The Facemaker, by Lindsey Fitzharris

During the pandemic, in the months when the faculty and staff were working from home, I worked my way through all of the episodes of ER and Botched (among other shows). I was fascinated by the way medical knowledge advanced during the run of ER (1994-2009) and what the two surgeons on Botched were able to do for their patients to rebuild faces and bodies. Lindsey Fitzharris’s illuminating (and occasionally harrowing) account of the work of Sir Harold Gillies during World War I, The Facemaker, takes us back just over 100 years, to explore the dawn of plastic surgery. It turns out that some of the things the doctors on Botched do were pioneered by Gillies and his collaborative team of surgeons and dentists whereas others (like the use of ether and chloroform as anesthesia) are now seen as primitive. It’s even more remarkable when you know that this incredible, ground-breaking work was done as thousands of patients were pouring into Gillies’s hospital over four years of unceasing warfare on the Western Front.

Although Gillies practiced surgery before and after the war (Gillies died just a month after performing his last surgery), Fitzharris focuses her account on the war years, when Gillies and his team were constantly pushed to innovate. She opens by explaining that soldiers in World War I faced weapons that were much more dangerous, on a much bigger scale, than in previous wars. Poison gasses could kill, blind, and maim lungs in seconds. Machine guns were in every trench, ready for anyone to stick their heads over the top. Artillery produced massive craters in and out of the trenches that would obliterate anything in their path. And yet, at the beginning of the war, some armies sent their infantry into battle with flimsy helmets or no hard protection for their heads at all. The iconic Tommy helmets came a bit later. Conditions on the ground meant that, if a soldier was wounded, they were very likely to pick up infections before they could be rescued and sent to a hospital. Given the nature of the weapons they faced, it was little wonder that so many soldiers suffered catastrophic injuries that also required their doctors to learn, almost on the fly, radical techniques to treat their patients.

Fitzharris is incredibly good at condensing a lot of medical history in the chapters of The Facemaker. She can dip into medical history reaching as far back as Sushruta or briefly explain the history of blood transfusions and blood-typing to catch readers up on what they need to know to understand what Gillies et al. are doing with their surgical techniques. Plastic surgery (plastic in this case meaning shapeable or malleable) had been performed before World War I, but it was rare. Pre-anesthesia, pre-antisepsis, and pre- a lot of things we see as necessary for safe surgery, plastic surgery was very experimental before Gillies came to maxillofacial surgery. Fitzharris’ descriptions of Gillies’s techniques are clear. For readers who want more, there are archives of before, in-progress, and after photos of soldiers who had their faces rebuilt at Gillies’s hospital. Rebuilt is the right word. Some of the patients Gillies and his fellow surgeons saw were missing teeth, jaws, noses, eyes, and a lot of skin. Gillies and his team were able to rebuild faces from ruin.

It takes a remarkable kind of person to walk into unprecedented medical cases and think about what was possible, rather than focus on what they’d been taught was impossible. Gillies and many of the people he worked with during the war had the right mix of talents, thoughts, and personalities to work with patients who had been through physical and psychological hell. I’m glad Fitzharris retells Gillies’s story and the stories of several of his patients and colleagues; these stories should never be forgotten.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Gassed, by John Singer Sargent c. March 1919 (Image via Wikicommons)

An Unlasting Home, by Mai al-Nakib

It’s strange to me—but also not so strange—that for a species hardwired to spot patterns, we can be very dumb when it comes to not repeating bad patterns of behavior. In Mai al-Nakib’s deeply affecting and engrossing family saga, An Unlasting Home, we see three generations of women who are given choices that lead them into emotional traps. They are also given choices to get out of those traps but, for one reason or another, they walk into personal martyrdom in the form of bad husbands, needy family members, economics, and religion. As each generation grows old and has children, we’re left to wonder about the costs of sacrificing oneself for others against personal happiness.

We have several narrators in An Unlasting Home. In chronological order, we meet Yasmine and Lulwa, whose marriages and choices land them in neighboring houses in Kuwait City in the 1950s. Then we meet Maria, an Indian woman who comes to work for Lulwa’s daughter, Noura (another narrator). As these women recount their stories—and woven in between them—there is Sara, daughter of Noura, granddaughter of Yasmine and Lulwa, cared for by Maria. Before they all ended up in Kuwait, various members of the family lived in Lebanon, India, Iraq, and the United States. Kuwait is where everything converges.

Sara grew up in St. Louis and Kuwait City. Although she and her mother Noura felt like the United States was the best place for them to live freely, as individuals, family obligations bring Sara back after her mother’s death. Someone has to take care of Yasmine and Lulwa, Sara argues whenever anyone tells her she should go back to the States. This same family obligation is what pulled Lulwa away from her family for seven long years between the 1940s and 1950s, after her mentally ill mother tricked Lulwa into coming back to Kuwait from India. A different family obligation brought Yasmine from Basra to Kuwait when her moody husband failed to claim his father’s political position. Sara’s decision to stay turns into a crisis unlike what her mother and grandmothers went through. Unlike them, Sara might be pushed to break free of Kuwait and her family’s history when she is accused of blasphemy after teaching Nietzsche in her philosophy course at Kuwait University.

I can imagine readers’ responses to the choices made by the narrators in An Unlasting Home go in two very different directions. On the one hand, readers might rail against the decisions these characters make. They might holler at the pages for Yasmine, Lulwa, Maria, Noura, and Sara to cut loose and run. Their happiness is more important than living in misery to make others happy. Other readers might applaud the self-sacrifice of these characters. Without their choices, the family would’ve crumbled. And although I’ve probably painted a pretty bleak picture of these characters’ lives, there is a lot of happiness and joy in their lives. Yasmine and Lulwa and Maria delight in their children. Noura is able to express her opinions through her foreign language bookstore in Kuwait City. And Sara is a philosopher, through and through, and believes in her educational mission of teaching at Kuwait University. Where some readers would see a clear choice, others will see situations where it’s impossible to decide on the right course of action. After all, who can predict what will happen in the future?

This beautifully written book, with its wonderfully developed characters, is a fantastic read for book groups, or for readers who want to wrestle with the question of obligation versus self-actualization.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Judas, by Amos Oz

Shmuel Ash is the kind of person who either irritates or arouses parental feelings in just about everyone he meets. He’s an obsessive academic fascinated by betrayers and the stories society tells about them and woefully underprepared for living independently. When we first meet him in Amos Oz’s slow-moving novel, Judas, his former girlfriend has married someone else and his parents’ bankruptcy cuts his university studies short. Only a chance sighting of a job offer on a college notice board saves him from homelessness. This job turns out to be just the kind of opportunity that pushes Shmuel out of the nest of complacency and, just maybe, into adult flight.

The job is a strange one. Shmuel is paid in room, board, and a little stipend to take care of an elderly, argumentative pedant for several hours every evening. He has few actual duties—make sure the old man eats, feed the fish, close the blinds—and is mostly there just to keep Gershom Wald while Wald’s daughter-in-law works. In his free time, he nurses a growing attraction to Atalia, the daughter-in-law (who everyone warns him about) and thinks about two betrayers: Judas Iscariot and Shealtiel Abravanel (Atalia’s father).

There is a slight plot to Judas, but the novel is more about the dialogues between Shmuel and the other characters about the centuries-old conflict between Christians and Jews, the roles of Judas and Shealtiel, Jewish views of Jesus and Judas, futility, and grief. Shmuel fascination with historic betrayers seems to come from his ideas that they were dreamers. He argues that Judas’ betrayal was necessary—and born out of genuine belief in Jesus’s divinity—because, without it, there wouldn’t have been a crucifixion. Without the crucifixion, there couldn’t have been a resurrection. And without a resurrection, Christianity might have withered on the vine. As for Shealtiel Abravanel, this fictional character argued against David Ben-Gurion and other Zionists against the creation of a Jewish State. Abravanel favored co-existence between Jews and Muslims. Unlike Judas, however, Abravanel failed. We’ll never know what his betrayal of Zionism might have wrought.

Because this book is primarily dialogue in the form of long speeches, this book is slow going. It took me a full week to get to the end. Readers who like more philosophical books might like this one.

The Hired Man, by Aminatta Forna

Trigger warning for violence towards animals.

Aminatta Forna’s tense novel, The Hired Man, shows us why the saying is just “revenge is a dish best served cold” and not “revenge is a dish best served cold and bewildering.” Our protagonist, Duro, is a patient man. He’s been waiting a very long time to tell the people who wronged him just how much he wants to hurt them. He’s also not a monologuer, so when the time comes, it’s hard to say what his targets are supposed to feel when his plan finally springs into action. I know I’m being hard on this book right out of the gate, but that’s because I was really enjoying the ride right up until the end. Take what I say with a grain of salt: I didn’t understand the ending, possibly because I was reading too fast to take in the important details.

Our story takes place in Gost, Croatia. The town used to be an important waypoint back in the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Those days are long behind this rural backwater now. The Yugoslav Wars pushed the town even further into irrelevance. People still live there, mostly because it’s where they and their families have always lived. And Gost is quiet, mostly because the people did things to each other during the Wars that no one wants to talk about. The most excitement in years turns up in the form of an English woman and her two children, after the woman buys a house that is very important to Duro. Seeing the old Pavić house occupied after so many years shocks Duro for a moment. Then he goes up and introduces himself to Laura with an offer to help her fix the place up.

While Duro busily puts things at the Pavić house back to rights, Forna takes us into his past. We see his friendship with the Pavić children, especially daughter Anka—and also how his friendship with the son Krešimir goes sour as the boy’s moods grow violent and erratic. The three children grow up in the last decades of Yugoslavia, until Duro is forced to leave. The more we see, the more it makes sense that Duro is a solitary man, living in a former pig shed with his two dogs, dedicatedly putting together the home of his absent lost love and best friend.

It’s only later that Forna reveals to us how the war came to Gost, even though we all know that devastating and sectarian violence is coming. As that tension builds, another tension starts to form as Duro comes closer to finishing his restoration of the Pavić house. Strange things start to happen around Gost that remind Krešimir and the repugnant owner of the town’s only bar, Fabjan, of the terrible things that happened there so many years ago. There are no outright accusations. Instead, Duro’s narratives slowly show us who did what to whom. It’s left to us to decide if anyone deserves punishment or revenge, and if it’s fair to manipulate others to unwittingly be pawns in Duro’s long revenge.

This is an extremely well-written book, for the most part. It’s incredibly atmospheric and the character development is among the best I’ve seen. Before I consign this book to the “tried it” pile, I think I’ll need to go back and at least read the last third again. Resisting the urge to rush and reading slowly might make me change this book from a three to a four or five out of five.

Quantum Girl Theory, by Erin Kate Ryan

Erin Kate Ryan’s complicated novel, Quantum Girl Theory, begins with a preface that explains the eponymous theory in a stuttering series of images that offer possible endings to a story that begins with a girl putting on a red parka. In some of the endings, she lives. In most, however, she meets a frightening death because the world is full of people looking to take advantage of those they consider weaker. Our protagonist, once a missing girl herself, unfortunately gets flashes of these endings as she drifts across America in the early 1960s trying to save at least some of them.

We don’t know much about the woman who introduces herself as Mary Garrett when she arrives in rural North Carolina town other than that she has visions of missing girls, has very little money to her name, and that that name is not her real one. She’s come to this town because there’s a reward on offer for a girl who went missing while riding her horse. That money will go a long way in 1960 if she can claim it. Mary has a lot of tricks up her clairvoyant sleeves to try and get her visions going. All she needs to do is talk the parents into letting her spend some time in the missing girls’ room, with her things. The strange thing (after a whole bunch of other strange things) is that no one seems to be trying very hard to find the missing girl. Her father is willing to let Mary try, but everyone hints or outright tells Mary to go away.

Between chapters that show Mary scrounging for room and board along with searching for the missing girl, other chapters take us into Mary’s past. At least, it seems like they do. The stuttering iterations from the preface play out in different times and places. We’re whisked to various years from the late 1940s up to the mid-1990s, and from New England to Baltimore to Utah and Arizona. These stories share some common elements. The girl Mary used to be loved another girl named Wise, until they were caught and Mary lied about even knowing Wise. Wise disappeared. Then Mary did. After that, anything and everything happens and it’s hard to tell how many missing girls are real and how many are just possibilities.

Quantum Girl Theory is an unsettling book, but I relished the questions it raised about what we choose to pay attention to and what we choose to ignore. One of the people who (reluctantly) helps Mary is Martha, a Black maid at a motel where Mary scams a place to stay, pointedly asks Mary if she ever gets visions of missing Black girls. Mary says no, in a moment that should remind every reader about how much attention is paid to missing white girls compared to every other person who disappears only to be ignored or dismissed as “probably a runaway.” Also, the way that all the missing girls’ stories blend into Mary’s got me thinking about the glut of true crime books, shows, and podcasts. Consuming all of that content can make it feel like we’re surrounded by crimes and injustice. Maybe we are. And if we can’t find the missing, maybe we—like Mary—can witness and tell their stories. If we tell their stories, even if we never really know what the ending is, they won’t be forgotten.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

The White Girl, by Tony Birch

Quarrytown and Deane are separated physically by a road called Deane’s Line. They’re separated even further by history, prejudice, and laws that keep Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders at the bottom of the social and legal ladders. When we meet protagonist Odette Brown and her granddaughter, Sissy, at the beginning of The White Girl, by Tony Birch, they—and all people of Aboriginal heritage—are not citizens. They’re wards of the state, which means that the government and law enforcement can do almost anything with them as long as it’s “in their best interests.” Odette lives in fear of the day when the authorities decide that they need to take Sissy away from her.

Similar to actions by the governments in the United States and Canada, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were taken away to missions to be civilized or adopted out to white families. Today, these children are known as the Stolen Generations. Odette was one of these children, for a time, although she did get to live with her father for a while. Through her memories, we learn just a small bit of what it was like to be stripped not only of her family ties, but also her traditional culture and faith and language. When we meet her, Odette lives in Quarrytown in the house that her father built before his death. Sissy is the only member of her family she has left. It’s a spartan life, but they’re both doing just fine…until a new police officer shows up to take over from the soon-to-retire old sargeant, who doesn’t mind what anyone does as long as it doesn’t interfere with his drinking.

This new officer is determined to put everything to rights (as he defines them) as soon as he arrives in town, which includes a census of Aboriginal people, and definitely not going to wrangle the increasingly violent Kane family (they’re white). His interest in her little family sends Odette into a frenzy. It doesn’t help that Odette is also experiencing severe abdominal pain and the nearest hospital that can help is much too far away from Sissy for Odette’s comfort. The tension ratchets up as the new cop threatens to interfere with the small Brown family and blatantly ignore actual crimes happening in Deane and Quarrytown.

I was fascinated by Odette’s story—especially the parts of her heritage she was able to hold onto—and the stories of the other Aboriginal people she meets along her path. She is surrounded by injustice and, until she finds people inside the government who are willing to help, there’s very little she can do to change the status quo. When that happens, we’re left to wonder why it couldn’t be that simple (relatively) for everyone to claim their natural and legal rights.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

At Night All Blood is Black, by David Diop

Once a certain amount of time has passed and once we’ve heard a story the same way enough times, history can kind of fossilize in our collective memories. Historical fiction can bring those old stories to life for us, but it takes a book like David Diop’s emotionally wrenching At Night All Blood is Black (faithfully translated by Anna Moschovakis) to make use revise what we thought we knew and push the fossils into new shapes. In this brief novel, Diop puts us into the fracturing mind of Alfa Ndiaye, one of 200,000 men who fought for France as a Senegalese Tirailleur.

Alfa Ndiaye is a legend among his regiment. After the dead of his more-than-a-brother, Mademba Diop, Alfa has been lingering in no man’s land to ambush German soldiers. When he catches one, he kills them and takes their rifles and right hands. Alfa is hailed as a particularly gutsy hero for, he tells us, the first three hands. When he brings back the fourth, his captain and the rest of the regiment start to turn on him. He might be a legend to them, but he becomes a terrifying one that no one knows what to do with.

The above (and a bit more in the form of flashbacks that show us Alfa and Mademba’s childhoods and adolescence) are the barebones plot of At Night All Blood is Black, but that’s not all that happens. The plot is really a support for Alfa’s thoughts as he reflects on his friend’s death and his own role in it, about what it means to fight for the country that’s colonizing his own, what feels like to be seen as a savage by so-called civilized people, and what true bravery really is. This is not an easy book to read, especially once Alfa’s sense of self—and even his sense of embodiment—starts to disintegrate after another comrade dies and he brings back an eighth hand.

Alfa and his story push us to think about the African experience of World War I, an experience we might not have known even existed. It’s strange to be reminded that World War I involved soldiers pulled in from Europe’s colonies in Africa and Asia (that I know of). I’ve read several novels that show how bewildering it was for the average Briton, German, or Frenchman being whisked into a brutal war over national promises. How strange and horrifying it might have been for a man to be pulled into a war because Great Britain or Germany or France marched into his country decades or centuries earlier and put their flags down everywhere.

Five soldiers from the 43rd Tirailleurs battalion, c. 1914-1918 (Image via Wikicommons)

Devil House, by John Darnielle

Trigger warning for description of domestic violence late in the book.

How do you tell a story? What do you put in or leave out? How should events be ordered? Who is the narrator? Every author has to answer these questions and more but, as John Darnielle shows us in Devil House, the authors of true crime stories have additional questions they have to wrestle with: how to portray the victims and the perpetrators; where to center the story; where to assign the blame; the legacy of the crime; and on. All of these questions swirl around true crime writer Gage Chandler in this book, getting in the way of his next project and forcing him to reconsider everything he thought he knew about telling terrible stories.

The pitch Gage gets from his editor is a slight twist on his usual formula. What Gage usually does is a combination of secondary research and interviews to capture the place and time of a crime on top of all the gory details. This time, his editor wants him to buy and move into the house where two people were brutally killed in the mid-1980s. At the time, the house was a recently closed porn shop, to add to the salaciousness of the whole thing. The house has been on and off the market ever since and has just come back up for sale again. Ashton, the editor, tells Gage this is the perfect next step for a new project. After some hemming and hawing, Gage takes the house and starts to work on recreating what happened more than a decade before.

It seems perfectly reasonable at the outset. The case has the same sort of local mythos that made his first book such a smash. The house/porn store was an embarrassment in its little town. When the store went out of business, it very briefly became a clubhouse for a group of teenagers who transformed the place into what sounds like the kind of extraordinary art project that adults just wouldn’t understand. After two people are killed on the premises, the rumor mill went into overtime, fueled by Satanic panic talk, strange rituals, a sword for a murder weapon—but no one was ever arrested in the case, much less charged and put on trial.

Gage is able to get his hands on some of the police records and evidence in the case. He tracks down some of the people who might have been involved. And yet, the story refuses to coalesce into a clear narrative. True crime usually follows a couple of formulas, but it’s usually pretty clear from the beginning whodunit. But Gage can’t figure out what happened. The more he digs, the less he seems to know about what happened at Monster Adult X. Instead of giving us a straight-forward narrative, Gage tries to put himself into the heads of the teenagers who transformed the porn store and might have murdered two people who walked into the transformed store, planning on flipping the property. We get a string of incomplete narratives that wander up and down the spectrum of veracity from probably true to outright fantasy. The twists at the end further transform this narrative into something profoundly thoughtful and unexpected.

This book is a puzzle. I’m not sure that I liked it, per se, but I very much appreciate the questions the narrator raises about what kind of story should be told, the stories audiences want, and the differences between the two. It looks very closely at who deserves to have their stories told by constantly zooming out to explain how victims and perpetrators came to find themselves in the same place, at the same time, in fatal circumstances. Above all, I think, Devil House says a lot about not rushing to judgment, even when we think we know everything we need to know.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina, by Zoraida Córdova

Orquídea Divina has been keeping her secrets for a long time. Now that she’s about to die, she calls her descendants back to the family ranch (a ranch that appeared just as mysteriously as Orquídea Divina herself did). Most of them come expecting an inheritance of some kind. Three of them, however, just want to know what’s been hidden from them their entire lives. In Zoraida Córdova’s The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina, all the chickens come home to roost and Orquídea’s secrets turn out to be as deadly as they are magical.

All Marimar, Rey, and Tatinelly—three of Orquídea’s grandchildren—know before they come back to Four Rivers is that Orquídea came from Guayaquil, Ecuador; that she has had five husbands but only speaks about four of them; and that she is able to make things happen that no one else can do. When our three protagonists and their relatives come back home, their plan is to try to finally get Orquídea to tell them about what she left behind…except, Orquídea still refuses to speak. Like she has done all their lives, Orquídea makes Marimar, Rey, and Tatinelly figure things out for themselves. When Orquídea dies (in spectacular fashion), she leaves even more mysteries behind. But when Orquídea dies, nothing is stopping her secrets from trying to wipe out her entire family.

At first, The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina moves in fits and starts. The day Orquídea dies is wild, full of magic and weirdness. But when Marimar and her cousins start to rebuild, it slows down. It’s only in the second half that things pick up again. It’s a little odd, but the characters, setting, and premise of the book were so interesting that I didn’t mind. I was just as busy as the protagonists were in trying to figure out what the hell was going on with Orquídea. Thankfully, the contemporary part of the story is interwoven with chapters set in Orquídea’s past in Ecuador.

We learn, long before her grandchildren, that Orquídea is the kind of person to seize every opportunity that comes her way. She might not have magic at first, but her gumption and ability to drive a bargain put her on the road to the wondrous and terrible things to come. There are river monsters (gods, thank you very much), living stars, flowers growing from bodies, and lots of wishes that never seem to come out right.

I really enjoyed this magical book.

The Kitchen Front, by Jennifer Ryan

Trigger warning for brief domestic violence and emotional abuse.

In her note at the end of The Kitchen Front, Jennifer Ryan explains that rationing began in Britain in 1939 and lasted through 1954. Rationing included fuel, cloth, rubber, paper, and a whole host of food products. For people used to a worldwide empire of sugar, spices, grains, and more, women (mostly) had to scale back on what and how much they could cook. Privation and stress play major roles in this novel, as four women compete for a job on a BBC/Ministry of Food radio show, a job that could change their lives forever.

Set in Fenley, a small town somewhere outside of London, four women decide to compete in a cooking competition set by The Kitchen Front, the aforementioned radio show. The prize is to become the co-host along with Ambrose Heath (a former restaurant critic whose scripted advice makes it clear that he’s not the person who has to tuck into the spam, whale meat, and endless boiled vegetables advocated by the Ministry of Food). Ambrose will judge the women as they create a starter, main, and dessert out of whatever ingredients they can scrounge up. Extra points are awarded for thrift and cunning use of rationed ingredients. Recipes are included in the novel.

The first woman we met is Audrey Landon, a war widow in straightened circumstances. After the death of her pilot husband, Audrey turned her knack for cooking and large kitchen garden into a bustling pie business. She works every hour in the day and then some to keep her crumbling house intact and her boys fed. The second woman to enter the contest is Lady Gwendoline Strickland, Audrey’s sister. Gwendoline is a character readers will hate at first. Her inflated sense of self and ambition grated. Thankfully, she softens over the course of the book. Third is the ruthless Zelda Dupont, who worked at a London hotel until it was bombed. She might be the one who struggles most with the restrictions of rationing. She longs for the elegant dishes of pre-war haute cuisine. Lastly, we meet Nell Brown, who works in Gwendoline’s kitchen. Nell is a gifted, overworked cook who wishes for a better life.

Over the course of the novel, the four women start to realize that they’re better friends and allies than they are enemies. Once that process starts to happen, The Kitchen Front improves a lot. The characters are a little wooden at the beginning of the novel, with a bad and unrealistic habit of verbalizing their thought processes. One thing that is consistently good throughout the book is the descriptions of cooking during World War II. These range from frankly unappetizing (never reuse tinned sardine oil to make pastry) to mouthwatering (roasted hare in elderberry wine sauce) to transcendent (mushroom soup and a surprising croquembouche made with honey instead of caramel). I kind of wish I had read this book yesterday; The Kitchen Front is a perfect book about food and friendship.