Book Review: The Yanks Are Starving

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Veterans rights are front page news today. From a staggering and seemingly unsolvable disability claims backlog at the VA to recent veterans struggling to find employment back home, veterans issues look bleak. Naively, I assumed current events are an anomaly and that our nation has always treated veterans fairly.

Despite all the servicemen in my family, injustices to returning soldiers never came up in our dinner conversations. My father served in the Air Force, my uncle was an Army Ranger, and my grandpa served in the Navy in the Korean War. On my mom’s side, my grandfather served in the Army and survived over three years as a POW in the Cabanatuan prison camp. And, I’ve read a fair amount about war—Ghost Soldiers comes to mind—but I must have missed (or overlooked?) significant aspects of how we treat returning soldiers.

For example, can you imagine tanks rumbling down streets of our nation’s capital? And a military campaign led by Douglas MacArthur to fight our own veterans? It sounds flat out unbelievable, but that’s how events played out in 1932.

If you want to understand today, you have to search yesterday.” ~Pearl Buck

Glen Craney’s, The Yanks Are Starving: A Novel of the Bonus Army, shines a light on a not well-known chapter of our country’s history. Craney divides the novel in two parts—first chronicling a diverse group of eight characters in WWI, then telling their stories again in 1932 as they struggle in the aftermath of the war. While Herbert Hoover’s presidency grappled with the Great Depression, veterans suffered mightily.

After surviving bayonets, cannons, and mustard gas in the trenches of France, America’s veterans were promised a bonus payment for their service. But here’s the kicker—Congress scheduled the bonus payment to be paid in 1945. The distant payment date became unacceptable to many former soldiers. All too frequently homeless or unemployed, WWI veterans began to unite under a common cause to urge Congress to pay the bonus immediately. The author carefully narrates how tens of thousands of desperate men (and a few women) became involved in a risky, nationwide fight to receive payment for service. Craney details how the Bonus Army formed, grew, and then escalated to a prolonged march and deadly conflict in Washington, D.C.

I have a new perspective on our current veterans’ struggles after reading this book. Which is precisely why I genuinely love reading historical fiction. Skilled authors like Craney are able to make the past relevant again.

Will you like it?

If you enjoy historical fiction and military history, The Yanks Are Starving is intriguing. While I typically don’t choose to cozy up to bloody battle scenes, I do appreciate learning more about an important aspect of, frankly, a disgraceful period of our history. I liked the second half of the novel a little better than the first because the story is set in one of my favorite cities, D.C., and I much prefer reading about nasty politics over gruesome scenes in trenches. Craney’s novel satisfies a lot of my criteria for a good book—solid writing, richly developed characters, cultural relevance, and suspense.

From time to time, I struggled with dialects assigned to certain characters, like Walter Waters. He’s a pivotal character, and yet I found myself sometimes skimming his pages because I grew tired of the accent.

Speaking of characters, I had two favorites. I loved the selfless, outspoken Mennonite nurse, Anna Raber, a composite character. And, I was completely charmed by the motorcycle riding, landscape painting, WWI veteran and D.C. Chief of Police, Pelham Glassford.

Is this a good book club pick?

It depends. Technically, I’m in three book clubs (yes, I’m overcommitted and it’s a character flaw), and I think only one of the clubs would like to read The Yanks Are Starving. For ardent fans of stories on wartime heroics, there is plenty to value and discuss. Personally, I’m not recommending it to my friends who regularly gravitate more toward character-driven novels. To be specific, if your book club enjoyed Gone Girl, Everything I Never Told You, and Orphan Train, this book is probably not for you. That said, I am recommending it to my husband, several uncles, and a few other friends that devour military literature. The Yanks Are Starving just feels more like a guy’s book. Dude book clubs—I’ve heard they exist—would likely appreciate the novel.

Would it make a good gift?

Yes. Craney’s novel is on my gift list. I have a few individuals in mind, but I’m not revealing who will receive a copy for perhaps Father’s Day or an upcoming birthday. The Yanks Are Starving would make a great present for readers who aren’t daunted by a long book (over 500 pages) and who like to get a 360-degree view of a conflict.

Book review disclaimer

I received a digital reading copy of The Yanks Are Starving from the author. I was not compensated in any way for my review.

Happy reading,

Amy

Loving Eleanor: Book Review + Author Interview

Some stories need to be told at the right time. This is especially true for narratives about people breaking new ground or living outside of traditional societal norms.

LovingEleanorBookReviewToday, it’s not unusual for women to hold positions of power in the public sphere, or to be in leadership roles in the workforce. And, same-sex couples are now generally accepted—even celebrated—in modern America. But society was different in 1978 when Lorena Hickok’s correspondence with Eleanor Roosevelt was unsealed at the FDR library. Over 3,000 letters documented the couple’s friendship and romance that spanned decades. A same-sex romance in the White House in the 1930s? Shocking.

But we live in a different era. Now, I think Susan Wittig Albert’s novel, Loving Eleanor, will be welcomed and cherished by readers. 2016 is the right time to tell this story. And it is, in fact, a story. The author makes it clear that Loving Eleanor is her own interpretation of the intimacy between Hick and Eleanor (ER, as she is nicknamed in the novel). [Scroll down to read my Q&A with Susan Wittig Albert. I mean, read the whole review—it’s great!—but don’t miss the Q&A at the end.]

Read all about it

Loving Eleanor charmed me on many levels. Susan Wittig Albert draws from history and an incredible letter collection to imagine how romance developed between Lorena Hickock and Eleanor Roosevelt in extraordinary circumstances. Lorena Hickock, or Hick, the first female AP reporter, first met Eleanor in 1928 during FDR’s bid for governor of New York. From their early interactions to their intimate affair in the 1930s to their friendship that lasted until ER’s death in 1962, the novel covers a lot of ground.

Before I opened the book, I knew the basic premise that Eleanor Roosevelt had a very close female friend that may or may not have been platonic. But this novel is much more than a history lesson or exposé. The writing is compelling and I was quickly wrapped up in the characters—how they found privacy in a political fishbowl, why they risked so much for each other, and the compromises they made to find a space for their unconventional relationship and ambitions.

Will you like it?

Do you like historical fiction? Do you like a fresh take on an old story? Do you like to learn about women succeeding and making a difference against the odds? If you like all those elements, then I believe you will adore this novel. I love historical fiction, and this book is certainly in my all-time favorites list.

I would be surprised if readers don’t find themselves rooting for Hick. While the author takes care to develop both women—what they feel, how they dress, their faults—it’s Hick that stuck with me. Growing up in poverty, Hick became a respected reporter on the national scene with a byline picked up around the country. Flawed, yes, but her combination of grit and warmth hooked me.

Is this a good book club pick?

I give a qualified yes. The author is skilled at bringing the women and the time period to life. From the nuanced writing to the fresh insights on the incredible poverty in the 1930s, there’s much to love and discuss. I believe the novel will spark rich conversations about historical opportunities for women, how attitudes toward same-sex relationships have changed over time, and ways women still encounter challenges in the workforce and in their private lives. That said, conservative readers may not enjoy reading about a lesbian romance, in particular, an affair involving the well-loved (but perhaps not well-understood) historical figure of Eleanor Roosevelt. To each their own, but to me love is love is love.

Would it make a good gift?

This is funny, because I already have plans to purchase this novel for several friends. So, yes, I think Loving Eleanor is a great gift for lovers of history and well-behaved women that definitely made an impact. You only have a short wait. It’s scheduled for a February, 2016 publish date.

More to the story—Q&A with Susan Wittig Albert

Q. Both Eleanor Roosevelt and Hick have complex, interesting personalities. If you were able to spend a day with either Eleanor or Hick, which lady would you choose, and why?

A. Oh, dear. I don’t want to choose! I’ll have both, please. But if I had to pick one, I think I’d choose Hick. I’d love to ask her what it was like to work in that AP office back in the late 20s, and I would very much like to know more about her later life, which isn’t well documented. She wasn’t perfect, but she was a very brave woman who rolled up her sleeves and made her way in a challenging world without a lot of help from others.

Q. Do you think Hick made the right decision to seal the letters, only to be opened several years after her death?

A. I do indeed—although I wish she’d left them sealed for 30 or 40 years, instead of just ten. I think the social climate would have been different. People would have been more understanding than they were in 1978. And it was really unfortunate that they had to be opened when Doris Faber was there. People shouldn’t write biographies about people whom they dislike—and Doris Faber disliked Hick from the moment she opened the letters.

Q. What access did you have to their letters? Were you able to handle the letters and read them at your leisure? If so, what was that like?

A. The letters are available to researchers at the Roosevelt Presidential Library, where I read many of them. (There are over 3,300!) Reading was like listening in on a long, intimate conversation, with fascinating references to people and places of the times. I read the letters with respect, remembering how profoundly ER has influenced so many of us and how Hick influenced, mentored, and supported her. As I mention in the reading list at the back of the book, some of the letters are also available in a published collection called Empty Without You, edited by Rodger Streitmatter.

Q. How did you decide to end your book? Why did you decide to not write about the women and their careers post-FDR?

A. I wrote about those post-FDR years, but not as part of the fiction; instead, I chose to tell the rest of the story in a non-fiction afterword. The focus of the fictional story was the years in which the two women were the centers of each other’s lives; after FDR’s death, when ER became “First Lady of the World” (in President Truman’s phrase), they moved in different orbits, around different centers. I wanted to emphasize that difference by telling that part of the story in a different voice—mine, not Hick’s.

Q. We live in a time now where same-sex marriage is legal and widely accepted. If ER and Hick had the luxury of today’s legal and social constructs, do you think they would have married after FDR’s death?

A. I don’t think they would have married at that point. If it had been possible to marry (FDR and the legal system notwithstanding), I think it would have occurred in 1933 or even 1934, when they were most intimately involved, and before ER began to find so many different ways to put her energies to work. If they had married then, I believe that they would have lived together for the rest of their lives, making accommodations for the needs and desires of each.

Q. Both ER and Hick were high-achievers. What accomplishments are most inspiring to you?

A. Both of them were extraordinarily brave. Hick was a ground-breaking journalist who came from a poor, unprivileged background and used her skills to write about strong women achievers, even as she was suffering from severe diabetes, at a time when the disease was so difficult to control. ER was a strong, ground-breaking woman who used her position to help others, while she fought her dragons—her deep doubts and fears.

Book review disclaimer

I received an advance reading copy of Loving Eleanor. I was not compensated in any other way for my review.

Happy reading,

Amy

New book review: Sisters of Shiloh

I’m an only child and I married an only child. So here we are—two only children parenting our daughters, puzzled at the simultaneous sibling bond and rivalry. We’re lost when they bicker, but we swoon when we witness their massive love for each other. Sisters are special, without a doubt. When I see the girls holding hands, writing love notes to each other, and cuddling on the couch I know I’m witnessing something big. These two girls love each other like toast loves butter. If they were ever separated I know they would suffer.

Sisters of Shiloh

The complexity of sisterhood and suffering are dominant themes in Sisters of Shiloh. Written by two sisters, Kathy Hepinstall and Becky Hepinstall Hilliker, Sisters of Shiloh is a gripping and bloody, but romantic novel set in the Civil War. Fans of historical fiction and Southern lore will be drawn in to the story of Libby and Josephine, disguised as men, who join the Stonewall Brigade to avenge a husband’s death and protect an unforgiveable secret. Central to the story—bigger than the gristly war over secession—is the limit of sisterly love. The book asks: how far would you go to protect your sister?

The story

Josephine, a quiet and chip-toothed girl coming of age in Virginia, loves and depends on her younger sister Libby. Libby, sweetly feminine and pretty, is courted by many, but prefers Josephine’s company. That is, until Arden, a brash neighbor’s son, changes their dynamic. Josephine is on the outside of their young love and grows increasingly frustrated at Arden’s ability to draw Libby into his world so completely that Libby is no longer herself.

Years pass. Arden and Libby’s friendship grows into an all-consuming love. They marry and set up house in a small home. Josephine assists in her father’s dentist practice and withdraws from her sister. Arden, vehemently against the Union, joins the Confederate ranks as a soldier in the famous Stonewall Brigade. And it’s here amid heinous bloodshed and hardship that the story turns. It’s not a spoiler to say that Arden dies—just read the opening lines of Libby defending herself against Arden’s ghost.

What happens next reverses the “wife grieves husband’s death” story arc into a vengeful and almost unbelievable tale of Libby joining the Confederate army to kill 21 Yankees—a death for every year of Arden’s gone-too-soon life. Josephine, unwilling to stay home while Libby likely dies in battle, binds her breasts, dresses like a man, and enlists with her sister.

The sisters struggle to fulfill promises through horrid camp conditions, fear of being discovered as women (not young Thomas and Joseph willing to die for the South), and barbaric fighting. Libby’s eye-for-an-eye obsession is flanked by Josephine’s growing love for a fellow soldier, Wesley.

Will you like it?

I’ll admit incredulity at two Southern belles from an anti-slavery family fighting in the Confederate Army as men. But women fought in the Civil War. While their exact numbers are uncertain, history does make the story plausible. With the crisp prose and soap opera plot, I suspended disbelief and became invested in the sisters’ survival. The writing is lyrical without excessive, flowery descriptions.

She loved him that much, in a way that made no space for herself, as though he were a full glass of tea and she was the piece of ice that would cause an overspill onto the tablecloth.

What Arden had done to Libby’s God made her resent him most. That deity, shaped and formed under the tutelage of her gentle father, was a fair, benevolent God whose strict expectations regarding the Ten Commandments were tempered by an all-consuming adoration of all His children. Arden had darkened and narrowed the eyes of this God, added rage to His purpose and gave Him a taste for Yankee blood. His God—now her God—was unloving and out for revenge.

Overall, I think the weight of the sweeping wartime plot overcomes a few flaws. Why didn’t the family look harder for Libby and Josephine? And how could a passive young wife like Libby channel grief into an unwavering fortitude to battle in a merciless war? Still, I enjoyed the novel. I’m a sucker for an unlikely romance, so it’s no surprise that the Josephine and Wesley saga grabbed my attention far more than Libby and Arden’s devotion beyond the grave. I believe book clubs will get miles of discussion on revenge at all costs and the lengths sisters will go to protect each other.

Book review disclaimer

I received an advance reading copy of Sisters of Shiloh. I was not compensated in any way for my review.

Happy reading,

Amy

 

Book Review: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

If you’re a lifelong reader like me, chances are you dream of owning a bookstore. Since I was seventeen, I’ve imagined running a boutique bookstore. I would name my store Bookish. Situated on a picturesque street in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, Washington, my bookstore would have quirky cashiers, cozy sitting areas with ferns, and, of course, author events. Never mind that Friday Harbor already has a lovely independent bookstore or that Bookish is the name of a bookseller in Berkeley and a .com book site. And forget that independent booksellers struggle in the e-commerce age. Owning a bookstore was (and still is) my aspiration.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

Reading Gabrielle Zevin’s The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry rushed me back to my bookseller dream. A passionate love letter to books and indie bookstores, the novel centers on A.J. Fikry, a bitter bookseller in an isolated island town. As a recent widower, Fikry copes with books and cheap merlot until (and I won’t spoil a significant plot twist) unexpected joy enters his life.

Is this a good book club pick? I give a qualified but resounding yes. AJF has universal themes of love, hope, and loss that I think will resonate with most readers. It’s an engaging story and every element is about books—the power of stories and prose, the feel of a paperback, the smell of a stack of books, and authors with the ability to create entire new worlds. My only reservation for an absolute recommendation is based on some reviewers labeling the novel as chick lit. While I can see why—even the morose parts bounce along on optimism and the book never goes too deep—I think the plot twists and approachable writing style make this an everyone-lit book. More serious book clubs accustomed to reading and dissecting literature might consider the novel to be too light.

But for many readers, the book will likely promise a rich discussion on the likeable characters and the books (don’t forget the short story collections) mentioned. Not only do each of the thirteen chapters begin with a book synopsis, but Zevin name drops countless books and authors throughout the pages. If you didn’t already have a to-be-read list, the books mentioned in AJF are a fantastic place to start.

At 258 pages, it’s reasonable to expect most readers (even busy parents) will be able to finish the book in a four- to six-week window. I finished the book quickly—it’s a page turner and the ending satisfied me. From start to finish, AJF is a good read. If I had to criticize any element, it would be a lack of any mention of my favorite author, Margaret Atwood. Just so we’re clear, if I ever write a novel, I’ll find a way to reference The Handmaid’s Tale or The Edible Woman in some way.

One of my favorite passages involves a discussion on the timing of books. A.J. argues that some books need to be read at the right time to strike a chord. “Sometimes books don’t find us until the right time.” I agree. A Wrinkle in Time is a great example. I read that book in the third grade and it never stuck with me. Then just this week, I started reading the book to my first grader. She fell asleep in chapter two and I kept on reading. I finished the book in one big gulp and now I can’t wait to discover more Madeleine L’Engle books that I should have enjoyed more as a child.

I recommend this book as a good break between heavy or dark subjects. Did your book club just finish a book on WWII or slavery? Perfect! Read AJF next and it will cleanse your palette for the next emotional roller coaster book. To make your book club evening a theme night, consider a garden party theme (like A.J.’s doomed author event for The Late Bloomer) and ask everyone to share their top three books. If you like this novel, you might also want to read Lorna Landvik’s 2003 novel, Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons, another plot centered on a love of books.

Would it make a good gift?

Absolutely. I think teens to adults will enjoy the book. In fact, round out your gift with books A.J. Fikry recommends, like Bel Canto or The Book Thief.

Will I recommend it to my husband?

No. He gravitates toward non-fiction and history—Seabiscuit and Devil in the White City are more his speed. While I think many men would enjoy the novel, I imagine more women will be fans of AJF.

Book club questions:

1. What do you think of the author’s skill with character development? Were the characters layered or did some appear to be sketches? If so, which ones?

2. If A.J. Fikry were a writer, and not an opinionated bookseller, what genre would he have attempted? Do you think he would have succeeded as an author?

3. A.J. Fikry summarizes thirteen books. Do you think these picks are his top books, or are they perhaps more significant to the story arc?

4. What are your three favorite books of all time, and why?

5. What was the first book you remember reading that hooked you?

6. In the book, Moby Dick is skewered for being the required high school book that many students loathed. Which required or assigned book would have soured you on reading if it had been your first book?

 

Thank you for reading my review and please let me know what you think of The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry.