A Square Meal, by Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe

A Square Meal

Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe’s A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression is much more than its subtitle promises. Not only do Ziegelman and Coe write about what people were able to scrape together for themselves and their families between 1929 and 1939, they also thoroughly discuss how Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, and their Congresses approached relief (welfare) during those hungry years. The end result is a much darker history of the Great Depression than I’ve ever read.

Ziegelman and Coe start their history before World War I by describing how most Americans ate. More than half of Americans lives in rural areas, eating close to home. The war lead to rapid changes in how food was produced and eaten, and years of plenty during the 1920s changed food even more. Americans in urban areas ate out more during the 20s and chased convenience at every turn. When the stock market crash hit in October 1929, all of those changes were thrown out the window as up to 25% of Americans lost their jobs. Ziegelman and Coe also discuss the history of relief before the 1930s, portraying it as a deeply humiliating experience that was only used as a last resort before absolute destitution.

Throughout the Depression, Ziegelman and Coe explain, there was a constant tug of war between those who wanted to spend their way out of the Depression and those who were adamantly opposed to “handouts.” On the one hand, a lot of people were hungry, homeless, and jobless with no prospects. On the other, a lot of politicians argued that just giving people food and money would kill their work ethic. And besides, they said, where would all that money and food come from? (As I read, it became clear very quickly that America is still having this argument.) Between 1929 and Roosevelt’s first year as president, the general policy was:

When granting relief, officers [local administrators who decided who did and didn’t receive aid] followed the old rule of thumb that families “living on the town” must never reach the comfort level of the poorest independent family. (122*)

In the early years of the Depression, under Hoover, some relief was given, but not nearly enough to help all of the Americans who were out of work and hungry. Under Roosevelt, things got better before the president turned away from direct relief. World War II and America’s mobilization for war finally put enough Americans to work to turn the economy in the right direction after a decade of struggle.

When I was going to high school, I got a rosier picture of the Great Depression than I should have from my teachers and John Steinbeck. I was taught that Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration and other programs helped keep things from getting too dire. But Ziegelman and Coe’s history revealed that most, if not all, aid was determined partly by that old rule of thumb and partly by semi-scientific guidelines about calories and nutrients that had been developed around the turn of the twentieth century. These guidelines and that old rule left many people malnourished and hungry during the worst years of the Depression. There is evidence that people starved to death.

The cruel irony of all this hunger and starvation is that there was plenty of food in the fields for everyone to eat. It was just too expensive to transport and process. Farmers and ranchers destroyed their stock because they couldn’t make money. Until the Department of Agriculture started buying up the surplus and distributing it, the unemployed and poor had to watch while food was wasted, burned, and slaughtered.

When Ziegalman and Coe talk about food directly, I was alternately fascinated and appalled. I was very interested in the transformation of food in America as the developing science of nutrition took hold. At times, scientists and home economists (who taught people how to feed their families on pennies a day) were disturbingly clinical about food. They reduced eating to calories and nutrients, leaving taste and satisfaction by the wayside—which leads me to the appalling parts. Many of the recipes reproduced in A Square Meal sound absolutely disgusting. I know there’s only so much one can do with root vegetables, but once the home economists started messing around with gelatin and milkorno, I was out culinarily speaking.

While A Square Meal didn’t include as much food history as I was hoping for and the ending was very abrupt, I’m very glad I read it. I realize now that I was missing out on a lot of history. I also have a lot of sympathy for my grandparents, who would have been teenagers in the 1930s, and their parents who managed to keep everyone fed during the leanest of years.

* Quote is from the 2016 hardcover edition from Harper.

The Long Drop, by Denise Mina

The Long Drop

How do you write a biography for a liar? Denise Mina found one way with her novel, The Long DropThe events in this book are based on the investigation and trial of Peter Manuel. Mina took what is known about Manuel and his crimes, the investigation, court records, and other documents and stitched together a tale of what might have happened in a series of murders in Glasgow between 1956 and 1958. It makes for chilling reading.

The Long Drop begins in the middle of the story (fitting enough, considering how much is unknown about Manuel). A solicitor and his client meet with an informer who claims to know what happened to the client’s wife, daughter, and sister-in-law. The three women were murdered in September of 1956. The husband and father, William Watts, was the Glasgow police’s first and only suspect. He began to investigate the murders himself, since the police wouldn’t look at any other suspects. As the night goes on, however, Watts and others slowly learn that Peter Manuel—the informer—knows a lot more than he should. The longer anyone knows him, the more they realize that there is something deeply wrong with the man.

The novel then starts moving back and forth in time, revolving around the night Watts and Manuel got profoundly drunk and shared secrets. We never see the murders reconstructed. Mina leaves them ambiguous, making us wonder if Manuel really did commit them. We do see a lot of Manuel’s trial in the second half of the book. We also get to see the last weeks of Manuel’s life before his execution.

Peter Manuel, both in life and in The Long Drop, is a compulsive liar. He has a desperate need to be the hero of his own life. He’s a terrible liar, constantly contradicting himself and spinning completely unbelievable yarns about “what really happened.” Between these lies and the lack of a proper investigation, we can only draw our own conclusions about Manuel’s guilt—which I think makes for a fascinating take on true crime nonfiction. I’ve never read anything quite like The Long Drop before, but I hope to read more from Mina in the future.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 23 May 2017.

New Boy, by Tracy Chevalier

New Boy

I think we keep returning to tragedies with the vague hope that this time things will work out differently. I’ve always felt that about Shakespeare’s tragedies because, after the first reading or viewing, I could see all of the places where things could have gone differently. If only someone had gotten Hamlet into grief counseling…If only someone had told Richard III to shove it the first time he tried to talk that someone into something…If only Othello had listened to Desdemona…I suppose this is why I’ve been paying such close attention to the Hogarth Shakespeare series.

New Boyby Tracy Chevalier, is a retelling of Othello—one of my favorite plays—but transplanted to a playground in Washington, D.C., sometime in the late 1970s. The story plays out over one day, the day that Osei is the new boy at the unnamed elementary school. I’ll admit that the setting had me fooled at first. It seemed like such a radical departure from the original setting and age of the characters. But even though the characters in this version of the story are sixth-graders, I could see the same path towards tragedy start to take shape as the kids meet for recess, lunch, and after school.

Like the original OthelloNew Boy is very much about race and jealousy. Osei here is the son of a Ghanan diplomat who has just been transferred from New York. It’s the fourth school the boy has attended in just a few short years. He knows how to be the new kid, but it’s harder in America where he has been the only black student. The white adults and children react to him either with angry racism, ostracism, or a bewildered kind of liberal tolerance that makes me cringe because it’s really just a different form of racism.

Osei might have been able to weather all this if it hadn’t been for Dee and Ian. Dee is the only classmate who makes an effort to get to know Osei. They fascinate each other by lunch time but, unbeknownst to them, Ian has already started plotting his potential rival’s downfall. Even more than the original Iago, Ian finds it easy to tap into the racism of his classmates. Without that racism—and without Osei’s experience of racism every where he goes—this story might have turned out differently this time.

New Boy is a short novel. It doesn’t need more than five acts set over a single day to do its work. I wasn’t sure about the setting at first, but in Chevalier’s hands the playground and the children make the original story even more tragic than the original. Reading this book is like watching a disaster unfold and not be able to do anything to stop it before you yourself get blown up in the catastrophe. This retelling affected me more than any of the others I’ve yet read.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 11 May 2017.

Since We Fell, by Dennis Lehane

Since We Fell

Marriages are odd things when you start to really think about them, especially when the two people getting married have only known each other for a short time. Even when the couple has been together for a long time, how does anyone know that they will still love—or can even stand—the other person in ten, twenty-five, fifty years? I suppose that couples can comfort themselves with the thought that they, at least, will not have as dangerous time in their marriage as Rachel Childs does in Since We Fell, by Dennis Lehane.

Since We Fell opens with a confusing, violent scene, in which Rachel shoots her husband in the chest while he tells her he loves her. We then go back more than ten years, to when Rachel first met Brian. He was a private detective when they met and Rachel wanted him to track down the father who left her when she was just three years old. We also learn about Rachel’s on-air panic attack in Haiti before looping back to the weeks before the shooting.

We learn a lot about why Rachel is the way she is, but very little about Brian. Rachel thinks she knows her husband. After all, he’s been on the edges of her life until he stepped forward to rescue her (literally and psychologically). Rachel is content with her life until small details start to make her doubt. She sees a man who could be Brian’s double, even with the same clothes, when her husband is supposed to be in London. There’re the receipts with the wrong date format. There’s the old friend who hints that there’s something Rachel doesn’t know. A less curious women would have let it go. Rachel, however, is a former journalist and is used to people not turning out to be who they say they are.

Much of this background fills the first half of the book. I was honestly starting to wonder if Lehane had written a dud because the plot so slow at first. But then, just as I was starting to give up hope, things get very interesting. I can’t say much more without ruining the whole book. I can say that nothing is what Rachel (or I) thought it was. I was just as shocked as our protagonist was when I found out the truth. If you can get through the first third or so of the book, the last two third more than make up for the slowness of the beginning. And after reading it, I’m sure a lot of readers will be looking suspiciously at their spouses for a while.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 9 May 2017.

Lilli de Jong, by Janet Benton

Lilli de Jong

Stories about new mothers tend to stop with with the birth and the implication that everything will now be all right. Janet Benton’s Lilli de Jong, however, continues after the eponymous character has her daughter in 1883’s Philadelphia. Being a new mother is challenge enough, but Lilli has to contend with prejudice against having children while unmarried, being shunned by her family and church, and not having many ways to make a living for herself and her daughter. Lilli de Jong is a much needed rebuttal to the assumed happily ever after of so many stories about pregnancy.

Lilli, when we first properly meet her after a scene-setting opening chapter, is a good Quaker daughter mourning her mother. Her father has fallen away from the high ideals of their church, to Lilli’s disgust. Yet, Lilli is not entirely a paragon because she decided to sleep with her fiancé before they get married. (Partly because Johan is leaving to get a job in Pittsburgh.) Their one night together results in pregnancy, which Lilli tries to hide for as long as possible.

Once Lilli is too big to hide her condition anymore, she seeks refuge at a women’s charity for unwed mothers. The plan is to give up her child for adoption and pretending that the whole thing never happened. But when Lilli meets her daughter, Charlotte, for the first time, a fierce protective love springs up. Everyone tells Lilli that keeping her child without a husband is impossible. In spite of the horror stories, Lilli seeks a job—eventually finding a position as a wet nurse for a prickly, upper class mother. The job pays well, but comes with heavy emotional costs.

Lilli de Jong is full of ups and downs (mostly downs) for Lilli and Charlotte. If Lilli wasn’t such a striver, I think this book would have been very hard to read. (There are still some very harrowing moments, especially towards the end.) Lilli’s inner grit and her faith—Quakers have a tradition of doing hard things they believe are right, e.g. fighting for abolition and participating in the Underground Railroad—are a wonder to behold because she has such a very difficult life. Lilli de Jong is an intriguing look into the hard parts of being a single mother.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 16 May 2017.

The Scribe of Siena, by Melodie Winawer

The Scribe of Siena

When I was younger and just getting into history, I used to think a lot about which time and place I might travel to if I ever got the chance. (Before I got older and realized that I would be burnt as a witch in most times and places.) One of the last times and places I ever wanted to go was 1348 in Europe. Unfortunately for the protagonist of Melodie Winawer’s The Scribe of Siena, that’s exactly where she ends up when she suddenly slips through time.

Dr. Beatrice Trovato has just left a career as a neurosurgeon to take care of her recently deceased brother’s affairs in Siena when, one fine day, she finds herself in 1347. All she knows is that an artist’s journal and one of his surviving frescos has somehow pulled her through the past. Otherwise, Beatrice manages to cope fairly well in the medieval city (barring a few mishaps with sumptuary laws). She lands a job as a scribe—being one of the few people the brothers and sisters at the Ospedale (hospital and pilgrim hostel) who can read and write—after a nun takes pity on her. Beatrice desperately wants to go home. She knows that in only a few months the Black Death will arrive and hit Siena hard.

When she meets the artist who painted the fresco (which has a figure with her face in it), everything changes. Gabriele is a kindred spirit for Beatrice, and it isn’t long before they fall in love. At this point, anyone who’s read Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander is going to start making comparisons. Both female protagonists are doctors who fall through time. Their lovers are curiously understanding men from the past. Beatrice is different from Claire Fraser in that she seems to have a mystical sort of empathy (which ends up being a deus ex machina more than once). Beatrice is also different from Claire in that she seems to travel through time more easily, so The Scribe of Siena has a bit more back and forth with the present than Outlander.

Winawer clearly did a lot of research, but has a light touch with the information. This book is rich with detail. So much that I felt like I was traveling with Beatrice and enjoying the food of pre-tomato Italy. The Scribe of Siena is also jam-packed with plot. Once it gets going, this book races along and Beatrice and her Gabriele have to contend with Yersina pestis and Medici schemes. In spite of its similarities to Outlander and loosey-goosey approach to time travel, I enjoyed The Scribe of Siena.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 16 May 2017.

City of Miracles, by Robert Jackson Bennett

City of Miracles

Robert Jackson Bennett’s Divine Cities comes to a satisfying conclusion in City of Miracles. Each of these books, featuring a different lead character, has told the story of what happens when a world faces a radical change in its power structure. Gods used to rule this world directly, until a subjugated people learned to kill them. Humans stepped into the power vacuum, but in City of Miracles, we learn that a little bit of the divine survived. And that little bit of the divine is hungry for revenge.

Sigurd je Harkvaldsson has appeared in both of the other two books in this series, City of Stairs and City of Blades, but now he takes a turn as protagonist. It’s been thirteen years since the end of City of Blades and Sigurd has been hiding out after the terrible things he did when he daughter was killed. After he learns that his old partner and friend was killed by an assassin, he comes out of his self-imposed exile to take revenge. This quest for vengeance becomes the start of a strange, bloody odyssey in which Sigurd is forced to face the worst of his inner demons and take on the most powerful enemy he’s ever encountered.

City of Stairs and City of Blades both featured either the old gods themselves or the remnants of their power. City of Miracles features the children of those old gods. Those children have been keeping their heads low since their parents were killed, but one of them has decided that it’s now time to seize whatever scraps of divine power they can and take on their parents’ role as master of reality. What begins as a story of revenge slowly becomes one of what one should do when one has the power to remake reality.

The Divine Cities trilogy is an original, gritty fantasy series that I have enjoyed from the very first page and City of Miracles is a brilliant end to the tale. I marveled at the way Bennet brought all of the loose threads of all three novels together after building everything up to a fever pitch. I was up way past midnight finishing this book because I just could not put it down.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 2 May 2017.

Moving the Palace, by Charif Majdalani

Moving the Palace

There aren’t many examples, but there are enough for there to be a distinct subgenre for obsessive colonial stories. While Moving the Palace, by Charif Majdalani and translated by Edward Gauvin, is not as harrowing as Heart of Darkness or Fitzcarraldo, it shares a similarly mad plot MacGuffin and features exotic locales. In this instance, the mad plot involves moving a building from Tripoli, piece by piece, all over Africa and the Middle East so that it can be rebuilt in Beirut.

An unnamed narrator begins his grandfather’s story with some background about how that illustrious ancestor, Samuel, got into the British Army in the early 1900s. After the Madhist War, the British Army desperately needed men who could speak English and Arabic fluently. (There are several cutting remarks about how artificially “virile” the Arabic spoken by the English officers is.) Samuel gets a job and is promptly sent to Khartoum. Meanwhile, another Lebanese man, Shafik, makes what seems to be a deal in Tripoli. Shafik buys a small palace in what turns out to be an undesirable location. So, he has the palace dismantled and hires a caravan to ship it south to try and sell it to a sub-Saharan prince or sultan.

The two men meet while Samuel is bribing local sultans to round up Madhists. Shafik has been lugging (or rather, his employees have been lugging) pieces of wood, stone, and other bits of palace all over the place. He just can’t sell the thing. Eventually, Samuel takes a liking to the palace and buys it, intending to rebuild it when he gets home to Beirut. He takes Shafik’s place as the man throwing money and spleen around trying to get every scrap of wood and stone to its destination.

With a bit more effort, this book could have been a hilarious picaresque. The humor falls short of this as Moving the Palace develops into more of an adventure story when Samuel and his palace get caught in the middle of World War I and the Arab Revolt. The tone of the book doesn’t help either. While the narrator captures some of his grandfathers frustrated doggedness, the book reads more like a piece of historical nonfiction. In spite of this, I was entertained—mostly by the setting. The years 1908 to 1916 between Sudan and Lebanon are rich ground for story and Majdalani does his setting justice.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 16 May 2017. 

The Language of Solitude, by Jan-Philipp Sendker

The Language of Solitude

Jan-Philipp Sendker’s The Language of Solitude (translated by Christine Lo) is a strange hybrid novel. Some chapters read like a slightly overwritten literary tale of a Western man and his Chinese lover. Others could have been taken from a thriller. Still other chapters offer some gripping family historical drama. On their own, they work quite well. Together, the effect is of a book that tries to do too many things for no discernible reason. The characters rescue this book from itself, fortunately. Even though it’s messy, I found that I rather enjoyed the tribulations of Paul Leibovitz and the Wu family.

The novel opens in Hong Kong. Paul is worried about Christine Wu, who has become distant over the past few days. After prying, Paul learns that Christine’s astrologer has told her that she might kill Paul sometime during the next year. Paul is not a believer, but he goes to the astrologer himself in the hopes of finding something that will reassure his love. Of course, since this is the beginning of the novel, no such reassurance arrives. Instead, Paul received a fortune that rocks him to his core. Then Christine receives a letter from the brother she thought died during the Cultural Revolution and we’re off to the races, plot-wise.

The tone of the novel shifts at this point from that just a bit too overwrought literary style to thriller. The long-lost brother turns out to be in the middle of a medical mystery with huge political implications. Paul dives in head first, even though everyone warns him away. His conscience won’t let him stay detached. As the thriller plot unrolls, there are moments when the narrative takes us deeper into the Wu family’s history and the compromises they’ve had to make over the decades. (There are still a few overwritten chapters, but the writing got better as the novel moved along.)

While Sendker does manage to wrap up his various plots, I’m not sure why this book pulls from so many disparate genres. I could see these of forgiveness, justice versus compromise, and moving on after tragedy emerge in this book, all linked through Paul, but I’m not sure why the thriller elements were included. I think the book would have worked very well without the medical mystery. The family history alone could have fueled the whole book. It was the characters that kept me reading when I might have given up. I enjoyed Paul (even if he is a bit too good for this world) and loved Da Long, the long-lost brother.

The Language of Solitude is a puzzling book that I think I enjoyed in spite of itself.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 2 May 2017.

Castle of Water, by Dane Huckelbridge

Castle of Water

I had no idea what I was getting into when I started Dane Hucklebridge’s Castle of WaterI’m not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t a wistful, beautiful, quirky, sad love story. I read this book in one long sitting because I couldn’t tear myself away. Castle of Water completely knocked my socks off.

In the opening chapter of Castle of Water, we learn that Barry Bleecker is famous for some reason. He’s famous enough for people to follow him through Paris to see what he’ll do. We also learn that he’s a solitary man of habits and very concerned about his contacts. The reason for all this, we soon find out, is that he was in a plane crash and was stranded on an unnamed island near the Marquesas for three years. He wasn’t alone; he was marooned with Sophie, a young French widow.

Castle of Water moves back and forth in time from twelve years after Barry got off the island to the three years he and Sophie spent together. Huckelbridge includes short chapter-long asides to explain the strange circumstances of their odyssey that lend to the gentle humor of the book. (I suspect some readers might find it a bit twee, but I had a good time.) The joy of the book comes from watching Barry and Sophie squabble over supplies and ideas. They truly drive each other insane, this American and this Française, before they fall in love.

Huckelbridge includes plenty of hints that Barry and Sophie won’t have a happily ever after, but the end of the book still hit me like a ton of literary bricks. The complex emotions I felt at the conclusion reminded me a lot of what I felt when I read The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin, one of my favorite books of recent years. This short novel had everything I didn’t know I was looking for since I read A.J. Fikry. I plan on recommending this book a lot.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration.