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!

More from Women in the Literary Landscape

women-in-the-lit-landThere’s no use in avoiding the topic that has taken over the news in the last year: the revelations that sexual harassment is a common occurrence for women. It can prevent women from moving forward in their careers and lives and it’s a phenomenon that’s ingrained in a number of cultures, making women an underclass. The result of the squelching of women is that we all lose the benefits of their contributions. I feel similarly about lack of opportunities for both men and women who live in places and cultures where they are denied opportunities. We are a much poorer society for those losses.

Women in the Literary Landscape tells the stories of women who succeeded, not the women who didn’t. Would the book have been more expansive if women hadn’t had to overcome so many obstacles? Is there another book to be written about the talented women who failed to achieve their ambitions or never made the attempt? _Probably yes to both those questions, but we didn’t write that book. So here’s another great story from the book that we did write, about young women who were exploited by factory owners but made time to educate themselves, write, and support each other.

“Women from all classes of society were hungry for education and culture.  The textile mills in Lowell, Massachusetts, would seem an unlikely place for an educational movement to develop, but there was an intense desire for intellectual stimulation among the women mill workers.  Thousands of young, unmarried women, most between the ages of fifteen and thirty, but some even younger, were recruited from New England farms and lived in boardinghouses, often working thirteen hours a day at their looms.  But in winter, work was limited to the briefer daylight hours, and many used this leisure to learn by candlelight.  Throughout the 1830s and 1840s they formed study clubs, read serious nonfiction, learned foreign languages, and attended lectures and cultural events.  They even published the magazines Factory Girl, Operative Magazine, and Voice of Industry, allowing their ideas for better working conditions to circulate among the New England textile mills.

“One of the most articulate of the mill women was Lucy Larcom, who began working in Lowell when she was eleven years old.  During her ten years in the mills, she wrote poems, songs, and letters describing her life, some of which were published in the Lowell Offering, a monthly literary magazine.  She went on to teach at the Wheaton Female Seminary in Norton, Massachusetts, and helped found the Rushlight Literary Magazine, a student literary magazine still in existence.  From 1865 to 1873 she was an editor at Our Young Folks, one of the first magazines for children.  Her poems were widely published in her lifetime.  One of Larcom’s most significant contributions was a memoir, A New England Girlhood, which is still an important resource for historians.  The nostalgic memoir and her 1881 article in The Atlantic Monthly, “Among Lowell Mill Girls,” are worth reading in any era.”

 

 

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.

Brother by David Chariandy

Brother

I read this short, powerful novel in three sittings over a day and a half, reluctant to finish it but compelled to compelled to follow the story and characters to the end. Michael and his older brother Francis live with their mother in the Park, a public housing complex in Scarborough, Toronto. Their mother is an immigrant from Trinidad. Life for teenage boys like Michael and Francis is rough and tumble, filled with possibilities of disastrous life-changing–or life-ending–encounters with police and local toughs. Their mother works as many jobs as she can, traveling long hours on buses, to bring home enough money to feed and clothe her sons.

The story is told from the point of view of Michael, the younger brother. We know from the beginning, which is set in a later time, that Francis eventually disappears, so every scene in which Francis does appear is weighted with that knowledge. The brothers are close, but different; Francis, it’s clear, can teach his younger brother some life skills but he’s destined to go his own way. After a violent incident in the housing complex, life becomes more tense and the arc of the story accelerates. Not all the scenes are filled with violence: there are several wonderful scenes between Michael and a teenage girl, Aisha, and also in a barbershop.

Character, pacing, and atmosphere all combine in a powerful and heartbreaking tale. Even if you think you’ve read too many books about the lives of immigrants in violent communities, read Brother. It joins the rank of other standout books and short stories about that important sibling relationship because Chariandy get the psychology right.

 

Librarians and booksellers in revolt

booklegger001In the late 1960s and early 1970s the countercultural movement, in its  anti-establishment wisdom, pushed librarians to question library-work-as-usual. For example, librarians began to investigate–and change–the way things were named in our catalogs, making subject headings more authentic and relevant. (Now, of course, keyword searching, tags, and other techniques have made all that head-banging work almost irrelevant.) Since the library profession is largely female, Second Wave Feminism shook things up as well.

Women in the Literary Landscape, (the Women’s National Book Association publication I helped write), showcases those changes in the library, bookselling, and publishing worlds. I remember, as a young librarian in the 1970s, seeing the magazine Booklegger, put out by Celeste West, Valerie Wheat, and others. It would be correct to say that the scales fell from my eyes. I was working at that time for what was considered a very progressive library system but Booklegger and the subsequent book of essays, Revolting Librarians, went much farther in their efforts to disrupt complacency. They wrote, for instance, about libraries needing to provide access to non-mainstream literature, specifically, the little magazines and alternative newspapers that were expressing views not otherwise heard. The Berkeley Barb, East Village Other, and the LA Free Press, to name just a few of the more well-known publications, offered alternative ideas, opinions, and local news, addressing populations that were then mostly invisible. An article titled “I Never See Him Come Into the the Library Much Anymore” skewered the lack of a customer service focus in reference work.

There was countercultural change in the bookselling business as well. Below, from  Women in the Literary Landscape, are a few paragraphs about the feminist bookstore movement.

“Women opened bookstores that served as gathering centers for book discussion, self-help groups, meetings, and performances, with chairs and tables to sit at and bulletin boards to advertise local events. The bookstores stocked non-sexist children’s literature, lesbian fiction, books that portrayed nontraditional families, writings on women and violence, and as women’s history developed into an academic discipline, they were sources of feminist scholarship. They were also safe spaces for women leading nontraditional lives. Publishers, ever conscious of the marketplace, recognized that these bookstores meant there were new opportunities in the field of feminist literature.

“In the 1970s and 1980s there were at least one hundred feminist bookstores around the country. The first two were Amazon in Minneapolis and ICI in Oakland. They were soon followed by New Words in Boston, Bookwoman in Austin (Texas), and Charis in Atlanta, among many others. Carol Seajay, one of the founders of Old Wives’ Tales in San Francisco, started the Feminist Bookstore News, creating a way for the bookstores to exchange news and ideas. In 1994 there were still one hundred feminist bookstores, but by the late 1990s with the arrival of chain bookstores and online sales, the number declined, and by 2014 there were only fourteen.”

I still have my copy of the first issue of Booklegger (that’s the graphic at the top of this post). It’s an artifact from an earlier era, but the energy that fueled it never goes out of style. For more information about the indomitable Celeste West, click here.

A Little Nothing

A friend sent me the poem below by Eduardo Chirinos; she subscribes to Poem of the Day from the Poetry Foundation. I thought it was lovely and looked up Eduardo Chirinos on the Poetry Foundation website.  Enjoy!

Le petit bout de rien

There’s no cause for vanity and none for

pride: it’s just a matter of assembling

words in lines, then dividing them up (or

letting them divide themselves), hoping

they sound good or bad. (What’s important

is that they sound like something.) It’s all

a question of staying alert so that red doesn’t

bleed into orange or orange into yellow or

yellow into silence. There’s no cause for

rejecting silence and none for accepting it,

either. We should speak when there’s noth-

ing to say and be quiet when others talk.

That’s the poet’s business, so get used to it.

There’s nothing glorious about it. The future

doesn’t count for anything and the past just

laughs at us. There’s no cause for writing

this poem and none for deleting it, either.

The Weight of Ink, or where’s the writer?

Weight of InkIn the July 15th New York Times Book Review, in a review of Alexander Chee’s book How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, J.W. McCormack writes: “In Chee’s telling, the writer’s life always lurks just beyond the page…”  I’m always interested in the writer lurking just out of reach and the relationship of the book to the writer’s life. I don’t mean that I expect incidents to reflect personal experience or characters to be modeled on friends and family. There’s a much more subtle relationship that I’m interested in.

For the past 18 months I’ve been on the reading committee for the new Jewish Fiction Award given by the Association of Jewish Libraries; the winner announced this past spring was Rachel Kadish’s novel The Weight of Ink.  The book is set in London in the 1660s and today, an example of what I call a “split-screen” novel. In the historical plotline, Ester Velazquez is a young woman working as a scribe for an eminent blind rabbi. Women were never scribes; it’s an endeavor hedged about with strictures and tradition, closed to Jewish women who, in any case, usually didn’t receive much education. In the modern part of the story, the rabbi’s papers are discovered hidden in an old house and a Cambridge scholar is hired to examine this unusual treasure trove. The reader knows that Ester is the scribe; that knowledge dawns on the Cambridge scholar and her assistant only slowly. From hints and clues they piece together Ester’s remarkable life. The reader always knows more about Ester and the ending is bittersweet as we realize that her life will never be fully known by the researchers.

I’ve heard Kadish speak several times about the genesis of the novel. Her comments made the connection–for me–between the writer’s life and the story she tells. Before she knew what the story would be and where it would be set, Kadish thought about the women whose pens and voices were mostly silent through the centuries. What if a Jewish woman had had a chance to write and make her voice heard on paper and explore her philosophical interests in correspondence with the great philosophical minds of her day? How could it transpire that a woman have that opportunity? What would her life look like? So the title, with its nod to the transgressive nature of Ester’s life, is quite appropriate. Ester and the rabbi carry the weight of their arrangement, the secret that sets her apart from her contemporaries and from the London Jewish community. It’s a great story with compelling characters in both plotlines.

Kadish’s interest in telling such a story is the personal connection, the writer lurking beyond the pages. I believe that every novelist sets out to solve a problem and the novel is the result. Not a problem in the sense of something needing to be fixed, but an artistic challenge, an effort to represent ideas on paper in a way that rings true. The nature of that challenge comes from the writer’s life: the mixture of lived experiences and concerns lurking behind the creative process that drives the resulting story.