The Love Story of Missy Carmichael

A “coming of old” love story for all ages (London, present-day; Cambridge University, 1950s and later): For everyone who could use a friend, a dog, or the kindness of strangers in the isolated world we find ourselves living in right now, The Love Story of Missy Carmichael delivers all three. Heartbreaking and heartwarming, affirming life as Missy discovers different forms of love and home.

Palpably lonely, seventy-nine-year-old British Missy graduated from one of the world’s greatest and oldest universities, Cambridge outside London, where she worked in their Classical Faculty Library as an archivist. She gave that stimulating life up when she married Leo, because he “felt like home.” Sensing she shouldn’t let her light interfere with his “sun-light quality,” he rose to become a famous professor, thrived on the adulation, while she “drowned in the dreary call of child care.” He’d had an affair before they got involved, which, rightly or wrongly, haunted Missy for the rest of their time together, fearing she’d lose him. If only Missy loved herself the way Leo loved himself. You’ll come to resent his self-centeredness, ignoring how much she sacrificed for him. She did her best at mothering two very different children: Melanie, “her cross” crying all the time, and Alistair/Ali, “her balm.”

Now Leo is gone, and she’s estranged from Melanie for the past year (after a terrible fight alluded to you’ll eventually learn what that’s all about), so she feels gone too. The last straw was when darling Ali moved to Australia three years ago with her “golden grandson” Andrew. 

All that’s left is Missy lost in their big “time warp” of a relatively-unchanged 1950s house in London. Empty, the house no longer feels like home, stripped of a lifetime of memories and artifacts hidden in the attic, too painful to be reminded of. “Like other unmentionable things, it must be rolled up, stuffed away and forgotten,” she says, but the heart does not forget.

That’s the Missy we meet in this emotionally pitch-perfect novel by debut author Beth Morrey, who knows her way around writing and creativity as a former producer for Britain’s RDF Television.

That sparsely decorated house is where you’ll find Missy most days, going weeks before talking to anyone. Which is why it can take her a week to come up with anything to email Ali about, worried he’ll think her “trivial.” Why did Missy allow her world to become so limited? She doesn’t want to think about that, yet the novel is full of her bittersweet recollections. 

The Missy who greets us is suffering from “abstract, galactic isolation” like all the quarantined people around the globe are understanding like never before. “My loneliness, my emptiness, was a balloon that bobbed and dragged me away.”

Losing and finding “home and hearth” sums up Missy’s late-in-life story. Defined in Missy’s classically-trained mind as oikos, “an important concept in Ancient Greece.”

“How big a family did one need to achieve it?” Can you find Home – love, belonging, connectedness – outside your immediate family? Missy’s answer comes out-of-the-blue from unlikely friendships and one very special dog.

Dogs are absolutely central to Missy’s story. Dogs make sure we get outdoors. Dog walkers know they’re ice-breakers for people like Missy who “craved the comfort of human contact.” Clichéd but they really are man’s best friend. Unconditionally loving us, dogs worm their way into ours hearts, always crazy-wagging-tail happy to see us. Some dogs are more special than others. Those are the ones who become companions we cannot imagine living without. Missy could use a dog for all those reasons.

The idea of a dog is triggered when the novel opens on a day when Missy forced herself to get out of the house to take a walk in the neighborhood park, “to clutch on to that last vestige of an inquiring mind, stop it from slipping away.” The weather wasn’t pleasant; she was motivated by the outlandish event cited in the opening sentence: “It was bitterly cold, the day of fish-stunning.” Reading that line you might think you opened the wrong book! Be glad you were curious to read on (then a great one-liner) as you’ll learn that odd fish reference really happened at Cambridge University, among others.

Cambridge fills a lot of Missy’s memories as this was where she allowed herself to have some fun, where she met Leo.

Mathematical Bridge in Cambridge
by Steff / CC BY-SA via Wikimedia Commons

At the park, Missy collapses and a stranger comes to her rescue: forties Sylvie whose “joie de vivre” and “elegant Georgian house” (she’s an interior designer) the opposite of Missy. Sylvie is one of the dog walkers in the park, adores her two fluffy “dove-blue” dogs, Nancy and Decca. While tending to Missy helped onto a bench a friend of Sylvie’s bounces by: activist journalist Angela whose red-hair fits her hot personality. She’s chasing after her rambunctiously lovable son Otis, a little older than Missy’s Andrew.

Meeting them slowly affects Missy’s misery as they offer kindness, empathy, friendship. Offering, as defined by another Greek word, entheos, “the Greek buzz of enthusiasm.”

Once Missy recovers, Sylvie and Angela invite her to join them for coffee at a cafe Missy sometimes frequents alone, when she dares to leave her house. Overwhelmed they’ve asked her to come along, she’s worried, pathetically, that if she says yes she will “look too eager.” Too desperate, which she is.

Soon after, she’s invited to Sylvie’s kitchen where her joy in food and design reflect she’s happy with herself. Or “philautia” in Greek, meaning “love of the self.” It’s why Sylvie chose singlehood. Angela and Otis are there too. Late thirties Angela has had enough of marriage, after twelve unhappy years. A caring mother, she’d rather raise Otis by herself in a cramped apartment on a passionate journalist’s salary. Pulled in many directions, she has a lot on her good-hearted mind.

Like caring about a journalist friend going through a messy divorce. Needing a few months to work things out, Angela is determined to help find a foster home for her dog. Angela is not so preoccupied to size up Missy’s home and perceive her loneliness. A win-win solution to help her friend and Missy, maybe. Missy turns her down, until an incident occurs, agreeing to let Bobby into her house.

From there, Missy’s story takes off. And looks back, taking us to her WWI grandfather, to her father killed in WWII, to a brother lost soon-after, to a fierce suffragist mother who would not settle for motherhood at the expense of everything else, now gone too. Losses have defined Missy.

A bit of nostalgia for those bygone days can be found in Missy’s attic Sylvie discovers one day, like her grandmother’s “flapper dress” and Ali’s Dinky cars. “Shivers me timbers,” Sylvie gasps, prose that befits these old-timey treasures.

By Erik Baas / CC BY-SA via Wikimedia Commons

Missy drank “to forget” what she had, lost, and didn’t do. Leo is a huge part of that. The two always passing in the wind, never stopping “to say I love you.” Piercing her heart as it’s too late, she wonders: “Why did I hold it all in?”

Everyone has regrets they need to accept. Some include secrets. A very big one awaits the reader. 

By then little things that add up to “life’s pick-me-ups” have happened to Missy. Which is why this smile-worthy, ageless story is a share-with-your-isolated friends pick-me-up.

Lorraine

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The Operator

Eavesdropping changes lives (Wooster, Ohio, 1952 – 1953; backstory Depression years): Prussian Blue, considered a color of “cool intensity,” makes a perfect color choice for a luxurious hat purchased by the nosy, opinionated, passive-aggressive protagonist in The Operator: thirty-eight-year old Vivian Dalton whose resentment seethes below the surface of this deliciously gossipy and quirky story charmingly written by debut novelist Gretchen Berg. As an infidelity plot unwinds, Vivian’s anger bubbles over, reflecting a coolly intense tone.

Vivian, though, is not a charming person. (Nor is her aloof, silent husband Edward.) She resents a lot of things, like her nemesis, Betty Miller, whom she sees shopping through the windows of an expensive clothing shop, Beulah Bechtel, where Vivian splurged on that Prussian Blue hat. The store – located in a small fifties-era town, Wooster, Ohio “where everyone knew everyone else’s business – is one of many historical references that turn out to be true. The biggest comes as a delightful surprise at the end in the Author’s Note. Don’t peak. Read it after you finish as it will bring a smile.

Vivian is someone you’ll come to understand and root for, having felt tossed aside most of her life. And maybe again if what she’s heard listening in – eavesdropping – as a switchboard operator for Ohio Bell Telephone. The type of operator whose voice you would have heard back in the day when you picked up your phone to make a call but you couldn’t dial anyone directly. The operator had to connect you. She (of course she’s a woman) wasn’t supposed to listen in on the line, but human nature being what it is, especially for someone as bored and lonely as Vivian, she does.

It’s one thing to eavesdrop for gossip to entertain a hum-drum life, another when you hear Betty Miller tell someone on the other end with an unfamiliar voice about a rumor involving your husband of sixteen years. Stabs your heart when you have low self-esteem but take pride in “knowing people.” If what you heard is true, it means you’ve been married to a man you don’t know at all. Mortifying, since Vivian has worked hard to keep her life private. Distrusting, since she feels everyone has let her down. 

Sixteen pages in you’ll have a good sense why what Vivian overheard “feels like the rug of her life has been yanked out from under her,” threatening everything she’s accepted as the best she could get, everything she depends on. It may not be much compared to the people she reads about in her celebrity magazines, her prime reading source as her mother taught her to be wary of books. If the scandal is true, she’ll have even less.

Granted it’s risky for Vivian to go poking around to pursue the truth – “be careful what you wish for” – but this time she cannot let bygones be bygones. She’s after the truth. We like truth-tellers. Vivian’s tale may be decades old, but it’s quite relevant today when truth is a precious commodity.

Vivian feels guilty for the extravagant hat purchase, but cherishes it because of the image it projects, having been poor all her life. Too poor to get an education beyond 8th grade, resentful of her family for depriving her of one. Too poor in the early years of her marriage for Edward to afford a telephone in their ramshackle first house. Resentful of that too, given her job is wired to that important communication device.

Adding fuel to the fire is that it was Betty spewing that awful gossip. Vivian never liked her. Betty is a rich, spoiled snob and a show-off, being the daughter of the town’s mayor, who made his money as the owner of the town’s bank. Petty, shallow, vindictive are other words to describe her. Worse, she’s a racist and ethnically prejudiced, condescending to “people forgetting their place.”

Vivian started eavesdropping at age ten with that “glass-pressed-on wall trick” we may have mischievously done when we were kids, making the novel a step back onto memory lane. You’ll love the old-fashioned talk. Remember when people used to say garsh? Highfalutin? But when it comes to unfaithfulness, betrayal, if that’s what it is, exposing secrets buried for years, Vivian’s story isn’t, sadly, out-of-date. 

For young Vivian, all she wanted was for her mean older sister to include her when her cousins came to visit instead of always excluding her. Sandwiched in-between three other siblings, she was “perpetually craving attention.”

Perpetual is a big word for Vivian. So is Excruciating. Retribution. Oblivious. Words she doesn’t know, but looks up in the dictionary, shamed by her tenth-grade bright daughter, Charlotte. Words that are simply defined and quoted, breaking up paragraphs with dictionary definitions typeset differently from the rest of the prose using a ubiquitous font we used on manual typewriters, as if typed on index cards we remember too. Words that cleverly describe Vivian and her emotions. Berg shows us that you don’t need highfalutin words to express a character’s feelings.

Six months before the novel opens, the biggest news that’s come to this town is that Betty’s father’s bank was robbed of a quarter of a million dollars. He’s promised to pay everyone back. “When you’re as big a man as J. Ellis Reed, you had a responsibility to maintain a certain standing in your community.” So full of himself he irks us, just like Betty does.

Vivian, on the other hand, is grateful for her job that doesn’t pay well but gives her “independence and possibility, and her first taste of power.” More than that, it shows what the dignity of work means. How it gives someone a “sense of control” in a world “full of uncertainty.”

A hundred pages in, you’ll figure out what the Betty phone call conveyed and why it could ruin Vivian’s life. The small town feeds on her anxieties and fears. Consumed by them, Vivian finds solace in baking, using recipes our grandmothers used. She also soothes herself singing nursery rhymes and writing rhyming poems. All part of the sly, character-driven prose.

Vivian doesn’t reach out to people except superficially. She has no real friends, not even the gaggle of switchboard operators she works with every day. She observes them though, distantly.

Until one day she meets someone kind to her, a woman who repeats a pernicious theme: discrimination. Mexican, she’s the kind of person the Betties of her world would disregard, but the kind of person who pays attention to and cares about Vivian, so she’s someone Vivian can learn to trust, stretching herself to do that. 

While Vivian presents as someone whose behavior may have been stunted due to traumas in childhood, what we see after Vivian’s earth-shattering eavesdropping is a Vivian who stretches herself to get to the bottom of Edward’s scandal. That makes us proud of her.

Vivian adopts a new persona as a determined and effective private eye, who finds the strength to get out of her mousy shell to unearth buried secrets. Only then does she begin to see that glass half-full rather than half-empty.

Along the way, someone tells Vivian why she loves small towns, the novel taking another stab at stereotypes. “They’ll never really surprise you, small town people, you know.”

But Vivian does surprise us on this swell journey to get unstuck.

Lorraine

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And They Called It Camelot: A Novel of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis

Why we can’t get enough of Jackie (Washington, DC and nearby Virginia locales, also Cape Cod, Greece, NYC; 1952 – 1977): Jackie Kennedy knew she was “capable of shaping history.” Once upon a time, she was “the most elegant woman in the world.” A “fairy tale” era that came to be known as Camelot, a name Jackie came up with inspired by a myth that inspired a classic Once and Future King and a Broadway musical.

On November 22, 1963 a grieving nation, guided by a widowed thirty-three-year old First Lady of enormous strength, grace, and courage holding the hands of her two precious young children, stood in shock when all the energy and hope of that era erased, except “for one brief shining moment.” (Lyrics from the musical in the preface.)

Camelot – the idea of it, belief in it, even if for too brief a time – one-thousand and thirty-six days frozen in time. And They Called It Camelot is a timeless gift, even if it wasn’t all Camelot. Those were the days of impossible dreams. Will they ever pass our way again?

Camelot is the stuff of legends, like our 35th President whose “smiles were blinding happiness” and his famously admired wife alongside, because she, like JFK, had her eyes on history.

Part of Jackie’s timelessness is her mystique, which Stephanie Marie Thornton splendidly imagines with historically rich details in her second contemporary historical novel, showing how carefully constructed her aura was. “I honed the image of quiet refinement for so long that it was difficult to tell where the act ended and the real Jackie began.”

What did America mean to Jackie? What did Jackie mean to America? Why does she captivate us so?

Thornton answers by capturing Jackie’s multi-sided voice that’s more often than not quite different than the confident and “picture perfect wife” she projected. “No one – including Jack – knew what I was thinking,” she says as if confiding in us. She knew how to get what she wanted, her toughness and shrewdness disguised by impeccable gracefulness. Thornton aims to pull away the veil of her mystique, if only for too brief a time: nearly 500 pages that whiz by.

The author rises to the challenge, imagining Jackie’s voice as playful, self-deprecating, sardonic, politically savvy, and much smarter than a woman was given credit for, showing the world that “women were able to finesse politics as well as a man.” 

Well-bred and fluent in, or familiar with, five languages, the Jacqueline Bouvier the “debonair Congressman” courted had lived in and loved Paris, which gave her an elite education and a great appreciation for the arts, literature, history, culture, and fashion. JFK “didn’t make me choose between my intellect and love” to history’s great benefits.

Jackie knew what she was getting into when she married the man whose “air crackled around” him. Thornton does a marvelous job coming up with ways to describe JFK’s charisma as the “sun we all orbited.” Which means Jackie knew about other women. Rumors appear to be true, including the humiliating affair with Marilyn Monroe Jackie ended, as the author has done impressive research (bibliography listed). Jackie learned to look away, but that didn’t mean a piece of her wasn’t taken.

She did what she did out of love, not only for JFK – Jack to his family and friends – but for her country and her beloved children, Caroline and John F. Kennedy Jr., John-John to us. Motherhood, her “greatest victory in life.” Many of us may not know the depths of what that meant until now as Jackie excelled at hiding her pain, like the President did.

We knew JFK suffered from back pain, injured in an heroic WWII PT boat survival story, complicated by a disease of the adrenal glands (Addison’s), but we may not have known the extent of what he went through to cope with excruciating pain, nor that Jackie saved him in two gripping literary scenes.

“Just how much was he willing to hide?” Jackie wondered before she married him. More important to Jackie’s story: How much was she willing to take? Far more than we knew.

Fashion was very much part of her story, as it is here. History owes a debt to her Paris-born designer Oleg Cassini, who matched Jackie’s French tastes for elegance. Theirs a close relationship as he was the one who created her iconic style, copied by millions. 

via Wikimedia Commons

But that famous pink suit and pillbox hat bloodied when she cradled her husband in the back seat of an open convertible (she wanted it closed but JFK said no) when they were campaigning for a second-term in Dallas, Texas will not be on public display until 2031, a decision Caroline made to honor her mother’s desires for privacy she’d given up for so many years. Caroline is portrayed as a remarkably sensitive daughter and enormous comfort at tender ages.

For someone who seemed so calm, Jackie was attracted to JFK for his “intensity.” An understatement as he was driven by a fear to live everyday as if it were his last, having come close to death a few times too many. That was his explanation for repeatedly straying, as he loved and needed Jackie. She felt the same. Forgiveness, though, one of the hardest things to do. 

A love of French furniture led Jackie to one of her crowning achievements: a major renovation of a “shabby” White House she transformed into a proud display of American history and “a showcase for great American artists and creative talent.” An Americanized version of European palaces like “Versailles and Buckingham.” Sixty million Americans were glued to their TV sets watching this video of Jackie Kennedy’s White House tour: 

There’s so much more to say about Jackie’s highs and lows. Three selected to highlight Jackie’s spirit, sacrifices, and ability to love unconditionally.

She loved Joe Kennedy Sr., the Kennedy matriarch, “like a father” despite the scandals surrounding the former UK Ambassador who harbored his own presidential ambitions. Their wonderfully fond relationship cemented when he found Cassini for her. Their closeness is poignantly depicted in two crucial scenes when the Kennedy clan could not bear to tell him things, leaving it to Jackie to do.

Bobby, JFK’s devoted younger brother America also loved, takes center stage when his grief was as profound as Jackie’s. As Jackie’s “secret rock in the center of life,” the two are seen as soulmates clinging to each other. Yet their emotional intimacy apparently questioned by the media as being more. In Thornton’s perceptive hands what we see are two people of great character holding on to each other as if their lives depended on it, which it feels like it did.

After Bobby’s assassination, which led to our believing in a Kennedy Curse, Thornton helps us understand the hard-to-reconcile Jackie O’ (Aristotle Onassis) years on a Greek island. By the time we read about her contentment as a NYC editor for Doubleday we’re smiling from ear to ear. After all, she “loved books and words” since she was six. 

Chapters are lengthy as they tell chunks of time, until Jackie’s (and a nation’s) grief moves slowly as anguish and despair overwhelm. It’s not until Jackie moves to Manhattan overlooking Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum of Art that we feel her come alive again, when time moves faster again.

Through it all, Jackie found “beauty and hope, if only we dare to look hard enough.” A message to savor during these daunting historical times.

Lorraine

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A Drop of Midnight

Soul-searching – a hip-hop artist’s journey to come to terms with his multiracial identity (from Sweden to American roots, 2015 – 2016; epilogue 2019): A stanza from Maya Angelou’s powerful poem, And Still I Rise, sets the piercing message and lyrical tone of A Drop of Midnight, Jason Diakité’s stunning memoir that should be essential reading on black history. 

You may shoot me with your words,

You may cut me with your eyes,

You may kill me with your hatefulness,

But still, like air, I’ll rise.

An international hip-hop star, the author is known professionally as Timbuktu. So expect to be treated to an illuminating discussion on hip-hop music and culture originating from the “ghetto streets” of Harlem, Bronx, and Brooklyn, New York to its spread world-wide – instrumental to Diakité’s rise above an “identity crisis” he’s struggled with much of his life.

For decades, Diakité sought to overcome all the pain, shame, loneliness he’s felt about his light brown skin color. With a father who is black and a mother who is white, he was caught up in a turbulent state of “in-between-ness.” To better understand his feelings, himself, he sought to better understand his family’s history. So also expect a thoughtful, sweeping yet distilled examination of African American history, and a realization that his music and his history are entwined.

Who am I? Who are my people? Where is my home?” are the overriding questions. Many, many more are achingly asked to embrace the black and white worlds Diakité straddles.

Born in Sweden to parents and ancestors from Nigeria, Harlem, the Deep South, Native America, and elsewhere, he explains:

“I have a complex system of roots that branches across continents, ethnicities, classes, colors, and eras . . . I am all the countries my forefathers came from and were shipped to in chains. I am all the colors and shades of their skin. I am their rage and their longing, their hardships, successes, and dreams. I am the intersection, of Slovakia, Germany, France, South Carolina. Of white, black, and Cherokee.”

His parents met, married, and lived in Harlem, then moved to Sweden to escape racism; divorced, they remain amicable. The three live in different Swedish cities: Diakité in Stockholm, his father – who prefers his African name Madubuko – in Malmö, his mother Elaine in Lund.

Despite his father’s achievements (a documentary filmmaker and human rights lawyer), he’s carried the heavy weight of “poverty and misery.” His mother is from an entirely different background: her family made their money coal-mining in Pennsylvania. Striking how “ashamed” she felt being white once she met Madubuko, while their son was ashamed his skin was not.

At forty, Diakité looks back to when he was conscious of his skin color, at eight. His middle school years were marked by relentless bullying – “pigmentocracy” – that “colonized my soul and trickled out back like a poison.” “Where do young kids learn so much soul-crushing hate?”

His parents chose Scandinavia for its human rights legacy until immigration changed that. First they moved to Copenhagen, where his father planned to attend film school, moved when he learned education was free in Sweden. A great believer in “education and the dignity it gives you,” advice his well-read son took to heart. Literature, especially the works of “black intellectuals,” informed Diakité’s identity development. Black writers like W. E. B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Angela Davis, Eldridge Cleaver, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Zora Nelson Hurston, Cornell West, and more. Inspiring, for all who believe in the power of literature.

Dignity is what rises above “grinding poverty.” “In our day, his father says, “dignity was important. You didn’t want to look poor. We may have been poor in a financial sense, but spiritually we weren’t.” A proud man, adamant against his son writing this memoir. Eventually, he consents.

Written on a chronological identity path, but mixed with difficult conversations back and forth over time with his father, probing questions with his mother too. There’s other voices – relatives, friends, artists, activists – but it’s Diakité’s literary voice and courage to dig deeply that makes the memoir sing. Even when the songs are painful to hear.

Dignity is what’s shown in the revealing opening line about Diakité’s dignified grandfather, Solomon Warren Robinson, nicknamed Silas, whose “shoes were always shined.” A Drop of Midnight always shines too, even when ugly truths are told and anger roars in profanity in dialogue, forcing us to listen to what’s really being expressed.

Silas, who proudly “never missed a day of work,” is the first reference to black history. A waiter on a dining car on the long-distance trains of the Pullman Company launched after the Civil War (lasted until the ‘60s). The company was notorious for hiring black waiters and porters who toiled long-hours in low-paying jobs. But historians claim this gave rise to a black middle class and the civil rights movement.

The author possesses and cherishes Silas’ threadbare coat “woven of the same cotton” he and his parents picked in Allendale, South Carolina. It’s the first stop on Diakité’s physical journey to America in 2015, alone. What he finds is unbearably depressing poverty. Another family place he visits is Harlem, also “born of misery” but it’s also the birthplace of hip-hop music:

“Infectiously captivating and full of such bold emotions that they permeated everything else – contemporary music, fashion, art, the way people talk, the way people walk, the way people are.”

Infectiously captivating perfectly describes this book.

After twenty years of devoting his life to music, which gave the artist a positive sense of self but ended his marriage like his parents,’ he finds himself at a crossroads, asking: “What should I do with the rest of my years”?

To answer that, he’s compelled to investigate his family’s history that’s instructive to him, and us. Activism common among them. One character looms large: his hardened paternal grandmother Madame, an advocate for “Pan Africanism,” which sought to unify the dispersed peoples of Africa.

Madubuko’s storytelling is the loudest and key to Diakité understanding himself. A witness to the explosive sixties, history we must never forget – when MLK, Malcolm X, and JFK, a champion of civil rights, were all taken from us, while the KKK did its destruction in the Deep South.

There’s also history and stories that lift us up. Music, of course, chief among them. Like the time the author discovered hip-hop music in the ‘80s sitting in a Swedish theater watching a bouncy film made on the streets of New York, Beat Street.

And the time Diakité’s father brought him his first hip-hop record, Break Dance Party. Performed by a group named Break Machine, it became his break into breakdancing, camaraderie, and affirmation. “Rap music radiates an attitude of you may trample us down, but you can never shut us up.”

Music is healing. Music connects Diakité with his father’s dear Swedish friend, Don, when they all get together and music plays. Though, jazz, blues, and hip-hop always go back to “slaves’ songs.”

Besides Harlem and the Deep South, Diakité also visits Baltimore to see his Uncle Obedike. A symbol of rampant, racially motivated gun violence, he was a police officer shot during the city’s ”race riots” in 2015 that erupted over the cruel death of Freddie Gray.

“How can people live with shutting out the truth generation after generation?” Diakité asks. Seems he’s found his own answer to this question and to what comes next. By sharing his lessons to finding inner peace, he’s become an advocate for global peace through diversity.

Lorraine

A love of reading is a gift, especially during these social distancing times.

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142 Ostriches

Ostriches! A captivating, inventive coming-of-age story (Mojave Desert, San Bernardino County, California; July presumably present-day): Cheers for the new heroine on the block. The block being a California road paralleling legendary Route 66 in the Mojave Desert leading into the Wishbone Ranch. Not your average Western ranch as this one raises ostriches for their eggs, “the size of footballs.” 142 Ostriches is as captivating as these giant feathered creatures, the tallest birds on earth.

Size of ostrich egg:

With less than a hundred ostrich farms dotting the U.S., April Dávila’s debut is most unusual. Set on forty-acres amidst the hottest and driest place in North America – favorable conditions for bigger-than-human-sized birds originally from Africa that don’t fly. How could they, weighing 300 pounds and standing 8 feet tall? Fascinating birds at the center of this thrown-into-the-fire coming-of-age story.

Ostriches, with their peculiar delights and challenges, bring a lifetime’s worth of headaches – yet over only a few days during one scorching-hot July desert summer – for twenty-four-year old Talluhah Jones who suddenly inherits an ostrich ranch she doesn’t want. What she wants is to finally determine her own destiny.

Ostriches trigger this fast-paced ride for Talluhah and us as her troubles come at her one after another. When the ride is over, you’ll wish her story makes it to the movie screen, which you can envision because Dávila’s sharp, descriptive prose puts us into cinematic scenes that ping-pong from worse to bad, bad to worse, to death-defying.

Like a good movie, 142 Ostriches starts off with a bang: “Four days before the ostriches stopped laying eggs, Grandma Helen died in an accident that wasn’t really an accident.”

That’s the kind of opening sentence that hooks a reader. From there, the pace keeps going and going. Over-the-top, packing in a lot in just 250+ pages.

That winning one-liner sets up two storylines. What’s going on with the ostriches? Why aren’t they laying any eggs? How can Talluhah manage all the birds when it takes her “eight frustrating hours to do a chore than would have taken two with Grandma Helen”? And, why does Talluhah suspect her grandmother may have taken her own life?

If it weren’t for Helen, who knows what would have happened to Talluhah. For the first thirteen years of her life, her anyway-the-wind-blows mother moved her from apartment to apartment without any explanation or heads-up, leaving her alone at night bartending and sleeping during the day. Talluhah doesn’t even know who her father is; doesn’t matter to her mother who “didn’t think twice about losing people because they were all, friends and lovers alike, entirely replaceable.” Then, one day her widowed grandmother showed up, scooped her away from the dangers of big city life in Oakland, California to give her a more stable, safer upbringing. Still a lonely one, as Grandma wasn’t the warm and cuddly type. Showed more tenderness towards her ostriches than to her granddaughter and three children.

Eleven years on the ranch hasn’t changed Talluhah’s uneasiness around the ostriches. For starters, their two toes are “tipped with pre-historic looking claws” that can kill. Yes, there’s “something sweet in their giant eyes,” larger than any other bird, but don’t think you can outsmart them with eyes “bigger than brains” as they’re also the fastest birds on earth. You may want to keep a distance from them, but Dávila makes sure you don’t.

Watching them run is comical, adding lightness to Tallulah’s plight.

Ostriches are endearing in other ways. Males (roosters) are wonderfully democratic way with their hen mates, taking turns sitting on their nests. Males (black-and-white feathers) on night duty, females (light brown) during the day. The ones with names win us over, like Abigail the most pet-like. She doesn’t follow the flock, rather follows you around and loves to play. With a noticeable limp, she’s the most relatable and sympathetic. Second is Lady Lil, flapping her enormous wings with a “graceful salute.” As for the rest, it’s all about reading their “posture and sound. Friendly curiosity manifested in lilting head bobs”; under stress “low, whooping reverberation” cries, echoing across the desert emptiness.

Loner Talluhah is not totally alone. She has a boyfriend, Devon, but he, like taking over the ranch, would pin her down, while she craves excitement and purpose. That’s why she planned to be headed soon to Minnesota for a job as a Forest Ranger. He says he loves her, but does she love him? Content with working at a cement company and lazying away his free time at Pat’s Bar, where they met. It’s the only game in the tiny town closest to the ranch, Sombra, which appears to be a fictional place, but represents all the ghost-like places out West. The closest real one is thirty-miles away in Victorville, with the San Gabriel Mountains a hundred miles west.

San Gabriel Mountains via Rennett Stowe on Flickr

Talluhah doesn’t know what she wants other than independence and the great outdoors. The “perfect rhythms of nature” seem to be what’s held her together, surrounded by the “beautiful in a lonely way” desert, marveling at the “elegant wisdom of the ecosystem.”

Dávila’s nature writing is elegant too as it seeps through the chaos. Talluhah is in awe of the desert’s “spectacular” sunrise. How it reaches “across the valley and washed orange over the tops of the mountains in the west; how “the color rolled down in a lazy cascade” looking like “an undulating sea speckled with hardy plants that cast long shadows in the early morning light.” There’s a lovely ease to nature’s prose, in stark contrast to the tensions that mount and mount.

Talluhah wonders if her long-abandoned mother will show up at her own mother’s funeral. Ditto for the other wayward child, Uncle Steve, a fragile recovering methamphetamine addict, ubiquitous in the valley. Helen’s third child, Aunt Christine, resents him terribly. “Life is hard, Steve, but we deal. We don’t go running off to get high,” she says angrily. Unfortunately, he does show up.

Christine’s habits may annoy Talluhah but she can’t help admiring how mothering she is of her five young children, pregnant with another. Contending with her own issues, she’s been a good daughter to Helen, visiting and cooking often, so Talluhah is closer to her than anyone else. Given all the dysfunction in the family, it’s striking how much grace and inner strength Christine has found through her deep spirituality (but still can’t forgive her piece-of-work brother.) Given the life Talluhah has been dealt, how could she believe in anything? That’s the point: she hasn’t given up, keeps fighting.

Helen chose Talluhah as the sole beneficiary of her beloved ranch knowing something about Talluhah she doesn’t. Will she discover it before it’s too late? By the time of the funeral, she’s hastily sold the ranch to Joe Jared, itching to buy it for years. Grandma’s refusals the source of tremendous guilt, along with knowing JJ’s large scale ostrich operation isn’t engaged in humane animal practices. So much pressure, remorse, grief for a young woman to carry around, especially when she’s signed legal documents and then discovers the ostriches have stopped producing eggs!

How could so much happen to one person in such a short time? Mind you, this is a toned-down preview of the dangerous road ahead for our intrepid heroine. How do we hold on when everything goes wrong? Ask Talluhah.

Lorraine

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