A Tinkering of things past


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Cold, mashed mutton and murder: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent.

Iceland 1828. This book made me think of Willa Cather’s My Antonia because it blends a portrait of a woman with a time and a landscape in such a way that they become one. Nevertheless, Antonia’s destiny is sweeter by any measure. Agnes Magnusdottir’s bitter plight corresponds to the less forgiving Icelandic landscape. Agnes, 33, has been judged a murderess following a scandalous double murder on a remote farm. She is assigned shelter with the Jonasson family as she awaits execution in 19th century Danish-controlled Iceland. The Jonassons, Jon and ailing Margret are the parents of daughters, Lauga and Steina. She enters this weather-battered family circle as an unwanted, feared intruder. She’s previously been chained in a windowless storehouse so their isolated croft is a mercy. As time passes, prejudices break down and a bit of warmth escapes her captors. Steina rebels first by remembering Agnes as a young woman. A partially restored Agnes, (Icelandic standard) delivers her version of the fatal events over several weeks. Toti, an assistant reverend along with the other croft dwellers form an audience. They bear witness to Agnés’ testimony in their cramped shelter as the glacial winds howl outside. The bleak beauty of Iceland provides an ideal stage for this raven-circled tale. Kent based her novel on a true story.

We’ve all been there: The Amateur Marriage by Ann Tyler

Maryland 1944. I’m no diehard AT fan; However, I read and admired Patchwork Planet and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (film with Geena Davis and Bill Hurt) years ago.  A caller suggested TAM during a book podcast with Mariella Frostrup (BBC treasure and NOT Spanish frozen dessert). The trigger was, “Which novels would you advise to someone who was about to marry later in life for the second time?” This dubious (you’ll see) suggestion piqued my interest. If you’ve ever been part of a family or involved in a long-term relationship (aka tout le monde) AT’s story will speak to you. Humour bumps into tragedy and tragedy trips over absurdity. They all fall headlong onto poignancy in this marital saga.

It’s love-at-first-sight when Pauline barges into Michael’s stoic, grey existence sporting a scarlet hat and a vitality to match it. She seems to be the antidote to the melancholic partnership he’s grown into with his widowed mom. Pauline and Michael marry in a rush. He dashes off to war. Not long after, he returns. The couple assume their respective roles in marriage, 50s style.

A domestic war of perceptions breaks out soon thereafter. Day-to-day domestic puzzles yield radically different responses from these newlyweds. Sometimes, their perspectives are so opposed that even a wide-angle camera couldn’t capture both. Sound familiar?

Here are some questions Tyler looks at through the lens of this family:How crises expose weaknesses in some and hidden resources in others.How individuals express feelings in diverse languages.How bad luck is impossible to disentangle from ‘bad parenting’.How family alliances can be formed, fall away, and realign in a destabilized heartbeat.Finally, how distance transforms our attitudes towards past stings.

Here is Pauline observing her adolescent daughter, “She reminds me of this cat I once had-this very unfriendly black tom that flinched if you tried to pat him. But go to another part of the house and sooner or later you’d find him there too, strolling in like by accident to the very room you had just settled in”.

Mean girls and roguish boys: Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

East coast US circa 1980. CS’ protagonist looks back wistfully on her life in a posh east coast private high school in this novel. It predated her success with An American Wife of Laura Bush fame. Lee Fiora, middle-class family egghead and midwestern 8th grader propels herself east onto the foreign turf of a private high school. She applies and wins a scholarship almost on a whim. Off she goes to occupy the spot “diversified and equal opportunity” for the elite institution. Her true grit will be tested by the social wilderness she enters without a compass. The mean girls blithely confirm her sense of ‘inadequacy’. Her few allies despair of her ambition to enter the inner fray. Girl-crushes, boy sex-butterflies, undecipherable power politics, and the pecking order of teens must be reckoned with. All these matters sucked me back to teenage life. I didn’t go to a fancy prep school (part of the fascination for me) but the themes still felt accessible and universal. Was ‘Cross’ just your average 17-year old guy or a creep? I can’t make up my middle-aged mind. a little pathetic, I know.

It’s worth noting that an unfamiliar social environment can simultaneously widen one’s horizons and wither one’s self-confidence. Expatriots ears prick up.

Part 2-And now for something totally different: Mid-west USA 2013. Curtis Sittenfeld’s newest novel, Eligible, has sparked some startling reactions. After looking over one review I honestly asked myself if I had read the same novel. Jane Austen is sacred. We get it. However, the IDEA of the The Austen Project was to ‘update’ the novels in a playful manner. I think? This version of Pride and Prejudice was my labour day weekend in France (meaningless) laughfest. Who can refuse abundant mirth? Sittenfeld has set the Bennett sisters in 21st century Cincinnati, Ohio (gasp!) and given them the trappings of modern life: hook up culture, gender fluidity, new age fripperies and reality TV (fetch the smelling salts). Darcy’s elusiveness seems to stem from some sort of sexy, social disorder. (did you ever think those adjectives would follow each other?) Liz’s nimble mind and snappy judgments make her an apt women’s magazine writer. Her stern and weary heart is shackled to a 21st century cad. As tasty as ice cream (for the intellect) and less fattening. If you must eat ice cream with millennial Bennett women, may it be caramel. You can assuage your scandalized ‘Janeite’ conscience by re-watching Romola Garai ace Emma in the 2009 BBC version.

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Prep and Eligible by  Curtis Sittenfeld

The Amateur Marriage by Ann Tyler




Geranium Bookmark


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Return trip:
Post-work summer mornings begin early too. I perch on my sofa, sip scalding green tea, nibble on a warm muffin and eavesdrop on the birds. -Clearly the correct way to wake up. I then plunge into a book before everyone else emerges. I spent this summer paddling in the swell of Florentine history with the aid of Christopher Hibbert’s book, Florence: The biography of a city. Florence, a city that has been painted, scraped down and painted over again by its two thousand year history, enraptures. Like so many before me, I fulfilled a life-long dream by spending 4 days in the city (longer in dream version) a few years ago. I rushed to San Marco monastery to view Fra Angelico’s frescoes at last. I pitched mast-like under the mosaic ceiling of the Baptistery staring upwards until my neck ached. I wandered through the Uffizi gallery dazed by greatness. I turned a corner to be graced by Santa Croce under the full moon. Florence doesn’t disappoint. Although the authors and patrons of these marvels have long perished, Hibbert summons these ghosts of Florence to a meeting with his readers. He animates the dead in all their noisy, violent and passionate endeavours. He evokes the incessant clashes and the wavering alliances: papal, imperial, and social. He profiles the personalities: Donatello, Brunelleschi, Dante, and dizzying quantities of Medicis. He recalls the natural catastrophes: epidemics, floods and 19th century English emigration:-D.
Did you know that sceptical Florentines threw dead cats at Savaronola’s processions? 15th Florentine ladies defied the sumptuary laws (dress code) in favour of long-trained gowns and extravagant headgear? Dafne, the 1st opera was developed there? Napoleonic (1st one) occupiers were called ‘cloud of locusts’ or nuvoloni which resembling commissioner’s refrain- “Nous voulons…” The tidy ink drawings (in the back) and the numerous images throughout help jog one’s memory and prolong the voyage. Hibbert has apparently done the same favour for Venice and Rome. Surely I’ll hear Florentine whisperers in the city next time.
Alas, I learned from the The Guardian that Hibbert died in 2009. In addition, the obituary noted that his army sergeant had renamed him. His given name, Arthur, was jettisoned the day his superior compared him to Christopher Robin.
Any recommendations for Seville, Spain?

Submission and Subversion:
When is it wiser to just give way and when must one act? -swiftly and decisively if needs be. Characters in great novels are called upon to confront this question, and so are we, occasionally. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins was my summer ‘overlooked classic’. Hailed as one of the first detective novels, Collins wrote it in 1859. There is a triad of dissimilar women at the heart of the tale: Laura Fairlie- pretty, docile, rich and innocent (a ninny!), Marian Halcombe- homely, “masculine”, canny and not rich and; finally, The Woman in White of the title-a wispy feminine catalyst hovering just off stage for most of the intrigue. Walter Hartright, principal narrator, encounters these three women in rapid procession when he ventures out of London towards The-Middle-of-Nowhere, England. He goes off to take up a new position as a drawing master. Soon thereafter, The W in W spooks him on the road and Marian ruffles his Victorian expectations with straight talk in the drawing room. Laura appears, soothingly, the next day having recovered from her (obligatory) headache. Money, social standing and duty dominate marital agreements. Deceased parents are rampant. The novel can be imbibed in several ways: as an examination the feminine plight (legal and social) in Victorian England, as a gripping match of wits between the heinous and the righteous or as an amusing display of English characters of the period. Collins whips up the still waters of English reserve by inviting 2 Italians into the story-one very large, Count Fosco and one very wee, Tesca. Fosco dominates the later scenes of the novel like a deranged tenor who has wandered in from La Scala. Did you know that Sarah Waters modelled her bestselling thriller, Fingersmith, on Collins’ novel? Have you studied this novel at school?

Friendly advice:
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. One grey day my friend N (non-American) quizzed me about the rules of baseball. Indeed surprising, since we’d neither discussed sports before. She was reading a “wonderful” book, which involved this singularly American sport. Several days later, the book appeared in my grey locker. This contemporary story circles around Guert, the ageing dean of a small mid-western college; Henry, a talented high-school baseball player; and Mike, the man who lures Henry onto the college team with a plan of his own. This sensitively written book features male friendship at transitional moments. It’s a subject that seems fresh to me. Henry strikes out into the world trading boyhood allegiances for the risky, refreshing ties the new community offers. Simultaneously, Guert looks back over the sequence of events that have led him to the disquiet of deep middle age. Mike is struggling to locate a viable exit from life on campus. The characters grapple with the gap between aspiration and achievement on and off the field.
What are your favorite novels about men?

A Tale for the Time being by Ruth Ozecki. My friend E tipped me off after reading it with her book club. This is the kind of book that leaves trouble in its wake. I KNOW the next book will not take me prisoner in a blissful 2-week incarceration. A rebound novel follows. Never mind! The events take place in the very near past. The two protagonists are Ruth, a middle-aged Japanese-American writer procrastinating on Vancouver Island and Nao, a Japanese teenager barely sustaining her existence in Tokyo after being yanked out of Silicon Valley by her dad’s career reversal. The ‘message-in-a-bottle’ that joins them floats up in the form of a diary inside a Hello Kitty lunch box. The novel manages to blend the following subjects: bi-cultural identity; island living; Japanese café culture (code for prostitution); linguistics; Zen Buddhism; Kamikaze pilots; suicide and the malevolent side of nature in the form of storms, tsunamis and teenage bullying. A feat, right?

There are 5 pages of praise before the title page of the book I’m finishing: Those who leave and those who stay. It is Book 3 of the elusive Elena Ferrante’s quartet chronicling the lives of Neapolitan girlfriends from post-war Italy up until the present. Even Gwyneth Paltrow (Goop girl) weighs in; Gwyneth laudeth. John Waters comments that Ferrante is, “the best angry woman writer ever”. Need I add my two cents? Naw. The first novel is entitled, My Brilliant Friend. BTW, The Slate Audio Book club did a podcast about Ferrante’s oeuvre. This is my favourite book club on line. It consists of enlightened chat between likeable participants- David Haglund, Parul Seghal and Katy Waldman.

Books mentioned:
Florence: A biography of a city by Christopher Hibbert
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
A Tale for the time being by Ruth Ozecki

Six uses of a book


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Pondering the FB game of rapidly choosing 10 titles that marked you, I noticed that it isn’t necessarily the great classics that leave an impression. Sometimes a less ambitious novel drops into your empty pocket at just the right moment. Books serve a variety of purposes. I’ve tried to define why particular books flipped through my brain when I was tagged in the game.

Share the Scandal: When I was a junior in high school my good friend M. placed this book in my hand with a knowing grin. The surprising source was her mother, Mrs. K. She liked to bridge the gap from time to time by exposing a piece of adult life to us teenage girls. The book came out in 1969 and it chronicled the lives of working class women in Detroit. The book was racy and magnetic. It featured a bold, carnal and broken adult world with shiny, jagged edges. My innocent eyes were glued in a heartbeat. My girlfriend and I cackled and gasped over lurid bits for weeks, months thereafter. A warm memory has overlaid this dark narrative. Recently, The New Yorker podcast featured JOC’s short story, Mastiff, read by Louise Erdrich. Let’s say it isn’t the kind of story that evaporates discreetly in the hours that follow.    Them by Joyce Carol Oates

Drink the antidote: A book can be an instrument of comfort and escape when life renders those 2 things synonymous. I read Colette’s short stories in the days after my father’s death. Days where the past and the future broke apart and I wandered from task to rite in a dull fog of uncertainty.  Colette’s stories overflow with earthly pleasures and predicaments. There are bright colors, fragrant flowers, impromptu meals and sensual escapades. The siren song of France plays softly in the background. I reread a few stories this weekend and was struck more by the melancholic themes among the French bibelots. Nevertheless, at the time, it offered a benign alternate world; Turn two pages with a glass of water 3x a day. The Collected Stories of Colette

 Widen your empathic horizons: a book can open a door to a more enlightened you.  In 2002, Jeffrey Eugenides blazed a trail into the dark thicket of of hormonal and sexual identity problems with Middlesex. This large, baggy novel shadows the lives of a Greek immigrant family in the American Middle West . However, the main character’s rare condition, hermaphroditism, dominates the story once it emerges. The protagonist Cal/Calliope becomes a very specific individual over the course of the novel, as opposed to a statistic. The reader journeys from uneasy observer to sympathetic insider regarding gender identity issues. It is a modern classic.   The Marriage Plot is his latest novel. The author looks back at youthful expectations and the then less-understood symptoms of mental illness.   Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

 Gain perspective: My friend L handed me this tome at the precise moment I needed it: early middle age. The Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy traces the arc of a woman’s life in medieval Norway. It’s a cradle to casket saga. Lavran’s extraordinary daughter, Kristin, survives every trial of life with a fierce will and intelligence.  The climate is extreme and living conditions are spartan. Society is a treacherous place -its margins even more so. Nevertheless, there is ample joy and sensual pleasure in Kristin’s life. I was amazed by the modernity of the tale. Worlds separate Kristin and me. Yet, her trials were instructive. I recently bought a used copy of the first book on Abe books. I’m determined to reread it this year. Undset won the Nobel Priize in literature in 1928.   Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset

Doze off, vaguely terrified: I don’t know why murder mysteries relax me. I used to keep a mystery tucked under a spare mattress for insomnia bouts. Is it because they wrestle your mind away from that dark-thought spiral? You are wrenched into an imaginary place- dark, threatening and best of all, make-believe. I’ve read everything PD James has written, including her autobiography. The woman is a genius! A more recent read was The Lake in the Woods by Tim O’Brien. It began as one kind of book, an unsolved murder mystery, but ended as another thing entirely. It concerns the marriage between a charismatic, politically ambitious Vietnam War veteran and his college sweetheart, Kathy. The book begins with Kathy’s disappearance from a cottage on a lake, which they’ve retreated to after his election defeat. It is a profile of John Wade’s psychology. An examination of America’s relationship with this unpopular war is embedded there. Notwithstanding all that, what happened to Kathy? Indeed.  The Lake in the Woods by Tim O’Brien

Get guidance between the covers: (:-D not that kind) In fact, it took me a long time to recover from my youth: to cease to see myself as the sole victim of something singularly tragic. Finding the stairs out of that narcissistic cellar may be entitled, ‘achieving maturity’. I needed books to SHOW ME THE WAY. Although Rose Aubrey is a contemporary of my grandmother, lives in a crumbling villa in England, teeters on a narrow ledge of upper class respectability, and embodies large parts of her inventor, the great Rebecca West, I still identified with her in The Fountain Overflows. Her untidy family life felt familiar.  The wolf is frequently at the door of the feckless Piers’ and the harried Clare’s ménage. Their four children scramble to adapt to the changing seasons of their circumstances. West‘s entertaining narrative proves that one can weather hardship without being diminished by it. She helped me realize that you can and ought to invent your adult life. I would put Anywhere but Here by Mona Simpson in the same category. Her book concerns a mother-daughter story in which the daughter travels towards the awareness that her adored mother (and closest ally) is mentally ill. Mona Simpson described a fragment of her own compelling story on TEDtalks recently. Gossip tidbit: she discovered rather late in life that she is the half-sister of the late Steve Jobs.    The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West

Anywhere but here by Mona Simpson

Immigrating then and now


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in a forest

My Antonia by Willa Cather and A Free Life by Ha Jin

 Chez moi, autumn is a season of sly omens. The owl calls out after midnight. Mushrooms of every shade sprout overnight-some glowing and some threatening MURDER. Nuts crunch under every step. The wind rises, leaves rustle and branches creak. Rain swishes against the panes. The Gingko across the street erupts in a yellow shriek. Spiders abound, laying their glistening lace across bushes everywhere and then, ultimately, crawling silently towards warmth: yes, into your home.

And mine too. A small brown spider spun up and down from the ceiling three times during my breakfast yesterday. Charlotte?

Last night, a grey curtain of mist fell silently while I dozed. At dawn, I backed out of my driveway into a world of portentous mystery. …yes, portentous -until it lifted in late morning. Perhaps the change of season stimulates the imagination. . .In any case, it highlights nature’s own narrative unfolding around us.

The dual vision of nature as bounteous friend and bold adversary is one aspect of Willa Cather’s novel that draws me back to it time and time again. The weather defines her characters’ existences. The unsettled prairie tries and occasionally breaks these pioneers from Europe and Eastern America. Cather’s heroine, Antonia, has travelled to 1920s Nebraska on the same train as the narrator, Jim, and their lives run parallel in childhood as members of farms distant from town and close to each other. Their relations are prickly at first: driven apart by family differences. But, as hard weather lodges on the prairie they come together again.

Few of us can fathom the leap into the void that constitutes Antonia’s family’s move to Nebraska from Bohemia in 1920. They could not speak the language. They arrived with meagre material resources, dubious farming know-how and a handicapped child. Antonia’s father was a musician and a city-dweller. Cather provides glimpses of the farmers’ former countries- fled definitively, yet mourned and internalized. She has a lot to say about the comfort of familiarity and the distress of the unknown. Issues even the least adventurous of us experience at some point or other.

Later, Jim and Antonia relocate to town where we witness life in an early Nebraskan city. How is the inevitable pecking order among these disparate citizens established and maintained? How will the diverse group of young people in town react to these ad hoc conventions? In fact, this compact novel contains a rather complete spectrum of human nature as well.

What links this novel to Ha Jin’s is the interweaving of homely everyday labours with grand inquiries into what constitutes society and individual identity. What does it mean to be part of a group? What part of our identity rests on the cushion of community?

The protagonist in A Free Life begins life in the US in the 1980s as a student. Already disabused by the Chinese leadership, Nan Wu decides to stay in America following the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989. His wife, Pingping, joins him first, then their child travels alone to San Francisco 3 years later. They embark upon their life as an immigrant Chinese family.

Having obtained a masters degree, Nan Wu begins family life by renouncing academia altogether. He places his foot firmly on the bottom rung of the employment ladder. Ha Jin’s novel percolates along filling the room with the pleasant scent of intelligent observation crafted with poetic economy. The Americans are a varied and often incomprehensible group. Surprisingly, his fellow Chinese immigrants leave him with an equal sense of perplexity. He strives to understand how the respective cultures mould their citizens. As we, the readers, do also.

A poet by vocation, Nan Wu also meditates on the weight of his own artistic yearnings all but smothered by family obligations. There is a former girlfriend-muse, Beina, hovering at the edge of his thoughts. She drifts to the center of Nan’s attention periodically, presenting an alternative to the hard-working, faithful Pingping. Finally, we follow the course of the their son, Taotao shaped by his Chinese parents’ expectations and sacrifices yet trying to decipher American life outside this airless, loving family triangle. I’ve also read Ha Jin’s novel about Chinese life, Waiting. The same sincere and masterful writing style animates this vision of romantic hardship in contemporary China.

The View from outside:

Tortilla Curtain by T.Coraghessan Boyle struggling in 1980s Southern California. It describes the intersection of a young Mexican illegal-immigrant couple and native Southern Californians. The Americans range from villainous to naïve.

Native Speaker by Chang-Rae Lee Assimilating in 20th century America. The central character is the son of South Koreans living in New York. He becomes a kind of spy: a professional outsider-insider. This novel has left a lasting impression.

Snow falling on cedars by David Guterson Japanese immigrants in the Pacific Northwest in the 1940s. It’s a love story and a crime story blended skilfully together. The trial at the center of the story takes place in 1954 but the story involves extensive flashbacks to life before Pearl Harbor and US involvement in WWII. An exceptional novel. I envy those who haven’t discovered it yet.

More settlers:

Red Water by Judith Freeman 19th century. Settling Utah with the help of the Mormon faith. A fascinating tale.


Remembrance of American things past


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I can’t recall on which marvellous podcast I recently learned that the act of remembering is one involving facts combined with a heady flights of imagination. According to new research, we tend to insert accurate remnants into a made-up narrative. What’s more, we alter our story a tiny bit with each act of remembering. On the positive side it demonstrates that each individual is an artist in his own right; In some cases, maybe, a con artist. On the down side, we are not naturally gifted historians. I once read novels, constantly and exclusively. What can I say? I went to art school. However, in time I became curiouser and curiouser about the historical bits of these novels. I began to favour historical novels. One day in late summer (40ish), I embraced the factual. Today, in extreme retrospect, I realize that I liked history even in high school.

Decades ago, during my internment in Tenafly High School, art class, English lit and social studies (girlfriends, boyfriends and parties) sat on the upper shelf of my consciousness. I was the type once known as right-brained flake*. However, with the (apparently unreliable) editing process called memory I find myself more often musing about my history classes. In my mind’s eye I envision the clear-headed Mr. Porter. He’s explaining the methods and goals of our 3-branch political system and then obliging us willy-nilly to set up and start governing in class. Luckily, I am put in a group with my smarter pal, Bob E. Things go well. In another sunny classroom, Mr. Mullins paces the space before the blackboard, describing the Second World War period and recounting chilling stories of his own service. These respectable memories never fail to tow along the following personal history debacle. One afternoon, I was tapping down the corridor in my red suede clogs, dodging other students on the way to history class. Glancing left, I observed my new boyfriend at the entrance of Algebra I class. (WHOA!) He was cozily canoodling with his former girlfriend. Is there anything quite as virulent as teen romantic distress? I fled the premises. I melted down. Alas, I cut Mr. Porter’s American Government class. To make matters worse, the next day I solemnly confessed the true reason for my absence to spartan Mr.P. Surely this middle-aged history teacher would empathize… Ah, the narcissism of youth. No mercy. Detention and *RBF status confirmed.

For a very long time now, I’ve been wending my way through biographies of American presidents (and European Queens). Reading historical biographies has many rewards. It adds context to fateful decisions by painting the social environment that triggered them. It dramatizes the democratic process that each administration reinvents according to the tools and troubles at hand. It provides damn good gossip about ambitious and INTERESTING people. The Kardashians!? Really? Finally, it arms expats against gratuitous American slanders and parents against the irritating cleverness of their grown-up children.

As an expat, your American nationality can sometimes be the elephant in the room. The USA rarely inspires indifference. It detonates startling aggression as often as gushing admiration. Sometimes you are served a love-hate smoothie. Sip it. It was only after living abroad, for say, 10 years that my Eureka moment occurred: many saw me as American. Period. No more, no less. The rest of my identity?….would not come up on their radar, ever. Sobering insight, but the solution to many social puzzles. One Noel, we received an anti-American greeting card from another branch of the family. Incroyable! as the French say.

Let’s be realistic. We are all called upon to exercise some political savvy sooner or later.You can dismiss politicians as dishonest brutes or dumbbells (rarely accurate) or you can marvel at the game.

This summer I’ve been reading Truman by David McCullough. Unlike his predecessor, FDR, Harry’s beginnings in rural Missouri could hardly have foretold his rise to the top of the power structure in The US.  How one society could propel 2 such different men to the highest office is fascinating in itself. With each president we get a new version of American democracy. We witness a distinct approach to this monumental task. The job of president once seemed prestigious and dignified to me. Now it looks more like a man attempting to juggle a watermelon…while to 3 or 4 experts stand by and yell out opposing directions. We learn new problems are old problems. Income inequality, National obligatory health insurance (on Harry’s agenda immediately after the war’s end), corrupt voting practices (many in Missouri voted early and often), and PACs existed before. The gossip is not as juicy as the likes of FDR and Eleanor (read Doris K. Goodwin’s** No Ordinary Time). It is, nevertheless, noteworthy that Harry returned from his honeymoon with Bess to live in her family home with her mother, her grandmother and her useless brother. Poor Harry. McCullough also wrote the wildly popular John Adams, which was transformed into an entertaining mini-series featuring Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney in the main roles. You’ve probably all heard about **DKG since DD Lewis’ dazzling performance as Lincoln last year in Spielberg’s film, but check out her biography LBJ and The American Dream. It’s a great story about a much-reviled president who deserves some reconsideration.

If you don’t go in for strict biography, there’s Gore Vidal. One fine day he asked himself “Why not write true history, and then for added points of view, set imaginary characters in its midst?” And thus, was born his Narratives of Empire series.   They’ve regrettably gone out of style, but it’s worth reaching into the back of the bookshelf and dusting them off. He actually wrote them backwards. He released Washington, DC in 1966. It covered political life from 1933 to The Korean War. This historical novel’s success spurred him on to write several prequels, many of which I’ve read over the years: Burr, 1876 and Lincoln to name a few. I’ve just opened a yellowing copy of Hollywood. The promotional quote on the cover is by G.Garcia Marquez. BTW, Vidal was the grandson of an Oklahoma senator, may or may not have been related to Al Gore, and did share a step-father with Jackie-O.

I’ll conclude by mentioning an intelligently amusing novel, Watergate by Thomas Mallon. The subject interests me especially since Tricky Dick provided the backdrop to the aforementioned high school years. He now figures into my course. The novel resembles a play with the wittiest character being the ancient Edith Roosevelt. She’s a lot like Violet Crawley AKA Dowager Countess AKA Lord Grantham’s mum in Downton Abbey. She pays no heed to who might be pierced her observational darts. It is bull’s eye every time.

Which high school courses do you recall the most often?

Who is your favorite American president?

emptying the attic


Years ago, I picked up a copy of Jane Eyre at our village ‘vide grenier’ (empty attic: meaning communal yard sale). Annually, villagers of all ages hauled their unwanted possessions to the common square at dawn. Then, they assembled them on makeshift structures or fold-up tables. Older children laid their wares out on tattered blankets.  Parents gossiped and children bartered. My children sold their outgrown toys for money, which they in turn spent on other used treasures. The bakery, in the heart of this flash flea market, sold fresh pain au raisins, croissants and pain au chocolats. What’s more, in late spring a blue sky usually grinned down on us.

I had hoped to revisit the deep feelings this novel provoked in me once upon a time. I had admired Jane’s fierce intelligence and will. Her lonely persecution at the hands of wicked adults was irresistible at 13; and besides, she lived in England. There was a haunted castle owned by a mysterious man. Something dangerous was lurking offstage (sex).   Reading it again in early middle age was a bit disappointing. Foolish me. Jane’s embrace of difficulty and refusal to compromise still appealed. The way that English weather and landscapes meld with the mood in 19th century classics like this one also continues to please. Brooding, tormented men? Eh.

BTW, I never tire of the Welles/Fontaine classic film and more recently, the Fassbender/Wasikowska remake. The first time I saw this recent version was in a small movie theatre in a coastal Scotland town. We exited into a dark, blustery, unsettled autumn evening. Happiness.

To get back to attics…Have you ever been curious about the 1st Mrs Rochester? She’s the barely human being of strange mutterings and mad screeching locked upstairs in the Victorian attic. Is the rather opaque Mr. Rochester’s account of his prisoner convincing? Is this Byronic heartthrob a reliable character? Jean Rhys’ novel Wide Sargasso Sea represents her fervent wish to settle the score. I just finished reading it in the Penguin Modern Classic edition. First of all, I love the title and it is, gratifyingly, both a real place and a state of mind (see Penguin commentary). The author was outraged by the story’s steady focus on Jane and its shabby dismissal of the first wife. Rhys creates Mrs R’s backstory using her own history and intimate knowledge of the West Indies.  It’s a short novel set in the immediate aftermath of the emancipation of Jamaican slaves and the social kaleidoscope of resentment, liberation and chaos that ensued. Sex is onstage in this novel, fuelled by voodoo-spiked rum and and tropical sensuality. Culture shock, displacement and trauma aggravate the Antoinette –Rochester union. It’s a far cry from Thornfield. Yet, like the heroine Jane Eyre, Rochester and Antoinette are propelled toward choices in response to family complications (money!). What would the modern reimagining of this triangle look like? Is Mr. R a villain or a victim? Will the adult Adele Varens, Rochester’s ward, one day weigh in on the matter?

This novel reminded me of British writer Andrea Levy’s book about Jamaica, The Long Song. She covers some of the same time period as Wide Sargasso Sea. She wrote her novel in response to curiosity about her family heritage. She researched the history of Jamaican slavery and emancipation in depth before icing it with vibrant characters and an absorbing story. She’s a darling of the British literary scene with good reason.

Do you know of other novels, written in response to classics, which stand on their own?


summer book rambles

This summer I’m traveling to Edinburgh, Jamaica, Kerala and Beijing seated in my violet, iron lawn chair. I’ve already been to Nigeria and Zimbabwe seated midpoint between a merry riot of black-eyed susans and a skinny butterfly bush. A book of quality is an adventure—immerse yourself in another life. Witness a fellow being surmount, survive or submit to their circumstances. Access their thoughts. Leave your own behind. S’evader.

The lure of summer reading dropped into my life on the day I realized that the walk to the public library, tucked into the Town Hall building, was no further than the walk to my primary school (minus the crossing guards). I buckled my sandals and hit the hot N.J. sidewalks. At that time, (Pre-iron age) libraries were muted, dusty and in this case windowless spaces governed by soft-spoken ladies and bisected by card catalogues. I selected 5 books with the speed of a snail, checked them out and exited back into the July glare. Had I been attached to an elastic cord? The ramble home was a cinch! All disquiet had dissolved. I knew I could return two weeks later on my own despite stray dogs, busy intersections or shiny black cars driven by candy-offering strangers. My love affair with books and libraries was launched. Wheeee….

More recently I scouted out my summer reading in Northern England during a visit with my son. I combed the charity shops of Durham and the stalls in Tynemouth Flea Market. Of course both of the aforementioned offer marvels other than cheap books in great condition: an astonishing cathedral in the former and luscious homemade ice cream in the latter. Those diversions notwithstanding, I added 7 novels to my suitcase back to Paris. I left my shoes and socks in Newcastle. Nowadays the way back entails the rather inelastic modern airport experience.

All this brings me to my most recent summer read: Kinder Than Solitude by Yiyun Li. It is set in Beijing in 1989 and the present as well as in contemporary America. It revolves around four school friends: Shaoai, Boyang, Moran and Ruyu. Halfway through the novel one is still assembling the personalities of these principal characters through chapter glimpses. By contrast, Shaoai’s terrible fate and The Tiananmen Massacre are solid weights from the beginning. This national calamity is displayed primarily through these young lives. However, the reader observes perilous and limited choices as experienced by 3 generations of Chinese. The US is viewed through the eyes of two immigrants with longing, humour and sometimes contempt. What I like about Li’s writing is how mystery and clarity work side by side in her prose. The story is sad and suspenseful. It unwinds in a present entirely overshadowed by the Chinese past. In 1989, when the massacre occurred I had a 6-month old, my son, thus, world events washed over me and receded just as rapidly. The 25th anniversary and this novel provide the occasion to learn more about this traumatic and defining event in modern Chinese history.

Previous voyages

When a Crocodile Eats the Sun by Peter Godwin. Zimbabwe. It’s the middle volume of a trilogy covering the author’s family’s life and the recent history of Zimbabwe. I learned about the country’s problems on the ground through his family circle: their longstanding friendships, colleagues and employees. The tone is intimate yet level-headed. His writing talent is enviable.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Lagos, London and Philadelphia mostly. No need to sing her praises as she’s made the NYT best seller list. I’ll just add that the novel is young, fun, chatty and also deeply serious. She describes people’s attitudes with hilarious originality. Ifemelu, the main character, is an adorably flawed powerhouse; Likewise, her admirable Auntie Uju. If you believe that adaptation is one of the keys to life (I do), read this book, which waxes eloquent on this subject.