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"City of Women" by David R. Gillham

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An ordinary hausfrau struggles to get by in her day to day existence in wartime Berlin, her husband fighting on the Eastern Front. Then one evening a gaunt, waif-like girl, not yet twenty, lands suddenly in the seat next to her in a darkened movie theater with a plea that she tell the police a lie on her behalf. She accedes to this plea, and although she doesn’t know it yet, the hausfrau’s life has been changed forever.

In City of Women David R. Gillham captures the hardships, the bombastic propaganda, public paranoia, and violent oppression of Berlin in the winter of 1943-1944. Frau Schröder, married to an officer in the Wehrmacht, has Aryan good looks at nearly 30, and owns a pretty healthy rebellious streak. This comes from the continuous abuse and denigration heaped on her first by her mother and grandmother, and then during the story by her hateful and vituperative mother-in-law. This is the story of how Frau Schröder’s illusions peel away one by one, how as she plunges into the shadowy world of smuggling and treason her actions become more and more reckless and daring. You will turn these pages compulsively to see the plots and counter-plots, and your nerves will jump along with hers as the stakes become higher and higher.

I once again praise and marvel at debut fiction. Such mastery – it’s such a gutsy subject matter and carried off with such assurance, that I recommend this atmospheric and brilliantly-plotted novel very highly. I have not read fiction with an inside view of wartime Berlin before, but here it is, with RAF bombing raids, wartime rationing, crowded transit, and the Führer’s face everywhere. More importantly, though, we witness the moral choices these characters make in the upside-down, unreal world around them. And this is Frau Sigrid Schröder’s – and our – journey. This is brilliantly realized and highly effective. It unwinds beautifully, with new surprises and new threats – and our heroine’s ever-escalating steps to cope with all of it. Take this up, definitely.


"Possession: A Romance" by A. S. Byatt

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At the very outset of the rich and delightful Possession: A Romance author A.S. Byatt employs quotes from two unimpeachable sources, Hawthorne and Browning. She uses Hawthorne to allude to a definition of a narrative romance, which he claims requires “a certain latitude, both as to its fashion and material, which he [the writer] would not have felt himself entitled to assume, had he professed to be writing a Novel.” The poetic quote from Browning concludes: “‘How many lies did it require to make/The portly truth you here present us with?’”

Ms. Byatt employs a wide variety of forms as she tells her “portly truth.” Set in the late 1980s (it was published in 1990), her main framework contains the story of two British scholars, Maud and Roland, who specialize in two different 19th Century British poets. They discover an astounding and game-changing correspondence between their two favorites (both fictional) – no one thought they had had anything to do with each other. Our generous author discloses the remarkable letters, goes back in time to tell the story of the two poets, and eventually supplies a kind of closure that I certainly did not see coming. She mixes in academic jealousy and competition, some skullduggery, and even though the book runs more than 540 pages, its sustained pace is remarkable.

The title itself is fodder for the author’s full and playful treatment: can two people possess each other? Can anyone possess correspondence between two strangers from the previous century? What demons or vapors possess people in fits of passion? What do academic theories possess which makes them so compelling to their adherents? Wry answers are hinted at here, some made much more plainly than others. I found that the whole works exceedingly well.

Possession engages you on many levels. If you’re at all interested in academic study of poetry, or of narrative art in general, Ms. Byatt serves up plenty of meat for you, some of it extremely mocking and funny. If you want to experience two thrown-together young people, who try navigate their feelings and tentative hopes, this is for you. If you want to experience some remarkable letters between two exceedingly literate and thoughtful people, and some very tasty Victorian-style poetry, (all Ms. Byatt’s own compositions) this is the place to be.
Possession: A Romance serves up multifarious forms of fun, and does it with an elegant, free-flowing panache. I urge you to take it up. I enjoyed my time with it thoroughly.

"Pictures of You" by Caroline Leavitt

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Caroline Leavitt tells so much vivid and heartfelt emotional truth through most of Pictures of You that you don’t anticipate the surprising denouement that’s coming. In fact, the concluding episode of Pictures of You happens within so few pages that I felt an abruptness, like the author was rushing through the remaining unresolved issues posed in her narrative. In spite of this tacked-on quality to the ending, what goes before certainly deserves recognition and appreciation: the emotional tone and content is spot-on for the arresting events of the story, and the author also manages great detail and accuracy in capturing a nine year-old boy’s struggle with loss. It shows a highly assured feel for her content.

Sam, just having started the fourth grade, witnesses a wrenching and horrific car accident, and later focuses his adulation on the woman responsible. As contrived or unlikely as that sounds, Ms. Leavitt handles it all so gradually and believably, we accept it, even embrace it. These characters find warm homes in our hearts, all to the author’s great credit. I don’t find fault with any of that, but I felt cheated, left in the dark about some of the guiding motivation for some of the most important actions in the story.

Get ready to have your heartstrings tugged when you pick this up. Ms. Leavitt shows excellent skills in the language and the workings of the human heart. But don’t expect your expectations for these characters to be met, either, because as the main female character actually says to the man who loves her, this isn’t a movie. It is, however, a book with high emotional content handled excellently, with some plot machinations that left me nonplussed.