Book Recommendation: The Baker’s Secret

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“In a time of humiliation, the only dignified answer is cunning.” Stephen P. Kiernan, THE BAKER’S SECRET

From the critically acclaimed author of The Hummingbird and The Curiosity comes a dazzling novel of World War II—a shimmering tale of courage, determination, optimism and the resilience of the human spirit, set in a small village in Normandy on the eve of D-Day.

 

My Recommendation:

Emmanuelle is bitter. The traumas she suffers and witnesses age her beyond her twenty-two years. The war is consuming everything and everyone she loves, and she has lost all hope that the Allies will help. And yet…

Her youth and her intelligence call her to action. One small act of defiance (adding a bit of ground straw to her flour rations as town baker) allows her to increase her yield from twelve to fourteen loaves–enough bread to satisfy the demands of the Nazi occupiers, with two left over to secretly distribute to the townspeople.

Yet it is not enough.

Each deception exposes a new desire. Each desire inspires a new idea on how to undermine the Nazis to obtain it. Each little triumph keeps the spark of hope glowing in the people of the town. Even for those Emma dislikes or who dislike her, they are bound together in their shared wish to see the destruction of the oppressors.

THE BAKER’S SECRET beautifully demonstrates the power of small acts done with great care, and the ripples that expand outward from those acts. In spite of how hardened Emma has become, she is a protagonist with whom the reader forges a strong alliance. Her sorrows are ours. Her pain is ours. Her joy, ours.

Kiernan is a writer of enormous talent, and this novel is a triumph. The reader knows D-Day is coming, and can hardly wait for Emma to find out. In spite of knowing the catalyst for the climax, there are still many surprises; so much is revealed when June 6th, 1944 finally arrives.

I read the novel in a weekend, and I already know THE BAKER’S SECRET will my make my “Best of” list of 2017. I give it my highest recommendation.

 

 

 

 

I’d Die for You and Other Lost Stories, F. Scott Fitzgerald

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“She wore a silver belt with stars cut out of it, so that the stars were there and not quite there–and watching them Sam knew that he had not quite found her yet. He wished for a moment that he were not so entirely successful nor Mary so desirable–wished that they were both a little broken and would want to cling together. All the evening he felt a little sad watching the intangible stars as they moved here and there about the big rooms.” F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Day Off from Love”

Publisher Synopsis:

A collection including the last complete unpublished short stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the iconic American writer of The Great Gatsby who is more widely read today than ever.

I’d Die For You is a collection of the last remaining unpublished and uncollected short stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald, edited by Anne Margaret Daniel. Fitzgerald did not design the stories in I’d Die For You as a collection. Most were submitted individually to major magazines during the 1930s and accepted for publication during Fitzgerald’s lifetime, but were never printed. Some were written as movie scenarios and sent to studios or producers, but not filmed. Others are stories that could not be sold because their subject matter or style departed from what editors expected of Fitzgerald. They date from the earliest days of Fitzgerald’s career to the last. They come from various sources, from libraries to private collections, including those of Fitzgerald’s family.

Written in his characteristically beautiful, sharp, and surprising language, exploring themes both familiar and fresh, these stories provide new insight into the bold and uncompromising arc of Fitzgerald’s career. I’d Die For You is a revealing, intimate look at Fitzgerald’s creative process that shows him to be a writer working at the fore of modern literature—in all its developing complexities.

My Recommendation:

For many reasons, it borders on the absurd that I am reviewing a collection of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s stories. I offer this recommendation with the full disclosure that not only am I an enormous Fitzgerald aficionado, but I am completely biased and sympathetic toward anything ‘Fitzgerald.’ Bearing this in mind…

From the editorial introductions, to a delightful collection of never before published photographs, to the rich and varied stories themselves,  I’D DIE FOR YOU AND OTHER LOST STORIES is a rare treat, and one that should be savored. Editor Anne Margaret Daniel’s arrangement and contextual description of each of Fitzgerald’s writings not only provide fresh insights into one of America’s finest writers, but also demonstrate deep understanding of and empathy for her subject.

Lovers of Fitzgerald’s work will find echoes of Gatsby in stories like “Thumbs Up:”

“The two younger men started back toward shore in the dinghy and the hands that waved to them from the yacht as they gradually lost sight of it in the growing dark were like a symbol that the cruelty of a distant time was receding with every stroke of the oars into a dimmer and dimmer past.” (p. 186)

Flashes of his genius in describing the nature of his characters in “Nightmare:”

“[H]e felt dissatisfied with the physical attitude she had assumed–somehow standing in the doorway like that betrayed the fact that her mood was centrifugal rather than centripetal–she was drawn toward the June afternoon, the down-rolling, out-rolling land, adventurous as an ocean without horizons. Something stabbed at his heart for his own mood was opposite–for him she made this place the stable center of the world.” (p. 20)

And Zelda. Zelda everywhere:

“The girl hung around under the pink sky waiting for something to happen. She was not a particularly vague person but she was vague tonight: the special dusk was new, practically new, after years under far skies; it had strange little lines in the trees, strange little insects, unfamiliar night cries of strange small beasts beginning.” (p. 41, “What to Do About It”)

I confess that–like everything Fitzgerald–on these pages hangs a looming sadness. Even in the slivers of hope, knowing the whole Fitzgerald story casts a shadow. One will marvel, however, that even as Fitzgerald faced the darkness of professional rejection, personal crisis, and familial devastation, he was able to produce such an abundance and variety of material, and often infused with such hope.

I’D DIE FOR YOU AND OTHER LOST STORIES is one of the most genuine books I’ve read all year. Unfiltered Fitzgerald is a treat, and Daniel’s expertise and admiration warm the pages of the stories. The way Daniel chooses to end the collection leaves last notes of satisfaction, contentment, and yearning. Fans of short fiction and those interested in delving more deeply into Fitzgerald’s body of work will be smitten with this collection.

 

 

Book Recommendation: THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE

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“Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against the hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.” Shirley Jackson, THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE

Publisher Synopsis:

The classic supernatural thriller by an author who helped define the genre…

First published in 1959, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House has been hailed as a perfect work of unnerving terror. It is the story of four seekers who arrive at a notoriously unfriendly pile called Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of a “haunting”; Theodora, his lighthearted assistant; Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman well acquainted with poltergeists; and Luke, the future heir of Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable phenomena. But Hill House is gathering its powers—and soon it will choose one of them to make its own.

My Recommendation:

Thoroughly gothic, thrilling, and at times terrifying, THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE takes the reader into a haunted house by way of a haunted narrator–one equal parts sympathetic and unpleasant. What begins as an experiment in science to validate the supernatural quickly becomes personal and dangerous for the participants. In addition to genuinely scary moments (I had to stop reading one night), what is perhaps most disturbing is how fine the line is between paranoia and warranted fear, a desire to belong and obsession, and psychotic episodes versus actual ghosts.

My only prior exposure to the writing of Shirley Jackson came through her story, “The Lottery.” THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE secures my good impression of her work. It’s a slim volume–180 pages–and can be read easily in just a few nights. I recommend picking up a copy and doing just that. It was exhilarating to get lost in a good, old-fashioned, scary story, and I am eager to read Jackson’s other writings.

 

Book Recommendation: The Underground Railroad

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“She smiled at Chester, and Lovey and the women from her cabin, with brevity and efficiency. Like when you see the shadow of a bird on the ground but look up and nothing’s there. She subsisted on rations, in everything. Caesar had never spoken to her but had this figured out about her. It was sensible: she knew the preciousness of what little she called her own.” Colson Whitehead, THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD

Publisher Synopsis:

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, the #1 New York Times bestseller from Colson Whitehead, a magnificent tour de force chronicling a young slave’s adventures as she makes a desperate bid for freedom in the antebellum South

Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hell for all the slaves, but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood—where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned—Cora kills a young white boy who tries to capture her. Though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.

In Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor—engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.

Like the protagonist of Gulliver’s Travels, Cora encounters different worlds at each stage of her journey—hers is an odyssey through time as well as space. As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre–Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.

My Recommendation: 

National Book Award. Pulitzer Prize. Oprah’s Book Club. New York Times Bestseller.

Well deserved.

Colson Whitehead’s THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD starts with whispers, like murmuring voices around a campfire–let us tell you this story–and grows to a roar. The novel’s nucleus is Cora, a woman enslaved in Georgia, on the run literally and figuratively. Her inheritance is abandonment, but it is what she believes about her mother’s running so many years before that gives Cora the fuel and fire she needs for her own journey.

Whitehead’s unique use of an actual underground railroad is assured, convincing, and a perfect metaphor for the continual descent into darkness and rebirth at each stop. The brutality in this novel is swift–sucker punches, heartbreak over and over, chapters that require closing and mourning before moving on. I recommend allowing that space between sections, especially as one nears the end of the novel. It makes the book more of an experience and settles it deeply in the bones.

Though set in a distant past, the novel is not only relevant but arguably necessary to the discussion of contemporary issues of race in our country. Whitehead is never sentimental or didactic, and his exploration of what we carry from our ancestors is key if there is to be hope for reconciliation in the future.

THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD should be taught in literature programs, put on film and shown in theaters, and included in the American literary canon. If we carry a piece of the books we read with us forever, I am glad I now carry THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD. I give Colson Whitehead’s brilliant novel my highest recommendation.

Book Recommendation: THE CONFESSIONS OF YOUNG NERO

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Publisher Synopsis:

The New York Times bestselling and legendary author of Helen of Troy and Elizabeth I now turns her gaze on Emperor Nero, one of the most notorious and misunderstood figures in history.

Built on the backs of those who fell before it, Julius Caesar’s imperial dynasty is only as strong as the next person who seeks to control it. In the Roman Empire no one is safe from the sting of betrayal: man, woman—or child.

As a boy, Nero’s royal heritage becomes a threat to his very life, first when the mad emperor Caligula tries to drown him, then when his great aunt attempts to secure her own son’s inheritance. Faced with shocking acts of treachery, young Nero is dealt a harsh lesson: it is better to be cruel than dead.

While Nero idealizes the artistic and athletic principles of Greece, his very survival rests on his ability to navigate the sea of vipers that is Rome. The most lethal of all is his own mother, a cold-blooded woman whose singular goal is to control the empire. With cunning and poison, the obstacles fall one by one. But as Agrippina’s machinations earn her son a title he is both tempted and terrified to assume, Nero’s determination to escape her thrall will shape him into the man he was fated to become—an Emperor who became legendary.

With impeccable research and captivating prose, The Confessions of Young Nero is the story of a boy’s ruthless ascension to the throne. Detailing his journey from innocent youth to infamous ruler, it is an epic tale of the lengths to which man will go in the ultimate quest for power and survival.

My Recommendation:

Contemporary politics looks like child’s play compared to that of Ancient Rome.

The Confessions of Young Nero, by Margaret George, is a 506-page epic novel, and likely the first in a series. In truth, I couldn’t imagine enjoying a novel about a man like Nero. Saints Peter and Paul were executed under his rule, and the myths and rumors of Nero’s scandalous lifestyle hardly make him a sympathetic figure. Imagine my surprise when I not only could not put the book down, but was even able to comprehend how a childhood rife with assassination attempts, poisoning of loved ones, and a mother who preyed upon and used her son for political ascendancy could have produced such a man.

One of my college history professors once told her class that she could never understand why anyone thought history was boring; it was all sex and violence. Margaret George reinforces that fact in The Confessions of Young Nero. Ancient Rome, its provinces, and its people are vividly rendered in all their glory, and the plotting, scheming, successes and failures of the imperial dynasty are clear and readable. It is a true testament to George’s writing that the reader will find herself not only rooting for unsavory outcomes to benefit young Nero, but will also be moved by his challenges and triumphs.

Fans of Philippa Gregory and Diana Gabaldon will love The Confessions of Young Nero. While the reader may or may not like Nero, his intelligence, creativity, and drive cannot be denied.

Book Recommendation: IF I COULD TELL YOU

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“Later, when Julia lay sleepless in the tiny back bedroom where Mattie had put her up, she understood for the first time that she had tried to pay for happiness with other people’s misery. This was how the gods punished you, she finally realized. They made you live with what you had done.” Elizabeth Wilhide, IF I COULD TELL YOU

Publisher Synopsis:

Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale meets Anna Karenina, a vivid and captivating novel of love, war, and the resilience of one woman’s spirit. 

England, 1939: Julia Compton has a beautifully well-ordered life. Once a promising pianist, she now has a handsome husband, a young son she adores, and a housekeeper who takes care of her comfortable home. Then, on the eve of war, a film crew arrives in her coastal town. She falls in love.

The consequences are devastating. Penniless, denied access to her son, and completely unequipped to fend for herself, she finds herself adrift in wartime London with her lover, documentary filmmaker Dougie Birdsall. While Dougie seeks truth wherever he can find it, Julia finds herself lost. As the German invasion looms and bombs rain down on the city, she faces a choice—succumb to her fate, or fight to forge a new identity in the heat of war.

My Recommendation:

The prose in this slender novel of infatuation and war is taut, riveting, and deliberate, even bordering the poetic. It is the beauty of the language that leads the reader forward as she so desperately wishes to hold back the characters. Like a horror novel, the reader can see the devastation spooling before the characters as they make one bad decision after another, but it is the brilliance with which Wilhide portrays global catastrophe in time with personal catastrophe that makes a true symphony of the work.

“Debussy was deceptive. The refusal of the harmonies to resolve, the blurred, sonorous bass notes, the layers of voices, masked precision, each sound occupying its own rightful place.” 

Julia is a pianist, and it is often at her keyboard (or steeped in craving in the absence of it) that she realizes existential truths. But her redemption is hard fought, and it takes losing everything–being forged in the very furnace of war–to gain back a morsel of it.

These are devastatingly real men and women making bad decisions, while somehow holding our sympathy or, at least, our attention. The writing, character development, themes and subjects are reminiscent of Hemingway. I give IF I COULD TELL YOU my highest recommendation.

Binge-worthy: Z: THE BEGINNING OF EVERYTHING

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“Nothing could have survived our life.” ~Zelda Fitzgerald, in a letter to Scott

Amazon Studios has released a new series based on Therese Fowler’s bestselling novel, Z, called Z: The Beginning of Everything.  When I watched the pilot early last year, I couldn’t quite reconcile the casting with the two luminous persons who had so long lived in my imagination. Within two episodes, however, Christina Ricci (Zelda) and David Hoflin (Scott) grew into their characters with such force, power, and unflinching honesty they beguiled me, and would no doubt impress and unnerve those whom they portray.

Z: The Beginning of Everything, created by Dawn Prestwich and Nicole Yorkin, is a first-class production. Even in the scenes in which Zelda is not featured, she is the anchor, the true north; one judges every moment on how Zelda will react to and change as a result of what happens. Her clothing alone is striking enough to make her stand out, but it is the full, tragic understanding of how life broke Zelda that gives extra weight to Ricci’s performance.

Every character has a well-developed arc and clearly supports the themes explored in the lives of the Fitzgeralds. The series manages to weave in Zelda and Scott’s fascinating circle of peers–including scene-stealer Tallulah Bankhead, played by (Christina Lind)–while never losing sight of or distracting from the true heart of the work, Zelda Fitzgerald.

I often had to pause the film to take in the visually stunning and artistic scene renderings. With just thirty minutes an episode, not a moment of dialogue, music, transition, wardrobe, or lighting is wasted. It is a testament to the production quality that even moments of lighthearted joy are shadowed with the foreknowledge of the ways Scott and Zelda will fall. It is especially moving when the young Fitzgeralds run to the ocean, hand-in-hand–their laughter trailing–not knowing how mercilessly the sun will scorch the Icarus-like, waxen wings of their youthful arrogance.

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If you want a period piece you in which you may get lost, I cannot recommend Z: The Beginning of Everything enough. I hope the series is renewed; I can never get enough Zelda. If you’ve seen it, I would love to hear what you think.