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.

 

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.

Suggestions for Next Year’s Book Club

unknownLooking forward to next year, some books clubs have already finalized their monthly reading list. Others are having parties to discuss possibilites, or desperately asking their members to host a book – any book.  As I reviewed the books I’ve read in 2017, I thought about those I would be willing to reread for a discussion, and which would offer some value for expanding knowledge, nudging introspection, or just be fun to revisit.

 

With its inherent possibilities for comparison to what really happened, historical fiction is strong on my list.  Requiring the host to research (but google is so easy), the fictionalized lives imagined by the author compared to facts recorded in history could make for a lively discussion.  Kate Manning’s My Notorious Life adds the possibility of comparison to the popular PBS series “Call the Midwife,” based on its own memoir.   Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate opens a hornet’s nest but also addresses foster care.  News of the World by Paulette Giles, set in post Civil War Texas and nominated for the 2016 National Book Award, with its “True Grit” flavor, is an easy and direct tale of a young girl and her gritty escort but with surprising twists.  All four books are easy to follow and carry the weight of information worth knowing.  Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders is another of my favorites based on historical fact and is well worth reading, but may be too ambitious for some book clubbers (there – I’ve thrown down the challenge).

Meeting new authors, especially if the book is short, a little frivolous, but with a smattering of philosophy, is always good for mixing up the list.  Joanna Trollope, an author new to me but who many already have read, has a new book – City of Friends.  Lisa Allardice describes Trollope’s books as “tales of quiet anguish and adultery among the azaleas; Trollope created the original desperate housewives.” Kathleen Rooney’s Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk will be welcomed by readers who enjoyed The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper.  Rooney adds a dash of New York City as she reminisces on her New Year’s Eve walk through the city.

Not a big fan of nonfiction, I still feel compelled to include one on my list.  Alan Burdick’s Why Time Flies offers enough scientific inquiry with relatable anecdotes to  be readable.  The National Book Awards recently published their longlist for best nonfiction, but they seem too political for me.  You can decide for yourself – National Book Awards nominees for Nonfiction.  I have yet to read Theft by Finding: Diaries (1977-2002) by David Sedaris, but I expect to like it – more a memoir, but could fit the nonfiction category.

When bestsellers are not in the library system, classics are usually available, and this year I reread Edna Ferber’s So Big – with an amazingly contemporary message.  Wallace Stegner’s books Crossing to Safety and Angle of Repose should be required reading for everyone, but this year I read one of his earlier, shorter books – Remembering Laughter – a good book to start a discussion of this famous author.

For my final two, I nominate a coming of age story – Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger, and a story about an abandoned child – Leaving Lucy Pear.  

My list has 11 books, one month off the year for the annual luncheon or decision-making party.  If you click on the title, you will be directed to my book review.  What books are on your book club list for next year?  What books would you recommend?

MY LIST:

  1. My Notorious Life
  2. Before We Were Yours
  3. News of the World
  4. Lincoln in the Bardo
  5. City of Friends  
  6. Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk
  7. Why Time Flies
  8. So Big
  9. Remembering Laughter
  10. Ordinary Grace
  11. Leaving Lucy Pear

Books from 2016:

I have not included books from earlier years, but, if not yet discussed, I would point to:

Summer Thrillers

When the sun is hot, I like fast and furious stories I can read in a sitting. Here are a few:

The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena

If you are a fan of Paula Hawkins, Ruth Ware, or Gillian Flynn, Lapena’s thriller has the same riveting flair. The drama centers around the kidnapping of a baby left alone while the parents attend a dinner party next door. Lapena switches tracks often, teasing the reader with possible motives and perpetrators. I read the book in one sitting to confirm my suspicions, but the villain was a surprise.

The Dollhouse by Fiona Davis

With the famous New York Barbizon Hotel as the setting, Fiona Davis connects women pursuing careers as secretaries and models in the 1950’s to a twenty-first century journalist looking for a good story. When modern day Rose Lewin discovers the past of an elderly woman who has remained living in the hotel now converted into condominiums, she uncovers a possible murder and switched identities within the historic context of the hotel’s glamour. The story seems too long, but Davis offers historically correct content about the era and enough drama to sustain the reader’s curiosity. 

Now Reading: Sting by Sandra Brown

and Listening to: The Breakdown by B. A. Paris