Saturday, May 26, 2018

Lilac Girls

By Martha Hall Kelly

Ballentine     2017
502 pages     Literary

Lilac Girls tells a World War II story from the viewpoints of three young women: a New York socialite, Caroline; Kasia, a Polish girl, who was a political prisoner in Ravensbruck, the only major Nazi concentration camp for women in Germany; and Herta, a German doctor at Ravensbruck. The three women are connected within the narrative, although their connection is not obvious at first.

The novel begins with the invasion of Poland in 1939. Each of the three women are caught, in one way or another. Caroline works as a volunteer at the French Consulate and she is in love with a married French actor named Paul Rodierre. He returns home to France as the war becomes more threatening. Caroline is extremely well connected, and her “old money” is used to provide clothing and other goods for French families. However, she longs for Paul, and when it is finally safe, she heads to France to find him. When she arrives in France, she becomes consumed with the story of Ravensbruck, and decides to bring the victims to the United States for medical treatment.

Kasia is caught after having carried out a secret mission for the Polish Resistance. Along with her mother and sister as well as several of her neighbors in their Polish town, they are sent to Ravensbruck in Germany, where they become Nazi medical experiments. They are part of a group called the “Rabbits.” The medical experiments are terrible, and Kasia and her sister suffer terribly.

Herta is one of the doctors carrying out the medical experiments. She is not a very well-developed character, but through her we see how the atrocities were conducted on young women like Kasia.

The narrative is quite uneven. Some of my displeasure may have been because I am not very fond of stories where there are chapters dedicated to each character, the format Kelly used in Lilac Girls. That being said, the story line is compelling. It is incredible to me that there can be so many books with so many fascinating stories about World War II. Kasia’s story is particularly difficult to read because of the brutality foisted upon her and the people she knew. I wish that Herta’s story could have been fleshed out more, because I struggled to understand how a woman of her intelligence could get sucked into the atrocities that she committed.

There are pictures at the end of the book that alert us to the fact that Caroline and Herta were real people and the author discovered their story and the stories of the Rabbits after she visited Caroline’s summer home in Connecticut. One reviewer suggests that this is a “groundbreaking category of fiction that re-examines history from a female point of view. It’s smart, thoughtful and also just an old-fashioned good read.” The New York Times reviewer, on the other hand, felt that the characters were so poorly drawn as to be stereotypes. That reviewer says the book “sinks under the weight of its own ambition."

I do have to say in conclusion that our book club discussion of Lilac Girls was quite good. We were able to pick through the poorly written parts and were eager to discuss our interpretation of the book and the historical significance of the events described. That, of course, is the important part of a book club discussion, rather than to nit-pick the inconsistencies of the writing. It is, after all, Kelly’s first book. Apparently, she is writing a prequel which takes place during World War I.
Martha Hall Kelly’s website with pictures of some of the Rabbits.

Saturday, May 12, 2018


By Solange Ritchie

Stony Hill     2018
264 pages     Thriller

Dr. Catherine Powers is a forensic pathologist for the FBI. In the first book of Ritchie’s series, The Burning Man, Cat has a life-altering experience when her son is kidnapped and she is injured by a serial killer named Eric. As Firestorm begins, Eric has sent Cat a lock of her son’s hair to remind her that he is still around, still killing. And he’s looking for her.

Eric is a serial killer, specializing in young women. He has a partner—in crime and in life—David, who specializes in starting fires in the windy, dry California hills. Eric is an emergency room physician and David is a firefighter. They met when David brought in a wildfire victim to the hospital. There was an instantaneous connection, and they knew they were kindred spirits. The reader knows the inner workings of their brains, because they are explained as a stream of consciousness as the two psychopaths go about their business of death and destruction.

Cat is called in on the case when they find several dead women apparently killed by Eric. Authorities know Eric is the perp because he carves EriC on the bellies of his victims. Cat leaves her young son with neighbors and heads to California. She and her partner McGregor set about finding Eric and destroying him. At the same time that they are finding Eric, David is causing havoc all over the region starting wildfires that are truly firestorms. When Eric is found and killed, David believes that Eric has entered his body, and as David/Eric, he continues to seeks revenge on Cat and McGregor.

The plot moves as quickly as the fires David starts; these are evil men, and their menace makes for compelling reading. We struggle to fit ourselves into their brains and understand how these manic brains motivate their destructive natures. Although the plot is bloody, gory, and sexual, it is compelling and engrossing. I kept reading, hoping that these horrible men would come to a horrible end.

Cat is a compelling character. She is the consummate professional, a woman in what is traditionally a man’s profession. She relies on her drive and her intuition to lead her to these psychopaths. We are privy to some of her inner feelings and thoughts, but I am not sure that we are led to understand why she is motivated to seek these men at the expense of her child. She is seeking justice as much as Eric and David seek revenge. She feels for the dead women in an almost visceral way, blacking out when the emotion of it all gets to be too much for her. She misses her son horribly, but feels compelled to solve the case before she returns home. She is admirable in the way that she asserts her authority and stands up to her male counterparts. Her thoughts: “She is at the top of her game with the FBI, respected and admired by her colleagues, people she has worked hard to impress. She works hard for herself too. Always the overachiever. Always having to outshine everyone. That is just her way. It is how she has always been.”

I’m not a big fan, however, of Ritchie’s writing style. It is minimalist to the extreme and relies on very short sentences, few extraneous details, and questions. Lots and lots of questions. To her credit, this minimalist style moves the plot forward at a fever pitch, but it leaves the reader oddly dissatisfied. There is a lot of repetition of phrases, in both the thoughts of the killers, but also in the phrases Cat uses as she moves through the case. For example, “Eric and David are deranged psychopaths,” appears over and over in the text. If you stop reading for plot, for even a moment, you say, “Wait, I just read that a page ago.”

In an interview, Ritchie addressed her minimalist style. She says, “I also write in a somewhat linear style, and I often use the same phrase over and over in a chapter. This is for emphasis. As a lawyer, I understand the value of white space on a page and the importance of having a catch phrase that repeats in the reader’s mind.

There seem to be a lot of books currently available about psychopathic and serial killers. Add Firestorm to the list. It comes out Tuesday, May 15. I received an advanced copy from the publicist.

Solange Ritchie website.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018


By Mark Kurlansky

Bloomsbury     2018
366 pages     Nonfiction
The Shortlist

Remember the advertising campaign, “Milk. It does a body good.” from the 80s and 90s? Or the campaign “Got Milk” where celebrities had milk mustaches? Everything milk is covered in Kurlansky’s newest study of a single food topic and its place in the cultures around the world.

Wow! Who knew that so much fascinating information could be written about such a commonplace topic as milk. Of course, I have navigated the topic in many settings over my last 75 years—from my own birth and childhood, to the birth and childhoods of my children, and on and on. I had a boyfriend once whose father had a dairy farm; a niece whose in-laws have a large organic dairy farm, and I have a lactose intolerant grandson. That was the extent of my knowledge until a review copy of Milk! arrived at my doorstep.

Here is a brief synopsis of the book. “Before the industrial revolution, it was common for families to keep dairy cows and produce their own milk. But during the 19th century, mass production and urbanization made milk safety a leading issue of the day, with milk-borne illnesses a common cause of death. Pasteurization slowly became a legislative matter. And today milk is a test case in the most pressing issues in food politics, from industrial farming and animal rights to GMOs, the locavore movement, and advocates for raw milk, who controversially reject pasteurization. Tracing the liquid's diverse history from antiquity to the present, historian Mark Kurlansky details its curious and crucial role in cultural evolution, religion, nutrition, politics and economics.

One of the most interesting set of facts to me was the biological and cultural aspect of using milk. Kurlansky says that just like most mammals, humans are not genetically engineered to drink milk after the age of two. Also milk consumption tends to be cultural among tribes and peoples. I didn’t know that.

Kurlansky is a prolific author on many topics, and his research skills are in full evidence in Milk! A mind-blowing number of issues regarding milk are presented along with a 10,000 year history of the product and all the politics connected with production and distribution. Also ice cream and cheese! Numerous recipes (most of them traditional) intersperse the text adding to the delight in the reading.

I am absolutely entranced with Kurlansky’s choice of topics and his research. It’s like he is eaten up by curiosity about paper, or cod, or salt, or Havana, Gloucester, or 1968, and he goes on a research spree leading to a marvelous book. What amazing literary freedom!

The reviewer in the Wall Street Journal calls Milk! “a complex and rich survey” and “a book well-worth nursing.” By the way, the book was released yesterday, May 8. Great summer reading!

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

You Are Not Alone

By Debbie Augenthaler

Everystep Publications     2018
268 pages     Spiritual Memoir

It has been 34 years since my dear husband Lee died of cancer at age 41. It was the most beautiful of all possible deaths, and everyone who was with him as he died saw his spirit leave his body. I was well prepared for his death, and my young children were prepared as well. It had been a long and hard fought battle. As prepared as we were, the grief was with us for a long time. Even 34 years later, as I read You Are Not Alone by Augenthaler, every moment of that death came back into my mind and heart, and I met that grief all over again.

Augenthaler is a psychotherapist in private practice in New York City. She specializes in trauma, grief, and loss. Her book is an attempt to meet her clients personal narration by sharing her own grief story. Part memoir, part self-help, part therapy, Augenthaler begins her account with her husband’s unexpected death. She then takes us on the journey that leads to her renewal and transformation into a new person.

Much of what she shares is of immediate value for persons who are experiencing their own grief or are in preparation for a death of a loved one. She emphasizes that each grief is different and each person’s response is different. However, it is valuable to share stories so people know that they are not alone.
Another important bit of information concerns asking for help. Augenthaler encourages the grieving to ask for help, whether it be psychological help or physical help. What I learned from my own experience was the people have a tremendous need to give—perhaps even more than the recipient has the need to receive. It is important to graciously receive help. People helped me with the spring gardening, hauling children around, and many, many meals. My teacher friends fed my family every day for the last six weeks of Lee’s life. I could go on and on with the gifts of time, food, and services that people offered.

Interspersed with her story are pauses and meditations that offer insights into grief, strategies to try, beautiful poetry, and other gifts of encouragement and comfort.

You Are Not Alone is a unique and powerful guide for “grief, healing, and hope.” I will pass my copy along to a friend.

Debbie Augenthaler’s website.