A Touch of Stardust 2

Dreams vs. Realities: The Golden Age of Hollywood at the Brink of War (1938-1939): A Touch of Stardust is an old-fashioned Valentine’s gift for the cinephiles and dreamers among us.

If it were a box of fancy chocolates, the package would be elegantly wrapped.  Upon opening, each mouthwatering piece would appear carefully formed and placed.  All would look soft and creamy, but when you bite into some you discover hidden ingredients, nudging you to contemplate textures and tastes you hadn’t expected.  Since these delicacies are equally well-made and the surprises don’t overpower, you eat them all, impressed by the thoughtfulness that must have gone into their creation.

A Touch of Stardust, then, is a well-thought out, well-researched historical novel that is more than a tribute to the halcyon days of Hollywood moviemaking when studio moguls “ruled this world of make-believe,” creating larger-than-life movies and movie stars.  Yet not all the “fairy-tale” glamour is as magical as the Stardust title suggests; serious themes are raised.  What consistently sparkles is the smoothness of Alcott’s prose, never hitting us over the head but making sure she’s gifted us something meaningful, not just decadent, to chew on.

This is Alcott’s third historical novel casting strong female characters (The Dressmaker, The Daring Ladies of Lowell).  It’s a romantic Hollywood tale showcasing grand filmmaking, with enough juicy Hollywood gossip to feel like we’re getting the inside story.

Julie Crawford, a recent graduate of the elite women’s Smith College, has come to Hollywood to escape Fort Wayne, Indiana, pinning her hopes on becoming a screenwriter.  Her parents have given her a year to prove herself.  Julie masks her beauty in a town obsessed by it, wearing eyeglasses she doesn’t need, so she’ll be taken seriously.  She was inspired by the great female screenwriter, Frances Marion, who once spoke at her college.  When Julie sees first-hand how respected her idol is in Hollywood (for decades Marion was the highest paid Hollywood screenwriter in a town where men have beat out women for the highest paying jobs), we’re tickled Julie set her sights on such a worthy icon.

Could the author have chosen a more perfect movie to anchor her novel around than Gone with the Wind – the top grossing film of all time – and still, 75 years later, provoking controversy?

(Wikimedia Commons)

Clark Gable, “King of Hollywood,” seemed destined to play Rhett Butler, but fiercely independent producer David O. Selznick, of Selznick International Pictures, whose “passion for perfection was legendary,” reportedly screened 1,400 actresses for the role of Scarlett.  Winning out over actresses like Katherine Hepburn (not in the novel) and Carole Lombard (looms large in the novel) – crazy in love with not-yet divorced Gable – Selznick banked on a British actress, Vivien Leigh, with “skin as luminous as a bed of pearls.” His Scarlett (very much “his”: he fired the first director, George Cukor; the film was then directed by Victor Fleming) looked as though “she could have just stepped by magic from the pages of a Civil War History book.”

Could there be a more perfectly fictionalized character for Julie to become romantically entwined with than the handsome, older/wiser, Columbia graduate Andy Weinstein, whose Jewish identity is a sensitive theme?  He spent his childhood in Berlin living with his grandparents, “the two people he loved more than any.”  Now, justifiably, he’s full of angst about their fate as the movie was under production when Europe was at the brink of war.  Even when the two first met, Andy bluntly asks Julie if she is “put off by my name?” While she quickly replies of course not, her words haunt her as novel unfolds.

There is much to like about Andy.  He recognizes Julie’s refinement and innocence, treats her gentlemanly.  But he’s balancing so much pressure on-and-off the job, he’s not always able to be as available and emotionally open as she deserves.  (“Being with Andy sometimes felt like swinging on a trapeze quite high above the ground.”)  Andy is Selznick’s right-hand assistant, which means he must stay on top of a zillion production logistics for a “sloppy monster of a movie with an unfinished script that lots of people predict will go down as the biggest disaster in film history.”

Carole Lombard (Wikimedia Commons)

Carole Lombard is the historical character who touches us the most.  With “her heart in her eyes,” what comes out of the mouth of the “Profane Angel” may not be enchanted prose but it sure feels authentic.  Early on in the novel, Carole asks Julie to be her personal assistant, thus offering Julie “a wave of energy that seemed capable of lifting anyone off his or her toes.”  Their professional relationship blossoms into a soulful friendship.  Stardust, then, is also more than a generalized tribute to Old Hollywood; it’s a specific nod of appreciation to a beautiful, gutsy, comedic actress who hailed from Julie’s Midwestern hometown.  You’ll read more about her life story in the “Epilogue,” which is when it hit me why the author wanted Lombard to emotionally reach us.

Another historical character you’ll root for, despite his notorious womanizing, is Clark Gable.  For one thing, he genuinely adores Carole.  It’s his expressions of outrage at the discrimination and hypocrisy towards the treatment of the black actors and actresses in the film, both on and off the set, which endears him to us.  Two in particular: Mammie, played by Hattie McDaniel, (who went on to become the first African American to win an Oscar for Supporting Actress); and Butterfly Queen (whose glorified and stereotypical role as Scarlett’s content, not very bright servant is one vexing aspect of “GWTW.”)  Against Gable’s (and apparently Selznick’s) objections, Hattie and Butterfly were barred from attending the movie’s three-day premiere in Atlanta.  Margaret Mitchell’s novel may have won the Pulitzer-prize, but we’re reminded this was Jim Crow South.  That’s why when Gable goes wild on the LA set shouting “this isn’t the Deep South,” when he spots segregated bathroom signs and threatens to quit unless they’re removed, we really like him and he feels real to us.

One reason Stardust feels so authentic must be the author’s Hollywood connections.  She married into the famous Mankiewicz screenwriting family.  Surely it was fun writing a scene in which fictional Andy escorts fictional Julie to her first Hollywood star party (he’d been taking her to the “Place Where the Stars Eat,” Chasen’s, now closed after 60 years) at the Beverly Hills home of the “classy writer” Herman Mankiewicz.  At that time, he was finishing The Wizard of Oz.  Andy, in his no-nonsense way, informs Julie that “if you’re looking for intellect, you find it here.”

This party is memorable because here is where Julie is formally introduced to Frances Marion.  (F. Scott Fitzgerald was present too.  He was working on the troubled script.  Andy’s advice: he “should be writing novels, far from Hollywood.)  Mankiewicz’s home is also where Julie overhears opinionated conversations about America’s entry into WWII.  Many proclaim it’s not our war.  Not Andy, whose resentment of Hollywood powerhouses like Louis B. Mayer “pretending they aren’t Jewish” was far more than just personal: Up until America entered the war, Hollywood stayed clear of making movies about the Nazis, for fear of offending international audiences.  A sorry bit of cinematic history.

Alcott makes sure we don’t linger too long on this.  Lightly, she drops in Hollywood notables like gossip columnists Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons; lavish costume designer, Edith Head; Laurence Olivier, married and openly having an affair with Vivien Leigh (Yes, Selznick was “afraid of scandal;” sometimes Scarlett had to be appeased); and the all-mighty Mayer, head of MGM, Selznick’s father-in-law, for whom he once worked.

Julie marvels how “actors step in and out of reality so brilliantly.”  Carole’s screenwriting advice to Julie: “create a set, sprinkle a touch of stardust.” Together, they sum up the author’s polished prose, seamlessly blending her imagination into realities.  Julie feels as real to us as Carole Lombard.  That’s the art.  The stardust.

Happy Valentine’s Day!  Lorraine

Nostalgic for more Hollywood?  See American Blonde and Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures.

Leave a Comment

The Secret of Magic

Seeking justice when Separate is not Equal (From NYC to “Jim Crow” Mississippi, 1945-1946):  The Secret of Magic is the kind of writing that inspired this blog.

You can hear the musicality in Johnson’s prose, resonating the cadence of the Deep South.  When the narrator – Regina Mary Robichard, a young black lawyer from Harlem working for Thurgood Marshall, founder of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund (LDF) – travels to Mississippi to investigate the death of a decorated black WWII veteran, it’s the same “cadence that strolled through words and that branded Regina as an outsider.”  Prose that sings a distinctive beat evoking Southern sounds, a “syncopated rhythm” reflected in phrases like “jitterbugged” leaves and “uh-uh-uh in the shake of his head.”  Prose that’s a joy to read when recalling the “dense, lush moisture” of the landscape, smells of sweet olive, and an “old-timey” vision of Southern gentility (“dimpled hands holding tightly onto glasses of what looked like iced tea”).  But the prose also tells a tragic story rooted in truth, of a very painful time in our nation’s history when “Jim Crow” laws racially segregated the Southern states where the Confederate flag waved.  The contrast between “something that might look good outside but is evil” couldn’t be starker, more dramatic.  So why, I’m guessing, haven’t you heard about this novel?  With the newly released paperback, let’s hope word spreads.

The ebb and flow of the prose adds texture to the novel’s complexities and paradoxes.  Set in a racially segregated fictitious town in Mississippi at the end of WWII, Revere is unlike Regina’s Harlem “where the races rarely mingled.”  Rather, it’s:

“a place where black people and white people were all jumbled together, had built up a land, and still lived, in a sense, right on top of each other, constantly traipsing in and out of one another’s lives.  So close that they couldn’t just naturally be separated.”

Thurgood Marshall,
attorney for the NAACP
(Library of Congress)

Yet, separated they were.  By law. The injustice and absurdity of proclaiming “separate and equal.”  It is within this historical time period that the novel opens, with the arrival of a thick, fancy envelope at the Fund’s Fifth Avenue office, addressed to Thurgood Marshall, already a legendary civil rights leader.  The package is from Miss Mary Pickett Calhoun, requesting Marshall look into the death of Lieutenant Joe Howard Wilson, son of her family’s long-time help, Willie Willie.  Inside were cryptic news-clippings and a photograph that grabbed Regina – whose character is based on Constance Baker Motley, the first black female attorney who worked for Marshall at the LDF.  “Reggie,” who clerked for Marshall in law school and “idolized” him, convinces Marshall to let her take on the case.  By now, Marshall believes to “really affect this country – we have got to move on to changing the law, not trying the individual cases that break it.”  He agrees, but only for three weeks’ time despite all-expenses paid.  The NAACP, you see, is flooded with cases.

Regina loves the law.  Her mother, a legend in her own right, the first black woman to graduate from Columbia’s Teachers College, has been fighting for justice too: for the passage of Federal anti-lynching laws.  Regina’s father was lynched in Omaha in 1919.

Regina’s drawn to this case for two more compelling reasons:

  • Miss Mary Pickett Calhoun is “M. P. Calhoun,” author of a children’s book she coveted; its title aptly, The Secret of Magic. That novel brought fame and fortune to that author, and inspired Regina with “spunky black heroes in a white book.”  No wonder it’s still banned in the Deep South!  The reader already senses that its murderous tale involving black and white playmates parallels Johnson’s story.  Hence, The Secret of Magic is a novel within a novel, a creative undertaking Johnson pulls off eloquently.  Save the Author’s Note for last, as it appears.  The full impact of Johnson’s art and intentions will hit you.
  • How is it possible that the recipient of the Army’s Distinguished Service Cross survived the battlefields of Italy but doesn’t make it home to Mississippi on an interstate bus? How is it possible that this black veteran singled out for “exceptional bravery” still “does not have the right to vote in Mississippi, his native state?”

A few things to keep in mind about Miss Mary Pickett Calhoun: She’s about twice Regina’s age, with “skin as white and translucent as a good Minton china cup.” Her daddy was the late Judge Calhoun, so powerful he kept the Ku Klux Clan out of Revere.  His portrait still hangs in the county courthouse, where the Confederate Flag still flies, where we see Regina bravely enter.  And yet, he’s also the man who hunted with Willie Willie; taught Willie Willie to read; made sure Willie Willie lived in a cabin behind the Calhoun’s antebellum mansion, not the typical outhouses of the day; paid for his son to attend Morehouse College; and counseled that if his son got out of Revere he’d make something of himself.

That may sound encouraging but the reader already knows that this black hero’s death was no accident, from the moment he refuses to give up his paid seat for German POWs when they board the Bonnie Blue Line bus.  (This is ten years before Rosa Parks makes her stand.)  This tense scene hits Joe hard for even a war – “the long horror of it – hadn’t changed one thing” in the segregated South.

Willie Willie knows his son’s death was no accident too.  Quite possibly, he’s even figured out who’s responsible for his murder by the time he picks Regina up at the bus depot.  Yes, the same bus route the lieutenant traversed, then disappeared.  Still, Willie Willie is an upbeat narrator, explaining to Regina why the town is so “pretty” (saved during the Civil War), dotted with grand “Victorian gingerbread” houses.  It doesn’t seem to matter, thinks Regina and the reader, that they were constructed by slaves.  For this is Willie Willie’s “home place,” the only home he’s ever known.  Could the meaning of home be more potent?  Discrepancies are everywhere.

Take for instance, Regina.  She tells us she’s a careful person, yet she’s thrust herself into the center of attention in a place where everyone is enmeshed in everyone else’s business.  Then there’s Miss Calhoun, raised with fine Southern manners, but she’s gruff with Regina and withholds information.  How could she possibly understand the secrets of a place like Revere?  Everyone in this town bears secrets, including Miss Mary, who has “never been able to figure out exactly who it is I can trust.”  Willie Willie comes closest.  Regina, though, is undeterred.  Watching the dance of their black-and-white female relationship is fascinating.

Little by little, Regina is handed clues by a couple of the town’s characters.  One is Peach Mottley, who did/still does the laundry for wealthy white families (the very same Peach in M. C. Calhoun’s novel.)  Another is a black attorney, Tom Raspberry, whose office is located in Catfish Alley, which “sounded like home.”  It seemed to be the only place in Revere that was like the rest of the postwar country, an “active hive of rebuilding.”  When Regina pays a visit to Tom:

“just being surrounded by black folks again was a relief.  Her shoulders loosened.  Her step lightened.  It was a lot of work to become “American,” like everybody else.  You always had to be on your guard.”

Tom offers hope that “things are changing.  Some deep foundations starting to shake.”   But as the plot thickens, Johnson wants to remind us that “good or bad, throughout the nation, it was the South pumped the heartbeat of so much.”


Leave a Comment

The Rosie Effect

The Fatherhood Project (New York City, present-day):  Judge this warmhearted book by its winning cover!  By page 290, 84.30232% read – a detail to honor Don Tillman, the beloved forty-year-old genetics professor first introduced in The Rosie Project – I found myself laughing out loud.  Up until then, I’d been smiling, chuckling, marveling, and shaking my head at the antics and witty prose echoing Don’s gifted scientific mind and “general oddness,” but now I was laughing like crazy.  Not at Don, but with Don: at the absurdity of predicaments he digs himself into in the name of love for:

Rosie, “the world’s most beautiful woman,” Don’s wife of 10 months and 10 days, who throws his rigorously structured-for-maximum-predictability-and-success world topsy-turvey when she announces an unplanned pregnancy.  Even her phrasing of “we’re pregnant” sends Don into a tizzy – literal thinking one of his trademarks – and begins unraveling his fledgling albeit “incredible” marriage.

Don, who sees life as “scientific problems to solve,” immediately seizes upon the news with characteristic intellectualizing, concluding that his task is to protect Rosie from undue stress that would raise her cortisone levels, which would be harmful to the “Baby Under Development” or B.U.D.  Thus setting off our intrepid protagonist on a series of crazy incidents, in this once again charming novel by Australian author Graeme Simsion.

Hudson River, New York City
(MarkBurnett at en.wikipedia [GFDL
or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons)

In The Rosie Effect, Don and Rosie have moved from Australia to New York City, so Rosie can complete her PhD thesis in bipolar disorder at Columbia University’s MD program; Don got himself hired there as a visiting professor.  The timing couldn’t be worse, and because he doesn’t pick up on social cues, for too long he’s unaware he’s driving Rosie nuts and worrying her about his fitness to be a father.  He convinced Rosie he was “wired for love.”  Can he convince her he’s capable of being a father?  That he can be loving and sensitive to a baby’s needs when he has major issues with physical contact and interpersonal skills?  If you thought Don was so different than the rest of us in The Rosie Project, Simsion wants us to think again.  Parenthood is an anxious time for all who enter into it, intended or not.

My mildly hysterical reaction was sufficient proof that this sequel is as good as/maybe better than the first.  Fresh humor and clever prose only partly the explanation.  So, in a manner befitting our list-making hero, let me enumerate why:

  1. Don Tillman may be the most self-aware and accepting of his human imperfections than anyone you’ll ever meet. He recognizes his “innate logical skills” are far superior to his social ones, consequently he’s “extremely experienced at dealing with embarrassment resulting from insensitivity to others.”  Still, with enough concentration, research, and practice, which he is willing to expend in copious, intense amounts, he can achieve successful outcomes.  Prime example: Rosie, whom he won over executing the Wife Project.  Don loves Rosie deeply, but he has a hard time expressing his feelings.  Although, he’s been quick to hide a few meltdowns, Rosie, impulsive and disorganized, the complete opposite of Don, surely knows his “limitations.”  (She “encouraged me to look beyond my limitations, was the reason for my life being more than I had ever envisioned.”)  One of the sage offerings is that just because you’re socially challenged, doesn’t mean you lack feelings or can’t feel emotional pain.  In a rare moment of anger, Don shares his frustration with a:

    “whole world of people who do not understand the difference between control of emotion and lack of it, and who make a totally illogical connection between the inability to read others’ emotions and inability to experience their own.  It was ridiculous to think that the pilot who landed the plane safely on the Hudson River loved his wife any less than the passenger who panicked.”

  2. Don allows himself to get mixed up in numerous situations that are not in his best interest, but he’s a man of integrity. Case in point: the Gene Sabbatical.  Gene, who Don lists in the opening as one of his “total of six friends,” is Rosie’s thesis advisor from Melbourne (in the midst of his own Gene and Claudia Marriage Problem; Claudia, a clinical psychologist, is also on Don’s list of friends), has temporarily moved into Don and Rosie’s Manhattan apartment.  Despite the awkwardness of the arrangement and the disruption to their marriage, Don’s ethos means he cannot turn away his friend, whom Rosie dislikes because of his boastful extramarital affairs.  Gene just so happens to be another of the many psychologists (evolutionary psychologist) in the novel – meaningful given the “oddness” of Don’s persona and professional attempts to label him.  The lay reader may perceive Don as an extremely high-functioning man with Asperger’s syndrome, but Don cautions us that “humans consistently over-recognize patterns and draw erroneous conclusions based on them.”  He’s been misdiagnosed as “schizophrenic, bipolar, an OCD sufferer,” which highlights dangers in stereotyping.  His friends understand him well, leading to an overabundance of goodwill and support. Their affirmation, helpfulness, and warmth is what we all wish for in our friends.  Don, then, is not someone we look down upon.  Rather, we admire his gifts and good-naturedness, which is why we care about the mess he’s gotten himself into.
  3. Safeguarding Rosie and proving he’s capable of fatherhood have increased Don’s alcohol consumption. This wreaks havoc on his BMI, which Don estimates for everyone he meets the way the rest of us might guestimate someone’s age.  This habit is consistent with his fixation on healthy eating, which he takes to extreme lengths to assure a nutritious regimen for Rosie and their unborn child.  Constantly advising Rosie what to eat/not to eat is a bad prescription for an expectant mother, one with her own nutty dietary preferences (she’s a “sustainable pescatarian”).  Don’s solution is the Pregnancy Version of his Standardized Meal System plus a Banned Substances List, but reducing caffeine and munching on tofu are not what a thesis-pressured, pregnant woman craves!  The absurdity of it all emphasizes the importance of wholesome eating during pregnancy and throughout the life span.
  4. Halfway through the novel I felt a pang of genuine sadness for Don, because of the real prospect he could lose his one true love. Hence, beware labeling this novel pure “rom-com.” Within the comic are poignant life lessons.  A few more:
    • Don: “I have a theory that everyone is as odd as I am when they are alone.”
    • Don on bullying: “Highly intelligent people are often bullied.  As a result of being different.”
    • Playground Incident: When Don attempts to understand children’s behavior by observing play in a playground, his behavior may seem out-of-the-ordinary, but it’s not “against the law to be awkward.”

Highline, New York City
(Mark Palumbo at Flickr,

There are many more mishaps Don gets mired in: the Jerome Laundry Problem, Meat Pizza Incident, Loud Woman, Bluefin Tuna Incident, Lesbian Mothers Project, Good Fathers Program, Second Ultrasound Misunderstanding, stroller invention problem, and social worker deception problem.  Together, they comprise the marriage problem.  Can Don and Rosie’s marriage be saved?  Simsion keeps us guessing until the end.  Along the way, Don reminds us that while “love is a continuous state,” “happiness in marriage was not a simple function of time.”  It never hurts to tell your loved ones they are loved.


Leave a Comment

The Secret Wisdom of the Earth 2

“Simple beauty,” “simple dignity” versus entrenched, complex issues: Appalachian Life in a Coal Mining Community (Eastern Kentucky, contemporary): Secret Wisdom is a perfect title for this multi-layered, standout novel.  It steers us to concentrate on all that is good and beautiful, rather than evil and destructive, in a fictitious town nestled in the hollows (or hollers) in-between the mountains and hills of eastern Kentucky Appalachia, where “scratch-a-living” lives have depended on coal mining since the early 1900s.

Medgar, Kentucky in Missiwatchiwie County may be a place name that exists only in debut novelist Christopher Scotton’s imagination (I googled to verify), but the novel mirrors real-life Appalachian concerns.  It may also be a place “people didn’t move into,except for one life-changing summer when our  youthful narrator, Kevin Goolihy, did just that at age fourteen, with his grief-stricken mother.

Eastern Kentucky is where President Johnson came fifty years ago to launch his War on Poverty.  Then, poverty rates were 50%; today they’re 33%, still making counties here some of the poorest in the nation.  Progress?  And at what cost?  These are some of the profound questions Scotton wants us to think about.  And we do, thanks to his exceptional prose that rises to elegant when evoking serene landscapes of “monumental trees,” waterfalls, and canyons, or when musing on the ups-and-downs of the coal mining industry (the “bountiful plenty” compared to the “staggering lean”); prose that’s sprinkled with wisdoms, and brimming with authentic dialogue.

Eastern Kentucky Appalachian Mountains
(Brandon Goins at en.wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0],
from Wikimedia Commons

Frankly, I tend to shy away from what some call a “hillbilly style” of regional dialect, as it tends to jar the reading.  First, let me say this dialect is more appropriately described as Appalachian English, owing to a history of settlement by Irish, Scottish, and Welsh immigrants who came to mine the area’s rich bituminous coal, thus infusing Old English into a distinct language.  And, rather than distract, the realistic dialogue enhances our understanding of why proud, poor people who live here might feel misunderstood. “Simple folk – hardworking, some education,” explains Kevin’s grandfather, Pops, the novel’s commanding philosophical voice.  Although, he adds, there are some who “don’t go to school past the tenth grade; they live off the land, get handouts, and work the mines and odd jobs to make up the rest … gene pool is getting shallow.”  One of our hero’s many wise-isms (see more below).

I gravitated to the novel because coal mining in Appalachia has been getting a lot of press lately.  Besides John Grisham’s bestselling Gray Mountain, Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s recent editorial in the New York Times discusses two major cases involving safety and environmental contamination issues.  And yes, the soulful title grabbed my attention.  Indeed, this is a soulful tale.

On one level it’s a heartwarming, coming-of-age story of a “singular summer when we left the coverings of boy behind.”  The “we” our narrator refers to is the new teenage friend he makes when he arrives in Medgar from Indiana, with his nearly silent mother, to his grandfather’s Appalachian home.  Buzzy Fink’s real name is Elrod Fink.  We’re told quirky character names “tend to stick” around these parts.  Buzzy’s father is dying of black lung disease.  Kevin and Buzzy come from different worlds, yet they form an “easy friendship unburdened by the expectations of others.”

One reason their friendship blossoms is the nurturing of Pops.  Arthur Bradley Peebles is a distinguished veteran and former philosophy professor turned large animal veterinarian, whose wise words are intended to help heal his grandson, who is carrying a burden of blame for the tragic death of his toddler brother, Joshua.  Pops, who grew up in Jukes Hollow, “one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen,” would rather die that sell off his land (like others are doing) to Bubba Boyd, owner of the Monongahela mining company.  Big money and greed are powerful forces to be reckoned when a town’s livelihood “was always coal.”

Coal Mining’s Impact in Eastern Kentucky
(Flashdark [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

The days of underground coal mining seem over.  Today, the best method for extracting coal from seams that are fragile is mountaintop removal.  The result is “unimaginable devastation” with slurry contaminating the drinking water.  (“The slurry is what comes off the chunks of coal – dust, dirt, nasty chemicals – all mixed in water.”)  Of course, it’s making the townspeople terribly sick, losing teeth, dying of cancer.  (One study I read found a 42% increase in birth defects among babies born near mountaintop removal sites.)  Where there used to be the “majestic reach and perfect shape” of scenery with names like Prettyman Hollow, Pancakes, and Old Blue, “one of the last truly wild places left in the Appalachians,” this type of coal mining creates a “flat top rubble of the excavated mountains” that looks like a “gray moonscape.”  So, there’s much talk and action around “flyrock coming off the mountain from explosions.”

Today, stricter environmental laws are making it too expensive to mine in Eastern Kentucky where the coal is high in sulfur (when it rains it becomes acid rain, or corrosive sulphuric acid).  The result are people leaving, abandoning mines, gas stations, and “storefronts like October cornstalks.”  Still, some local businesses have survived like Hivey’s Farm Supply and Miss Janey’s Paris Hair Salon and Notion Shop, owned by Paul Pierce, one of the “good people.” Paul’s character brings out the goodness in the town’s people (he secretly delivers turkeys to feed forty families), as well as deep prejudices and hatreds.  Pops’ front porch – 22 Chishold Street – is another locale where the novel’s many characters gather, talk, and drink sour mash whiskey.

Another reason the reading flows is the short chapters, with catchy headings like What Horses Smell Like After the Rain, The Telling Cave, The Aerodynamics of Flyrock, The Next Best Kings of the Earth, The Occasional Shifting of Boot Sole on Pine, Two Hearts Beating Each to Each, How to Carve a Whistle Out of Green Willow, In the Weave of Time and Being, and Needfuls.

Although evil lurks and sweeps into town, Pops’ wisdom and impact on Kevin and Buzzy uplift us.  He’s an endearing man, still deeply in love with Sarah Winthrope.  (“It wasn’t her beauty that won me over.  It was the way she smiled from her eyes.”)  Sarah, a fine lady, was the 29-year-old wife he lost at childbirth; Kevin’s mother survived.  Pops’ wisdom is plentiful and shines:

  • “friends can sometimes disappoint”
  • “coveting is one of the three basic human emotions, right behind love and fear”
  • “hate is overrated. People only hate if they can’t attain what they covet”
  • “evil doesn’t have to be loud, son … Evil is quiet, stealthy”
  • “focus on the local … what folks know and can see and touch”
  • “most folks can be astoundingly brave or dog cowards depending on the circumstances”
  • “son, the more people I meet, the less good I get at labeling them”

Beyond the layers of personal growth and healing, economic, environmental, and cultural issues tackled, The Secret Wisdom of the Earth is a heroic, page-turning “tramp” deep into mountains that “have their own memories.”  Pops takes Kevin and Buzzy on a camping adventure into remote Daniel Boone country.  They learn to catch rabbit, fish for largemouth bass, make use of wood sorrel, wild onions, watercress, black trumpet, wild garlic, chanterelle, shaggymane, goldenseal, and far more.  Theirs is a “watermark” experience that’s the stuff of character-making.  It changed them from boys into men.

“Isn’t it something, Buzzy?” divined Kevin.  “Ain’t it just.”

Happy New Year, and thanks for reading Enchanted Prose in 2014, Lorraine

Leave a Comment

Nora Webster 4

Of all the long book signing lines I waited on at Book Expo America (BEA) 2014, the longest was Colm Tóibín’s, award-winning Irish author and Columbia University professor.  Having read The Master and Brooklyn, I understood why.

“Dignified” Grieving: Imagined and Personal (Enniscorthy, County Wexford, Ireland, 1969-1972): Colm Tóibín is a master of pitch-perfect toneHis Henry James novel, The Master, is elegant, atmospheric prose evoking the 19th century period.  In Brooklyn, a young Irish woman’s coming-to-America story – immigrating from the author’s hometown, Enniscorthy – the vibrant prose befits an innocent’s experience in lively Brooklyn in the 1950s.  In Nora Webster, Tóibín ages the unworldly Irish woman, places her back in Enniscorthy, where the prose can slow down and fit Nora’s understated grieving.  Of the three, Nora’s is the simplest prose, deceptively so, given all its thoughtfulness and meaning.

For Nora Webster is a complex character, intentionally so, someone who admires her sister-in-law when she “disguises her feelings.”  That’s because Nora “kept silent about everything on her mind,” so she draws us right in.  While there’s undertones of a range of emotions we’d expect a grieving Nora to feel – sadness, anger, guilt among them – much of the time we’re trying to figure her out, just as she is trying to figure out how to live again, having recently lost her well-liked schoolteacher husband of twenty years, Maurice.

Nora is the mother of four (two older girls, Fiona and Aine, not living at home; two younger boys, Conor and Donal, who are), who in her forties is suddenly faced without an income (money is so tight she doesn’t even own a phone) and a life that’s “oddly pointless and confusing.”  The reader should note that Donal, the older son, is twelve – the same age Colm Tóibín was when he lost his father.  No wonder this fiction feels so real.

Still, in another writer’s hands, Nora’s three-year journey of quiet grieving – hiding and controlling her emotions – while going about the ordinary business of living might not be so riveting.  Because she’s closeted, emotionally complex yet authentic, she fascinates us.  We really want to know what happens to her.  And so, what’s ordinary becomes extraordinary.

Baginbun Bay, County Wexford, Ireland
(Humphrey Bolton [CC-BY-SA-2.0],
via Wikimedia Commons)

Tóibín style also contributes significantly.  It’s rhythmic; you can hear his words and the natural dialogue being read aloud – softly, not loudly – tuned to a character who strives to “control herself and her emotions.”  At times, Nora succeeds heroically; at other times to a fault, particularly when it pertains to her children.

Donal appears to be most at-risk.  His emotional pain is visible.  Since his father died, he has developed a stuttering problem.  Note: this detail is autobiographical too.  So is the fact that Tóibín’s father was also an admired schoolteacher, and, like Donal’s father and his brother Jim, active members of Fianna Fáil, Ireland’s conservative Republican Party.  (One of several political overtones.  Violence in Northern Ireland another.)

While you might judge Nora an uncaring mother – “it was strange, she thought, that she had never before put a single thought into whether they were happy or not, or tried to guess what they were thinking” – when something egregious happens to Conor at school (which would never have happened if Maurice were alive having taught there), she’s nothing but fierce, determined, and extremely effective.  Best of all, here, Nora doesn’t care what anyone thinks!

Worrying about what others think in a community where everyone knows your business is a recurring theme intruding on intensely private Nora.  When we first meet her, she’s weary of all the good-natured characters constantly stopping by her home, unannounced, to pay their condolences – a “hectoring tone” that she “tried to understand that it was shorthand for kindness.”  Two of those well-intentioned visitors Nora welcomes the most are her brother- and sister-in-law.  They help her get her footing financially, circumstances that improve over time in part due to her rising widow’s pension – another political issue that offers a window into Ireland’s social reforms, and another aspect of the novel that rings true for the author.

If, like me, you haven’t traveled to the towns and villages dotting the southeastern coast of Ireland – names like Blackwater, Bunclody, Curracloe, Ballyconnigar, Ballyvaloo – places Nora’s outings take us to, you might want to glimpse images of what Nora’s world looks like, to better picture her.  Photos of beauty and solitude beg the question:  Why didn’t the landscape give Nora the kind of peacefulness and privacy she craves?  The answer, I think: Too many memories.

That’s why Nora’s so willing to so quickly dispose of the family’s summer home in Cush, without even consulting her family, one of the first bold steps Nora takes early on.  It gives us clues into her strength, her love, and her pragmatism.  She does not want to hold onto these memories.  She may be “surprised” by “the harshness of her resolve, how easy it seemed to turn her back on what she had loved,” but she’s a realist.  “This was the past then … it cannot be rescued.”

Ballinesker Beach, County Wexford, Ireland
(Michal Osmenda [CC-BY-SA-2.0],
via Wikimedia Commons)

Among the many questions it is up to the reader to assess – again resonating with Nora’s circumspect character – is how happy was Nora’s marriage?  Understandably, Maurice’s death hit her as an enormous “shock to her system, as though she has been in a car accident.”  But how happy was she?

When she’s forced to return to a job she held so long ago that she never imagined she’d have to go back to, where she must also endure the wrath of a bitingly unpleasant supervisor, an ex-friend she hasn’t spoken to in over twenty years, she reminisces on her lost freedom but, as for what should be her greatest loss, she never explicitly tells us she misses Maurice.  She reflects that it was a “life of ease,” but one “that included duty.”  Was it duty to her husband and/or to her children she laments?  One of her sisters remarked that, after Maurice, Nora changed from a “demon” to “meek.”  Was she his shadow because she preferred it that way?  Or, because everyone gravitated to him?  We’re not entirely sure.

Sometimes, Nora reveals herself at the cusp of being a more modern woman, if only she knew how.  Again, the historical backdrop matters.  This is the end of the sixties.  Nora may not be a self-proclaimed feminist, but she seems proud of her daughter, Fiona, doing her teacher training in Dublin, and for getting mixed up in the cause of the city’s slum housing.  When Fiona disappears for a few days after riots broke out there, others are frightened but Nora remains calm and resolute that Fiona will be okay.

Nora shows us that she’s open to change and in some ways feels freer – dying her hair, taking singing lessons, joining the Gramophone Society, buying a record player and albums, redecorating, going on a trip to Spain with her Aunt Josie– but these try-outs don’t necessarily go smoothly.  To her credit, she agrees to participate in things, but mostly she’s not interested in them, has regrets, or worries that people will think she’s “lost her mind” or been “extravagant.”

As in real life, some things naturally lead to another, gradually moving Nora along.  In her grieving process, she wonders what her life might have been like had she been born elsewhere?  Without responsibilities?  She may have lived a conventional life, but Nora has dreams.  Did she always have dreams, or has her new situation given her an opening to dream?  Again, we’re not entirely sure.

What we do know is that Nora Webster wishes to be transported away from the “dullness of her own days” to a “dream-life.”  What that “dream-life” is we cannot say.  What we can say is that music is where she finds the space to dream.  Music sets her free.  Drifting softly, not loudly.


Leave a Comment

Sleep in Peace Tonight 3

Unsung heroes – real and imaginary: America at the brink of WWII (Great Britain, Washington, DC, Moscow, mostly 1941/ends 1946): When does historical fiction attain historical value?  Who was Harry Hopkins, FDR’s eyes and ears, sent to war-torn London at the dawn of 1941 to be his go-between Churchill?  Would an unknowing, fiercely isolationist American public (80% against entering the war) been swayed to enter WWII earlier, as Churchill’s “rich timbre” voice boomed nearly a year before we did on that infamous day, December 7, 1941?  What if Hollywood had made a major motion picture based on James MacManus’ eye-opening Sleep in Peace Tonight, and released it around the time the novel opens? These are questions I asked my non-historian self after finishing MacManus’ provocative novel, steeped in historical details and atmosphere, like watching a riveting black-and-white film.  The movie could have been billed as the “story of a people who would not be broken.”

Hollywood, to my Googling surprise, did not produce one film prior to Pearl Harbor that championed America’s entry into war, despite Churchill’s chilling oratory that “western civilization would be decided on the grey seas of the Atlantic” and his conviction that Britain could not win without America’s naval power.  (By now, Germany had advanced into France, the Low Countries, Poland, and the Balkans.)  Hollywood, it seems, reflected the powerful isolationist mood of the country, led by pro-Nazis Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh.  Even then, the three-term President who consoled us that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” is portrayed as afraid of impeachment because the isolationist movement was so strong.  The only other novel that scared me as much politically was Philip Roth’s, The Plot Against America, in which Lindbergh is fictionalized as President of the United States.  Yet most of this novel is based on historical facts, with the exception of a love affair inspired by the brave women of Britain’s Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAFF), who’d do anything to sabotage the enemy.

While the novel is certainly a remarkable depiction of “two very different, very difficult, very determined men” – FDR and Churchill – its focus is to shine a light on a remarkable, unknown household name in American WWII history: Harry Hopkins.  Remarkable too that this one man – sickly and underweight (he’d had stomach cancer); politically unpopular because FDR’s most trusted advisor was unelected; so coveted by the White House that he lived in the Lincoln bedroom under Eleanor Roosevelt’s motherly (and matchmaking) activist eyes, for he pressed for New Deal and social reform issues – was America’s crucial link to Churchill, assessing the Prime Minister, the morale of his people, our entry into a world war.  It was Hopkins who forged the pivotal relationship between these two great leaders when they met in August 1941 off the coast off Newfoundland (The Atlantic Conference).  Prior to that, FDR apparently “detested” Churchill when he first met him as naval secretary during the First World War.

We’re introduced to a ghastly, sleep-deprived Hopkins when he lands in London in January 1941 after four grueling days of flying to remain undetected, as London was besieged by “incendiaries” dropping like “candles in the air.”  Met by a personal driver, Leonora Finch, whose mission was to open Harry’s mind and heart to the sights and sounds of a London that no one back home seemed to realize or care was “another planet.”  The character and evolving romance between Leonora, in her twenties, and Harry, in his fifties, is the part of the novel that is good, thoughtful fiction.

Leonora’s sympathies for the war effort stem from the death of her father on the battlefields of Somme.  From a quintessentially British town outside of London, Leamington Spa, she studied at the Sorbonne; her fluency in French is an asset to British intelligence.  A mysterious Richard Stobart, a ‘60s cloak-and-dagger type, appears periodically, dropping hints about the jade-eyed beauty’s secretive role beyond Harry’s driver.  Harry, twice married and now engaged to a fashion designer/turned nurse who Eleanor Roosevelt deems is the solution to Harry’s fragile physical self, grows accustomed to Leonora, who tends to his every need,  including his dependence on alcohol and cigarettes.  She drives and accompanies Harry everywhere, to pubs, savaged cities, on the train, so he can see and report back to FDR how ordinary British souls are coping during wartime.

There’s a coolness and smoothness to the British author’s/The Times Literary Supplement director’s prose that resonates with the fog of war, offset by the warmth of Harry and Leonora’s liaison.  It fills the pages with a rhythm that flows with the boozy, jazzy music heard in the pubs (“Like all pubs … having a good war”).  This may be an historical period when “lust and love got confused,” but by the time the novel closes (and sooner) the reader knows which of these emotions rings true for both of them.

Leonora’s first stop is to drop Harry off at Claridge’s Hotel, which he discovers is overrun by our press corps.  It “crossed the threshold of the world at war into the comfort and luxury of what looked like an English country house.”  Despite Harry’s wanting anonymity and quiet, he immediately meets CBS broadcaster, Ed Murrow, who airs “This … is London.”  Despite his poor Midwestern roots (like Hopkins’), the handsome Murrow finds himself at ease with the upper echelons of British class society that America shuns.  Murrow becomes as beloved and famous in England as in America – as he should be for the “lone voice” the journalist played.  He believed FDR was weak, and agreed with Churchill that America needed to engage in the war.

More of MacManus’ fascinating characterizing of major historical figures peopling Sleep in Peace Tonight:

FDR: A mixture of “serpentine ambiguity” and “folksy charm,” he was “guided by what he could not do as a politician than more than what he might achieve as a statesman.”  In the midst of war crises, he managed to spend an hour or more working on his obsession, stamp collecting.

Churchill, the “ringmaster:”  A “cigar-smoking, brandy-swilling bulldog in a bowler hat,” whose “ego was considerably greater than his talent, a man who seemed to believe that a nation of 40 million people could rule 400 million people around the world, a man determined to drag America into a war.”

Eleanor Roosevelt: whose “austere” style was the extreme opposite of Churchill’s exuberance for fine foods and drinks.  She “valued principles over politics,” truly caring about the rights of the people.  At this point in FDR’s presidency, theirs is a political marriage as she knows about his infidelity.

Brendan Bracken: Churchill’s personal assistant who was not afraid to tell the Prime Minister the truth.

Frank Sawyers: Churchill’s “factotum.”  More than his butler and valet, he knew precisely what Churchill needed during his darkest, moodiest hours.

James Stewart: the famous actor becomes even more loveable.  He really did join the military against the wishes of Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM, and flew dangerous missions for the British Royal Air Force.

Cabinet secretaries: Cordell Hull (State), Henry Simpson (War), Henry Morgenthau (Treasury), George C. Marshall (Military Advisor).

Stalin:  His “hands are huge and as hard as his mind.”

Hopkins was overwhelmed by all that he saw and heard.  He couldn’t believe the “UK and British Empire had been run from this small three-story house in a London side street for two hundred years.” Churchill, larger than life, would summon him for diplomatic talks from a steamy bathtub over champagne.  Meals were “theatrical occasions.”  Churchill had an incredible energy level, needing little sleep which Harry craved.  He could pore over details on military ops, U-boats, cargoes, convoys, briefings, sinkings, casualties, Lend-Lease, Hurricanes and Spitfires vs. Luftwaffe’s Messerschmitt and Focke-Wulf.   Indeed, this may be the most readable, detailed historical fiction you’ve come across.

The depictions of FDR as a “master of ambiguity” who refused to be rushed into critical decision-making reminded me of the criticisms of President Obama.  And Leonora’s bravery brought to mind the terrific British TV series: Wish Me Luck.  Here is where fiction and fact mightily converge, as Hopkins enlists Averil Harriman  (who oversaw aid to Britain) to snuff out Leonora’s whereabouts.  Sleep in Peace Tonight ends with the answer.  An ending that is the stuff of Hollywood movie-making.


Leave a Comment


Serendipity again: another perfect complement to my last posting.  Again, the author tells us this is a “love story.” Again, there’s a character with a scientific mind.  That’s where the similarities end!  This time, I was looking for something not so intellectually taxing, but nonetheless heartfelt.  David Nicholls’ writing style is immediately engaging, blending prose that is laugh-out-loud-funny, poignant, and wise.

Is Love Enough? (London/suburb and a “Grand Tour” of Europe covering Paris, Amsterdam, Munich, Venice, Verona, Florence, Rome, Naples, Barcelona, Siena; present day/twenty-odd years of seamless flashbacks): Some love stories and romantic films you never forget.  Four come to mind: An Affair to Remember, Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail, and One Day, based on David Nicholls’ 2009 sensational hit novel.  Penning another romance after One Day is a hard act to follow.  Us is British film actor/novelist’s five-year effort to do so.  You will not be disappointed!

The writing flows effortlessly.  The story is told with tremendous heart.  You will find yourself rooting for Douglas Timothy Petersen – one of three characters meant by “us.” Douglas may have said that he “loved my wife to a degree that I found impossible to express, and so I rarely did,” yet he expresses himself to us with his-heart-on-his sleeves.

Not so for #2 in “us:” Connie Moore, Douglas’ painter turned arts administrator wife of twenty-some years.  It’s not that she isn’t well-realized; it’s that we want to knock some sense into her middle-aged hippie, artsy, “live-in-the-moment” head for the anguish she is putting this endearing man through.  The realists among us side with Douglas – “the trouble with living in the moment is that moment passes” – because he adores her to a “ridiculous degree.”  He’s a charming list-maker, like his wistful listing of “seven things about her” – her fifties movie star looks, her style, the way she listens, her voice, the “grace and life in her.”  Still love-struck at 54, he divides his life into “B.C and A.C” – “Before Connie and After Connie:”

Before Connie: Douglas was a passionate biochemist whose only love was “fundamental science” like studying that infamous drosophila melanogaster (fruit fly), which is to say that he experienced life through “reinforced glass.”  He may have been lonely at times (wasn’t everyone?), living in his comfort zone (wasn’t that the point? To be comfortable), and not very worldly when it came to travel (his father was xenophobic), or Connie’s enriching world of “art, film, fiction, music; she seemed to have seen and read and listened to pretty much everything.”  Everything he was not.  But then, “who wants to fall in love with their reflection?”

After Connie: No matter what our soulful narrator does, he can’t win with #2 or #3, his downcast teenage son.  Now head of R & D of a profit-making corporation, he’s shunned for making money.  (He can’t figure out what his son is so against: “Warmth? Comfort?”)  Beneath that comedic coping voice, lies sadness.  Naturally, one thing he cannot joke about is the “blue” period, a heart-wrenching time of unbearable grief when the couple’s newborn daughter died.  Douglas’ voice is so human and eloquent in expressing grief: “I’ve never sleepwalked … but we sat and stood, walked and ate without really being alive.”  The painful prose he uses – “torn away” – makes us wince, the imagery of your flesh being ripped off, and yet he manages to stay a “capable butler” tending to Connie’s every need.  Besides rescuing his marriage, Douglas is desperately seeking to kindle a connection with his alienated son, a chronically strained relationship akin to an “awkward chat show.”  We feel how badly he wants to be his “idol.”  But his no-nonsense/wanting-the-very-best for his child parenting style bumps up against Connie’s laissez-faire one.  How could he possibly win?

Albert Samuel Petersen, Albie, nicknamed “Egg” – #3 in the triad: Seventeen-year old Albie is a tough nut to crack. “He sometimes regards me with a pure and concentrated disdain, filling me with so much sadness and regret that I can barely speak.” At first, you assume he’s your typical, rebellious, moody teenager.  But as the story evolves – told to us in 180 numbered, cleverly named short chapters that weave back and forth in time smoothly – Albie seems far more troubled, engaging in disturbing behaviors (like dressing up as a Nazi at a costume party).  Before he heads off to college, Connie dreamed up a grand idea, a “Grand Tour” of Europe.  She wants to set Albie off “like in the eighteenth century.” Keep in mind this was Connie’s plan, not Douglas’.

Us opens with Connie informing Douglas in the middle of the disorienting night that when Albie leaves, she’s likely to leave too.  Their marriage, she says, has “run its course.” Douglas cannot accept such a premise, so he proposes they continue their grandiose travel plans hoping a trip of a lifetime can turn things around.  The scientist in him meticulously plans the itinerary, only to be poked fun of at every turn.  Making sure they hit some of the greatest art museums in the world, intending to please artist Connie and awaken his disappointing, technologically-glued son, his best intentions run up against Albie’s only artistic interest: photography.

The globe-trotting reminded me of that hilarious movie, “If it’s Tuesday, this must be Belgium.”  But even with the best of travel plans, things don’t go as planned.

Douglas’ efforts to make things right are herculean.  The more hysterical and pathetic the mishaps, the more Douglas endears us.  We want to believe like he does that “surely, surely you have to succeed, if you give everything you have.” And he does!  Passages and passages of zany adventures.

Douglas’ tender and wise reflections should be savored.  For instance, when he cogitates at what point the light and passion went out in his marriage: “The edges of unhappiness are usually a little more blurred and graded than those of joy.”  Or, torments himself as to what he did wrong as a father:

“Perhaps it’s a delusion for each generation to think that they know better than their parents.  If this were true, then parental wisdom would increase with time like the processing power of computer chips, refining over generations, and we’d now be living in some utopia of openness and understanding.”

This posting began by mentioning my last one (see The Goddess of Small Victories)Fascinating the differences between two wives, two husbands, in these two novels.  Both women were artists with a zest for life, be it dancing or painting.  The dancer gave up her life; the painter is not willing to.  The logician is revered for his genius; the doctor of biochemistry denies he’s one.  Instead, he repeatedly stresses that talent must be nurtured through discipline, diligence, hard work (qualities he wants his son to have).  The genius petrified of making mistakes became paralyzed to act and was called a “madman”; the biochemist is willing to jump out of his comfort zone to a ridiculous degree into temporary madness, never losing sight of what matters most.

Douglas Timothy Petersen may not be Connie’s or Albie’s idol.  But he’s ours.


Leave a Comment

The Goddess of Small Victories: A Love Story 1

“Can you prove love?” – Self-sacrifice for a mathematical genius (Vienna, Austria; Institute of Advanced Study (IAS), Princeton, NJ; Maine; PA; 1928-1980): Mathematicians strive for simple, elegant proofs.  How ironic and sad that one of the great mathematical minds of the twentieth century, a logician from Austria, Kurt Gödel, had such a complicated and inelegant fifty-year “love story” with a Viennese cabaret dancer he had absolutely “nothing in common” with, Adele Thusnelda Porkert.

Mathematicians seek “truth and beauty.”  But there’s no “self-evident truths” in The Goddess of Small Victories, except that the genius who sought beauty in his “Incompleteness Theorem” was an incomplete man.  Instead, there’s an impressive and engrossing blending of historical facts, personal truths, logical conjectures, and creative storytelling that does not trivialize weighty math and science concepts. This is a daring historical novel that keeps you intellectually on your toes.

The Gödel’s fifty years is relayed to us at the end of Adele’s life, when she’s widowed, 80, and a feisty resident at a nursing home in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, not too far from the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton, where most of their “love story” takes place.

Debut author, Yannick Grannec, a fine arts professor in France, deftly paints a stark portrayal of the couple’s extreme differences: He a fragile, elegant dresser who never laughed; she sports “wild gypsy hair” and loves music (“What’s the point of living if you don’t know how to dance?”).  He a selfish, unaffectionate man with a deeply troubled psyche (twice hospitalized for anorexia, psychotic episodes, depression, exhaustion); she a tower of strength who’d “lift mountains” if need be.  Tragically, the woman fond of sweets, flowers, colorful paintings, and movies sacrificed everything for Kurt, including family and citizenship, ending up with a life likened to a “black-and-white film.”

Sometimes the smart prose is so mathematically relatable as in: “Life is an equation.  What you gain on one side is taken away on the other.” But mostly, if you try to grasp the heavier mathematical logic, philosophies, and physics bantered about in the dialogue of the brainy men peopling the novel – and in the extensive, supplemental endnotes – the prose will feel wildly inaccessible.  That is beside the point – or precisely the point.  These commentaries serve the reader emotionally well.  They bring you viscerally close to the frustration, anger, condescension, and loneliness Adele must have felt much of the time around her intensely single-minded husband. (Once, at a bucolic inn in Maine, he graced her by attempting to explain cardinal/ordinal/natural numbers, integers, and infinity.  The mood was spoiled as soon as she asked what he sees when she sees the beautiful ocean.  His idea of beauty: “A field of wave interactions”!)

Throughout, Kurt Gödel feels terribly inaccessible and, frankly, terribly unlikable.  Adele may be ornery, but who can blame her.  A truth is she intrigues us.  How did she endure a lifetime with this egocentric, psychologically impaired man who “took care of nothing?” She mothered and nursed a paranoid man who refused to eat and touch her.  A man so obsessed with smells, cleanliness, weather, and afraid of making mistakes he “preferred keeping silent to being in error … unwilling to make a misstep, he would forget to take any step at all.”

Don’t worry if you don’t care about “geeky factoids” or the “grandiose mechanism of the universe.”  What we care about are the accessible, universal matters of the heart.  The prose has a pathos that touches us, for we can’t help but wonder when are we asking too much of any one human being to sacrifice themselves for another?

This affecting novel is narrated in two compelling female voices that alternate between chapters that track the fifty years.  The cantankerous voice is Adele’s; the other belongs to Anna Roth, a 30-year-old archivist working at the prestigious Institute.  She’s tasked to get Adele to turn over the archives of the “mythical recluse” for the betterment of mankind.  Up until now, Mrs. Gödel has adamantly refused. These two women encounter each other around the same age Adele met Kurt, who to be fair was “charming” back then.  “His eyes, an impossible blue, were full of greatness.”

Anna’s life parallels some of Adele’s history: loneliness (her intellectual, self-absorbed parents dismiss her as mediocre); involved with an eccentric fellow absorbed in mathematics; surrounded by geniuses.  She’s provocative too, so her ability to match wits with the elder woman opens the door to an evolving relationship.  Don’t expect Adele’s caustic tongue to be enchanted prose!  Her elegance is “self-assurance.” Well-practiced in reading minds, do expect she’ll let her guard down to offer Anna words of wisdom on pursuing pleasure and happiness.  Whether Anna succeeds at her original tasking becomes almost beside the point too.

The challenging assignment gives Anna purpose.  She doesn’t “claim to understand him” but she knows Kurt’s German shorthand, Gabelsberger.  For once, Anna feels she’s in the “right place at the right time.” Paradoxically, not the case for Kurt.  He was the wrong man at the wrong time.  His paranoia was intensified by the oppressive historical times, which the author takes us through with painful honesty: the Nazi’s were “burning books, banning music, closing the cafes, and turning off the lights in Vienna,” yet the Gödels remained blind to (Kurt) or ignored (Adele) the political landscape, since they weren’t Jewish, until they no longer could; The Manhattan Project; McCarthyism; and the assassination of a beloved President.

While the author proclaims she’s an “enthusiast of mathematics,” the odds are most of us are not, which adds to the courageousness of her novel.  Because its characters are famous, and not quite-as-famous, mathematicians and physicists who came together at a unique period in history when intellectuals were escaping Europe – and they found refuge at a “quaint cocoon” – a “scientific Mount Olympus” – in a high-brow university town where their only “assignment was to think,” the reader gets an exceptional chance to peak into the personas of exceptional minds.

Unquestionably, the most likable of the brilliant bunch is Albert Einstein, despite what you’ve heard about his flawed personal relationships.  One of Kurt’s very few friends, Einstein was the “personification of friendship.” Their daily “arm-in-arm” walks around the Institute were legendary.  Grannec’s comparisons of the two are delightful: Kurt was “closemouthed and the other charismatic.” Albert with his “tousled hair,” Kurt the impeccable dresser.  Einstein “wore himself out fighting battles for everyone else, whereas Kurt had never fought for anyone but himself.” Albert with his “thunderclap laugh” like Groucho Marx; Kurt the stony Buster Keaton.  Even the analysis of their disciplines is catchy: “Mathematics is the skeleton, where physics is the flesh.”  Noteworthy is that the unemotional Kurt upon meeting Einstein found it an “unforgettable experience.”  Einstein’s profound concerns about the military’s dominance over science; that his discoveries led to the atomic bomb – Peace and Humanity – are unforgettable.

To his credit, Albert was also Adele’s friend.  So, was Wolfgang Pauli, father of quantum mechanics, who consoled Adele that it “can’t be easy on a day-to-day basis” to be married to a man who lost his “ability to see the whole.”  Pauli, like Albert, valued perspective.  The “one absolute in a world like ours is humor.”

Some other exceptional minds you’ll meet along the way: Robert Oppenheimer, “Oppie,” a nuclear physicist who directed the Institute after he led The Manhattan Project; Oskar Morgenstern, an economist best known for game theory; and John von Neumann, whose mathematical work greatly influenced the development of computers and computer science.

Meanwhile, after 432 thoughtful pages, the central genius character still remains elusive.  I think that is also the point.  Did Adele feel that her calling was to ease his “obstacles so he could address his calling?” Consider herself lucky to have a “mission,” as her Vienna friend once advised?  Or, as the sub-title suggests, she truly loved him?  Since we’re told this is a “love story,” she must have.  Our proof.


Leave a Comment

The Beautiful American 1

Without meaning to, The Beautiful American nicely follows Madame Picasso, my last posting.  Picasso’s back, a minor role yet a profound one.  Instead of Cubism as the new art form, here it’s photography and Surrealism.  Historically, the reader is swept past the “anything goes” pre-war Paris years into occupied and post WWII France.  I thank my lucky stars for having a way to share this gem.

A Perfumer’s Story and a Photographer’s Story: The friendship of imaginary Nora Tours and the real Lee Miller (Poughkeepsie, NY, London, Paris, Grasse, Cannes, 1914 to 1977): The Beautiful American is beautifully structured, beautifully told.  You may wish the true beauty to be fictional Nora, for her quiet strength, but the singular title is meant for the wilder Lee Miller, famous war and fashion photographer, Vogue model, and muse/lover of the surrealist photographer, Man Ray.  For it is Lee Miller Jeanne Mackin “wanted to learn about … and I thought others would find her fascinating as well.” She’s certainly that!

Our lens for learning about Lee Miller is seen through the softer eyes of the imagined narrator, Nora Tours.  These very different women, unlikely friends, come together at important “thresholds” in Nora’s life.  Their seventy years are creatively divvied up using names borrowed from the world of perfumery – for Nora has inherited a “good nose” and at various times in her story she sells perfumes.  The Prologue is titled Départ; Part One is Note De Tête; Part Two is Note De Coeur; Part Three are the Base Notes; and the Epilogue is the Sillage.  Their essence:

Prologue: “Begins the journey of perfume and its wearer”

Part One: The “top note.”  The ‘once upon a time’ opening”

Part Two: The “middle notes suggest the destiny”

Part Three: The “base notes,” which have the “most lasting impression”

Epilogue: The “closest thing to a molecular memory.”  The “final lasting impressions.”

These descriptions come from perfumery notebooks composed by Nora.  The artfulness of composing runs throughout: Nora composed perfumes, Lee Miller and Man Ray composed photographs, and Jeanne Mackin has composed a wonderfully enlightening historical novel filled with a range of human emotions: love, loyalty, betrayal, melancholy, anger, jealousy, grief, regret, forgiveness.

Perfumery and Photography shape Nora’s and Lee’s stories and the wistful prose.  Just as perfumes are “memories pressed into memories” and photography captures memories, the novel looks back at Nora’s memories so she can reveal to us the circumstances that led her teenage daughter, Dahlia, to disappear.  From the opening pages, we’re told Nora is frantically searching for her.  Lest you assume Dahlia has run away from a bad mother, think again.  If Dahlia “wanted the moon,” Nora “would pull it down for her.”

The “once upon a time” part of the story is how Nora and Lee, both born in 1907, became early childhood playmates despite differences in social class.  Nora’s father was the gardener at Lee’s upstate NY family farm, where he infused Nora with the nostalgic flower and herb scents passed down from his great-great grandfather, a perfumer in France.  Lee’s father, Theodore, was wealthy and indulgent.  Something tragic happened to Lee, a “vulnerable beauty” by 7, ending their friendship.  A closely-guarded traumatic event, which enormously influenced Lee.  So private that Nora, who knew about it, pretended not to when she and Lee bump into each other years later at a bookstore and Lee doesn’t even remember the gardener’s daughter; and then later, far more significantly, when their friendship and the novel heats up, in Paris, in the late ‘20s, when they meet again.

Nora was 20 when she “danced across the Atlantic” with a boy she deeply loved, her high school sweetheart Jamie, the “Tastes-So-Good” baker’s son, an aspiring photographer hoping to be discovered.  Her devotion to him is boundless.  Their stay in London was brief; Paris, the “center of the world,” seven years.  It’s during these pre-war Paris years, when Nora runs into Lee again, now a Vogue model discovered by Conde Nast.  She’s also the muse of the avante-garde photographer, Man Ray, 20 years her elder.  Their relationship is as edgy as their art.  His is a possessive, “aching, can’t-live-without-her love;” hers “nuanced,” anything but conventional.  For Lee Miller is a restless soul, dauntless, seductive, fiery.  Things don’t seem to bother Lee the way they do Nora, like Man Ray’s cut-up images of her – a “single eye representing the entire body of the woman he adored.”  Nora sees violence in these nightmarish images, a “touch of cruelty in the worship of beauty … Wasn’t the most beautiful woman in the world that armless, defenseless Venus de Milo?”  But Jamie is infatuated with Man Ray’s artistry.

Man Ray, then, is also a transformational figure for Jamie, who gradually grows consumed by ambition.  Although Lee, “like many artists, could be on the self-absorbed side,” she cannot be pigeon-holed.  She helps Jamie land a position as assistant in Man Ray’s studio.  So does Picasso, one of Lee’s many legendary friends.  But Jamie struggles.  His “lovely and natural” photographs of “real people” are not hot.  The ever-steady Nora tries to assuage Jamie by reminding him that timing is everything in the art world, things will change.  They don’t for Jamie, which has heavy consequences for Nora, forcing her to flee Paris in 1932.

Interestingly, it’s Picasso who comes to her rescue because it’s Picasso, the shrewd businessman, who stays in touch with his past patrons (a way to manage sales and his reputation), so he knows of the Grasse home of a widow, Madame Natalie Hughes, willing to take Nora in.  Her son, Nicky, also a widower, bought some of Picasso’s early works for his hotel in Lyon.  This is serendipity for Nora, Grasse being the “perfume capital of France.”  Madame and Nora find solace and contentment in each other, both outsiders and survivors.

While the author’s descriptions of Grasse sound lovely – lavender hills, jasmine farms, olive orchards, stone houses covered by moss and colored by red geraniums – Grasse is somber compared to Paris.  It is here that Nora must fashion a new life not only for herself but her baby daughter, Dahlia.  The reader can guess who the father might be.  Madame Hughes, Nora, and Dahlia become a little family. Village life is peaceful, until war rages.

Without giving away what happens next, this part of Nora’s story illuminates how divided a country France was during and after the war.  Two and half million French fought the Germans, supporters of De Gaulle’s Free French, as well as the French resistance fighters.  But the Vichy government fed right-wing sympathizers of Hitler.

Post WWII France is anything but normal too.  This is when Dahlia runs away, and Nora begins her desperate search.  Retracing her London days, she chances upon Lee again, by now a famous war photographer and married to the art collector, Roland Penrose.

It’s at this point that the novel comes full circle: final chapters re-connect with the introductory one.  Events, though, have dramatically changed these women.  Lee’s not as beautiful as she once was, having seen the horrors of war behind her camera.  And Nora is now the one with the closely-held secret.

To tell a lifetime of stories, Nora has us looking backward and forward.  “Home is always in front of us or just behind us, except for the home we carry inside that is more than mere place.”  It’s this home, Nora’s soul, which we keenly sense.  It leaves a lasting impression.


Leave a Comment

Madame Picasso

“Love changed people”: Imagining the influence of a great artist’s greatest love (Paris, Pyrenees and Provence villages, 1911 – 1914 ): The Spanish artist, Pablo Picasso, is universally known, but how well do we know the man?  It doesn’t help that what we know most famously about him – Cubism, an abstract art form he conceived – is tough to understand without the interpretations of art historians.  Perhaps you’ve heard unflattering tales of his womanizing.  Googling these affairs, I learned of five influential women who came into Picasso’s life at important artistic junctures – in addition to the two early ones featured in Madame Picasso – and reportedly there’s dozens, maybe hundreds, more.  If you knew all this, they paint a complex picture of a “vain, egotistical, selfish, and demanding” artistic genius.  But what if there was a softer, tenderhearted side that could be glimpsed in one of these amours, a love so deep, so sacred he – and his lover/muse – sought to conceal?  That is the fascinating premise of Anne Girard’s fascinating novel.

Even if you’re skeptical of the author’s imaginings – which some reviewers seem to be despite the author’s extensive research that included studying handwritten letters and interviewing Picasso’s last remaining close friend of 30 years, the French photographer, Lucien Clerque – you ought to applaud the author for tackling this giant of an artist, wanting to “honor” Picasso in this way.

This is not the first time I’ve been drawn to novels about artists during the atmospheric La Belle Epoque, bringing forth evocative prose.  Girard’s is tender and sensual, well-matched to her supposition that so was Picasso, if you closely examine the least known of his loves, a “petite country girl with massive blue eyes,” Eva Celeste Gouel.

Eva assumes the name and confidence of Marcelle Humbert when she comes to Paris at 24 to be swept up into this “vibrant new age.” She came to “drink the magic of the city,” peopled with a collection of historical figures who created their own magic – artists, writers, poets, dancers, actresses, and singers like Sarah Bernhardt, Isadora Duncan, Colette, poets Max Jacob and Guillaume Apollinaire, Gertrude Stein (Picasso’s wonderful early champion) and her kindly companion Alice B. Toklas, Mistinguett, Maurice Chevalier, Toulese-Lautrec, Cezanne, Matisse, Maurice Utrillo, and Georges Braque (“the  only other artist who truly spoke his [Picasso’s] creative language”).

Besides the pleasure/educational value, you’re likely to come away with another perspective of Picasso, and insight into his vulnerabilities, having lost two people early on that he cared deeply about: his sister, Conchita (illness), and his friend, Casagemas (suicide).  Picasso irrationally blamed himself for his sister’s death, which had a lasting impact on his religious beliefs, superstitions, and fears.  His friend’s death thought to be the catalyst for his Blue Period, painting in muted colors.  We see a man with a passion for art, women, and friendships, a man for whom events are life-changing.  If we believe Gerard’s estimations, in Eva he found his soul mate, a profound love that enormously influenced this prolific artist, who influenced so many other artists and art movements.

Eva has a quiet, elegant beauty and strength.  She realizes her “fantasies, like dreams, are very fragile things.” Still, she’s determined to get more out of life than what her parents want for her, despite grieving leaving them. We meet her running late to an interview for a seamstress at the Moulin Rouge that her chorus girl roommate, Sylvette, told her about it – the dancers always tearing their costumes with all that kicking.  It’s a skill her Polish mother taught her, and while not her dream, it’s an exciting start.

Eva lands the job, although winning over the stern wardrobe head, Madame Léautaud, takes reticence, proven talent, and quick wittedness.  When Eva peers out from the cabaret stage into the front audience, she spots an arresting man with “long, messy crow-black hair” and piercing eyes.  It’s Picasso at 29, but she knows nothing about art so she doesn’t recognize him.  Picasso locks eyes with Eva too (hers are so blue he “could swim” in them.)  They meet again at the famed Salon des Indépendants art exhibition, which Eva attends with her only other Parisian friend, Louis, a cartoonist and painter with ambitions; also Polish, their tie.  While she doesn’t understand Picasso’s overpowering paintings – “dangerous in his sexuality” – she’s stirred by the “Chaos.  Daring.  Certainly a wild heart.” Seems innocent Eva has a “heady spark of fire” too.

Flirtatious encounters with a famous artist may be amazing to Eva, but for Picasso they are far more pivotal.  He’s at a crucial stage in his life, frustrated by a tumultuous, ten-year relationship with his model and mistress, Fernande Olivier, an emotional beauty whose hold on him is frustrating his art.  Picasso’s confused feelings for Fernande are mixed up with gratitude and obligation since they were together during his Rose Period, paintings in oranges and pinks, many those recognizable harlequins and acrobatic performers.  His passion, though, is Cubism – “the cubes and lines speaking to him like poetry.”  Yet he’s only exhibiting a sampling of his cubist creations.  The rest, the wilder, more grotesque works the French public may not be ready for, so they are hidden, exploding riotously in his Montmartre studio, “the place where his soul resides.”

This private place is where Picasso invites/whisks Eva away for he must paint her now; she accepts his hand and off they run.  All she knows about him is that he has “set the French capital on its ear.”  Eva is emotionally moved by his paintings – “the color, the light, and the clutter, all of it together” – and by the man – the “sensuality that seemed to pulse through him.”  The point is that Picasso perceives Eva is not afraid of what she sees, or of him, even if she doesn’t comprehend what these powerful abstract images mean.

Understanding Picasso’s art comes later.  Eva is different than any other women Picasso has ever known.  He realizes her beauty, charm, and devotion will be a calming influence and thus the inspiration he craves.  With Eva, he marvels at “what innovative things might he dare to do in life.”

Peaceful togetherness does not come easily for the couple at first.  Eva must separate herself from Louis’ stranglehold, a “man who played at his art” whereas “Picasso was a man who lived it.”  For Picasso, it means painfully cutting ties with intimate friends loyal to one of their own, Fernande.  In spite of them all, Picasso escapes with Eva to idyllic French villages, freeing his creativity, so now his:

“palette of colors reflected his heart.  Where Paris had called to him the grays and muted shades of brown, beige and blue of the city, here he chose vibrant colors full of light.  Picasso has begun to play with shapes, as well, and after listening to a quartet … began experimenting further with musical instruments.”

Picasso and Eva’s love has grown so strong there’s “nothing in the world he would not have done to bring her into his life.”  For her part, Eva carries a secret burden that shows how staunchly dedicated she was to the man and to his art.

The trusting scene of Picasso pronouncing to Eva that “the most significant event of my life had nothing to do with my art.  It was falling in love with you” – imagine more important than “cubism [which] made him the master” – was so tender and convincing of Anne Girard’s premise that love changes people.


Leave a Comment