Wednesday, April 28, 2010

When the Emperor Was Divine

When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka

This is almost a novella - only 144 pages. It begins in 1942 in Berkely, CA and ends in 1946 in Berkely, CA. In the years in between it takes place at Topaz, UT - the Japanese internment camp in the Utah desert.

The story is very matter of fact and succinct in it's way of communicating what one family did to prepare to leave their home and how they lived in the years following away from their home. After the war, as they return to a home that had been heavily vandalized and try to pick up where they left off, the tone of the narrative becomes a bit sad. In the end, after their father has returned, but is never again the same, the tone becomes bitter. The bitterness is understandable and almost desired at this point.

The narrative of the book covers several different situations of discrimination. It addresses life before and after incarceration. And finally it touches on torture and duress and how people will eventually agree to anything in hopes of changing their situation.

I enjoyed this because it was a powerful way to tell the story of how American families suddenly became enemy aliens by just being of Japanese decent. Then, after the war when they were no longer the enemy, they were still disenfranchised from the world where they had once belonged. If the story had been longer and more verbose, I don't think it would have had as much power behind the feelings it conveyed.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe

This was a great read. It's set in New England in both the late 1600's and 1991.

The story in today's world is about a woman from New England who is entering the doctoral program at Harvard University in American Colonial History. Through a series of circumstances, she begins research to locate evidence of an historical person, Deliverance Dane, and then a book that had belonged to Deliverance. She soon determines that Deliverance was declared a witch during the Salem witch trials but her name had not previously been known.

Throughout the book the author bounces between the lives of Deliverance Dane and her progeny and the modern world. She uses historical fact regarding the Salem Witch Trials and life during the era and weaves her fictional characters into the story.

It was an intriguing book that was fun to read and had suspense, mystery, a bit of romance as well as lots of information about life in Colonial New England especially the life that women would have led.

This book was similar to another I read last year, The Heretics Daughter by Kathleen Kent but I think this one had more suspense than the other. I highly recommend this book (as well as the other book) to anyone who enjoys historical novels.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Yiddish Policemen's Union

The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon

This is a murder mystery steeped in the colloquialisms of a "what if" world.

In 1938 Harold Ickes, the Secretary of the Interior, proposed offering Alaska as a haven for Jewish refugees from Germany and all of Europe which would by-pass normal immigration laws. Alaska was not part of the US at the time and so could be considered a good location for an exception such as this. The proposal was voted down in Congress and it never happened. This book operates on the assumption that it did. It is 40 years after the first wave of immigrants and the Jews must apply for citizenship of the US or figure out someplace else to go.

On the eve of the "Reversion", an unknown man is killed in the seedy hotel where our detective lives. All members of the cast are Jewish with varying degrees of faith and dedication to the religion and orthodoxy. Despite being told the case has been officially classified as a "cold case" the detective can't let it go. He and his partner delve into the closed world of the "black hats" to uncover the identity of the dead man and finally that of his killer.

I didn't notice that there was a Yiddish glossary at the end until I was finished with the book. It probably wouldn't have made it a faster read because most of the words used were self-explanatory based on usage in the sentence. The dialogue was not only full of Yiddish but the kind of slang that you really only hear on cop shows or pulp novels.

I enjoyed this book. It is a good mystery / detective story plus you get a fair back story on the principles and their messed up lives and addictions. You also get a small look into the world of Chassids. My copy of the book had a story from the New York Times about the book as well which offered some insight into how much of the story was real information and how much was fiction. The story was woven with such detail that, until I finished the book, I had no idea that there hadn't been a Jewish settlement in Alaska.

I have also read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by the same author and enjoyed it as well. His books are not fast reads but they are worth the effort. I will definitely put other books by him on my list of books to read.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Grave Goods

Grave Goods by Arianna Franklin

This book is the third in a series. They are CSI mystery thrillers set in the 12th century England. The author has done quite a bit of research with regards to both political hisory (Henry Plantagenet aka Henry II is a recurring figure) as well as social customs and the circumstances of women.

Our heroine, Adelia, was raised in Italy and attended medical school there. Nowhere else in Europe are women allowed to practice medicine, including England. Another twist is that the bulk of her medical training has been in the investigation of corpses. She finds herself in England with her good friend and protector, an Islamic Saracen. They are forced to offer the world the pretense that the Saracen is the doctor and she the arabic interpretor in order to avoid having her tried and executed for witchcraft.

King Henry II is fully aware of her presence and her expertise but goes along with the pretense knowing that the people of England are not yet ready for women to be doctors let alone doctors of the dead.

Adelia is brought in for yet another mystery for which King Henry II needs an answer. She and those she cares most about in the world are at his whim and must travel into danger to investigate two corpses thought to be those of King Arthur and Guinevere. Her task is to either prove that they are the fabled pair or make sure no one can prove who they really are. Using the anatomical and investigative knowledge of the 12th century, she is once again able to complete the task at hand but not without experiencing peril to her own life and that of others.

All three books are great reads that are entertaining as well as informative with regards to the reign of Henry Plantagenet. They could be read separately but I would recommend reading them all. The first book is The Mistress of the Art of Death and the second is The Serpent's Tale. Enjoy!