories on this subject. But the story of the Neanderthal girl is so intriguing that I sometimes became annoyed when the next chapter focused on the Archaeologist. In the girl’s story, I became lost in the world of 40 thousand years ago, when the last families of Neanderthals roamed the earth. They were incredible people, and I choose to call them people because of what I learned in this book. Yet, they had an animal-like fairness to them that modern humans do not have. Unless desperate, they never killed a baby animal. They understood that this would disrupt the balance of the order of life because then the baby bison would not grow and continue the circle of life.

I became fascinated with other side stories in the novel too, such as the girl’s friendship with a tiger too old to hunt. He would come to visit her like a pet and she would give him strips of meat, usually cooked. (The Neanderthals would eat raw meat immediately after a successful hunt but once brought home the carcass is cooked). The Neanderthal girl and the tiger jointly knew that if it came down to it, one would kill the other even though they were friends. It is survival of the fittest with a certain kindness and respect. Another character that intrigued me is a boy child that the mother Neanderthal takes in when she finds him lost and orphaned. He became a much loved family member even though they see him as an odd looking child as well as rather strange. He had impressive qualities that they did not have. Something about his arms allowed him to throw and hit a target as only an adult could. Unlike the others, who rarely use their voice to communicate in words, he chattered all day long, driving the others crazy. And a difference that made this reader laugh out loud is that the family worried that when his time came he will never find a mate, because he is such an ugly looking male, no female would find him attractive enough to want him. (Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I guess Neanderthals were not physically attracted to humans’ facial features).

I will not share what happens to each of the female heroines or their babies. It would be a spoiler. I will share that one of my favorite parts in the Archaeologist’s story is when she is in labor and couldn’t talk with the doctor so they locked eyes and somehow managed to communicate without words, just as the Neanderthals did. This book makes me want to pay attention to my own forgotten senses lost from lack of use. I often joke that my sinus and spine pains can tell me when the weather is about to change. Could this be how modern Homo sapiens modified our alertness to nature? And can we once again regain instincts that we have lost? The author made me truly feel for our ancient ancestors as if they were my relatives and not just extinct creatures that I once read about in a history book. This is a powerful novel that made me often tear and sometimes laugh, all while exploring the concept of what makes us human?

 

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“The Patriots” by Sana Krasikov

ARC books are given before publication to professional the-patriotsreviewers for free in exchange for an honest review.  I missed the publication deadline on “The Patriots,” and did not remember I owned the book until I saw a review of it in the NYT (which I did not read for fear of influencing my own review). I do hope my review, being written after publication, will still assist with this book’s sales, for this is historical fiction at its finest. The story revolves around a Jewish girl, from Brooklyn who lived in Russia from 1933 to 1979. The author, Sana Krasiko, moved between voices and decades. The story is linear except for the prologue, which takes place in the 1950s. After that the story of the mother, which is told chronologically and in the third person, begins. However, her story is punctuated by the first-person voice of her 60-year old son, who narrates in the year 2008. I enjoyed this writing style— it kept the prose fresh while showing the different views of the times. Both mother and son lived in Russia for parts of their lives. In the 1930s, when most were immigrating to the US, our heroine was leaving New York for the Old World. She remained trapped there under Lenin and Stalin’s rule. She was sent to a prison camp. The son was forced to live in orphanages until his mother was released in the 1950s. But before all this happened, she was romanticizing the possibilities of creating a better life in Russia. Looking at today’s news, this book could hardly feel more relevant to this reviewer. I shyly admit that I did not know that Putin was once a KGB officer.

In this novel, our Russian bound teen originally wanted to go to an elite American Women’s College. However, the family finances stood in the way, as her father’s business suffered from the Depression. She thus entered the co-ed world of NYC’s free public college education. It was here that she discovered other Jewish students arguing Marxism-Leninism and Communism vs. Capitalism. Her desire for pearls was replaced with a passion for political activism favoring socialized states. Think Barbara Streisand in “The Way We Were.” She graduated, and in her first job met and fell in love with a Russian man who was in the US for only a few months. To the horror of her family, she booked passage on a steamliner to Russia. She told her family that she was off to pursue her dream job and that she would be gone for one year, maybe two. In reality, she was really going to meet up with her Russian lover. Once she arrived and finally located her man, he rejected her. It appears that he was worldlier than she was, informing her to go home for she was in way over her head and that the USSR does not at all resemble a US college campus. Her pride would not let her return home. Besides, “Purges and politics aside, there was plenty of fun to be had in Moscow in 1934.” (One of the nice things about reviewing after publication is that I now can use quotes, unlike pre-publication.)

Eventually, she met a new young man. They married and had a child. Ironically, her husband was also a New Yorker who sympathized in Communist theories. In the early days of her marriage, her American passport was confiscated, which she demanded be returned to her. This was the beginning of her troubles with the secret police. Her confusion and fear during interrogations were shown when she informed on her best friend, another American girl that she met on the steamliner to Russia. Between non-stop questions with little time to think, she betrayed her friend in order to save her own family. In the long run she fails at this too. Despite her efforts to keep her family safe, her husband was shot, and she was imprisoned as a spy in a Holocaust-like concentration camp (think Meryl Streep in “Sophie’s Choice”), being worked to death while covered with scabs from scurvy among other deadly ailments. These scenes were very hard to read. But, what was even harder, for me, was reading how her own US Embassy would not let her through the gates. It seems the US considered Americans in Russia as “pinko” traitors.

Still, before her imprisonment, she appeared happy to live in an apartment that held 12 people, with a common outhouse and a common kitchen where one had to hide their food for fear of stealing. These so-called apartments had no privacy or any conveniences at all. Even the light bulb in the entrance way was stolen so frequently that the residents were perpetually in the dark. While reading about the living conditions in “Patriots,” I had images of when the book and movie character “Dr. Yuri Zhivago” returned after the war to learn that his once-grand Moscow house had been divided into tenements. Her contentment to live in this manner left her son, as well as this American reviewer, very confused about how easily she adjusted when “She had grown up on the elm-lined streets of Flat-bush, Brooklyn, debated… at Erasmus Hall High, studied mathematics among the first emancipated coeds at Brooklyn College, tuned in to Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats, and watched Cagney kiss Harlow on the projection screen at the Paramount.” How and why did this phenomenon happen?

Even in 1979, she refused to leave Russia to come to the US with her now grown son and his young family. She insisted that her life was in Russia, and that this was the country where she belonged. Mother and son had many issues around this subject. The reader knows that the real problem was as a 6-year old boy, her son, had no understanding that his mother didn’t abandon him, but was forcibly taken away from him. To make matters worse, the grown son was furious when he explained this to her and she replied that Russia takes care of their children.

Ultimately, she does leave for America with her son, most likely to be with her grandson who she adored. Sill, mother and son never got along. Until her last breath, she wished she stayed in Russia. “Maybe I would have been less hard on my mother had she been another ordinary Russian afflicted with that national form of Stockholm syndrome they call patriotism. But she wasn’t. She was, like I am now, an American….What I could not abide was her unwillingness to condemn the very system that had destroyed our family.” Sadly, what the son didn’t know was that when Stalin’s purges began, she decided it was time to go home. But, by then it was way too late.

Dare I say that this multi-generational saga will become a classic? The reader will go through the history of the pre-Cold War, Cold War, and post-Cold War told as a mother-son story. Once I finished the book, I wondered how the author’s own roots influenced her writing. Krasiko is a Jewish woman who was born in Ukraine and grew up in the former Soviet republic of Georgia before coming to New York. Her character of the mother was so complex that I couldn’t help but wonder if she was a real person. Or maybe, my thoughts are due to the author’s talent?

The book ends with the mother’s younger brother giving her now almost senior citizen son possible clarity on his Mom’s stubbornness, finally answering the how and why of the phenomenon of a typical Brooklyn girl becoming a loyal Communist party member. Maybe it had nothing to do with Russia at all but rather her guilt. In her decision to leave for the USSR she had hurt all those that she loved. It began with her family back in Brooklyn. Then it ended the life of her best friend, another 20-year old Brooklyn girl who also had dreams of a better world, as well as ending the life of her husband. And clearly hurting her son in all stages of his life. Unfortunately, her youthful optimism backfired on her. The uncle suggested that just maybe, his sister felt as if she didn’t deserve the comforts of America or a good life anymore? She was a living epitome of a sad Russian poem. Before Stalin became a Bolshevik revolutionary he was a poet. This book makes it clear that although Stalin is long dead his cruelty lives on.

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“Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk” by Kathleen Rooney

Pub. Date:  January, 17, 2017lillian

Publisher:  St. Martin’s Press

This novel caught my eye because I am a native New Yorker, and this tale’s location is New York City. The story takes place from the 1930s till New Year’s Eve, 1984. Our heroine is Lillian Boxfish. As a young woman, Lillian took the city by storm. Working at Macy’s she was the highest paid advertising woman in the country. She also managed to have a few books of her poems published. Her every move was documented in the society pages. She was a dynamo of a woman that other working females longed to be. Then she married and had a child forcing her to retire. She hid her pregnancy for as long as possible because back then once a woman became a mother it was unheard of for her to remain in a high powered job. So she stayed at home in her Murray Hill townhouse located in midtown Manhattan to raise her son. Now in the 1980s the city as a much more dangerous place than it was in the 1930s. Her grown son is always after her to move and join him and his family in the suburbs. But there was no way that Lillian would ever leave her beloved city.

On the last night of 1984, 85-year old Lillian, who is as sharp and NY savvy as ever, decides to take a ten-mile walk to get to a party. The walk takes her through some touristy (though not for her) as well as gritty sections of Manhattan to attend a party. Lillian’s New Year’s Eve stroll is really a stroll through her life, mixing in a Manhattan history lesson. She reminisces on her city life throughout the years, from the Jazz Age to the birth of hip-hop, from the Prohibition’s speakeasies to the 80s AIDS epidemic. The blurb of this book says that the novel is a love letter to the city, but I feel that the author, Kathleen Rooney, made the city as much of a character as Lillian. And what a fascinating character she created in Lillian: bright, witty, open minded, and always ahead of her time. But most of all, her inquisitiveness makes her a very charming human being. During her stroll, young teens attempt to mug her. She realizes that this might be the last walk of her life. Lillian had no intention of going down without at least trying to talk to them. And talk she did. She convinced them into a trade, her mink coat for a new trendy coat worn by one of the boys. They loved that she knew their favorite hip-hop songs, and had questions on the lyrics that she considered to be poems. So instead of her mugging being a tragic scene, it is a very funny one with the boys walking away scratching their heads.

There is much humor in this book. You will laugh often. But Lillian feels real and real life is never always fun. You might shed a tear as I did when Lillian walks past the hospital where she was once inpatient, suffering from a severe episode of depression. This is when her husband divorced her and married another woman. In the hospital, she had electric shock treatments which left her missing memories of that part of her life, including and worst of all, missing memories of her son during that time. But have no fear, Lillian has so much passion for life you will soon be smiling again reading about her next adventure during her walk to reach her destination, which is a New Year’s Eve party. The party is being thrown by a young, and of course, starving artist. At this party she will mingle with men dressed as women and Lillian will not bat an eyelash. Rooney did a wonderful job of capturing the essence of a New York woman. In her endnotes, we learn that the character Lillian was inspired by Margaret Fishback, which explains the odd last name of Boxfish.

I felt in many ways this novel was really a historical fiction taking the reader through half a century of New York City’s history. Though I am sure others might find this book to be a bit cheesy I enjoyed it. I do love Manhattan. Or maybe I enjoyed it for it was easy to fall in love with Lillian. She reminded me of all the old black and white movies where the actress Rosalind Russell played roles as fast-talking newspaper women. I also love black and white movies. No matter, as an ex-New Yorker, I cannot wait to hop on a train for a visit to the one and only Big Apple.

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“A Bridge Across the Ocean” by Susan Meissner

Pub. Date:   March 7, 2017ocean

Publishers:  Berkley Publishing Group

I enjoyed the author’s previous novel Secrets of a Charmed Life which is also a historical novel focusing on World War II, so I was surprised, and disappointed that I didn’t care for Susan Meissner’s latest novel, A Bridge Across the Ocean, which is another novel about World War II.  But, for me, this book seems more of a ghost story than historical fiction.

In Ocean, WWII has just ended. The story is not linear, told in the past as well as the present.  In the past, European war brides are to be reunited with their American husbands via the illustrious ocean liner the RMS Queen Mary.  In the present, a reluctant psychic is trying to solve a ghost mystery surrounding the ship.

Once I finished this book I “googled” to learn that the Queen Mary has a history of being considered haunted, but I didn’t read anything about war brides.  I wish Meissner would have concentrated more on the history part of her story.  I enjoyed reading about the French Resistance, and Germans hiding Germans from the Nazis as well as the difficulties the war brides had in entering America.  If she didn’t mix the genres, I would have found her tale a much more interesting read.

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“The Last Days of Night” by Graham Moore

Publisher: Penguin Random House

Pub. Date: Aug. 16, 2016last-days-of-night

Where to begin?  This historical fiction regarding (for some) the often yawn causing subject of science is a; legal thriller, mystery, moral vs. immoral, honesty vs. corruption,  genius vs. insanity tale that even manages to get a bit of a romance into the story-line.   The novel is based on actual events and real people.  At the end of the book Graham Moore has so many pages of documented research in author’s notes that it becomes difficult to identify how he was able to spin these fact based non-fiction truths into an engaging novel.

In New York City during 1888 gas lamps still lit the city streets.  The miracle of electric light had just begun and was nowhere near perfected.  The novel opens with a young lawyer, Paul Cravath, watching in horror as a utility man, in the process of wiring electric lights, is fried to death before his and other New Yorkers’ eyes.  I had never heard of Cravath before, but it appears that in his later life he founded the basics for the modern law firm.  I also had never heard of the over-looked Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla who possessed an Einstein type of brilliance.  Telsa was instrumental in the development of electric light.  He went on to become the inventor of the x-ray.   He had the unfortunate nickname of “the mad-scientist”.  Still, he was decades ahead of his times.  All the other characters are well known to just about all in present day.

Famous men such as Alexander Gramham Bell, Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and J.P. Morgan are the other main characters.  The gist of the story is how Cravath somehow finds himself in the position of being Westinghouse’s lawyer against Edison on what at the time was the battle of the titans, known in history books as the “War of the Currents”.    The story was intense as well as exciting filled with tidbits of information on the famous men’s dispositions and moral fiber.  I confess I was shocked, more than once, on just how far each went to gain what they needed, no amount of backstabbing was considered off limits. And, they each knew this and proudly boasted of trusting no one.  Who knew that so much drama went into the invention of the light bulb?

Moore is a winner of a Best Screenplay Oscar, so I would not be too surprised if the book becomes a film.  I hope the soon-to-be viewers of the movie will choose to read the book first for you will not be able to put it down.   There is absolutely nothing to yawn about inside the pages of The Last Days of Night.   And, I for one will never again turn on a light-switch in the same thoughtless way.