Monday, May 26, 2014

Book Review: Burial Rites

Hannah Kent's Burial Rites is an amazing debut novel. Set in Iceland in the early 1800s, it tells the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman to be executed in Iceland. The prevailing mood throughout the book is cold, lonely, and despairing, yet Kent has a gift of weaving bits of warmth and compassion throughout the sad story.

The Jonsson family is forced to take Agnes, an accused murderess, into their home until her execution. The family—parents and two daughters in their early 20s—is horrified that they must provide food and housing for her. The mother is afraid that her daughters will somehow become tainted—or worse— by their proximity to Agnes.

But as the weeks pass, that fear and repulsion turns to a grudging appreciation and even respect for Agnes. She works hard on the Jonsson's farm, never complaining or shirking her duties. Eventually, her life's story comes out in bits and pieces as she talks to the parish priest, a young man she chose specifically because he once helped her cross a stream and showed true compassion. Agnes's life, according to her narrative, had been a cold and lonely one, abandoned by her single mother at a young age and forced to be a servant throughout farms in Iceland. In her 30s she falls in love with Natan, the man whom she is accused of murdering. But did she murder for money or for love—or did she even murder him?

Kent is a mesmerizing storyteller. I am sure I have never read a novel before that takes place in Iceland, so that in itself was fascinating. What a cold, horrible way of life—yet Kent manages to create a spark of life into this dismal landscape. I found myself feeling so terribly hopeless for Agnes, holding out hope that someone might believe her innocence, even though I knew the outcome of the story.

I highly recommend this book. It's a fascinating piece of history, a glimpse into Iceland in the 1800s, and a really well written story.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Book Review: The Funeral Dress

Contemporary novels given the designation "southern fiction" can go either way with me. Too often the stereotypes are overdone and painful. But Susan Gregg Gilmore's The Funeral Dress is one of the good ones. Rather than making Southerners look like hopeless hicks and chicks popping bubblegum, Gilmore gets to the heart of the mountain and its people.

Gilmore says she was inspired to write the novel because of an old photograph of her great aunt and uncle, taken outside the trailer they'd shared for over 50 years. Her novel explores a world in which living in a trailer would be an absolute luxury for a single teen mom, who wants more for her baby than a life raised in a shack without running water.

In so many novels, the young girl/boy is forced to drop out of school and go to work in the factory in order to support the family, and then they end up quitting the factory, going to college, rising above it all, etc. etc.  In this novel, Emmalee at 16 quits school and begin her life in the sewing factory and instantly enters a better life. Her poverty-infested world, which has been one humiliation after another with her abusive, drunken father, becomes a more livable place when she has just a little money and a purpose.

Emmalee becomes the special project of Loretta, who has a reputation as being cold and harsh. But Emmalee softens Loretta, and when Emmalee discovers that she is pregnant, Loretta promises to take her and the baby to her trailer to live. But what's a good southern novel without a tragic event? I'll avoid spoilers and stop here.

I really loved this novel. I am partial to mountain stories, especially ones that neither romanticize nor degrade the folks of Appalachia. This isn't a literary masterpiece, but it's a sweet, hopeful novel with a good dose of melancholy and redemption.

Linked up with Semicolon's Saturday Review of Books

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Book Review: The Girls of Atomic City

Our May book club choice, along with a version of "Atomic Cake"

Denise Kiernan's "untold story of the women who helped win WWII" was an obvious read for our book club. We're just 20 minutes from Oak Ridge, Tennessee and have all visited it many times, from the Secret City Festival to the amazing American Museum of Science and Energy, the fantastic Children's Museum of Oak Ridge, the Secret City Excursion Train, and the Oak Ridge Playhouse.

Anywhere you go in Oak Ridge, you come across its history. It's not a secret any longer.

Kiernan's book, though, tells of the days when Oak Ridge was a giant secret kept by thousands of people— 75,000 people who didn't even know what they were doing in Oak Ridge. It is a fascinating story. How do you keep thousands of people from knowing that they are creating an atomic bomb?

Kiernan focuses on a half dozen or so women who worked in Oak Ridge during the Manhattan Project in the early 1940s. She tells their stories: how and why they came to Oak Ridge, what they did at the jobs, how they reacted to the news of the bombs dropping on Japan—and realizing that this was what they had been creating.

Interspersed with stories of these women are chapters about the science of atomic energy. I must admit that I skimmed these sections, but for those who are more science-oriented, I think these would be fabulous.

We had fantastic discussions in our book club about the book using the discussion guide provided at the end of the book.  We spent the vast majority of our time talking about the first three questions. The first addressed how the format of the book is compartmentalized, as were the lives and work of people during the Manhattan Project.

The second question focused on the losses of land and community when Oak Ridge was built and the government just took over land that had been in families for generations. We spent a lot of time talking about this, as this is a common theme here in East Tennessee, with Oak Ridge, the TVA projects, and the Great Smoky Mountain National Park—all government programs that forced families off their land for little compensation.

From there, we discussed the second part of that question: do the ends of the Project justify the means? We had no answers for that, of course. Two of us have fathers who fought in WWII, and we talked about that and about the Japanese-American internment camps in the U.S.

Ultimately, we moved on only to the third question: "Discuss the role that patriotism played in everyday life during World War II. Do you think Americans today would be willing or able to make the same sacrifices – including top-secret jobs, deployment overseas, rationed goods, and strict censorship – that families of that era made? Why or why not?" And wow. We never made it out of that question.

I had to kick everyone out earlier than usual because my oldest son was graduating from college the next day, but I am sure we could have spent a few more hours discussing this book! This is a fascinating book no matter where you live; but if you live within a few hours of Oak Ridge and haven't visited it, I highly recommend both reading the book and visiting Oak Ridge.