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Archive for the ‘women’ Tag

Brains Beyond Beauty   Leave a comment

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Marie Benedict has a knack for fictionalizing life stories of impressive, impactful women. The Only Woman in the Room is her latest endeavor. Hedy Lamarr, screen star of the 1940s and 50s, isn’t the first person who comes to mind as a significant World War II figure. Further, as an inventor she deserves more credit than many realize.

Hedweg Kiesler was born in Vienna into a wealthy, Jewish family and considered a stunning beauty. Initially, Benedict’s account of Kiesler/Lamarr is focused on her early stage career leading to her marriage to Friedrich Mandl, a munitions manufacturer.

Mandl is older, wealthy and powerful. Hedy’s father fears any rejection on Hedy’s part toward Mandl’s romantic interest could put the family in danger. Initially, Hedy is not impressed by the riches (and roses) he dispenses so freely to woo her. Eventually they marry after she succumbs to his charms.

The novel’s title is an apt description of Hedy’s presence which is dismissed as one of no consequence. She’s considered no more than a beautiful woman. What she learns, however, are plans for Austria to first join forces with Mussolini; and later Hitler. She knows she needs to escape, not only the fate of her country, but the abusive relationship with Mandl, who simply wanted a trophy wife.

Danger and intrigue are tangible elements in Keisler’s life; fame and romance comprise Lamarr’s. Yet, Benedict shows something deeper by chronicling the transition from refugee to film siren to wireless communications inventor.

The Only Woman in the Room
Four Bookmarks
Sourcebooks Landmark, 2019
254 pages

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Seeking Refuge   Leave a comment

I hate to admit it, but I’m not as shocked as I once was by the barrage of images in the media revealing the plight of refugees from war-torn countries. The accounts of horror, squalor and multitudes are now commonplace. Thankfully, Nadia Hashimi’s fictional When the Moon is Low has shaken me from complacency in a way the reality no longer does.

This beautifully written novel follows Fereiba from her birth in Kabul to motherhood as she flees from Afghanistan with three children in tow.

Much of the narrative is first person voice as Fereiba recounts her life which begins when her mother dies giving birth. Her father remarries, but Fereiba is a motherless daughter in a country with little regard for women. She’s initially denied the opportunity to attend school, but eventually pursues an education and ultimately becomes a teacher. An arranged marriage provides her with the love, support and friendship she never experiences growing up.

With the rise of the Taliban, Fereiba fears for her family’s lives. What follows is an arduous journey, the kindness of strangers and the heartbreaking separation that occurs when she is forced to choose between waiting for her missing adolescent son, Saleem, and seeking care for sickly infant Aziz.

Midway through, Fereiba’s voice gives way to Saleem’s perspective as he tries to find his family. The goal is England where Fereiba’s sister lives. Saleem’s experiences are harrowing, but his determination is heroic in his efforts to reunite with his mother, sister and brother.

When the Moon is Low
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
William Morrow, 2015
382 pages

Family Fairy Tales   1 comment

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Often, stories within stories are enchanting, muddled, lopsided or boring. Fortunately, Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah is captivating without any confusion. One narrative is not more interesting than the other; both have equal appeal.

Much of what makes Hannah’s novel so successful is the clever way in which her characters evolve. Sisters Meredith and Nina are grown women who have always basked in the light of their father’s love. Meredith is the older sister, pragmatic and harried; Nina lives the adventurous life of a freelance photographer. Theirs is not a close a relationship. If not for Evan, their father, there would be little for anyone in the family to hold dear.

Unlike Evan, their mother is a cold, distant woman incapable of showing or articulating affection. This could be a black and white story, but Hannah has enough sense, and talent, to show the nuances. A secret past, painful memories and the harsh reality of war culminate in a fairy tale the sisters’ mother is ultimately compelled to tell. The story moves from the idyllic, contemporary life on the family’s apple orchard to cold, war-torn Russia. Like any good fairy tale, this one begins with a handsome prince, an evil overseer, and a young girl who falls in love.

As the fairy tale evolves, it’s clear this the only way the mother can explain herself and for her daughters to recognize their own strengths, weaknesses and connections. There’s nothing jumbled in either side of Hannah’s engaging account.

Winter Garden
Four Bookmarks
St. Martin’s Griffin, 2010
391 pages

Two Mothers, One Daughter   1 comment


Shilpi Somaya Gowda’s first novel, Secret Daughter, is about families – especially mother-daughter relationships. Two women, one unable to have a child and the other unable to keep hers, are the primary focus – along with Asha, the daughter given up by one and adopted by the other.

Somer, a pediatrician in the San Francisco Bay area is married to Kris, a surgeon originally from Mumbai. Across the world in an Indian village, Kavita gives birth to a daughter she knows her husband does not want, and will not let her keep. Although the women never meet their lives are unwittingly bound when Kavita leaves her child at an orphanage. Through a series of coincidences that often only occur in fiction, the girl, Asha, is adopted by Somer and Kris.

Gowda’s narrative moves from the Bay Area to Mumbai, as it shifts from one woman’s perspective to the other, before, thankfully, settling on Asha. Somer‘s character is whiney and distant; Kavita is mostly sad and compliant. Despite environment and genetics working against her, Asha grows up to be an intelligent, inquisitive young woman. That’s not to say, she is flawless. At her worse, as a teenager, she is rude and insensitive; at her best, as a college student interning at a Mumbai newspaper, she is empathetic and appreciative. Of course, it takes time for the latter qualities to evolve.

Gowda’s writing is strongest describing the contrasts between India’s wealthy and the destitute. The colors, sights, and smells are vivid – even when the reader might prefer otherwise.

Secret Daughter
Three Bookmarks
William Morrow, 2010
339 pages