Saturday, July 31, 2021

Shipstead's Great Circle Takes Readers on a Wondrous Flight

In December 1914, the Josephina Eterna, a ship carrying five hundred and twenty-three passengers and a secret cargo in the hold, burned in the north Atlantic. The captain, Addison Graves, committed an unpardonable sin. He escaped the inevitable fiery death, leaping to a lifeboat with a swaddled infant under each arm. His newborn twins, Marian and Jamie, survived, and a wondrous novel was born.

When asked last night by a friend what “Great Circle” was about I was momentarily stumped. This remarkable novel spans over a hundred years. It explores the history of women in aviation, revealing how they were exploited for Map

Description automatically generatedtheir “manly” desires, their wanderlust, their willingness to push boundaries. It touches on Roosevelt’s WPA and the wartime options for conscientious objectors. It examines sexual attractions in all their iterations without judgment or shame, and it even manages to send up the film industry, social media, and the hypocrisy of cancel culture.

I could outline the intricate plot for you but why would I do that and ruin the delight that awaits you as that plot unfolds. Surely, even if you don’t share my life-long fascination with flight, it would be hard to resist a big, fat, six-hundred-page novel that ferries readers from Auckland, New Zealand, in a great circle around the world to Antarctica, in the cockpit with Marian Graves, one of the fiercest, most independent women you’ll meet in fiction this year.

Art, the making of it and the appreciation of it, is another major theme and Maggie Shipstead’s style of writing exudes this artistic bent. She paints pictures with her words, whether she’s writing of the twins’ childhood in Montana, of Marian’s flights into the Canadian and Alaskan wilderness, or Jamie’s stint on the battlefields of Attu in the Aleutian Islands.

Interestingly, it’s the past that comes most alive in this story. My only complaint about this novel is its chapters that deal with current times and the making of the film about aviatrix Marian Graves based upon a fictional, romanticized version of her life. The jaded actress Hadley Baxter who landed the role of Marian is such an unformed and, in my opinion, uninteresting character that her chapters seem to fall flat. I couldn’t wait to leave Hollywood and return to the ‘40’s with Marian, Jamie, their lovers and friends.

Nevertheless, Shipstead’s glorious, descriptive language saves the day and is likely what makes her such a sought after travel journalist – take a look at some of her essays - , and her stints at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Stegner fellowship at Stanford must have all led her to this third novel after “Seating Arrangements,” and “Astonish Me,” and the recent honor from the Booker prize committee. I must brag and tell you that I had already added “Great Circle” to this year's top ten list before it was nominated for the Booker long list.

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Love is All Around TJ Klune's House in the Cerulean Sea

The cover art was the initial reason I added TJ Klune’s book “The House in the Cerulean Sea” to my endless “to read” list. Then a person dear to me mentionedText

Description automatically generated that he had read this novel and it brought him to tears. I am sorry it took me so long to get to it because, oh my, I too welled up at the predictable but delightful ending. And who doesn’t fall in love with an author who uses the word cerulean?

Our hero, Linus Baker, is particularly good at his soul deadening job as a caseworker with the Department in Charge of Magical Youth (think J. K. Rowling) He lives in a future that lacks color, all beige and brown and gray. His office is a cubicle denizen’s nightmare, a warehouse of people mesmerized by their computer screens, not allowed by their superiors to interact with each other, to have personal items on their desks, or to speak without being spoken to.

Imagine Linus’ fear when he is called, without explanation, to the ominous fifth floor Office of Extreme Upper Management where, rather than being fired, he is assigned to spend a month investigating an orphanage where the children are so magical that they are deemed a menace to society. Because Linus has proved himself to be a bland, strictly by the book caseworker, the powers-that-be have no worries that Linus will quickly recommend the closure of Marsyas and the suspension of the manager, Arthur Parnassus.

Packing up his cat Calliope and his lone suitcase, boarding the train with trepidation, Linus leaves his dreary existence behind. His life will never be the same. Marveling at the smell of the sea, the colors of the flowers, the warmth of the sun, something inside Linus unfurls. His soul ignites. He is unabashed when greeted by Ms. Chapelwhite, the sprite who is the caretaker of the island, and nonplussed when accosted by the first of the six remarkable children he’ll be evaluating, a feisty little bearded girl named Talia who just happens to be a gnome. There’s also Lucy, short for Lucifer, and Sal, a little boy who’s been so abused that he turns himself into a cowering puppy when spoken to harshly.

Here you must suspend disbelief and go with Klune’s marvelous imagination and quirky sense of humor. Fantasy has never been my bailiwick, but this novel won my heart. As Linus gets caught up in the children’s daily routines, comes to recognize Arthur’s love for his charges and skills as their teacher, and overcomes his own innate trepidation of anything new, he too loses his heart.

This David and Goliath story will have you laughing out loud, then dabbing at your eyes with a tissue, as you cheer for this bizarre band of misfits as they learn to navigate the shoals of societal disapprobation, facing the fear and rage that their existence elicits in the townspeople, a theme so apropos for our current times. And you’ll feel joy as you witness the burgeoning relationship between Linus and Arthur, hoping beyond hope that they choose to follow their bliss. A wonderful, uplifting read for those suffering from pandemic emergence syndrome and the rest of you as well!

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Clint Smith on How the Word is Passed

A few weeks ago, my friend Don and I tuned in to a Terri Gross interview with “Atlantic” writer and poet Clint Smith. I thought we were somehow listening to Don’s grandson; their voices share a deep quality of calm and kindness. I immediately placed a library hold on Smith’s new book “How the Word is Passed.” The subtitle of this fascinating character study/guided tour/memoir is “A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America.” Though the subject How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across Americamatter is deeply disturbing and already known to many of us, there is still an element of surprise for every reader, no matter your knowledge of our country’s darkest history.

Smith was raised in New Orleans and begins his study of the overt and sometimes more covert markers of slavery at the plantations not that far from his home. He arranges for guided tours, comparing the ways in which operators of these places address or fail to address the lives of the enslaved families who were held in them. He takes a particular interest in the questions that are posed from other tourists, questions that might indicate a complete lack of understanding of what they are seeing. These are the folks he approaches after the tours are finished hoping for an interview. When they comply, they are eye-opening!

One of the most horrific locations that offers tours, and a grotesque gift shop, is Angola prison. Thanks to Jesmyn West’s exquisite novel, “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” I was aware that Angola began as a plantation where prisoners were leased to the state and worked to death. Even in the 1800’s the editor of the New Orleans “Daily Picayune” wrote that a death sentence would be more humane.

Smith goes to Galveston Island to hear about the first Juneteenth celebration and heads to New York City where a walking tour on slavery and the underground railroad makes clear that the north was no innocent bystander in the slave trade. In fact, enslaved people cleared the way for Broadway to be built and constructed the wall that Wall Street was named for.

No book about slavery would be complete without a trip to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia plantation where he lived with his enslaved mistress Sally Hemmings and their children. Smith spoke at length with the directors of programming at Monticello about the drastic changes they have made to the tours of Monticello in light of the Pulitzer Prize-winning work of Annette Gordon-Reed, “The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family.”

Clint Smith has deeply researched and annotated this book and yet it is wonderfully personal, not at all academic. He bookends his travels with conversations with his grandparents, recognizing that the best primary sources were living right next door. “My grandfather’s grandfather was enslaved.” He repeats this mantra almost as if he disbelieves it. But while pushing his eighty-nine-year-old grandad’s wheelchair through the African American Museum of History and Culture they come upon Emmett Till’s casket. His grandfather reminded Smith that Till was killed only a few miles away from where he and Smith’s grandmother lived.

There is a proverb attributed to Africa, perhaps Ghana, that says “When an old person dies, a library burns down.” There are various iterations, but the idea is clear, and Clint Smith got it. Historically accurate yet rich with personal anecdotes, “How the Word is Passed” should be required reading for our members of congress as they contemplate the calls for reparations for slavery. Smith offers us both truth and reconciliation. A wonderful read.


Wednesday, June 23, 2021

The Beauty of Your Face is Truly Beautiful

Sahar Mustafah’s debut novel is a stunning achievement. “The Beauty of Your Face” was called one of the most anticipated novels of 2020 but it never really seemed to gain traction and I had to wait forever to get it from the library. It is advertised as a book about a school shooting, a subject that might turn many The Beauty of Your Facereaders away in these increasingly violent times, but please be assured that the shooting is a minor piece in this beautiful exploration of Islam, the culture and the religion.

The action does begin on a normal school day at the Nurrideen School for Girls where Afaf Rahman, the principal fields phone calls from the moment she hits her office door. Not that she minds. It took years for the local Islamic community to raise the funds for this progressive high school and the sounds of her girls laughing, chatting, learning, is the sound of music to Afaf. Still, she takes a moment to slip away to a small closet where she keeps her prayer rug when it’s time for a respite. Lost in thought, on her knees, facing Mecca, she wonders why she hears fireworks, then the screams, and finally the realization dawns.

Mustafah leaves us there, hanging in fear, and goes on to pen a family story, Ataf’s reminiscences of her secular childhood here in Chicago, the family’s flight from persecution in Palestine, her father’s difficulty acquiring steady work, and her mother’s utter hatred of all things American. When Afaf’s older sister Nada, her mother’s favorite, disappears, weeks, then months pass with no news and Afaf’s mother slowly loses her mind while her father seeks solace in the comfort of religion.

To keep us on the hook, Mustafah returns to the present day and the school in brief chapters where we try to relate this calm, level-headed principal, confronting and even questioning the shooter, with the depressed, rebellious young Afaf who barely survived her own school years as her family fell apart and she understood that she could never fill the hole in mama’s heart left by Nada’s disappearance.

I don’t know that I have ever read a novel that so perfectly describes the lure of a religious sect as this one does. The comfort and solidarity offered by the mosque saves Afaf’s life, drawing her closer to her father while further eroding the gulf between her and her mother. When Afaf and her husband decide to make the Hajj, the ultimate pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia that all Muslims are called to complete during their lifetimes, Mustafah explains the logistics and the importance so clearly that I truly had an ah ha moment.

This lovely novel, overflowing with joy, love, and forgiveness, would lend itself to fabulous book discussions. Check it out!

Monday, June 14, 2021

What Comes After, the Answer to my Plea

The search for an uplifting, beautiful read has finally come to an end thanks to librarian and book reviewer Gloria Drake who recommended an incredible debut novel by Joanne Tompkins called “What Comes After.” This book was exactly what I was looking for, especially after wallowing in Russell Banks’ harrowing novel of a self-absorbed documentary film maker who, in a bid to unburden himself of all his sins at the end of his life, turns the camera on himself. If you ever wondered if you could support MAID, medical aid in dying, his book, “Foregone,” would convince you.

Joanne Tompkins has created characters so real, so nuanced, and so complicated What Comes After: A Novelby the slings and arrows of living that they burrow into your heart and remain long after you’ve sighed over the final page. The catalyst for the story is a murder but the heart of the book is family, those we are born into and those we build for ourselves when our blood relatives may be physically or emotionally unavailable.

Tompkins is such a wise writer. Perhaps her intuitive take on human nature comes from her first career as a judicial officer and mediator for the courts. Her tender treatment of Evangeline, a feral, conniving, hard-shelled teenager, abandoned by her mother, living in a ratty trailer in the woods outside of a coastal Washington town, can only be informed by those she interacted with in the courts on any given day.

Not long after Isaac’s son Daniel, a senior in high school, star athlete, destined for greatness, disappears, and is later found brutally murdered, Isaac walks his property searching for Daniel’s dog Rufus and discovers Evangeline, dirty, cold, starving, a stray in need of a home. He takes her in for the night, not even realizing how badly he needs to fill the hole in his big old drafty home and his empty heart, but also not comprehending just how calculating Evangeline has been or that she may have a clue to Daniel’s death, and oh yes, that she is pregnant.

Isaac is a Quaker, as are many in the community, but his faith has failed him even as it has ingrained his psyche. He has perfected the ability to hide behind silence, a trait his wife faulted him with as she walked out the door years ago. As he and Evangeline dance around each other, each bound up in his carapace, readers get a primer on Quaker practice and theology as well as insight into the debilitating, maybe even insurmountable effects of years of loneliness and distrust.

And then there is the forgiveness we are all called to bestow. Living next door to Isaac and Evangeline is Lorrie whose losses mirror Isaac’s own. She too is mourning the death of a son, Jonah, once Daniel’s constant sidekick, then his murderer. Evangeline, yearning for a mother figure, opens to Lorrie’s kindness but Isaac’s anger is excruciating to witness when he even thinks of Lorrie and Evangline together.

Can these people, so beaten down by the act of surviving, ever find the grace to accept a future that may look quite different from what they expected yet may be filled with surprising rewards? We hope with ever fiber of our being that they will.