Looking forward, turning back: Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk

What I read

I’ve been glancing over Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk for over a year now. The book’s cover showed up in New Yorker ads for a time and on my Amazon “Customers who bought this also bought” feed and on the digital galley platform to which I belong. I’ve passed it on the “We Recommend” table at the bookstore. Stopped. Read the cover blurbs about New York (I’ve never been), 1930s (not even I am not that old!), walking (on a good day, yes …) and just figured it wasn’t for me.

Oh, how wrong I was.

Kathleen Rooney’s Lillian Boxfish is everything I want in a good character: she is witty, perceptive, brutally honest, open-minded, and loyal. She’s also a bit tetchy. Yes, Lillian does traipse through New York City of an evening–New Year’s Eve, no less–but along the way she stops where she experienced some monumental shift in her eighty-four years. There’s the Back Porch, a corner bar where she stopped over the years for a cocktail and maybe a chit chat with the bartender. Delmonico’s, where she and her husband ate after the court date that finalized their divorce. Madison Square Park, where she lunched as a working gal and wrote her poetry. And Macy’s, where she took the U.S. by storm in the thirties, the much-talked-about copy writer, highest paid girl advertiser in the country with newspaper headlines to prove it. St. Vincent’s Hospital, where she arrived when life spun out-of-control.

And that’s how we learn her story. At each stop Lillian reflects on her life–and also meets someone in the present with whom she can connect. Because even though Lillian is eighty-four-years-old, she is forward thinking. We learn that her early life is by turns tragic and comic; her life now, a dance between reaching out and turning inward. As the night creeps closer to 1985, the reality of having one foot in the past, and one in the future becomes oh-so-poignant, and Lillian welcomes the time when the future is no more, when the end will arrive:

“The future and I are just about even, our quarrel all but resolved. I welcome its coming, and I resolve to be attentive to the details of its arrival. I plan to meet it at the station in my best white dress, violet corsage in hand …”


What I lived

I started Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk at home on my bed, tucked in snug, everything around me dear and familiar. I finished it on an airplane returning from a visit with my son and his family.

And there’s nothing like a visit with one’s distant children to look back over life, even if only the motherhood part. (Although, truth be told, distance provides space to think about any number of life’s conundrums.) I did some things right. And some things pretty crappy. I wanted my family to be just. so. I wanted to get it right. (And you wouldn’t be inaccurate if you read “controlling” there.) I pushed and prodded at times when I should have offered a hug and one more episode of Power Rangers. I was a hard taskmaster when I should have let the dishes wait until morning. I accepted no backtalk when I should have let my chicks puff out their feathers a bit.

Somehow we survived and somehow we are reasonably amiable.

But Lillian’s experience is now in my field of view. Yes, the future is still out there a ways before I meet it, God willing, and knowing that means I have some time. Time to reach out while turning in. Time to figure out how I’ll “meet it at the station”. Time to figure out what I’ll leave in my wake.

The child is the mother of the woman

Birds of a Feather
Jacqueline Winspear
Soho Press (2004)

If Maisie Dobbs had had a child, she would have been Flavia de Luce. Now, I know, I know–Flavia has had a perfectly good mother in Harriet. But, readers, really!

Last week I read the second in the Maisie Dobbs series, Birds of a Feather. And while I wasn’t averse to the first Maisie mystery (I don’t think I even reviewed it here) I found it a little … plodding. At least for a whodunit. But I had another reaction altogether when I read the second in the series, Birds of a Feather. It’s obvious why Jacqueline Winspear is up to fifteen novels and counting.

It’s 1930, the Great War is now over a decade behind her, yet Maisie’s world is still reeling from its effects: she continues to mourn (and pay hospital visits to) her comatose fiance Simon, and assistant Billy Beale is dealing with the pain of his injuries in a destructive way. But Maisie still has work to do. In this case, to find the daughter of grocery magnate Joseph Waite. Seems that his daughter Charlotte has disappeared (again, I might add) and it’s Maisie’s job to find her and bring her home to her overbearing father.

In the meantime, however, Charlotte’s friends start showing up dead. All killed the same way: first poisoned by morphine and then stabbed multiple times. Maisie suspects that Charlotte’s disappearance, Waite’s insistence that she return even under force, and the women’s deaths are connected–and she’s off an running.

What gives the Maisie Dobbs novels a bit of … errrrr … novelty is the mystic gift she relies on. Maisie senses–sees–hears things at the crime scene that others cannot. She also practices meditation which calms and centers her and allows her to receive insight that helps solve crimes. A bit of New Age in the Jazz Age. I’ll have no problem picking another Maisie Dobbs mystery when I need a fun read.

But I digress. Maisie Dobbs could very well be the mother of Flavia de Luce, at least in spirit. HOW HAVE I NOT READ ANYTHING ABOUT THIS ON THE INTERWEBS?! The Maisie novels are set in 1930 and the Flavias in the early fifties. Okay, so maybe grandmother instead of mother. But it’s as if the characters are genetically related: independent, out-of-the-box thinking women with unique talents. Women who don’t quite fit their time and place because of their gifts. Women who don’t have much of a filter. And the evolution from Maisie to Flavia makes sense if you think about how one generation changes from the previous. Maisie relied on the metaphysical and Flavia on the physical world of chemistry.

I searched the internet for fan fiction, thinking “Who could pass up such an opportunity?!” But, nothing. All I found was a bunch of “If you liked this, you’ll also like …” posts. I tried to find an interview of the authors–maybe on a panel at some writing conference. Nada. You’re telling me no publisher has ever thought of booking these two headliners together?!

For now, I guess, I’ll dream on my own what mischief these Girl Wonders could conjure up together. What a team they would make!

The Monk of Mokha: review

The Monk of Mokha
Dave Eggers
Vintage (2019)

I marvel at my own coffee evolution. Nearly forty years ago as a brand new bride I started with a percolator–Corning Ware in the ever-popular butterfly gold–and made one pot each week on Saturday morning. Several years later I moved up to a Mr. Coffee and what followed were any number of other drip coffeemakers. The coffee itself? Folgers or Maxwell House. And then I turned a snob–french press, coffee beans bought bulk, ground right before steeping.

Today? I wake up, stick a pod into a single-brew system … and fuss because the wait is so long for my morning cup ‘o joe.

Mokhtar Alkhanshali, a Yemini-American living in San Francisco, didn’t even drink coffee when he set out to become a coffee importer. His goal? To empower Yemeni coffee growers and bring coffee back to its origin story. Coffee, it seems, was first cultivated in Yemen. Not Ethiopia. Not Sumatra. Not even Costa Rico or Columbia. The Dutch stole a few plants in the 17th century, cultivated it in Java, and, subsequently, Europe spent a couple hundred years fighting over control of coffee production.

Mokhtar was out to return Yemen to its rightful place in coffee history.

His lofty goal must have seemed like a long shot to many. Mokhtar was a bit of a smart ass. A college drop out. His last job before becoming an entrepreneur? Doorman. But once he learned the story of coffee, Mokhtar threw himself headlong into making his dream a reality. He interned at Blue Bottle coffee. He insinuated himself into a specialty coffee conference. Wheedled and cajoled friends and relatives in the Yemeni community to back his venture.

And then he took off for Yemen.

Now even if you don’t know much about current events, you’ve surely heard of Yemen. Something about a civil war? The Houthis. Saudi bombings. Famine. Refugee camps. And there was Mokhtar Alkhanshali right in the thick of things.

He traveled the country with armed escorts. Was thrown in jail and detained multiple times. Lived through sniper fire and gun fights and bombing raids. All the while, pursuing his dream to bring Yemeni coffee–he had eighteen thousand kilograms waiting in a warehouse–to the rest of the world. Mukhtar was Teflon-coated. Nothing stuck. He could fast talk himself out of any situation.

In fact, at times his journey seemed fantastical. Beyond belief. Could a young man (he was only twenty-five at the time) really escape unscathed so many times? In the middle of a war zone?! I read much of the book with my mouth open in awe or was it maybe a hint of disbelief? Writer Dave Eggers accompanied Mokhtar to Yemen, visited the sites he talked about, and verified his experiences. (Here they talk about the book in this PBS interview in 2018.)

Mokhtar eventually makes it back to the U.S. via Djibouti. He gets that shipment of coffee. He roasts and markets the coffee. He makes his parents proud. It’s the American Dream, right?

Mokhtar’s coffee–marketed under the brand Port of Mokha–sells for $16 a cup, brewed. You read that right. Per cup. Even if I get fancy pants coffee pods, they go for less than a buck each. This is the fine wine of coffee, dear reader, and a far cry from my percolator-Mr. Coffee-or even French press days.

But I’m tempted to buy a cup should I ever have the opportunity.


Is it all too good to be true? I just read about a scandal related to Port of Mokha coffee and Mokhtar Alkhanshali. I don’t begin to know the ins and outs of the legal business dealings, but I do know the words “racketeering” and “embezzlement” aren’t good. You can read about the lawsuits Mokhtar is involved with here and here.

The Elephant in the Room: review

The Elephant in the Room
Tommy Tomlinson
Simon & Schuster (January 2019)

I just got back from WW, formerly known as ‘Weight Watchers’ but now marketed as a wellness workshop. I tell people that over the last ten years I have gained and lost the same 35 pounds twice. And I don’t ever intend to do so again. There are many reasons for my weight gain. I went through menopause–that’s a big one. I live with chronic pain–that’s another. (Because when fatigue sets in and muscles ache, a good ol’ shot of endorphins, released by the pleasure that is all things carbolicious, makes everything hurt just a little less.) Life got rough. Real rough. And I discovered the true meaning of that phrase “comfort food”.

In his new weight loss memoir, Tommy Tomlinson looks at his life and tries to figure out, first of all, how he came to be 460 pounds, and, secondly, how to lose that weight. He writes about his childhood, growing up in a working class home in Georgia, where food was a way to show love and where even though his parents no longer labored in the field, sharecropping, the food they ate was didn’t reflect the change in their lifestyle. He writes about food being a way to connect, a way to feel like you belong–how nothing says bonding like a night of beer and fast food with college buddies. And then there was his career as a sports journalist, where deadlines meant fast-food instead of healthy eating and sedentary days spent writing meant he burned off too few of those fast-food calories.

So for the most part, as pretty standard memoir of weight gain. But where Tomlinson provided a unique perspective was in his quest to figure out why he couldn’t lose the weight. Why few programs or diet plans worked for him. Why, no matter how firm his resolve, after a few weeks counting calories, he would revert to old habits. And so he turned inward.

While he mentioned several discoveries, the following made me wonder how many of us can be this brutally honest about our own reasons for overweight. Tomlinson says “I’ve forged my weight into a shield that keeps me from the risks of a bolder life.” He can blame a lot of life’s disappointments on his weight–people don’t like him because he’s fat, he is “more boring than I ought to be”–and it is that weight that holds him back from taking risks. He writes about his weight being rooted in lies and deception, a character defect that conflicts with his religious beliefs. Tomlinson lies to himself about wanting to lose weight. He lies to his wife that he avoided soda and fast food on any given day. And maybe most poignantly of all (especially coming from a fifty-something man) is that he is overweight because he doesn’t want to fully be an adult–that it is childish to not take responsibility for his health, to petulantly satisfy his every whim when it comes to food.

Over the course of writing the book, Tomlinson lost eight-five pounds–a snail’s pace for most of us seeking to lose. But Tomlinson isn’t concerned about how quickly he loses, but rather that the weight stay off. So that he can live that bolder life–honest and true–adulting all the way.

And I have a suspicion that because his weight loss journey was as much an inside job as an outside one, he will.


As is often the case, NPR did a great interview with Tommy Tomlinson the week his memoir was published.

Mary

For someone who reads as much as I do, I struggle with contemporary poetry. What should be a pleasure–me! lover of word-craft and all that is story–is more often a frustration. I find most of it arcane. Baffling. And, dare I say, way too self-absorbed. I want my poetry rich with images that I can connect with, that touch my heart-center. I don’t want a poem heavy-handed, but rather one that brushes against my soul like a well-loved comforter–one that says “You’re home”. So the list of contemporary poets who have won my heart is short. Billy Collins. Ted Kooser. And Mary Oliver.

So much has been said about Ms. Oliver in the past week since her death–certainly don’t need to say more. I listened to any number of remembrances on NPR and sought out The New York Times to read her obituary. I recalled reading “Wild Geese” for the first time and the thrill of “only let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” I changed my letterboard to feature that most famous of lines “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

And I thanked the Google gods that, with only a finger tap or two, I found many archived articles that allowed me to tuck away a few more Mary memories. Here are my favorites:
What Mary Oliver’s Critics Don’t Understand” (The New Yorker; Nov. 27, 2017)
“Mary Oliver’s Poems Taught Me How To Live” (The New York Times; Jan. 18, 2019)
Listening to the World” (On Being–a rare interview recorded with Krista Tippet in 2015 and rebroadcast last week)

But for me, Mary Oliver became so dear because of the woman she was. Private to the point of eccentricity. Haunted by abuse. Reluctant to talk about herself. Yet always–always–sure of belonging in the woods and fields around her Provincetown, Massachusetts home because of what it had to teach her about her place in the world.

I look at her face in those last photographs–lined and weathered, the slight lift of her smile, a brightness in her eyes. Where age was Mona Lisa beautiful. And I want to grow into that woman. The one with the “wild and precious life”.