The Winter Soldier by Daniel Mason

Winter SoldierI read and enjoyed Mason’s The Piano Tuner when it came out in 2003 so I downloaded a galley of his new book, The Winter Soldier, from Edelweiss as soon as I could and read it in three great gulps. Since it’s set during and just after World War I, the reader already has some idea of the horrors, chaos and privations in store. Most of the World War I books I’ve read have been set in France or England. The Winter Soldier is set in the crumbling Austro-Hungarian Empire, mostly in the Carpathian Mountains, which arc from the current Czech Republic to Romania. In the novel, the high, lonely villages give the story a ghostly feeling, although the ghosts here are in the characters’ heads. The idea of borders and border crossings recurs as the characters reinvent themselves or lose themselves. They’ve all crossed into unknown territory in their lives; no one is left unscathed.

Lucius, the protagonist, is a young doctor, son of a wealthy family. He’s halfway through medical school in Vienna when the novel opens. The War has just begun. Due to shortages of doctors in the field, he is offered the chance to work in a hospital in the town of Lemnowice. Idealistically, he expects to find a fully functioning hospital where he can gain, from the other doctors, the clinical experience he lacks. What he finds there is only Margarete, an enthusiastic young nursing sister who knows far more than he does about what needs to be done. The soldiers who arrive at the hospital are not just wounded in body, but in spirit as well. Lucius learns to make do with inadequate supplies, amputating legs, arms, hands, and feet in an effort to vanquish the infections they can’t control.

As the war continues, Lucius, Margarete and their orderlies begin to see  men whose minds have become unhinged from the terrors they’ve seen. In particular, a soldier arrives one winter night in a wheelbarrow, curled up, mute. Lucius tries all the psychotropic medicines in his small arsenal but initially nothing will make the man speak, eat, or leave his pallet. Finally, slowly, something works to loosen up his limbs and tongue. He can briefly cross the border and return to life, but what will be his fate? Lucius and Margarete struggle with their attachment to each other and to the patient. As the war heats up in Carpathians, the borders that define their attachments become stronger. Lucius makes decisions that haunt him in the years after the war.

In some ways, this wonderful novel reminded me of The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje and A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra. Mason’s writing is fluid and lyrical, his characters step off the page. The pacing is taut; there were times when I had to slow down to savor the language, putting aside my fears for the characters. The book is due out in September, but now that it’s the end of July, that doesn’t seem so far away.

Women in the Literary Landscape

Women in the Literary LandscapeI’m a member of the Women’s National Book Association, formed in 1917 by a group of women booksellers in New York when the all-male American Booksellers Association (ABA) refused to admit women. Those women booksellers were not to be put off; they  formed the WNBA, which celebrated its centennial last November. Of course, a short time after the WNBA, the ABA came calling, asking for a merger of the two organizations. The WNBA politely refused, specifying the value of a separate women’s group.

In November, 2017 when the WNBA centennial was celebrated, there were twelve chapters around the country, doing just fine, thank you. From the beginning, the organization was not limited to booksellers, but to any woman who was involved in the book world: authors, editors, publishers, librarians, printers, literary agents…you get the point. Membership for the past twelve years has changed my life and I hear that comment from members all the time. As a networking and professional development organization, the WNBA creates connections among members in many ways, fostering careers and friendships.

All this is preliminary to letting you know about the book that was published in conjunction with the centennial: Women in the Literary Landscape: A WNBA Centennial Publication. It contains a history of the organization, but more to the point, most of the book is taken up with an overview of women in the literary world in the U.S. from colonial times to the present with social-historical underpinnings.

I was asked to be the editor of the book, but ended up as one of the main contributors. It was a collaborative project that took more than two years. At the start, I searched for other works that had linked all these literary fields–the due diligence part of the process. There were none that I could find. To clarify, no one had written about people in all these fields in one place. I realized that our project that would have real value in the study of women’s place in the literary community. This was thrilling. We began the research and writing.

We asked Doris Weatherford, U.S. women’s historian, to give us a basic narrative. Doris provided a wonderful history going back to colonial times and through the Progressive Era. With that backbone about the women who were movers and shakers (many now forgotten) as printers, publishers, and writers, along with Doris’s insightful comments about social and political history, we were off to a great start. I added information about booksellers, librarians, editors, and publishers, and brought the narrative up to 2017. In each historical section we featured exceptional women and information about what the WNBA was doing in those years.

The book was published in March, 2018, although we had advance copies available in time for the centennial celebration, held at Pen + Brush Gallery in New York  in November. Our publisher is C&R Press, a small independent press that was happy to make our book their first nonfiction title.

More about the book and the women who feature in it in subsequent posts…especially about the woman on the cover, Madge Jenison.


Ohio by Stephen Markley

OhioSometimes a novel is just a story; sometimes it’s more than that. Sometimes a novel captures a place and time in such a way that it takes us beyond the characters’ lives. They’re part of the time and place, artifacts of it; their stories resonate with the social, political, and cultural environment. I’m thinking about Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn; The Girls by Emma Cline; City on Fire by GarthRisk Hallberg; and Emma Straub’s Modern Lovers to name a few.

Ohio, due out in mid-August, is as much about the characters as it is about the place and time where they came to adulthood. The title signals that as well as the Hopperesque cover, which is a brilliant entrée into the dark small-town story. The Hopper reference here is no accident. Markley’s genius is to recreate a dispiriting post-9/11 world of rust belt poverty, violence, drug addiction, and ennui, all delivered with a visceral punch. In fact, it’s harder for me to write about the plot and characters–there are many–than it is to describe that social milieu. That’s the good and the not-so-good about the book. There are many characters and I sometimes had difficulty remembering the backstories of each one when they reappeared. That didn’t spoil my enjoyment of this very noirish novel, just diluted it slightly.

Four characters anchor the story–high school alumni who converge on their home town of New Canaan one night, setting in motion a whirligig of violence and redemption. As they visit old haunts they meet up with other people from their high school days and Markley fills us in on the backstory of all their loves and losses. It’s pretty grim; no one has escaped from those dark high school years unscathed. A line from Nathan Hill’s The Nix is apropos: “Sometimes we’re so wrapped up in our own story that we don’t see how we’re supporting characters in someone else’s.” Markley’s characters are not just supporting characters in their friends’ lives, they’re supporting characters in a larger story about the way we live now.

Fans of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom should enjoy this one.






Transcription by Kate Atkinson

TranscriptionAt the end of May I spent 2 wonderful days at the Javits Center in New York for the publishing trade show, Book Expo. If you’re unfamiliar with this annual book extravaganza, hundreds of publishers set up booths to promote their Fall titles and meet with booksellers from around the country. Advance copies of the titles that the publishers want to promote are given away, authors sign their books, and there’s lots of swag to be had. After 20 years of attending, I have a large collection of publisher-themed canvas tote bags. It’s a standing joke among friends and family. 

Over the 2 days, I lugged home about 25 books–books that have already garnered good reviews and the latest books from my favorite authors. And of course, I’m certain, as I am every year, that I’ll read them all—even though I still have lots of unread books from years past!

No surprise that I first chose to read Transcription by Kate Atkinson, one of my favorite authors. Atkinson combines literary writing with warmth and humor in compelling ways. This novel, to be published in September, centers around a young woman, Juliet Armstrong, who is recruited to spy for MI5 just before WWII. Britain in the late 1930s was dealing with fifth columnists: homegrown fascists, communists, and Nazis. Juliet goes from transcribing taped conversations to much more dangerous work, by turns tedious and terrifying. An orphan, Juliet has a great deal to learn about the world, but she’s more than willing to try the undercover life she’s been offered. What she doesn’t understand is that the choices she makes in those war years will follow her into later life. Nothing is ever finished and there are surprises for the reader at the end.

Atkinson’s writing is always a treat to read; Juliet and the supporting cast of characters are lively and well-drawn. The London wartime setting is very evocative. If you enjoy Ian McEwan’s or A.S. Byatt’s novels you will probably enjoy Transcription, too. Her previous two novels–Life After Life and A God in Ruins–were among her best; Transcription is lighter, maybe more accessible to readers who were put off by the structural complexity of the earlier two. I’ve read every one of Atkinson’s novels and loved them all. If you haven’t read any of her books, start with the first, Behind the Scenes at the Museum and you’ll be hooked. 

The Last Cowboys: A Pioneer Family in the New West by John Branch

Last CowboysA good review led me to this book about a rodeo family, the Wrights of southern Utah. Famous on the rodeo circuit for three generations of championship saddle-bronc riding, the Wrights are a large close-knit family with a cattle ranch as well as a serious rodeo passion. Patriarch Bill Wright, no longer on the rodeo circuit, does his best to maintain the land that’s been in his family for 150 years. Changes in the weather that decimate grazing grounds, conflicts with the Bureau of Land Management, and offers from developers combine with Bill’s aging bones to make ranch upkeep difficult. All through the book Bill debates different scenarios if his sons can’t or won’t take over the ranch. He’s been a good steward of the land, but he knows that ranching on Smith Mesa may no longer be viable.

Bill and his wife Evelyn have 13 children, 7 of them sons, most of whom ride the rodeo circuit, burnishing the Wright legend. Saddle-bronc riding is brutal: an 8-second, one-handed, stylish burst, where the rider must synchronize his movements with the wild, angry gyrations of his mount. The Wright sons–and some of the grandsons as well–are big winners, but the success comes with a physical price. Injuries, many quite serious, are frequent, and I can’t imagine how their families maintain equanimity in the face of inevitable broken bones, torn ligaments, and head injuries. In order to compete in as many rodeos as possible to accumulate the wins they need for the championship contest at the season’s end, they drive thousands of miles every weekend. For me,  Bill and his oldest son Cody were the central characters and Branch does a good job of helping us see what drives them.

Author Branch, a journalist from the east coast, spent several years visiting the Wrights, immersed in their lives and relationships. It’s a great story and a fascinating picture of the ranching and rodeo world. The opening scene, where all the Wrights gather to brand and castrate the cattle, is riveting in its depiction of this traditional activity. Although the story does get somewhat repetitive in the last third, with the descriptions of the many rodeo contests blending into each other, the intimate picture of this remarkable family is a testament to resilience and dedication.

Why Reading Fiction is Like Riding a Tandem Bicycle

So Long See You TomorrowI was in the gym last week riding a stationary bicycle called an Expresso, which has a video screen and movable handlebars. It allows you to pick a scenic ride and steer around curves, change gears, etc. It’s something to distract you from the boring activity you’re engaged in. A way to trick the mind and body.

Last week I was also reading William Maxwell’s novel, first published in 1980, So Long, See You Tomorrow. Maxwell was the fiction editor at the New Yorker for many years and he’s a writer’s writer, a peerless prose stylist, whose writing is clarity itself and seems to have sprung forth effortlessly from a swiftly moving pen. You think about how easy he makes it look, how you could do that too! Well, probably not. But it did make me think about how the good writer is always right there with us when we read.

So let’s say that when you read a novel, you’re getting on the bicycle that the writer has constructed. You think you’re in control: you set the speed you’ll read at, turn the pages, stay on course, and you expect that when you’re done you’ve done something good for your brain. Then you realize that the author has climbed up right behind you.

In So Long, See You Tomorrow, Maxwell sets out to tell a story that has a simple plot. A teenage boy recounts how the father of a friend murdered his next door neighbor. The setting is a small town in Illinois. (I’m not giving anything away; this is how the book begins.) Maxwell goes back and forth in time so we see cause and effect. A pretty straightforward ride, yes? The first jolt is when we hear the name of the son of the murderer: Cletus Smith. Maxwell writes that it’s not his real name. Wham, he’s shaking the bicycle seat. Why, in a novel, is he telling us this? Are we riding through memoir territory? What other surprises are on the road ahead?

From that point on, Maxwell is looking over our shoulder, nudging us to turn left here, right there, varying the pacing. Like changes in the landscape, there are changes in point of view. Even the family dog weighs in. It all serves to deepen our engagement with the characters and the plot. We find ourselves thinking about issues of memory, friendship, and the human condition. We’re in his hands, getting a good workout.

The books we’ve read

I subscribe to LitHub, which offers–in the way we read now–daily snippets of literary news and links to full articles. I scan the snippets and usually click through to one or two articles of moderate interest, but sometimes there’s a real winner and I keep that issue in my inbox because it’s too good to relegate to the trash. One recent keeper is a piece by Penelope Lively, one of my favorite novelists, about the books in her personal library. People who interview writers, often ask about what books the writer has on her nightstand or what books or authors are favorites. I must confess, that for the most part I’ve lost interest in the answers. The books on my nightstand are often pretty strange–the results of reviews that caught my eye–and often get returned to the library skimmed or unread. A large group of books I’ve bought with enthusiasm live under the nightstand in a sort of low priority limbo. Recently someone asked for the title of my favorite book and I froze, thinking that the only way I could answer that was to compile a list of all the books to which I’ve given 5 stars on Goodreads. I figure I’m not unique and writers answering those questions are not providing insightful information.

Then there’s Penelope Lively. Her article appeared in Granta and she titled it “Books Do Furnish a Room,” a nod to the 10th volume in Anthony Powell’s classic series A Dance to the Music of Time. Lively writes not about what’s on her nightstand, but about the books she’s bought and read over the years and that still live on her bookshelves. In her “mildly book-infested home…the shelves say something about the person who has stocked them.” What we read, of course, furnishes not just our rooms, but our minds. She writes about how the nonfiction shelves reflect her interest in Egypt, where she spent her childhood; English history and archaeology; and science among other subjects. Although her novels are set in contemporary times and plumb the depths of human relationships, they are literally and metaphorically informed by her wide-ranging reading in those areas.

My library doesn’t contain as many books as Lively’s. As a librarian I learned to weed vigorously. I do still have most of a shelf of Greek and Roman literature from college that I can’t part with as well as Pauline Kael’s complete reviews, but I tend to think of my local library as a convenient extension to my collection. And I do have a hand-written list of all the books I’ve read, going back to somewhere around ninth grade. That’s something I treasure as much as the books themselves. Here’s the link to Lively’s Granta article, worth reading for her lovely, graceful style.