White Houses

Unknown-1On International Women’s Day, a book about Eleanor Roosevelt seems appropriate, but Amy Bloom’s White Houses is more about Lorena Hickok, Eleanor’s companion and lover as she reflects an aspect of the great First Lady’s humanity and the inner self few knew.  Although fiction, Bloom carefully contains the historical moments, referencing letters and research from historians bringing the famous friendship of two middle-aged women into the physical.  With insights into their personal lives and sacrifices, Bloom creates an homage to two strong women who wrote a quiet but forceful chapter of American history.

Beginning with Hick’s introspection during the weeks after Franklin Roosevelt’s death, Bloom easily moves her story back and forth, offering biographical background on Hick’s  miserable childhood, her days with a freak circus, and later as an upcoming reporter for the Associated Press.  When Hick quits her job and moves into the White House, their affair seems unlikely to be kept from the public, yet this is the time when the press chose to ignore the President’s disability and quietly looked away from his many dalliances.  Hick and Eleanor became “good friends” with only a few knowing their real relationship – one of them Franklin himself.

The affair goes in and out of favor as life, family, and politics intrude on Eleanor’s sense of responsibility to her causes and her exhausting schedule.  Hick defers to Eleanor, but is the stalwart strength and support when needed, and always available when asked.  In Bloom’s book, Hick is not cropped out of the picture, as she actually was in pictures of the New Deal White House.   It would seem that with Franklin’s death, the two would frame a life together, but it was not to be.  Eleanor had more to accomplish around the world and Hick had books to write.

Bloom’s portrayal of the rogue eccentric in Franklin Delano Roosevelt may be the most entertaining pieces in the book.  Hick notes:

“He was the greatest president of my lifetime and he was a son of a bitch every day… He broke hearts and ambitions across his knee like bits of kindling, and then he dusted off his hands and said, ‘Who’s for cocktails?’ ”

Getting to know historic icons Franklin and Eleanor personally through the eyes of Hick, the outsider inside the White House, somehow opens them to more greatness.  In White Houses, Bloom’s last pages emphasize the cruelty of mortality – “All fires go out…” – while offering quiet gratitude for the value of knowing someone intimately, something to save us in old age.

I savored the book, reading slowly, not only to know Eleanor Roosevelt better but also to appreciate the strength of accomplished women, despite the obstacles they faced.


A Powerful Love Story for Valentine’s Day

51qBJz71b6L._AC_US218_51zpXTOlenL._AC_US218_Last week I accidentally found the movie The United Kingdom and was immersed in the historical fiction based on Susan Williams’ book Colour Bar: The True Story of a Love That Shook an Empire.  Based on the lives of Prince Seretse Khama (who would later become the first President of Botswana) and white English-born Ruth Williams who met and fell in love in 1940s Britain, the story is a powerful statement of overcoming racism and persevering for independence, but it is also a poignant love story across cultural, racial, and political lines.

I was reminded of the movie when Book Browse featured the book as one of its “five great book club books that are now movies.”

“…they were met with overt racism by the people and governments of both Britain and southern Africa; but with great dignity and extraordinary tenancity they, and the Bangwato people, overcame prejudice in their fight for justice–which, ultimately, led to independence for the country of Botswana…”

Although I am only half through the book, the movie seems to have been accurate in depicting the series of trials overcome by the couple, including the efforts of British government officials, family friends and church figures trying to prevent the marriage. After the marriage Britain attempted to separate the couple by luring him to London and then banning his return.

South Africa, which borders Bechuanaland, and was in the throes of apartheid, imposed economic pressure on Britain, adding to the political turmoil.  Britain’s secret Harragin special inquiry was to decide whether Seretse was fit to discharge his duties as his country’s Chief.  (The report reminded me of today’s secret political papers which later expose ulterior government motives).  The inquiry found in his favor but argued that South Africa’s opposition to his marriage, and therefore his chieftainship, constituted enough reason to bar Khama from returning to his country.  After seven years in exile, and with the help of friends in high places, the shameful report finally was released and Pariament acceded to Botswana’s right to mineral rights – both actions insuring the leadership and prosperous future of an independent country.

After his return home, Seretse Khama was elected first democratic head of the newly created nation state of Botswana, which he ruled for over 20 years before his death in 1980. Ruth took her place as the mother of the nation during Seretse’s life and after, and their son is now the fourth President of Botswana.

Whether you read the book (only available as a ebook) or watch the movie, this is a story worth finding, not only for its historical significance but also for its powerful message of love and redemption against insidious politics and arrogant men.

The Maze at Windermere

61mZtWszWnL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_   Gregory Blake Smith successfully plays on the mystique of déjà vu in The Maze at Windermere,  by following five timelines across centuries in one place – Newport, Rhode Island. As each of the five stories unravels, from colonial shipping village to present day, Smith follows the politics and loves of a cast of characters with different yet similar prospects and problems, stepping through time in the same place.  I confess I have a tendency to get lost, and this maze had me baffled and uncomfortably disconnected in its puzzling play of changing times and people, but eventually I made it to the center – and it was worth the trouble and confusion.

The five time lines could easily stand on their own, and probably would have been easier to follow in sequential order, but Smith keeps the reader off balance by jumping from one time frame to another.  Thankfully his clear identification of the year as well as his adaptation of the language and idiosyncrasies of the time help clarify where the reader is, and who is in charge. Nevertheless, it takes a while to feel comfortable

The five time zones include colonial Prudence, a fifteen year old Quaker orphaned by the death of her mother and father in 1692, and left to care for her toddler sister with the help of her slave; Ballard in 1778 who pursues a Jewish merchant’s daughter, Judith, while investigating her father’s political leanings; the not yet famous Henry James who meets Alice in 1863 and makes a life decision about his future lifestyle and writing; Franklin, a closeted gay man in 1896, at a time when Oscar Wilde was imprisoned, courts a wealthy widow and hopes to marry as his cover; and finally, Sandy, a handsome tennis pro (ranked 46th) in 2011 who falls in love with the disabled heiress of Windermere, another Alice, after he has secretly  slept with her sister-in-law and her best friend from college. Is he really in love or after her money?

Not until later in the novel, after the characters morph into substance, is it possible to navigate the maze of intersecting plots.  Prudence is under pressure to marry an older man from the Friends Assembly but she yearns to make a life with her childhood friend closer to her own age.  Her slave girl has a plan for her own freedom but must maneuver a contract between her black lover and Prudence to make it happen.  In 2011, the heiress’s best friend, Aisha, a black artist, is planning her own maneuvers to banish Sandy and gain the estate for herself.

Franklin and Ballard seem to be selfish and sometimes despicable lotharios, with dubious intentions toward the women they pursue; at times, Sandy seems so too.  Henry James, the observer of the human condition who eventually uses his experiences and notes to write a famous novel about the woman who awakens him, has something in common with Sandy too in his calculating approach.

Although Smith seems to point to lives forever repeating the historical loop, he also clearly digresses within each hero and heroine to demonstrate their differences in temperament and prejudices, and their reactions to the pressures of their times. The ending offers a reasonable solution to some, while others are left hanging – leaving it to the reader to decide how their lives will evolve.

A complicated novel with so many more nuances and plot twists than can be briefly noted here, The Maze at Windermere is a challenge to read, but, if you take on the game, be prepared to keep thinking about the consequences and alternatives after you finish.

I need to read this book again, now that I have a feel for the twists and interconnectedness in the puzzle.


First Night, First Lines

th-1First lines in novels can become more famous than the book.  Charles Schultz’s character Snoopy never got past his first line – “It was a dark and stormy night…”  Charles Dickens’ “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” and Jane Austen’s “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” have been incessantly parodied and misquoted.

In honor of First Night (New Year’s Eve), here are a few more first lines from books I’ve read this year.  Can you identify the book?

“It would have been nutritive gel for dinner, same as always, if I had not discovered stuck to my apartment’s front door a paper menu advertising the newly expanded delivery service of a neighborhood restaurant.”  Click here for the answer.

“At the end of December 2015 winter had not yet reached Brooklyn.”  Click here for Allende.

“Once upon a time, before the whole world changed, it was possible to run away from home, disguise who you were, and fit into polite society.”  Click here for a little magic.

“History has failed us, but no matter.”  Click here for my nominee of best book of the year.

“I’ve finished the bloody book.”  Click here for the title.

“My dear friend Roz Horowitz met her new husband online dating, and Roz is three years older and fifty pounds heavier than I am, and people have said that she is generally not as well preserved, and so I thought I would try it even though I avoid going online too much.”  Click here for the answer.

“The brig Henrietta having made Sandy Hook a little before the dinner hour- and having passed the Narrows about three o’clock – and then crawling to and fro, in a series of tacks infinitesimal enough to rival the calculus, across the grey sheet of the harbour of New York – until it seemed to Mr. Smith, dancing from foot to foot upon deck,, that the small mound of the city waitingg there would hover ahead in the November gloom in perpetuity, never growing closer, to the smirk of Greek Zeno – and the day being advanced to dusk by the time Henrietta at last lay anchored off Tierces Slip, with the veritable gables of the city’s veritable houses divided from him only by one hudred foot of water – and the dusk moreover being as cold and damp and dim as November can afford, as if all the world were a quarto of grey paper dampened by drizzle until in danger of crumbling imminently to Pap: – all this being true, the master of the brig pressed upon him the virtue of sleeping this one further night aboard, and pursuing his shore business in the morning.”  A story of old New York





Miss Burma

Unknown  In the same vein as Pachinko, Charmaine Craig’s Miss Burma opens a pandora’s box of history and misery most do not know.  Just as in Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, Craig uses a family saga to reveal the horrors endured and the resiliency and courage that helped them survive and thrive, but, in this case, the family is her own.  Based on her mother, a real Miss Burma, and her mother’s parents, a disparate couple of differing languages and culture, Craig imagines the conversations and the motivations of her ancestors, a part of a group of people who still fight to be recognized as human.

Although I am only halfway through the book (this is the slowest I have ever read a book), its impact has triggered my curiosity.  A good friend and fellow reader sent me links and I discovered more as I looked for confirmation of the story, even the existence of this group of indigenous people from Myanmar/Burma.  I discovered about 10,000 Karen who had been forced to immigrate, many to Minnesota in the United States.  A more recent article (November, 2017) used the recent exposure of the treatment of the Rohingya, another minority ethnic group in Myanmar, to reflect back on the similar Karen plight detailed in Craig’s story with “reports of human rights violations, including murder, sexual violence and … the destruction and burning of homes and property…”  A recent executive order by the American President has stopped the immigration of Karen spouses and children of refugees who came within the past two years.

Recognizing the name Aung San in the novel, I was surprised that General Aung San, the father of the current leader of Burma’s independence movement, Nobel prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, was written as not the saintly national hero often depicted – as is his daughter – but a ruthless, conniving politician, choosing the expedient path to power.

Craig’s story exposes yet another horror of inhumanity in the world.  Like Pachinko, Miss Burma offers hope through today’s successful generations, and confirms a history that serves not only as a caution but also as reminder to learn and not be forgotten.

The storyline is complicated but well outlined in Emma Larkin’s review for the New York Times, Bringing One of Burma’s Lost Histories to Life.

I continue to read this wordy and sometimes disjointed narrative, learning as I read, and urged on by Larkin’s encouragement:

“If at times the doling out of history lessons feels a tad heavy-handed, with characters occasionally succumbing to soliloquy or unlikely moments of narrative self-awareness, it is ultimately forgivable: The context in which “Miss Burma” is set is not part of a common well of knowledge. By resurrecting voices that are seldom heard on a wider stage, Craig’s novel rescues Benny from his own foretelling of oblivion and brings one of Burma’s many lost histories to vivid life.”

Related Review:  Pachinko

Note:  I finally finished Miss Burma – not at all as engaging as Pachinko.