2020 When Are You Reading? Challenge, What Shannon Read

When Are You Reading? Challenge: The Secrets We Kept

This year, I’m participating in the When Are You Reading? Challenge hosted by Sam of Taking on a World of Words.

This book is my selection for the years 1940-1959.


40700317._SY475_I just finished The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott and, while I enjoyed the subject and characters, I found the writing to be kind of bland.

I’ve noticed that’s an issue for me with a lot of popular historical fiction. Anyone else?

It’s like if a book has a woman in a pretty dress on the cover, I know it will most likely be unremarkable. And yet, I am drawn to it.

That’s how I found The Secrets We Kept, cover out on the New Fiction shelf at the library, tempting me with that gorgeous green dress.

And despite the bland writing, I liked the subject matter. The book centers on CIA typists turned spies during the Cold War. They become involved in a mission to sneak into the USSR and bring back the unpublished novel Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak.

If that dress hadn’t compelled me to read the book, the synopsis certainly would have. What a plot. Imagine a book being so important—an unpublished book no less—that the CIA would conduct a full-on mission to sneak the manuscript out of the USSR. Quite a story.

But two things left me feeling kind of meh about this one. The first, of course, is the somewhat pedestrian writing, which I found plain with spurts of the melodramatic. I honestly almost quit reading when I read this:

“Three and a half years had passed since we shared a bed, and we didn’t waste time. His touch shocked me. It had been so long since I had been touched. We came together like crashing boulders that echoed across Moscow.”

Eww.

The second issue was the number of narrators.

The are:
The Typists – the CIA typing pool
Olga Ivinskaya, Boris Pasternak’s mistress
Irina Drozdov, the typist turned spy
Sally Forrester – spy

Sometimes the book switches between the three main narrators, but then a new chapter follows another character in a third-person omniscient voice, and you’ll be pulled out of one story and into another, however briefly.

Prescott did a good job of distinguishing the voices though. I thought she excelled at writing from the perspective of Olga Ivinskaya, Boris Pasternak’s mistress (and the inspiration for Dr. Zhivago), and Russian-American typist Irina. Those perspectives were the most interesting in the book to me and I wish the entire book had switched between just those two. In the beginning, Olga is sent to the Gulag and her experiences there are fascinating and frought with danger, which made for good reading. But, in general, I thought the constant alternating between narrators diluted the story, giving us only a surface look at the characters and historic events.

I kept reading it, so that says something. I wanted to find out how the story ended. And I think Prescott does a good job of keeping the reader immersed in the historical setting. But, while the plot is interesting and Prescott clearly researched her topic, the book came across as “history light” and I thought it was light on character development too.

OK, I just googled for reviews and there is so much fanfare out there about this one! So, take what I say with a grain of salt. I guess people generally love it.

WashPo loved it.

Lynn Neary of NPR seems to like it.

It did convince me that I need to read Dr. Zhivago, so there’s that. If you have read it, I would love to hear what you thought!

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2020 When Are You Reading? Challenge, What Shannon Read

When Are You Reading? Challenge: Stillwater

This year, I’m participating in the When Are You Reading? Challenge hosted by Sam of Taking on a World of Words.

This book is my selection for the years 1800-1899.


Stillwater by Nicole HelgetJust cruising right through this challenge! Apparently, it’s my jam right now. For my second book, I chose Stillwater by Nicole Helget.

The novel is set in the Civil War-era U.S., specifically in the wilds of Minnesota, still considered part of the U.S. western expansion at that point. The story centers on grown-up twins, Angel and Clement Piety, who were orphaned at birth.

It begins with a log jam in the St. Croix River, a murder, and an altercation between the twins. Then, we delve into the backstory of the family and it is not as boring as those words I just typed.

In fact, the writing was quite a palate cleanser after The Shadow King! It’s light in tone, quirky, and straightforward. But still beautiful in parts. One of the beginning chapters has one of the sweetest, most reassuring death scenes I’ve ever read.

The story also features the twins’ parents and their stories, Eliza, a woman who escapes from slavery with her child, and a priest and religious sister (not a nun, she clarifies) who care for the pioneers, orphans, and Native Americans who come to them for assistance.

We also get to know the people who take in the orphaned twins. They are Big Waters, the loving American Indian woman who cares for Clement and considers him hers, and the rich but dysfunctional family who takes in Angel. Both stories are heart-rending and we see the twins grow up as products of their environments, but with the undeniable connection they feel to one another playing the most significant role in their lives.

I don’t want to give away any plot points because I found them a joy to follow and if you read it, you may enjoy discovering these characters and following their lives for yourself.

Two things bothered me about the book. One is not really about it per se and is kind of odd. It’s to do with a blurb on the back. Fellow Minnesota author Peter Geye (who I’d never heard of) says, “Make room, Louise Erdrich, Minnesota has a new resident scribe…” It continues with more praise. But I read that and thought, first of all, Louise Erdrich is an incredibly talented and prolific author. She doesn’t have to make room for anyone, in my opinion. Also, she’s a treasured indigenous voice in the literary landscape, which, historically, has been very white in the U.S. I know I’m nitpicking a blurb here, but coming from a white guy, jauntily telling her to “move over” is tone deaf at best.

I’m sure he had the best of intentions and also wanted to acknowledge the great literary tradition of Minnesota, but I’m here to tell you it. didn’t. work.

Moving on, I also took note of the thoughts of Eliza, an enslaved woman who has taken her son Davis and run away from her owners. In a significant scene, Eliza is thinking about the risks she has taken. She remembers waffling about whether she should attempt to escape at all because, living with the Watsons, her owners, she knew she and her son always had a roof over their heads and three meals a day.

Now, is this a woman genuinely considering the consequences of running away with no family or means of her own? Or, is it a sentiment sneaking into the narrative of a well-intentioned white writer leftover from a time when white people promoted the narrative of the benevolent slaveholder? The slaveholder who cared for their slaves, who provided for them, in other words. I know that it’s natural for Eliza to weigh risks in a desperate situation and, to be fair, Helget doesn’t imply that Eliza was happy to be enslaved. In this story slaveholders are the villains and not the heroes. But I still wondered about it.

I’m always eager to see how white authors handle telling the stories of black or indigenous people. I don’t really feel like they have the right to. But when you’re writing historical fiction, I imagine you just have to handle it in the most sensitive way you can because history is history and it is, of course, important to include these stories.

But it’s risky as a white person’s perspective is naturally from the race of the historical oppressor. Helget is white. Can any other white author accurately imagine the thoughts and feelings of an enslaved black woman? Many authors would say it can be done. I’m always dubious and hyper-critical when they try.

Maybe I’m reaching here and my questions aren’t very clear. If so, I apologize. It’s a hard thing to write about.

On the whole, this novel was extraordinary and I loved the characters, the story, and the writing.

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2020 When Are You Reading? Challenge, What Shannon Read

When Are You Reading? Challenge: The Shadow King

This year, I’m participating in the When Are You Reading? Challenge hosted by Sam of Taking on a World of Words.

This book is my selection for the years 1920-1939.

FYI: There are more spoilers in this review than I might usually include. I found the details so fascinating that it was hard to stay general.


TheShadowKing

Did you know about Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia?

I think I was vaguely aware of it before coming upon Maaza Mengiste’s novel The Shadow King on the new fiction shelf at the library.

Normally, I refuse to read books about or related to World War II. I spent a good deal of my school years learning about WWII and, because I feel it was pounded into us in public school, I’ve grown weary of reading about it over the years.

I realize I’m missing out on some literature in this category but, trust me, I’ve already read quite a few of the classic books on WWII and I feel I have to qualify that I do not take any part of the war lightly. I just exhausted my ability to read about it before I even got to college.

However. Whe I came upon The Shadow King, I was immediately interested in the lesser known story of Mussolini’s campaign to colonize Ethiopia. I was further interested when I learned the story is told from the perspective of Hirut, a young maid in the household of Kidane, an officer in Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie’s army.

Finally a WWII story I hadn’t heard before. And, one that wasn’t just a, American wartime nostalgia piece (the library shelves are rife with those, as you may know). And one that was told from the perspective of black people in a colonized country. Plus, one told from the perspective of a “lowly” maid! That’s just my game.

The format of the novel is interesting. When I say “perspective,” what I really mean is that the narration is third-person omniscient and the focus switches from character to character. We get the thoughts and emotions of all the main characters, including Hirut, Kidane, and Kidane’s wife Aster, as well as other, more minor characters.

Interspersed with the regular chapters are interludes titled “Chorus.” They seem to serve exactly the purpose a “chorus” would serve in a pre-modern play or even a contemporary musical. The Chorus speaks about characters, about events, about situations, and speaks directly to the charachters at times. I quite liked that as a device.

There are also interludes to describe photos taken by Ettore Navarra, a Jewish photographer with an Italian military unit (also a character in the novel). And there are actual sections titled “Interlude” that focus on Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, who escapes into exile.

As Kidane leads his army toward war, “their” women follow. At their helm is Kidane’s wife Aster, who, hoping to take on the role of warrior herself, drills her women with the intent of fighting alongside the men. Kidane won’t allow this and relegates them to caring for the wounded and cooking the food.

Meanwhile, Kidane begins raping Hirut regularly, in addition to using her as his emotional confidant. These scenes are utterly heartbreaking. The hopelessness is palpable, even as the Chorus encourages Hirut to stand up to Kidane.

Kidane promises Hirut that, as payment, she’ll be released from his services after the war and will be given the hut where she lived with her parents before they died. Wife Aster, angry and domineering, blames Hirut for her husband’s infidelity (he’s a longtime adulterer in addition to being a rapist).

There is a rape scene midway through the novel in which Hirut has a small victory and begins to turn the tide against Kidane. It is hopeful and touching.

Meanwhile, Kidane’s army has suffered several losses and Kidane concocts a plan to turn the tide of the war. It involves promoting a peasant to pose as a “shadow king,” meaning he impersonates the exiled king and acts to motivate and inspire the people and control the narrative being presented to the Ethiopian people. Italy would have them believe their exiled emperor has run away and left them in the hands of the invaders.

Hirut becomes this shadow king’s attendant and she and Aster are posed as female guards in military uniform. This leads to a lot of action for both characters.

I’ll leave it there to avoid plot-related spoilers; though, of course, you can read about the history of the war online. I highly recommend this book. Mengiste is a lyrical writer with a knack for description. At times, I found some of the zoomed-in description a little tedious, but there’s no doubt that she’s talented in that regard. Here’s a good interview with her via BookPage.

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