What do you look for in your summer reading? Terms like “beach read” tend to connote light, frothy stories—especially from genres like romance, mystery, and chick lit—but for me a summer read is any book that happens to be totally absorbing, whatever its length. These two novels I recently read are perfect for the summer because you can sink right into them. Whether a trio of widows in postwar Germany or a dysfunctional family in modern-day New York City, the characters and setting come fully to life and tempt you to settle in on a sofa or a beach towel and stay for a while.
The Women of the Castle by Jessica Shattuck
Like Virginia Baily’s Early One Morning and Caroline Lea’s When the Sky Fell Apart, this is a female-centered World War II story that focuses on a lesser-known aspect of history. The main characters are three German women, Marianne, Benita and Ania, who were aligned with different sides in the Nazism vs. Resistance conflict but have all suffered grave losses. These widows band together to raise their children at Burg von Lingenfels, the dilapidated ancestral castle of Marianne’s late husband’s family, but as the years pass regrets and unburied secrets start to come between them.
Apart from a short prologue from 1938 and a final section that jumps ahead to 1991, the novel is mainly set in 1945–50. I appreciated the look at postwar Germany, a period you rarely encounter in fiction. Refugees, rape victims, and Russian soldiers are everywhere, while American propaganda heaps shame on Germans for supporting Hitler. As with Barbara Yelin’s Irmina, though, there’s an acknowledgment here that it was never a clear-cut matter of pure evil or utter ignorance; “They had known but not known,” is how Shattuck puts it.
What is most intriguing to watch are the shifting relationships between the three main characters. Marianne, as the widow of one of the conspirators in the plot to assassinate Hitler, feels a compulsion to rescue her fellow widows from work camps and to keep the history of the Resistance alive. When her friends disappoint her—Benita falls in love with a former Nazi officer; Ania admits to a past she’d rather forget—Marianne doesn’t know how to absorb the shocks without judgment. A black-and-white thinker, she has trouble seeing life’s gray areas. Only in her old age is she finally able to realize that people are not simply “good or bad, true or false. They have been laid bare, a collection of choices and circumstances.”
You might think that all the WWII stories have been told by now, yet this novel feels fresh and revelatory. I found it both melancholy and hopeful, with strong characters and a haunting atmosphere:
The next week, a heatwave settled over Burg Lingenfels, a shaggy animal brushing against the hills, panting along the river, quieting the birds and making the castle sweat. The ditches were alive with milkweed, nettles, and creeping phlox. In the warmth, the forest looked soft and dense, a black lump against blue sky.
The Women of the Castle was released in the UK by Zaffre, an imprint of Bonnier Publishing, on May 18th. My thanks to Imogen Sebba for the free copy for review.
The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney
Leo Plumb has really blown it this time. He’s had problems with drugs and womanizing before, but this time he got behind the wheel of a car after his cousin’s wedding reception with coke and alcohol in his system and a nineteen-year-old waitress, Matilda Rodriguez, at his side. Matilda is injured in the ensuing accident, and after her hefty payout it looks like the four Plumb siblings’ collective trust fund, “the nest,” will be severely diminished.
They’re all counting on this money: Melody to send her twin daughters to a good college; Jack to save his floundering antiques business; and Bea to keep her afloat until she can write a long-delayed novel to follow up on the success of her “Archie” short stories (based on a figure suspiciously similar to Leo).
The short chapters switch between the siblings as they tweak their plans for the future. The novel also spends time with Melody’s twins, Nora and Louise, who at 16 are just figuring out what they want from their lives; and with Matilda and her new friend Vinnie as they cope with permanent injuries. All of these characters feel like real people who might be in your neighborhood or your extended family. I especially liked Stephanie, the old girlfriend Leo returns to after his wife finally kicks him out.
In places this reminded me of Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, Delia Ephron’s Siracusa, and especially Hannah Rothschild’s The Improbability of Love due to a subplot about a stolen sculpture. There’s a rather silly set piece involving the sculpture later on; leaving that aside, I thought this was a compelling story about what happens when the truth comes out and we must readjust our expectations. Realistic rather than rosy, this is a novel about letting go. A nest is, of course, also a home, so for as much as this seems to be about money, it is really more about family and how we reclaim our notion of home after a major upheaval.
The Nest was released in paperback in the UK by The Borough Press on June 1st. My thanks to Emilie Chambeyron for the free copy for review.
You might be surprised to hear that I received ‘only’ eight books for Christmas. (And a very fetching owl bookmark.) Here they are:
As I did last year, I’ve come up with my top 15 fiction books of the year (the three translated works first appeared in English in 2016) and even attempted to rank them. Many of these books have already featured on the blog in some way over the course of the year. To keep it simple for myself as well as for all of you who are figuring out whether you’re interested in these books or not, I’m limiting myself to two sentences per title: the first is a potted summary; the second tells you why you should read it. I also link to any full reviews.
Without further ado, let the countdown begin!
- Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist by Sunil Yapa: A hard-hitting novel with an unforgettably resonant title, this is set at the 1999 Seattle WTO protest: Yapa explores the motivations and backstories of activists, police officers, and delegates as the day deteriorates into violence. This fine debut is about cultivating the natural compassion in your heart even while under the threat of the fist.
- The Crime Writer by Jill Dawson: Beyond the barest biographical facts, Dawson has imagined the plot based on Patricia Highsmith’s own preoccupations: fear of a stalker, irksome poison-pen letters, imagining what it would be like to commit murder … and snails. You’re never quite sure as you’re reading what is actually happening in the world of the novel and what only occurs in Highsmith’s imagination, making this one of the most gripping, compulsive books I encountered this year.
- Nutshell by Ian McEwan: Within the first few pages, I was captivated and convinced by the voice of this contemporary, in utero Hamlet. His captive state pairs perfectly with Hamlet’s existential despair, but also makes him (and us as readers) part of the conspiracy: even as he wants justice for his father, he has to hope his mother and uncle will get away with their crime; his whole future depends on it.
- The Longest Night by Andria Williams: This absorbing work of historical fiction combines a remote setting, the threat of nuclear fallout, and a marriage strained to the breaking point in a convincing early 1960s atmosphere. A great debut and an author I’d like to hear more from.
- Forty Rooms by Olga Grushin: Each of us is said to occupy 40 rooms in our lives; this novel in 40 vignettes, one per room, tells the life story of a Russian immigrant to America who dreams of becoming a poet but ends up a suburban housewife and mother of six. I feel this book will resonate with women of every age, prompting them to question the path they’ve taken, the passions they’ve left unexplored, and whether it’s too late to change.
- Irmina by Barbara Yelin: After her grandmother’s death Yelin, a Munich-based artist, found a box of diaries and letters that told the story of a budding love affair that was not to be and charted a young woman’s gradual capitulation to Nazi ideology. For the out-of-the-ordinary window onto Third Reich history and the excellent illustrations, I highly recommend this to graphic novel lovers and newbies alike.
- The Wonder by Emma Donoghue: In the 1850s a nurse investigates the case of an Irish girl surviving without food for months: miracle or hoax? Donoghue writes convincing and vivid historical fiction, peppering the text with small details about everything from literature to technology and setting up a particularly effective contrast between medicine and superstition.
- The Summer Guest by Alison Anderson: The kernel of the novel is a true story: for two summers in the late 1880s, Chekhov (known here as Anton Pavlovich) stayed at the Lintvaryovs’ guest house in Luka, Ukraine; one strand of the narration is a journal kept during those years by the family’s eldest daughter, who’s dying of a brain tumor. An elegantly plotted story about writing, translation, illness, and making the most of life.
- Quiet Flows the Una by Faruk Šehić: This autobiographical novel by a Bosnian poet and former soldier is full of poetic language and nature imagery. The lyrical writing about his beloved river provides a perfect counterpoint to the horror and absurdity of war.
- Three-Martini Lunch by Suzanne Rindell: Rindell brings the late 1950s, specifically the bustling, cutthroat New York City publishing world, to life through the connections between three young people who collide over a debated manuscript. It’s an expert evocation of Beat culture and post-war paranoia over communism and homosexuality.
- Golden Hill by Francis Spufford: The novel opens suddenly as twenty-four-year-old Richard Smith arrives from London with a promissory note for £1000; before he can finally get his money, he’ll fall in and out of love, fight a duel, and be arrested twice – all within the space of two months. Bawdy, witty, vivid historical fiction; simply brilliant.
- Why We Came to the City by Kristopher Jansma: Five university friends strive to make their lives count against the indifferent backdrop of recession-era New York City. You’ll see yourself in one or more of the characters, and the rest you’ll greet as if they were your own friends and makeshift family.
- The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry: The Essex Serpent was a real-life legend from the latter half of the seventeenth century, but Perry’s second novel has fear of the sea creature re-infecting Aldwinter, her invented Essex village, in the 1890s. This exquisite work of historical fiction explores the gaps – narrower than one might think – between science and superstition and between friendship and romantic love.
- The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler: Seventeen-year-old Franz Huchel’s life changes for good when in 1937 his mother sends him away from his quiet lakeside village to work for her old friend Otto Trsnyek, a Vienna tobacconist. This novel is so many things: a coming-of-age story, a bittersweet romance, an out-of-the-ordinary World War II/Holocaust precursor, and a perennially relevant reminder of the importance of finding the inner courage to stand up to oppressive systems.
- Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler: The restaurant where twenty-two-year-old Tess works is a claustrophobic world unto itself, like a theatre set where the food is high art and the staff interactions are pure drama. Everything about this novel is utterly assured: the narration, the characterization, the prose style, the plot, the timing; it captures the intensity and idealism of youth yet injects a hint of nostalgia.
& A poetry selection:
Still the Animals Enter by Jane Hilberry: A rich, strange, gently erotic collection featuring diverse styles and blurring the lines between child and adult, human and animal, life and death through the language of metamorphosis. The message is that we are part of a shared life beyond the individual family or even the human species; we are all connected.
What are the best novels you read this year? Any new favorite books or authors?
I’ll be back tomorrow with the best nonfiction books I read this year.
Barbara Yelin’s Irmina is one of the most visually stunning graphic novels I’ve ever come across. Not only that, but it’s based on a fascinating family story: after her grandmother’s death Yelin, a Munich-based artist, found a box of diaries and letters that told the story of a budding love affair that was not to be and charted a young woman’s gradual capitulation to Nazi ideology. How could her grandmother go from being a brave rule-breaker to a cowed regime supporter in just a few short years, she wondered? This fictionalized biography is her attempt to reconcile the ironies and hard facts of her ancestor’s life.
In 1934 Irmina von Behdinger arrives in London for a cultural exchange, attending a commercial school to train as a typist. One night she accompanies a friend to a fancy party and meets Howard, a young Barbados native she initially assumes to be a bartender. It turns out he actually has a scholarship to study law at Oxford. He’s learned, dignified and charming, and soon he and Irmina begin spending a lot of time together. Although she wishes she, too, could study at a proper university, women’s education is not valued in Germany.
Irmina and Howard’s carefree explorations of Oxford and London contrast with the increasingly bleak news coming from Germany about Hitler and his treatment of Jews. As her host family decries Nazism, Irmina tries to protest: “they are not MY Germans … this is politics! It doesn’t affect the average person.” She dreams of being an independent working woman and pursuing a relationship with Howard, but a change in her financial circumstances means she has to go back to Stuttgart instead. Promising to return to England as soon as she can raise some money, Irmina bids farewell to Howard at Portsmouth harbor in April 1935.
Back in Germany, she finds a translation job with the Ministry of War, hoping desperately to be transferred to the German consulate in London once she proves herself. But as the years pass and German relations with the rest of Europe grow strained, her dream seems increasingly unlikely. Having recently lost touch with Howard, she meets Gregor Meinrich, an architect for the SS, and gives up work when they marry and have a son. With the rare exception of a shocking event like Kristallnacht, it’s all too easy to ignore what’s happening to the nation’s Jews and absorb the propaganda that says they have earned their misfortune.
The novel is in three parts: London, Berlin and Barbados – Irmina gets a brief, late chance to see what her life might have been like with Howard. Yelin’s usual palette is muted and melancholy: grays, charcoal, slate blue, browns and flesh tones. However, in each section she chooses one signature color that adds symbolic flashes of life. For London it’s the bright blue of Irmina’s scarf, mirrored in Oxford’s sky and river, as well as in the occasional shopfront and lady’s dress.
In Berlin the red of the Nazi flag crops up in lipstick, dress patterns, flowers, wine and the décor of a ballroom. In the most poignant scene of all, though, red is equated with the spilling of Jewish blood. As a friend discusses what she doesn’t want to hear – “they’re taking them all to the East now, where they kill them” – Irmina is getting a jar of berry preserves down from a high shelf and drops it, spattering scarlet everywhere. On the other hand, to evoke the calm and natural beauty of 1980s Barbados, the featured hue is a seafoam green.
I was particularly impressed with the two-page spreads showing city scenes. They range from Impressionist fog to Modernist detail, reminding me of everything from Monet to Modigliani. Although the artwork stands out a bit more than the story, this still strikes me as a fresh look at the lives of ordinary Germans who were kept in the dark (by themselves and others) about Hitler’s activities. In an afterword, Dr. Alexander Korb, Director of the University of Leicester’s Stanley Burton Centre for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, reflects on Irmina’s motivation:
Irmina had a full range of possibilities. Yet the fact that she chose the Nazi path from the wide variety in front of her, encompassing feminism, internationality and individuality, makes her story typical of this time. It was just as typical that she failed to find happiness in fascism, like millions of others.
For the out-of-the-ordinary window onto Third Reich history and the excellent illustrations, I highly recommend Irmina to graphic novel lovers and newbies alike.
With thanks to the publisher, SelfMadeHero, for the free copy. Translated from the German by Michael Waaler.