More Pandemic Readings

Gosh, I read so many good books over the past year as I stayed “safer at home”. I’ll just throw out some titles of the best ones for you.

One of the most fun books I read is BETTER LUCK NEXT TIME by Julia Claiborne Johnson. The setting is the Flying Leap Ranch in Divorce Capital of the World- Reno, Nevada in the 1930s. The ranch is where wealthy women stayed while fulfilling their 6-week residency requirement to get the Reno divorce. The phrase “better luck next time” is what a divorce judge would say to the women when he granted their divorces. The narrator is Dr. Howard Stoval Bennett III, better known as Ward. He is a good looking- Cary Grant look alike who worked at the ranch while saving for med school. The good doctor reminisces about his time at the ranch, in particular about two of the women who stayed at the ranch part of a summer. Nina O’Malley is a dare devil heiress who was at the ranch a third time trying to get a third divorce, and Emily Bowers, a timid heiress with a cheating husband. The story is much more than just a recount of the trio’s hilarious antics. It’s a story of a love affair with long term consequences….

ALL ADULTS HERE by Emma Straub is a well-told story of aging parents, grown siblings and a dose of teenage wisdom. It’s very poignant because the mother, Astrid begins questioning her parental abilities as she sees her grown kids struggle with life’s challenges. And how to now talk about some difficult things which were swept under the rug over the years. How to apologize when no one wants to hear it? And how to announce a new life course as a 68 year old woman when you know it will be shocking and heartbreaking to some of those you love? And why is acceptance so hard even we love someone?

One of my favorite pandemic books is A HUNDRED SUNS by Karin Tanabe. Set in Paris and Indochina (Vietnam) in the 1930s. There are so many layers to this wonderful story I don’t really know how to peel the onion! I’ll just say this- there’s love and murder, poverty and wealth, champagne and opium, all the ingredients of a great story. Lots of good history about France colonizing Indochina. And great characters. Just read it!

Back at the Writer’s Desk

Well, I had an unplanned sabbatical from writing starting in August 2020. I certainly didn’t plan on not writing because I was reading some great books. I think it was just “pandemic brain.” I had started teaching virtually, and the writing just ended. My friend Mary recently encouraged me to get back to it. And she’s right, it’s time. I’m exhausted from playing Martha Stewart inside my house and P. Allen Smith in my yard. I’ve spent this past year working through my to-do list- I’ve painted bedrooms and my dining room. You either love to paint or hate it. There’s a zen-like quality to it for me, the rhythmic motion of the paint brush. I worked out in my yard which still needs a lot of work after two hurricanes made such a mess last fall. I love to celebrate the soul-satisfying rebirth of spring with dirty hands and a sore back.

So as I mentioned I read a lot over these “safer at home” months and watched a lot of great shows on Netflix and Prime. So these next few blogs I plan on mentioning some of the books I really liked. It’s a wide variety but it seems like a good bit of historical fiction about the early to mid part of the 20th century. There is a lot of World War 2 stories out there. Being a former history teacher, I’m always drawn to historical fiction above other genres.

In fact, I’ll just start with a story by Alan Furst about the beginning of the French Resistance during World War 2. It’s called A HERO IN FRANCE. The hero is code-named Matthieu, but so many of the other characters are heroes as well. Furst fleshes out his characters in such a way, you know them, respect them, care about them- whether they are on the good side or not. Speaking of the good side- we are introduced to regular Parisians who, in spite of terrible fear of the Nazis become involved with the Resistance. Wonderful people who are fully aware of the consequences of being caught by the Nazis. Your heart pounds along with their’s!

Alan Furst writes incredible historical fiction spy novels. Last night I watched a 4 episode Netflix series called SPIES IN WARSAW based on one of Furst’s novels by the same name. Such a great story!

A book I recently finished is entitled NICK by Michael Farris Smith. Nick, the main character is Nick Carraway, the narrator of THE GREAT GATSBY. Think of it as a prequel, but it is also a good stand alone story. It is about Nick’s life before he arrives in West Egg to reconnect with cousin Daisy and before he falls under Gatsby’s spell. I always wondered why Nick puts up with the terrible shenanigans of Daisy and her social circle. Well, Nick suffers from PTSD from fighting in World War 1. He fought in the trenches and built the Allied battlefield tunnels. He refuses to return to the Midwest following the war and lands in New Orleans. He begins a life of heavy alcohol use and debauchery while running around with some bad/not so bad folks. So in a sense, West Egg is just the same old, same old but in a higher class neighborhood. That’s all I’m going to tell you.

If you want to read it as a stand-alone story, then jump right in. If you want to read it as a prequel to THE GREAT GATSBY, then it wouldn’t hurt to google some CliffNotes on Nick Carraway. A little refresher will help you really appreciate Smith’s story.

A Single Thread

Tracy Chevalier’s new book A Single Thread is a bittersweet story about a young woman and the community she builds herself following the horrors of World War 1. Violet Speedwell loses her brother George and her fiance Laurence in the war and her father a few years later. Violet is one of the “surplus women” in England, meaning there were 2 million men less than women after the war. Societies throughout Europe had an entire generation of women who would not marry due to the men shortage. Societies did not know quite what to do with these women, therefore they had very little opportunities to build independent lives. Many became dependent upon their male family members. Violet simply could not tolerate living with her mother’s criticism and bitterness any more and moves herself to nearby Winchester, England. She takes a typing job in an insurance company which pays very little, as in her clothes hang on her because she doesn’t have enough money to eat. Dismal yes, but better than living with her mother. She lived in a boarding house of young women run by an older matron who was very strict about proper decorum. This was about as independent as a surplus woman could ever wish for in the 1930’s.

Violet stumbles upon the Winchester Cathedral’s embroidery guild while seeking solace in the cathedral. She is taken in by Louisa Pesel, who in real life was the head of this guild responsible for embroidering 300 kneelers and 56 cushions for the choir stalls. Violet learns to embroidery and makes good friends within this group. Incidentally, Winchester Cathedral is famous for its center stained glass window, it’s cushions and kneelers and it’s bell ringers.

Tap to enlarge

Violet’s love interest, Arthur, a delightful sensitive man is one of the Cathedral’s bell ringers. At this time in history, only men could ring the bells. The English tradition of rope and wheel “change ringing” started in the 16th century. The bells are tuned to a major scale, and the chimes are rung on a mathematical pattern of sequences or rounds of ascending or descending scales. The bells use wheels to circle all the way around which gives the ringer control in ringing the sequence. Cathedrals have either 10 or 12 bells, and they ring as a call to worship, a celebration or remembrance and can sometimes take several hours to work through all the sequences.

Chevalier visited the Cathedral about ten times while researching this book. She said she wanted “to absorb the atmosphere of the place”, which she truly did. I felt as if I was inside this marvelous place with its nooks and crannies. Chevalier is noted for her detailed atmospheric scenes. She writes like she is trying to make a movie scene. She said, “Readers respond to color and light and descriptions. And I like to give daily life its due respect and space.” She truly is gifted in this- she portrays the daily lives of all of her characters in such a poignant way. It is one of my favorite things about her books. She also learned to needlepoint so she could be accurate in describing the stitches and the importance of the thread tension. If you’ve ever needlepointed, you know what I’m talking about.

A nice book for a relaxing weekend, especially if you love England. You truly feel as if you are in the countryside surrounding Winchester Cathedral. Jane Austin and other notable people are buried here. Plus it’s the Cathedral where many of England’s kings were crowned or buried over the ages.

The Book of Longings and Surprises

I can’t remember the last book I read that left me completely speechless, but Sue Monk Kidd’s newest book The Book of Longings certainly did. I finished last night well past midnight, and I’m still blown away this afternoon. It’s an incredible novel of Ana, a first century Jewish girl who is Jesus of Nazareth’s wife. You read that correctly. It’s Ana’s story, not a recounting of the Gospels with a wife inserted into the narrative. It’s her story and her life, and it is brilliantly told. This novel would be incredible if Ana was married to some Joe Blow, but having Jesus as her husband grounds it historically. It is very well researched, one truly feels she is walking the dirt roads of Galilee, Jerusalem and Egypt.

Several things particularly delighted me. One is that Kidd made Judas Ana’s adopted brother. Yes, that Judas is her brother. The story of this young man and his inner wounds make a credible story of why he would betray Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. And it’s not greed.

Secondly, Ana is a writer or as they called it, a scribe and is very highly educated in the classics and speaks several languages. Ana comes from a wealthy established family whose father is the right hand man of Herod. So much expertly woven together to make this story soar. Ana very much relates to Sophia, wisdom, the sacred feminine of the Trinity. Today, we usually refer to the Holy Spirit, the wisdom of God as a he, but some ancient texts refer to wisdom as a she. Kidd has Ana as one of the writers of the Nag Hammadi Library which was discovered in 1945 in Egypt, specifically The Thunder, Perfect Mind. The real author is unknown, but Kidd states in her notes, that some experts think the author is a woman. The Thunder, Perfect Mind is a poem of warning or caution written in a common Greek form that was popular in the Mediterranean region. Other examples are Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.

The Nag Hammadi Library is not a physical structure, but a collection of Gnostic and early Christian manuscripts found in 1945 as I mentioned above. There are over 1000 pages bound in 13 papyrus texts that were found buried in a sealed jar. The most famous of these texts is the Gospel of Thomas. In 1977, the Nag Hammadi Library was first published in English. Gnosticism differs from traditional Christianity in many ways. It started in the first century AD among Jewish and early Christian groups and was considered heretical by many. Gnosticism emphasized personal spiritual knowledge over mainstream orthodox teachings of the early church. There were other groups who deviated from orthodoxy as well. The early church recognized the importance of establishing once and for all the absolute truth of the person of Jesus, how human, how divine, hence the Nicene Creed, etc. It’s all fascinating. Google Gnosticism and read away.

There are lots of characters to love in this story besides Ana and Jesus. There is Mary, mother of Jesus who reveals such goodness and compassion as she tends goats and the garden. Yaltha, Ana’s feisty elderly aunt is a lioness in first century clothes. We all need a Yaltha in our lives. My favorite, Mary of Magdala is described as having copper colored hair and flashing eyes. What you will love most about Jesus is his huge heart for his fellow human beings. He is so kind, gracious and understanding and encourages those around him to be the same. Good lesson for today.

Kidd has written such a book after many years of thinking about and then researching this time in history. It is a brave book and is written so respectfully. Her story line is brilliant in how she weaves the life of such a renown historical figure such as Jesus around the story of a young woman so ahead of her time.

The Beheading of Thomas Cromwell

Recently, I finished the final book of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy on the life and career of Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540). Mantel won the Man Booker Prize with both of the other books, and hopefully she will be the first ever triple winner with The Mirror and the Light. It is as hefty and well researched as the other two in the series.

How people saw Cromwell’s work depends on their religious views. He could be brilliant or too smart for his own good, shrewd or manipulative, ambitious or power hungry- you get the picture. Henry on the other hand was a bit of a whiny baby who would behead, burn or otherwise torture those who tried to make him do right. For years it was Cromwell’s job to carry out the King’s death sentences. And then it became Cromwell’s turn. As it turned out Henry wasn’t pleased with Cromwell’s choice of Anne of Cleves as a royal bride and future queen. Henry thought her boobs and tummy were too saggy, and he couldn’t do the deed. Henry wanted out of the marriage contract because he already had his eye on a flirty teenager named Katherine Howard- who ends up losing her head too, but that is another story. Cromwell fell from Henry’s graces and found himself in the Tower of London waiting on the ax. Cromwell had many enemies in the royal household who were able to get in Henry’s head, and next thing you know Cromwell has lost his.

Cromwell was quite a complicated man in his time. He was born a commoner in Putney who left home very early to escape an abusive father. After rising above his station in life in Italy, he returned to England and began practicing law. He quickly rose in the ranks of Henry’s advisors. Cromwell helped Henry VIII divorce his first wife Catherine of Aragon, behead his second wife Anne Boylen, marry his third wife Jane Seymour, but Cromwell’s undoing was arranging his fourth marriage to German-born Anne of Cleves. Cromwell was focused on making her royal brother a steadfast Protestant ally of Henry’s since the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, the Pope and the King of France were hinting of war with Henry because he left the Roman Catholic Church. Of course Henry had to leave the Church. You can’t divorce and murder wives without being accountable to the Pope! Here enters Cromwell who is firmly a Protestant but maybe not quite a vocal Lutheran. He is now known as one of the biggest advocates in the English Reformation. He did a lot of Henry’s dirty work in moving England away from Catholic practices to Protestant practices, including dissolving all the abbeys and monasteries. Cromwell put those out of business and distributed the land and the earnings to his cronies and himself. He did use the distribution of some of the richer abbeys as bribes to his Catholic enemies.

Henry later regretted killing Cromwell because he was a brilliant advisor and was effective in keeping Henry from acting rashly. There are questions about Henry’s rashness and cruelty. Some historians think he changed into a monster after a head injury from falling off a horse. Others think it was the result of syphilis. Interestingly enough, Cromwell was lost to history until the 1950s. He was thought only as a political hack of Henry’s. Geoffrey Rudolph Elton wrote a history of Tudor history which brought Cromwell out of the shadows of time. Mantel’s work is brilliantly researched which is why it’s been eleven years since Wolf Hall was published. The Mirror and The Light is also a long detailed book like the previous books in the trilogy. I admit about two-thirds of the way through the book, I thought ‘Geez, be done with it…off with his head!’ But this book is definitely worth the time required to read it.

The Shadow King & Women Warriors

I just finished the best historical fiction novel, The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste, an Ethiopian born novelist. It is one of the most fascinating books I’ve read in a while. It’s the story of the Second Italio-Ethiopian War in the 1930s when Mussolini invades Ethiopia. It’s also the story of some complex and brave Ethiopian women who join in the defense of their beloved country. It is also the story of a Jewish Italian war photographer sent to the POW camp run by terrible Nazi Colonel Fucelli. Lots of toxic masculinity with these two guys and then add in Kidane, a leader of one of the local militias, and you’ve got some meanness going on. But you’ve got some tough women who become more empowered as they begin to play a more important role in the war. Mengiste grew up hearing the story of this war with Mussolini from her father. She learned much later that her great grandmother Getey took her father’s gun and went to war against the Italians when they invaded in 1935.

The Shadow King is a peasant named Minim who Hirut and Aster dress up as the emperor Haile Selassie who has gone into exile in Bath, England. Hirut and Aster teach Minim to imitate the Emperor’s mannerisms. Minim as the Shadow King appears to the Ethiopian troops from the mountain tops to encourage and assure the troops. Hirut and Aster are his female bodyguards. I love the irony that the name Minim means Nothing, and the name Haile Selassie means Might of the Trinity. The Emperor Haile Selassie in real life does go into exile in England. He became the face of resistance in the League of Nations, and Britain helps him regain his throne at the end of WW2 when Mussolini and Hitler are defeated. And in real life, the Emperor claimed to be descended from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Selassie has a complicated legacy in today’s Ethiopia. His vision of the world was one of equality between the African countries and the white Western countries. He started the University of Addis Ababa and Ethiopian Airline. He is known as the modernizer of the country. He messed up during three terrible famines in his country in 1958, 1966 and 1973. During the 1973 famine he threw himself a birthday party costing $35,000,000. Yep thirty-five million while his subjects were starving to death. Needless to say, there was a Marxist coup in 1974 which ousted him, and he was assassinated in 1975.

Mengiste has a beautiful writing style often described as lyrical, and it truly is. I leave you with two beautiful quotes from her notes and acknowledgments:

“The story of war has always been a masculine story, but this is not true for Ethiopia and it has never been that way in any form of struggle. Women have been there, we are here now.” And, “To those women and girls of Ethiopia who would not let themselves be completely erased by history, who stood up when I was looking for them and made themselves known. I see you. I will always see you.” “Writing About the Forgotten Black Women of the Italo Ethiopian War” by Maaza Mengiste (September 24, 2019)

The Widow Clicquot and Her Bubbles

I’ve just finished a wonderful book about the wonderful champagne she created! Truly a delicious book to read! Tiler J. Mazzeo is the author of The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It. I would describe this book as a business biography of Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin Clicquot, the young widow who took over a young winery when her young husband unexpectedly passed away. This was a most unusual action for a young widow to take, however Madame Clicquot had a wealthy father and father-in-law who believed in her ability and financed her in the early years. This was not an era of business women, but she didn’t let cultural norms slow down her ambition.

Veuve (widow in French) Clicquot was an intelligent and creative woman who had a tremendous drive to make her husband and her winery a success. She was in many ways a silent partner in the winery while Mon. Clicquot was alive. They lived in Reims, the heart of the champagne region, but they made an apparently delicious red wine at the beginning of their business. She moved into the champagne business with her business partner. She wanted more than anything to outsell Jean-Remy Moët. She was extremely competitive and often thought outside the box. She was also gutsy- she had a blockade runner filled with her champagne destined for Imperial Russia at the end of one of the many Napoleonic wars. Her product, Vueve Clicquot succeeded in being the first French champagne abroad following the war. She designed her champagne for Russian taste which was a preference for a very sweet champagne. She changed her recipe for the British market decades later and only after another champagne-making widow entered the British market with a brut champagne.

Mazzeo writes that there is very little personal information on Madame Clicquot- no letters, no diaries, but lots of account books, etc. So it is truly a business biography of a most courageous woman of the 19th century whose champagne is still loved and known world wide by its beautiful “Clicquot yellow” label. If you love the champagne region of France or just love a beautiful champagne, this will make a wonderful read for a summer afternoon- and maybe have a glass of champagne as well!

Tales of a Female Nomad

These are true tales of a middle-aged female nomad, how often do we see that? Rita Golden Gelman writes in her memoir, Tales of a Female Nomad: Living Large in the World of her travels as a 48 year old recently divorced woman traveling alone to non-touristy destinations. You may recognize her name, she’s written some of the most successful children’s books on the market. My son’s favorite of Gelman’s books was The Biggest Sandwich Ever. But we also loved Why Can’t I Fly? and More Spaghetti, I Say? She has an independent and easily transportable vocation which enables her to pay for her decades of travels. Gelman writes in her blog, ” I am a modern-day nomad. I have no permanent address, no possessions except the ones I carry, and I rarely know where I’ll be six months from now. I move through the world without a plan, guided by instinct, connecting through trust, and constantly watching for serendipitous opportunities. People are my passion. Unlike a traditional nomad, when I go somewhere, I settle in with the locals long enough to share the minutes of their days, to know the seasons of their lives, and to be trusted with their secrets.”

Yes, truly she has. She’s lived in thatched huts in the South Pacific, and people’s bedrooms that at first were strangers (pre-AirBNB). She doesn’t know the languages of these cultures, but she inevitably meets someone in route (like a person in the seat next to her on the plane) who knows someone who knows someone who will let Gelman rent a room in whatever country she’s headed toward. It’s uncanny. She takes language lessons wherever she is and offers to teach English to folks while she’s there. It seems to always work out, and she has met and befriended some incredibly kind fun people.

Gelman has a graduate degree in anthropology and has a tremendous respect for cultures. She fully recognizes that she is visiting and is not there to change or “improve” their customs and traditions, even when they are absolutely against everything Gelman believes- like wife beating, polygamy or animal sacrifices. She is very honest in her writing how difficult this is for her to do sometimes. She is honest about some very enlightening situations, such as when visiting Nicaragua and El Salvador when America was supporting their right-wing dictators. Gelman, very poignantly recounts a discussion with Dona Juana in Nicaragua- “And this grandmother, mother, and loyal Sandinista, who took bullets out of kids and celebrated with her neighbors when the revolution was won, who struggles every day in a Nicaragua that is without food and parts and necessities of life, looks at me with an enigmatic expression on her face and asks, ‘What is a Communist?'” Gelman often finds life in some countries and American media stories not matching up.

Gelman has now been traveling for over 2 decades and has written other books about her travels. I find her to be a fascinating person- brave, fun, adventurous. Much more than my friends and I are! We go to places that accommodate tourists with very nice hotels and restaurants. I’m not even getting into what weird things Gelman has eaten! It has been really fun accompanying Gelman as her armchair companion. You’ll enjoy this book.

Reading with ‘Rona

Well, I must admit, I’m tired of reading with ‘Rona. I’m also tired of yard work, Martha Stewart projects and cleaning out with ‘Rona too. I’m doing more jigsaw puzzles these days- keeps my hands busy and my mind easily in a bit of a zone. I do have three books to mention, however…

The first one is Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love by Dani Shapiro. Like many of us, Shapiro submitted her DNA to a site to learn more about her genealogical roots. Sadly, she discovered she was not her beloved father’s biological daughter. As her world spins out of control, she begins digging into family secrets which begin to explain why she is a fair skinned blue-eyed blonde in a family of dark haired Orthodox Jews. Shapiro writes, “Once in my twenties, I actually kept a log of how many times I heard that I didn’t look Jewish in a single day. Shapiro your married name? I’ve never seen a Jewish girl who looks like you. At times, it troubled and angered me. What did it mean to not “look” Jewish? …You Jewish? No way. And I would respond by dutifully reciting my family’s yichis, a Yiddish word that translates to wellbeing. I would reel off my credentials: went to a yeshiva. Raised Orthodox. Yep, kosher. Two sinks, two dishwashers, the whole deal.” What Shapiro discovers is the 1950s world of sperm banks and a blue-eyed blond doctor who donated sperm. Her ultimate discovery was the result of a lot of determined research with the help of the Internet. It’s amazing what one can discover. I couldn’t put this book down. It is a poignant bittersweet story of identity and love.

The second book, Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday is very unusual. It’s basically two novellas and the connection between the two is a mystery the reader has to discover. The reader has to pay attention to not miss clues along the way. This was a little hard for me because I was just reading along in the first section about an older author and his very young female companion. He teaches her about writing as they live their lives together. I got a little lackadaisical and missed some clues. At the very end of the book, I thought to myself- what the heck did I miss? I didn’t quite get it. I had to do a little research to fully understand the connection. With that said, just pay attention so you can piece it together. The New York Times said, “….Asymmetry will make you a better reader, a more active noticer. It hones your senses.” Read it.

The third book was a reread but I didn’t fully realize it until I was well into it. I couldn’t believe I had never read The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, but I couldn’t really remember the story line. I knew that I knew that I knew I had read the book before when toward the end there was this sentence: “One morning she discovered that a shoe was gone- just one shoe!- though she could not imagine what somebody wanted with just one shoe…” I love that sentence! Actually, I love this book two times. The main character, Alma Whittaker is a heroine born before her time. Strong, courageous, brilliant, over-educated, adventurous seeker, and it is her shoe that goes missing in Tahiti on a very personal mission. She is also a curator of mosses which I also love and learned a great deal about.

Michael Cunningham says one should reread books every ten years. He says, “ In theory, we should, every 10 years or so, reread every book that’s been important to us, because at (roughly) 10-year intervals we are no longer the person who read the book 10 years earlier.” I’ve never been one to reread books because I always thought I’d remember too much. Well, duh, The Signature of All Things certainly proved that little theory of mine to be incorrect. I think now I’ll reread Possession by A.S. Byatt.

Happy Memorial Day! Remember ’Rona has not left town! #saferathome

In Search of Etty Hillesum

I’m reblogging this wonderful article of a Holocaust hero and victim. Etty’s focus on the common good of others is a good reminder for us during this pandemic time. I hope it will inspire you as it has me.

The work of a young Jewish diarist, writing in Amsterdam around the time Anne Frank began her famous diary, shows the transformation of pain into …

In Search of Etty Hillesum