A small group of seven gathered at Connie’s home yesterday to discuss John Grisham’s non-legal story, A Painted House. Set in 1952 Arkansas, it is a slice of life tale of small time cotton growers.
All in attendance agreed that the book’s greatest flaw was in Grisham’s choice of making his lead character and narrator a seven-year-old boy, whose recall and maturity of thought was unrealistic, as was his ability to carry out the chore of painting his family’s house. Some readers found that the story had no strong center, others that it took too long to get to the point. All that said, there were some strong points to the novel, including the sense of time and place, the rendering of community, and the depiction of awe at the technological invention of television.
No one hated the book, but the response was not in general highly enthusiastic. On to our next selection
Can a nearly septuagenarian woman be moved to getting a lump in her throat and a few tears in her eyes by re-reading E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web? Assuredly, yes.
I re-read Charlotte’s Web today as part of a book challenge; the assignment was read a book released the year that we were born. This classic is a favorite memory from more than thirty-five years ago, my two sons cuddled either side of me on our loveseat. All three of use reveled in White’s sweet yet unflinching world. Just hearing those two words, “Charlotte’s” and “web,” resurrect loving feelings and a spring of emotion to well in my heart. This was an easy choice for the challenge. The question was would it be as impactful now as it was then?
White’s story obviously is to be enjoyed as a children’s tale, but also can be read as an allegory for how people of different characteristics find ways to get along. Charlotte’s Web is told with heart, love, emotion, and humor, with some tension and suspense, and is in addition a lovely way to teach children about the circle of life. As Charlotte says, “After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little, we die.”
Far from depressing, Charlotte and her friends, animal and human, illustrate how we use the time we are allotted is what makes life worthwhile.
Garth Williams lovely pen and ink illustrations enhance the story.
This classic should be read and re-read over the course of one’s lifetime. Its gentle tone soothes the soul and offers hope and comfort. We can all use a little of that. An American treasure.
On a hot August afternoon, nine good books good company members gathered at Terrazza Meditterannean Restaurant to close our 2021/2022 reading year. All present found Kirstin Hannah’s The Four Winds, a story of The Great Depression, the dust storms, and American migration from the Dust Bowl to California to be profoundly compelling and moving.
We recognized that Hannah did her homework. Her realistic portrayal of the immense losses suffered by millions during the Great Depression: loss of work, of land, of control, of life itself, and of the toll that extreme poverty takes on its victims, the hunger and disease, is devastating. Large scale farmers’ inhuman treatment of migrant workers, (We learn how bad it is owning one’s soul to the company store) whose awful, horrid situations are through no fault of their own, is soul-destroying. How the poorest of the poor share what little they have with those with even less, how they hold each other up through unfathomable tragedy, and the courage they show to change their condition, are the ray of hope in this seemingly hopeless story.
Noted was how deftly Hannah paired the events of that era with our own, particularly the treatment of migrants/immigrants as well as the cataclysm of climate change. Much of the conversation revolved around the hard choices the central characters faced, and why and how they made their decisions. We saluted the strength of the women: Elsa, the protagonist, whose bravery is hard fought for and hard won; Rose, Elsa’s mother -in-law, who with her husband Tony stay on their Texas farm; Loreda, Elsa’s daughter, naturally fearless, whose courage is hard-wired and who helps her mother discover her own innate fortitude.
While there was some minor quibbling about a few of the plot points, we agreed that this wrenching novel touched our hearts.
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In other news, Rosanne has stepped back from co-chairing good books good company but will remain as an enthusiastic member. Connie will joing Mary as co-chair and continue managing the blog.
Several book titles were submitted for consideration for 2022/2023. Mary developed a voting system which she sent electronically. We encourage all members to vote for next year’s reading list. Please be sure to vote by August 8.
We will next meet on the first Thursday in October at Connie’s house. At that time we will decide locations for future gatherings. More details to come once the reading list is compiled. In the meantime, keep cool, everyone!
I tried to read Toni Morrison’s revered Beloved soon after it was released in 1987 but found it impenetrable. I recently read Margaret Atwood’s contemporary review in New York Times, and it gave me a base upon which to ground my reading. I gave it another try.
Both in its subject matter and in its complexity, Beloved is an immensely difficult book to read. At 324 pages it is not long, but it is of necessity a slow read, one in which the reader must give full concentration to absorb its meaning. Non-linear, with multiple points of view, in part realistic, in part ethereal, a ghost story, a story filled with memories, it must be consumed slowly, purposefully.
It is 1873, in the South. Blacks are technically free, but that is not their reality. Thirty-something Sethe has had four children, two boys, two girls. The youngest, unnamed, died at the age of two under hidden circumstances which come to light as the story unfolds. On the baby’s headstone, Sethe wishes to have engraved “Dearly Beloved,” words from the funeral service that touched her. But she can afford only one word; she chose “Beloved,” and the way she pays the engraver is heart-wrenching and terrible. Beloved’s ghost haunts the house in which Sethe and the rest of the family resides. Later she appears in visible form. Or does she?
This is a story about slavery. Morrison “render[s] slavery as a personal experience.” Characters’ histories are revealed through their memories, which are increasingly awful and horrifying. (Morrison tells us that “the herculean effort to forget [is] threatened by memory desperate to stay alive”). It is a story in which human beings are property, treated like animals or worse. Physical cruelty is equaled by emotional cruelty, with families regularly torn apart, where birthing children is a requirement but parenting them is unthinkable.
Beloved is multi-layered, profound, shattering, filled with pain, loss, love, forgiveness.
Due to Oliver Sacks’ presence in the consciousness of the general population, largely because his book, Awakenings, and the film that followed, I expected The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat to be written for the layman. I was mistaken.
To get the most from this book, the reader needs a grounding, or at least rudimentary exposure, to neurology and psychiatry. Sacks relays case histories of twenty of his patients largely deep in the weeds medical jargon, its practices, theories, and hypotheses, which had me running to the internet far too often for comfort. (Though I did learn some new terminology). For about three quarters of the book I felt as though I was reading a foreign language. Yet I soldiered on and am glad that I did. Some of the pathologies that Sacks discusses are familiar (Tourette’s syndrome, amnesia) while others are less well-known to the average reader (agnosia, mnemonist). Many of the references made my head spin: A. R. Luria’s Higher Cortical Functions of Man, S. E. Jelliffe’s Psychopathology of Forced Movements and Oculogyric Crises of Lethargic Encephalitis, D. Bear’s “Temporal-lobe epilepsy: a syndrome of sensory-limbic hyperconnection.”
The saving grace of this book is Sacks deep compassion and empathy for his patients. Recognizing that studying them in a clinical setting, where they are examined and tested in unnatural and uncomfortable circumstances, does not give the clinician a full picture, he visits them in their homes. Observing his patients function as normally as their maladies allow, he is better able to treat them. He believes that clinical case histories
tell us nothing about the individual and his history; they convey nothing of the person, and the experience of the person, as he faces, and struggles to survive, his disease. There is no ‘subject’ in a narrow case history; modern case histories allude to the subject in a cursory phrase (‘a trisomic albino female of 21’), which could as well apply to a rat…To restore the human subject at the centre – – the suffering, afflicted, fighting, human subject – – we must deepen a case history to a narrative tale; only then do we have a ‘who’ as well as a ‘what…’
Sacks possesses the humility to accept the advice and counsel of the Sister who works closely with his hospital patients, and to admit that he and his fellow physicians make mistakes. He says that “[they] paid far too much attention to the defects of our patients…and far too little to what was intact or preserved.”
Sacks is at his best when he tells the patients’ story, acknowledges their full humanity, and how he adjusts his perceptions and changes course. Just one example of many: “Rebecca,” who is mentally challenged with a very low IQ, flounders in workshops and classes, (“…what we did was to drive [patients] full-tilt upon their limitations…”) and instead enrolled her in a special theater group, in which she flourished. “She loved this – – it composed her; she did amazingly well: she became a complete person, poised, fluent, with style, in each role.”
Is it worth reading such a difficult book for these sporadic understandable passages? Absolutely.
With its weird title (cool cover, though), I would not have picked up Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, A Visit From the Goon Squad. It was loaned to me so I read it. Oh, yes, I did.
It took a few chapters for me to get caught up in the flow of Egan’s book. Its unusual structure does not make for an easy read. It has no plot to speak of and the story is non-linear, as is the time line. In a kaleidoscopic exposition, each of the thirteen chapters is told from the point of view of a different character. All of these narrators are connected to some of the others, but not all of them. Seemingly ancillary characters reappear in a different chapter, in a different time and/or place, the second appearance central to the book.
Egan makes her readers work. The challenge? She does not tell us at the beginning of each chapter who is narrating, where it’s taking place, or in what time period. The reader has to figure it out. But wait. It’s not as confusing as it sounds. Egan is a gifted writer who is capable of dropping early clues and hints. It doesn’t take long to decipher the who/what/where/when.
A Visit from the Goon Squad takes place in its entirety sometime between the late eighties or early nineties and in the near future. (It appears to end two decades after September 11, 2001). The time jumps are initially jarring, but Egan’s genius is in keeping the reader able to process and assimilate the various threads of her narrative.
There are too many characters to detail, and the book’s complexity does not lend itself to brief summary. I will note this: Especially effective is the chapter told exclusively in a forty-plus page PowerPoint presentation. It is created for a school project by twelve-year-old Alison Blake. Alison chose as her topic her dysfunctional family. It is obvious that she uses her assignment to work out issues that plague it. Dysfunctional yes, but also there is much love among Alison, her brother, and her parents. Her observations are heart-wrenching.
There are a few problems with this book. A couple of the chapters seem endless (they’re not), and I found no emotional connection, at all, to many of the characters. They all have major problems, and not all command empathy. Several are flat-out unlikable. Still, these flaws do not detract from the book as a whole. It is brilliant.
Book jacket information suggests that it is a punk rock story, but it is much broader than that.
Recommended for anyone who enjoys a challenging read and something different. Stick with it. It’s worth it.
Thank you, thank you for another wonderful year of GBGC fellowship! One of the absolute joys of our book club is the never ending wealth of great reads that we put forward to share, consider sharing, or to simply consider reading individually. Thanks to GBGC my bedside table is never empty.
Additionally, Connie’s meeting round ups and personal book reviews are always outstanding! With much gratitude for your thoughtful, honest, and beautiful posts dear friend.
Speaking to Kendra in passing recently, she also shared a wonderful book podcast/blog/reader’s advisory resource that she loves. I finally had a chance to check it out, and I know for certain that I will return many times in the future. Here it is if you would like to explore!
Ten group members celebrated the end of another academic year while discussing Anne Gardiner Perkins’ Yale Needs Women: How the First Group of Girls Rewrote the Rules of an Ivy League Giant. While a couple of readers found the telling of the story rather dry and too close to the doctoral thesis it started out to be, most were enthralled with Perkins’ book. Despite misgivings, everyone agreed that it was a story worth reading. Several readers came of age, just entering, about to enter, or in college in 1969-1970, the year women were first admitted in Yale, and for those women the story was close to home; they juxtaposed their personal stories to Perkins’. Also noted that, though women have come far in fifty years, must more needs to be done for them to achieve full equality on all levels.
Noted, too, is that although these few women were admitted to Yale, they were hardly accepted. Once they were in they were basically on their own save for the President’s co-education liaison. The women’s particular needs, academic, physical, extra-curricular, athletic, and even infrastructure, were either non-existent or bare bones.
We were unanimous we in saluting these pioneers for their courage and tenacity.
Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted, by Suleika Jaouad
I heard about Between Two Kingdoms while watching a morning news and talk show. Jon Batiste, a Grammy award winning musician and late night show band leader, was being interviewed about his latest awards and spoke about this book written by his wife, Suleika Jaouad. The book sounded like a good read. It did not disappoint. Since so many members of the book club have experienced a serious illness, either themselves or a loved one, I thought this would be a book to which we could all relate. At the time I read it, I was sick with a bad case of bronchitis, but this book put me in my place. I have never experienced the type of life-changing and even life-threatening illness that Suleika has endured. I was humbled and inspired.
As the book begins, Suleika is just finishing her senior year in college. She has some strange symptoms, such as constant itching, like bug bites all over her body. She also experienced overwhelming fatigue, sometimes sleeping for hours a day. But as a college senior, she ignored the symptoms and was busy trying to get on with the rest of her life. She wanted to be an international journalist, embarkedon her career when she was diagnosed with leukemia. Thus begins a years-long battle with this illness. We see how her struggle affects everyone she loves. Most especially, we see her going through the rigors of not only the illness, but the treatment, which is horribly isolating and debilitating. Still, she is able to find a way through. Her reflections on her illness become an article she posts in the New York Times. The response to the article is so overwhelming that the editors offer her a weekly column, which launched her career. In reflecting on her own health experiences, she realized that we are all living in either the Kingdom of Health or the Kingdom of Sickness at one time or another.
After several years of treatment, she was finally declared cancer-free. Now what? She was surprised how she struggled to adapt to this new reality. She had been living with illness for so long, what is she to do with her health? Can she trust it? Although cancer free, she still struggled with fatigue and other side effects of her long treatments. She decided to embark on a long road trip, to visit some of the people who wrote to her, encouraging her and sharing their own stories. She spent about four months on the road. It was an amazing ride.
This book is a wonderful. It is not for the faint of heart, as some of the scenes of her illness and treatment are graphic, but it is eye-opening for those of us who have never experience this kind of illness. This is a coming of age story, as she becomes ill at the same time as she is trying to find her identity as an adult. It is also the story of love and loss and finding love again. It is beautifully written.
Sadly, her battle with this disease has not ended. In February 2022, after 10 years of remission, she experienced a relapse. But she continues to fight and believe in life and love. She and her boyfriend of many years, Jon Batiste, decided to marry shortly before she began preparation for a second bone marrow transplant. My hopes and prayers are that she can win this battle. She has so much to share with the world.
How the First Group of Girls Rewrote the Rules of an Ivy League Giant
by Anne Gardiner Perkins
About the book:
“If Yale was going to keep its standing as one of the top two or three colleges in the nation, the availability of women was an amenity it could no longer do without.”
In the summer of 1969, from big cities to small towns, young women across the country sent in applications to Yale University for the first time. The Ivy League institution dedicated to graduating “one thousand male leaders” each year had finally decided to open its doors to the nation’s top female students. The landmark decision was a huge step forward for women’s equality in education.
Or was it?
The experience the first undergraduate women found when they stepped onto Yale’s imposing campus was not the same one their male peers enjoyed. Isolated from one another, singled out as oddities and sexual objects, and barred from many of the privileges an elite education was supposed to offer, many of the first female students found themselves immersed in an overwhelmingly male culture they were unprepared to face. Yale Needs Women is the story of how these young women fought against the backward-leaning traditions of a centuries-old institution and created the opportunities that would carry them into the future. Anne Gardiner Perkins’s unflinching account of a group of young women striving for change is an inspiring story of strength, resilience, and courage that continues to resonate today.
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About the Author:
Anne Gardiner Perkins is an award-winning historian and expert in higher education. She grew up in Baltimore and graduated from Yale University, where she won the Porter Prize in history and was elected the first woman editor-in-chief of the Yale Daily News. Anne is a Rhodes Scholar who received her PhD in higher education from the University of Massachusetts Boston. She earned her master’s degree from Harvard, where she won the Littauer Award for academic excellence and served as a teaching fellow in education policy. Anne has spent her life in education, from urban high school teacher to elected school committee member, and has presented papers on higher education at leading conferences.
When she is not writing or doing research, Anne enjoys hiking with her family, tending her vegetable garden, and beating her children at board games. She lives with her husband in Boston and in Harvard, Massachusetts. Yale Needs Women is her first book.
Here is a link to a bunch of videos about Yale Needs Women that can be found on YouTube. They include Zoom interviews, C-Span uploads, and several interviews of varying lengths. Choose your own adventure!
On Thursday, April 7, an even dozen members gathered at Wine & Cheese Restaurant in North Providence to discuss Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House, (2020 Pulitzer Prize finalist for fiction) https://www.pulitzer.org/prize-winners-by-year/2020. It proved to be one of the liveliest discussions in our group’s long history.
While the impression was offered that The Dutch House was soap operatic, most members were engaged with the characters and unusual story. And while there was no sympathy to be found for Elna, the mother, or Andrea, the step-mother, and readers were annoyed with narrator Danny’s sense of entitlement and obliviousness, Maeve, despite her hard edges, was admired for her love and care for Danny and her resilience under a difficult childhood. Also agreed was Patchett’s brilliant choice of Danny as narrator, effective on its own, and a welcome departure from a long string of stories told from the woman’s point of view. We agreed, too, that Patchett handled well the multiple time frame; her technique did not leave readers confused.
Readers liked the close and loving relationship between the siblings, with Maeve seven years senior to Danny and serving as his mother figure (as did the house servants Fiona [Fluffy], Sandy, and Jocelyn). Their love and support for each other ensured their survival from loss, betrayal, and emotional abuse. Noted was that it was important that while Maeve was old enough to have loving memories of her mother, Danny was too young to remember much of her, if at all. It is a fact that had a permanent impact on each of them, the trajectory of their futures and their relationships.
Here is a list of Ann Patchett’s other books which may be of interest:
The Patron Saint of Liars
The Magician’s Assistant
Truth and Beauty (non-fiction)
What Now? (essay based on her Sarah Lawrence commencement address)
Even though my B.A. focus is in English, I was never much of a fan of poetry. (I know, shame on me). Recently, though, I’ve immersed myself in reading sonnets written by my friend Deborah L. Halliday, a journey that has brought me to appreciation of sonnets’ cadences and how, as Deb puts it, thoughts are carried over several lines and compels us to wait for resolution.
Deb has edited several collections of sonnets, all gleaned from the nineteenth century magazine, Godey’s Lady’s Book. They are a treasure. Thoughts Sublime is one of those collections.
For several decades during the nineteenth century, Godey’s Lady’s book was the premier American magazine, at its peak reaching 150,000 subscriptions. Initially, like most other magazine publishers of the day, Godey simply re-published material (copyright was not as strong as it later became), with a bit of new material. Soon, though, he broke new ground by publishing only new material, and with his hiring of Sarah Josepha Hale (she of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” fame), his publication took off.
Notable among its fare, Godey’s Lady’s Book featured poetry, including hundreds of sonnets. Thoughts Sublime is one of several volumes of sonnets collected by editor Deborah L. Halliday. Halliday spent years amassing bound volumes of the magazine, combing through them for sonnets, studying them and formatting them into cohesive collections. Most are grouped by topic: mourning, seasons, love, death. Others are an assortment of topics. Thoughts Sublime falls into the latter category.
Thoughts Sublime succeeds in the title’s promise. It is a lovely assemblage of sonnets, a slim volume of eighty-two poems from more than forty writers, offering myriad pieces to dip into and enjoy and upon which to reflect. In addition, Deborah Halliday’s brief Introduction is chock full of interesting information about the magazine, sonnets, and the editing process. It alone is worth the small price of the book. Halliday is a born teacher.
[T]he problem of living as a Negro was cold and hard. What was it that made the hate of whites for blacks so steady, seemingly so woven into the texture of things? What kind of life was possible under that hate? How had this hate come to be? Nothing about the problems of Negroes was ever taught in the classrooms at school… ~Rchard Wright in Black Boy
I chose to read Richard Wright’s reflections, Black Boy (American Hunger), which was on my bookshelf for years, during this Black History Month. It is hard reading, full of fear and anxiety, a book whose over-arching theme is hunger; physical, emotional, intellectual hunger. Raised in poverty in the deep South, until he was nearly twenty Wright was always painfully hungry, to a degree that he did not quality for a job with the U. S. Post Office because of his malnourishment. His family moved so frequently that by the age of twelve he had only a single full year of school. He never went beyond ninth grade. He faced brutality, frequently beaten by his parents, his grand-mother, his uncles and aunts, employers, strangers. Fear and dread are unrelenting.
Wright’s story of his life under Jim Crow law is replete with hopelessness and the wonder that he could be despised, dismissed, solely because of his color. He finds a level of salvation, at last, in books and libraries. While working as an errand boy for an optical company when he was an adolescent, a white man who was also employed there secretly loans Wright his library card, which opens up a world that Wright never imagined. He reads widely, beginning with H. L. Mencken, and moving through Dreiser, Lewis, Conrad, Crane, Dumas, Baudelaire, Stendhal, Turgenev, Nietzsche, and, as he writes, “scores of others.”
Initially, only the first section of his book, “Southern Night,” was published in 1945. It was not until 1977 that his writing was printed in its entirety with the inclusion of the second part, “The Horror and the Glory.” Part Two was left out for fear of Wright’s discussion of his involvement with Communism. Still, it is not nearly as engaging as Part I, although it does examine Wright’s continuing struggle to find his place in society.
Black Boy is far too impressionistic to be true autobiography (The opening chapter is a detailed account of occurrences when he was four years old and entire conversations are recreated), but those impressions, relaying the desperation and misery of being profoundly hated with no way out, are powerful.
What quality of will must a Negro possess to live and die with dignity in a country that denied his humanity? R.W.
On Thursday, February 3, ten members of good books good company spoke by Zoom with Chris Bohjalian, a favorite of the reading group. Five members gathered at the LSA library, five others from home. Responding to a number of questions about his most recent book Hour of the Witch sent in prior to the meeting , Chris impressed everyone with his humor and intelligence, and with his broad knowledge of the Puritan era and level of research that writing this book entailed. He also said that his literary muses are Anne Bradstreet (whom he quoted by heart), Emily Dickinson, and Mary Oliver.
Speaking from his home library, casually clad in a comfy sweatshirt (Unusual for him; when he’s on the road he is always dressed in suit and tie,) in addition to conversation we were treated to a cameo appearance by Chris’ beloved dog Jesse.
Chris discussed the twenty year gap between beginning the book in 2001 and completing it in 2021, and how the Kavanagh confirmation hearings caused him to change direction in plotting the story. He addressed also how he writes strong female characters*
Asked what is his best selling book, Chris told us it was Midwives, his fifth book. Chosen as an Oprah Book Club selection, which put him on the literary map.
After our conversation closed, the group stayed to discuss the book further. While some were disappointed in the violent ending to the novel, others felt the villain had a proper comeuppance. All of us felt that Chris was hugely successful in creating Puritan world of Boston in 1662, letting readers be immersed in the time.
A friend who knows my admiration for Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of our state (RI), generously passed on to me this memoir written by the Senator’s father, C.S. Whitehouse.
Mr. Whitehouse, Charles, or Charlie, is not a profoundly gifted writer (and he is over-fond of using exclamation points), but his talent is sufficient to achieve his purpose. He states that he “prepared” Then and Now “to give to my children and grandchildren some idea of the world I was brought up in…” He completed his work in 2000; it was released shortly after his death in 2001. The book appears to have been privately printed, with a press of a mere 2,000 units. This type of publication was once known as “vanity press,” but there is nothing vain about Mr. Whitehouse.
Not prone to deep reflection, at least not here, the story unfolds in a “and then this happened” manner. But oh, my, the “this” is fascinating.
C.S. Whitehouse was born in 1921 in Paris to a family of tremendous wealth, the level of which ordinary folk have can barely fathom. His life was one of multiple homes, including mansions and plantation, in New York, in Florida, in Newport, of a household full of servants, of fox hunts and frequent world travel, of friendships with well-known British and American upper class families. Yet C.S. Whitehouse lived by the dictum in Luke 12:48, ” For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required.” His entire adult life was one of service.
Charlie Whitehouse left Yale after his sophomore year to serve in the Armed Forces during World War II (He returned after the war to complete his degree), becoming a dive bomber in the Marines. After the war, he worked for the CIA, stationed in Brussels, Congo, Istanbul, and Cambodia. He later became a Foreign Service Officer, posted to South Africa, Washington D.C., and Guinea, and as civilian director of pacification in Vietnam for two tours of duty. He then served as Ambassador to Laos, and lastly, Thailand. In 1988, he was recruited by Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci to serve in that department as “Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict,” his last position in a lifetime of service to his country.
Early chapters telling of his ancestors is stilted in tone, but Mr. Whitehouse finds his footing writing about later years. His strongest chapters are of his time in WWII and in Vietnam. A hallmark of this slim (183 pages) autobiography is the praise that he heaps on the many people with whom he worked.
One of C.S. Whitehouse’s lifelong passion is hunting: fox, pheasant, quail, big game. Those passages were difficult to read and the photos hard to look at.
Fully aware that the world into which he was born no longer exists, he chose well the title of his memoir. Then and Now,” as he concludes, gives “the flavor of the world in which I lived so that readers will reflect on the difference between “then” and “now.”
I am happy to shelve Mr. Whitehouse’s memoir with my collection of books on Rhode Island and its history.
(Then and Now book is aesthetically pleasing, with a cloth cover featuring a reproduction of a painting of, El Destino plantation, his family’s beloved home in Florida, high quality paper and classic, elegant type, Garamond, I believe).
As one of, if not the most written about figures in American history, one would think that a new book about Abraham Lincoln is not needed. Yet Lincoln is so compelling that historians continually find new lenses through which to examine him. In Abe: Abraham Lincoln In His Times, David S. Reynolds views Lincoln through the ways in which society and culture influenced him, in both his private and his public lives. Widening the aperture to include politics, of course, Reynolds gives us a new and even fuller picture of a beloved president.
Reynolds shows how the tension between Puritanism and Cavaliers morphed into the tension between North and South, and how Lincoln kept a “Blondin Balance” (Charles Blondin was a tightrope walker who in 1859 famously kept his balance while crossing a tightrope over Niagara Falls) between these dichotomies. As Reynolds puts it, “Lincoln found in Blondin a symbol for his centrist position on major issues.”
Lincoln excelled in reading “the people,” and took his impressions seriously in his policy making. Before acting, he, as his law partner and biographer William Herndon wrote, “made observations, felt the popular pulse; and when he thought that the people were ready he acted, and not before. Reynolds continues, “He did not go beyond the people because, in his very soul, he was one of them. He knew well their lives, their tastes, their hopes.”
Reynolds later says, “Lincoln pushed hard toward justice while keeping the whole nation foremost in his mind. He progressed cautiously, shrewdly, inexorably. With honesty. With humility. With winning humor. And in the end, with his thoughts on all America, regardless of party, religion, or race.”
In a chapter entitled “Politics, Race, and the Culture Wars,” Reynolds explains, in Lincoln’s 1864 bid for re-election, his approach to campaigning:
To assault his political enemies head on through party-driven speeches would have damaged his goal of fostering cultural togetherness. In a time of national division, he saw, a president who vituperated political opponents could only deepen the rift.
Abe is worth the price of purchase for Reynold’s contextual analysis of The Gettysburgh Address alone, but it offers much more. (Include are photographs of the address in Lincoln’s own beautiful, completely legible handwriting).
Abe, a 1,064 page study of our sixteenth President, is a thorough biography that covers Lincoln’s life and ancestry. It is impossible to summarize, but anyone interested in the subject will find Reynolds’ fluid, non-academic style a pleasure. Published in 2020, it is startling to examine Lincoln’s times with an eye turned toward our own.
This is one of the books that our group won when Rosanne recently submitted our story to a book website. I will return it when next we meet so that it can be passed on to other readers.
The Mad Women’s Ball, or Lenten Ball, was an annual occasion at which invited guests of the Paris bourgeoisie flocked to watch the inmates of the Salpétrière hospital in Paris, who eagerly attend dressed in exotic costumes.
The madwomen file in; they are milkmaids and marchionesses, peasant girls and Pierrots, musketeers and Columbines, cavaliers and sorceresses, troubadours and sailors, peasant girls and queens.
It is a curious, mixed crowd, like a country fair to which the bourgeoisie have come, not to celebrate, but to jeer at the villagers in costume.
Salpétrière, literally, saltpeter factory, in 1656 was converted to a hospital for poor women. By mid-nineteenth century, it evolved into a women’s insane asylum. And by 1855, the year in which the book takes place, it was an institution in which “hysterical” and difficult women could be dumped by exasperated husbands, fathers, and others “in charge” of the female population.
The Salpétrière is a dumping ground for women who disturb the peace. An asylum for those whose sensitivities do not tally with what is expected of them. A prison for women guilty of possessing an opinion..
Victoria Mas packs a lot in her slight book, only 211 pages. She first briefly but sufficiently lays out life in the hospital, then quickly switches to the Cléry family. Dad runs the show, with Mom kowtowing to him, and even son Théophile bowing to his father’s rule. Nineteen-year-old daughter Eugénie, though, balks at the family structure. She is smart, headstrong, and independent. She also sees dead people, a perfect excuse for her father to unceremoniously dump her into Salpétrière.
The head nurse at Salpétrière, Geneviève, has been at the hospital for twenty years. She is stern and has control of the patients in hand. But she brings her own baggage.
The story unfolds as Eugénie and Geneviève collide, and as the inmates prepare for this year’s Mad Women’s Ball.
Mas bestows individual identities on the inmates; they are not a background mass for the main figures. The deftly woven characters, from those desperate to escape to the handful who have become comfortable in their surroundings and are fearful of the real world, like Thérèse, La Tricoteuse (the knitter), an older woman who is mother hen to the others, and who makes a shawl for each of them. She skillfully blends real people, Dr. Jean-Martin Chacot, who greatly influenced Freud’s work, his assistant Joseph Babinski, and their most famous patient, Louise Gleizes, into her fictional world.
Mas’ language drops the reader in the midst of 1885 Paris, from her descriptions of the city, with is cobble stone streets and horse and carriage transportation, to the characters’ specific clothing, to dialogue and internal monologue throughout. That this is carried through with an English translation from French (by Frank Wynne), speaks to her substantial descriptive talent. Only a very few awkward words and phrases appear in a fluid translation. It is genius.
The writing is almost clinical and unemotional, and while it allows the reader to keep a level of detachment, we still care about these people.
(I recommend browsing the internet for Salpétrière, the mad women’s ball, and Charcot. It’s a fascinating trip. Mas nailed it).
Elizabeth B. Splaine is from Barrington, and is fellow member of Association of Rhode Island Authors (ARIA).
For three quarters of a century, the stream of stories centered on the horrors of World War II has been endless. And that is as it should be. Telling stories is how we won’t forget, ever. Each one is valuable, worthy of being told. Each looks through a different lens, expanding our vision of the depths of depravity those years gave rise to, and, equally importantly, the core of strength, of unselfishness, of sacrifice manifested by those who survived, and those who did not.
Elizabeth B. Splaine’s Swan Song: a Novel is a breathtaking work of fiction based on historical fact. She did her homework, and while the protagonist is the author’s creation, the events and many of the people in the story are true.
Ursula Becker is a rising star in the world of opera in 1930s Germany, a young woman who bears a striking resemblance to Hitler’s niece. When Hitler meets Ursula, he becomes obsessed with her, setting into motion a tale of control, family, love, music, and of war. Ursula meets and falls in love with Hitler’s half nephew William Patrick, Willy, whose mother is Irish and who was raised in England.
Ursula spurns Hitler’s advances. She learns that she is a mischling of the second degree, one quarter Jewish. As she sees the Reich’s policies being carried out in her native Berlin, she at first shrugs it off, until the horror begins to affect those she knows and loves.
Summoned to Hitler’s getaway chalet in the country, she is ordered to perform a private concert. Her choice of repertoire enrages Hitler. In a scene at the dinner party prior to the recital, Splaine expertly ratchets the tension to the boiling point, chillingly describing Hitler’s mercurial nature, counterpointed to his volatility and his ability to ingratiate and mesmerize.
Ursula is soon trapped in a spiral of events, losing control of her own destiny. Her plans to escape with Willy to England are thwarted. They are separated and she is sentenced to Terezin, a Jewish ghetto near Prague. Terezin is a de facto concentration camp in which many artists, musicians, actors, and authors were confined.
Music is an essential element of the story, not only in Ursula’s personal life, but in the survival of the prisoners of Terezin. Ursula, in partnership with composers, singers, and accompanist, creates an oasis of hope as they rehearse and eventually perform Verdi’s Requiem at Terezin. It “reminded her how powerful music could be, especially when combined with hope.” She believes to her core that “art is not what we do. It is who we are.”
As a retired opera singer herself and now classical voice teacher, Elizabeth Splaine understands that music is significant, even essential, an understanding which imbues her story with truth and honesty.
Elizabeth Splaine brilliantly portrays Ursula’s anguish over the tension between acceding to her moral center and survival, and her slowly growing maturity from self-centeredness to caring about those around her.
Without hyperbole, Splaine deftly and unwaveringly threads together with a pointed needle the startling parallels between WWII Germany and present day America.
Ursula reflects on the “future denied,” two words that took my breath away, for all those sent from Terezin to their deaths at Auschwitz, of all those who perished in the many concentration camps.
Swan Song rightfully takes its place among the canon of WWII stories. Page after page, my heart was in my throat, a sob about to erupt. Not to be missed. Highly recommended.
Qian Julie Wang came to the U.S. from China the same year that my daughter Lilia was born. As a result, I visited the China of 1994 and, along with my mother, returned home with our “beautiful gift from Asia” – the English translation of Lilia’s name. The “one child family” policy was still very much in effect and intellectuals were carefully watched and criticized during the last decade of the 20th century. Qian Julie Wang was seven years Lilia’s senior when she and her parents (both previously professors in China) moved to NYC with the hope to live “under the radar” as undocumented immigrants. Life in “Mei Guo”, or beautiful country – the U.S.A – had to prove to be a better reality for their small family, wouldn’t it?
Julie’s story is one of witnessing her parents as they did whatever it took to earn enough money survive, avoiding officials and the INS at all costs, and as a young girl being thrust into an English speaking classroom to “sink or swim”. She did more than swim as she came to embrace her role as an gifted academic leader ultimately attending an excellent school in New York and graduating first from Swarthmore College, and later from Yale Law School. Wang’s firsthand account is riveting. Especially the telling about the challenge of her mother’s emergency hospitalization and the toll it took on both of her parents. She honestly depicts an America as seen from the eyes of a young tween trying just as hard as she can to support her family and put one foot in front of the other. Large shoes to fill, indeed. Qian Julie Wang is now a legal advocate for civil rights and education.
“Chatting books” is one of our favorite past times, isn’t it? I was doing just this with a book buddy a week or so ago and mentioned the excitement I experience as a librarian when a student comes in looking for a really good “true story” and I’m able to fulfill the request right on the spot. Yes! Nonfiction that grabs and holds the reader just as well as a fictional adventure/thriller is such a wonderful experience. I was sent home from our visit with a copy of The Feather Thief, and it proved to be a winner!
History (the story of birds, the exploitation and marketing of their feathers to the point of threatening extinction of numerous species in the late 19th and early 20th centuries) + Characters with obsessive personalities (Natural history collectors such as the UK Rothchild family, a scientist/ornithologist, explorer, Alfred Russell Wallace – a peer of Charles Darwin, and a 21st century musician who saw exploiting the fly-fishing feather trade as his ticket to owning a titanium flute) + An author who tells just enough = a book to share 3-4 days with sometime soon!
Despite false optimism on social media, novelist Chris Bohjalian writes, many of us continue to struggle as the pandemic barrels toward its two-year anniversary. But being open with yourself and others can help.
This article, by author Chris Bohjalian, appeared in The Boston Globe this week. As he will be our visiting author on February 3 (via Zoom), I thought that you might like this article.
On the Zoom session, you will note that Chris is hoarse. He address that within the piece.
You may have heard of an author named JoJo Moyes, most famous for her bestseller Me Before You, which was made into a movie.
Louisa Clark is a young woman in need of a job. Her father, a groundskeeper at the Manor, tells her of an opening for a personal assistant to Will Traynor. Will was an active, athletic young man until a motorcycle accident left him a quadriplegic. Will feels he has no reason to live. His mother hires Louisa to get Will back out in the world and to find hope. Louisa and Will develop a bond that transcends their professional relationship, but is it enough to convince Will to want to live? It’s a wonderful story, the first of a three part series. I highly endorse reading them all.
Moyes writes a good historical fiction. The Giver of Stars is a novel set in the hills of Kentucky during the late 1930’s. The protagonist, Alice Wright, is a young Englishwoman who falls in love with the heir to a Kentucky coal mine. After their marriage, they move into the family home. Alice is bored and lonely, looking for something to keep her busy. She meets Margery, a woman who is a bit of a renegade, who has started a traveling packhorse library that brings books to the poor of Appalachia. These women spend their days on horseback in the hills and hollers of Kentucky. This is based on a real packhorse library system, initiated by Eleanor Roosevelt. I really enjoyed this story and think it would be a good selection for our book club.
If you wish to read more about Jojo Moyes, here is a link to her website ~ CRC:
Death at Greenway by Lori Radar Day is another novel of historical fiction. Set in England during WWII, Death at Greenway focuses on the impact of the war on English citizens. During WW II, more than three million people, most of them children, were evacuated from London and other major cities. Ten children were evacuated to Greenway House, the holiday home of Agatha Christie. Bridget Kelly, a nurse in training, is sent to Greenway House to care for the children. The story focuses on Bridget and her relationships with the other nurse in the house, whose name is also Bridget Kelly. In time, we learn things aren’t always what they seem. Filled with intrigue and yes, murder, Death at Greenway is suspenseful and keeps you guessing until the end. I enjoyed it and recommend it as a GBGC future selection.
Yesterday a good number of our members gathered for food, beverages, and conversation. at Tumblesalts Cafe in North Providence. We had a lively discussion of our annual Christmas selection. This year’s book, suggested by Mary, was the inimitable Fanny Flagg’s charmer, A Redbird Christmas. Everyone agreed that the light fare was just what we needed at this busy time of year and after a rough year-and-a-half of life during Covid.
Noted was the pleasure of reading a book about, well, nice people, and though the many threads may have been tied up a bit too neatly at the end and some of the story unbelievable, it didn’t matter. A Redbird Christmas succeeds in doing exactly what Flagg intended, to be a feel-good Christmas story of love, friendship, and community.
The brilliant Susan Orlean, author of The Orchid Thief and the wonderful and memorable The Library Book, here reprises some of her profiles originally printed in The New Yorker, Esquire, Rolling Stone, and Outside.
The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup: My Encounters With Extraordinary People is notable in that, although Orlean indeed profiles a handful of well-known, or at least known, subjects (designer Bill Blass, Hollywood agent Sue Mengers [“As she tells it, Hollywood is a club that she loves to belong to, yet you can tell she never felt she really belonged. For a while, people appreciated her usefulness, which is not the same as belonging, although for a stretch it can look the same.], teen pop star Tiffany), most of her essays focus on everyday folk.
It began when The New Yorker assigned her to profile wildly popular Macaulay Culkin, and she pitched the idea of instead finding a typical ten-year old who didn’t have “an agent, a manager, or a chauffeur.” The result, “The American Male, Age Ten, ” is a delight. Here is her bull’s eye assessment of her subject, Colin: “The collision in his mind of what he understands, what he hears, what he figures out, what popular culture pours into him, what he knows, what he pretends to know, and what he imagines makes an interesting mess. The mess often has the form of what he will probably think like when he is a grown man, but the content of what he is like as a little boy.”
Orlean’s essay on Tonya Harding barely includes the ice skater; she is tangential to the story. In “Figures In a Mall,” Orlean focuses on the town, several miles outside of Portand, Oregon, where Harding lives, and how it shows us how she became who she is, and the members of her fan club who support their local hero. That the story all takes place just before Harding was implicated in the attack on Nancy Kerrigan adds a large dose of poignancy.
Other extraordinary ordinary people include a family of sisters from New Hampshire who make terrible rock music and the family in which they are raised; a New York City real estate agent who specializes in high end apartments; a group of long-time gospel singers who travel unluxuriously all over the country sharing their gift; a talented, highly rated high school basketball player who doesn’t let fame go to his head; a small town newspaper reporter who captures a place in which nothing happens but where everything happens; a young clown who revels in entertaining countless children at several parties every week; Orlean’s own hairdresser, whose shop is a bevy of fleeting conversation, both profound and inane; a trio of Bulgarian sisters who become top rated tennis players; and of course the eponymous bullfighter, the first woman to be certified in Spain. In the last, Orlean ably treads the fine line between appreciation of tradition with revulsion at the end result.
These stories were originally published between 1988 and 2001. Some of the technology that Orlean references is amusingly out of date, but the humanity she shares with us is not. The profiles are not biographies, they are snapshots of a certain moment in a person’s life. Each portrait, in different ways, is engaging and brilliant, witty and funny, heartwarming and insightful. By implication, Orlean underscores the importance of each of us, even in small ways, to the world.