Frederick Law Olmsted

Genius of placeThe last book my non-fiction reading group discussed was Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted by Justin Martin. We had a good discussion about FLO, as he’s frequently known, since his energetic, and contentious life touched and influenced many of the innovations and changes of the nineteenth century. He’s best known as the landscape architect of New York’s Central Park, but he left behind an extensive legacy in other fields as well. In fact, he created several fields of study and practice. 

Olmsted was born in Hartford CT in 1822; his father was a prosperous merchant and FLO grew up in comfortable surroundings. Like many young men–then and now–he wasn’t at all sure what he wanted to do. He tried attending Yale, like his older brother, but he dropped out after a few months. It’s likely that an episode of hysterical blindness may have been the cause. He went to sea as a sailor to see the world, but quit after one voyage; the privations of the sailor’s life were not for him.

Even at an early age he had a strong desire to be a social reformer and his love of the outdoors turned him in the direction of farming. He wanted to improve agricultural practices and apprenticed himself to an experienced farmer in upstate New York. After a year, convinced that he had all the expertise he needed, he purchased a farm in Staten Island with the help of his father. For a while he was successful, but ultimately abandoned farming for journalism. In 1850, when the issue of abolition was dividing the country, he was uncertain about his own opinions and undertook a trip through the South to see conditions firsthand. To finance the trip, he obtained a commission for a set of articles from the the New York Daily Times (now the New York Times).  The extensive and insightful dispatches that he wrote are still a valuable resource for historians. The result, for Olmsted, was that he became convinced of the importance of the abolition of slavery.

When the Civil War began, he became the director of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, precursor to the Red Cross. Later, for a few years, he was the administrator of the Mariposa gold mine in California. While in California, he visited Yosemite; stunned by its beauty, he became an advocate for preservation of the park in this era before the concept of national parks.

All of these experiences prepared FLO for his career as a landscape architect. There was no such profession in the mid-1800s but Olmsted was never reluctant to be the first to do something.  Central Park was his first commission, with partner Calvert Vaux, and already Olmsted had strong feelings that parks should be for the people. The site for Central Park was a wasteland, partially filled with squatter’s huts. Thousands of workers were hired and Olmsted put them to work clearing stones, grading, planting thousands of trees, and building stone walls. The roadways through the park were placed below ground level so they didn’t intrude on the beauty of the landscaping and the carefully  designed vistas. His experiences in agriculture and administration were essential in the success of this first project. Olmsted went on to design significant parks in Boston, Chicago, Buffalo, and his designs played a significant role in the magnificent World Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. His designs and philosophy affected parks all over the U.S.

Olmsted’s energy was unflagging until his last years, despite a leg injury that caused him pain through most of his adult life. Martin, the author of this biography, makes a case for bipolar disorder as a source of his furious activity. While we can never know for sure, FLO’s life displayed so much energy and endurance, as well as periods of serious mental ups and downs, that it may indeed be the case. Whatever the reason, we’ve been the beneficiaries. If you look at the website for the National Association of Olmsted Parks you’ll see the list. Genius of Place, while it aims to be a definitive biography, is also a joy to read and I recommend it highly!

The Disharmony of Silence by Linda Rosen

Disharmony of silenceI haven’t read this novel yet, but since the author is a good friend of mine, I wanted to share the news of its publication. The Disharmony of Silence comes out tomorrow, March 5th, and Linda is already signed up for a blog tour, details about the book and the blog tour are on her website.

Family ties, grievances new and old, second chances at happiness all fill the novel. Here’s the publisher’s description:

“In 1915, jealous, bitter Rebecca Roth cuts all ties with her life-long friends, the Pearls. Eight years later, Rebecca’s son and young Lena Pearl begin keeping company in secret. Rebecca agrees to a truce when the couple marries. But the truce is fragile. Rebecca’s resentments run deep.

In 2010, Carolyn Lee, fitness instructor and amateur photographer, must come to grips with the fact that her mother’s imminent death will leave her alone in the world. While preparing her childhood home for sale, she realizes for the first time that her mother’s antique brooch is identical to the one pinned to the lady’s dress in the painting hanging above the fireplace. Coincidence or connection? Carolyn is determined to find out. What she discovers has the potential to tear lives apart or to bring her the closeness and comfort she longs for. It all depends on how she handles her newfound knowledge.”

The publisher is Black Rose Writing and you can order the book the usual way–from your local bookstore, or either as a hard copy or an ebook.

Artists and Their Legacies

House Among the TreesI just finished reading A House Among the Trees (Knopf/Doubleday, 2017) by Julia Glass. Don’t know how I missed it when it came out, since I’ve eagerly read almost every novel she’s written. This one didn’t disappoint either! All her characters step off the page; it’s just as if she’s writing about people she knows and of course the reader begins to feel the same way. By the end of the book, it’s hard to say goodbye.

In this novel, we’re introduced to the writer Mort Lear, a children’s author whose early picture book Colorquake is loved by children and adults alike. When the book opens, Mort has recently died and there is a general outpouring of grief at the loss of so beloved an author. However, as happens in novels, Mort’s death–and the will he leaves–stirs up trouble. His longtime live-in assistant Thomasina (Tommy) learns to her chagrin that Mort left her everything, including the house. She’s the one who’ll dispose of his art. Tommy has devoted her life to Mort, happily for the most part, but looks forward to independence and leaving the isolated house among the trees in upstate New York. It’s time after so many years to learn to be Tommy without Mort and to repair her relationship with her brother Dani, her only remaining family.

To complicate matters, when Mort died, there was a biopic in the works, starring Nick Green, a rising star, the latest British heartthrob. Nick arrives on Tommy’s doorstep to soak up information about Mort so he can, in method actor fashion, “become” Mort for the movie. There’s also a museum curator who was expecting that her new museum of children’s literature would be the recipient of Mort’s works, the centerpiece of the collection, but Mort’s will has left everything to Tommy. The curator feels betrayed by Mort.

The reader knows there’s a dark secret in Mort’s life dating back to his childhood. It informs his writing, especially the beloved Colorquake. Many people believe they know what that secret is; it hovers over the book, dark and dangerous. Other secrets and betrayals complicate the relationships among the characters. Glass shifts back and forth from the present to earlier parts of their lives so the characters become richer and more familiar to us until we are living with them and sharing their thoughts. She withholds and releases crucial information with just the right timing. A House Among the Trees is a lovely novel that showcases Glass’s capacity for empathy and gripping storytelling.

Writers on writing

One of my sons sent me a link to an interview from the Paris Review: Adam Begley interviewing Don DeLillo. The interview was published in 1993, before DeLillo had written the novel I’m currently listening to, Underworld. Right away, DeLillo says something wonderful in response to Begley’s question: “Do you have any idea what made you a writer?”

DeLillo says, “I have an idea but I’m not sure I believe it. Maybe I wanted to learn how to think.  Writing is a concentrated form of thinking.” That’s a great way of expressing the act of writing. Putting your thoughts on paper requires a sharp focus, digging down to find what you mean to say and how to say it. It’s also a very considered response; an indication of the quality of the interview to follow. That’s not a surprise, given the seriousness of DeLillo’s novels and the intellectual credentials of Adam Begley. The full text of the interview can be found here.

I came across another gem about writing in a LitHub article about Lucy Ellman by Lois Feather. Ellman is the author of Ducks, Newburyport, shortlisted for the Booker Prize this year and gathering lots of press for its unusual style and structure.  Ellman says, “Fiction is like a rock that sits there in your way. How do you break a rock? You give it everything you’ve got.” Not so different from DeLillo’s comment, in the way Ellman references the concentration required to create great fiction.

LitHub is a constant source of interesting tidbits about writing. In the October 15th edition, there’s a short interview with Elizabeth Strout. Her recently published book, Olive, Again is a follow-on to Olive Kitteridge, following Olive as she ages. I read it last week and it’s just as wonderful to spend time in Olive’s prickly company as it was when the original Olive stories were published. Here’s what Strout has to say in response to the question, “What do you always want to talk about in interviews but never get to?”

“I seldom get asked specifically about point of view, so I try and bring it up myself in any way that I can. But the fact that every person in the world is locked into their own specific point of view just amazes me.  And when I write I try as hard as I can to imagine what it feels like to be another person. Reading fiction is one way—small but hopefully true—that we can experience, even momentarily, what it feels like to be another person.”

I never get tired of hearing writers talk about their craft.

Best Books of the 21st Century

Oh, the best lists are beginning to arrive as we approach 2020. This list from The Guardian is heavily British, so some of the books haven’t been published in the U.S., but I thought it was worth a look. I would dispute the inclusion of some of the titles, but that’s what makes it fun.

Another list, from LitHub of the best books of the last ten years. I read most of the titles listed, enjoyed several, found some of them meh, and others unreadable. Reading is for pleasure so find the ones you enjoy.



The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman

World We KnewIn recent years, Hoffman has occasionally turned her magical realist lens to Jewish subjects–many of you may remember The Dovekeepers. This title is more like her earlier novels, although it is a historical. It’s set in Europe during World War II and follows 3 teenage girls who join the Resistance. It opens in Berlin in 1941, where Hanni, very much aware of what the Nazis have in store for the Jews, is desperate to find a way to protect her daughter Lea. She convinces Ettie, the daughter of a rabbi, to make a golem to protect Lea. The golem, called Ava, must travel with Lea and keep her safe. Hanni tells Lea that once she is safely out of the war, she must do what is done to golems, that is, to kill her by erasing the first letter of the word on Ava’s arm. The word is emet, truth. By erasing the first letter, it turns the word into “met” which means “death.” So that’s hanging over the story as we travel with Lea and Ava. Ettie, the teenage maker of the golem, also leaves home, with her sister Marta. 

Hoffman tells the story of how these young women, and several other characters, find the courage to survive–or not–in rural France. You may recognize the names of the French villages, convents, and orphanages that were refuges for Jews during this time, but despite these historical elements, the story has all the trademarks of Hoffman’s magical realist fiction, where events don’t have quite the consequences that they would in the real world and Ava, the golem, provides that witchy quality that Hoffman’s loves. Ava is a lovely creation, reminding us that the monsters we create don’t always remain inert creatures. There’s danger, murder, romance, and a tearjerker ending.

This novel reminded me of the very recent wildly popular novel All the Light We Cannot See. They’re both very much fairy tales, with elements of coincidence and not-quite-believable elements furthering. If you’re a Hoffman fan, or if you were swept up in All the Light We Cannot See, then this is for you. I think it would provide good discussion for book groups. Since the main characters are all teenagers, I tried to think about whether this would be a good novel for  high school age readers. Many teens do read Alice Hoffman’s novels, so this one may work for them too. 

Dr. Siri Paiboun, coroner of Laos

Coroners lunchI’ve started many mysteries that I’ve never finished. I have trouble finding the ones that hold my interest and are well written. What do I mean by well written? For starters, the dialogue should sound like real people are speaking. The author should know how to use the grammar and syntax of the English language correctly, including setting an appropriate level of colloquial and formal language. I’m always surprised at the number of books I can’t read because the English language is improperly used. (For example, I came across a novel–well reviewed–where the author wrote “slowly by slowly” instead of “little by little.) The characters should be well delineated so that the reader recognizes them and their motivation every time they appear on the page. There’s more, but enough ranting.

I’ve been listening to a mystery series that fills all my criteria: the Dr. Siri Paiboun series by Colin Cotterill. O joy; there are 14 of them. I’m currently listening to the fourth one, Anarchy and Old Dogs, and feel like I’ve made new friends. That’s how vivid and delicious they are. Dr. Siri Paiboun is the national coroner in Laos when the series begins in 1975. The Pathet Lao have recently taken control of Laos and Siri, an aging revolutionary, is assigned to be the national coroner, a job he doesn’t want. As a faithful (but cynical) Communist cadre, he has no choice but to accept the job. The bodies that come to him contain secrets and the good doctor is compelled to solve the mysteries of their deaths, along with his nurse Dtui, his old friend Civilai, and a few others. In the first novel, The Coroner’s Lunch, Siri discovers that he is the reincarnation of a thousand year old shaman, which explains his nightly ghost-infested dreams. I don’t usually care for books where the spirit world plays a role, but the author never uses the apparitions as a deus ex machina. They are part of the spiritual folk life of the Laotian people and provide an interesting–and sometimes scary–dimension to the good doctor’s crime solving skills.

There’s also humor: very dry, very droll, and funny enough that I often laugh out loud. The crimes themselves are often gruesome, but take place offstage. Siri, who received his medical degree in Paris, loves the Maigret novels of Georges Simenon, and often sighs about how everything works out so neatly for inspector Maigret, but not for him. There’s lots of mid-twentieth century Laotian and Vietnamese history that’s dropped into the stories, mainly as background to the characters; it’s quite interesting and always neatly done. The aging coroner and his friends stay up late and drink too much, pondering their lives and the mysteries that come their way. Usually there are two or three mysteries to solve and sometimes the details are a little obscure, but it hardly matters. I can feel the heat and the tension before the monsoon breaks, taste the terrible coffee, hear the sounds of the mosquitoes. and rejoice that I have lots of time left to spend in good company.



The Limits of the World by Jennifer Acker

Limits of worldThere are many books about family secrets and the toxic effects they have on family life. Many of them are formulaic but fun to read anyway, mainly to see what complications the author has dreamed up. The Limits of the World goes far beyond the formula. I picked it up because of the excellent pre-publication reviews and once I started it, I couldn’t put it down.

The plot is easily explained: Urmila and Premchand Chandaria came to the U.S. from their family home in Nairobi, Kenya. Premchand, a doctor, found satisfying medical work in Ohio and they raised their son, Sunil, there. The secret is that before Sunil there was another son, Bimal, who lives in Kenya with Urmila’s sister and brother-in-law. Sunil was never told he had a brother. Bimal is injured in a car accident and Urmila rushes the family off to Nairobi to see her firstborn. Sunil, a graduate student in philosophy at Harvard, has a secret of his own: he is married to Amy, who is not East Indian. Sunil learns that he has a brother; Urmila learns that Sunil has married out of their culture; and Amy finds it difficult to cope with Urmila’s aggressive disapproval.

Acker’s sensitivity to all these concerns is tied together by Sunil’s philosophical studies. He’s working on his dissertation, struggling with his belief that there exists a morality that stands outside of culture. He’s stalled in the writing and Harvard may cut off his funding. All the characters struggle with the choices they’ve made and Acker renders their angst with clarity and compassion. The Kirkus reviewer wrote, “It’s a rare but honest look at the way parents, children, and spouses talk to one another but don’t always hear what’s being said.”

Ninth Street Women by Mary Gabriel

Ninth St WomenThe subtitle of this wonderful book is: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern Art. Mary Gabriel’s brick-like book is an excursion through the artistic world of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s as Abstract Expressionism took the art world by storm. These five women were in the thick of it, inspired and inspiring. They were driven to be artists despite the demeaning critics (women couldn’t make good art they were told); despite the early ridiculing of Abstract Expressionism; and despite those who wanted them to just nurture the male artists who were doing the “real” work.

Gabriel tells the stories of each of the five. Beyond that, she brings the reader into the bohemian milieu that developed around the artists, male and female, especially the Ninth Street East Village neighborhood where they lived, painted, drank, fought, loved, and partied. What raucous lives they lived! They often made bad decisions but produced great paintings. Gabriel writes about the women’s relationships with Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Larry Rivers, Mike Goldberg, Franz Kline, Arshile Gorky and many others. Money was mostly scarce since there were no buyers for the works for many years. 

There’s so much content in this book that it’s hard to know how to explain its effect on the reader in a few paragraphs. Gabriel incorporates the social history which influenced the artists, like the turbulence of the 1930s and early 1940s that brought abstraction into being. In tandem with the personal stories, the result is total immersion in a heady, gossipy, intellectual world. The five women of the title were more than painters; they were part of the intellectual underpinnings of the movement in fundamental ways. It’s an absorbing, exhausting, thrilling experience to read about their lives.



Annelies by David Gillham

AnneliesIn the past decade, several authors have used Anne Frank’s story as a basis for novels that imagine, “what if.” What if Anne’s sister Margo had survived and come to the U.S., what would her life be like? That was the novel Margo by Jillian Cantor. In another recent novel, The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank, by Ellen Feldman, imagines what Peter’s life would be like if he came to the U.S. , assimilates, marries, and tries to hide the past, only to be blindsided by the publication of Anne’s diary.  But no one, to my knowledge, has done what Gillham has done in the novel Annelies; that is, to imagine that Anne herself survives and returns to Amsterdam and tries to pick up the remnants of her life. That’s the premise of Annelies.

Gillham starts with the Franks’ life before they were betrayed and sent to the camps. In this part, he’s relying on known facts for the most part, and, of course, Anne’s diary. Once Anne return from the camps, Gillham is on his own. We all have feelings about Anne, we feel we know her. This is a brave thing for a writer to do. Can he possibly succeed in developing a character for the survivor Anne, that people will recognize as the Anne in the diary? And there’s also Anne’s father, Otto, who returns to Amsterdam.  Otto wants to put it all behind him; Anne can’t do that–she’s filled with anger and survivors’ guilt– and their relationship is very tense. She makes some bad decisions; can’t seem to find her footing; she’s churlish about her father’s new wife. Does the story work? I think that’s something you have to determine for yourself; I don’t want to give away more than I’ve said. It wasn’t a complete success for me, but I think that it could generate some interesting discussion, not just about Anne but about the decisions that authors make when they write historical fiction.