Showing posts with label book review. Show all posts
Showing posts with label book review. Show all posts

Sunday, March 3

Private space

 

In The Fiction Writer by Jillian Cantor, Olivia Fitzgerald is a published author, but her second novel failed and her agent struggles to sell the third. After her boyfriend dumps her, Olivia is desperate for money and agrees to explore a ghostwriting job with recently widowed billionaire Henry Asherwood who lives in Malibu not far from Los Angeles where Noah, her good friend from college lives. 

Olivia and her agent sign a nondisclosure agreement about the task, and from the start, Olivia is insecure, testy and often deceitful. In a form of self-sabotage, she withholds information from Noah, frequently poking him with questions when she already knows the answer. 

Strange parallels emerge. Olivia’s own failed novel, Becky, was based on Rebecca, the novel by Daphne du Maurier. The billionaire suggests that du Maurier may have stolen the plot of her famous novel from his grandmother. His late wife also had a fascination with du Maurier. Likewise, both the wife and grandmother had cousins who were close friends. Clara, cousin to Asherwood's wife, works as a housekeeper when Olivia arrives and shows keen interest in the billionaire's affairs. Everyone in the Asherwood home lies, and Olivia grows stronger as she becomes more truthful with Noah. 

More than one woman associated with Asherwood dwells on the Rebecca story, and there is more than one fiction writer. The result is a novella inside The Fiction Writer. In that novella a cousin confides that she understands and envies “what it must feel like to have creativity in your soul, words in your blood, a private space all your own.” 

An intriguing idea can be told in more than one way. 

Monday, February 19

Cheating

 











The Peacock and the Sparrow by I.S. Berry is set in Bahrain in 2011-12, with the Shiite-majority population energized by the Arab Spring, restless under a Sunni-minority monarchy. “The government does not publish statistics regarding the breakdown between the Shia and Sunni Muslim populations.  Most estimates from NGOs and the Shia community state Shia Muslims represent a majority (55 to 65 percent) of the citizen population,”  reports the US State Department. Bahrain's population is small, 1.4 million, or as many in San Antonio, Texas. The US Navy's Fifth Fleet, based in Bahrain, is a non-NATO ally, but stability with the king and regional security take priority over human rights.  

Protagonist Shane Collins works for the Central Intelligence Agency, and like most spies, regularly lies, a habit that seeps into his personal relationships. He manipulates informants, colleagues and lovers for his own purposes, at one point smugly noting: “A spy was a spy, and at fifty-two I could still lure a fish into my net.” 

Collins poses as a diplomat, a role that should raise eyebrows among any of his contacts. His third month into Bahrain, he is unhappy: “The point where any extant novelty or exoticism has worn off. Where you sink deeper into foreign soil but it repulses and rejects you, shuns your alien roots. Where you become trapped in the amber of the transplanted elite.”  A slacker, lacking self-esteem, he fails to rise through the ranks over the years and works for a polished and younger boss with Ivy League credentials. Collins centers his life around alcohol and when he plays music for a lover, it “like I was hearing it myself for the first time, its euphony fresh, a first sip of whiskey before it descends from pleasure into routine into necessity.” 

The writing is strong, the noir tone compelling, and it’s hard to believe the book is the author's first. Still, the book has problems. 

First, Collins engages in excessive stereotyping, about gender and nationality. For example, he describes his love interest, Almaisa who is an artist: “She had none of the triviality or false femineity of American women; neither did she have the humorless affectation of European women.” He goes on: “A feminist some might call her (though one, I learned, who recoiled from the label.)” Such labeling often leads to cliches: “She was the living product of East and West, a combination that often seemed as fraught with conflict as the two hemispheres.” 

Collins prides himself on breaking down Almaisa's Muslim sensibilities, convincing her to ride in a car with him, try some wine, discard the veil and spend nights in a secluded place. She wears colorful hijabs and he gets her to admit: “mother had never worn a hijab, that it was nothing more than custom, the Quran silent on the subject, that she mostly wore the garment to blend in rather out of religious conviction. Despite Almaisa’s disdain for Western mores, her aversion to becoming like my female compatriots (whom she accused of hedonism and exhibitionism – and was she in truth so far off?), she eventually gave way.” 

He assumes that he is in full charge of the relationship: “Not so different, after all, from the delicate give-and-take dance with an informant, an unending alternation between obeisance and control.” 

The book fictionalizes details and damages of the Bahrain uprising. The plot also takes a long, strange turn as Collins travels to Southeast Asia, raising questions for this reader about why any supervisor would send or trust him. Collins meets reader expectations by transporting a packet for an informant, scheming against supervisors and arranging documents that later assure his own survival.  

Collins as spy becomes target. Belatedly reaching this conclusion, the character escapes the destruction unleashed by his actions and that of US policy, but not without betrayal on multiple fronts. In his world, everyone cheats.

Wednesday, January 24

Hunt for sinners

 

Titus Crown, elected first black sheriff of the fictional Virginia county of Charon in All the Sinners Bleed by S.A. Cosby, has years of experience investigating terrible crimes. Even in the rural community, Crown tends to expect the worst from others, constantly on the hunt for motivation.

Many residents of such rural places argue that racist wrongdoings are part of the past, “washed away by the river of time that flows every forward” and “those things should be forgotten and left to the ages.” Crown knows better. “The South doesn’t change. You can try to hide the past, but it comes back in ways worse than the way it was before.” 

Racism and religion thrive side by side in the South, and Crown generally declines to argue with men of God, noting “I left that abusive relationship a long time ago.” The death of a beloved parent often prompt children to question their faith, and after his own mother died from a debilitating disease, Crown realized “adults didn’t really know more than kids. That everyone was making it up as they went along and religion was just another crutch, like liquor or weed.” 

Despite strong opinions and volatile emotions, Crown presents a stoic front. He cares for his elderly father, even as Crown cannot forget, “that the night his mother died his father had left two little boys alone to fend for themselves with just a vague notion of salvation for their mother.” To himself, Crown admits “there was still a thirteen-year-old inside of him that hated his father just a little bit.” But there is love, too. A simple action of a hand to a shoulder, “gentle words, was why he loved his father more than that little boy hated him.”                                                                                    

Crown’s conflicted past as an FBI agent and his history as an investigator, including the recent discovery of seven children tortured and murdered, reinforce his religious skepticism. For Crown, religion had thousands of years and chances to stem evil, instead falling prey to human interpretation and manipulation. As he explains to one man of God, “the devil is just the name we give to the terrible things we do to each other.” 

Overqualified for the sheriff position, Crown is meticulous, certainly not as eager as town officials to close cases quickly and protect tourism. Every clue must be collected and analyzed. “Might be nothing, might be everything. Titus thought that summed up the startlingly random nature of most police investigations.” 

The writing is strong and personal opinions are delicately inserted, never interfering with the plot. The protagonist is a keen and moral observer of human behavior and emotion: “That was often how crimes were solved.” That does not exclude analyzing and dwelling on his own motivations and connections.  

Sunday, January 7

Meaning

 

Many will give up on Dayswork by Chris Bachelder and Jennifer Habel for its odd quality, a hodgepodge of observations and facts mostly about Herman Melville, arranged in brief, chatty sentences and paragraphs. Dayswork reads like a combination of documentary and poetry, or perhaps a couple playing six degrees of separation with Melville as base.

 A husband-wife team wrote the book; he’s a novelist and she’s a poet. The title page lists his name first, though strangely, most of the text is poetic with a first-person point of view, a woman chatting back and forth with her husband about her research on Melville during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. During the course of her research, she discovers other writers who revere Melville’s work, whether Nathaniel Philbrick who called Moby-Dick “the one book that deserves to be called our American bible” or a David Gilbert who suggested it was “bible written in scrimshaw.” According to Bachelder and Habel, Gilbert relies on the book “When in doubt, or simply in need of something,” and "opens the book at random and reads aloud, his voice ‘hauling forth the words like a net full of squirmy fish.’”

The book analyzes Melville’s themes – time, whales, friendships and more – in haphazard ways while embracing Melville’s sentiment that “Life is so short, and so ridiculous and irrational.”

The book examines the dreamy quality of a writer’s dreams and disappointments, explaining that Melville was fascinated by the sea – endless, masterless – even while spending much of his life on land, often quarreling with his family. The authors quote from the Odyssey: “For I say there is no other thing that is worse than the sea is / for breaking a man, even though he may be a very strong one.” The researcher-protagonist ponders how Melville endured a series of hardships – the death of his oldest son at age 18 and another dead at age 35 as well as a daughter who could not bear her father’s name.

One devastating sentence, albeit from another writer, captures uneven and tragic portioning of luck in life. “‘It’s brutal,’ writes poet Robert Haas, ‘the way some lives / Seem to work and some don’t.’” And the reader understands, though wondering whether Melville would agree that literary greatness is enough. 

The characters yearn for meaning in the midst of forced isolation and the style suggests that the authors set out to play a game with words and plot even as the pandemic had a way of making everything people did seem both more notable and mundane.  At one point, a character notes. “Even a quiet person says a lot in a day, almost all of which is forgotten. Not forgotten, I suppose, but unremembered.”  

We can use more care with our words, whether meant for everyday conversation or destined for posterity.                                                          

Wednesday, October 25

Quest












The Trackers by Charles Frazier has a dual personality – the story’s beginning is slow as a young, ambivalent protagonist arrives in Dawes, Wyoming, in 1937 to paint a WPA mural for the post office. The artist, Valentine Welch, stays on the expansive ranch of John Long and his wife, Eve. John holds ambitions for a US Senate seat, though soon after Val’s arrival, Eve takes off, presumably to take up her old life of singing with traveling Western bands. John asks Val to pause the mural project and discreetly track Eve to figure out whether she is still married to a previous husband and if she plans to return. 

The search goes from Seattle to Florida to San Francisco. The three major characters are unlikable and impulsive, each oscillating between fascination and disdain for wealth and power while accusing the others of holding similar motives. The men make assumptions that hinder the search. 

Eve relishes her background, having left home as a teen, riding the rails, surviving and keeping old secrets with a network of loose connections. She knows what it's like "Being pushed out of the house as a teenager.... to be a burden to your family, more trouble than they think you're worth." 

Val questions one of her old friends who advises, “On the road one of the things you learn to do without is certainty.” John warns that Eve lies whenever it’s convenient.  “She tells whatever story suits her at that minute. I don’t know whether she convinces herself it’s the truth or not.” Still, the wealthy rancher wants her back. 

John, uncertain if Eve ever married or divorced, does not want embarrassing disclosures disrupting his Senate bid. Val travels to FL to question her threatening and ignorant in-laws. Val worries whether “Estafa County might be the bellwether of the entire country. If the Depression never ends, if everything keeps falling apart, crumbling like watching the geometry of the Pyramids dissolve grain by grain into smooth humps of sand dune, then maybe Estafa is already one step further into the future than the rest of us. Maybe its purpose is to demonstrate how foolish we’ve been to put so much effort into all the [WPA] physical work and the airy ideas of building the nation, all the swat and science and poetry and philosophy gone back to dust and mud.”

Over the course of his travels, Val falls for Eve and loses interest in the mural. “With creative work, surely doubt and disappoint are inevitable. If you have ambitions, the thing you create will always fall short of what you intended.” 

The end of the book picks up pace once Val finds Eve and gradually secures more answers. He readily agrees after Eve asks if Val wants to join her for a brief love story, despite the warning that “Every love story has an end.” 

Still, dialogue throughout is evasive and cryptic, as the characters withhold details and tell outright lies. One ranch hand points out that people regularly make up stuff, expecting others to take their words for truth. 

The characters stoically embrace a tough, lonely form of realism. When an optimistic immigrant cab driver describes his goals in life, Val goes off on a rant. “Part of me wanted to press on, to set him straight about his land of dreams, but the other part of me decided against it. After all, the nation’s big, beautiful strength had always been dreaming forward against the brutal, ugly undertow of reality, the violence in the heart of the human animal, the gluttony and greed.”    

A cowboy who works on Long’s ranch rescues Val and Eve from two violent husbands and helps preserve Eve’s new secrets. During the Depression, many had good reason to doubt whether others told the truth. Even more had no desire to hear the truth.  

Paintings capture a moment while stories shift with time. 

Monday, October 16

Customs











The Disenchantment by Celia Bell starts off slowly despite the setting of 1680 France and volatile politics. Characters make the mistake of expecting their lives to unfold much as they always did, but a few poisoning cases put spouses, aristocracy, servants and police on edge. Grudges lead to accusations and informants who lie to give police what they want and avoid torture, trials and brutal executions.

Men control households, finances and their children’s destinies. Baronne Marie Catherine de Cardonnoy lives with the shame of holding her deceased mother in low regard throughout her childhood, due to her lower-class background. “She had thought that her mother cared for nothing but money and clothes, but perhaps she had simply looked at her child, destined for the convent school, and known that her daughter would grow up a stranger to her.” 

Trapped in an unhappy marriage to an older man with higher social prestige, Marie Catherine spends freely, too, distracting herself with new dresses, new furniture, vases and perfumes, orange trees and horses – “anything that would remind her that the money was hers, even if her person was not.” 

Throughout marriage, Marie Catherine loves and misses her volatile father, because he controlled her life, mixing kindness with whippings. His advice to her: “You may think whatever you want in private, my dear, but do your duty and keep those beliefs that might upset decorum to yourself. Your spirit is free, but your speech and your conduct must be ruled by custom.”  

She ponders how to “cross that gap, into the mystery of another human,” one who may feel as she does about rejecting social conventions.

A busy social life and popularity with aristocrats who appreciate her storytelling skills shield Marie Catherine from her husband's wrath. She pretends the stories are from her mother rather than inspired by the nursemaid who raised her: “If her mother had never told stories, then she’d simply invent a different mother.”  

The wealthy, including her friend Victoire de Conti, worry less about rules and convention. The two women become lovers after a furtive drunken encounter at a soiree, and Marie Catherine wonders how Victoire had the courage to take the first step, without worrying about another individual’s desires

Victoire occasionally moves around town freely in male attire, visiting Marie Catherine. A servant sees a kiss and blames an artist painting her portrait. Servants beat the man nearly to death, and the husband threatens his wife with the loss of their children and banishment to a convent. 

That same evening the baron is assassinated. Servants and police suspect that the killer sympathized with Marie Catherine for being trapped in an unhappy marriage. Marie Catherine poses questions to learn the truth and concocts a tale to evade questions and prosecution. But others lie, too. 

Before her husband's murder, Marie Catherine meets Mademoiselle de Scudery who writes about a land where women hold power and asks, “Do you ever believe that your life would have been happier if you had not imagined that land and had it to compare with this one?” The woman insists that life would have been much worse without the imaginary land. Imagination is the first step to finding freedom and changing old customs that might hold us back.

Thursday, October 5

Witness protection











In The Lie Maker by Linwood Barclay, Boston journalist and novelist Jack Givins is down on his luck. He’s fired before even starting a new job, his car blows up and his publisher rejects his third novel. So Jack is receptive when his literary agent visits with a burner phone that eventually delivers a lucrative job offer: write histories for people entering the US Witness Protection Program. 

“The Witness Security Program was authorized by the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970 and amended by the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984,” notes the program site. “The U.S. Marshals Service has protected, relocated, and given new identities to more than 19,000 witnesses and their family members, since the program began in 1971.” The program provides witnesses with new identification and documentation, initial support that leads to self-sufficiency.

His new employer, Gwen Kaminsky, tough and demanding, repeatedly reminds him that she has a stable of writers. A condition of the new job is that he keep his employer's identity secret. Their meetings are clandestine, and she runs operations out of an office labeled as an import firm. Jack strives to please. After writing and rewriting a profile, he asks to meet the witness and Gwen makes elaborate arrangements, requiring that Jack wear a blindfold.  On the return trip, he asks how thoroughly she had checked him out and how far back she went. 

She explains that, with no criminal record or inappropriate associations with groups on the US watch list, he checked out. Jack responds, noting he found it “one hell of a coincidence that you’d pick someone like me… Someone with more than a passing acquaintance with the witness protection program.”  

Gwen blows up, assuming that Jack is a witness under protection, but he quickly assures her that the witness is his father- a former hitman who testified against his employer who ordered the hits. Michael Donahue left his wife and child when Jack was nine. The mother remarried and changed their names years earlier. Gwen expresses alarm, fearful of being fired, adding “There’s no way I shouldn’t have known this.” Then she asks why he told her. 

“I wanted to clear the air,” Michael explains. "I wanted to be sure there wasn’t something fishy about you coming to me.” He goes on to ask that Gwen help arrange meeting with his father. “I don’t know how to find him, but I figure you do.” 

At one point, Jack learns the subject of his first profile was murdered. But he should have checked the program website: “No Witness Security Program participant following pro-gram guidelines has ever been harmed or killed.”

Jack is surrounded by deceitful characters – including the woman who hires him, the girlfriend who covertly tries to figure out his new employer, a stepfather who consistently has money problems, an agent who misleads about the novel's rejection, a father who abruptly makes brief appearances over the years, lying to protect his son. More than one dies. 

Jack also withholds information, but with time and trust, eventually releases truth in pieces. 

The characters may have flaws, but are earnest and funny, often doing the right thing at the end. Tone and plot are fast-paced and noir. The writing is witty, sharp, excluding unnecessary details. 

Some lies land characters in more trouble. Others are essential for survival.  

Thursday, September 28

Small town II

 

Small towns are miserable places when they let the bullies take control. The bullies are unhappy and yearn for everyone to feel the same. The bullies in The River We Remember by William Kent Krueger openly despise a Japanese immigrant, Native Americans and other minorities. “People who make other people unhappy are generally pretty unhappy themselves,” one character observes. But the opposite holds true, too, that happy people spread happiness.

The characters of Jewel, Minnesota – imperfect like so many people – keep past transgressions a secret. Many of those characters walk along a quiet stretch of the Alabaster River to reflect – the setting for more than one death. That river, tinted brown by day, glows white under the moon, and for one of the narrators, the river is like an old friend. 

Lying is often only way protect privacy in small towns. Sheriff Brody Dern invents an out-of-town girlfriend to hide a long-time love affair and keep townspeople from talking. Of course, one lie is never enough, “One lie to kill another,” Brody concedes, understanding that his life is nothing but "a rickety framework of lies.”

Set in 1958, many of the male characters have returned from fighting in World War II and Korea. A young boy asks one veteran about killing and the newspaper editor tries to explain. “In the end, a soldier kills because all the circumstances of a moment drive him to it. It isn’t for freedom or God or for the people back home. It’s because he has no choice but to kill. And in that moment, he’s not thinking of it as a good thing or a bad thing…. And in all that mess , the only thing he wants is for it to end and for him to be alive to see that end.” 

Some characters lie for the same reason, to stop questions and survive never-ending scrutiny and incomprehension. 

The boy understands the man was trying to communicate a "truth that was essential … of what it was to be a man, to be a soldier,” and he responds politely. But the editor “knew he’d failed in what he’d tried desperately and sincerely to pass down to the boy.” 

Most of the imperfect characters find peace though years later they continue to ask what if and wonder why their lives constantly seemed to point in one direction over which they had little control. Some experiences influence a life forever, even for characters who leave town, as suggested by Kent Krueger's beautiful text: “Our lives and the lives of those we love merge to create a river whose current carries us forward from our beginning to our end. Because we are only one part of the whole, the river each of us remembers is different, and there are many versions of the stores we tell about the past. In all of them there is truth, and in all of them a good deal of innocent misremembering.” 

Sharing truth about past transgressions with loved ones can soften memories and reduce shame, allowing individuals to push forward and appreciate that their past is behind them.   

Monday, September 25

Small town I

 

Seven people happen to be in Lindbergh’ s Pharmacy on the evening of June 24 in the small college town of Athens, Georgia, when a would-be mass shooter with a grudge plans to strike. Former elementary teacher Tina Lamm, beloved by her students, claims that her secret to being a terrific teacher was “always remembering that, at the end of the day, they’re someone else’s problem. You do the best you can, you care of them, you try to educate them, you try to help them, but when the bell rings, you hand them off to someone else…” She treats them like “temporary amusements,” knowing “they’re ultimately on their own like the rest of us.”

The Time Has Come by Will Leitch describes a community confronting the Covid pandemic, climate change, inequality and divided politics. Tina admits she is disturbed. “How can you look around at everything and not be disturbed…. To be disturbed is to be human.”  She reflects on small-town life: “The thing about this little town is that everybody knows everybody, and if you’ve been one of those everybodies longer than people like us have been nobodies, you can get away with whatever you want.”

Tina is wrong though and the novel describes a diverse set of characters who do pull together:  the drugstore’s owner, a judge’s widow, a lawyer who is also an activist for youth, a nurse who is also an army veteran, a local contractor and his gifted son – and an aging music fan who tends bar at an Athens club.

 Only a few characters lack regrets, and some are more engaging than others.

David, the character with the least potential, has the most intriguing story. The middle-aged man has devoted his life to an Athens music club, tending bar and long recognizing that “everyone was right in his face, all of them drunk, mocking him with their perfect youth and their whole lives in front of them, constantly reminding him that everything he was doing was wrong and probably always had been.” His substance abuse prompts his wife to leave with their young daughter and that eventually prompts sobriety. “Part of recovery is understanding that, that you’re just another helpless addict like everybody else. One of the first things you have to do… was recognize that there’s nothing special about you.”

During the pandemic, David helps other addicts with an online group – and one of the most hopeless and belligerent members drives hundreds of miles seeking David’s help. David also revives and treasures his relationship with his daughter, an aspiring musician with a “clear rock-star energy that David knew all too well. That she wanted to talk to him didn’t make him feel like a good dad. Honestly? It just made him fee sort of cool.”

Jason, a contractor and proud parent to a gifted teen, is Republican and often argues with his more liberal son. He concedes that even in a small town, people can generally be unfeeling. “The hardest thing about being a parent, in Jason’s view, was that your children weren’t nearly as special, as protected, as you thought they were…. to you, they were everything. But to the rest of they world, they are just another lump of flesh – one more tick on the tote board, one more person you’re stuck behind in traffic…. If he ever lost any of them, he would crumple into a heap on the floor and never get up. But the rest of the world wouldn’t do anything. Everyone would just walk around like nothing had happened.”

Daphne, the nurse who is also army veteran, has returned to hospital work after five years in the service. The country has changed in those five years, especially with politics representing a bigger part of daily life: “when she got back, out of nowhere, people were screaming whatever their political views were in your face at every opportunity. An they were screaming at you for not screaming yours.”

People were angry, carrying concealed weapons, and “everyone was just on the edge of losing it, all the time.” Daphne is determined to do her small part to restore order in her world, “keep everything in front of her safe, if the person in her care could be better than they had been when they’d come in that room with her.” And perhaps “bring the world back to what it was before.”

The book captures the angry despair of our era with a light touch. Kindness, understanding, listening, cooperation – a rare moment of strangers coming together to achieve understanding – prevents tragedy from compounding and spiraling out of control.

Thursday, September 21

The ever-present past












In Beyond That, The Sea by Laura Spence-Ash, Londoners Reg and Millie Thompson disagree but ultimately decide to protect their daughter at the start of WWII, sending Beatrix to live with a family they do not know. The mother is less sure about this plan, sending the teen to the United States. and the couple frequently argues. Beatrix feels a distance: “I stopped being a child on the day war was declared,” she thinks. “And you both disappeared even as you stayed by my side.”  

The novel follows the connections between two families - the choices, mistakes, dreams and regrets. From all appearances, the Gregory family enjoys a comfortable life in the Boston suburbs with long summers on their own island in Maine, a home Nancy inherited from her wealthy parents. The father teaches at a private school, and the family lives on campus. Nancy always longed for a daughter and embraces Bea as her own, buying her new clothes, praising her schoolwork and anticipating every concern. There is no jealousy, and Bea gets along well with the two Gregory sons, William who is a year older and Gerald a year younger. This family relishes the guest, truly caring about her opinions, and the two boys compete for her attention. 

Maine in summer is one of the world’s gentle places with routines as steady as the waves beating against the shore. As war rages, the three children feel guilty about their good fortune, and each contributes to the war effort in small ways. Bea, the best student of all, understands her family cannot afford college. She especially feels guilty about her parents’ proximity to the war and also not missing her parents more as she falls in love with a new family and way of life that allows freedom and access to the natural world. Her guilt intensifies after her father dies in 1943, and the two boys respond in contrasting ways. Gerald asks what she thinks happens after death: “Do you believe in that stuff from church, about heaven and hell and all that? Or is it just over. Is your dad just gone?” At another point, William overhears her talking with her father in a local cemetery and, blunt like his father, retorts, “He’s not there…. He’s dead.” William, blunt and opinionated like the father with whom he clashes, long regrets his impulse to hurt. 

With war underway, the teenagers are uncertain about a benevolent God and struggle to accept religious teachings. Gerald confides he wants to believe and imagine Bea reuniting with her father. Likewise, he confides that all he wants in life is to return to the island summer after summer and be buried there. Bea understands. “To think that she could have lived her whole life and never seen this island. This place that feels like home.”

The war ends before the males are called to serve. Bea returns to London where she takes up work as a child care provider, remaining upset that her mother remarried before her return and restless about the limitations for her in Britain. She worries about William squandering potential as his letters switch from excitement over classes to parties and bars. After college, while William is in France, his father dies – severe wound for the entire Gregory family. Returning for the funeral, William takes a detour to London to visit Bea and admits that he has a pregnant finance. The two revive their romance, a feeble attempt to revive memories of idyllic childhood, and Bea’s mother arrives home early from a trip, interrupting the couple’s final hours together. During the brief encounter, Bea recognizes how neither fully understands the other’s goals or state of mind, and she muses “how difficult it is to know someone’s past.” And perhaps William could not understand because “she had let her past slip away. She had instead, become part of his world, of the Gregory world.”

Bea sees only a few hints of the William she once knew, admitting that she is at odds, too. “My favorite place? Maine. My favorite food? Your mother’s muffins. And yet here I am. This is my home…. I belong here and yet I’m in limbo, really, caught between two worlds. I can’t seem to find where I fit.” 

By his mid-thirties, Will finds himself stuck in a deadening job and a loveless marriage. He drinks to excess, wandering around beaches and dance clubs, watching others and wanting to warn them: “Enjoy this, he wanted to say. Try to stay in the moment. He wished he could be one of them, to still be in the place where everything seemed possible.” William, having lost all purpose, knows that an idyllic childhood does not guarantee happiness. 

Bea senses William’s darkness from correspondence. “He never said anything, specifically, but under and between the words, she could feel his uneasiness. Not unhappiness, per se, but a feeling that nothing was quite aligned. That the life he’d wanted, the one he’d expected, had failed to appear. It was as though that fire that had once been in his belly – his desire to be in the world – had somehow been extinguished. She wondered whether he’d ever been truly happy.”

William and the rest of the family remain a constant puzzle for Bea. “I just wanted – we all just wanted – you to be happy,” she says out loud, talking up to the blue sky.  Why is that difficult for so many people to achieve?”  

The novel’s chapters are brief – each told from the point of view of one of the parents, children or spouses but most often Bea and William – most ending with characters reaching new insight. Bea visits New York again seventeen years later, yet avoids reaching out to the Gregorys. That following Christmas, she sends gifts to the family and the clerk asks if she has family the States. “No, she starts to say and then changes her mind. Yes, she says, Yes, I do.” 

Millie, long jealous of Bea’s attachment to the Gregorys, accompanied her daughter to New York and gradually begins to understand the attraction. “There was something being there in America, that made Nancy come alive to Millie in a way she never had before. Her openness was a classic American trait, one that Millie had never quite believed. And yet here they were, all these Americans, being loud and friendly and willing to talk to you about almost anything.” Millie admits to admiring Nancy and admits that, had the tables been turned with war in the States, she could not have embraced a stranger’s child as her own. 

Millie and Bea slowly forgive each other with weekly walks in the park. “There’s something to be said for talking while walking. You don’t have to look at the person. You can keep your eyes on the path, on your shoes, on the landscape. And somehow that means that more gets said.” 

After William’s death, Bea attends his funeral and reconnects with Gerald. Nancy observes them together and thinks about how strange it must be for them without William. “Those summers in Maine, those few sweet summers when the three of them were thick as thieves. Those days that passed by far too quickly and that she can only remember snippets of now. The three of them, racing out to the dock, King following behind. Picking blueberries in the hills. Camping out in the woods. Late at night, the world quiet around them, the lights from the house reflecting in the dark sea. Oh, why can’t time be stopped in those moments. Why is it so hard to understand how fleeting it all is?” Desperate to connect with the past, she feels the “need to scramble back in time, to pull up old memories, to regret words, to re-create moments.” 

After finding love with a third husband, Millie feels secure enough to release Bea, and the newlyweds encourage Bea to attend William’s funeral. Bea confides that the Quincy house is “the place that feels like my home” and Gerald asks her to stay, to truly make it her home. Holding his hand, Bea responds, “Let’s take a walk, she says. Let’s take a walk.” 

William’s untimely death along with an incomplete tale from Bea – some might call it a lie, others would argue that the entire past need not be exposed – end the ruthless competition between two brothers. Gerald and Bea marry and repurchase the island home in Maine, presiding over another stretch of perfect summers with Nancy, their child and William’s children. It may be distressing to ponder whether we are each at our purest, our finest, during childhood. Still, this exquisite book on family relations has a happy ending, as Bea lovingly, naturally resumes the matriarch role for the next generation of Gregorys. 

Tuesday, September 12

Trust





















Yellowface by R.F. Kuang is a provocative examination of race relations and career ambitions in the publishing industry that lead to ruthless competition, lying and cheating. More outrageous than humorous, the book garners extra attention by focusing on the publishing industry. 

Athena is a successful author and her former classmate and longtime acquaintance June Hayward is not. Athena is Asian American; June is not. A few years after graduation, the two have a rare get-together when Athena suddenly chokes to death and June does little to save her. June pockets the sole draft of Athena’s latest novel, does extensive revisions and sells it as her own, adopting her mother’s maiden name. “This is what I love most about writing – it offers us endless opportunities to reinvent ourselves, and the stories we tell about ourselves.” Juniper Song becomes the “good friend” who was with Athena during her final moments. “The best way to hide a lie is in plain sight…. I’ve never made a secret of my relationship to Athena… I play up our connections. I mention her name in every interview. My grief over her death becomes a cornerstone of my origin story.” 

 A white woman writing about an obscure part of Chinese history prompts the editing team to worry “cultural authenticity” and getting “ahead of any potential blowups.” June is abrasive about questions and suggestions for a sensitivity review: “Are you saying we’ll get in trouble because I wrote this story and I’m white?” The editor responds, “Of course, anyone should be able to tell any kind of story. We’re just thinking about how to position you so that readers trust the work.” 

 The book is wildly successful and June insists she never lied. “I never pretended to be Chinese or make up life experiences that I didn’t have. It’s not fraud, what we’re doing. We’re just suggesting the right credentials, so that readers take me and my story seriously, so that nobody refuses to pick up my work because of some outdated preconceptions about who can write what. And if anyone makes assumptions, or connects the dots the wrong way, doesn’t that say far more about them than me?” June trusts no one, recalling a philosophy student whom she once dated arguing that the living owe nothing to the dead. “Especially when the dead are thieves and liars, too.” 

 The author cleverly critiques the publishing industry by speaking through a manipulative protagonist: “author efforts have nothing to do with a book’s success. Bestsellers are chosen. Nothing you do matters. You just get the enjoy the perks along the way.” Still, June finds herself missing writing before meeting Athena and making it her career: “suddenly writing is a matter of professional jealousies, obscure marketing budgets, and advances that don’t measure up to those of your peers.” Personality takes priority over content: “You, not your writing, become the product – your looks, your wit, your quippy clapbacks and factional alignments with online beefs that no one the real work [cares] about.”

The industry and readers force writers into narrow genres and roles, “And once you’re writing for the market, it doesn’t matter what stories are burning inside you. It matters what audiences want to see, and no one cares about the inner musings of a plain, straight white girl from Philly. They want new and exotic, the diverse, and if I want to stay afloat, that’s what I have to give them.” 

 Huang also relies on June to criticize ethnic authors who transmit stories that belong to ancestors. Athena once pointed out once that she was ethically troubled by telling stories lived through by her parents and grandparents, worried about “exploiting their pain for my profit” – but not enough to find her own stories: “I remain aware that I can only do this because I am the privileged, lucky generation. I have the indulgence to look back, to be a storyteller.” 

Early on while in school, June relished her friendship with Athena. “For it was so nice to know someone who understood this exact dream, who knew how mere words can become sentences can become a completed masterpiece, how that masterpiece can rocket you into a wholly unrecognizable world where you have everything – a world you wrote for yourself.” But the friendship deteriorates. While freshmen at Yale, Athena turns a confidential conversation about a sexual encounter into a short story. Years later, June observes Athena chat up an American POW from the Korean War at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History – and is blunt with her assessment. “There’s no need to dress it up. We are all vultures and some of us – and I mean Athena, here – are simply better at finding the juiciest morsels of a story, at tripping through bone and gristle to the tender bleeding heart and putting all the gore on display.” Even Athena’s former boyfriend notes, “as time went on all I could think was that she was mining me, using me as fodder.” 

Writers are so hell-bent on keeping up with publishers’ demands that many forget to live life. June frets that she lacks an original voice, capable of only presenting others’ tales. Readers turn pages in horror, waiting for her to get caught – but she is slippery and manages to reinvent herself time and time again, desperate to avoid the mundane lives of her mother and accountant sister: “Living their little and self-contained lives, with no great projects or prospects to propel them from one chapter to the next.” She later admits, “I want my words to last forever, I want to be eternal, permanent; when I’m gone, I want to leave behind a mountain of pages that scream, Juniper Song was here and she told us what was on her mind.” 

The goal is petty, echoing the publishing industry’s embrace of social media and expectations for authors to endlessly build a presence, nurturing popularity and connections with readers. As June points out, “your time in the spotlight never lasts. I’ve seen people who were massive bestsellers not even six years ago, sitting alone and forgotten at neglected signing tables while lines stretched around the corner for their younger, hotter peers…. The rest of us have to keep racing along the hamster wheel of relevance.” 

Unfortunately, social media’s ability to lift or ruin reputations, the pathetic neediness of users, has become a tired literary trope, making these chapters drag. 

In the end, June sets out to write a memoir. “I will craft, and sell, a story about how the pressures of publishing have made it impossible for white and nonwhite authors alike to succeed. About how Athena’s success was entirely manufactured, how she was only ever a token. About how my hoax – because let’s frame it as a hoax, not a theft – was really a way to expose the rotten foundations of the entire industry. About how I am the hero, in the end.” And she hopes that some reviewer might ask, What if we got it all wrong? and, What if Juniper Song is right? 

Juniper Song is a product of the publishing industry, and both have squandered all trust.

In 2014, I wrote more about the publishing industry and readers imposing rigid "purity tests" on storytelling that explores other cultures. 

Tuesday, January 31

Fleeing does not mean escape

 











In Anywhere You Run, two sisters struggle to survive racism along with the trauma of losing their parents and an older sister. In a diary, oldest sister Rose described their father “just a man who wants all the same things every man is entitled to if this country were free.” Rose wonders “what ‘fair’ would feel like,” conceding “All three of us like little birds, our wings clipped by life in Mississippi.”  Jackson, Mississippi, is a dangerous place in 1964 at the cusp of the Civil Rights Movement.

“Fair” is particularly challenging for women in their twenties who must contend with sexism, racism and economic inequality. For both, fleeing town is the natural solution when their problems become insurmountable.

Younger sister Violet, a beautiful free spirit, relishes a good time. After shooting and killing a white man who raped her, she tricks a lover to leave town before she running away a second time and purchasing a bus ticket for Washington, DC. Worried the police might be following, Violet abandons the bus in a small town of Chillicothe, Georgia, first working as a housemaid and then a short-order cook. She concludes, “Killing Huxley gave me some justice, but it took away my freedom.” 

Marigold is ambitious, volunteering for a civil rights group while hoping to attend college and study law. But then she becomes pregnant with an out-of-town lawyer who declines marriage. To salvage her reputation, she instead quickly marries an irresponsible would-be club owner, and the two leave for Cleveland. But a strong home life, reinforced by parents who provide love, encouragement and values, can shield individuals against the external forces of hatred. Author Wanda Morris describes the trap of an abusive marriage as terrible and cruel as systemic racism, and Marigold realizes “it was fear that had landed me in a pregnancy and a marriage I never wanted.” 

Violet’s wealthy lover hires an amateur and uneducated detective with an ill child who tracks Marigold to find Violet. The detective is protective of his own family but shrugs about violent treatment of blacks throughout the South, ignorantly assuming a zero-sum game, “less of them, more for him.” 

The two sisters reunite in Chillicothe, but not before more treacherous encounters with the detective and the Klan. Despite a slow and repetitive start, the book quickly picks up speed with suspense and heart.

Each woman runs to solve her problems, but cannot escape her character, family lessons on justice, or sisterly love. 

Wednesday, January 25

Memories











In Lessons, Roland Baines regards an abusive relationship from when he was 11 years old as the source of his many desires and failures. A piano teacher at his private boarding school pinches his inner thigh, hard, after he repeatedly makes a mistake during their music drills. He has fantasies about her, and she invites him to her home for lunch. Months later, Roland shows up at the cottage, and the two have intercourse. Memories of the strange teacher haunt him years later in this novel about parenting, abuse, ambition and lost potential. 

From the start, the novel analyzes how memories repeatedly shape our choices, serving as lessons in guiding one's life.    

As an adult, Roland determines that nobody escapes making their own self-made hell “at least one, in a lifetime.” She controls him: “He never had a choice. He didn’t want a choice.” 

Roland’s grades suffer and he leaves school early, avoiding the piano teacher and her attempts to trap him in marriage. That decision frees him in a way while also eliminating his chance to attend college. He decides he can be self-taught while earning an income by writing, teaching tennis and playing in piano bars. Roland travels and dates freely, and his twenties slip by. “He assured himself that he had his freedom and he was having fun. He could control his occasional anxieties about the aimlessness of his existence. But they swelled and finally broke through and could no longer be resisted. He was twenty-eight and not living a useful life…. Many people wasted their twenties or their whole lives in offices, on factory floors and in pubs…. So it had been worthwhile to be carefree, live hand to mouth and not be like everyone else. The very point of being young. Whenever he caught himself thinking or saying things like that, he knew it was himself he needed to convince.”

In West Germany, he studies German and befriends a family in East Berlin. The mother explains to him how children bind them to the communist system: “A bad step by the parents, a moment of unguarded criticism and the children might find the path to university or a decent career barred.”

Over the course of his life, friendships form and break over politics, whether Nazi cruelties or Brexit falsehoods and foolishness. 

A few years later Roland runs into his German teacher, Alissa, who yearns to be a writer, and they marry impulsively: “They decided they must have fallen in love from the start without recognizing the fact.” 

Both Roland and Alissa have jagged relations with their own parents. Her mother, Jane, traveled to Germany just after World War II, keeping a journal to write about the White Rose resistance. Her article is never published after Jane marries Heinrich, who had only a peripheral role in the movement. The general attitude about German citizens during that period – “Unless they took action no one could be exonerated, because every man is ‘guilty, guilty, guilty.’” Roland thinks of Heinrich having a good heart. “So when Heinrich spoke of national redemption by way of constructing a history of anti-Nazi sabotage, his prospective son-in-law did not say what he thought, nothing, not a score of White Rose movements, a million saboteurs… could redeem the industrialized savagery of the Third Reich and the tens of millions of citizens who knew and looked away.” 

Later, Alissa comments, “It’s so easy to forgive other people’s parents.” Of course, that is because troubling childhood memories do not intrude.

Roland confides in Alissa about the abusive piano teacher: “How driven he was, obsessed, and how it seemed an entire lifetime to him then. It took almost an hour to describe the affair, if that was what it was, and the school, the cottage, the two rivers. How strangely it ended. How it never crossed his mind that her behavior was depraved, despicable. Even for years afterwards. He had nothing to judge her by, no scale of values.” 

The couple has a son, Lawrence. His wife, Alissa, abruptly leaves Roland and her son, writing “I’ve been living the wrong life.” Roland is angry at first, investigated by the police for murder, but his emotions later transform into grieving and admiration. “Goethe, Schiller, Aristotle, Lao-Tzu. She understood how a close acquaintance with writers like these could extend and enrich a love of freedom.” 

Roland, listless and somewhat narcissistic, remains determined to give his child a secure home. He holds and comforts Lawrence after Alissa leaves while confronting their future: “Their pulses fell in and out of phase, but one day they would be always out. They would never be this close. He would know him less well, then even less. Others would know Lawrence better than he did, where he was, what he was doing and saying, growing closer to this friend, then this lover…. From his father, occasional visits, a sincere hug, catch up on work, family, some politics, then goodbye…. The long letting go could be the essence of parenthood and from here was impossible to conceive.”

Recognizing the power of childhood memories, Roland ponders the mysteries passing through the mind of the seven-month-old and experiences that may shape the rest of his life: “A shaded emptiness, a grey winter sky against which impressions – sounds, sights, touch – burst like fireworks in arcs and cones of primary colour, instantly forgotten, instantly replaced and forgotten again. Or a deep pool into which everything fell and disappeared but remained, irretrievably present, dark shapes in deep water, exercising their gravitational pull even eighty years later, on deathbeds, in last confessions, in final cries for lost love.” 

After a few years, Alissa publishes her first novel to great acclaim and Roland “saw the beauty of it. On a windy sunlit midweek morning she cleanly transformed her existence as she packed a small suitcase, and leaving her keys behind, walked out the front door, consumed by an ambition for which she was ready to suffer and make others suffer too.” Despite success or maybe because of it, Alissa refuses to connect with her son.

Meanwhile Roland drifts through what he calls “an unchosen life, in a succession of reactions to events. He had never made an important decision. Except to leave school. No, that too was a reaction.” He makes friends easily and views the world as “agreeably diffuse” while anticipating that “in the new millennium, only eleven years away, humankind would have reached a new level of maturity and happiness.” Of course, that period of mature happiness is brief because the world does not heed history.  

Father and son live comfortably with Roland’s best friend and her children for many years, and the end is bittersweet as Roland determines that life – or the ability to create enduring and influential memories – was “pouring away from him. Events of three weeks ago were already receding or lost completely in a haze. He had to make himself catch some of it, just a little, or it would have been hardly worth living through.”  He keeps journals, one for each passing year, and sorts through his many photos, selecting 100 that represent his life: “there was that essence everyone forgets when a love recedes into the past – how it was, how it felt and tasted to be together through the seconds, minutes, and days, before everything that was taken for granted was discarded then overwritten by the tale of how it all ended, and then by the shaming inadequacies of memory. Paradise or the inferno, no one remembers anything much. Affairs and marriages ended long ago come to resemble postcards from the past. … First to go… was the elusive self, precisely how you were yourself, how you appeared to others.” 

Consider the patterns of memories. How do memories of the well-adjusted, secure person balance one’s self versus others?  

Lawrence follows some of father’s drifting patterns, also marrying a German woman, albeit enjoying a happier relationship that include grandchildren for Roland. The older man flounders yet does not resent his famous wife, counted among Germany’s greatest living writers. If anything, he pities her. “She had no one, no family, no close friends. Time had degraded him too but by all conventional measures, he was the happier. No books though, no paintings, nothing invented that would survive him. Would he swap his family for her yard of books? He gazed at her now familiar face and shook his head for an answer.”

Publishers Weekly quotes McEwan's agent Georges Borschadt as saying, "Acts of creation are the only things that matter." 

But no, that is not the lesson of this novel. Everyday life, family, love, joys and experiences are all that matter, and old memories need not dictate our future, and new relationships can over-ride the pain. As McEwan concludes, “A shame to ruin a good tale by turning it into a lesson.” 

Intrusive memories can be tamed. 

Thursday, November 10

Battling the grotesque





















Most readers quickly and rightly reject novels that detail abuse of animals, children or other vulnerable populations. Reading about systemic poverty and lack of opportunity – the slow neglect and breakdown of human spirit – should be equally disturbing. The Rabbit Hutch alludes to first while detailing the humiliations and weariness associated with the second. 
The debut novel by Tess Gunty explores how individuals slide into disturbing behaviors, influenced by surroundings, circumstances and other people. The setting is a dilapidated apartment building known as the Rabbit Hutch in Vacca Vale, a dying Indiana industrial town. Most occupants resent and avoid their neighbors. These include a quiet middle-aged woman who moderates comments for online obituaries and four young adults recently aged out of the foster-care system. 

The characters are flawed, insecure in this desolate environment. A visitor from Hollywood, the depressed son of a child movie star, suggests that other people are "dangerous because they are contagions. They infect you with or without your consent; they lure you onto paths you wouldn't have chosen.... if you collide with someone, you must be prepared to reside inside their psychology indefinitely, and this is the burden of a lifetime." These characters, struggling to communicate and launch meaningful relationships, do collide rather than connect. 

The discomfort over an inability to find companionship is not limited to dying communities, and the visitor from Hollywood concedes that his own conversations with others are a mess as "he doesn't know how to have clean ones anymore." While in Vacca Vale, he wanders into a church and agrees after a priest asks if he is there for a confession. After describing his fears and worst behaviors, the man questions the priest’s assessment. The priest admits to weariness and advises the confession might be his last. Unleashing regret, the man mourns “rot at the center of the Catholic Church,” Rather than effect change, the priest felt infected. “Abuse should be condemned. Birth control should be encouraged…. These are easy things, obvious things, unavoidably right and good, and yet I’ve come to believe that they’re never going to happen within this decaying institution. I’m sick of following orders, meekly playing the game, waiting for the rules to change themselves.” 

His complaints target one institution, yet capture the dilemma of anyone trapped within systems, playing by questionable rules while ignoring massive, obvious problems. The priest counsels the visitor that no person can be all good or all bad. “You’re just a series of messy, contradicting behaviors, like everyone else. Those behaviors can become patterns, or instincts, and some are better than others. But as long as you’re alive, the jury’s out.” 

Progress depends on breaking old patterns, avoiding old mistakes. 
Blandine
St. Blandine

The apartment is the first for the foster children, three young men and a woman, Tiffany. She is intelligent, well-read, but she drops out of high school after a misguided affair. Despite or maybe because of her own history of hurt and neglect, she continues to study and learn, touting a library copy of She-Mystics: An Anthology and adopting the name of Blandine, a slave girl martyred for her Christian beliefs in the 2nd century. The teenager stands out as odd, fascinated less by religion and more by ethics, philosophy, and ancient saints who practiced self-abuse to achieve immortality and godliness. 

With a few exceptions, Blandine is wary of new relationships – "My whole life has educated me against investments whose rewards depend on the benevolence of others." And so she regards Hildegard, a mystic from the 12th century, as her only true friend, relying on quotes for guidance: “Even in a world that’s being shipwrecked, remain brave and strong” and “Humanity, take a good look at yourself. Inside, you have heaven and earth, and all of creation. You are a world – everything is hidden in you.”  

St. Hildegard von Bingen
















Blandine ponders how the mystics, despite their gender and solitude, left their mark on history and human thought. And while she does not believe in God and regards the mystics as selfish and individualistic, she wonders how a modern mystic might challenge climate change, systemic injustice, the “plundering growth imperative,” and other obvious challenges in Vacca Vale. 

Ambition mixes with fear, and Blandine admits to often being “attacked by an awareness of how impossible it is to learn and accomplish all that she needs to learn and accomplish before she dies.” She denies herself a high school scholarship, the chance to attend college, appropriate roommates all while searching for virtue in a community seeping with inequality, corruption, insecurity and depression. Reflecting on her own life, she concedes that "It all looks so - so grotesque." She longs to transform her community but lacks tools to intercede. 

Another neighbor – Joan, the editor of online obituaries – is fearful and lonely, witnessing the pain of Vacca Vale on a more personal scale. One day while walking, she observing the impulsive ease of strangers demonstrating care for a person who collapses on the street. She understands that “human tenderness was not to be mocked. It was the last real thing.” 

The disjointed plot is relayed with exquisite sentences. The theme is strong – people can transform, breaking habits and moving the many obstacles they have placed in their own way by practicing kindness. A brief and awkward encounter between Joan and Blandine in the book’s earliest pages isn't the last. The two women discover a shred of connection – thank to persistence, hope, empathy – hundreds of pages later.

Monday, October 24

Abandoned

 












The Foundling, set in 1927 at a state institution in Central Pennsylvania, is modeled after the real Laurelton State Village for Feeble-Minded Women of Childbearing Age, that operated between 1920 and 1998. The institution's purpose evolved over the decades, but the goal during the early years was eugenics – to prevent troubled and “feeble-minded” women from reproducing.

Soon after opening, Laurelton had a waiting list to care for women deemed insane by husbands or abandoned by families, women who had large numbers of children by multiple men, as well as women who relied on prostitution or careers deemed as unsuitable. The state Public Charities Association supervised Laurelton along with prisons, orphanages and other facilities that cared for the “dependent classes,” explains a brief history in the West End Quarterly. 

“Throughout the early twentieth century, researchers, social reformers, and politicians cast a wide net for classifying people as ‘feebleminded,’” explains Micalee Sullivan. “The term lacked clear standards or definitions of who constituted ‘feeble-minded’ in the reports of the government agencies, as well as the report of directors at the Laurelton State Village. During the planning stages of the institution, an article described an institution that would ‘provide several groups embraced under the terms "idiotic," "imbecile," or "feeble-minded.'" 

Sullivan argues the institution’s history is complex, providing care and vocational training for women while also restricting freedoms. 

Pennsylvania Heritage praises Laurelton’s first superintendent, Mary Moore Wolfe: “Wolfe rejected the established medical traditions of the early 20th century that argued ‘mental deficiencies’ caused people to commit crimes and warranted locking them up forever. She believed ‘the problem of mental deficiency is not primarily a medical problem’ but instead was ‘an educational, and to a lesser degree, a sociological problem.’ Determined to make Laurelton Village a place of rehabilitation and not permanent segregation, Wolfe developed academic, vocational and moral training programs for the women living there.”

Laurelton sewing class, 1920s

The novel is more critical about such institutions and the power of those who profit from society’s most vulnerable. Protagonist Mary Engle feels fortunate to land a job as a secretary at the facility lauded as “progressive,” run by elegant Dr. Agnes Vogel, psychiatrist and one-time suffragist. Mary, raised in a Catholic orphanage after her mother’s death, squashes memories of seeking favors while enduring sexual abuse by an uncle during occasional visits. The orphan, learning more about the case histories of inmates, could only muse, “There by the grace of God …”  

The facility, not religious, is touted as “modern” – emphasizing rigid controls, long hours of hard work as ground crews, factory workers, dairy maids or housekeepers. Unlike Laurelton, the fictional Nettleton is described as offering no education or treatment. For favored staff members, there is luxury housing and meals, as well as alcohol purchased under the guise of “medicinal treatments” during the era of Prohibition. Local and state authorities pay little notice to the facility that boasts of self-reliance, requiring no tax dollars, while offering local jobs and revenue for local businesses.

Mary – a skilled professional – works tirelessly for Dr. Vogel, and the older woman eventually trusts her like a daughter, a closeness that creates distance for the secretary with other staff members and entangles her in corrupt activities including transport and misuse of alcohol. Mary soon detects physical abuse, harsh punishments and insults, but trusts that Dr. Vogel acts in the best interests of inmates. Skepticism grows as she meets more people her age, including a nurse in the facility, a journalist who is curious about rumors of cruelty, and eventually an inmate and one-time friend who grew up in the same orphanage where Mary was raised. The secretary struggles to act on her empathy for Lillian, the inmate, understanding that admission to a previous relationship with an inmate would result in termination of employment. Lillian, like many other inmates, is hardly feeble-minded, but the records do not reflect her education and capabilities.  

For weeks, Mary, torn over job security and her admiration for Vogel, avoids Lillian and rationalizes that that the other woman resists, simply not understanding the difference between right and wrong. As an orphan herself, Mary fears imperfection in herself and others, failing to understand that any attempt to assess others as feeble-minded or flawed reflects arrogance.  

Mary begins dating Jake, a journalist who questions eugenics and notions that some human beings are not meant to start families or participate in society. Jake is Jewish and Vogel is anti-Semitic, and Mary initially takes offense at his candid critiques of her employer along with the judges and politicians who support the institution. Relying on arrogance herself, she tries to dismiss his concerns for inmates who are institutionalized until they can no longer bear children: “Why would I waste time worrying about his ill-informed ideas when I, at age eighteen, already knew more than he’d ever know about how power and justice really work in this world?”  

Power corrupts, including onlookers who may benefit the least. As Albert Einstein noted, “The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything.” As an orphan herself, Mary is timid and naïve, trying to rationalize the cruel inequities. At times, the book is too optimistic, offering minimal tension and obstacles in what had to be a treacherous workplace.


Mary and Jake manage to rescue Lillian, but Vogel and her political backers move on to more prominent positions, never investigated or condemned for forcing hundreds of young women to work as unpaid laborers, preventing them from pursuit of any type of normal life. Many women won their freedom only with menopause, and if they were lucky, families and friends helped keep past lives a secret.  Women raised in in rural Pennsylvania during the early 20th century feared and whispered about such places. Orphans, homeless, scorned wives understood they could be locked away for the best of years of their lives. And during the Depression, many families simply could not afford to assist or speak out. A century of change exposes the nightmarish conditions, regardless of good intentions, and readers can only wonder how citizens a century from now might assess today's under-funded schools, homeless shelters, prisons or immigrant camps. 

Poverty is the parent of revolution and crime, noted Aristotle. 

The real institution of Laurelton took on many forms over the years, finally closing its doors in 1998. The empty buildings and more than 265 acres were sold for $1 million in 2021. 

Photos courtesy of Pennsylvania Heritage and Architectural Afterlife.


Saturday, May 28

The luckiest


A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles was a gift from a treasured friend, and finishing the novel was like saying farewell to another friend. At first, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov may seem like a wealthy dandy, but time and time again proves himself to be a calming force – charming and deliberate, observant and generous, optimistic and kind, all the while under house arrest at the Hotel Metropol in Moscow from 1922 to 1954. Rostov, fond of Russia, left London to face charges by the new government. The offense? A short poem that Russian authorities have deemed as a dangerous “call to action.” If Rostov leaves the hotel, he will be shot on sight.

The punishment requires moving from his luxurious suite, surrounded by his possessions, to a tiny room in an upper floor of the hotel. Forced to downsize, Rostov mourns until he realizes that no possession can match the value of a strong friendship and he suddenly marvels at how people find it easier to say farewell to friends than possessions. “For eventually we come to hold our dearest possessions more closely than we hold our friends. We carry them from places to place, often at considerable expense and inconvenience; we dust and polish their surfaces and reprimand children for playing too roughly in their vicinity – all the while, allowing memories to invest them with greater and greater importance.” The count then concedes that “a thing is just a thing,” examining his belongings one last time before “expunge[ing] them from his heartache forever.” 

The book is poignant for those shut in during the pandemic, those who abhor consumerism, and those near the end of life, when memories outnumber plans and dreams for the future. Rostov, well read and philosophical, is determined to live life as a man of purpose, and an optimistic one at that. He considers prisoners from literature who relied on hash marks to mark their days, noting how a year in prison could be mourned or celebrated. “For after all, if attentiveness should be measured in minutes and discipline measured in hours, then indomitability must be measured in years. Or if philosophical investigations are not to your taste, then let us simply agree that the wise man celebrates what he can." The trapped man may be imperfect, but he inspires because he never stops striving for improvement and is always open to friendship. 

Reduced status and cutbacks for the Metropol, representing the decline in Moscow's cosmopolitan culture, do not trouble the count. Upon entering the Piazza at Christmastime, he is momentarily disappointed at finding the room ungarlanded, the balustrades unstrung with lights, a single musician replacing the orchestra, and most of the tables unfilled, but then his optimism kicks in: “But then, as every child knows, the drumbeat of the season must sound from within.” 

The man is advisor, confidant and friend to all, finding reason to chat with everyone, staff and guests, including journalists, visiting dignitaries, and even Nina, a precocious pre-teen who purloined a passkey for the entire hotel, thus expanding their range for exploration and entertainment. Her brief visits over the years give him opportunity to watch her develop as a patriot. 

The hotel is a welcoming cocoon in treacherous and volatile post-revolutionary Russia with shifting regulations, heightened mistrust and vague communications. Take “comrade,” increasingly popular as a Russian greeting: “A word of semantic efficiency, comrade could be used a as greeting or a word of parting. As a congratulations, or a caution. As a call to action, or a remonstrance.” Mishka, poet and dissident, is the long-time friend who actually wrote the poem that landed Rostov in detention. He visits Rostov occasionally, mourning the demise of Russian culture, traditions and honesty: “Our churches, known the world over for their idiosyncratic beauty, for their brightly colored spires and improbable cupolas, we raze one by one. We topple the statues of old heroes and strip their names form the streets, as if they had been figments of our imagination. Our poets we either silence, or wait patiently for them to silence themselves.” 

Rostov, a long-time Metropol client who understands the meaning of impeccable service and traditions, eventually signs on as waiter at the Boyarsky, the hotel’s restaurant, teaming up with the chef and maître d’ in organizing events, tables and meals. He is skilled at sensing despondency and subterfuge, falsehoods and exaggeration, but resists giving up on others easily. “By their very nature, human beings are so capricious, so complex, so delightfully contradictory that they deserve not only our consideration, but our reconsideration - and our unwavering determination to withhold our opinion until we have engaged with them in every possible setting at every possible hour.” 


A former Army colonel – Osip – seeks a better understanding of the West and turns to Rostov, with his reputation for being well traveled and cultured, for tutoring. The lessons are subversive, relying on materials like Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and the film Casablanca. Osip, viewing the US and Russia in competition, is fascinated: “we an Americans will lead the rest of this century because we are the only nations who have learned to brush the past aside instead of bowing before it. But where they have done so in service of their beloved individualism, we are attempting to do so in service of the common good.”   

The early 1930s are unkind to free-thinking Russians. Nina, a married woman with a young child, returns to the Metropol to request that Rostov watch her daughter while she visits the imprisoned father in Siberia. Rostov complies, not realizing the favor is not short-term. Hotel staff and friends come to his aid, and the seamstress assures Rostov that he is up to the challenge: “If you are ever in doubt, just remember that unlike adults, children want to be happy…. they still have the ability to take the greatest pleasure in the simplest things.” 

Responsible for a child, he immediately discovers the joys of answering unending questions, and teaching by example, including stories from his own childhood and family home of Idlehour. One of those stories is about a clock that only rings twice a day, because Rostov’s father believed that no one should “attend too closely to the clock.” Thus, “if a man woke no later than six, engaged in a light repast, and then applied himself without interruption, by the hour of noon he should have accomplished a full day’s labor.” The noon bell signaled the end of work and time for “wise liberty”: “he should walk among the willows, read a timeless text, converse with a friend beneath the pergola, or reflect before the fire – engaging in those endeavors that have no appointed hour, and that dictate their own beginnings and ends.” And after a day lived well, there was no need to hear the second chime. One should be soundly asleep and to otherwise hear it “was most definitely a remonstrance” about laying awake and wasting valuable time. 

Rostov recognizes life in the hotel limits aspirations for his young charge, Sofia. When she regrets that the memories of her parents fade with time, the count advises, “no matter how much time passes, those we have loved never slip away from us entirely.”  He wants her to explore her talents and the vast unknown, and the count resolves “it is hardly our purpose at this stage to log a new portfolio of lasting memories. Rather we should be dedicating ourselves to ensuring that they taste freely of experience.” 

Long hours alone at the hotel allow Sofia to become a skilled concert pianist, providing the opportunity to travel to Paris for a concert, under the stern watch of party chaperones. Rostov prepares for them both to leave the Metropol, albeit with separate destinations, relying on a network of friends abroad and a stash of gold hidden away in the desk he kept over the years. When Sofia departs, he offers two pieces of parental advice: “The first was that if one did not master one’s circumstances, one was bound to be mastered by them; and the second was Montaigne’s maxim that the surest sign of wisdom is constant cheerfulness.” He admits that he will be both sad in her absence and joyful at every thought of her new adventures.  

Shortly before he leaves, Mishka witnesses Rostov’s wide group of friends at the Metropol and their kindness. “Who would have imagined,” the friend observes, ‘when you were sentenced to life in the Metropol all those years ago, that you had just become the luckiest man in all of Russia.” 

With the right frame of mind, the simple wanting of happiness, anyone can be as lucky as Count Rostov.