Guests on Earth

HIGHLAND HOSPITAL – 1937 to 1948, Asheville, North Carolina:    Kaleidoscope.  It’s a skillful, descriptive word Evalina Toussaint, the narrator of this skillful and highly-descriptive novel often uses to tell us about the many-colored, changing characters she encounters over ten years as a “guest” at a mental hospital.  Highland Hospital is where “the most effective and humane treatments for mental illness to be found in America at that time” were practiced.  Music, Art, and Horticulture therapies abounded, as well as electroshock and insulin treatments.  Kaleidoscopic implies out-of-this world – and Highland is removed from the outside world, tucked in the “quilt-like landscape” of the Great Smoky Mountains.  It also connotes mysterious – and Guests on Earth has a mysterious quality to it, starting off with an article that really appeared in a North Carolina newspaper reporting on a mysterious fire at Highland on March 11, 1948, killing nine.  There is mystery surrounding a famous guest, Zelda Fitzgerald, “regal and secret as an iris.”  Even Evalina’s diagnosis is a bit of a mystery.  But there is no mystery about the quality of the narrator’s Southern female voice: it is clear, poetic, dignified, and resilient – the reason I think you’ll love this poignant story.

Highland is Evalina’s home, a place she loves and feels loved.  She is treated well.  She sees people “getting better:” “It’s a funny thing but you can actually see improved mental health in the eyes, the face, the very gait, and bearing.”  She tells us that:

“For years I have intended to write my own impressions of Mrs. Zelda Fitzgerald from the time I first encountered her when I was but a child myself at the Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, in 1937, and then a decade later during the several months leading up to the mysterious tragedy of 1948.”

But Zelda is just one of a multitude of kaleidoscopic “chums,” residents, and professionals peopling this book, “broadening” and “determining” Evalina’s life.  Her chums include brilliant Robert Liebnitz; Jinx, who knows no “social cues” and is “only passing through – a phenomenon, like a comet;” Ella Jean, whose family has deep Appalachian roots and dialect and a distinct culture, lovingly told; Pan, who has no hesitation with words when he plays the guitar, someone Evalina is powerfully drawn to; “Freddy” (Dr. Sledge) from one of “those big square orderly states” (Indiana); and beautiful Dixie, a “blooming rose,” whose friendship makes the book soar.  She looks like Scarlett O’Hara.  She has a “wonderful life,” wealthy, two children and a husband who “loved her to distraction,” yet she too returns to Highland.

Besides Zelda, there are two other important fictionalized characters in Evalina’s world, also drawn from real life: Dr. Robert S. Carroll, the psychiatrist who established Dr. Carroll’s Sanitarium, which became Highland in 1912 and for decades was owned by Duke University’s Neuropsychiatry Department; and Grace Potter Carroll, Dr. Carroll’s wife, a world-famous concert pianist who nurtures Evalina’s piano playing – therapeutic and a rare constant in Evalina’s unusual life.  Of Grace, Evalina says:

“I adored her musky perfume, her dark red lipstick, the longish dresses and high heels she wore regardless of the elements.  I loved it all – the diamond-paned windows that threw the light in rainbow prisms around the room, the sternly beautiful lines of the elegant notes marching across the staves, the rustle as we turned the pages.”

I picked up an advanced reader copy of Guests on Earth at BookExpo America in May, purely by chance.  I don’t recall any special author signing event, to attract attention to this fine work of literary fiction.  I’d love to ask Lee Smith how many “long years” the novel took?  The Acknowledgments and Note on Sources sections reveal an exhaustive list of resources, and the most touching piece of information of all: how Lee Smith’s personal history is connected to this story.  Save that revelation for the end, where it appears, for it will intensify the impact of this emotional novel.

Enjoy Reading, Lorraine

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The Art Forger 1

Hardcover (2012)

FORGING A MASTERPIECE – BOSTON, PRESENT-DAY:  The Art Forger is masterful.  Told in smart prose, it was inspired by the true events of the theft of thirteen masterpieces from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston on March 18, 1990.  The novel opens with a fictionalized Boston Globe account of the world’s largest unrecovered art heist, valued today at $500 million.  Fact and fiction blend thrillingly: after the book’s publication, on the 23rd anniversary of the theft, in 2013, the FBI announced they knew who stole the artworks, but they have not been found. The $5 million reward offered in Shapiro’s fabricated Globe article is actually being offered today!

The Art Forger is complex and fascinating fiction that matches Isabella Gardner, a complex and fascinating woman.  She is the only woman in history to have established an art museum in her name.  In the 1890s, she traveled to Paris and Italy to acquire 2,500 artworks for her museum.  Only one of the museum’s paintings, an Edward Degas, is the subject here – “After the Bath,” supposedly part of Degas’ bathing series.  But, it too is fiction:  “Bath I” does not exist.

Claire Roth is the art forger of “Bath II.”  She’s a struggling, workaholic artist living in her studio in a factory building in Boston’s South End.  She’s a recognized expert on Edward Degas, and copies artworks legitimately for Claire knows how to date and authenticate old paintings.  She conducts tests for “craquelure, oxidation, soft stretchers, brittle linen fibers, rusted nails, dust.”  For all her talents, she is a “pariah” in the art world because of a liaison with a former art professor, Isaac, a second interesting storyline revealed in retrospective chapters entitled, “Three Years Earlier.”

Paperback (2013)

The novel is a mini art course.  The prose is crisp and so detailed in describing the reproduction process that I wondered if Shapiro is an artist herself.  According to her informative website on creative writing (she teaches it at Northeastern University in Boston, which explains her intimate knowledge of the city), she’s taken art courses and has been intrigued with the Gardner theft for nearly twenty years.  The reader is the beneficiary of the longevity of her research and thinking.  But you do not have to be an art lover to appreciate this book – just a reader who appreciates creativity.

Sprinkled throughout are beautifully composed and imagined letters from “Belle” to her beloved niece and closest friend, Amelia.  This correspondence provides glimpses into Bostonian mores at the turn of the century, and important clues surrounding “Bath I.”

Claire Roth is a very likable protagonist, also important because we cannot help but root for her.  She gets deeply mixed up with Aiden Markel, a famous gallery owner, who offers her a proposition she cannot refuse: forge an original Degas, part of the stolen Gardner cache, in exchange for a showing of her “Window Series,” realistic Bostonian “windows from the outside in and the inside out.”

Claire’s passion for Degas is palpable:

“I cut my teeth on Degas as a kid in museum classes.  And now, one of his original works, touched by the great man himself, right in my very own studio, only a couple of feet away … My heart races.  I’m going to have the good fortune of living with a work by Degas, touching it, breathing it, studying its every last detail, ferreting out the master’s secrets … I can hardly breathe.”

The prose is ardent and immensely enjoyable (except for about 2% obscenities, but they are appropriately placed to express the injustices Claire has endured and endures).  The writing lets us inside the mindset of both the “insanity of the artist” and the “insanity of the collector”:

“It’s the rush of knowing you have it, that it’s yours, and no one else can ever see it … It’s like an addiction.  No, it is an addiction, one serious collectors can’t and probably don’t want to control.  We’re not talking regular people here.”

Sleepless, driven Claire manages to also volunteer at a prison teaching art to incarcerated male juveniles. Even there, she encounters obstacles.  This third storyline adds depth to Claire’s character. As a reader, you will care what happens to her.  We want a just outcome. You’ve got to read the book to find out!

Years ago, I was a psychology student at Northeastern U. who had wanted to be a journalist.  Oh how I would have loved to take a creative writing class taught by Professor Shapiro!

Happy Reading, Lorraine

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Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures 1

Hardcover (2012)

(This is the first novel whose prose I’ve fallen in love with since my last posting 11 books ago!   I’ve been treated to some fine storytelling, even page-turners, but my reading heart and enthusiasm for blogging is not plot-driven.  Always, I’m searching for beautiful prose that lifts you up – words and sentences crafted with warmth and precision and inventiveness and simplicity that touch you in ways others just don’t.  At 306 pages, “Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures” is not a particularly lengthy hardback, but it took me longer than usual to read, as I found myself re-reading sentences, savoring the sweet-flowing writing style, even when the story turns not-so-sweet.  This may be deemed Emma Straub’s debut novel, but it was preceded by three other manuscripts of varying genres, apparently all widely rejected. She was not dejected in the least, though, as she went on to earn an MFA (in Wisconsin, where Laura Lamont’s story begins) and then dreamed up this beautifully told story. [See more in the Sept/Oct 2012 “Poets & Writers” article, “Emma Straub’s Life in Letters.”]  Those earlier writings and honing of her literary talent have served her extraordinarily well, for I felt as though each and every word in “Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures” was composed with painstaking care.)

Paperback (2013)

FIFTY YEARS IN THE LIFE OF A HOLLYWOOD MOVIE STAR (1929 to 1980): How can you not relish a fantasized story of a Hollywood movie star, inspired by a real starlet who graced the screen in the ’40s and ’50s (Jennifer Jones)?  Of course, this being Hollywood, there are heartaches and downfalls. Yet, the story is written with a light touch, a charm, a politeness – “there is no kindness that went unnoticed” – from the lovely female voice of Elsa Emerson, who becomes Laura Lamont, Hollywood movie star.  We first meet Elsa at age nine when she is living in rural Door County, Wisconsin, “the most beautiful place on earth.”  She’s a delightful blond presence at the Cherry County Playhouse, a theatre company her beloved father, John, founded, housed at a barn on the family’s property complete with a cabin for summertime actors.  This is where Elsa learns there is “power in pretend,” that applause is “the most beautiful song she had ever heard,” and that even if you are not “happy on the inside, the outside could be something else entirely.”  Elsa has two sisters, Hildy and Josephine, who never leave this happy place, but Elsa does, for a reason I won’t spoil for you.  She boards a bus to Los Angeles, and there meets good fortune in the form of a very powerful studio producer, Irving Green of The Gardner Brothers Studios, who dreams up Elsa’s new identity and devotes himself to helping her achieve stardom, appreciating that “Miss Wisconsin is all sweetness and light.”  The reader feels this too through the author’s embracing of sweet and light prose.

Laura Lamont’s/Elsa Emerson’s life is told over five decades. Throughout the years, she wonders who is real: Elsa, the “good Wisconsin girl,” or Laura, the movie star?  Hardly ever do the two feel to her as though they mesh as one.  The times of Hollywood happiness and richness span an adoring marriage and doting motherhood to three children, great loves in her life. Old Hollywood was rollicking in its heyday, when a few big, powerhouse movie studios ruled the motion picture industry as well as the lives of those it made famous.

There’s a glamorous period of diamonds and sequins and Rolls Royces and white stoles, but we’re also looking into a full life, with its share of sadness and heavy-hearted regrets. The chronological chapters are nicely structured, so the fifty years move along at a good pace.

Laura Lamont may have rarely returned to her Wisconsin roots, something she doesn’t quite understand or forgive herself for, yet it’s Elsa Emerson’s Midwestern determination that ends up showing the world she really is someone special.

Happy Reading, Lorraine

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Teatime For The Firefly 2

(After a month of six disappointing reads – none I could endorse as “enchanted prose” – it’s a real pleasure to share with you this soon-to-be-published debut author’s novel.)

ASSAM, INDIA – BRITISH COLONIALISM, 1940s: On a “delicate and ephemeral” spring day of “golden rain” in 1943 Colonial Assam (a northeastern State in India), we are introduced to a delicate beauty and enduring female voice:  17-year-old Layla Roy from Silchar. She has been lovingly and non-traditionally raised to have choices and a fine education by her esteemed, scholarly, independent, and endearing grandfather, Dadamoshai; and she has fallen in love with Manik Deb, a civil servant and Rhodes Scholar from Oxford. This is a book with a soul.

Part of the developing love story is told through graceful letters – letters Layla devours, hides under her mattress “where they formed guilty bumps that disturbed my sleep,” when her “mind floated like a brilliant scarf.”  She describes those times as “strangely melded days where I floated in limbo, an outsider to the world around me, a firefly baffled by the daylight.”

The story is packed with lush descriptions of exquisitely fertile scenery – banyan trees and tamarind trees and mango trees and Gulmohor trees – and some of the richest, most diverse wildlife in the world – Asian elephants and languor monkeys and Hullock apes, a part of the world few of us have probably ever seen, until now.

This is also historical fiction about the remote, grueling, eccentric, and, at times, wildly dangerous Assam tea plantation life that few of us may have even heard of (I surely hadn’t until now), set during a complex, volatile, patriotic time in India’s history after being ruled by Britain for 200 years.

India in the 1940s was a complex mix of cultures, social classes, languages, and customs, making this an impressive undertaking even for an author raised on an Assam tea estate. The only thing richer than the sumptuous, lifting prose would be to join Layla, Manik, and Dadamoshai, who we come to know and immensely like, on their verandah reading while sipping a cup of Assam’s world famous tea, or meeting the colorful characters who inhabit the Mariani’s Planters Club at the Aynakhal Tea Estate (“Aynakhal” means “Mirror Lake”).

At 427 pages, I wished Layla and Manik’s story continued.  Perhaps it will, because I read on Shona Patel’s lovely Tea Buddy blog, complete with real photos of Assam tea bungalows, that she has garnered a 3-book contract (congratulations!), so maybe Layla’s story will continue through the years, after India achieves its independence (Book 2?) and into today’s times (Book 3?).  We can only hope so!

I luckily stumbled on this book at NYC’s BookExpo America (BEA).  I was waiting on an autograph line for an acclaimed author I had identified, having done much research ahead of time to make the most out of the hectic yet exhilarating Javits Center experience I annually look forward to, when I noticed a much longer line to the left of me for an author whose name I had not recognized or seen advertised.  I quickly found a place in Shona Patel’s enthusiastic line, which is how I obtained an advanced signed copy of Teatime For The Firefly.  If you are curious about the precise meaning of the title, you can hear this gifted author share her thinking in a short video on her blog.

Just as Layla wonders: “How can I ever forget my first sight of a tea plantation?” you may wonder how you can ever forget her coming-of-age story.

Happy Reading, Lorraine 

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The Painted Girls 2

LA BELLE EPOQUE – PARIS’ BEAUTIFUL ERA:  It’s an education to read Canadian author Cathy Marie Buchanan’s remarkable 2nd novel, set in Paris during its “golden years” (before WWI), this story spanning 1878-1895.   Feast on unfamiliar language that draws you into the graceful, ambitious, and grueling world of the ballet arts at the famed Opera House where classical ballet started – where dancers were called “petit rats” because their training was so demanding – a world of glissades and entrechats and quadrilles and coryphées, of sujets, étoiles, fouettés en tournant.  “Our style is refined.  You are French,” they are instructed.  The atmospheric prose is also filled with 19th century references to looking glasses and gas lamps, velvet divans, corsairs, pomades, coquettes.  This is historical fiction during France’s Third Republic, when the country enjoyed peace and prosperity, when the arts exploded, supported by the wealthy.  But there was also a darker “demi-monde,” an underclass of poverty, brothels, and criminals, when New Caledonia, an island in the South Pacific, was a thriving penal colony.  The Painted Girls is about wanting to be a “real ballet girl on the Opera stage” alongside a hidden underworld – an intriguing story about ambition and its dangers, about hope and hopelessness.

It’s a masterfully invented “story of a heart and body” – mostly Marie van Goethem’s story.  The author has imagined, using a long list of historical resources, the life of the true subject of Edward Degas’ famous statuette, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen; about whom little is apparently known.  Buchanan’s creation is a scrawny, avid reader of French newspapers, 14-year old Marie, whose father dies when the book opens, her Maman is a laundress addicted to absinthe, and she lives with her two sisters in dire poverty in a lodging room in Montmartre.  Marie feels she is ugly but she’s talented and a hard worker.  She sees dancing as “grace” and a way out of poverty.  She is protected by her 18-year old sister, Antoinette, who we’re introduced to when she’s been kicked out of the ballet and soon meets the dubious Emile Amadie, an actor in Emile Zola’s controversial play, L’Assommoir. 

We empathize with Antoinette’s descent into darkness, as all she really wants is to be “adored.”  We admire her devotion to Marie, care about their struggles.  The novel alternates between these two sister’s voices.  Charlotte, the third and youngest sister, remains angelic, destined, and sweetly innocent.   As Marie and Antoinette’s choices and differences play out through the alternating chapters and years, Antoinette wonders in her distinguishable poor grammar:  “What was it made that girl want so much?  She craved the stage?  But why?  And was there something lacking in me that I was over it in a week …?”

When you finish this memorable novel, you may conclude it’s an uplifting “tale of working hard and getting what you want most” or a sad tale of “being downtrodden and staying that way.”  Perhaps both?

After reading The Painted Girls, I viewed 16 of Degas’ drawings, paintings, and sculpture on Buchanan’s website, as she encourages:  When you scroll over each of the images, you’ll find the prose that corresponds in the book to those works. Fascinating.  This is a novel you may want to read slowly, an ambitious exploration of social class, longing, and exploitation when groundbreaking arts flourished in Paris in the late nineteenth-century.  You might also want to click to see these stunning photos of the Paris Opera House.

Since this novel was thoughtful and thought-provoking, I’d like to read Cathy Marie Buchanan’s debut novel, The Day The Falls Stood Still. She’s from Niagara Falls, Ontario, so I’m interested in how she crafts a story based on what she already knows, given her impressive imagination with historical French fiction.

Happy Reading, Lorraine

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