Book Picks November 27, 2018

The Winter Soldier
Daniel Mason

Lucius has just completed the first two years of his medical degree when World War 1 engulfs Europe. He enlists and is assigned as a medical orderly to a remote field station in the Carpathian Mountains of eastern Europe. The Winter Soldier begins with Lucius climbing down from a train at an isolated station in the mountains. It’s a two-day journey on horseback to his posting.

Lucius finally arrives at the field station, a shell-damaged church in the village of Lemnowice, expecting to work under the supervision of the resident doctor. Instead, he is met by a nursing sister in a stiff grey habit and armed with a rifle.

“The doctor?” she asks in response to Lucius’s question about his supervisor. “Didn’t you just say you are him?”

Margarete, the nursing sister, shows Lucius around, introducing him to all the patients and summarizing their medical needs. She quickly realizes that Lucius has no experience – he has in fact only ever treated two patients – and takes him under her wing. Working side-by-side in grueling conditions for long hours each day, they develop a strong bond, which slowly evolves into love.

One day, a peasant arrives pushing a wheelbarrow, loaded with a comatose soldier, the winter soldier of the novel’s title. Lucius and Margarete examine the patient, but can find no sign of physical injury. They diagnose nervous shock, a new disease sweeping the continent in the footsteps of the war. Lucius and Margarete’s care and treatment of Horvath, the winter soldier, have a profound effect on all of their lives.

The Winter Soldier is a masterpiece. Mason’s writing is so evocative that the reader is drawn into the world he creates, seeming to stand right there beside Lucius and Margarete as they tend to their patients in the little church in Lemnowice.
 

Transcription
Kate Atkinson

London, 1940. Juliet Armstrong is recruited by MI5, Britain’s domestic counter-intelligence service, and tasked with transcribing the recordings of a group of suspected Fascist sympathizers who meet regularly in a London apartment. The group is led by Godfrey Toby, a double agent working undercover for MI5. Juliet finds the work tedious, and relieves the tedium by imagining romantic entanglements with her boss, Peregrine Gibbons, who is not undercover, but is certainly hiding something.

After weeks of boredom, Juliet is thrilled when she is asked to take on an assumed identity – Iris Carter-Jenkins. Iris infiltrates a group of high-society women whose husbands have all been imprisoned because of their support for Fascism. There are code words and passwords and words of the day and it seems that nearly everybody in the group is working undercover for MI5.

Juliet’s world is upended when one of Godfrey’s group arrives early to a meeting and catches him talking with Juliet about one of the transcriptions. Shots are fired, and a cover up begins.

Ten years after the war, Juliet is working as a radio producer with the BBC. She assumes her wartime past is dead and buried, but then she bumps into Godfrey on the street one day. He pretends not to know her and quickly goes on his way. But the chance encounter disturbs Juliet’s long-hidden memories of the war and she has to come to terms once again with the events of 1940.

Atkinson’s novel draws on actual wartime events, but spins them wickedly to create this delightful romp through the halls of MI5. Her language is playful and fun, her wit sharp and well observed. The characters are finely crafted, but flawed, and all the more realistic for their flaws. This is a superb read.

Kate Atkinson lives in Edinburgh, Scotland. Her novels have won many prizes, including the Whitbread Book of the Year in 1995 for her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, and the Costa Novel Award in 2013 for Life After Life.
 

Where the Crawdads Sing
Delia Owens

Where the Crawdads Sing is at once a coming-of-age story, a murder-mystery, and a courtroom drama. It’s also a beautiful celebration of the wonders of nature.

Chase Andrews’s body is found battered and broken at the base of a fire tower in the marshlands near Barkley Cove, North Carolina. Did he fall or was he pushed? Suspicion falls on Kya Clark, the mysterious Marsh Girl, who lives alone in an isolated shack. Nobody knows much about Kya who, since childhood, has scraped a living by digging mussels and selling them to Jumpin’s Bait and Gas.

The local sheriff slowly builds his case, aided by other members of the community who come forward with sightings of Kya. One witness reports seeing Kya attacking Chase shortly before he was found dead. Another tells the sheriff he saw her on her boat on the night of the death, heading in the direction of the fire tower. But Kya has an alibi: she was away in Greenville for two days, meeting the publisher of her award-winning books on marsh life. People saw her get on the bus and off again two days later when she returned to Barkley Cove. And the publisher confirms the meeting.

The story switches back and forth between Kya’s childhood, growing up in the marsh, and the investigation of Chase’s death. The two storylines come together in 1970 when Kya is arrested on suspicion of murdering Chase.

Owens’s prose is delightful. With her beautiful depictions of the landscape, she creates a rich portrait of the teeming life in the coastal marshes and how the reclusive Marsh Girl interacts with the fragile environment. Her descriptions of the light on the water and through the trees are scintillating.   

Delia Owens won the John Burroughs Award for Nature Writing. She currently lives in Idaho. Where the Crawdads Sing is her first novel.
 

Gone So Long
Andre Dubus III

It has been 40 years since Daniel Ahern last saw his daughter, Susan. She was just three years old when she was snatched from his arms before Daniel was cuffed and marched away by the police. He spent 15 years in prison. Since his release, he has built a new life refurbishing furniture in the mornings, and volunteering as a driver for old and infirm residents of a neighboring town in the afternoons. It’s a simple life, but satisfying in its routine.

After being taken from Daniel, Susan was raised by her grandmother, Lois. To explain the absence of Susan’s parents from her life, Lois has told Susan that they died when their car crashed off a bridge into a river. As a teenager, she learns the truth for the first time. The knowledge shatters her sense of security, and her life descends into a series of brief and chaotic relationships with unsuitable men.

Married for three years to Bobby Dunn, her uncertainties rise again – can someone with such a tragic background ever find love? She takes refuge with Lois, telling Bobby she needs the time and space to work on a novel. Instead, she carefully unpeels the long-buried memories of her childhood, discovering new insights into who she is and why.

Now, Daniel is dying and he has unfinished business with his daughter. It's time to set his affairs in order. He writes Susan a letter and sets off on the three-day journey south to Florida where she lives.

This is a powerful and compelling novel. Dubus writes with great intensity. With a few deft sentences he conjures up scenes so vivid it is as if you are there. His characters are real and heartfelt; their pain and self-doubt are almost tangible. The tension rises thrillingly as the main characters approach the denouement. But will Susan and Daniel find peace?

Andre Dubus III is a faculty member at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. His novel, House of Sand and Fog, was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1999. He lives in Newbury, Massachusetts, with his wife and three children.
 

Unsheltered
Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel, Unsheltered, explores people’s relationships with themselves, their families, their communities, and the natural environment. The book is divided into two parallel stories, one set in the present day, the other in the 1880s. Chapters alternate between these two time periods, with a tumbledown house in Vineland, New Jersey, providing a link between the past and the present. Kingsolver uses the past as a mirror to reflect on the uncertain times we face in the present.

The present. Willa Knox inherits an old brick house in Vineland. The house is slowly falling apart, as is Willa’s life, it seems. The magazine where she worked has closed. Her husband has just lost his job. Her live-in, grouchy father-in-law is slowly dying of cancer. Her daughter is adrift. And her son has just called with some devastating news.

Willa seeks refuge in the past, plundering the archives of the local preservation society to find out whether there is any historical significance to her ramshackle home. In the archives, she discovers the work of Mary Treat who corresponded with Charles Darwin for many years after the publication of The Origin of Species.

The Past. Thatcher Greenwood first encounters his neighbor, Mary Treat, when he goes to her house to retrieve his daughter’s dogs. He finds Mary unmoving at her desk, in the midst of conducting a scientific experiment. She wants to find out whether a venus flytrap can digest the tip of a human finger, and has been ensconced with her finger in the jaws of the flytrap for four hours already. Thatcher, a science teacher at the local high school, is enthralled. They quickly form a scientific partnership and, over the coming months, embark on excursions into the countryside to marvel at the wonders of nature.

Unsheltered is beautifully written. It is more conversational than many of Kingsolver’s other novels, but equally as powerful in its underlying message: the importance of family and friends as a support in an age of uncertainty.

Barbara Kingsolver’s previous novels include The Poisonwood Bible and Prodigal Summer. She has degrees in Biology from DePauw University and the University of Arizona. Kingsolver lives with her family on a farm in Virginia.
 

How Do We Look: The Body, the Divine and the Question of Civilization
Mary Beard

Mary Beard’s latest book, How Do We Look, is intended as an accompaniment to the PBS series Civilizations, but it stands alone as a beautiful and very accessible introduction to art history and an exploration of what we mean by the term “civilization.” It is filled with glorious photographs of art through the ages, and very readable explanations of what this art meant to the people of the time. The title refers to Beard’s intention of “putting the viewers of art back into the frame.”

The book is divided into two parts. In Part One, Beard explores the art of the body. She focuses on some early examples of art and asks the questions: Why were these men and women depicted in this way, and how were they seen by the people of the time? In Part Two, Beard reflects on the problems faced by world religions in picturing the divine.

Beard makes the point that some of what we view today as great art was in fact mass-produced in its time. She gives the example of some beautifully painted Greek ceramics, now carefully preserved in a museum, that were once just ordinary household crockery. 

“So much depends on who is looking… and so much depends on the context in which they look.”

The book is peppered with interesting snippets, such as Hadrian’s visit to Thebes in 130 CE to see a singing statue, one of the greatest tourist attractions of the ancient world. The statue still exists but, sadly, no longer sings. Posing at the statue, Beard remarks that “there is something touching about being able to tread in the footsteps of Hadrian’s party.”

Mary Beard is a professor of Classics at Cambridge University. Her earlier book, SPQR, was a New York Times best seller.