Monday, November 28, 2016

Enduring Love by Ian McEwan

I want to talk to you this morning about a superb novel of ideas by Ian McEwan, Enduring Love. He might also have named it obsessive love, for it turns out to be an examination of a form of erotomania, named after the French psychiatrist De Clerambault. But more generally, it is (like his earlier novel, Black Dogs) an analysis of the the psychological division and tension between clear, cool reason and emotions such as rage, love and faith. McEwan’s brother holds a PhD and professorship in philosophy, and as you readers must know, McEwan is much interested in science, as is made manifest in his novels Solar and Saturday. What he often casts as a conflict between two characters, say a no-nonsense realist and an advocate of blind faith, is, I think, a struggle McEwan has with himself, between the black dogs of hard reason and emotion. In this particular novel he offers many fascinating asides on psychology of belief (especially religious belief), the reliability of memory and even of immediate experience via the senses.

Because the novel is also a mystery of sorts in which the tension builds gradually and inexorably, I don’t intend to say much about the actual story. Suffice it to say that like Saturday, the novel begins explosively with an event that shocks and shatters the observers; in this case the sudden appearance of a helium balloon that comes to ground in a large field on the outskirts of London, witnessed by a number of observers who race to the scene to try to rescue the balloonist and his grandson who is still inside the basket. Wind gusts threaten to relaunch the balloon and take it over an escarpment and possibly into overhanging power lines. Five men struggle to keep the balloon grounded until the boy can be rescued, but as it becomes airborne again, one by one they release the ropes they are hanging to in their vain attempt to keep it grounded. One of the men, Joe Rose, is tormented by guilt about finally letting his rope go in order to save his life. Another man hangs on even when the others have let go in order to save themselves; alone, there is no chance that he can bring the balloon to ground again, but by the time he cannot any longer retain his grip on the rope, he is too high and plunges to his death as the others look on helplessly.

As always, the story, itself, is gripping, but I was much more interested in the questions McEwan raises about memory and perception, philosophical and psychological questions that his character Joe Rose raises as he struggles with his own guilt feelings, and tries to deal also with being the object of an obsessive and irrational love from one of the other would be rescuers. As Joe reflects on the reliability of memory, he descends into a kind of Cartesian skepticism regarding not only memory, but also of so-called direct perception.
No one could agree on anything. We lived in a mist of half-shared, unreliable perception, and our sense data came warped by a prism of desire and belief, which tilted our memories too. We saw and remembered in our own favor, and we persuaded ourselves along the way. Pitiless objectivity, especially about ourselves, was always a doomed social strategy. We’re descended from the indignant passionate tellers of half-truths, who, in order to convince others, simultaneously convinced ourselves…when it didn’t suit us, we couldn’t agree on what was in front of us.
And further:
Neuroscientists report that the subjects asked to recall a scene while under a magnetic resonance imaging scanner show intense activity in the visual cortex, but what a sorry picture memory offers, barely a shadow, barely in the realm of sight, the echo of a whisper.
Kant may have been the first philosopher to point out that, contrary to common belief, memory is not like a camera;  it is not a reproductive faculty, but more a creative one. He calls it a synthetic faculty that essentially makes up a narrative from the very limited data offered. While the memory may become sharper with repeated tellings, that is not due to an ability to analyze the memory (say for more detail), but a supposed clarity or certainty that simply becomes more fixed with each retelling, no matter how true to reality the memory is. Memory is less a picture of the past than a drawing or painting.

Those in the grips of Clerambault’s Syndrome take even denial of reciprocity form the loved one as a kind of signal of repressed or hidden love. Facial gestures or completely innocent actions by the beloved are taken as signs of love; nothing can count as counter evidence to the obsessed lover.

Another line of the story not mentioned yet, but pivotal to the action is the effect the obsession has on the love between Joe and his partner Clara. She eventually comes to doubt Joe’s claims about being followed by Parry and receiving letters and phone calls. When he tells her of his research into the syndrome, and tries to warn her of Impending danger, she is dismissive in her replies. “You think you can read your way out of this…Don’t you realize you’ve got a problem?”

Will the heretofore strong and passionate love Clara and Joe have shared survive this intervention in their lives? Will it survive Joe’s obsession with his stalker? These and other questions in this intriguing mystery story readers will have to answer for themselves.

I’m not sure how I missed this novel written in 90s; I thought I had read all of McEwan, but I was delighted to have come across it, and I recommend it to you as one of his best.

Monday, October 17, 2016

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

I could count on one hand the number of excellent novels that have been made into excellent, or even very good movies. The primary exception to this rule is Marlynne Robinson’s superb novel, Housekeeping which was made into an excellent movie of the same name and starred the incomparable Christine Lahti.

Given that view, it may come as a surprise that today I’m going to review a novel that I first experienced as a movie, and was so moved that I decided to read the book. The Light Between Oceans,  by M.L. Stedman is a wonderfully written and moving novel, and surprise of surprises to this reader, I thought the reading of the novel was enhanced by having already seen the movie, and, likewise, the movie version enlivened and enhanced the novel.

I’m not going to give away much of the storyline here since that is what is so central to the book; instead I hope you will read the book for yourself and see the movie. The title refers to a lighthouse between two oceans, built on the tip of an island that is the top of a peak in an undersea mountain range.

From this side of the island, there was only vastness, all the way to Africa. Here, the Indian Ocean washed into the Great Southern Ocean and together they stretched like an edgeless carpet below the cliffs.

The bare bones of the story is that a man, Thomas, home from horrible times in World War I, and seeking solitude and refuge, is assigned the job of lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock—a half day’s journey from the small seaside village from which the lighthouse receives its provisions every six months. After an initial six-month temporary assignment, he is given the full-time position. Much to his surprise, he meets a young woman, Isabel, only child of a headmaster in the small village, who falls in love with the older man and essentially begs him to marry her and take her with him to live on the remote island. Although his initial reaction is to dissuade her, he cannot deny his growing love for this bright and brave young woman.

Tom is an exceptionally honorable and rule-bound man, he feels blessed by Isabel’s love, and he does marry her and take her with him to live on Janus Rock. Totally in love with each other, and both loving the solitary life of the island, they set up house and she tends to the chickens and goats and the sparse garden while Thomas mans the lighthouse. Both want children, but after three miscarriages, grief threatens to unravel the marriage.

And then, miraculously (or so it seems to Isabel), a boat washes up on the island carrying a dead man and an infant. “He hoisted out a woolen bundle: a woman’s soft lavender cardigan wrapped around a tiny, screaming infant.” Isabel immediately takes the baby to be a gift from God, perhaps in exchange for her miscarriages. Thomas, on the other hand, is a rigorously moral and rule-bound man who has survived the carnage of the War only by adhering strictly to his moral code. Now he is torn between his love for Isabel and what he perceives as his duty.

And so the scene is set. Tom, too, soon becomes entranced by the baby. When he reminds Isabel that the baby’s mother may be alive, and that they should turn the baby over to the authorities, her reaction is swift and adamant.
What if the mother’s not dead, and he’s got a wife fretting, waiting for them both?
What woman would let her baby out of her sight: Face it, Tom: she must have drowned. 
She clasped his hands again. ‘I know how much your rules mean to you, and I know this is technically breaking them. But what are those rules for? They’re to save lives! That’s all I’m saying we should do, sweetheart: save this life. She’s here and she needs us and we can help her. Please.
Izzy, I can’t. This isn’t up to me. Don’t you understand?
Her face darkened. “How can you be so hard-hearted? All you care about is your rules and your ships and your bloody light.
What follows, of course, is how they handle this perhaps miracle, and how it affects their love. Besides the wonderfully portrayed love between these two for each other and their charge, there is so much of interest in this story about lighthouses, about the rugged coast of Australia. The beauty of the written description is brought to full light and color by the film version. It is hard for me to believe this is a debut novel for Ms. Stedman; I’m confident it will not  be her last.

The movie does justice to the novel both by its incredible cinematography and the superb casting. The love Tom and Isabel have for each other and for the baby is masterfully portrayed in both written and movie versions.

The moral dilemmas the book and movie have left me continue to employ both my mind and my heart. I think you will also be left pondering what you would have done in this situation, and also what would have been the right thing to do. I would like to have presented it as a question for my ethics classes; I still find myself wondering, even agonizing along with Tom and Izzy.

If you are like me in tending to avoid movie versions of books you have loved, I challenge you to see this movie and read the book and ask yourself if both are made better by the combination.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Edith Wharton & Elizabet Bowen

As an obsessive reader always worried about finding new books, on my way to breakfast one morning I took a ten minute stroll through the smallish Powell’s outlet on Hawthorne, and quickly found two treasures: an Edith Wharton I had never read, Twilight Sleep, and an Elizabeth Bowen, The Death of the Heart. I thought I had read everything by these two giants of 20th century writers, but the Wharton was out of print for several decades, one of those decades occurring during my fevered reading of Wharton and other women novelists ignored by the literary canon of the time. The Bowen I somehow simply overlooked. I want to talk briefly of each of these, and urge you readers to pick them up. After many weeks of reading only contemporary fiction, it was delightful to take up with these wise old friends.

Twilight Sleep is a title very carefully chosen by Wharton to describe what she saw as blindness and amnesia in the wealthy class of which she and her family were members. In obstetrics, the term applied to a form of anesthesia administered to women so that they could have nearly painless childbirth and then forget the traumatic event. “An amnesic condition characterized by insensitivity to pain without loss of consciousness, induced by an injection of morphine and scopolamine, especially to relieve the pain of childbirth. This combination induces a semi-narcotic condition which produces the experience of childbirth without pain, or without the memory of pain.” Just so, her lead characters attempt through drugs, alcohol, occult therapies and a whirl of social activity to live life painlessly and without conscience, without memory of the real consequences of their lifestyles.

Mrs. Manford, Pauline, the matriarch of the clan finds no contradiction in being a spokeswoman for both contraception and for getting women out of the workplace and restoring them to hearth and home. Her daughter-in-law Lita, who has had a twilight sleep birth, complains of the boredom of life as a mother and of existence in general. Nona, her sister-in-law scolds Lita, “You’d be bored anywhere. I wish [someone] would come along and tell you what an old cliché being bored is.”
An old cliché? Why shouldn’t it be? When life itself is such a bore. You can’t redecorate life! And if you could, what would you begin by throwing into the street? The baby?
And so it goes with this almost wickedly satirical novel—Wharton’s most sustained critical commentary on the rich. When Lita’s husband is told by his doctor that he is overworking and needs a nerve tonic and a change of scene, his Dr. counsels, “Cruise to the West Indies, or something of the sort. Couldn’t you get away for three or four weeks? No? Well, more golf then, anyhow.

Wharton as narrator continues: “Getting away from things; the perpetual evasion, moral mental, physical, which he heard preached, and saw practiced, everywhere about him, except where money-making was concerned."

While Mrs. Manford seeks relief via spiritual advisors, moving from one to another with ease, despite their utter incompatibility, her daughter and daughter-in-law seek surcease from boredom via dancing and drinking the nights away. 

While there is humor on almost every page of this novel, and Wharton’s beautiful prose delights the reader, the social commentary is dead serious. I have to wonder if this book, hugely successful at the time of its publication in the so-called jazz age, went out of print for so long precisely because of its precision commentary on the shallow lives of the upper crust.

Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart is a far more somber story of a young girl who, when her mother dies, having been shunned by her wealthy family, and forced to move from shabby hotel to hotel with her daughter, the girl, Portia, is sent to live with an older step-brother and his young wife. She is not invited to stay with them out of any sort of good will on their part; instead, the girl’s dead father (also father to her half-brother) has requested in a document accompanying his will that Portia be taken care of for a year or until she comes of age.

The household sixteen-year-old Portia finds herself in is an absolutely loveless one. Her step-brother’s wife, Anna, is extraordinarily shallow; she openly courts a number of young and not so young men, apparently with the knowledge and acquiescence of her husband. Portia is seen by Anna as at best an annoyance. She sneaks into Portia’s room to read her diary, and then is enraged to discover how Portia portrays her in the private diary. Some of the older men callers remark on what a beautiful ‘child’ Portia is, and Anna manages not to notice the lecherous leer in their eyes and remarks.

Not surprisingly, Portia becomes infatuated with one of the young men who calls on Anna, since he at least takes notice of her, and he unscrupulously invites her infatuation, managing even to visit Portia when she is sent to Anna’s old governess who lives by the sea. The governess, too, turns a blind eye to the inappropriate behavior of the young man, leaving Portia to discover his total lack of regard for her.

The novel is divided into three sections, The World, The Flesh, and The Devil. And while the death of Portia’s heart is due to the callous seduction of her by the young man, it is in fact a slow death brought on by the icy disregard shown her by her step-brother and the incredibly shallow lives of the London gallery of friends he and his wife entertain. No wonder that finally, realizing that her love for the young man is not returned, and unable to make herself return again to the emotionally frigid London home, she runs to one of the older suitors of her sister-in-law, Major Brutt, begging him to let her live with him. Ironically, it is Major Brutt, alone among the many heartless people in the circle of friends, who takes pity on Portia and refuses to take advantage of the helpless girl’s desperate situation. But his refusal does nothing to alleviate her loneliness and despair. She is left finally with nowhere to turn; the death of the heart brought about by the same sort of blindness and selfishness that Wharton describes in her novel.

These are two wonderfully written novels exploring the heartlessness of the rich and the destruction wrought by their actions and omissions. Humorous and satirical, but displaying the wonderful hearts of the two authors as they describe lives they know well but have rejected.

Monday, September 05, 2016

Two novels by Graham Greene

On this day of celebrating American workers. I want to talk to you about two fairly short Graham Greene novels, a very serious one, The Quiet American, and a very intentionally comedic one, Our Man in Havana.

To speak just briefly of the second, which was made famous in a film version of the same name starring Alec Guinness in one of his dry and excellent comedies. Greene likes to make fun of spies and especially spies who are spying on spies. His primary target in this novel is the British intelligence network, but he is equally contemptuous of American and Russian intelligence gathering institutions. Guinness plays the role of James Wormold, a vacuum cleaner retailer in Cuba, where the electrical power is so unreliable that selling vacuums is a very questionable enterprise. Wormold’s wife has left him, and he is doing his best to keep up with the rather extravagant tastes of his devoutly Catholic 16 year-old daughter. Almost by accident, he is recruited into the British M16 (into which Greene, himself, was recruited in 1941.) He is paid extra for each new recruit he brings into the fold, and soon is making up names of agents to pad his income. When he senses that his fictitious reports are losing steam with his bosses in London, he hand-draws parts of the atomic vacuum cleaner he sells in his shop, and sends them to his superiors claiming they are drawings of very secret Cuban missile installations going up in the hills outside Havana, though this novel was published in 1958, it may seem prescient given the events of just a few years later. While his network of fictitious recruits continues to grow larger and larger, he is pressed to get actual photographs of the installations. As the comedic elements of the story roll out making Greene’s point that the spy-networks will believe most anything their local sources claim, the reader is treated to more and more of Greene’s skepticism about so-called intelligence gathering.

This is a quick and interesting read, and I would suggest that you read the book before seeing the film version, though both are funny and highly entertaining.

The Quiet American is a much more serious work published in 1955. As is pointed out by almost all commentators, the title itself is a joke. Among the press and diplomatic personnel in Viet Nam during the last days of the French occupation, the claim was that the only quiet American is a dead American. Thomas Fowler is a British journalist in Saigon; he is a heavy drinker and an opium smoker living with a Vietnamese mistress, but in most ways his voice is the moral voice, the voice of sanity in this sometimes darkly humorous, sometimes deadly serious novel. The anti-hero of the novel, Alden Pyle, announces his intention to vie for the affections of Phuong, Fowler’s beautiful but shallow mistress. Greene mentions over and over the innocence of the Americans, especially Pyle. But the meaning of innocence for Greene (and Fowler) is a peculiar one. As Robert Stone says in his introduction to the novel, “To be innocent is to be bumptious and stupid, rude, provincial, inconsiderate: well-intentioned but at the same time conscienceless and murderous.” Pyle is an American CIA agent, who has learned all he knows about foreign countries and foreign policy from books he studied at Harvard. Fowler says that his first instinct was to protect Pyle. “It never occurred to me there was greater need to protect myself. Innocence always calls mutely for protection when we would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it: innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm…He [Pyle] was impregnably armored by his good intentions and his ignorance….What’s the good? He’ll always be innocent, you can’t blame the innocent, they are always guiltless. All you can do is control them or eliminate them. Innocence is a kind of insanity.”

In another section of the book, Fowler says of Pyle, “I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.”

Fowler, like Greene, is old and cynical with at best a tenuous grip on life. When he loses his beloved Phuong to Pyle, he gives into the most nihilistic of existential rants, and the bitterness he expresses seems to disclose an equal bitterness in Greene. While the love-triangle in the novel, and the senseless exploits of Pyle are meant to be humorous, there is a dark seriousness that broods over this novel. Rather than telling you more of the story or quoting more passages, let me end by again quoting Stone in the introduction.
…The Quite American’s metaphorical power is undeniable; it carries a weight of truth that America and American readers will have to live with. Greene witnessed the beginning of a terrible mistake, a deadly mistake, the mistake of a great power armed to the teeth attempting to inflict its will in a part of the world to whose language and gestures it was tone deaf.
Graham Greene is one of the finest writers of the 20th century, and these two little novels are excellent examples of the many forms his literature took.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Any Human Heart by William Boyd

As I’m sure must be true of many dedicated (perhaps I should say obsessive) readers, when  I find an author I really like, I tend to read up everything of theirs I can find. William Boyd is a reader’s delight not only because he is an excellent writer, but because he has written so much. Today I want to talk to you about one of his most ingenious novels published in 2004, Any Human Heart. He begins with a quote from Henry James, “Never say you know the last word about any human heart.”

Boyd proposes to describe what he can of one human heart, that of Logan Mountstuart, by giving the reader a set of intimate journals beginning in 1912 when Logan is six years old, and ending with his death in 1991. What is amazing to me is that while these journals really read as if they are memoirs, the character and the journals are spun out of air. Boyd takes us through nearly the entire century: The School Journal (boarding school), The Oxford Journal, two London Journals, World War II Journal, a New York Journal, an African journal a French journal and several others. The imagination required to create and flesh out this life simply stuns me, and Logan meets many of the writers and artists of the century who then play into the complexity of the story; Boyd has done his homework as he takes his character through a long and complicated life.

The voice of Logan is really established in the School Journal when Logan is seventeen, and that very convincing voice is carried throughout. Not only do we meet Logan, but also his two most important male friends, and their lives are chronicled as well in surprising detail.
We keep a journal to entrap that collection of selves that forms us, the individual human being… The true journal intime understands this fact and doesn’t try to posit any order or hierarchy, doesn’t try to judge or analyze: I am all these different people—all these different people are me.
The voice established in the boarding school journal is that of a bright but rather arrogant, pedantic and judgmental young man, who, with his similarly arrogant friends, is trying to put up with the boredom of their last years in school, waiting for their real lives to begin. They do this by noting the magnificent acts (or sub-magnificent acts) that each perform. Logan insists, however, that they can’t simply wait for these acts to happen. “It was no good, I said, just waiting for the various categories of manificents to happen—we had to initiate them ourselves.” He proposes to do that by having two of the boys think up tasks for the third that must so far as possible be witnessed and documented by the other two. Against the boarding school tradition of addressing other boys by their surnames,  Peter Scabius, Ben Leeping, and Logan Mountstuart begin to call each other Pete, Ben, and Logan. They decide that Leeping, who is Jewish, has to become a Roman Catholic and has to be considered as fit for the priesthood, Scabius is to seduce an older girl who lives on a farm close to the school, a witnessed kiss to be the ultimate test, and Logan, who has a contempt for all sports and sportsman is set the task of winning school colors for rugby, and must make the first team.

While the schoolboy tricks and dares in the first journal make for humorous reading, it is soon apparent that all three boys are more than supercilious students who are contemptuous of their peers and their teachers, as Boyd begins to explore the depths of their very human hearts.

Logan has a particularly close relationship with his father, who is quite weak and frail even as Logan is growing up, and he dies at a young age.
The day Father was buried my faith, such as it was, went with him into the grave. Shelly was so right: atheism is an absolute necessity; in this world of ours. If we are to survive as individuals we can rely only on those resources provided by our human spirit—appeals to a deity or deities are only a form of pretense. We might as well howl at the moon.
The self-absorption and vanity of the  narrator in this pretend-memoir is presented more baldly than were this a real memoir; even in telling of my worst deeds, I think I would be much less flippant in my self-description, self-evaluation. Although in the prologue we are told there will be no analysis or evaluation, only bare description, we feel Boyd’s analysis and value-judging, as we should. In his depiction of the sexual relations between men and women, especially moneyed men and poor women, he describes the times he is writing about in ways that expose the inequalities, the power issues. Still, there is a privileged class mentality in his male characters, even those Boyd seems to want to like, and want us to like. I suppose what I want to say is that there is not sufficient attention paid to class issues. Intellectual snobbery is also a class issue. He sometimes reads a bit too much like Fitzgerald—interesting stories about the complex inner lives of privileged people.

As amazing as Boyd’s understanding of history and incorporating it into his novels, I’m even more amazed by the difference of content and tone from novel to novel. Yesterday, I finished his Brazzaville Beach which has to do with primate behavior and the scientists who study it. It’s hard for me even to imagine the research he has to have done about primatologists, about Jane Goodall and other prominent field-scientists. So his research skills feed his incredible imagination as he unwinds these stories, exposes these worlds. He writes complex spy novels, love-story mysteries, and novels about  murderous chimpanzees. What’s next?

The understanding of 20th century art and art-dealers required to flesh out one of Logan’s personas is evident through several of the journals. We meet (along with Logan), Virginia Woolf, Picasso, Fitzgerald, Sartre, and so many more. As Logan eats handfuls of benzedrine and drinks gallons of liquor, we are led on  tours of Paris’ and London’s writers and artists. Logan’s self-absorbed rambling remains, at least for this reader, somehow charming and deeply human right to the end of this rather long book. Though there are moments?

I will leave you with another Loganism, a self-justification dreamed up as simply an essential (wired in) part of his nature. Men must be men, must heed the existential call.
Why did I wait so long? I must never let this damaging frustration build up again. I have to recognize that I’m simply not equipped, temperamentally, to stay at home and live a circumscribed, rural, English life—I’m essentially urban my nature—and also the prospect and reality of travel. Otherwise, I’ll desiccate and die.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

A Nigerian woman with the mellifluous name, Ifemelu, writes a blog while holding a fellowship at Princeton. The blog is entitled Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those formerly known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black. I could easily review Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah simply by quoting from the many blogs incorporated into the novel. And I will quote a few.

At its simplest, this is a love story: Ifemelu and Obinze meet in grade school in Lagos, and have an essential connection thereafter, though they go to different continents, have other lovers, take on new personas. But while the love-story aspect remains right to the end of this long and intricate novel, this is really Ifemelu’s story, and Adichie has admitted that much of it is based on her own life.

I was reminded of Jhumpa Lahiri’s novels as I read this. Ifemelu and Obinze are children of relatively affluent and well-educated parents when Nigeria is under a military dictatorship, and while they both desire to go the the U.S., it is not primarily for economic reasons. Obinze dreams of studying literature at Princeton; Ifemelu is less romantic in her views of the U.S., and much less certain of wanting to leave her country and her family. Ironically, and due to the politics of the times, it is she who gets the visa, and ends up at Princeton. He is unable to get a travel visa, and finally enters England illegally.

When the reader first meets Ifemelu, she has been in the States for thirteen years, and she has  already decided to return to Nigeria, not because she is particularly unhappy, but simply because she wants to go home. Much of the novel, like the blogs, is critical not only of American racism, but of Americanahs, Nigerians who return to Nigeria only to judge it by their learned American tastes. Everywhere she turns her eyes, Ifemelu is analytic and usually critical, but with an underlying empathy.  To note a few of her observations, “She did not understand grunge, the idea of looking shabby because you could afford not to be shabby, it mocked true shabbiness.”
… it was absurd how women’s magazines forced images of small-boned, small-breasted white women on the rest of the multi-boned, multi-ethnic world of women to emulate.  
‘But I keep reading them,’ she said. ‘It’s like smoking, it’s bad for you but you do it anyway.’
There are a wealth of one-liners in this novel that would give you a real taste of its essence, but since the blogs play such an important part in the novel, I want to quote one longish blog to give you an idea of how the author is allowed to step back in some way, even from her lead-character, and adopt a cool, critical voice while reflecting on what it is for a foreign born black  person to live in the U.S.

Understanding America for the Non-American Black: American Tribalism
In America, tribalism is alive and well. There are four kinds—class, ideology, region, and race. First, class. Pretty easy. Rich folk and poor folk. 
Second ideology. Liberal and conservatives. They don’t merely disagree on political issues, each side believes the other is evil. Intermarriage is discouraged and on the rare occasion that it happens, is considered remarkable. Third region. The North and the South. The two sides fought in a civil war and tough stains from that war remain. The North looks down on the South while the South resents the North. Finally, race. There is a ladder of racial hierarchy in America. White is always on top, specifically White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, otherwise known as WASP, and American Black is always on the bottom, and what’s in the middle depends on time and place. (Or as that marvelous rhyme goes; if you’re white, you’re all right; if you’re brown, stick around, if you’re black, get back!) Americans assume that everyone will get their tribalism. But it takes a while to figure it all out. So in undergrad, we had a visiting speaker and a classmate whispers to another, “Oh my God, he looks so Jewish,” with a shudder, an actual shudder. Like Jewish was a bad thing . I didn’t get it. As far as I could see, the man was white, not much different from the classmate herself. Jewish to me was something vague, something biblical. But I learned quickly. You see in America’s ladder of races. Jewish is white, but also some rungs below white. A bit confusing, because I knew this straw-haired freckled girl who said she was Jewish. How can Americans tell who is Jewish? I read somewhere how American colleges used to ask applicants for their mother’s surnames, to make sure they weren’t Jewish, because they wouldn’t accept Jewish people. So maybe that’s how to tell. From people’s names? The longer you are here, the more you start to get it.
Efemilu does return to Nigeria, to Lagos. Once there, she starts a new blog, one critical of Americanahs. As in her American blog, there is humor, but also insight and a social-surgeon’s eye. She also, although not immediately, takes up with Obinze again, who is now wealthy as a land-speculator and married with children. While there are several short sections of the book dealing with Obinze’s life, his illegal entry into England and his deportation, it is really only in the final section that his inner life is fleshed out a bit,his agony over his love for Efemilu and what that means for his wife, his children. The readers believes his inner turmoil. And while the blogs take aim at the sexism rife in Nigeria, Adichie makes it clear that Obinze is genuinely conflicted—loves his wife and family in spite of being unable to put Efemilu and their love behind him. I won’t tell you how the love-story ends except to say that is not idealized.

The lead-character in this novel is remarkably well drawn, complex, with contradictory desires and values. I confess to knowing next to nothing about Nigeria nor its political history, but Adichie certainly does her best to give us a long look at Nigeria as well as England and America. This was actually her fourth book, and I intend to read everything she has written. She is a wonderful writer with a rich global view.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Restless by William Boyd

How wonderful it is for an old chronic reader to continue to discover that there are exciting writers out there whom one has never read. Thanks to a dear reader friend, I recently discovered the British writer, William Boyd, and I am already deep into a second novel of his. Today, I want to tell you about a deeply satisfying spy thriller, Restless. In just the past few weeks, and by happenstance rather than plan, I have read several novels about the years leading up to WWII. This novel takes the reader back and forth between 1976 and 1939. The star character is a woman with the delectable name of Eva Delectorskaya. Rather than than simply skipping over the rather tongue-tying name once I had read it, I found myself stopping to savor the exotic name each time it occurred, and since The Story of Eva Delectorskaya is returned to again and again in the course of the novel, I said the name to myself over and over.

Since this is more-or-less a mystery novel, I will not reveal much to you as potential readers. But I can tell you that the novel begins with a woman handing over to her daughter a manuscript.
’I’d like you to read this’ she said.
I took it from her. There seemed to be some dozens of pages—different types, different sizes of paper. I opened it. There was a title page: The Story of Eva Delectorskaya.
‘Eva Delectorskaya,’ I said, mystified. “Who’s that?’
‘Me,’ she said. ‘I am Eva Delectorskaya.”
The daughter, who has always seen her mother as a rather bland, ordinary woman who lives sheltered away outside a tiny village in the heart of England, soon comes to realize “that bitter dark current of fear that flowed beneath the placid surface of her ordinary life…”  She has been hiding under a new name, a marriage and family for forty years, but she is still afraid, "always frightened that someone was going to come and kill her. And she had good reasons.”

While the spy-thriller theme keeps the reader on edge and turning pages, I found this novel to be most interesting for its richly developed characters (especially Eva), and for the clever ways in which the past and present are finally merged so that mother and daughter are united in common struggle.

Few male writers manage to convincingly write through the eyes of a woman lead character, but in this novel both Sally Gilmartin (a.k.a. Eva Delectorskaya), and her daughter, Ruth, a single mother who is trying to make sense of her own life, are developed patiently and slowly by the author, so that they are believable and deeply interesting human beings. While Eva’s past is certainly more glamorous and thrilling, Ruth’s life as a teacher of English as a second language is a great counterpoint to Eva’s. Both women are in many ways outwardly cool, and there is little physical or emotional warmth between them. Still, as Ruth learns more and more about her mother’s past, she is able to understand both her mother and herself on a new and much deeper level.

Eva is recruited into the British Secret Service as a way of trying to retaliate against the killers of her younger brother at the hands of British fascists.  She is sent to New York to work for the B.S.C. (British  Security Coordination) whose job it is to plant stories in American journals that are aimed at drawing the United States into the war against Germany that is raging in Europe. She is eventually sent to New Mexico in an attempt to circulate a fake map indicating German plans to occupy South American and control the Panama Canal.

Acting under the injunction of the man who recruited her, “Never trust anyone!”, Eva is left to her own devices when she is about to be killed by German sympathizers, and those devices lead to acts that have on the run for the rest of her life.

Although I knew nothing about Boyd when I began this novel, I’ve since read a good deal about him. It is obvious that his novels are superbly researched, so besides the intriguing stories of Eva and Ruth, the reader leans a lot about the extensive British spy networks working in the U.S. trying to tip America into the war. I am now reading another of his novels, Sweet Caress, that is as different from Restless as can be. He obviously has rich and varied talents. I intend to read all of his fiction, and to look at his non-fiction as well. His command of the language is amazing, and he shows a lovely heart as well as an excellent intellect. Once I started this novel, I couldn’t put it down, and read it in two days.

I think he is a superb story-teller, and I think you will think the same once you read him. My hunch is that any of his many novels you start with will grab your attention and lead you to read more of his work.

Monday, July 04, 2016

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert

Instead of reviewing a work of fiction for you today, I’m going to talk about an astounding work by the scientist writer Elizabeth Kolbert, entitled, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. Published in 2014, it won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in 2015.

Kolbert explains to the reader that until the late 1700s it was believed that prehistoric mass extinctions had never occurred. It was believed then that just as specification occurred gradually over immense periods of time, so too, extinctions must occur only gradually, so gradually that given the tiny time period of homo sapiens, it would be unlikely that even a single extinction could be witnessed. However, as geology has developed, it has become clear in the fossil record that there have been five catastrophic periods of mass extinctions. In the course of the book, she describes each of these: one caused by the earth being hit by a an asteroid, others by glaciation and or global warming.
Very, very occasionally in the distant past, the planet has undergone change so wrenching that the diversity of life has plummeted. Five of these ancient events were catastrophic enough that they’re put in their own category: the so-called Big Five. In what seems like a fantastic coincidence, but is probably no coincidence at all, the history of these events is recovered just as people come to realize that they are causing another one. When it is still too early to say whether it will reach the proportions of the Big Five, it becomes known as the Sixth Extinction. 
[…] mass extinctions are defined as events that eliminate a ‘significant proportion of the world’s biota in a geographically insignificant amount of time’
She continues: "Conditions changes so drastically or so suddenly (or so drastically and so suddenly) that evolutionary history counts for little."

While there is always a background rate of extinction, it is nothing like the rate of mass extinctions. For example:
Today amphibians enjoy the dubious distinction of being the world’s most endangered class of animals; it’s been calculated that the group’s extinction rate could be as much as forty-five thousand times higher than the background rate ... extinction rates among many other groups are approaching amphibian levels. It is estimated that one-third of all reef-building corals, a third of all fresh-water mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles and a sixth of all birds are headed toward oblivion. 
What makes the sixth extinction stand out is that it is being caused by a single species of animal, human beings. Summing up in her final chapter, Kolbert says:
Right now in the amazing moment that to us counts as the present, we are deciding, without quite meaning to, which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will forever be closed. No other creature has ever managed this, and it will, unfortunately, be our most enduring legacy. The Sixth Extinction will continue to determine the course of life long after everything people have written and painted and built has been ground into dust and giant rats have—or have not—inherited the earth.
From what I have said so far, it may seem that this is a horribly depressing book to read, but in fact, Kolbert’s writing is so clear and her travels while writing and documenting her claims so incredible that I came away from the book feeling like I have a much firmer grasp of evolution than before. Not since Stephen Jay Gould’s Ever Since Darwin have I learned so much about the continually unfolding story of the evolution of life on earth.

Each chapter presents the latest beliefs in geography, biology, astrophysics, but in a language even the lay person can grasp. While the book is clearly a warning, it is not a warning of what will come, but a description of what has been happening for at least the last two hundred years. Kolbert quotes with admiration the Stanford ecologist, Paul Ehrlich: “In pushing other species to extinction, humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it perches.”

As she meticulously lays out her case for the Sixth Extinction, she points out many interesting little facts about earth’s history, for instance, in explaining why there is so much diversity in the many incarnations of the Amazon rainforest, some version or other of which has existed for millions of years, lots of time for diversity to accumulate,

By contrast, as recently as twenty thousand years ago, nearly all of Canada was covered in ice
a mile thick. So was much of New England, meaning that every species of tree now found in Nova Scotia or Ontario or Vermont of New Hampshire is a migrant that’s arrived (or returned) just in the last several thousand years.

Kolbert has packed into three hundred pages an amazing array of statistics and descriptions of scientific projects that left this reader on the edge of his chair turning pages as if reading a mystery thriller. It is a great book, and one that we can all read, and should all read.

Monday, May 16, 2016

The Ones Who Matter Most by Rachel Herron

If you are in the mood for a kind of emotional mystery story, and a heartfelt tale of mother love, you should pick up Rachel Herron’s The Ones who Matter Most. It is sure to evoke tears as well as joy and laughter.

Abby Roberts is rehearsing her line as she awaits her husband’s arrival home from work. She’s about to tell him she wants a divorce, not because she doesn’t love him anymore, but because the most important thing in the world to her is having children; she has had three miscarriages. Her husband is sympathetic, but with each miscarriage, he cools more to the idea of being a father, and finally admits he is opposed to adoption or pursuit of some sort of medical solution to their failed attempts. When Abby goes to the family doctor to try to understand why she is not getting pregnant again, she is shocked to find out that her husband has had a secret vasectomy. So, all of her careful planning, the lovemaking at just the right times of the month have been a joke. And then when she does announces to her husband her desire for a divorce, he drops dead from a massive heart attack, not from the shock of his wife’s request, but simply because his heart has given out.

So begins this novel of love and loss. In the midst of her grieving over the death of her husband and her dreams of having a family with him, she discovers that her husband was married before, and not only married, but that he had a son with his previous wife. So the man who has told her he thinks he is not suited for fatherhood, in fact already has a son, a family he has left behind. Driven as much by curiosity as rage, she goes to the home of her husband’s ex-wife and there meets his beautiful son Matty. Fern, Matty’s mother, is less than happy that this new wife shows up on her doorstep. She is a bus-driver who from one month to the next is not sure she can make her mortgage payment and put food on the table for Matty and his paternal grandfather, who has chosen Fern and Matty over his own son when the son chooses to leave his wife and son.

I’ll try not to give away too much of this story, although it is the story of Fern and Abby, and what Fern sees as Abby’s attempt to steal from Fern her son, or, at any rate, to infiltrate her family, that occupies the rest of the book. It is a book that is profound not for its philosophical or political insights, but because of its close look at family and of the ones who matter most.

Abby offers her husband’s insurance money to Fern, but Fern is offended by the offer, sees it as an attempt to buy her way into Fern’s family. To make matters worse, Fern’s brother meets Matty, and they have an instant attraction for one another. So, thinks Fern, not only does she want my son, she wants my brother as well. She wants my family, and she can’t have it.

Perhaps parts of this complicated story of love and family stretch the reader’s credulity, but in the end I felt it to be a lovely story of the redemptive power of love. The women characters are strong and drawn convincingly. Each of Abby’s attempts to help Fern and to get closer to Matty has some sort of disastrous consequence for Fern, leading finally to her losing her job as bus driver and her ability to provide for her family.

What shines through in the novel is the intense power of mother love and the healing power of family. Perhaps I will not be giving away too much if I tell you that Fern and Abby finally manage to cobble together a new and very different kind of family. I don’t think it hurts to know sometimes that a novel is going to have a happy ending, especially since so many novels are so emotionally painful to read.

And that’s probably enough.  I suppose this is an overly sentimental story, but one that appealed to me a lot, and also one that will give you a couple of days of interesting reading and a good feeling inside.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Lies And Other Acts Of Love by Kristy Woodson Harvey

My momma always told me that honesty was the most important thing in life. But I’ve never understood why people are so hell-bent on honesty. It’s not the truth that sets you free. The truth is the thing that destroys lives, that shatters the mirror. The truth is selfish and shameful, and better kept to oneself. In fact, I’m quite sure that the only thing that paper-clips any of our lives together are the white lies. They are the defibrillators that bring us back when we were on the brink of succumbing to the light. 
So begins Lynn White’s (known by all as Lovey) discourse on marriage and families. Kristy Woodson Harvey’s little novel Lies and Other Acts of Love is a light-hearted but serious look at love and relationships, and the role that honesty and what she calls white lies both hold together and shatter families.

This is not a great book; there is an economic snobbery about it that offended me some throughout, and yet I found myself entertained and sometimes deeply moved by the relationships described in what appears to be a rather intimately autobiographical novel. There are two narrators: the matriarch of the family, Lynn (Lovey) who has five daughters, and Annabelle, a granddaughter who is as stiff and unforgiving as her grandmother, Lovey, is fluid and compassionate and forgiving.

Like so many modern novels, this one flips back and forth both between narrators and between epochs. Lovey tells her story of how she came to love and marry Dan (aka Daddy D) in the 1940s, and Annabelle speaking in the present, describes her deteriorating marriage to a musician, Ben, and her attempts to unravel family secrets that threaten to explode her rosy view of what she sees as the perfect marriage and family of her grandmother, Lovey and Daddy D.

In the present, with all their daughters raised and most of them married, Lovey’s beloved Dan is suffering from Alzheimer’s, and she is doing her best to care for him at home. In one of his rare moments of lucidity in the middle of the night, Dan wakes to ask Lovey, “Can I get you anything?” And when she replies, “Not a thing, sweetheart. Are you all right?” His reply, “As long as you’re here, I’m perfect.”

The description of the love between Dan and Lynn (Lovey) is, I think, the high-point of this novel; Lovey is a wise and caring person who treats her daughters with great respect, encouraging them to live their own lives as they see fit and to trust their instincts; she  does not insist on always getting at the truth, realizing that there are times when attention and caring are more important than the truth.

Annabelle, on the other hand, is rigid and uncompromising in her pursuit of truth, although in the end, with the help of her grandmother and an Episcopal priest she begins to work for, she begins to see that some things (for example, keeping families together) may be more important than omissions and white lies. Through questioning and snooping, Annabelle gets closer and closer to revealing a truth about the distant past that could shatter the lives of those in her close-knit family.

This little element of mystery in the book makes it more enticing as a story, as well as raising questions about the relative importance of truth compared to loyalty and family solidarity.

While there are parts of the book that are soap-opera sentimental, and some religious overtones that this reader found to be detracting from the quality of the story as a whole, the insights into what makes relationships good ones and on just how deceit can quickly destroy a relationship are worth the sentimentality and the not so subtle evangelical elements.

Lovey notes that while the death of her 89 year old husband is not tragic, it is devastating, and as she says, “It is, most of all, a death of the self.” Just so, the partner who is left is no longer who s/he was in the partnership, and yet there is no new, whole person to replace the self that is lost.

Another theme that is taken up in the book, and I think dealt with quite skillfully is the need for friendships outside of marriage.
You should never worry about moving to a new town with your husband, according to Lovey, because, in reality, your husband is the only friend you need. That was a lovely sentiment, but, as I was learning, maybe not a totally true one. I loved Ben madly, but I needed friends.
I think many relationships cave in on themselves precisely because there is too much weight put on them and not enough importance attached to friendships aside from the marriage. Annabelle certainly comes to realize this, but as is so often the case, she does not really see or act on the need for friends until her marriage is crumbling, which makes it all the harder to seek out support and counsel from others. Fortunately she does have her wise old grandmother, Lovey. Although she almost loses her, too, by being too insistent on the perfection she wants, by keeping Lovely (and her grandfather) on pedestals that cannot be maintained.

I had read a dozen or so war novels and psychological thrillers before stumbling on this little book which is both light-hearted and deceptively deep. I was ready for it, and found it delightful. I have been talking about Kristy Woodson Harvey’s 2016 novel, Lies and Other Acts of Love.

Monday, March 14, 2016

What She Left Behind by Ellen Marie Wiseman

Seventeen year old Elizabeth Stone, Izzy, knows that in less than a year, she will be aged out of the foster care system and on her own. In 1995 she finds herself on the grounds of the now shuttered Willard State Asylum. Peg, her new foster mother, with whom she has gotten along well, has asked her to come to the old asylum to help safeguard anything that might be worth keeping before the old buildings are condemned.  Izzy’s own mother, Joyce, is locked up in a psychiatric center for having killed Izzy’s father, shot him in the head while sleeping, and this visit to Willard brings back memories of visiting her own mother before finally begging her grandmother not to take her back there again. Izzy lives in constant fear that she will somehow inherit her mother’s psychosis.

Izzy’s story is one half of this 2014 novel by Ellen Marie Wiseman, What She Left Behind. The other half is that of Clara Elizabeth Cartwright who in 1925 is eighteen years old when she is sent to an expensive and exclusive home for nervous invalids, because she refuses to marry the man her father has chosen for her, and threatens instead to run off with her Italian immigrant boyfriend.  Later, when her father’s fortunes turn for the worse in the depression, and he will no longer pay her fees for the expensive institution, she is sent instead to the state asylum. The story-line of the novel switches back and forth between Izzy and Clara, although the primary emphasis is on Clara and her attempts to escape her imprisonment in the asylum.

Although Wiseman makes it very clear that this is a novel, it relies heavily on the research Wiseman did including Women of the Asylum: Voices From Behind the Walls 1840—1945, and The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital, by Darby Penny and Peter Stastny.

This is a chilling tale to say the least. While Izzy struggles with yet another new beginning in foster care, her work at the asylum with her foster mother draws her more and more into the past and the treatment of patients, especially women, who lived and died in mental institutions. And it also causes her to rethink her own mother’s institutionalization and the events that led up to it.
Izzy wondered what horrors the hulking building had witnessed. What dreadful memories had attached themselves to the bricks and mortar and clouded glass forever part of the structure, mortared and sealed with blood and tears? Just as pain and anguish would always be part of who she was, the memories of thousands of tortured souls would live on in Chapin hall and the surrounding buildings of Willard State. How could this place ever be anything but a reminder of lives and loved ones lost?
Izzy comes to discover that nearly half of the fifty thousand patients at Willard died there. There are many times in the novel when I became angry with the author as she time and again holds out a hope to the reader that Clara will finally be able to convince one of the doctors that she is not sick, does not belong at Willard, only to dash that hope, and then raises the hope that perhaps her loving and dedicated boyfriend will find her and help her escape back into the world.

Clara discovers one woman at Willard who had been committed by her husband when he caught her kissing another man.

Clara remains rebellious, continues to insist to the doctors that she is not crazy, does not see visions or hear voices, and that they must release her. Instead her denials get her labeled as delusional and resistant to treatment, finally leading her to solitary confinement in the Rookie Pest House. That confinement serves to convince Clara of just how dangerous it is to resist or struggle. When she is released back into the general population, grateful not to be chained to a bed twenty-four hours a day, she becomes much more circumspect in her attempts to escape.

Izzy, who is relatively happy in her new foster relationship with Peg, stops cutting herself, and finds new ways  to deal with the bullying that occurs at her school. The asides on bullying by ‘mean girls’ is an intriguing story on its own, as is the slow unraveling of the story of just how her mother came to shoot her own husband as he slept. Izzy has always accepted the claim that her mother is simply insane, and she worries that her own cutting and acting out are early signs that she, too, will slip into insanity. I will leave this little side mystery to the reader to discover, since clearly it is Clara’s story that Wiseman most wants to tell.

In an afterward, when the author is asked what inspired her novel and how researching asylums made her feel, she replies:
It was difficult reading about people in the past being institutionalized, in many cases for the rest of their lives, because of emotional or economic distress. While some patients were truly ill, many were sent to asylums under circumstances we view differently today; poverty, homelessness, depression, homosexuality, alcoholism, and emotional distress due to divorce, family disputes, abusive relationships, and the loss of children. A person could be committed for something as simple as being unable to find work. 
Women were especially vulnerable to being institutionalized for the long term. Husbands could commit their “troublesome” wives, while male doctors were more than willing to oblige. Many women also worked as domestics and were in close contact with their employers; any bad behavior or dispute could be contrived as mental illness. By the end of its first year of operation, Willard housed four times as many women as men. In one case, a woman sent to Willard because of depression spent the remaining seventy-five years of her life there, until she died at the age of one hundred and one. Immigrants with few community connections were sometimes sent to asylums while their families in the old country had no idea where they were. Many “mad” patients were sent to public asylums from other state hospitals, arriving in groups of a hundred or more, crammed into trains and buses, unaware of where they were being taken. Nearly half of the 54,000 individuals who entered Willard died there.
Like many of the real life patients of Willard, Clara was submitted to forced sterilization, “a common practice in state mental hospitals from about 1910 to the end of WWII, when it was largely stopped because of embarrassing comparisons to Nazi policies.

Quite apart from the social significance of this novel, the stories of Izzy and Clara are interesting and well told in themselves, although for this reader it will be the social commentary that sticks with me.

Monday, February 15, 2016

The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell

They said the typewriter would unsex us. 
One look at the device itself and you might understand how they—the self-appointed keepers of female virtue and morality, that is—might have reached such a conclusion. Your average typewriter…is a stern thing, full of gravity, its boxy angles coming straight to the point, with no trace of curvaceous tomfoolery or feminine whimsy. 
So begins the humorous and entrancing debut novel by Suzanne Rindell, The Other Typist.  Set in New York in the middle of the 1920s, the book has a nice mixture of mystery, feminism and social commentary.

Rose Baker is a typist for the New York City Police Dept. Her job is to type up the confessions of those who have been arrested. Quite the proper (even prudish) young woman outside of her job, her detective boss worries about the coarsening effect of listening to those confessions.
And I am largely indifferent to the content of the confessions I must take down and transcribe. Like the typewriter itself, I am simply there to report with accuracy. I am there to make the official and unbiased record that will eventually by used in court. I am there to transcribe what will eventually come to be known as the truth.
All goes well for the young Rose until another typist is hired, and the new typist, the other typist, is a young woman of a very different sort. She dresses in fine and provocative clothes, lives not in a modest boardinghouse like Rose, but in a rather fancy hotel. Rose wonders how Odalie, the other typist, can afford such a lush lifestyle on the meager income of a typist. At first, she accepts Odalie’s muttered explanation of a rich father, or some behind the scenes benefactor, but once she accepts Odalie’s invitation to live with her and is introduced by Odalie to the world of jazz and bootleg liquor in illegal speakeasies, she slowly comes to the realization that Odalie, herself, owns all or part of one of these clubs, and the source of her income is that underworld scene. She also comes to question more and more the whole notion of truth and truthfulness.

Like so many mysteries these days, commentators suggest that if you liked Gone Girl  and its complex intrigue, then you will probably like The Other Typist. In fact, this is a much better novel and one that this reader, at least, thinks is far more subtle and psychologically interesting than Gone Girl. And I very much appreciated the feminist themes that crop up in the novel, and provide much of both the humor and the intrigue.

Although Rose soon comes to enjoy the jazz and bootleg liquor Odalie introduces her to, she does not so easily adopt Odalie’s unconventional, even scandalous, sexual behavior.
She [Odalie] acted as though it were the most natural thing for a woman to do whatever she wanted, with whomever she pleased. This confused me.  
You see, I didn’t know then what I know now, which is this: Only the very rich and the very poor enjoy sex with a careless, indifferent abandon. Those of us who find ourselves in the middle…--only those of us in the middle class are obliged to maintain an attitude of modesty and discretion when it comes to sex. This is especially true of middle-class young ladies. We are the ones obliged to lower our eyes and blush during educational lectures on human anatomy; we are the ones who must tsk and shout fresh! with indignation whenever a young man tries to proposition us. We are given to believe we are the supreme keepers of sexual morality, and I, like any properly instructed schoolgirl of my day, earnestly felt there was something sacred in the keeping. Some keep it as a matter of burden, but I kept it as a matter of privilege.
Slowly, Rose is sucked into Odalie’s life, even to the point of risking her employment by lying for her on the job, and falsifying some typed records that would implicate Odalie in illegal activities.

Although Rindell manages to keep a light tone throughout this debut novel, the mystery that slowly unravels is an intriguing one, and the friendship (or is it more like a love-affair?) that she has with Odalie is psychologically intriguing.

I think this is a first-rate little novel, sometimes dark, but always humorous and clever. It may seem lightweight in comparison with some of the excellent books I’ve reviewed lately, but I think it is well worth reading. If you start it, you will have a difficult time putting it down.

Monday, February 01, 2016

The House Girl by Tara Conklin

A trove of paintings is discovered, apparently the work of an unschooled southern woman, Missus LuAnne Bell. An astounding discovery in itself, but even more astounding to discover that the work was not done by Bell (or not only by her), but instead by a slave house girl, Josephine, a teenager with no art training, taught to read and write by her Missus, in secret and hidden from  Mister Bell the owner of the farm and of Josephine. This is the bare bones of the 2013 debut novel of Tara Conklin.

Actually the story goes back and forth between the 1850s and the early 2000s. Lisa Sparrow is an ambitious young attorney in a big New York firm who divides her life into billable hours,  (1.6 hours on the phone with a client, .5 hours for lunch) and taking care   of her artist father and his crumbling brownstone.

While Josephine takes care of her frail Missus, ministering to her quickly failing body, she also takes up the brush to smooth and correct the rather crude brushstrokes of her would-be artist Missus, her inner life is consumed by one thought—just how and when she will run. The penalties for even an attempt at escape are severe. One slave on the farm who tried more than once to run has had his heels cut so deeply that he can barely walk, and young girls who are apprehended by the roving groups of men who patrol the roads looking for runaways are often enough dealt with immediately and permanently. And still, Josephine can think only of running. Run, run, run.

Lisa is surprised that her rich, corporate firm even takes on the slave reparations case that she is assigned to, but understands that a rich and powerful client of the firm is behind the decision. And while Lisa searches for a lead witness, a modern-day descendent to serve as the face of the reparations case, she also attempts to unravel the mystery of her own mother’s disappearance from her life when she is still a young child. Her father has always said Lisa’s mother was killed in a car-wreck, but he provides almost no details and is always elusive when questioned by Lisa. Yet another mystery thread in this complex and richly peopled novel.

What makes this novel so interesting and worthwhile besides the very cleverly told story is the immense research Conklin did of the abolitionist movement and the underground railroad that helped so many slaves escape to the north. One young woman, about the same age as Josephine and Lisa, begins to help her father in his attempts to help slaves escape. In letters to her sister, Dorthea (Dot) outlines just how her father plays his part in the desperate escapes.
It is quite amazing, Kate, the method that father employs…Father hides the runaways inside the casket shipments he sends to northern buyers. The journey is three days, first by wagon & then by train, & there is a man who meets them at the station in Philadelphia & brings the delivery to a place of safety where the caskets are unloaded & the Negroes returned to the world.
The reader is taken back and forth between the lives of these three women, Josephine, Lisa, and Dorthea.

Despite Josephine’s constant preoccupation with running, she is torn between a stubborn loyalty to her frail, and in fact dying, Missus and her thirst for freedom.
Josephine lowered her hand. It was Missus’ face, stricken even in sleep, sallow even by lamplight, the scabbed gash like a bristling insect on her cheek, that stopped Josephine. Her face was no longer young or beautiful, her wasted face. And it seemed Josephine’s heart pulsed with the skittering movements of Missus’ eyes, that the two of them lay prostrate together before the same cruel God. The two of them not so different after all, Josephine realized. All this time, these long, hungry years, each of them alone beside the other…After she was gone, who would care for Missus Lu? Who would hold her down when she shook, comb her hair, fetch what she needed, see what she ate? Mister would never do such things. He had no money for another house girl. 
There are many side stories and mysteries in this fine novel, as Lisa uncovers the real story of her mother’s disappearance, and as a lead witness/victim is chosen to represent the reparations case. But I will not divulge the mysteries nor their solutions. Tara Conklin was a litigator for a corporate law firm, but fortunately for us readers, she now devotes all of her time to writing fiction. She is a gifted story-teller and a diligent researcher who has produced an excellent historical novel.