The first thing that intrigued me about the novel I’m about to review was the title: The Book That Matters Most. With all the great books in the world, choosing one that matters most seems nearly impossible, so I was curious to see where the author would lead me. The second thing that intrigued me was the main character, Ava, whose husband has recently left her for a woman who attempts to personalize public places by covering objects with colorful yarn.
But the deeper I got into the novel, I found I was most captivated by the idea that novels have the power to change lives. I’ve written before about the way fiction can decrease readers’ needs to reach quick conclusions in their thinking and to avoid ambiguity and confusion. (“Can Reading Fiction Make You Smarter?”) I’ve also read a great deal about fiction’s ability to inspire readers with empathy for others. But actually change somebody’s life?
Author Ann Hood supports this premise with characters in a book club. Lonely and heartbroken about her husband, Ava begs her best friend to let her know if an opening comes up in the friend’s book club. When a place finally opens, the theme for books to be read that year is “the book that matters most,” and each member must name the book that fills that role for him or her. The list of books selected hooked me totally because it includes the two novels that obsessed me in my youth: To Kill a Mockingbird and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I don’t know if I would say these books matter most or that they changed my life, but I’ve read them so many times I can quote passages and give detailed descriptions of scenes, so they mean something to me.
Other books the club chooses include Pride and Prejudice, The Great Gatsby, Anna Karenina, One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Catcher in the Rye, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and Slaughterhouse-Five.
When Ava’s turn comes to name a book, she’s totally unprepared, and the only book that comes to mind is a novel from her childhood: From Clare to Here. Nobody in the club has heard of it, and nobody can find a copy anywhere. And thus begins Ava’s journey into dark places of her life she thought she’d left behind.
Hood does an excellent job weaving Ava’s history in with her current involvement with the book club and the books they read. Ava remembers she first read From Clare to Here shortly after the first anniversary of her younger sister’s death and a few weeks after her mother jumped off a bridge and was presumed dead. She read it over and over and felt as if it had been written just for her.
In the current story Ava not only mourns the break-up of her marriage but also worries about her adult daughter, Maggie, who has left school in Florence to flee to Paris where she becomes the mistress of an older man. The chapters told from Maggie’s point of view were hard for me to read because they describe the way Maggie’s new lover leads her into heroin addiction and her struggle to escape. But even this difficult experience eventually intertwines with From Clare to Here.
At the book club, Hood uses the novels the members choose to reveal elements of their character and includes appropriate quotes from each book at the beginning of each section. The quote she offers from To Kill a Mockingbird is especially appropriate, not only for its section but for the entire book:
“Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.”
Hood has created a celebration of literature, and I recommend it highly. I promise it will make you want to decide which book matters most to you.
As a transplanted but still loyal New Jerseyite, I was skeptical when a friend recommended Richard Ford’s book Let Me Be Frank with You as a humorous take on Hurricane Sandy. I couldn’t imagine anything funny about the storm that leveled large swaths of my former state, but I was curious to see how anyone could. While I differ with her characterization of this as a humorous take, I wholeheartedly agree with her recommendation of this book.
Let Me Be Frank with You is humorous the way Chaplin’s Little Tramp was humorous, the way Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” is humorous, and the way life is humorous. There’s artistry in blending the bitter and the sweet, and Ford is a master at it.
The book begins two weeks before Christmas 2012, eight weeks after Hurricane Sandy walloped the New Jersey Shore. Frank Bascombe, the main character and narrator, drives to the Shore to meet the man who’d bought his house there eight years earlier and to see what, if anything, survived the storm. The opening lines set the mood:
“Strange fragrances ride the twitchy, wintry air at The Shore this morning. … Flowery wreaths on an ominous sea stir expectancy in the unwary.”
“It is, of course, the bouquet of large-scale home repair and re-hab. Fresh-cut lumber, clean, white PVC, the lye-sniff of Sakrete, singing sealants, sweet tar paper, and denatured spirits.”
New Jersey has been the landscape for Ford’s three Frank Bascombe novels—The Sportswriter, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Independence Day, and The Lay of the Land. Let Me Be Frank with You, which Ford calls “a Frank Bascombe Book,” is made up of four linked short stories.
In the first, “I’m Here,” we see that Bascombe’s diminished home state reflects his own mood. To him, “Life’s a matter of gradual subtraction.”
Bascombe is the same thoughtful, if acerbic and droll, man that he was in the earlier books, but he’s older and has more to ponder. He was thirty in The Sportswriter and is now sixty-eight, somewhat shrunken, just like his former house and his home state. Bascombe says little but thinks a lot. A casual acquaintance would be startled at how reflective he is.
In “I’m Here,” he walks along the beach and wonders if he’ll fall. He thinks:
“I feel a need to more consciously pick my feet up when I walk — ‘the gramps shuffle’ being the unmaskable, final-journey approach signal. It’ll also keep me from falling down and busting my ass. What is it about falling? ‘He died of a fall.’ … Is it farther to the ground than it used to be? In years gone by I’d fall on the ice, hop back up, and never think a thought. Now it’s a death sentence. … Why am I more worried about [falling] than whether there’s an afterlife?”
Bascombe describes himself as “a member of the clean-desk demographic, freed to do unalloyed good in the world, should I choose to.” He chooses to, though he doesn’t seem to realize it. The thrust of each of the four stories is the help he gives, though often begrudgingly.
In the second story, he welcomes into his current house a woman who’d lived there until she was nearly seventeen. As they talk, both unsure about whether she’ll reveal her story, she says:
“‘We seem to need to know everything, don’t we?’”
“‘You’re the history teacher,’” I said. Though of course I was violating the belief-tenet on which I’ve staked much of my life: better not to know many things. Full disclosure is the myth of the fretting classes.”
In the third story he visits an assisted-living facility to bring an orthopedic pillow to his ex-wife who’s suffering from Parkinson’s. In the final story he visits someone he knew from a Divorced Men’s Club who’s on his death bed and wants to confess to him. Both are reluctant visits.
He reads to the blind, greets veterans returning from overseas combat, and writes a monthly column called “What Makes That News?” for the We Salute You magazine that his group gives to the returning troops. The column, which he signs HLM—as in H. L. Mencken, perhaps?—illustrates that “some of the idiotic stuff in the news can be actually hilarious, so that suicide can be postponed to a later date.”
Bascombe reveals his doubts to us readers, but the other characters in the book are not privy to them or his reflections. He tells us, “we have only what we did yesterday, what we do today, and what we might still do. Plus, whatever we think about all of that.”
He’s reflective, smart, a bit cynical, and, in the main, a good man. He’d probably be surprised to hear me say that. If you read Let Me Be Frank with You or Ford’s other Bascombe books, which I also recommend, I think you’ll agree with me.
After years of neglect, I decided to try to read all three volumes of Remembrance of Things Past. How depressing it was to discover a bookmark towards the end of Volume 2. I had no memory of making it so far. I also had virtually no memory of anytihng I had read.
Just over a week ago I was reading a column in the magazine of the Expresso, a Portuguese newspaper, by Ana Cristina Leonardo, whom I appreciate for her ironic wit and culture. It was called ‘Curses and Poor Diction’ (in Portuguese, the title was the far more euphonic ‘Maldições e Más Dicções’) in which, as a relief from what she called ‘interesting matters’ (which I took to mean idiotically fashionable or politically correct terminology), she recommended the novel Excellent Women by Barbara Pym. As I happened to have a copy unread on my shelves, in English, I plunged into it, and am glad I did.
Barbara Pym’s name is not well-known in the States these days, if indeed it is even in England, her home country. And yet it deserves to be. In the late 1970s, when the novelist had been out of print for some fourteen years, she was ‘rediscovered’ by Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil, who declared her the most underrated writer of the century. They may well be right. Excellent Women is a great comic achievement.
At first sight, it’s an old-fashioned novel of manners, much in the style of Jane Austen, with a first-person female narrator whose self-deprecating voice belies a sharp eye and an acerbic wit. Mildred is a single woman in her early thirties, who regards herself as plain, and is quite content to live alone, although naturally enough, in mid-century England, her friends all think she must want to be married. Her best friend Dora, whom she’s known since boarding-school (the characters are all middle-class, ‘genteel’ but not wealthy), believes that she should marry her—Dora’s—brother, William (a boring and self-centred man). Mildred is an enthusiastic church-goer, and friends with Father Julian Mallory and his sister Winifred—who hopes that Mildred will marry her forty-year old bachelor brother. But the ‘inciting incident’ of the novel, which sets the real conflicts in motion, is when Helena, a female anthropologist of liberated views, moves into the adjoining flat with her naval officer husband, Rockingham or ‘Rocky’—a libidinous and charming man, who already has a history of conquests of Wren officers (female navy officers). Mildred promptly falls in love with him, although she never explicitly says so, and although he flirts with her—his own wife is having an affair with another anthropologist, the improbably and almost obscenely named Everard Bone—Mildred is constrained by the knowledge that he is married, and by her religious views. Still, when Rocky and Helena break up, it seems the way is open. Rocky even invites Mildred to stay at his country cottage. Everard also appears to be interested in her. And although the priest seems to be snapped up when he gets engaged to Allegra Gray, a ‘merry widow’, it becomes clear that he may be wondering whether Mildred was a better bet. In a sense, then, as in Austen’s novels, the dramatic question is: who will the heroine marry? But we’re no longer in Austen’s world, and if mid-twentieth century England appears inconceivably archaic to contemporary eyes, it’s clear that women with jobs (Mildred works for a charity for distressed gentlewomen) have more freedom than the heroines of Georgian England.
As A.N. Wilson says, this is a quiet novel, and one which might, at first sight, appear irrelevant to the modern woman or man. There is no violent action, or even violent speech—these characters have all been brought up to be gentlemen and ladies, and although their behaviour isn’t always impeccable, their manners are. And many of the attitudes of the characters (not necessarily those of the author, it goes without saying) appear quaint and absurdly archaic, such as when Mildred is shocked, or at least says she is, when her neighbour says she’s too busy to cook for her husband. And yet the novel is hilarious, and even, if not in an obvious way, feminist: Mildred sees clearly the hypocrisy of society, especially male society, with regard to ‘excellent women’—that is, those women who are not glamorous like her neighbour or Mrs. Gray, but are deemed worthy of being useful—of doing good works for the church and community, and (of course) providing food and tea and comfort for men.
This is one of those novels that doesn’t fare well in summary—imagine having to give the idiotic ‘elevator pitch’ to an agent or editor—and yet it’s far better than my inadequate sketch might suggest. For a start, the ironic humour, which is one of the most defining features of English literary fiction, is a delight—and, as Wilson points out, unlike much humour, these characters are believable, not caricatures. Second, there’s real suspense. At one point Mildred seems to have her choice of three men, each of them highly eligible in different ways, and we wonder which, if any, she will take. But we shouldn’t be fooled by the humour into thinking that the novel is slight. What’s at stake here is not merely marriage, but the meaning of life itself—is it love, as the romantic novel insists? Or something else? Or may there be no meaning at all? (Bear in mind that Larkin was a great admirer of Pym’s fiction, and eventually became a close friend.) Beneath the comedy lurk existential questions worthy of Milan Kundera or Graham Greene.
Finally, I find, perhaps inevitably, that I’m led to some dangerous conclusions. (I’m aware that any man who risks making pronouncements on anything to do with women risks opprobrium—but when it comes to literature, I find I can’t help myself.) Of course no contemporary woman is nostalgic for the mid-twentieth century, when men so often took women for granted and treated them—the attractive ones, at any rate—as objects of desire. Still, among all the strident voices one hears in the gender wars nowadays (and I use the adjective deliberately, aware that it’s often proscribed as misogynist—but why not use it, since there are strident voices on both—or should I say all?—sides?) one is struck by the quietness and politeness of Pym’s voice, which is, however, far from weak. One is struck by her irony and self-deprecation, in contrast to the ferocious and self-righteous rhetoric (on all sides) in the current debates. And although I’m aware that terms like ‘gentleman’ and ‘lady’ are politically incorrect now, indicative as they are held to be of a patriarchal and patronising attitude, still one is struck that however the men in Excellent Women take the women for granted, there’s no sexual harassment, let alone assault. One wonders what women may have lost, along with what they’ve obviously gained. This is not to advocate a return to more conservative values, of course. But I am certainly advocating a return to some of the great female writers of the past century, among them Barbara Pym. We could learn much from those old ladies, as they would certainly have described themselves. Excellent women, indeed.
Thrillers tend to be plot heavy and character thin. Usually, however, the primary protagonist is more complex by necessity since he must drive the plot like a race driver behind a Peugot.
Gabriel Farago’s history based thriller, The Empress Holds the Key, is unusual in that instead of a single protagonist, he gives us at least half a dozen main characters. As a result, each character of necessity is secondary to the underlying story, which is not always a blessing.
In several instances Farago’s plot moves past a character so fast loose ends are left behind. Jack Rogan, an investigative reporter, seems to be the primary protagonist early on along with Jana, a woman he dated in the past and who comes back in his life with a case that interests both. Someone is out to hurt Jack for a reason he either doesn’t know or refuses to share with Jana. His car is scratched and side-swipped, and when that doesn’t scare him off, he’s beaten up so badly he’s hospitalized. Then two inexplicable things happen: Jack submits an investigative piece from his hospital bed despite suffering from a concussion and broken bones and Farago never explains who did it or why.
With Jack out of the way (for the moment), we think Jana is the novel’s protagonist, but her turn passes to an attorney who is an amateur Egyptologist, who then shares the stage with a violinist composer who is a Holocaust survivor. Additional point-of-view characters include a Egyptian police detective and several of the antagonists.
In addition to Nazis, Holocaust victims, Vatican officials, Islamic terrorists, and Knights of the Templar, there are plenty of minor characters who come and go––sometimes quite violently.
As for the plot, which begins with the discovery of artifacts that link a prominent Australian banker to Nazi Germany, the story’s complexity often gets in the way of logic.
What makes the story even more complex is that we’re several hundred pages in before we discover that the story revolves around a search for the tablets on which Moses wrote the ten commandments.
Needless to say, Farago strains logic from time to time in order to make it all hang from the same hook. The most extreme example is the violinist/composer’s origins and connection to the underlying mystery. It seems he’s not really Jewish after all since his father was a Catholic priest who sent his son to be raised by a Jewish family with a secret that he didn’t know he was carrying.
Here’s how the author explained the connection to me in a private email: “The Abbé Berenger Diderot is a central character. He is a French priest who discovered the famous Templar archives hidden in his church in the 1890’s. . . Diderot had an affair with a famous French opera singer, Francine Bijoux, and they had a son – also called Berenger after his father. The boy was put up for adoption and ended up with a Russian Jewish couple, the Krakowskis. . . Berenger Krakowski is the father of another one of the central characters, Benjamin Krakowski, the famous violin virtuoso and composer, who escaped from the German concentration camp with his brother.”
After you’ve memorized the above, you still may get hung up on Farago’s method of disposing of characters. Jewish characters in particular are vulnerable to quick demise. There’s the Holocaust survivor who falls asleep while Jack and Jana interview her, the Jewish husband of the Nazi’s daughter who disappeared, and the Jewish clock repairman who is executed by the Austrian police for reasons it’s hard to fathom.
Now for the good news. Farago has put a lot of research into this story in order to create an aura of plausibility; he also writes well. I didn’t encounter any typos or grammatical errors. So, if you aren’t bothered by twists that occasionally miss their turn, you probably enjoy the ride. Thrillers after all are supposed to take you to another reality. To that extent, Farago succeeds.
Among books I pulled off my shelves in search of especially interesting beginnings, Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men struck me not only because it’s captivating but because it captivates by description. I must warn the reader, however, that this 1947 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is set primarily in the U.S. South between the two world wars, and its first-person narrator employs racist slurs as a matter of course. But, really, isn’t it better that we face our heritage as a country of slavery and racism?
So if you are willing to accept being shown in the national mirror something we are collectively ashamed of, I ask whether you’ve ever read better descriptive prose than Warren’s beginning of All the King’s Men or whether you’ve ever been more drawn into a book by a descriptive beginning?
I’m reading mysteries featuring elderly sleuths, and I’m looking for descriptions that allow the elderly to be whole, able, and alert. No other will do. My own cozy mystery series features the 90-year-olds at Whisperwood Retirement Village, and my characters are able, alert, and active as are many 90-year-olds and 100-year-olds.
As the critique group of my first manuscript read and commented on it, I was appalled at what they said. They wanted me to present the elderly, or rather, the perennials, using all the stereotypes of the elderly, when I am pulling for a better reality. Have you seen 90-year-old Dick Van Dyke dancing with his wife on YouTube?
So I began collecting articles about people in their 90s and 100s who are running marathons, winning tennis matches and canoeing races, even learning how to read for the first time. I also googled elderly sleuths. I found one cozy mystery site that listed 104 authors who write mysteries featuring an elderly sleuth. Some of the elderly sleuths are well-known like Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, Dorothy Gilman’s Mrs. Polifax, and Donald Bain’s Jessica Fletcher. I’m starting my way down the list to read at least one of each series. First up is Peter F. Abresch who writes the James P. Dandy Elderhostel (Elderhostel is now called Road Scholar) Mystery Series.
I just completed her latest novel, Improvement, and it is a stunning work, full of subtlety and insight, conveying an understanding of how ordinary people struggle to make something of their lives. Politicians who want to connect with “real” Americans would have a better chance of doing so if they studied Silber’s work, beginning with Improvement.
Reviews often describe this novel as one of linked short stories, but I don’t think that’s fair. While most of the chapters can stand on their own (and some were published that way), they are more linear and more intertwined than the linked-story novels you may be used to (think Elizabeth Strout’s Anything Is Possible or Olive Kitteridge). In Silber’s novel, you have to consider the stories together to appreciate the rich tapestry that Silber has created. The technique is particularly effective in her hands. Each chapter allows her to focus on–and fully explore–a single character, but too much is lost if you don’t consider how those individual lives affect the people around them.
The key character is Reyna, a single mother of a four-year-old, whom we first see as she treks each week from Brooklyn to Rikers Island to see Boyd, a boyfriend who is doing a short jail stint for a minor drug offense. When he gets out, their relationship reignites in every way, but it can’t last, largely because Boyd hangs with the wrong crowd and can’t steer clear of the law. When Reyna is enlisted to help, everything goes wrong, including their relationship.
Then there is Kiki, Reyna’s scolding, sixty-something godmother. Kiki has an interesting backstory that fills a couple of the chapters. As a young woman in the 1970s, she left her family in New York for Turkey and ends up marrying a carpet merchant. They’re happy for a few years, but before long, Kiki gets bored and eventually returns to New York, alone and mostly happy and close by for Reyna.
The novel is alive with other vibrant characters: Darisse, another struggling single mom, works as a home health care aide, kind and tender with her patients despite her troubled personal life. She can’t understand why her greatest love, Claude, stood her up and won’t return her texts and calls. Hers is the kind of world where no one would know to tell her that Claude is dead.
Lynnette, Claude’s sister and closest companion, struggles with her sibling grief, both because of genuine love and because her brother’s death seems to mean the end of her dream to go into business with Claude, who has promised to use his share of the illegal loot to set her up with her own nail salon.
One of my favorite chapters is about Teddy, a 57-year-old truck driver whose guilt over Claude’s death contributes to the end of the affair he’s been having with his ex-wife. Teddy has trouble coming to terms with his role in Claude’s death as well as his role in the death of his first marriage (and maybe the second).
Improvement proves to be the perfect title for this book. It’s the elusive goal that all the characters are striving for, though it takes many forms—domestic, financial, romantic, and professional. Silber is particularly good at exploring her characters’ personal relationships—with all their needs, joys, frustrations, and fulfillments. She often challenges the reader to separate fact from what her characters believe is fact. She drives the challenge home when one character’s life is turned around by an anonymous gift that she wrongly believes comes from an ex-lover. Knowing he’s still keeping an eye out for her welfare powers her personal improvement, even as the reader knows she’s mistaken.
At 72, Silber has written at least three great books, according to Washington Post critic Charles Finch, whose review of Improvement first brought her to my attention. I found Fools, a book of more loosely linked short stories, somewhat uneven, with the stories ranging from superb to just good. Like Fools, the third book mentioned by Finch, Ideas of Heaven, was a finalist for the National Book Award. It’s next up on my list.
The English Teacher by Yiftach Reicher Atir, translated by Philip Simpson, Penguin Books, 2016
A former Israeli intelligence officer, Yiftach Reicher Atir gives us a novel of a young woman recruited into the Israeli Intelligence Service–the Mossad––based on his vast experience. In a foreword, he describes the novel as “the true story of what never happened.” In other words, it is true in the sense that this is how the Mossad operates and how lives can be shaped by their methods.
One might expect such a novel to be exciting––a page turner. It is not. The problem is instead of telling it largely from the point of view of the primary character—the young woman, Reicher Atir tells the story from too many viewpoints including at times himself as the author. This creates distance between the reader and the characters. As a result, we don’t care as deeply about the young woman as we might have.
The bulk of the novel is told about Rachel by her handler, a Mossad agent named Ehud. Rachel has gone missing fifteen years after completing her mission and leaving the service. They fear she will spill the beans––tell the truth about events they don’t want revealed––and so they bring Ehud back to help them hunt her down.
Over half of the book is Ehud telling her story with only a few pages from Rachel’s viewpoint. As a result, when he reaches the story’s climax, Reicher Atir has to try to convince us that we should empathize with Rachel and understand her motives. It’s too little too late.
As readers we can’t be expected to sympathize with characters because of their roles. They have to come alive as individuals. Neither Rachel nor Ehud come alive for me. She succumbs to her loneliness as a spy in an Arab country by falling in love with a man she is teaching English to. I can buy that, but not her thinking fifteen years after being pulled out that she can go back and reignite that flame. Ehud had strong feelings for Rachel during the years he was her handler, but now in this moment of crisis he thinks those feelings will be enough to save her. Ehud is pathetic, not sympathetic.
The English Teacher may have been a hit in Israel where the Mossad’s role is crucial to the country’s survival, but in the rest of the world, where people do not have such a strong identification with that organization, a story about the Mossad has to win us over––not assume we’re on board. In contrast to Reicher Atir’s approach, Daniel Silva’s stories about Mossad agent Gabriel Allon come alive. We care about Allon because Silva helps us feel the agony of the life-threatening dilemmas and hard choices he faces. No doubt Reicher Atir would say Silva’s Mossad is not realistic, but readers are not primarily interested in realism. The want a good story with characters they care about. Reicher Atir needs to learn that lesson.
As I write this, snow is predicted for tonight. Temperatures have been in the teens and below but hovering during the day in the 20s. I walk my dog outside in this weather. I’m ready for Florida.
I once lived on a boat, sailed into Fort Lauderdale and stayed there for 15 years. I didn’t live at the Bahia Mar Marina like John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee, but rather up the north fork of Fort Lauderdale’s New River. That’s when I began a love affair with books, especially mysteries, set in Florida.
What is more raucous and hilarious than a mystery by Carl Hiaasen. His characters, like the roadkill-eating ex-governor, are weird, but no weirder than many of the people I actually met in South Florida. The settings, whether Miami , the Keys, or the Everglades, reek of South Florida craziness. Then he throws in a man-eating alligator or a bass tournament. He nails South Florida. His books make me homesick.
Once in a while, I pick up one of my favorite books of short stories, the Crunch & Des fishing tales from the 30s and 40s. Written by Philip Wylie, another Miami author, they reflect an old Miami that no longer exists. Crunch is a charter boat captain and Des is his first mate. The stories reflect the
A good novel can keep readers turning the pages as they try to guess what will happen. Nonfiction writers have the challenge of keeping readers interested even if they know what will happen. Candice Millard succeeds beautifully in Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, a page-turner about a president most Americans never think of, James A. Garfield. With her skillful storytelling, she brings the long-forgotten president to life and shows him to be a man of courage, brilliance, modesty, integrity, and goodness.
Garfield, the twentieth U.S. president, was shot just four months after his inauguration and died eleven weeks later. His short tenure robbed him of any chance at achievements and renown. The nation mourned him, but they didn’t know him yet. And I’d venture to say, until Millard’s book, Garfield has remained little more than a footnote.
The youngest child in a family of four, Garfield grew up in abject poverty in Ohio. After his father’s death when he was one, his mother, Eliza, sold much of the farm to pay the family’s debts, and together with her eldest son, eleven-year-old Thomas, she worked the land to keep the family together. Determined that James be educated, she donated some of her land for a schoolhouse.
Her faith in him was well placed. When he was sixteen, Garfield enrolled in a preparatory school, where he worked as a janitor in exchange for classes. He began to realize that he had talents and resolved himself “to make a mark in the world. … There is some of the slumbering thunder in my soul and it shall come out.” Come out it did. By his second year, the school had promoted him from janitor to assistant professor, teaching literature, mathematics, ancient languages, penmanship, and Virgil.
After graduation, he attended Williams College and then returned to his preparatory school, becoming its president when he was twenty-six.
In 1859 an Ohio state senator died, and Garfield was asked to run for his seat. “I am aware that I launch out upon a fickle current,” he wrote.
The Civil War interrupted his political career but gave him another chance to excel. At the Battle of Middle Creek in Kentucky, Garfield ordered his troops to attack from three sides, hoping to fool the Confederacy into thinking the regiment was better manned and armed than it was. Garfield succeeded but the carnage devastated him.
While still in the military, Garfield was elected to the U.S. Congress. He worked hard and was popular among his colleagues. A gifted orator, who even admitted that “when it came to words, he had a ‘fatal facility,’” he attended the Republican convention in Chicago in 1880 to give the nominating speech for John Sherman. So powerful was his speech that when he asked, “And now, gentlemen of the Convention, what do we want?” someone called out, “We want Garfield!”
The party was hopelessly deadlocked among three candidates. Slowly delegates began to turn toward Garfield, prompting him to stand to protest the votes. “No man has a right, without the consent of the person voted for, to announce that person’s name and vote for him, in this convention. Such consent I have not given….” It didn’t matter. On the thirty-sixth ballot, Garfield became the nominee of the Republican party and went on to win a close election.
Millard contrasts Garfield’s trajectory with that of the confused and delusional man who would take his life. Charles Guiteau believed himself to be chosen by God for greatness, but showed no facility for achievement. He left unpaid bills wherever he went and flitted from one pursuit to another. For a time he lived in a utopian religious community, where he was so disliked that women nicknamed him Charles Gitout. He also tried and failed in work as a theologian and a lawyer. Never discouraged, he always expected to reach the top.
Following Garfield’s election, he wrote to him: “Dear General, I, Charles Guiteau, hereby make application for the Austrian mission….On the principle of first come first served, I have faith that you will give this application favorable consideration.” The letter stuck out to Garfield as “an illustration of unparalleled audacity and impudence.”
When his attempts to get a political appointment failed, Guiteau procured a gun and followed the president to determine the best time and place to shoot him, eventually choosing the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station on July 2, 1881.
Garfield’s wound was not fatal, but the medical care he received was. Without using any form of sterilization, doctors probed inside his body for the bullet. The U.S. medical community was dismissive of Joseph Lister’s life-saving discoveries about sanitation, leaving Garfield to suffer in silence as his infection spread. His doctors understood his fever and vomiting as signs that his body was healing. The incompetence makes for fascinating and harrowing reading.
A good nonfiction book can do everything a novel can do, including entertain through strong characters and good pacing. In Millard’s hands, Guiteau is a horrifying murderer, the medical profession is cruelly old-fashioned, and Garfield is a noble man who had the potential for being a great president.
12-17-2017 Give a Book, Inspire a Life
Gift-giving season is here, which always makes me consider the perfect gift, a gift that is not only thoughtful but sets the imagination afire. Not like handkerchiefs or ties or socks or shirts that nail you to the ground and don’t produce even a spark of an idea.
Books. That’s the ticket. Books have changed my life, and I’m sure they’ve changed yours. Books are my favorite gift to give and to receive. The two gifts I remember most from my childhood, other than my bike, were the first series book I read, Cherry Ames, Student Nurse, which I couldn’t put down, and a nonfiction book called Lost Treasure Trails by Thomas Penfield. I pored over it and then read every book I could find on pirates, lost mines, sunken treasure and buried treasure. I was intrigued by Oak Island fifty years before The Curse of Oak Island became a TV series.
The Nancy Drew books also had a profound effect on me, giving me a lifelong love for learning. They also inspired the cozy mystery series I write featuring the 90s Club at Whisperwood Retirement Village who turn up clues like tricks in a bridge game to catch the culprits at Whisperwood.
Inherit the Bones by Emily Littlejohn is well-written, engrossing and intelligent. Even the title works in several ways to define the book. The author is from Southern California and now lives in Colorado.
Ben Winters wrote Underground Airlines (Mullholland Books, 2016) ostensibly to bring attention to the lingering pernicious affects of slavery, but his inventive story can also be read to show far we have come from the days when slavery was legal.
In Underground Airlines, an escaped slave––whose true name we never learn––has been coerced into serving as a slave catcher for the U.S. Marshall’s Service. Slavery persists as the result of a 19th century constitutional compromise that allowed each state sovereignty over the issue. In the time of the story slavery remains in four states—a situation that has engenered extremely negative consequences for the rest of the country, undermining its economic and moral status and creating an environment where life in the north for blacks is barely better than it is in the South.
In addition to the threat of his being returned to the slaughterhouse from which he escaped, a device has been implanted in the spine of Winters’ protagonist that allows his handler to track his whereabouts. To save his skin, Victor—the name his handler calls him by––has caught over two hundred escapees, but the latest case he’s been given has holes in it, and as his search continues, he learns something is different about this particular runaway with implications for Victor and the entire slave compromise.
Like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle––a novel that exposed conditions in slaughterhouses at the beginning of the 20th century and about which Sinclair, an avowed socialist, complained hit people in the stomach while he aimed for the head, many readers of Underground Airlines come away horrified by Winters’ depiction of modern slavery and miss the story’s underlying message––the role individuals can play in changing the course of history.
Victor the slave catcher is weaned away from his dispassionate professionalism by a white woman desperate to find out what happened to her son’s father––an escaped slave who was caught and returned. Then he learns the underlying truth behind his current case and must risk his life to make amends for the man he had become.
Winters’ depiction of a rationalized system of bound persons––the 21st century name for slaves, should remind us how different America is from the world the slaveholders made. Any prejudice and discrimination descendents of slavery experience today can hardly be compared to chattel slavery pre-Civil War. Attempts to claim things have not really changed that much are largely a form of political blackmail by those who are not satisfied with Washington’s handouts. They want reparations from people who had nothing to do with slavery given to people who never experienced it. That’s not to say some blacks don’t suffer disproportinately economically, but economic opportunity and legal equality in America have never come closer to the ideal than any time in our history while white nationalist groups attempting to resurrect the old South remain on the fringe with no real backing or power.
Testimony of how far we have come as a society is further evidenced by the ability of a white Jewish writer to get published a novel in which he depicts the story of a black former slave in a world where slavery has yet to be abolished. While some blacks might object in theory, if they read the novel I think they’ll agree that Winters was equal to the task.
That’s not to say there aren’t holes in the story, or that someone can’t find a line or two to criticize, but that’s the price all fiction writers pay. I myself have written novels with female, handicapped, and black protagonists––though I am none of the above. What I’ve learned about each I hope comes through in a way that helps readers understand better their fellow human beings.
Ultimately every story has to stand on its own feet. No matter what prompted Winters to write Underground Airlines, he wrote about people placed in situations with limited options who find a way to overcome. Isn’t that after all what we want to believe in?
11/17/2017 Character Traits and Personality Types
In my 90s Club series, the 90-year-olds sometimes use stereotypes of the elderly to mislead their quarries into thinking they are harmless. My characters are able, alert, and active—as many 90-year-old and 100-year-olds are nowadays. In my writers’ critique group, I was appalled to hear my fellow writers push for the stereotypes as more “believable.” Most of us today avoid and dismiss the stereotypes of African-American, gay, Italian, Greek, Scandinavian, blonde, etc., I hope we’ve all gone beyond the use of eyeglasses to show an intellectual, studious, or nerdy person, a person who when she or he whips off the glasses, suddenly becomes sexy or strong. Think Superman. It still happens in the movies and television, though, where the elderly continue to be the victims of demeaning and sometimes vicious stereotypes.
Where I am most at fault for bias is when I see a man riding a motorcycle. I become wary. Brutal Hell’s Angel? Foolhardy kid? Whatever, definitely low end. Yet I know men and women who are avid motorcyclists, thoughtful people, sometimes a bit rebellious. A Libertarian might ride a motorcycle wearing a business suit. A student might ride one to cut down fuel costs. A couple of men might stop at a restaurant to discuss poetry. As a writer, I could describe a motorcyclist with a lot of surprising characteristics.
In developing characters that have some complexity, I hope, I have used enneagrams to put together personality traits, but I recently came across a book called Writer’s Guide to Character Traits by Linda N. Edelstein, Ph.D. It provides a better and more extensive listing of personality traits that characterize various types of people,
The 2016 novel News of the World by Paulette Jiles is beautiful, poetic, and riveting, and takes you to a world that’s familiar but full of mystery, all in just 240 pages. It fascinated me so much that I immediately sought out information on the history behind the fiction — the lives of children captured by Native Americans in mid-nineteenth-century Texas.
News of the World tells the story of Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a seventy-one-year-old widower and Army veteran who travels the towns of North Texas entertaining audiences by reading selected articles from national and international newspapers. After one reading, an acquaintance, Britton Johnson, asks him to return a ten-year-old white girl to an aunt and uncle, her nearest living relatives, who live hundreds of miles away, near San Antonio. The child had recently been freed after spending four years with the Kiowa Indians, who’d captured her during a raid in which they’d killed her parents.
To the Kiowas, the girl was known as Cicada, but Captain Kidd calls her Johanna, the name her white German-speaking parents had given her, though “She doesn’t know the name Johanna from Deuteronomy,” he tells himself.
The task facing Captain Kidd is overwhelming. Johanna is a feral child. “I am astonished,” Kidd says. “The child seems artificial as well as malign.” But Kidd believes it is adults’ duty to protect children, and he is the only one at hand to help her.
The child’s fears, sorrow, and anger are sensitively drawn. Jiles researched the lives of children captured by Indians and uses the words of her characters to explain the young captives’ struggling emotions. Britt Johnson, for example, understands the plight of captured children because his son had been in captivity. “…[He] came back different,” Johnson says. “Roofs bother him. Indoor places bother him.” (Jiles patterned Johnson after a historical figure also named Britt Johnson, a former slave who had rescued his wife and two daughters from Indians.)
Doris, another character, says, “You can put her in any clothing and she remains as strange as she was before because she has been through two creations.” Birth is the first creation, and the second tears the first to bits.
Kidd describes Johanna’s torment in a few heart-wrenching paragraphs after she tries to escape and return to the Kiowa people. He comes upon her during a torrential downpour as she stands at one side of a river, appearing to beseech Indians on the other side to rescue her. “What could she think would happen,” Kidd asks himself. “She was shouting for her mother, for her father and her sisters and brothers, for the life on the Plains, traveling wherever the buffalo took them, she was calling for her people who followed water, lived with every contingency, were brave in the face of enemies.” If the Indians notice her at all, they see a white child with blond hair. They ignore her.
And so Johanna stays with him.
As Kidd and Johanna travel together, they begin to understand each other. It seems at first that they have no common language, but then she makes the sign for fire. He knows a little of the Plains Indians signs, so he can respond. He can say a few words in German, and she shows recognition of that language. She tries out English words. They grow to trust and respect each other. She realizes that he is taking care of her, and he recognizes her intelligence.
Kidd holds readings as they arrive in new towns. He carefully chooses his topics so that they entertain as much as they inform, while avoiding contentious topics that could disrupt the crowd. He tells the audience about the Fifteenth Amendment, which extends the right to vote to all men regardless of race, warning, “That means colored gentlemen. … Let us have no vaporings or girlish shrieks.” Then he astounds them with stories from as far away as Chile and from a polar exploration ship, “trying to bring them distant magic that was not only marvelous but true.” How Kidd selects his stories and the audiences’ reactions are fascinating and, to me, in our own days of instant news, make the 1870s seem very long ago.
Just as Kidd transported his audience, Jiles transported me.
She surely knew that some of her readers would want to know more about children captured by Native Americans, and indeed I did. In a note, she recommends The Captured: A True Story of Abduction by Indians on the Texas Frontier by Scott Zesch. I immediately checked my library for the book and saw that I had to put it on hold. (Perhaps all Jiles’ readers go from her book to his.) It was worth waiting for.
Zesch profiles six children who had been captured and subsequently “rescued.” Like the fictional Johanna, many of them seemed to live between two worlds. It’s a fascinating story of a not-so-distant and troubling time.
My advice: Start with News of the World and continue with The Captured. They work beautifully together.
I don’t normally use this space to review twenty-year-old books, but for Richard Russo, I’ll make an exception. Regular readers know I’m a huge Russo fan. He’s been a big influence on my own writing, and I thought I’d read everything he wrote. But last month a friend recommended one of his novels that I’d missed: Straight Man, published in 1997. It’s the funniest serious novel I’ve ever read.
The narrator, William Henry Devereaux Jr., is heir to a famous name and not much else. He’s a writing professor and temporary chair of the English Department at a third-rank state college in a small fictional town in Pennsylvania. Hank’s father, who looms large throughout the book, was a hugely successful academic and literary critic and a hugely unsuccessful human being. An ice-cold man—at least when (and maybe even when) bedding his female students—Deveraux Sr. walked out when Hank was young and is now poised to return so his ex-wife and son can care for him in his senility.
Hank has plenty of hangups from that childhood, yet he’s chosen to follow in his father’s footsteps, just without the success part. At 29 he wrote his first and only novel, meaningfully titled Off the Road, a book that got good reviews but failed to sell (one of many details in the novel likely to resonate with aspiring authors). Now he’s tenured but trapped, stuck in a nonfunctioning academic world, ruling over an unruly staff of miscreants, and leading a writing workshop for angry and oversexed young adults. (His best advice to one: Always understate necrophilia.)
Russo surrounds Hank with a hilarious, perfectly drawn group of colleagues, almost all of whom have filed grievances against him. There’s Orshee, a nickname resulting from his habit of correcting anyone who uses only the male pronoun; Teddy Barnes, a close friend despite the fact that he’s in love with Hank’s wife; Finny, who claims a PhD from a university whose only asset seems to be a post office box in Texas. And then there’s Gracie, a feminist (and don’t you forget it) poet who hits Hank in the face with a notebook, puncturing his nose with the end of the spiral she’s teased out of place,
Being stuck in this stale and dreary situation and now pushing 50, Hank is in the midst of a midlife crisis he’d rather not recognize, suffering from a bladder problem that is either a kidney stone or cancer or all in his head. The stress is high on every front. The state legislature has slashed the school’s budget and Hank’s faculty revolts over rumors he’s offered up a list of dispensable staff (he’s actually refused to do a list, but he’s too stubborn to deny the rumor). The uproar prompts a vote to yank Hank’s chairmanship, a meeting Hank observes from above—trapped in the ceiling with an uncontrollable urge to pee. The school showdown comes to a head over a long weekend, which also coincides with Hank’s medical crisis, the breakup of his daughter’s marriage, and news that his father is coming back to town. To make matters worse, it just happens to be the weekend that Hank’s wife, the rock in his life, is out of town job hunting. When she leaves, she tells him, “I have this fear. I can’t decide where you’re going to be when I get home. In the hospital or in jail.” In fact, he ends up in both, though only briefly.
As funny as the novel is, it’s deadly serious. Plot is secondary in Russo’s novel, and that is certainly the case here. Instead he focuses on relationships and people and the things that make life what it is. His novels specialize in unmanageable middle-aged men (or, more accurately, men who don’t want to be managed), and he understands them better than anyone. Hank is not quite as complex as Sully, the unforgettable protagonist in Nobody’s Fool and Everybody’s Fool, but he’s a close second. Different, but complex and perfectly drawn. Hank’s relationship with his father is not one I identified with, but many men will, and Russo makes sure I understand it even if I didn’t experience it. That’s Russo at his best. And so is this book.
Several years ago I combed my bookshelves and gave my teenage son some old paperbacks I thought he’d enjoy. Recently, while hunting for a book he asked me to send to him in college, I found the books neatly stacked next to his bed. I wondered if he had ever read any of them.
Some people seek comfort food, but I tend toward comfort books. Comfort books are the ones I return to when the problems of the day become too much. They’re my macaroni and cheese without the calories.
A few weeks ago, as Americans seemed at war with Americans, I turned to one of my comfort books, The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains by Owen Wister. This 1902 novel was required reading when I was in junior high school. I loved it then and loved it again when I reread it in 1980, 1991, and late this summer. The book belongs near the top of any list of great American novels.
I feel almost apologetic for enjoying the book. There’s much in it to make 21st-century Americans shudder, including racial epithets, vigilante justice, and sexism. But with its depiction of a noble (if flawed) American hero, its virtuous (if flawed) schoolteacher, and the unspoiled American West, the reader sees a grand country, where possibilities seem endless, and a good man can prosper. The Virginian is just the man to succeed.
Narrated by an Eastern tenderfoot whom the Virginian is taking to visit Judge Henry in Medicine Bow, Wyoming, we see the wild country from the eyes of an outsider, just like us. The contrasts between the natural West and the constrained East come quickly. The West proves the winner, but both Westerners (particularly in the person of the native Virginian) and Easterners (the narrator and the schoolteacher and her family) learn and grow.
A Writer Reads Elizabeth Strout
Writing fiction will change the way you read it. I often make a point of reading like a writer (to borrow Francine Prose’s book title), examining what the author is trying to do and how she’s doing it, determining what works and what doesn’t (and why), and looking for how this can help improve my own writing. It doesn’t stop me from reading as a reader—enjoying good literature and losing myself in fictional worlds—but I rarely lose sight of what the author is doing to and for me.
And when I read really good fiction—the kind that strikes a chord deep within—the writer in me usually has two reactions. First, I’m inspired and I want to rush to the computer to try to create a similar gift for my readers. But often the inspiration gets deflated by a feeling that I’m not a real writer, not the kind of author who wields magic—who not only understands people and the world they live in, but also has the tools to effectively convey that.
Such was my reaction to Elizabeth Strout’s new collection of stories, Anything Is Possible.
J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (HarperCollins, 2016)
Book buyers have made J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy the nation’s number one non-fiction bestseller in part in search of answers to Donald Trump’s upset victory in the November 2016 election. My guess is that many will draw the wrong conclusions. Some will call for increased federal spending on social programs, while others will see Vance’s story as supporting an emphasis on individual responsibility. Vance would reject both.
Though she loves to read novels, author Desiree Cooper found that her fiction comes from her in a much shorter form. “If there was no such thing as flash fiction, I would have had to invent it,” says the 2016 debut author of the collection of flash fiction titled Know the Mother. If you’re not terribly familiar with flash fiction, which works to tell an evocative story in a very compressed space, this lovely, haunting collection demonstrates just how effective and affecting this genre can be.
Mother’s stories have a strong common thread of dreams delayed or abandoned — suppressed under the weight of obligation — and of how identity is tied to those dreams. Who are we, really, if we’re never allowed to be who we want to be? Can anyone really know us if our true selves are hidden behind society’s expectations of us or the demands of roles we did not freely choose?
Most novels that include an assault in the plot feature that assault as the main event. One of the beauties of M.O. Walsh’s debut novel My Sunshine Away is that the rape described on page one is not the main event, no matter how much the young narrator wants to think it is.
At age 14, the narrator, who remains nameless throughout the story, is infatuated with his 15-year-old neighbor Lindy. So, when she is attacked coming home from track practice one summer night in 1989, he thinks the world as he knows it is destroyed. Through his remaining adolescence, he sees life through the prism of the rape and how it affects Lindy’s relationship with him, while all around him so much else is happening that belies the idyllic quality of his southern neighborhood and that will shape him into the adult he becomes.
A Morsel for the Armchair Traveler
Planes are crowded, hotels are booked, and families are streaming to their vacation destinations. Those of us staying put in these sultry summer days can do worse than read the adventures of people lucky enough to travel abroad.
Victoria Twead’s hilarious memoir, Chickens, Mules and Two Old Fools, more than fits the requirement of an armchair getaway. Twead takes readers from her Sussex home, on England’s southern coast, to a tiny mountain village in Andalucia, on Spain’s southern coast.
Last month I published a poll asking for tips about summer and travel reading (READING ON THE ROAD). I had an ulterior motive. I was hoping someone could save me from lifelong habit of lugging books around the world that I ended up neglecting or destroying, sometimes both.