The Atomic City Girls by Janet Beard

the atomic city girls

June  has just arrived in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, circa 1944.  It is a town that has just been built, but does not exist on a map, and the job she’s been hired to do involves monitoring gauges on machines she is not even told the purpose of.  Her roommate, Cici, is more seasoned and while she could care less about the purpose of her job, her real purpose is to search for a husband among the many soldiers who are stationed right here in Oak Ridge.  Meanwhile, Joe, a Negro construction worker who has also come to the town looking for opportunity, misses his family deeply and just means to keep his head down and earn as much as he can in order to send his good wage home, while trying to keep his younger friend out of trouble.  Eventually, these lives converge as their mission in Oak Ridge comes to a crescendo, and they all become swept up in a historical moment in our dark history.

This is an effective historical fiction novel about a very bleak moment in the history of the world.  While it deals with this global issue, it tells the story through the lens of fictional but realistic individuals who were involved in the production of this most destructive weapon ever created – and used! – on our planet.  It relates the social and political class and racial issues that were on everyone’s minds at the time, whether it was finding a husband for the women who did not have access to higher paying jobs, or accessing decent housing because of one’s skin color.  It also reveals the attitudes towards the final product of Oak Ridge of each of the participants, which varied widely from pride to guilt.  The army’s secrecy throughout the whole project is stunningly creepy.

I’d recommend this book as a both an important piece of historical fiction, and as just an engrossing read.  I listened to it on CD and it held my attention the whole way through!

 

Black Girl/White Girl by Joyce Carol Oates

black girl:white girl

Generva Meade has come from a family who assisted with the Underground Railroad and who is deeply entrenched in the Civil Rights movement, and she is currently assigned, her freshman year, to live with a conservative, religious black roommate at the prestigious Schuyler College where her family has donated founding money.  She is very excited to get to know her roommate, Minette, and is sorely disappointed when she sees that her roommate does not reciprocate this enthusiasm.  In fact, her roommate, she finds, is sullen, angry, and a fierce loner – scorning white and black girls in their dorm alike.  Generva is undaunted, however, and pursues the friendship in spite of the coldness with which every attempt at kindness is greeted.  When Minette becomes the target of hate pranks, Generva is her staunchest protector, even as Minette ignores her help.  And as the year progresses, and Minette’s situation worsens, Generva is also confronting her own family distress, with her mother’s unraveling as her father’s past transgressions are catching up to him (as is the FBI).  The final incident of Minette’s tragedy pushes Generva to face her own past as her family faces theirs.

I rarely listen to books on tape, but this was the result of a very long car ride – and I’m not sure if that tainted my view on this book or not.  It is a difficult story, both emotionally and technically.  There are many tangents, that are later significant but that are sometimes hard to follow.  The story is also steeped in history, shameful and bleak, and had many references to the attempts on the part of many whites who tried to help, but who expect more appreciation than they are deserving of.

The character of Minette is a tragic one.  She is trapped between the world of her conservative, Christian, independent and proud Black heritage and the more modern, socially-focused black girls in her dorm.  She refused to socialize with the other black girls just because they were black like she was, but this left her alone and deeply depressed.  She also refused any help with her studies, even as she was struggling academically, which further plummeted her self-esteem.  As she became the target of racial incidents, it became more and more heartbreaking to see how alone she was.  Generva could not comprehend why Minette would continue to repel her kindness.  It is not entirely clear if Minette’s ignoring of Generva is from a resentment of white privilege or just from her own self-absorption from depression – or perhaps both.

This story had the potential to be excellent, however, it feels like it tries a bit too hard.  The nagging earnestness on the part of Generva that is borne of her own family history and connections and her own wish to rid herself of that white guilt becomes cloying,  At least this reader/listener shouted more than once, “Just leave her alone!”  It is unclear why she would continue to try, when repelled so many times, when she would have had other friends in other groups.  Why did she need to befriend only this one girl?  Was it the challenge?  Was it because she was black?  Was it because her family was so disconnected from her as she was growing up and that gave her so little self-esteem? Was it her own sense of guilt from her family’s activities?

If you are psychologically inclined, you might be interested in reading this, as there is a lot of depth here.  But if you are looking for a quick, entertaining, light read, this is not the book for you!

 

This Is How it Always Is by Laurie Frankel

this is how it always is

This is the poignant story of a loving family: parents, Rosie and Penn, and their 5 boys; that is, they believed they had 5 boys until the youngest, Claude, declared that he wanted to bring a purse to kindergarten instead of a lunchbox. Gradually, it became clearer that Claude was much happier in dresses than pants and identified more with the princess in his father’s bedtime fairytale than the prince.  While his parents and brothers were accepting of this, they were fearful that people around him were not, and they went to great lengths to protect Claude, who eventually called herself Poppy.  As the story unfolds, we learn that while intentions may be pure, our actions may not be in others’ best interests and over-protection can lead to inadvertent harm.

This is a fictional story, but it has all the markings of a story that is true.   Every character is endowed with a dynamic, vulnerable, and big-hearted quirkiness that makes all of them larger than life.  We come to love each member of this family almost as our own.  The story is enriched with some detail of how Claude/Poppy’s experience affects the other members of the family – as it certainly would – and their own struggles with growing and seeking their own identities.  And most genuinely, Poppy’s struggle is not straightforward – she is not sure what her journey will be like or where it will end.  This is the true meaning of a non-binary identity.  One does not have to be male or female.  While this may be hard for  many to comprehend, it is even harder for others to squeeze themselves into one or the other, and I believe because of that, we all just have to get over ourselves and accept the vast space in-between.

I loved this novel, both for the message within and for the beauty of the story on its own merit.  It is a story of a family dealing with a secret that they learn doesn’t have to be a secret.  It is a story of a family learning to cope with difference, which most families have to deal with on some level, as no one is exactly like anyone else anyway.  And it is a story about love and family bonds that keep a family tied together no matter what.

 

Chiefs by Stuart Woods

chiefs

In looking for something different to read, I stumbled upon this thriller from the 1980’s, which was so much more substantive and nuanced than I ever imagined.

It begins in 1919, when Will Henry Lee is appointed the Chief of Police in the tiny town of  Delano, Georgia.  Things are fairly quiet until the first body turns up – that of a young boy, naked, with suspicious marks on him.  This case is niggling at him but life goes on and he is forced to move on with the times.  As the years pass, the case becomes buried deeper and deeper in layers of race, power, politics, and in simple human nature and the ultimate resolution is a shock to everyone.

This story is so carefully delivered, over time, even over generations, and the reader’s patience is rewarded with an exquisitely intricate plot.  There is a horrifying overlay of the deep south’s history of racial bias which, sadly, is quite poignant and relatable today.  So too, are the political power plays, the small town alliances, and injustices.  Timeless, apparently.

The writing, too, is sharp and clear, with poignant dialogue and a few great scenes.  My particular favorite scene is one in which the wife of Billy, Will Henry’s son, buys a shotgun and shows what a woman can do all by herself to protect herself from the nasty Klansmen who are out to get her and her husband.  I won’t give it all away, but I’d say that scene alone is worth reading the book for!

This book is a definite page-turner and one that will stay with me for awhile.  I’m not sure it’s a “must read” but it’s close!

 

 

The Summer Wives by Beatriz Williams

summer wives

Miranda Schuyler has just arrived back home to Winthrop Island to hide away from her life just a bit.  She just wants some quiet, to try to repair her relationship with her mother and her half-sister – if possible – and to heal, both physically and emotionally.  What she doesn’t expect is that on arriving back here, all of her memories and the emotions tied to them would come flooding back as well.  And with them, much of her understanding of her world might just be turned upside-down.

Beatriz Williams creates the most wonderful female characters – they are strong, smart, witty, and often rebellious without ever losing their femininity or grace.  They are characters who drive the plot, who outwit the demons, and who, while we guess will be victorious in the end, we never know exactly how.  There are always clever plot twists and there are sometimes dark details, but there is always a lightness and humor in the telling.  And Miranda, with her story, certainly falls in line with this pattern.

Williams also utilizes the shifting of voices and of time to build the story from various vantage points. I love this technique.  I find this builds suspense and keeps the motion of the story moving forward, even when we’re essentially hearing backstory.  It enriches both the story and the people in it and deepens our understanding of both.  Because sometimes it isn’t the “what” that is the mystery of the story but the “why” – and here is a good example of that.

I really enjoyed this book – and am hoping to read all of her books at some point!

The Light We Lost by Jill Santopolo

the light we lost

This is a love story that starts, ironically, when the world feels like it might end – in New York City, on 9/11/01.  Lucy and Gabe feel it too – they reach for each other, barely knowing each other, and then it’s over.  But years later, when they meet again, the spark is reignited, and this begins a heartbreaker for Lucy that she endures quite in spite of herself.

The voice is what is unique in this story and I think is what engages the reader.  It is written from Lucy to Gabe, almost as a letter, which gives it a very intimate feel.  On the other hand, because we only hear Lucy’s voice, it can sometimes feel one-dimensional.  There is no layering of the plot, but rather a single-mindedness of the narrative becomes almost droning as the novel progresses.

What is more deeply troubling about this novel, however, is that once again,  the outwardly independent female character is bound to a male character and jumps to his beck and call each and every time.  I felt myself literally growing angry as Lucy again and again fell into this same pattern.  While Lucy does not go with Gabe when he needs to travel for his life work – hurrah for her –  she then pines for him throughout the rest of the book, answering his calls whenever he deigns to reach out and dropping everything for him when he needs her.  (Really?  We’ve not moved past that?). And while she notices when her new boyfriend, Darren, makes plans without her input- and gets angry about it – she never stands up to him or says anything about it.  Why can’t our female characters be unequivocally strong?  I’m tired of this.

I think this book was off to a great start, and had great potential but was just disappointing on multiple levels.  Oh, well!

 

Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak

bridge of clay

Markus Zusak, the author of The Book Thief, has proven once again to be part writer, part poet, and part craftsman in his newest, breathtaking novel.  The story is about 5 brothers who are raising each other, the parents who raised them first, and the complicated history of how these parents came to be.  It is a story of love and relationships and loss and not really coping and, well, trying to cope;   And while its a bit of an effort to get to know each of the characters at first (as in real life), it’s ultimately well worth the time.

The narrative here is stunning – and must be appreciated for its understated beauty.  There is raw emotion and silence and pain and beauty and love and everything in between that is utterly palpable and with a feeling of air between each word so that the reader has time to experience each of these right there beside each character.  Each word, each sentence is painstakingly chosen and there is poetry on each page of this prose.  By the later chapters, the reader feels the characters are so real that one might just walk in and sit on the couch and watch the bad, 1980’s movies with the boys and tussle with them as they do with each other.  And the love of storytelling by the main character, Clay, allows for the  actual storyteller, Matthew (the oldest brother) to switch gracefully back and forth between the boys’ adventures and the parents’ earlier experiences so that have the privilege of getting to know all of them.

But be warned – it is a slow start and a bit beyond midway it feels like it is finished when it is not.  This book requires patience and calm.  But like most things in life, patience is heartily rewarded here.  I literally could not speak for awhile after reading the ending of this story, feeling absolutely washed over by its utter warmth and love.

This is a masterpiece of subtlety and a very large poem of the heart.

I hope will allow yourself the privilege of loving it as I did.