Monday, June 17, 2019

Finding My Way After a Surgical Hiatus

Five weeks ago today, after a night and morning of increasingly terrifying abdominal pain, I reluctantly called a friend to take me to the emergency room. I had been there only six months prior for a similar problem and, at the time, nothing was found to be wrong with me. In my usual obsequious fashion,  (a flaw I am working on), I apologized in advance for taking up the time and space once again. The wonderfully compassionate doctor admonished me for ever thinking this way, and then grimly advised that there was a valid reason for my discomfort. Not only a recurrence of diverticulitis but a small bowel obstruction in need of immediate attention.

I spent two long, yet already mostly forgotten weeks, in the hospital tethered to tubes and needles, and fighting fear, anxiety, and the topsy- turvy sense that day is night and night is day, sleeping fitfully and unable to concentrate for any length of time. Still, a reader must read, long hours must be suffered through, news seemed irrelevant. But wait, hadn't I been in the middle of a devastating new novel when I was stricken? Could I take my worried mind back to Berlin and re-engage with the plight of the Somali, Kenyan, Ghanaian, and Libyan migrants brought brilliantly to life in Jenny Erpenbeck's "Go, Went, Gone?"

If you ever thought to place yourself in another's shoes, if you ever wondered how it could possibly feel to be stateless, homeless, worthless, and lost, then this novel will open a space in your heart even as it leaves you feeling helpless and hopeless. Erpenbeck points out the horrible, ironic flaws in the European system of repatriation for refugees seeking asylum but she doesn't, no, she can't provide answers to the deluge of questions facing countries that were, before public opinion turned on them, trying their best to handle the onslaught of Africans daily arriving on the shores of Sicily and Greece seeking points north and east.

Richard, a retired professor examining what his future will look like without his wife by his side and his students and colleagues for intellectual stimulation, wanders through the Oranienplatz in central Berlin where the authorities are tearing down a tent city erected by disaffected refugees in search of food, housing, and work papers. On a whim, Richard strikes up a conversation, first with one, then with others. Where will you go? How will you manage? What are your prospects? What was your home like? Why did you leave?

Initially shy and hesitant to pry, Richard finds himself obsessed with the lives of these lost souls. He finds that he wants to question them, find out about their lives before they landed on the streets. He thinks of them when he's back in the guilty comfort of his overlarge home, remembering their tight quarters in makeshift shelters where four or five may share mattresses on the floor. He haunts agencies trying to free up funding, he offers to teach German, and eventually he offers tea and sympathy, and the use of his grand piano to a budding musician. Even his most liberal friends question his naivite, his newly discovered activism, questioning his motives and worrying behind his back.

This novel is probably not one that I would recommend for readers recovering from a major surgical procedure. It requires too much from us. As I mentioned, questions arise but are never answered. Can a single person change the world, one contact at a time? Cynics would say no. Others, like my sister who is currently in Washington participating in Rev. Barber's Poor Peoples' Campaign, aspire to be living proof that one person can.  Richard discovers that it takes persistence, an ability to suffer rejection, and to be taken advantage of without exhibiting anger or desiring retaliation.

And yet, this novel must be read and absorbed if we are ever to remotely comprehend the conditions that would propel men, women, and children to leave their ancestral homelands in search of a better life for themselves and their progeny. Why, we ask, will thousands board rafts every day, with the hope that they will float up onto welcoming shores? Why are our southern neighbors risking the walk from Guatemala through Mexico to the U.S. boarder, knowing full well that they will be rejected, separated from their families, incarcerated without access to lawyers or the basic rights of asylum seekers everywhere?
Erpenbeck does a masterful job of helping readers walk a mile in those seekers shoes.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Valerie Jarrett Found Her Voice

...And what a pleasure it is! How did this shy little girl, born in Iran, later moved to London, and finally settled on the south side of Chicago because her parents worried that she wouldn't know her family, end up being the most senior advisor in the Obama White House for the entire eight year run? Well, she'll tell you, and I defy you not to enjoy the tale because Valerie Jarrett is a delight to spend time with. She's honest, unassuming, funny, and yes, brilliant.

Unlike Michelle Obama, who had to cautiously write her bestselling memoir "Becoming," Jarrett feels no compunction about calling out racism everywhere she confronts it. From her youngest days she understood that her father, a black physician, could not be hired in the United States because of his color. In Iran, he was welcomed and prompted to write and research, until he became a renowned geneticist who lectured around the world, taking his wife and little girl with him.

But back in Chicago, in the dismal public school system that her parents firmly
believed in, Valerie was bullied for her accent, denied access to proper school materials, and seldom challenged by her work. Private schooling followed and Valerie set her sights on Stanford. California during the '60's and '70's was a hot bed of political activity and awakening for students of color and, against her parents' wishes, she settled into a black house where she could find her authentic self.

Like most political figures, Valerie Jarrett earned a law degree. She was soon working in a corner office overlooking Lake Michigan, making more money than she ever could have imagined, yet she was feeling unfulfilled and, like so many working moms, terribly guilty about the dearth of time she had left over to share with her beloved daughter Laura. 

Without telling you her entire story, let's just say that Jarrett found her calling to public service in Chicago's department of planning and development. Soon she was working a couple of doors down from Mayor Washington's office, and after his untimely death, she stayed on as deputy to Mayor Daley. That's when a stellar resume crossed her desk attached to a personal note from a trusted friend that read, "Very impressive! Bright, mature, interested in public service." 

The next day Valerie Jarrett interviewed Michelle Robinson. The rest is history.

Jarrett became best friend and confident to the future Michelle Obama and her fiancé, Barack Obama and for the past thirty years that relationship has held steady and true. She is the rock, the big sister, the strategic thinker, and the organizer behind the winning and losing campaigns and the president's most trusted advisor in the West Wing. When she describes the three of them sipping martinis on the Truman balcony after the funeral of Reverend Clementa Pinckney, devastated by the results of increasing gun violence and their failure to stop it, I pictured the Roosevelts sitting there decades earlier considering whether or not to enter the world war.

Valerie Jarrett has lived an amazing life, beyond her wildest dreams, yet her voice is still awe-filled with what she deems the luck that has come her way. Now that she's found her voice, I wonder what will come next?

Monday, May 6, 2019

Two New Novels, Similar Themes

I've just finished two new novels that were on Elaine Newton's summer reading list, meaning that, if she could bring the author to town, or if she decides they are worthy, she'll cull them from over thirty choices to be on her discussion program next fall. Many of her options are on my TBR list.

"The Editor," by Stephen Rowley, and "The Dakota Winters," by Tom
Barbash are each set in the late 1980's, early 1990's, a time when you might think not all that much happened. But, lest I forget, we're dealing with a generation of wonderful new writers for whom the '80's were my '60's. Each novelist focuses on familial dynamics and how they are shaped and changed by the outside influence of a celebrity personality seeking anonymity for a while.

Rowley's book introduces James Smale, a struggling writer whose latest manuscript, a semi-autobiographical investigation into the close relationship between a mother and her son, has been optioned by a new editor at Doubleday. Imagine James' intimidation when, at his first meeting, he discovers that one of the most famous mothers of all time, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis is the editor he'll be closely working with.

Then, imagine his utter dismay when, at the annual family Thanksgiving dinner, he shares his exciting news only to have his mom stalk out of the room. For months she refuses to speak to her son about the uncomfortable fact that she is the impetus for, and the subject of, his book. A book that Jackie O. fell in love with and for which she pressures James to create a more authentic ending.

Rowley is a kind writer, creating the same realistic, sensitive characters that graced his first book "Lily and the Octopus." As James searches for a truth that seems just out of reach, his friendship with Jackie blossoms even as his union with his partner begins to suffer. Rowley beautifully humanizes Mrs. Onassis and is especially adept at reflecting the depth of gay relationships.

Similarly, Tom Barbash focuses on the push/pull, father/son dynamic of twenty-three-year old Anton, just home from a stint in the Peace Corps, and his dad Buddy Winters, a once respected television talk show host who suffered an on-air meltdown, a la Howard Beale in "Network." Now hoping to stage a comeback, Buddy exerts pressure on his son to take on management of his rebirth and find a station willing to take a bet on the man who walked away only a few years ago.

When I first spotted this title I actually thought the novel was about winters in New York City at the famed Dakota. Well, I may have been a bit off base but certainly The Dakota itself, along with its most renowned residents, John and Yoko, are central characters in this original, evocative mash-up of the fictional and the actual.

In Barbash's imagination, John Lennon is undergoing a crisis of confidence. Hiding from his adoring public he finds refuge in The Dakota and befriends Anton who promises to teach John how to sail. Something like a miracle happens on their virgin trip to Bermuda, a miracle that bodes well for Anton's forthcoming revival of his dad's career, but leaves Anton wondering what his own future happiness might look like.

I can recommend each of these books for exactly what they are, quick, easy reads that you can take to the beach or enjoy on the back porch. Still they will leave you with thoughts about families, what we tell each other and what we hold back, and how it sometimes takes an outside observer to point out what we may be too close to see.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson

"Why do they hate us?" was the question on Americans' minds after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001. Why indeed? Those of us who know our country's history don't need to ask. Others may not want to know, yet there are thousands of books, fiction and non, that tell the tale. "American Spy" by debut author Lauren Wilkinson is one of them.

Set in the late '80's and early '90's, Wilkinson's novel poses as a long biographical letter that former FBI intelligence officer Marie Mitchell is writing to her five-year-old twin boys. It is her attempt to explain why she must leave them with her mother in Martinique, a mother who also abandoned her when she was young, to persue a man who has the potential to harm her and her family.

The action toggles between New York City where Marie is first approached and hired by the feds, and the tiny African country of Burkina Faso that sits
landlocked in the western part of the continent bordering Ghana, Niger, and Mali. Marie is extremely frustrated by her work. It's the '80's after all and an ambitious woman is not considered an asset. Her career seems stalled, bogged down by paperwork, tied to a desk, when she craves action.

So when what seems like a chance meeting with a CIA operative who notices her potential - she's black, beautiful, and multi-lingual - opens up an opportunity to travel to Burkina and get close to the charismatic leader, Thomas Sankara, she briefly questions her country's motives and just as quickly puts misgivings aside for the chance to prove her value.

And here's where it gets interesting and complicated. You see, Sankara was actually the elected leader of Burkina Faso for 1983 to 1987. He was adored for his policies that turned his country's fortunes around, building schools, medical facilities, planting thousands of trees, and trying to nationalize industry and agriculture. So why, you might wonder, would the United States be interested in infiltrating an opposition political party and backing Sankara's friend and betrayer, Blaise Compaore? Why does the United States fear free and independent African nations?

Wilkinson tries to address these questions through Marie who falls under Sankara's spell and comes to question her own loyalties and her role in Sankara's downfall. This novel is being sold as an espionage novel but don't be disappointed if that's all you're looking for. Wilkinson also explores questions of parenthood and abandonment, about trust and friendship, and about geo-political intervention around the world. It is not so much a page-turner as it is a thoughtful meditation. 

This is a smart, convoluted novel in which the lines between good and bad veer often toward the gray. Wilkinson leaves many loose ends - whatever happened to her older sister Helene, supposedly killed in an automobile accident - that some may find upsetting. The good news is that I suspect she's leaving herself open to a sequel. At least, I hope so. 

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

The Old Drift

How do I explain this large, luscious, multi-generational, historical novel? I scarcely know where to begin, though I admit that Salman Rushdie's glowing review on the cover of the New York Times Book Review last month certainly was the catalyst that attracted me. I simply did not want it to end!

Zambian writer Namwali Serpell's ( remarkable debut novel is one of those books that you can revel in, lost within the language, the characters, and never want to put down. Set in Rhodesia at the time of the infamous Stanley and Livingstone, based upon the building of the first railroad over the great Zambezi River at Victoria Falls, the narrative ranges from the late 1800's to 2024.

Through the lives of three families - and yes, you will need to continually refer to the genealogy tree in the front of the book - one black, one white, and one mixed-race, Serpell illuminates the good, the bad, and the ugly involved in the development of her native land which is now Zambia.

Readers will have to suspend disbelief in order to accept the Greek chorus of malarial mosquitos that comments and explains throughout. Then there are the phantasmagorical characters like Sibilla, who was born enshrouded in fast-growing hair that covers her entire body, or Matha, whose lover leaves her crying a river of tears that continues for thirty years. I loved Agnes, the British aristocrat, daughter of an MP, whose tennis career was brought to a halt by blindness. Rebelling against the coddling of her parents, she  falls for her father's mentee, a Rhodesian student named Ronald, with whom she makes her escape to Africa, unaware of their color difference.

In mellifluous language Ms. Serpell creates a world based on facts and fantasy in which there is much humor, some pathos, political skullduggery, love and jealousy, abandonment and cruelty. Readers will hear about Afronauts, the creation of the world's first drones, and the birth of studies into the AIDS virus. They will witness the cruelty of colonialism mingled with the scourge of tribalism.

It's practically unbelievable that this could be a first novel. Reviewers have called it Dickensian in scope, bold and sweeping. For me it's novels like this that fill that chasm I've always felt where my deeper knowledge of history should be. Sometimes our teachers are less than inspiring. If only they could add great fiction to their syllabi. What better way to fill in the gaps?