Winter Sisters 2

Dedicated to “girls and women everywhere” – Profiles in courage and compassion for the ages (Albany, New York; March to June 1879): Eight years ago, we came to know Robin Oliveira’s indomitable Mary Sutter, a civil war nurse who lifted our spirits in the face of medical horrors and prejudice against female doctoring. For all Oliveira’s fans (I’m one of them) clamoring for a sequel: Mary is back!

This time she’s waging a different kind of war, perhaps “more sinister than the brutality of artillery.” Fought on several fronts, this war is more intractable and less visible, defying a repressive old guard class system and heinous behaviors.

A war that calls for Mary to return to continue to fight for the rights of women, young and old, from all walks of life. A war that threatens to risk her reputation. Now a physician for the past twelve years, yet still fighting negative attitudes toward women in the profession as she ministers to marginalized women hospitals refuse to treat: prostitutes. This Mary’s primary fight though revolves around two innocent girls unprotected by a horrendously backward legal system.

Winter Sisters is layered and entangled. It also links to the emotional abuse of high-society women married to powerful men who treat them like servants or worse. Wealthy yet impoverished, a “life without agency” anathema to Mary.

A tall order! Though Mary is up to the task, she’s not the only champion. Others are also women, with one shining exception: a charming, young gentlemen. They are the brightness in this tale of darkness.

The novel’s setting and historical timeframe are key to the plotting and richness of the prose. Winter Sisters takes place in Albany over 112 days (you’ll see why that number matters) in 1879. In 1888, Albany and the entire East Coast were dealt a monster blizzard, known as the Great Blizzard or the Great White Hurricane of 1888. Albany received something like 45 inches of snow. Hundreds of people perished, like the parents of the titular two winter sisters.

In the opening sentence, we’re told Emma and Claire O’Donnell have vanished. For six torturous weeks and plenty of suspense no one has seen or heard from the “blizzard girls” as they infamously came to be known. They are presumed dead.

“The mystery of their whereabouts had become a question of sport, debated with passion in every tavern, prayer circle, factory, horsecar, railroad depot, restaurant, brewery, shop, and home.”

The author once called Albany home. It shows. Her regard for it’s fierce weather, stately Victorian architecture, and the impact of the Hudson River and Erie Canal on commerce and livelihoods is richly depicted.

The trade featured in the plot relying on navigable waterways is the lumber business. Gerritt Van der Meer is a lumber baron. His shy wife Viola is the dejected, lonely socialite. Their son, Jakob, twenty-one, is the gentleman of honor mentioned above. Gerritt is a selfish, condescending brute to Viola, whom Jakob is devoted to. A Harvard lawyer who gave in to his overbearing father’s familial demands to help run the business, which comes at great professional and personal sacrifice when he falls smitten with beautiful Elizabeth, Mary’s seventeen-year-old niece, a violin prodigy.

The beauty of music as a soothing, healing antidote to the sordid story (the author doesn’t flinch, again, in describing hard-to-stomach medical details; she was a critical care nurse) involving the two sisters. “Beauty and horror always met side by side.”

Oliveira chose a year after the real historical blizzard to set her third historical novel (I Always Loved You is a gorgeous tale about the passionate artist Mary Cassatt) because of a law on the books she discovered (impressive research her brand) that screamed out for Mary’s mettle. For her “perseverance and courage and dedication.”

That law is key to Emma and Claire’s story, something readers must find out about for themselves. Sorry to be cryptic, but you wouldn’t want me to spoil the mystery. You’ll learn what happens to them soon enough, about a hundred pages in at the end of Book One. Given this is a 400 page novel, Oliveira’s longest, and you have two more parts to go, clearly it’s not a straightforward mystery. The novelist’s imagination doesn’t work that way.

In this atmospheric historical timepiece, she immerses us in a “city of graft,” corrupt not only in its business dealings but in the morality of its conduct regarding girls and women.

Prostitution was big business in those bygone days. One, Darlene, whom Mary tends to at her frowned upon clinic, will tug at your heart for she does good here.

Other do-gooders include some characters reintroduced from My Name is Mary Sutter. Yes, this is a stand-alone novel. Even if you read the author’s award-winning debut, that was years ago. Mary is indelible but, like me, you may need some reminding about the others.

Mary is now forty and married twelve years to William Stipps, the elder civil war surgeon who can’t “breathe” without her. After all Mary went through during that war, we shouldn’t be surprised she’s “silvered.” William is an orthopedic surgeon, which makes sense after all the amputations he and Mary performed on the battlefield.

Also back is Mary’s mother Amelia, a midwife who “can make anyone feel at home,” and briefly Bonnie, Amelia’s close friend – the deceased mother of the blizzard girls. Elizabeth still lives with Mary and her mother for she’s orphaned too, reeling from the “sadness of losing everything she loved.” The “Sutter women bore up at all times,” whereas Elizabeth represents the fragility of an artist painfully unsure of herself. When the girls go missing, she flees with Amelia from Paris where she was studying at the Paris Conservatory of Music.

Deaths from war and childbirth – and now merciless weather – created “convoluted” relationships, people caring for one another as if they were family rather than looser connections and friendships. That’s the situation here. So when ten-year-old Emma and seven-year-old Claire disappear Mary, William, Amelia, and Elizabeth all go searching as if the girls were their own flesh and blood.

One of the joys in this somber story is Mary and William’s marriage. “Neither of them could think of a time together when either of them let each other down.” They don’t let us down either as they fight for justice and equality.

All of Robin Oliveira’s novels stand out for their strong feminist messaging. Winter Sisters feels like crystal-ball timing: the 19th century converging into the Me Too Movement.

Also on display and timely is the wicked “power of money” that “brought loyalty where none was deserved. It bent minds and curated behavior. It solved problems.” Greed, bribery, and betrayal also begets egregious crimes, whether a century ago or unfolding today.

Albany’s weather also wreaks havoc. After the blizzard came, mighty floods – termed freshets – that overwhelm the city, once the snow melts. The Hudson is a river of ice – floes, another meteorological term I hadn’t known. Albany is a city of bells that ring out flood warnings, though it seems nothing could stop the tragedy that ensues.

Tom Brokaw, the veteran journalist, recently predicted the 21st century will be remembered as the century of the woman. Thus, a 19th century novel makes a hard-hitting contribution to a 21st century cause.

Lorraine

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Nine Continents: A Memoir In and Out of China

The remarkable journey of an artist (Shitang, Wenling, Beijing, China to London; 1970s – 2016): Starving is the first word that comes to mind reflecting on the vitality and accomplishments of an artist growing up under the Communist regime of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution and its aftermath. For it seems Xiaolu Guo has been starving much of her life. Starved for food, family, freedoms, affection, love, individuality, dignity.

Calling herself a “peasant warrior,” Guo poignantly traces in vignettes of memories her forty years living under abominable conditions. Her perseverance, blossoming, eloquence, and the productivity and diversity of her works is all the more remarkable given the unrelenting cycle of abuse she endured – sexual, physical, emotional, intellectual. A life she says that didn’t even start until she was twenty-one, when she penned her first novel. Even when the memoirist left China for London at thirty, she describes her next ten years as a “cultural orphan.”

“Westerners will never understand the Chinese unless they go through the misery and poverty we did,” says Guo, whose hunger for Western literature and Western films sustained her when “desolation came and swallowed me.”

Named one of the Best Young British Novelists in 2013, Guo is part of what’s called the “Sixth Generation” of Chinese filmmakers, who came after the tragic events at Tiananmen Square in Beijing 1989. Drawn to the angry young artists of her generation who went underground to pursue their art since the State censored or jailed those who did not conform to it’s endorsement of art: propaganda. There can a time, though, when the writer-filmmaker recognized the only route for artistic freedom and creativity was to leave China, the homeland that shaped and traumatized her.

That trauma is what makes her art profoundly essential to her being. Recipient of numerous awards for her novels, films, poetry, short stories, and screenplays – a body of work considered autobiographical, speaking to themes echoing an impoverished, unhappy life marked by “ice-cold loneliness.” The artist recalls “one of the happiest moments in my life” at six, when she met art students who painted out the bleakness into something magical. Other good things you can pinpoint: a couple of breaks that led to her artistic development, though she earned those with feverish dedication amidst fierce competition, and bonding with her biological father, whom she first met at fourteen.

Also stunning is Guo wrote her memoir before the Me Too Movement. The China she writes of – in the seventies, eighties, and nineties – chillingly devalued women. Her parents gave her away (because they had a son? her father was imprisoned in a labor camp?, she’ll never really know) to a couple who lived in a mountain village raising yams and goats. Severely malnourished, they then gave her away to her grandparents who lived in an isolated “typhoon drenched” fishing village, Shitang, surrounded by the East China Sea – “always brown, churning the refuse and rubbish the villagers dumped in it every day.” By age two, she’d been orphaned twice.

Her grandmother, “the most humble person I have ever known,” was subjected to feudal Chinese customs: illiterate, with her feet tightly bound causing her great difficulty walking, her body bent over. Her grandfather was a “bitter, failed fisherman” after his boat was seized under the 1970 Fish Farming Collective, eventually committing suicide. He repeatedly beat her “voiceless” and “nameless” grandmother, who derived strength praying to the Goddess of Mercy, who “bestowed her compassion on all those grief-stricken wives and unlucky daughters.”

Guan Yin, “Goddess of Mercy”
By Haa900 [Public domain]
via Wikimedia Commons

Nine Continents opens with an epilogue as Guo is now forty, having just given birth to a baby girl in London. Motherhood cannot be an easy feat for a woman who first met her biological mother in adolescence, leaving behind her grandmother to attend school in her parents’ compound in Wenling. A mother with a “heart of stone” who ignored and beat her.

Even more disturbing is physical violence on girls and women was apparently the norm in rural China in the seventies. “Where I grew up, every man beats his wife and children.” So too she depicts of the raping of girls. “No wonder Chinese ghost stories know only weeping women looking for justice in the afterlife.”

The author’s benevolent father brightened days when home. A painter for the State yet his artistic soul was tied to the sea, having also grown up in Shitang. People did what they had to do to survive; Guo hungered for more.

Wenling was a different type of village. “This was the China of the early eighties: town and nature, with no real separation of the two.” Rice patties, bamboo trees, residential compounds, and factories (shoes, plastic, silk) all together. “Every adult belonged to a work unit, run by the state.”

Wenling is where filmmaking took root as Guo gathered around a lone television in the compound watching glamorous American and British life. Here is also where she began writing “misty poetry” – “historically free” poems about the “land, the cloud-covered mountains, the foggy sea, ethereal love.”

The memoirist’s father influenced her environmentalism aesthetically and because of the devastating impact of China’s pollution, as he lost his ability to speak due to throat cancer; so many factory workers she knew were also cancer victims. “China has recorded the highest number of deaths due to pollution;” today, the country is working on solutions to this crisis.

Literature offered salvation, comfort, inspiration. Walt Whitman’s “you must travel it [the road] by yourself” was a message that stuck. American and French writers, poets, and film directors are paid tribute throughout.

Around twenty, the author earned one of eleven coveted spots at the Film and Literature Department of the Beijing Film Academy. Dorm life was still regimented like a “military camp” but at long last the author makes a friend, Mengmeng, her roommate, with whom the two open up about their sexual abuse “in the darkness of the girls’ dormitory.” Film school lasted six years, more years of barely sleeping and striving, working intensely by candlelight.

The opportunity to study films didn’t turn out the way the filmmaker hoped for. “In China, creativity meant compromise.” So she applied and won a Chevening scholarship to study documentary filmmaking at Britain’s National Film and Television School in London, where new challenges arose.

Learning English when your native language is visual imagery, coping with the dreary weather, and still very disaffected and terribly lonely, she found London a “hard place to love.” Now writing in English, she “wasn’t sure which was better; being read by thousands in the West but still feeling misunderstood, or being read by very few in a country that understood me perfectly.”

Xiaolu Guo may have felt anonymous for a good deal of her life but when one of her art films was screened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York “with a full house and then toured hundreds of thousands of international film festivals,” she’d clearly become someone known.

Chinese traditions, sacred writings, superstitions, and folklore appear throughout the telling. The memoir begins with excerpts from one of China’s most beloved pieces of classical literature, Journey to the West. This Taoist and Buddhist legend written in the 16th century introduces each of the five parts of the memoir. While I don’t purport to fully understand the spiritual message, the Monkey King’s struggles seem to foretell Guo’s.

Yet for all the “deadness at the centre of my emotional life,” Xiaolu Guo has written a life-affirming book. A timeless and universal plea cherishing human rights for all.

Lorraine

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Where The Wild Cherries Grow

Chasing a fifty-year-old disappearance from the coast of England to the coast of France (1969/1919): British novelist Laura Madeleine’s historical novel of love and loss in the aftermath of WWI reads like a mystery with one of the most satisfying, pulling-it-all-together, endings I can recall.

Madeleine, a former cake baker-turned-novelist, who debuted with The Confectioner’s Tale, blends her culinary skills into tasty prose, using the complex flavors of food to symbolize a story that’s part sweet, bitter, rich, and earthy. Cooking and eating express emptiness, yearning, comfort, happiness, love, family, community, celebration.

To illustrate how the author reveals the intimacy of a romance, the center of this mysterious tale, through the language of food here’s how she describes a special cake:

“It started sweet, tasting of cream and honey, of walking in the afternoon with the one person you could share the colour of the sky with. It became the fields, a grove in late summer, warm aniseed and olive oil and ripening nuts and days spent harvesting, saving for the winter. Finally, it fell into the warm sting of liquor, like a candle flame flickering far into the night, where no words were needed and time itself dissolved in touch of skin on skin.”

“It was love, and it could not be hidden.”

That’s the appetizing prose you’re in store for. Except, the novel didn’t start out with tenderness and joy. For a long time it’s not an idyllic story despite the idyllic cover, southern France byline conjuring nostalgic loveliness, and a sensual prologue.

In fact, Part I takes place in England – in a grittier London suburb, at a stuffy London solicitor’s office, and in the marshy landscape of Norfolk County known as the Fens or Fenland.

Strumpshaw Fen, Norfolk, England
By LittleHow (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

If it weren’t for the French tip-off I’d have avoided mentioning it altogether not to spoil one iota of this page-turning mystery:

What happened to a nineteen-year-old young woman named Emeline Vane who disappeared fifty years ago in 1919, a year after WWI ended?

Instead, I’d have limited the telling to Bill Perch, a wet-behind-the ears London solicitor about the same age Emeline vanished. His big break comes when he’s assigned her case. His “first real client” is Emeline’s aunt. He’s to prove Emeline is deceased to sell off the Vane’s abandoned property, entangled in British inheritance laws.

Emeline’s story begins when Bill discovers her diary. It starts a year after she’s lost her two older brothers to the war and six weeks since her mother died, the cause a broken heart as much as anything else. Emeline’s elegant voice is full of sorrow.

We’re not the only ones who hear her grief-stricken voice. Bill hears her “whispering in my ear,” tugging at him for his assignment means abandoning her.

The Great War took an enormous toll on Emeline and her once “filled to the seams” family’s country estate – Hallerton House. Its “proximity to the sea and rail” emphasizes the important role railways played in “knitting the country together.” Really two countries for the English residence and a French seaside village are both at the “end of the line.”

Bill isn’t wealthy like this new generation of Vanes or the old ones before the war, but as we get to know this bumbling, good-natured guy, we see he has something far more valuable than money: instinct and principles. Although he seeks the pride of becoming a respected professional, when he stumbles on Emeline’s diary and hears her sad, longing voice he risks it all to search for her. Thus, going against what his future depends on: the improbable hope he can somehow prove Emeline is still alive so she can claim her legacy. He has nothing to go on but his gut.

Something, actually many things, about Emeline’s ghost touches Bill, whose last name is emblematic of his spirit: perched and ready to fly. He is, after all, coming-of-age in the swinging sixties though not like the hippies he meets along the way. Taken in by the private words of a sensitive child who left “bits of coloured paper or a ribbon” and a “tiny ballerina” for the crows circling her formerly grand home, he sets off for a part of coastal Britain he’s never seen to begin his detective journey.

He finds the stone residence mildewed, decayed, and spooky, yet he also finds he responds to the invigorating “smell of salt and mud,” to the openness of the landscape, so freeing. “I don’t want the life I had before, that there’s something else waiting for me,” Bill suddenly realizes. It’s at this juncture that his search for Emeline becomes Bill’s search for himself too.

As the novel moves back and forth in time and place, we see parallels between Emeline and Bill. At Hallerton, he feels alienated from his city roots, a bit lost and overwhelmed; Emeline in French Catalonia bordering Spain is also far from home, lost and overcome too. Both locales are at the “edge of the world” – one overlooking the North Baltic, the other the Mediterranean, waters “more than blue, it’s the promise of blue, brilliant and glimmering.” Sense of two places is strong.

Cerbère, Pyrénées-Orientales, France
By Jpbazard Jean-Pierre Bazard (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The more Bill reads Emeline’s diary, the more suspenseful the reading becomes because at every turn Bill and the reader have no idea if she’s still alive or not. Nearly everyone thinks she went mad and killed herself back in 1919, maybe threw herself into the sea. No doubt she’d gone mad with grief.

Bill’s path is daunting. He persists for he feels he’s the keeper of Emeline’s secrets. Sharing them, he says, would constitute a “betrayal.” Similarly, unveiling Emeline’s secrets to the reader would betray the reader’s journey. So no spoilers here!

The diary transports Emeline’s soul, and a profound love. We feel the anguish and fullness of her soul and the depth of her desire in metaphorical passages involving food: “We simmer, we roast, we bruise; we squeeze every morsel of flavour from these ingredients, until we have their souls.” And, in another describing a hearty meal: “It is a rich thing, the stomach of the sea, the throat of the mountains, the earth between, bringing them together in an instant of pleasure.”

Stirred throughout are the hauntings of war. “So many things lost and found.” Which circles us back to that powerhouse ending. To long-lost Emeline. Did Bill ever find her?

I recently came across a quote by Henry James, taken from his introduction to the The Aspern Papers. It well-sums up how the reader experiences this poignant novel. As a “palpable imaginable visitable past.”

Lorraine

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Girl Unknown

Is she real or a fake?, and the damage she inflicts (Dublin, Ireland; 2016): I’m not a fan of thrillers except psychologically suspenseful, well-written ones involving family relationships – a sub-genre of thrillers that goes by names like “domestic noir”. So well- conceived and ominous as to the emotional terror perpetrated on a marriage, a family, by an evildoer that you cannot put them down. Girl Unknown fits this description like a glove.

Still, up until now, I hadn’t read any of the Girl books – the craze set off by A Girl on the Train and Gone Girl. The closest I’ve come are the psychological domestic thrillers by B.A. Paris, Behind Closed Doors and The Breakdown. What Girl Unknown and Paris’ thrillers have in common is a two-faced villain so perversely clever you find yourself inhaling the pages, amazed at how much damage can be done by one malevolent person within the sanctity of one’s home. The accumulative effect grips us. You know danger is looming, like a train moving full-speed ahead until it inevitably crashes.

That’s the pace of Girl Unknown. It’s why even if you’ve tired of the girls, I think you will not tire of this one.

The plot strikes at your heart because you can imagine the possibility of the set-up, and wonder what you would do if someone dropped earth-shattering news on your doorstep. Other than this middle-class clan lives in a suburban-like community in biking distance to Ireland’s University College Dublin (UCD), they sound like us, could be us. That’s what makes these domestic stories so terrifying.

David and Caroline are in their forties. They’ve been married seventeen years (together twenty). They have two kids, Holly, 11, and Robbie, 15. David is a history professor at the university. He’s studied and teaches there except for a three-year stint to get his doctorate at Queen’s University in Belfast. Caroline is a stay-at-home mom, having given up her career in advertising to raise her kids.

The novel opens at the start of a new school year when the “buoyant life of first-term energy” feels palpable. All that’s gone by the end of chapter one. (Actually, you sensed something was terribly wrong by the cover image and matching prologue.)

The story is set at an important time for Ireland and a history professor. It’s Dublin’s 100th anniversary of the 1916 Proclamation (which refers to the Easter Rising that led to the Republic of Ireland; Northern Ireland still part of the UK). It’s also a pivotal time for David who is seeking a big promotion, and for Caroline who has decided to re-enter the workplace. Thus, David and Caroline are already experiencing nervousness and self-doubt. As for their children, old enough to be left more on their own but kids are vulnerable. Actually, everyone in this family is vulnerable, but they don’t know that yet, nor the extent to which they are.

We’re introduced to the Connollys as a typical family, balancing responsibilities and activities, which include caregiving for David’s declining mother. Until the day one of David’s students – Zoe Harte, 18, who had “a freshness and a simplicity to her appearance that set her apart and made her seem terribly young” – drops by David’s office and springs, “I think you might be my father,throwing his world off-balance. The set-up, by page 10.

Zoe has a lovely name and David sees something lovely in her but we suspect and then see she’s not a lovely girl. Rather, like an octopus with many arms moving towards its prey, slyly ingratiating herself with David, enabling her many moves, entangling and poisoning this family in too many ways.

Had the marriage not carried it’s own secrets and deceptions Zoe might not have caused as much devastation. Had David not been as “student-focused” perhaps he wouldn’t have felt so protective of her, enabling this unknown into his orbit at the expense of his nuclear family. He has his reasons, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t have done things differently. Since David and Caroline feel familiar, you may find yourself taking sides feeling annoyed at David, empathizing with Caroline. You may also feel sorry for young Holly, unsure about teenager Ronnie.

We know the train wreck is coming, but it’s not accelerating on a straightforward track. It twists, sometimes not so unexpectedly, then jerks to a dramatic, unexpected finish. A startling denouement that happens more quickly and perniciously than you might assume.

Published in the UK in 2016 by an Irish writing team when all the girl hoopla kicked off, it’s now being released in the US. I wondered about the writing process when it’s two?

The novel is mostly written from David and Caroline’s perspectives. Did the award-winning male author Paul Perry write David’s part? Did award-winning novelist Karen Gillece craft Caroline’s? (Hence the pen name Karen Perry.) Then I came across an article outlining how the two friends actually work: they take turns writing the different characters and after a couple of chapters switch, so the prose feels seamless and each comes up with their own surprises. This is their sixth collaboration. (Not all their books appear to have been published in the US.)

Dublin is the setting. The authors hail from there, this is the center of David’s life, and where Zoe has apparently landed via Belfast. (I say “apparently” because we question everything she says.) Her stories about her mother Linda ring true for David – twenty-years ago they did have an affair when he was in Belfast – but he doesn’t know what to believe since the news Linda was pregnant came out of left field. Or so he says. Thus setting the tone for the overarching theme of Trust. You don’t know whether Zoe is telling the truth, and can’t be sure about the veracity of family members who are not candid and have their own secrets.

David and Caroline have very different views of Zoe. He sees her as “great” and too freely believes she’s his daughter. Caroline, on the other hand, is instantly suspicious of her “cold eyes” and “feline grin.” Caroline perceives her falsehood, lies, belligerence, whereas David is swept under her alluring spell. The children have different reactions to Zoe too.

As readers we get to see Zoe as an opportunist and a chameleon, formulate our own opinion as to whether she is or is not a long-lost daughter, stepdaughter, stepsister. Despite her manipulations and deceptions, it’s not all clear-cut, adding to the dilemma: What to do about Zoe? What’s clear is she’s a troubled girl, but what if she’s your own flesh and blood?

The more accommodating David becomes the more dug in Caroline gets, though their emotions and behaviors sometimes go up and down. Nonetheless, you sense the ride you’re on is not a roller-coaster. This one goes all downhill.

The upside is a warning, like the jolting whistle on the train. Families are more fragile than you think.

Lorraine

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Next Year in Havana

Cuban profiles in courage, sacrifice, and hope (Havana, alternating between 1958-1959 and 2017): Next Year in Havana is a novel consumed with politics, romance, and familial devotion. Love of country and family is pitted against impassioned love in a country with a long history of loss of freedoms. It arrives at a time when Americans love for country – standing up for democracy – is sorely being tested. The novel humanizes brave men risking their lives for their homeland and the strong women who fell in love with them at great peril and sacrifice. “To be a woman in Cuba is to suffer.”

No one warned me love would hurt so much,” says nineteen-year-old Elisa Perez, voice of Cuba’s complicated political past. Yet the “only thing worth trusting” is love, concludes her granddaughter Marisol, the other female narrator, hers the voice of Cuba’s complicated political present. Past and present, “the story of Cuba is struggles and strife.”

A sentiment echoed by President Obama when he announced the re-opening of American relations with Cuba after fifty years: “I’m under no illusion about the continued barriers to freedom that remain for ordinary Cubans.”

Those fifty-some years span American-Cuban author Chanel Cleeton’s stirring, partly biographical novel opening the year Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship was collapsing and Fidel Castro’s taking over.

Against the backdrop of Americans now traveling to Cuba, concerns about Trump rolling back historic progress, and the hot-button issue of immigration looming before us, could there be a more importune time for Next Year in Havana? The reason it caught my attention.

The author’s father and grandparents escaped communist Cuba in 1967. They, like Elisa’s fictional family, hoped to return to the country they loved, believing Castro would be toppled. Hope, ojalá, is also Cuba’s story. Of course that didn’t happen, so they forged a good life in Southern Florida like so many exiles did, keeping their culture, ancestry, and stories alive – the inspiration for this passionate novel pulsating with urgency and tension.

Elisa’s and Marisol’s heart-grabbing stories are mostly set in Havana, ”a beautiful city shrouded in sadness.” Likewise, the novel calls out to us in beautiful, evocative, soul-searching prose.

“We are silk and lace, and beneath them we are steel,” says Elisa, one of four sisters dubbed the “sugar queens,” referring to her family’s sugar empire – the industry Cuba’s economy was built on. When Fidel assumed power the family was in great jeopardy as their wealth was the antithesis of Communist doctrine. “For better, worse, or the truly horrific, sugar has molded Cuba’s fortunes.”

“Cuban society is not a quiet society,” and this is not a quiet novel. It’s a novel of heart and heartache. Cleeton tells us “this book holds a piece of my heart.” Which is why it revolves around Elisa’s and Marisol’s stories. Cleeton was very attached to her Cuban grandmother; Cleeton, I think, imagines some of herself in Marisol.

When we meet Elisa, she’s a demure high-society young women, respectful of her family’s position in Cuban society yet restless in her cloistered world. Her father Emilio is well-connected in politics having been instrumental in drafting Batista’s 1940 Constitution, which was supposed to bring democracy to the island. The fact that he’s well-known and well-watched by the new dictator poses even more danger when Elisa unexpectedly falls deeply in love with an intense older man, Pablo, who turns out to be a revolutionary, an associate of Che Guevara.

Danger is the tone of the novel, opening with the Perez family fleeing the country. Then we learn Elisa was essentially the mother who raised Marisol. The rest is told in backstories opening with Marisol’s chapter telling us Elisa has died and bequeathed Marisol to scatter her ashes in Cuba, much like the author’s grandmother asked her family to do. They’ve yet to do so, revealed in a Dear Reader letter. In Marisol’s opening chapter we learn why: burying an exile in Cuba is not an easy proposition. Thus, we meet thirty-ish Marisol also taking risks starting with the smuggling of her grandmother’s ashes into Cuba, a “mythical entity” up until now – the plot that drives the novel.

Traveling on a journalist’s visa (Marisol writes for a travel magazine), she’s met by captivating Luis Rodriquez, son of Elisa’s best friend, Ana. From the moment he picked her up in one of Cuba’s splendidly maintained vintage cars, a source of enormous pride, sexual tension permeates and does not wane.

Next Year in Havana is Cleeton’s marvelous coming-out in the historical fiction genre, having penned a series of contemporary romances, ten novels in all. (A delicious, seductive line: “I have a feeling there will never be enough moments with you,” Luis tells Marisol.) The novel also draws on the author’s degrees in global politics, international relations, and law, which, without giving away spoilers, surely help to tell tales of intolerable injustices with authenticity.

In the character of Luis Rodriguez, Cleeton has created a clever vehicle for the natural rolling out of the details of Cuba’s political history. He’s a history professor at the University of Havana (which Castro later closed for fear of spreading student activism). Also close to his grandmother, Ana, Luis graciously agrees to be Marisol’s tour guide, setting in motion a relationship that in many ways parallels her grandmother’s.

Ana and her family stayed behind in Cuba, raising thoughtful, deeply emotional questions about how Cubans feel towards those who left and those who stayed.

The two friends lived next door to each other in an exclusive neighborhood by the sea, Miramar, isolated from the oppression ordinary Cubans endured every day. (You can almost feel their hunger through an austere food rationing program. “Cubans do lines better than anyone.”) The Perez sisters maintained the lifestyles of socialites. “My mother has no time for revolutions; they wreak havoc with her balls and teas,” says Elisa, until the revolution comes to her doorstep.

What tourists see, hear, and taste – glamorous and romanticized – is dramatically different than the rest of Havana. The music video below featuring one of the “musical icons” Elisa and Marisol were raised on – the Buena Vista Social Club – gives you a sense of that colorful flavor and scenery.

The novel is filled with Cuban politics. “No one can afford the luxury of not being political in Cuba.” “How can you dismiss something [politics] that is so fundamental to the integrity of who we are as a people, as a country?” Luis asks Marisol. He’s a serious, intense man, like Pablo.

The romantic tensions in Elisa’s and Marisol’s alternating stories build and converge – one under the Batista/Fidel regime, the other under today’s Communist dictator, Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother.

“I know a thing about Cuban pride,” Marisol declares ambivalently because the Cuba she finds is not as beautiful as the stories Elisa nourished her on. “I didn’t realize how much people still suffered.” In spite of it all, Cubans are pictured as people who adapt and “make their own fun.”

It’s that Cuban spirit, “passion, honor, and conviction,” that drew Elisa to Pablo, Marisol to Luis. They (and others) carry messages of courage, sacrifice, and hope.

Lorraine

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When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir

Rising up to racial injustices (Los Angeles, 1980s to today): Can one book stun enough, reveal enough, connect-the-dots-enough to move hearts and minds? If you believe, as activist, artist, and author Patrisse Khan-Cullors does, that “all lives will matter when black lives actually matter,” perhaps the question isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds.

You can hear Cullors say those words in an interview with actor Morgan Freeman – see video below. In it, she shares some of the catalysts that led to her founding (along with Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi) the Black Lives Matter movement five years ago. She speaks of: the terrorism her gentle brother Monte endured in the LA County prison system, largest in the world, where a “pervasive culture of hyper-violence” was “astonishing,” concluded an FBI investigation; the take-my-breath away acquittal of a white man, George Zimmerman, who gunned down 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida claiming self-defense; the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, a white policeman absolved of shooting another black boy. Black Lives Matter began as a local reaction to a lack of accountability, racial profiling, and police violence; today it’s a national and international social justice movement “committed to struggling together and to imagining and creating a world free of anti-Blackness, where every black person has the social, economic, and political power to thrive.”

The clip is a snapshot of the disturbing and rousing stories, revelations, and emotions voiced in When They Call You A Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter memoir. Page after page of poetic and unflinching prose depicting “a stunning betrayal of human dignity.”

Backed up by eye-opening data and calls to action by a string of past and present writers, poets, advocates, scholars, and journalists, the memoir illuminates the gravity of consequences on children, families, and communities when they are systemically oppressed by “racism, sexism, classism, and heteronormativity,” enormously complicated by circumstances that doom them.

Shutting down the GM plant Cullors’ father, Alton, worked at in their Black and Latino “cash poor” Van Nuys neighborhood in Los Angeles is that kind of mortal blow. In these impoverished communities, so many are unable to lift themselves up and out without community supports and healthy outlets. Instead, substance abuse, gangs, physical and mental illness fosters and festers, which the “prison industrial complex” feeds on, explains Cullors, grinding down in the harshest of ways the message that your lives do not matter.

We think we know about these things, how far we’ve come and have far we’ve got to go. This slender memoir packs an impressive amount into showing us how much we really don’t know and how even more daunting the work we must do really is.

One reason it moves us so is the book feels like two books in one. Black lives do not matter parts and black lives do matter parts, blended together.

“What is the impact of not being valued?” Cullors asks, answering with words of profound sorrow, grief, and loss: “Wounds that went past the sinew and bones, laid claim to the marrow.” Then, “something deeper than sadness, an aching and hopelessness that finds home at a cellular level.”

It’s one thing to read statistics that 80% of those imprisoned in LA county jails suffer from drug addiction and 20% mental illness; it’s quite another to absorb what happened to Cullors biological father, Gabriel, whom she first met when she was twelve years old. In and out of her life for he was in and out of prison, in and out of 12-step programs that she attended too, witnessing his pain, buoying him. Provocatively she questions the fairness of instilling a belief that overcoming addiction is all within the power of the individual after seeing her father defeated by outside forces that were not held accountable for rendering worthless the power he mustered.

The tragedy of Gabriel’s vanishing is magnified as the newfound, big, noisy, Louisiana-roots family Cullors feels wonderfully right at home with is held together by this generous man – and suddenly they’re not. Imprisoned for succumbing to an addiction that sentences him to a life of depression, believing his life does not matter. “You can wake up one morning and find anyone, maybe everyone, gone.” A young heart becomes a “shattered heart.”

Yet, in the black lives matter parts that heart has the strength to be there, with so much love, for her brother who is repeatedly brutalized in prison when the place he desperately needs is a psychiatric hospital. It’s not clear whether his life sentence of schizoaffective disorder came first throwing him into jail, or the violence perpetrated on him in prison triggered the psychopathy. What is absolutely clear is that once he’s diagnosed, the worst place to be is locked up without any medicine, counseling, and humaneness.

Cullors’ tenderheartedness for her mother Cherice who works from 6am to 10pm to eek out a living for her family is another black lives do matter part. It’s remarkable how much love, hope, and spirit Cullors possesses in spite of it all.

I finished reading this stunning memoir on the Friday before we honor what Martin Luther King, Jr. fought for, stood for. That morning cable news anchors and commentators kept using a vulgar word in quoting the vulgarity and racial venom spouted by America’s 45th President about the black and brown peoples from Haiti, El Salvador, and 55 African nations. The release of this memoir isn’t just perfectly timed to remembering a civil rights icon; it’s timed to the “civil rights crisis of our time.”

This is not a political blog. But, as MSNBC anchor Stephanie Rule said on that unforgettable Friday, “this isn’t about politics, it’s about decency.” And about morality, equality, the character and soul of a nation. For contrary to the title of Georgetown University professor Peter Edelman’s Not a Crime to be Poor, in Cullors’ America it is a crime to be poor, and we learn big business.

The title of the memoir, co-authored with the former editor of Essence magazine, “the first mainstream publication to tell our story,” is an audacious reversal of the truths told: black people are the ones being terrorized.

The prose moves us, in many ways. In the enormous pride expressed for a long-lost grandmother:

“with a fourth-grade education who survived Jim Crow hatred and vicious rapes and unconscionable poverty and brutal domestic violence so she could sit on the other side of it all and still know most of us who had so much more than she ever did, that at the end of the day, from love we come. To love we must return.”

She moves us in her compassion for a toiling mother who keeps her emotions in check to survive but when her son, Monte, is wheeled into a courtroom tied down to a gurney and raging, his mental illness on full public display, she cannot stop sobbing in public.

There’s also prose that makes references to pop culture, urban slang, and justice organizations I was unfamiliar with. The Urban Dictionary came in handy! All with an eye towards opening our eyes up to diversity, tolerance, kindness, affirmation, healing.

Cullors is a courageous, peaceful, spiritual fighter. A 21st Century Civil Rights Leader who eloquently calls out fifty years after we lost Martin Luther King, Jr.

I wanted to start 2018 with an especially meaningful book. Here it is!

Lorraine

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Three Daughters of Eve 1

A wealthy Turkish woman’s identity crisis – implications for us (Istanbul 2016; Oxford England 2000-2002): What’s it like to be Turkish? The only Muslim country secularized by law, separating religion from the state. What’s it like to live in contemporary Istanbul, a teaming, ancient city overlooking the Bosphorus Strait? A gateway between East and West, where religion and politics encompass and bump up against each other.

Map via Wikimedia Commons,
created by User:NormanEinstein [CC-BY-SA-3.0]

Turkey has become such a hotbed for terrorism. I wanted to understand Turkey from a novelistic perspective. I went searching for Turkey through the eyes of its number one female author, Elif Shafak. Along the way, I found warnings for America.

With a population around 15 million, Istanbul is Turkey’s largest city and the second largest in the world. This city of “seven hills, two continents, three seas” (Black Sea, Sea of Marmara, Aegean Sea) is not only geographically at the crossroads, but its country globally pivotal. A Republic and its people important to get to know, making Three Daughters of Eve, the author’s tenth and newest novel (others also set in Istanbul), deserving attention.

“It’s very tiring to be a Turk,” says Shafak. “It’s a very polarized, bitterly politicized country,” she goes on to explain. “As countries become more authoritarian, as they slide backwards the way we have been sliding backwards and tumble into nationalism, isolationism, or populism, I think the society also changes, not only the governments or the politicians but also the society.” Is Shafak talking about Turkey, or America?

America 2017 is going through an identity crisis that feels as troubled, shaken up, and soul-searching as Shafak’s exquisitely torn, questing Istanbul protagonist Peri. Beautiful, thirty-five, well-to-do, and well-educated, yet what defines Peri the most is how unhappy and anxious she is, and has been for a very long time.

To understand Peri’s sadness and disharmony, one must also have a sense of her country’s pathos and fissures, a long, complicated history that cannot possibly be achieved in a single work. Three Daughters of Eve seems a fine place to start.

Many statements will give you pause like this one by Peri’s secular, “freethinking,” brooding father Mensur: “What happened to my sweet country?” Veiled yet underpinning that pained question are similar sentiments Americans are asking themselves, whether they feel their country has been sweet to them or not. What is happening to America? We’re bewildered like Peri.

One good thing about American politics 2017 is that it’s expanded and changed our reading tastes, as we try to grapple with what’s happening, or could happen. Shafak as a novelist, journalist, activist, and international speaker aims to do the same.

Peri, temperamentally and situationally, is exceptionally serious for these are exceptionally serious times. Her deeply religious mother, Selma, attributes her differentness to being “an unusually intense and introverted person.” Nature versus Nurture? No, I don’t think so. Peri’s spiritual angst seems firmly rooted in having grown up in a perennially at-odds, acrimonious household. No love is shown between her pious mother and drinking father, and a terrifically disturbing, turning point event befalls one of her brothers, when she was an impressionable seven-year-old in the late eighties. Reflective of the Republic’s extremely powerful military and history of political coups, ugly military practices in the name of protecting the state that will send chills down your spine. Peri, and her family, are privy to only so much; the reader, intentionally, knows far more.

Peri’s salvation, sustenance, and immersion in literature and scholarship fits her thirsting-for-guidance, solitary nature. She’s the spiritual, ethical voice posing the hard, far-reaching theological, philosophical, moral, and existential questions, seeking a place she belongs in her highly divisive world. In today’s Istanbul, that means she’s examining secularism over religion and other spiritual/mystical beliefs, nationalism, modernism, and capitalism amid a male-centric society, political volatilities, and senseless violence. Shafak’s Peri was made for the times.

Elif Shafak’s prose resonates with feeling. In part because she subscribes to the freeing view that a storyteller should “write what you can feel” (not just what you know). Listen in to her passionate TED talk, the same passion you’ll find in her writing.

So how do we feel about Peri? Turkey? First and foremost, that danger lurks. Danger that hits us in the opening sentence when respectable Peri realizes she’s “capable of killing someone.” Shafak quickly, informatively, skillfully unfolds a chaotic, dramatic street scene that confirms our feeling something is terribly amiss. Foreboding, it sets in motion something mysterious from Peri’s past, which drives the plot. It’s not until we’re more than halfway through do we put the pieces together.

In that jarring opening scene, Peri gets stuck in what feels like the worst traffic jam in the world. She’s driving in her expensive Land Rover with her snippy teenage daughter, Deniz, en route to a lavish dinner party at a CEO’s mansion, where she’ll be meeting up with her “self-made,” much-older husband, Adnan, and others who’ve made something of themselves, likable or not. What takes place on that eerily named Mute Poet Street is an early indication of the concessions, anger, disillusionment, and uncertainties Peri’s bottled up for years.

The national hero who established secular Turkey was Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, for whom the country was named, and whose democratic principles are part of a movement called Kemalism.

Among the Istanbulites who worship him is Mensur, Peri’s father, whom she’s closest to, while her mother is preoccupied with praying, fasting, and cleaning, growing increasingly obsessive. It’s Mensur who consistently and wholeheartedly encourages and supports his daughter’s education. So when Peri makes a gargantuan cultural and emotional leap to attend Oxford University, it’s her traditional mother who strongly opposes.

Suppression of intellectual freedoms comes through loud and clear, with damaging consequences. Shafak, not surprisingly, is an activist for women’s rights (among other causes.) She’s the Muslim feminist the inner Peri yearns to be, but feels constrained by her culture and experiences. As women in America 2017 are rising up, Shafak pushes buttons.

The reader hopes at Oxford Peri finds a comfortable footing that encourages confidence and assertiveness when she becomes friends (though by happenstance not self-determination) with two very different Muslim women. Together, they compose the three daughters of the title’s name. One is British-Iranian, dubbed the “sinner;”the other, Egyptian-American, the “believer” – thus perpetuating Peri’s outsider status, drawing her to a seminar on God taught by a charismatic, controversial Professor Azur, loved and hated for his highly unorthodox teaching methods. The “God debate” is not only a course, it’s the soul of the novel.

The author has smartly structured her thought-provoking novel to a pace similar to Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer-Prize winning All the Light You Cannot See. Numbering more than sixty chapters, each just a couple of pages longer than Doerr’s. This works for the reader since a lot is packed in each. The unpacking makes for some challenging, broadening, and fascinating reading.

Chapters swing back and forth between Istanbul and England, a bit like Shafak who currently lives in England and returns to Istanbul, her “motherland.” The Istanbul 2016 chapters alternate back and forth to Peri’s childhood years and to university days and trauma. As they do, events on the evening of 2016 progress and devolve. Unfinished Oxford years are strategically set right before and after 9/11.

The God seminar is like a group therapy course, whereby students are pressed to shed their assumptions and prejudices, leaving them vulnerable. You’ll see how wrought with complications that turns out to be for Peri.

Peri feels like she’s drifting, sinking in one of the seas surrounding her stressed city. If America 2017 has made you feel like that too – afloat, perhaps lost at sea – you will relate to Peri, profoundly.

Lorraine

PS This looks like my last post of the year. Wishing you the comfort, love, peace, and happiness Peri struggles for.

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The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living 2

Currier and Ives escapism (Vermont, present-day): The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living is a feel-good recipe to lighten a year bombarded by darkness. Louise Miller, a real-life baker – a pastry chef – has whipped up some delicious, warm nostalgia pie.

Her treat arrives for the 2017 holiday season wrapped in its new Christmas-y paperback cover. The 2016 hardback design also harks back to old-fashioned memories.

Miller’s debut confection is set in a fictional town in rural Vermont – Guthrie. Yet its character, culture, traditions, and landscape feel as authentic as the name Guthrie – Woody, that is, the folk hero. Apropos as folk music (and contra-dancing accompanying it) thrive here. Stringed instruments are prominent – fiddle, banjo, dulcimer, guitar, mandolin.

Like so much in the novel, the author/baker mixes and blends fiction with real. Miller plays the banjo; Livvy, 32, her main character, does too, handed-down from the father who raised her, now deceased (her mother left them, she’s gone too). Martin, 40 – the romantic entanglement in the maple-sugary air – is a fiddle player; his endearing, ill dad, Henry, used to play too.) Henry’s the reason Martin has returned to Guthrie from Seattle, making him an outlier as his two older brothers (and their families) remained nearby. A close-knit crew – something Livvy never had. Martin’s absence, his non-conformism, keenly felt by his siblings, though their dear mother, aptly named Dolly, shows no outwardly signs of resentment. Though, in this small, gossipy New England town, villagers tend to hide their personal feelings.

Also flourishing in these parts, novelistically and realistically, are apple pie baking, fiercely competitive baking contests, and apple growing (apple pie, the State’s official pie); annual festivals; maple-syruping (Vermont our largest producer); cozy country inns; and romantic sleigh rides.

Miller invites us to come take a good look around. Here again, real life pipes in as you’ll want to do more than armchair traveling – drive here if you’re within striking distance. Livvy is, at least when we meet her. An unsettled soul, she’s moved around a bit, all big cities. Like Miller, she lives in Boston, about a three hour drive to Guthrie.

Head to the Maple Sugar Inn. To the homey kitchen, where you’ll find Livvy laboring away much of the time. Trained at the renowned Culinary Institute of America, baking is far more than a career for Livvy. A “labor of love,” it’s her creative outlet, what she excels at, and how she retreats and soothes herself. Miller paints a realistic, less glamorous picture of the incredibly long hours demanded of a professional chef. When the novel opens, this James Beard award-nominated chef flees to Guthrie to be rescued by her best friend Hannah who lives there (married to the town’s doctor), after a calamitous incident at a private club’s five-hundred-dollar-a-plate charity fundraiser Livvy was sous cheffing for. Hannah did save the day, introducing her to an innkeeper looking for a new dessert chef.

Meet Margaret, the inn’s proprietor, one tough-cookie. Her gradual softening to Livvy is a highlight – an unlikely bond until the story evolves. Margaret is prim and proper compared to Livvy who literally stands out.“Cute at best,” though we’re not so sure as she’s forever dyeing her hair – wild colors in the Manic Panic Electric lineup, many inspired by foods like banana, candied apples, cotton candy pink. The visual rendering exaggerates her bohemian nature, which fits with unconventional images we may have of Vermonters. A hardy, diverse bunch – old-timers and new – attracted to the State’s free-spiritedness, tranquil beauty, farm-to-table sustainable lifestyle.

Bring a wad of napkins for Livvy is serving mouth-watering desserts, from simple to fancy: apple pies (of course!), sugary-glazed cinnamon buns, white chocolate mousse, huckleberry clafouti, pumpkin crème brulee, buttermilk custard, sour cherry napolean, bavarian torte … Grab a couple of tissues too as there’s sadness and pathos in this novel of “longing and joy.”

Louise Miller writes with the same warmth as she bakes. (Take a look at her sweets on her foodie blog: https://louisethebaker.tumblr.com/.) Warmth that’s seen in Livvy who wears her emotions on her sleeve – a “pudding-soft heart” – and in the unexpected friendships she makes with inn staff and Martin’s loving family. They’ve been spared the kind of loneliness that “becomes a part of who you are,” Livvy tells us.

It’s the warmth of the prose about the meaning of Home that gives the novel so much heart. In an enlightening interview, the author offers insight into how she evokes those feelings and yearnings, which explains, I think, how she landed a two-book contract deal with a prestigious imprint. (Her second novel, The Late Bloomer’s Club, comes out Summer 2018. I can’t wait to read it after this charmer): Miller studied art so she thinks visually, envisions scenes before she writes them. Indeed, The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living is ripe for the movie screen.

Livvy has followed her mother’s prescription to “always do what you can to make life sweeter.” A culinary artist drawn to the “predictability” of baking versus the instability her life has been. Along with her vintage tastes in clothing and unusual living conditions (for much of the novel Livvy lives in the inn’s sugarhouse), there’s humor and quirkiness to her lively character in contrast to the quiet seriousness of Martin’s.

The novel is like comfort food, mixing and blending fine ingredients. This recipe starts with an appetizing opening line: “The night I lit the Emerson Club on fire had been perfect for making meringue.” Restless Livvy who can’t imagine country living finds peacefulness in the beautiful Green Mountain State. Miller describes the physical setting with clever prose using food metaphors, such as:

“The dark limbs of the apple trees were already trimmed in a thick coating of snow. Together they looked like layers of cake and frosting.”

Ingredients are added in order, month by month in an unnamed year, taking us from September’s colorful harvest season through the winter into June. In July, an epilogue is whipped up, running for another year, answering questions that keep us turning pages. Chiefly, what happens to Livvy and Martin? Both came to Guthrie temporarily. Music is the special ingredient that binds. When the flavor gets intense between Livvy and Martin cool it down with the inn’s avuncular chef, Al, twice Livvy’s age, who touches us in the way he genuinely cares about her. Whisk in a key ingredient that smooths it all throughout: Livvy’s sidekick, a big, lovable Irish Wolfhound named Salty.

“Vermont in June is like Oz,” Livvy says. Which makes The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living  feel fairy-tale like. It’s been a while since I read one with this much wistfulness. With America 2017 tasting oh-so-bitter, savor this sweet holiday gift.

Lorraine

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Bleaker House: Chasing My Novel to the End of the World

An extreme choice to pursue a writer’s dream (Falkland Islands, a few years ago): What if you had A Room of Your Own? If you could go anywhere in the world for up to three months to write the novel of your dreams? Where would you go?

An enviable position for aspiring writers. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity Nell Stevens answered when she was twenty-seven, a Global Fellow from Oxford, England completing her MFA at Boston University’s creative writing program. How can you not be intrigued about Stevens when her choice was the “bottom of the world” – the Falkland Islands, in the wintertime?

The Falklands are an archipelago in the southern hemisphere, en route to the Antarctic Peninsula, where seasons are reversed from ours. So the author spent her summer reawakening in a land “stranger, wilder, colder, and bleaker” than she could imagine. In your wildest sunshiny dreams, the Falkland Islands, in the dead of winter when the sun rarely shines, would be a strange, wild idea.

Falkland Islands
Via Wikimedia Commons, by User:Sting [CC-BY-SA-3.0]

Besides, it’s not a place you’d typically dream of. Maybe if you’re British you’d be curious since it’s a British territory. And if you’re a wildlife enthusiast, a nature adventurer, the Falklands could be on your bucket list for a summer destination, particularly to witness the greatest colonization of Gentoo penguins on earth. But our intrepid author ventured there even when nature lovers don’t, when “there is more nothing than there is something.” A place “so desolate, so isolated” and so gray Stevens resorts to describing the landscape’s colors in amusing shades of gray like seal-flank gray.

Before you get the wrong impression that Bleaker House is a bleak, dreary read, better set the record straight. Key to characterizing it, alluded to above, is that’s its darn funny. Smiling, chuckling, laugh-out loud funny.

Jacketed with an adorable penguin on the grayish-front cover and accolades on the back saying it’s “fun to read” and “charming,” Stevens’ debut is clever and full of wit. Though there’s nothing humorous about her anxieties, self-effacement, and feelings of worthlessness if she doesn’t produce a novel with characters that feel real by the time she hits thirty. Until now, her writing has been judged dry and pointless, rejected.

Stringent airline restrictions led to paring down essentials to the barest minimum, a problem that plagues. Yet the determined author made sure her hefty copy of Bleak House, from which she quotes, accompanied her (along with her Kindle), prioritizing intellectual substance over food and ensuring a nagging reminder of the multitude of vivid characters Dickens created versus her vexing work-in-progress. Which makes this a serious, intimate look at the struggles of self-actualization and becoming an artist packaged in an inventive, whimsical way.

Stevens goes far, geographically and artistically. Bleaker House is billed as “a work of memoir and fiction.” A memoir broken up with fictional writing pieces in the form of spreadsheets, short-stories, and the obsessed over novel-in-development. An unusual, experimental journey, reflected in an unusual, experimental narrative.

Creative formats serve multiple purposes. First, to offer insight into the motivation behind the words stated in her internship application pitching the Falklands. For instance, in a spreadsheet column she wrote: “There has never been a literary novel set there.” Alongside it, another column in which she candidly reveals: “If I can teach myself the art of loneliness, then perhaps the art of writing will come more easily to me.”

Elsewhere we learn she chose an empty place assuming “zero distractions” to achieve “effortless concentration.” Contrary to what you might think, Stevens left behind an active social life (albeit a dissatisfying love life) and a happy family life (absent the drama that can inspire compelling novels). So her thinking went along these lines: if she forfeits all distractions, her novel will burst forth from agonizing blank pages, animated by a dramatic landscape.

Stevens pokes fun of herself to prove her writing is flawed. She doesn’t just tell us she shows us, exaggerating the point eccentrically. Her short-stories, “The Personal Assistant” and “Misadventure,” are wacky, fall flat, and verge crudely, an attempt to be bold and critical of herself in an outlandish, condescending way. To her dismay, this enterprise continues: her novel is slow, slow going and corny. Since it’s set in the Falklands, she remixes the absurdity of what’s she’s finding, but there’s a gem of poignancy in her solitary character, Ollie, who parallels her feelings of “ridiculousness and doubt, loneliness, hardship.”

Stevens is a student well-versed in planning and organizing, someone who counts days, words, calories, and the only luxury she’s brought: chocolates. She’s also someone drawn to challenging herself, such as the time she went to Lebanon to teach English in a refugee camp and war broke out. She seeks to put herself in life-changing positions to make her life more interesting for writing and to grow as a person.

The Falklands is a test. This syllabus is aptly dubbed: “isolation taster course.” Grade this student A+ for identifying what must be one of the most isolating places in the world in the winter, marked by a “guestless guest house” on an island archipelago totaling around only 2,000 to 3,000 residents. This student doesn’t cut corners for she could have at least selected Stanley, the capital of the Falklands (though she stayed a week to get acclimated and conduct research in the government’s archives.) Instead, she chose Bleaker Island, population two, plus a housekeeper who thinks the printer is the Internet – a “disconnected life.”

The Falklands are located in the South Atlantic Ocean east of Argentina. In 1982, Argentina invaded the islands. Britain won the war but the aftermath is still very much felt, which the author uncomfortably discovered when she arrived in Stanley, palpably suspicious of strangers (and writers, presumably journalists came in droves to report on the war).

Just like her fiction, her journey “unfolds in increasing degrees of strangeness” as she finds herself in a “strange landscape” that’s “not so much a different country as a different planet.” Stevens wasn’t prepared for all the discomfort.

Remember how snail-like the Internet was when it first emerged? She needs to buy scratch cards with magical codes to access it, if you’re lucky enough to find a magical card in the first place. Food is also scarce, expensive, and “fresh” produce and fruit precious. The news is doled out on DVDs, a week at a time. Sure there’s radio, but mostly there’s indomitable weather, more like forces of nature, and relentless solitude, except for a few lovely days with the lovely owners of the guest house she’s staying in, the one without the guests.

At one point, the author wonders: “How to fathom the bleakness of Bleaker?” She decides it’s bleaker than anything she’s seen before.

This memoir-embedded-with fiction is sprinkled with tidbits from the long-time director of her program, novelist Leslie Epstein. The author tries her hardest to follow his “tips on writing and life,” but when did writing and life go as planned?

“Passionately hungry,” Nell Stevens couldn’t have predicted the fruits of her labors. What she finds is more precious than the single potato she cherished.

Lorraine

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Dogs at the Perimeter

Broken memories, broken souls, and a broken country (Montreal 2005; flashbacks to the Cambodian genocide 1975-1979): Madeleine Thien is a literary star in Canada. She ought to be one in America too.

If only Dogs at the Perimeter was dystopian fiction. Yet historically, Thien’s searing novel really did happen. Which makes her sensitive approach to telling horrific history more laudable.

Thien focuses on the psychic trauma to survivors of unimaginable horrors when “nothing seemed real.” What happens to their brains, to the area that regulates memories? What’s lost? What’s left?

Canadian-born Thien creatively sets the contemporary portion of her historical novel at a brain research center in Montreal to drive home the memory theme. (She lives in Montreal, where there’s a leading neurology center.) There, two characters propel the telling: Janie, a researcher in a lab that studies brain activity, and her senior neuroscientist boss and friend, Dr. Hiroji Matsui.

Thien has us thinking about memory in terms of fragments, opening with a mini-Epilogue (and later other mini-introductions) she calls “Fragments.” Fragmentation of memories, minds, souls, and an entire society is the devastation she examines. Fragmented also in the sense that the author tells us precisely what she wants us to know and leaves much out. I probably spent as much time googling as reading this 253-page paperback release. (The novel was originally published in 2012.) That it so provoked is a testament to its eye-opening engagement.

In a lengthy, fascinating interview, Thien says Cambodia’s genocide was essentially “invisible”:

“It’s one of those genocides that seems to be known at the basic level – when you say “Khmer Rouge” people know – but after that, there’s not a lot of knowledge.”

Astonishing, for these killing fields took place well-within recent memories of the Holocaust, also under the guise of making life better for the masses. History repeating itself, grimly. Where were the lessons learned?

Thien’s haunting account uses what may well be a conservative figure – two million (out of a population of 7 million at the time) – to cite the number of Cambodians tortured, murdered and perished due to starvation and other bodily breakdowns at the brutal hands of the Communist Khmer Rouge regime, after a five-year civil war and before another. (The UN finally brokered a peace accord to end an “infinite war” in 1989.)

No one knows for sure how many Cambodians were wiped out. Chillingly echoing Nazi fanaticism of keeping track of their crimes against humanity, Pol Pot’s holocaust also kept meticulous records, so perhaps a more accurate accounting will come to light when an extraordinary museum is erected in the capital city, Phnom Penh. Cambodia’s ground zero for it was from here that all the “city people” were forced to evacuate into the jungles, rice fields, and schools-turned-prisons, tearing apart families, leaving behind and losing everything, including identities and names.

A $40 million Sleuk Rith Institute dedicated to memory, justice, and healing was the architectural vision of Zaha Hadid, whose sudden death appears to have delayed the ambitious project. Thien’s memory theme eerily resounds within the envisioned Museum of Memory. Until then, the Documentation Center of Cambodia, referred to in the novel, is piecing these fragments together, supported by Yale University’s Genocide Studies Program. Thien’s determined novel aims to do the same for us.

The novel is all the more important right now as America is going through a dark period in our history, when we’re seriously worried about the fragility of our democracy and on high-alert to the threats of totalitarian governments. An interesting convergence of pertinent events is happening, or just ended. One is Angelina Jolie’s film First They Killed My Father, now streaming on Netflix, inspired by two Cambodian survivors: a friendship and the memoir by Haing S. Ngor. An exhibit recently closed at the U. S. Holocaust Museum, and there’s been a surge in dystopian fiction titles like 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale, and It Can’t Happen Here back onto bestseller lists. All trying to make sense of the senseless, carrying warnings about freedom, morality, vigilance.

Note: Ngor’s heartsickening words preface the novel: “Tell the gods what is happening to me.” Which Dogs at the Perimeter does in Thien’s unique way. Ngor won an Academy Award for his supporting role in the 1984 film, The Killing Fields. Troubling that it seems we need to be hit over the head again filmically to jog our memories, or etch a memory, about the worst that can happen to vulnerable and complacent people under evil despots.

The artful author has created an artistic website for the novel that includes delicate, entangled, lace-like drawings related to the brain, a depiction labeled “minimalist,” alluding to and quite descriptive of Thien’s writing style.

Her first introductory fragment informs us that Janie has not heard from Hiroji in three months, having disappeared without a trace. Others are drawn from Hiroji’s files Janie finds in his apartment where she’s holed up in. Immediately, the reader is seized with curiosity as to why she’s taken up such a bare, sorrowful existence, apparently separated from her husband, Navin, and their 7-year-old son, Kiri, whom she adores.

Other fragments send messages about the brain from Hiroji’s notes on neurological cases of patients losing their memories and minds. Then, Janie stumbles on his personal letters, which arouse fragments of memories when she was a girl in Cambodia terrorized under the Khmer Rouge. Some memories are tenderly evoked, like the sound of her father’s voice echoing like “rainfall.” As these fragments accumulate and sharpen, we painfully sense and feel Janie’s deep-seated, emotional turmoil and the Cambodian thread connecting her to Hiroji, which might explain his vanishing. The details we’re given are still relatively scanty, allowing the author to deftly prepare us for what’s to come.

Chapters alternate between Janie and Hiroji’s names, sharing fragments of past histories. As Thien’s minimalist style reveals more, their chapter names are altered, jarring us, reflecting their former lives and selves (and those of significant others). Even Cambodian children took up arms and spied on millions the Communists deemed enemies and useless. An entire citizenry trusted no one if they had any chance of staying alive. Radicalism that sought to erase every element of a progressive society, destroy a beautiful country, and rock Buddhist beliefs.

The author threads her chapters finely, laying bare fragments of the atrocities. More than enough to rip our hearts, disturb existentially.

People went to “great lengths in the hope that they never will be found.” Dogs at the Perimeter takes an unusual approach to explain why.

Lorraine

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