Four Shorties

HHhHHHhH by Laurent Binet

Told in a distinctly postmodern style, the novel explores the assassination of Reinhart Heydrich, the Blond Beast of the Third Reich and mastermind of the Final Solution, by two Czech men. I’d never heard of Heydrich, but then again, I am not encyclopedic on Nazis or WWII FAQs in general. Still, after completing this book, it seems that Heydrich should be at least as well-known as Himmler or Goring (the title stands for the phrase, in German, Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich). Binet himself is the narrator of the novel, frequently pointing the absurd misgivings of his role as a writer of historical fiction. He tells us what he won’t do as a writer (e.g. start a chapter off by imagining Heydrich lighting a cigarette and staring out the window or telling us what Heydrich is thinking). Binet self-consciously corrects himself as he ventures too far into his imagination of events, and discusses his research, gives opinions, and so forth. This sounds annoying, but in fact, what results is a devastating sort of realism and I felt perhaps even more aghast at certain events than if they’d been presented by a drawn character. By the time I got to the actual assassination as it unfolded, I was completely rapt. I also found myself researching all sorts of WWII history and players to try to figure out if Binet was wildly imagining or retelling—or really does it matter? A great, if disturbing, read.

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o_pioneers!O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

I can’t believe I’d never read Cather until very recently. She’s like a Laura Ingalls Wilder for adults. Though I didn’t blog about it, I read my first Cather novel, The Professor’s House, just before the holidays and it made me want to read more. O Pioneers! is Cather’s first of her so-called Nebraska trilogy. It is the story of the determined and intelligent Swedish pioneer, Alexandra Bergstrom, who develops her father’s fledgling homestead into a prosperous, sprawling farm at the end of the nineteenth century. Alexandra is a great feminist character—strong, intelligent, and supremely more capable than her male siblings. Which makes Alexandra’s reaction to the tragic climax of the novel more complex and to my mind, confusing. Without spoilers, why does she blame the woman and forgive the man? It made me sad and a bit disappointed in her character. Read and let me know what you think.

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marchMarch by Geraldine Brooks

I’ve read just about everything Brooks has written, and this is a good one. March is the story of Mr. March, the father of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. If you’ve read Little Women, you only know Mr. March from the letters he writes home to his wife and girls while he is off working as a chaplain in the Civil War.  This novel takes us into the heart of his experiences—and shows us what he finds too honest, too painful, and too real to relate to his family, particularly his daughters. March’s wartime experiences tie back into his youth and some people he met when he traveled the south as a peddler. It was a bit convenient that March finds himself on the former plantation and in the company of a former slave that he’d known in his peddler days, but it gives Brooks a way to explain March’s temperament and history. It also sets up the main conflict of the novel. By doing so, Brooks can also take a more adult look at some topics only hinted at or given cursory mention in LW such as Marmee’s spectacular temper, the family’s poverty, the abolitionist movement and its realities and limitations, among others. Brooks also works Thoreau, Emerson, and other notable residents of Concord, MA (contemporaries of Louisa May Alcott) into the novel. It’s deftly handled, but once again, I felt that their presence was a tad too convenient. Perhaps I am too critical and the world was, indeed, smaller then.

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WingshootersWingshooters by Nina Revoyr

Revoyr is the author of one of my all-time favorite books, Southland, which takes place in Los Angeles. Like Southland, Wingshooters deals with the topic of race and growing up Japanese American, but the setting is the much more insular community of Dearhorn, Wisconsin. The story reminded me of To Kill a Mockingbird as the narrator is a nine year-old girl, Michelle, of half-Japanese, half white ancestry telling us about very adult business from the often poignant view of an observant child.  Michelle’s hippie parents have abandoned her with her white American grandparents, and she must deal with the incredible isolation and abuse resulting from her being the only person of color in a very prejudiced town. Her grandfather is the town’s number one bigot, but oddly, he also absolutely adores her, and none of his equally bigoted cronies dares to point out the contradictions in his affection. When a black couple moves into town, Michelle is no longer the only person subject to prejudice and hatred but this time her grandfather is one of the haters. The novel moves toward a violent, tragic conclusion. However, Michelle’s loving relationship with her grandfather and her ambivalence about his contradictory prejudices and actions gives the outcome complexity and nuance.

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