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Three Books That Won’t Let Me Go by Helen Maryles Shankman
Over the years that I wrote the stories that became In the Land of Armadillos, these three books snaked in and around my imagination, inspiring me with their styles, their subjects, and their monumental greatness, never letting go.
The End of the Affair, by Graham GreeneIt’s the height of the Blitz, Germany is bombing London to smithereens, and Maurice Bendrix and Sarah Miles are involved in a torrid affair. A rocket blows through Bendrix’s house, knocking him unconscious. When he revives, he climbs out of the wreckage, miraculously alive, to find that Sarah will have nothing more to do with him. Spoiler alert: Bendrix was actually killed in the explosion. When Sarah finds him dead on the stairs, she promises God that she will never see her lover again, if only He restores him to life. When Bendrix reappears in her room, Sarah keeps her end of the bargain, vanishing without a word. Bendrix’s bewilderment at her desertion hardens into hate. At the end of the book, he discovers that Sarah has been responsible for what appears to be a chain of miracles, jolting him out of his comfortable atheism. The novel’s bitter last line is, “I hate you, God. I hate you as though you actually exist.” This idea—that faith, miracles and wonders can work in a ruthlessly modern story—is at the heart of Armadillos.
The Tin Drum, by Gunter GrassGrass’s book, about a little boy who reacts to the onset of the Third Reich by refusing to grow up, is a masterpiece of magical realism. It’s as if Gunter Grass had to reinvent language and storytelling to describe the landscape of World War 2 Germany. Even in translation, it is sheer poetry. This is the other side of the Holocaust, the war that ordinary German citizens experienced. So, yes, there’s a 3-year-old boy who refuses to grow any bigger, who drums instead of speaking, who can shatter glass with his voice, but there is also a man who looks ridiculous in his Nazi Brownshirt uniform because he can only afford to buy the pants, and a beloved toy merchant who is murdered for the crime of being a Jew on Kristallnacht. As the child and grandchild of Holocaust survivors, I grew up thinking that all Germans were bad guys. But The Tin Drum revealed a more shaded and complex story, and moved me to write the stories in Armadillos that were told from the German point of view.
Welcome to the Monkey House, by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.There’s a laid back, affectless, almost conversational style to Kurt Vonnegut’s stories that makes his writing seem deceptively easy, and also makes them feel like they were written yesterday. “Harrison Bergeron” savagely satirizes a society, which in the name of fairness for all, hangs handicaps on gifted people so that they don’t have any advantage over their non-gifted peers. “Miss Temptation,” “EPICAC,” and “Who Am I This Time?” dance delicately on a tightrope that stretches between charm, comedy and pathos. The second-to-last story is “Adam.” Hans Knechtmann and his wife Avchen are in the hospital. They’ve just had a baby. But this is no ordinary baby, because Hans and his wife are Holocaust survivors. Upon this child rests the shining hopes of two people who have lost their entire families. To Hans, his boy’s birth is a miracle, the continuation of a world that was almost destroyed. With no one he can call to share his good news, but desperate to share his joy, he goes into a bar to toast to the miracle of life, only to be crushed under the cynicism spouted by the ignorant louts he is drinking with.
These books represent storytelling at its finest: straightforward, unputdownable, with gorgeous, precise language, a wide and generous streak of liberalism, and fierce compassion for the underdog. They are as carefully crafted as a cuckoo clock, and as capable of making you laugh as they are of breaking your heart. I couldn’t have written In the Land of Armadillos without them.
In the Land of Armadillos: Stories by Helen Maryles Shankman
Publication Date: February 2, 2016
Scribner/Simon & Schuster
eBook & Hardcover; 304 Pages
Genre: Historical Fiction/WWII/Short Stories/Literary
A Spring 2016 Discover Great New Writers selection at Barnes & Noble.
A radiant debut collection of linked stories from a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee, set in a German-occupied town in Poland, where tales of myth and folklore meet the real-life monsters of the Nazi invasion.
1942. With the Nazi Party at the height of its power, the occupying army empties Poland’s towns and cities of their Jewish populations. As neighbor turns on neighbor and survival often demands unthinkable choices, Poland has become a moral quagmire—a place of shifting truths and blinding ambiguities.
Blending folklore and fact, Helen Maryles Shankman shows us the people of Wlodawa, a remote Polish town: we meet a cold-blooded SS officer dedicated to rescuing the creator of his son’s favorite picture book, even as he helps exterminate the artist’s friends and family; a Messiah who appears in a little boy’s bedroom to announce that he is quitting; a young Jewish girl who is hidden by the town’s most outspoken anti-Semite—and his talking dog. And walking among these tales are two unforgettable figures: the enigmatic and silver-tongued Willy Reinhart, Commandant of the forced labor camp who has grand schemes to protect “his” Jews, and Soroka, the Jewish saddlemaker and his family, struggling to survive.
Channeling the mythic magic of classic storytellers like Sholem Aleichem and Isaac Bashevis Singer and the psychological acuity of modern-day masters like Nicole Krauss and Nathan Englander, In the Land of Armadillos is a testament to the persistence of humanity in the most inhuman conditions.
Praise"Moving and unsettling…Like Joyce's Dubliners, this book circles the same streets and encounters the same people as it depicts the horrors of Germany's invasion of Poland through the microcosm of one village…Shankman's prose is inventive and taut…A deeply humane demonstration of wringing art from catastrophe.” - Kirkus Reviews
"Every story in this remarkable collection reveals Helen Maryles Shankman’s talent for surprising, disturbing and enlightening her readers. Blending the horrors of war with the supernatural, she creates a literary landscape that is strangely mythical and distinctively her own. These stories haunted me for days after I finished reading them." – Sarai Walker, author of Dietland
"With unflinching prose and flashes of poetry Helen Maryles Shankman spirits her readers back through history to the Polish hamlet of Wlodawa during the dark days of Nazi occupation. Horrific reality and soaring fantasy meld in serial stories that include an avenging golem, an anti-Semite who shelters a Jewish child, brutal SS officers who lay claim to 'their own Jews' and an unlikely messiah whose breath smelled of oranges and cinnamon. That scent will linger in the memory of readers as will the haunting stories in which barbaric hatred is mitigated by the reflection of a survivor who reflects that love is a kind of magic. There is, in fact, literary magic in these well told tales." – Gloria Goldreich, author of The Bridal Chair
"Populated with monsters and heroes [human and perhaps not], but mostly with ordinary people caught up in horrific events they neither understood nor controlled - this series of intersecting stories drew me in completely, making me read them again to find all the connections I missed the first time. The writing is fantastic, and I marvel at Shankman's literary skills." – Maggie Anton, author of the bestselling Rashi's Daughters trilogy
"In The Land of the Armadillos is a moving collection of beautifully written short stories that readers of Jewish fiction will celebrate. Not to be missed." – Naomi Ragen, author of The Sisters Weiss
Shankman received an MFA in Painting from the New York Academy of Art, where she was awarded a prestigious Warhol Foundation Scholarship. She spent four years as as artist's assistant and two years at Conde Nast working closely with the legendary Alexander Liberman. She lived on a kibbutz in Israel for a year, spending the better part of each day in an enormous barn filled with chickens, where she collected eggs and listened to the Beatles.
Shankman lives in New Jersey with her husband, four children, and an evolving roster of rabbits. When she is not neglecting the housework so that she can write stories, she teaches art and paints portraits on commission. In the Land of Armadillos, a collection of linked stories illuminated with magical realism, following the inhabitants of a small town in 1942 Poland and tracing the troubling complex choices they are compelled to make, will be published by Scribner in February 2016.
Blog Tour ScheduleTuesday, February 2
Review at Worth Getting in Bed For
Wednesday, February 3
Spotlight at Library Educated
Spotlight & Giveaway at It's a Mad Mad World
Thursday, February 4
Review at A Chick Who Reads
Friday, February 5
Guest Post & Giveaway at A Literary Vacation
Monday, February 8
Review at Oh, for the Hook of a Book!
Tuesday, February 9
Interview at Oh, for the Hook of a Book!
Wednesday, February 10
Spotlight & Giveaway at Passages to the Past
Thursday, February 11
Review at I'm Shelfish
Monday, February 15
Review at Back Porchervations
Tuesday, February 16
Guest Post at The Lit Bitch
Wednesday, February 17
Review at Cynthia Robertson's Blog
Friday, February 19
Review at Ageless Pages Reviews