Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Simonson's Summer

Tradition. Hypocrisy. Friendship. Love. Freedom.

I just finished reading The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson which takes place in the small town of Rye in East Sussex, England just as World War I was beginning. The heaviness of war looms over the town so full of its own virtue that it fails to see its own hypocrisy. Sometimes it takes a stranger to uncover certain truths.

Enter Beatrice Nash. Beatrice is a young woman who moves in to start a new life as a Latin teacher after losing her beloved father. She is given a warm welcome by one of the town'a matriarchs: Agatha Kent, the wife of a government official and the aunt of two interesting young men: Hugh (an intelligent surgeon in training) and Daniel (an irreverent poet). Agatha immediately connects with Beatrice. Beyond their age difference, they are much alike: strong, smart women who respect tradition and social customs. But when tradition begins to conflict with social justice, this respect is tested at every corner.

Simonsen delicately paints a picture of a small town and all of its contradictions. Welcoming, quaint, and not as tolerant as it likes to believe. When Belgium refugees come to town, a wave of sympathy creates a swarm of hospitality for the desolate group. Language barriers are overcome with compassion. Beatrice points out that Celeste (a refuge under her care) probably doesn't understand English. The maid wisely responds that it doesn't matter. "Just a kind voice in the dark is all we want most times." But when an awful secret is discovered about the young Celeste, the town turns its back on the girl. Unfortunately, this won't be the only bias Beatrice will observe or experience. Issues such as proper behavior, the appropriate place of women, and lack of opportunity for certain social classes infiltrate the story until the war comes – when the small town conflicts are overshadowed. Doing the right thing becomes a matter of life and death.

There are many endearing characters in this story. Free-thinking writers. Ambitious students plagued by their social class. There is a clear division between the young and the old. And, of course, there are models of feminists in all classes who offer a quick wit and confidence. Often, these confidences are challenged in the name of tradition. Beatrice's spirits wanes when she discovers her father's follies and her dream of becoming a serious writer is undermined because of her gender. But her faith and determination lay the groundwork for good.

There are many beautifully-written passages throughout the story. This description of a schoolroom reflects how effortless Simonsen weaves imagery, characterization, and metaphor:

"The schoolroom called to her as if it were the sweet voice of civilization itself, summoning her to the white marble halls where poetry and mathematics, painting and song all echoed together in peaceful harmony."

Everything in the passage above juxtaposes the war.

Within the framework of all of war-borne incidents are love stories – the most evident between Beatrice and Hugh. Witty banter serves as a playful reprieve from the heavy issues surrounding the story. Simonson didn't need these love stories to make the novel compelling. But I, for one, love a romance. And nothing elevates the passion of a romance like war. And nothing elevates the cruelty of war like a romance as told here:

"That some should sit mourning in a drawing room, or smoothing the brow of a dying boy, while in a cottage on a cobbled street, two young lovers could only choose to stand against the shocking burden of death and loss with their love and their passion."

I picked up this book because I loved Major Pettigrew's Last Stand. Perhaps this author resonates with me because she so perfectly captures the idiosyncrasies of small town life. But Helen Simonson is also an intricate storyteller who can cleverly expound a moral tale without preaching. Don't think of this book as another war story. It's much more. It's a great tale of tolerance and freedom – freedom to create a life that matters even in the throes of war... or small-towns.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Rise of Hillbilly Literature

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance was picked up by Netflix! I love, love, love to watch movies adapted by books. There are some of those who are purists who vow not to watch adaptations. Not me. I find character interpretations on screen an interesting aspect of the storytelling process.

I read Hillbilly Elegy a couple of years ago. Then I listened to it again last year during a car trip with my mother. Admittedly, I had looked over that title several times at Barnes and Nobles before finally giving in to curiosity. Was I really interested in a Hillbilly story? As it turned out, absolutely. As a matter of fact, I just finished another book which delves into that culture –All the Pretty Things by Edie Wadsworth. Both of these stories fascinated and even resonated with me. While I didn't exactly grow up in Hillbilly territory, I did grow in Kirkman, Iowa where there was plenty of boozing and blue collar mischief. There was even a murder. Beyond my Kirkman upbringing, I'd periodically venture to my grandmother's trailer in Missouri a few times.

In Elegy, Vance tells his story of his childhood which vacillated between Kentucky's Appalachia and the factory town of Middletown, Ohio. Because of his mother's addiction problems and a revolving door of father figures, J.D.'s life was no fairy tale. His grandparents were the only constant in his life – and not that they didn't have a few issues of their own. While there are heartbreaking stories of neglect, abuse, and addictions, J.D. is quick to recognize the love that surrounded him. Hillbilly clans might kick each other's teeth in, but they're fiercely loyal to each other.

J.D. Vance becomes his own hero by escaping his circumstances and becoming the first in his family to graduate from college and eventually Yale law school. But that's not the end of the story. J.D. has demons to cope with. I believe the purpose of this book isn't only to help explain the socio-economics of rural, white America, but to expose the impact of ACE's, or Adverse Childhood Experiences. Children who grow in highly stressful situations are much more likely to experience depression and suffer from nervous breakdowns. Developing healthy relationships can be devastatingly challenges.

This memoir seamlessly integrates demographical and economic statistics of depressed locales like the Rust Belt. Vance is clever in his story-telling. One moment, you're saddened by a poverty statistic. Then, your heart is racing because of a terrifying experience he had with his mother. Then, you're giggling because of something his grandmother said to him. Or, he's learning how things work in the world of the upper crust. I laughed out loud when he retells the story of ordering a sparkling water at a swanky recruiting function:

"I took one sip and literally spit it out. It was the grossest thing I’d ever tasted. I remember once getting a Diet Coke at a Subway without realizing that the fountain machine didn’t have enough Diet Coke syrup. That’s exactly what this fancy place’s “sparkling” water tasted like. “Something’s wrong with that water,” I protested. The waitress apologized and told me she’d get me another Pellegrino. That was when I realized that “sparkling” water meant “carbonated” water. I was mortified, but luckily only one other person noticed what had happened, and she was a classmate."

All the Pretty Things by Edie Wadsworth runs in a similar vein in terms of the storytelling memoir, but without the macro assumptions of the culture crisis. This is a granular story of a charming girl from the South who has had to grow up in poverty –her single mom working hard to feed her children without any help from her father. She copes with her father's absence and recklessness by having a need to prove her self-worth through achievement. She eventually becomes a medical doctor. But this doesn't banish the demons that niggle at her. While the book doesn't state it out right, but Edie seems to be another victim of Adverse Childhood Experiences. It takes counseling and deep soul searching for Edie to find peace.

While the story of Edie's life is very engaging, I was most struck by the soulfulness of her writing style, as in this passage:

"We all have wounds, we can either open them up to the light of day so they can heal or we can keep them buried, where they will fester and one day wreak havoc on us.” 

Edie has a remarkable and compassionate spirit. During her residency she was admonished for getting too attached to her patients. There's one particularly touching scene when Edie rocks a dying baby until its last breath. She has attained the status of a doctor, but she is much, much more than that.

Despite the hardships and dire circumstances in both of these authors' stories, there seems to be an optimism that hovers. I get that. I'm not saying that my childhood was anything like Edie's or J.D.'s. I don't have the demons to deal with, for sure. I grew up with both of my parents in a stable household and never went hungry. But I understand wanting to prove my self worth. Here's the thing that I learned from reading these stories. Achieving goals can't define you or give you inner peace. It won't give you lasting happiness. Loving yourself is really the path to true happiness. And once you do that, you can love others. If we can instill this in our children as they grow up and protect them from some harsh realities, we stand a chance to create more peaceful and better communities.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Catching the End of Innocence

I read The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger many moons ago, either in junior high or high school. I remember liking it without totally understanding it. But there was something relatable about it, I remembered. A few weeks ago, I came across a copy on my mom's bookshelf and read it again. Of course, it was relatable! While my journey through adolescence was some time ago, I still remember the angst and the excitement. I also have a front row seat as my kids are growing up. This is why I have an entirely new appreciation for Holden Caulfield.

I didn't go to a private prep school. I have no sense of what it's like to grow up in the '50's. New York is almost a foreign country to me. But I still connected to this story – this strange, stream-of-conscience narrative about a boy who paints himself as an outsider and is disgusted with any bit of superficialness. Who doesn't relate to the angst of growing up, discovering others' imperfections, and trying to figure out who you really are? Not long ago, my daughter and I were having a conversation with someone who told us how difficult high school had been for their daughter – lots of pressure to fit in! Later, Alex said to me, "And she was one of the mean girls." Everyone struggles. Even the mean girls. Maybe, especially the mean girls.

Holden is a literary hero. He's so utterly self-aware, honest, tormented, and, yet, not without hope. I love that he understands how all mothers are insane (I agree), but he truly doesn't want his own mother to worry about him. It's almost a lesson in parenting. Salinger reminds us that kids do care about their parents, but they'd prefer them to back off a bit. Ageless wisdom in this era of the helicopter parent.

I'm also amused by Holden's obsession and confusion over women. He seems to be equally in love and annoyed by them. "... I didn't even like her much, and yet all of a sudden I felt like I was in love with her and wanted to marry her." Ahhh, the joy of young love. Or young lust. You decide.

Holden is most interesting because of his contradictions. He hates movies, but he seems to watch a lot of them. He worries desperately about an old crush, but he's not willing to reach out to her. His conversation with a cab driver captures this see-saw nature of Holden's sentiments:

"I let it drop... Besides, he was such a touchy guy, it wasn't any pleasure discussing anything with him."

Then Holden asks the driver to go out for a drink.

"He didn't answer me, though. I guess he was still thinking. I asked him again, though. He was a pretty good guy. Quite amusing and all."

The story takes place over a few short days, after Holden is kicked out of school, again. We don't know what lies ahead for him. But somehow we get the feeling he'll be okay – even if he isn't quite okay right now. After all, he's extremely self-aware.

"I know. I've very hard to talk to. I realize that."  –Holden Caulfield

Holden doesn't seem to know what he wants to do with his life, but it's obvious he's clinging to the innocence and sense of wonder of childhood. This is most obvious when he relates a recurring dream to his beloved little sister. Holden stands in a field of rye and catches children as they fall off a cliff. Now that's a metaphor.

Salinger reminds us how intensely we felt in our youth. The extreme highs and the extreme lows. He reminds us that it's okay to be different and to be uncertain. It's challenging stuff, but it's what connects us all. And as a parent, it reminds me to be more tolerant when I wonder what in the heck is going through my kids' heads. So, yes. It's a great coming-of-age story. But it's not a bad parenting guide as well.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Homegoing and the Power of Family Lore

It's time  to review some books! I've been reading aplenty, but I have this rule of only posting positive reviews. Don't worry. I have a few on my list to keep this blog from going dormant! But I'll start with one of my top reads from last year.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi is a stunning book by an up and coming author. She happens to be a graduate of the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop and came recommended by my smart and poignant daughter. I actually read this book twice in one year. And I'd read it again. It's just that good.

The story tracks the descendants of two half-sisters from a Ghanian matriarch during the height of tribal wars and slave trade. One sister, Effia, stays in Africa. The other, Esi, is sent to America on a slave ship. The novel cleverly weaves several short stories with unforgettable characters, African folklore, and history that would impact society for many decades. You'll definitely want to bookmark the family tree at the beginning of the novel since it begins in the mid 1700's and ends in current day.

Ms. Gyasi's writing style is effortless, lyrical, and chock full of symbolic imagery. Themes of water, earth and fire pervade the book in a way that masterfully avoids cliche. To read this novel fast would be a crime, as there are so many lovely and thought-provoking passages. I was actually somewhat reminded of Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country. (In truth, my plan was to skim it the second time for book club. But I couldn't. The language and the stories were meant to be absorbed.)

As an author and avid book reader, I will admit bias. But I strongly believe storytelling to be a critical aspect of human development. I almost feel it's child abuse when parents don't read to their children! And for anyone who only reads "non-fiction," so as not to waste time with fluff, I ask them to reconsider. Don't get me wrong, I love my share of non-fiction. But when a well-written narrative places you in an unfamiliar world and stirs you to genuinely sympathize, you cannot possibly discount the power of a story.

Such is Homegoing.

Obviously, the book reveals the oppression of Africans and African-Americans which sickens and disturbs. But. Ms. Gyasi never fails to pepper her stories with a lesson in morality and the glimmer of hope.

"You want to know what weakness is? Weakness is treating someone as thought they belong to you. Strength is knowing that everyone belongs to themselves."
–Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing

I read this and think to myself, how does one summon strength and courage through tragedy and persecution? I think of my own cushy, little life. I'm ashamed to admit the things that cause me anxiety. One of my book club friends mentioned how they thought the book was depressing. I responded that I thought it was important for us to hear these stories, to give us perspective. She tilted her head and thought about my comment. Later, she said that perhaps I was right. 

"This it he problem of history. We cannot know that which we were not there to see and hear and experience for ourselves. We must rely upon the words of others. Those who were there in the olden days, they told stories to the children so that the children would know, so that the children could tell stories to their children. And so on, and so on."
–Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing

I keep thinking about family stories – and all those that become lost through the years. I have always loved to listen to my parents and grandparents tell stories. As I grow older and as relatives pass away, I crave those stories even more, especially as the memories and details of those stories fade. For example, there's this story of an ancestor who left the Confederate Army and ended up fighting against his brothers. Who was he? What happened? I'd like to think his actions somehow formed my family's sense of justice. Of course, I have no idea what really happened. But neither did Yaa. And she created a masterpiece worth telling over and over again. 

There's lots of stories needing to be told. And as long as we have ears, we need to listen.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Maladroit and the Misanthrope

Forget fairy tales and princesses. Give me a misanthrope over Cinderella any day! I just read The Accidental Tourist and A Man Called Ove (back to back) and suddenly have a new appreciation for the skeptics in my life. I will mention no names.

The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler was written in 1985, but the story feels timeless. Macon Leary is a travel writer who doesn't particularly like travel writing. Beyond the burden of doing a job he doesn't like he has just experienced two heartbreaks: the senseless murder of his son and the subsequent departure of his wife. Macon is methodical, logical, and a bit of a maladroit. To cope with his loneliness he takes his dog and moves back to his childhood home with his sister and two brothers who also exude "Macon-like" characteristics. How many adults do you know would move back in with their siblings to find comfort? (Imagine a family who makes up an esoteric card game called Vaccination with such complex rules, no one outside of the family could possibly participate.) But it's this move that allows Macon to meet the vivacious Muriel when he takes his nasty dog to a training facility. Macon's life begins to transform in unpredictable ways.

When I began to read A Man Called Ove by Fredric Backman, frankly I was a little bit disappointed. Was this just going to be a story about your typical curmudgeon? That old guy who's quick to judge the no-good youth and is disgruntled by everyone's incapability? But I kept reading. And I wasn't disappointed for long. As I observed Ove's quest to end his life because of his immense grief, I found myself either laughing or crying. Similar to Ms. Tyler, Mr. Backman, writes his stories with humor and tragedy with an authentic subtlety. In one chapter, Ove's new neighbors disrupt Ove as he's attempting to hang himself. Not funny, but the tale is told with a wit as Ove contrasts strikingly with an awkward young IT guy and his brash wife. Haven't we all experienced that annoying disruption of a neighbor when we're trying to accomplish something? Poor old Ove continues to experience this kind of "luck" as he explores other ways to commit suicide.

Both of these books could've fallen flat by painting Macon or Ove into cliche. But these authors aren't acclaimed for nothing. The heros' journeys in these stories have a eerily similar formula:

Loner has a tragic past.
Loner is committed to a mangy pet.
Loner meets a brash women who teaches him how to connect.
Loner finds love and peace.

We begin to learn that Macon and Ove are much more than they appear–especially when we understand their love of others. This quote from Ove reflects this aspect perfectly:

"People said Ove saw the world in black and white. But she was color. All the color he had."

The stories have vastly different endings; however, the only disappointment I felt at the end of each of these books was only that I was done reading them. When characters become so real, you really don't want to leave them behind. Luckily, both Ove and Tourist have been made into movies that have been added to my Amazon watchlist. I'll see them both again soon.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

27th Lucky Agent Contest

Listen up novelists!

Information on this great contest can be found here:

Lucky Agent Contest

The contest will be judged by Irene Goodman through Chuck Sambuchino's Guide to Literary Agents blog.


Good luck!

Monday, October 3, 2016

A Tale of Two Books

Two books. Vastly different flavors. 

One book is light, refreshing, funny. The other is dark, disturbing, haunting. The books do happen to share this in common: both true stories, both take place in the Midwest.

Sweetness, honesty, and self-deprecation: great characteristics for a lovable protagonist. We’re Not Sixteen Anymore by Becky Andersen is an amusing memoir of a widow’s calculated leap into online dating. Her conversational style and witty demeanor gives off a real gal-pal essence. Imagine sitting on a deck, drinking sangria with your girlfriends, and being heartily amused by a Becky Andersen story. (What beats an anecdote about a date who makes a sport out of fishing coin out of a public toilet?) She’s a funny girl with a flair for storytelling. When a friend haughtily says to Becky, "If something happened to my husband, I'd never date or marry again. I would never let anyone else see me naked!" Becky didn't hesitate to respond. "Oh, no! I'm all for beautifying America...That means no one sees me au naturel! Ever! I just want to find someone who can come over if I need my mousetrap emptied."


Not only is this book funny, but it offers suspense! Does Becky meet "the one?" If so, who is it? The hip grandmother doesn't just dabble in online dating. She rallies to become an expert. The subtitle “A Baby Boomer's Adventures with Online Dating" could have been modified to "A Baby Boomer's Guide to Online Dating." But I think 'Adventure' is a more apt description. 

As a member of Gen X, I didn't catch every Boomer reference. However, I was easily pulled into the author's nostalgia. Who can't love the spirit of the Baby Boomers? So youthful. Charismatic. Who can't love the generation that brought us The Beatles?

While the stories are entertaining and Becky writes with a particular flourish, the book isn’t just a fluff piece. She writes with purpose and by the end of the book you realize why you’re so drawn in. At some level, we all want to connect. This is a story about connecting. Connecting with each other. Connecting the past and the future. The story ends happily-ever-after. I'm looking forward to a sequel to find out how happily-ever-after is working out.

On the other side of lighthearted, is a book I read for book club: Gitchie Girl by Phil Hamman and Sandy Hamman. My mother warned me about reading it before I went to bed. I didn’t heed her advice, but managed to stave off nightmares. The book is a horror story--a horror story about a true event.

In 1973 four teenage boys were murdered at a campsite by Sioux Falls at Gitchie Manitou State Park. Unbelievably, one girl survived. This is her insider's story. More than a factual chronology, the authors integrate the characters' histories with the events that occurred on that fateful night–making for an incredibly suspenseful read. We get to know a pretty, tender-hearted thirteen-year girl named Sandra Cheske, while reliving the details of the night, which are intricately painted with sensory detail and foreshadowing.

An excerpt:

November 17, 1973 10:30 PM

"Hey," Roger yelled. But there was no answer, and the sounds of cracking twigs ceased...Minutes passed before the soothing sounds of the flowing river and raccoons emerging from their daytime hideouts to scour for food fell into a peaceful rhythm.

The Hamman's take us back to the night. It's impossible not to read the story without developing a huge knot in your stomach. Powerful and engrossing writing.

Stuff like this can't happen in small town Iowa. But it did. It's what makes the story fascinating and immensely disturbing. While the book superbly depicts the evil act, more importantly it heralds the heros and the survivor. Sheriff Craig Vinson exudes patience, vision, and compassion. Thirteen-
year-old Sandra helps crack the case with maturity beyond her years. But a person can't live through something like that without scars. The story after her horrifying experience is as heartbreaking as the experience itself. The teenage girl who witnessed four gruesome deaths and was tortured herself didn't receive any counseling. And she was ostracized by a community who didn't want to be reminded of the terrible act.

Eventually, Sandra Cheske finds a way to make a purposeful and admiral life by raising a family and running an animal rescue organization–overcoming the evil she has witnessed. Gitchie Girl is an incredible story of survival which might leave you feeling wary of the world. But it will also leave you feeling inspired by courageous acts of tender souls.