Thursday, November 23, 2017

The Resurrection of Joan Ashby Tops My List for 2017

Many thanks to my friend and mentor Linda Holland for recommending this outstanding, amazing, debut novel from Cherise Wolas. "The Resurrection of Joan Ashby" will linger for months on my mind as I consider the extremely accomplished women I have had the honor of knowing, those who chose motherhood, those who did not, and those who had no say in the matter.

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Too often, I've found, acclaimed novels offer either technical, sometimes pretentious, craftsmanship or engrossing storytelling, but not both. Cherise Wolas is a superb craftsman and a phenomenal storyteller without an ounce of pretension. Her book is a sincere examination of the world we women inhabit, a world that even now, with 2018 right around the corner, limits and judges our choices, especially when it involves career vs. motherhood.

We meet Joan Ashby via an article in the fall issue of "Literature Magazine." A twenty one-year-old prodigy, Ashby burst upon the literary scene fully formed, giving birth to an astonishing collection of short stories that proclaimed her as a daring new voice in fiction. Following up with "Fictional Family Life," Ashby became a feminist icon as she skewered the idea of traditional womanhood, excoriating the stifling, limited lives of women fettered by marriage and family. You can imagine how let down her legions of fans felt when she admitted that she had fallen into the trap and married Dr. Martin Manning.

Within two months of that marriage an unplanned pregnancy sets the tone for the next twenty years. Compelled to keep the baby by Martin's over the top reaction to the news, Joan immerses herself in motherhood, amazed at her own capacity for love. Nevertheless, she counts the days and years until she can return to her writing, her true creative calling, the contemplative life, the proverbial room of one's own. An extraordinary, shocking act of betrayal becomes the catalyst for Joan's decision to flee the exquisite prison Martin has constructed for her.

Throughout this literary tour-de-force, Wolas speaks in many voices. We are treated to full-fledged short stories from the young Joan Ashby, diary type entries from Joan's son Daniel, pieces of a novel within the novel, written by the adult Joan Manning, and finally a fully formed section titled "Paloma Rosen," one that I hope Ms. Wolas will one day publish in full.

The final third of this book is so overwhelmingly satisfying that I dare not write of it. Let me just tell you that it takes Joan to India, fulfilling a lifelong dream of hers, and to the actual Hotel Gandhi's Paradise in Dharamshala, ( home of the Dalai Lama. Wolas's description of this area is so perfect, so accurate, that I felt I could take the train there tomorrow, walk the two or three miles up the hill, and make myself at home.

This remarkably honest book should be dedicated to every woman like my own mother who should have been an academic but gave in to society's expectations, to every woman who has mothered other people's children, to every woman who has juggled a career, maybe settling for fewer promotions,  with raising wanted children, and for all the women who dare to say that motherhood is not on their agenda. Our choices have ramifications down through generations but they must always remain our choices.

I cannot recommend this book enough. It is a serious meditation on the nature of maternal love and instinct. I found it a brave and daring novel peopled with fascinating, some flawed, some perfect characters that I wanted to know better. Hurry up and read it friends. I want to discuss it with you.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Eleanor Henderson's The Twelve Mile Straight

My sister and I were chatting on the phone last night when I mentioned that it had been a while since a new novel had really grabbed me. We both tend to the dark side in our reading but still I warned her that the book that had me at hello begins with a lynching. She said she was reading one that begins with a lynching. Sure enough...."The Twelve Mile Straight" held us both in thrall.

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I kept asking myself, how could a writing professor from Ithaca College create such an evocative sense of place as 1920's rural Georgia. I went to Henderson's website for answers ( and discovered that this amazing novel was informed by the lives of her father and grandparents who were sharecroppers in Ben Hill County, Georgia, during the same time frame.

Eleanor Henderson's outstanding book has much to say about the sin of silence. When Elma Jesup, the white daughter of a sharecropper in fictional Cotton County, Georgia, supposedly gives birth to twins, one black and one white, it is her silence that condemns Genus Jackson, the black farmhand accused of rape.

How else, town folk wonder, could Elma be carrying the white child of her fiancé, Freddie Wilson, who never intended marriage and now had a perfect out, and a black child too. Reporters from as far away as Atlanta flock to Cotton County to write about this miracle, doctors beg to study the twins, and the only people who know the truth remain steadfastly silent.

 Only a writer of considerable talent could turn this fantastical premise into a heartbreaking story about the interwoven lives of poor black and white southerners working the farms together to create wealth for the landowners. She exposes a precarious hierarchy of power. The Wilson family rules the county, the police, the politicians, even the local physician, Dr. Rawls, who keeps his practice afloat by performing abortions for the naïve young women who came to town to labor in Wilson's cotton mills.

Carrying the story are two marvelously drawn characters. Elma's mother died in childbirth so she is raised by the black midwife and housekeeper, Ketty, whose daughter Nan grows up as Elma's sister. Though Nan reads and writes and learns the trade of midwifery too, the balance of power between Nan and Elma is a constant. You see, Nan literally has no tongue, and though she and Elma have developed a nuanced means of communication, there are many times over the course of their lives together when the white girl, speaking for the black girl, gets it horribly wrong.

There are too many villains to count in Henderson's novel, yet she manages to imbue even the worst of these with a semblance of humanity. One especially powerful scene comes to mind. Elma's father Juke is in a jail cell awaiting trial for his part in the lynching of Genus Jackson. He is comforted by the sounds of gospel singing, low and strong, coming from the black woman in the adjoining cell. Later he hears her cries of anguish as she is raped by the jailer, so he sings a lullaby for her. In this one paragraph Henderson brilliantly opens a place in our hearts for forgiveness.

This strong novel, perfect for sophisticated book clubs, delves into the polio epidemic with a guest appearance from then Governor of New York Franklin Roosevelt, sickle cell disease and the dearth of funding for research, homosexuality, misogyny, class inequity, and of course, racism. At the same time this novel is a paean to the strength and resilience of women in particular, but to all who are victimized by the evil of discrimination in its many forms.

Monday, November 6, 2017


Don and I have just finished the outstanding but sometimes excruciating PBS documentary on Vietnam written by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. I suspect we each had doubts at first that the bent might be too jingoistic, but after reading many reviews and hearing Burns and Novick interviewed on various programs, I felt confident that viewers would get as even a handling of such controversial material as was humanly possible. I believe that they did a superb job.

I came of age during the Vietnam war. In 1969 I marched in Washington, D.C. while staying with a friend whose dad was a colonel in the Army, stationed in Khe Sanh. I joined friends in the living room of my college dorm as the lottery wheel turned, delivering the fates of our brothers and boyfriends, one number after another. At the time, I didn't believe that our country would ever be so divided again.
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I learned so much from this film, beginning with the fact that the involvement of the United States in the tiny country of Vietnam dates back to the Truman administration. It's simply shocking to see how each administration, always against its better judgment, allowed us to ratchet up the intrusion to the point of no return. Not one president, from Truman through to Nixon, actually believed that our country should be investing its billions and its boys in southeast Asia. And yet......

It's incredible and frightening to hear Kennedy, Johnson, and then Nixon discussing the war with their secretaries of state and defense, knowing full well that every word was being recorded for posterity, admitting their reservations, fears of defeat, and anxiety about the changing public temperament. What is most terrifying about this film is that it clearly shows the extent to which our leaders, those we once looked to for integrity and wisdom, did not know or understand about the horrific situation our country was in. 

Burns and Novick were extraordinarily successful in enlisting such an articulate, diverse range of people affected by the war and willing to share their thoughts. Former soldiers, grunts and enlisted men, from north and south Vietnam, along with Americans from every walk of life, men who moved to Canada, men who stayed home and fought through political action, men who are still true believers and those who believe they were mislead. Soldier/writers like Tim O'Brien (The Things They Carried), and Karl Marlantes (Matterhorn), read from the novels they wrote to try to make sense of what they'd been through. Parents, brothers, and sisters shared their remembrances of their loved ones.

Perhaps most powerful is the editing, the use of so much original footage of the war over there and the war at home, accompanied by a playlist that will dredge up time and place for many viewers. There's a particularly amazing episode that juxtaposes the festival at Woodstock with a battlefield evacuation. As the music grows more frenetic and the film speeds up we see bloodied bodies being lifted into helicopters, overwhelming footage of chaos and fear, interspersed with scenes of Santana whipping up a  musical frenzy for his toked up audience.

The death tolls are staggering, the numbers controversial as they were often manipulated for political gain. Many agree that more than three million Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians died between 1955 and 1975 defending their countries from outsiders. Another approximately 58,000 Americans were felled trying to "stop the spread of Communism" even as Richard Nixon opened the diplomatic door with China. Such irony!

I can't say enough about this must-see film. I wish it could be used in every high school history class in the country. Yes, it is emotionally exhausting. Each of the ten episodes runs about an hour and a half. You may have to take breaks. But I defy you not to be devastated when you see the faces of the South Vietnamese families on the grounds of the American embassy in Saigon days before the fall, not realizing that America was not going to keep its promise. No rescue was coming. No matter that they served as interpreters, drivers, guides, or servants to American troops. Once again I was reminded of Bruce Springsteen's cri de Coeur, "War! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing..."

There are lessons here if we're willing to listen.

Monday, October 30, 2017

I'm Back in Florida and Reading Like Mad!

Apologies to all for my AWOL status. While on the road from Maryland to Florida I learned of the sudden death of a dear, longtime friend in Massachusetts. Home only long enough to exchange one suitcase for another, I flew north for several days of reunions and reminiscences. It was a bittersweet time for reflection on family and friendships.

So what better way to face the long flight back than to delve into a new book, due out this week, about - you guessed it - family and friendships. "Seven Days of Us" by Francesca Hornak kept me happily occupied for the three hours plus that we hurtled through the air with Jet Blue.

As I was reading I kept thinking, this is made for the stage. In fact, it presents almost like a screenplay, with short, punchy chapters that each focus on a different member of the Birch family as they face the week between Christmas and New Year's, often tense in the best of circumstances, under a medical quarantine at their rambling estate in the English countryside.

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Daughter Olivia is a physician whose penchant for helping out in the remotest parts of the world rarely brings her home for the holidays. That's just the way she likes it. But this year, she's been in Liberia facing a crisis that sounds much like the Ebola outbreak and, until she's declared disease free, no one can leave the house.

Her folks, Andrew and Emma, dance around each other like strangers. Each appears lost in his own world, Andrew's, a career decision hanging over his head, and Emma's, a potential life-threatening diagnosis. During their long marriage they've grown apart and lost the joy of communicating.

And then there's Phoebe, the younger daughter, always considered a flighty, flibbertigibbet, whose only interests are clothes, makeup, jewelry and beating her friends to the altar. Maybe that's why she's accepted a marriage proposal from George, a pompous slacker from a wealthy family with whom she's been keeping company for years.

I've often thought how problematic families can be. After all, just because they are related by blood doesn't always mean that they have much in common in terms of interests, passions, or temperaments. Put yourself, if you can, into the Birch family's situation and think about the potential for volatility when an outside party suddenly enters the frame.

Because that's just what happens when Jesse, a young American filmmaker in search of his birth father,  (and maybe a documentary), tracks down Andrew and decides to just knock on the door. Merry Christmas! A delightful character, Jesse is the catalyst the breaks the repressed Birches wide open. Hornak's prose is snappy, funny, poignant, and sarcastic in equal measure. Why was I not surprised when I read that her novel has already been optioned for British TV?

This is a warm, wonderful read that explores the quirkiest trait that most families share. We may not always like each other but, oh, how we do love each other.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Jonathan Dee's The Locals

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It's a shame that you'll never see author Jonathan Dee's books on the New York Times bestseller lists. No, we'd rather read Patterson, Baldacci, and Grisham while so-called literary fiction languishes on the back burner. But Dee's last novel "The Privileges," was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. The reason is that the man has vision and courage. He's not afraid to point out the flaws in the people who are just the ones who might be buying his books.

I was drawn to "The Locals" because it's set in the Berkshires where I grew up, specifically, Great Barrington, Stockbridge, Lenox, and Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Dee has surely spent some time there because he has the atmosphere down pat. The notorious love/hate relationship between the locals and the folks who come up from "the city" along the Taconic State Parkway for summer weekends, autumn leaf gazing, and winter ski trips. We love them because they pump their over abundance of bucks into the local economy. We hate them because we need them.

This amazing, clever, sly novel is set in the fictional southern Berkshire town of Howland, post 9/11. Local building contractor and general all around nice guy Mark Firth has unwisely invested what little spare money he had in a Ponzi scheme. His business is suffering, not to mention his relationship with his wife who had to go back to work to bail them out. Karen seethes with resentment, a fact that also colors her relationship with their daughter Haley.

Their next door neighbor is a wealthy New Yorker who seldom uses his gorgeous oversized home. People in town resent him too. How come they're all struggling to make ends meet when someone like Phil Hadi can let a palace like that sit empty half the year? Until 9/11 that is. Hadi, a money manager with billionaire clients, moves his family permanently to the Berkshire home to get away from the likelihood of another terrorist attack on the city. He wants an armed fortress. Money is no object. Mark Firth is glad to oblige.

And so begins a novel that pits the wealthy outsiders against the local people who are often just living paycheck to paycheck. Hadi loves the Berkshires so much that he decides to run for Selectman after the death of Howland's lackadaisical part time leader. At first the locals suspect that Hadi is just having fun at their expense. He eschews a paycheck, and even bails out several small businesses on the QT with his own funds just to maintain the illusion that the town is doing great. Eventually the locals come to depend upon Hadi, which is all well and good until he tires of his little social experiment.

This compelling book nails every little truth about small town life. I could visualize every pickup truck filled with carpentry tools, every bagel shop where the "live-heres" and the "come-heres" share turf. There's an hysterical chapter about a pretentious new farm to table restaurant  (I even know where it is). The locals save for a year just to step inside the doors while the city people tweet and blog about the $100 four ounce piece of meat decorated with sprigs of mystery grass.

Dee also gives us some wonderful secondary characters. I especially enjoyed Mark's sister Candace who saves the barely functioning library and begins surreptitiously allowing abused kids who've run away from home to sleep overnight in the children's room. Then there's the quintessential Century 21, gold-jacketed, fast-talking real estate agent, Gerry, who uses his unsold listing properties to meet co-workers for casual sex.

If you've ever grown up in a small town or wished you had, this new book from Jonathan Dee is a must-read. It's not all Norman Rockwell any more, but a seething cauldron of pettiness, fear of keeping up, and marriages held together by fraying tethers of economic necessity. Dee has the courage and the talent to shine a light on it.