The Signal Flame, by Andrew Krivak*****

thesignalflameThere are good writers, excellent writers, and of course, indifferent writers, but once in a rare while there’s a writer that makes me sit up straight and take notice, someone with that special spark of genius that no money can buy nor school can teach. Krivak’s work is exquisite, the product of both power and restraint. If you love historical fiction, you have to read this book, which comes out January 24, 2107.

I was lucky and read it free in exchange for an honest review, thanks to Scribner and Net Galley. If you read my last review of a DRC, you know I call them as I see them; I see this one as standing, at the end of 2017, as one of perhaps a dozen that will still shine after I’ve read between one and two hundred others.

Bo, our protagonist, is the grandson of Slovakian immigrants, and has been steeped in the tradition of those that came before him. His grandfather, Jozef, served in the trenches during World War I; Jozef’s son, Bo’s father, was imprisoned for desertion during World War II and then died in a hunting accident upon his return home. Bo’s grandparents and mother have raised him and his brother Sam, who is missing in action in Vietnam. When Jozef dies, Bo is the last man left to carry on the family business and the traditions with which he was raised.

The title of the book refers to the sign for which Agamemnon was to watch for news from Troy; the book is begun with the relevant quote from Aeschylus, an old friend in literature that I hadn’t visited in nearly 40 years. I tell you this not to intimidate you, because I think this text is accessible to most high school graduates that love good literature. No, I just want you to understand that this is a work of depth and quality…and also unending sorrow.

Hannah, Bo’s mother, has been writing to the Navy twice each month for updates about the status of her missing son. Without a body, she doesn’t feel free to mourn; without a notification of death, she holds on to a tiny filament of hope that Sam may come marching home and surprise them all, any day now. Foremost in everyone’s minds is that Sam must not also be considered a deserter.

Now President Nixon speaks of ending the war with honorable peace, but there can be no real peace for Hannah; the Navy sends the same response every time she writes, “informing her that Sam was still carried in a missing status. Like he’s in a box somewhere, she would say, and the marines just haven’t gotten around to opening it yet.”

Father Rovnavaha is their parish priest, but he is also an old, dear family friend, and as he lays to rest two generations of a local family that are killed in a terrible flood, he seeks to comfort those present, perhaps himself included, by speaking of a kingdom, but Hannah has trouble believing as she once did:

 

“Her faith was once that strong, but she doubted it now, doubted not that there was a promise but that the promise claimed was a gift to hold, a joy that could assuage all sadness. No, she had come to believe that the only thing one could be certain of was loss. The loss of others as one lived on.  Loss as the last thing one left behind.”

 

Bo’s inheritance takes him in directions no one could have foreseen, and so although Krivak’s novel is indeed full of loss, it also shows us that hope can come from a direction never anticipated.

The characters here are beautifully rendered, developed so subtly that we aren’t aware of it occurring until it’s accomplished. There are no heavy-handed devices such as diaries or extensive local gossip; we see who each person is by the things that they do, and just as in life, we know who they are not only by their words, but by their actions. Krivak never lets a stereotype embrace his characters or plot; the result is so genuine that I feel I am following a dear old friend through the narrative.

Highly recommended for those that love historical fiction, as well as for anyone that needs an excuse to sit down and have a good cry.

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend****

thereadersofbrokenwheel“What is it with this town?”

Sara comes all the way from Sweden to visit Amy, who lives in Broken Wheel, Iowa. When she arrives, she learns that Amy is dead, yet the townspeople ask her to stay anyway; in fact, they expect her to stay. And once she is there, Sara seems to belong to the town, like the last jigsaw puzzle piece being thumbed into place. She brings Hope to Broken Wheel, both figuratively and literally.

And now I have to pause for a moment in order to acknowledge Net Galley and Sourcebooks for providing me with a galley to review, free of cost. This romantic beach read rates 3.5 stars by my reckoning, and I round those stars upward. I was greatly entertained.

Sara doesn’t have a lot going on back home. She worked at a bookstore, but it closed. At first, upon arriving in Broken Wheel and finding that her host has died, she figures she should leave, but everyone insists that Amy knew she was dying and wanted Sara to use her house for two months nevertheless. They make is sound like a sacred bequest; also, without a volunteer to drive her to the airport, she is sort of stranded anyway. The icing on the cake comes when her parents order her home. What young woman wouldn’t stay right where she is in such circumstances, since she doesn’t need parental funds? Oh heck yes!

The story evolves, developing multiple characters, the town itself, and of course, Sara. Multiple romances pop up. There are problems with pacing and the writing is uneven in its proficiency, but those problems are all within the first third of the book. Once the reader pushes past that point, I can guarantee you’ll want to finish the rest of it.

A fun read, enjoyable for those looking for a fluffy, engrossing book to take on vacation or curl up with over a solitary weekend.

The Sunlit Night, by Rebecca Dinerstein *****

thesunlitnightWhen was the last time I read something this poignant? No, it’s more than poignant. This novel is a real powerhouse, and my heartfelt thanks go to Net Galley and Bloomsbury, USA for letting me read it as a DRC. It affected me to the extent that I needed to let it steep in my mind for a few days after I read it, before I could review it. That’s always a good sign.

You see, Yasha has grown up without his mother, at least for most of his life. He, his father, and his mother all received much sought-after plane tickets to the USA from Russia. Not all were scheduled to depart at the same time, and not all of them did. And so Yasha and his father have lived above the bakery, and now and again they phone to see when Mama might be coming. It isn’t like she is dead or in jail. She just hasn’t come. She puts them off; she makes excuses. So Yasha helps his father run the bakery, rising early every day and jetting home from school promptly when the bell dismisses him. Season follows season,and year follows year;the loss grows deeper and stronger, as does his bond with his father, a flour-speckled, graying eccentric with the world’s kindest heart. His father is his life, and the place where his mother once was is a constant void. “No mother. No mother. No mother.” Unless you are made of brick or cement, you have to feel his pain.

I think the narrative that alternates here, that of Frances, who is destined to meet Yasha, is supposed to be equal in force, but to me she is an also-ran. The book is really about Yasha, and I am fine with that. Frances also hails from a family that is coming unstuck; her parents have given her and her sister notice that they need to get out of the tiny Manhattan apartment in which they grew up, because they are going to separate.

At the same time, Frances’s boyfriend, the man she loves so much that she has turned down a prestigious art fellowship in order to follow him to the ends of the earth, dumps her. Doesn’t even stay with her till she boards; he just leaves her there all by herself, hurt and stunned. He’s gone.

Yasha and Frances will meet at the top of the world, or the nearest possible place. It’s in Norway, not far from where the Sami hunt reindeer. In the summer, the sun never goes down.

Generally I am not a reader of romances. I am perhaps too cynical; I hear the violins starting up and slam the book shut. No schmaltz for me, thank you kindly. But once in awhile an amazing story comes along. Think of The Thornbirds; think of The Prince of Tides. The Sunlit Night is such a story, an exceptional story for which rules were meant to be broken.

It comes out in June, and you just have to read it. Don’t let yourself be left out.

Away, by Amy Bloom *****

away Lillian escapes a pogrom after seeing her husband and parents viciously murdered and her little girl has disappeared. She was told by a neighbor that her daughter had drowned in the river, and so she allowed herself to be herded onto a ship bound for New York.

“In the fifty-seven blocks of the Lower East Side, just that day in July 1924, there are a hundred and twelve candy shops, ninety-three butchers, seventy saloons, forty-three bakeries, and five hundred thousand Jews.”

Away, strong historical fiction by Amy Bloom, is in turns poignant, fascinating, wry, and wrenching. It’s a great book, but it won’t lift your flagging spirits. However, a couple of amusing moments had a Keillor-like tug to them, and they kept the tone light enough to engage me.

Things aren’t going all that well for Lillian, and maybe that is why, when a cousin arrives from the old country and tells her that her little girl is alive, Lillian makes plans to go get her. Nobody will give her boat fare, but a dear friend hatches an alternate plan: she can head west across North America, go north into Canada, and then island hop her way across the Bering Strait. It’s a terrible idea, but if it will bring Sophie back into Lillian’s waiting arms, she’ll do it. And so she’s off.

Bloom is strongest when she is building characters and describing setting. By the time the book is over and done, Lillian is so real that even though I have half a dozen books I am also reading, I think of her fondly from time to time as one might when a good friend or much-loved relative that has been to visit and then gone home again.

That said, I didn’t like it as well as her most recent work, Lucky Us, reviewed earlier and available in my archives. But that is faint condemnation, because the latter was one of the best works of fiction I have ever read.

If you like well written three-hanky stories and excellent historical fiction, you can’t go wrong with Bloom. If your pockets aren’t deep enough for impulsive book buying, check your public library; it’s where I found my copy.

Saltwater Cowboys, by Dayle Furlong *****

SaltwatercowboysDayle Furlong’s writing is brilliant. This haunting story, visceral and evocative, is wholly original, but if it reminds me of any one other author, it is Russell Banks. My immense appreciation goes to Net Galley and Dundurn Group publishing house for the ARC. The first couple of pages wobbled and I waited to see whether the writing would settle in and be a good read, or whether the writer would struggle. By page three I was no longer watching the writing, because I was hooked on the story, and I needed to know what would happen next.

Jack McCarthy is a miner, and he’s just been laid off. Newfoundland has been home to his family for generations, but there’s just no work there. The place was already depressed before the layoffs, with high numbers of unemployed workers. Now he is just one more of them. What is he going to do? Angela is at home with their three little girls, and good heavens, she’s pregnant again. The pressure is on!

Leave it to his best buddy, Pete, to find the answer. Pete has found a mine that is hiring in Foxville. True, it’s clear across Canada, closer to the Pacific than to the Atlantic, and way far north. It’s near the Athabascan River. But they’ll take Jack, and they’ll have their friends nearby. It seems to be the obvious solution.

My quick Google search helped me find Foxville. Imagine driving all that way to look for work! When the McCarthys arrive, they find that the local workers consider them hicks. A migration has steadily occurred as unemployed miners from Newfoundland make the exodus in search of steady jobs. Their mannerisms are mimicked, and their women are sneered at. It’s humiliating.

If you were looking for something to pick your spirits up, this isn’t your book. It’s a dark story, but it’s one that speaks to the time in which we live. So many are jobless, displaced, and for those of us that are hanging on, sometimes the loss of one single paycheck is all that stands between us and disaster.

Furlong understands the working class. She knows the pride that takes hold of its families. A plastic bowl from a discount store is worth infinitely more than a beautiful old porcelain one from Goodwill or some other charity store, because it is new, and because it doesn’t smell of taking charity from others.

The longing to climb that social ladder, to actually buy an entire house and hold your head high, reaches out from Furlong’s text, reaches into your lungs and sucks out some of the space there. I became so invested in this fictional family that at one point I had to put it down and go read something else in order to gain distance.

Regardless, the setting and characters are so palpable–I underlined several quotes, but then decided you should find them for yourself, because they are made even better by context–I sometimes flipped the pages back in order to re-read passages.

When I wasn’t at my reader, I thought about the McCarthy family. I argued with them. I was the unseen third adult in their vehicle when they were out driving around. Most of all, I wanted to advise Jack. But damn damn and double damn, I could not get through to him. And I had to remind myself to calm the hell down, because…

He’s fictional.

Furlong has the talent to break your heart and feed it to you with a spoon. If you loved The Prince of Tides, if you cried through The Thornbirds, you have to get this book. It comes out early in 2015, and I will run it a second time on my blog when it does.

Jack and Angela are waiting for you, too.

The Honk and Holler Opening Soon, by Billie Letts ****

The Honk and HollerThis is a bittersweet story about quirky yet ordinary characters in a little out-of-the-way place in Oklahoma. The point of view swings from one perspective to another. MollyO is protective of the cafe’s owner, a complicated man who was rendered paraplegic in Vietnam. She longs for her daughter, Brenda, a runaway, to come home and stay. Bui is living covertly in a nearby church. He comes to work at the cafe. I watched this character unfold particularly carefully. I live in an area where there are a lot of Vietnamese immigrants, and I watched for stereotyping or assumptions on the part of the writer. In the end, though, Bui rang true to me, an endearingly familiar sounding man with a really good heart. And then the list continues.

I don’t like small towns; I prefer large northern metropolitan cities. I do like to read novels featuring working class protagonists, though, and I think it was this feature, believably rendered without undue sentimentality, that worked for me. I have older family members who lived in Oklahoma before I was born, and this novel evoked a strong pull on them, a sense of place nearly tangible to them.

If four and a half stars were possible, I’d give them here. Read it if you enjoy good fiction with strongly drawn characters.

Native Speaker, by Chang-Rae Lee *****

native speakerNative Speaker has been praised by the most prestigious periodicals, from New York to London to Los Angeles, and yet, though it has won a number of awards, I had not heard of it until I found it in a special award-winners area of Powell’s City of Books, when I made my annual pilgrimage to my old hometown and my old bookstore this summer. Perhaps I first found him there because he teaches at the U of Oregon; or perhaps it is because Powell’s is the only brick-and-mortar bookstore I frequent anymore. At any rate, this book was a real find.
Our protagonist is Henry Park, who works as a spy of sorts for a private firm:
“Our clients were multinational corporations, bureaus of foreign governments, individuals of resource and connection.”
Henry is having problems with his work. He is supposed to insinuate himself into the lives of individuals who may be working against the interests of one client or another, find out all he can about them, develop a psychological profile. To do this, he has to pretend to become emotionally attached to them, and in some cases make them dependent upon him; then he files his final report on them and disappears from their lives.
His most recent subject was a psychologist named Luzan. He saw Luzan regularly, began telling him things he had never told anyone. What with his problematic relationship with his father, now deceased, and the accidental death of his beloved son, his only child, and his marital problems…the man actually needs a psychologist, and in the end the firm has to muscle their way into the shrink’s office and physically remove Henry from his subject in order to break the connection.
Now they have thrown him a really easy job to get him back into shape. He is supposed to cover and report on a politician, John Kwang. There is the Korean connection, which makes him a shoo-in; he begins by posing as a freelance journalist, but becomes more and more involved as a member of the campaign staff. His reports become scantier and fewer as he adopts Kwang as the father he never really had.
Beautifully interwoven throughout Lee’s narrative are the cultural understandings between those of Korean ancestry; the conflicts that arise between first and second generations in the US; the racist assumptions, stereotypes, and miscommunications between Koreans and Caucasians, whom he pointedly refers to as “Americans”. Black people are just Black, but white folks are “Americans”. Park is still in love with his “American” wife, but she recently figured out what he does for a living, and she isn’t sure she can live with it. His plan is to finish this assignment, he tells her, and then he’ll get out, go do something else.
There is such grace and care in Lee’s story-telling, both in what is said, and in what is not. I’ve never read anything like it. And one thing I really appreciate is that without overtly saying so, he lets us know that there is no such thing as an Asian-American. A certain skin tone, a fold at the outside of the eyelid, these are superficial things that don’t speak to culture, to language, to expectations. I also really appreciated the way he dealt with the hostility between Korean small shop owners and their African-American neighbors and customers, and the historical reality to which he deftly traces back, without ever stepping away from the central storyline.
Native Speaker is unlike anything else I have ever read. It doesn’t even have a genre, unless we drop it into the “Asian studies” category that his story demonstrates is artificial in any case. It’s a thoughtful, deep story, yet it is not hyperliterate or particularly lengthy. It’s there for anyone who will take the time to read it. A worthy and thought-provoking journey.

I Kiss Your Hands Many Times: Hearts, Souls, and Wars in Hungary, by Marianne Szegedy-Maszak *****

IkissyourhandsPoignant and painful; beautiful and wrenching…Szegedy-Maszak takes us through a time and place in a way nobody else could. If you are a serious historian, please consider this a must-read.

When I applied to receive this story as a Goodreads giveaway, I did so as an historian, conscious of a blind spot in my own education. I knew too little of Hungary and its past, apart from that it had become a part of the Soviet block at some point, and then became independent once more. I wanted to learn more about the country’s political and economic history, and if I had to read a love story to do that, then I would.

When the book arrived, I gasped as I pulled it from its envelope. Beautifully bound in hardcover with folio-cut pages and a pearlescent cover featuring the family about which she writes, I held it in my hands, showed it to my family, and then swore my head would not be turned by the beauty on the cover, and the painstakingly aesthetic manner in which the interior is designed. The family tree at the start of the book actually turns out to be essential, because many people are mentioned many times here, and to keep them straight, I would have to keep flipping back. But I didn’t know that yet. I saw the literary (and as it turns out, highly appropriate) quotes that adorn each chapter’s beginning, along with images from the past, snapshots of what is no more.

So…incredibly good taste, and no expense has been spared. But can she write? Oh yes! And by the time I was done, I had no fewer than fifty sticky-noted pages, and worse, every single one of them marks a passage that seems really important. Now I must pick and choose, which is a dreadful predicament.

Be aware that this is a hyper-literate read, not necessarily accessible to every reader. And to get to the good part, you’ll have to do a lot of work at first, plodding through the dull stuff at the start and trying to remember who everyone is.

Though it tells a good deal of what took place behind the scenes before, during, and after the second world war in Hungary (albeit from the very conservative perspective of considerable material interest and self-involvement), it is also a deeply personal story, told well by an already accomplished writer with a literary pedigree a mile long and granite solid. This is her first book, but Szegedy-Maszak is already a respected writer and journalist. Her love of family and the details that governed their lives in Hungary, Europe, and the USA are what makes this memoir compelling. For many, this will be a more palatable way to learn history as well.

Because of the role of extended family, which is inextricably intertwined with that of her parents, the reader must wade through lengthy genealogy in the beginning. I have read other reviews saying that the reviewer gave up on the book because of the initial level of detail, and indeed, at first it is tempting to wonder why anyone who is not related to the author would have an interest. Though the author has doubtless already hacked away at the introductory chapters and removed portions that it hurt her heart to pull and cut, a little more pruning at the start would make this book more readable. It’s a 4.5 on my very picky scale anyway, though, because what comes after its somewhat tedious beginning is remarkable and well told. It is a very scholarly yet heart-felt telling of how world events have impacted her family, and vice versa, and it is when she describes poignant experiences in a painterly, often painful way that her family’s story becomes most absorbing.

The writer grows up in a multigenerational household in which children are almost irrelevant, seated below the salt at the long formal dinner table. Everything the elders value and discuss has come and gone. Her mother descends from the Weiss and Kornfeld (later to become “de Kornfeld”) families, and her mother’s grandfather was once the most wealthy industrial and agricultural baron in all of Hungary. Now most of the empire is gone, and the family sighs wistfully and speaks about the past, when they were someone, when a mere phone call or visit from Weiss or Kornfeld could cause a policy change, or change someone’s life.

*consider everything after this to be a spoiler alert*

Her parents had been very different people. Her mother had grown up in a vacuum of sorts created by immense wealth and privilege. Even as the Nazis stormed across Europe, Hungary was, by the author’s telling, insulated for a long time, unlike their unlucky neighbors, the Poles. Hungary wanted the land that had been lost to Czechoslovakia in the Treaty of Trianon following the First World War, an immense piece of real estate inhabited primarily by Hungarians, and which had been taken from them. When Nazi tanks rolled into Austria and boundaries were redrawn, the Hungarians held their breath. They understood that with the USSR fighting as an Allied nation, they would see no restitution of land from the Allies. Thus, they became an Axis power, at first tentatively, with the hope that if enough munitions were produced by the Manfred Weiss Works, makers of tanks, munitions, and later in the war, airplanes, the Germans would see no need to invade and supervise Hungary. And this was the Hungarian argument against occupation: we can do so much for you independently, oh Germany. Don’t trouble yourselves coming here. It’s all good.

In the midst of all this, Hanna Kornfeld, the writer’s mother, meets a brooding intellectual and politician, Aladar Szegedy-Maszak. When he signs his letters to her—first formal, then impassioned, but with the restraint decorum required—he concludes with “I kiss your hand”, which is merely the equivalent of the Western “yours truly” (when we aren’t) or “sincerely” (even less so). It was a format, until it was more.

He is an intellectual, a scholar, and a very busy man. He is anti-fascist, and trying to somehow involve the Allied forces, so that Hungary can make its separate peace with Britain and the US, but Britain holds off, regarding Hungary as not of primary importance strategically (and in fact, they are surrounded by fascists, so it would be a stretch by the time Hungary makes its entreaty), and also, Hungary is regarded as opportunist.

Here the author bristles, and I think she doth protest too much.

My sense is that the time to contact the Allies was when Hitler invaded Poland. One doesn’t offer Hitler endless munitions, and then complain to the Allies when he sends his troops in to do exactly what they’ve done everywhere else in Europe.

Aladar, however, is not offering endless munitions; he is trying to persuade anyone who will listen to him that the fascists must be resisted at all costs. He is arrested for his anti-fascist activities and sent to Dachau. He survives , partly because he is treated as a political prisoner, which for some reason is considered a relatively (RELATIVELY!) privileged category, and also because the fascists don’t cast their eye toward Hungary until near the end of the war.

And when they come, they do it in the way only fascists can. The Danube runs red with blood. This is not allegory, but a literal reference. Despite every record that was burned, every photograph that was destroyed, there is still plenty of documentation, and the author provides it all, the child of the scholar become scholar herself. The bibliography at the book’s end, along with the notes for each chapter, is impressive.

Once Aladar is free, his experience leaves him brooding, nearly broken, and overcome with survivor’s guilt. It is with trepidation, then, that he contacts Hanna once more when the war has ended, because as he tells her, he is not the same man he was before the war; he has no money and no job; yet the one thing he knows is that he loves her and wants to marry her if she is still interested. He kisses her hands many, many times.

Interestingly, Hanna is fine. Her family has swung a deal. They will sign over all of the factories, the real estate, in fact the large majority of the family fortune, in exchange for their lives somewhere outside the Nazi realm. Let us go to a neutral country, and you can have it all.

The fascists want to hold a few of the family back as hostages. It is here that the writer’s aunt blanches and almost does not sign. Yet the family understands that there is really nothing to keep the Nazis from taking everything and having every last one of them killed. With the coolness that generally characterizes the ruling class, the family cuts its losses and runs. Who can blame them? Others would surely have done the same, given the chance. They go to Portugal initially; later some will try to rebuild a life in Budapest, others in Switzerland.

But it is Aladar whose political practices and courage open the door to the United States. It is remembered after the war that he has pleaded all along, from the very beginning, for Hungary to become a part of the Allied umbrella. He had met Hitler, and he had heard him speak. He knew the guy wasn’t someone you wanted to rule your people. He did everything he could to take Hungary into Allied hands, but it didn’t happen. He nearly died in the undertaking, and now, the US gazes at him with a bit more focus. He is a friendly face in war-torn Europe, and might make an excellent liaison with the new Hungarian government

When the war is over, is appointed minister to Hungary for the USA. With a moue of distaste at the notion of leaving Europe, and understandable grief at leaving her family at such a wrenching time, Hanna agrees to marry Alastar and move to the USA. Numerous family members will later follow.

But small countries all lose when enormously powerful countries sit down, victorious, to divide the post-war map, as if it were a smallish birthday cake where everyone at the table ought to get a little piece. Hungarians will not determine the fate of Hungarians. The USSR has paid dearly in human flesh and material loss, and now it will build itself a buffer zone to protect its turf against future incursion.

The Allied nations understand the nature of Stalinism (and this is my own historical interpretation; the writer embraces the Cold War era view of “totalitarianism” with regard to the now-moribund USSR). It is ultimately conservative; the USSR was not interested in expanding across the globe, only in holding onto its own power base. Just as France gained back land it had lost, and just as the US experienced unprecedented power and influence over the globe, so would Mother Russia see to it that her own needs were met. Hungary was diced up even finer, since a fair amount of anti-Stalinist sentiment prevailed there. When they were finished, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and other satellite states stood like sentries on the Soviet perimeter.

As for the heroic Aladar, he refuses to recognize the new Hungarian government. He welcomes the wife of the deposed head of state, one who was friendly toward a capitalist system. The Smallholder Party that Aladar favored has gone down, but he is not out of the fight yet. Soon, the newspapers in the Stalinist orbit will display a photograph of the Hungarian minister kissing the hand of this woman as she leaves the US, and he is branded a traitor.

His courage gets him nothing in the US except the opportunity to remain with his family as a US citizen (small potatoes for the writer’s family, yet something that is held dearly and hard to get these days!)
I was chagrined to see that he went to work for the right-wing (my characterization, not the author’s) Radio Free Europe. He had the integrity to resign when he learned this enterprise was CIA-run, but the Voice of America cannot be regarded by a Marxist (of the non-Stalinist variety) such as myself.

The writer is at her strongest when she injects the deeply personal moments into her narrative: a family member explains to her that when she views the photographs of bodies piled high at the death camps, she searches the faces of the corpses to “see if one knows anyone.” Suddenly the Holocaust becomes up close and personal in a way only trumped by Schindler’s List and Night. Family members have died there; this was not as clean an exit for her family as it is made out to be in the press.

Though despondent over the loss of his country’s autonomy; his own survivor’s guilt, including his inability to save the members of his family in Hungary who were killed or hurt by the Stalinists in retaliation against his activities abroad; and finally, the death of his and Hanna’s first-born and namesake, Alastar still travels to Hungary with the writer, his daughter, in the late 70’s, and he is still sharp enough mentally to shush her when she naively inquires about the number of police all over the airport. Marianne Szegedy-Maszak points out that he must have been clinically depressed, but not enough medical advances had been made for him to have anything to help him beyond Valium, a drug that’s great for anxiety, but doesn’t really do much for depression.

Though the writer seems perhaps most deeply attached to the female members of her family, I find myself more taken with her father, who despite his political leanings that are almost opposite to my own, was clearly a man of principle and integrity, and who knew how to roll up his sleeves and do what needed doing. In retirement, he finds that he needs to see things grow; he loses himself in the family garden, and visitors mistake him for the gardener.

There is so much more to see here, and this is clearly a work wrought from love of family and origin rather than something done primarily for fiscal gain. For those interested in the Holocaust; Hungarian history; or for women like Szegedy-Maszak (and me) who find that we understand our mothers so much better only after they grow old and die, this book should not be missed. The first few chapters are slow, but forge on, and you will be rewarded.

All Standing: The Remarkable Story of the Jeanie Johnson, the Legendary Irish Famine Ship, by Kathryn Miles *****

The Irish potato famine is at its worst. Blight kills all of the potatoes–my god, even the ones that had been harvested and stored away in root cellars where the families thought they could access them!–and the potato was nearly the only crop that the Irish had. Millions depended on charity (nearly nonexistent) or the government, and unspeakable numbers died, while the grain that had grown was shipped abroad as an export for sale. Local farmers who had a surviving patch of turnips or even a single cabbage had to post a guard overnight, or someone else would steal it. Unfathomable.

I was sent a free copy of All Standing as part of the Goodreads First Reads program. My gratitude goes to Goodreads and the publisher for the book, and to Miles for ferreting out the facts to tell this story properly. Research is such tedious work, and here she has done so much to tell an important story.

The first seventy pages of this story are bleak, miserable, horrible, terrible. Miles does not let us go gently. The documentation is well done, and the statistics and examples lend a special sort of dread to that which was macabre to start with. There is no way to Disney-fy a story like the famine and still have it be real history. And those who buy a place on the “coffin ships” for the small chance that they may survive the trip to the new world die in droves, primarily of typhus, though a small number are fortunate and survive.

An innovative ship builder, an experienced and humane captain, and a doctor who was ahead of his time combined to make the Jeanie Johnston exceptional. It is for this part of the story, as well as the righteous anger that serves as the transition from utter misery to success, that those who love Ireland, history, or better still, both should read this book. It is a beacon that is welcome in times such as ours, one that reminds us that one person, or two, or three who have the courage of their convictions really can make a difference to others.

The Wrong Carlos: Anatomy of a Wrongful Execution, by James S. Liebman ****

Has anyone ever been proved to have been executed in the USA for a crime s/he did not commit? I would have thought this was a no-brainer, but then, I have watched the so-called criminal “justice” system ruin basically good kids and incarcerate exponentially larger numbers of people—primarily people of color—for doing small things that would never touch a white person of material substance. I’ve seen it unfold in multiple cities and in diverse situations. It’s endemic. It amazes me that anyone felt a study needed to be done in order to demonstrate what is naked before our eyes in any major city and a lot of smaller towns, too.

However, apparently some academics at Columbia University believed the answer was less than clear, and so in the chillingly clinical writing of the intelligentsia, they lay out, sometimes minute by minute, sometimes hour by hour, the entire case of the murder of Wanda Lopez. Wanda was a convenience store clerk; Carlos Hernandez appears to have been a sadistic sociopath who enjoyed using his knife on human beings. (After being sent up once for using a gun, he drew the only natural conclusion: in the future, kill people using a knife, not a gun. Logical, right?)

There is testimony; there are photographs; and if you want to go online and watch videos (heaven help us all), you can do that too.

DNA tests should hypothetically be definitive in capital murder cases today, but they are very expensive and (as the recent Amanda Knox trial in Italy demonstrates), they can also be ambiguous. For example, one can argue whether a person’s DNA is present in a given place for a good reason; then too, DNA must be matched to someone who’s on file, and if the person in question has never been in trouble and got away clean, you might as well be holding yesterday’s newspaper as the DNA of who-knows-who.

Ultimately, as this case demonstrates using eerily dry language rather than the kind of compelling narrative one might generally expect, the courts spend more time and effort on those who are in a position to hire competent counsel, garner community support, and have others actively advocating for them. On the other hand, those who are alienated and dispossessed; those who fear law enforcement too much to come forward in someone else’s defense; those who don’t have the funds for transportation or who fear taking time off and losing the hard-won job that represents the thin, dim line between barely scraping by and being out on the street; these folks get sent up easily, and a case is closed.

Neither Carlos was an angel, goodness knows. The innocent-of-murder Carlos was a convicted rapist who pleaded no contest and admits that he tore a woman’s clothing off her body so he could force her to have sex. With the inclusion of such facts, the man who was executed becomes a much less sympathetic character, but the point of the Columbia scholars is not to restore the good name of Carlos DeLuna or to excoriate the memory of Carlos Hernandez (also dead now); it is to prove the point they set out to prove: at least one person has been sent to his death when he was innocent of the crime for which he was executed. If anyone doubts the truth of this statement, I invite them to read this cold, horrible indictment of the US “Justice” system.

For some of us, there was no doubt to begin with.