Three parallel stories expertly told. In the first, the author trains a goshawk to fly from her glove to hunt pheasants and rabbits on the British countryside. In a second, Macdonald recounts the life of T.H. White, author of Arthurian novels, depressed, gay, abused, and also a goshawk trainer. And, in the third, she writes a memoir of the year that her father died unexpectedly, she acquired a hawk, named it Mabel, trained Mabel, lost her happiness, read everything of T.H. White’s, scrambled in the British woods behind her not always cooperative goshawk, and muddled through. We learn to see Britain’s hedges and forests through the eyes of an expert hawker and the eyes of a hawk, and Britain’s mid-twentieth century rigidity through the writings of T.H. White.
Even if you do not recall the Oslo terrorist attack in 2011, the opening pages of this book make certain there is no surprise. Anders Breivik, a native of Norway exploded a homemade bomb in front of the Prime Minister’s residence and then drove a van to Utoya Island to murder socialist youth. He killed seventy-seven people, most of them children, nearly all with gunshots to the back of the head. Only a few pages after it opens, the story returns to the beginning of Anders Breivik’s life to uncover in page-turning detail his development as a right-wing terrorist bent upon preserving Norway’s ethnic purity from creeping left-wing government policy. Breivik emerges as a psychotic, deranged killer. Except his continued lucidity and consistent logic of self-defined clarity of purpose make him indistinguishable from any member of ISIS, the Taliban, fanatical Israeli settlers and their Hamas counterparts, the routine gun-wielding mass shooters that too routinely make our headlines, more than a few affiliate of the NRA, and several of my neighbors in northwest Pennsylvania. One of us. This book explains what runs through their minds and then asks us to define the border between idealistic soldier of freedom and the psychologically impaired.
In so many ways Tree of Smoke is easier to describe for what it really is not. The setting is Vietnam, and to a lesser extent the Philippines, in the 1960s, but it is not a war novel. The protagonist, Skip Sands, works for the CIA, but neither is Tree of Smoke a spy story. Rather Johnson’s award winning novel is a detailed chronicle of a number of lives over the course of the 1960s told with page-turning drive and riveting attention to detail. Every baguette served in Saigon tastes a little different from the last. The temperature of the tea is hot on your tongue. The swampy humidity makes your clothes stick to you and each character’s choices in life seem preordained. A pair of down-and-out brothers from Arizona go off to fight in Vietnam and after being discharged continue to fight enemies within and without. A Canadian missionary heals orphans when no one else will because her bible leaves her no alternative. The Colonel is larger than life and for a time bigger than the army until he isn’t. . Uncertainty, like much of life, pervades. America’s role in Southeast Asia is a perfect metaphor.
The immortal Irishman is Robert Meagher, surely the most famous and interesting person I’ve never heard of. Meagher (pronounced Mar) was an incomparably gifted nineteenth century orator and supporter of human rights. He formed part of a cadre of Irish intellectuals that fomented a failed revolution against British rule at a time when infected potatoes puddled in Irish fields, millions were starving, and British landlords exported wheat and oats form Ireland to England. In return for defying Queen Victoria and her troops, Meagher was sentenced to death, only at the last moment having his sentence commuted to lifetime banishment in Tasmania. After many years in virtually solitary exile, he escaped to America, overcame harsh anti-Catholic racism, and spoke his way into becoming a leading general of an Irish brigade in the U.S. civil war. Lincoln counted him as a confidant and following his wartime leadership of one of the most recognized battalions on either side of the conflict, Meagher became governor of the Montana territory, reluctant to fight Indians because he understood their plight as being in brotherhood with the plight of enslaved Africans and oppressed Irishmen. Egan’s account of Ireland’s subjugation is exceptionally clearheaded, and his retelling of the Civil War is as compelling as any I have ever encountered.
This is a tale both microscopic in scope and biblical in scale. The scene is 1920s Illinois before the age of machines and corporations when farmers depended upon themselves, their neighbors, their children, wives, an itinerant hired hand or two, and their dog. Cows were milked by hand and fields were reaped by horse, man, and sweat. Yet, while this black and white idyll of American farmsteading remains in our collective imagination, what happens when the ten commandments are violated. In this case, page by patient page we observe rippling repercussions when one man covets his neighbor’s wife, a woman not pleased to be imprisoned on a rural Illinois homestead.
There are several reasons to read murder mysteries. After all, the expectation upon opening the book is something really awful must happen before the story can really begin. To make a mystery worth reading, of course, the puzzle of figuring out who dunnit must be simultaneously complex and fair to the reader — no random murderer can suddenly appear in the final ten pages, for example. Great mysteries also teach you something about a time or location you otherwise couldn’t know about, and very few mystery writers are better than Israel’s Batya Gur. In Murder on a Kibbutz her detective Michael Ohayan is called upon to investigate the murder of a kibbutznik, which in Israel is exceptionally rare. Gur peels away the layers of the onion that make up a family-like group of 300 people who care about one another, share everything, and despise one another as only family members can. What I can say, having lived on an Israeli kibbutz, is that every page of description is microscopically accurate, the characters are almost too real to be fictional, and the mystery is hard to solve.
Somewhere near the end of Keret’s memoir covering the seven years between the birth of his son and the death of his father, Keret writes about his experience living in a narrow house in Warsaw, Poland. The invitation to live in the house comes from a Polish architect who felt compelled to construct a house for Keret that matched the building codes of Keret’s short essays. The house is tiny, only four feet wide, efficient, fitting between two existing buildings, and yet bursts out the top. It is three stories in height. And as life imitates art and vice versa Keret’s recounting of his stay in the house is at first odd and funny and finally brings you to tears when it turns out the house is constructed in the gap between the former Warsaw Ghetto and the slightly less Nazi-occupied parts of Poland. Keret’s mother, a young girl during WWII, made nightly runs, at the risk of death if she were ever caught, to collect what food she could for her family, all of whom save Keret’s mother, died. No other writer can wring so much emotion, plot, or character from only three pages. In this, Keret’s first book of nonfiction, layer upon layer of the humor and tribulations of living in contemporary Israel, a country of profound joy and horror, capture a man and his country like few others.
This history of Texas is told through the lives of four generations of the McCullough family. Eli, the patriarch, is captured by Comanches as an adolescent in the 1840s, and lives as an Indian for three years. Learning about Comanches as real people is as interesting as coming to understand, say, Kazahks, Bantus, or Serbs. These Comanches are conniving, jealous, courageous, jokesters trying to stave off white settlers with thoughtfulness, wisdom, and blunder. Eli’s son is neighbored by Mexicans, raises cattle, and begets generations who make it big in the Texas oil boom. To list the family tree, however, makes The Son feel like a tedious long biography. On the contrary, the stories of each generation are told concurrently with suspense and drama while the history of Texas bravado and hubris unfolds behind it. Bison are hunted to extinction, water is used to exhaustion, Mexicans are demolished and yet return, and the question of the McCullough’s self-selected prestige hangs in the balance. The audiobook performers are outstanding.
On the face of it an uplifting story of a group of eight hayseeds from Washington state who come together to become the world’s best rowing team. They stand for all that is good in America — hard work, optimism, rags-to-riches, democracy, talent, and above all a can-do attitude — when they compete for gold in Hitler’s 1936 Berlin Olympics. Brown’s writing is so evocative that you can feel the cold wind on Lake Washington during a late-fall practice, endure the doubt inside the mind of every student-rower anxious about paying for an upcoming semester during the height of the great depression, crane your neck watching a tight race, and in the end, when all goes right, fly on a boat with eight oarsmen working in perfect synchrony. You really do want these guys to beat the Nazis.
Sarah Waldman’s grandfather escaped the Nazi Aunchshloss in Austria by the skin of his teeth. He settled in America, opened a successful medical practice, and lived a life of joy and optimism. In his closet, discovered only after his death, are the letters of his true love, Valy, left behind in Vienna and Berlin. As the jaws of the Nazi vice slowly draw closer together around Valy’s diminishing life her letters to America become increasingly desperate, personal, and ultimately heartbreaking. By searching for Valy’s story, the history of one woman whose trail leads into the maw of the Shoah, Waldman answers one of the most difficult questions asked of Jews. Why did Jews let the Nazis do this to them? Here we see how it happened to Valy who stayed behind to be with her mother when even in 1938 things seemed like they could not get so bad that abandoning a country, a livelihood and the only family you still had was the only means of saving any member of your family. Because we read this book knowing the outcome and that those Jews still in Europe could never know what was yet to come we are even more chilled as Nazi restrictions build one upon another. And then the really unanswerable question comes to the fore. How could Nazis week after week conceive of new methods of torture: forbidding Jews to shop, ride a bus, congregate, appear in public, live in their own homes, work, live?