5 Reasons I’m Glad I Read Ellen Prentiss Campbell’s The Bowl with Gold Seams

IMG_6764After I reviewed Ellen Prentiss Campbell’s excellent short story collection Contents Under Pressure this winter, we struck up a friendly correspondence via email, and so I think writing a straightforward review of her first novel,The Bowl with Gold Seams,* would fall into an ethical gray area.

However, I very much enjoyed the book, so instead, here are:

5 Reasons I’m Glad I Read The Bowl with Gold Seams
  1. The novel deals with difficult ethical dilemmas: Hazel Shaw, who narrates The Bowl with Gold Seams from the late 1980s, struggles to discern the right path forward when faced with accusations against one of the teachers at the boarding school she leads. As she ponders her choices, she encounters a figure from her past. When she was young woman, she worked as a secretary at a local hotel when it served as a detainment center for diplomatic prisoners (more on this below). She forged relationships with some of the “guests” while simultaneously processing her grief from a series of personal losses, leading to questions about honor, justice, and the shared experience of humanity.
  2. I learned something: Most of the narrative is set in Pennsylvania, at the Bedford Springs Hotel, which during the Second World War briefly became the detainment center for the Japanese ambassador to Germany (captured when the Allies took Berlin) along with his family and staff. I didn’t know that hotels served as (effectively) prisons during the war, while I’ve read about the shameful internment of Japanese Americans and about prisoner-of-war camps, I hadn’t given much thought to the fate of diplomatic prisoners until now.
  3. The writing is lovely: Ms. Campbell is a gifted storyteller, as I noted in my review of Contents Under Pressure, and I admired her portrait of the bright, strong, vulnerable Hazel, an observant and self-reflective narrator (“She loved him, I believe, but my father was married to his job, and in some quiet way, still married to my mother. I understand how that can be.”).
  4. It made me want to learn more about Quakers: Hazel and her father, the town jailer, are Quakers, and the school Hazel runs as an adult is a Quaker school. I found their methods and customs fascinating, so now I’m itching to read some good nonfiction about the Religious Society of Friends.  Any recommendations?
  5. I loved the way it plays with tropes: The Bowl with Gold Seams is a bildungsroman, but it’s also deeply engaged with how we continue to form our moral selves as adults. It’s a novel about the home front in World War II, but then brings the war to the home front with the introduction of the hotel as prison.

The Bowl with Gold Seams is available from Apprentice House, a small press based in Maryland.

[Readers, I’m curious: What do you think of this format for the occasional recommendation, as opposed to a standard review?]


*I received a copy of this book from the author for review consideration, which did not affect the content of this post.

Recommended Reading: A God in Ruins, by Kate Atkinson

photo (42)Kate Atkinson’s 2013 highly inventive novel Life After Life was one of my favorites of the year, and I’ve been eagerly anticipating the publication of A God in Ruins*, which is not a sequel, exactly (I doubt such a thing is possible, given the peculiar structure of Life after Life), but what the author calls a “companion piece.”

Life After Life follows Ursula Todd as she lives through the first half of the twentieth century over and over again, with particular focus on her experience during the London Blitz. A God In Ruins is the story of her brother Teddy, who doesn’t share his sister’s reincarnation quirk. Instead, we’re witness to Teddy’s one life, from its Arcadian beginnings at the family home, Fox Run, to his experience as an RAF bomber pilot during the war, and on to his marriage and relationships with his daughter and grandchildren. The story is told non-chronologically, all the pieces slowly falling into place and weaving together the stuff of one good man’s life.

For Teddy is a good man, a person who does his best under the terrible circumstances of war and the unexpectedly difficult circumstances of post-war family life. It’s a book about the loss of innocence, but it reaches deeper than the bildungsroman it certainly could have been to pull us into a the long decades of life. Teddy is sometimes mystified by what life has shown him, in particular by the behavior of his daughter Viola; she’s a delectably unlikeable character, but one who is shown compassion by her father, and ultimately, the author.

I loved this book; despite its unusual chronological structure, it had the feel of an old-fashioned novel, if that makes sense. Distinct motifs, wry humor, and affecting imagery run through the text, which made for an enjoyable, engaging reading experience, even when the subject matter is difficult.

And on another note, I loved the book for personal reasons. As I mentioned above, Teddy is the pilot of a Halifax bomber, and the descriptions of the terrifying flights to Germany (and other targets) are visceral, clearly informed by research and first-person interviews (Ms. Atkinson provides a helpful bibliography). My grandfather, who is 94, younger than Teddy would be (were he a real person) was the navigator on a B-17 during the war, and this book reinforced for me his bravery and sacrifice, and his modesty.

A God in Ruins is one of several excellent, recent books about the Second World War, books like All the Light We Cannot See, The Evening Chorus, and Ms. Atkinson’s own Life After Life. I hope to see this constellation of historical fiction grow.

If you know a veteran of World War II, you might consider helping to preserve history by participating in one of these oral history projects:

* I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.

[Note to the Dear Readers: I’m trying an experiment this week wherein the weekly poetry post appears on Thursday and the usual book review/recommendation appears on Tuesday. I’m pretty confident that this will affect absolutely nobody’s life, but if you hate or love the new arrangement, please let me know.]

Recommended Reading: The Evening Chorus by Helen Humphreys

photo (17)The Evening Chorus*, by Helen Humphreys, is a quiet gem of a book. Ms. Humphreys is an accomplished Canadian poet and novelist, and I honestly can’t believe that this is the first book of hers I’m reading. It won’t be the last.

The Evening Chorus follows three people: James Hunter, a British pilot confined to a German prisoner-of-war camp when the book opens; his new and young wife Rose, living in their cottage at the edge of Ashdown Forest; and Enid, James’s sister, who comes to stay with Rose after her London flat is destroyed in the bombing of the city. James’s story is the frame and the touchstone (which honestly makes the book’s US cover annoying, too generic and too specific all at once; the Canadian cover is a better representation of the book).

The novel follows James, Rose, and Enid in turn, though of course they’re all connected, not only by their family ties, but by their appreciation of the natural world. James passes his days in the camp by taking up the study of a family of birds, while Rose learns to love her walks as an air raid warden with only the company of her dog. And Enid, brought low by loss, finds solace in undertaking a study of the heath and forest near Rose’s cottage.

Ms. Humphreys’s writing makes me want to use words like “limpid” and “spare” and “lyrical.” Her language is clear, building images and characters deftly and with a supreme sense of balance. When revelations appear, as they must in a story, they’re not shocking twists, but rather forks in a path that you haven’t noticed being built beneath your feet.

Here’s one passage that I particularly liked:

The minutiae of Ashdown Forest are more interesting than she first assumed. Every little flower has a history and cultural references , is a superstition or a cure for something. Everything in its own world, and if Enid stays there, in these worlds, she won’t have to break the surface of the large, terrifying world she actually lives in (150).

It’s the same impulse that leads her brother to study his family of redstarts, though the realities of imprisonment are naturally less avoidable than Enid’s realities are for her. I appreciated the details of  the POW camp that Ms. Humphreys provides, the portraits of the men passing time and fighting boredom, cold, and filth by finding their own projects: gardening, bird-watching, escaping. While life in a place governed by the Geneva Conventions—even marginally—is nothing at all like the horrors of the death camps, it is frightening, and the men deal with it in their own ways. James’s redstarts are a way for him to make sense of his new world, because he is there, as another prisoner puts it, “for the duration.”

And making sense of the world, in all its cruelty and its flashes of beauty, is the subject of The Evening Chorus. James, Rose, and Enid, with their different paths and personalities, live and grieve through the lens of the natural world, even when they feel removed from it, and from each other.

This is a beautiful, affecting novel, and I highly recommend it.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

Literary Wives: The Zookeeper’s Wife

literarywives2If you’re new to Literary Wives, here’s the summary: I’ll be joining bloggers Ariel, Audra, Emily, Cecilia, Kay, and Lynn as we post every other month about a different book with the word “wife” in the title. When we read these books, we have two questions in mind:

1. What does this book say about wives or the experience of being a wife?

2. In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?

This month, we’re talking about Diane Ackerman’s 2007 book The Zookeeper’s Wife. We invite you to join the discussion by commenting on our blogs (links below) or posting your own review on our shiny new Facebook page.

photo (66)The Zookeeper’s Wife is the first nonfiction book we’ve read together as a group.  I looked forward to reading the book for many reasons. My grandfather is a World War II veteran (Eighth Air Force), and close family friends, husband and wife, flew in the RAF and fought in the Dutch Resistance, respectively. I’ve also had the honor of meeting Holocaust survivors, thanks to the Maltz Museum of Jewish History, which is located near my hometown. Several of my high school friends’ grandparents were Holocaust survivors, too. All of which is to say that World War II feels more immediate to me than wars that, chronologically, are much closer to my own lifetime (Korea, Vietnam, even the Gulf War, which I remember seeing reports about on TV). I’m always interested to read another account of people who experienced the war.

Diane Ackerman traces the story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski (the eponymous zookeeper and his wife), who ran the Warsaw Zoo before the outbreak of World War II in September 1939. Like many other non-Jewish Poles, the Zabinskis risked their lives to save Jews and others hunted by the Nazis during the war; more than three hundred people passed through the zoo on their way to safety. Of all the countries affected by the Holocaust, Poland is the country with the most citizens deemed Righteous Among the Nations (non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews) by Yad Vashem. The Zabinskis were two of those citizens.

Their story deserves to be told. The pair went to great lengths to help others at the risk of not only their own lives, but the life of their young son. Guests at the Zoo often hid in plain sight; one of the Zabinskis’ strategies was to keep the Zoo and its villa pulsing with comings and goings, visitors, friends, and family all the time. The Germans even kept an arms dump on zoo grounds, yards away from the empty animal enclosures where Guests were sometimes hidden. As you can imagine, the risk of discovery was great, and the Zabinskis and their Guests survived several close calls.

The Zabinskis’ story is a fascinating tale of courage and human connection, but I’m not sure Ms. Ackerman was the right person to tell it. I think her goal was to tell the story of quiet acts of domestic heroism and tenacity (as exemplified by Antonina), and that’s why she focuses less on Jan’s work with the underground Home Army, or a straightforward telling of the Zabinskis’ activities during the war and more on the story of the zoo and its animals. Chronicling domestic heroism is an admirable goal, and certainly the book’s strongest moments are those that detail Antonina’s efforts to retain a sense of normalcy and beauty in the midst of terror,  but I kept feeling that people were shortchanged in this book. I would have preferred a book about the Warsaw Zoo with a more equitable focus on its residents — permanent and Guests — or a book that chronicled the lives of women in Warsaw (maybe five or six) who saved lives from home.

Ms. Ackerman is a naturalist and poet, and while at times I found her highly detailed descriptions of locations in Warsaw and everyday life in occupied Poland immensely helpful, at other times I thought that her prose was too purple (yes, even I admit there is such a thing), distracting from the story at the center of The Zookeeper’s Wife. In one instance, especially, I found her voice New-Age-y and her questions insensitive toward her subjects’ privacy. Of her meeting with the Zabinskis’ son, Rys, she writes:

No doubt he found some of my questions odd– I hoped to learn about his mother’s scent, how she walked, her gestures, her tone of voice, how she wore her hair. To all such inquiries, he answered “average,” or “normal,” and I soon realized those were memory traces he either didn’t visit or didn’t wish to share. (312)

Memory traces? Really?

Though the book is organized in roughly chronological order, Ms. Ackerman’s narration is so choppy that it was difficult for me to remember what was happening at any particular time in the zoo.  Time and again it seemed that people dropped out of the story, only to reappear near the end or not at all; sometimes it seemed the author was more interested in describing the antics of animals than the heroism of people. And very often — too often — I put the book down so I could research a name on the internet because people weren’t given enough page-time. Irena Sendler — if you haven’t heard of her, stop reading me and go look her up — appears just three times in the book, despite the fact that she was (a) an amazing heroine and (b) a Guest (person in hiding) at the zoo.

While the focus of The Zookeeper’s Wife is World War II and the events preceding it, I also felt that the book stopped too suddenly at the end of the war; we receive very little information about Jan and Antonina during the Cold War years. I would have liked to learn how they managed under a new totalitarian regime after working so effectively against another.

Ultimately, as you can probably tell, I found this to be a frustrating read. The Zookeeper’s Wife may be worth a read if you’re looking for a stepping stone into the stories of occupied Poland during World War II, or if you’re interested in early-twentieth-century zoo-keeping, or the Nazis’ interest in animal breeding (there’s a bibliography in the back of the book). I’m glad I learned about Antonina and Jan, but I wish it had been in a different format.

And now, on to the Literary Wives questions:

1. What does this book say about wives or the experience of being a wife?

The Zookeeper’s Wife focuses on the difficulties of Antonina’s position as a wife, it’s at its best. Antonina can’t ask too many questions about Jan’s underground activities, but she tacitly accepts the danger that he places the family, just as she openly accepts Guests into their home. She maintains the facade of an ordinary housewife during the Nazi occupation of Warsaw, a facade which keeps her family and Guests safe. At the same time, she does perform the tasks expected of a wife at the time — keeping the house, budgeting, teaching her son — plus those tasks concomitant with running a house full of pets — all under extreme stress. Part of being a wife, for her, is waiting to see if Jan will come home alive every day, and facing terrifying and dangerous situations on her own, in her own home. There is no safe space for her during the war.

Here’s my favorite sentence in the book: “One of the most remarkable things about Antonina was her determination to include play, animals, wonder, curiosity, marvel, and a wide blaze of innocence in a household where all dodged the ambient dangers, horrors, and uncertainties. That takes a special stripe of bravery rarely valued in wartime” (166).

2. In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?

Antonina’s mental and physical toughness notwithstanding, she did defer to Jan in many respects, like a “traditional” housewife, and I found it irritating when he referred to her as “timid.” On the other hand, he acknowledged her bravery often and publicly:

“Antonina was a housewife,” he told Danka Narnish, of another Israeli paper, “she wasn’t involved in politics or war, and was timid, and yet despite that she played a major role in saving others and never once complained about the danger.” (314)

I don’t think I’d say that she defines “wife” or is herself defined by the term.

Please visit the other Literary Wives bloggers to get their takes on the book! 

Emily at The Bookshelf of Emily J. 

Audra at Unabridged Chick

Ariel at One Little Library

Cecilia at Only You

Kay at WhatMeRead

Lynn at Smoke and Mirrors