The Danger 1940’s Food Tasters Faced is highlighted in At the Wolf’s Table by Rosella Postorino (includes video interview)

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My Review:

According to Google, “coming together and sharing a meal is the most communal and binding thing in almost every place in the world”.  Eating together, and eating at all is usually considered a good thing, but after reading Rosella Postorino’s latest novel you may just change your mind!

Based on truth, At the Wolf’s Table is about a group of German women in 1943 who are recruited by the Nazis to taste Hitler’s food before each meal to ensure it to be poison-free.  As food becomes scarce and people are going hungry, these women are shuttled to the “Wolf’s Lair” in the morning to have full breakfasts and early lunches under the scrutiny of armed Nazi soldiers, then returned home and brought back at the end of the day for full dinners.  After forcing themselves to fully consume each course they wait for illness to kick in, eating to stay alive and at the same time fearing death.

Newly married and all alone, Rosa has lost both her parents, her husband Gregor has gone off to war and she has moved to the country to live with her in laws outside of Berlin.  She has been recruited as a food taster for Hitler where she “would participate in the liturgy of the lunchroom together with other young German women- an army of worshippers prepared to receive on (our) tongues a Communion that wouldn’t redeem us.”  Rosa tries to make friends with the other tasters but relationships between the women are strained; some of them are Nazi supporters, some are not, and some are hiding something; Jewish roots, affairs, pregnancy, rape, abortion…nobody is sure who to trust.  Rosa’s husband is declared missing, and as her loneliness intensifies, she develops a risky relationship with one of the soldiers.  Will her husband ever be found?  Will she escape the perils of war?

At The Wolf’s Lair provides a unique setting that highlights secrets, betrayals and sorrow amidst the constant fear in everyday life during World War ll. I enjoyed this story and recommend it!

Here is an article about one of the real food tasters from WWll…

http://m.spiegel.de/international/germany/hitler-food-taster-margot-woelk-speaks-about-her-memories-a-892097.html

And a video interview…

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=MNcZyBqJCzk

Goodreads Summary

Unknown-6.jpegAbout the Author:

Rosella Postorino is an internationally bestselling author and an editor. She speaks fluent English, Italian, French, and German. At the Wolf’s Table is her first novel to be translated into English.

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A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

 

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My Review:

I missed this stunner from 2013 and was thrilled to backtrack and read Anthony Marra’s debut novel A Constellation of Vital Phenomena set during wartime in Chechnya over the time span of 10 years.  Eight year old Havaa’s father is taken away in the night by the Russian army and her house is set on fire.   The family friend and neighbor, Akhmed, finds her hiding in the backyard with a suitcase she had prepared months before under her father’s advise and he leaves his ailing wife for the day while he brings the young girl to a nearby bombed out hospital for safety.  He puts Havaa in the care of the only remaining doctor, Sonia, who agrees to harbor the child, now a target of the Russian military, and he also volunteers to help out at the understaffed medical facility.

There are four pairs of characters that are intertwined in this story…the young child Havaa and her abducted father Dokka, neighbor Akhmed and his sick wife Ula, physician Sonia and her missing drug-addicted sister Natasha, Khasssam, Akhmed’s friend and scholar and his estranged informant son, Ramzan.  A Constellation of Vital Phenomena alternates time periods from 1994 – 2004 and the story tells what each of these characters endured during this time of war.  From sex trafficking and drug addition, to torture and mutilation, from births and deaths, to promises kept and secrets told, each and every part of this powerful story is a crucial piece of the puzzle and may warrant re-reading so nothing is missed.  The Russian names added to the complexity for me, but reviewing sections lead me to unforgettable revelations and made the book even more rich and colorful despite the bleak setting.

As we learn of the characters’ histories throughout the chapters, author Anthony Marra has them unleashing memories that provide us with incite and understanding, and binds them together to form the intricate mosaic of deep relationships.  These damaged people of Chechnya try to recover from their violent pasts as they search to find meaning in their experiences and purpose in the now. This is a most vivid storytelling of a profound and unforgettable story.  If you haven’t read it, you should.

Goodreads Summary

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About the Author:

ANTHONY MARRA is the winner of a Whiting Award, Pushcart Prize, and the Narrative Prize. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena won the 2014 National Book Critics Circle’s inaugural John Leonard Prize and the 2014 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in fiction, as well as the inaugural 2014 Carla Furstenberg Cohen Fiction Award. Marra’s novel was a National Book Award long list selection as well as a shortlist selection for the Flaherty-Dunnan first novel prize. In addition, his work has been anthologized in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012. He received an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, where he teaches as the Jones Lecturer in Fiction. He has lived and studied in Eastern Europe, and now resides in Oakland, CA. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is his first novel.

The Atlas of Forgotten Places by Jenny D. Williams

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My Review:

Don’t let this exceptional new novel fall under the radar!  Based on war-torn Africa and the innocent people caught in the middle, the stunning debut, The Atlas of Forgotten Places by Jenny D. Williams takes us to Uganda where a young girl, Lily, goes missing.  The authorities are hard to come by and disorganized, so her aunt, Sabine, a former aid worker, travels from Germany to the village where she was last seen, to trace Lily’s steps and try to understand if she was in danger and kidnapped, or if she had a motive to disappear.  At the same time, a Ugandan woman, Rose, previously kidnapped and emotionally and physically abused by the Lord’s Resistance Army but now back in her village, is looking for her missing boyfriend, Ocen.  Sabine and Rose work together to unravel the intertwined lives of their loved ones, leading them back to their own deep, dark secrets.

Having had aid work experience herself, author Jenny D. Williams takes us on a vividly portrayed journey through Uganda, and  this incredible story was inspired by real events.  In 1996 there was an abduction of 139 school girls from St. Mary’s College in northern Uganda.  Operation Lighting Thunder was the name of the military action by the Ugandan government against LRA forces.  In the book, one of the characters talks about the problems there saying “The conflict in Congo is probably the most complicated war in the world.  Two wars, technically, in the last twenty years, but they overlap quite a bit.  Nine African nations.  Twenty armed groups.  Five and a half million people dead, mostly from disease and starvation.   Large-scale fighting has been occurring in various provinces since Rwanda invaded eastern Congo – it was Zaire, then – 1996.  Ever since, the country has been mired in one conflict after another.”

Jenny D. Williams has traveled and lived in Uganda and then to Germany where she wrote the book.  Her knowledge of the country is evident and her complex characters slowly reveal themselves as we learn about their pasts.   With beautifully expressed emotion and character complexity Williams allowed me to feel the pain and struggles as the story progressed. She provided insight into why the characters are who they are, giving them dimension.

During the frantic search for her niece, Sabine recalls her deceased sister’s comment about being a mother, “It feels as though a piece of my heart exists outside my own body, in another person.  And I can never get it back.”  Sabine is introspective and recognizes why she will never have children, “why would you want a piece of your heart in such a precarious location as someone else’s body?  Why choose that uncertainty, that terror, that utter lack of control?  As she grew older, this approach extended to lovers and friends, because how could she do her job if her heart was elsewhere?  Love made you selfish; love made you choose some above others.  And so all these many years later, her heart was lonely but whole.  Unseen – but intact.”

Visit www.JennyDWilliams.com for more from the author and pick up a copy of The Atlas of Forgotten Places; Beautiful writing and chock full of emotion, this suspenseful, historically rich debut is not to to be missed.

 

As seen in Goodreads:

The Atlas of Forgotten Places is that rare novel that delivers an exquisite portrait of family and love within a breathlessly, thrilling narrative.

After a long career as an aid worker, Sabine Hardt has retreated to her native Germany for a quieter life. But when her American niece Lily disappears while volunteering in Uganda, Sabine must return to places and memories she once thought buried in order to find her. In Uganda, Rose Akulu—haunted by a troubled past with the Lord’s Resistance Army—becomes distressed when her lover Ocen vanishes without a trace. Side by side, Sabine and Rose must unravel the tangled threads that tie Lily and Ocen’s lives together—ultimately discovering that the truth of their loved ones’ disappearance is inescapably entwined to the secrets the two women carry.

Masterfully plotted and vividly rendered by a fresh new voice in fiction, The Atlas of Forgotten Places delves deep into the heart of compassion and redemption through a journey that spans geographies and generations to lay bare the stories that connect us all.

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About the author:

JENNY D. WILLIAMS has lived in the U.S., Uganda, and Germany. She holds an MFA from Brooklyn College and a BA from UC Berkeley. Her award-winning fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and illustrations have been published in The Sun Magazine, Vela, and Ethical Traveler, as well as several anthologies. A former Teachers & Writers Collaborative fellow and recipient of an Elizabeth George Foundation grant for emerging writers, she currently lives in Seattle with her husband and dog. The Atlas of Forgotten Places is her first novel.

The Orphan’s Tale by Pam Jenoff

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As stated on Goodreads:

A powerful novel of friendship set in a traveling circus during World War II, The Orphan’s Tale introduces two extraordinary women and their harrowing stories of sacrifice and survival .

Sixteen-year-old Noa has been cast out in disgrace after becoming pregnant by a Nazi soldier and being forced to give up her baby. She lives above a small rail station, which she cleans in order to earn her keep… When Noa discovers a boxcar containing dozens of Jewish infants bound for a concentration camp, she is reminded of the child that was taken from her. And in a moment that will change the course of her life, she snatches one of the babies and flees into the snowy night.

Noa finds refuge with a German circus, but she must learn the flying trapeze act so she can blend in undetected, spurning the resentment of the lead aerialist, Astrid. At first rivals, Noa and Astrid soon forge a powerful bond. But as the facade that protects them proves increasingly tenuous, Noa and Astrid must decide whether their friendship is enough to save one another—or if the secrets that burn between them will destroy everything.

My Comments:

This is a story of two lost souls attempting to survive the War. At sixteen, Noa has already lived a lifetime. She got pregnant by a Nazi soldier, got kicked out of her home, had a baby that was taken from her and was trying to make a living by working in the train station. After coming across a boxcar piled high with Jewish babies she is compelled to rescue one and run away. She calls him Theo and now must find a way to protect him from the Germans.  She seeks refuge in the traveling circus where they offer her a job in exchange for room and board.

Astrid, a Jew who grew up performing in the circus, had been married to a German soldier who was ordered by his superiors to get rid of her as the war progressed. Feeling rejected and distraught she returned to her home town but her family was gone. She approached Herr Neuroff the head of the competing circus and he hired her to work, silently agreeing to protect her.

At first, Astrid was not warm and welcoming, but ultimately both girls needed each other.   Noa finds love with the son of a Nazi, and Astrid with Peter the political clown in the circus as together they protect and nourish baby Theo and each other while trying to make a life during wartime.

Author, Pam Jenoff, paints the realistic picture of desperation as she shows us how so many people were orphaned, separated from family and committed to making an acceptable life be developing connections, setting goals and being open to falling in love during such desolate and dangerous times.   The Orphan’s Tale takes us on a heartbreaking, hopeful, touching and emotional journey; one that is not to be missed.

Published in the recent past, here are a few other great novels with a circus/side show backdrop.

9361589-1.jpgThe Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

As stated in Goodreads:
The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it, no paper notices plastered on lampposts and billboards. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.

Within these nocturnal black-and-white striped tents awaits an utterly unique, experience, a feast for the senses, where one can get lost in a maze of clouds, meander through a lush garden made of ice, stare in wonderment as the tattooed contortionist folds herself into a small glass box, and become deliciously tipsy from the scents of caramel and cinnamon that waft through the air.

Welcome to Le Cirque des Rêves.

Beyond the smoke and mirrors, however, a fierce competition is under way–a contest between two young illusionists, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood to compete in a “game” to which they have been irrevocably bound by their mercurial masters. Unbeknownst to the players, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will.

As the circus travels around the world, the feats of magic gain fantastical new heights with every stop. The game is well under way and the lives of all those involved–the eccentric circus owner, the elusive contortionist, the mystical fortune-teller, and a pair of red-headed twins born backstage among them–are swept up in a wake of spells and charms.

But when Celia discovers that Marco is her adversary, they begin to think of the game not as a competition but as a wonderful collaboration. With no knowledge of how the game must end, they innocently tumble headfirst into love. A deep, passionate, and magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands.

Their masters still pull the strings, however, and this unforeseen occurrence forces them to intervene with dangerous consequences, leaving the lives of everyone from the performers to the patrons hanging in the balance.

Both playful and seductive, The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern’s spell-casting debut, is a mesmerizing love story for the ages.

43641.jpgWater for Elephants by Sara Gruen

As stated in Goodreads:
Orphaned, penniless, Jacob Jankowski jumps a freight train in the dark, and in that instant, transforms his future.

By morning, he’s landed a job with the Flying Squadron of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. By nightfall, he’s in love.

In an America made colourless by prohibition and the Depression, the circus is a refuge of sequins and sensuality. But behind the glamour lies a darker world, where both animals and men are dispensable. Where falling in love is the most dangerous act of all…

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The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman

As stated in Goodreads:
Coralie Sardie is the daughter of the sinister impresario behind The Museum of Extraordinary Things, a Coney Island boardwalk freak show that thrills the masses. An exceptional swimmer, Coralie appears as the Mermaid in her father’s “museum,” alongside performers like the Wolfman, the Butterfly Girl, and a one-hundred-year-old turtle. One night Coralie stumbles upon a striking young man taking pictures of moonlit trees in the woods off the Hudson River.

The dashing photographer is Eddie Cohen, a Russian immigrant who has run away from his father’s Lower East Side Orthodox community and his job as a tailor’s apprentice. When Eddie photographs the devastation on the streets of New York following the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, he becomes embroiled in the suspicious mystery behind a young woman’s disappearance and ignites the heart of Coralie.