Three highly lauded books have kept me busy the past couple weeks.
Disappearing Earth – Julia Phillips
The last part of a book is so important to how readers feel about the entire story. This is an example of a book that was elevated by a nearly perfect ending.
It begins with the disappearance of two young sisters from Petropavlosk, the capital of the Russian region of Kamchatka. The rest of the book advances in one-month increments, with each chapter focused on a different person. Most of them are women, living in different cities in Kamchatka.
The woman are of all ages and stages of life. One is a student from a small town living in a big city, dealing with the racism of Russians against the natives. Another woman faces a cancer diagnosis. Another woman wakes on the anniversary of her first husband’s death and goes to bed that night grieving her second husband’s death. Another woman is trying to figure out where to take her current relationship, which is with a devastatingly handsome yet equally stupid man. Another family, both a sister and a mother, deal with the disappearance of their sister/daughter a few years before the girls from Petropavlovsk, and wonder if the disappearances are related and if their sister got less attention because she was a native rather than a Russian. Another woman, the only possible witness to the kidnapping of the two sisters, searches for her lost dog.
These stories – and more – are all interesting and moving. But I was wondering how they would be tied together and if the resolution would make the journey worth it.
Phillips nailed the final two chapters wonderfully. The next-to-last chapter focuses on the mother of the two disappeared girls. A reporter, she is sent to cover a native arts festival. While there she meets a man who, after hearing a description of the only suspect in the kidnapping, realizes he knows someone who fits that description. As the chapter tumbles toward its end, there is a persistent fear that there will be no connection between this lead and the woman’s daughters. And then the mother notices something tiny, that most people would have missed, that brings everything together.
In the final, wonderful chapter, Philips takes us right to the edge of a resolution for the book’s two big mysteries. But she never offers the final reveal, allowing the reader to wonder how that scene would play out. That is a little maddening, but it also works. It ranks up there with Ben H. Winters’ World of Trouble for vague yet satisfying endings.
The Splendid and the Vile – Erik Larson
My second Larson history focused on the World War II era in about a month. This one is about Winston Churchill’s first year as wartime Prime Minister, stretching from May 10, 1940 to May 11, 1941. That span also covers the very worst of the Battle of Britain, Germany’s relentless bombing campaign of British cities.
The book is not just about the war, the politics of the time, or a straight biography of Churchill. Rather, it tries to put all of those elements in context with the family members and staff that surrounded Churchill. By doing so, we get a more personalized look into what life was like in London during the very darkest days of the war (for the British).
As much as I enjoyed that, I could not help but crave for more details about the way itself. There were a few things I never knew. First, Hitler’s #2, Rudolph Hess flying a plane to the UK to attempt to negotiate a peace treaty and spending the bulk of the war as a prisoner. Second, that the British attacked French ships that refused to turn themselves over following the surrender of France. I can’t help that I get dazzled when you throw WWII into the mix.
I had never read any biography of Churchill before, so it was humorous to learn what a kook he was. He was absolutely loony. But he managed to stay focused enough to lead the British through a horrible time, and eventually convince Franklin Roosevelt that the UK was a worthy recipient for American aid in the months before Pearl Harbor brought the US into the war.
A Burning – Megha Majumdar
Here is an example of a book that takes a familiar situation and places it into an unfamiliar context to allow the reader to examine it without their own prejudices attached.
Majumdar’s book takes place in India, in a town where a commuter train has just been fire-bombed by terrorists, killing over a hundred people. Through the lives of three people, Majumdar shows the dangers of nationalism, social media, corrupt traditional media, and how the lure of success and prosperity can make people behave strangely.
Jivan is a young Muslim woman who was seen at the train station with a mysterious bundle before the attack, and then running from the station afterward. Her Facebook chat history shows contact with a suspected terrorist, but she claims it was innocent flirtation with an interesting boy from another country. The media takes this knowledge and runs with it, turning public opinion against her. Much of her story is told from inside the women’s prison where she is held while awaiting trial and, eventually, her sentence.
PT Sir was Jivan’s PE teacher at the private girls school she received admission to. Stumbling into an opposition party rally one day, he is swept up in the excitement of the crowd. At another rally, he uses his knowledge of microphones to help the party’s leader overcome a technical issue. After this unlikely meeting, he is soon asked to do other favors for the party: testify in court against people they insist are guilty but there just isn’t enough hard evidence to convict. He shows up, tells his stories, and gets convictions for the prosecutors. With this service come payments which begin to change his family’s life and how people view him. Soon he is an integral part of the party’s election campaign, and when they win the state elections, he receives a ministerial position. When the media ask him about his former student, he doesn’t tell them the parts of her life that could turn the public in her favor, but rather those details that make her look worse.
Finally, Lovely is a transvestite who is attempting to become an actress. She takes acting classes, where she seems to excel. However, each time she attempts to break into the world of big, Indian films, she is typecast in small roles in the background. The man she loved has left her for a “real woman” who can give him a family. At Jivan’s trial, Lovely testified on her behalf, as Jivan had been teaching her English. In fact, the package that Jivan had the night of the attack was not a bomb but rather old books she was taking to Lovely to help with her studies. However, after Lovely posts videos online that go viral, she is offered a major part in a movie by one of India’s biggest producers. When it is suggested that the movie will be more successful if she reverses her support of Jivan, she quickly abandons her former friend.
There is a constant feeling of injustice that bubbles through the book. The media rushing to judgement, bending facts to suit the story they want to tell. No one in power offering to defend Jivan. PT Sir lying on the stand over-and-over to take away power from minorities and political enemies of his party. Lovely getting the door slammed in her face constantly. A political party that uses ethnic identity, language, and religion and a wedge to both gain power and turn the state’s citizens against each other. The biggest injustice is Jivan’s sentence, which shows that a society motivated by hate and fear and needing someone to blame can manipulate the court system to levy a hideously unfair sentence on someone who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
There’s a lot in the book about where America is right now, and where we could be headed. Which makes an already chilling book even more concerning.