Category Archives: history

The Nix

I really didn’t want to read Nathan Hill’s 620 page novel this summer; I think the nix made me do it.

shopping    A Nix is a Norwegian mischief maker, a mythical spirit character who can be dangerous.  In Nathan Hill’s novel The Nix, a house spirit from Norwegian folktales is only the seasoning adding to the overall flavor of his expansive examination of pretty much everything politically and socially in the 1960s leading to an overwhelming examination of what is wrong with today, politically and socially.  The “meat” of his story, however, is about how people overcome their fears and guilt, relate to one another, and are never, ever, who you think they are.

Although Hill’s long Faulkner-like paragraphs ramble to include every detail of scenes I often did not want to know so much about,  his  characters are funny, human, pathetic, happy, and miserable – all at once – reminiscent of John Updike or Philip Roth.   His ability to suddenly jolt with information through switchbacks from the late 1960s to the almost present kept me riveted.  His surprises came at times just when I was about to stop reading, but then could not.

What was the book about?  So many reviews have been written, some as rambling as the novel itself.  In his review for NPR, Jason Sheehan encapsulated the plot:

Hill’s novel is the story of Samuel. Of the boy who became him and the man that he is in 2011, in an Occupy Wall Street America, where he is obsessed with an online videogame called World Of Elfscape and failing at pretty much everything else. But when his vanished mother suddenly reappears on every TV screen in America — this forgotten ’60s hippie radical now emerging as a viral sensation with a handful of gravel and no good explanation — he is given a chance to write a book about her. A hatchet-job in which he, the abandoned son, is contractually obligated to savage his own mother in lurid, tell-all fashion…

The Nix is about a lot of things — about politics and online gaming, about the tenuous friendships of adult men and the 1968 Democratic National Convention. It is a vicious, black-hearted and beautiful satire of youth and middle-age, feminine hygiene products, frozen foods and social media. But more than anything, it is a treatise on the ways that the past molds us and breaks us and never lets us go. How it haunts us all.

Read Sheehan’s complete review here  

Not everyone will agree that reading a novel over 600 pages is worth the time – remember The Goldfinch?  I liked that book too. But, for me, The Nix became a book I had to finish – not only to find out how lives finally resolved, but just to catch more of the humor and wisdom between the lines.  Not for everyone, but I’m glad I listened to a fellow reader and fell in.

 

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Leaving Lucy Pear

9781101981764_p0_v1_s192x300  Anna Solomon’s sad tale of a baby left in an orchard in Leaving Lucy Pear has a cast of characters whose lives relate to her desertion in a little village in Cape Ann, Massachusetts in 1917.  I had expected only a version of the same theme I had read in other books – The Forgotten Garden, Light on Snow, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, and many more, but Solomon’s book holds its own with an underlying struggle of classes driving the classic redemption of the lost child.

Lucy is a minor character as the story begins with her under a pear tree, left by her wealthy teenage mother unwilling to give her up to a strict Jewish orphanage,  and found by a poor Irish family stealing the pears. Solomon evokes admiration for the tough Irish Emma, whose drunk fisherman husband is only home long enough to make her pregnant every year and pity for Bea, the lonely teenager who became pregnant after one assignation with a handsome naval officer.  Solomon does not alternate chapters on the mothers, as expected, but slowly reveals each of the mother’s lives through a series of related characters as well as their past and present, as she skips though the years.

Ten years after leaving her baby in a pear orchard, Bea, has grown into a women’s rights and Prohibition advocate, married to a handsome Boston banker.  She lives in Cape Ann with her aging Uncle Ira in an imposing house near the pear orchard.  Josiah, married into wealth on the island and hoping to gain Bea’s endorsement for mayor, arranges to have Emma, now a mother of nine children with her husband at sea, to care for Ira.  Emma recognizes Bea as the mother of Lucy but Bea does not learn of Lucy’s new home until much later in the story.

Solomon adds political and class story lines as she addresses the parallel lives of the mothers.  The famous trial of Sacco and Vanzetti punctuates the plot in an underlying voice accusing both the wealthy land owners – the outsiders on the Cape – and the poor working class locals. Ira’s brother, who is a successful shoe manufacturer changed his Jewish name to one better suited to the Protestant New England upper class, while his wife,  Bea’s mother, is a pitiful pretender at the country club, overdressing and fracturing her vocabulary as she tries to fit in.   She later becomes the catalyst for a strange twist of fate I did not see coming.

As the characters grow into their lives, Soloman slyly dismisses the reader’s assumptions about their motivations, revealing surprising yet reasonable secrets protecting their characters’ flaws.  Emma’s risks in having an affair with Josiah, Bea’s selfless crusades to protect her fragile ego, Albert’s steadfastness despite his yearning, Lucy’s disguising herself in a boy’s clothing – all eventually merge into revelations.

As I read, I found myself googling Sacco and Vanzetti, their trial, its effects, their execution, and much later vindication by Gov. Michael Dukakis.  I looked for Cape Ann, not as popular as Cape Cod, at the other end of the half moon of land off the coast of Massachusetts.  I wondered about the pears and found orchards still producing, with aged cinnamon pear vinegar and Stone Ruination Ale.

Lucy is almost a minor character in the plot, but has grown into a feisty and capable girl.  The ending brings her full circle to face both mothers.  Hints of her final decision, as she tries to manage the pull of both mothers, may be predictable and hopeful, but no less sad for an independent ten year old.  I’m hoping for a sequel to follow Lucy as she grows into womanhood.

Related Reviews:

 

A Book for Your Next Book Club Discussion – Before We Were Yours

Unknown-1The picture of Beulah Georgia Tann, who used her Tennessee Children’s Home Society to sell children, hides all the horror and misery Lisa Wingate uses as the framework for her fictionalized tale of a family of river gypsies caught in the net of children stolen for profit – Before We Were Yours.  Although the corruption was exposed in the media (Sixty Minutes) and nonfiction (Raymond’s 2007 The Baby Thief: The Untold Story of Georgian Tann, the Baby Seller Who Corrupted Adoption), the appalling history was new to me.  I remember my grandmother cautioning me about baby stealers, but Tann’s grand scale child trafficking seems more like fiction than the reality it was until the ninety-fifties.  The history is worth discussion.

Briny and Queenie were poor river gypsies with a brood of blond curly-haired children, ranging from a two year old boy to four girls, with twelve year old Rill as the oldest. They live aboard an old boat, the Arcadia, fishing and bartering  with other riverboat people.  When Queenie’ s latest pregnancy ends in the premature birth of twins, the family is suddenly torn apart.  With Queenie in a nearby hospital, the children are stolen from their river barge and sent to one of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society collection sites; it would be a disservice to call it an orphanage.  One by one, each child is bartered out to a new home.

Wingate mixes adventure and romance, cleverly creating mystery and suspense as the story shifts back to the present day investigation of a thirty year old grandchild of one of the stolen children, Judy Stafford.   The Stafford family background remains a secret, and with Judy, the grandmother now suffering from dementia, it might have remained so.  Circumstances trigger Avery’s exploration of her grandmother’s past, while she struggles with her own future as the possible successor to her father’s political legacy, and her marriage to a longtime friend she is not sure she loves.

As the chapters alternate between 1939 and the present,  the background of the river family and the consequences of Tann’s actions slowly emerge.   The two time frames converge to reveal the children’s fears and hopes.  By using a fictionalized aggregate of the children targeted by the corrupt Tann, Wingate makes the story real.  By teasing the reader with the identity of the grandmother until the end, she creates a page-turner; I read the book in one sitting.

Although Wingate offers her commentary on how lives of privilege may not always be as they seem, the historical context of poor children kidnapped and sold to wealthy families throughout the country from the 1920s to the 1950s carries the importance of the drama.

 

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley

9780812989885_p0_v3_s192x300  I wasn’t sure I wanted to read this story of guns and violence but its author Hannah Tinti wrote The Good Thief, one of my favorites, and in her interview for National Public Radio (NPR) she compared her main character in The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley to Hercules and his twelve Labors.  The first lines – “When Loo was twelve years old her father taught her how to shoot a gun.  He had a case full of them in his room, others hidden in boxes around the house” – sounded like an ad for the National Rifle Association, but I persevered and found a moving story of a young vulnerable girl and the father who would protect her.

The story unfolds in layers, moving back and forth to reveal Samuel’s life and the cause of each of his scars – bullet holes marking major events, hurdles he overcomes.  Samuel is a crook but not a villain.  He makes his living moving merchandise for other criminals as well as stealing cars and money.  His circle of friends include only one who is true, Jove, another comrade in arms, and he moves constantly from place to place to avoid the law.

When he meets Lily, he finds true love and his reason for living, but after her death by accidental drowning, he is left with Loo, not yet one year old, and the responsibility for her life.  The story is as much about Loo as it is about Samuel.  Feisty and determined, Loo knows about her father’s guns, his drinking, his nefarious way of life, and accompanies him from motel to motel, wondering what it would be like to stay in a school longer than a year.  When Loo becomes a teenager, Samuel decides to try to give her a steady life in the town where her mother grew up.  He stashes his substantial savings in a licorice jar hidden in the toilet and becomes a fisherman.

Lily’s mother lives in the town and knows all about Samuel.  At first, she rejects Loo, but as the story unfolds, reasons for her attitude become clearer – more than the obvious one of her daughter marrying a crook.  The author never gives too much away, holding back information, teasing the narrative, until slamming an event into the reader’s head – where did that come from?

As Loo grows into a woman, the author uses the coming of age theme as a way to understand those around her.  Loo’s boyfriend, Marshall, may not be the hero Loo imagines, but she tries to help him and win the approval of his bitter mother by forging signatures on a petition for saving the shore from overfishing.  The specter of a whale emerges, literally, in the story, a few times – marking another possible allusion to the author’s penchant for myths.  It would be easy to connect mythological heroes and villains to each of Tinti’s characters, given her admission of Hercules as her inspiration, but the tale stands on its own as a forthright modern saga of guns and roses. Book clubs would find so many possibilities for discussion but my favorite might be Samuel’s first aid kit, complete with stapler.

The story has a wonderful and powerful ending, but getting there is just as much fun.  Following the trail of Samuel Hawley and Loo is like watching a spaghetti western – thrilling, suspenseful, poignant – with lots of guns.

 

The Scribe of Siena

Unknown-3Melodie Winawer creates a compelling adventure with time travel back to medieval Italy in The Scribe of Siena – history, romance and art mingle with an historic mystery.

Beatrice, a neurosurgeon from New York City inherits a thirteenth century mansion when her brother, a medieval scholar dies suddenly in Siena, Italy.  Soon after she arrives to settle her brother’s estate,  she discovers the journal of the fourteenth century artist, Gabriel Accorsi in her brother’s research paper, and finds her own face in one of his paintings.  Suddenly, she is mysteriously transported to Siena in the year 1347, months before the Bubonic Plague is about to eradicate the city.

Yes, there is romance; yes, the heroine knows more than she can tell; and yes, the parallel between worlds is conveniently accommodated with much of the fourteenth’s century’s inconveniences sublimated.  Yet, despite the trite plot underpinnings, Winawer manages to create a captivating tale full of well-researched historical trappings.  Most of the story takes place in fourteenth century Italy when medieval life was primitive, with Church and art providing respite from the misery of everyday life.  Italian paintings from the Middle Ages were darkly mystical, and Winawer uses this artistic mysticism as the conduit between the modern world and a mysterious 700 year old conspiracy to destroy the city of Siena.  Political intrigue with the Medici family offers a sinister subplot, threatening Accorsi’s life as well as the possible extinction of Siena’s population.

When Beatrice meets Accorsi, of course she falls in love, but her new medieval life also offers her a chance to reinvent herself as she works as the city’s scribe, creating contracts, recording lists, even writing a copy of Dante on parchment.  Winawer creates a strong character – a brilliant neurosurgeon clearly in charge of herself but also with empathy for her patients – who manages to maneuver the unexpected difficulties of her new environment.   Although Beatrice does conveniently revisit the present in time to be saved from the Plague by modern antibiotics, clearly her heart is in the fourteenth century where she eventually finds a new life.

If you are missing the swashbuckling adventure and time travel back to another century of Diane Gabalon (Outlander) or Deborah Harness (Discovery of Witches), try Melodie Winawer’s The Scribe of Siena.  

Related Review:   Discovery of Witches