Witnesses. Accomplices. Killers. One thing is clear from Wendy Lower’s chilling new book Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields. Regardless of the prism through which German women viewed the Third Reich’s maddening quest for racial purity few escape Lower’s dogged search for the answer to “why?” Why did this “darkest side of female activism” rear its head and consume a generation of women that found themselves thrust into a war they did not want but nonetheless embraced for their own selfishness and ambition.
For the thousands of women coming of age in Hitler’s Nazi Germany, the dividing line between home front and battlefront was practically nonexistent. While most women found ways to distance themselves from the violence of the war, a third of the female population was actively engaged in a Nazi Party organization. Many volunteered to be sent to the Eastern Front where some of the worst atrocities against Jews were documented. Clerical, teaching and nursing jobs became the sinister underpinnings of the Nazi machine, where new career tracks beckoned young women seeking a steady paycheck. How these women, some barely out of their teens, others young mothers, evolved into indifferent bystanders or cold-blooded killers, is the thrust of Lower's dramatic account.
Lower sorts her 13 "main characters" into three categories: witnesses, accomplices and killers. It is the latter perpetrators of genocide that evoke the most study. Women like Johanna Altvater, a secretary who lures Jewish children with candy only to shoot them, or Liesel Willhaus, wife of an SS commander who shoots Jewish slave workers from her balcony with her child in tow, are impossible to fathom. Lower, who is a Holocaust historian, explores shocking behaviors like these in this 68-year-old story of one of the most disturbing puzzles of women's behavior. Hitler's Furies has recently been named a finalist for the National Book Award.
For Celia Cassill, life since her husband's premature death has been about keeping what's important close to her. Her memories, her grief, her personal space are hers alone. The young widow in Amy Grace Loyd's graceful debut, The Affairs of Others, goes about her days like a figure in a dollhouse, her life compartmentalized in the converted Brooklyn brownstone she purchased after her husband died.
Celia has carefully chosen the tenants who rent her three apartments based on their ability to respect each other's privacy and mind their own business. "There is a certain consonance of character I look for," she tells George, an English teacher who wants to sublet his rooms to a recently divorced middle-age woman named Hope. Celia reluctantly agrees. Soon Hope's problems seep into her landlord's guarded milieu and Celia finds herself increasingly drawn into the attractive woman's orbit. It's not long before the lives of her other tenants ignite her curiosity as well, like the mismatched couple whose relationship is on the rocks and the elderly ferry captain who suddenly wanders off. Celia begins tiptoeing around their messy lives as she reevaluates her own through trial and error, sex and violence.
Loyd, the former literary editor at Playboy magazine, exposes with elegant, spare prose grief’s manifestation and its tentacle-like reach. “Certain grief trumps others,” Celia says in her somber, observant voice that resonates with the intimate knowledge of dying. Readers of Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking or Lily Tuck's I Married You for Happiness will recognize lost and found joy in this accomplished first effort.
Nurse Cathy Green looked at the elderly lady lying on the asphalt floor of the hospital's parking garage. The lung cancer patient was wheezing. Her oxygen tank was near empty. The rattled nurse couldn't stand to watch this woman die just because no one came to rescue her, so she walked away. It is gut-wrenching scenes like this that stay with you in Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital, Sheri Fink's riveting, exhaustively researched account of what happened at one particular hospital following Hurricane Katrina.
For the doctors and nurses at Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans, the principles of the Hippocratic Oath were severely tested in the days following the storm when the floodwaters rose. Keeping the sick alive became an exercise in ping-pong triage. Patients were controversially grouped for evacuation. Rancid air and pitch-black interior rooms made conditions unbearable. Help was slow in coming. Complicating the picture was the "hospital within a hospital." LifeCare housed the most critically ill patients on Memorial's seventh floor. Who gets help first? Who is evacuated last? In Memorial's case, Fink attempts to contextualize what really happened after the hurricane and who was responsible for the 45 patients who died there under suspicious circumstances.
A medical doctor who has worked in disaster relief, Fink won the Pulitzer Prize in investigative reporting for her 2009 article, “The Deadly Choices at Memorial.” Published in The New York Times magazine, it chronicled the mercy killings at the hospital under horrendous conditions. In her book's shifting perspectives and reconstructed narrative, she places readers where they need to be: inside the mindset of those who were there. "We went into survival mode and were just trying to keep them alive with food and water," said a staff member. Readers who like their narrative nonfiction with some kick will find this issue-oriented page-turner of ethical choices made by a beleaguered staff a difficult read to put down.
At its heart, Sara Farizan's contemporary coming of age novel If You Could Be Mine is a love story about the romantic relationship between two teenage girls from Iran and the complex decisions they face. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, there are no public displays of affection between the sexes, no Facebook, no women in football stadiums. But for best friends Sahar and Nasrin, it never mattered. They had their stolen kisses and untested promises. They had each other. Since they were small, Sahar never doubted she wanted to marry her best friend, Nasrin.
Unfortunately, relationships like Sahar and Nasrin’s must be kept secret in a country where any one gay is an enemy of the state. So, when 18-year-old Nasrin decides to do what society expects and marry a young male doctor because "he makes sense," Sahar can hardly breathe. She searches for a way they can be together openly. She believes she has found it with sexual reassignment surgery, a legal option in Iran. The problem is that Sahar is not even sure she wants to be a man. "She needs to know this isn't a game. It isn't something you just try on," a transgender acquaintance she meets through her cousin explains.
Farizan, an Iranian American who was born in the U.S., exposes in her simple writing style the absence of choices for young women while weaving in historical perspective. She does not condemn Iranian culture. "I respect a woman's decision to cover up as long as it is the woman's decision," Sahar says. It shows the naïveté, impulsiveness and self-deprecating humor that define youths who are still defining themselves. Mature teens and adults alike will find a tender yet compelling read in this fresh debut.
David Oliver Relin did not live long enough to witness the publication of his new book, Second Suns: Two Doctors and Their Amazing Quest to Restore Sight and Save Lives. It is a top-notch, inspiring account of two brilliant physicians from opposite ends of the world, one a Harvard-educated adrenaline junkie from America, and the other a disciplined trader's son from a remote Nepalese village. The unlikely duo combine their generous talents for one lofty goal: to cure preventable blindness. In 1995, they founded the Himalayan Cataract Project as a way to treat thousands of impoverished Himalayans in that isolated, mountainous region.
For ophthalmologists Geoffrey Tabin and Sanduk Ruit, the means to an end seemed simple yet difficult. In developing countries, cataracts are the leading cause of preventable blindness among the poor, including children. In wealthy countries, it is a common and treatable ailment of the elderly. "Some conditions of existence are more painful than others," Ruit tells Relin. Ruit would know; growing up, the nearest doctor was a six-day-walk away. He watched as his siblings died of curable illnesses.
Relin transports readers to Ruit's temporary eye hospital, formerly a filthy military post in the village of Kalikasthan, where young and old shuffle in from scorching heat to have red-brown dust scrubbed from their faces. The high energy Tabin, who early on abandoned a medical career to pursue athletic passions, was inspired by Ruit. Together, their respective stories led the dynamic pair to their calling. Thousands have been cured with their simple surgery that costs a mere pittance.
Relin, who co-authored the now controversial bestseller Three Cups of Tea with Greg Mortenson, committed suicide in November 2012. In telling this compelling and hopeful story of two medical pioneers, the author was not immune to the poignancy of what he was witnessing. When an elegant 56-year-old seamstress, who was forced to sell her sewing machine, finally sees again, Relin thrust into her hands a wad of bills. "For a sewing machine," he said.
Anguish over the loss of a child is life altering and permanent. Just suppose, years later, a stranger tells you that your child may still be alive. That unimaginable scenario greets Geniver (Gen) Loxley in Sophie McKenzie’s tightly wound new thriller Close My Eyes, where the still grieving mother's encounter with an unexpected visitor leads to an unthinkable possibility.
After eight long years, life is standing still for the childless Gen. Despite a comfortable, albeit boring, life with her ambitious and devoted husband Art, the former writer and part-time teacher can't seem to move past the death of her stillborn daughter, Beth. When Gen's husband suggests they keep trying for another child his sullen wife resists. Then one day out of the blue, a woman appears at their door with an incredible accusation: the Loxley baby was born alive and healthy. For the fragile Gen, it is about as cruel a joke as possible. Her emotional unraveling worries her husband and her best friend, both of whom dismiss outright the stranger's claims. When one coincidence too many does not add up, Gen plummets into a wave of confusion and doubt. What really did happen in the operating room years earlier? It is true; she never saw her dead daughter. As she sets out to revisit the past she discovers an equally devastating reality may await her.
The London-born McKenzie, whose previous works included children and teen novels published in the United Kingdom, has crafted a roller coaster plot with flawed characters and a disturbing narrative. Fans of last summer's mega-hit Gone Girl will be hooked by another enticing and twisty psychological thriller that visits a dark place with unsettling consequences. It is not likely to disappoint.
As reform-minded voters were casting their ballots in Iran’s election last month, Iranian-born author Sahar Delijani was publishing her first novel. In her ambitious debut, Children of the Jacaranda Tree, opposition to the repressive regime led to a generation of displaced children in post-revolutionary Iran. Delijani gives voice to those left behind by the ensuing bloody purge that claimed thousands of lives. With her own family's experience close to heart, Delijani weaves together beautifully written and intimately entwined stories spanning from 1983 to 2011 of those lives forever changed for elusive freedoms past and future.
This was a revolution gone astray. Revolutionary guards, policemen, and morality guards patrolled the streets. So called "brothers and sisters" could not be trusted. The children of political activists, who ended up incarcerated or in mass graves, were left behind. They included Neda, born under horrific conditions while her mother was imprisoned in Tehran's notorious Evin prison. There is Sheida, whose mother keeps hidden her father's execution for fear her daughter will follow the same path 20 years later. There is three year-old Omid, whose parents' "papery lives" of forbidden books, poems, leaflets, led to their arrest straight from the kitchen table. There are the caregivers, too, like Leila, who tends her sisters' children while their mothers serve out jail sentences.
Delijani, who was born in an Iranian prison, connects her many well-drawn characters through shared experiences, as they wrestle with a past that repulses as much as it begs not to be forgotten. It is the symbolic Jacaranda tree, with its stunning purple-pink panicles, that serves as a reminder to fight for, and free, the tree inside. For those who enjoyed Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis or Vaddey Ratner's In the Shadow of the Banyan the weight of history upon the next generation will look familiar, as will the determination to move forward.
Havaa’s father once told his young daughter that a true chess player thinks with his fingers. The eight-year-old girl would remember his comments when a year later her father's fingers were savagely cut off by government security forces in war ravaged Chechnya. It is one of the many atrocities in Anthony Marra's beautifully realized literary debut, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, where the spiral of murder and torture is as much a part of the landscape as the myriad of landmines, checkpoints, and disappearances in the night.
Spanning a decade of war with Russia from 1994 to 2004, Marra exposes the underbelly of his complicated Caucasus region by weaving together the lives of the damaged souls in its wake. At its core are two doctors whose pasts must be reconciled as they cycle toward their fates. There is Akhmed, a neighboring doctor who rescues Havaa, now being hunted by the "feds" after her father is kidnapped for aiding the rebels. Akhmed flees with the girl, careful to avoid a neighbor's war damaged son who is now an informant. They end up at a nearly abandoned hospital heroically run by a brilliant, sharp witted ethnic Russian doctor named Sonja. She reluctantly agrees to hide the child in exchange for Akhmed's help. An artist at heart, Akhmed would rather be drawing his patients than amputating their mangled limbs.
Marra enriches his compelling, richly-detailed writing with surprising bursts of humor, sidebars, and characters whose stories are plentiful and achingly poignant. It is a place where death is prevalent but hope is instinctive. It is about being ready when the time comes; just like Havaa's "just in case suitcase" her father had her pack, waiting by the door. Readers of The Tiger's Wife or The Cellist of Sarajevo will recognize here the challenge of living with dignity at the greatest of costs.
Riding in a beat-up bus among bald hills and scrub on his way to Namibia, Paul Theroux wondered what was compelling him to take yet another arduous trip. At 72, here he was again: in a parched climate, traveling alone, crossing more borders. In his latest book, The Last Train to Zona Verde: My Ultimate African Safari, the prolific and highly regarded American writer of travel literature packs his bags for one final journey to Africa and up the little known western coast, where he seeks harmony not just with the continent he has come to love but also himself.
Theroux is no stranger to "the greenest continent." He spent his happiest years in Africa as a young Peace Corps worker almost 50 years ago and has returned several times, writing insightfully along the way. Suggesting this 2011 trip is his last, he dives into the gut of this complicated place. From the slum tourism of Cape Town to the Tsumkwe village crossroads of one of the world's oldest cultures, to being stranded in the Angolan bush, Theroux observes countries slowly sliding into one another. He transports readers smack into the middle of a vividly wrought landscape with his richly detailed, elegant prose, adding his characteristic wry, at times dark, commentary. He is at his best telling stories of the local people he meets while showing no patience for meddling foreigners, like the "trophy hunting for dummies" set or those simply "busybodying.''
With over 40 books behind him, including the classic The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia, Theroux seems to be signaling that this is the end of the line. His aptly titled last chapter is in the form of a question, "What am I Doing Here?" Yes, the Africa he leaves has a plethora of problems, but for fans of this acclaimed literary nomad the answer is simple—bringing us his world.