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!

 

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!

A Spark of Light by Jodi Picoult

spark of light

Immediately on learning that both his daughter and his sister are inside the abortion clinic where a gunman is holding hostages, Hugh knows he should recuse himself from the situation and not be the hostage negotiator.  He knows he cannot be objective; but nor can he allow anyone else to do this job either.  And what are they doing in there anyway?  How did he not know they were there and why?  What did this say about his relationship with his daughter?

And inside there is a bloody scene.  The gunman has killed people but now he’s taking stock of his situation and wondering what comes next.  How did he get here?  It wasn’t supposed to be this messy.  Or this real.

The whole story is told over the course of a day, and actually told mostly in reverse.  We learn what happens, mostly, and then we hear the back stories, the histories of each of the characters who create the scene of what makes up this dramatic story of A Spark of Light.  The story is steeped in fact.  Characters who harass women entering the clinic (whether or not they are actually having an abortion or going there for a PAP smear)  but  who may have had abortions themselves, when it has suited them.  Single abortion clinics trying to survive to accommodate the needs of the women in an entire state, and trying to fulfill the rules imposed mostly by rich, white men on mostly impoverished women of color.  Characters like Dr. Louie Ward, depicted intentionally like the real-life hero, Dr. Willie Parker, an abortion provider who does so because of his Christian faith, not in spite of it.

In true Jodi Picoult fashion, this story is shared by many of the characters.  It is told from the eyes of each character, and built gradually by adding block by block, minute by minute, how each character perceives the passing of the day and of the experience.  We hear each opinion on abortion, religious and otherwise.  We hear each legal perspective and each is given credence, such that each perspective can be respected.  We also see that these women’s clinics serve as much more than abortion clinics as well. We also develop an appreciation for the various and desperate situations that lead women to require their procedures at a women’s health clinic.

This is an important book and serves as so much more than just a piece of fiction. Jodi Picoult never shies away from difficult subject matters and here conquers yet another.  In my opinion, she’s done another great job.

Another MUST READ!

The Girl who Wrote in Silk by Kelli Estes

girl who wrote in silk

In the late 1880’s, Washington territory, Mei Lien’s whole world revolved around her father and grandmother, both of whom she revered and loved with all her heart.  But with one unthinkable strike, both of them were torn from her and her entire life trajectory changed.

Fast forward to current day, and we find Inara, whose favorite aunt has died, with a wish that Inara take her estate and turn it into an island inn.  In her exploration of the estate, Inara stumbles upon the sleeve of a robe, embroidered with an elaborate scene that appears to be communicating an urgent message from long ago.

What is the connection?  And what will that connection mean for Inara’s family?  What did it mean, more importantly, for Mei Lien?

I feel this book, while powerful in its message and matter, just missed its mark in the telling.  The idea of the story is a brilliant one, based in a historical reality that needs to be told – and one that I, for one, was beforehand, ignorant of.  In the late 1800’s and well into the 1900’s, the Chinese who immigrated to the US and Canada were treated abominably, often with prejudice at best and with violence at worst.  This story brings that racism to a very personal level, highlighting the loneliness, despair, and abject terror that racism induces.

On the more literary side, the resolution of the story that is told is just too extreme to be believable.  The family connections are too improbable.  The way Inara finds a chef for her kitchen for her inn is too coincidental.  And the ending just slides into home plate for that grand slam in a way that almost trivializes the story.  I am not saying that the ending is not what anyone reading the story would have wanted, but I think it was too neat and tidy.  It’s not real life.

But maybe that is why it’s called fiction.

I am still glad I read this book and would recommend it to others as well.  If not for the literary sparkle, for the historical perspective it provides.

 

The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer

female persuasion

This new, very popular novel centers around Greer Kadetsky, who begins as a young freshman at what she considers a mediocre college in western Massachusetts.  If her disappointing parents had filled out the financial aid forms appropriately, she would have been at Yale, where she was really meant to be.  But then she wouldn’t have met her best friend, Zee, who then wouldn’t have dragged her along to hear Faith Frank, the feminist, speak.  And then she wouldn’t have had that moment with Faith Frank that sparked, really, the trajectory for the rest of her life.

This novel encompasses two stories in one.  On one level, it tells the story of Greer, a smart, ambitious young woman who is seeking love and approval from others because she doesn’t feel  it from her nebulous parents.  She has it from her boyfriend, Cory, who is steadfast, but has his own life and stressors, and she has it from her friend, Zee, but she seeks it from an adult, in the form of Faith Frank.  And as she goes through her journey, she learns that no one is perfect, even those who appear to be.

On the second level, it is also a story of the women’s movement.  In the telling of the story of Faith Frank, the author essentially recounts the story of the fractions of women and the various perspectives, both forward and backward (at least in my opinion) as it is going these days, particularly with regard to availability of women’s choice and control over our bodies.  Faith Frank, in her early days, helps a friend through a life-threatening, almost-botched illegal abortion and it drives her friend in a totally opposite direction from Faith (which is very hard to believe, but I imagine is true of some women).  Faith is empowered by this experience to push hard for women’s access to safe, legal abortion.  In this, I think the author opens up the debate where we stand very precariously now – where women are arguing over the rights over our bodies.  (As an aside, I have to say that I believe that no woman likes the idea of abortion.  On the other hand, I believe that the majority of women in our country do believe that this should be a matter decided by the woman herself and perhaps her doctor, as it is a physical and medical and emotional decision for a woman – NOT a decision to be made by mostly MEN in a back room somewhere having nothing to do with the woman herself.  THIS is what “choice” means.)  And this depressing backlash that we are experiencing here in our country is discussed in the book and lamented.  It’s hard to see it in a book and not just in the news – it gives it so much more permanence, in a way.

What is somewhat disappointing about this book is how it sort of fizzles at the end.  Most of the book is engaging and there are a few twists and major events that turn the plot around on its head.  Most of it grabbed me.  But as it wound down, it really wound down and sort of fell.  Maybe even fell flat.

Otherwise, I think this is an interesting story of a woman’s struggle with finding her place and meaning in the world through the lens of the women’s movement.  An interesting read…