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The Summer of 69

 Elin HilderbrandBy Elin Hilderbrand

Little, Brown & Company, 2019


As the summer winds down and fifty years after 1969, I picked up this book. I had never read this best-selling author before. Realizing that the book was based in Massachusetts, where I lived for many years, I was immediately hooked. In fact, I read the book compulsively from cover to cover. The story features four point of view protagonists, challenging for an author, and I admire the way Hilderbrand kept all their stories in control.

The four are all members of the Foley-Levin family; Kate, forty-eight, the mother of Blair who is married and pregnant, Kirby, at college and rebellious, Tiger, who has been drafted and sent to Vietnam, and thirteen -year -old Jessica, who is the daughter of David Levin, Kate’s second husband. The family could not be more upper-crust and conventional. A military family, even. Kate’s first husband Wilder Foley, had served in Korea, and died on his return, possibly a victim of PTSD.

Conventional and comfortable they may be, but the entire family is against the Vietnam War, and when Tiger is called up, Kate goes to pieces. Hilderbrand paints a fine portrait of this immature, spoiled woman, who actually believes the handyman at her family’s summer residence on Nantucket can pull strings, through a distant, third hand acquaintance with General Abrams, to remove her son from danger. As the story moves through July, and the landing on the moon, which happens the same day Blair has twins, the author reminds us that even though war guts us, intimate events like birth and historic events like the moonshot keep us moving forward, all little swimmers in a great steam of history.

The book is full of time markers, with music, food, and lifestyles accurately rendered. A few caveats, however. Jessica is invited to go to Woodstock; she anticipates sleeping in the back of “someone’s truck” after listening to the bands. There’s no way a thirteen-year-old could imagine this is how Woodstock would play out. I’d bet that she’d barely know where Woodstock is, let alone how a huge rock concert could get out of control. This is a girl who at thirteen has be
walked to tennis lessons by her grandmother. She’s exceptionally sheltered, in my view. However, Jessica is the best drawn character in the book.

“Sheltered” is how I would describe all the book’s characters, except of course, Tiger, who is in active combat. Whether Hilderbrand meant to make this point – that for Americans, no matter what their circumstances, life is protected and safe, while the rest of the world spins into terror – is unclear. Hilderbrand lives on the magical island of Nantucket and sets all her books there. Yet for many Americans, life is not easy at all and never was. Hilderbrand alludes to many of the issues that surrounded this era of social change, including civil rights and the lack of access to legal abortion. Yet she skims over the consequences. The African-American characters in the book are upper middle class, summering at Oak Bluffs, Martha’s Vineyard, hardly the people for whom civil rights activists were risking their lives. Anti-Semitism is called an issue, yet we never see evidence of such prejudice, except in the grandmother, and even then, Jessica, her half-Jewish granddaughter, is her favorite. And even Kirby, the “activist” who attends anti-war demonstrations, is never in danger. There’s always the country club for these characters.

Fifty years on, the summer of 1969 is worth talking about. I would argue that 1968 was the more transformative, with student rebellions happening all over the world, and political assassinations, (Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King) bringing in their wake more profound change. But truly, not much changed that year on Nantucket. And not much does, in this book. Of course, many a famed writer took a small domestic situation to make a point about human nature while war was
exploding off the scene (Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf). But those writers never claimed to be writing about “the most tumultuous summer of xxx century”, to paraphrase this book’s cover. While The Summer of ‘69” was a truly enjoyable read, and I admire Hilderbrand’s professional skill, I’m still waiting for the definitive novel set in this amazing time in history.

My Dear Hamilton

My Dear Hamilton book reviewBy Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie

Kindle edition, 2018


Alexander Hamilton is having a moment. A very long one, if the success of the musical of the same name is anything to go by. And Hamilton gets by far the biggest billing as one of the Founding Fathers at Philadelphia’s new, magnificent Museum of the American Revolution.

But what of the woman who married him?

In this engrossing novel, Dray and Kamoie bring Elizabeth Schuyler to life as a first person narrator. I relished the wonderfully detailed descriptions of everyday life in the New Netherlandish home of General Schuyler and his family, and then, in the home that Eliza (also known as Betsy) and Alexander make for themselves after their 1780 marriage. Despite being raised in wealth and comfort Elizabeth is no brainless belle. She knows the war and its stakes intimately from her childhood and is fully committed to the cause.

The Revolutionary War drags on and on. It is almost lost, time and again. Even after the bloodshed is over, the union is fragile. The authors bring this point home vividly. The relationships between the Washingtons and the Hamiltons, and between them and other figures such as Lafayette, Jefferson, and Madison are complicated and convincingly told.

This is a long book, covering Elizabeth’s life from her coming of age until her eighties. She lived until she was ninety-seven. She was married to Alexander Hamilton for twenty-four years until his death in a duel with Aaron Burr. These tumultuous years included Hamilton’s involvement in factions and feuds between the Founding Fathers, with the new Republic threatening to break apart several times, and his passionate, even desperate, work to create the foundational
infrastructure to make it viable. Hamilton was involved in so much that the authors have to compress many details, as they tell us in the afterword. His brilliance is palpable, however, in the telling of the story. As is his egotism and occasional recklessness.

For Betsy, these twenty-four years included the birth of eight children and one miscarriage. The story of their marriage is the heart of the book. Elizabeth’s reaction as the humiliated wife of a politician whose extra-marital affair was made public is poignantly told. Yet for Hamilton, raised as an orphan, family was as important as it was to Elizabeth. In an age when childhood deaths were commonplace, the fact that the Hamilton kids all survived to adulthood is a testament to the capability of their mother. But she was also more than a wife and mother. We see Betsy reflecting uncomfortably on the fact that slavery was endemic in her society, and her horror at the conditions under which the Revolutionary War’s ordinary soldiers suffered and the brutal treatment of deserters and mutineers. Her charity work on behalf of widows and orphans was prodigious.

The evidence shows that Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton was her husband’s equal partner as much as it was possible to be, even helping him draft some of his writings. She knew from her earliest years the most famous men of the age, and evidence also shows they regarded her with respect. Hamilton’s complicated and ultimately unknowable emotional life as discovered by his wife after his death deals her a blow as great as the death itself. How she lived her long life after being widowed at forty -six demonstrates her strength of character.

The afterword of this book explains the depth of research undertaken by the authors, and their access to the trove of correspondence that survives, much of it due to the efforts of Elizabeth Hamilton herself, who searched for years to obtain it. The effort she put into this (much of the correspondence was hidden for political and personal reasons) shows, the authors surmise, not only that his widow wanted to make the world understand her husband’s greatness, but also that she herself wanted truly to know and understand him.

Lithuanian Roots in American Soil

Lithuanian Roots in American SoilBy Audrone Barunas Willke and Danute Barunas
Amazon CreateSpace
2nd edition, 2015

Refugees are again in the news. But the dislocations of World War II left millions homeless and stateless.

In this riveting memoir, Audrone Willke and her sister, Danute Barunas, describe their trans-Atlantic move to Boston as small children in a Lithuanian family. Interweaving her own memories with the memoirs of her father, we get a picture of what life was like for new immigrants to the United States in the middle part of the last century.

Lithuania, had been part of the Russian empire under the czars, but during World War I it was occupied by Germans, and the villages impoverished. At the end of the war, the country had a brief period of independent democracy from 1918 to 1926. In World War II Lithuania was taken over by the Soviets. Mass deportations to Siberia occurred, and members of the Barunas family were among the victims. In 1941 the Nazi’s occupied the country, and after they lost war, Lithuania was once again in the hands of the Russians. In this atmosphere of fear, poverty, and hunger, Audrone and Danute’s parents educated themselves and married. As the Germans started to retreat from Lithuania towards the end of 1944, and the Soviets pushed towards Lithuania, the population feared a new reign of terror under Stalin. So the family escaped by train to Germany where bombings and extreme hunger awaited them. Finally, the war ended and they went to a displaced persons’ camp. By now a family with four children, the Barunas’ were lucky to find a sponsor in Brockton, Massachusetts, and emigrated at the end of 1949.

The second half of the book describes how a non-English speaking family can find work, buy a house, educate their children, and assimilate in a country that accepts them willingly. Audrone met her husband, Dr. Klaus Willeke, a German immigrant, at Stanford University when both were studying for their doctorates. Now a retired professor, Dr Willike’s book shows what immigrants offer to a culture. Her story is a testament to an America that once was, and that could be, again.

Summertime and the Living is Easy

Hedgehog SliceIt is mid-July, the very height of summer in the US.

Vacation season, or in my case, party time! Sunday we made brunch for about fifteen friends and neighbors. Among the recipes I debuted was this “hedgehog slice”. A childhood treat in Australia, my home country, I had never made it before.

Channeling my creative caterer protagonist, Camilla, in Lipstick on the Strawberry, I managed to combine a couple of recipes, swapping grams for ounces, and a slight change of ingredients to come up with this winner! I hope you like it.

By the way, I have absolutely no idea how this dessert treat got its name. Like most wonderful recipes, the first hedgehog probably came about when guests were expected with short notice and the inventive cook had to source from whatever she had to hand. Made of crushed cookies, condensed milk, coconut, butter, nuts and chocolate, it looks nothing like a hedgehog. It is utterly scrumptious.

Here’s the recipe:

Ingredients
I package, or 2 ½ cups mild flavored cookies, roughly broken up
½ cup shredded coconut
2 tbs cocoa powder
½ cup chopped walnuts, hazelnuts, or pecans
3 blocks 70% cocoa content bittersweet chocolate, 4 oz each, divided in two
½ cup butter, salted or unsalted, depending on taste, divided in two
1 cup sweetened condensed milk – i.e. one small can

Method
Prepare a brownie pan by lining bottom and sides with parchment paper, making sure there is
enough paper to hang over the side of the pan to make removal easy.

Crush the cookies in a food processor, or place in a zip-lock bag and crush with a rolling pin till
they are the texture of breadcrumbs

In a large bowl, stir the crushed cookies together with the cocoa powder, coconut and chopped
nuts.

In a microwave -safe bowl, break up half the chocolate, and mix with half the butter and the
condensed milk. Heat until melted and creamy, stopping the microwave to stir frequently.
This should take about two minutes. Or use the old-fashioned method of heating in a double
boiler over a pan of simmering water, and stirring until melted, 5-8 minutes.

Pour the melted mixture over the dry ingredients and mix with a spatula until it all comes
together. When everything is covered with the chocolate/butter cream, pour it all into the
prepared pan, and smooth with the side of the spatula.

Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes, or until firm. When ready to proceed with making the
topping, remove the pan from the fridge.

Now make the chocolate topping: Place ¼ cup butter and the rest of the chocolate in a bowl
and microwave until melted and creamy. Or double boil it as above.

Pour the topping over the hedgehog, smoothing it completely. Cover with plastic wrap and put
back in the fridge for at least one hour or overnight.

To serve, lift up the parchment paper with the hedgehog mix inside and place on a chopping
block. Carefully score the surface into vertical and horizontal strips, as if you were cutting
brownies. Cut carefully into small squares. Take up from the parchment paper and arrange the
squares decoratively on a plate to serve.

Lily Campbell’s Secret

Lily Campbell’s SecretBy Jennifer Bryce

Rightword Publishing, 2019

It is 1913, and seventeen-year-old schoolgirl Lily discovers she is pregnant.

Unmarried motherhood is a social sin that was unforgiveable in that time, but this book takes off in an unexpected way. Lily, an upper-middle class girl with a private school education, with a promising position at the Music Conservatory awaiting her, does not wish her baby away. She’s in love with her boyfriend, Bert,a stable hand with a love of animals, and they marry, happily, and have a baby girl, Edith. Not that things are easy. Lily has no idea how to run a house and her horrified parents shun her.

Then the world erupts in World War 1 and Bert enlists. When he returns, he is changed utterly. Lily has to cope with a man with a head injury so severe he needs round the clock help. There’s no money, and Lily must cope as a wage-earner, carer, and mother. How she does this, and the choices she faces, propel the book along to its shocking conclusion.

This book captures all the senses, as well as historical details that all ring true as the author evokes life in a country town. The war is remote, yet its aftermath reverberates throughout the lives of all who lived in the era, and beyond. That’s why this is a timeless story. Jennifer Bryce captures the heartbreak and helplessness of PTSD and brain injury for the victim and their families. With very appealing main characters, Lily, Bert, and Edith, and a well-drawn cast of supporting characters, this book draws the reader in and won’t let go. I could not put this book down. Please read it.

The Wolf Border

By Sarah Hall

Harper Collins Publishers 2015

Rachel Caine studies wolves. An interesting professional choice, since it takes her far from civilization, into a remote part of Idaho, where wolves are being reintroduced to the wild. Rachel guards herself against emotional involvement. She has sex, not relationships, she tells a doctor. Approaching forty, she must change, somehow, unless she’s headed for a lonely old age like her once-promiscuous mother, who never married. This change does not come as an epiphany at her mother’s death. Rachel does not attend the funeral. But when she discovers she is unexpectedly pregnant, she slowly starts to melt her frozen heart. The reader is way ahead of the protagonist on this. Her health insurance won’t cover the cost of maternity. But fortunately, Rachel is English, so she heads back to the UK – and its free medical care – to supervise the reintroduction of wolves in Cumbria, near the Scottish border. Everything changes here for Rachel, though she is still wary of emotional commitment, like a lone wolf. But wolves, too, love their offspring, and observing them with their pups Rachel feels drawn to them even further. They’re teaching her something. Unlike most wild animals, wolves form lifelong bonds with their mates. The blurring of borders between animal and human behavior, between the habitats of animals and the political boundaries drawn by humans, and the choice of whether to be a mother and then how to be a mother, all are explored here. At the end of the book Rachel will have to make a choice. But that is for the reader to imagine. It would be interesting to know which side most readers come down on. Sarah Hall writes gorgeous prose, too. I was sorry to finish this novel. I felt I was just getting to know this complex person and her passionate devotion to wolves. An original and fascinating book.

The Art of Fiction

Until I started writing novels, I did not realize this. Fiction is made up. It is not autobiography.

I was reminded of this the other day when a friend asked if I had had the experiences I describe in my books. And again, when at a book festival recently, a panel of authors was asked the same question.

No, a panelist replied. I am not a suicide bomber. (One of her protagonists.) No, I replied to my friend. But I had a caveat. When one gets to our age, we’ve had so many experiences, read of so many bizarre situations, have come across so many weird circumstances in the lives of those we’ve met, that “experience” may not be personal, yet it gets immersed in a writer’s thoughts.

How does a writer come up with an idea for a novel?

Camilla, in my novel, Lipstick on the Strawberry, is the daughter of a physician who is also a clergyman. I did not know one could be both, but in England, where Lipstick is partially set, it is possible. A few years ago, I met a man who held both jobs simultaneously. What kind of person, I wondered, would choose two professions which embodied so much power over others?

And what, I wondered, would it be like to be the daughter of such a man? How could a daughter ever measure up? And how easily she could be shamed.

So Camilla was born, her conflict driven by the impossible demands for perfection by her father. Worse, her adult life was shadowed by his disapproval of her teenage love affair, making future relationships difficult. How Camilla comes to true adulthood by learning that her father was himself flawed, and therefore able to be forgiven, is how the story plays out.

On May 6, I was delighted to learn that Lipstick on the Strawberry was a finalist in the 2019 Eric Hoffer Awards. The award highlights excellence in books published by academic, small press, and independent publishers, including self-publishers.

Now on to the next book, which is in the revision stages! That too, started with an idea, and then characters who would not let me alone. More on that in future posts.

Sophie Last Seen

By Marlene Adelstein

Red Adept Publishing, 2018

It is a parent’s worst nightmare to lose a child.

To lose a child while shopping with her in a busy mall is unfathomable. Did she run away, was she kidnapped? Is she alive or dead?

After six years, Jesse is still obsessed with her daughter Sophie’s disappearance. She has lost her marriage and her friends, her house is cluttered with found objects that Jesse feels somehow remind of her lost ten-year-old daughter. She drinks too much, can no longer pursue her career as an artist, and, embroiled in an affair with a married man, has lost her self-respect.

And Jesse is not the only one who cannot let go of her grief. Star, Sophie’s best friend, is in full-fledged teenage goth mode. Depressed and anxious, she sees the ghost of Sophie everywhere.

This haunting story has so many moments of emotional truth. What if the missing child was not easy to live with? What if, in addition to her precocious intelligence and fascination with birds, the missing child flew into tantrums when she didn’t get her way? Does knowing this make her mother more anxious when she contemplates the child’s terror if she’s been kidnapped? Make the kidnapper more likely to want to silence the demanding child?

Sophie’s manipulative personality also casts its shadow on Star. She feels guilty that she didn’t want to go to the mall That Day (as it is ever after known) as she’d promised Sophie, because she sensed Sophie was going into one of her melt-down moods.

Marlene Adelstein’s excellent grasp of psychology makes this study in survivor guilt compelling. Sophie is a fascinating child, and her disappearance at the age of ten is probably a loss to future science because Sophie was a brilliant observer of the natural world. Combine this with her parents’ knowledge that they could not handle their child and found her hard to live with at times, and you have the perfect recipe for intensified guilt and self-loathing.

How Jesse and Star separately and then together come to resolve the situation and begin to heal is the crux of this story. This novel has many layers of complexity, remarkable in a debut novel.

I look forward to reading more of Ms. Adelstein’s work.