Radio Girls: review

Radio Girls
Sarah-Jane Stratford
New American Library (2016)

radio girls

Every now and then when I was a teacher, I’d get a box of books donated to my classroom library. Maybe from a parent or another teacher or a community member. I have to admit I found this title in one such delivery, and I’m glad I brought it home. The novel Radio Girls gave me a peek into a world I knew nothing about: the early days of the BBC in 1928 and the pioneering women who worked there. While the story’s focus is the fictional Maisie Musgrave and her rather Mark the Match Boy rise in the world, I found the inner workings of the newly established British Broadcasting Corporation a more compelling story and the figure of Hilda Matheson (who was the dynamic head of Talks at the BBC) fascinating.

hilda matheson
image@nationalportraitgallery (London)

The first general manager of the BBC, John Reith, couldn’t decide whether to keep the left-leaning, open-minded Matheson on a short leash–or a long one. While he basked in the accolades the BBC received for Matheson’s programming decisions, he feared she was a communist too liberal and his conservative nature was offended by her affair with Vita Sackville-West. The relationship between Reith and Matheson was often a contentious one. Matheson, however, used her position as the Director of Talks to bring the public information conveyed in a more informal, conversational manner, and she featured the first on-air political debate, popular authors from Virginia Woolfe to H.G. Wells, and newly enfranchised women voters. Matheson’s position opened the way to hiring other single women in positions other than secretary. (The BBC under Reith maintained a policy of hiring women only if they were not married.) Add to her trailblazing at the BBC the fact that Hilda Matheson worked as an M15 operative during the Great War and the fact that she served as secretary to Britain’s first female parliamentarian Lady Nancy Astor and you’ve got quite an incredible individual.

In researching her life I discovered another book, a privately published (and so difficult to find) biography titled Stoker: The Life of Hilda Matheson. I think it would be well-worth the read. In any case, if you’d like to read about a pivotal time in the history of the BBC and English women, I don’t think Radio Girls will disappoint.

How is it I’d never heard of this incredible woman before now?

Ordinary Grace: review

Ordinary Grace
William Kent Krueger
Atria/Simon & Schuster

A born and raised Midwesterner, I am drawn to novels set in my part of the world. Ohio. Michigan. Wisconsin. Minnesota. There is something ordinary gracemagical about stepping into a world you know, of finding a story that captures the ethos of a place you love. When I turned to the blurb on William Kent Krueger’s novel Ordinary Grace, and read “Minnesota” and “1961” I knew it was a must-read.

The narrator of the story is thirteen-year-old Frank Drum, a pretty typical “PK” as we used to call them. Preacher’s Kid. He balked at authority, pushed limits, and tried to circumvent just about any punishment his parents meted out. His father, Pastor Nathan Drum, is a WWII vet who traded studying law for the ministry when he returned to the States. Frank’s mother Ruth was less than thrilled with the prospect of being a pastor’s wife and she shares Frank’s rebellious spirit. She smokes … on the porch, in clear view of everyone. She drinks martinis. And she’s not so sure about this God-thing her husband is all about. Ariel, Frank’s older sister, is an accomplished pianist and composer with great promise who is about to set off to Julliard.  Frank’s nine-year-old brother Jake is a quiet boy, in part because he lives with a stutter that makes speaking difficult.

The story begins with the death of one of Frank’s classmates, Bobby Cole. Daydreaming as he sat on the trestle over the Minnesota river, he was killed when he didn’t hear an oncoming train. Police officer Doyle suspects his death was not an accident–that maybe one of the homeless who lived by the river had something to do with Bobby’s death. Or maybe it was the Indian Warren Redstone, a Native man with a rap sheet. (His charge? Protesting for Indian rights.) His recent reappearance in town (by Doyle’s account anyways) could only mean trouble.

But Bobby’s death was just the beginning of an awful summer of loss. One that would both pull Frank away from his father’s faith and pull him closer. After Bobby’s death, the brothers discover one of those homeless men, dead by the river; Ariel’s mentor and close family friend Emil Brandt tries to commit suicide. And then comes the death that nearly destroys the Drum family.

Although I think it’s evident that Krueger loves us Midwesterners, he doesn’t shy away from uncovering our ugliness. Racial prejudice. Gender stereotypes. Abuse. Alcoholism. But he does so with understanding of our frailty–he looks at us honestly and without condemnation.

Krueger is able to do this, I think, with the cooperation of  Nathan Drum. We are privy to a couple of Nathan’s sermons in Ordinary Grace and we learn that his God is a God of love. A God who promises light over darkness, who gives us humans the grace to “endure our own dark night and rise to the dawning of a new day and rejoice.”  When Nathan learns that a young person in his life is gay, he reassures the young man he is a child of God–loved, not sick; made in God’s image, not a freak. It’s not what you’d expect of a rural pastor in Minnesota at the beginning of the sixties. But sometimes those of us in the Midwest even stereotype ourselves, and I’d venture a guess that Nathan’s view of the world was more common than we assume.

That’s what I love about reading novels written by authors in the Midwest. Our faith, our optimism, our love of family–and hot dish casseroles!–is not mocked or derided. Instead, our spirit is celebrated.

On Brassard’s Farm: review

On Brassard’s Farm
Daniel Hecht
Blackstone Publishing

Ann Turner wants to get away from it all–her job (middle school teacher), her ex-husband (cheating scumbag), her city life in Boston (harriedOn Brassard's Farm and superficial). With a small inheritance, she looks for a  piece of land. Just a little place in the middle of nowhere. Vermont, maybe. Breathe the fresh country air. Meet some down-to-earth folks. Buy fresh corn and blackberries from a roadside stand.

Well … don’t we all?!

But most of us aren’t dealing with Ann’s mess of a life. Her dismissal for ‘inappropriate touching’ of a student. Friends who abandoned her. The brother who went missing several years ago.

Daniel Hecht’s On Brassard’s Farm is the story of how Ann made sense of it all. By buying an (almost) inaccessible piece of land on a farm in Vermont. Tent living in the woods for six months of the year. Working on a dairy farm to pay off unexpected debt. And questioning, always questioning, how she came to that place in her life. The property on Brassard’s farm was the means to confront “[her] own bramble patch, [her] own deep woods.”

And the hard work paid off.

She faced fear. Physical exhaustion. Utter loneliness. Even her rage. Gradually, she begins to feel “as if I possessed some degree of luminosity again. I felt a strand of resilience inside, strong yet supple, in body and psyche, as if I’d been at least party woven back together.”

Of course she finds love, again, too. It’s probably Ann’s revelations about love and loneliness that touched me the most. Like always, I’m so taken by a novel where a male author speaks with such accuracy about women’s inner lives–and Hecht did this well. Like chick lit on a deeper level.

(I also learned a lot about farming, dairy cows, trimming trees, and growing hops. Sometimes, quite frankly, a little too much, but still.)

On Brassard’s Farm is a good read.

The Bad Daughter: review

The Bad Daughter
Joy Fielding
Ballantine Books

Every year I read at least one mystery just to keep myself open to the idea of reading whodunits and thrillers and all books mysterious. This bad daughteryear’s is Joy Fielding’s The Bad Daughter. (Of course I might also have chosen the book because of the title, so there’s that. Years of therapy … but that’s another post, I guess!) And even though I almost bailed on it, I’m glad I didn’t. It was a rollicking good time, with suspects galore.

Robin is heading home after five years away, and she’s a bundle of nerves. Not necessarily because her father and step-mom have been brutally murdered, but because she is heading home to Red Bluff and her older sister Melanie. To say their relationship was contentious is putting it mildly. Melanie is snarky and snide and downright cruel where Robin is concerned. She’s got a chip on her shoulder and she’s not shy about voicing her resentments: Robin went to college; Robin is a professional; Robin lives in L.A. And truthfully, Melanie’s life sucks. She had her son Landon when she was in her teens, and he is autistic. She never escaped Red Bluff, and her love life is non-existent. So the battle between the sisters is intense–in fact, it was the reason that I almost didn’t stay with The Bad Daughter. The first chapter or two were a little too “chick-lit-y” for my taste. You know, the “my-sister-hates-me-and-I-don’t-know-why” sort of book.

But once the investigation gets going and the suspects start lining up, it’s a great read. When the evidence was stacked against each new person of interest, I’d play the rest of the novel out in my head to see if it made sense. Now I’m no whodunit expert, but that has got to be the sign of a good one. But the victims? Their lives made the story. Melanie and Robin’s father is a wealthy, philandering loud-mouth. Always has been. So truth be told, we don’t feel terrible that he got his. But their step-mom Tara was Robin’s best friend in high school (I know, ewwww) and once engaged to her brother Alec. Complicating matters, Greg and Tara have a twelve-year-old daughter, Cassidy. The girl was indulged by their dad as Robin and Melanie the never were. Cassidy witnessed the robbery–and perhaps even the murder–but she’s hospitalized with gunshot wounds.

So who did it? The daughter? The nephew? The son? Or someone else entirely? I’ll tell you what–this family puts the ‘fun’ in dysfunctional!

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.