And I Darken

And I Darken by Kiersten White

I liked White’s paranormal romance series, so I was interested to pick up this historical/fantasy series as well. This story is about a brother and sister, children of an Eastern European prince in the Middle Ages. They are sent to live in the court of the Ottoman Empire as assurance of their father’s cooperation. There they befriend the sultan’s son and take part in many intrigues and adventures, from an aborted coup to a failed siege. The story is dark and violent, with Lada, the sister, as a particularly prickly and tough warrior-princess. Her insistence on receiving military training, and on assuming command of a regiment, pushes gender boundaries. The climax is exciting, and the ending bittersweet. It’s YA, but probably on the ‘mature’ end of the genre.

The sequel, Now I Rise, comes out this year.

Reading the Election

Sometimes when an issue is preoccupying me, I see it everywhere. Almost everything I’ve read in the past month or two, I’ve read in light of the election. I’m looking for explanations, solutions, and sometimes just escape. Here are some books that feel especially relevant right now.


Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010 by Charles Murray

This book describes how Americans have isolated themselves from each other, based mostly on class and politics. He focuses a lot on coastal elites who live in a few “super ZIPs,” ZIP codes populated by the wealthy, many of whom also attended the same schools and work in the same industries, and who have a disproportionate influence on national policy and culture. His analysis seems extra important as a way of understanding the difference between urban and rural voters and what it would take to overcome these differences. Murray is pretty conservative, so some of the points he uses his data to make are definitely determined by his ideology. It’s also just interesting to think about the cultural touchstones that make up these different American subcultures. Here is a quiz you can take to see if you live in a bubble or not.  I scored 45, which puts me pretty solidly in the middle of the middle.


Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities by Martha Nussbaum

This book makes a passionate argument for why broad education in the liberal arts widens our perspectives in ways that seem needed today more than ever. Putting aside the intrinsic values of the arts and humanities for improving individuals’ lives, she focuses on how the widespread study of literature, history, and philosophy creates a population capable of sustaining democratic institutions. The lack of this kind of education is probably why we are in the situation we’re in. I found a further explanation for our current predicament in her examination of child psychology, especially her discussion of the narcissism of children and their shame in their essential helplessness. Nussbaum’s prescription is for critical thinking taught by Socratic pedagogy, and lessons on empathy and compassion toward those who are different or far away, using the arts and play. In this way, we can overcome narrow us/them thinking, learn to identify with others, and become educated for global citizenship.


The Taming of the Queen by Phillipa Gregory

This historical novel is told from the point of view of Katherine Parr, the sixth and last queen of King Henry VIII. The parallels with Trump should be obvious here. The narcissism, the womanizing, the tantrums, the physical grossness. Henry’s policies are incoherent because he changes his mind so frequently, and purposely plays his advisers off each other. Katherine lives in fear as she watches Henry’s behavior toward her change and fall into the pattern of the way he acted toward Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard before he had them beheaded.


The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

This book is told from the point of view of several immigrants from Central America. The main narrative is about a romance between high school age kids, one of whom is mentally handicapped because of a severe brain injury. It’s touching to see how the close-knit community of immigrants helps each other adjust and survive, and heartbreaking to watch them struggle with the language barrier and with bullying and intimidation. I wonder how much more uncertain and scary the characters’ lives would have been if it were set in 2017. Novels help us to empathize with people who are different from us and to see them as three-dimensional and fully human. If there were one book that I could make every Trump voter read, this just might be it.


Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi


This novel begins with two sisters in Africa in the late 1700s. One marries a British slave ship captain, and the other is captured and enslaved. Later chapters follow their descendants, traveling from Fanti villages to Ashanti villages to the Gold Coast, from Georgia, to Baltimore, to an Alabama coal mine, to Harlem. Gyasi is deeply concerned with the complicity and cooperation of Africans in selling members of competing tribes into slavery; she treats it like an original sin that reverberates throughout the generations of her characters on that side of the Atlantic. A few images recur and link the families across time and space: fire, water, a necklace, beating, chasing, hiding in trees. The chapters read like linked short stories. While some are heartbreaking, others are hopeful, especially toward the book’s end. I found each character compelling and each story fascinating.

All the Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr


This novel about WWII closely follows a blind French girl and a German soldier, switching between their perspectives and building anticipation for their short but crucial meeting in recently liberated Brittany. The legend of a priceless, cursed diamond lends a fairy-tale feeling to the story. Marie-Laure lives in Paris with her father, the locksmith for a museum who is entrusted with the diamond (or a decoy?) when Paris is taken. They flee to France’s west coast, and then her father is arrested, leaving Marie-Laure with her great-uncle and a housekeeper who is participating in the resistance to the Nazi occupation. Meanwhile, Werner, a German boy with a precocious talent for radios, leaves the orphanage where he grew up to enter a Nazi school, and eventually use his skills to hunt down resistance fighters. The villain is a cancer-ridden Nazi officer charged with finding the cursed diamond; the tension and suspense when Marie-Laure is hiding from him is almost unbearable. The book is sad, as any war story has to be, but somehow also full of wonder. Radio waves serve as a metaphor for a sense of connection between people; other repeated images are snails, shells, mollusks, and enclosed spaces. Marie-Laure and Werner share a fascination with the natural world. Werner and Marie-Laure’s great-uncle struggle to summon the courage to stand up and do the right thing, and when they do it’s incredibly satisfying. This book won the Pulitzer this year, and I think it deserved it.

WWII novels

Here are two books concerning WWII and the Holocaust that I’ve read recently. These books are hard to read because of their brutally intense subject matter, but they’re educational, entertaining, and uplifting.

Briar Rose by Jane Yolen


A woman goes to Poland to investigate her late grandmother’s origins and finds that she was a survivor of a death camp and her grandfather was a resistance fighter who rescued her. The story is framed by the grandmother’s retelling her own personal version of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, which served as a metaphor for her near death experience and was her way of telling her grandchildren about her own history.

When I picked up this book I had no idea it would be about the Holocaust, and thought it was just a fairy tale retelling. However, I thought the fairy tale frame was the least effective part of the story, and the Holocaust narrative was much more compelling. I thought it was interesting how the book highlighted the resistance fighters and some of the less well-known classes of Holocaust victims, like the gay man who narrates much of the story.

Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein


This sequel to Code Name Verity is about Rose Justice, friend and bridesmaid of Maddie, the surviving protagonist from that book. Rose is an American pilot who joins the Air Transport Auxiliary. She is intercepted while flying over Germany and is put into a women’s concentration camp at Ravensbruck. There, she befriends the “rabbits,” women who were maimed as part of “experiments” by the Nazi doctors. It’s near the end of the war, and the Nazis are concerned with covering up their atrocities by destroying the evidence, while the prisoners band together to survive so that they can tell the world what was done to them. It’s a satisfying story because Rose and her friends achieve some small victories over the Nazis by hiding to avoid being gassed, causing riots over bread, and eventually even totally escaping. The story ends with the Nuremburg trials, which Rose attends as a reporter. Rose is a poet as well as a pilot, so she makes up some very moving verses about her experiences, with aerial flight as a metaphor. Another remarkable aspect of the book is its inclusion of a former concentration camp employee as a sympathetic character.

Code Name Verity

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein


In this book, two teen girls in England in 1943 become a spy and a pilot. After crash-landing in occupied France, they are separated and Julie, “Verity,” is captured and tortured by the Nazis. Her friend Maddie has to try to save her while hiding among the underground French resistance organization. The story of their friendship, told through the writing they each scribble on scraps while huddled in small, dingy spaces, is elegiac and vivid. Julie’s torture scenes are a grueling chess match between her and her interrogator. The physical and psychological aspects of Julie’s torture are harrowing and sometimes hard to read. The chess match is ultimately impossible for her to win, but she still comes off as such a bad ass. Despite pain and deprivation, she’s clever enough to pass bogus information that furthers her mission indirectly. There’s no triumphant happy ending, but it’s satisfying nevertheless. This might also be one of the most subtly feminist books I’ve read in a while, since it’s about two young women doing difficult jobs not many women did, and the strong bond between them, with not much importance placed on romance or on male characters.

The King’s Curse

The King’s Curse by Philippa Gregory


Margaret Pole was cousin to Elizabeth of York, mother of Henry VIII. She loses her brother to the executioner so that Katherine of Aragon will come from Spain to marry Arthur Tudor, heir to the throne and her ward. When Arthur dies, she supports Katherine in saying the marriage was never consummated (this is most of the plot of The Constant Princess, another of Gregory’s books). That makes her lots of enemies in the Tudor court, until Henry VII dies and his son wants to marry Katherine. Margaret’s family rides that wave of good fortune for as long as that marriage remains happy, and she becomes the guardian to their daughter Mary. When Henry divorces Katherine for Anne Boleyn, Margaret and her family begin a downward spiral, including plotting rebellion. For most of this book, she’s an old woman. In the end, she becomes the oldest person to be killed by order of Henry VIII.

Margaret is not Gregory’s most appealing protagonist. She’s entitled, resentful, and conservative. Her early experiences of fear and imprisonment, and the loss of her father and brother to the executioner’s axe, make her willing to do almost anything to keep herself and her children alive. The way she describes Anne Boleyn and some other women is pretty vicious. At the same time, you can see why she felt that way. She did have a pretty remarkable amount of wealth and power for a woman of that time, though not enough to save herself from the Tower.

Gregory’s books are long, and I think her style is a bit repetitive. Maybe that’s part of her attempt to give readers the flavor of Tudor-era English, or formal court language. But every time Margaret is affronted in some way, she mentally recounts all of the kings and queens she’s been related to, all of her family’s past honors, and that gets old after a while.

The weird thing about reading Gregory’s books and most other historical fiction that sticks as close to the real story as hers do, is the way the plot seems nonsensical and capricious. The twists and turns feel random, rather than motivated by any logical progression or character growth the way it would be in most fictions. Perhaps it’s especially the case here, since the plot is determined so strongly by the whims of Henry VIII. Margaret’s family falls into and out of favor so many times it’s dizzying, and rarely do her actions or those of her sons have much to do with it. She concludes at the end that Henry is killing her and her family just because they’re members of the old royal family, the family his father usurped. My God, if you didn’t already know that Henry VIII was an insane, murderous tyrant, a courtly terrorist, this book will show you the extent of his madness and his horrifying control over all aspects of life, especially for the people closest to him. A theme is that no one can ever tell him bad news because he really will kill the messenger. That’s a great way to run a country, isn’t it?

The “curse” of the title is Gregory’s attempt to make some meaning out of the events of the end of the Wars of the Roses and Henry VIII’s reign. In the mythology Gregory creates in this series, the mysterious deaths of the two young York princes in the Tower called down a curse on their murderer that explains the early deaths of Arthur Tudor and Henry VIII’s infant sons, and finally cut short the dynasty. It’s an interesting way to novelize history.

The Valley of Amazement

The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan

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This book is Amy Tan being Amy Tan, tackling her pet subject: multiple generations of women traveling between America and China, having complex relationships, being exploited by men and bureaucracy and in-laws, and occasionally fighting back. I don’t say that in a disparaging way: she writes what she knows and is good at it. This book is different from previous books of Tan’s I’ve read in that it’s sexier. The main characters are courtesans, or very high-class prostitutes, in Shanghai circa 1910-1925. In addition to the deceptions and seductions of suitors, the drama here comes from a mother and her daughter both losing children to hostile in-laws from another culture, thanks to false or missing documentation. (Now that I’m a mom, reading about a parent losing all contact with a young child is even more heartrending to me than ever.) It’s a long book, offering the perspectives of the American mother, her half-Chinese daughter, and the daughter’s attendant.

Though she relies heavily on coincidence and other slightly unrealistic plot devices, Tan also interweaves historical events like the flu epidemic of 1918 into the narrative. The characters’ relationships and opportunities are greatly influenced by the qeopolitical climate and the relations between China and the US. This is a story that could only have taken place in a particular moment in history, when China was in the process of opening to the West, but still very tradition-bound, when customs like courtesan houses coexisted with typewriters and telegraphs, after the Open Door Notes, but before the invasion by Japan and the Cultural Revolution. Most action takes place in the International Settlement in Shanghai, a cosmopolitan place where foreigners were safe and respected. It’s interesting to learn this history from a perspective that we don’t often see as Americans.

A while ago I reviewed Rules for Virgins, not knowing that it was going to be part of  a longer novel. Though it stands up well on its own, that chapter also fits well in this book. Magic Gourd, its narrator, only narrates this one chapter of The Valley of Amazement, but she’s an important character, and a funny one.

War and Peace

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy


This book is an education in itself, and sadly, I felt I didn’t know enough to truly appreciate it. I had a similar reaction to gigantic classic novels Anna Karenina and Les Miserables. My lack of background knowledge on the Napoleonic wars and Russian society in the early 1800s made it hard for me to follow a lot of the events, but I did my best and looked up a few things when I felt unbearably clueless. Every edition of this book should have maps and diagrams to help readers understand the battles and the movements of the various armies; the descriptions are very meticulous and hard to picture without a visual aid. Tolstoy interweaves history and philosophy lessons with a story about the love affairs of the young people of three noble families, concluding with an extended meditation on the discipline of history and free will. I wondered whether Tolstoy’s presentation of Napoleon and the Russian leaders is considered a fair one nowadays. Again, I was left with the urge to learn more about this exciting period in history.

The female characters were all problematic for me in various ways. It seemed like they were all defined by their possession or lack of the three things that give a woman value as a wife: beauty, virtue, and wealth. Pierre’s first wife Helene is probably the worst; she has beauty and wealth, but no virtue. Natasha has only beauty. I found Natasha annoying for the entire first half of the book, if not the entire book. Her preening and singing were repeatedly described as enchanting, but just seemed obnoxious to me. She becomes more virtuous after repenting a stupid affair and caring for her dying ex-lover. And then after her marriage, she immediately turns into a nagging matron. Sonya has beauty and virtue, but no wealth. Her entire existence seemed to be an apology for her poverty and the fact that her relatives had to take her in. She does nothing but help and support others, and her reward for it is living with the man she loves and his wife. Princess Mary has virtue and wealth, but no beauty. She’s so virtuous and dutiful, she allows her father to abuse her. In the end, she practically has to beg Nicolas to marry her so that she can solve all of his family’s money problems.

Bring Up the Bodies

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

I loved Wolf Hall, so I was looking forward to this book, which earned Mantel her second Booker Prize. The timeline of this book is more compressed than in Wolf Hall. This book is focused mainly on the downfall of Anne Boleyn, while the previous novel spanned several years in retelling the demise of Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas More, as well as the ascendance of Anne. As this novel ends, Anne is gone, the Henry is marrying Jane Seymour, and Cromwell seems to have lost many of his own personal allies in the fight to rid the king of his second wife. A third novel is planned, in which Cromwell’s own downfall will be told. I can’t wait. It’s sure to be a Shakespearean-scale tragedy.

The novel is often wickedly funny, with a lot of gallows humor. Its forceful language is again the main attraction, and it fits so well with the ruthless characters.  Here’s a great passage, one that sums up Mantel’s Cromwell about as concisely as possible:

Rafe asks him, could the king’s freedom be obtained, sir, with more economy of means? Less bloodshed?

Look, he says: once you have exhausted the process of negotiation and compromise, once you have fixed on the destruction of an enemy, that destruction must be swift and it must be perfect. Before you even glance in his direction, you should have his name on a warrant, the ports blocked, his wife and friends bought, his heir under your protection, his money in your strong room, and his dog running to your whistle. Before he wakes in the morning, you should have the axe in your hand.

Historical novels like this, which set out to tell old stories in a new way, often have to introduce a twist of interpretation to freshen things up. Usually the things historical figures did are a matter of record, but we can always speculate about why they did them. In this retelling, the five men who are executed for treason for sleeping with the queen are chosen by Cromwell as an act of vengeance for the Cardinal. These are the men who are depicted in Wolf Hall acting in a play as devils dragging the Cardinal off to hell. The idea of having several people executed on trumped-up charges for an old grudge based on a silly play is pretty sick, but in the context of the novel and the character, it makes decent sense. It’s an audacious display of Cromwell’s power and corruption, as well as the deep loyalty and strange sense of justice that make him such an interesting character in Mantel’s books. As far as history goes, it seems unlikely, but in a novel it’s brilliant entertainment.