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Posted: Saturday, August 18, 2012 12:00 pm

Berlin, 1943 — citizens undergo stringent rationing, and the noose around the necks of the Jews tightens. British RAF pilots bomb the city, forcing Germans to seek safety in cellars where they adhere to “no crying” signs and sing Nazi party songs while all about them buildings are reduced to rubble.

In a city under siege, Sigrid Schröder escapes the daily horrors by going to the cinema, seeking a “crevice of solitude.”

So begins “A City of Women,” by David R. Gillham, a novel that explores the lives of women in Berlin during World War II, females of varying ages dealing with stress, loneliness and fear as their husbands and sons fight and die on the front lines.

Sigrid is adrift, a stenographer trapped in a dull marriage, forced to live with a harpy mother-in-law, a strong party supporter. When a mysterious stranger takes a seat by her in the cinema, Sigrid succumbs to his advances. Overcome with passion she surrenders to Egon, a secretive man she later discovers is Jewish.

Like others around her, Sigrid is too afraid to rebuff the Nazis, and looks the other way when Jews are struck down by officials. That changes when Ericha Kohl, a young woman in her apartment building is questioned about her papers. Sigrid says yes to her conscience, putting herself and her family in grave danger.

Sigrid’s chance meeting with Egon and burgeoning respect for Ericha’s humanitarian efforts draws Sigrid into an underground network of resistance against the Fuhrer. Initially terrified, Sigrid’s courage grows as she sneaks and steals food and clothing for Jews being hidden by Ericha and others determined to save them.

Sigrid increasingly becomes more emeshed in the group’s efforts, but is shocked to find out information about Egon that leaves her confused about his alliance and motivation. A series of twists and turns at the conclusion of the novel reveal all.

Though much has been written about English women on the home front, this novel is to be lauded because it imagines what life might have been like for German housewives and mothers also suffering the horrors of World War II.

Guest review by Mindy Sansoucie, The Missourian.

Jonathan Evison’s third book comes to shelves with baggage. Don’t drop it like a blind date with five kids, this kind of baggage can be redeeming. “The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving” is a cathartic novel that will leave readers breathing a heavy sigh of pleasurable release. It’s offensive at times, witty, funny and an excellent example of modern realism.

Benjamin Benjamin, (no I didn’t stutter), is a lost, middle-aged man attempting high-speed chases to avoid signing his divorce papers and in desperate need of a paycheck. He lives in a self-described “compartment,” not large enough to be deemed an actual apartment, with industrial bare walls, greasy pizza boxes and a pothead landlord. Don’t let Ben fool you in the first 50 pages as he wallows in self-pity; he’s stronger than he thinks with a dark funny streak.

Ben is a broken spirit looking to pay rent, afford a few beers and your occasional Mr. Goodbar. His body moves without the pull of purpose. On a desperate whim he decides to take a few classes in professional caregiving.

Then, Ben meets a boy. Trev is a grown teen with Duchenne muscular dystrophy and a “tyrannical eye” who has decided Ben should be his caregiver. Trev is a powerful character who adds a depth of rich emotion to Evison’s prose that would otherwise be lost in Ben’s sharp, and edgy dialogue, that of a jaded, grieving man.

Trev blossoms into a complex teenage boy who just happens to have a degenerative disease. He has raging hormones, a sharp tongue and a witty sense of humor. Evison makes a wise decision in allowing the focus to be on Trev as a person, and having his disease take a back seat.

In the novel’s second half we go on the road with Ben and Trev and meet characters like Peaches, a grossly naïve young pregnant woman; Dot, a mouthy runaway with an Emo streak; and Elton, an ex-con father-to-be on probation with an “ingenious invention,” that will soon make him rich. On this road trip to see the Virgin Mary in a stump and the Biggest Pit in the World, these strangers help to heal Ben.

Evison offers readers bittersweet highs and tragic lows while illuminating all the sticky, messy passages in between. No matter what you’re in the mood for, pick up this little gem. In less than 300 pages, the weight of the world will feel a little lighter on your shoulders in the aftershock of Ben’s tragedy. Your prospects may seem brighter next to Trev’s grim future. Your eyes will sting from laughter at the dark, unforgiving humor. You won’t have any regrets.

“The Orchardist” isn’t your usual historical fiction fare. This first novel by Amanda Coplin is strange at times, heart-rending, descriptive and sad. It’s set at the turn of the century in a fertile valley in the Pacific Northwest — an Eden where Talmadge, an aging farmer grows apples, apricots and plums on the 400-plus acres he owns, land he acquires a bit at a time over the years.

Early in the novel, Talmadge provides a back story to his life. He and his sister Elsbeth are only in their teens when their mother dies, leaving the siblings to fend for themselves on the developing orchard. They befriend Clee, a Native American boy, whom they meet when he and a group of horse wranglers pass through on their drive south to sell the animals they’ve rounded up. Clee remains a lifelong friend, a bond solidified when Talmadge’s sister simply disappears one day.

The loss affects Talmadge for life, but he settles into a solitary existence, at one with the land. He regularly sells his produce in town, and one day gets fair warning about two scalawag girls pilfering his apples. Talmadge spots them and is shocked to see they’re young teens, dirty and ragged, and both pregnant. Talmadge tries to befriend the girls — enticing them with food. He soon realizes they’re sisters. Determined to win Jane and Della over, Talmadge discovers they’ve been subjected to cruelty at the hands of an evil, drug-addicted madman.

Michaelson is a force to be reckoned with. Determined to find the girls, he gets a search party together to bring them back to his fold, a ring of underage prostitutes, children he uses for his own pleasure as well.

Jane and Della are so damaged they don’t welcome Talmadge’s goodness, and never quite give in to it — even though Talmadge helps deliver their babies, with help from his neighbor and mid-wife friend. Sadly, Della’s twins die at birth, leaving the girls to mother Jane’s infant daughter. Though their existence is peaceful on the orchard, they still live in fear of Michaelson and contrive a desperate plan to escape should he ever find them.

“The Orchardist” is tragic, the tale of lives gone wrong, of childhood innocence lost and the scars that mark both body and mind — of guilt that knows no bounds, and the kindness of a stranger willing to sacrifice his life and happiness to save a child become woman.

Not a comfortable read, this book is nonetheless riveting because Della is such a complicated character and Talmadge’s drive to help her is thought provoking and admirable.

/features_people