The Secrets We Kept

Dr. Zhivago is at the heart of Lara Prescott’s debut novel – The Secrets We Kept, as the action flips back and forth from Boris Pasternak and his lover Olga Ivinskaya in Russia to secretaries who are really American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operatives in Washington, D.C.  How could a romantic epic raise the ire of the Russian government, especially Kruschev, and tempt the CIA to smuggle copies into Russia to prompt its citizens to question their government?

Although Pasternak’s novel is a love story, but with political undertones, Prescott uses historical research to reveal the constraints the Russian author and others in the country endured.  When the book is banned in Russia but published in Italy, and eventually everywhere in the world but in Russia, Olga, who is not only Pasternak’s muse and mistress but also his literary agent is sent to a Russian prison and he is under constant surveillance. Although I knew the story drawn from Pasternak’s life experience – the main character who does not leave his wife, while passionately connected to his beautiful mistress, I did not know the intrigue behind publishing the book in Italy and smuggling it back into Russia for “soft propaganda warfare – using art, music, and literature . . . to emphasize how the Soviet system did not allow free thought.”   The Secrets We Kept proved educational as well as informative.

I found the East section of the book describing the lives and loves in Russia more compelling than the West with its secret missions and nebulous relationships, but the idea “that literature could change the course of history” was enticing and prompted me to find the book once banned in Russia – not that long ago.  Like many famous Russian novels, Dr. Zhivago has been adapted to film, and I vaguely remember watching the snowy scenes with beautiful Julie Christie and handsome Omar Sheriff, but I had never read the book. In fact, I may have only experienced great Russian novels late at night through the classic movie channel – War and Peace, Anna Karenina, The Sea Gull. Pasternak was a poet first and his words were acclaimed as powerful as well as expressive when the Nobel Prize Committee cited him “for his important achievement both in contemporary lyrical poetry and in the field of the great Russian epic tradition.” This book is available for free from the Gutenberg Press, and it seems a good place to initiate my reading of Russian literature.

As the book flips back and forth from East (Russia) and West (CIA), the narrator shifts to different characters and it’s not always clear who is talking.  The Western section focuses on two secretary/agents and their intersecting personal lives, leading to an ambiguous ending, but the historical facts shine in the Eastern section.  Of course, like its Russian counterpart – the Secrets We Kept has been optioned for a movie but the book would make for an interesting book club discussion.

The Fountains of Silence

In The Fountains of Silence, Ruta Sepetys unpeals the layers of horror inside Francisco Franco’s Spain.  His dictatorship lasted over 30 years, while Europe turned a blind eye and the United States made deals to profit itself, often at the expense of Spain’s poorer citizens.  Within the context of a Spanish family still suffering the consequences of the 1930’s Civil War in 1950, and a young American blissfully ignorant in his bubble of wealth and privilege, Sepetys writes a story with sound historical notes.

Photography and romance wield strong influences on the young hero, eighteen year old Daniel Matheson, when he returns to Madrid to visit his mother’s homeland with his Texas oil baron father.  The newly constructed Hilton creates a backdrop for privileged American businessmen and their families, while the underbelly of the building keeps the secrets of the impoverished locals who serve as maids and bellboys.  Daniel falls for Ana, the hotel maid assigned to his family, and through her discovers the hidden world of Franco’s Spain.

Sepetys periodically inserts letters and speeches with quotes from real sources, providing a provocative perspective on how the American government and capitalist leaders forgave fascism to do business with Franco’s regime. The well researched details brought Franco’s Spain and its people to life, while reflecting greed, political corruption, and the determination to overcome them.

At the heart of the story is an ongoing mystery. Babies are separated from their parents at birth and redistributed as orphans to be adopted by more “desirable” families.  Daniel becomes inadvertently involved in the intrigue and tries to use his photojournalism to stem the corruption before he returns to Texas, but without success.

The ending jumps to twenty years later, with Franco dead and  Daniel returning to Spain with his younger sister.  The finale is both romantic and nostalgic, with hopes for a promising future for both the characters and the country finally resurrected from years of oppression.

This was a time and place I knew little about, and I found it an easy way to learn history, while enjoying a love story with a happy ending.

 

The Giver of Stars

Where do you get your books? Imagine your librarian delivered them personally to your door as JoJo Moyes’ Kentucky packhorse librarians do in her latest novel – The Giver of Stars.

Chronicling the real story of Appalachian women in the WPA (Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration), Moyes creates a tale about five women, who ride mules and horses to deliver books to outlying areas in the Kentucky hills. Drunk moonshiners, coal barons, and the general attitude of men in the nineteen thirties make their job much harder, but the women persevere to bring literacy to unlikely places and to provide backwoods women with important armor besides their shotguns – the ability to read books.

Although not as compelling as some of her former novels, The Giver of Stars offers all the same components – adventure, romance, and breathtaking drama. The women each have a burden to overcome but they manage to persevere through prejudice, family restrictions, physical hardship, and, of course, the men. Not all the men are villains, however. Moyes has two love interests who manage to not only respect but also aid the women when they most need help.

Van Cleve, the controlling wealthy owner of the lands he is destroying with his coal mining, is the villain. As the story progresses, it seems likely he will prevail. If you have read any of Moyes’ books, you know she can be counted on for a happy ending, so I am not offering a spoiler to tell you she comes through again in this one, but the solution is almost at the end of the book and seems contrived.

In researching the novel, I found an uncomfortable note about another author claiming to have written a very similar novel published not long before this one. Author Kim Richardson’s novel – The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek – also about the packhorse women of Kentucky, was published a few months before Moyes’ novel. Her imagined characters face many of the same issues and incidents as Moyes’ women. Although Richardson brought her concerns to the publisher, the company decided no legal action on copyright infringement was warranted, and Richardson has declined to sue on her own. 

My knowledgeable librarian who has read Richardson’s book tells me it has more of a science fiction vibe, but uses the same historical premise as Moyes. Richardson’s book is in my library system, and I have ordered it to compare notes myself. 

From volunteering at the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped in Hawaii, I know amazing librarians who give personalized service to the blind, identifying books they might like, chatting on the phone with patrons to discover their interests in reading, and mailing large print books or books on tape to their doors.  Librarians are among my favorite people, and literacy is among the issues I hold dear, so there can’t be enough books about both topics for me.

 

 

Off the Library Shelf

Although I tried linking to another writer’s “Library Lust” list, I was not successful, but here are a few books from my library I read in a sitting, so I could get back to the library for more books waiting for me:  The books all seem to come at once sometimes.  Have you ready any of them?

Never Have I Ever by Joshlyn Jackson

A complicated murder mystery drama, reminding me of Finn’s The Woman in the Window, with unreliable characters and a twisting plot.  A page turner full of betrayal, romance, and deception.  Amy Whey has started a new life but is soon battling to keep her past a secret when the devilish Angelica Roux shows up at book club. The two match wits as the drama continues into a surprising ending.

 

The Last Book Party by Karen Dukess

When Eve leaves her job with a publishing company to become an assistant to a prominent and prolific New Yorker writer, summering in Cape Cod, secrets, sex, and the New England literary vibe emerge to create a quickly readable and entertaining story.  Aside from her coming of age journey and her romps in bed, Eve meets a number of literary stars.  She also references a number of books; I had to stop to jot a few down I plan to find: George Eliot’s Middlemarch (with the suggestion to read beyond the first 150 pages to be hooked), Zaleika Dobson by Max Beerbaum, and Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson.

 

The Chelsea Girls by Fiona Davis

After a slow start, Davis transitions the story of two young women who met on a USO tour during World War II into a dramatic exploration of the McCarthy hearings targeting stage actors, directors, and producers in the nineteen fifties in the United States.  The Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan is the fulcrum of the story, where the women lodge with an assortment of artistic hopefuls.

The story follows Maxine Mead, the beautiful diva, and Hazel Ripley, the talented writer, as their lives change from their wartime friendship into a competitive challenge of spies and deceit.  In the end, both get their due, but along the way Davis offers a look into how McCarthyism overpowered democracy and ruined lives.

 

Reading Now:  The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

I may take a little longer to read this story of the artist Harriet Burden.  Hustvedt had me believing it was based on a true person in her clever “Editor’s Introduction,” and I stopped to find reviews about this 2014 work of fiction, doubting  the library’s FIC designation.

Using journals and interviews, the author presents the life of Burden, a talented artist ignored in her time, who decides to conduct an experiment she calls “Maskings” in which she presents her own art behind the names of three prominent male artists, masking her female identity.  Of course, the three shows are successful, but when Burden reveals herself to be the artist, critics doubt her.  The novel promises to not only be ambitious in its revelation of prejudice against women in art, but also a clever exploration of a complicated character, who seems real to me.  I plan to savor it.

 

Books Waiting for Me at the Library:

  • Chances Are by Richard Russo
  • The Darwin Affair by Timothy Mason
  • The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal
  • Reasons to be Cheerful by Nina Stibbe
  • The Reckless Oath We Made by Bryn Greenwood
  • This Tender Land by William Kent
  • Why You Like It by Nolan Gasser

 

 

The Dakota Winters

One generation measures time from the day John F. Kennedy was shot; yet another from the day John Lennon was shot in front of the Upper West Side Dakota apartment building.  If you are familiar with New York City and a fan of the late nineteen seventies, Tom Barbash offers a familiar ride through time and place. Despite the slow moving plot and the expected finale of Lennon’s death, the references to history are entertaining and nostalgic.

Having barely survived his Peace Corps experience in Africa, twenty-three year old Anton Winter returns to New York City to recover from malaria and reincarnate his famous father’s talk show career.  Buddy Winter may be based on a number of famous late night hosts, but Jack Parr seems to be the closest in temperament and panache, and Barbash makes the connection in Buddy Winter’s Phil Donahue interview, referring to Parr’s famous  walk off on the Tonight Show in the nineteen sixties in the middle of a show stating, “There must be a better way of making a living than this.” The fictitious Buddy walks off the set after a nervous breakdown.

John Lennon is a neighbor of the Winters at the Dakota, and Barbash portrays him as a regular guy with Yoko as the entitled and precocious wife who defined the Millennial attitude long before any of them were born. With its famous Gothic facade and its water-powered elevators, the building itself is a main character, having housed many famous people, including Leonard Bernstein, Lauren Bacall, and Boris Karloff, a previous occupant of the Winters’ apartment.

John and Anton bond over a sailing trip to Bermuda, where a triangle storm almost capsizes their boat.  They all survive with John released from his writer’s block and composing again.  The narrative alternates between conversations revealing the real John Lennon through his friendship with Anton, and Anton’s struggle to create his own life free of his father’s dependence on him.  The imagined conversations are easy to believe, as the plot gallops to the inevitable ending.

Barbash imagines a Beatles reunion on Buddy Winter’s new show in January, but John Lennon is shot outside the Dakota in December.  Lennon was only 40 years old when he died but Barbash brought him back to life in The Dakota Winters. 

An Added Note:

48461452-Cover-Dakota-NYC-Most-Exclusive-Building-CNBC.600x400Although the Dakota on 72nd and Central Park West is home today to Yoko Ono and Connie Chung, among others, the co-op remains one of the hardest to get into in Manhattan. Cher, Madonna, Billy Joel, Carly Simon, and even Melanie Griffith and Antonio Banderas have all been rejected by the building’s selective board.