Dear Jeanine Cummins,

What I read

Dear Jeanine Cummins,

It’s been quite a ride, hasn’t it? I can’t imagine working on a novel for five years and then *voila*–publicity tour cancelled–death threats–hateful reviews. (I guess if anything else, the blowback has spoken to the power of the written word … but I’m sure that’s little consolation and hardly how you thought this would turn out.)

Let me start out by saying that I raced through the first half of the book. You had me from the first page. I was riveted as Lydia and Luca raced to escape Los Jardineros. Held my breath as they hid in the missionary van and jumped onto La Bestia. The action was movie-like in its suspense; the characters just like me. Very John Grisham-ish, I thought.

And that was my first hint that something was not-quite-right. You see, Lydia seemed so … white. I get the whole we-are-all-the-same-on-the-inside thing, but Lydia’s story–a migrant’s story–was one about which I knew nothing. I wanted to see the world through her eyes, not my own. I wanted insight into the immigrant experience, but what I got was fiction that recycled features from the evening news. And this was probably my biggest disappointment: you wrote in tropes, cliche. Exciting ones, don’t get me wrong. But I wanted more.

I should probably mention I read nothing about the American Dirt controversy until after I finished the novel. My bookish friend Denice lent me her copy with an urgent, “I need to know what you think about this” and I didn’t want others to sway my opinion. Even the two of us spoke only briefly about the controversy.

And after reading several articles, I feel as though some of the criticism was well-founded. But even though the reviews might have some merit, I don’t think the entire burden should be laid at your feet. Flat Iron Books did you wrong–they were looking to make publishing waves and a whole lotta money and you got caught in the cultural cross-fire. Flat Iron heralded your book as literary fiction when in reality it was an exciting thriller, and you took most of the flack.

But, Jeanine, some of those reviewers were just. plain. nasty. I’m so sorry. Sadly, in our Trumpian universe people–even those who are woke–even those who have been on the receiving end of invective themselves–feel justified in name calling and taking broad swipes at those with whom they differ. Even *gasp* liberals and progressives. Whatever happened to respectful discourse?

Would I recommend American Dirt? Yes. With maybe a side note to read one of the articles below to put the novel into perspective. Was I sorry I took the time to read it? Not at all. As I said, it was an exciting thriller. It might even make a good movie.

But most importantly? It made me think. And that’s what compelling stories are all about.

What I lived

Following the American Dirt threads through the interwebs and reading link after link was fascinating. My takeaway? Listen. Just listen when you know little about a culture or experience that is not your own. Don’t stand on your liberal (or conservative!) soapbox and preach. Just. shut. up.

Here are some threads for you to follow, Dear Reader . Listen carefully.

Washington Post: Publisher cancels ‘American Dirt’ book tour: ‘Serious mistakes’ and ‘concerns about safety’ This article has a video excerpt of Cummins speaking at Politics and Prose Bookstore which is worth watching; just listening to the strain in her voice, it’s easy to recognize the toll this has taken on the author.

AP: Author tour for controversial ‘American Dirt’ is canceled Oprah chose the novel for her book club read and has faced some backlash from the Latinx community; concise read.

Slate: Will the American Dirt Fiasco Change American Publishing? Great discussion of how publishers might avoid a debacle like this in the future.

Texas Monthly: The Real Problem With ‘American Dirt’ Regional perspective with tons of links for additional reading, including this link to titles about the migrant experience written by Latinx.

1A (NPR): What The Controversy Over ‘American Dirt’ Tells Us About Publishing And Authorship A panel discussion focusing on “who has the right to tell what stories?” One quibble–one of the panelists scoffed at the fact that Cummins had Lydia ride La Bestia when a middle class woman in Mexico would have gone to the airport and taken the first flight to Canada. Except that Lydia did think of that and didn’t want her name showing up on the flight manifest. That made me wonder just how closely some of the critics read the novel.

Tale and Testament

What I read

Before I read Margaret Atwood’s recently published sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, I thought maybe a second reading of the first was in order–especially since it had been thirty-some years since I’d read it. (I haven’t watched the television series because, well, you know … books.) I remembered how I felt after reading Handmaid’s Tale more than I remembered the plot. Of course, the visual of Offred’s dress and the handmaid’s role in Gilead stuck, as did main character’s near escape early in the novel. But I knew the intervening decades had softened my reaction to the novel and that a dive back into Offred’s dystopian world was in order before reading The Testaments.

The book has held up well, my friend, which is a pretty devastating thing to write. Our current political and social climate seem to put women at-risk for a Gilead-like scenario even more than thirty-five years ago.

The Testaments, is more back story than sequel. (We don’t explicitly find out what happened to Offred as one might expect in a sequel–but the savvy reader is sure to get enough hints to satisfy.) Even more accurately, perhaps, it’s a story that spins off Offred’s. The novel is told through the recovered testimonies of 369A and Aunt Lydia. Through 369A’s record, we learn about the daily lives of girls and women in Gilead–their marriages, education, and relationships with each other. And we also get the perspective of the Aunts and their role and unique position of power, especially the much-hated Aunt Lydia from Handmaid’s Tale. Both accounts also allow the reader to get a glimpse of how the underground Mayday organization operated.

Atwood’s handling of the sequel is masterful. In learning those back stories, we understand, rather than condemn. Even more chilling, readers might see themselves in the characters’ motives, choices, and reactions.

And while you might choose to deny it, Atwood seems to imply that the Aunts might be us.

What I lived

My then-husband bought me The Handmaid’s Tale –I don’t think he had any idea what it was about–for some celebratory day or another. Christmas. Or maybe my birthday. In 1985 had just started reading Ms. magazine on the sly. I was a stay-at-home mom without a college education who didn’t have a credit card to her name or any independent income. We were Evangelical Christians and, for me, life was starting to chaff.

A couple years later the shit hit the fan and life was never the same.

I’d like to think that I’d have enough inner resources now to resist any Gilead wool pulled over my eyes. I’m resilient. Educated. Independent. But the past several years make me doubt myself. The Old White Men in charge are pernicious in their policies for and attitudes about women. If you can say, ‘Grab them by the pussy’ and ‘Brett Kavanaugh’ in the same breath, how can you think otherwise?

And there are my own personal shortcomings. That longing to partner with The One. The dream of a fairy tale ending and happily-ever-after. A nasty little word called codependency. My self-zipped lips.

But then I remember–there is always hope. Nolite te Bastardes Carborundorum.

Educated: a memoir (review)

Educated: a memoir
Tara Westover
Random House (2018)

I used to try to get my high school students (at least once a year and usually when reading Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451) to think about the difference between ‘education’ and ‘schooling’. Most seemed to think that they were receiving an education in their daily classes. My contention was that they were getting their schooling. How they interacted and applied the ideas they learned, what they did with the information–now that was education. Too many people stop at schooling and call it education. And to be successful, I’m pretty certain you need both.

Tara Westover’s memoir Educated is as good as every review you might have read since its publication in February. The book was my book club’s December pick and while it made for great discussion I couldn’t help but wish that it was required reading for every young person. Because only after she got her schooling did Tara become educated–in knowledge and understanding, sure. But also in love and life and what it means to persevere.

Tara Westover grew up in a survivalist family on a mountain in Idaho. Her father dealt scrap metal, and her mother was a midwife and herbalist. An older brother called Shawn in the book (many first names were changed according to an introductory note) physically and verbally abused both of his sisters. Tara’s ‘homeschooling’ consisted of learning to read and basic arithmetic, but by the time she was seven or eight, she was working in the scrap yard or helping her mother bottle tinctures. Her father’s fear that government agents were always ready to strike meant that Tara had a to-go bag under her bed, ready to flee to the hills. She had nightmares about the Randy Weaver and the Ruby Ridge incident. Tara Westover was sometimes hungry. She was often lonely.

At an older brother’s urging, Tara began preparing her escape at age sixteen–her goal, at first, was simply to teach herself the content she would encounter on the ACT. After two tries, her scores were college ready and she was accepted to Brigham Young University.

She left. And to say her adjustment was difficult is an understatement.

Tara lived in an off campus with two other girls and had little idea that people didn’t leave rotting food and trash on the counters with dirty dishes; that people showered regularly; that when they did shower, they used soap. She also had huge gaps in her understanding of the world and its history. Thinking she would ask questions, joining class discussion like the other students, Tara asked a professor what the word ‘holocaust’ meant on a lecture slide. The silence in the lecture hall, as they say, was deafening. But seventeen-year-old Tara had never heard of the Jewish holocaust.

Tara Westover not only succeeded at BYU–she went on to earn her PhD from Trinity College, Cambridge. She is an articulate and intelligent and amazing woman (just check out the interview links below). But always, always in those first years away from the mountain, she was dogged by a feeling that she was undeserving. That she was fraud. A cloud of shame shadowed every success.

How does one come to terms with a past like that? By making peace? Or cutting ties to a destructive family? How does a young person learn her place the world when she doesn’t know basic life skills, let alone
history? Spoiler alert (but not really!): the secret is in education.


Check out these interview links with Tara Westover:

Fresh Air (38 min.) audio
AfterWord (1 hour) video

Virgil Wander: review

Virgil Wander
Leif Enger
Grove Atlantic Press (October 2018)

Virgil WanderVirgil Wander (yes, that’s the main character’s name) thinks his “world began reorganizing itself” the day a stranger, Rune Eliassen, turned up in town–but I’m pretty sure the sea change in Virgil’s life really began when he found himself launched off Highway 61 on a snowy autumn day, arcing over the guardrails and straight into Lake Superior. He doesn’t remember the accident, but he was told Marcus Jetty had been beach combing along the shore and managed to pull Virgil out before he sank to the bottom with his car.

Virgil’s memory is sketchy because he’s had a mild traumatic brain injury. It’s left him with a monster of a headache. Virgil has also lost his adjectives. He misreads faces. His motor skills are shaky. And months of his life are hazy at best, missing at worst. But lucky for Virgil, he lives in Greenstone, Minnesota, a hard-luck town whose residents are good-hearted and loyal, if not also a rag-tag of a bunch.

There is the town drunk Shad Pea who drowns when a sturgeon pulls him under one night and his young son Galen who vows to avenge his father’s death by catching the fish that killed him. There is the young widow Nadine, a tender and single-minded mother to her son Bjorn. Jerry Fandeen, a ne’er do well who straightens up and flies right–or so it seems until some explosives are involved–and his dynamo of a wife, Ann, who works with Virgil in the mayor’s office. A domesticated raccoon named Genghis who runs away and is the likely source of a rabies outbreak. And, of course, a villain–Adam Leer.  Rumored to have killed his older brother, he left town at sixteen. Little is known about the life of this Hollywood director who has now returned to live quietly in the empty family home.

A small-town story like this might even stand on its own, but Virgil Wander is all the richer for that stranger I mentioned. Rune is the long-lost father of one of  Virgil’s close friends, Alec Sandstrom, who disappeared over two decades ago. He flew a private plane out over the lake and never returned. Alec, a minor league pitcher for the Duluth-Superior Dukes had a wicked fast ball. He was also something of a cut-up–another small town eccentric–and his disappearance haunted his friends and family. There had even been some rumored Sandstrom sightings in Ontario. Northern California. Idaho. And now here is a father he never even knew. A Norwegian, in fact, traveling thousands of miles to gather stories about a son he never even knew he had.

Rune is also a kite maker and his fantastical kites are what draw Greenstonians to him. The kites are large and elaborate and seem to have a life of their own. There was a stained glass window. A cloudberry pie. A bicycle and a catfish and a fireplace “with a crooked brick chimney and flames of loose orange that flapped in the wind …” Because of Virgil’s brain injury, his doctor recommends he have someone stay with him for awhile, which Virgil dismisses until he almost burns down his apartment over  the Empress, a movie theater he owns and runs. So it is Rune who comes to live with Virgil, and while one of the men tries to remember pieces of his life, the other tries to piece together a life he had never known. As their friendship deepens, Virgil finds himself much different from “the previous tenant” who inhabited his life. And so he builds a new life for himself, one in which puts aside his aimlessness and searches for purpose. Connection. And love.

But ohmygoodness it is the language in the novel that makes me swoon. The narrator speaks in  an oddly formal manner that endears him to the reader and, at the same time, adds to the story a mythical tone. Here’s Virgil on recovering language after the accident:

Within weeks certain prodigal words started filtering home. They came one at a time or in shy small groups. I remember when sea-kindly showed up, a sentimental favorite, followed by desiccated and massive. Brusque appeared all by itself, which seemed apt … this would be a good time to ask for your patience if I use an adjective too many now and then–even now, some years on, they’re still returning.

And this when Virgil warns his love that the accident has forever changed him:

“You know what you’re getting here, [Virgil] said. “I’m still fairly reduced. I may never be unabridged again.”

Of course the fact that the novel is set in a Great Lakes state with the sand dunes and gales off the lake and unpredictable storms I love–it’s all just too much. Much beauty. Much love. Much magic.


Here’s a video clip of Enger describing the novel.

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?