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.
Reviewing Stuart Rojstaczer, The Mathematician’s Shiva, Penguin, 2014
The Mathematician’s Shiva is a feel good novel that doesn’t require the reader to be Jewish or a mathematician to enjoy. In fact, learning a little about both is a side benefit to this very readable journey.
The death of a parent can be a traumatic time for any person no matter his or her age, but when the parent is a world-renown mathematician and the son is, in terms of his career a lesser light, on top of which he has to entertain a sometimes rude band of academic geniuses and near geniuses for a week in his mother’s home, well then we have the basis for a potentially very interesting story.
I’m not a horse fancier but after reading Alyson Hagy’s Boleto I look curiously when I glimpse a horse. The novel’s young cowboy protagonist drew me to it (I am a fancier of young cowboys). The filly he’s training for polo is the reader’s window into Will Testerman’s soul. I fell in love with the book and its Everyman protagonist, and I’m delighted Alyson Hagy let me ask a few questions about it.
Reading The Ludwig Conspiracy, an historical novel by Oliver Pötzsch, opens up dark passageways into the side notes of history. The book itself is a fast-paced thriller with unexpected and persistent villains, both past and present. Published in 2011, eight years after Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, Pötzsch’s book also draws on secret codes and byzantine intrigues and superficially seems to ride Dan Brown’s wave.
You know King Ludwig II of Bavaria as “Mad King Ludwig,” who commissioned the building of Schloss Neuschwanstein, famous as the Disney World castle. He also built Schloss Linderhog and an imitation Versailles known as Herrenschiemsee. Ludwig was born in 1845 and crowned king in 1864. He was a Roman Catholic who struggled with his homosexuality and he was a patron of the composer Richard Wagner. In June 1886, his body and that of his psychiatrist were found drowned in a Bavarian lake.
Summer is the time for road trips, and one of the best traveling companions is a phone or iPad full of audiobooks. If I’m driving alone, I get antsy if I have to go very far without one of these lively passengers. They’re also great for sharing if you have one that everybody in the car likes. I find the best books for travel are lighter fare because it’s hard to keep up with complex plots when traffic takes your attention.
One of my favorite series of books for listening in the car is the Miss Julia series by Ann B. Ross. Miss Julia is a clever, opinionated, and lovable woman of a certain age who has a knack for getting involved in thorny circumstances, sometimes by her own actions, but usually not. She’s weathered many a surprise in her later years, not the least of which is the arrival on her doorstep of a young woman claiming to be the mother of Miss Julia’s late husband’s son. How Miss Julia handles this development is both funny and touching.
This is a strange time for journalism—confusing both for the people who practice it and those who consume it. The Trump administration has cast a lifeline to mainstream media like The New York Times and The Washington Post, which have seen circulation surge as old-time investigative reporting kicks into high gear. At the same time, rumors, lies, and complete fabrications get almost equal treatment in certain less reputable media sources, with a huge impact in unfortunate ways. For journalists of the old school (including me) it’s a time of head scratching.
Commonwealth: A Review for Writers as well as Readers
My apology to non-writers. This review of Ann Patchett’s 2016 novel, Commonwealth, focuses primarily on the writing, but in doing so perhaps readers will come to understand some basic writing techniques and how they influence story.
Unlike many contemporary novels, Commonwealth is written from an omniscient viewpoint. That means from the very first sentence there’s an always present story narrator telling us what people are doing and thinking. “The christening party took a turn when Albert Cousins arrived with a bottle of gin.” That’s the narrator talking, not one of the characters.
“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”
—Jorge Luis Borges
I had the distinct pleasure recently of being on a panel at the Washington Writers Conference with Tom Shroder—author, ghostwriter, journalist, and long-time editor of the Washington Post Magazine—and Michael Dirda, even longer-time book critic at the Washington Post and elsewhere. We were discussing the fuzzy lines that separate memoir, family history, and fiction.
Derek Walcott, 1930-2017
I used to read a lot of poetry. That thought hit me on March 17, when I learned of the death of the Nobel Prize-winning poet and playwright Derek Walcott on the island of St. Lucia, where he was born.
It has been years since I’ve read Walcott, but his work was once a constant companion of mine. As I think now about the pleasures of meter, rhyme, and the soaring imagination that good poetry generates, I realize what I’ve missed.
When I heard of Derek Walcott’s death, I recalled a day in 1980 when I opened The New Yorker and excitedly read the title “Jean Rhys” above a six-stanza poem. Only a short time before had I become acquainted with the Dominica-born author Jean Rhys, but I’d been devouring her novels Wide Sargasso Sea, Good Morning, Midnight, and Voyage in the Dark and recommending them to every book lover I knew. And here was an homage to her in a poem by Walcott. I calmed myself and read:
Paula Fox died on March first, although I didn’t know it. I happened to be reading Desperate Characters at the time. I didn’t know who the author was or why I was reading Desperate Characters. My best guess was that a Goodreads friend had recommended the book and I’d downloaded it, with so many others, to my Kindle. Because Kindle doesn’t give copyright or original publication dates for books – an unforgivable sin, to my mind – I didn’t even know whether Desperate Characters was an older book or a recent one set in the sixties. What I did know, or realized as I got into the book, was the fact that I was reading not just good but great fiction. He wasn’t a seducer. He was remote. He was like a man preceded into a room by acrobats.
At first read, you might think Fling! by Lily Iona MacKenzie is a delightful story with endearing, charming characters—which it is. But look a little closer, and you’ll find it’s also a probing story picking at deep layers of family love and resentment. Just below the characters’ zest for life lie feelings of aloneness and abandonment. Once those feelings are laid bare, can they ever be subdued?
Fling!’s main characters are mother and daughter Bubbles and Feather. Ninety-year-old Bubbles is still full of enthusiasm and looking for laughter wherever she can find it. MacKenzie tells us Bubbles’ motto is fun. “Life was too short; you needed to have a little fun. … Money didn’t matter that much to her, as long as she could have a good time.”