“Outlander” by Diana Gabaldon

outlanderWhen I was a kid, my family frequently traveled overseas to visit relatives abroad. This was in the days before iPads, laptops and other electronic distractions; I don’t even recall movies ever being offered on those drop-down screens you used to see on planes before every traveler was provided with his or her own seatback entertainment center. (Admittedly, to save money, we frequently took charter flights or flew off-brand air carriers, where in-flight movies were probably considered unnecessary frills.)

Therefore, I had one option when it came to entertainment: I could bring a book. I remember going to Waldenbooks in the mall and scanning the shelves for the thickest possible spines. I needed a book that would last a long time, but also provide a super-sized entertainment value. I wanted epics, with exotic settings, life-and-death conflict, and romance, books like M.M. Kaye’s The Far Pavilions and Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds.

Perhaps a nostalgia for the sweeping sagas of my youth led me to pick up Outlander, the enormously popular, and just plain enormous, time-travel romance, for a recent overseas trip. (I got the Kindle edition, not the paperback—I appreciate the technical innovations of the 21st century.) I feel like 16-year-old me would have loved Outlander; 2016 me was rather lukewarm, though I did make it through the entire thing. It took me about two weeks; I started it in Stockholm, and it kept me company through trips to Amsterdam and Paris, before I finally finished it in a Copenhagen airport hotel. I’m unlikely to pick up other books in the series (there are currently eight), though I’d consider watching the TV show if I had the Starz pay-cable channel.

The best thing about Outlander is that it has a strong and resourceful female heroine, Claire Beauchamp, a 20th century nurse who inadvertently winds up in 18th century Scotland after time-traveling through a standing stone. Claire is English, but was in Scotland on a second honeymoon of sorts with her husband Frank. World War II has just ended, and she and Frank were apart for most of it, so they were just getting reacquainted when Claire finds herself in a very different time period. It was smart of Gabaldon to start the book in the postwar era, which was one of hardship and deprivation; the only things Claire really misses are hot baths and modern medicine. Imagine a 2016 woman sent back to 1743—I’m not sure I could function without a smartphone, a good sunscreen, speedy modes of transportation, well-stocked grocery stores, and (dare I say it) modern feminine-hygiene products.

Through a series of events, Claire winds up married to Jamie Fraser, a younger man who was a virgin on their wedding night but soon becomes an ardent and attentive lover. (There are a lot of sex scenes in this book.) At first, she tries hard to return to the standing stone to see if she can time-travel back to 1945, but eventually she realizes that she loves Jamie much more than she ever loved her 20th century husband, who is not nearly so rugged and sexy as the 18th century Scot. Jamie is also a wounded man, literally and figuratively, and becomes more so over the course of the book; Claire has to nurse him back to health several times, though he also saves her life a time or two.

I guess there is something appealing about the fantasy of escaping to a more uncomplicated time, but I kept thinking that despite having a hunky 18th century babe at my disposal, I’d still opt to return to the mid-1940s in a heartbeat. Life was nasty, brutish and short in 1743! It was an especially rough time for women, who were essentially considered property and died in childbirth at an alarming rate. Claire survives and eventually thrives, but I think for the vast majority of us, that time period may be a fun place to read about, but thank goodness we don’t live there.

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“Gunpowder Girls” by Tanya Anderson

Gunpowder GirlsAs an election junkie, I have to restrain myself from constantly refreshing prediction sites like FiveThirtyEight.com. So when Tanya Anderson’s Gunpowder Girls: The True Stories of Three Civil War Tragedies showed up in my mailbox (thanks to my support of Quindaro Press‘s Kickstarter campaign), I figured, “Hey, here’s a chance to read about a time when this country was really divided!”

If you want to feel pretty good about the state of America in 2016, Gunpowder Girls is a fine choice. While it’s a young-adult book aimed at teenage readers, this is a story that will no doubt be new to older history buffs as well.

During the Civil War, girls as young as 10 toiled in arsenals, filling paper cartridges with gunpowder and lead to produce rounds of ammunition. The workers, mostly poor immigrants, did their best to fill the unending demand for percussion caps and rifle cartridges: “twelve hours a day, six days a week… Shoulders and backs ached, but the work had to be done, and quotas had to be met if the girls were going to keep these jobs.” Needless to say, working with dangerous, combustible material sometimes led to disaster, and three of the worst are detailed in this book: the Allegheny Arsenal near Pittsburgh, where an explosion killed 78 people, most of them young women in their teens and 20s; the Confederate States Laboratory in Richmond, Virginia, where 45 perished; and the Washington Arsenal in D.C., an 1864 tragedy that culminated in a funeral attended by President Lincoln.

Anderson draws on primary sources to fill out her narrative, leading to some pretty grisly descriptions (The Washington, D.C. Evening Star, on the scene of its local tragedy, detailed how “many of the bodies seemed to have been crisped quite bloodless, the flesh, where exposed, being perfectly white…”). If this seems too horrific for young readers, well, I don’t know that a book like this one would have been published 10 or 15 years ago, before novels like The Hunger Games attracted a wide teenage fan base. I think I’d rather see kids reading about real-life tragedies instead of stories about teens killing each other for entertainment purposes.

Plus, it’s important to show how far we’ve come in terms of child labor laws, workplace safety, etc. Anderson provides a reading list in the back for people who want to learn more about those issues.

There were times when the book left me wanting a bit more: Anderson often describes specific women, like 25-year-old mother of four Kate Horan (a victim of the Washington Arsenal disaster), and I couldn’t help but wonder what happened to the family she left behind. There may not be a way to find out, but I was haunted by the reverberations of the accidents that surely affected hundreds, if not thousands, of people for decades to come.

The three tragedies described in Gunpowder Girls collectively killed more young women than died in the far better-known Triangle Shirtwaist Factory disaster, and yet they are all but forgotten. With this book, Anderson has ensured that a new generation will hear their stories.

“The Sympathizer” by Viet Thanh Nguyen

The SympathizerFull disclosure: after finishing The Sympathizer, I decided not to review it. The reason is not because I had no opinions about it—I did—but I worried that my dislike for a book which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the Edgar Award for Best First Novel and was named a Best Book of the Year by the New York Times, meant that I was somehow not intelligent enough to appreciate it. However, my friend Vallery, who didn’t care for it either, convinced me to write it up anyway.

I can appreciate the fact that The Sympathizer is an important book, a worthy examination of the Vietnam war and its aftermath. But I found it a real slog to get through. (I read it for my book group, which is why I didn’t toss it aside a couple of chapters in.) For one thing, there are no quotation marks, an affectation I find extremely annoying. The last quarter of the book is an extended depiction of torture. A set piece satirizing the filming of “Apocalypse Now” seems oddly irrelevant to the rest of the plot. And then there’s the writing. For example, we have this lengthy meditation on—let’s be frank—boobs:

While I was critical of many things when it came to so-called Western civilization, cleavage was not one of them. The Chinese might have invented gunpowder and the noodle, but the West had invented cleavage, with profound if underappreciated implications. A man gazing on semi-exposed breasts was not only engaging in simple lasciviousness, he was also meditating, even if unawares, on the visual embodiment of the verb “to cleave,” which meant both to cut apart and to put together. A woman’s cleavage perfectly illustrated this double and contradictory meaning, the breasts two separate entities with one identity. The double meaning was also present in how cleavage separated a woman from a man and yet drew him to her with the irresistible force of sliding down a slippery slope. Men had no equivalent, except, perhaps, for the only kind of male cleavage most women truly cared for, the opening and closing of a well-stuffed billfold. But whereas women could look at us as much as they wanted, and we would appreciate it, we were damned if we looked and hardly less damned if we didn’t. A woman with extraordinary cleavage would reasonably be insulted by a man whose eyes could resist the plunge, so, just to be polite, I cast a tasteful glance while reaching for another cigarette. In between those marvelous breasts bumped a gold crucifix on a gold chain, and for once I wished I were a true Christian so I could be nailed to that cross.

The Sympathizer is the second war novel in a row to win the Pulitzer, following Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, which is set during WWII. All the Light is one of my top 10 favorite books of the past decade; it’s a big-hearted, beautiful story full of characters I cared deeply about. The Sympathizer, on the other hand, is the sort of book I wanted to keep at arm’s length (consider yourself lucky that I quoted the passage about cleavage and not the part where the narrator defiles a squid). Obviously a lot of people think this is a bona fide Great Book; I’m not among them, and I realize that may say more about me than it does about The Sympathizer.

“The Summer Before the War” by Helen Simonson

The Summer Before the WarI probably would not have picked up The Summer Before the War had I not been such a fan of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, Helen Simonson’s debut novel, a thoroughly delightful comedy of manners about a retired Army officer and his unlikely relationship with a Pakistani shopkeeper. Unfortunately, Summer is a bit of a sophomore slump; if, like me, you’ve read more than a few other novels set in the run-up to and early months of World War I, you’ll recognize the familiar beats: young women presenting white feathers to men who aren’t quick enough to enlist; underaged boys running off to the recruiters; pomp and pageantry giving way to disillusionment and death. Oh, and don’t forget the rigidity of the class structure and the small-minded gossip running rampant in small English towns.

The novel opens with Beatrice Nash, a schoolteacher in her early twenties, arriving in the picturesque coastal town of Rye in Sussex. Beatrice, orphaned after the death of her father, a prominent author and scholar, has no private fortune to fall back on; opportunities were limited for single women at that time, and the fact that a female has been hired to teach Latin at the local grammar school is highly controversial. Her patron in Rye, Agatha Kent, prides herself on being forward-thinking, but even that has its limits: Beatrice’s aunt “took pains to assure me she’s quite plain,” says Agatha before Beatrice makes her entrance. “I may be progressive, but I would never hire a pretty teacher.”

Of course, Beatrice turns out to be somewhat less plain than advertised, and she strikes up a friendship with Agatha’s nephew Hugh, who is in training to become a surgeon—and hopes to get engaged to his mentor’s dim but pretty daughter. Also in the mix is Hugh’s cousin Daniel, a sensitive, handsome poet planning to start a literary magazine, though his plans are quickly scuttled by the war.

At almost 500 pages, this is a long and rather slow-moving book, as languorous as a summer Sunday until several soapy plotlines suddenly spring up in the last couple hundred pages. I kept reading because I wanted to find out what would happen to Beatrice, who is a thoroughly likable protagonist, but in the end, things pretty much turned out the way I figured they would—you can try guessing which characters will not survive the war, and you’ll probably be correct. The Summer Before the War has its virtues, but in the end, it didn’t provide a fresh enough angle on the the time period and the “loss of innocence” narrative to justify recommending it, except perhaps to younger readers for whom this material will not seem as familiar.

“The Seven Wonders” by Steven Saylor

The Seven Wonders by Steven SaylorI don’t read a ton of historical fiction, a genre that is so popular in the mystery world that it has spawned at least three separate awards. However, when life in the present day starts to get you down—and the newspapers have been full of grim headlines lately—sometimes, escaping into a bygone time period can be just the ticket.

I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent in ancient Rome with Steven Saylor’s detective, Gordianus the Finder. A few years ago, Saylor rebooted the long-running series and started writing “prequels” about Gordianus’ adventures as a younger man. The Seven Wonders takes place just as he’s turned 18. Accompanied by his elderly tutor, Antipater, he sets out to see all of the wonders of the ancient world. The book is a series of linked short stories rather than a longer narrative; at each wonder, Gordianus finds a mystery to solve. There’s also one big arc involving Antipater, who is traveling under an assumed identity after faking his own death. What would make him do such a thing?

One of the most appealing things about The Seven Wonders is that Saylor has done a ton of research into the subject, and describes each of the wonders beautifully. I spent a lot of time looking up the wonders online too, so I could see what they looked like (or historians’ best guesses as to what they looked like) and how long they stood. Who wouldn’t have wanted to catch a glimpse of the Pharos Lighthouse or the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus? Some of the wonders were already in a state of decline by the time Gordianus set out on his journey (92 B.C.); the Colossus of Rhodes had fallen, and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were in ruins.

As a bonus, Gordianus and Antipater attend the Olympic Games, which may have been safer and better-organized back in 92 B.C. than the upcoming Rio games.

Despite the serious scholarship that went into The Seven Wonders, it’s first and foremost a lively collection of mysteries, featuring a likable protagonist and a wide variety of puzzles to solve. This book is pure fun from start to finish.

“Firebrand” by Aaron Barnhart

Firebrand by Aaron BarnhartMy local library has started a new book club called “Check Yo’Shelf,” described as “a teen book club for adults.” The flyer is illustrated with covers of YA books that have been read by huge numbers of over-18s, including John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and Veronica Roth’s Divergent.

The YA genre has more to offer than tearjerkers and dystopian fiction, however. My pal Aaron Barnhart (yes, full disclosure, the author is a longtime friend of mine) has started a new publishing venture, Quindaro Press, with a mission to produce works of history aimed at younger readers, but I suspect they’d love to reach adults as well.

Aaron and his wife live in Kansas City, and a few years ago, they published a travel guide to the Kansas-Missouri border region called The Big Divide. Barnhart’s new work of historical fiction, Firebrand, takes place in the same area and deals with the struggles to bring Kansas into the Union as a free state, as seen through the eyes of a young Jewish man named August Bondi.

Bondi was born in Vienna in 1833. When Bondi was just 15, he began to take part in a local wave of student protests, an attempt to bring democratic rule to Austria. His father felt the family would have a better life in America; initially, August was furious that he’d have to abandon the struggle in Vienna, but it didn’t take him long to get caught up in a new, equally dramatic fight for freedom on the other side of the Atlantic.

I must admit that I knew very little about the whole “Bleeding Kansas” confrontations of the pre-Civil War period (they pitted pro-slavery forces, who wanted Kansas to enter the U.S. as a state which allowed slavery, against anti-slavery “Free Staters”). I enjoyed learning a bit about this dramatic conflict, as seen through the eyes of a brave young man who becomes an ally of abolitionist John Brown.

One powerful scene demonstrates how Bondi, still a relative newcomer to the U.S., learns an important lesson. Bondi, working as a clerk on a riverboat, whips a black stevedore in an effort to get him to unload cargo faster:

“Massa,” said the stevedore, “you been the only one who never give me a whippin’. I surely thought you was different from the rest.”

While the stevedore was a free man, the incident served as a wake-up call to Bondi to look at the way slavery was accepted as normal in his new country. Whenever his riverboat pulled into a port, “the dock was crowded with white, well-to-do people. Always, always they had slaves in tow—men, women and children. At first the sight had startled him. Now, he hardly noticed them at all. And that’s just what people want you to do here.

Bondi’s shame causes him to leave the riverboat and eventually head for Kansas to fight against the pro-slavery “Border Ruffians.” But he wasn’t done fighting: he served for three years with the Fifth Kansas Cavalry in the Civil War, leaving the battlefield only after he suffered a near-fatal injury.

Barnhart’s book is based on two sources: Bondi’s own autobiography and an earlier book for young readers, Border Hawk by Lloyd Alexander, which was published in 1957. I haven’t read Border Hawk, but apparently Barnhart’s version is heavier on the coming-of-age angle, and I would imagine the earlier book was written in a style that would not be as appealing to today’s readers. A longtime journalist and TV critic before he switched gears and started writing history, Barnhart crafts smooth, readable prose; his style is unfussy and easy to follow, while never feeling dumbed-down. (After reading a piece from Jewishmag.com on Bondi, it’s clear that the freedom fighter’s life took plenty of twists and turns that aren’t covered in Firebrand; getting the book down to an easily-digestible 160 pages must have been a challenge.)

Barnhart is trying to popularize the #YAHistorical hashtag to let people know about the wide variety of YA beyond vampires and wizards. He’s also started a monthly podcast about the genre, and Quindaro will be publishing a full slate of historical works. With Firebrand, they’re off to a great start, and deserve to be noticed by readers of all ages.