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?

The Pearl That Broke Its Shell: review

The Pearl That Broke Its Shell
Nadia Hashimi
William Morrow

Be honest.

photo credit@National Geographic

How much do you really know about Afghanistan? That it’s the site of one of the United States’ longest foreign wars. That it was the seat of Osama bin Laden and el Qaeda. Maybe you read The Kite Runner, so you have at least a better-than-average understanding of what life in Afghanistan might be like. And everyone remembers the Girl With the Green Eyes on the cover of National Geographic in 1984. But if you’re like me, I’m guessing that’s the extent of it, right?

Nadia Hashimi’s novel The Pearl That Broke Its Shell tells the story of Rahima, one of four sisters in a poor family at the turn of the 21st century. Her Pader-jan is off fighting with the war lord; the Taliban rules the streets. And without a brother to escort the girls to school and the marketplace, they are virtually prisoners in their own home. (What makes matters even worse is that Pader-jan is an opium addict who is–let’s just say–less than helpful when he is home.) Rahima’s Mader-jan suggests that the nine-year-old become bacha posh, a custom in which a young girl takes the role of a male child. After all, Rahima’s great-great-grandmother was a bacha posh, too, so there is family history to consider. So the girl’s hair is cut short. She wears pants. Barters with the shopkeepers. But even better? As Rahim, she plays soccer, walks freely down the street, looks neighbors in the eye, and gets out of any woman’s work around the house. A stranger on the street would think Rahima really was a boy.

Pearl that broke its shellHashimi alternates between Rahim’s story and Shekiba, her great-great grandmother–and reveals the lives of ordinary (and extraordinary) women in Afghanistan over one hundred years. We experience life in a family compound with farmers who barely eke out a living. We shrink at the blows overbearing mothers-in-law rain on young wives. We live in a war lord’s harem. We feel what it’s like to be number three wife and backhanded by an angry husband for some insignificant infraction.

Those stories laid a groundwork for understanding modern day Afghanistan, at least through the eyes of a the women. So readers learn how powerful husbands enter a wife’s name in the running for a seat Parliament because western powers had dictated that a certain number of ministers be women. How those female ministers had ‘minders’ who signaled to them how to vote. How even in 2007 women were not to watch television or use a computer. And how bearing children is still a woman’s greatest worth.

In every society, no matter how repressive, there are always women who slip through the gender-role cracks. In The Pearl that character is Khala Shaima , Rahima’s elderly spinster aunt who is old enough (and she herself would probably say ugly enough) to say anything to anyone and go where she wants when she wants to. Khala Shaima is always there to fight for Rahima and push her to think beyond the confines of her life–to some day find a way to a better life.

But exactly how that pearl breaks its shell is yours to discover.

So many books, so little time …

That’s actually not entirely true–while I do have many books on my TBR pile, I also have a lot of time now that I’m retired! But instead of reading and blogging in an orderly manner–posts planned and scheduled as good bloggers are wont to do–I launched myself into a frenzy of reading on June first. It must be the giddy freedom I feel staying up until (*gasp*) midnight with a book in hand. Or sitting on the deck with a cold drink in the middle of the afternoon, for goodness sake. To play a little catch up, this post is a two-fer.

The Figgs
Ali Bryan
Freehand Books

the figgsThis is a family who put the fun in dysfunctional. (And they’re Canadian! I thought those Canadians had their shi stuff together compared to Americans, that they operated on a higher plane–but apparently not.) June and Randy Figg live with their three twenty-something children under one roof. Tom, Derek, and Vanessa have finished at university. Or not. They are employed. Or not. And their parents are out of their minds with frustration. Or not. Because if any parents are just asking to have their adult children boomerang, it’s the Figgs. They cook the “kids” breakfast, lunch, and dinner on demand. Do their laundry. Pick up after them. And drive them to and from their (mostly) part time jobs. All the while complaining and lecturing the “kids”. (Can you say ‘enablers’?!)

And then the poop really hits the fan. Derek finds out a young woman he hooked up with is in labor. With his baby. It’s fair to say that chaos ensues and the Figg’s lives are turned inside out when the baby’s mother decides that she doesn’t want to raise baby Jaxx and Derek brings the newborn home. To mom and dad’s, that is.

Author Ali Bryan is a master at capturing the put-upon whining of millennials and their martyr parents and I found myself hooting out loud at times at the banter. But underneath the humor, Bryan asks us to think about the life-changing ramifications of adoption. Not too far into the novel, the reader discovers that June was adopted as a child. A little farther in, we learn that Randy has been keeping a painful secret–nearly thirty years ago, his high school girlfriend had given his baby up for adoption. Randy is determined to find his son, but June never had any interest in looking for her parents.

Until the arrival of little Jaxx.

It’s fresh. It’s funny. It’s a peek into a dysfunctional family who somehow make it work. Read The Figgs this summer.


Remind Me Again What Happened
Joanna Luloff
Algonquin Books

Claire wakes up in the hospital and she has no idea why she is there. She can remember very little of the fever that caused the seizures from remind me again what happenedwhich she still suffers and her husband Charlie is a stranger. She can’t even remember their first kiss. Frightened and very sick, Claire asks Charlie to call Rachel, her best friend–their best friend, really–because she senses she “needs an ally”. Charlie seems always angry with her. He is at once controlling and distant.

But like many who suffer brain trauma, Claire’s distant memory is fairly intact. She can describe the bedspread in her room when she was eight. She remembers the snack her mother made her each afternoon. And she can tell the story of her grandparents courtship when she searches through a box of old photos. The gaps in Claire’s memory frustrate them all.

We learn early on that Claire and Charlie had lived apart for a few years before her illness. And while Claire doesn’t remember any of this, she does have flashes of memory: Michael; Pondicherry, India; Turkey. What do those fragmented memories mean, if anything? Her apartment in New York was packed up and boxes are waiting for her to sort through: Work. Grad school. Childhood. Boxes that might answer Claire’s questions.

And although the story of Claire’s memory loss does capture the reader, it is the questions author Joanna Luloff asks about memory that are most compelling. The story is told alternating narrators, so we hear the same story told by three different people. Except the stories aren’t the same at all–so what is reality? How can we determine if what we remember is accurate or not? How can three people remember the same incident so very differently?

If like your novels tied up with a neat bow at the end, this book probably isn’t for you. But if you want to ponder some Deep Thoughts and wonder if you really remember what caused the end of a love affair or the loss of a dear friend, I’d give it a go.

An evening with Stephen Mack Jones: GR Reads

Anyone can write a book. Just tell yourself a story a pebble at a time.  Stephen Mack Jones
Stephen Mack Jones: GR Reads

In most circles of friends there’s that One. You know, the one who tells great stories–and acts out all the parts. That friend who is self-effacing, no matter how successful they might be. The one who has a strong moral compass, yet never acts holier-than-thou. The one who is often the butt of the jokes they tell.

The Grand Rapids Public Library recently hosted An Evening with Stephen Mack Jones as part of their summer GR Reads program. Jones is the author of August Snow a crime novel that pairs a rollicking whodunit with insightful social commentary all set against the backdrop of Detroit. (Read my review of the novel here.) And if I had to guess, Jones is that One for his family and friends.

Dressed casually in jeans, a black tee, and sport coat, Jones began the evening by talking about the process of writing the novel. Joking that after he retired (Jones was a copywriter by trade) there was never anything new on Netflix, he set about to tell himself a good story. While mowing the grass one day the words “August Snow” popped into his mind, but it meant little to him at that moment. When he later looked back at some ideas he had jotted down for a story, he realized that August Snow was the hero’s name. Jones said as he wrote, the story moved him, making him laugh … and cry.

Readers of August Snow know August holds dear the memory of his parents and feels their influence daily. Jones said that during an early interview when asked who the story is about, it came to him that August Snow is the story of his father, the hero “that makes the hero yet never asks for any glory.”

After Jones told the story of writing the novel, he took just as long to answer audience questions. This is one author who was not stingy with his time, one who thanked the readers sitting in the audience again and again as being the source of the book’s success. Of course he was asked about a second novel (Lives Laid Away set to be released in January 2019), and of course he was asked about a film version of the novel (and the answer is probably–the novel was recently optioned).

Now to wait six months for that second August Snow novel …

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.