FAW Chicago, IL Est. 1922
FAW Book Reviews

What's New with Our Past Award Authors?

March, 2016

As most of you know, FAW gives annual awards to emerging authors who have published no more than three books. Here are some of these authors' works published since they received our recognition.

Dean Bakopoulus (2006 Winner)
Summerlong (Ecco, 2015) describes the sweltering heat one summer in a small Midwestern town during which a couple discover their marriage is not as solid as they thought. As the temperature climbs, both spouses grow more wild and reckless in humorous, biting situations.

Sara Gruen (2007 Winner)
In 1945, a foolish trio of rich Americans arrive in Loch Ness to search for the famous monster in At the Water's Edge (Spiegel & Grau, 2015). While her brother and his friend try to find Nessie, Maddie is left on her own and begins to uncover truths about her family that force her to reevaluate her life.

Jim Kokoris (2002 Winner)
It's. Nice. Outside (St. Martin's Press, 2015) presents a father and son road trip from Chicago to Charleston. John, a 50-something underachiever is traveling with his disabled teenage son to attend his eldest daughter's wedding. Rather than a joyous family get-together, this event is hilariously doomed with major life decisions to make and a bitter ex-wife to confront.

William Kent Krueger (1999 Winner)
Cork O'Connor, the character in Krueger's winning mystery, is back in Vermilion Drift (Simon & Schuster, 2015). When the body of a teenage Ojibwe girl washes up on an island in Lake Superior, residents of the Bad Bluff reservation blame a mythical beast named Windigo. But private eye O'Connor thinks that rampant sex trafficking is the explanation.

Robert Kurson (2005 Winner)
Pirate Hunters: Treasure, Obsession and the Search for a Legendary Ship (Random House, 2015) is the rollicking true story of two archaeologists looking for the elusive Golden Fleece, the 17th-century ship captained by Pirate Joseph Bannister, lost somewhere in the waters near the Dominican Republic. Besides the thrilling hunt are tales of pirates, lost ships and modern day research.

Mary Morris (1986 Winner)
Morris' The Jazz Palace (Doubleday, 2015) is set in 1915 Chicago. The Lehrman family who run a hat factory, lost a son in a blizzard years earlier so they want Benny, one of the remaining children to carry on the family business. Benny however has no interest in making hats. His true passion is piano, especially jazz, and he spends his nights in local clubs.

Toni Morrison (1978 Winner)
Nobel prize winner Morrison newest work is God Help the Child (Knopf, 2015). Sweetness, a black woman who likes passing as white, gives birth to the midnight black Lula Ann. Ashamed, she raises her at a bitter distance, rationalizing that this will toughen her up. But without love, Lula Ann has no moral compass and causes pain to those around her.

Bich Minh Nguyen (2010 Winner)
In Pioneer Girl, (Viking, 2014) PhD graduate Lee Lien discovers a family heirloom that her mother may have received from Laura Ingalls Wilder. Intrigued, she begins to explore any connection between her ancestors and the famous pioneer author.

Sara Paretsky (1985 Winner)
The seventeenth entry in the V. I. Warshawski series, Brush Back (Putnam, 2015) finds V. I. Warshawski reluctantly helping a former boyfriend who discovers his mother was framed for murder. To find the real killer, Warshawski is forced to confront ugly politics and violent elements in her Chicago neighborhood.

Mona Simpson (1988 Winner)
In Casebook, (Random House, 2014) Miles has always sensed the vulnerability of his mother, a recently divorced mathematician, and throughout his childhood and adolescence feels the need to look out for her. When Irene falls in love with Eli, Miles is highly suspicious. He enlists his best friend to help him look deep into Eli's background, going so far as to work with a private investigator.

Jane Smiley (1982 Winner)
Golden Age (Random House, 2015) is the third book in the Last Hundred Years Trilogy (Some Luck was published in 2014 and Early Warning came out in 2015). This book opens in 1987. The next generation of the Langdon family is facing economic, social, cultural, and political challenges unlike anything their ancestors had encountered before. Richie and Michael, the rivalrous twin sons of Frank, the golden son and World War II hero, have grown into men, and the wild antics of their youth slide seamlessly into a wilder adulthood in finance on Wall Street and in government in Washington, D.C.

Larry Watson (1994 Winner)
Let Him Go (Milkweed, 2013) Years after their only son was killed in an accident, his parents travel miles to reclaim their grandson whose mother has remarried and cut all contact to them. However, their mission proves complicated as Lorna, the daughter- in-law, has become a virtual hostage in the home of her new in-laws.

Memoir of the Sunday Brunch
By Julia Pandl

Paperback, 256pp., Algonquin Books (November 13, 2012)

Reviewed by Roberta Gates
November 27, 2012

The author, the youngest of nine children, writes with humor and pathos about her father, a well-known Wisconsin chef. All nine of the Pandl kids got their first taste of (unpaid!) work helping out with their father's Sunday brunches. Julia, only twelve when she began, was eager to get into her apron and join the family business. But just because the Pandls were the boss's kids, none of them got special treatment. When one of Julia's sisters cut her finger to the bone operating a meat-slicing machine, Chef Pandl told her that he didn't have anyone else for her station so she'd just have to wrap up the finger, put on a double pair of plastic gloves and wait until after the brunch for stitches! Nonetheless, Julia's love for her father shows through; and, whether she's writing about feuds with her brother Jeremy or chauffeuring her dad around while she's still too young to drive, this memoir is both amusing and tender.

The Forgotten Soldier
By Guy Sajer

Hardcover, 508pp., Potomac Books Inc., 2000

Reviewed by Roberta Gates
Jan 15, 2012

I have a special interest in World War II and am always looking for diaries, letters or autobiographies that, I hope, will tell me the way it really was. Unfortunately, war stories are often boastful (we got those Japs) or just plain boring (pincer movements, etc.). But Guy Sajer's autobiography, entitled Forgotten Soldier, is neither. In fact, I would say it comes close to being a masterpiece in its closely observed moments, acute psychological insights and masterful writing.

First published in 1967 in France under the title Le Soldat Oublie, it was translated into English in 2000 and published by Potomac Books. Guy Sajer (a synonym for the author) was the son of a German woman and a French peasant from Alsace. Unfortunately for Guy, Alsace was annexed by the Nazis after the fall of France, which meant that he (still two-and-a half months shy of his seventeenth birthday) was conscripted into the Wehrmacht. Damned by his French relatives as a traitor and held in contempt by his German comrades who regarded him as "one of those damned Alsatians pretending to be German," he had a lot to prove, both to himself and his fellow-soldiers.

Sajer is particularly skillful at describing the majesty and ruthlessness of Soviet Russia where he was eventually deployed. "The vastness of this countryside, untouched by any human life… seems so overwhelming," he writes, "it is almost necessary to believe in God."

Sajer is also very adept at describing the people who crowd this narrative:

  • Hals, a big, boisterous Bavarian who is "the only real friend Guy ever made";
  • his enemy Lensen who leaves Guy feeling "angry and sad and incredibly alone" when he refers to Guy as a "worthless, feckless Frog," even after they've been through heavy combat together;
  • Herr Hauptmann Wesreidau , who is "a terror to the enemy and a father to his men";
  • a war-hardened machine gunner in his thirties, known only as "the veteran," who carries Guy back and forth to the latrine during his bout with dysentery;
  • the Hitlerjugend who are only too eager to sacrifice themselves for their Führer; and
  • Paula, the young girl in Berlin who is his first love.

Sajer has a rare gift for channeling the innocence of his youth, recalling, for instance, how incomprehensibly and "profoundly moved" he is by a care package of sausages, jam, and cigarettes--"repayment for all [his] endless nights in the stone-cracking cold." Later, he holds back tears with difficulty when an M.P. threatens him with a penal battalion after nine unused cartridges are found in his possession following a desperate retreat. Guy is so overwhelmed by the charge of cowardice that when his pay book is finally handed back to him he "sob[s] convulsively, unable to stop."

But Sajer offers more than fascinating descriptions of military life or terrifying depictions of battle, providing above all intimate insights that live in the reader's memory. "We fought from simple fear," he confesses, "[but] the idea of death, even when we accepted it, made us howl with powerless rage." And, moving ahead to the post-war period when he tries again to fit into quotidian life, he makes this observation:

The laughter of men who lived through the war has something forced and desperate about it. It does them no good to say that they now make use of the experience; their mechanisms have been run too hard, and something has gone out of balance. Laughter no longer has any more value for them than tears.

When Forgotten Soldier was first published in the U.S. in 2000, The New York Times said anyone who read the book would never forget it, and I agree completely.