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.

 

Quotes for Nasty Women and Catholic School Daze

th  Growing up in Catholic school with nuns as the arbiters of comportment left little room for deviant behavior that would go unpunished, unless you didn’t get caught.  The nuns discouraged “nasty” girls who where outspoken, yet ironically cited historical women who had achieved some fame as role models – Eleanor Roosevelt, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and others.  Linda Picone notes the modern version of compelling women in her collection referencing lines by women who dared to speak their minds in Quotes for Nasty Women.  

This short book has over three hundred pages of one liners from women novelists, politicians, actors, entrepreneurs, and other women of influence.  Just for fun, I picked out six quotes by an assortment of famous “nasty women”  who are among my favorites – both the women and the quotes.  Can you guess who said which?

The women who said the lines below are:    irreverent  New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, my favorite chef Julia Child, ubiquitous poet Emily Dickinson, the long-lasting influential Queen Victoria, American singer Joan Baez, and the witty American writer Dorothy Parker.  The answers are at the bottom of the post.

Quotes:

  1. “The important thing is not what they think of me, but what I think of them.”
  2. ” I dwell in possibility.”
  3. “I’ve never had a humble opinion.  If you’ve got an opinion, why be humble about it?”
  4. “The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.”
  5. “Drama is very important in life: You have to come in with a bang.  You never want to go out with a whimper.”
  6. “The minute you settle for less than you deserve, you get even less than you settled for.”

Perhaps the strongest influences in my life were the nuns, and Thea Marshall brought back that memory in her short story “Catholic School Daze” in the book Tuesdays at Two, a compilation of short writings by a local writer’s group.  Little girls, thankfully, often grow up to be “nasty women.”

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Answers to the list of quotes:

  1. Queen Victoria
  2. Emily Dickinson
  3. Joan Baez
  4. Dorothy Parker
  5. Julia Child
  6. Maureen Dowd

 

 

Five Unrelated Books to Get Through the Winter

images  As February slams the country with icy winds and snow, my part of the world stays relatively warm, with only rain and wind interrupting the sunshine.  Although most locals welcome the opportunity to wear their sweaters and jeans, the tourists strip down to muscle shirts and shorts, rightfully thinking sixty degree weather is warm compared to the below freezing climes they left.  Suggestions for reading around the fire, sipping hot chocolate are moot here.

I have a list of books helping January blend into February, listing them below before I forget I read them – have you read any?

The Collector’s Apprentice B.A. Shapiro

Another mystery by Shapiro with art suffusing the narrative.  I connected with Shapiro when she wrote The Art Forger, and then The Muralist.  I always look forward to her next thriller.  In this one, I found myself researching the art pieces stolen – from Picassso to Matisse, one of my favorite artists.

Happiness: A Novel by Aminatta Forna

Don’t be fooled by the title, happiness is elusive in this compelling novel of two unlikely connections who collide in London – Jean, an American woman who studies the habits of urban foxes and a Ghanaian psychiatrist, Attila, specializing in refugee trauma. Attila has arrived in London to deliver a keynote speech on trauma and to check up on the daughter of friends who hasn’t called home in a while. He discovers she has been swept up in an immigration crackdown and her young son Tano is missing.

Jean joins him in his search for Tano, mobilizing her network of fox spotters. mostly West African immigrants: security guards, hotel doormen, traffic wardens. As the search continues, Attila and Jean reveal the true nature of happiness in a world where everything is connected.

The Reckoning by John Grisham

A family secret haunts a small town in post World War II Mississippi, as Grisham addresses race and war trauma in his latest thriller. The story begins with the decorated war hero, Pete Banning shooting the town’s Methodist minister and refusing to explain his motive.  The major clue is his sending his wife to an insane asylum for her nervous breakdown.  The big reveal comes in the last pages. A quick read, and I was tempted to skip to the end.

The Red Address Book by Sofia Lundberg

In the style of popular books by Patrick (The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper) and Rachel Joyce (The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry), this translation of Lundberg’s story focuses on an old character, in this case a 96 year old woman.  Unlike her counterparts in other novels,  who seem to be getting more lively as they get older, Doris is alone and confined to her home, with only a weekly Skype session wit her grandniece, caretakers who come and go, and the memories triggered by the names in her little red address book. Doris is writing her memoir, and each name in the address book creates a short chapter revealing an adventure in her life   Soothing and cozy –  best read with a cup of hot chocolate near a fireplace.

The Harvard Psychedelic Club by Don Lattin

Prompted by a recent article in the New York Times, I looked for this ten year old book set in the nineteen sixties with one of my favorite healthy eating advocates, Dr. Andrew Weil, as the focus.  This nonfiction narrative explores the relationship of Timothy Leery, Richard Alpert, Andrew Weil and Huston Smith   Full of surprises – Well wrote his undergraduate thesis on “The Use of Nutmeg as a Psychotropic Agent – the book reveals not only the connection of these four men but also witty observations of their influence as they grow from university researchers to future gurus.  In his 2010 review for the New York Times, Dwight Lanier captured my thoughts on the book:

“I’d be lying… if I said I didn’t enjoy just about every page of “The Harvard Psychedelic Club.” This groovy story unfurls — chronicling the lives of men who were brilliant but damaged, soulful but vengeful, zonked-out but optimistic and wry — like a ready-made treatment for a sprawling, elegiac and crisply comic movie, let’s say Robert Altman by way of Wes Anderson.”

The Overstory

shopping  A recent article making the rounds on the internet reported on an Idaho artist converting a 110 year old dead cottonwood tree trunk into a little free library. Before I read Richard Powers’ The Overstory, it never would have occurred to me to wonder how the tree felt about it.  Now, every time leaves rustle outside my window or a tree sways in the wind as I drive past, I listen  – not necessarily for messages from the tree but for the shift in my awareness.  Richard Powers has changed my perception, but it sadly will probably not last.

The Overstory is a long and challenging book, and its message should not be taken lightly.  Barbara Kingsolver in her review for the New York Times tries to explain the premise:

“The handful of readers who come to the book without benefit of reviews or jacket copy will believe it’s a collection of unrelated short stories…{but} These characters who have held us rapt for 150 pages turn out to be the shrubby understory, for which we couldn’t yet see the forest. Standing overhead with outstretched limbs are the real protagonists. Trees will bring these small lives together into large acts of war, love, loyalty and betrayal, in a violent struggle against a mortgaged timber company that is liquidating its assets, including one of the last virgin stands of California redwoods.”

Although Powers frames his narrative around the environment, with scary references not only to artificial intelligence but also to the extremism of the righteous on both sides of the conversation, he uses trees to tell the real story of civilization or perhaps the lack of civility.  I read the book slowly, trying to digest its depth; I attended a discussion led by brilliant and thoughtful readers who had read the book more than once, and still I wonder if I caught all of Powers’ intent.  Powers is a MacArthur genius and winner of what Barbara Kingsolver calls the “literary-prize Olympics” – way over the head of most of us – but he manages to integrate encyclopedic information on botany and computers with relatable perspectives in the lives of his nine characters, to nudge the reader to think about the bigger picture in this book.

If you read the book, it helps to take notes on the characters as they are introduced in the first section of the book, but, don’t worry if you mix them up or forget all their details as you continue.  The characters are there to be the understory, the familiar connection, but  the trees – here long before us – carry the message.  If only we would listen.

Unsheltered

9780062887047_p0_v2_s600x595   Reading Unsheltered was difficult, not only for the weaving back and forth from the post Civil War era to the present, but also for the not so subtle references to today’s politics and governmental leadership in the United States. As she toggles between the lives of the 21st century grandmother Willa Knox and the 19th century science teacher Thatcher Greenwood, who both lived in the same house, the language seems stuffy in the past and glib in the present.  Most depressing is the implication of ignoring lessons from history – nothing really changes and we continue to repeat the same mistakes.

I thought of beginning this review with the note of the main character, Willa, suddenly having to take on the raising of her grandson when his mother commits suicide. Although years ago,  I clearly remember meeting a woman in her sixties who had decided to raise her abandoned grandchild to keep the boy from foster care; her harrowing story was pitiable.  But Kingsolver has so much more to reveal in this tale of a modern extended family surviving in a rundown yet historic house in Vineland, New Jersey.  Her topics include raising children but also health care and global warming, as well as Wall Street activism and relations with Cuba – among others. She has an agenda.

Willa lives in the house with her handsome husband Iano, a non-tenured college professor, her terminally ill father-in-law Nick, her rebellious daughter Tig,  her son Zeke’s baby son, and Daisy, the old dog.  Thatcher, a high school science teacher, lives in this house about 150 years earlier with his new wife Rose, his mother-in-law, and his young sister-in-law, and two dogs.  The house, constructed without a foundation, has been falling apart since it was first built in Thatcher’s time, and seems about to implode by the time Willa’s family inherits it. 

The house may seem a symbol of their lives, also falling apart.  Thatcher, determined to bring scientific inquiry into his classes by teaching Darwin’s theories, faces a stalwart and fearful body of staunch religious conservatives, determined to ignore new ideas that would topple their well structured world.  Thatcher finds a friend in his neighbor, Mary Treat, an eminent biologist who regularly corresponds with Charles Darwin, but his connection to the local newsman who sympathizes with his struggle leads to a murder and his banishment from the town.

Although Willa’s problems may be modern, they mirror Thatcher’s frustration in dealing with those circumstances thwarting attempts to have the good life.  Iona moves from college to college trying but never getting the elusive tenure track position; Willa leaves her job writing for a magazine to care for her ailing father-in-law; their son Zeke with degrees from Ivy league schools has no job; their daughter Tig, a promising biologist, dropped out of college to migrate to Cuba but returns as a car mechanic – an extended middle class family with no future prospects, no savings, a stack of unpaid bills, in a falling down house.

In both worlds, present and past, the underlying mantra is the struggle between the haves and have nots.  Darwin and new scientific discoveries pose the threat to the status quo in the past, butting against Landis, the town creator and clever entrepreneur gaining wealth at the expense of others, while the environmentalists and the socially conscious in modern times are desperately trying to hold against the empty promises and loud blustering bullies of conservative politics.

Unsheltered is not an easy read, but Kingsolver never meant to write a book with sublime references to love or with delicious twists; she’s left that to Moriarty and others.  The reference to a murder doesn’t appear until page 300, and then disappears again in deference to biology, history and the inevitable repetition of human foibles and idiocy; it’s a wonder our species has survived thus far.

Kingsolver finished this book before Trump won the presidency, and his name is never mentioned.  In fact, in her acknowledgments she notes her research on the lives of the nineteenth century persons who inspired the story, the biologist Mary Treat and the “shenanigans of Charles Landis and his role in the murder,” but “among the novel’s twenty-first century characters, any resemblance to persons living or dead is coincidental.”   But if you have any doubt to whom she is referring, she cites a famous campaign quote:

“He said he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and people would still vote for him.”

And if you have any doubt where she stands, the line after he wins the New Hampshire primary – “Welcome to the Granite State…we have rocks in our heads!” – may give you a clue.