The Confusion of Languages by Siobhan Fallon
Cassie and Margaret are Army wives living in Jordan during the rise of the Arab Spring. Their friendship is complicated and sometimes frustrating, and you’re never sure if it’s one of convenience. Cassie is constantly frustrated by Margaret’s refusal to adhere to local customs and standards of behavior. When the two are in a small fender bender, Cassie stays home with Margaret’s toddler while Margaret goes to the police station to sort things out. But the hours go on and on, with no word from Margaret. Trying to figure out what is happening with her friend, Cassie begins reading her diary.
I enjoyed this one, but the diary-within-a-novel is very difficult to pull off. People do not, generally, write diary entries worthy of published work, so the author is left trying to strike an authentic this-could-be-someone’s-private-thoughts text, while at the same time, writing something good enough that someone else wants to read it. Margaret’s diary is a little too stylized to be believable.
Where My Heart Used to Beat by Sebastian Faulks
Robert Hendricks is a psychiatrist and WWII veteran who lost his own father in WWI. The setting moves between his childhood and adolescence, his war years, his adult life in London, and the small, secluded island off the coast of France where he is visiting with his late father’s old Army acquaintance, Dr. Pereira. Some of the battle scenes were tedious for me, and I struggled with the movement from one era to another.
The best part was the conversation between Hendricks and Pereira. One discussion is about Russians and South Africans, whether they are good but misled, or commit their crimes deliberately, and the subtle racism of believing they don’t understand what they’re doing. There’s also thoughtful reflection on the role of WWI in developing contempt for the value of an individual life.
The men mull over the themes of man’s self-awareness and the gift and curse it simultaneously brings, the (un)reliability of our own memories, and the relationship between the interior and exterior life.
“But the Bible and science say the same thing. One is a version of the other. Think of the book of Genesis. The acquisition by Adam and Eve of the knowledge of good and evil and the exile from the Garden of Eden is an account in parable form of the terrible mutation that befell our ancestors: the gaining of consciousness, the leap of awareness that cursed all humans, making us aware of our coming death and burdening us with abilities that few of us can use and none of us needs. Genesis, genetics– take your pick. The same word, the same meaning.” -pg. 132
And this one could have been written about our own time:
“She was infused, as we all were, by the intoxicating belief that we might really do better than our parents, that many of the things they had accepted as immutable could in fact be altered.” -pg. 202
The Baker’s Secret by Stephen P. Kiernan
This one was just okay. It’s a WWII novel and an enjoyable read, but nothing special. It seemed like it covered many of the same plot points as The Nightingale, but with less subtlety and suspense. Emma is a young woman living in a small village in Normandy. Though she refuses to actually join the Resistance, she is actively involved in helping other members of her community survive the occupation. Many of the relationships did not ring true for me, particularly the one between Emma and Didier. I thought the treatment of hope and sacrificial love was a strong point, but on the whole this wasn’t my favorite.
Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly
This WWII novel was a winner. The chapters rotate between three female narrators. Caroline is a wealthy society New Yorker, Kasia a young Polish girl, and Herta a newly minted German doctor.
Herta is the least likable, but also the most interesting. At the beginning, she takes her father to visit his favorite doctor, a Jewish man, Dr. Katz. We can already see Herta has bought into much of the Nazi propaganda about Jews. Nonetheless, when she first arrives to work at Ravensbruck, her conscience still speaks. She informs the other doctors that a group of naked women need clothing, and she recoils from euthanizing the sick or elderly.
When she protests the killings, she is told:
“They’ll die anyway. Just don’t think about it.”
“It’s far more humane.”
“Do this well, and they won’t suffer.”
“It can’t be helped.”
Terrifyingly, the exact same logic applied to contemporary crimes against human life.
Herta meets one of the other doctors, Rosenthal, who has performed an abortion on his nurse girlfriend and keeps the baby in a jar in a refrigerator.
She resolves to leave in the morning. And then the concerns of “real” life weigh on her. She needs money. As a woman, she isn’t allowed to practice surgery anywhere else. Her mother’s certain shame if she returns home. So Herta stays and her conscience is rapidly silenced. She is soon an enthusiastic leader in the solfominide experiments, enthralled with her own surgical skill. Decades later, she offers no apology, expresses no remorse. Her conscience is dead.
Lilac Girls also explores other aspects of Hitler’s agenda that are less commonly written about. The reader learns about his insistence that one could be a German or a Christian, but not both. Christmas and Santa are eliminated for “Odin the Solstice Man.” Christmas trees are replaced with People’s Trees topped with sun wheels. Even though everyone knows that the Nazis were propaganda masters, you see how they accomplished it in Lilac Girls.
A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline
This is a fictionalized story about Christina Olson, the subject of Andrew Wyeth’s famous painting, Christina’s World. It was an entertaining read and emotionally wrenching at some points. Not my favorite novel ever, but a good read.
My Other Self: Conversations with Christ on Living Your Faith by Clarence J. Enzler
Excellent spiritual reading. Enzler was a married layman and father of 13 who modeled this work off of The Imitation of Christ. Normally an “updated” version doesn’t live up to the classic, but this is truly beautiful. Highly recommended!
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