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Firefly

Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Lowland”

I made the mistake of allowing some time to pass since I finished “The Lowland” by Jhumpa Lahiri. I much prefer writing immediately after finishing a book.

I chose this book because I so enjoyed Lahiri’s lovely writing in “Unaccustomed Earth” several years ago when it was part of the 2009 American Library Association Notable Books list. That collection of short stories captured so well how people want to do the right thing, want to love each other well, and so often fall short. Yet hope remains. Lahiri has mastered the art of revealing big issues through small observations.

What I recall from “The Lowland” is that same yearning, and the author’s continued kindness in drawing attention to good intentions and honest personal assessment, even when the reader can clearly see that behavior falls short.

This is the story of two brothers, Subhash and Udayan, born in Calcutta just before Indian independence. Subhash is more withdrawn and quiet, Udayan more adventurous and impulsive. Born barely a year apart, they seem separate parts of one personality. Subhash ends up pursuing an academic career in the United States. Udayan remains in India, living with his parents, engaging in dangerous politics, and marrying for love. Udayan’s untimely death (in the lowlands behind their house) shapes the novel, both in the time leading up to it, and in the subsequent passage of time for Subhash, Udayan’s widow, and others who follow. The background of Indian culture and the period following independence provide a distinct backdrop for the general themes of sibling bonds, family ties, finding one’s way in a new country, forgiveness, and the balance of individual dreams with social responsibilities.

I recommend this heartily to fiction readers, with an especially strong nod toward book groups.

“Life After Life” by Kate Atkinson

Recently two or three friends whose opinions I trust recommended “Life After Life” by Kate Atkinson. It’s been a popular book group selection, a novel about a woman is reincarnated several times, set in the first half of the twentieth century in England and Germany. For me, it’s the third book I’ve read in a very short time span that addresses the Nazi era.

In the book’s opening scene, Ursula Todd enters a bar and shoots Adolf Hitler. In the second, she is born and dies immediately. In the third, she is born and lives. As Ursula’s story moves along, she is reincarnated several times and is able to avert tragedies that happened in previous lives. She always feels somewhat apart from others, experiencing fierce deja vu and vivid premonitions.

In Kate Atkinson’s capable hands, this works. Much of the story centers on Ursula’s family and a small circle of friends. Her relationship to them seems not to evolve significantly with each new life. A second aspect of the novel involves Ursula and World War II, when she experiences some lives in London before and during the Blitz, others in Germany in Hitler’s social circles.

An omniscient narrator tells the stories, ending each life usually with the phrase, “darkness fell.” The distance of the narrator contrasts with the intensity of Ursula’s unique experience.

Although I absolutely believe that this novel works well, I’ve been slightly reluctant to recommend it to others, partly because the whole reincarnation idea seems too fantasy-like, too made-up. Perhaps I’m not willing enough to follow a novelist down the path of “What if the world were different in THIS way….”

Even so, I see this as an excellent book group choice. It covers so many bases–family relationships, the World War II era, the role of women, and the meaning of mortality. “Life After Life” invites readers to reconsider a basic idea of how our world works, and then to ponder how countless ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving, rest on that one idea.

“Hitler’s Furies” by Wendy Lower

The National Book Award finalists provide excellent reading suggestions, which is how I came across “Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields” by Wendy Lower.

I’d just recently finished the novel, “HHhH” by Laurent Binet, also set in the Eastern European areas taken over by the Nazi government. With that still in mind, I learned a good deal from “Hitler’s Furies” and found it readable despite its serous subject matter.

Wendy Lower is a professor of history at Claremont McKenna College, and a consultant for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Here she digs more deeply into the general understanding the the Final Solution depended on the participation or cooperation of the general German population. Half of that population was female, and yet the role of women has been seldom explored.

In “Hitler’s Furies” she tells the stories of particular women who fall into the categories of witnesses, accomplices, or perpetrators. Typically, these women were teachers, nurses, camp guards or wives of German officials. Many of them had moved to the countries to the east, where Germany was clearing space for the German people to live.

Lower begins with a chapter called “The Lost Generation of German Women” to set the context for the behavior she describes. This was key–looking back on this time we wonder how it ever could have happened. Lower tries to put the reader in the period before the Nazis rose to power, before Germany was defeated, when the Nazis seemed to offer the redemption of the country.

The narrative is steeped in the ongoing role of anti-Semitism. Lower describes how the existing prejudice was drilled and shaped into a pattern of brutal behavior. Also not be to ignored is the contrasting societal expectation that all women should be natural nurturers who would unite in their opposition to this behavior. Lower probes the intersection of these forces.

Lower writes as an academic. She’s careful to use reliable sources, and careful as well to draw limited conclusions. While she sometimes describes unbelievably violent behavior, she does so in exploration of understanding, not for sensation.

I’ll recommend this to readers interested in this era, or in the role of women, or those seeking a sense for how a country can create such an effective and horrific organization of death.

“HHhH” by Laurent Binet

The New York Times’ “100 Notable Books” list each year remains one of my favorite reading sources. The 2012 list included “HHhH” by Laurent Binet, a novel originally written in French, describing the actual events leading up to the 1942 assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, known as “the Butcher of Prague.”

 The intriguing title refers to the first letters of the German words in the phrase, “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich.” Indeed, as Himmler’s protege Heydrich had risen in power to be a man much feared. His brutal treatment of the Czechoslovakians, for whom he was named “protector,” typified Germany’s harsh conduct in the countries it took over to the east.

Binet details the steps in Heydrich’s rise to power, which is quite well chronicled. He does his best to note how the group of assassins came to this place and time, where there is much less information. I found myself wrapped up in the suspense of their all coming together, knowing the stakes for the “guilty” as well as the  “innocent.”

 As I read this, I often wondered by Binet didn’t simply write an account that would be considered nonfiction. A distinctive aspect of this novel is that Binet often inserts himself directly into the story, describing quandaries of missing information, or how his book compares to others, or how to portray the reliability of someone’s story. I sensed his concern for creating an account that was truthful, and found these insertions intriguing. What wasn’t clear was the degree to which his reflections were actual descriptions of his thought process, or to which they were simply a writer’s technique.

 The story is told in 327 pages, 257 sections varying in length from a short paragraph to several pages. At the point when the assassins attack Heydrich, I expected several short descriptions of action. Instead, Binet provides a four-page paragraph of chronology.

 The outcome is horrific–reprisals for this act were extravagantly brutal. It took several days for the assassins to be tracked down, and even longer to be nearly flushed out of their hiding place before they committed suicide. In the end, Binet seems to want to show that the act was worthwhile.

 The Nazi era continues to provide fodder for thoughtful writing, and the size of its reading audience seems to hold steady. There’s something about this book that had my thoughts returning to it much later, long after I’d moved on to my next book. I recommend this to those who are interested in the era, who appreciate unusual novel styles, and to people who tend to prefer nonfiction to fiction. Although it may not present the usual themes that many book groups seek, it begs to be read, and then it begs to be discussed.

“Devil in the Grove” by Gilbert King

Over the weekend I finished “Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America” by Gilbert King. I came across this title in the list of Pultizer Prize nominees–a goldmine of reading ideas.

 Before he became a Supreme Court justice, and before he brought the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case to the Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall’s work at the NAACP took him all over the southern United States where race was a factor in court cases. A general pattern in his work was that the goal was to set up a successful appeal of a conviction. An acquittal was an impossible dream in nearly all of his cases.

 Such was his strategy in the case of the Groveland Boys–four black men accused of raping a young white woman near Groveland, Florida, in 1949. King introduces a host of characters in setting the stage for this story–from the remarkable Sheriff Willis McCall to a woman reporter for a local newspaper to the four accused black men to the governors of Florida to members of the Ku Klux Klan to members of the local NAACP. King works hard to place the actions in the context of the time, where one foot is squarely in a system that as a matter of course denies justice to black people, and the other is stepping toward landmark decisions such as Brown vs. Board of Education.

 He traces a chronology of beatings, shootings, and palpable danger for the men in custody, and  for the outsider attorneys who arrive in Florida in their defense. In the end, what justice looks like seems pretty unimpressive. What does impress is King’s ability to maintain the connection to context, and to weave a good deal of background information without losing the sense of story.

 King’s focus on Thurgood Marshall further highlights context, knowing what we do of his later Supreme Court career. In terms of how the story works, the immense scope of his personality and impact balance the intensity of what happened at Groveland. From my vantage point in 2013, continual questions arose regarding how things have changed–or not–since 1949.

 I’m a nonfiction fan generally, and especially seek well-told stories of American History. I’ve been recommending this to others who seek such a book, and especially to people with an interest in justice. I think this could be an excellent nonfiction choice for book groups who typically choose fiction. There is much to learn, and to discuss, in “Devil in the Grove.”