Lions 2

Legacies and Folklore – Ghosts of the Past (Colorado Eastern Plains, present-day): Poetic. That’s the first word that comes to mind reading Lions. Eloquent, melancholy, atmospheric prose that even makes welding sound beautiful. It pulls you in at the opening sentence: “If you’ve ever loved anyone, you know there’s a ghost in everything.” Actually, many ghosts haunt this mesmerizing novel about broken dreams and promises, grief and loneliness, in a “living ghost town.”

Even the town’s name is mythical, passed down through generations of pioneers who settled in the high desert plains of eastern Colorado:

“A name meant to stand in for disappointment with the wild invention and unreasonable hope by which it has been first imagined … There were never any lions. In fact there is nothing more to the place now than a hard rind of shimmering dirt and grass … Flat as hell’s basement and empty as the boundless sky above it.”

That sky is colored “heartbreak blue.” For this is a novel about all sorts of heartbreak in a ghostly landscape, with a one street downtown and a handful of businesses: garage, diner, bar, gas/grocer, and junk shop.

Still, 117 souls hung on in Lions. Why have they stayed?

Chief among those enduring souls – characters who’ll touch your heart and are at the heart of this soulful novel – are:

  • John Walker, 55, “wizard” welder, Georgianna his wife of more than twenty years, and their very serious, reserved eighteen-year-old son, Gordon, deeply attached to his father; and
  • Leigh Ransom, Gordon’s girlfriend/best friend/neighbor/the only person in Lions his age and his going-off-to-the-same-college partner in the fall; and her mother May who owns the Lucy Graves diner (named after a fabled, reclusive 1870 homesteader) where Leigh works.

Lucy Graves is one of the ghostly tales woven around the main plot. “People say they want the truth but they don’t. They want a story.” A story you get. Many, actually. Some real, some the stuff of legends. That’s because Lions is an allegorical place.

Lions could be someplace near Longmont or Ft. Collins, sites of the first sugar beet factories in the eastern part of the State built in the early 1900s when sugar was Colorado’s economic driver. I’m guessing this based on literary scenes of an abandoned sugar beet factory and the author’s acknowledgements hinting at that.

Hundreds of ghost towns are scattered throughout the West, echoes of the immigrants, Easterners, and dreamers who came westward “looking for paradise.” Some hit gold. This region’s version is the sugar beet, dubbed “white gold”. That term speaks volumes for a bountiful ecosystem, when Lions sat on the “westernmost edge of fertile prairie grassland.” Googling, I learned there are only a few places in the world that have the ideal growing conditions to sustain the sugar beet crop. Lions once did. Its soil was so loamy it was “the consistency of dense chocolate cake.” Now it’s “pale dirt so hard and dry it was no more fertile than moon rock.” The loss of this complex, precious ecosphere is a different type of heartbreak.

Leigh’s heartache is the emotional kind. “You could have called it despair, or panic, or desperation to get out.” She speaks often about an “unbearable light” that’s “refracted, diffused, reflected, and smashed and split apart.” When she gazes out her window all she sees is “a place of air and light and rock.” The allusive prose helps us imagine that sense of burning, boundless isolation.

A “photographer of isolation,” Dave Heath, recently passed away. His photographs made me realize that the only thing missing from this soaring novel are pictures of the faces of the really good souls who inhabit Lions. Are years and years of dashed hopes and barrenness etched on their faces? What does toughness and resilience look like? “Staying power,” the author calls it.

This is a way of life that’s “genius born of necessity.” Groceries, for example, arrive only monthly. So, at the diner, May serves odd concoctions of sandwiches like ham and grape jelly.

The greatest genius is the welder John Walker. The novel opens when a mysterious stranger and his dog show up one “record-breaking hot summer.” That’s 106 degrees in June, when welding means John covers his body in his sweltering garage to protect himself from the scorching blowtorch. With “myopic ceremony” he toils for hours because “people’s lives depend on a good weld.” Where does that kind of decency come from?

The stranger’s visit sets off a cascade of tragic events. The first, saddest, most consequential is John’s death. What will happen to his “first-class weld servicing facility”? Will Gordon takeover, thereby forfeit Leigh’s escape hatch and plans of going to college with him? Leigh has lost a father figure. Will she lose Gordon too? Can Gordon leave his mother, Georgie, dreamy and fragile? Much of the moody prose feels dream-like.

And yet it also conveys deep respect for something as real as metalworking – “agricultural equipment innovators and repairmen.” Thus, the novel pays tribute to our early frontier ancestors who weren’t cowboys or ranchers or farmers or miners or hunters or trappers. John’s work ethic puzzled the denizens the most. “Could have made six figures in Denver easy. Aerospace. Military. Hell. Lots of natural gas pipeline getting started in Wyoming.”

In the case of the Walker family, welding traces back more than a century, which means Lions is a novel illuminating “patterns to things.” Will Gordon feel the tug of responsibility and duty to carry on that familial tradition, or be the one to finally break it? Leigh, on the other hand, is counting the days and her savings until she can fly. “She wants the world.” Does she get it?

The townspeople believe the town is cursed. After John’s death, there’s an ugly, strange death, people get sick from the water, and then flee in numbers. (“Goodbyes didn’t come singly.”) Gordon begins disappearing for days on end, on a mysterious errand up North his father asked him to carry on before he died, the same deed John had been performing for thirty-five years. At some point, you may asking yourself if John really did play some divine role in “holding the town together by keeping the demon out.”

Whatever you believe about the events and stories supposed in Lions, one truth I’m pretty sure you’re nostalgic for is the old-fashioned code of simple human kindness represented. Nothing simple about it when times are tough. Which is why Lions move us so much. It represents the best in us.


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Amy Snow

How far will you go for friendship?  A secret? (Enderby to London to Twickenham to Bath to York England; early Victorian era, 1831–1848)

Amy Snow is a joy to read.  For all its length (576 pages, includes reader’s guide and author interview), its charming classical prose, Victorian delights, “meadows and market gardens and mansions that dream away their days,” and clipped chapters make for fast-paced reading you’re sorry ends.

Joyful too is how the novel found its way to us.  Winner of the first Richard and Judy “Search for a Bestseller” competition in the UK, their book club influential like Oprah’s.

Its seriousness is disguised in the elegant prose.  For it’s not only the story of the depths of friendship between two young women from vastly different social classes, but poignantly depicts the expectations for women in early Victorian society.  The time period is perfectly aligned historically to Queen Victoria’s assumption to power, which eventually led to challenging prevailing attitudes about “The Woman Question.”

The plot, which takes many twists and turns, centers around a spirited, eight-year-old Aurelia Vennaway who discovers an abandoned baby in the snow on the grounds of her family’s Surrey estate.  She names her “snow baby” Amy Snow.  The novel ends after Amy has been led on a clever “treasure hunt” commandeered by Aurelia through a series of letters and cryptic clues, wiser and worldlier than her seventeen orphaned years.

Aurelia comes alive for us only in Amy’s fond memories and her letters, having penned them on her deathbed.  The novel opens when she’s died at 25, not much younger than the Queen herself.

Queen Victoria, 1842
Franz Xaver Winterhalter
via Wikimedia Commons

Aurelia may have had a weak heart but hers was a “passionate heart” – an independent, intellectually-minded young woman who loved “philosophy, literature, economics, and politics.”  She might have been “considered a humanitarian visionary” if only she was born a man.  Her family tried to mold her rebellious, “bluestocking” nature, marry her off for obligation not love, but her deteriorating health ended all that.

She died with a secret she goes to extraordinary lengths to protect and share with the person she trusts the most, Amy.  She’ll only reveal it piecemeal, determined to keep her parents, Lord and Lady Celestina, in the dark for their coldness towards their only child reflects, at least in part, their grave disappointment at not bearing an heir.  Until Amy, Aurelia was a very lonely child.  She describes her parents as:

“People for whom love was a complicated affair, very closely bound up with, and easily confused with, matters of proprietorship, duty, and control.”

There’s not much to like about Aurelia’s mother, although she did let Aurelia keep the baby.  Still, she couldn’t be bothered with Amy at all, couldn’t even stand to be in the same room with her.  So Amy’s infancy was spent in a busy kitchen underfoot Cook.  Think Miss Patmore of Downton Abbey: “big-hearted, capable, and almost always there.”  As Amy grew and got more in the way, you could find her in the wheelbarrow of the gardener Robin; or in the hay of the stables under Benjamin; or tagging along Jesketh, the elderly butler.  Amy, then, knows how “to hold a currycomb and groom a horse,” “sort through apples,” and adores gardens.  When she gets older, she lives in the scullery.  Aurelia reads to her; shares her love of literature (especially Dickens, often quoted); teaches her to play piano and cards – cultures her devoted companion.

This all matters because Aurelia has great plans for Amy (“secrets and adventures.”)  The first journey takes off when the novel opens at the reading of Aurelia’s will, which means now there’s no place on the estate Amy can live.  She’s “accustomed to feeling like an inconvenience,” but without Amy she now aches for a true “sense of belonging.”

But Aurelia has other intentions for her beloved, sisterly friend:

“I have planned for my story to unfold just a little at a time, with every letter taking you farther from Hatville, farther from the ignominy of your treatment there; safer and stronger and freer.  By the fourth or fifth letter, the trail will long have run out for anyone else.  No one knows me as well as you dear.”

While I can’t reveal the clues and contents of the letters – after all this is your adventure too! – let me share a bit of what awaits you:

Letter 1 sends a grieving, unworldly Amy off to London to Entwhistle’s bookshop, where Letter 2 awaits, hidden.  She travels to a “London that demands to be taken seriously” via the miracle of steam locomotives, this being the beginning of Britain’s “Railway Age.” Leaving the bookshop, she briefly encounters the proprietor’s handsome grandson, Henry.

Letter 2 takes Amy to the village of Twickenham, as charming as its name.  Thanks to Aurelia, she’s stays at the Mulberry Lodge with three generations of the warmhearted Wister family “brimming over with good feeling.”  Waiting for Amy is a trunk Aurelia stuffed with exquisite clothes to “try to feel yourself a young woman of privilege.  The clothes will help.”  Amy is, of course, stunned and moved by all the ball gowns, in colors suitable and daring, along with “tulle purses stuffed with money.”

Here she meets Henry again, and another handsome man, Quentin, two very different men.  Garland is “polished, polite, and poised,” an impeccable dresser, whereas Henry is “all rumpled curls and sprawling limbs.”  Quentin “dazzles,” but its Henry who “warmed my heart.”  As we get to know both – Henry far more easily and likeably for he shows his tender emotions versus stuffy, “self-contained” Quentin, we see these characters are meant to symbolize two very different perspectives of a woman’s societal place, and the meaning of love.

Aurelia’s plan for Amy is becoming clearer.  She wants her to have “the wardrobe and fortune of a grand lady” to open doors for experiences and choices she wasn’t born into, never had, or dreamed of ever having.  What path does she choose?

Letter 3 takes Amy to Bath.  This time she’s pained to leave behind feelings of family and happiness, but she must find the resolve for Aurelia.  The ancient city brings a dramatic turn for here she’s to stay with Mrs. Ariadne Riverthorpe, a hardened, all-mighty 80-year old with a biting tongue and a mind of her own.  As the story evolves, you’ll see she’s something else too, something that gets to the heart of the story.

Lovely prose charms us with descriptions of gardens as “earth and apples,” earth as “rainbow and raindrop,” stables as “dust and gleaming.”  If we squint real hard, we can see the snowdrops, “daisied grass,” “whirling skirts,” “brush of ladybirds,” we can taste the tipsy cake, and hear York’s minister bells.

The wonder of historical fiction is to authentically transport us in time and place.  Tracy Rees beautifully evokes an “elegant and flawless at face value” British Victorian society.  With the same finesse, she shows us how “bumpy and biting behind the façade” that society could be.


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A Small Indiscretion 3

A Small IndiscretionThe Legacy of Self-Destructive Behavior (San Francisco, CA 2012; London, Paris, Ireland 1989):  “What happens to a marriage?” Do we marry out of a “great capacity for love, or only great greediness and need”?  When does love ebb into “habit”?  When does a transgression cross the line for forgiveness?  Above are some questions Jan Ellison pushes in her seductive debut novel, A Small Indiscretion.  Small in the title among the deceptions, as the themes tackled are anything but.

Tuck this factoid away as you rip through the pages: Ellison won an O’ Henry Prize for her very first short story.  So as she cunningly unwinds what she calls the “threads” of her confessional story, written as a letter to her 21-year-old son, Robbie, who is in a medically induced coma after a serious car accident, even when you think you’ve got things figured out, you’re in for … well, an O’ Henry ending.

Does this classify as mystery genre vs. suspense?  Literary fiction vs. commercial?  These distinctions are fuzzy to me.  Pin me down, I’d hedge my bets.  Tag it literary suspense.  The prose is exceptionally good and provocative, bridging literary and commercial.  Named a “Best of 2015” by the San Francisco Chronicle (newly released in trade paperback), it’s the most psychologically suspenseful, literary novel I’ve blogged about.

Don’t you love it when a novel grabs you at the opening sentence?  “London, the year I turned twenty” is the kick-off and then page 109 circles back to: “In London, I turned twenty.”  The author artfully moves back and forth in time, tying a sordid “archaeological period” to a respectable present, connecting a tempestuous “sad past” to what seemed to be a stable, happy married life until Robbie’s accident:

“Where does the thread begin for you?” writes Annie Black to Robbie.  “Where does it begin for your father?  When did his seamless happiness begin to unravel?”

Annie asks these boldfaced questions at 41, but the entangled answers necessitate delving back two decades when she was working in London.  The author worked in London too when she was Annie’s age; she took notes that inspired a novel penned years later.  All Annie has is her memory and 13 beguiling poems (“moonlight and whispers”) she’s saved in a hatbox and not forgotten. So she wonders, as we might, about her veracity colored by time and shame.  Yet she shares plenty of painful regrets and immoral admissions about her “self-indulgence,” egged on by her dependence on alcohol to let loose so she could feel confident and beautiful thus loved. (“If I am not beautiful, how can I be loved?”)

In a short, unnamed historical prologue, we’re introduced to an insecure Annie who buys bright, cheap gauzy scarfs to look “arty or sophisticated” at the London Victoria underground station, near where she’s living.  She’s having an affair with her married boss, Malcolm Church, an engineer twice her age.  His wife Louise is fragile and temperamental; their 10-year-old daughter, Daisy, is away at boarding school.  The son of Malcolm’s friend, Patrick Ardghal, a photographer from Dublin, is living in a cottage behind their home.  Annie is also having an affair with Patrick.  It’s Patrick who writes those lovely, enigmatic poems and lives in the moment.  The two men couldn’t be more different. Patrick’s stylish. His is a “thrown-together elegance,” whereas Malcolm is what-you-see-what-you-get, old-fangled.  Annie’s drawn to the older man, I think, as the father figure (an alcoholic) who abandoned her; the other arouses her artsy side. Both inflame a nerve aching to be carefree. Who will know?  She’s so far away from home.  All that in five pages.

Chapter One opens with another hook: “It’s not always wise to assume that just because the surface of the world appears undisturbed, life is where you left it.”  It’s September 5, 2011, a date chosen I suspect to tell us something very bad is about to happen.  Indeed it does.

A photo of Malcolm, Louise, Annie, and Patrick at the White Cliffs of Dover before they boarded a ferry to Paris to spend a momentous Christmas together (not the kind of romantic Paris you may be envisioning) has arrived for Annie, jolting her present world.  Who sent it?  Why now?  It’s an arresting photo given the hidden web of the foursome and an exposure technique called “solarization,” Patrick is known to have used.  It creates “dissonance,” further highlighting the internal strife Annie already saw.

Port of Dover
By Nessy-Pic (Own Work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Beyond the “love triangle” of Annie and Malcolm and Patrick, Louise is also sexually involved with Patrick. A “love square”?  This one sanctioned by Malcolm to assuage Louise’s “midlife malaise.”  She’s a dreadful nag, so he was kidding himself it would make a difference.  Theirs is a marriage that incites Annie to often examine a “persistent failure of kindness in a marriage.”

Including, sadly, her own.  Four days before Robbie’s accident, Annie confessed to her husband Jonathan about the so-called “small indiscretion.”  You’ll have to guess what that might be and when it happened.  Not the ideal time to find the couple thrown together, more like camped out together, at the paradoxically named Mermaid Inn, near the hospital poor Robbie lies in, while Annie’s estranged parents nobly unite to care for their younger daughters, Polly, 6, and Clara, 9.

Jonathan Gunnlaugsson is also Irish, like Patrick.  They met on a different ferry crossing the Irish Sea when Annie fled Paris. Something happened in Paris you’ll learn of in due course. Imagine, though, fleeing two relationships and then rapidly falling into another one.  She and Jonathan travel together – Nepal and India – until Annie has news that causes them to abort the trip.  Soon after, old-fashioned doctor Jonathan who grew up on a farm in Wisconsin proposes to Annie, launching her transformation into a sober, good adult.

That’s when Part I, Annie’s selfish, worrying-about-me period, ends.  Part II still shifts back to that unstable era but now its heart is motherhood, selfless and worrying, especially about Robbie, understandably.  Robbie has so much promise: a science scholar from Northwestern University doing an optical computing internship at Berkeley, headed to Japan’s National Institute of Information and Communications Technology when tragedy struck.

One of the consequences of the accident is medical proof Jonathan’s not his father.  Robbie, if he pulls through, doesn’t know that.  Who is his father?  Malcolm?  Patrick?  Ellison drives home there’s no “escaping without consequence.”

One “thread” woven into Annie’s character is her artsy-ness.  For the past fourteen years, she’s the proud owner of an offbeat lighting business in San Francisco, Salvaged Light, recycling old fixtures and then turning them into “one-of-a-kind” treasures.  An older couple that managed the store has left; soon a new tenant, Emme Greatrex, occupies the upstairs loft, convincing Annie to let her work in the store in exchange for reduced rent.

Emme is a bit of a mystery.  She’s blond and model-like, a bohemian type who dresses in cowboy boots and gold fishnet tights.  A flirt, as in flirted with Robbie.  As in she was driving that fateful car; escaped unscathed and then disappeared.

We don’t dwell on Emme’s miraculous fate. We’re glued to Robbie’s crisis and the enormity of reverberating effects.  What happens to Robbie?  What happens to his parents’ marriage?  What happens to all the threads that have come undone?

Light is another authorial thread.  Robbie’s interested in “light sources.”  Annie’s business centers on light.  Will Robbie see the light of his parentage?  When does the reader see the light?  Ah, remember that O’ Henry ending.


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Last Ride to Graceland 2

“Love Me Tender” – A mother, a daughter, Elvis and a Southern journey (Beaufort SC to Macon GA to Fairhope AL to Tupelo MS to Memphis TN; daughter’s trip in 2015, mother’s late seventies): Summer’s coming and I’m in a Southern state of mind. So let’s take a “blues and rockabilly” road trip down South searching for Elvis, and a whole lot more.

We’re not taking off from Virginia where I live. It’s the “shallow South,” says Cory Beth, one of our two female Last Ride to Graceland narrators. We’re setting off from the “Old South,” from Beaufort, South Carolina “so beautiful it hurts,” where Cory lives and sings. She’s 37, or as Cory perceives herself, a “coming-on-forty loser who lives in a trailer and plays waterfront bars and sleeps with the wrong men.”  Whatever you think of Cory, I’ll bet you’ll be rooting for her.

Our destination is Memphis, Tennessee. In case there’s anyone left on this planet who doesn’t know, this is where Elvis Presley’s mansion, Graceland, sits like a king. We could take a direct route, make it in one long 10-hour day. Pack for five days though for Cory intends to meander, allowing us to traverse “clichés about the angry South” and some of its “fairyland” scenery. Somewhere along our route we’ll cross the “invisible line between the South and The South,” as we travel through the “acceptability of Georgia,” to the “anxiety of Alabama,” and “then the complete throwing-in-the-towel-ness of Mississippi.”

Elvis Presley, 1970
By Ollie Atkins, chief White House photographer at the time, via Wikimedia Commons

Cory may be acting on impulse and gut, but she’s making this trip and following this roundabout itinerary on a strong hunch and a few clues. “Born 7 months, 9 days after my momma left Graceland,” she thinks Elvis is her father. At 18, her mother, Laura Berry, was a backup singer in Elvis’ touring entourage, one of eight singers, four white, four black. Elvis called her Honey Bear. That was the last year of Elvis’ iconic life, 1976 to 1977, a period “between the hippie years and disco years.”

So our journey moves back and forth in time, told in Cory and Honey’s fictionalized Southern voices. The Honey chapters are trips down memory lane, when Elvis captured America by storm and then “Elvis did such a good job of breaking America’s heart.” He was the “first artist to sing like all of America, not just half of it. Proof that he had come to bring us happiness and heartache in the same spin of the turntable.” Honey’s roller-coaster year reflected that too: from the highs of learning “how to glitter” to the lows of seeing “what happens when a poor boy from Tupelo, Mississippi, gets all the money and sex and fame in the world and still isn’t happy.”

All this means Kim Wright’s fourth novel poignantly dishes out Southern soul and winning rhythmic prose that I can’t stop quoting, as she pays tribute to Elvis at 42 (the last year of his life, the same age his mother Gladys died, part of his vulnerabilities), down to imagining the last tragic moments of his lonesome life even though he was “constantly surrounded by people,” including Honey at Graceland. The music you’ll hear brings us to “the kind of music that gave him his start … Like he was circling back. Like he knew he didn’t have long.”

Before we head off, a few more things to know about Cory and Laura/Honey. They both look like Priscilla Presley. Laura was a preacher’s daughter, so she had (and Cory has) what Elvis had: a “gospel tremor in his voice.” Here’s how Kim Wright movingly describes that sound:

“It’s the voice of anybody who started out in the church or maybe even just in the South, the voice of someone who can’t even say the goddam word home without lifting the note just a little bit right at the very end, as hopeful as a dog at a rest stop, sure as shouting that waiting out there somewhere, somehow, is an angel just for them.”

Key to the timing of our trip is seven months ago Laura died a “ragin’ Cajun kind of cancer that takes you from daiquiris to the funeral home in five months flat.” The novel opens when the “good man” that raised Cory, the only father she’s known, Bradley Ainsworth, is on his annual fishing trip and seems to have forgotten his waders. Could Cory ship them to Florida? An odd, expensive request. Cory suspects he planned this intentionally, because when she enters his fishing shed, which she never had an occasion to do, it’s not just big old waders left behind but a perfectly preserved 1973 Stutz Blackhawk – Elvis’ car – the car he actually drove on August 16, 1977, the last night of his life. Cory figures Honey drove it back home when she fled Graceland – pregnant. Cory guesses Bradley has decided it’s finally time she discovers the truth about her biological father.

Elvis’ 1973 Stutz Blackhawk
By Thomas R Machnitzki (, via Wikimedia Commons

So climb into this rare “muscle car.” Slide into its soft, red leather seats. Gawk at what looked like “real twenty-four carat gold” interior trim (it was 18-carat). Turn on the eight-track player. Hear a melody reminiscent of “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay,” crooned by Otis Redding. It’s marked demo. Recognize two of the three harmonizing voices: the King’s “stripped-down version from the early years, even before he started recording at Sun Records” – one of many Elvis tidbits revealed on our trip. The other familiar voice is Honey’s; the unfamiliar one Cory assumes is her mama’s backup singer friend, Marilee. Notice the trash in the car. A BBQ napkin from a place called Doozy’s. A receipt from Tupelo, Elvis’ birthplace. Clues – and a car that makes you feel like the “whole world is vibrating” – guide the roads Cory will be taking. Pure, escapist fiction.

Historical Marker
By Spudgun67, via Wikimedia Commons

Time to let Cory take the wheel. Be confident Cory can competently steer this “big 425 engine” that guzzles gas (the real car got 8 miles to the gallon) along a fortuitous path. The strangers she meets, the coincidences that happen are planted for more good reasons.

Soon you’ll be traveling with another companion: a coon dog Cory names Lucy. Not a typical name for a male dog. Then again, this isn’t an ordinary trip.

Since the point of a car adventure is the unexpected journey, you’re on your own from here, like Cory was. She set off to find her father; discovers some of Honey, some of herself. So sit back, and enjoy the memorable ride.


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The Blue Bath 4

A Twenty-Year Obsession: An artist and his muse (London, present; Paris, twenty years earlier): Every day for 15 years, American artist Andrew Wyeth secretly sketched and painted 240 representations of one woman, Helga Testorf. A stash that took the art world by storm when the “Helga Pictures” were fully revealed in 1986 to his wife and business partner, Betsy, who then sold them at Wyeth’s request for millions and a year later exhibited around the country. Created at a neighbor’s farmhouse, it’s amazing even Betsy was kept in the dark about their existence. Far more incredulous is that one model inspired and sustained one artist for so many days, hours, and years. In 2009 after Wyeth’s death, Betsy bequeathed his studio to the Brandywine Conservancy and Museum of Art in Chadds Ford, PA, where visitors can tour and immerse themselves in Wyeth’s bucolic world, which my husband and I recently did.

I’ve been thinking about Wyeth/Helga’s extraordinary artistic collaboration for this post: how it compares and contrasts to the fictional artist’s two decades-long obsession with his muse, rhythmically imagined in The Blue Bath, Mary Waters-Sayer’s hypnotic debut. The artist, Daniel Blake, is British. Like Wyeth, he’s secretive; we, and more importantly, the model who was his lover, knew nothing of his past. She’s Kat Lind, an American expat living in London, as the author did for twelve years.

In 1987, the Helga I saw at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC was pensive and detached, with radiant reddish-brown braids. Kat reminds me of Helga. She feels like an onlooker, and has red hair. So I thought Wyeth/Helga might be the inspiration for the novel.

Not so, says the author in an email anticipating its release, in which she discusses her inspiration. She “couldn’t shake” a portrait she noticed in the window of a London art gallery. She wondered:

“What it must feel like to be the subject of a portrait, to be examined so closely. And then I started to think about the artist and about the act of looking at someone that deliberately. It seemed so intimate.”

In Helga’s case, obviously, she was keenly aware she was the subject of prolonged study. And, since some paintings are nudes, speculation about how intimate artist and model were lingers. As for Kat: Imagine the shock of attending an exhibition at a chic Mayfair gallery twenty years after you broke off your affair with a struggling artist you met in Paris at nineteen (while studying French literature at the Sorbonne), only to discover he had not stopped painting and imagining you all these years? And, as the gloriously blue lit Parisian bathtub of the novel’s title suggests, Kat and Daniel were quite intimate. (“How rare that intimacy,” Kat reflects.) “Not since Titian has there been an artist more enamored with a redhead.” The point is dark redheaded Kat stands out. Nearing forty, will anyone recognize her?

Why this matters – the premise of the novel – is Kat never told her husband Jonathan about Daniel, wanting him to be “hers alone. Sacred and apart.” Jonathan is a made-it-big darling of the British business world, sought after by paparazzi, voracious for news about a celebrity who single-handedly “rekindled the Internet economy in Britain.” Jonathan disputes that attribution but there’s no disputing he’s an extremely rich and well-connected man. Those connections are to the very same rich people investing in art, who are mulling about the artist’s publicized one-woman retrospective. The wishing-for-greatness artist and his coarse business manager, Martin Whittaker, have kept the model’s identity secret, fueling the mystique and the valuation of the artworks.

The reader marches to the same beat as the buzz at the gallery: “Who is she and what is she to the artist?” Your clues are found in the melancholy, lyrical, seductive prose, wonderfully matched to evoke the fragile beauty of art and Kat’s delicate, elusive character. Is this what the artist saw in Kat that captivated him so?

The wistful prose conveys Kat’s unsettled soul. Like the paintings and the artist, she’s mysterious, ephemeral, vulnerable. Keep in mind that when the novel opens she’s grieving the loss of her mother. She’s just returned to London after her death, to a new home that’s being renovated in a super-luxurious neighborhood near Holland Park. This is the kind of wealth where your neighbors drive Bentleys, where you live across the street from an embassy. “The size of the house, the financial commitment, the scope of the renovation – all of these things had led her to allow herself to believe they were putting down roots.” So the disquietude we sense in Kat is meant to sound rootless, haunting.

She feels more than sad and lonely, she feels invisible. Jonathan is constantly traveling. In fact, he doesn’t physically enter the novel until the end. We judge him via absence and phone calls. He’s in China on a pressing business deal but this is his third try at negotiating it, so how crucial was it to leave his mourning wife alone? How sensitive to let her return by herself to an unfamiliar home undergoing unnerving construction? To insist their young son, Will, stay with his grandparents to give Kat a rest? Kat, in her dazed state, has too much free time on her own.

After Will, she stopped working. After Paris, she chose a vastly different path – business school. It led to meeting Jonathan, which means Kat knows those same business associates at the galleria opening. It also means, as we slowly put two and two together, that the harsh corporate world was not the best path for someone who had an eye for gentle beauty (photography, in Paris), when her life was all about “spirit and possibility.” We’re told that after ten years of marriage, hers is “comfort and familiarity.” If there was passion, it sounds gone, or silently crying out for rekindling.

How much over those twenty years Kat has thought about those heady Paris days when she barely left Daniel’s studio we don’t know. But ever since Kat learned Daniel Blake was in London and about to have a showing of his art she’s flooded with memories, woven back and forth throughout the novel. The drifting prose, her drifting thoughts, lets us feel she’s adrift. Paris left a “hole that she could feel inside her.”

Attending the opening was a risk, a bit reckless. It seems she’s drawn there by a force outside her control. Once she sees herself spread about the gallery’s walls, realizes she’s been meticulously studied over so many years, she’s unhinged. But she also grasps she has not been invisible to Daniel. A dangerous lure for someone so naked. As Kat’s mind and heart drift back to Paris, to “nostalgia and regret for a delicate and vanished time,” the reader anticipates where her story may go. The reader is right, and the reader is wrong. As the canvas gets filled in, the ending takes you by surprise.

A portending scene of Kat visiting the prestigious architectural firm overseeing the historic renovation of her home is a metaphor, I think, for perceiving Kat. Like us, the architect senses her fragility, her uncertainty, concludes “sometimes it is that which remains unfinished that remains the most beautiful.” Preservation of the palatial home is reduced to its “essential elements.”

As the story reaches its conclusion, Kat too is stripped down to preserving her most fundamental elements. To that which is indispensable.


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The Excellent Lombards 2

Wishing time stood still – On an apple farm in Wisconsin (1990s to 2001): The Wisconsin Apple Growers Association reports that of its 72 counties, 46 grow apples on 7,400 acres yielding 56 million pounds of apples yearly.  Jane Hamilton lives on one of those apple farms, on some of those fertile acres.  So does the fourth-generation of Lombards she beautifully fictionalizes in her elegant seventh novel – an old-fashioned love letter to bygone youth and farming before the full forces of change (technological, economic, environmental, social, cultural) swept in.

The brilliance of this novel is the narrator’s youthful voice.  A point-of-view that’s a mix of adulation, innocence, intellect, and a melancholy searching-for-answers.  Thus 12-to-16-year old Mary Frances Lombard brings poignancy and tenderness and nuance to serious issues that might otherwise come across as preachy or certain.  Hers is an emotional struggle borne out of a fierce devotion to the “ancient gathering up of the field.”  An inability to accept the changes descending on an historic family farm as agriculture and the world grow increasingly complex in the nineties, leading up to 9/11 when life changed for all of us.

You need not have grown up on an apple farm (or any farm, for this one also raises sheep) in the Midwest to relate to the nostalgia of lost childhoods, when children were content to spend idle time outdoors, which is why the novel is perfectly set pre-Internet explosion, cell phones, social media.  Adding depth to the woebegone tone is Frankie’s “reverence for the family history,” for “unity of purpose,” which pulls us into the power of place, of home, as she contemplates “if a place might make you more than you were?”  Even if ours was not an idyllic childhood, we wish we had one.  So we empathize with Frankie’s joy, love, and emotions – her confusion, denial, resentment, disillusionment – as she discovers “children aren’t always triumphant or heroic like in the books.”  (The importance of reading a lovely element; her mother an award-winning librarian.)

For a compact novel (273 pages) about old-fashioned ways, it’s impressive how much is packed into The Excellent Lombards that’s anything but simple.  Each chapter an episode, a growing-up scene, a life lesson.  With each, we sense unrest and the winds of change blowing.

Tension begins as soon as the novel opens.  Mary Frances, or Frankie (she’s also goes by Francie, Imp, Marlene, and MF depending on who does the calling and what age she’s at) re-counts a long car ride to visit her grandmother in Minnesota with her brother William, whom she adores (“Why did he always have to be patient, so patient and kind?”), when they were about 7 and 8.  Frankie overheard her parents, Jim and Nellie, arguing.  Frankie idolizes her hard-working, dependable, old-fangled storytelling father but has a cooler alliance toward her mother, who doesn’t work on the farm.  That’s key, I think, to their strained relationship (although she recognizes her mother “had something”), and differing parental attitudes about the future of the farm.  This incident is the first time Frankie’s “frightened in real terms about the farm,” an overarching theme as her immediate Lombard family is not the sole “heirs to a noble business.”

Ownership is complex.  Frankie’s Lombard foursome own only half the orchard property.  The other half is owned by her father’s cousin, Sherwood, whose always lived and worked on the farm whereas Jim previously spent only summers there until he married.  The animosity between these two opposites – one a “prophet of routine” and the other an impractical, wacky inventor – permeates throughout.

Three houses are spread out on the farm.  One is an 11-bedroom “manor house” where Sherwood’s family resides: wife, Dolly, and their two children, Amanda and Adam, similar in age to Frankie and Will, so they’re playmates after-school.  Even though Frankie’s family owns three-quarters of this house, they don’t live in it.  Theirs is a “clapboard heap” circa 1860.  The different characteristics of the two homes says a lot about the differences between these two families.  Frankie’s is “not unseemly or puffed up,” whereas Dolly envisions something superior than farming for her children.  (Actually, so does Frankie’s mother.)  Think of these homes as “divided kingdoms,” like Frankie and Will do.  They even made up fantasy names for them: Velta versus Volta.

The remaining one-fourth ownership of the manor belongs to reclusive, intimidating Aunt May Hill, in her sixties or seventies, no one seems to even know that, who lives generally left alone upstairs.  She may be odd but she’s the “farm’s gold” because she can fix all the old machinery forever breaking down.

The third home on the farm is an ancient stone cottage, a nod to the history of apple farming in the State dating back to the 1800s.  Gloria, the “hired woman,” resides in it.  She’s far more than that.  She’s “Wife Number Two” and a surrogate mother since Gloria, Jim, and Frankie spend so much time with this “welder woman to Nordic princess.”  Frankie does not want to let go of her.  Events transpire otherwise.  Like children do, Frankie internalizes, wonders if she’s shown Gloria enough love.

Besides Frankie, the other central character anchoring the novel is the orchard itself.  “All those beauties were a reminder of the grace and good breeding of the Lombard clan.”  The property includes “three barns, four hundred acres of forest and arable fields and marsh, the sheep pastures, and the apple trees.”  The apple barn is where cider is made (14-hour days), where customers come to buy apples and soak up nostalgia that takes in a yard of old-timey farm implements dating back to 1917.  You can picture it.  Wish you were picking delicious heirloom varieties right about now?

Frankie believes the orchard is the “most important feature of the world.”  Certainly hers.  It drives her stories about: hay baling; the arrival of Sherwood’s brother who speaks like a CIA spy with talk of far flung places, the World Trade bombings, jihad (“no one in our neighborhood in 1993 was using the word”); the National Geography Bee, the idea of her new “four-five split” elementary school teacher from Chicago, Mrs. Kraselnik, who is Jewish and therefore offers diversity to this homogenous community.  Frankie adores her elegance and moral goodliness (“everything we know and are, boys and girls, begins with the land in your community”); Blossom Day (“blossom to blossom to blossom the orchard lit with a snowy brilliance”); another visiting cousin, this one a college-educated, “Slow Food, locavoring, hipper-than-Alice-Waters pioneer,” who poses another threat to the farm; the Farmland Preservation Committee pitting rural spirit against suburban sprawl; her desire to join the Future Farmers of America in contrast to Will’s college ambitions; and yes more.

Frankie is 16 when the novel ends.  How will she turn out?  Readers might well encourage Hamilton to write a sequel!  Will Frankie grow up to “put good in the world” as Mrs. Kraselnik taught her?  You too will be charmed by a teacher we wish challenged us when we were young: “Why, boys and girls, are we on this earth?  What in the world are we doing here?”


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The Last Painting of Sara de Vos 1

Readers of this blog may have noticed sometimes it takes a month or more to find a book/prose I love to blog about. These past few weeks have been a literary bonanza!

Real and fake, art’s enduring power — three lives, three continents, three centuries (Dutch Golden Age mid-1600s, Manhattan late 1950s, Australia 2000): Dominic Smith is a fictionist who paints beautiful images with words. His brushstrokes are so smooth, deft, and believable you’ll think the “landmark painting” at the heart of his fourth historical novel is the real thing. You can easily picture the “cult classic” hanging in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, where the largest collection of Dutch art from its golden era is housed. Doesn’t the art specialist’s elegant summation of the seductive image, which opens the novel, seem straight out of an exhibition or sales catalogue?

At the Edge of a Wood (1636)
A winter scene at twilight. The girl stands in the foreground against a silver birch, a pale hand pressed to its bark, staring out at the skaters on the frozen river. There are half a dozen of them, bundled against the cold, flecks of brown and yellow cloth floating above the ice. A brindled dog trots beside a boy as he arcs into a wide turn. One mitten in the air, he’s beckoning to the girl, to us. Up along the riverbank, a village is drowsy with smoke and firelight, flush against the bell of the pewter sky. A single cataract of daylight at the horizon, a meadow dazzled beneath a rent in the clouds, then the revelation of her bare feet in the snow. A raven – quilled in violet and faintly iridescent – caws from a branch beside her. In one hand she holds a frayed black ribbon, twined between slender fingers, and the hem of her dress, visible beneath a long gray shawl, is torn. The girl’s face is mostly in profile, her dark hair loose and tangled about her shoulders. Her eyes are fixed on some distant point – but is it dread or the strange halo of winter twilight that pins her in place? She seems unable, or unwilling, to reach the frozen riverbank. Her footprints lead back through the snow, toward the wood, beyond the frame. Somehow, she’s walked into this scene from outside the painting, trudged onto the canvas from our world, not hers.

Smith also fools us into thinking he’s an expert in art restoration and forgery (he went to art school). The language of an Old World conservator or fabricator — lead-tin yellow, rabbit pelts, gesso, impasto, mastic, copal – colors the prose.

I also marveled at the assuredness of evoking “sense of place” in distant settings and time periods — Amsterdam’s ancient canals and “Frisian sense of forbearance” and Australia’s modern harbors and changing attitudes toward women in the arts – swiftly moving the reader back and forth in time and place effortlessly. (I’m presuming here that Manhattan’s Upper East Side and Brooklyn, circa late 50’s, the third backdrop and timeframe, is more knowable). Research is one thing, clearly on display, but juggling and blending time/place traveling chapters seamlessly is another. Sure enough, I discovered Smith lived in Amsterdam and was born in Australia, which helps to throw light on his writerly gifts.

Judith Leyster, Self-Portrait c. 1630
via Wikimedia Commons

Smith tells us he imagined Sara de Vos as an amalgamation of a few Dutch women artists from the 1600s including: Judith Leyster, chief among them, as she was the first woman admitted to the governing, highly influential Guild of St. Luke and for 200 years her work had been attributed to her husband, Frans Hals; and Sarah van Baalbergen, whose art did not endure. (Interestingly, Barent was the name of both husbands of the real/imaginary Sarah/Sara.)

Prior to reading the novel, the only Dutch artists from that luxuriant era, a “fluke of rheumatic temperament and history,” I was familiar with were Rembrandt and Vermeer. I’m not sure which statistic is more amazing: the 5 to 10 million works of art estimated to be produced during this renaissance, or the 1% or less likely to have survived?

Heartening, at least fictionally, is the suggestion that another landscape painted by a 1600s-Dutch woman still exists. Though even that’s a question mark, one of many, since these artworks were typically unsigned, and it was not the custom for women to paint landscapes. Still lifes and portraits yes, but women were too housebound to have idle time to wander about outdoors to paint moody scenery. Is the attribution to Sara de Vos correct? If so, who might the ghostly girl be? What if Sara created other landscapes? Might any still exist?

The historical inspiration for this “godly and omniscient” canvas came from the ice-skating scenes of Hendrick Avercamp, an early Dutch landscape painter. (Also heard on the author-interview podcast cited above.)

Winter Landscape by Hendrick Avercamp, first half 17th c., via Wikimedia Commons

Treatment of women is a recurring theme. First with Sara, whose harsh circumstances in the Old Country unfold a likely scenario that could have led to her extraordinary artistic license, working under the strict auspices of that almighty Guild. Fast forward centuries later to Ellie Shipley, art historian/restorer/one-time forger of a “meticulous fake,” who immigrated to New York from her native Australia and London’s Courtauld Institute of Art to gain respect in a male-dominated field. In the late fifties, when she commits the art crime, she’s in her twenties doing her dissertation at Columbia on Baroque Dutch women painters, drawn to the progressive school’s two-female faculty. How she came to copy the painting in her squalid Brooklyn apartment that smelled so badly from the glues, paints, and varnishes she concocts to mimic the Dutch masters becomes a window into the techniques, obsession, and mindset of a painstaking forger, whose “dominion is theater and subtext.” Forty-years later, when we meet her again teaching at Sydney University and curating an exhibit on her specialty, she’s achieved stature. But her soul has suffered the burden of her shameful deed all these years.

Revenge for stealing the painting takes on a deceitful, fervent life of its own that plays out with a feminist angle, conceived by our main male character: fortyish, wealthy, New York patent attorney Martin de Groot, of Dutch ancestry. He inherited the painting from his father, passed down generations. The affecting painting hung over his Upper East Side penthouse bed since the 1920s. “Stolen the same week the Russians put a dog into space,” someone replaced it with a near-exacting replica perhaps right under Marty’s nose. Events are presented as possible scenarios as to when the heist may have occurred. The counterfeit is so masterful it takes Marty six months to notice it isn’t the real deal, whereupon he hires a private investigator to uncover who probably forged it. It takes Marty another forty years, aged into his eighties, to catch up with the forger.

At first, righting the wrong consumes the victim, who in a different way is as two-faced, artful, and immoral as the perpetrator. Forty-years without his beloved painting and the remorse of his deception doesn’t destroy him but it has taken a big toll. To understand the “existential meaning” of the painting to Marty and Ellie is to understand the man he did not become and the woman she strove to be.

While we can certainly pass judgment on Marty’s and Ellie’s actions, with the benefit of insight I think the overarching point is how much a magnificent piece of art can affect lives. An exhibition about a masterpiece, penned by a master.


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Ethical Science, Ethical Child-Rearing — Behaviorism (Vassar College, Johns Hopkins Henry Phipps Psychiatric Clinic, Long Island, Whip-Poor-Will Farm, CT; 1916-1935): Many moons ago, I was an undergrad psych major. After taking all the clinical/Freudian offerings, the engrossing emotional stuff, all that was left were classical conditioning experiments with rats and mice (think Pavlov’s dogs). Stimulus-response, observable-measureable behavior — the antithesis of feelings. I hadn’t thought of those emotionless theories until Behave. Ironically, prepare for a roller-coaster ride of emotions!

Told through the complicit eyes of a science-savvy wife, Rosalie Rayner Watson, novelist and non-fiction writer Andromeda Romano-Lax delivers an absorbing, morally affecting fictional memoir taking stock of her life with the controversial founder of conditioning psychology known as Behaviorism or Behavioral Psychology: John B. Watson, a psychological giant of the 20th century. With very little known about the woman behind the larger-than-life trailblazer, the author had rich material to mine, done thoughtfully. (An ambitious novel; 401 pages.) You know you’re in for a ride when Rosalie sets the stage telling us it’s “tricky for any woman to sort out her feelings, but most of all when her husband is an expert on feelings.” Still, Rosalie comes across as a reliable narrator as all is not crystal-clear and things do not wrap up neatly.

John B. Watson
via Wikimedia Commons

Rosalie’s narrative is stunning given the popularity of John Watson’s extreme behaviorist doctrines that flourished in the 1920s to ‘50s. (B. F. Skinner came along and added complexity with his positive-negative reinforcement concepts.) Watson, on the other hand, espoused only three human emotions — fear, rage, and love; and claimed all could be stimulated, predicted, controlled. His radical views went mainstream into parental homes through magazines like Cosmopolitan and Parents and the bestselling Psychological Care of Infant and Child.

Behave opens in 1935 with an ill Rosalie, presumably what sparked this confessional. She examines: her privileged upbringing in a loving and lovely Jewish home in Baltimore; her passion for psychology at Vassar; a conflicted marriage to an influential man with “Valentino looks” and baggage from an unhappy Southern childhood and a troubled marriage to Mary Ickes, whose name rings a bell because her brother served in FDR’s administration (Rosalie and John married right after their divorce); Watson’s pioneering contributions to psychology and advertising; serious mistakes they both made in science and as parents. From the get-go, the prose grabs as you sense this is not going to be a pretty picture.

At the groundbreaking Johns Hopkins clinic run by prominent psychiatrist Adolf Meyer, the reader looks in on Professor Watson’s egregious, persistent breaching of ethical conduct involving human research subjects: fear-conditioning experiments on hundreds of “blank slates,” baby “Albert B” the most famous. Rosalie was his graduate assistant. She said nothing.

Rosalie Rayner
via Wikimedia Commons

Equally ethically disconcerting, she lets us in on what comes later, behind-closed-doors, as Rosalie navigates motherhood to two boys, Billy and Jimmy, under the dictates of her self-important husband. The reader can surmise how these two innocent children turned out; the Epilogue fills in their real history.

Professor Watson was thrown out of Hopkins for improper morals. Not for revelations about “Little Albert,” which came later, but for his scandalous love affair with Rosalie. He was twice the age of his student, married into a well-known family, a father of two, and rumors of earlier womanizing trailed him.

Watson and Rosalie appear to have embarked with good intentions. Partly in response to a topsy-turvy world after WWI, they aspired to “make the world a better place.” Did Watson really think he was helping to create happier children? Did Rosalie really take to heart his preposterous declarations that babies shouldn’t cry or be coddled or hugged? Granted Rosalie was a woefully inexperienced, overwhelmed, isolated mother. Did she go along with her guru husband’s “anti-attachment” approach because she didn’t know better, or didn’t have enough energy, or was she fearful of questioning the great man? By the time her mothering feelings were deep to admit the unnatural state of loving her two boys, it was too little, too late.

Much of their marriage took place during the break-the-mold Jazz Age, when Rosalie says it was “so easy to remake oneself these days.” Excuses? Maybe for her, but not for us. Except, I think, the author wants us to judge Rosalie against the context of history. Not to condone actions and inactions, but to provide perspective to our range of feelings towards Rosalie: disappointment, frustration, anger, outrage, sadness. She had so much, lost so much. As for the esteemed psychologist, you know you’re in good authorial hands because he engenders strong negative emotions!

Rosalie’s telling opens at Vassar College with her psych lab partner and best friend, Mary Cover. Enthused about science, Mary gave her a magnifying glass for her charm bracelet. We meet them in a course taught by the first woman to be awarded a doctorate in psychology, Margaret Floy Washburn. In short, Rosalie’s beginnings were charmed and seemed destined.

Mary Cover is key because in 1919 she and Rosalie, at Mary’s encouragement, traveled to Manhattan’s New School to hear Professor Watson’s lecture on behaviorism. By now, he’d achieved acclaim for his “1913 Behavioral Manifesto” presented at Columbia. In later years, Mary resurfaces, a haunting reminder of what Rosalie failed to do: juggle a career and motherhood. (In 1970, Mary was named “mother of behavioral psychology.”)

At first, working alongside the famed psychologist, Rosalie says she was her happiest:

“As a woman, I’d never imagined such heights of happiness: of being so wanted and so needed, my mind equally filled with our scientific tasks.”

Soon things begin to unravel. It starts with the dewy-eyed grad student hinting at discomfort with Watson’s experimentations with “Little Albert.” During those fear studies, Rosalie resists than falls for Watson’s magnetism. Then, there’s awkward, foreboding scenes of Watson’s wife oddly befriending Rosalie’s mother. Tension grows when Rosalie’s parents greatly disapprove of her marriage. (The love scandal made it into Baltimore and national newspapers.) When Watson moves Rosalie away from science, academia, and her family to the secluded wilds of Long Island, Rosalie is transformed into a lonely, housebound mother. Here, we empathize with her. She’s so out-of-sorts about her parenting skills and so fatigued she can’t even rouse herself to feel jealous about the comings-and-goings of John, now climbing-the-ranks in advertising.

John Watson was a man in a big hurry. In just three years post-Hopkins, he made a name for himself in the “psychology of appeal” at the prestigious J. Walter Thompson advertising agency. Contrarily, he was psyching out the desires of the public without asking the same questions about his wife. Did he not care or see how lost she was, slumbering around in threadbare cotton dresses in a sweltering, drab rental bungalow without a phone? Frugal with Rosalie yet he was cavorting, drinking, and dressing in Mad Men style, including finding the funds to join a sailing club.

What happened to that charmed Vassar girl? Why did she give up her identity? Her dreams? Her family? Her moral compass? If she couldn’t stand up for herself, couldn’t she have at least stood up for her children? She admits she was an enabler: “How could two smart people be so stupid?”

Rosalie’s spiral is depressing. Depression is the best diagnosis I can come up with to reconcile how she came to let herself and her children down so badly.

Rosalie tells us there’s “no such thing as a clean break.” This much seems certain.


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Glory Over Everything 7

This post is dedicated to the readers and book clubbers who spread the word about The Kitchen House, Kathleen Grissom’s heart-wrenching historical fiction debut depicting the inhuman abuses of slavery and the complexity of racial relationships on a southern Virginia plantation in antebellum South, defying the odds by becoming a bestseller 2 ½ years after its 2010 publication (my review). For all who clamored for a sequel, Glory Over Everything arrives next week! Again, it tears at your heart continuing to pound big emotional themes about a horrific period in American history. From the opening quote by Harriet Tubman (from which the beautiful title is drawn) — the famed slave synonymous with the Underground Railroad – the new novel is glorious for its artful rendering of fictional characters who rose up to overcome.

Crimes against humanity and the price of freedom (Philadelphia, North Carolina, 1830; 1810 -1829 backstories): Speaking about the portrayal of slavery at the National Museum of African American History and Culture to open in September on the National Mall, director Lonnie G. Bunch III could have been epitomizing Glory Over Everything:

“We wanted to make sure you felt the pain of slavery, but also pondered what it meant when one group of people did this to another group … Slavery was not the only way to define people. They had a strength that I wish I had.”

The novel’s power doesn’t come from what the brutal characters do to the noble ones — cruel abuses of slavery on so many dimensions. Rather, its strength lies in the brave and decent characters whose courage and dignity warms our hearts and gives us hope. Surely hope is badly needed this political season as we see how deeply racially divided our country still is. Could the timing of the sequel be more relevant?

Second acts can disappoint. Not here! In fact, like editor Trish Todd wrote in her note to readers, I too think the sequel “surpasses” its predecessor.

One reason: Grissom excels at creating convincing characters through authentic dialogue. The four main ones are: Jamie, Pan, Caroline, and Sukey. They come to us in their four voices, with chapters structured and titled by their names and dates.

Chapter 1 opens in Jamie’s voice in 1830, then moves back and forth among voices and time to unfold character backstories. This approach gets us inside their heads, into their shame, losses, angst, and attachments to the past. (Jamie’s and Sukey’s linked to the first novel.) Each voice speaks to us in dialogue that hits the right tone, befits the character. Measured, not overly flowery, adeptly punctuated with historical detail.

This means sophisticated, thirty-three-year-old Jamie, who “learned to hide uncertainty under the cover of sophistication,” speaks to us in a dignified manner, prose fitting a bona fide member of Philadelphia’s high-society. Which he is not. The same holds true for the prose of lovely Caroline, nine years younger, delicate and accepting of her true aristocratic self and destiny: a loveless, arranged marriage expected of the upper-class.

Caroline is lily white, Jamie’s bi-racial, which sets up a key tension in the novel. The other centers on a black boy named Pan who, like Sukey, speaks in a dialect of broken vernacular English tenses. Remarkably, their words flow easily. Pan’s plight, along with Caroline’s and Jamie’s, drive the suspense.

Contrasted with the formal and gentle prose and the broken English is the harsh “n” word which invades the plot. It cannot be avoided, regrettably, if the fiction is to sear real. Which it does.

For those who read The Kitchen House a while ago (or prefer to start with this novel), be assured Grissom provides sufficient backstory, repeated, to bring you up to speed. Still, a little refresher: Jamie discovered his bi-racial roots toward the end of book one, committed a crime related to it, and then ran away North for freedom. Since Jamie looks white, he handily assumed a new identity but he spends the rest of the novel dreading his falsehood.

Harriet Tubman
By H. Seymour Squyer,
at National Portrait Gallery
via Wikimedia Commons

So when we now meet him, he’s Jamie Burton. We’re told he was thirteen when he fled to Philly, where he met an escaped slave, Henry, who saved his life. It’s too dangerous for the two to be seen together, so in twenty years they’ve seen each other only twice. First, fifteen years later, when Henry sought Jamie out to watch over his seven-year-old son, Pan. He did, indebted to Henry. Over the next five years, Jamie grows to delight in Pan’s sweet innocence, curiosity, and compassionate heart. Pan is too good and too understanding for his tender years and bleak upbringing (nursed his Mama who died; tells Jamie “I never have shoes before;” and is amazed “we gon’ eat again?”).

The year 1830 represents the twenty year mark, when Henry arrives through the back door of the respected home of Mr. and Mrs. Burton where Jamie resides. He beseeches Jamie to return South because Pan is gone, fearing he was sold into slavery.

Short, brisk chapters quickly bring us to the second plotline: the secreted affair between married Caroline and Jamie, complicated further by Jamie’s not confiding his ancestry with her.

The southern road ahead for Jamie is palpably dangerous. For one thing, despite his whiteness, Jamie stands out. Born with the use of only one eye, he wears an eye patch.

Not all is gloom and doom. There are tales of kindness and love, and a wonderful thread of artistic and natural aesthetics. A few examples: Jamie’s apprenticeship as a master silversmith and skilled painter of miniature birds using the pinfeathers of a woodcock instead of a larger sable brush; the familial affection of the Burtons for Jamie (Mr. Burton owns the silver shop); the steadfast devotion and friendship of Robert, Jamie’s manservant; and the forbidden passion of Caroline and Jamie.

There’s also the charm of Jamie’s ornithological visits to Philadelphia’s former Peale Museum and Bartram’s botanical gardens; a talkative cockatoo with brilliant colors; the lush greenery of Virginia; the eerily scenic Great Dismal Swamp; a tough, independent-minded, sixteen-year-old young lady, Addy; an abolitionist Quaker family; and a life-saving goat. These elements lighten the heavy heartedness of what befalls the characters once Jamie returns to the South.

Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge
[U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region (CC BY 2.0), via Wikimedia Commons]

Chief among them is poor Sukey, now a slave. Last we knew her, she was a girl living in the big house with Miss Lavenia (the Irish immigrant of The Kitchen House), both of whom cared for the matriarch, Martha Pyke. Sukey’s nursing skills and ability to read and write serve her well at first in her transformed life as a slave. Her fate changes, worsens dramatically.

That drama, absorbing much of the ending, will send chills up your spine. You may also shed tears, moved by incredible bravery.

Again, Grissom’s novel raises many issues, many questions. Again, perfect for book clubs. The first one that came to my mind: Can we ever escape our past?


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Be Frank With Me

“One-in-a-million”: Raising an exceptional child (Los Angeles, 2009-10): For every parent raising a child endowed with unusual abilities – and the teachers, classmates, friends, family members, and others who nurture and cross paths with that child – Be Frank with Me is a gift.

Wrapped in a catchy turquoise, top hat/monocle cover (a tip-off), Julia Claiborne Johnson’s sparkling debut has a big heart filled with wit, charm, and poignancy as it tips its hat to a “one-in-a-million” nine-year-old boy named Frank, who lives in an affluent neighborhood outside Hollywood and is a “devotee of film.”

Johnson also lives in LA, with a husband who writes comedy and has spent time on Hollywood sets ( Aren’t we lucky all that rubbed off on her? But make no mistake, her novel also offers a potent message about the challenges of parenting an exceptionally gifted child who displays many traits that from a layman’s viewpoint fall within the high-functioning spectrum of autism, or Asperger’s syndrome. She doesn’t label Frank, but if you know a kid like him, you’ll recognize how exhausting, exasperating, amazing – and endearing – someone like Frank can be.

Frank’s genius (his IQ is higher than 99.7% of the population) lies in his extraordinary language proficiency, photographic-memory, and passion for details. His Asperger-like attributes include: he can’t stand being touched (except by his mother) or have his things touched; tantrums and rocking motions when he gets anxious; doesn’t make eye contact; speaks in a flat, monotone voice; takes things literally; lacks social skills with kids his own age; sleepwalks; and is sensitive to textures.

The first thing to keep in mind about Frank is that he gravitates toward happiness (“a facial expression that almost came naturally to him”), so the overall feel of the novel is light-hearted. An example of how this plays out against stereotyping is that Frank isn’t pained by textures like fabric. Listen to how he good-naturedly and cleverly describes the fabric of a girl’s clothing, something he attends to meticulously:

“rayon, a wood-based fiber invented in 1855 but not popularized until the 1920s because until then it was highly combustible. Her rayon kilt feels like cashmere but is more suitable for playground wear as it is machine washable.”

The plot pushes Frank’s development to extreme by placing him in a secluded “glass mansion” high atop the hills of Bel Air overlooking Hollywood, with his reclusive one-book literary phenomenon of a single mother, Mimi Banning. Translation: he’s watched plenty of movies on TV so he’s a fount of knowledge about classical Hollywood moviemaking, legendary stars and their wardrobe accoutrements. He spouts information “as if he were reading off a teleprompter.” Since his mother has had the money and eccentricities to indulge him, his everyday attire – humorous, outlandish, gentlemanly, old-fashioned — doesn’t fit in. No wonder he gets stared at a lot.

Enter his literary sensation mother whom we meet in mid-life, a victim of a Ponzi scheme, forced to write a second novel. Mimi has also lost her immediate family; hides from the outside world and still-besieging fans behind a privacy wall Frank’s didn’t-quite-graduate Juilliard piano teacher, Zander, helped to build. Zander is terrific with Frank, and he’s a jack-of-all-trades but he’s unreliable, popping in and out of their lives. So Mimi reaches out to the only person she fully trusts, her Manhattan publisher, Isaac Vargas. A second novel, thirty years later, would be an instant bestseller, so of course Vargas is thrilled. He also knows “prickly” Mimi will need an assistant. Mimi outlines her requirements: “no Ivy Leaguers” and someone “good with kids.” Turns out the only qualification that matters is to take care of, entertain, and protect accident prone, into-everything Frank.

Twenty-four-year old Alice from Nebraska, who works for Mr. Vargas, beautifully fits the bill. She’s not a complainer (“Pollyanna”), an understatement! In fact, while Frank is obviously the star of this show, unshakable Alice, who is remarkably tenaciousness and thick-skinned at absorbing Mimi’s constant verbal abuse, Frank’s shenanigans, and dealing with capricious Zander, quietly also steals the show. This is to say that Mimi’s difficulties with motherhood are subtler, whereas Alice’s trials-and-tribulations and calmness cannot be missed!

By now you know Frank is a dapper dresser. His attire includes a smoking jacket, tailcoat, “three-piece glen-plaid suit,” and a “severe charcoal pinstripe number, complete with pocket square;” his accessories (besides the aforementioned top hat and monocle) include an aviator’s cap, bow tie, watch chain, pince-nez, cuff links. He evokes celebrities like Clarence Darrow, Sherlock Holmes, Tony Curtis, E.F. Hutton, Dr. Livingston, detective Nick Charles. One of my favorite lines comes early on when Alice is getting acquainted with Frank, gently admonishing him: “It’s not enough to dress like a gentleman … You need to act like one, too.”

What comes out of Frank’s mouth will delight: singular vocabulary like verisimilitude and homonym; sentences like “Allons-y is what the French Foreign Legion say when what they really mean is ‘Let’s blow this Popsicle stand, my friends!’”; and lengthier discourse like this one expressed while riding with Alice down Sunset Boulevard:

“the boulevard we just left behind, not the movie, originated as an eighteenth-century cattle path that followed the rim of the Los Angeles Basin and ran from the original Spanish settlement in downtown Los Angeles all the way to the ocean.”

Still, nothing delights more than the “joy and intensity and sweet, pure love” he feels for his Mama. That’s when he sees her, which given the stakes, are rare occurrences these days. When they do come together, it’s often precipitated by disastrous incidents Frank innocently instigates.

Frank may remind you of an amusing, charming younger version of Don Tillman in the bestselling The Rosie Project. Genetics professor, Don, also had undiagnosed Asperger-like challenges. You’ll smile, laugh, marvel, and adore Frank like we felt about Don, but Frank tugs at your heartstrings tighter because this “Little Prince” is just a child.

Like The Rosie Project sequel, The Rosie Effect, I’d love to see how life turns out for Frank. Mimi, and all parents whose children are different (and not), worry about their future. Frank is loved and cherished, his specialness appreciated, so we’re optimistic that his future will shine brightly like The Little Prince’s stars.


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