Act One: An Autobiography

“Stage-struck”:  From poverty to Broadway (Bronx/Brooklyn, NY, 1914 to 1930): Beautifully written storytelling that stayed on the bestseller list over forty weeks when first published in 1959 – a book with devotees in and out of the theatrical world – is too good for Enchanted Prose to pass up because it’s not fiction.  Deeply felt books like this one seem to take on a life of their own, much like Moss Hart said a play has “its own peculiar and separate life.” And like playwriting, blogging does not come with absolute rules.  For as much as Moss Hart’s can’t-put-it-down storytelling memoir, Act One, renders a detailed, behind-the-scenes account of a famous playwright’s “lifelong intoxication with the theatre” (he wrote The Man Who Came to Dinner, You Can’t Take it with You, A Star is Born; he directed My Fair Lady, Camelot), it also offers what enchanted fiction ought to do: stir the heart and take us inside the human condition.  For those who don’t read enough memoirs, Moss Hart’s elegant prose might change that.  Yes, it’s that good.

This new edition (Act One has never gone out of print) coincides with the Lincoln Center’s production currently playing in New York City.  Dedicated to Hart’s wife of 15 years, actress/TV personality, Kitty Carlisle, it’s been updated with a moving forward by their son, Christopher Hart, a director/producer.

Act One is as physically alluring – oversized and the cover golden — as the drama it portrays.  It is not the whole of Moss Hart’s life, which is why the aptly titled “Act One.”  (Dazzler: The Life and Times of Moss Hart by Steven Bach, 2007, presents Act Two, which includes Hart’s battle with manic depression. Sadly, there is no Act Three, Hart dying early at 57 from a heart attack.)  Not that Act One, Hart’s coming-of-age story spanning ages 10 to 26, is entirely a happy journey either, but it’s full of triumphs you’ll want to cheer.

Poverty is the backdrop, overshadowing everything.  It “dulled and demeaned each day.”  Poverty Hart characterized as “thievery,” robbing the vitality out of his unemployed Jewish father (a cigar maker from England) and his also jobless brother.  Hart makes the uncommon point that it’s not just the lack of money that degrades and wears down the soul:

“It is hard to describe or to explain the overwhelming and suffocating boredom that is the essence of being poor …. Boredom is the keynote of poverty – of all its dignities, it is perhaps the hardest of all to live with – for where there is no money there is no change of any kind, not of scene or of routine.”

Poverty intensified Hart’s passion for Broadway at a time when it flourished in the 1920s, with some 70 theatres. (His attachment to his eccentric, theatre-loving Aunt Kate, who once lived with his family, another influence.)  His addiction for this “devilish profession,” which he claimed is “the most difficult of literary forms to master,” is all-encompassing.  Act One, then, is about sometimes “wanting so much it can suspend judgment, intelligence, or plain common sense.” It is always about what it takes to lift oneself out of an unrelenting human condition: the “boldness to dream,” courage, endurance, discipline, talent, “sense of timing,” and good old-fashioned luck.

One explanation Hart suggests for the magnetic appeal of the theatre is that it serves as a “refuge of the unhappy child.”  Indeed he is a lonely one, out of sync with most of his family and schoolmates.  So we almost expect he’ll drop out of school at a tender age, which he does.  And then we root for his burning wish to get his foot in the door of Broadway, which he does.  The prose draws us in, so we can picture ourselves seated beside him and his Aunt in the theatre nightly, his theatrical office job coming with the fantastic perk of free tickets.  Of course, Hart also desperately needs money.  When he finally earns some, slowly and painfully – out-of-town flops, social directing during an interesting era in American culture when “adult summer camps” proliferated – with his first Broadway hit, Once in a Lifetime, he consciously sets himself on a path of a lifetime of indulgences.  He makes no apologies for “excess;” he touts it as the purpose of money.  While most of his “shopping sprees” go beyond the scope of this first act, we don’t fault him when he gets “clothes drunk.”  No, we completely understand.

Much of Act One is a story of mentors and collaborators, the most important being the legendary, Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright, George S. Kaufman.  The writing is so well-expressed we can see both men madly pouring over scene fixes for Once in a Lifetime at Kaufman’s brownstone on the Upper East Side.  Kaufman is a rather eccentric fellow – rituals of hand-washing, barely ever eating versus Hart’s voracious appetite, proud baker of wicked sugary fudge so the two can stay awake through regular all-nighters.  Kaufman’s “surgical” pencil looms very large here.

Considered one of or perhaps “the best book ever written about the American theatre,” Hart makes sure we understand it is like no other.  As far as he is concerned, there’s no “other profession as dazzling, as deeply satisfying as the theatre.”  For Hart, the “four most dramatic words in the English language [are]: Act One – Scene One,” and the “jolliest sounds in the world” are the “buzz of anticipation of a fashionable audience.”  Although he recognizes there are other careers more “noble,” none are as “sweet.” While we might not agree, you’ve got to admire the zealous devotion and fellowship.  Hart, though, admits the theatre takes a “tremendous toll” … on “nerves, in strain, in stamina – that it takes as much as it gives.”

Unquestionably, Act One delivers insightful and delightful commentary on playwriting and the “mystique” of the theatre:

“Never again a sound of trumpets like the sound of a New York opening-night audience giving a play its unreserved approval … no audience as keen, as alive, as exciting and as overwhelmingly satisfactory as a first-night audience taking a play at its heart.”

For playwrights and anyone wishing to be part of this artistic world, Act One is a gift of an insider’s observations on a range of theatrical topics – the importance of understanding the anatomy of a play; what makes great actors; sizing up pleased/displeased audiences; cultivating an “esprit de corps;” the promise of auditions and the disappointment of dress rehearsals.

While Hart’s commentary is laden with worries – by nature he’s a “chronic worrier” – let’s put aside these concerns for the moment.  Instead, let’s jump for joy when the acclaimed Kaufman magnanimously tells the opening-night audience that the success of Once in a Lifetime is “80%” Hart’s.  They have dissected and re-written Hart’s play so many, many times it’s heartbreaking and heartwarming.  For you cannot help but be inspired that they don’t just give up.  (Kaufman at one point did, leaving it to Hart to find their way back.)

When at long last the collaborators land their Broadway hit, Hart tells us “there is no smile as bright as the box-office man the morning after a hit.”  I’d venture to guess that if you were standing in front of that box-office window you’d be smiling brightly too.

Applause!  Applause!  Lorraine

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Astonish Me 1

Perfectionism and Aestheticism:  The All-Consuming Ballet (Paris, NY, Toronto, Chicago, CA, 1973 – 2002):  The deeper meaning of the title and pink ballet ribbon wrapping Maggie Shipstead’s compact second novel unwrap, in layers, through many characters, in many places, over time, astonishing until the final act.  Like a ballet balance beam, the author balances the gracefulness and harshness of balletomania, “meant to look effortless, not be effortless.”  Shipstead delivers a virtuoso performance by making an enmeshed story of two families, over two generations, over some thirty years, across continents, involving Russian defectors look easy!

She accomplishes all this in just 253 pages, in part, by structuring her novel in concise chapters that move back and forth through time and place, creating distinct and real characters because they take us inside the grueling physical demands and the emotional/psychological consequences of living in a world always striving for perfection, and yet – no matter how much practice and pain the balletomane endures – will likely “spend a lifetime of feeling inadequate.”  Perfection this precise, this astonishing is elusive.

While there are many important characters, it’s Joan, a ballerina since before age five, whose influence touches them all.  And so, Astonish Me opens with Joan in New York City in 1977, at a time when even “civilization seems fragile.”  Then Joan was in the corps de ballet of a New York City ballet company choreographed by Mr. K., one of the Russian defectors, who may be the “most famous choreographer of the twentieth century.”  (Could he be inspired by Balanchine?)

From the onset, we learn key details about Joan that set the stage for unwrapping the story:

The first is she’s pregnant, which means she must forgo her life’s passion since “tininess” is all you can ever be.  Joan reconciles this as not being good enough anyway – certainly not good enough to be a soloist.  (She “wished for more talent, for better feet, longer arms.”)  Perhaps motherhood and marriage to the brilliant, handsome, and witty Jacob who has loved her forever will be enough to make her happy.  Wishful thinking when the ballet has been her life and she still looks and moves like a ballerina.  Her ballet company roommate, Elaine, suffers from the same lack of confidence (“never in her life, not once, has she danced the way she wishes”), tempered by her devotion to Mr. K, the “only person who loves ballet as much as she does.”  Joan may never be a famous ballet dancer but she was chosen by a very famous one, Arslan Rusakov, a star at the Kirov, to help him defect from Russia.  They spent a year together at the Paris Opera House, where Sergei Diaghilev transformed the art form.  Of all the Russian dancers extraordinaire, the most potent force affecting the characters in the novel is Arslan.  For Joan, she is haunted by not knowing “why he chose her?”  No spoilers, except to say that at the finale you’ll have the answer.

At the center of Joan and Jacob’s twenty-plus year marriage is their son Harry, who becomes obsessed with ballet and Arslan.  They live in southern California, where Harry grows up with his neighbor, Chloe, who also takes up the ballet.  They both see the world as “dancers and non-dancers,” idolizing dancers to “not just people.” Their passions, developing bodies, sexuality, attitudes, struggles, and gifts communicate that ballet is about “intentions, power, and unfinished things.”

The author’s handling of homosexuality stereotypes is rendered with the same balance, sensitivity, and insightfulness as elsewhere.  This theme plays out in the characters of Mr. K., who both adores the “idea of women … their capacity as vessels, their aesthetics, their otherness,” and keeps his male attractions “walled off, invisible, underground, nocturnal, private;” and in Harry, whose mother does not care if he is gay, his father concerned he might be.  Appreciatively, this writing is not gratuitous, instead restrained and thoughtful.

Chloe’s parents, Sandy and Gary Wheelock, show us what the non-dancers of the world think of the dancers.  Sandy, who just so happens to be overweight, is awfully jealous and mistrustful of Joan.  She believes that “someone so thin can’t help but be pretty,” and that “mothers who keep their figures have sacrificed less than mothers who have widened and softened.” Her husband stares at Joan.  There is “something about dancers’ bodies, the obviousness of their manufactured perfection,” the author writes, “that makes people brazen about looking and commenting.”

I especially enjoyed the ballet prose, carefully placed throughout not to overwhelm.  You don’t have to know what the ballet moves mean to sense the artistry, risk-taking, and discipline to perform them: the pas de deux, demi-pointe, ronds de jambe, plies, tendus, dégagés, fondus, frappés, développés, grand allegro, brisé volés, coupés, jetés en tournant, piqué, arabesque, chasse, sissonne ouverte, camber, adagio, battements en cloche.

Leave it to Joan’s young Harry to be the one to gain the self-assurance he’ll surely need if he is to someday, maybe, become that exalted dancer:

The ballet is the result of endless repetitions: uncounted rehearsals of acts, of scenes, of combinations, of steps.  The steps themselves are only the most recent repetitions of movements he has done thousands, probably millions, of times in different rooms, on different stages, with different partners.

Astonish Me mirrors the same techniques. It takes us to different stages, with different partners, at different times.  And it does so in chapters that feel like acts and scenes (although not experienced chronologically).  But make no mistake about it.  Others have crafted ballet novels, but none quite like this one.  Lorraine

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Under Magnolia

Southern Memories – The enduring power of a passion for reading, writing, friendship, and a “sense of place”:  It’s wonderfully fitting that the first book I can’t wait to share that’s outside the historical/contemporary fiction genre Enchanted Prose mostly blogs about is a gorgeous Southern memoir by the “Bard of Tuscany” whose madly in love with prose.  You don’t even need Frances Mayes to say she “loves imagery, I will practice writing as though I were painting.”  Her writing is so sensory and poetic you’re likely to find yourself, as I did, re-reading sentences over twice, three times, to catch the nuances, the meaning, the beauty.

It’s also apt because Under Magnolia reads like fiction.  How else could the author recall “backward time” so vividly?  Part of the answer lies in her keeping diaries, letters, scrapbooks, reading logs, poems, autobiographical writings, and photographs (sprinkled throughout).  The rest comes from memories so intensely etched they endure.  They come from the “intense physicality” of her Southern roots (Fitzgerald, Georgia), a “landscape of riddles and tricks” that profoundly moved her and saved her from a terribly dysfunctional family.  That the author derived enormous pleasure in the beauty of her surroundings and from reading and writing in spite of her circumstances is inspirational.  She’s resilient and a lover of life: “If I ever get out of here, I will never select unhappiness.”  The author’s inspiration awaits you.

From the opening line, you’re hooked: “At a few times in my life, I’ve not been aware that I’ve just stepped onto a large X.  The X in this case is being magnetically, fortuitously, drawn back to the South while on a book tour stop at Square Books, in Oxford, Mississippi.  She only intended to “pause” not “leap” – the leap leaving San Francisco where her memories were “portable” to an historic home built in 1806 in a town of 6,000 artists and “dreamers,” Hillsborough, North Carolina.  Mayes still maintains her Tuscany home, which we all got to know in her first “Under” memoir, Under the Tuscan Sun.

The dreamy NC town is not the same South as Mayes’ southern Georgia childhood, a self-contained “world in a jar.”  This “greenest-green” jar niggles our senses.  Of smells: flowering magnolias where “the bloom smells South”; a “narcotizing fragrance … jasmine, ginger lilies, gardenia, and honeysuckle”; the “verdurous air” of palmetto, crape myrtle, pecan, and sycamore trees.  Of tastes: Sally Lunn bread, Lane Cake, chocolate icebox cake, peach pickles, so tantalizing that “maybe it’s the food of the South that makes the children long so for home.”  Of heat: “The sun could melt a bar of gold.” Of beaches: where the joy of “diving through sunlight in water” is so expansive it feels like a sixth sense.

Lest Mayes’ Georgia years sound idyllic, putting aside what you may think are ordinary family dramas, they are anything but.  She is the child of two alcoholic parents, who are “wild” and “chaotic” and always frightening to her.  Their arresting photographs remind me of Zelda and F. Scott, ironically also Fitzgerald.  They are so preoccupied with themselves the author is left immensely alone, despite two older sisters.  “For hours, for years, I hide, reading by flashlight … in my hideouts, I thrived.”  She covets normalcy.  She finds it in Willie Bell, their maid who raised her and gave her “a steady point of view.”  Willie Bell offers kindness and calmness and grace, which the author likens to the ancient Egyptian queen, Nefertiti.  On a vacation with Willie Bell on the Golden Isles of Georgia, Mayes becomes painfully aware of racism: separate beaches, “separate worlds.”  This South she yearns to flee.

Her parents would drive anyone away.  They are “jets over ocean,” speeding by so fast they never notice their nine-year old driving a car!  Reading is a prodigious escape: 6-7 books a week!  The author’s dubbing her parents “fabric people” is instructive.  Her father, Garbert, owned a cotton mill; the lovely fabrics he brought home magnify her mother’s devotion to the appearance of things.  Her beautiful mother’s tragic life mirrors the textures of fabrics she surrounds herself with – the dimity, seersucker, voile, chintz, toile, and silk.  Shear and delicate, fragile.  By high school, Mayes begins calling her mother by her name, Frankye, portending the slipping away of mothering.

Part of the fragility of her parents’ story is their dramatic downward trajectory due to long, awful, debilitating illnesses, whose affect to this day is that the author has a hard time dealing with illness.  Of her mother’s potential, Mayes sadly asks: “How do you hold onto a falling star?”

There is so much more to this penetrating memoir.  Quotes and notes and impressions and stories by famous Southern writers like Faulkner; colorful grandparents, miserly Daddy Jack and Mother Mayes; and university years spent at the all-girls Randolph-Macon College, where the “unimaginable” importance of friendships is learned, at the University of Virginia, and a paradisiacal senior year at the University of Florida, where Frances Mayes is finally set free.

When Mayes muses on an ideal love, we’re treated to the elegance of a true romanticist:

I want ardent notes, wildflower bouquets left wedged inside the doorknob, poetry books wrapped in tissue, first kisses, the lips at my ear, the soft words, the moment of being, dance cards with tassels, midnight walks through old neighborhoods, laughter reaching up to the moon in the palms.

Despite pain and losses, Under Magnolia is the author’s ardent love note to us.  Open it up carefully, like tissue paper.  And then gently walk with it, dance with it, dream with it.  Lorraine

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Vienna Nocturne

When Opera was the Rage – Musical passions and an imagined love between an opera diva and Mozart (18th century European opera houses in London, Naples, Venice, Milan, Vienna):  When an acclaimed flutist and novelist (Eugenia Zuckerman) touts a musical novel about a legendary opera soprano (Anna Storace) who inspired Mozart, written by a mezzo-soprano with an opera degree (Vivien Shotwell) who sang an aria Mozart composed for Storace, you can’t help but take notice.  When that novel, “composed” over a ten-year period, is warm and light like a piece of pleasing music – an accompaniment to the “warmth” and “light” Mozart is imagined telling Storace she brings when she graces a room – you’re doubly pleased.

You need not be an opera fan to hear this novel’s music.  The prose gracefully sweeps you along through the highs and lows of Storace’s narrative. You may, though, like me be unfamiliar with the language of the opera (messa di voce, motet, cadenza, ritornello, fioratura, recitative, libretto, roulades, ornaments, rondo, singspiel). That’s perfectly alright because the author’s style is intentionally accessible.  Shotwell does not want to overwhelm us.  She wants us – like all the passionate musical characters in this novel (drawn from real people except for Lidia, Storace’s loving maid, and other servants) – to consider that there may be “no higher art than music and no purer musical form than song.” Even the alluring dusk jacket (sorry e-readers!) embracing the trim 287 pages and short chapters feel designed to please.  All part of the artfulness.

The gem of inspiration for the fictionalized story comes from an aria that Mozart composed for Anna in 1787, a duet in which he plays solo piano.  An Italian translation includes: “Don’t fear, greatly beloved; for you, always, my heart will remain.”  The opera was Mozart’s farewell gift to Storace when she left Vienna to return home to London to be with her fiercely protective brother, Stephen, a violinist; the author offers up a more intriguing reason.  By now, Storace’s adulation is regal, leaving in a “four-horse carriage lined with furs and velvet.”  She’s 21, the same age Shotwell was when she began to write the novel.

It opens in London, 1776 and traces the meteoric rise of a child prodigy to prima donna over ten years.  Eleven-year-old Anna has a voice like a “pearl.”  She wants everyone to love her and they do.  Her first lesson is with the castrato, Venanzio Rauzzini, who “cherished her” instantly.  Without a family, she added meaning to his life, and so he devotes himself to her unconditionally like a loving father.  Two years later, Storace is performing at the Royal Opera House “where two thousand hearts lived with hers.”  Two more years, age 15, she’s ready to leave London for Naples because “all anyone wanted now were Italian divas.”  At 16, she heads to the Pergola Theatre in Venice performing comic opera with Ludovico Marchesi.  He does her an enormous favor overshadowing her for she is not to be undone, and on stage, naturally, on-the-spot, she outshines him because she’s also clever and witty.  Fired for overstepping her role but she’s now a sensation, she heads to La Scala in Milan, where she meets and befriends an Irish tenor, Michael Kelly.  In Milan and then Venice, they are performing “opera buffa,” popularized because it can be enjoyed by everyone as opposed to serious opera (opera seria.)  The opera company includes Mandini, Benucci, Saliera, and Francesco Bussani.  Storace and Bussani play lovers on stage, which gets Storace into deep emotional territory with him off-stage.  Fortunately, she can flee from him with the rest of the company to Vienna, because that’s where a music-loving emperor, Joseph II, who believes music is “the soul of humanity,” is forming his new opera company.

Just as Vienna is thought to have been the musical soul of Europe in the 18th century, Vienna is the soul of this novel.  For here is where Anna meets 27-year-old Mozart.  He falls in love with her beautiful voice – “listening to her he remembered everything he aspired for in his music” – and she falls in love with Mozart’s music.  But were they lovers?  Was it only in their music that they found an “intimate meeting place for themselves alone”?  Or, were they more intimately involved?

As we reflect on these questions, the author presents evidence.  Mozart repeatedly needs to remind himself that he loves his wife, Constanze (and now he’s a father of a son, Karl), but the truth is he had fallen in love with her prettier, opera-singing sister, Aloysia Lange, jealous of Storace.  We’re also told that Mozart “learned early and well to disguise his feelings with revelry.”  And, it is during this time that Mozart composed The Marriage of Figaro for Storace, perhaps his most beloved opera.

Shotwell delights us with descriptions of Mozart’s brilliance, intensity, playfulness, discipline, creative risk-taking, and complicated compositions. “The walls might have collapsed in flames around them and he would have kept murmuring and analyzing.”

Together, Storace and Mozart win the hearts of everyone.  Because of Shotwell’s creativity, we can see why.

An Epilogue dated 1801 and an appreciated Historical Note fill in the missing pieces, satisfying us the way you feel when you’ve bought a ticket to a performance and are so glad that you showed up.  Lorraine

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Painted Horses 1

Progress vs. Preservation, Montana in the 1950s: You don’t have to love and know horses or appreciate their role in the history of America’s West to love this historical fiction debut.  But I bet Malcolm Brooks does.  For I don’t think it’s possible to craft prose so authentic otherwise.  The story – with its well-drawn characters and pitch-perfect dialogue illuminated in backstories that transport the reader to other settings and times – Roman London archaeology, Maryland horse country, and the US. Army horse cavalry in WWII – carries an intriguing, important, and timely message.  Together, the outcome is a novel worth raving about.  An awesome voice.

Two women from very different backgrounds and two cowboys the reader senses have pasts that badly crossed drive the foreboding story.  The two women: Catherine Lemay, an ambitious 23-year old pianist turned archaeologist “in love with the vanished past” and Miriam, a Crow Indian teenager she convinces to be her guide.  The two men: Jack Allen, a cocky, enigmatic, chilling-to-watch horse wrangler and John H, the opposite, a horse tamer and talented sketcher of horses, a younger man who has also lived in a saddle.

The story sounds straightforward but it is elusive and complicated, actually.  It centers around Catherine being hired for a summer by the Smithsonian to conduct a River Basin Survey prior to the building of a major hydroelectric dam to calm nerves that there’s no historical significance in a canyon south of Billings, Montana, the site of the project. Nothing is calm here, actually.

A private company, Harris Power and Light, and the Army Corps of Engineers are also involved in the project – the power company far more powerful than innocent yet daring Catherine suspects.  Early on, there are hints of danger.  Catherine may have cut her teeth on ancient Roman (and Greek) archaeology but she knows nothing about New World archaeology in America – not about horses or their cowpunchers, nor the beauty and badlands of Montana, nor the Crow tribe of the great northern plains, nor the Basque sheepherders who immigrated to Montana from Spain and their centuries-old language, Euskara.  Most of us don’t either – but we will because Brooks wants us to.  All unfold and are skillfully woven together to illustrate deeply felt struggles between the Old World and the New – between older Native Americans who believe the construction site is “sacred” versus modern Crow who need jobs and money, and a power company that means business.

Catherine’s parents and her recent fiancé, David, have general concerns for her safety.  Those who better understand what she’s getting herself into include Miriam, who fears getting caught in the middle of her people’s fight; Max Caldwell, an avuncular gas station attendant who seems like a minor character but becomes increasingly important; and John H, whom the reader expects Catherine is destined to know.

John H (the H likely stands for Horses) is the most memorable character of them all.  A horse whisperer who “even as a boy can walk into a pasture and catch a horse, even if no one else can catch a horse.” Six years prior, he rescued a dun mare as “though the mare were born to nothing else, as though neither could conceive of another way to exist.”  His marvelous voice teaches Catherine and us about horses and a “tract of land that belongs to God Almighty, a testament to the everlasting limits of man.”

The reader is in for quite a ride as the mystery takes off.  What, if anything, do Catherine (and Miriam) uncover?  It’s a ride taken into remote backcountry mostly on horseback.  The language of horses and geology gave my new dictionary a workout!  Expect to read about percherons and pommels and quirts and cutting-horses and piebalds and bucksins and Barbs; and of batholiths and gumbos and coulees and cirques and talus slopes and cap rocks.

Far more than the new vocabulary was a feeling of wonder at the author’s writing style.  Brooks’ reverence for nature and his unique descriptions of the environment are fantastic – expressions like “lip of the sky” and the “cluck and rattle of throats and wings” and the “quaking aspens and the “air whisper in the grass” and a canyon that “yawns like the mouth of the world.”  The novel is loaded with enchanted prose.

Beyond the emotional/controversial cultural preservation versus economic/technological issue of whether this particular Montana canyon is indeed sacred to Native Americans and, therefore, should be preserved, the author wants us to reflect on even bigger, hot-button environmental/existential questions.  Max Caldwell answers by saying that it is “greatness [that] gets built on destruction.”  When he wonders “what kind of sense any of it makes.  Who’s got it right and who’s got it wrong?” you will find yourself wondering the same.

I hope you take this moving ride!  Lorraine

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All the Light We Cannot See 8

The power of radio, literature, nature, and love to incite imagination, resilience, and survival during WWII (Saint-Malo, France, 1944; and 1934/ 1974/2014 Paris, Germany):  This extraordinary novel – “ten years in the writing” by an author who has garnered a number of literary awards – inspired me to buy a new dictionary!  (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition: over 2,000 pages, 4,000 visuals.)  It often reads like mini-dictionaries in the natural, mechanical, and technical sciences, evoking so many beautiful things like mollusks and gemstones that offer stark contrasts to the horrors of Hitler’s war.  They also serve to stir the mind and spirit of a freckled blind French girl, Marie-Laure LeBlanc, whose soul is the soul of this historical novel, which opens with the German occupation of the walled city of Saint-Malo on the Breton coast, two months after D-Day.

Doerr’s novel is also a stand-out for its unique structure.  Clocking in more than 500 pages for the advanced reader copy, no chapter is longer than four or five pages, many merely one or two.  The effect is fast, edgy pacing, strengthened by chapters that alternate back and forth between “The Girl” and “The Boy” (see below) and in time.  Doerr’s style is crisp and notable.  The payoff is spellbinding tension, an intensity you feel straightaway; it relentlessly grows as the reader awaits the convergence of the stories of “The Girl” and “The Boy,” so sure are we that they will.

When we meet “The Boy” he is close in age to Marie-Laure: seven-year-old Werner Pfennig, who lives at an orphanage with his prescient sister, Jutta, in Zollverein, Germany, near Essen, which is “steel country, anthracite country, a place full of holes.”  Their backbreaking mines took the life of their father; Werner is resolute not to repeat that dreadful life.  Instead, he endures grueling training in a misguided notion of duty to country.  That Werner – who appears fragile (hair as white as snow; a “faint presence;” “like being in the room with a feather.  But his soul glowed with some fundamental kindness”) – becomes one of the Reich’s prized cadets at the National Political Institutes of Education #6 at Schulpforta is, like so much else in this novel, presented in bold contradictions.  Werner’s development and experiences allow the author to delve into why Germans did what they did.

Werner happens to be a genius with radios – receivers, variable capacitors, inductors, motors, wires, tuning coils, solenoids, attenuators, ohmmeters, wave turbulence, ion detectors, Morse beacon, code breaking – so he becomes valuable.  He tracks radio transmissions across Russia, Ukraine, Italy, and Austria, with his huge comrade  Volkheimer (his size emphasizes Werner’s actions).  They ultimately reach Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure LeBlanc is hiding out with her father, having escaped burning Paris, at her great uncle’s Etienne’s house.

Number 4 rue Vauborel stands as a sentinel overlooking the sea.  Since returning from WWI, Etienne has never left the house.  And yet, “he has found himself at the nexus of information” because of a large radio hidden on the 6th floor that gives him “the whole world right at his fingertips.”  He forms an endearing relationship with his brave niece.  Saint-Malo’s beaches and anti-resistance movement provide a powerful setting that clashes with the ugliness of war.

As the novel flashes back to 1934, Marie-Laure is six years old living in Paris with her father, a locksmith at the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle.  This is a cleverly invented profession: the mind of a locksmith who can keep straight 12,000 locks also builds intricate puzzles and a scale model of their neighborhood in Montmartre – “hundreds of houses and shops and hotels” – so his daughter can find her way out.  Later, he labors to build an even more complicated model for her: Saint-Malo with its 865 buildings.  His laboriousness and ingenuity are testaments to a profound love that “will outstrip the limits of his body.”

In Marie-Laure, the author asks us to think deeply about the nature of blindness.  Doerr shows us how great books and classical music and mental puzzles unlock her imagination, giving rise to a remarkable resiliency when faced with the terrors of war.  The author presumably loves literature, and gives that love to Maria whose mind we see enthralled as she reads to us from Around the World in Eighty Days and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.  In Captain Nemo, for instance, we are reminded of the “great machine of curiosity, free of nations and politics, cruising through the kaleidoscopic wonders of the sea” – prose and stories that let Marie-Laure see the light.  Of course, she reads these books in Braille: “the raised dots form letters, the letters words, the words a world.”

There are other important characters with intersecting stories.  One is Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel, a former gemologist with a passion for diamonds.  He’s been put in charge of collecting treasures – “things he did not dream he would see in six lifetimes” – precious European and Russian objects.  The timeliness to the Monument’s Men feels eerie. The Sergeant’s obsession with diamonds forms the perfect storm because there’s a legendary, rare 133 carat, gray-blue diamond of the sea – Sea of Flames – that has gone missing from the natural history museum since the Germans occupied Paris.

The author must loves birds too, because they fly across the pages.  He imbues the character of Frederick, a cadet friend of Werner’s, with this passion. Frederick’s 434 exquisitely drawn Birds of America is “not so much full of birds as full of evanescence, of blue-winged, trumpeting mysteries.”  What happens to Frederick, whose crime was faking his vision to get into military school, is heartbreaking, beautifully told.

Like the novel’s provocative themes, the title is thought-provoking.  I think it refers to Imagination – especially the blind French girl’s and the orphaned German boy’s – imagination that brings to light that which they both cannot see, connecting them.  According to the author’s website, the title refers to “radio waves that we cannot see” and the hidden stories of WWII, particularly those of “ordinary children.”  I think these two interpretations are reasonably close, except to say that what happens to “The Girl” and to “The Boy” is anything but ordinary.

This is a novel that stays with you.  Lorraine

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My Name is Mary Sutter

“I Always Loved You” left me wanting more of Robin Oliveira’s absorbing prose.  “My Name is Mary Sutter” is her only other novel, her debut. It garnered rave reviews and literary awards, but I overlooked it.  Perhaps you did too, because the Civil War time period is not my favorite setting for historical fiction; I even live in Virginia where many battles were fought.  It took this immersive reading experience to bring the Civil War alive for me.

The Making of a Civil War Heroine and Modern Medicine (Albany, New York; Washington, D.C.; Virginia and Maryland battlefields, 1842–1867):  There is no mystery how Mary Sutter, a gifted young midwife as competent as her mother, Amelia, nurses and doctors her way through the Civil War to become an unforgettable heroine: through sheer single-mindedness of purpose, boldness, courage, and endurance.  The mystery, for me, is how Oliveira emotionally connects us to a fictionalized character who awakens us to the real heroes and heroines of America’s Civil War.  She wants us to admire and remember them; she even tells us so in her Acknowledgements detailing her exhaustive research process.

Notwithstanding the author’s experience as a registered nurse and former literary magazine editor, I think the answer lies in her exacting prose.  You do not read this novel casually.  Instead, you are pulled into it, to grasp emotions and visualize scenes word by word, sentence by sentence.  The reader senses the novelist poring over every word, analyzing and re-analyzing until she’s satisfied she’s landed upon the best way to show us her characters’ mindset and feelings.  The skill is in seamlessly embedding her fictionalized characters into Civil War history and battlegrounds, peopled by the likes of President Lincoln, John Jay, and General McClellan.  The fictional Mary feels as real as Lincoln feels present, as if the two really met each other.

The many compelling storylines all connect to Mary’s fight to do the one thing she wants more than anything else in the world, become a surgeon – a fight against society’s negative views about women’s role in medicine.  She’s repeatedly rejected by Albany’s Medical College; Albany is where she lives in her parents’ beautiful home.  Her father Nathaniel made his fortune in railroading, but he died before the story begins, introducing grief as an overarching theme.

In the opening pages, we witness Mary’s medical excellence in an emergency.  She unexpectedly encounters a surgeon, Dr. James Blevens, who urges her to take over a complicated delivery.  The subplot enables Mary to seize the opportunity to offer herself as his apprentice.  But he too rejects her, and then spends the rest of the novel regretting his decision, trying to make amends.

In Albany, Mary falls in love with her recently orphaned neighbor, Thomas Fall, who instantly admires her seriousness but finds that sharing grief with Mary’s prettier, easier, more vulnerable twin sister, Jenny, is a more powerful attraction and marries her.  The blow sends Mary off to Washington, even more determined to pursue her quest, seeking to join Dorothea Dix’s fledgling nursing corps.

In Washington, Dorothea also rejects Mary, this time because she’s too young.  Mary is undeterred.  Scouring the city, she finally finds work as a charwoman and nurse in the wretched Union Hospital, where she encounters another surgeon, Dr. William Stipp.

As the war escalates, Mary visits President Lincoln to plea her case to tend to the wounded on the battlefields.  Lincoln grants her wish, for he has an “endless capacity for grief” and the ability “to look into the future [is] his greatest skill.”  That is how brave Mary ends up performing so many amputations that no one even knows where or how to dispose of all the limbs.

Was this what medicine was?  Barbarity?  By comparison, even at its worst, childbirth was artful.  Even when women bled or seized, there remained at least the elegance of hope.  The flickering promise of life.

Mary’s love for Thomas, Blevens, and Stipp plays out in different heartfelt ways, as she discovers each of them at different times on the battlefields.  “Why is it that voices break hearts?” Mary wonders when she comes upon Thomas wounded.  When she’s finally working alongside the two war-challenged doctors in the chaos of battle, they repeatedly fail to convince her to return to the comforts and safety of her family home, where she is also desperately needed.  Through both doctors, we vividly see Mary’s “gentleness combined with competence seduced beyond measure,” as each develops strong feelings for her that grow from deep admiration to love and a need so powerful at least one of them declares out loud that he cannot live without her – “Only Mary’s presence kept him from weeping.”  By now, Mary Sutter has evolved into “a purveyor of hope,” because no matter how hellish the working conditions, her indomitable and indefatigable spirit offers hopefulness.  For the reader, this means the novel is inspiring, not depressing.

The absorbing prose is a mixture of contemporary phrasing, period language, and medical terminology.  Some examples:

Contemporary:  An arc of sunlight struck the firm contours of his body, and for a moment Mary thought she could see right through his heart; dignity an elusive thing when professors and drunkards alike answered Lincoln’s call; a national chess board realigning; time was on its own meter; privacy, after tenderness, the second casualty of war.

Period:  privy trenches, picket duty, tintype

Medical: vulnus puncture, Dover’s powder, bilious fever, ichtyocolla plaster

To sum up Oliveira’s writing style, let me offer another example from the beginning of the novel, reflected on at the end: Mary Sutter does not simply sit under an oak tree in the northern landscape of Albany – she sank into it.  That’s how you feel as a reader: you sink into the historical landscape of this novel, precisely the author’s intention.

Enjoy Reading!  Lorraine

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I Always Loved You 2

Love and Impressionism: Picturing the forty-year relationship between Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas (Paris, 1877 to 1927): Is it any wonder that Robin Oliveira has achieved her lofty goal in I Always Loved You of creating an historical novel with a “soul”?  Guided by research that sounds as passionate as her artist characters – she’s read 70 – 80 books, traveled 20,000 miles, offers 40 links on her website to artworks cited in her novel – she delves into and shapes the tumultuous, complex relationship between one of the most influential artists of Impressionism – Edgar Degas – and the American woman who exhibited “more pictures in Paris than any other” – Mary Cassatt – and asks if it was Love?

In imagining a conflicted, emotional story of two great artists who shared a deep, enduring admiration for each other’s artistry and devotion to their art, Oliveira sets out to answer the question, “Was there room for love in two lives already consumed by passion?”  She was inspired by the knowledge that Cassatt, at the end of her life and upon Degas’ death, burned a lifetime of their letters.  In re-creating them, the author offers up glimpses, as Degas revealed his affections to Mary in his private communications but was bewildering and unknowable in public.

Digging deeper, the author examines “what is love,” “what is happiness?” in many dimensions, staying close to history.  In so doing, she gives us a veritable “Who’s Who” of an amazing circle of artists, many friends with each other, sometimes entangled relatives, an Impressionism 101 cast of characters that also includes forerunners to Impressionism – Realism – and those who soon followed – the Post-Impressionists – and others who affected the impressionists such as art critics, writers, and art dealers.  The list of famous and not-so-familiar names is long.  That the author has executed all of this in such a tightly woven novel (343 pages) is quite impressive.

What this means for the reader is that I Always Loved You is packed with little details that if you turn the pages too quickly you are likely to miss.  So take your time reading this novel, it begs us to linger, maybe even take some notes as I did, because there’s so much art and cultural history behind the telling of Cassatt’s and Degas’ story, organized in appropriately short chapters because they are dense with tidbits of information.

The heart of the novel takes place from 1874 to 1886.  The Belle Époque was a golden, peaceful time in France’s history (post-Prussian War/pre-World War I), when the modern city of Paris was designed and born.  It seems no other city could possibly be more in love with art, or be more enchanting and beguiling.  Enter the Impressionists: a “new school of painting” whose appreciation took many years, after being mocked by the classical painters, rejected by the Paris Salon – the premier art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, where academic techniques reigned supreme, intimacy shunned.  The impressionists, on the other hand, rejected their conservatism, favoring brilliant colors in gorgeous natural and artificial light that exposed the most intimate of moments in everyday Parisian life.  “Paint what you see,” “paint what you love,” Degas mentors Cassatt, his enduring legacy of love to her.

For although this novel is peopled with the likes of the Manet brothers (handsome, bon vivant Édouard and goodly Eugène) and Eugène’s wife, impressionist painter Berthe Morisot (a lifelong love for the brother, the brother for her, and struggling with painting after motherhood); Monet, Cézanne, and Renoir (“traitors” for exhibiting at the Salon); Camille Pissarro and Gustave Caillebotte (gentlemanly, “beloved”); Félix and Marie Bracquemond; Zacharie Astruc; Émile Zola; Paul Gauguin; Henri Somme and so many others (Sisley, Durand, Daudet, Ingres, Lebourg, Delacroix, Raffaëlli, Tourney, Zandomeneghi), they are still the background framing a stirring picture of Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas, who sought each other out in this teeming milieu because they admired each other’s work so much.

When Mary first arrives in Paris from Pennsylvania, she obsesses and struggles with her art; no matter how disciplined and hard-working, she doubts she’ll ever achieve excellence over technique.  It’s Degas who encourages her to experiment with color and light.  She is in awe of how Degas can keep his “brush stroke so light yet communicate so much.”  Once he awakens in her a new way of seeing and creating, she feels she “cannot live without him.”  Their relationship is up and down, over so many years.  Both never marry.  Was theirs a romantic love, or were they emotionally bound to a deep respect and love for each other’s art?

Besides focusing on the complexities of the multi-faceted theme of Love, the plight of these struggling Parisian artists, many living in poverty, others struck down by serious illnesses, is another big theme.  Degas remains the purist to his passions, antagonizing, alienating, scorning any artist he believes has sold his soul to make a living, which includes exhibiting at the esteemed Salon.  So, he, for example, feels Renoir will “prettify anyone for enough coin.”  Renoir, in turn, is critical of Degas’ sculptural, radical masterpiece, Little Dancer.  Degas is so obsessed with perfectionism that after a year of working side-by-side with Cassatt to produce an avant-garde journal of sketches and prose that involves painstaking work on an Italian printing press backs out at the very last minute, without even telling Mary, who gave up a year of painting for the project and Degas.  She is, of course, infuriated, one of many times Degas has been dismissive, uncommunicative, unreliable.  What she doesn’t know is how alike they really are.  Degas recognizes they are kindred souls: he too fears his work is not good enough and, despite what Mary thinks, it does not come effortlessly.

Key characters suffer from chronic, debilitating illnesses, which given the century are poorly understood and badly treated.  Some accept their situation with incredible grace: Lydia, Mary’s older, loving sister, often sat for Mary, never married either; and Abigail (May) Alcott Nieriker (yes!  Louisa’s sister) who seemed to have everything Mary did not (acceptance at the Salon, a happy marriage), whose life seemed so easy until a terrible childbirth.  Two illnesses are particularly cruel: Degas’ progressively degenerating eyesight which he kept hidden except from Mary – an artist who loves light but is going blind; and Édouard Manet’s decline from “Napoleon fever” (syphilis) caused by his illicit dalliances, embarrassing and painful for a man who loved life and people.

Knowing how vital Parisian light was to the impressionists, the author’s prose is wonderfully sprinkled with numerous references to light: “Paris is shining” in its “footlights” and “gaslamps,” falling light, half-light, dawnlight, candlelight, soft light, grey light, afternoon light, “light of southern France,” “washed darkness.”  For Mary, “color and light are all she has in the world by way of her tools.”  The same evocative prose holds true for the author’s depiction of this Parisian era – Victorian and Old French – words such as cheval glass, décolletage, fiacre, abattoir, abonnés, vitrine.

Mary’s awfully protective father, Robert, wants to know what it “means to be an artist in Paris?”  Thanks to a gifted writer (and researcher), we have a much better answer to his question than when we started.

Happy Reading in the New Year!  Lorraine

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The Rosie Project 5

Romantic comedy set in an Australian university (present day):  One of the pleasures of book blogging is the freedom to choose what to share.  Taking a lesson from genetics professor Don Tillman – the thirty-nine-year-old narrator of this utterly charming and intelligent romantic comedy who dispenses with predictability and self-imposed rules – I’m expanding my definition of “beautiful prose” to include original prose.

Owing to the “great fun” of The Rosie Project – which also delivers a poignant and meaningful message about people who are “wired differently” – I’ll hereafter allow myself to blog about novels whose prose is wonderfully original despite containing language excessively four-worded, outside my definition of beautiful.  (Note: it’s part of the dialogue that fits the “barmaid” stereotype and disillusioned persona of Rosie.)  The rest of this modern-day novel’s prose is consistently funny, the kind of laugh-out-loud humor that takes talent.  We’re talking pitch-perfect nerdy language that befits a professor of science whose brain thinks literally, unconventionally.  (For instance, instead of visiting a shop to rent a tuxedo, our lovable Don visits a “formal costume rental establishment” for “maximum formality”).  Interestingly, and inspirationally, this is IT consultant Graeme Simsion’s debut novel, to be published in 35 languages.  The Rosie Project is that good!

For Simsion has dreamed up a timely version of When Harry Met Sally.  Instead of Billy Crystal, imagine another actor (who? Sony Pictures has already optioned the script for a movie) playing a high-functioning professor with Asperger’s syndrome who doesn’t know it, in search of a “female life partner” using scientific methods.  Designing a wife questionnaire, the author creates comical prose that touches on serious issues related to unethical behaviors and society’s obsession with image and appearance.

Don Tillman is lovable for many reasons.  Chief among them is his ability to appreciate his skills (organizational, focus/intensity, fast learner) and accept his differences (difficulties in: being touched, picking up on social cues, empathizing).  He deals well with rejection: an “expert at being laughed at.”  While he doesn’t have many friends, he has two that care about him: Gene, the fifty-six-year-old psychology professor who hired him, specializes in “sexual attraction” and claims that he has an open marriage with Claudia, who happens to be Don’s therapist.

The prose is also pitch-perfect because it matches Don’s respect for efficiency.  Just by listing a few examples of the efficiency of Don’s characterizations of events, people, and experiences, you’ll be able to picture what The Rosie Project is all about:

The Wife Project (of which The Rosie Project becomes a sub-set)

The Father Project (which leads to The Rosie Project).  Rosie is searching for her biological father.  Gene introduces her to Don (she’s not just a “barmaid”; she’s a graduate psychology student in Gene’s department), a logical choice because Don is a geneticist.  Gene, of course, knows about The Wife Project.

Great Cocktail Night (in which Don has one of the best times of his life, with Rosie, posing as a “drinks waiter”): “It was surprisingly complex, and I am not a naturally dexterous person” although Don has taught himself martial arts, karate, aikido, and dancing (taught with a skeleton!), during which Don and Rosie unethically pursue the Mass DNA Collection Subproject (at a physician’s reunion.  Rosie’s mother was a doctor, who told her that her biological father was one too. )

Standardized Meal System (for which Don has identified “eight major advantages”)

Late Woman: Timeliness is one among many personal traits Don values.  He thinks mathematically, talks in precise minutes.  He also thinks in facts, not emotions, so he describes people in terms of their age and BMI; their food preferences (vegetarian, sustainably farmed); exercised (something he’s big on); and alcohol consumer (also big on).

Don is also reflective, in an admirable, authentic way, and not afraid to make major changes in “self-improvement.”  When an “unscheduled series of events” leads him to finally solve his own profound question (“Why do we focus on certain things and not others?”), the answer, he says, is “incredible.”  We say so too, because the story feels so incredibly good.

In winning a beautiful copy (appealing jacket design) of The Rosie Project, I won more than a complimentary copy of a highly entertaining novel that feels as memorable as Sleepless in Seattle. (Who could play the new Tom Hanks? Tom Hanks!)  “Enchanted Prose” has a bigger umbrella than previously envisioned.  Now I might discover non-fiction that reads so much like fiction I’ll tell you about it too.  Like Don, though, you’ll recognize it’s still me.

Happy Reading!  Lorraine

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The Melody of Secrets

WWII’s END, NORDHAUSEN, GERMANY (1945)/BIRTH OF ROCKET CITY, HUNTSVILLE, ALABAMA (1957):  For a relatively short novel (257 pages) spanning two historical timeframes, The Melody of Secrets packs quite an emotional punch!  Three assumptions why:

  1. The author: Jeffrey Stepakoff draws on his deft screenwriting skills to write cinematic scenes, so you feel like you’re watching a movie – a great one!
  2. The dialogue: as a screenwriter, Stepakoff knows how to create crisp, provocative, informative, interesting dialogue that moves the novel forward at a brisk, page-turning pace.
  3. Plot #1: original, shocking, complex, controversial.  Has anyone else fictionalized the historical truth underpinning this novel?  Did you know America recruited Nazi rocket scientists who were SS officers for our space race against Russia during the Cold War?  The best known, Wernher Von Braun, headed a team of a dozen or so German aerospace engineers who came to Huntsville in the ‘50s to launch America’s space program.  In the author’s retelling, besides Von Braun, two other scientist characters are: Hans Reinhardt, whose wife, Maria, is the central voice; and Karl Janssen, whose wife, Sabine, discovers her husband’s secret past, and in her torment confides and warns Maria, setting off one of the novel’s two plot themes: what about the rest of the team?  Is Maria married to a former SS officer?

What did America know?  How much is historically true?

It’s a testament to the novel that the reader MUST know the answers.  I would have preferred an Author’s Note separating fact from fiction.  Absent that, movie-like – and rich book club material – you will feel emotionally and intellectually driven to search out these profound questions once the novel ends, also provocatively.

Here’s a case where the facts are as shocking as the fiction.  Operation Paperclip was conducted by an agency (the Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency) specifically created at the end of WWII for the sole purpose of bringing Hitler’s German rocket scientists to the US so we could beat the Russians in space (and prevent Russia from engaging them), at the time of the Cold War.  However, President Truman forbid, by law, our mobilizing any known “member of the Nazi party and more than a normal participant in its activities, or an active supporter of Nazism or militarism.”  So, a secret military operation cleaned up the scientists’ records, enabling them to obtain security clearances to emigrate here and lead our space race.  Truman, apparently, never knew his directive was violated!

After learning this, I appreciated the clever title of a chapter: “Paper Clip.”  Note: while rocket scientist Wernher Von Braun was a recognized Nazi sympathizer and SS officer, I think Stepakoff has fictionalized the Hans and Karl characters, because I can’t find any other references to them.

  1. Plot #2: the novel’s title captures its love story, connecting 1945 and 1957.  Beautiful Maria plays her Pressenda violin beautifully; Hans gave it to her at war’s end.  In 1957, she’s the star of the fledgling Huntsville Symphony Orchestra, practicing for a major fundraising concert for the community.  That’s when she spots Lieutenant James Cooper, who entered her life in 1945.  He still stirs deep romantic emotions, causing her to question the life she has built in the US, and to make painful choices that have national consequences, made even more difficult by her love for her son, Peter.
  2. Structure: as Maria struggles to find answers about Hans and to choose between him and Cooper, the pages are turning quickly.  Initial chapters are compartmentalized: the reader witnesses the plot surrounding 1945; in the next chapter, Huntsville’s players are introduced.  But as the two themes interconnect, the chapters condense and fuse: a single page looks back at 1945 and then switches forward to 1957, then seamlessly races back and forth, back and forth.  As Maria races for the truth, so do we.

With Maria’s truth, would you have made the same decision?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.  Lorraine

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