A mathematician with a Chinese immigrant mother and a white American father recounts her life among geniuses and the search for her true identity.
“I suppose I should warn you,” says Katherine, the narrator of Chung’s (Forgotten Country, 2012) elegant novel, “that I tell a story like a woman: looping into myself, interrupting.” Katherine’s womanhood weighs heavily on her, first as a young math prodigy and then later as one of the only female graduate students at MIT in the early 1960s. Despite being surrounded by men who either dismiss her outright or want to use her astonishing intelligence for their own gains, Katherine never loses her ambition to have an academic career and to solve the Riemann hypothesis, one of the greatest mysteries in math. Though she befriends some of history’s most famous scientists and mathematicians—Chung weaves numerous historical figures into her fictional world—Katherine’s feeling of otherness is deepened by a mystery at her life’s core: Her parents are not who she thought they were, and she has only a few stories from her father, a World War II veteran, and a German notebook full of equations to help her solve the mystery of her parentage. Their real identities, buried somewhere in the gaps left after the Nazis ravaged Europe during the war, may help Katherine understand not only the riddle of who she really is, but perhaps even some of the largest mysteries of nature and the universe. Chung’s novel, with its formality and clean chronology, seems a throwback to another time, like a perfectly tailored tuxedo. But that’s perfect for a memorable character like Katherine, whose belief in what she has to offer the world, and in her place in the lineage of women “who chose a different path,” never wavers.
A powerful and virtuosically researched story about the mysteries of the head and the heart.
A remarkable chronicle of a courageous woman who worked undercover for British and American intelligence in occupied France during World War II and had to fight for every ounce of recognition she deserved.
Throughout this lively examination of the life of Virginia Hall (1906-1982), British biographer and journalist Purnell (Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill, 2015, etc.) shows how, if Hall had been a man, dropping undercover in and out of occupied Vichy, Paris, and Lyon, setting up safe houses, and coordinating couriers for the Resistance, she would now be as famous as James Bond. However, this daughter of a well-off Baltimore family, who attended Radcliffe and Barnard before finishing her education in Europe, dreamed of a career in the American Foreign Service—but over and over she was relegated to the secretary’s desk. In 1933, a freak hunting accident in Turkey left her with an amputated left leg, a horrendous experience that only seemed to steel her resolve to live her life as she pleased. The outbreak of Nazi aggression in 1939 and subsequent invasion of France prompted Hall to volunteer to drive ambulances for the Service de Santé des Armées. Then, a fortuitous meeting with an agent of the Special Operations Executive, the fledgling British secret service, sealed her fate. Impressed by her courage, independence, and poise, the SOE tasked Hall with returning to occupied France to help coordinate the work of local Resistance leaders and future SOE agents. Her appointment, writes the author of her consistently fascinating subject, “was an outstanding act of faith in her abilities, which had for so long been belittled or ignored.” Hall’s daring efforts in the breakout of Resistance prisoners in the Vichy-run internment camp at Mauzac, in March 1942, was a stunning achievement considering the enormous danger of getting caught and tortured by the Gestapo. Later in the narrative, the author amply shows how her later CIA work was only grudgingly recognized and celebrated.
Meticulous research results in a significant biography of a trailblazer who now has a CIA building named after her.
A Chinese family spanning the U.S. and the Netherlands grapples with the disappearance of one of their own.
Twenty-six-year-old Amy Lee is living in her parents’ cramped Queens apartment when she gets a frantic call from Lukas Tan, the Dutch second cousin she’s never met. Her successful older sister, Sylvie, who had flown to the Netherlands to see their ailing grandmother, is missing. Amy’s questions only mount as she looks into Sylvie’s disappearance. Why does Sylvie’s husband, Jim, look so bedraggled when Amy tracks him down, and why are all his belongings missing from the Brooklyn Heights apartment he and Sylvie share? Why is Sylvie no longer employed by her high-powered consulting firm? And when Amy finally musters up the courage to travel to the Netherlands for the first time, why do her relatives—the Tan family, including Lukas and his parents, Helena and Willem—act so strangely whenever Sylvie is brought up? Amy’s search is interlaced with chapters from Sylvie’s point of view from a month earlier as she returns to the Netherlands, where she had been sent as a baby by parents who couldn't afford to keep her, to be raised by the Tans. As Amy navigates fraught police visits and her own rising fears, she gradually uncovers the family’s deepest secrets, some of them decades old. Though the novel is rife with romantic entanglements and revelations that wouldn’t be amiss in a soap opera, its emotional core is the bond between the Lee sisters, one of mutual devotion and a tinge of envy. Their intertwined relationship is mirrored in the novel’s structure—their alternating chapters, separated in time and space, echo each other. Both ride the same bike through the Tans’ village, both encounter the same dashing cellist. Kwok (Mambo in Chinatown, 2014, etc.), who lives in the Netherlands, is eloquent on the clumsy, overt racism Chinese people face there: “Sometimes I think that because we Dutch believe we are so emancipated, we become blind to the faults in ourselves,” one of her characters says. But the book is a meditation not just on racism, but on (not) belonging: “When you were different,” Sylvie thinks, “who knew if it was because of a lack of social graces or the language barrier or your skin color?”
A frank look at the complexities of family, race and culture.
To a portrait of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, this historical novel adds two grand fictional passions: one beginning in Switzerland in 1900, the other in the Bahamas in 1941, both involving a ginger-haired Brit named Thorpe.
The first scene of Williams' (The Summer Wives, 2018, etc.) latest novel introduces the resourceful and wonderfully articulate Lulu Randolph Thorpe, "a pedigree twenty-five-year-old feline, blessed with sleek, dark pelt and composure in spades." A columnist for an American women's magazine stationed in the Bahamas in the early 1940s, Lulu reports on the doings of the former Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson—scrupulously avoiding all mention of the thicket of political corruption and racial tension that surrounds them. But to us, Lulu tells all, going back to how she dispensed with her first husband, the problematic Mr. Randolph, and continuing through her current mission—to spring her second husband, British undercover agent Benedict Thorpe, from a German prison camp. A second narrative set 40 years earlier focuses on Elfriede von Kleist, a new mother from rural Westphalia with postpartum depression so severe she has attempted suicide, causing her husband, the Baron, to dispatch her to a clinic in Switzerland. There she meets a young Londoner named Wilfred Thorpe, interrupting his grand tour of the continent to recover from pneumonia—but never to recover from meeting Elfriede. The portrait of wartime Bermuda and the awful Windsors, observed and reported by Lulu, is original and fascinating. Lulu herself is an excellent creation, tough, smart, sexy, and ruthless. While the secondary Elfriede plot adds interesting complications to the historical puzzle, it doesn't have quite as much verve.
A fresh take on the WWII love story, with a narrator who practically demands Myrna Loy come back to life to play her in the movie.
The Pulitzer Prize–winning historian shifts his focus from modern battlefields to the conflict that founded the United States.
Atkinson (The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945, 2013, etc.) is a longtime master of the set piece: Soldiers move into place, usually not quite understanding why, and are put into motion against each other to bloody result. He doesn’t disappoint here, in the first of a promised trilogy on the Revolutionary War. As he writes of the Battle of Bunker Hill, for instance, “Charlestown burned and burned, painting the low clouds bright orange in what one diarist called ‘a sublime scene of military magnificence and ruin,’ ” even as snipers fired away and soldiers lay moaning in heaps on the ground. At Lexington, British officers were spun in circles by well-landed shots while American prisoners such as Ethan Allen languished in British camps and spies for both sides moved uneasily from line to line. There’s plenty of motion and carnage to keep the reader’s attention. Yet Atkinson also has a good command of the big-picture issues that sparked the revolt and fed its fire, from King George’s disdain of disorder to the hated effects of the Coercive Acts. As he writes, the Stamp Act was, among other things, an attempt to get American colonists to pay their fair share for the costs of their imperial defense (“a typical American…paid no more than sixpence a year in Crown taxes, compared to the average Englishman’s twenty-five shillings”). Despite a succession of early disasters and defeats, Atkinson clearly demonstrates, through revealing portraits of the commanders on both sides, how the colonials “outgeneraled” the British, whose army was generally understaffed and plagued by illness, desertion, and disaffection, even if “the American army had not been proficient in any general sense.” A bonus: Readers learn what it was that Paul Revere really hollered on his famed ride.
A sturdy, swift-moving contribution to the popular literature of the American Revolution.
In Davies’ exceedingly charming adult fiction debut, a romantically frustrated 20-something Londoner realizes maybe the problem isn’t her—maybe the problem is men.
It’s been three years since Julia has had sex herself, although she is frequently privy to sex—adjacent to sex, subjected to sex—living with her best friend, Alice, and Alice’s boyfriend in a flat with unfortunately thin walls. But her own sex life has been, to date, lackluster. “I’d always preferred the idea of sex to sex itself,” she muses. “The thing is, sex had never been particularly high on my list of priorities.” Dance had been her priority, but then she was injured, and so, instead of the ballet career she’d dreamed of, she has an uninspiring government job, a very opinionated therapist, and a total lack of romantic intrigue. Until, at a cool warehouse party, she meets Jane. Sex is different with Jane; everything is different with Jane. Julia is overcome with ecstatic relief: She’s a lesbian. “I felt like I belonged, at last, in the world of the sexually fulfilled,” she declares. “Now I had a sense of purpose. I was going to find someone to be a lesbian with.” And quickly, she does—not one of the women from her new queer swing-dance group (she immediately joins a queer swing-dance group), but Sam, an artist she meets at a club. But as their relationship intensifies, Sam’s one-sided demands start to feel increasingly stifling—leaving Julia to define the kind of relationship she wants for herself. Davies recounts the progression of Julia and Sam’s relationship in such detail, and with such focus, that it’s occasionally exhausting, like listening to a friend obsess over the plodding minutiae of a fundamentally doomed relationship for years. (And who among us has not?) But Davies’ writing is so breezy and effortless—and her characters so delightful—that to spend time in her world is a pleasure.
Sweet but never saccharine; a literary rom-com about the importance of knowing yourself.
One man’s remarkable heroism in the face of Nazi terror.
Nothing about Auschwitz is pleasant reading. Thankfully, Fairweather (The Good War: Why We Couldn’t Win the War or the Peace in Afghanistan, 2014), a former correspondent for the Washington Post and the Daily Telegraph, delivers a well-written, riveting work. The protagonist is Polish resistance fighter Witold Pilecki (1901-1948), part of Poland’s cavalry reserves, much of which was decimated by the blitzkrieg’s main panzer thrust. With Warsaw surrounded, most military leaders left the country, but Pilecki and another officer banded together and organized the remaining soldiers. During this time, Germany continued to pit ethnic groups against each other and, mostly, against the Jews. Nationalism was flourishing, and attacks on Jews escalated. When Pilecki tried to fuse their group with the mainstream underground, his partner asked him to form a new group—in Auschwitz, to fight from the inside. Once inside, a Polish work foreman got him a builder’s job, which allowed him to start developing resistance cells among prisoners. In addition to some brave locals, newly released prisoners passed on his reports to Warsaw and then to London. The camp doctor saved Pilecki’s life more than once, but in many of his messages, Pilecki begged to have the camp, arsenals, and railways bombed. Despite his messages, the Allies made excuses, claiming that winning the war was the only way to control the camps. Based on the reports from Pilecki, they certainly knew that Auschwitz had become a death camp. Using myriad sources to paint the pictures of the camp’s horrors, including the prime source, Pilecki’s memoir, which has only recently been translated, Fairweather shines a powerful spotlight on a courageous man and his impressive accomplishments in the face of unspeakable evil.
An exploration of the little-visited realms of the Earth, from deep caves to bunkers, trenches to Bronze Age burial chambers, courtesy of an accomplished Virgil.
Macfarlane (The Lost Words, 2018, etc.), who has pretty well revived single-handedly the fine British tradition of literary natural history writing, can usually be found atop mountains. In his latest, he heads in the opposite direction, probing the depths of the Earth to find the places in which humans have invested considerable imaginative attention yet fear to tread. He opens with a cave network discovered in China’s Chongqing province only a few years ago that “was found to possess its own weather system,” with layers of dank cold mist that never see sunlight. From there, the author moves on to other places that require us to “go low,” into places that humans usually venture only to hide things—treasure, sacred texts, bodies. Now that many such places are making themselves known, exposed during construction excavations and unveiled by melting permafrost, “things that should have stayed buried are rising up unbidden”—treasure sometimes, more often just bodies. All of this is occasion for Macfarlane, a gifted storyteller and poetic writer, to ponder what historians have called “deep time,” the time that is measured in geological rather than human terms and against which the existence of our kind is but a blip. Even places well known or celebrated in antiquity—from the underworld of The Epic of Gilgamesh to the Iron Age mines of the Mendip Hills of southwestern England—are recent points on the map of that ancient landscape. As he moves from continent to continent, Macfarlane instructs us on how to see those places, laced with secrets and mysteries (“all taxonomies crumble, but fungi leave many of our fundamental categories in ruin”). Wherever he travels, he enhances our sense of wonder‚ which, after all, is the whole point of storytelling.
A treasure all its own. Anyone who cares to ponder the world beneath our feet will find this to be an essential text.
An island off the coast of Maine: Let's buy it, dear.
"Handsome, tanned, Kitty and Ogden Milton stood ramrod straight and smiling into the camera on the afternoon in 1936 when they had chartered a sloop, sailed out into Penobscot Bay, and bought Crockett's Island." This photo is clipped to a clothesline in the office of professor Evie Milton in the history department at NYU; she found it while cleaning out her mother's apartment after her death. "Since the afternoon in the photograph, four generations of her family had eaten round the table on Crockett's Island, clinked the same glasses, fallen between the same sheets, and heard the foghorn night after night." Evie jokes with an African-American colleague that the photograph represents "the Twilight of the WASPs," then finds herself snappishly defending them. Blake's (The Postmistress, 2010, etc.) third novel studies the unfolding of several storylines over the generations of this family: deaths and losses shrouded in secrecy, terrible errors in judgment, thwarted love—much of it related to or caused by the family's attitudes toward blacks and Jews. While patriarch Ogden Milton presided unflinchingly over his firm's involvement with the Nazis, his granddaughter Evie Milton is married to a Jewish man—who, like any person of his background who has visited Crockett's Island, complains that there's not a comfortable chair in the place. Kitty Milton, the matriarch, twisted by social mores into repressing her tragedies and ignoring her conscience, is a fascinating character, appealing in some ways, pitiable and repugnant in others. Through Kitty and her daughters, Blake renders the details of anti-Semitic prejudice as felt by this particular type of person. Reminiscent of the novels of Julia Glass, the story of the Miltons engages not just with history and politics, but with the poetry of the physical world. "The year wheeled round on its colors. Summer's full green spun to gold then slipping gray and resting, resting white at the bottom of the year...then one day the green whisper, the lightest green, soft and growing into the next day...suddenly, impossibly, it was spring again."
This novel sets out to be more than a juicy family saga—it aims to depict the moral evolution of a part of American society. Its convincing characters and muscular narrative succeed on both counts.