Paula Berinstein's Blog

December 4, 2017

Push Not the River (The Poland Trilogy, #1) by James Conroyd MartinPush Not the River by James Conroyd Martin

Push Not the River is such an exciting book! Set in the dramatic 18th century, the story features twists and turns both political and personal. It reminds me a bit of a Philippa Gregory book in scope and treatment, centering as it does around a high born but emotionally disadvantaged woman who finds herself caught up in events beyond her control. The heroine is a bit naive (other reviews have remarked on this) but I found her likeable in spite of that. She's young and has been sheltered. I don't see that as unrealistic.

I must say that the writing is absolutely fantastic. The author really knows his way around the English language!

For a person whose ancestry partly includes denizens of this area I know precious little about Polish history. Shame on me. However, after reading this story I am keen to dig deeper. I didn't realize that Poland has long suffered under the designs of Russia, Prussia, and Austria. (Could I be any more ignorant?) This tug of war has inflicted great instability and caused its boundaries to be redrawn over and over. The story demonstrates this angst in an engaging and effective way.
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Published on December 04, 2017 11:34 • 31 views • Tags: 18th-century, poland

October 24, 2017

Tess_Gerritsen_headshotTess Gerritsen is best known as the author of the Rizzoli and Isles crime novels. I recently had the privilege of interviewing her about her latest book, I Know a Secret.


I_Know_a_Secret_coverTwo separate homicides, at different locations, with unrelated victims, have more in common than just being investigated by Boston PD detective Jane Rizzoli and medical examiner Maura Isles. In both cases, the bodies bear startling wounds—yet the actual cause of death is unknown. It’s a doubly challenging case for the cop and the coroner to be taking on, at an inconvenient time for both of them. As Jane struggles to save her mother from the crumbling marriage that threatens to bury her, Maura grapples with the imminent death of her own mother—infamous serial killer Amalthea Lank.

While Jane tends to her mother, there’s nothing Maura can do for Amalthea, except endure one final battle of wills with the woman whose shadow has haunted her all her life. Though succumbing to cancer, Amalthea hasn’t lost her taste for manipulating her estranged daughter—by dangling a cryptic clue about the two bizarre murders Maura and Jane are desperately trying to solve.

But whatever the dying convict knows is only a piece of the puzzle. Soon the investigation leads to a secretive young woman who survived a shocking abuse scandal; an independent horror film that may be rooted in reality; and a slew of martyred saints who died cruel and unusual deaths. And just when Rizzoli and Isles think they’ve cornered a devilish predator, the long-buried past rears its head—and threatens to engulf more innocent lives, including their own.


The Interview

PB. I love Jane and Maura! Can you tell us a little about them: who they are, their strengths and weaknesses, how you feel about them? If you knew them in real life, would they be your friends? How would you get along? What irritates you about them? What do you admire? Can you tell us something about them that we don't know?

TG. Jane is based on a number of women cops I’ve met – tough and feisty gals who are very aware that they have to work harder than the men do to be fully accepted. Jane’s also a very determined woman who’s not afraid to speak her mind, even if it makes her seem unlikeable, and this sometimes gets her into trouble with her male colleagues. Maura is much more reserved, a woman who relies on logic and science. (I once heard them described as Kirk and Spock, and I do see the resemblance, even though they weren’t created with those men in mind!) I think Maura could be my friend because we understand each other – especially since Maura is very much modeled after my own personality. Jane might scare me a little! I certainly admire them both because they’re intelligent and resourceful and very, very loyal people. After twelve books, I can’t think of anything about them that my readers don’t already know.

PB. How do you make your protagonists compelling? How have they changed over time? Why did they change in those ways? Do you struggle to keep them interesting as the series progresses? How are they different from the way you first envisioned them? Is the difference (if there is one) due to something that didn't work out or simply that you've learned more about them over time?

TG. Any character can be compelling if they face tough hurdles in their lives, and that’s certainly true of both Jane and Maura. For Jane, at the beginning, it’s the struggle to be accepted as the brilliant cop she is. For Maura, it’s a struggle for identity in a world where she never feels quite comfortable with human emotions. As the series progressed, their challenges shifted. Jane gained respect, but then had to deal with being a wife and mother as well as a cop. Maura struggled with the dark history of her birth family, as well as her attraction for an unattainable man. I never planned these developments in their lives; they evolved naturally as the stories progressed. In fact, I never imagined these women would star in a continuing series. THE SURGEON (where Jane was introduced) was supposed to be a stand-alone novel. THE APPRENTICE (the sequel) introduced the mysterious Maura Isles, which led to a third book. Every novel has been inspired by my need to know what happens next in their lives. And as the books progressed, both women evolved. Jane grew happier and more fulfilled. Maura became more deeply trapped in her feelings for Father Daniel Brophy. And the lives of everyone around them became more complicated as well.

PB. Maura is the daughter of a serial killer. Did you do research to find out how people in that situation cope and what their lives are like or did you just imagine it for yourself?

TG. Maura’s family history was inspired by a true-crime case in Oregon, about a young man who discovered that both his father and his grandfather were serial killers. I remember thinking how shocking that must have been – and how that sort of revelation would make me question who I am, and whether I inherited some of that evil. In a previous book, I had mentioned that Maura was adopted, but I never thought it was an important detail – until the idea of a murderous birth mother came to me.

PB. How far ahead do you plan your series and character arcs? I've read that you don't outline. Have you ever written yourself into a corner, and if so, did you have to rewrite large portions of the book to get yourself out of it?

TG. I only plan one book at a time, so there’s no over-arching blueprint for me to follow over a series. One story leads to the next, and each character’s personal revelation leads to the next. Yes, I quite often write myself into a corner, which leads to writer’s block. I just have to step away, re-think my story, and do a lot of re-writing to make the different little gears fit together.

PB. How do you make sure you're consistent from one book to the next? Have you committed any continuity gaffes? How do you handle the passage of time in the series? Do you try to keep each book in the time frame in which it was written or do you purposely avoid mentioning things that could end up being anachronisms and mess up your chronology? (For example, you mention Tinder in this book, but when you started the series Tinder didn't exist. That places I Know a Secret after 2012, when the app was first released.)

TG. The passage of time is my biggest challenge, especially since I need to keep track of how old Jane’s daughter is. I often have to go back into previous books to follow the seasons. Did the last book take place in summer? How many months have passed since then, and what’s happened in their lives in the meantime? Poor Jane Rizzoli had the longest pregnancy in history – it lasted through three books! (THE SINNER, BODY DOUBLE, and VANISH.)

Technology is the other thing that always trips up an author of a long-running series because of rapid technological advances. When I wrote VANISH, YouTube wasn’t yet in existence, so my characters had to physically deliver a videotape to a reporter. If you read that book now, you’d wonder: “Why didn’t they just put it on YouTube?” I wrote a book HARVEST, years ago, where my character runs around looking for a pay phone! Within a decade, many novels will seem out of date.

PB. How do you distinguish your stories from the other police procedurals out there? Do you worry about that issue at all? How do you see yourself in relation to other mystery writers, if you even think about that? (In other words, do you think about/worry about your place in the genre?)

TG. I don’t worry about those issues at all. All I can do is write the story I want to write. Yes, there may be a hundred other serial killer novels out there, but how many of them include a young woman fighting for her life in the African bush? (DIE AGAIN) Or a victim mistaken for an ancient Egyptian mummy? (THE KEEPSAKE). How many have a protagonist trapped in a snowbound village where the inhabitants have vanished? (ICE COLD). You just have to find your own unique twist on the genre.

PB. How did you learn to write mysteries? What about writing a mystery is different from writing other types of fiction?

TG. I learned by reading a lot of them, both good and bad. Writing a mystery has its own unique challenges, the primary one being: how do you challenge and surprise your audience? Mystery readers tend to be very clever readers, and it’s hard to stump them.

PB. Some mysteries take us into the viewpoint of the murderer and some don't. Why select one method or the other? What does each do for the reader and the story?

TG. It all depends on the story you’re telling, and which voice you hear as a writer. In THE SURGEON, the first voice I heard speaking to me was the killer’s, and it was so chilling and distinct, I had to write it. Using the killer’s voice means the audience learns a lot of details before the detective does, so the mystery in that novel wasn’t “whodunit”; the mystery was how he selects his victims. Sometimes it’s a secondary character’s voice that comes to me most vividly, such as Millie’s in DIE AGAIN. She’s a young woman who starts off the story stranded in the African bush. Her story of victimhood and survival is so harrowing that I simply had to use her voice.

PB. Many mysteries these days deal with the subject of crimes against children. What issues have you faced in writing and publishing this kind of story?

TG. I try to avoid that subject as much as possible. Even though I KNOW A SECRET deals with what seem to be crimes against children, that theme is actually tangential to the true mystery. I avoid killing children in my novels, but when it does happen, those crimes almost always happen off the page.

PB. What has been the response to Maura's relationship with a priest? Did you worry that that would make her unlikable?

TG. That romance generates more reader comments than anything else does! Her love affair with Daniel Brophy started off as a wistful attraction in THE SINNER, and I never thought it would go any further. They’re both such likable, moral people, and of course they would try their hardest not to fall in love. But human nature being what it is, of course they succumb a few books later. I see it as a human failing, a moment of weakness like so many other people experience, and the trap they fall into makes them both miserable. Even women as intelligent as Maura sometimes fall in love with the wrong men, and in that way she is very, very human.

PB. How do you come up with your beginnings. For example, the hook in I Know a Secret is "When I was seven years old, I learned how important it is to cry at funerals." Why did you start the book by talking about funerals? Was it hard to come up with the perfect opening sentence and starting scene? Is that something you struggle with in general? Have you ever started a story at the wrong point in the arc and had to adjust it?

TG. The opening sentence is the hardest one to write, and utterly vital to get right, because it sets the tone for the entire rest of the novel. In I KNOW A SECRET, I started off in Holly’s voice because I wanted readers to gain deep insight into her character. I wanted to show that she’s not like you and me; she has her own unique view of the world, and it’s her behavior and her attitude at funerals that truly sets her apart from normal people. A woman who must will herself to cry at funerals – and only for her own selfish reasons – is a disturbing individual.

I’ve often started off stories at the wrong point in the arc. In fact, sometimes I write the very first chapter only after I’ve completed the first draft, and realize the story should start earlier.

PB. Why is part of the book in the present tense and part in the past tense? Why is part in the first person and part in the third person?

TG. Holly is in first person because only through her inner thoughts do we know what kind of creature she is. First person narrative is a very intimate look into a person’s character, and her voice was so unique I wanted to share it. Jane and Maura are in third person simply because I’ve always written them in third person.

PB. Is there anything in your books you wish you could go back and do over?

TG. No. I did the best I could with each book I’ve written, and I prefer to focus on the next story.

PB. How long does it take you to write a book?

TG. I’ve taken as little as six months (with my romantic suspense novels) to as long as two years (GRAVITY).

PB. Who are your favorite mystery writers and why? Is there one existing book you wish you'd written? How about one you're dying to write?

TG. I like to push my “three Lisas”: Lisa Gardner, Lisa Scottoline, and Lisa Unger. All three of them have terrific characters, deep emotional insights, and baffling mysteries. One book I wish I’d written? GONE GIRL. I loved reading about those vastly unlikeable characters. A book I’m dying to write? I would like to write another historical novel about medicine. BONE GARDEN remains one of my favorites, and I’d like to go back in history to once again write about doctors in a different era.

PB. What do you wish people would ask you that they never do? Whatever it is, I'm asking it.

TG. I think I’ve been asked about everything!

PB. Is there anything I haven't mentioned that you'd like to add?

TG. I’m at a stage in my life where I’m ready to focus on projects without any concern about their marketability. You only have so many creative years during a lifetime, and now’s the time to take risks, whether it’s in novels or in other media, and explore the topics I’m passionate about. Which is why my son and I are now in production on a feature documentary about the centuries-long relationship between humans and pigs. We’ve already traveled quite a bit, interviewing experts around the world about genetics, archaeology, and animal behavior. It’s been a fascinating topic to cover, and at the end, we hope to have some answers as to why pork is the most forbidden food on the planet.

About Tess Gerritsen

Internationally bestselling author Tess Gerritsen took an unusual route to a writing career. A graduate of Stanford University, Tess went on to medical school at the University of California, San Francisco, where she was awarded her M.D.

While on maternity leave from her work as a physician, she began to write fiction. In 1987, her first novel was published. Call After Midnight, a romantic thriller, was followed by eight more romantic suspense novels. She also wrote a screenplay, "Adrift," which aired as a 1993 CBS Movie of the Week starring Kate Jackson.

Tess’s first medical thriller, Harvest, was released in hardcover in 1996, and it marked her debut on the New York Times bestseller list. Her suspense novels since then have been: Life Support (1997), Bloodstream (1998), Gravity (1999), The Surgeon (2001), The Apprentice (2002), The Sinner (2003), Body Double (2004), Vanish (2005), The Mephisto Club (2006), The Bone Garden (2007), The Keepsake (2008; UK title: Keeping the Dead), Ice Cold (2010; UK title: The Killing Place), The Silent Girl, and now LAST TO DIE. Her books have been translated into 37 languages, and more than 20 million copies have been sold around the world.

In July of 2010, TNT premiered its new series “Rizzoli & Isles,” based on the bestselling series by Gerritsen. Angie Harmon (Law & Order) and Sasha Alexander (Mission: Impossible III) star as Boston detective Jane Rizzoli and medical examiner Maura Isles, good friends and sometimes partners, who together solve crimes and bust some of Boston’s most notorious criminals. The series also stars Lorraine Bracco (The Sopranos) as Jane’s demanding and intrusive mother and Lee Thompson Young (FlashForward) as Det. Barry Frost, Jane’s somewhat green partner. The series went on to be a hit, and is just wrapping its third season. As a novelist/M.D., Gerritsen’s specialty is in translating complicated medical science for lay readers. She often lectures at science education events and teaches a writing course on Cape Cod for physicians who want to become novelists. She is also the only Asian thriller writer who has achieved bestseller status.

Her books have been top-5 bestsellers in the United States and abroad. She has won both the Nero Wolfe Award (for Vanish) and the Rita Award (for The Surgeon). Critics around the world have praised her novels as “Pulse-pounding fun” (Philadelphia Inquirer), “Scary and brilliant” (Toronto Globe and Mail), and “Polished, riveting prose” (Chicago Tribune). Publisher Weekly has dubbed her the “medical suspense queen.” Now retired from medicine, she writes full time. She lives in Maine.

Her Web site is TessGerritsen.com.
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Published on October 24, 2017 09:46 • 127 views • Tags: boston, interview, mystery, police-procedural, tess-gerritsen

October 16, 2017

The Angolan Clan by Christopher LoweryThe Angolan Clan: A gripping international action thriller! (African Diamonds Trilogy Book 1)
By Christopher Lowery

This was an odd book. It started out great. By the middle I was beginning to lose track of all the gazillions of characters. By the end I felt that the author had gotten tired because the writing became rather hackneyed and the plot rather silly, with the very end being altogether ridiculous.

That said, I did enjoy reading it. I had picked up the book as part of my historical novels of the world project, because how many historical novels deal with Angola and I needed one. And reading it for the history, which is essentially what I was doing, was very interesting indeed.

For example, I did not know that Portugal had experienced a military coup in 1974, which led to the end of its involvement in Africa. That upheaval overthrew the country's longstanding right-wing government and replaced it with a democracy, although not without assorted partisan jockeying in the meantime. I also didn't know that said coup led to the country's abandonment of Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea. And I knew next to nothing about diamond production in Angola, a fascinating if controversial part of its background.

Because I was (and still am) so unfamiliar with the histories of both Portugal and its African colonies, I found it hard to absorb all the background, but now I feel equipped to dig further. How involved were the Russians and the Cubans in the coup, for example? The author maintains that they were instrumental because they wanted the African colonies. What happened to the colonies after the Portuguese left? The author tells us that they devolved into civil war, but I'd like to know what the upshot was. I'd also like to explore the cultures of the places. So many historical novels deal with war, but it would be interesting to read smaller stories that give real insight into the people. (If you know of any, please let me know!)

Would I recommend this book? Yes, if you like learning about history and exploring new places. Yes if you like financial thrillers. Yes if you like suspenseful stories that change locations often. No if you're picky about characterization and perfect writing.
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Published on October 16, 2017 12:56 • 15 views • Tags: angola, diamonds, historical-fiction, portugal

September 26, 2017

Mistress of the Art of Death (Mistress of the Art of Death, #1) by Ariana Franklin
Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin

This is a seriously creepy book. It is also a marvel, a very clever murder mystery that showcases the science of pathology; the place of the church, women, Jews, and foreigners in English life (specifically Cambridge); and the superstitions, misconceptions, prejudices, and fears of the populace. But as I say, it is creepy, and if you can't handle reading about horrific sexual crimes do not open this book.

I read tons of novels set in England, both in the present and the past, but I don't read a lot about the twelfth century. However despite the fact that I know a fair amount about the period from nonfiction sources, I learned a lot. For example, until the realm of Henry II, the only Jewish cemeteries in England were in London. If a Jew died, they had to be transported to London to be buried.

I also didn't know that until the reign of Henry II, there was no such thing as a jury trial. He instituted that. In addition, if a crime was deemed to be within the jurisdiction of the church, the civil authorities had absolutely no power to adjudicate or punish; their criteria for judging guilt and innocence were their own, and definitely not what we're used to: a nun or priest who committed a crime was unlikely to be punished, no matter how serious the offense, and if the book is to be believed, there was absolutely nothing even a king could do about it. The Pope was supreme.

I also did not know that there was a medical school in Salerno, the Schola Medica Salernitana, which was renowned for training doctors (who weren't called doctors), including women!

There is a love story in this book, which although not central, is still a lot of fun. The object of the heroine's affections is no Jamie Fraser. He's a deeply flawed, maddening man whom she comes to love in spite of his imperfections. That made him so appealing to me that I wished I could meet him (and slap his face when I did). He finds her equally annoying and loves her all the same. I just love that.

I found the style a little artsy fartsy for the first few pages but then it settled down and became much more readable. Even so, you need a certain amount of patience, I think, to get through the book because it is rather intellectually challenging. It is worth it, though.
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Published on September 26, 2017 11:56 • 53 views • Tags: autopsies, henry-ii, jews, mystery, pathology, salerno

September 19, 2017

Shadow of the Moon by M.M. Kaye

Shadow of the Moon by M.M. Kaye

What a story! What a book!

If you want to immerse yourself in 19th century British India, this is the book to read. Not only does the author envelop the reader in the sights, sounds, smells, and language of the place, but she conveys a deep sense of the political unrest that was roiling the land at the time.

It is absolutely gobsmacking how tone deaf, willfully ignorant, and arrogant the British East India Company administrators were. Oblivious to the customs, beliefs, and values of the Hindu, Moslem, and Sikh populations, they created misery, resentment, and ultimately violent rebellion against their rule, with tragic results for everyone.

There is also a love story. It's very romantic, if a bit forced. You know the two leads are going to end up together, and yet Kaye could have done a better job of showing how they came to love each other. She's a bit better with Winter, the girl than with Alex, the guy, who just suddenly seems to fall in love for no reason. At least that's how I see it. But I forgive her for that because the story as a whole is just so rich and compelling.

One thing I've noticed lately not only with this book but with a lot of other very successful authors is a lot of head hopping. I know the style has changed over the years and writers used to use a semi-omniscient viewpoint that readers accepted. This book is old enough that I can excuse it, although I did find it distracting. There are some contemporary authors who are still doing it though, and I don't know why. There are easy and elegant ways around it. Still and all, a great story and a wonderful book.
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Published on September 19, 2017 08:45 • 55 views • Tags: british-east-india-company, india, sepoy-rebellion

September 7, 2017

The Invisible Bridge by Julie OrringerThe Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer

An exquisite book that was hard to read. Of course when the story is set in France and Hungary in the late 1930s and the war years, that's to be expected. So many hardships, so many atrocities.

However, because I read this book as part of my historical novels project I found it fascinating--if heartbreaking--to see what a Hungarian Jew studying in France might have gone through. When Andras began his architecture study in Paris in 1937, there were some restrictions on Jews--quotas for schooling and professions, for example--but as the years went by more and more rights and privileges were taken away. Imagine desperately wanting to become an architect, just managing to scrape together the funds to get you through school, and then having that dream snatched away just because you're Jewish. And that was only the beginning of his misfortunes. Over the course of a few years Andras lost not only his schooling but his job, his freedom, his home, and most of his family. (There are bright spots, though, so if you're interested in reading the book, know that there are hopeful moments.)

I'm generally less interested in 20th century history than in earlier times, but I found it fascinating to read about Hungary--a country about which I know virtually nothing--during the war. I feel that I've barely scratched the surface with this book, but at least I've been exposed. I'm looking forward to delving deeper.
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Published on September 07, 2017 10:50 • 19 views • Tags: france, hungary, jews, world-war-ii

September 6, 2017

In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant.

When I read historical fiction, I'm often struck by how boisterous people were in the past. Whether this is because many authors choose to write about lively people and places or whether the past was noisier and less private than now I'm not sure. Certainly that seems to be the case here. Of course when you start with the sack of Rome what do you expect, but even when the narrative gets past that, the overwhelming feeling--at least for me--is of noise and action. What a wonderfully immersive environment the author builds!

I loved this book, not just for the gorgeous but accessible writing, but because it made me wonder. I kept imagining what life was like for Fiammetta--the courtesan of the title--and her partner, the dwarf Bucino. When they were at the height of their profession they were dazzling, but yikes--all the work that went into getting and keeping them there! Outwardly glamorous, they worked their butts off every day to maintain their image. The day-long beauty treatments, the "marketing," the household management, the security were all-consuming. But for them, this was what was necessary to survive.

Despite the subject matter, I did not find this a sexy book. Thrilling, suspenseful, sumptuous, and engrossing, yes, but not erotic, so if you're looking for sex scenes, I'd look elsewhere. But if you love history and Italy and unusual characters, you might want to give it a try.
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Published on September 06, 2017 12:06 • 16 views • Tags: dwarves, italy, prostitution, renaissance, venice

September 1, 2017

The Accidental Empress (Sisi, #1) by Allison PatakiThe Accidental Empress by Allison Pataki

I read this book as part of my historical novels featuring every country project and I was not disappointed. I know little about Austria and was fascinated to learn a bit about its mid-19th century history. I didn't realize that the empire was assailed from all sides during this period, and that Austria's relationship with Hungary, which was part of the empire but desired autonomy, was so critical. As I read I fantasized about visiting both places and soaking up as much history as possible.

Of course Sisi's story is heartbreaking. The more I read, the more I realize how lucky I am as a woman to have been born when I was. For most of history women's lives have been extremely fraught and quite miserable, much of that due to our almost complete economic dependence. As rough as we have it today in many ways--and we still do--our lives are a breeze compared with what women in the past had to go through just to survive, and that didn't matter if they were queens, empresses, or peasants. The stories of Catherine of Aragon, Elizabeth York, Elisabeth of Austria, and even the luckiest of all of them, Elizabeth Woodville, who married England's Edward IV, are so sad! If you were a queen and didn't produce a male heir, good luck to you. Even if you did you could be set aside and forced to live in poverty and disgrace. In the case of Sisi, who was an empress for Pete's sake, she wasn't even allowed to see her children--not because she'd done anything wrong but because "that's the way things are done in this court." Yikes!

Of course most men's lives weren't so great either, especially if they were royals. All that jockeying for power, living in fear of assassination or being beheaded, ill health--who needs that? As I read these stories I wonder why anyone would want to be a king. The second you assume the throne everyone is out to kill you, even and especially your own family.

Another thing that hits me when I read these stories of royalty is how little privacy monarchs had and still have. Always surrounded by your household, your ladies in waiting, your maids, your guards, your council, whatever--good grief! What kind of a life is it where your every move is observed? In this story, Sisi's "handlers" even checked her bedsheets to see if she might be pregnant!

This first volume in the series implies that Sisi did eventually claim a bit of happiness for herself. I can't wait to read the rest of the series to find out if she did.

Highly recommended!
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Published on September 01, 2017 08:26 • 15 views • Tags: 19th-century, austria, history, hungary

August 7, 2017

Peony by Pearl S. BuckPeony by Pearl S. Buck

This is a strange book. Granted, the writing style was different when it was written in the early 20th century, but even making allowances for that I found it odd.

SPOILER ALERT!!

The main character, Peony, is a bondmaid for a Jewish family in a tiny Chinese town around the year 1800. She's in love with the son, but because she's a bondmaid she can't be involved with him unless he takes her as his mistress. That he won't do, so instead she, Peony, helps find him a wife, all the while secretly still desiring him. This is supposed to satisfy her, I guess, because . . . I have no idea why. Because a bondmaid isn't supposed to aspire to anything? Isn't supposed to have feelings? Maybe, because in the end she enters a convent and eventually finds peace there. What kind of an arc is that? It isn't satisfying--she doesn't end up with the man she loves--and it isn't a tragedy. So what is it?

I also have to comment on the book from a personal perspective. Because of my background I found it wrenching to read. The mother in the story doesn't want her son to marry a Chinese girl. Only another Jew will do. But there are virtually no Jewish girls in the little community, the only real prospect being the rabbi's daughter, and the son doesn't want her. The father is more easy going and isn't worried about the prospect of his son marrying a gentile. Then the son falls in love with a Chinese girl and has to make a choice: make his mother happy, or seize happiness for himself.

My problem with this scenario is that my own Jewish parents did the same thing to me. I didn't live in China and I didn't fall for a Chinese man, but to say that I was discouraged from dating outside my religion would be an understatement. Needless to say, I found this narrow and exclusionary attitude frustrating and infuriating. To this day I don't understand why people would voluntarily circumscribe their lives and miss out on all the interesting things this huge and diverse world has to offer.

So as I read I wanted to deck that mother, applaud the father, shake the son (who couldn't see what was right in front of him), and tell Peony to tell the guy how she really felt. Obviously this is my 20th- and 21st-century self talking to characters who were set in a completely different place and time, and the characters couldn't have done those things without dramatic repercussions. But I still wanted to hurl the book across the room (except that I read it on my phone, and that wouldn't have been good).

Now I understand to some degree where that mother was coming from. Jews were assimilating into Chinese life and she wanted her own culture to be preserved. I think this is where my parents were coming from too, although living in 20th century America is hardly the same as what the characters in the book faced. This is a real dilemma for many people, not just Jews, and yet, do we sacrifice our own happiness in order to preserve a culture in which we barely participate? My answer is no, but I understand if you feel differently.

So, I found the book interesting from a cultural and historical perspective, but the story was just plain weird. I still don't understand what the point was. The only one who really ends up happy is Peony, and she sacrifices everything she wants. Maybe Pearl Buck was taking a Buddhist attitude, that you can't have any expectations and should find peace where you can. As far as I can tell, no other conclusion makes sense.
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Published on August 07, 2017 09:15 • 20 views • Tags: china, historical-fiction, jews

August 3, 2017

The Coffee Trader by David LissThe Coffee Trader by David Liss

Reading this book was like living in a Rembrandt painting but with coffee. The author really made the period come alive and from what I know, really caught the spirit of both the Dutch people in the seventeenth century and the Jews who lived side by side with them.

While the story was interesting and held my attention, it was really the historical detail that captivated me. I have a rudimentary knowledge of my people's history, but there's so much I didn't and still don't know. I didn't know that Jews policed their own people to make sure they didn't break Talmudic laws. I didn't realize that some Jews turned to conniving in order to survive within the restrictions placed on them by the countries that hosted them. I didn't realize but could have surmised that Holland was more open and accepting of Jews at that time than most of the rest of Europe. I suppose that's all a big duh--I should have known because all that is obvious--but I hadn't thought about it so I didn't.

I had heard of the conversos--Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity but who practiced their religion secretly--but I didn't realize what that meant for their daily lives. For example, one of the female characters in the story was raised a Catholic and not told she was really a Jew until she got married. No wonder she continued to attend mass--secretly so her Jewish husband wouldn't find out. After eighteen years of thinking you're a Catholic it would be pretty hard to switch religions, particularly since Jewish men in Amsterdam wouldn't let women learn to read or tell them what Judaism was all about. They only told them what they needed to know in order to keep the sabbath, etc.

I also didn't realize how financial instruments worked in the seventeenth century--much like they do today, but at that time the protocols we take for granted were just developing. Selling short, for example, was a new phenomenon. It was implied in the story that buying on margin was new as well, although I may be wrong about that. Market manipulation, professional traders, all of that thrived during the seventeenth century. I didn't realize any of that, but then why would I? Who thinks about the origins of commodities markets?

If you're not familiar with finance and trade, you may find this book a bit dense. There's a lot of detail about buying and selling and puts and calls. I do know a fair amount about that stuff but still found myself skimming the technical sections. Not following every detail didn't affect my enjoyment of the story but I did read a review from someone who had difficulty. I think history buffs will get a lot out of the book regardless.

I read this book as part of my "historical novels from every country" project.
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Published on August 03, 2017 15:16 • 14 views • Tags: commodities, holland, jews, netherlands, seventeenth-century