“Lilac Girls” by Martha Hall Kelly

LilacGirls

LILAC GIRLS, Martha Hall Kelly

Review by Carol J. Biedrzycki

Lilac Girls is the story of strong women whose lives were driven by World War II.  Two are real life historic figures.  Caroline Ferriday was a generous American humanitarian who worked tirelessly to help those being oppressed in Europe during the war.  Herta Oberheuser was a German doctor who pledged loyalty to the Nazi party to gain economic security and prestige.  Kasia Kuzmerick, one of the victims of medical experimentation at Ravensbrück, is a composite character who suffered physical and emotional abuse.  Ms. Ferriday was responsible for bringing them together.  Lilac Girls is their story.

The personal backgrounds and motives of the Lilac Girls are a unique snapshot of the much written about Nazi occupation of Europe.  The stories of the three women are told through the eyes of Caroline, Herta and Kasia.  Each of the narrators has a unique voice that took me on a voyage with ports-of-call in the United States, Germany, and Poland.

Society’s expectations for women in 1939 were stereotypical and narrow.  A woman married and stayed at home to look after the children while her husband worked and brought in a weekly wage. A single woman was pitied and she usually did work which involved some form of service such as working as a waitress, cooking, and housekeeping.  No matter how well or how hard they worked, a man was always the boss.  Women did as they were told.

Societal norms in Nazi-occupied Europe didn’t budge when it came to giving women a fair chance.   Women were targets for sexual abuse and discrimination with no recourse short of suicide.  None of the Lilac Girls could live within society’s expectations and be happy.   Because they were women they had to take risks to survive and fulfill their personal goals.

I am of Polish decent.  I have deceased relatives who were political prisoners in Nazi-occupied Poland.  Besides learning about the difficulties experienced by Europeans trying to immigrate to the United States I was entrenched in the details of the plight of the Polish people who were much like my relatives who never talked about their experiences.

I bought Lilac Girls because I liked the cover photo.  It jumped into my hands and turned out to be a profound reading experience.  Martha Hall Kelly spent ten years researching this book and it shows.  When I started reading it I couldn’t put it down.  When I finished reading it I had to share it with my reading friends.  Everyone has thanked me for letting them know about Lilac Girls.

Carol Biedrzycki, an avid life-long reader, is a recently retired Executive Director of a non-profit in Austin.  She is spending the summer in Montague working at the Book Nook.

Watch Bryan Uecker on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, August 6.  Join the book club at 6pm the first Wednesday of the month at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

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“The Trick” by Emanuel Bergmann

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The Trick employs dual story lines.  The first is about Max Cohn, a 10-year-old boy growing up in Los Angeles, who momentarily wishes his father would go away when he is asked to clean the bunny cage instead of going to the movies.  A few weeks later, his parents announce they are getting divorced, and Max feels guilty that his fleeting wish came true.  He is determined to make things right.  While looking through his father’s things, he finds an old LP labeled: ZABBATINI: HIS GREATEST TRICKS, which among other things, contains the spell of “eternaaaaal loooooove!” – this, he believes, is what is needed to save his parents marriage.  Unfortunately, when he plays the track, it has a scratch and won’t play.  Undeterred, he goes about searching for the famed magician.  He climbs out the window, jumps on a bus, and heads to the Hollywood Magic Shop, where he incredibly receives some help on tracking down Zabbatini, now an old man.

In alternating chapters, we learn the the story of Moshe Goldenhirsch. In the early days of the 20th century in Prague, Rabbi Laibl Goldenhirsch and his wife, Rifka, desperately long for a child, but their efforts are in vain. Laibl gets called to serve in World War I. Upon his return, Rifka is pregnant. “It’s a miracle,” she says. “Immaculate conception.” (The locksmith upstairs may have been an agent to the miracle.)  Because the rabbi loves his wife, and because they want the child so much, he accepts her words (and he has secrets of his own). But little Moshe is a gift, and he is loved – postwar life is happy for a while. Later, Rifka’s health deteriorates, and Moshe is left to the care of now an abusive, depressed, and drunk rabbi of a father.

This all changes when a neighbor takes Moshe to the circus.  It is love at first sight – not just the excitement of the circus, the animals, the magician – but Julia, the magician’s assistant.  Like Max’s determination, Moshe is single-minded in his efforts to join the troupe and pursue his interest in Julia. Under the tutelage of the magician, he creates his own persona and craft, becoming “The Great Zabbatini.” Just when hitting his stride in Berlin, the Nazis come to power along with growing anti-Semitism.   Moshe learns that neighbors are your friends until they aren’t. Villagers accept money to keep secrets until there’s no more money, and they get paid elsewhere. Moshe is sent to a concentration camp.  In a chapter called “Scheherazade’s Last Tale,” Zabbatini performs a new trick every night for the camp commandant, until he finally gets bored and throws Moshe in with the rest of the prisoners.

Emanuel Bergman has written a charming, yet haunting, tale of love, betrayal, redemption, and the power of determination. It also asks if there is room for miracles and magic in our lives or is it just a trick?

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, July 2.  Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Tuesday, July 3 to discuss “The Trick” at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly

all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

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“Hillbilly Elegy” by J.D. Vance

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Hillbilly Elegy is not only a memoir and hero’s journey of the author, it is a critical look inside hillbilly culture still strong in some parts of rural and middle America.  Vance’s deep family roots are in Appalachia, namely Jackson, Kentucky.  There are two elements of hillbilly culture that Vance explicitly depicts as a framework through which the reader

can understand his narrative. The first is an internal code of justice, independent from the traditional legal system. This code is primarily based on the concept of honor: one’s reputation and that of one’s family is paramount. This is most clearly demonstrated through the Blanton men, Vance’s great uncles, who had committed various violent acts, mostly in response to perceived slights. Rather than being viewed as criminal or violent, their actions were necessary and applauded in their community. A second, related aspect of this culture is an almost paranoid privacy and strong suspicion of outsiders.

From an early age, the author learned to value loyalty, honor, and toughness. His grandmother (he refers to as “Mamaw”) taught him how to win a fist fight, while implying that he should never start a fight, only respond when necessary to protect his honor.

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randparents, like many of their peers, were enticed by manufacturing companies (in this case Armco Steel) to move to industrial towns of the Midwest (in this case Middletown, OH).  Vance was raised in Middletown, but because of the deep family roots and summer visits, considered Jackson, Kentucky, his real hometown.   Hillbilly transplants took their hillbilly values with them.  While transplanted families generally enjoyed higher rates of economic success than their counterparts who remained, they faced backlash from their Northern white neighbors. The blunt, honor-based hillbilly culture conflicted sharply with communities that placed a higher importance on politeness and formal authority. The author describes a specific incident in which Mamaw and Papaw destroyed items in a pharmacy and accosted the clerk for telling their young son, Vance’s Uncle Jimmy, not to play with an expensive toy. A reaction that seemed normal and expected for Mamaw and Papaw shocked those around them.

Mamaw was the most influential adult in Vance’s early life – she stressed the importance of education and was a solid emotional rock compared to his mother who went through numerous boyfriends and husbands and was addicted to narcotics.  The last straw was when his Mom asked J.D. for a jar of clean urine, admitting that she could not pass a drug test to keep her nursing license. At Mamaw’s urging, J.D. reluctantly complied. However, from this point forward, J.D., with his mother’s agreement, lived solely with Mamaw.

Vance’s first break away from hillbilly culture was his enrollment in the Marine Corps.  Prior, throughout his youth, the author claims he was plagued by a sense of self-doubt, something common among people in his community. Through boot camp and life in the Marines generally, he acquired a sense of confidence and discipline. He compared his new resolve and ability to tackle challenges to the learned helplessness endemic to his society.

Aft

er he finished his service, Vance attended Ohio University where he used his intense work ethic to complete his degree in 23 months while working 3 jobs and keeping up his exercise routine. He then attended Yale law school.

Although feeling like an outsider at Yale, he learned from his girlfriend (later wife) and a mentoring professor, that success not only came from hard work and good grades, but relied on social skills and networking.

Vance is critical of hillbilly society and its talk of hard work, yet laziness and helplessness at heart, and the tendency to blame their economic circumstances on the government (especial

ly at the time Barack Obama).

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, June 4

.  Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, June 6 to discuss “Hillbilly Elegy” at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

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“Magpie Murders” by Anthony Horowitz

Two back-to-back surprising deaths send shockwaves to a sleepy community in a quaint English town.  A quirky old detective with a heavy accent and a sidekick enter the scene with numerous suspects holding many secrets.  Sound familiar?  No, it’s not Agatha

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Christie – it’s Anthony Horowitz and his book “Magpie Murders.”  It is a traditional whodunit where all the clues are presented throughout the story and the reader is challenged to tie them together to solve the crime before the genius sleuth does the final reveal.  The twist here is that Mr. Horowitz has taken the genre to a new level:  it’s a whodunit within a whodunit.

For the set up, “Magpie Murders” is the new book by fictional megastar mystery writer Alan Conway, creator of the hit Atticus Pünd detective series. Alan writes in the style of Agatha Christie and uses many of her gimmicks, including basing the title and names of chapters on a nursery rhyme – in this case, the old nursery rhyme about magpies: One for sorrow, Two for joy, Three for a girl, Four for a boy, Five for silver, Six for gold, Seven for a secret, Never to be told…. The editor, Susan Ryeland, has just received the draft of the book and has hunkered down with a glass of wine to read through it over the

weekend.  For the next six chapters we are reading “Magpie Murders” along with Susan.  The reader becomes engrossed in the story of two mysterious deaths at the old Pye Mansion in the fictional town of Saxon-on-Avon in the 1950s.  The idiosyncratic detective Atticus Pünd is Jewish, of half German and half Greek lineage, who survived the concentration camps during World War II.  He is known for being the best as he has solved many high-profile crimes. As he moves about the village interviewing the inhabitants, he uncovers many festering secrets, some that have been buried for years.

The Magpie Murders story is suddenly interrupted, and we are back with Susan who learns of an unexpected death in her world.  It is ruled a suicide, but Susan has her suspicions. Using techniques she gleaned from editing the Atticus Pünd mysteries, she takes on solving the mystery.

After many red herrings in their respective stories, both mysteries are neatly solved.  For mystery lovers, it’s a “two-fer” in one book.

Both mysteries take place in small towns; it appears Horowitz is making a statement about the people that inhabit them.  Upon first look, it would appear that a country village is a tranquil place to live. Susan remarks that she “soon discovered that every time I made one friend I made three enemies and that arguments about such issues as car parking, the church bells, dog waste, and hanging flower baskets dominated daily life to such an extent that everyone was permanently at each other’s throats.”  And, later: “Emotions which are quickly lost in the noise and chaos of the city fester around the

village square, driving people to psychosis and violence.” She reasons that, because people are so close to each other day after day, they tend to get on one another’s nerves more quickly.  She reasons also that, because people know everyone else in a small village, they are more likely to be suspicious of each other. “Cities are anonymous but in a small, rural community everyone knows everyone, making it so much easier to create suspects and, for that matter, people to suspect them.”  She suggests that these close-knit comm

unities create a web of suspicions, sometimes based more on gossip than hard fact.

W

atch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on

Monday, May 7.  Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, May 2 to discu

ss “Magpie Murders” at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

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“The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend” by Katrina Bivald

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Two friends meet online over their mutual love of books: Amy, an elderly woman in Broken Wheel, Iowa; and Sara, a young bookseller in Sweden. Although they met online, they begin a pre-internet practice of writing letters to each other about their respective reading lists and events going on in their lives. Through their correspondence, Sara learns of the varied characters that live in Broken Wheel, and Amy learns of the goings on at the bookstore. Amy repeatedly invites Sara to visit Iowa. When Sara loses her job due to the bookstore’s going out of business, she decides there is nothing stopping her from making the trip.

Upon arrival, Sara learns that, while in in route, Amy succumbed to a long terminal illness – the funeral was just letting out. She had travelled half way around the world to stay with her friend, and now her friend is dead. The town, not quite sure what to do with her, takes Sara in and insists she stay in Amy’s house for as long as she wants.

It’s clear to Sara: Broken Wheel’s best days were many years ago. Most of the main street is boarded up, save a diner and a hardware/grocery. As is typical of most rural areas, the agrarian economy was wiped out when big commercial farms took over the industry and made it difficult for family farms to compete. As one resident, John, summed up the dying town: “If there aren’t any jobs then the young people and the families won’t stay, and if the families don’t stay then there aren’t any new young people, and there’s no town without young people.”

When Sara learns that one of the boarded storefronts in town belonged to Amy (her husband ran a competing hardware store) she decides what the town needs most is a bookstore! The odds are stacked against her. Her bookstore in Sweden closed in the heart of a thriving town – it’s a tough business even in the best of circumstances. Worse, there are virtually no readers in Broken Wheel – who would be her customers? Undeterred, Sara starts to refurbish the store. Immediately the town pitches in. Caroline, the local church lady, takes up a collection of used furniture and shelves. George, a down-and-out who struggles with alcohol, helps with cleaning and painting the store. For inventory they start out with Amy’s large collection of books. It is the most exciting thing to happen in Broken Wheel in decades.

The main themes are rebirth and the power of books to transform lives. The bookstore revives main street – it gives new life not only to the town, but to the individuals who start to read. George now has a purpose and gives up alcohol. Prim and proper Caroline gives up shame from the past and finds love with a younger man. Grumpy Grace (owner of the diner), starts to try out something she read in a book: “If you have a talent or skill, it is your responsibility to give of your gift to those with less ability.” She begins to use her talent to bake cakes for Caroline’s church bake sale. And lonely Tom (Amy’s only relative and nephew) and Sara form a relationship.

Will it all come to an end when the Immigration Investigator comes to town just before Sara’s Visa expires? You’ll have to read the book.

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, April 2. Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, April 4 to discuss The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long. Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

 

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“High Cotton” by Darryl Pinckney

highcottonChosen for Black History Month, High Cotton by Darryl Pinckney is a fresh and contrasting perspective of a young, upper-middle class black man in America from the stereotypical drug, violence, and crime riddled experience, typically depicted of the black poor.  In 1903, scholar, activist, and first African American to receive a doctorate degree, W.E.B. Du Bois coined the term “Talented Tenth” in an essay by the same name.  It was a term that designated the leadership class of African Americans and described the likelihood of one in ten black men becoming leaders of their race in the world, through methods such as continuing their education, writing books, or becoming directly involved in social change.  Du Bois strongly believed that blacks needed a classical education rather than the industrial education promoted by the Atlanta Compromise, endorsed by Booker T. Washington.  It is from this heritage that the story is told by an unnamed narrator in High Cotton as he moves from his comfortable childhood in white suburban Indianapolis to Columbia University to enjoying a brief stint as an expatriate in Paris.

 

The book is a fictional, yet mostly an autobiographical bildungsroman of a fourth-generation product of the old (as opposed to the post-civil rights new and budding) African American middle class.  Although it contains historical elements of the author’s life, it is done on a large scale of finding and creating an identity, all the while getting at society, history and the spirit of the age.  Prominently featured in the story is the narrator’s grandfather Eustace, the son of a Baptist preacher who attends Brown University, Harvard Graduate School, and eventually becomes a lousy business man and a controversial Congregationalist preacher.  The narrator tells us his grandfather was “a terrible snob, his pride somehow outrageous and shaky at the same time.  He had a finely developed idea of his own worth and enjoyed, like ill health, the illusion that no one else shared it.” His grandfather represents the Negro past — something to rebel against.  There is an almost orthodoxy and inherent demand in Du Bois “Talented Tenth” or as the narrator calls “The Also Chosen” that educated blacks have a commitment to their community- much more so than could ever be expected of anybody who is white.  The narrator is trying to forge his own identity while dealing with the inherited identities and expectations he was born with.  He says “All men were created equal, but even so, lots of mixed messages with sharp teeth waited under my Roy Rogers pillow.  You were just as good as anyone else out there, but they —whoever ‘they’ were — had rigged things so that you had to be close to perfect just to break even.”

 

The book is not an easy read – it is almost painstakingly slow.  Every paragraph is dense and references so many allusions that you almost need to decode, unpack, lookup, or at least reread every other sentence.  For example: “Nothing ever broke through the narcotic of Grandfather’s nostalgia, although the traditional horrors actually happened.  What now seems tired was then fresh… One night Esau hid under the floorboards of a forsaken country church while the necktie party that had elected him honored guest of the hickory tree raged over the benches…” is referencing a lynch mob that was after his grandfather.  Overall, the effort of the difficult read is worth it.  Pinckney’s prose is beautiful and, like poetry, must be consumed at a slower, contemplative pace.  There the reader will be rewarded with humor, wisdom, sarcasm, and a fresh view of a black life in America.

 

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, March 5.  Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, March 7 to discuss High Cotton at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

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“The Book of Wonders” by Douglas Trevor

9780984824557The Book of Wonders, the second collection of short stories by author Douglas Trevor, features nine humorous, smart, and absorbing works of fiction.  His writing is crisp, witty, and deftly traverses the inner and outer landscapes of his characters and their situations.

One of the recurring threads woven throughout the stories is books – reading, writing, studying, touching, relishing, even defacing them.  Many of the characters are academics, writers, librarians, scholars dealing with the written word and how it relates to the real world.  My favorite story is “The Detroit Frankfurt School Discussion Group” which features Colin, a recently divorced professor at the University of Michigan where he teaches English composition and Theory of Critical Thought.  Colin, blind-sighted by his divorce, is trying to remake his life by staying busy to avoid moping and strategically looking at ways to find a new girlfriend.  He made a list of things to try: yoga, golf, Thai cooking, learning Russian, volunteering, and internet dating – all which proved to be hilariously disastrous.  One night he is voluntarily kidnapped by a couple of blue-collar white teenage girls and a black man named Ty.  Ty, who never applied to college, had obtained (aka stolen) and had been reading materials from Colin’s syllabus for his course on the Frankfurt School: Traditional and Critical Theory.  The upshot of the Frankfurt School’s philosophy was that the marriage of political ideology and manufacturing capability prevalent in the Nazi regime left workers without a chance of improving their lot.  The purpose of the “kidnap” was for Colin to make an appearance and speak to Ty’s Frankfurt School Discussion Group in Detroit.  Ty’s reasoning for the group was this:  if Detroit is going to rise again, be rebuilt, it is in the interest of the workers to do it right this time around.  And what better way than to glean what could be learned from the Frankfurt School to shape the future of the Big D.  And what better way to understand the Frankfurt School than to kidnap the professor.  The meeting is held in an abandoned, dilapidated warehouse that used to be a book depository before it burned.  There are books strewn everywhere, nibbled on by rats.  Ty selected the location as a living metaphor: “Where do books end up? They end up rotting, turning to ash.  Books are just things.  You got to take the ideas that are in books and move them out into the world to make them matter.  That’s the central message of the Frankfurt School.”

In the story “Sonnet 126”, Theo (another professor of literature and research) spends three to four days a week in the British Library in London depending on his teaching schedule.  One day he comes across a discovery of a lifetime: two lost final lines to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 126 in the poet’s own handwriting.  He sacrifices his opportunity for acclaim by bequeathing the discovery to another scholar: his ex-wife Fiona.  He decides to abandon books altogether: “I think I want more than books for my life… I’m done with the business of old books, Fiona.  I want to be done with it.  Enough torture and torment.”

Myths are another recurring theme.  According to the Greek myth, Endymion, a beautiful young shepherd sleeps with his eyes open, never ages and he and the moon, Selene, fall in love.  In “Endymion” a present day beautiful Greek man named Damien Endymion picks up the overweight accountant Cynthia at her company’s happy hour at an Irish pub up the road from her office.  She can’t believe someone so beautiful could be attracted to her.  He says her rotundness reminds him of the moon.  He sleeps with eyes open.

In the final story “Easy Writer”, Trevor’s use of myth takes on a Jungian treatment where a person’s life narrative resonates with a myth contained in the collective unconscious.  The myth of Ceres by Ovid resounds with the autobiographical account by Charity, a writer (and again professor of literature).  In her story instead of a descent into hell, it is a descent into the bowels of the Chicago slums – the pomegranates from the myth (forbidden, lest one be trapped forever in the underground) are transformed into heroin and the consequent addiction that steals Charity’s mother from her.  The “reader”, Alex, grew up an economically privileged white kid in La Jolla but was overweight, uncool, and bullied.  The myth and Charity’s story are translated in his subconscious as a story of abandonment by his father.

I highly recommend this collection.  Trevor’s writing is impeccable and the themes erudite.  The alienation and loneliness found in each story is poignant.  The humor in the predicaments is non-whimsical – like funny in a sad, existential way.

Douglas Trevor works won the 2013 Balcones Fiction Prize, the 2005 Iowa Short Fiction Award, and a finalist for the 2006 Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for First Fiction. Doug lives in Ann Arbor, where he is the current Director of the Helen Zell Writers’ Program, and a Professor of Renaissance Literature in the English Department at the University of Michigan.

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, February 5.  Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, February 7 to discuss The Book of Wonders at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

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