Mercury Pictures Presents, by Anthony Marra

I’ve come to expect great things of Anthony Marra, after being absolutely blown away by his debut A Constellation of Vital Phenomena and The Tsar of Love and Techno. Mercury Pictures Presents has some of the same elements as those other books—meticulously recreated historical setting, characters who are called on to sacrifice themselves to save others, epic plots—it has something I haven’t seen before. This book has an acid sense of humor. So many character descriptions and bits of dialogue had me chortling despite the dangers faced by the book’s cast of characters. I hope Marra starts to get more critical and bookish attention; he is a treasure.

Mercury Pictures Presents is all about facades: emotional, physical, and documentary. Every one of the major characters (and nearly all of the minor ones) presents a front to the world that hides their fears, sorrows, regrets, and anger. We, the readers, are among the few who get to see behind the facades to understand what’s really going on. The narrative takes us from pre-World War II Italy to wartime Los Angeles to the end of the war. The first protagonist we meet, Maria Lagana, is a young girl who hasn’t learned to be wary of the world. In an effort to protect her communist father, she attempts to burn drafts of legal documents he’s written to try and free people who’ve been caught on the wrong side of Mussolini‘s regime. She is caught before she can finish but her father pays the price. Once the authorities learn what’s in those papers, Giuseppe Lagana is sent into internal exile, from Rome to rural Calabria. This sharp, brutal lesson in the necessity of keeping secrets shapes Maria for the rest of her life, even after she emigrates to the United States with her mother.

Adult Maria gets a job at the struggling Mercury Pictures. Mercury used to be great but they’re fighting a losing battle against Hays Code censors and the major studios. They’re barely hanging on to B-grade status. Maria excels at marketing and sneaking things past the censor. That said, she wants more. She wants to be a producer. She wants to have a better relationship with her mother. She wants her Chinese American boyfriend to have better roles than the awful typecast characters that are the only thing on offer for actors of Asian descent. She wants to know if her father, who she hasn’t seen in over a decade, is alive or dead.

The rest of the cast in this book are all connected to Maria in some way and they are also all struggling between keeping up appearances and their own dreams. Her boss, Artie, is always trying to return Mercury to its glory days. We see his latest attempt: turning the studio into a propaganda machine to earn money from the War Department. Meanwhile, an old acquaintance from Italy has to hide under an assumed name and dodge restrictions on enemy aliens to try and become a great photographer. A hapless (and hilarious) detective in fascist Italy scrambles to protect people from his own government. Maria’s boyfriend Eddie Lu begins to loathe himself for sacrificing his integrity in order to get work. All of these plots and subplots are beautifully executed. Marra is a master of psychologically rich character development.

This summary doesn’t come close to accurately conveying the scope and depth of Mercury Pictures Presents. I hope something here sparks your interest because, as I mentioned above, I don’t think Marra is getting nearly the attention he deserves for his incredible, emotionally wrenching, and highly entertaining novels.

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

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.

What They Didn’t Burn, by Mel Laytner

Josef Lajtner rarely spoke of what happened to him between 1940 and 1945. His son, journalist Mel and author of What They Didn’t Burn, only knew a few things. He knew that Josef had been imprisoned at Auschwitz, Gross-Rosen, and Buchenwald. He knew that his father had survived partly because he knew how to weld, but there were hints of strange stories and bits of luck that the elder Lajtner never really spoke about. Later, when Mel interviews another Holocaust survivor and asks why the survivor never recorded his testimony, the survivor says, “Why should I?…I don’t have to justify my survival.” Although he never said, I wonder if Josef rarely spoke about the Holocaust because he also didn’t want to discuss why he lived and so many other didn’t. What They Didn’t Burn is the fruit Mel Laytner’s efforts to fill in the blanks. He doesn’t “justify” his father’s survival; he treats it like the extraordinary occurrence that it was.

In the years after the Holocaust, numerous organizations—the Auschwitz Museum, Yad Vashem, the Arolsen Archives—have answered queries from survivors and descendants of survivors looking for information. Mel Laytner sends out calls for any piece of documentation that can help him find out what happened to his father. Laytner also seeks out his father’s friends to glean more names, dates, and events that he can use to trace Josef’s path across Poland and Germany as he worked in a series of forced labor camps. He also travels to Poland, to the towns where his Lajtner relatives lived and the remains of camps where his father and thousands of other Jews struggled to live. By the end of all that travel and research, Laytner knows a lot more about how his father survived, but he’s also left with big questions that he wishes his father was still around to talk over with him.

One question that frequently arises in What They Didn’t Burn is how far can one bend the rules to survive? How far should one bend those rules? The Nazis didn’t give Jews and other prisoners in their custody enough food to live for long. To endure the work, the cold, and the punishments, people had to “organize” food and clothing. Organizing (this verb was constantly used by the survivors Laytner interviews) can range from foraging while on work details to bartering to straight-up theft. Some Jews became kapos for extra rations and privileges. Josef Lajtner was offered a post as a kapo, but refused it because he wouldn’t commit the acts of violence that the position would require of him. Laytner tells us that kapos are a taboo subject among survivors, yet offers multiple examples of Jewish men who used the post to lessen the suffering of their fellow prisoners. Laytner—and his father’s decisions—ask us to take a more nuanced look at the things people had to do in the face of an entire regime and its allies trying to destroy them.

Laytner also touches on the changes in attitudes toward and memorialization of the Holocaust. When he first visits Poland, for example, the Blechhammer camp where his father was imprisoned for most of the war was mostly ruins. There was a sign that let visitors know where they were and what the site was. They had to imagine the rest from what they’d learned or remembered. Years later, parts of the camp had been rebuilt. The difference between Laytner’s first and second visits to the bigger cities in Poland are more troubling. Holocaust tourism (if you’ll forgive the phrase) had become a fully developed industry between those visits. What does it mean for our understanding of the Holocaust that, in some places, no traces remain while in others, history has been recreated for public consumption?

Nothing is simple in What They Didn’t Burn. The documents Laytner receives are complicated by their context and provenance. The physical sites are burdened by years of either erasing the past or preserving it, resurgent anti-Semitism, and the sheer passage of time. I appreciated all of the challenging questions Laytner raises. All too often, I see history oversimplified to the point that it loses meaning. To really think about history and its complexity is to truly engage with it and learn. This may not be the most innovative or startling work about the Holocaust I’ve ever read, but its honesty and Laytner’s depth of scholarship are a perfect tonic to novels that use the Holocaust as window-dressing or nonfiction that plays it safe.

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

Will, by Jeroen Olyslaegers

Jeroen Olyslaeger’s Will presents a complicated portrait of a man who was caught between the Belgian Resistance and pro-fascist Belgians during World War II. His refusal to take sides meant that everyone thought he was on their team. In the long shadow of the war, everyone looks at Wilfred Wils askance. When people know you won’t take a stand, they won’t stand with you. Wilfred tells his story to his great-grandson (with us watching over his shoulder) and, while he never justifies his actions, he is brutally honest for perhaps the first time in his long life.

Wilfred, when we meet him, is a poet of very little renown. Back then, he was a policeman. His very average grades in school kept him out of university and had zero prospects. His French tutor, Meanbeard, managed to wrangle Wilfred a job with the Antwerp police (patrol as he’s definitely not detective material). After the Germans invade Belgium, Wilfred learns why his tutor got him a job. Meanbeard thinks that Wilfred shares his sympathies for the Nazis. It’s a mistake that a lot of other people will make. You see, the only person Wilfred really cares about is himself. He has no deep principles he’s willing to die for. I’m not even sure he would put his neck out all that far for the people he calls his best friends. Because of this, Will is one of the strangest World War II books I’ve ever read. Most stories in the genre are all about heroes and villains. There are villains in Will, but I’m hard-pressed to identify any heroes.

Belgian tank on fire during the Battle of Antwerp, May 19, 1940 (Image via Wikicommons)

So, as elderly Wilfred wanders the streets of Antwerp and the apartment he shares with his equally elderly wife, we learn all of his secrets. We see Wilfred accompany Gestapo agents and other Belgian police as the Gestapo rounds up the city’s Jewish citizens. We see Wilfred try to drink his pints while members of the Flemish Legion trash anti-Nazi bars. We also see Wilfred attempt to stay out of everyone’s business as the stake rise around him. Meanbeard and the pro-fascists want Wilfred to spy on his friends in the resistance. His friends in the resistance want Wilfred to spy on the Nazis and the pro-fascists. It’s an impossible position.

Usually, I would be all over the ethical dilemmas of a book like this. Instead, I was more struck by the psychological aspects of Will. I was surprised by all the efforts to try and get Wilfred to turn spy. It was as though none of these people really knew Wilfred. Wilfred appears to have kept his own feelings and thoughts too close to the vest that all anyone else would see was a reflection of their own. Because he never directly contradicts anyone, Wilfred can get away with being cynical about everything and no one really takes him seriously. I was also fascinated by the hints in the latter parts of the book that, even though he believes that he’s finally coming clean about everything, Wilfred might not be remembering events clearly.

Will is not an easy book to read. I had to take some ABBA breaks when things got too heavy for me. But in retrospect, I’m glad I took a chance on Wilfred’s story. Because Olyslaeger’s protagonist is so deeply in the grey between black and white, Will present an opportunity to think more carefully about all of the millions of people who got caught between the Allies and the Axis while they were trying to figure out who they wanted to be and what they wanted to do in their lives. The only quibble I have about this book is the occasionally clunky word choice by the translator, David Colmer. Colmer is best when he doesn’t try to do colloquial.

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

Estoril, by Dejan Tiago-Stanković

Although Dejan Tiago-Stanković’s Estoril is named for the Hotel Palácio Estoril, the plot is all about the people who stay, however briefly within its Art Deco walls. Tiago-Stanković uses actual history (and real historical figures) to hang that plot all, while the Hotel Palácio provides the setting. I think that this book would have been a great read, but learning that it’s based on real history added a lot to the power of the story—a feeling similar to the one I felt when I learned that many of the actors in Casablanca were European refugees.

Near the beginning of Estoril, the manager Mr. Black is told that there is a delicate situation that he must handle. (This is not the first and is far from the last delicate situation that demands his attention in this book.) This delicate situation is a very young Jewish Belgian refugee named Gavriel. He arrived, without his parents, with instructions to wait at the hotel for them. He has a suitcase full of thousands in various currencies and diamonds to pay his way. Mr. Black knows what would happen to young Gaby if the boy is sent back into the maw of Europe—and so the boy begins his five year sojourn at the Hotel Palácio, essentially raised by the hotel staff.

Gaby is unusual in many ways. He is very intelligent and very stubborn about getting answers to his questions. He also has no compunctions about asking anyone he runs into about their jobs, what they think of literary passages, or anything that piques his interesting. Which leads me to the most unusual thing about the character: Gaby seems to exist, for most of the book, as a means to introduce the historical characters who stayed at the Hotel Palácio between 1940 and 1945. Over the years, Gaby meets author and pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry; Carol II, the former King of Romania; double agent and possible inspiration for Ian Fleming’s (who also appears in Estoril) James Bond, Duško Popov; and chess grandmaster, Alexander Alexandrovich Alekhine.

Tiago-Stanković doesn’t just sample from history to create content for his novel. He riffs on Casablanca (and even directly references it more than once). There are corrupt officials everywhere and plenty of double-crossing. Boldest of all references is a scene that recreates (in a hilariously vulgar way) my favorite scene in Casablanca, when the patrons of Rick’s cafe sing La Marsaillaise over German officers singing Wacht am Rhein. There’s even a local police officer who, while not as foxlike as Captain Renault, who serves much the same role for the hotel’s Mr. Black.

Estoril is a strange book, but I loved reading it. It was so cinematic—not just because of the Casablanca and Bond references—because the plots played out like episodes. This is natural given that people are always coming and going from the Hotel Palácio. Tiago-Stanković stuffs a lot into those 400+ pages, but I raced through the book in about a day. I just had to know what would happen next. And, once I finished Estoril, I felt like I had finally found a World War II novel that didn’t have miraculous endings, wasn’t mawkish, and dodged all of the usual clichés of the sub-genre. I would definitely recommend this book to other readers who are looking for original historical fiction about World War II.

Hotel Palácio Estoril, 2010 (image via Wikicommons)

The Last Million, by David Nasaw

World War II did not end on V-E and V-J Days. Hostilities ceased on those days but the war churned up so many lives that it would take more than a decade to find new homes for the more than a million displaced persons in David Nasaw’s new book, The Last Million. Nasaw chronicles the struggles and political wrangling over what happened to people who, after the war, had no homes to go return to or couldn’t go home because of violent antisemitism or the growing strength of the Soviet Union in the Eastern Bloc or who would face prosecution for war crimes and collaboration in their nation of origin. This thoroughly researched book covers everything from just before the end of the war to when the last displaced persons camp in 1957.

After the war, Germany saw waves of people coming in from concentration camps and from newly Communist countries stretching from Estonia to Ukraine. Among these displaced people were liberated Jews, people who couldn’t return because of the Soviet Union, expelled Volksdeutsche, and people running from allied justice. Nasaw bounced back and forth from each of these groups as the Allies wrangle over their fates. Nasaw’s account—fully documented with quotes from Allied personnel and politicians and DPs—reveals a series of almost insurmountable problems that kept DPs in the camps for far to long.

The biggest problem is widespread antisemitism. After the war, no one wanted to take in Jewish DPs. Although the Allies would house, feed, and treat the medical ailments of the displaced persons, none of the Allied leaders seemed willing to able to bring Jewish people into their countries. American President Truman knew that Congress wouldn’t change immigration laws to allow Jews or people from now Communist countries in. Prime Minister Attlee’s government was later willing to cherry-pick non-Jewish DPs to do jobs Britons didn’t want to do. Jewish people often couldn’t go back to their homes. Not only were their communities obliterated, but they faced new pogroms by people who were happy to have seen the Jews gone forever.

The next big problem faced by Jewish DPs was the question of Palestine. Attlee had to walk a tight rope between keeping peace with Arabs in Palestine by limiting Jewish immigration as much as possible and Allied pressure to send Jewish people there. Many (but not all) surviving Jewish people wanted to go to Palestine to create a Jewish state, but Palestine was already inhabited by people whose families had been there for generations.

Lastly, Volksdeutsche, former SS soldiers, former concentration camp guards, and others who had committed or been involved in war crimes destroyed their documents or lied about where they’d been during the war to hid under the cover of being a displaced person so that they wouldn’t face summary justice if they’d gone home. It infuriated me to see that so many of these people slipped through the screening process and have their visas approved for the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and other countries.

Nasaw’s The Last Million contains so much more than what I’ve written here. My summary certainly doesn’t capture Nasaw’s gift with research and use of quotes to bring personalities to the page. I found myself shocked, saddened, cheered, and frustrated by the events recounted in The Last Million. I also feel like Nasaw gave me a graduate course in the history of displaced people. This book is among the best nonfiction I have ever read.

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

Children in Schauenstein DP camp, c. 1946 (Image via Wikicommons)

Beowulf, by Bryher

So much of fiction centers on a single protagonist, maybe two, and a relatively small cast of characters*. Reading a book that moves the camera back makes a refreshing change of perspective. Novels like Grand Hotel, by Vicky Baum, and the recently republished Beowulf, by Bryher (Annie Winifred Ellerman), pull that camera back so that we can get a sense of how many people even a lonely person can come in contact with and so that we can really get a sense of a place and time. Beowulf takes place over the course of one day during the Blitz, as characters who lodge in the same building and frequent the Warming Pan tea room, try to keep calm and carry on.

We begin the day with a never-quite-successful watercolor painter. Horatio is far past his prime. His wife has passed away and his only income is an allowance from a relative who feels obliged to Horatio. His carping and desperate hopes to sell a watercolor or two gives way to Selina Tippett’s worries about her tea shop, the Warming Pan. Before the war, it was a raging success. Since the Blitz started, however, business has fallen off so much that she might not make the rent.

Other characters pop in and out. We briefly meet Tippett’s firebrand partner, Angelina. We meet their waitresses. We even meet a colonel recently returned from India and looking for a job. All of these characters are linked to each other, although they might not know it. A patron at the Warming Room might have a boss who interviews the colonel for a job. One of the waitresses might gossip about a woman believed to have been killed by a bomb before that woman pops up to wail about her destroyed shop.

Beowulf is named for an ugly plaster dog that Angelina buys for the Warming Pan, believing it good luck. I was curious about the title of this book because it’s such a big name in English literature. A little digging around online showed me that scholars have produced thousands of words about what it means. But, by the time I met “Beowulf,” I was much more interested in the characters. I had completely forgotten about the dog by the time the characters began to gather in their neighborhood shelter for the night. For all that they had their own separate lives during the day, at night they’re all civilians hoping that the bombs land somewhere else.

I enjoy reading books by contemporary authors writing about their experiences before and during World War II. There are works of historical fiction that manage to capture what I think it would be like to live at that time, in those places affected by the war. But there’s nothing quite like stepping into a narrative that reflects what the authors saw and felt. Beowulf, because it’s meandering path through loosely connected characters, is a fantastic example of this kind of novel.

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

*Except for classic novels from the nineteenth century, which often go for a cast of thousands.

The Paris Library, by Janet Skeslien Charles

Being a teenager sucks. I certainly wasn’t fond of it. Like Lily, one of the protagonists of Janet Skeslien Charles’ novel The Paris Library, I was annoyed by my friends, irritated by well-meant advice from adults, and couldn’t wait to be grown up and independent. Lily and I even grew up in the intermountain west in towns that people leave in droves. The similarities end there because Lily is a massive francophile who lost her mother at a critical age. Thankfully, Lily has Odile Souchet to guide her through the trials and tribulations of being a teenager. She provides Lily with desperately needed perspective in that she can provide real examples of the consequences of jealousy, petty revenge, and all of our ugly little emotions—because Odile came of age during a world war, when the stakes were a lot higher than a broken heart.

The Paris Library flips back and forth from World War II to the mid-1980s. Lily’s narrative, set in the 80s, shows Lily growing close to Odile through impromptu French lessons and some substitute mothering. Her friendship with Odile helps Lily find her self-confidence while contending with loss, an absent father, and a surprisingly fertile stepmother who is a scant ten years older than Lily. The other narrative, Odile’s, is based on the author’s own interest and curiosity in the American Library in Paris. The library and some of its real-life staff form part of the cast of The Paris Library.

An undated photo of the American Library (Image via Wikicommons)

I’m not going to lie. Odile’s story was more interesting to me than Lily’s. In 1939, Odile lived a charmed life in Paris. Sure, her parents were overbearing and her father keeps bringing home potential suitors from the police station (he’s a commissaire), but her library degree and love of reading* help her achieve her dream job at the American Library. She even manages to meet a cute young policeman who helps her stand up to her very traditional father. Even the War, at least during the first few months, doesn’t really touch Odile. When France is occupied and Paris fills up with Nazis, Odile does her small bit to fight back: she helps deliver books to library patrons who are no longer allowed to go into public spaces such as Jewish people and foreigners from countries the Nazis are at war with.

It’s only in the last third or so of The Paris Library that my big question–how on earth did a Parisienne end up in rural Montana?—started to be answered. Lily commits a big sin. She snoops around in Odile’s things while she is away, and discovers old letters that Lily immediately misinterprets. And thus, lessons are (eventually) learned about forgiveness and how to avoid impulsive bad ideas.

I found a few missteps in The Paris Library, but they’re just small things about being a librarian. I only saw them because I work in a library and with librarians all the time (see note). Otherwise, I found this book to be a solid tale about very human people who, for whatever reason, have to learn that there are costs to be paid when we act in the heat of the moment. Odile pays a very high price. Lily gets off lightly in comparison. Because of its characters and subject matter, I think The Paris Library would be fantastic reading for parents of teenage daughters who don’t mind stepping into the perspective of a teenager and a very young woman for 400 pages. This book is a very good reminder of just how much it sucks to be a teenager.

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

* There’s an inside joke among librarians that you shouldn’t say that you want to be a librarian because you want to read. First, we all love to read so we just assume this about anyone who applies. Second, actually being a librarian is more about people than it is about books—but that’s a whole ‘nother blog post.

Keep Saying Their Names, by Simon Stranger

Trigger warning for torture and rape.

In a narrative that strongly reminded me of HhHH, by Laurent Binet, author and narrator Simon Stranger dives into the history of his Jewish Norwegian family and into the story of traitor Henry Oliver Rinnan. Stranger dramatizes conversations and scenes that are based on actual history. The title of the book, Keep Saying Their Names, comes from an old Jewish saying that the dead are only truly gone from us when we forget them. By recounting the stories of the dead, we ensure that they live on in some fashion. But what does it mean when saying the names of long-gone family members also means saying the name of the person who killed them?

Stranger frames his historical narrative as an alphabet. Each letter provides a quick entry point to themes, historical events, dialogues, etc. The impressionistic way that Stranger tells his stories is part of what reminded me of HhHH, which remains one of the best books I’ve ever read. The other part comes from Stranger’s fascination with Rinnan. Like Binet’s fascination with Reinhard Heydrich, Stranger’s initial portrait of a man who I can only describe as a monster runs the risk of making us feel sympathetic to Rinnan. Rinnan did truly terrible things to a lot of people while he was given the run of Trondheim and the surrounding area by the occupying Nazi forces. Stranger admits to feeling sorry for the bullied, short child, who would later become a monster. To me, I saw a child who was always going to be attracted to positions where he might be able to bully others unless someone intervened. It’s all too easy to see why Rinnan became a force for evil—very depressingly easy to see.

Stranger marries into a family that has two connections to Rinnan. Stranger’ wife’s grandfather, Hirsh Kommisar, was arrested by Rinnan, before being tortured and killed in a villa that—in the second link to the family—became the home of Hirsh’s son, Gerson. It should have been inconceivable that anyone would stay in the villa at Jonsvannsveien 46, especially a Jewish family, especially a Jewish family that lost a relative to Rinnan and his gang. And yet, Gerson, his wife, and their two daughters lived in the villa for a few years around 1950. They heard all kinds of terrible stories. They even found bullets and bullet casings.

Feder Family Stolperstein, Kolín, Czech Republic (Image via Wikicommons)

To me, Keep Saying Their Names subtly tackles the idea of how the family history of good people can be closely entwined with the history of evil people. Go back far enough, I suppose, and you can find all kinds of skeletons in closets that you have some claim on. For example, so many American family histories cross paths with chattel slavery and/or the theft of land from indigenous people. How do we come to terms with our connections to evil while at the same time celebrating our family’s survival? At the beginning of Keep Saying Their Names, Stranger discusses the Stolperstein. In 1992, Gunter Demnig began installing brass plates with the names and dates of Holocaust victims in places where they lived and worked before they were killed by the Third Reich. The name means stumbling stone, recalling something small that we can trip over at any time. Most of the time, we can walk past them–the same way we can ignore historical events. But when we trip over them or notice them, the Stolperstein cause emotional (and possibly physical) pain as we recall those who are were taken from us during the Holocaust. Like Stranger and his family, we’re not thinking about the past and our losses all the time, but we should periodically contemplate our pasts—good and bad alike.

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

The Library of Legends, by Janie Chang

After a lifetime of hiding under an assumed name, Hu Lian’s life has turned around with a full scholarship to the (fictional) Minghua University. But when the Japanese begin to steamroll across the former Chinese Empire, the university is evacuated inland. Only thousands of miles can keep the students and the university’s priceless (also fictional) Library of Legends, the remaining section of an ancient encyclopedia that collects China’s myths, folklore, and legends. The Library of Legends, by Janie Chang, is based on historic events; Chinese universities upped stakes and traveled for miles to safety, taking irreplaceable documents with them. Chang adds supernatural elements to this harrowing tale of historical survival as her protagonists are accompanied by fleeing mythical city gods, river guardians, and more.

Lian is one of my favorite kinds of protagonists. First, she is very observant. She sees important things that other people miss in their hurry to get on with whatever they’re doing. Second, she wants to do the right thing no matter how characters try to get her to bend her own rules. At the beginning of their exodus, Lian worries about finding her mother. Lian’s scholarship divided them. All she knows is that her mother will try to get to the foreign Settlement in Shanghai, one of the few safe places on China’s east coast. But as the miles roll past and the students and faculty put the invading Japanese in their rear view, Lian gets caught up in China’s other great fight: the efforts of the Nationalists to squash the nascent Communists. The university’s agent of the Juntong, who work to root out Communists, blackmails Lian to spy on her friends and inform him about any Communist activity.

Chinese refugees on the road during the Second Sino-Japanese War/World War II (Image via ResearchGate)

Meanwhile, Lian’s new friend, Shao, is in the middle of his own story. Shao’s servant, called Sparrow, reveals herself as a servant of the Queen of Heaven to one of Shao and Lian’s more enlightened professors. Centuries ago, Sparrow bargained with the Queen of Heaven to accompany her great love through his various lives. The bad news for Sparrow is that Shao never remembers her or his previous lives. At the same time, Sparrow is passing on the message to every supernatural creature and being she comes across to let them know that the Queen of Heaven will keep her gates open for one year. Everyone is welcome back if they can make it in time. Lian occasionally glimpses these beings, though she doubts herself for a long time.

There is so much going on in The Library of Legends that my small but overstuffed summary barely scratches the surface of what happens in this riveting, imaginative novel. Chang uses history, legend, and solid character development to build a terrific story about obligation and purpose. What do we owe each other? Which side is the right one to fight for? How do we deal with feelings of unrequited love? All of this creates plenty of narrative tension against an already high stakes background. This book is an incredible read, especially for readers of historical fiction who like the odd touch of the supernatural.

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