The Dictionary of Lost Words—Interesting Historical Fiction Well Done

The Dictionary of Lost Words

By Pip Williams

Published 2020

Read July 2021

This novel is an example of the type of historical fiction this reader most appreciates: the story of a fictional character in the midst of real people that works in a believable way.  In this case Esme is the daughter of a fictional lexicographer working on the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) in the early 1900’s.  

We get a sense of the “scrippy”, the corrugated iron shed on the side of Sir James Murray’s house, known as the Scriptorium, and of the process used to create the dictionary.  Murray, the primary editor, started compiling the dictionary in 1879 and worked on it until his death in 1915.  Although not complete at his death, a number of volumes had been published.  The dictionary was completed in 1928.  In this fictionalized account, a (real) famous photo of those working on the OED near the time of Murray’s death was taken by Esme, thus explaining why she doesn’t appear in this photo.  Esme and her maid develop an interest in finding “women’s words” —those that have different meaning for women than men and which will tend to be excluded from the OED as their usage isn’t demonstrated in published works. 

The author uses Esme’s story also to show life for young women during this tumultuous time as the suffragette movement is well underway. Between Esme’s story and that of her maid, the author demonstrates the restrictions on the possibilities for women at the time. 

Both aspects of the book are informative and the author’s storytelling abilities drive the reader through both stories.    

In an addendum, the author describes how she fictionalized the events and people and what liberties she did and did not take.  This reader appreciates the extensive research done by the author, found the addendum quite helpful, and thinks she made excellent fictionalization decisions. 

Hamnet—a possible story of Shakespeare, Anne, and their son


By Maggie O’Farrell

Published 2020

Read June 2021

O’Farrell’s fiction gives us a possible story of Hamnet Shakespeare, the only son of William Shakespeare,   who died at age eleven.  The novel alternates between the stories of the last days of Hamnet and that of the courtship and marriage of William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway to just after Hamnet’s death.  O’Farrell never actually names Shakespeare or give Anne’s last name in the book, but her story isn’t inconsistent with the limited history we have of Shakespeare.

This reader is always a little wary of fictionalized accounts of actual lives.  This particular novel avoided the aspects this reader dislikes—providing dialog of the person being described, especially when it pertains to how they are feeling about a situation. 

Her account is believable and engaging.  The descriptions of the concern felt by Hamnet of his sister’s illness, the birth of Anne’s first child, and especially the depth of her grief at Hamnet’s death are all very well done.

This reader does recommend this fictionalized account of this part of Shakespeare’s life as one that provides a look at aspects of his life and his family.

A Long Petal of the Sea: Excellent Historical Fiction

A Long Petal of the Sea

By Isabelle Allende

Published 2019

Read Jan 2021

The title of the New York Times Review of this book is perfect:  Pablo Neruda Saved Thousands of War Refugees.  Isabel Allende Imagines Two of Them.  Allende has written a wonderful and powerful example of historical fiction:  image characters that are living through the period and events the author wishes to explore; engage the reader in the lives of the characters; engage the reader in wondering more about the period and events described.  Allende hits the mark on all of these.

The story starts in Spain near the end of the Spanish Civil War shortly before Franco wins.  Victor Dalmau, a medic, escapes to France over the Pyrennes with the patients he is serving. He finds himself in a concentration camp built by the French for fleeing Spanish refugees.   Roser, a  piano student of Victor’s father and whom the family takes in during the war,  also lands in this concentration camp with her newborn son whose father, Guillium, has been killed in the civil war and who is Victor’s brother. 

Pablo Neruda, a poet and Chilean diplomat in France, manages to convince his government to accept 2000 refugees.  He outfits a cargo ship, selects the refugees per Chile’s specifications, and gets the refugees to Chile.  Victor can be accepted, but only if he is married.  He convinces Roser to enter a platonic marriage with him to  save Guillium’s child and they become two of  the 2000 refugees Chile accepts.

The book slowly takes us through this buildup, across the ocean to Chile, and through Victor and Roser’s complicated life together as Victor becomes a renowned cardiologist and Roser becomes an accomplished artist.  Their lives are again disrupted as Augusto Pinochet ‘s coup drives them into exile in Venezuela.   They eventually face a decision whether to stay in Venezuela, repatriate to Spain, or return to Chile. 

While the reader expands their awareness of the Spanish Civil War, the real but unfamiliar rescue of 2000 Spanish refugees made possible by a poet/diplomat, and the impact of the rule of Franco in Spain and the coup and reign of Pinochet in Chile, the reader is treated to a wonderful story of the lives of two people and their loves.  Victor and Roser love their native Spain and eventually realize they have developed a love for their adopted county Chile.  They love Roser and Guillium’s son as a biological (for Roser) and adopted (for Victor) son.  They love their respective vocations.  They love each other, first as brother/sister, then as members of a platonic marriage of necessity, and then as partners in life and marriage.     Allende deserves high marks for a rich and well written novel that is an example of excellent historical fiction in this reader’s opinion. 

Lady Clementine: Informative Historical Fiction

Lady Clementine

By Marie Benedict

Published 2020

Read Nov 2020

This reader has learned about Winston Churchill through a variety of means—documentaries, books, audio short courses, movies.  The latter is certainly a form of historical fiction, in this case for the movie theater.  This reader knew Churchill was married and had some children but knew nothing about his wife beyond this.  Thus this reader was delighted to have Lady Clementine chosen as a book for one of her book discussion groups.

This reader was initially surprised that Lady Clementine is a historical fiction book about her vs a biography, but the bigger surprise was that it is written in first person and narrated by Lady Clementine.  This reader has come to understand that her preference for the approach to historical fiction is like that used in Dreamers of the Day—a fictional character and their story occurs in parallel to historical events depicted or mentioned in the novel.   Coincidentally Dreamers of the Day introduced this reader to a major meeting held after WWI to set up the modern Middle East.  Two major players were Churchill and Gertrude Bell, a figure previously unknown to this reader.    Dreamers of the Day led this reader to read a biography of Gertrude Bell.

However, once this reader decided to set aside some discomfort with the approach, this reader found Lady Clementine to be interesting and informative.  The focus is appropriately on Lady Clementine, but given her spouse and the nature of their relationship, Winston Churchill certainly plays a big role.  His nature to demand a tremendous amount from his wife and those serving him is certainly consistent with other sources with which this reader is familiar.  

This book filled in this reader’s lack of understanding of The Dardanelles Campaign which injured Churchill’s career substantially.  It draws out the major contributions Lady Clementine played in several critical aspects of WWII including courting the Americans to join the WWII war effort, spearheading efforts to obtain donations to support the struggling Russian people while they were enduring the ravages of war, and improving the quality of air raid shelters in the UK in which citizens spent countless hours while their country was incessantly bombed by the Germans.  The disappointing learning for this reader (and Lady Clementine) was that, in the end, it isn’t clear how much credit Churchill gave to Lady Clementine for the role she played in enabling his personal success or the success of the war effort.  This likely isn’t surprising given the general view of the place of women at the time and given Churchill’s self-centeredness.  Lady Clementine points this out in an interesting way.  Although both Churchill and Lady Clementine were from the upper class, they relied on the Churchill’s small income as a government official (small since most government officials of this rank were independently wealthy) and income from his writing to support their family and fulfill the entertaining obligations expected of his rank.  Despite their limited income, Churchill insisted on drinking expensive champagne which he ordered by the case. 

While Churchill didn’t publically acknowledge his wife’s contributions, others have done so.  Lady Clementine covers a trip she makes to Russia near the end of the war where she is surprised to receive a high honor from the government for her efforts in feeding the Russian people.   Additional research this reader did regarding Lady Clementine revealed that she was appointed a grand dame cross in the Order of the British Empire and was created a life peer member of the House of Lords when Churchill passed. 

This reader found it interesting where the author chooses to end her book—at the end of the war and before Churchill again loses his position as Prime Minister.  Perhaps this is due to a desire to keep the book at about 300 pages or perhaps the author didn’t have sufficient primary source material to describe Lady Clementine’s life during this period.  Certainly most of her most notable efforts are appropriately covered. 

While devoid of the references in a more academic treatise, Benedict has clearly done substantial research.  This reader was disappointed the author didn’t provide any details of this research in her notes.  However she does share her motivations for writing this book.  While British citizens alive during WWII may have known about her, especially those in London where she played a personal role in visiting the bombing debris, standing watch for incoming bombers, and improving the air raid shelters, this book allows Lady Clementine to be visible well beyond this population.  This reader does thank the author for that and for piquing her interest in learning more about Lady Clementine—a measure this reader uses when assessing the impact of what she reads. 

The Mountains Sing–Learn About Vietnam

The Mountains Sing

By Nguyen Phan Que Mai

Published 2020

Read Aug 2020

Que Mai was born in northern Vietnam in 1973 in the midst of the war known globally as the Vietnam War and called the Resistance War Against America to Save the Nation by the government of Northern Vietnam.  She has authored 11 books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction.   The Mountains Sing is her first book written in English.  She draws upon her family’s history and her extensive research to tell the story of the Tran family of Nghe An Province in north central Vietnam.  She brings to the reader the experiences of this family as it lives through a long period of great turmoil which left this reader with a new perspective of the people of this area and the struggles they have endured. 

The reader meets Grandma Dieu Lan (born 1920 to Mr and Mrs Tran) and granddaughter Huong (born 1960 to Grandma’s daughter Ngoc and her husband) in 1972 in Ha Noi where Grandma is a school teacher and Huong a student.  They are anxiously awaiting the war to be over and for Grandma’s six children and families to be reunited and returned to them.  While Grandma and Huong are hiding in a cave to shelter from the Dec 18, 1972 major extended bombing of Ha Noi, Grandma begins telling Huong the story of her family starting in 1930. Her stories which, progress in time from 1930, alternate with Huong’s narration of the family’s story moving forward from that day in the cave.

Grandma Dieu Lan was born into a land owning farming family.  All the members of the family worked taking care of animals and working in the field.  She marries, begins having a family, and is happy. But change is underway.  She tells Huong about the family trials during the Japanese occupation, the Great Famine, and the Viet Minh’s execution of the Land Reform.  During the Land Reform, her family is torn apart and then works to recover itself.  The Vietnam War disperses the family again as the sons are drafted to fight with the Viet Minh and Huong’s mother, a doctor, leaves to find her husband.  Huong’s narration covers the period of the war through letters and diaries and discussions with her mother and uncles after they return from the war.  Her narration also describes her family’s post-war period through 1980 as they work to find a new normalcy in the newly united county under communist rule.

The author makes several choices that enables the reader’s engagement and gives the reader a sense of the family’s culture.  As with many families with six children, life paths the children take, freely chosen or not, can cause substantial family conflict and this is true for Grandma’s children.  Que Mai sprinkles the text with Vietnamese words and uses a variety of approaches to provide their definition.  Several characters, and in particular Grandma Dieu Lan, use proverbs to express their feelings—and to help buoy spirits in difficult times. 

Que Mai uses her book to make clear that the Vietnamese people are more than some of the impressions that have been suggested—poor, illiterate farmers.   Grandma Dieu Lan’s farming parents believed in education—they hired a tutor for her brother AND her.  She becomes a teacher.  Her children are educated and Huong attends school and wins a place at a premier high school.  She gives Huong books as presents including a Vietnamese translation of “Little House on the Prairie”.  This book allows Huong to understand that Americans, who have pledged to bomb her people into submission, also work hard and love their family.  Both Huong and an uncle see young American soldiers taken prisoner or killed by the Viet Minh army and wonder about the humanity of these American solider and how their family members would be treated if they were prisoner of the American enemy.  Huong wonders at one point if people read more about each other if they would find other ways to solve their problems besides war. 

Que Mai uses Huong’s description of her journaling after an uncle’s death to explicitly show some of her themes regarding war:  “I wrote for Grandma, who’d hoped for the fire of war to be extinguished, only for its embers to keep burning her.  I wrote for my uncles, my aunt, and my parents, who were helpless in the fight of brother against brother, and whose war went on, regardless of whether they were alive or dead.”  But her book covers more than the Vietnam War and introduces the reader to a broader history of the struggles of these people who have been occupied by foreigners for centuries and whose struggles continued after their expulsion.  In the final chapter, Huong and her family are at Grandma’s grave.  Huong tells us she has converted Grandma’s stories into a manuscript which she brings to the grave.  She says “Grandma once told me that the challenges faced by the Vietnamese people throughout history are as tall as the tallest mountain.  I have stood far enough away to see the mountaintops, yet close enough to witness how Grandma became the tallest mountain herself:  always strong, always protecting us.”

This remarkable book will engage the reader’s brain and your heart and give the reader a new perspective on this time and these people and on the concept of the usefulness of war in general. 

The Weight of Ink–Historical Fiction Meets Modern Historians

The Weight of Ink

By Rachel Kadish

Published 2017

Read June 2020

This book was recommended to our book discussion group as a highly worthy read.  Its length (592 pages) led to its timing as the first book of the fall season giving us the summer to read it.  This reader consumed it in fairly short order while listening to it on a 24 hour road trip plus some.    As is increasingly popular, the novel has two parallel sets of inerconnected stories.  In this case the settings for each are in the London area, but separated by time—about 400 years. 

One set of sections is set in 2000.   Professor Helen Watt, a professor of history at a London university, has hired Aaron Levey, an American graduate history student at her university, to help her assess a trove of documents found under the staircase of a house undergoing renovation.  She has three days to get a sense of their historical significance to make a recommendation regarding their acquisition by her university before an outside appraiser is engaged.  Helen is about to reach mandatory retirement age and would love to have a final positive bang for her academic career which has felt stifled by the men in her department. Aaron is struggling with his thesis topic and welcomes a short break from it, although working with Helen isn’t easy either.  The papers they are reviewing are from the 1650’s and 1660’s from the household of Rabbi HaCoen Mendes who had come from Amsterdam to London to join fellow members of the Amsterdam Portuguese Inquisition refugee community who had since migrated to London and were generally concealing their religion to stay out of harms way.  The rabbi had been blinded during the Inquisition so required a scribe to read and write for him.  These documents were, at least in part, in this scribe’s handwriting.  Shortly before their three days end, Helen and Aaron make the discovery that the scribe is a woman, a surprising finding as women weren’t generally sufficiently educated to serve in such a position, and even if they were, it wasn’t considered appropriate.

The other set of sections is set during the time of the writing of the documents Helen and Aaron are reviewing and provide the story of the documents and their authors.  We learn that two children of the Amerstam refugees had studied with Rabbi HaCoen Mendes in Amsterdam before he left for London.  After their parents were lost in a fire, the siblings were sent to live with the rabbi in London.  The brother left the home and refused the rabbi’s request to be his scribe.  Ester Velasquez, the sister, was relieved of her household duties to become his scribe, at least temporarily.  Rabbi Mendes manages to delay plans for Amsterdam to replace Ester as scribe (she should, of course, marry and have a family—the only option for women besides service in others’ households).  

So over the course of 592 pages readers spend time in 2000 and the 1660’s. The story set in 2000 progresses the course of study of the documents by Helen and Aaron and their academic competitors after the university’s acquisition of the documents (Aaron continues working with Helen after that three day assessment period).  Who will publish what first?  It gives a picture of research on this kind of document—where and how review can occur, what care of the documents is required, information about the ink in the documents and how that complicates research, and what the research can and can’t reveal.    It includes Helen’s struggles with the department chair regarding her continued access to the documents following her required retirement and her battles with Parkinson’s disease which complicates her study.  This section also dips into Helen’s past to give us the backstory that led her to focus on Jewish history.  We get background on Aaron, his struggles both professional and personal and his evolving perception of Helen.  The story set in the 1660’s progresses the story of Ester as scribe for Rabbi Mendes, his household, who provides financial support, and Ester’s life.   Interestingly, this is the time of the Black Plague in Europe and how Ester experiences it likely falls on readers’ ears differently if they are reading this book during the Covid-19 Pandemic of 2020 vs other times. 

 The stories of Helen and Ester compare and contrast the possible paths in their respective times for women with clear, quick minds if their inclination or choice isn’t fixed upon marriage.   Supporting characters Aaron Levy and Mary, another member of the London Jewish community who engages Ester as a companion so she can socialize with London society, provide additional stories highlighting the conventions of dating, courtship, and marriage in the two periods.

This novel is classified on this website as Historical Fiction.  Like other well-written Historical Fiction, this novel has its story interacting in an appropriately consistent manner with actual history.  In this case the real historical characters are the famous Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel and Baruck Spinoza, both members of the Amsterdam refugee community of the Spanish/Portugues Inquisition.  Menassah was on a mission to populate England with Jews to enable the coming of the Messiah (which apparently was anticipated by Christian scholars at the time too).  Spinoza was a member of the Amsterdam refugee community who was excommunicated by the rabbis when he was only 23 as his philosophies were contrary to the accepted teachings of the times.  Some of the documents Helen and Aaron study are letters between Menasseh and Rabbi Mendes.  Some of the documents are letters between Spinoza and a little known scholar. 

Although there were sections that could have been more concise without losing any substance or feeling, this reader greatly enjoyed this book.  The modern characters were certainly believable.  One of the points of the book was to create Ester’s character to demonstrate what she could offer if she could exist.  Certainly her courage and desires were believable.  The historical and philosophy information/lessons were appreciated by this reader and well woven into the story.  Similarly the theme of the constraints on women’s role in society over time was not heavy handed.    That historians can’t find the whole story despite their best efforts is an interesting assertion the author make which is certainly true in this case.

This book can be enjoyed over a short period of time—like a 24 hour road trip—or at a more leisurely pace.  This reader anticipates enjoying re-reading at least parts before the book discussion, especially as it’s not for several months!

War and War and Tolstoy

War and Peace

By Leo Tolstoy

Published serially 1865-1867; in book form 1869

Read May-July 2019

I listened to the 2007 Naxos AudioBooks version of the English translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude, read by Neville Jason, while referring to the Kindle version of the 1942 Oxford University Press Inner Sanctum Edition of the same translation.   The hardcopy of the Inner Sanctum Edition included a 12 page leaflet providing maps, a list of characters, both arranged in order of their appearance and in family groups, and a list of dates of principal historical events; this material was also included in the published hardcopy.   This edition also included Aylmer Maude’s preface, a brief biography of Tolstoy, and an introduction written by Clifton Fadiman which comments on the parallel between Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 and Hitler’s invasion in 1941-42.   While the Kindle version doesn’t include the leaflet, it does include all other aspects of the Inner Sanctum Edition and is certainly easier to transport and store than the original hardcopy version. 

Neville Jason’s reading is fabulous. His reading allowed very easy assimilation of the various forms of the names of the numerous characters.  As the book progresses, and in the entire Epilogue Two, Tolstoy gives the reader various, sometimes lengthy, philosophical essays on his views of particular battles, the overall war with respect to causes of initiation, progression, and ending, Napoleon and Alexander, the documentation of war in history books, and the art of writing history itself, among others.  This reader anticipates these essays could have felt a bit tedious when reading “via eyes” but Neville Jason’s reading enabled this reader’s full engagement and a sense of Tolstoy earnestly speaking directly to this reader. 

Apparently Tolstoy chose the title “War and Peace” to replace the title (“1805”) originally used as the work was published serially.  Certainly the full work covers the period extending to 1820, with focus  on the Napoleonic-Russian War of 1805 and the invasion of Russia by Napoleon in 1812 so “1805” was an insufficient title.  The discussion of Peace is limited, however, unless he uses this term to cover the fictional story of five Russian families and numerous minor characters.  Or perhaps he used the term “Peace” to describe the period before the involvement of Russia in the 1805 war and the period between that war and Napoleon’s invasion.  In any case, he doesn’t overtly discuss “Peace” but he certainly discusses “War” as noted above. 

The book created controversy when it was published as the critics and public found it difficult to classify the book—not history, not a “normal” novel.  This reader sees the book as a form of historical fiction.  There are many (apparently some 160) real persons in the book, some only referenced and others actively involved in the story.  Tolstoy provides five fictional Russian families and numerous minor characters to engage the reader with a sense of the society of the time, to provide multiple stories of potential marriage matches, and to provide characters’ experiences in entering the service, in battle, and in the service of the army.  But unlike “normal” historical fiction, Tolstoy weighs in often with his personal take on various topics as noted above.

This reader invested unusually heavily in this book, purchasing both the two volumes of audiobook and the Kindle book.  The other investment, which seemed somewhat daunting at the beginning, was that the audiobook version requires 62 hours of listening.  But now that this reader is finished with listening, this reader frankly misses Neville Jason’s voice describing the various trials and tribulations of the five Russian families (which won’t be divulged here as you will want to discover yourselves) and providing this reader Tolstoy’s view on the various topics previously mentioned.  The only disappointment was in Epilogue 1 when Tolstoy’s view was divulged of the only purpose of women (to be married and raise children).  But this reader must give him a small pass here as this vast saga of families and the course of Russian history is so completely engaging.  This reader did utilize some other sources to comprehend better aspects of Russian and Napoleonic history that may have been familiar to his earliest readers.  Since this reader’s primary identity is “learner”, this book delivered well more than 62 hours of learning.  The Kindle version indicates average reading time of 32 hours.  This reader fully recommend investing savoring this book; Neville Jason’s version is time very well spent.

David: Warrior and Musician

The Secret Chord

By Geraldine Brooks

Published 2015

Read April 2019

Depending on your religious upbringing, your current spiritual practice, the movies you’ve seen, and the books you’ve read, your awareness of the story of the biblical David may be limited to the story of the young shepherd David slaying the giant Goliath or may be more expansive with various levels of detail about his rise to become the King of Israel, his musical abilities, the poetry ascribed to him, and his relationship with Bathsheba who becomes the mother of David’s successor, Solomon.  Geraldine Brooks gives us a fictionalized version of the biblical David story.  The term “biblical David”  being used as very limited evidence outside of the bible gives details of his life.  However, David is a figure discussed extensively in the Old Testament so there are many stories about him available there.

Brooks pulls no punches with the picture she paints of David.  He is shown as a man driven to create a united kingdom of Israel, willing to kill and conquer “as much as needed” to accomplish this goal.   While out of the favor of King Saul, who he succeeds, he was a maundering bandit who killed to get supplies when needed. She presents the interaction with Bathesba as a rape by David because he could, not a seduction by Bathesba of David. David has her husband killed when he finds out she carries his child and he fails at tricking the husband into sleeping with his wife while on active duty thus preventing a means to cover his “tracks”.   He had multiple wives, common at the time, some for political reasons, others to generate heirs, and his treatment of them was sometimes very far from kind.  His relationship with Jonathan, son of Saul, is not one that may be expected and one that impacts his marriage with Sauls daughter.  Brooks moderates the picture somewhat.  David asks Nathan, his sayer/prophet, to write his history, warts and all, and Nathan certainly finds and tells us the warts indicated above.  This sets up the structure of Nathan as narrator as scribe of the story.  In the last section of the book, after the kingdom is considered “whole”, other aspects of David are told. David writes much music and poetry to the near exclusion of managing the political wrangling between his various sons and lieutenants.   During this time Nathan is allowed by David to be a very close mentor to his son and ultimate heir, Solomon, who Nathan prophesizes will build the temple that David won’t be allowed given his past sins. 

Brooks’ story of David may or may not align with readers’ views or understanding of David. This reader anticipate it’s not her goal to provide the “truth” about David but rather to present a fictionalized possible picture of him and his time. This reader appreciate that while Brooks does use dialog to present the story at times, she relies on Nathan to be the narrator and doesn’t tell us what David is thinking. We see David through Brooks’ Nathan’s intepretation of David.

Much of the book deals with persistent warring between various tribes and between David’s army and all who stand in his way of creating a unified kingdom.  It was interesting that David apparently presumes his reason for conquering the city that will become the City of David justifies his action—it will provide a capital city which was not originally part of either of the two lands he is uniting.  The unification is good; a “neutral” capital will seal the unification. Death, destruction, subjugation are all justified for the good of creating this united kingdom which will worship the true single Word.  War pursued for religious purposes is clearly nothing new (David’s story occurred ~1000BC) and, unfortunately, humans have continued to battle for religious reasons to this day…..

Song of a Captive Bird

Song of a Captive Bird

By Jasmin Darznik

Published 2018

Read Jan 2019

Forugh Farrokhzad was a poet born in 1934 in Tehran, Iran.  During her short life (she died in a car accident at age 32) Forugh published several volumes of poetry that were highly praised and widely read, and directed a documentary, The House is Black, about a leper colony.  Her poetry was quite controversial as she wrote about desire, sin, loss, love, and more from her own perspective.  For both her extraordinary poetry and for her very unconventional life (divorced from by her husband who retained custody of her only child and a relationship with cinematographer Ebrahim Golestan, who was the producer of her documentary), she attracted much attention and disapproval.   She was hospitalized at one point for an alleged mental breakdown.  Her poetry was banned after the Islamic Revolution but remains widely read, now in many languages.

Jasmin Darznik moved to the US in 1978 with her parents when she was five years old and her parents were among many who fled Iran during this turbulent period of Iranian history.  In this book, Darznik has provided a fictionalized first-person account of Forugh’s life and brings to life a picture of this extraordinary woman as she fights to break free of the shackles imposed on women by her culture and of the times during which she lived.  That Forugh successfully published her sometimes very erotic poems demonstrates her amazing voice and her determination to be heard, and also shows a time when Iran, while even then extremely conservative, also provided an avenue for independent and controversial female voices to be heard.

Forugh’s voice in this book tells us of the struggles with her parents, husband, mother-in-law, editor/lover, Golestan, society, and herself.  She recognizes that the choices she makes are sometimes reckless and burn bridges back to a more standard life, but she is firmly committed to live life by her rules and not others, even if at times she is lonely.

While I sometimes struggle with fictionalized accounts of the lives of real people, I fully recommend this one.  The first-person voice Darznik presents of Forugh is not inconsistent with Forugh’s poetry that is quoted throughout the book.  This is an accessible portal to learn about this remarkable woman whose voice rings strong, loud, and clear 51 years after her death and even when translated into English from the original Farsi.

A Novel of the Great War

The Care and Management of Lies:  A Novel of the Great War

By Jacqueline Winspear

Published 2014

Read July 2018

I read this while waiting for my turn for the library’s copy of Winspear’s newest Massie Dobbs novel.  This is the only book in her canon that isn’t a Massie Dobbs novel but it satisfies similarly.  Winspear writes engaging historical fiction providing interesting characters, many details of life in that time, and a story in which the characters struggle with issues confronting people in that time.   The Massie Dobbs novels start with Massie post-WWI although the impact of WWI or WWII is usually felt by both Massie and other characters in each book.  In this novel Winspear dives directly into the lives of people dealing with the early onset of the “Great War”, in particular the pressure felt by all to either enlist or “do something” for the war effort and the resulting consequences.

Taking leave of Massie Dobbs, Winspear was able to create 4 new characters of whom we learn about their thoughts, dreams, concerns, and fears:  Thea and Tom Brissenden, siblings who have known Kezia Marchant since Kezia and Thea (then Dorritt) were scholarship classmates at a girl’s boarding prep school, well before Tom and Kezia marry, and Edmund Hawkes, current generation owner of an estate from which Tom’s father obtained their farm through a wager with Edmund’s father.   Each of these characters is simultaneously strong and self-doubting.   Kezia and Tom write regularly to each other once Tom enlists and take care in their letters to manage some lies of incomplete truths to enable their beloved to carry on through the trials they are facing.  Winspear was unburdened from resolving a mystery that Massie and her team must solve so she was free to bring her story to an appropriate close that is true to each character and the time in which they lived.

I advocate for Winspear to continue writing non-Massie Dobbs books so we can experience other aspects of modern English history through her well-constructed and well-rounded characters.  I appreciate that Winspear is productive but not overly prolific—her production pace allows her to provide us rich details and context about the historical backdrop for her interesting stories and avoid being formulaic.  And of course I look forward to more works about Massie Dobbs…