Tag Archives: Sarah Blake

For What It’s Worth

This is a link to a handy listing of 61 book reviews that we’ve written for this site and the New York Journal of Books:

http://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/reviewer/joseph-arellano/

The listing may be useful as a quick reference guide when you’re considering whether or not to purchase a particular book.   Thank you to author Therese Fowler for discovering this link!  

Joseph Arellano

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This Ain’t No Disco

A Fierce Radiance by Lauren Belfer (Harper Perennial; $15.99; 560 pages)

“There was no statute of limitations on murder.”

Lauren Belfer has produced a grand, glorious and occasionally disappointing tale of medicine, war, love and other things in this 560 page historical novel.   This is primarily a fictional account of the discovery and development of penicillin soon after the United States was dragged into World War II.   Belfer sets the scene well, convincing the reader that Pearl Harbor was an overwhelming experience for the average American; quite comparable to 9/11.

The primary character is one Claire Shipley, a photographer for Life magazine which provides her with the credentials to witness history in the making.   In this role, Claire comes to meet and fall in love with James Stanton, the physician who is heading the government’s military-based efforts to develop the new drug on a massive scale.   Claire can relate to the importance of Stanton’s mission as her daughter died from a blood-borne disease at a young age, a disease that might have been halted by penicillin.

One early surprise about this novel is that Stanton reports to a civilian authority figure in Washington, D.C. – a man by the name of Vannevar Bush.   Bush, a key scientist and organizer of the project that led to the development of the atomic bomb, comes across as a very serious and intelligent figure, yet with a touch of playfulness.   With Bush, Belfer succeeds in bringing a lesser-known historical figure to life.

She also succeeds, at least during the first half of A Fierce Radiance, in juxtaposing two stories, the story of the medicine, science and sheer luck behind the development of a life saving drug, and a love story.   Claire and James meet the love of their lives when they meet each other, but each has issues and problems that make their becoming a couple unlikely.   Each has perhaps seen too much of life by the time they’ve met.

If Belfer has played it safe to this point, she soon gambles with the reader’s patience and understanding.   This is because a murder affecting one of the major characters occurs, turning a two-headed story into a three-headed one.   Now the novel is not just about the war and medicine and love during wartime, it also becomes a murder mystery.   It seems at first a bit much especially when – wouldn’t you know it – a New York City Police Department detective (wise and grizzled) enters the scene.

Of course, the author has provided herself with a very broad field to work in here; one can tie together a lot of loose ends in close to 600 pages.   What Belfer does so well is to write in a voice that makes the reader feel “calmed and safe.”   There’s a patience and politeness in the voice that will seem familiar to readers of Anna Quindlen and to those who have read the other recent novel about life in the U.S. during World War II, The Postmistress by Sarah Blake.   It’s as if the oh-so-calm voice does take us back to an earlier time with ease.

Yet there are at least two problems with the telling.   First, the omniscient point of view of the narrator becomes tiring and also keeps the reader from knowing each of the characters as well as we would like.   Because the omniscient (godlike) narrator goes into the mind of every character, the author skimps on well-rounded character development.   This becomes frustrating to the reader and may be a major reason the omniscient voice is used less and less in today’s popular fiction.

Next, while Belfer has written a story that reads like an overly long screenplay, if it were made into a film, most viewers would be very far from satisfied with the ending.   The author does not take the easy way out…  she ends the story with a whimper rather than with a bang.   In this she may have successfully reflected the happenings of life in a truer way than it might be displayed in a tightly scripted and highly dramatic Hollywood-style ending.   This may well be to the author’s credit but it is asking a lot – in fact, far too much – of a reader to devote more than 550 pages to a story that sometimes sizzles before it blandly fizzles out.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.   A Fierce Radiance will be released in trade paperback form on March 29, 2011.


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More Than This

The Postmistress: A Novel by Sarah Blake (Berkley Trade; $15.00; 384 pages)

The time is the years 1940 and 1941 and Americans are attempting to stay out of the conflict in Europe.   President Franklin Roosevelt has pledged to keep American boys from dying in a new world war, but most Americans are well aware that he’s stalling for time.   Hitler’s armies are invading countries throughout Europe and something is happening to hundreds of thousands of Jews.   This is the setting for The Postmistress by Sarah Blake.

Blake tells the story of three women – three very different individuals with different personalities and needs.   Iris is the postmistress of the title, a woman who is thorough and organized in everything she does.   Iris takes pride in her discipline and in her preparation for all things.   Although she’s lacking a suitor, she travels to Boston to see a doctor who will certify her virginity; she’s sure that some man will one day find this to be a factor in her favor.

Emma is a transplant to the east coast, a small and frail woman who lost her parents early in life.   She wishes to have a new stable life with her physician-husband.   But Emma’s husband feels the call to go to help the victims of the German bombing of London.

Frankie is the tough and ambitious radio reporter stationed in Europe working with Edward R. Murrow.   She’s frustrated and wants to travel to find the “real story” of what is happening to the Jews.   She wants to be the voice of truth, a human alarm bell.

Something happens to each of these characters in The Postmistress.   Iris eventually wonders if she has placed duty to her job above simple human kindness.   Letters and telegrams bearing bad news travel through her hands.   Will the point come when she should show some mercy by withholding horrible news?   Would it make a difference?   Or would it place her in a position of arrogantly playing God?

Emma feels that she may lose everything, including a child on the way, if her husband places the needs of those in England above hers.   It’s not America’s war, right?   But then she may be powerless in the face of her husband’s desire to serve his fellow human beings.

Frankie becomes tired and devastated over what she observes in war-torn Europe.   Hitler’s armies are on the march and the people in the U.S. who listen to her radio show seem to refuse to accept the truth – the truth that war is inevitable.   Who else but American boys and men will save the world?

Whatever is coming does not just come…  It is helped by people wilfully looking away.   People who develop the habit of swallowing lies rather than the truth.

This novel tells us that stories get told when they need to be told – not before and not after.   There’s not a good time or bad time, simply the time.   Blake does a marvelous job of transporting the reader back to the early 40s in polite, calm and reasoned language.   Perhaps the best compliment that can be paid to The Postmistress is to say that when you read it, you will place yourself in that time and place.   You will also ask yourself what you would have done in that time and under those circumstances.

Would you have sought delay as an isolationist (“It’s not our war.”)?   Or would you have been one of those who said, “We’re going to have to go at some point, so why not now?”   A simple question, perhaps, but the fate of the world – of freedom – literally depended on the answer.

Sarah Blake displays an intelligence in the telling of the story that is, sadly, all too rare these days.   In the end, this is an important story about normal people occupying a larger-than-life stage.   Blake tells it impressively and beautifully.   The Postmistress is a story that you will be thinking about weeks and months later.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.   The Postmistress was released in trade paperback form on February 1, 2011.

The Postmistress made me homesick for a time before I was even born.   What’s remarkable, however, is how relevant the story is to our present day times.   A beautifully written, thought-provoking novel that I’m tellling everyone I know to read.   Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help.

 

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Life During Wartime

A Fierce Radiance by Lauren Belfer (Harper, June 2010)

“There was no statute of limitations on murder.”

Lauren Belfer has produced a grand, glorious and occasionally disappointing tale of medicine, war, love and other things in this 527 page historical novel.   This is primarily a fictional account of the discovery and development of penicillin soon after the United States’ involuntary entrance into World War II.   Belfer sets the scene well, convincing the reader that Pearl Harbor was an overwhelming experience for the average American; quite comparable to 9/11.

The primary character is one Claire Shipley, a photographer for Life magazine which literally provides her with the credentials to witness history in the making.   Claire eventually meets and falls in love with James Stanton, the physician who is heading the government’s military-based efforts to develop the new drug on a massive scale.   Claire can relate to the importance of Stanton’s mission since her daughter died from a blood-borne disease at a young age, a disease that might have been halted by penicillin.

One early surprise about this novel is that Stanton reports to a civilian authority figure in Washington, D.C. – a man by the name of Vannevar Bush.   Bush, a key scientist and organizer of the project that led to the development of the atomic bomb, comes across as a very serious and intelligent figure, yet with a touch of playfulness.   With Bush, Belfer succeeds in bringing a lesser-known historical figure to life.

She also succeeds, at least during the first half of A Fierce Radiance, in juxtaposing two stories, the story of the medicine, science and sheer luck behind the development of a life saving drug, and a love story.   Claire and James meet the love of their lives when they meet each other, but each has issues and problems that make their becoming a couple unlikely.   Each has perhaps seen too much of life by the time they’ve met.

If Belfer has played it safe to this point, she soon gambles with the reader’s patience and understanding.   This is because a murder affecting one of the major characters occurs, turning a two-headed story into a three-headed one.   Now the novel is not just about the war and medicine and love during wartime, it also becomes a crime mystery.   It seems at first a bit much especially when – wouldn’t you know it – a New York City Police Department detective (wise and grizzled) enters the scene.

Of course, the author has provided herself with a very broad field to work in here; one can tie together a lot of loose ends in almost 530 pages.   What Belfer does so well is to write in a voice that makes the reader feel “calmed and safe.”   There’s a patience and politeness in the voice that will seem familiar to readers of Anna Quindlen and to those who have read the other recent novel about life in the U.S. during World War II, The Postmistress by Sarah Blake.   It’s as if the oh-so-calm voice does take us back to an earlier time with ease.

Yet there are at least two problems with the telling.   First, the omniscient point of view of the narrator becomes tiring and also keeps the reader from knowing each of the characters as well as we would like.   Because the omniscient (godlike) narrator goes into the mind of every character, the author skimps on well-rounded character development.   This becomes frustrating to the reader and may be a major reason the omniscient voice is used less and less in today’s popular fiction.

Next, while Belfer has written a story that reads like an overly long screenplay, if it happened to be made into a film, most viewers would be far from satisfied with the ending.   The author does not take the easy way out, not at all…  Instead she ends the story with a whimper rather than a bang.   In this she may have successfully reflected the happenings of life in a truer way than it might be displayed in a scripted and highly dramatic Hollywood-style ending.   This may well be to the author’s credit but it is asking a lot – in fact, far too much – of a reader to devote more than 500 pages to a story that sometimes sizzles before it blandly fizzles out.

A review copy was received from the publisher.

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Another Time

The Postmistress by Sarah Blake

The time is the years 1940 and 1941 and Americans are attempting to stay out of the conflict in Europe.   President Franklin Roosevelt has pledged to keep American boys from dying in a new world war, but most Americans are well aware that he’s stalling for time.   Hitler’s armies are invading countries throughout Europe and something is happening to hundreds of thousands of Jews.   This is the setting for The Postmistress by Sarah Blake.

Blake tells the story of three women – three very different women with different personalities and needs.   Iris is the postmistress of the title, a woman who is thorough and organized in everything she does.   Iris takes pride in her discipline and in her preparation for all things.   Although she’s lacking a suitor, she travels to Boston to see a doctor who will certify her virginity; she’s sure that some man will one day find this to be a factor in her favor.

Emma is a transplant to the east coast, a small and frail woman who lost her parents early in life.   She wishes to have a new stable life with her physician-husband.   But Emma’s husband feels the call to go to help the victims of the German bombing of London.

Frankie is the tough and ambitious radio reporter stationed in London working with Edward R. Murrow.   She’s frustrated and wants to travel to find the “real story” of what is happening to the Jews.   She wants to be the voice of truth, a human alarm bell.

Something happens to each of these characters in The Postmistress.   Iris eventually wonders if she has placed duty to her job above simple human kindness.   Letters and telegrams bearing bad news travel through her hands.   Will the point come when she should show some mercy by withholding horrible news?   Would it make a difference?   Or would it place her in a position of arrogantly playing God?

Emma feels that she may lose everything, including a child on the way, if her husband places the needs of those in England above hers.   It’s not America’s war, right?   But then she may be powerless in the face of her husband’s desire to serve his fellow human beings.

Frankie becomes tired and devastated over what she observes in war-torn Europe.   Hitler’s armies are on the march and the people in the U.S. who listen to her radio show seem to refuse to accept the truth – the truth that war is inevitable.   Who else but American boys and men will save the world?

Whatever is coming does not just come…  It is helped by people wilfully looking away.   People who develop the habit of swallowing lies rather than the truth.

This novel tells us that stories get told when they need to be told – not before and not after.   There’s not a good or bad time, simply the time.   Blake does a marvelous job of transporting the reader back to the early 40s in polite, calm and reasoned language.   Perhaps the best compliment that can be paid to The Postmistress is to say that when you read it, you will place yourself in that time and place.   You will also ask yourself what you would have done in that time and under those circumstances.

Would you have sought delay as an isolationist (“It’s not our war.”)?   Or would you have been one of those who said, “We’re going to have to go at some point, so why not now?”   A simple question, perhaps, but the fate of the world – of freedom – literally depended on the answer.

This is an important story about normal people occupying a bigger-than-life stage.   Blake tells it impressively and beautifully.   The Postmistress is a story that you will be thinking about weeks and months later.  

Sarah Blake displays an intelligence in the telling of the story that is, sadly, all too rare these days.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

The Postmistress made me homesick for a time before I was even born.   What’s remarkable, however, is how relevant the story is to our present day times.   A beautifully written, thought-provoking novel that I’m telling everyone I know to read.   Kathyrn Stockett, author of The Help.

A review copy was received from the publisher, Amy Einhorn Books.   The Postmistress will be released on Tuesday, February 9, 2010.

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