Maximum Shelf: The Goddess of Small Victories by Yannick Grannec

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on August 6, 2014.


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Kurt Gödel was a mathematician, logician and philosopher, best known for his incompleteness theorem, and often referred to as one of the greatest logicians since Aristotle. Born in Austria in 1906, he immigrated to the United States in 1940 to escape Hitler’s growing power and to pursue his scholarly work. Plagued by mental illness but also highly accomplished in his field, he would easily make an interesting subject to pursue. But Yannick Grannec’s first novel, The Goddess of Small Victories, is not about Kurt Gödel; it is about his wife, Adele.

Adele was six years older than Kurt, and was employed as a dancer at a cabaret when they met in 1927. They were a couple for more than a decade (during which time she nursed him through several rounds of institutionalization) before they married, with the continuing disapproval of his family. Adele would face rejection and isolation in the academic community as well, particularly when the couple finally settled at Princeton, where he worked at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study (IAS).

These details are a matter of historical record. Grannec’s foray into fiction begins with her other protagonist: it is 1980, Gödel has recently died of anorexia, and Anna Roth, an employee at the IAS, has been tasked with recovering Gödel’s archives from his widow. Adele lives in a nursing home, and continues to hold a grudge against the academic establishment that shunned her; she is known to be a prickly old woman, and at first lives up to her reputation. But she sees something she recognizes in Anna, the daughter of two egomaniacal Princeton professors, who never felt that she fit into that society, being a more timid sort. Gradually, as Anna makes regular visits to the nursing home, the two women begin to open up to one another. Adele calls it a trade: she’ll tell her story if Anna tells hers. Chapters of The Goddess of Small Victories alternate between a third-person view of Anna’s visits to Adele in 1980, and a first-person telling of Adele’s story as it happened chronologically, beginning in 1928.

In this way, “the younger woman” (as Anna is often labeled) gets to visit Adele’s past worlds: Vienna in the 1930’s, postwar Princeton, McCarthyism, the Cold War; the difficulties of being an immigrant with poor English, the thrill of close friendship with Einstein and other luminaries and, centrally, the challenge of marriage to a tortured genius. Gödel is concerned with the infinite, but unable to handle the minutiae of his life: he is a consistently and increasingly troubled man–gifted, but also cold and demanding. He suffers from depression and paranoia, starves himself, meticulously tracks his body temperature and bowel activity, and refuses to see anyone outside a small circle that includes Einstein, Oskar Morgenstern, Robert Oppenheimer and their wives. He harangues his friends with conspiracy theories and an insistent rehashing of his unpopular notions. These few individuals naturally compose Adele’s entire social world, as well. Gödel tests Adele mightily, but in the end her love persists, as does her belief in infinity (a popular topic in the Gödel marriage and within their intellectual circle).

In exchange, Adele enjoys hearing about Anna’s life, though it has been marked by broken relationships and fear. The elder woman is outspoken, where the younger is reticent; Adele is enlivened by the challenge of spicing up Anna’s professional and love lives. Anna, as it turns out, has had a gifted-but-troubled mathematician in her own life as well. As the book and the women’s relationship unfold, the reader’s perspective moves more deeply inside Adele’s head, hearing her more intimate thoughts and becoming privy to her fears and insecurities, which increase as she ages and her marriage disappoints her. Anna and Adele make a journey together, and soon Gödel’s archives are no longer the point (except for Anna’s employer).

In an author’s note at the end, Grannec succinctly outlines which parts of the story are historically confirmed, which are relatively safe conjectures, and which she has created. Sticklers for historical accuracy should be satisfied. The translation from French to English by Willard Wood is smooth, establishing appropriate voices for the two different protagonists, and creating the evolving atmospheres of nervousness, fear and, eventually, desperation that characterize the Gödel household.

In the end, The Goddess of Small Victories delicately evokes both Adele’s varied experiences, in historical context, and also Anna’s more circumscribed life, which leaves room for future decision-making. While light is shed on the life and work of Kurt Gödel, he takes a backseat to his dynamic wife in Grannec’s compassionate telling. The finer technical details of Gödel’s work are outlined in narrative form, as Gödel reluctantly tries to tutor Adele, or discusses theories of philosophy with Einstein and the others. (Grannec also inserts footnotes regularly to offer further explanation, or to attribute quotations.) These mathematical and philosophical dialogues, the reader is reminded, are oversimplified; but they are enough to either whet the appetite, or impress upon one the magnitude of Gödel’s genius. The stars of this story, however, are two strong and intriguing women, who are stronger together.


Rating: 8 chocolates.

Come back tomorrow for my interview with Grannec!

The Big, Bad Book of Botany: The World’s Most Fascinating Flora by Michael Largo

A quirky illustrated reference guide to the oddities of the plant world and botanical history.

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Broccoli as we know it today comes to us as a product of early bioengineering (by the Etruscans around 800 B.C.). Eve’s forbidden fruit may have been not an apple, but a fig. In Aztec culture, virgins were not permitted to look upon the lusty avocado fruit on the tree. The blister bush contains chemicals that interact with human skin and then combust upon exposure to sunlight. In Greek mythology, the artichoke was created when Zeus became angry with his mistress and transformed her into the thistle as punishment. Bamboo blooms only every 65 or 120 years, and when it does, rat populations explode. Nutmeg has mild hallucinogenic properties.

From Absinthe to Żubrówka (“widely known as the plant that makes the best Polish vodka”), The Big, Bad Book of Botany is not your standard reference book. It is far from comprehensive; Michael Largo (The Big, Bad Book of Beasts) instead hopes to entertain and educate by focusing on plants with odd characteristics and their history and roles in different cultures, including medicinal uses both current and bygone. Entries are alphabetically ordered (although some take a little hunting: oleander is filed under B for “Be-Still Tree”), and accompanied by some 150 illustrations by the artists of the Tropical Botanic Artists collective. Some entries include tips on gardening or on avoiding poisoning.

Simply written with an eye for humor and cocktail-party-friendly trivia, this botanical exploration can serve as a coffee-table piece or conversation starter. Just don’t mix up your yew with your yerba.


This review originally ran in the August 5, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 5 petioles.

The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit by Graham Joyce

An entrancing fantasy of a young man’s search for past and future in a single summer of change.

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Graham Joyce (Some Kind of Fairy Tale) explores family legacies and the struggle for new beginnings in The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit.

In the sultry English summer of 1976, David Barwise does not return home from college to work for his stepfather as the family expects, but instead takes a job at a run-down holiday resort. The economy is headed downhill, and the resort industry is especially depressed, but David is attracted to the seaside town where his biological father disappeared mysteriously when his boy was a toddler.

His coworkers are a rowdy bunch in which “everyone has an angle.” Among them, David is particularly drawn to Colin, a dangerously angry brooder, and his wife, Terri, beautiful and silent. Over the course of the summer he will find himself pulled against his will into a political association he finds hard to break. He’ll find lust and, later, love. And eventually he’ll solve the mystery of his father’s fate and build a new relationship with his mother and stepfather.

The cast of colorful characters includes some neo-Nazis, a woman with a mysterious past, a solitary Italian tenor, an unlikely pair of fortune-telling sisters and a friendly young dancer. But Joyce’s most remarkable achievement is the tense atmosphere of this slim and haunting novel, simultaneously dreamy and chilling, setting David’s preference for Velvet Underground and Jimi Hendrix against the backdrop of Sinatra, Como and Nat King Cole performed in a dying theater.


This review originally ran in the August 5, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 6 sand castles.

Lisette’s List by Susan Vreeland

Like Vreeland’s previous novels about women in history and art, Lisette’s List is heartfelt, loving and lovely, and asks difficult questions beautifully.

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In Lisette’s List, Susan Vreeland (Clara and Mr. Tiffany; Girl in Hyacinth Blue) lovingly portrays Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Modernist French art by way of a modest fictional character in Provence.

In 1937, newlyweds Andre and Lisette Roux move from France’s vibrant capital to the pastoral southeastern town of Roussillon to care for his grandfather, Pascal, who has written that he is dying. A passionate Parisian, Lisette is at first miserable in the backwater town, and infuriated when Pascal turns out to be healthier than he let on: he simply wanted their company, and to share what he remembers about the famous French artists he has known.

But Lisette is as fervent about art as she is about Paris, and Andre has trained in his grandfather’s trade of carving fine frames for fine paintings. She is captivated by Pascal’s collection of seven paintings: by Cézanne and Pissarro, and one possibly by Picasso. As a miner in the nearby ochre mines and later a pigment salesman, Pascal made the most of his access to these men, and now shares his recollections with the rapt Lisette–as well as his wisdom about life and love.

By the time Pascal eventually dies, Lisette has made a home of sorts in Roussillon; her love for the paintings further compels her to stay in Provence when Andre hides them (for fear of their destruction or seizure by German troops), not telling even Lisette where they’re stowed. Andre then enlists to fight for France, and Lisette is left alone, waiting for both the safe return of her husband and a reunion with the artwork.

Over the next decade and more, Lisette keeps a list of “Lisette’s Hungers and Vows.” Inspired by Pascal and his paintings, Andre’s love and the quiet strength and beauty of the Provençal surroundings, she pledges to “learn what makes a painting great,” “learn how to be self-sufficient” and “love without reservation.” She meets Marc Chagall and his wife, Bella, who are hiding in a nearby town. Upon receiving a gift painted specially for her by Chagall, she begins her own art collection and narrative. But war necessarily brings tragedy as well as new beginnings. Lisette will experience love and loss, joy and deep pain; learn animal husbandry as well as art history; and parse the moral questions raised under Vichy French rule, as the years go by. She finds new friends, undertakes small favors and large sacrifices, all in times of war and recovery, amid the paintings she loves so. Readers will likely rush through the lovely Lisette’s List, only to be bereaved when the final stroke is painted and the portrait is complete.


This review originally ran in the August 4, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 9 pieces of marzipan.

Never Mind Miss Fox by Olivia Glazebrook

An ominous tale of betrayal and past mistakes.

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Olivia Glazebrook (The Trouble with Alice) opens her second novel, Never Mind Miss Fox, by introducing her readers to Clive and Martha in their university days, at Oxford. Clive has fallen for Martha, and “realizing her worth–afraid to leave her unattended,” he’s brought her along on a family holiday to France. It is there, in a small seaside town where Clive’s family has been vacationing for decades, that the full cast of characters comes together: the new couple is joined by Clive’s younger brother, Tom, and his guest, a girl named Eliot Fox. Tom and Eliot are “just friends,” although everyone acknowledges that Tom worships her. The boys’ parents, Val and Peter, are secondary to this vivid foursome of young people, but their personalities are evoked in brief sketches.

The narrative then jumps forward in time. Clive and Martha are happily (or at least stably) married, and they adore their lonesome daughter, Eliza, who has just come home from school to announce that she has a new piano teacher, someone from her parents’ past. Eliza is happy to have found a friend in Miss Fox; but to Clive she represents something entirely different. Eliot brings with her a secret Clive has mostly forgotten after all these years, a dark secret unknown to Martha or Eliza or Tom, one that has the potential to tear apart his carefully constructed life. “Are you going to tell?” he asks her; Eliot replies, “I won’t have to.”

The chronology of Glazebrook’s haunting tale continues to alternate between the schooldays of the original four characters and their adult lives with the heartbreaking Eliza, whose world was just starting to make sense when it began to break apart. Readers will wonder at the nature of Clive’s transgression for much of the book, as the enigma is slowly revealed; then they’ll watch in horror as his family’s present hangs in the balance.

Never Mind Miss Fox is relatively brief–easily read in a single sitting–but powerful. Glazebrook draws strong characters: Martha, ambitious, and a reluctant mother; Clive, insecure and barely competent; Eliza, an affectingly awkward, intelligent child; and of course Miss Fox, mysterious, damaged, whose motives remain obscure. As the entangled players rush toward a conclusion that will change each of their lives in profound ways, the distressed marriage and mood of sinister suspense are apt to delight fans of Patricia Highsmith and all that is darkly engrossing.


This review originally ran in the July 31, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 cigarettes.

Shirley by Susan Scarf Merrell

Shirley Jackson is brought back to life in a quietly disturbing tale worthy of its subject.

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Author Shirley Jackson (“The Lottery”; The Haunting of Hill House; We Have Always Lived in the Castle) casts a long and chilling shadow. The psychological thriller Shirley, from Susan Scarf Merrell (A Member of the Family), follows in its namesake’s tradition.

Jackson and her husband, literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, lived in small-town Vermont while she wrote and he taught at Bennington College in the 1960s. In this book, Fred and Rose Nemser, Merrell’s inventions, are newlyweds and move into the Hyman-Jackson home when Fred becomes a graduate student and teaching assistant. Rose, our 19-year-old narrator, is pregnant, recently rescued from a childhood of poverty and family dysfunction by her new husband; she is staggered by Shirley’s big house, big family and art. Stan takes Fred under his wing, tutoring him in both their profession and in marriage. Shirley’s mentorship of the malleable Rose is more complex.

Rose wants to write about Shirley; she wants to replace Shirley’s children in their mother’s heart; she wants to be Shirley. In her devotion, she can’t help wondering about the phone calls that go unanswered every night, and the female student who went missing so many years ago (whom Shirley and Stan so emphatically did not know). Naturally, not all of Rose’s overtures are welcome.

An apt tribute to Shirley Jackson herself, Merrell’s novel recalls Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and Edgar Allan Poe. Jackson’s fans are the clear winners here; Shirley, Stan, Fred and Rose may not be so lucky.


This review originally ran in the July 29, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 6 letters.

Teaser Tuesdays: We Make Beer: Inside the Spirit and Artistry of America’s Craft Brewers by Sean Lewis

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

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I was all over this title, as you can imagine. (Husband would like to point out that “we” don’t make beer. He does. I am quality control.) Sure enough, it only took a few pages to find a few memorable and evocative lines to tease you with:

As the glass is set gently back on the table, the beer drinker’s tongue pokes out to get one more taste off the lips before they open to reveal a quick smile. The stresses of the day’s work are slowly washed away, with layers of lacing on the glass standing as tombstones memorializing each of the annoyances from the previous eight hours.

Anybody else ready to knock off for the day already?

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

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