If All the Seas Were Ink

(I’ve fallen in love with memoirs. Tweaked the byline to reflect.)

An intimate, enlightening memoir on the meaning of life stirred by seven-and-a-half years studying and embracing the Talmud (Jerusalem, present-day): Ilana Kurshan has written a remarkable, soul-searching memoir.

Scholarly yet wonderfully accessible, spiritual yet infused with the “simple pleasures” of everyday life. For someone who is an extremely private person, it’s remarkably self-exposing. A bold, beautiful leap, though Kurshan says it’s “less an act of courage than a leap of faith.” Her faith, Judaism, is profound. As is her eloquent memoir.

If All the Seas Were Ink is rooted in the wisdom of an ancient, sacred text set down and revisited by rabbis at least fifteen centuries ago. Considered one of the most questioning bodies of literature in the world, the Talmud, also referred to as the Torah, is “a text for those who are living the questions rather than for those who found the answers.” Kurshan purposefully and cogently probes these questions seeking deeper understanding of the beauty and hardships of life. Fervent, “obsessed,” about the power of literature and poetry as a driving life force, she rises above her self-doubts to practice what she wholeheartedly believes: that it’s her divine obligation to impart what she’s learned, in striving to be the best person she can be.

If you’re wondering how the teachings of very-old rabbis, studiers of the Torah – the basis for all Jewish life – have any relevance to your life today, whether you’re Jewish or not, I encourage you to read If All the Seas Were Ink. I can’t imagine there isn’t something going on in your life that’s not questioned, touched upon, here. “The Talmud surprised me at nearly every turn,” the author says, who surprises us by making writings you might otherwise find “dry” so relatable and relevant, thus compelling. “The text will illuminate your soul, and your soul in turn will illuminate the text.”

Studying the Talmud – the Babylonian Talmud, not the Jerusalem Talmud, for it’s the most examined and determinative – takes an incredible commitment of time, discipline, and reflection. You don’t have to be as learned as Kurshan, a literary agent, translator and editor of Hebrew and English works who literally walks around with a book in her hand to the point of breaking bones; or raised in a rabbinical home situated on the property of a synagogue; or as dedicated to your faith (“an anchor, if not a life raft”). But you do have to be strongly motivated and inquiring for the long-haul as Torah study is a seven-and-a-half year journey called daf yomi, which means daily page in Hebrew. Those pages total 2,711 double-sided, organized in thirty-seven volumes called tractates, covering five hundred years of Jewish legal, religious, philosophical, ethical judgments, beliefs, and traditions.

Daily study suited the author’s intellectual and industrious disposition exceedingly well. “I cannot help but engage the text because the text engages me.” Still, it took her a year to commit even when her life was aching for direction and comfort. That she found “the most meaningful way to study Torah is by searching for the interconnections and resonances between Torah and the rest of one’s reading, learning, and living” fits all she reveals to us about herself and where she was during a painful period in her life.

“Learning Torah, like falling in love, is supposed to set us on fire.” It sure did for Kurshan. We are the beneficiaries of that elation, fueled by her needs, zeal, and view that “only religion can inspire us to connect with other people in meaningful ways so the universe does not seem so vast and lonely.”

The year before Kurshan undertook Torah study she was 27, depressed and lost, alone and abandoned in a foreign land after moving to Israel from New York for a marriage that lasted only a year. She speaks candidly and movingly about her feelings of loneliness, sadness, failure, and shame, harkening back to an earlier time when she suffered from anorexia. The characteristics of young women afflicted with this disease match up with her frank admissions of “compulsiveness” and “self-denial,” making her story even more uplifting because when she completed the first cycle of her studies she was joyfully remarried and the mother of a toddler and twin baby girls. Today, the author is the mother of four, counting her blessings.

Ilana Kurshan is a resourceful, multi-tasker who aims to make every minute count. (She laminates poems to pull out and memorize when she swims in the pool her literary office overlooks!)  But she didn’t come up with this creative approach to studying the Torah, though it would be plausible if she did.

Invented in 1923 by Rabbi Meir Shapiro “as a way of unifying the Jewish world,” the process means that on any given day in the multi-year program of study Jews (and non-Jews) from around the world are open to the exact same page. Imagine having an interest in common to unite us with strangers? A concept the author expresses as a “worldwide web of conversational threads.” One tiny slice of how she brings the spiritual world right into our contemporary one.

Kurshan wraps herself up in the teachings of the Torah to guide the choices she makes and how she lives. Dedicated to running too, she chants prayers amidst the old, hilly streets of Jerusalem. Her literary passion is ingrained in her spirit and soul, more than anyone I know. So besides lighting up rabbinic literature, If All the Seas Were Ink is suffused with an eclectic assortment of references to classical and modern writers and romantic poets – Byron, Coleridge, Tennyson, Emily Dickenson, Edna Dt. Vincent Millay, Wallace Stevens, Shakespeare, Nancy Milford, Margaret Drabble, D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, and more.  It’s a treat to see how she blends sacred and secular words and thoughts.

Ilana Kurshan’s staunch feminism is another treat. She grew up in a conservative synagogue – men and women sat and prayed together – versus her ultra-orthodox husband’s tradition of separating the genders. She explains that it’s only been in recent decades that women are tackling the Talmud, also male-dominated in attitudes and customs, owing in part to daily podcasts and online free resources translated in English. (This translator translates all Hebrew for us; she wants us to understand.)

“Learning daf yomi is like zooming through a safari on a motorbike; there is so much to take in, but you are moving at an impossibly rapid clip” so the author kept a journal and wrote poems that would jog her memory. “These journal entries unfolded as a record not just of my learning but also of my life.”

That life, now 37, is full yet still questing. The memoirist asks “how much can we reasonably be expected to change ourselves?” in response to the Talmud’s questioning what we can and cannot change. Kurshan provides us with an answer to this one: quite a bit. As long as we’re willing to take risks, push ourselves with grit and determination, and take stock of, be grateful for, what we have. I, for one, feel grateful for her insightful memoir and think you will too.

Lorraine

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A Good Country

The radicalization of an American-Iranian teenager living along the Southern California coast (2011 to 2014): A Good Country is like no other novel I’ve blogged about. Maybe like no other novel you’ve read.

It couldn’t be more timely and forceful in its quest for answers to compelling questions. How does a fun-seeking, peace-loving, advantaged American-Iranian teenager, Rez Courdee, living in a place some would call God’s country, become radicalized?

If you’re looking for a single, definitive moment to pinpoint when and why that happens you won’t find it here. It’s unrealistic, complex issues not easy to define. What you will find are themes, circumstances, and a series of events – everyday and catastrophic – that culminate in the fate Rez chooses. The novel’s strength resides in its authenticity, its frank depiction of a privileged teenager’s life in long, flowing prose that manages to be brutally honest and poetically tender at the same time.

Rez’s transformation is at odds with our perceptions of a kid who has a lot going for him, thus his changes-of-heart are even more confounding and provocative. An academic star, a chess player. That spells nerdy and isolating in a teen’s world, worsened by Rez feeling alienated at home. So, if you’ve been hanging out with three rich, pushing-the-limits friends since eighth grade and you’re an only child longing for a brother, yearning “to be inside the circle,” acceptance by your peers is all the more seductive.

When the novel opens we begin to see Rez’s persona vacillating. He’s a rising junior at a tony prep school in Laguna Beach, an exclusive enclave of spectacular homes hugging the southern California coast with its breathtaking views and legendary surfing culture. This is not the SoCal surfing culture made famous by the Beach Boys in the sixties. This music is “anger and confusion.”

Laguna Beach, by Patrick Pelster [CC BY-SA 3.0 de], via Wikimedia Commons

Just as the lyrics resonate with these kids, the prose grabs us. It sings along naturally, uninterrupted by removing all quotation marks. An interesting technique as dialogue is plentiful and not watered down, so we’re constantly hit with angst and “aimless rage.” Rez, of course, caves in to his friends’ taunts, soon also getting high on drugs and sex and yes, surfing. Which we wish will be the buffer, the savior for the path Rez seems headed for. Sadly, it’s not.

Rez’s journey starts off when he’s still a good and dutiful son to his horribly strict father, Sal, a physically violent and emotionally abusive “tyrant without a cause.” His mother has no power in this family, painfully docile, quietly cooking the “oldest food in the world.” She’s not even allowed to have her friends over to their house, so her presence for Rez and us is minimal. Its Rez’s father, whom he’s rightfully scared of, he needs to escape from. Plus, he’s terribly lonesome and bored at home, more reasons to escape. Which he does, with “diversions.”

The novel is divided into three parts. In Part I, Rez seeks the companionship of the small band of “brothers” mentioned above, nicknamed the Apostles because their names come from the Bible – Peter, James, John. When he realizes they aren’t brotherly, we find him in Part II befriending a different group. Arash and Fatima, childhood friends, have families in Syria. They become dedicated to the teachings of Islam. At first, Rez dismisses their piety, their praying at mosques. But as their faithfulness deepens, he wants to understand the peace and brotherhood they worship. A developmental process, once again influenced by his peers, maturing in Part III.

Rez is continually searching for his identity, asking how many “selves” does a person have?  How to be whole? “How to become a man?”

Laleh Khadevi was a human rights documentarian before she became an award-winning novelist. Iranian-American, she teaches creative writing at the University of San Francisco. So while A Good Country is fictional, her daring filmography turns into daring prose. Her lens now shines a glaring light on, and coincides with, the rise in terrorism and anti-Muslim sentiments after 9/11. In fact, the novel tracks seasons, opening in the fall of 2011.

A recent article on social class in America by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Elizabeth Strout offers some food for thought on the theme of powerlessness. She quotes a friend who teaches about the working-class, who told her: “it may be more helpful to think about class not in terms of education level or income level, but in terms of the sense of power that people feel over their lives.”

Feeling appreciated/in-control of your life versus vilified/marginalized may help account for why Rez (Arash and Fatima) are feeling increasingly culturally estranged as resentment towards Muslims heats up. As it does, this intense novel intensifies. Rez falls madly in love with beautiful Fatima, along with an “end-of-the-world tone” propelling him.

One visible way it manifests is surfing. There’s a shift in Rez’s elation with the “fantastic wind” and the “cool water on his skin” to something more profound and troubling. Palpably, his desperation is sharpening. “In the water everything was good again” but when Rez comes up for air he’s still faced with the fallout after the Boston Marathon, San Bernardino, and the Costa Mesa shopping mall attacks.

The most cringe-worthy anti-Muslim sentiments occur at an airport scene when Rez is returning home from Indonesia. An extravagant graduation gift from his father who is now meeker, shamed by his acts of betrayal towards his son and shamed by a demotion at Merck Labs where he’d been Head Scientist.

Pulled aside by security – racial profiling right before our literary eyes – a guard admits to Rez: “we saw your name, your travel destination, your smart-ass attitude, and thought we’d tell you what is at stake.” He goes on to say:

“… your people, who think they are worth a great deal, know that even after making all that money, they are worthless. Their children are worthless, and if this violence continues, their children’s children will be worthless too. The American dream will never play all the way out for you. Do you understand?”

Rather than get outraged, Rez believes “the man was not wrong.” To stay calm, he thinks about the mosque he just visited, welcomed by the iman and brothers. Brotherhood – there it is – the attraction though not necessarily the turning point moment.

Khadivi is never judgmental. She lets the facts speak for themselves. Let’s us form our own opinions, like a gifted documentarian does.

A gifted writer too. For I didn’t even know A Good Country was the last installment in her Kurdish trilogy, spanning three generations of Rez’s family: his Iranian grandfather debuted in The Age of Orphans; his Iranian-American father in The Walking. Obviously, the novel stands well alone, although you can’t help but want to backtrack to gain further insight into Rez’s father’s upbringing to contemplate the impact of those cultural threads.

Isn’t it ironic, heartbreaking and heart-lifting, that the largest population of Muslims in this country – in Texas, a quarter of a million in Houston alone – risked their lives and opened up their mosques to save Americans during Hurricane Harvey?

When will our good country save itself? Become good and whole again?

Lorraine

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The Breakdown

Unreliable Narrator? (British village; July – September, present-day): It’s awfully tempting to compare The Breakdown with B. A. Paris’ knock-out debut Behind Closed Doors, reviewed here a year ago. If you’re wondering if her second novel disappoints because her first was too good an act to follow, the answer is unequivocally no. Both are non-stop, suspenseful novels that get-inside-your-head. Both excel at keeping the tension going and going and going.

How does the author achieve a relentless, psychological pace? Writing is such an elusive, subjective art. Wish there was a definitive blueprint. At best, suppositions.

Paris has an impressive knack for creating unreliable characters. In Behind Closed Doors, the narrator’s perpetrator, her husband, was pathologically unreliable, a psychopath who fooled everyone. This time it’s the narrator herself – thirty-three year-old high school teacher Cass – who is unreliable. We suspect her reliability more than you would otherwise by establishing that her mother had early-onset dementia by forty-four. (Before marrying Matthew a year ago, Cass spent three stressful years caring for her Mom, now deceased.) The author takes this fact further by making sure her protagonist tells us at every twist and turn that she doubts her trustworthiness, fears she may have inherited the disease as she’s been forgetful lately, worried she’s losing her memory, an early symptom. A perfect set-up for us to question who and what to believe is going on.

The second set-up is mirrored in Paris’ first novel. The author orchestrates an opening scene in which the reader senses something ominous is at play. In Behind Closed Doors this happened at a dinner party. In The Breakdown, a thunderstorm is brewing as Cass bids goodbye to colleagues as their summer break kicks-off. The weather worsens. By page three, its palpable her Mini car is no match for the conditions. Matthew called to warn her to stay clear of the short-cut home. Cass intended to heed her husband’s advice, but in the blink of an eye made the kind of decision any driver might have given heavy traffic and no let-up in the wicked downpour. A decision that changes her life.

“Although this road is beautiful by day – it cuts through bluebell woods – its hidden dips and bends will make it treacherous on a night like this. A knot of anxiety balls in my stomach at the thought of the journey ahead. But the house is only fifteen minutes away. If I keep my nerve, and not do anything rash, I’ll soon be home. Still, I put my foot down a little.”

Language is a third element in the author’s highly-effective style. Prose that, like the merciless weather, doesn’t let up. It flows on and on conversationally, naturally, realistically, so Cass feels very familiar to us. She could easily be a friend, a sister, a neighbor, and we’d be someone she’s very comfortable confiding her innermost guilt, worries, and fears, which intensify at a quick pace. Increasingly, Cass finds herself telling little white lies to Matthew and others, worried they’ll also think she’s confused, exhibiting more and more symptoms of dementia. This leads her to isolate herself more and more, dig herself deeper into this mental abyss. In a matter of weeks, she’s spiraled rapidly downhill, terrified of the terror she’s experiencing. At every step of the way, she’s not sure if it’s internal or external, imaginary or real. That’s because Paris has laid the groundwork, by page four, with an incident that ignites her duress.

Let’s turn back onto that haunting road. If it weren’t for the inside jacket cover, you’d be pretty sure Cass’ vehicle was headed for disaster. You wouldn’t be totally off-base as there is a problem with a car – someone else’s. Broken down, pulled over to the side of the road. Cass thinks instinctively, as we might. Should she slow down, see if she can help, or drive by not to risk her own safety?

We like Cass from the beginning for she tries to be a Samaritan, stops beside the car to see if there’s something she can do. What she sees is a woman gazing at her through the dark, wet window, so she can’t make out her face. Since the motorist shows no sign of needing assistance, Cass assumes, as we would, she’s waiting for road assistance to arrive and thus drives home. The next day, Cass learns the woman in the car was found murdered. Who wouldn’t feel guilty? Think we might have saved a life.

On second thought, Cass realizes she too could have been killed. A killer is on the loose. Since she lives not far from the wooded murder site in a charming cottage that’s also isolated, her mind starts working overtime, which ours might do too. But the truth is we’re not like Cass. We wouldn’t let our wariness completely overcome us, paralyze us, because we’re not petrified we’re deteriorating mentally.

What’s the chance that Cass actually knows the murdered woman, named Jane? The two recently met at her best-friend-like-a-sister, Rachel’s workplace. Jane and Cass clicked, even made a plan to get together soon. Of course, the guilt magnifies.

There are indications something is terribly amiss. A series of things – forgetting appointments, promises, conversations, her pocketbook, where her car is parked. Paris ups the ante as these little things get bigger, more alarming, like seeing a knife laying out in her kitchen that could be the one the killer used, returning to it once the police arrive and its gone. Is it hers? Did she forget to put it away? Hallucinate it? Added to all that turmoil is the constant barrage of silent calls she’s now receiving, a “chilling silence.” Matthew tries to calm her down, says the calls are merely solicitors. But Cass senses breathlessness at the other end. Could it be the killer, who saw her car at the scene of the crime?  Is someone stalking her? Or, is her mental state doing the tormenting?

We’re riveted to the pages, on the lookout for clues, aware how the author so cleverly planted a web of seeds in Behind Closed Doors.  Is someone watching her? Or, does poor Cass need some watching? A toxic, brilliant stew.

The title tantalizes too. Does it refer to Jane’s tragic breakdown? Our narrator’s nervous breakdown? Exacerbated by lots of coincidences and having too much idle time alone over a summer break?

You may think you’ve figured this thriller out around page 200. But Paris is smarter than us.

Lorraine

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Happiness: A Memoir: The Crooked Little Road to Semi-After

Life-Affirming (Manhattan/Brooklyn, Northern CA, Durham NC; 2001 to present): If the punch power of a vivid, heart-to-heart memoir doesn’t take your breath away, Heather Harpham’s journey parenting a “human cupcake of a girl” born with a rare, unidentified red blood cell disease should change that.

Oozing with love for Amelia-Grace, there’s so much to say about Harpham’s incredible story, which makes the point is not entirely hers. But a lot has been left out here, so you can read it raw, feel the full brunt force of it. The treatments, decisions, sadness, loneliness, unfairness, relocations, commutes, anger, unfairness, ups and downs. And still the title is Happiness, with slight billing to the frightening road ahead, the crooked little road.

The heartfelt prose stuns and grips, as it brings to life people who’ll touch you. You’ll fall in love with Gracie, care what happens to her. A “little football of a person” who “smelled like sliced apple and salted pretzels” when she entered the world, only to be whisked away moments later from her adoring mother for the first of countless blood transfusions – once every three or four weeks – to survive. Then, when too much iron built up in her system, she had to be hooked up to a cleansing machine for twelve hours every night, forecast for the rest of her life. Harpham didn’t even broach asking about Gracie’s life-expectancy until she was 1½ years old. A 50-50 chance of living beyond twenty-nine are odds no parent should have to hear and bear, which again makes the Happiness title striking.

I once took a class in which the entire semester was focused on the topic of Resilience. Why some people possess it and others are unable to cope. It’s a question you’ll be asking throughout as this story overflows with this almost indescribable quality. Ironic the author believed she was “poorly equipped for hardship.” Wow, nothing could be further from the truth.

The declaration does give you a glimpse into Heather Harpham’s happiness perspective. How she was someone who “captures the shiny, pretty, easy things, and lets the rest drop away.” A cup-runneth-over person. A California spirit who spent the first twenty-three years of her life appreciating the beauty of the Marin County highlands, outside of San Francisco. For ten years, she trained in and performed improvisational theatre. Today, the visiting artist teaches performance drama at Sarah Lawrence College. (Amelia-Grace’s father teaches there too.) So we assume Harpham was endowed with much creativity and spontaneity when she “stepped off the edge of the world” at thirty-two, better prepared than she gave/gives herself credit for.

The author is very close with her fun-loving, bohemian mother, who clearly instilled a joyful soul in her daughter despite the “serial chaos” of divorce, remarriage, stepsiblings. A therapist who “had a way of looking at the world that moved me; she saw the light, no matter what.” The two were “expert at laughing through the worst.” So we shouldn’t be spellbound the author nurtured a little girl with an awesome “life force” of her own (“what she did have, more every day, almost every hour, was personality”), but we are. Happiness is a manifesto to saying “YES to life” in spite of everything.

Geography organizes the chapters since Gracie’s needs dictated geography. When the first chapter opens on Two Coasts – with the baby’s five-month pregnant mother having returned home to California and the father, Brian, a high-disciplined, prize-winning novelist living and teaching in New York – we immediately grasp that as heartbreaking as Gracie’s life-and-death medical issues were going to be this story was even more complicated than that. How is that possible? Do you believe people are only given what they can handle?

Happiness digs deeper than a “mom-and-girl versus world story.” For its Brian’s story too, told sensitively and candidly, with what the author calls a “seesaw quality” – “I love you, you infuriate me.” The two eventually married, but it didn’t happen overnight. That their relationship not only survived but thrived is a testament to their love. Even the best of marriages would have been sorely tested, for Gracie’s care demanded superhuman strengths. I counted at least a dozen medical centers Gracie was treated at or consulted about by the time she was four.

Caregiving is beyond exhausting, physically and emotionally, particularly when it’s your child (and other children you meet along the way) enduring the “suffering of innocents.” Yet Amelia-Grace seems to have inherited her mother’s inner core. Her “refusal to see herself sick … dazzling and a little scary.”

We read so much these days about deadbeat dads but that’s not Brian. Ten years older than Harpham, he was terribly honest early on: “If I wanted to have children with anyone, it would be with you.” Yet he didn’t run away, though he only saw Gracie twice in the first six months of her life. Forgiveness is hard, but once he enters the picture, he does so in a big, devoted, loving way. Passionately committed to his writing, when he was in he was all in.

We admire many people in this story, starting off, of course, with mother and daughter. “We’re not hospital people, we’re home people” Amelia-Grace preciously, poignantly says. “Mommie, its love from me to you.” If we feel our heartstrings pulled, imagine how the author felt? We can. For her heart is big enough to let us in.

Someone you’d want in your corner. So we read about friends, terrific friends, because Harpham cherishes friendships and they surely cherish her too. Three are prominent and significant: Cassie from childhood, Suzi from college, and Kathy, newly found.

“If you’re lucky, you meet four or five people in your lifetime you are totally comfortable with. Comfortable in a way that causes your best self to surge forward.”

Not a shred of doubt this memoir is about being your best self ever.

Three surprises to note. First is Brian’s identity. As if to protect him, we don’t find out who the acclaimed writer is until page 95. Such a pleasant surprise having read (and loved) one of Brian Morton’s novels, Starting Out in the Evening. Lots to catch up on (Florence Gordon, his most recent).

The second surprise hit me personally 100 pages later when the name of a world-renowned Duke University medical pioneer is introduced. Without giving anything away, let me just say: What is the chance I went to junior high school with Dr. Joanne Kurtzberg? A good reason to save old yearbooks! There she was, her long hair now cropped but she looks remarkably the same. Googling I confirmed the famous hematologist came from my hometown, Bayside, NY and it was her father who owned the stationary store my CPA dad and I visited often.

The biggest surprise, though, is the one I’ve intentionally not mentioned. You must discover Amelia-Grace’s little brother, Gabriel, all by yourself. A lifeline.

“It was astonishing how little time there was to make sense of the world.” What’s more astonishing is how much Happiness shows us what really matters in this “anything, everything is up for grabs” world.

Lorraine

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To the New Owners: A Martha’s Vineyard Memoir

Saying goodbye to the greatest of memories at Tisbury Great Pond (West Tisbury, Martha’s Vineyard, 1970s to 2014): Whatever you think of today’s “summering” Martha’s Vineyard – when the population on the island swells from 16,000 to over 100,000 – whether you’ve been one of those visitors or aware of luminaries who are – you’ll find the old Vineyard nostalgically, lovingly memorialized here.

To the New Owners is a love letter to the “kind of childhood people used to have before they were born,” reflects non-fiction author Madeleine Blais, a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalism professor. No surprise then that she writes with a reporter’s eye for details and the lyricism and pathos of a novelist.

Paying “tribute to what is best about summer, its power to lull, its essential sleepiness,” full of gratitude for thirty-some years of incomparable summertime memories, Blais’ memoir is also a eulogy mourning the “end of an era.”

“How can you pack a view?” the wistful memoirist asks. How can you whittle down a lifetime’s worth of memories? So many interesting, heartwarming, campy anecdotes about so many people, family and friends, in under 300 pages. Yet she does, and the result is a reader’s delight.

That’s not to say everything was rosy, as Blais points out: the island’s social problems, unpredictable New England weather and other nature foes, lack of creature comforts. First and foremost though is being a “trooper” not a “princess” to abide by the mantra of Blais’ summertime “shack” – not hers but owned by her illustrious in-laws – that “everyone’s job was to have a good time.” To “err on the side of having fun” is something this large, good-natured, appreciative bunch knows how to do quite well. Infectious, if only we were one of the fortunate invited for a stay by the benevolent owners, Nicholas and Lydia Katzenbach.

If you’re of the baby boomer age, the Katzenbach name will at the very least ring a bell. As it should. Nick Katzenbach, one of David Halberstam’s “best and the brightest,” is etched in the legacy of the civil rights movement. As Deputy Attorney General under the Kennedy administration, he was the government’s face in the segregation standoffs at the Universities of Alabama and Mississippi.

Vivian Malone registering at the University of Alabama, with Katzenbach in the crowd, 1963
By Warren K. Leffler, U.S. News & World Report Magazine
Restored by Adam Cuerden, via Wikimedia Commons

Under the Johnson administration, Nicholas Katzenbach essentially wrote the Voting Rights Act. He also defended the legality of the Vietnam War, which led to a public rebuke in the Vineyard Gazette, from which the author often quotes, a stark contrast to the island’s “respect for privacy.” The beautiful island is a beautiful hideaway for that very reason.

Of all the famous people on the island, this humble man who had the “means to create this haven,” and “the heart to share it,” is a favorite. So, while one of the ways the author characterizes perceptions of the Vineyard culture is “stuck up” – it would be impossible to write an authentic narrative about all the comings-and-goings at this cherished summer retreat and on the island without mentioning some of the notables, which the author does – please don’t form the wrong impression about these spirited souls whose spirit is charmingly laid down here. For all their celebrity, actually because of it, they seem like some of the most down-to-earth people you’ll ever meet. Who doesn’t admire a couple who found doing the dishes together “romantic”?

Equally smitten with her mother-in-law and her “bohemian outrageousness, the author admits Lydia was a “formidable” force who “intimidated” her. Everything from “regal to renegade,” she was independent-minded, not a trophy political wife. She became a psychoanalyst after the couple left Washington; former patients stayed in touch. Although the author and her mother-in-law came from entirely different backgrounds, they shared a desire for a “large, less claustrophobic, less rule-ridden world.” Precisely what you’ll find at Thumb Point.

Depicted as the “slow rhythm of a place that lives off the land and sea,” this summer “house loved with an extravagant love” sits like a big thumb on 5.5 secluded acres overlooking a sublime tidal pond barely separated from the Atlantic Ocean. In fact, several times a year the thin strip of beach and barrier is “cut,” flooding a Great Pond with saline ocean waters ecologically favorable to shellfish. A stunning vista:

“The world was in layers – the blue gray of the pond, the beige lip of sand in the distance, the different blue of the ocean, and yet another blue for the sky – an orgy of horizons, interrupted now and then by white birds, white foam, and white clouds.”

Who wouldn’t be forlorn when Lydia decided to sell the property due to her declining health, two years after the death of her husband? With grace and enormous gratitude, Blais thanks her father-in-law for having the vision to purchase the property in the ‘70s for $80,000, sold in 2014 for $3 million, yet priceless to those who became “lighter” there, “less burdened.” She muses on how the new owners could possibly understand what the sale meant to them? The letting go, physically and emotionally. Gone was the spontaneous, timeworn, and beloved. Grazed down to make room for a conspicuous glass behemoth with a planned-for lap pool and faux meaning. Mourning not just “for selfish reasons but for the passing of time.” Which makes the memoir an ode to all of us who miss “simpler, younger times, and moments of great kid enthusiasm.”

Blais attributes her detailed recollections over decades to eight nautical logbooks published by A.G.A. Correa & Son of Maine. Initially, these were intended to be guest journals, but “thanks to the logs the muddle of time was less muddled.” Many vacationers were writerly types, so many entries are witty and poignant. A sampling will give you a sense of that, and how blessed everyone felt after sojourning by Tisbury Great Pond:

“There may be other places in the world that are as beautiful, but I doubt there are any that are more beautiful.”

“If this is a dream I hope to never wake up.”

“I can think of no other place I’d rather go out and not catch fish.”

“There’s no such thing as too much of a good thing.”

No doubt the logs refreshed and enriched the author’s remembrances, but it seems doubtful she forgot socializing with Katherine Graham, also legendary for her dinner parties, or the warmth of friendship with frequent guests, Philip Caputo, also a Pulitzer-Prize winner, and his wife Leslie Ware, Consumer Reports editor who gave top-rated annual assessments like her final one: “best beach house ever, RIP, Thumb Point.”

Sure sounds like it was! A place with “beauty and quiet and melody” marvelously in tune with this fun-loving, zany crew with a zest for life. They love children, dogs, fishing, crabbing, clambakes, storytelling, board games, trivia contests, Humphrey’s pies, Mad Martha’s ice cream, Black Dog Bakery’s treats, seafood markets, dream auctions, dreams …

If you’ve visited the island, you can attest to its memorability. The author evokes the island’s six towns, each with unique character, as fresh and flavorful as if your visit was yesterday.

Map created by NormanEinstein, July 18, 2005, via Wikimedia Commons

Similarly, the beach house is also a unique character. Complete with a range of emotions humans experience: joie de vivre, love, playfulness, wishful thinking, devotion, attachment, heartache.

Now it’s our turn to say thanks to Madeleine Blais for allowing us to bear “witness to all the beauty mingled with goodwill and hope.” A treat as tasty as the island’s fabled sweet treats.

Lorraine

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