If All the Seas Were Ink

(I’ve fallen in love with memoirs. Tweaked the byline to reflect.)

An intimate, enlightening memoir on the meaning of life stirred by seven-and-a-half years studying and embracing the Talmud (Jerusalem, present-day): Ilana Kurshan has written a remarkable, soul-searching memoir.

Scholarly yet wonderfully accessible, spiritual yet infused with the “simple pleasures” of everyday life. For someone who is an extremely private person, it’s remarkably self-exposing. A bold, beautiful leap, though Kurshan says it’s “less an act of courage than a leap of faith.” Her faith, Judaism, is profound. As is her eloquent memoir.

If All the Seas Were Ink is rooted in the wisdom of an ancient, sacred text set down and revisited by rabbis at least fifteen centuries ago. Considered one of the most questioning bodies of literature in the world, the Talmud, also referred to as the Torah, is “a text for those who are living the questions rather than for those who found the answers.” Kurshan purposefully and cogently probes these questions seeking deeper understanding of the beauty and hardships of life. Fervent, “obsessed,” about the power of literature and poetry as a driving life force, she rises above her self-doubts to practice what she wholeheartedly believes: that it’s her divine obligation to impart what she’s learned, in striving to be the best person she can be.

If you’re wondering how the teachings of very-old rabbis, studiers of the Torah – the basis for all Jewish life – have any relevance to your life today, whether you’re Jewish or not, I encourage you to read If All the Seas Were Ink. I can’t imagine there isn’t something going on in your life that’s not questioned, touched upon, here. “The Talmud surprised me at nearly every turn,” the author says, who surprises us by making writings you might otherwise find “dry” so relatable and relevant, thus compelling. “The text will illuminate your soul, and your soul in turn will illuminate the text.”

Studying the Talmud – the Babylonian Talmud, not the Jerusalem Talmud, for it’s the most examined and determinative – takes an incredible commitment of time, discipline, and reflection. You don’t have to be as learned as Kurshan, a literary agent, translator and editor of Hebrew and English works who literally walks around with a book in her hand to the point of breaking bones; or raised in a rabbinical home situated on the property of a synagogue; or as dedicated to your faith (“an anchor, if not a life raft”). But you do have to be strongly motivated and inquiring for the long-haul as Torah study is a seven-and-a-half year journey called daf yomi, which means daily page in Hebrew. Those pages total 2,711 double-sided, organized in thirty-seven volumes called tractates, covering five hundred years of Jewish legal, religious, philosophical, ethical judgments, beliefs, and traditions.

Daily study suited the author’s intellectual and industrious disposition exceedingly well. “I cannot help but engage the text because the text engages me.” Still, it took her a year to commit even when her life was aching for direction and comfort. That she found “the most meaningful way to study Torah is by searching for the interconnections and resonances between Torah and the rest of one’s reading, learning, and living” fits all she reveals to us about herself and where she was during a painful period in her life.

“Learning Torah, like falling in love, is supposed to set us on fire.” It sure did for Kurshan. We are the beneficiaries of that elation, fueled by her needs, zeal, and view that “only religion can inspire us to connect with other people in meaningful ways so the universe does not seem so vast and lonely.”

The year before Kurshan undertook Torah study she was 27, depressed and lost, alone and abandoned in a foreign land after moving to Israel from New York for a marriage that lasted only a year. She speaks candidly and movingly about her feelings of loneliness, sadness, failure, and shame, harkening back to an earlier time when she suffered from anorexia. The characteristics of young women afflicted with this disease match up with her frank admissions of “compulsiveness” and “self-denial,” making her story even more uplifting because when she completed the first cycle of her studies she was joyfully remarried and the mother of a toddler and twin baby girls. Today, the author is the mother of four, counting her blessings.

Ilana Kurshan is a resourceful, multi-tasker who aims to make every minute count. (She laminates poems to pull out and memorize when she swims in the pool her literary office overlooks!)  But she didn’t come up with this creative approach to studying the Torah, though it would be plausible if she did.

Invented in 1923 by Rabbi Meir Shapiro “as a way of unifying the Jewish world,” the process means that on any given day in the multi-year program of study Jews (and non-Jews) from around the world are open to the exact same page. Imagine having an interest in common to unite us with strangers? A concept the author expresses as a “worldwide web of conversational threads.” One tiny slice of how she brings the spiritual world right into our contemporary one.

Kurshan wraps herself up in the teachings of the Torah to guide the choices she makes and how she lives. Dedicated to running too, she chants prayers amidst the old, hilly streets of Jerusalem. Her literary passion is ingrained in her spirit and soul, more than anyone I know. So besides lighting up rabbinic literature, If All the Seas Were Ink is suffused with an eclectic assortment of references to classical and modern writers and romantic poets – Byron, Coleridge, Tennyson, Emily Dickenson, Edna Dt. Vincent Millay, Wallace Stevens, Shakespeare, Nancy Milford, Margaret Drabble, D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, and more.  It’s a treat to see how she blends sacred and secular words and thoughts.

Ilana Kurshan’s staunch feminism is another treat. She grew up in a conservative synagogue – men and women sat and prayed together – versus her ultra-orthodox husband’s tradition of separating the genders. She explains that it’s only been in recent decades that women are tackling the Talmud, also male-dominated in attitudes and customs, owing in part to daily podcasts and online free resources translated in English. (This translator translates all Hebrew for us; she wants us to understand.)

“Learning daf yomi is like zooming through a safari on a motorbike; there is so much to take in, but you are moving at an impossibly rapid clip” so the author kept a journal and wrote poems that would jog her memory. “These journal entries unfolded as a record not just of my learning but also of my life.”

That life, now 37, is full yet still questing. The memoirist asks “how much can we reasonably be expected to change ourselves?” in response to the Talmud’s questioning what we can and cannot change. Kurshan provides us with an answer to this one: quite a bit. As long as we’re willing to take risks, push ourselves with grit and determination, and take stock of, be grateful for, what we have. I, for one, feel grateful for her insightful memoir and think you will too.

Lorraine

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A Good Country

The radicalization of an American-Iranian teenager living along the Southern California coast (2011 to 2014): A Good Country is like no other novel I’ve blogged about. Maybe like no other novel you’ve read.

It couldn’t be more timely and forceful in its quest for answers to compelling questions. How does a fun-seeking, peace-loving, advantaged American-Iranian teenager, Rez Courdee, living in a place some would call God’s country, become radicalized?

If you’re looking for a single, definitive moment to pinpoint when and why that happens you won’t find it here. It’s unrealistic, complex issues not easy to define. What you will find are themes, circumstances, and a series of events – everyday and catastrophic – that culminate in the fate Rez chooses. The novel’s strength resides in its authenticity, its frank depiction of a privileged teenager’s life in long, flowing prose that manages to be brutally honest and poetically tender at the same time.

Rez’s transformation is at odds with our perceptions of a kid who has a lot going for him, thus his changes-of-heart are even more confounding and provocative. An academic star, a chess player. That spells nerdy and isolating in a teen’s world, worsened by Rez feeling alienated at home. So, if you’ve been hanging out with three rich, pushing-the-limits friends since eighth grade and you’re an only child longing for a brother, yearning “to be inside the circle,” acceptance by your peers is all the more seductive.

When the novel opens we begin to see Rez’s persona vacillating. He’s a rising junior at a tony prep school in Laguna Beach, an exclusive enclave of spectacular homes hugging the southern California coast with its breathtaking views and legendary surfing culture. This is not the SoCal surfing culture made famous by the Beach Boys in the sixties. This music is “anger and confusion.”

Laguna Beach, by Patrick Pelster [CC BY-SA 3.0 de], via Wikimedia Commons

Just as the lyrics resonate with these kids, the prose grabs us. It sings along naturally, uninterrupted by removing all quotation marks. An interesting technique as dialogue is plentiful and not watered down, so we’re constantly hit with angst and “aimless rage.” Rez, of course, caves in to his friends’ taunts, soon also getting high on drugs and sex and yes, surfing. Which we wish will be the buffer, the savior for the path Rez seems headed for. Sadly, it’s not.

Rez’s journey starts off when he’s still a good and dutiful son to his horribly strict father, Sal, a physically violent and emotionally abusive “tyrant without a cause.” His mother has no power in this family, painfully docile, quietly cooking the “oldest food in the world.” She’s not even allowed to have her friends over to their house, so her presence for Rez and us is minimal. Its Rez’s father, whom he’s rightfully scared of, he needs to escape from. Plus, he’s terribly lonesome and bored at home, more reasons to escape. Which he does, with “diversions.”

The novel is divided into three parts. In Part I, Rez seeks the companionship of the small band of “brothers” mentioned above, nicknamed the Apostles because their names come from the Bible – Peter, James, John. When he realizes they aren’t brotherly, we find him in Part II befriending a different group. Arash and Fatima, childhood friends, have families in Syria. They become dedicated to the teachings of Islam. At first, Rez dismisses their piety, their praying at mosques. But as their faithfulness deepens, he wants to understand the peace and brotherhood they worship. A developmental process, once again influenced by his peers, maturing in Part III.

Rez is continually searching for his identity, asking how many “selves” does a person have?  How to be whole? “How to become a man?”

Laleh Khadevi was a human rights documentarian before she became an award-winning novelist. Iranian-American, she teaches creative writing at the University of San Francisco. So while A Good Country is fictional, her daring filmography turns into daring prose. Her lens now shines a glaring light on, and coincides with, the rise in terrorism and anti-Muslim sentiments after 9/11. In fact, the novel tracks seasons, opening in the fall of 2011.

A recent article on social class in America by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Elizabeth Strout offers some food for thought on the theme of powerlessness. She quotes a friend who teaches about the working-class, who told her: “it may be more helpful to think about class not in terms of education level or income level, but in terms of the sense of power that people feel over their lives.”

Feeling appreciated/in-control of your life versus vilified/marginalized may help account for why Rez (Arash and Fatima) are feeling increasingly culturally estranged as resentment towards Muslims heats up. As it does, this intense novel intensifies. Rez falls madly in love with beautiful Fatima, along with an “end-of-the-world tone” propelling him.

One visible way it manifests is surfing. There’s a shift in Rez’s elation with the “fantastic wind” and the “cool water on his skin” to something more profound and troubling. Palpably, his desperation is sharpening. “In the water everything was good again” but when Rez comes up for air he’s still faced with the fallout after the Boston Marathon, San Bernardino, and the Costa Mesa shopping mall attacks.

The most cringe-worthy anti-Muslim sentiments occur at an airport scene when Rez is returning home from Indonesia. An extravagant graduation gift from his father who is now meeker, shamed by his acts of betrayal towards his son and shamed by a demotion at Merck Labs where he’d been Head Scientist.

Pulled aside by security – racial profiling right before our literary eyes – a guard admits to Rez: “we saw your name, your travel destination, your smart-ass attitude, and thought we’d tell you what is at stake.” He goes on to say:

“… your people, who think they are worth a great deal, know that even after making all that money, they are worthless. Their children are worthless, and if this violence continues, their children’s children will be worthless too. The American dream will never play all the way out for you. Do you understand?”

Rather than get outraged, Rez believes “the man was not wrong.” To stay calm, he thinks about the mosque he just visited, welcomed by the iman and brothers. Brotherhood – there it is – the attraction though not necessarily the turning point moment.

Khadivi is never judgmental. She lets the facts speak for themselves. Let’s us form our own opinions, like a gifted documentarian does.

A gifted writer too. For I didn’t even know A Good Country was the last installment in her Kurdish trilogy, spanning three generations of Rez’s family: his Iranian grandfather debuted in The Age of Orphans; his Iranian-American father in The Walking. Obviously, the novel stands well alone, although you can’t help but want to backtrack to gain further insight into Rez’s father’s upbringing to contemplate the impact of those cultural threads.

Isn’t it ironic, heartbreaking and heart-lifting, that the largest population of Muslims in this country – in Texas, a quarter of a million in Houston alone – risked their lives and opened up their mosques to save Americans during Hurricane Harvey?

When will our good country save itself? Become good and whole again?

Lorraine

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The Breakdown

Unreliable Narrator? (British village; July – September, present-day): It’s awfully tempting to compare The Breakdown with B. A. Paris’ knock-out debut Behind Closed Doors, reviewed here a year ago. If you’re wondering if her second novel disappoints because her first was too good an act to follow, the answer is unequivocally no. Both are non-stop, suspenseful novels that get-inside-your-head. Both excel at keeping the tension going and going and going.

How does the author achieve a relentless, psychological pace? Writing is such an elusive, subjective art. Wish there was a definitive blueprint. At best, suppositions.

Paris has an impressive knack for creating unreliable characters. In Behind Closed Doors, the narrator’s perpetrator, her husband, was pathologically unreliable, a psychopath who fooled everyone. This time it’s the narrator herself – thirty-three year-old high school teacher Cass – who is unreliable. We suspect her reliability more than you would otherwise by establishing that her mother had early-onset dementia by forty-four. (Before marrying Matthew a year ago, Cass spent three stressful years caring for her Mom, now deceased.) The author takes this fact further by making sure her protagonist tells us at every twist and turn that she doubts her trustworthiness, fears she may have inherited the disease as she’s been forgetful lately, worried she’s losing her memory, an early symptom. A perfect set-up for us to question who and what to believe is going on.

The second set-up is mirrored in Paris’ first novel. The author orchestrates an opening scene in which the reader senses something ominous is at play. In Behind Closed Doors this happened at a dinner party. In The Breakdown, a thunderstorm is brewing as Cass bids goodbye to colleagues as their summer break kicks-off. The weather worsens. By page three, its palpable her Mini car is no match for the conditions. Matthew called to warn her to stay clear of the short-cut home. Cass intended to heed her husband’s advice, but in the blink of an eye made the kind of decision any driver might have given heavy traffic and no let-up in the wicked downpour. A decision that changes her life.

“Although this road is beautiful by day – it cuts through bluebell woods – its hidden dips and bends will make it treacherous on a night like this. A knot of anxiety balls in my stomach at the thought of the journey ahead. But the house is only fifteen minutes away. If I keep my nerve, and not do anything rash, I’ll soon be home. Still, I put my foot down a little.”

Language is a third element in the author’s highly-effective style. Prose that, like the merciless weather, doesn’t let up. It flows on and on conversationally, naturally, realistically, so Cass feels very familiar to us. She could easily be a friend, a sister, a neighbor, and we’d be someone she’s very comfortable confiding her innermost guilt, worries, and fears, which intensify at a quick pace. Increasingly, Cass finds herself telling little white lies to Matthew and others, worried they’ll also think she’s confused, exhibiting more and more symptoms of dementia. This leads her to isolate herself more and more, dig herself deeper into this mental abyss. In a matter of weeks, she’s spiraled rapidly downhill, terrified of the terror she’s experiencing. At every step of the way, she’s not sure if it’s internal or external, imaginary or real. That’s because Paris has laid the groundwork, by page four, with an incident that ignites her duress.

Let’s turn back onto that haunting road. If it weren’t for the inside jacket cover, you’d be pretty sure Cass’ vehicle was headed for disaster. You wouldn’t be totally off-base as there is a problem with a car – someone else’s. Broken down, pulled over to the side of the road. Cass thinks instinctively, as we might. Should she slow down, see if she can help, or drive by not to risk her own safety?

We like Cass from the beginning for she tries to be a Samaritan, stops beside the car to see if there’s something she can do. What she sees is a woman gazing at her through the dark, wet window, so she can’t make out her face. Since the motorist shows no sign of needing assistance, Cass assumes, as we would, she’s waiting for road assistance to arrive and thus drives home. The next day, Cass learns the woman in the car was found murdered. Who wouldn’t feel guilty? Think we might have saved a life.

On second thought, Cass realizes she too could have been killed. A killer is on the loose. Since she lives not far from the wooded murder site in a charming cottage that’s also isolated, her mind starts working overtime, which ours might do too. But the truth is we’re not like Cass. We wouldn’t let our wariness completely overcome us, paralyze us, because we’re not petrified we’re deteriorating mentally.

What’s the chance that Cass actually knows the murdered woman, named Jane? The two recently met at her best-friend-like-a-sister, Rachel’s workplace. Jane and Cass clicked, even made a plan to get together soon. Of course, the guilt magnifies.

There are indications something is terribly amiss. A series of things – forgetting appointments, promises, conversations, her pocketbook, where her car is parked. Paris ups the ante as these little things get bigger, more alarming, like seeing a knife laying out in her kitchen that could be the one the killer used, returning to it once the police arrive and its gone. Is it hers? Did she forget to put it away? Hallucinate it? Added to all that turmoil is the constant barrage of silent calls she’s now receiving, a “chilling silence.” Matthew tries to calm her down, says the calls are merely solicitors. But Cass senses breathlessness at the other end. Could it be the killer, who saw her car at the scene of the crime?  Is someone stalking her? Or, is her mental state doing the tormenting?

We’re riveted to the pages, on the lookout for clues, aware how the author so cleverly planted a web of seeds in Behind Closed Doors.  Is someone watching her? Or, does poor Cass need some watching? A toxic, brilliant stew.

The title tantalizes too. Does it refer to Jane’s tragic breakdown? Our narrator’s nervous breakdown? Exacerbated by lots of coincidences and having too much idle time alone over a summer break?

You may think you’ve figured this thriller out around page 200. But Paris is smarter than us.

Lorraine

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Happiness: A Memoir: The Crooked Little Road to Semi-After

Life-Affirming (Manhattan/Brooklyn, Northern CA, Durham NC; 2001 to present): If the punch power of a vivid, heart-to-heart memoir doesn’t take your breath away, Heather Harpham’s journey parenting a “human cupcake of a girl” born with a rare, unidentified red blood cell disease should change that.

Oozing with love for Amelia-Grace, there’s so much to say about Harpham’s incredible story, which makes the point is not entirely hers. But a lot has been left out here, so you can read it raw, feel the full brunt force of it. The treatments, decisions, sadness, loneliness, unfairness, relocations, commutes, anger, unfairness, ups and downs. And still the title is Happiness, with slight billing to the frightening road ahead, the crooked little road.

The heartfelt prose stuns and grips, as it brings to life people who’ll touch you. You’ll fall in love with Gracie, care what happens to her. A “little football of a person” who “smelled like sliced apple and salted pretzels” when she entered the world, only to be whisked away moments later from her adoring mother for the first of countless blood transfusions – once every three or four weeks – to survive. Then, when too much iron built up in her system, she had to be hooked up to a cleansing machine for twelve hours every night, forecast for the rest of her life. Harpham didn’t even broach asking about Gracie’s life-expectancy until she was 1½ years old. A 50-50 chance of living beyond twenty-nine are odds no parent should have to hear and bear, which again makes the Happiness title striking.

I once took a class in which the entire semester was focused on the topic of Resilience. Why some people possess it and others are unable to cope. It’s a question you’ll be asking throughout as this story overflows with this almost indescribable quality. Ironic the author believed she was “poorly equipped for hardship.” Wow, nothing could be further from the truth.

The declaration does give you a glimpse into Heather Harpham’s happiness perspective. How she was someone who “captures the shiny, pretty, easy things, and lets the rest drop away.” A cup-runneth-over person. A California spirit who spent the first twenty-three years of her life appreciating the beauty of the Marin County highlands, outside of San Francisco. For ten years, she trained in and performed improvisational theatre. Today, the visiting artist teaches performance drama at Sarah Lawrence College. (Amelia-Grace’s father teaches there too.) So we assume Harpham was endowed with much creativity and spontaneity when she “stepped off the edge of the world” at thirty-two, better prepared than she gave/gives herself credit for.

The author is very close with her fun-loving, bohemian mother, who clearly instilled a joyful soul in her daughter despite the “serial chaos” of divorce, remarriage, stepsiblings. A therapist who “had a way of looking at the world that moved me; she saw the light, no matter what.” The two were “expert at laughing through the worst.” So we shouldn’t be spellbound the author nurtured a little girl with an awesome “life force” of her own (“what she did have, more every day, almost every hour, was personality”), but we are. Happiness is a manifesto to saying “YES to life” in spite of everything.

Geography organizes the chapters since Gracie’s needs dictated geography. When the first chapter opens on Two Coasts – with the baby’s five-month pregnant mother having returned home to California and the father, Brian, a high-disciplined, prize-winning novelist living and teaching in New York – we immediately grasp that as heartbreaking as Gracie’s life-and-death medical issues were going to be this story was even more complicated than that. How is that possible? Do you believe people are only given what they can handle?

Happiness digs deeper than a “mom-and-girl versus world story.” For its Brian’s story too, told sensitively and candidly, with what the author calls a “seesaw quality” – “I love you, you infuriate me.” The two eventually married, but it didn’t happen overnight. That their relationship not only survived but thrived is a testament to their love. Even the best of marriages would have been sorely tested, for Gracie’s care demanded superhuman strengths. I counted at least a dozen medical centers Gracie was treated at or consulted about by the time she was four.

Caregiving is beyond exhausting, physically and emotionally, particularly when it’s your child (and other children you meet along the way) enduring the “suffering of innocents.” Yet Amelia-Grace seems to have inherited her mother’s inner core. Her “refusal to see herself sick … dazzling and a little scary.”

We read so much these days about deadbeat dads but that’s not Brian. Ten years older than Harpham, he was terribly honest early on: “If I wanted to have children with anyone, it would be with you.” Yet he didn’t run away, though he only saw Gracie twice in the first six months of her life. Forgiveness is hard, but once he enters the picture, he does so in a big, devoted, loving way. Passionately committed to his writing, when he was in he was all in.

We admire many people in this story, starting off, of course, with mother and daughter. “We’re not hospital people, we’re home people” Amelia-Grace preciously, poignantly says. “Mommie, its love from me to you.” If we feel our heartstrings pulled, imagine how the author felt? We can. For her heart is big enough to let us in.

Someone you’d want in your corner. So we read about friends, terrific friends, because Harpham cherishes friendships and they surely cherish her too. Three are prominent and significant: Cassie from childhood, Suzi from college, and Kathy, newly found.

“If you’re lucky, you meet four or five people in your lifetime you are totally comfortable with. Comfortable in a way that causes your best self to surge forward.”

Not a shred of doubt this memoir is about being your best self ever.

Three surprises to note. First is Brian’s identity. As if to protect him, we don’t find out who the acclaimed writer is until page 95. Such a pleasant surprise having read (and loved) one of Brian Morton’s novels, Starting Out in the Evening. Lots to catch up on (Florence Gordon, his most recent).

The second surprise hit me personally 100 pages later when the name of a world-renowned Duke University medical pioneer is introduced. Without giving anything away, let me just say: What is the chance I went to junior high school with Dr. Joanne Kurtzberg? A good reason to save old yearbooks! There she was, her long hair now cropped but she looks remarkably the same. Googling I confirmed the famous hematologist came from my hometown, Bayside, NY and it was her father who owned the stationary store my CPA dad and I visited often.

The biggest surprise, though, is the one I’ve intentionally not mentioned. You must discover Amelia-Grace’s little brother, Gabriel, all by yourself. A lifeline.

“It was astonishing how little time there was to make sense of the world.” What’s more astonishing is how much Happiness shows us what really matters in this “anything, everything is up for grabs” world.

Lorraine

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To the New Owners: A Martha’s Vineyard Memoir

Saying goodbye to the greatest of memories at Tisbury Great Pond (West Tisbury, Martha’s Vineyard, 1970s to 2014): Whatever you think of today’s “summering” Martha’s Vineyard – when the population on the island swells from 16,000 to over 100,000 – whether you’ve been one of those visitors or aware of luminaries who are – you’ll find the old Vineyard nostalgically, lovingly memorialized here.

To the New Owners is a love letter to the “kind of childhood people used to have before they were born,” reflects non-fiction author Madeleine Blais, a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalism professor. No surprise then that she writes with a reporter’s eye for details and the lyricism and pathos of a novelist.

Paying “tribute to what is best about summer, its power to lull, its essential sleepiness,” full of gratitude for thirty-some years of incomparable summertime memories, Blais’ memoir is also a eulogy mourning the “end of an era.”

“How can you pack a view?” the wistful memoirist asks. How can you whittle down a lifetime’s worth of memories? So many interesting, heartwarming, campy anecdotes about so many people, family and friends, in under 300 pages. Yet she does, and the result is a reader’s delight.

That’s not to say everything was rosy, as Blais points out: the island’s social problems, unpredictable New England weather and other nature foes, lack of creature comforts. First and foremost though is being a “trooper” not a “princess” to abide by the mantra of Blais’ summertime “shack” – not hers but owned by her illustrious in-laws – that “everyone’s job was to have a good time.” To “err on the side of having fun” is something this large, good-natured, appreciative bunch knows how to do quite well. Infectious, if only we were one of the fortunate invited for a stay by the benevolent owners, Nicholas and Lydia Katzenbach.

If you’re of the baby boomer age, the Katzenbach name will at the very least ring a bell. As it should. Nick Katzenbach, one of David Halberstam’s “best and the brightest,” is etched in the legacy of the civil rights movement. As Deputy Attorney General under the Kennedy administration, he was the government’s face in the segregation standoffs at the Universities of Alabama and Mississippi.

Vivian Malone registering at the University of Alabama, with Katzenbach in the crowd, 1963
By Warren K. Leffler, U.S. News & World Report Magazine
Restored by Adam Cuerden, via Wikimedia Commons

Under the Johnson administration, Nicholas Katzenbach essentially wrote the Voting Rights Act. He also defended the legality of the Vietnam War, which led to a public rebuke in the Vineyard Gazette, from which the author often quotes, a stark contrast to the island’s “respect for privacy.” The beautiful island is a beautiful hideaway for that very reason.

Of all the famous people on the island, this humble man who had the “means to create this haven,” and “the heart to share it,” is a favorite. So, while one of the ways the author characterizes perceptions of the Vineyard culture is “stuck up” – it would be impossible to write an authentic narrative about all the comings-and-goings at this cherished summer retreat and on the island without mentioning some of the notables, which the author does – please don’t form the wrong impression about these spirited souls whose spirit is charmingly laid down here. For all their celebrity, actually because of it, they seem like some of the most down-to-earth people you’ll ever meet. Who doesn’t admire a couple who found doing the dishes together “romantic”?

Equally smitten with her mother-in-law and her “bohemian outrageousness, the author admits Lydia was a “formidable” force who “intimidated” her. Everything from “regal to renegade,” she was independent-minded, not a trophy political wife. She became a psychoanalyst after the couple left Washington; former patients stayed in touch. Although the author and her mother-in-law came from entirely different backgrounds, they shared a desire for a “large, less claustrophobic, less rule-ridden world.” Precisely what you’ll find at Thumb Point.

Depicted as the “slow rhythm of a place that lives off the land and sea,” this summer “house loved with an extravagant love” sits like a big thumb on 5.5 secluded acres overlooking a sublime tidal pond barely separated from the Atlantic Ocean. In fact, several times a year the thin strip of beach and barrier is “cut,” flooding a Great Pond with saline ocean waters ecologically favorable to shellfish. A stunning vista:

“The world was in layers – the blue gray of the pond, the beige lip of sand in the distance, the different blue of the ocean, and yet another blue for the sky – an orgy of horizons, interrupted now and then by white birds, white foam, and white clouds.”

Who wouldn’t be forlorn when Lydia decided to sell the property due to her declining health, two years after the death of her husband? With grace and enormous gratitude, Blais thanks her father-in-law for having the vision to purchase the property in the ‘70s for $80,000, sold in 2014 for $3 million, yet priceless to those who became “lighter” there, “less burdened.” She muses on how the new owners could possibly understand what the sale meant to them? The letting go, physically and emotionally. Gone was the spontaneous, timeworn, and beloved. Grazed down to make room for a conspicuous glass behemoth with a planned-for lap pool and faux meaning. Mourning not just “for selfish reasons but for the passing of time.” Which makes the memoir an ode to all of us who miss “simpler, younger times, and moments of great kid enthusiasm.”

Blais attributes her detailed recollections over decades to eight nautical logbooks published by A.G.A. Correa & Son of Maine. Initially, these were intended to be guest journals, but “thanks to the logs the muddle of time was less muddled.” Many vacationers were writerly types, so many entries are witty and poignant. A sampling will give you a sense of that, and how blessed everyone felt after sojourning by Tisbury Great Pond:

“There may be other places in the world that are as beautiful, but I doubt there are any that are more beautiful.”

“If this is a dream I hope to never wake up.”

“I can think of no other place I’d rather go out and not catch fish.”

“There’s no such thing as too much of a good thing.”

No doubt the logs refreshed and enriched the author’s remembrances, but it seems doubtful she forgot socializing with Katherine Graham, also legendary for her dinner parties, or the warmth of friendship with frequent guests, Philip Caputo, also a Pulitzer-Prize winner, and his wife Leslie Ware, Consumer Reports editor who gave top-rated annual assessments like her final one: “best beach house ever, RIP, Thumb Point.”

Sure sounds like it was! A place with “beauty and quiet and melody” marvelously in tune with this fun-loving, zany crew with a zest for life. They love children, dogs, fishing, crabbing, clambakes, storytelling, board games, trivia contests, Humphrey’s pies, Mad Martha’s ice cream, Black Dog Bakery’s treats, seafood markets, dream auctions, dreams …

If you’ve visited the island, you can attest to its memorability. The author evokes the island’s six towns, each with unique character, as fresh and flavorful as if your visit was yesterday.

Map created by NormanEinstein, July 18, 2005, via Wikimedia Commons

Similarly, the beach house is also a unique character. Complete with a range of emotions humans experience: joie de vivre, love, playfulness, wishful thinking, devotion, attachment, heartache.

Now it’s our turn to say thanks to Madeleine Blais for allowing us to bear “witness to all the beauty mingled with goodwill and hope.” A treat as tasty as the island’s fabled sweet treats.

Lorraine

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The Almost Sisters

Southern storytelling with superpowers (Alabama, present-day): What I love most about The Almost Sisters (and there’s plenty to love) is how powerfully it shows the power of words. Prose that sweeps you along, makes you laugh a little, cry a little and touches you deeply. Feels like Joshilyn Jackson is skip, skip, skipping along confiding a tall Southern tale about characters with superpowers. Part poignant, part comical, part far-fetched, part wrongful, part downright intolerable. “Beauty and the beast all in one package.”

Don’t take my word about the author’s flowing, eclectic, colorful writing style. Take hers:

“Weirdo Fiction with a Shot of Southern Gothic Influence for Smart People Who Can Catch the Nuances but Who Like Narrative Drive, and Who Have a Sense of Humor but Who Are Willing to Go Down to Dark Places.”

Colorful is one way to think about the novel. Violet is one of the colors our narrator sees in her fantastical world of vivid colors and images. Leia Birch Briggs (38, unmarried) is a comic book artist, creator of the hugely popular Violence in Violet graphic novel. Though “nerdfame wasn’t like real famous,” she says, a nod to elevating respect for this art form.

While we might not be familiar with Leia’s pop culture lingo and urban slang straight out of the Comic Con universe, it permeates Jackson’s lyrical prose, brilliantly symbolizing our need for people with magical powers to protect the rest of us.

Leia’s Violet character was inspired by a long ago event that had the “power to crush” (she’s still coping with it), so she invented a super-girl (Violence) with superhuman powers to protect a “sweet girl” (Violet). Now she’s being asked to be super-strong to protect others, to draw upon her own super-strengths of compassion, righteousness, and a capacity to love equal to a “dozen heartbeats.”

Three intermingled family plots are tumbling at the same time, collapsing like when “you pull out the wrong piece of keepsake Jenga and topple everything down.” One is a problem of Leia’s making, one involves her super-perfect stepsister Rachel, and the other dramatically affects her beloved, “Southern Lady Genteel” yet feisty ninety-year-old grandmother, Emily Birch Briggs – Birchie.

Leia’s comic world is “chock-full of monsters and lost children, race wars, and superbeings.” As is the novel’s. Perhaps not as barefaced, but lurking. Jackson writes of the South, new and old. Birchville is a fictitious town in Alabama, but “ugly-donkey braying” voices harken painfully true. So while Leia’s memories of this rural place are “all sweet tea and decency and Jesus,” there’s also a “Second South” — “a thin, green cover over the rancid soil in our dark history.” The old Birchie brings forth idyllic times, but this new, unrecognizable one shocks history alive. Yes, racism is an all-powerful theme. In more ways than one.

The novel opens with Leia’s words: “My son, Digby.” She goes on to inform us she’s pregnant with a biracial son from a one-night stand when she was dressed as Wonder Woman (we assume, her favorite) and the father as Batman. In comic con jargon, the two were on “nerdcations,” cosplaying.

Like many references in the novel, Digby’s name is a play on words as it’s also the name of a comic book company and comic character. Leia plans to raise Digby by herself. Single motherhood, absentee fathers, another potent theme.

There’s plenty to like about Leia. Starting with her candidness, questioning her own racial attitudes, wondering if she threw away Batman’s contact info because someplace in the back of her mind she was succumbing to negative stereotypes that black men make lousy fathers. You’ll see what she’s really running away from is that “the Birch line had bad luck with fathers.”

We cheer Leia’s unorthodoxy unlike her Mom and stepdad, Keith, and “cool blonde dignity” of a stepsister Rachel. All live in Norfolk, Virginia, a place Leia suspects their neighbors might be racist – the “world was full of them” – so she better hide her surprise news from them, until she can’t. Not the only thing hidden in the novel.

The identity of Batman, even his given name, is unknown to Leia. Clever, as “origin story” is also a comic book term. “Every superbeing has one.” Seems that happens when something almighty transforms ordinary souls into superheroes (or supervillains.) The phrase has a third connotation here as another stressor plaguing Leia is she’s signed a contract with Dark Horse Comics to produce a prequel to Violence in Violet, but all she has are blank panels as to the origin of Violence’s powers. This pressure runs throughout while Leia is figuring out what, if anything, to do about Digby’s dad and the two other family plots playing out.

The one person Leia wants to open up to about Digby is Birchie, who’d unconditionally love him too. For her dearest, fiercely devoted friend is Wattie, who is black. They live together in Birchie’s legendary, homey, white Victorian. “Birchie and Wattie were a living hinge. They were the place where the South met itself.” They are so close they take turns going to each other’s church on Sundays. Church communities are a microcosm of Southern manners, customs (the annual Fish Fry!), gossip, grudges, prejudices.

Sadly, Leia can’t. In the same opening chapter we learn of Leia’s complicated pregnancy, she learns Birchie is losing her mind. Dropping everything, she races seven hundred miles to Birchville to find Birchie and Wattie have hidden her dementia – the Lewy body type. Birchie hallucinates, shouts out-of-character profanities, and reveals scandalous secrets that get her and others into big trouble. Since everyone knows everyone’s business in small towns, forbidden and dark news spread like wildfire. The literary trick is somehow the disturbing and outlandish come off a bit playfully.

As if these catastrophes aren’t enough for pregnant Leia to grapple with, before she sets out for Birchville she visits Rachel, normally oozing with “self-assured rightness,” but on this day Rachel is in the midst of a major marital meltdown. Rachel begs Leia to take her thirteen-year-old daughter Lavender (another sweet color) along to shield her from the emotional upheaval. All Leia’s life Rachel had been the savior, Leia the “underdog.” (Underdog is also the name of a comic strip). So she can’t refuse. Besides, she and her niece are fond of each other. Lav is depicted authentically in dialogue and coming-of-age behaviors, including Leia’s worries about two neighbor boys she’s befriended. All decent, well-meaning adolescents but they too reap trouble!

Nowhere on the order of a cringing scene with long-timer Martina Mack, a “vicious crone” who utters a racial slur. One vulgar word that packs so much power.

Thanks to the comic book characters, Southern folksy expressions, regional foods that are “the very taste of freedom,” and Leia’s “ballooning love,” the racial messaging is coated, making it easier to swallow.

Actually, The Almost Sisters is a joy to read. Right down to the very last sentence. The author concludes her warmhearted acknowledgements (which begin with “Dear Person-Holding-This-Book”) by thanking the First Baptist Church of Decatur (Georgia, where she lives) for:

“Trying to be a place where we broken humans of all flavors can be welcome and beloved. It’s an uphill walk, isn’t it? But damn, I love the view. Shalom, y’all.”

A super-message that colors our day brightly.

Lorraine

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Hello, Sunshine 2

A profile in dishonesty, a character we still like (Manhattan and Montauk, Long Island; June-August present-day): Laura Dave knows something about dream jobs. Three of her five bestsellers have been optioned for movies, including her newest charmer Hello, Sunshine. So in Sunshine Mackenzie, she’s cooked up a cooking star with a dream job, dreamy husband, and daydream Tribeca loft overlooking the Hudson River. Except sometimes dreams can be too good to be true. As Sunny – and her 2.7 million Twitter followers and 1.5 million so-called “friends” on Facebook and all Dave’s fans – are about to find out when someone tweets out of her account: “I’m a fraud. #aintnosunshine.” 

People in Sunshine’s universe wanted to believe she was the real deal: a YouTube cooking sensation (#1 in the hot competition for that lucrative spot) whose “farm-to-table recipes” straight from her Georgia farm upbringing evoked a simpler, more wholesome time. Except Sunny cannot cook, and those easy, mouthwatering recipes she’s touted as her very own originated from someone else.

Got to hand it to the novel’s sunny title and bright design for demonstrating how easy it is to fool us, somewhat. While it is true it’s a breezy read, it’s also a serious statement about honesty and fairness in the digital age.

Truthfulness is a timeless, old-fashioned virtue. Dave drives home a cautionary contemporary tale. “It’s amazing, after all, what you ignore when you want something to be right, isn’t it? Like in this case the truth,” Sunny airs, now that she’s been unmasked as other than the innocent she purports to be. Maybe she didn’t intend to put out falsehoods and the downhome cooking concept wasn’t even hers at first, but one fabrication led to another until little white lies became big ones. At what point should she have said enough is enough? The game’s not cute anymore; we’ve gone too far. Makes you wonder if the inventors of the Internet, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram etc. considered the extent to which unintended consequences – ethical, moral, societal, psychological – could overshadow intended benefits? How can we fix that now?

Hello, Sunshine, like our protagonist, is disguised. On the surface, it’s a smart, fun read packed with laser-sharp one-liners – zingers that flash cynicism, anger, and resentment at betrayals and guile with standout, realistic (not all enchanted!) dialogue already scripted for the big screen. Yet underneath, it’s a condemnation of a society that’s gotten too cozy with people who have a “loose hold on the truth.”

Sunshine’s scandal kicks-off as summertime kicks in (the June Part) with this punchy, opening paragraph:

You should probably know two things up front. And the first is this: On my thirty-fifth birthday, the day I lost my career and my husband and my home in one uncompromising swoop – I woke up to one of my favorite songs playing on the radio-alarm clock. I woke up to “Moonlight Mile” …

Sunshine then proceeds to tell us about Moonlight Mile, that it’s “the most honest rock song ever recorded.” The Rolling Stones songwriter, guitarist Mick Taylor, never got the credit for it. There’s our theme: honesty or the lack thereof. Someone taking credit for something he or she didn’t earn.

Such an engaging opener you forget there’s something else Sunny wanted us to know. Which she tells us a few pages in, admitting she was not “a good person. Some would even say I was a bad person.” She can bear herself brutally because once upon a time she “used to be a very honest person.” But she’s mastered – from her producer pro, forty-year-old Ryan Landy – how-to be “charming, deceitful.” So when she unveils that second thing, she confesses to gaming us too by letting us wait a bit, a strategy for “garnering sympathy.”

How did she become, as she also admits, a “seasoned liar”? Terrific adjective since her deceptions blended in with the seasonings. Truth is when you lie about one thing and get rather good at it (she can’t get over the “ease and strength in which people lied”), turns out you lie about other things. So when you’re ruthlessly exposed, your whole world collapses like a house of cards. Not exactly a sunny June, a sunny birthday celebration!

June is also when we meet other characters who figure in Sunshine’s shattered world. One is her dreamy husband, Danny, with “stunning green eyes” and a “killer smile.” They’ve been married fourteen years, college sweethearts. He’s an architect working on a coveted project, a 5,000 square foot residence with views of Central Park. The truth about Danny is he truly loves Sunny, though you may feel otherwise as their lives fall apart.

Some around Sunshine knew truths about her, but “people only spoke up about something if it benefited them,” Sunny perceptively says. That line really hit me having just watched The Zookeeper’s Wife based on real events about a Polish couple risking their lives to rescue 300 Jews during WWII because it was morally just. A stark contrast between their profiles in courage versus Sunshine’s “faux-sympathy” orbit and today’s political climate.

July is when Sunshine faces a friendless world despite all those million “friends.” Having no place to go, she returns to Montauk, where she’s really from. Though the truth of her former life along the tip of the Hamptons is “not as showy,” it’s a long way from the farm girl image she impersonated.

Among the “dunes, beach, charm” of Montauk the real Sunshine Stephens shows up. As do a number of colorful characters from her past and beaten-down present. Here is where we learn what drove her away, and why pretending to be someone other than who she was took such hold.

Montauk, NY Lighthouse
Photo by chartersny on Flickr

These are sad times, but not everything is bad. The imagery of Montauk – Atlantic Ocean, sustainable fishing, old working lighthouse, for starters. There’s also some good people. They and this special place seem to hold the answers to the peace and healing Sunshine desperately needs.

Not so fast! Sunshine has a lot on her plate and recovery does not come overnight. August is when she works at reclaiming her former self, or perhaps a truer self. As Sunny seeks to become a good person again, we wonder if you have to lose it all to truly find yourself?

So grab this entertaining, perfectly-sized vacation read (256 pages, short-chapters), and play around with who you’d cast in the starring role of Sunshine. More food for thought.

Lorraine

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Cocoa Beach 2

Roaring passions, Roaring times (Cocoa Beach, Florida June/July 1922 and 1924 epilogue; WWI France 1917-1918): “Cocoa, Florida. It sounds so lovely, doesn’t it? Just saying the name gives you a marvelous, exotic charge, however great your troubles.” So says our lovely, marvelous, troubled protagonist – Virginia Fortescue Fitzwilliam, married two years, estranged three from Simon, her British Army surgeon husband – of the exotic, perilous, booming, rum-running southern Florida locale in Beatriz Williams’ twists-and-turns newest historical novel, Cocoa Beach.

Keep your wits about you for more than romance is at stake, and things are not what they seem to be. Even innocent, white-gloved Virginia admits she’s “an old hand at disguising.” She’s not the only one. All the characters are unreliable. Whom to trust? Believe? That’s the crux of Virginia’s problem. The reader’s lure.

Stay especially on your toes for you don’t just read a Beatriz Williams novel, you gulp it in. You inhale her distinctly delicious prose the way single-parent Virginia, with a “hole in the center of my soul,” breathes in “great lungfuls of Evelyn,” her almost three-year old daughter. Similar to how I consumed four of her earlier novels: The Hundred Summers and her Schuyler sisterly trio, The Secret Life of Violent Grant, Along the Infinite Sea, Tiny Little Thing. The danger in reading quickly is you too could become an unreliable narrator, which is why I didn’t blog about any.

This time around I vowed to read in my note-taking, blogger’s mode. Slows you down but you catch things you might otherwise gloss over because really good historical fiction doesn’t whack you over the head; it blends details cunningly, leaving you wanting more. Do a little googling and you find yourself fascinated by how clever the plot and prose integrate two historical time periods. (The prolific author attests to this challenge on her blog.)

Who knew of southern Florida’s notorious bootlegging history? Bootlegging, I discovered, differs from rum-running; the former over land, the latter over the sea. Makes remote, mangrove-sheltered Cocoa Beach a smart setting for capturing the Wild West of the Prohibition era. Heard of Carl Fisher, Father of Miami Beach? He transformed a barrier island into a major resort destination? Heady tidbits that factor in the story.

Another interesting fictional ingredient is the critical role the automobile played in Florida’s real estate fever in the early twenties, which also made possible heroic, life-saving during WWI. The first vehicle comes to life with an intrepid Virginia at twenty steering Hunka Tin – the Model-T ambulance she drove for the American Red Cross cramped beside alluring, golden-gray haired, thirty-five-year old Simon. Or, in the author’s words: “I met my husband in the least romantic setting possible: a casualty clearing station in northern France in the middle of February.”

Ford Model T Ambulance
National Museum of the U.S. Air Force

The second car is a jazzy “sky blue Twin-Six Packard Roaster,” featured in the Cocoa tale. Repainted, it might resemble this 1916 model:

 

Packard Twin Six Model 1-35 1916
By Buch-t [CC BY-SA 3.0 de], via Wikimedia Commons

Virginia learned to drive on her “grim, reclusive,” inventor Father’s Model-T when they lived in Manhattan. He is among her troubles, why she’s had “a lot of experience with “symptoms of shock” and “disguise.” Very early on, we’re told he’s on trial for a horrendous crime. As to its nature, a source of her psychic pain, you’ll discover soon enough.

The Cocoa Beach chapters begin when Virginia is twenty-five and has already lost a lot: her mother at eight; younger sister, Sophie, whom she adores, to serve her country; and Simon, whom she’s left after just two years of marriage from 1917 to 1919.

The Epilogue is a letter dated 1919, one of many Simon wrote Virginia desperate to win her back, defending himself against a “despicable crime.” What that is and whether he’s been falsely or justly accused the reader must figure out. Understandably, Virginia’s perceptions and temperament have been colored by the betrayal of the two most important men in her life. Naturally, we’re sympathetic to her plight, whereas the others we vacillate about, almost to the end.

Dating Simon’s introductory letter tips us off that the last time Virginia saw him was three years ago, in June 1922 when Virginia arrives in Cocoa Beach, opening with:

“Someone has cleared the ruins away, but you can still see a house burned to the ground here, not long ago. The earth is black and charred, and the air smells faintly of soot.”

Not long ago means only four months ago. Virginia has come to this “ruined house on the sea” to see for herself what happened on this gorgeous spot and what’s happening at 1,400 acres of the Maitland citrus plantation, a Phantom shipping company (love that name!) and the Phantom Hotel, all she’s inherited having been informed Simon perished in that blaze. That fetching roadster was his too.

Yet all through the novel Virginia feels “the cool suggestion of Simon’s presence.” Might Simon still be alive? An unrecognizable body was dragged from that inferno; all that was recognizable was his ring.

“Everything you seek is here” is another reoccurring suggestion. Not true at all. Hints are dropped along the way, but they deceive us. A game is afoot and we’re game as the prose pulls us in, pulling no punches, infused with an evocative sense of time and place and, notably, smells. Air steeped in the citrusy scents of orange blossoms; a shipper’s “dockside perfume, hemp and tar and salt and warm wood” mixed with something else “sweet and spicy” (ah, those phantom ships!); putrid odors on the battlefields; “grease and wet stone and melancholy” at the chateau Virginia was initially posted at in war-torn France; the “sleepy scent of my husband’s skin”; and poetically, the “smell of hope.”

Virginia hopes “maybe the new architecture of this house represented a change in Simon himself.” Contrary to the Captain who was sick of death and his “ancient family seat” in Cornwall, near where the couple wed. Virginia never got to meet Simon’s parents, though she briefly encountered his sister, Clara. Yes, sisters matter in this series too – this being the third installment in the author’s Prohibition series. Somehow I missed The Wicked City and A Certain Age. Note, Cocoa Beach can stand alone.

When Virginia arrives in Cocoa Beach, to her surprise she’s greeted by Simon’s strapping brother, Samuel. Same hazel eyes as Simon but from there the two couldn’t be more dissimilar. She describes him as a “straightforward man,” implying Simon is not, but, as we’ve established, none of the players are whom they seem to be. Clara, another big surprise, is also there, effusive in sisterly love and adoration for her niece. She has Simon’s sway, convincing Virginia to partake in some of the fun and sun she’s been deprived of. Clara symbolizes this energetic, decadent age “electric with life” – like the novel where everything pulses. Even the peaceful Maitland orchards and gardens, fifty miles from Cocoa, which Simon writes so passionately of, managed devotedly by Portia Bertram, present quite dramatically.

Simon’s letters are also over-the-top. Does he really love Virginia as intensely as he purports? Believe she’s the “kind of woman worth waiting for. Dying for. Living for”? He claims everything he’s done in Cocoa was for her.

Circling us right back to the novel’s biggest mystery: Did Simon die for Virginia in that deadly fire cited on page 4? Look forward to another 370 teeming pages to find that out, and more. Until then, Beatriz Williams keeps us guessing.

Lorraine

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Our Little Racket

Inside an outsider’s world (Greenwich CT, Manhattan and Shelter Island NY; summer before/months during the 2008 financial crisis, and aftermath): Weighing in at roughly 500 pages, The Little Racket makes a big splash, unfolding around the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression from a psychological angle. Actually five angles: five women whose provocative narratives constitute character studies. A privileged, complicated bunch ripe for book club analysis as they’ve either remade themselves or are hiding something.

Big in the sense that these women are as multi-faceted as the factors that led us to the brink of economic collapse in 2008. A financial meltdown and reshuffling that triggers their emotional volatility and instability.

A big setting – one of the richest communities in America. The “false wilderness of Greenwich” Connecticut, where you’re whisked to a black sedan-guarded mansion: the home of a very rich CEO of a “too big to fail” fictional investment bank, Weiss & Partners. Bob D’Amico is so big he’s earned (and relishes) the nickname, Silverback, which “makes him feel big.” This shadowy Wall Street world is so big and convoluted no one really understands its “intricacies and machinations” – a big part of the problem.

Big in its electrifying prose. Biting social and cultural commentary. Like the economists still trying to figure out what went wrong, these five women are not so easy to figure out. All emit a “Greenwich whisper,” but they’re not to be stereotyped as Angelica Baker’s keen prose presents them multi-dimensional and enmeshed like America’s financial system. And while her penetrating prose offers us a lot, it hints at more. Makes us stop and think about what these women are really angling for, what makes them tick. Since 99% of us have zero experience with this ultra-wealthy crowd, we’re intrigued. The novel grips in the vein of snooping inside their massive closets, out of curiosity not approval.

So it’s also a big diversion for this blog as there aren’t any characters who enchant us. Some you’ll feel sorry for, sad for, but none you’ll fall in love with.

Unless your idea of a wife (Isabel) is to be so perfectly put together you want to scream: will the real Isabel stand up, like the mantra of the TV game show, To Tell the Truth. Unless your idea of a mother is an “ice queen,” content with your fifteen-year-old daughter (Madison) feeling “like a spy in your own house.” Madison is convinced she knows more about her father than his own wife, blind ambition resembling a younger version of Ivanka Trump. Then there’s the nanny (Lily) caught between a simmering cynical dislike of the elite (she attended Columbia University on a scholarship; Ivy Leaguers all get their due throughout) and caring for her upper-crust charges. There’s also two featured girlfriends – Mina, Isabel’s and Amanda, Madison’s – thirsting to be consequential, when/if allowed.

Mostly, you’ll likely feel a range of averse or, at minimum, ambivalent emotions for this tony lot. For their detachment, grandiosity, backstabbing, recklessness, falsehoods.

Blame is a big theme. Who is to blame for the financial crisis? Fictionally, everyone wants to blame Bob. In real life, it’s not just Wall Street that bears all the brunt. What about the homeowners who took on the burden of mortgages they couldn’t afford? Risky for them, risky for the rest of us. For other causes, see:

Similarly, Isabel, Bob’s elegant, “measured” wife consumes much of the psychic blame. Just because her house is so big there’s a separate wing for her and Bob doesn’t mean she should bar Madison and her eight-year-old twins (Matteo and Luke) from entering. Isabel is far from a hugger. She prefers to wrap herself in MOMA charity events and the like, leaving the heart of a family’s gathering place, the kitchen, feeling “as huge and cold and silent as a mausoleum.” Is it Madison’s fault her parents named her after one of ritziest avenues in America? Lily’s fault she’s the nanny but when catastrophe strikes she needs her mother?

You sense the denouement at the opening: the summer before the historic crash when the D’Amicos are vacationing on New England-ish Shelter Island, a ferry ride from Greenport on the Long Island Sound, at the passed-down beach house of Isabel’s parents, not good enough for Bob’s highfaluting tastes. Another author might have opened with Bob’s bank failure. Baker lets us absorb the portending for 65 pages of exquisite prose that leaves some cunning on the surface and the rest buried for safekeeping.

Safety is the name of the game for these uppity, insecure women. “Fragile bonds” mimicking the fragility of the markets. Everything is knotted up; we watch the unraveling. An enormous price must be paid for the enormity of greed and egregious behavior that allowed the dominoes to tumble down on Wall Street, right into the laps of these characters. Fairly? Unjustly?

With all the animosity, anger, contempt, and injustice to go around not all the prose is gorgeous, intentionally. Notable is the vulgarity released from Isabel’s tightly-pursed lips, coarseness unbecoming of her old money pedigree. (The others are new money seekers.) Which is precisely the point. According to my count, three times this woman of “steel” exposes she’s not who she purports to be.

Madison’s a lot like her mother. She has her “goddess features” and is stoically self-contained. A perceptive young lady but not perceptive enough. So when the undoing confuses her, she lashes out, rebels. A cry for help. Who is listening?

Lily and Mina are. Though most of the time these two are oh so cool to each other, resenting the other, both competing for the fickle attention of this flip-flopping survivalist’s universe, where no one really knows whom to trust, or quite where they stand. That includes no one really knowing what Bob has done wrong. Plenty of resentment floats about.

Lily’s betwixt and between. Generously (and appreciatively) employed by the family for years, her redeeming quality is she’s mastered how “to decipher Isabel’s moods to see how she could help the children to navigate around them, and then to withdraw.” We’d like her more if she too didn’t keep secrets, and take advantage when things fall apart. Her name befits lily-white Greenwich. Another anomaly for this blog. A lovely setting from the outside, but inside it does not enchant.

You may like Mina the best. She agonizes over the choices she’s made for a lifestyle disingenuous to her Long Island roots. But we feel she must be partly to blame for her estranged daughter Jaime begging to go to boarding school (Andover, of course) at fourteen. Her husband Tom, a Princeton alum at Goldman Sachs (a fierce competitor of Bob’s as in these two don’t mix well), seems to be the cause of force-fitting Jaime into Greenwich Prep where she didn’t belong unlike Madison and her so-called friends. Mina is forever choosing Isabel over Tom, clueing us in on her unhappiness.

Madison’s angst is the most painful. For she’s the most victimized, the most hurt. Devastated that people “gamble away the things they always told me were so important.”

Which brings us to today. Banks are bigger than ever. Who is heeding the warnings to break them up? This isn’t just an entertaining novel, but an important one. Some pundits think we’re headed for another Depression. This tale was never about a little racket, but a great big one.

Lorraine

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Girl on the Leeside

An Irish Sleeping Beauty (West Coast of Ireland, present-day): This is a novel with a fairy-tale soul. Sweet and dreamy. Ancient and 19th century Irish and Celtic poetry grace its pages, as well as the hearts and minds of its three key characters, giving it a sense of timelessness, soulfulness.

The poetry memorializes Ireland’s mystical, magical beauty. Seamus Heaney exalted “lough waters.” William Butler Yeats wrote of “waters wild.” A. E. (George W. Russell) glorified “delicate dews” and a “breath of Beauty.” Yeats also wrote of a “faery” and a “beautiful mild woman”; A. E., a “long sleeping.”

Not all the poems are from the Old World. That beautiful fairy shows up as the girl in the title. Siobhan Doyle secretly composes her own poems immortalizing Ireland’s surreal beauty. She possesses a “fairy charm.” Even her watchful childhood friend, Maura (her only real friend when the tale begins), felt she “invented” Siobhan, that one day she’d disappear into her “fairy-mound.”

That’s because of her striking appearance – long dark hair reaching down to her knees – and her mysterious and unworldliness around people. Instead, Siobhan, a “poetic soul,” finds enchantment in ancient Irish poetry and the misty beauty of her pristine surroundings on the western coast of Ireland, the Connemara region. Someplace between Clifden and Galway, two miles down a coastal road outside the fictional village of Carnloe, you might find Siobhan lulled by her hallowed Lake Carnoe – or in Irish – Lough Carnloe.

The thing is Siobhan is not a girl. Though she’s quite small, she’s twenty-seven and still doesn’t know “how to stop being shy of people.” Her hulking, well-over six foot tall Uncle Kee, turning fifty, went to such lengths to protect her he “created a soul too gentle for this world.” He gave up alcohol when he suddenly became the parent of a frightened two-year old after his dear sister Maureen, Siobhan’s mother, was killed in an IRA bombing in Northern Ireland; presumably so was Siobhan’s father, a British soldier – a nod to Ireland’s anti-British history. He’d already forsaken his university dreams of studying Irish Gaelic poetry due to familial responsibilities but not his passion and knowledge, which he instilled in Siobhan.

For all he’s gone through, Kee keeps his feelings to himself whereas Siobhan doesn’t even understand hers. They both share a special bond for Irish poetry, Ireland, and the three-hundred-year old stone pub passed down six generations that Kee owns and the two run together – the Leeside.

Leeside, though isolated, is the cultural hub for this small, remote community. So it is remarkable how emotionally detached Siobhan has been despite friends and neighbors who gather here. Among them are Maura and her husband Brendon, their four-year-old daughter Triona Siobhan adores, a troublesome brother Nialle, and Maura’s father Seamus. Katie is another one of the regulars. She’s a brassy woman who raises Connemara ponies (Siobhan cherishes hers), who has had her eyes on Kee for a long time.

Connemara pony
By Olaf Kleinwegen, via Wikimedia Commons

A third devotee of Irish literature brings us to Siobhan’s sweet awakening. Jim, a professor of Irish studies from Minnesota, is on his way to visit Kee when the novel opens. Siobhan is apprehensively preparing for Jim’s visit, for her uncle has decided to re-open the pub to overnighters. That practice ceased years ago when an incident there threatened his precious girl. Jim has never been to Ireland, but Siobhan immediately picks up on his deep appreciation for Ireland’s “poetry, mythology, folklore, and history,” which stirs her delicate heart, unfamiliarly.

Jim also sees something of himself in Siobhan yet he intuits with tenderness she’s very different than any woman he’s ever known. While he tries to separate his feelings from his scholarship, the truth is he has fallen hopelessly, achingly, in love with her uniqueness instantly. Hence, the set-up in this old-fangled love story.

Jim’s romantic dilemma is how to penetrate Siobhan’s inner world without scaring her off and how to do that from afar. Could she ever leave a place she’s never traveled from, away from the waters that soothe her and the uncle she reveres?

For Siobhan’s part, she’s never been involved with a man. She has no idea if the emotions she feels around Jim and the “emptiness” that bears down on her once he’s gone have anything to do with love. Perhaps the “intense passions” in her poetry are guiding her, she muses, for she had a visceral instinct she couldn’t just say goodbye as he’s about to leave. So she guiltily concocts a lie that assures he’ll have a reason to stay in touch. Their twice daily email correspondences draw them closer, yet the lie shames her, stands between them, and she isn’t sure of his feelings since they’re not face-to-face, illuminating a condition of contemporary life, though so much else in the novel feels as though time has stood still.

A few more examples to make the case for the aura of yesteryear. A Prologue set in the 20th century conveys a “mystical bond between women.” The importance of female friendships being a “wellspring for each other” is a poignant theme of sharing and caring that plays through.

There’s also a nomadic caravan family that stops by the pub every September to sell their wares, including the warmest and loveliest sweaters that pay tribute to Ireland’s sheep farming history. Siobhan looks forward to seeing the merry band of travelers, especially Gwen; also her son Turf (great name given the love of the land), his wife JoJo and their children. They’re gypsies: “members of an ancient clan, ragged nobles of the road, the last strands of a vanishing way of life.”

Travellers’ Decorated Caravan
By National Library of Ireland on The Commons, via Wikimedia Commons

The concept and spirit of traveling is also expressed in the backstory of Siobhan’s mother, a restless soul; by Siobhan who is calmed by sheltering in place; and through all the armchair travelers who see the world via literature, including poetry.

It’s summertime, so we too are dreaming of traveling. Whether you’re making plans to travel from home or stay put and let fiction transport, Girl on the Leeside offers peacefulness. Peaceful like our world is not. Your trip will take you to an unhurried place of sheer natural beauty. A kinder, quieter world where life is more basic. That’s not to say these people aren’t hardworking, but they have time to count their blessings. Girl on the Leeside gently reminds us of that.

So while you’re reading, imagine yourself as Siobhan gazing into the “pearl gray” waters of her lough. Imagine glimpsing the dramatic Aran Islands a short distance away, and knowing you’re among friends who extend a “perpetual welcome.” Imagine an “untamed valley of rough beauty,” with its verdant “folds of hills and cozy knolls,” a landscape so beckoning it seems a fantasy. Then wonder like Siobhan: “How does a person really know where they are meant to be?”

Lorraine

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