White Houses: review

White Houses
Amy Bloom
Random House

The story begins April 1945, just weeks after FDR’s death. Lorena Hickok, Eleanor Roosevelt’s dear friend, is readying the apartment–Eleanor white housesneeds to gather herself after the President’s funeral with all its pomp and obligations for the widowed First Lady. She is tired. Bereft. (She only learned after his death that Lucy Mercer had been at Warm Springs with Franklin when he died.) So Eleanor turns to Hick, as she calls Lorena, for comfort and tenderness. The two had met eleven years prior and their relationship was an anchor for both of them.

What follows is a flashback of those eleven years, four of them with Hick living in the White House, just down the hall from the President and Eleanor. Lorena Hickok was a trailblazing political journalist for the Associated Press at a time when newspaper women were relegated to the social pages. After an interview with Eleanor shortly before FDR took office, the two women developed a fast friendship. They vacationed together, went on road trips and picnics, corresponded daily when apart.

Author Amy Bloom tells the story of Eleanor and Hick as if the two had been lovers. And it’s difficult to know if that was the case. Or not.

Their correspondence was certainly passionate and even suggestive of an affair. Here is Eleanor to Hick just after Franklin’s inauguration: “I want to put my arms around you … to hold you close. Your ring is a great comfort. I look at it and I think she does love me, or I wouldn’t be wearing it” (Goodwin).  Hick moved into the White House after resigning from the AP to work for the Democratic National Committee, but the real reason for her career move might have been to be closer to Eleanor. Her years long relationship with Ellie Morse was in the past, and Hick was smitten with Eleanor. For her part, Eleanor was not at first comfortable in her role as First Lady and it was Hick who saw her potential and urged Eleanor to start her syndicated column My Day and hold press conferences of her own. Each woman had suffered and was insecure in her own way–the other provided support and encouragement not found elsewhere.

One of the best books I’ve ever read about the Roosevelts was Doris Kearns Goodwin’s No Ordinary Time which covers Franklin and Eleanor during the War years. It’s a painstaking look at the couple, one that reveals how their relationship changed over time. Goodwin’s book is much less concerned with romanticizing the couple, as did the popular Franklin and Eleanor by Joe Lash. I’m not certain how Goodwin would view this novel, but she did write that the communication between women of the Victorian age needs to be put into the context of the time, that because the relationships between men and women “lacked ease … women opened their hearts more freely to other women.” Goodwin admits the correspondence between Eleanor and Hick  does”possess an emotional intensity and sensual explicitness that is hard to disregard,” but that a historian recognizes that there is no way to ascertain the true nature of what went on behind closed doors.

Amy Bloom goes behind those doors in a novel that some will find engaging … and others unsettling. But the novel is thought-provoking–maybe enough so that you’ll read its perfect companion No Ordinary Time.

Happy Flavia Day!

Did you know …

Alan Bradley started writing after he retired from a career in TV engineering and production.

Bradley never planned on writing more than ten Flavia de Luce novels (*yikes*) because he can’t imagine her as a teenager. He has considered, however, Flavia at 70 looking back at her life.

The author is … Canadian! and never traveled out of North America until the publication of the beloved novels. Now he and his wife plan to live for a time in each of the countries where the novels have been translated–that’s 31 and counting.

Bradley sold film rights to Sam Mendes whose production company also brought us Call the Midwife.

While there is no release date or cast for the BBC series, I found this intriguing trailer for a Flavia film in Norway, of all places!

And last of all, friend (and blogger) Denice at Denice’s Day makes a pretty good case for suggesting Flavia join the ranks of Jo March, Hermione Granger, Scout Finch, and Nancy Drew.  We need to promote images of strong and confident young protagonists for girls to dream about … and grow into.

The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place: review

The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place
Alan Bradley
Random House
release date: January 30, 2018

It’s certainly no secret that I have a little crush on Flavia de Luce. How could I not? She’s brilliant, confident, beguiling, and misunderstood. the grave's a fine and private place(I’m pretty sure I’ve reviewed all of her books on this blog!)) I couldn’t have been happier that Flavia returned to Buckshaw in Thrice the Brinded Cat after her brief interlude at Miss Bodycoate’s in Chimney Sweepers. While I’ve never gone on a Flavia adventure I haven’t loved, it was good to be home.

In The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place, the 9th Flavia mystery, Flavia, her sisters Feely and Daffy, and Dogger have gone on holiday to recover from a death in the family and spend time together before Buckshaw is sold. The girls will scatter in different directions (Flavia to London to live with Aunt Felicity), Dogger and Mrs. Mullet released from service. But while boating on a lazy river near Volesthorpe, Dogger points out St.-Mildred’s-in-the-Marsh, where just two years before one Canon Whitbread had poisoned three members of his congregation with tainted communion wine. And quick as you can say cyanide and strychnine, wouldn’t you know–Flavia pulls a corpse out of the river.

There’s the usual eccentric cast of characters. A flamboyant actress, Poppy Mandrill, who directs village plays in her retirement. The nosy Mrs. Palmer, innkeeper-cum-poet. A gambling funeral director. And even a beautiful old flame from Dogger’s past, Miss Claire Tetlock.

The plot and cast of characters are pretty much what readers have come to expect in an Alan Bradley novel. I have a pair of fuzzy slippers I slip on the moment I come home from work. They’re not fashionable designer slippers and my feet get what they expect: cozy comfort.  And just like those slippers, the plot of this novel is as familiar and comfortable as the ones that preceded it.

After the dramatic cliffhangers of the last two novels, the ending of The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place is a happy one. Or maybe promising is more accurate. In any case, Bradley leads us to believe that we are about to set off on a Flavia adventure of an entirely  different sort in book #10.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena: review

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
Anthony Marra

I confess to knowing nothing about the conflict in Chechnya. Okay, like many Americans (I’m assuming) I know a little. I know Chechen rebels took constellation of vital phenomenahostages in a Moscow theater. I know the Boston Marathon bombers were radicalized ethnic Chechen-Americans. But my eyes always glazed over whenever PBS News Hour featured a story on the wars and although I’m a daily NPR listener, I turned a deaf ear to any news Chechen. If you’d asked me to find it on the map, I couldn’t.

But like all good fiction, Anthony Marra’s extraordinary novel A Constellation of Vital Phenomena touched both my mind and my heart. (I have a list of articles to read about Russia’a involvement in Chechnya, and God bless Wikipedia for a quick tutorial.)

Spanning ten years and both Chechen wars, Marra tells the story of three neighboring families in the small village of Eldar, as well as two sisters in Volchansk. The novel opens with neighbor Dokka taken away in the night by Russian Feds to the Landfill (that name says it all), his house burned, and  neighbor Akhmed hurrying Dokka’s eight-year-0ld daughter Havaa to safety at the city hospital in Volchansk.

There they meet the head surgeon Sonja (who also happens to be the only surgeon), and she is none to pleased to find them in her waiting room. Akhmed makes the case that since he did attend medical school years ago, he might be of some use–even though he graduated in the bottom three percent of his class. Anything to find sanctuary for Havaa. Sonja, an ethnic Russian, runs on amphetamines, cigarettes, and contempt. But she’s desperate for help. She’s also desperate to find her sister Natasha, gone for nearly two years to where Sonja doesn’t know.

Havaa spends her days trailing Sonja or simply sitting in the waiting room clutching her blue suitcase of souvenirs, flotsam and jetsam that refugees had given her father as payment for a night (or two) in their house on the way to refugee camps. Havaa doesn’t open her suitcase until the end of the novel, and when she does, she reveals a poignant surprise.

Tucked next to Akhmed’s house is the old professor Khassan, who has spent most of his life writing a history of the Chechen people, and his informant son Ramzan, who has made eleven villagers disappear, but whose trade as a snitch keeps the electricity on, food in the refrigerator, and Khassan’s insulin needs supplied. Father and son haven’t spoken in months, but it is Ramzan’s last betrayal that sets the story in motion.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is a sweeping novel that uncovers the characters’ pasts and propels them into the future. Each chapter is set in one of the ten years the book covers and the alternating stories require the reader’s close attention. It’s also a difficult book to read. There’s nothing easy about torture. Sex slavery. Dismemberment. Murder. But it’s a story about love as much as it is about hate. About what connects us as much as what divides us. Most of us experience (at some point or another) estrangement from those we love dearly, and Marro’s long view gives us hope.

Marra’s writing is lush and evocative, his storytelling tender, the ending oh-so-satisfying. I’m only sorry A Constellation of Vital Phenomena sat neglected on my TBR pile for so long.

The Floating World (review)

The Floating World
C. Morgan Babst
Algonquin Books

October 15. Forty-seven days after landfall.

The Boisdore family is collapsing, the levees of their carefully constructed life breached by the destruction that wthe floating worldas Hurricane Katrina. The patriarch Vincent, once a renowned New Orleans furniture carver, drifts in and out of dementia, one moment clear-thinking, the next living in the past. His son Joe, an sculptor, has made his name in the art world with his primitive carvings, and life had been good. Joe’s wife Dr. Tess Eshleman is a successful psychologist with a thriving practice. And family money. Now their daughter Cora is suffering from the trauma of the death and destruction she witnessed during the storm; her sister Del leaves her life in New York behind to rescue them all. Their historic home on Esplanade is destroyed, a life of privilege gone, a marriage in ruins.

Katrina only reveals what has slowly been unraveling all along. It’s a sobering thought.

So Cora’s mental illness is just a symptom of family dysfunction. And Joe and Tess, the biracial couple who years earlier risked everything for their love, had simply glossed over differences they couldn’t deal with. Del finds she can’t save her family because she’s not yet set her own feet on the solid ground of adult life.

Writer C. Morgan Babst peels back the characters’ shortcomings until they are defenseless before us, not certain who they are without the veneer of social niceties.

Ninety-three days after landfall and the rebuilding begins. For some, more than others.

But aren’t we all of us just a hurricane–metaphorically speaking, anyways–away from finding our lives flung open and ripped apart? By disease. Unexpected death. Addiction. Estrangement. It’s how we confront that reality that will define us.

If you want a novel that is gritty and revealing–thought-provoking–The Floating World would be it.