Thursday, May 27, 2021

On the Summer Reading List


Navigating my book stack--literal and figurative--has me making hard choices. With so many new books coming out every day and only so much time to read, my selections are based either on access or whim. 

Abi Daré's debut novel The Girl with a Louding Voice is a charming story of Adunni, a 14-year-old Nigerian girl whose father arranges her marriage to an older man with two other wives in order to pay rent with the bride price. Before her mother's death, Adunni had attended school and was eager to continue, hoping some day to be a teacher.

Not only does she have to deal with the exploits of her husband, but she constantly faces the anger of his first wife. She is befriended by the second wife, but a tragic turn of events leads her to flee her village. She ends up a housemaid in Lagos. All of her wages go to the man who delivered her to Big Madam, and she is limited to one meal a day. In her new surroundings, she also has to fend off the unwanted attentions of her boss's husband Big Daddy.

The tide turns when she is befriended by a young wife who lives on the same street. Tia, a young doctor's wife, finds ways to help Adunni improve her English and apply for a scholarship that will liberate her from her circumstances.

Daré deftly handles Adunni's rudimentary use of English, playing well to the reader's ear. As Adunni continues her lessons, her English improves with believable subtlety. Daré lso introduces each chapter with facts about Nigeria, a nod to the book Adunni discovered in the rarely used library of the house where she serves as housemaid. The novel presents many facets of Nigerian life--the vast differences between village and city life, the persistence of elements of culture that are most harmful to young girls--child marriage and slavery in the guise of employment.

Another book I read this summer is Kazuo Ishiguro's Klara and the Sun. My first introduction to Ishiguro came with that lovely, subtle story Remains of the Day. I've since read Never Let You Go and The Buried Giant. Ishiguro manages never to repeat a literary success. Each book stands alone. The title character of this novel is an AF (artificial friend) in what appears to be the near future. While some details suggest the story is set in American, it remains indefinite.  

As the book opens, Klara and her friend Rosa live in a store where, along with other AF merchandise, they await purchase. Manager rotates them in and out of the window, the prime location for potential selection by just the right child. Klara, recognized as perceptive and observant, is selected by Josie, a young girl with physical difficulties that often leave her unable to leave her room. Klara is her companion and monitor, alerting the mother or housekeeper when Josie shows disturbing symptoms. Klara also meets Rick, the only neighbor, a boy about Josie's age with whom the girl has planned a future. While Josie has been "lifted," Rick has not, limiting his opportunities for higher education. 

During a trip back into town with Josie, her mom, Rick and his mother Helen, Klara meets Josie's father and gets his help in an attempt to save Josie's life, a deal with the Sun, whom Klara personifies and to whom she appeals. The mother, under the guise of a portrait sitting, has a more bizarre back up plan. In many ways, the book can be read as a story of sacrifice and devotion as well as a glimpse into a more unsettling future.

Another book making the lists this summer is Rebecca Serle's In Five Years. This book plays with reality in a similar mode as The Midnight Library and Oona, Out of Order. In this novel, the protagonist Dannie Kohan has her life planned out. Her long-time boyfriend proposes and life is good. Then she falls asleep and wakes in December 2025 in another place with a man she doesn't know and a different ring on her finger. 

She wakes again back in 2020 and keeps the experience to herself as she builds her career, interacts with her best friend Bella, and postpones her wedding. When the literal man of her dream begins dating Bella, Dannie is intent on avoiding or at least make sense of the future she had envisioned.

The summer of 2021 offers such a wide range of reading, no two books alike. Each one I finish opens up the opportunity for the next book on my stack.



Thursday, May 13, 2021

Women's Roles in World War II.


I have seen a trend in literature lately of telling the stories of women's roles in World War II. The ones I've encountered recently run the gamut from pure fiction to biography. At least three of the books I've read recently are set at least in part in Paris. 

Kristin Harmel's novel The Book of Lost Names traces the life of Eve Traube, a Jewish girl forced to leave Paris with her mother after her father was taken on a roundup when the two women were out of their apartment. She has to forge their papers to leave, and her talent for forgery is recognized in the Free Zone, where the two women are staying as they wait to escape to Switzerland. She is recruited by the local priest to help forge documents for Jewish children being spirited out of France. 

The book opens with Eve as an older widow in American, spotting in a news report a book that had been discovered, which she recognized as the volume she used to keep a record of the children's real names, lest they be lost.

The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles follows the life of Odile, a young Parisian woman who ends up living as a widow in the U.S. As Charles' epilogue explains, the book is based on real lives of people who worked in the American Library in Paris during World War II. They took chances delivering books to their Jewish patrons after they were denied access to the library. 

Charles' book divides the focus between Odile and young schoolgirl Lily, a neighbor to Odile in Montana. Lily befriends the woman they consider mysterious, a friendship that grows after Lily loses her mother and finds herself with a new stepmother and young brothers.

Both the young Odile and Lily often behave in ways that make them less sympathetic. Odile's infatuation with a young man leads her to overlook his questionable behavior. Lily's immaturity sometimes causes her to act thoughtlessly toward others who trust her as well. The saving grace of the book is the story of some of the employees and subscribers of the American Library in Paris whose lives were intertwined as they faced life in Paris under German occupation.

Next on my list is A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell, the story of Virginia Hall, an American woman who acted with great daring and valor as a spy during World War II, despite having to live with a prosthetic leg after injuring herself in a shooting accident. Purnell spent about three years researching the life of Hall, not only detailing her undercover exploits but the difficulties that she had to overcome because she was a woman. She was continually placed in secretarial position despite her ambition and her abilities. The film rights have been sold for the book which has the potential to become a film of high adventure.