Category Archives: Uncategorized

Flight Portfolio by Julie Orringer

Flight PortfolioOrringer got lots of press for her previous novel, The Invisible Bridge, a Holocaust novel about 2 brothers. Flight Portfolio (Knopf/Doubleday, May, 2019) is also a Holocaust story, but very different. Orringer has imagined the life of Varian Fry, a real-life rescuer of Jewish artists, writers, and philosophers and the first American citizen to be named Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem. In 1940, Varian Fry traveled to Marseille carrying three thousand dollars and a list of imperiled artists and writers he hoped to help escape within a few weeks. Instead, he stayed more than a year, working to procure false documents, amass emergency funds, and arrange journeys across Spain and Portugal, where the refugees would embark for safer ports. His many clients included Hannah Arendt, Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, and Marc Chagall, and the race against time to save them. 

 Fry, a non-Jew, was came from a wealthy family, was educated in classics at Harvard; altogether an unlikely hero in this cause. By taking on this task, of saving Jewish artists and intellectuals, he was thrust into a position of making choices, terrible choices. Everything I just said is in the historical record. 

But Orringer’s not deeply concerned with the historical record about Fry’s personality–she’s writing a novel. She had to create a fully-realized character in Fry, along with the historical figures he saved and those who worked with–and against–him. Orringer’s choices make for a very interesting story that reads very much like a thriller. For one thing, she chose to pick up the hints in Fry’s life that he was a homosexual. An old lover contacts him in Marseille and that newly revived relationship becomes an important part of the plot. Was Fry truly homosexual? We don’t know for sure. She also recreated the personalities of the artists and writers Fry rescued, so it’s quite a tour de force of weaving historical and fictional characters together. It’s a tale of forbidden love, high-stakes adventure, and unimaginable courage. It gripped me immediately and I had a hard time putting it down.  

The writing is beautiful–dense and lush without being heavy, evoking the dangers and beauties of southern France and stolen pleasures in wartime. In her hands, Marseille becomes a living, breathing place and the people Fry works with, who risk their lives to help in his mission, enter our hearts.  And, the story deals with the moral issues, choosing which artists and writers get saved, and why them and not everybody. Fry is torn by these questions and so is the reader. Well paced, great characters, political and moral issues, compelling plot…it’s a great story. 

Note: some people I know who’ve read Flight Portfolio were upset because Orringer took liberties with Fry’s life that go far beyond the historical record. If Orringer wanted to create a character based on so much speculation, so this argument goes, she shouldn’t have used real names. I disagree. The book is much more powerful for being based on Fry’s real life experiences. Does that argument mean that she would have had to create fictional characters to replace Chagall, Arendt, Duchamp, etc.? I had no trouble reading this novel as Orringer’s “take” on what might have been. Read it and decide for yourself!

Hunting for the right answer

Early in my library career I worked at Hennepin County Library in Minnesota, the library system that served the suburbs around Minneapolis (long before the city and county libraries merged). My first job at HCL was at the headquarters location, where I was expected to find answers to questions that couldn’t be answered out in the branch libraries. We received the questions on slips of paper and went off to find the answers to such questions as, “How do I make a smoke cooker out of an old barrel?” or  “How can I disguise the taste of bacon fat in the cookies I bake?”, or my favorite, “How do they raise the dead in the Voodoo?” This was long before the Internet; we took all the questions seriously and did our best to find answers. I used printed magazine and journal indexes, browsed the book collection and the pamphlet file, used my intuition about where to find answers, and only rarely sent off answers of “can’t find anything.” It was a great education in reference work; I became fluent in the Dewey Decimal system and subject heading searches. When I later went back to working at the reference desk, facing the real people with their questions, I had good preparation for whatever came my way.

There were occasionally questions from readers trying to find a book or story they had once read, or heard about but didn’t have complete information, i.e., author or title. Sometimes the titles were garbled. Sometimes you would recognize the book or story from your own reading, or you would know a subject specialist to ask. It was like a treasure hunt and finding the answer was very rewarding. So this article, from the website Atlas Obscura, about the New York Public Library staff who work on such questions was a treat for me to read. Maybe you’ll enjoy it too. Click here.

The Winter Soldier by Daniel Mason

Winter SoldierI read and enjoyed Mason’s The Piano Tuner when it came out in 2003 so I downloaded a galley of his new book, The Winter Soldier, from Edelweiss as soon as I could and read it in three great gulps. Since it’s set during and just after World War I, the reader already has some idea of the horrors, chaos and privations in store. Most of the World War I books I’ve read have been set in France or England. The Winter Soldier is set in the crumbling Austro-Hungarian Empire, mostly in the Carpathian Mountains, which arc from the current Czech Republic to Romania. In the novel, the high, lonely villages give the story a ghostly feeling, although the ghosts here are in the characters’ heads. The idea of borders and border crossings recurs as the characters reinvent themselves or lose themselves. They’ve all crossed into unknown territory in their lives; no one is left unscathed.

Lucius, the protagonist, is a young doctor, son of a wealthy family. He’s halfway through medical school in Vienna when the novel opens. The War has just begun. Due to shortages of doctors in the field, he is offered the chance to work in a hospital in the town of Lemnowice. Idealistically, he expects to find a fully functioning hospital where he can gain, from the other doctors, the clinical experience he lacks. What he finds there is only Margarete, an enthusiastic young nursing sister who knows far more than he does about what needs to be done. The soldiers who arrive at the hospital are not just wounded in body, but in spirit as well. Lucius learns to make do with inadequate supplies, amputating legs, arms, hands, and feet in an effort to vanquish the infections they can’t control.

As the war continues, Lucius, Margarete and their orderlies begin to see  men whose minds have become unhinged from the terrors they’ve seen. In particular, a soldier arrives one winter night in a wheelbarrow, curled up, mute. Lucius tries all the psychotropic medicines in his small arsenal but initially nothing will make the man speak, eat, or leave his pallet. Finally, slowly, something works to loosen up his limbs and tongue. He can briefly cross the border and return to life, but what will be his fate? Lucius and Margarete struggle with their attachment to each other and to the patient. As the war heats up in Carpathians, the borders that define their attachments become stronger. Lucius makes decisions that haunt him in the years after the war.

In some ways, this wonderful novel reminded me of The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje and A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra. Mason’s writing is fluid and lyrical, his characters step off the page. The pacing is taut; there were times when I had to slow down to savor the language, putting aside my fears for the characters. The book is due out in September, but now that it’s the end of July, that doesn’t seem so far away.

The Last Cowboys: A Pioneer Family in the New West by John Branch

Last CowboysA good review led me to this book about a rodeo family, the Wrights of southern Utah. Famous on the rodeo circuit for three generations of championship saddle-bronc riding, the Wrights are a large close-knit family with a cattle ranch as well as a serious rodeo passion. Patriarch Bill Wright, no longer on the rodeo circuit, does his best to maintain the land that’s been in his family for 150 years. Changes in the weather that decimate grazing grounds, conflicts with the Bureau of Land Management, and offers from developers combine with Bill’s aging bones to make ranch upkeep difficult. All through the book Bill debates different scenarios if his sons can’t or won’t take over the ranch. He’s been a good steward of the land, but he knows that ranching on Smith Mesa may no longer be viable.

Bill and his wife Evelyn have 13 children, 7 of them sons, most of whom ride the rodeo circuit, burnishing the Wright legend. Saddle-bronc riding is brutal: an 8-second, one-handed, stylish burst, where the rider must synchronize his movements with the wild, angry gyrations of his mount. The Wright sons–and some of the grandsons as well–are big winners, but the success comes with a physical price. Injuries, many quite serious, are frequent, and I can’t imagine how their families maintain equanimity in the face of inevitable broken bones, torn ligaments, and head injuries. In order to compete in as many rodeos as possible to accumulate the wins they need for the championship contest at the season’s end, they drive thousands of miles every weekend. For me,  Bill and his oldest son Cody were the central characters and Branch does a good job of helping us see what drives them.

Author Branch, a journalist from the east coast, spent several years visiting the Wrights, immersed in their lives and relationships. It’s a great story and a fascinating picture of the ranching and rodeo world. The opening scene, where all the Wrights gather to brand and castrate the cattle, is riveting in its depiction of this traditional activity. Although the story does get somewhat repetitive in the last third, with the descriptions of the many rodeo contests blending into each other, the intimate picture of this remarkable family is a testament to resilience and dedication.

A dreadful week

ecstantonI received an email on Wednesday from a friend in Australia, very upset about the results of our election, can’t understand how it could have happened and aware of the global implications. My husband and I have been traveling, for the past two weeks, in Canada and upstate New York. Here’s what I wrote to her:

…I will tell you about our experiences today in a little town called Seneca Falls, in upstate New York. We timed our drive back home to spend 2 days here; it’s the birthplace of the women’s suffrage movement and we were hoping to celebrate at the national park that commemorates the 1848 meeting where a group of women drew up a Declaration of Sentiments based on the Declaration of Independence and began the hard work of convincing men and women that women needed to vote, which didn’t happen nationally until 1917. Seneca Falls is kind of a hallowed place in US women’s history. Well, it wasn’t going to be that kind of day. I almost expected the flags in town to be at half mast! Every woman I met here looked at me and said, How are you feeling today? and we commiserated. I met a woman with 2 toddlers in tow who said it just felt like the right thing to do today to get in the car and drive here. At the Women’s Rights National Park there were wonderful exhibits about the truly revolutionary women who started the movement.

At one point, I turned around and there was one of the great names, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, all dressed up in one of those voluminous black dresses they wore and she smiled at me. I walked over and began to talk to her (a park employee dressed up as Stanton), and she took us next door to the chapel where that first convention was held and, never breaking character, talked to us about the women and the convention, told us stories about Stanton’s family, and answered our many questions. We kept her there, just the two of us, for about an hour. It was so wonderful, especially since I’ve been reading and writing about the suffrage movement right now for the book I’m editing. It reminded me of the teaching in one of the Jewish texts: “you are not obligated to complete the work but neither are you free to desist.”

So there you are. Hillary didn’t complete the work, but she certainly didn’t desist from trying to move us forward a tiny bit. We’ve suffered through several dreadful presidents in the last 40 years–Reagan and the 2 Bushes (Bill Clinton wasn’t so great either) and we are still reeling from what they did, especially Reagan and Bush 2. There’s so much misogyny in this country that I don’t believe we’ll have a woman president in my lifetime and actually, I didn’t think Hillary was electable until she faced such a dreadful opponent. We just had 8 years of a great president who could only accomplish a fraction of what he wanted to because Congress is so racist and dysfunctional. So now we’re going from the great intellectual to the great dunce. Madness lies ahead.

Books I enjoyed this year

Everyone else has picked their top books, but since I read up until December 31st I don’t like to make my list too early. As before, these are the books I read and enjoyed this year regardless of publication date. Fiction first, then nonfiction, not in rank order.

FICTION

Urza, Gabriel. All That Followed. Holt,  2015. 
An engrossing political novel, set in Spain, told from multiple points of view.  Did you read The Catastrophist by Ronan Bennett? Another great political novel.

Gornick, Lisa. Louisa Meets Bear: Linked Stories. Sarah Crichton Books, 2015.
A college romance echoes through the lives of Louisa and Bear, their families, and friends. Poignant and insightful. I love linked stories–previous favorites: In Case We’re Separated by Alice Mattison, A Short History of Women by Kate Walbert. (No need to mention Olive Kitteredge.)

Clark, Claire. We That Are Left. Houghton Mifflin. 2015.
An absorbing story set in England before and during WWI about the devastation wreaked by the war on a wealthy family. Great character development. Did you enjoy the TV mini-series The Cazalets? This is for you. For fans of Downton Abbey too, but not as soapy.

Marra, Anthony. The Tsar of Love and Techno. Hogarth. 2015.
Marra is an astounding writer–A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is one of those books that I want to read again for the first time. This new one is linked stories set in Chechnya; sad, violent, haunting, and totally human.

Schwartz, Lynne Sharon. Leaving Brooklyn. Houghton Mifflin. 1989.
Not sure how I missed this, since I’ve read and enjoyed many of Schwartz’s novels. It’s a brilliant coming of age story, with lots of 1950s New York atmosphere and piercing insight into a teenage girl’s thoughts. Read this with Schwartz’s memoir Ruined by Reading. Two gems.

Foulds, Adam. In the Wolf’s Mouth. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 2015.
A political/war novel set in Italy during WWII. An American infantryman and a British field security officer try to deal with the politics (and Mafia) of an Italian village. They haven’t got a clue. Beautifully written, a classic war novel.

Price, Richard. The Whites. Holt. 2015.
A good police procedural is so entertaining, and this is a great one. “Whites” refers to the unsolved cases that haunt a group of police detectives who work the Manhattan Night Watch. You may not remember the plot after a month, but you’ll have a great time while you’re reading it.

Evans, Lissa. Crooked Heart. HarperCollins. 2015.
Noel Bostock is a great creation–an orphan who’s wise beyond his years but still very much a child. Evacuated from London in WWII, Noel ends up living with Vera, who just wants Noel as an accomplice in her con games, but she gets more than she bargained for. Delightful and memorable.

Pierpont, Julia. Among the Ten Thousand Things. Random. 2015.
An adulterous relationship has serious consequences in this novel that’s so beautifully written it’s hard to remember it’s a debut by someone under 30. I can only compare it to Jay McInerney’s The Good Life, another tour de force about how people mess up their lives. Waiting for her next novel…

Hallberg, Garth Risk. City on Fire. Knopf. 2015.
Well, I read the whole 900+ pages and enjoyed every minute of it, but I’m not sure that it’s more than the sum of its parts when all is said and done. There are some great set pieces and Hallberg has done a great job of recreating NY in 1977, a terrible time.

Taseer, Aatish. The Way Things Were. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 2015.
This is probably, no absolutely, the best novel set in India that I’ve read in a long, long time, maybe since A Suitable Boy. It’s a very literary piece, about the role of language and history in shaping personal relationships. It’s not for everyone, but if it’s for you, you’ll be blissful. Maybe J.M. Coetzee is a readalike?

Weisman, Jonathan. No. 4 Imperial Lane. Twelve/Hachette. 2015. 
Another political novel that I loved this year, about David, an American student, who extends his year abroad in England by taking a job caring for the aging, paralyzed Hans Bromwell, who lives with his sister and her daughter. The politics comes from the family’s entanglement with Portuguese colonial Africa in the era of rebellion and independence. A life-changing experience for David and maybe for the reader, too.

…and I’m currently reading (and enjoying) Henry Green’s novel Loving, first published in England in 1945. Green’s a great prose stylist, works the language in wonderful ways. Years ago I read his memoir, Pack My Bag, always meant to read the novels…

NONFICTION

Shapiro, James. The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606. Simon & Schuster. 2015.
What was going on in Shakespeare’s world in the year he wrote King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra? Shapiro elucidates the political, social, and religious concerns that influenced his plots and characters.

Russakoff, Dale. The Prize: the High-Stakes, Big-Money Race to Save Our Failing Schools. Houghton Mifflin. 2014.
This is the heartbreaking story of how billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg couldn’t rescue the public schools in Newark; of good intentions gone bad; of politics as usual; of children deprived of a good education. If you read this, you’ll have to stop periodically to let the steam out of your ears.

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. Spiegel & Grau. 2015.
Coates writes this as a letter to his son, about the issue of race in the U.S., for African-American young men in particular. Powerful, sad, and important.

Kim, Suki. Without You There is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite. Crown. 2014.
Kim spent 6 months teaching English to bright young North Korean teens, astonished at their isolation from the outside world and their acquiescence in the system that perpetuates their ignorance. Riveting stuff.

Lightman, Alan. Screening Room: Family Pictures. Pantheon. 2015.
A lovely lyrical and impressionistic memoir of the author’s Memphis family from the 1930s to the 1960s. Lightman’s grandfather was a movie theater impresario, a larger-than-life figure whose influence is still strong, years after his death.

Sacks, Oliver. On the Move: A Life. Knopf. 2015.
I’ve read Sacks’s books for years but had no idea that he rode motorcycles, was a serious weight lifter, and a sometime drug addict. This is a very personal glimpse into his life, and worth every page. Humorous and touching, especially in light of his awareness of his imminent death.

Deen, Shulem. All Who Go Do Not Return. Graywolf, 2015.
Deen bares his soul in this memoir of his childhood and young adulthood in a strict Hasidic community and his growing realization that he had to leave. A fascinating insider’s look at an unusual way of life. Over the years I’ve read a number of memoirs on this subject; this is by far the best.

Macdonald, Helen. H is for Hawk. Grove/Atlantic. 2015.
When Macdonald’s father died, she was particularly bereft and decided to tame a goshawk, the wildest of the falcons, in an effort to tame her own grief. More than a bereavement memoir, this is nature writing at its best.

Fuller, Alexandra. Leaving Before the Rains Come. Penguin. 2015. 
I’ve read all of Fuller’s memoirs, starting with the hilarious and touching Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight; this latest one may be the best. It traces the rise and fall of her marriage to an American and the ways that her unorthodox childhood in Africa affect her relationship with her husband and her own efforts to find contentment.

Gornick, Vivian. Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life. Yale Univ. Pr., 2011.
Gornick applies her own brand of insight and investigation into the life and motives of Red Emma, the complex and contradictory anarchist.

Klein, Naomi. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate. Simon & Schuster. 2014.
Klein gives us the bad news: the global free market economy is killing our planet and international trade agreements now take precedence over national laws. Important reading, not for the gloom-and-doom, but for her ideas about how we can make changes.

O’Neill, Joseph. Blood-Dark Track: A Family History. Knopf/Doubleday. 2011.
O’Neill probes his Turkish and Irish ancestry, giving us not just the unusual, colorful personalities, but the social and political history that influenced–and upended–their lives. If you enjoyed Out of Egypt by Andre Aciman or She Left Me the Gun, by Emma Brockes, you’ll find this irresistible.

…and I’ve been listening to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism. Simon & Schuster, 2013. What a great story Goodwin tells and there’s so much relevance for the issues we struggle with today in politics and journalism. Her writing keeps it all lively and engrossing and the reader, Edward Herrmann does a great job of varying his voice and emphasis to keep the sentences interesting.

 

 

 

The Crotchety Reader

We all have things that we love and things that we hate in novels. I really really dislike bad grammar and words used  incorrectly.   I’m not talking about books published by small presses–this happens in books published by the big trade houses. If a novelist can’t use the language correctly why should I read the book? One of the reasons I read is to enjoy the use of language to create meaning and emotion. It’s like art or music, isn’t it? Artist needs to know their craft.

Two examples of what I’m talking about, just from books I’ve tried to read this week. I won’t name them. In the first, the author writes about a couple whose car breaks down. They abandon it and a day or two later they go back to “recuperate” it. This was not written in jest.  In the other example, from a historical novel, two sisters are in a palace and they are given a room “donning the garden.” Neither of these books is a first novel; both were published by big trade houses. In both cases I stopped reading the books.

I know agents who do line edits of manuscripts. Authors’ acknowledgements are filled with thanks to editors who did such a great job. I feel like I’m missing something–why did those mistakes not trigger a correction?

I’ve learned to skip over incorrect uses of some words, like “enormity” and “fulsome;” I’ve turned a blind eye to “graduated college.” These misuses signal a change in the way the language is used, even if I’d prefer not to embrace those changes. But the two examples I’ve given, above, of words used incorrectly are not in that category.  They’re wrong! Enough carping. Next novel, please…