Margaret Ann Spence Coming Home
shadow
Margaret Ann Spence > BLOG > What I'm Reading Now

The Secret Life of Mrs. London

By Rebecca Rosenberg
Lake Union Publishing, 2018

I am at Jack London Square in Oakland, California, as I write this. Only its location as a terminus of the ferry to San Francisco reminds us now of London’s love of the sea and of nature. In this historical novel Rebecca Rosenberg reminds us of California in the early twentieth century – a growing, vibrant, place where there was room to build a new society among the redwoods and ranches.

Jack London was one of California’s most influential early writers, a best seller who pursued new ideas of socialism and sustainability while mortgaging himself to the hilt to become a land baron, collecting admirers, and drinking round the clock. He also had a wife who was his close collaborator. Yet Charmian, who was as bright, ambitious, as intellectually curious, and even wealthier than he in her own right, has been forgotten.

Beginning eight or so years into the marriage, the novel shows Charmian’s growing frustration with Jack’s waning desire for her, even as she does everything for him.

He says, “It’s the institution of marriage that strangles love, isn’t it?…over the years the face of your beloved becomes as familiar as your own.”

She says, “You take my visions and ideas and turn them into literature that will be praised and read by generations to come…I tell myself it’s enough to be part of your genius. But is it? Is it really?”

This classic interplay between writer and his female muse infuses the novel, whose tension gathers with Charmian’s increasing frustration. She’s a writer too, but because she’s a woman, is seen only as his wife and typist. In Rosenberg’s excellent portrayal, we are in Charmian’s head, unable to work a way out of her dilemma. Her constant attention to Jack’s needs becomes claustrophobic. Rosenberg cleverly uses the escape artist Houdini, a friend of Jack and Charmian London, as a metaphor as well as a key plot element to enable her to unlock the key to a wider world.

Rosenberg writes evocatively of the gorgeous natural environment of Glen Ellen, a place where vineyards now thrive, of Hawaii and of the cities of the East Coast on the brink of America’s involvement in World War I. But it is her insightful and compassionate understanding of the complex relationship between two brilliant people that really makes this novel stand out.

Highly recommended.

The Tuscan Child

By Rhys Bowen
Lake Union Publishing, 2018

A young English woman at a crossroads in her life goes searching for “the beautiful boy” her late father had written about in a letter to a mysterious Italian woman years before.

Alternating in time between the nineteen forties and the nineteen seventies, between the point of view of Hugo and his daughter Joanna, we learn about an Italian hillside village in the waning, dangerous months before the end of the Second World War, and about how that village kept its dark secrets a generation later, when Joanna goes looking for them.

With its themes of Europe in World War II and English aristocrats struggling to cope with the loss of their prestige and their homes in the bloodless social revolution that occurred in Britain post-war, this novel combines history with a mystery.

The book, delightfully, is also about food. Living with Paola, a widow who rents out rooms to tourists, Joanna savors specialties like eggplant parmesan, bruschetta, risotto, and other Italian favorites familiar to us today, but strange and wonderful to the English visitor forty years ago.

As to the “beautiful boy”, that is for you to discover as you read this page-turning novel.

Books About Mothers

This Mother’s Day, I mused about how many books focus on mothers and their relationships with their children. Here are ten books about mothers. Some have been reviewed in my blog over the past few years. They range from memoir, romance, and women’s fiction to literary fiction. All are worth reading. Mentioned (almost) alphabetically by author.

Glitter & Glue by Kelly Corrigan
A young American in search of adventure becomes a nanny in Sydney, Australia. The children she cares for have lost their mother to cancer. Poignant, humorous and very well written. Reviewed May 2015.

The Distance Between Us by Reyna Grande
A mother leaves her children in Mexico to go to the USA for a better life. The children run away from their grandmother’s house to follow her. A harrowing memoir, more topical today than ever. Reviewed October 2014

The House By The River by Lena Manta
The five daughters of Greek village widow Theodora grow up and move far away. Manta explores the adult lives of all five daughters and their own relationships with their children. One theme running through all the stories is male dominance, and how women in this traditional culture were expected simply to stay home and to find total fulfillment in that role. Translated from the Greek, told from multiple points of view in the manner of a fairy tale.

The Good Mother by Sue Miller
Like the late Anita Shreve, Sue Miller was a best-selling author in the nineteen eighties and nineties. Both wrote what I would call classic women’s fiction, though possibly they didn’t like that label. In The Good Mother, Miller’s debut novel, a woman’s sexuality conflicts with her role as mother. The ironic title refers to how Anna, the protagonist, feels about herself. Yet she is in a custody battle for her daughter, Molly.

Family Pictures, by Sue Miller
Family Pictures tells the story of the Lainey and David Eberhardt, whose third child is autistic. The book is set in the nineteen fifties when birth control was not as reliable as it is today and when mothers were blamed for autism. This confluence off actors leads Lainey to give birth to three more children and to the marriage’s eventual break-down. This is a riveting and convincing story of a family struggling to raise a disabled child among siblings who also need attention.

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
In this novel the exceptionally talented Moriarty takes on the subject of kindergarten. Bullying
by both children and adults associated with this innocuous school in its beautiful Sydney
beachside setting shows the nastiness that can lie beneath middle-class lives. Reviewed March 2015.

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
This is a story of how it is to grow up without a mother. Sisters Ruth and Lucille, whose mother
died in a car accident, are brought up in a bizarre way. I found this a horrifying story, completely absorbing and brilliantly written.

Nora Webster by Colm Torbin
An Irish widow struggles to bring up her four children after their father’s untimely death. In the hands of this extraordinary writer, the everyday becomes illuminated, the preciousness and intimate richness of every single life, no matter how withdrawn and circumscribed it may seem, is made clear. Reviewed August 2015.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
Lucy Barton looks back to a time she was hospitalized and over the course of five days had a conversation with her emotionally distant mother. Lucy tries to get her mother to reveal more of herself, to respect her daughter and her drive to be a writer. Lucy’s lack of self-worth comes from receiving too little love and is associated with physical poverty. The novel reveals itself in a series of flashbacks and as it proceeds we ache for Lucy’s need for acceptance from her mother. Reviewed February 2016.

Searching for Mercy Street by Linda Gray Sexton
In contrast to Strout’s thesis, Linda Gray Sexton shows that poverty is not necessarily a pre-condition for difficulties between mother and daughter. This is evident in this memoir by the Harvard-educated daughter of the famed poet Anne Sexton. Anne Sexton, as beautiful as she was brilliant, had a difficult relationship with her own parents. After suffering post-partum depression, she spent much time in psychiatric hospitals before committing suicide at the age of forty-five, leaving a complicated emotional legacy for her two daughters.

Tides of the Heart

By Jean Stone
Random House, 2011

I couldn’t resist a story set partly in Martha’s Vineyard. That beautiful Island off the coast of Massachusetts has a special lure.

This novel is about Jess Randall’s search for the daughter she was forced to give up when she gave birth at fifteen, in 1968. The story is set thirty years later. The book was first published in 1998, and the 2011 edition demonstrates the book’s timeless theme. While there are many book sabout the children taken from their mothers in the time before legalized abortion and before unwed motherhood became more socially acceptable, this book is different. It involves three children born at the same time to young women who were sent to wait out their pregnancies under the care of an apparently kind woman named Miss Taylor.

Miss Taylor, however, was not as well-intentioned as she seemed. Nevertheless, she is an
intriguing character because she offered a safe, non-judgmental shelter for the girls, and the
portrayal of the unwed mothers’ home is gentle and convincing.

Jean Stone, a prolific romance writer, writes a densely plotted story with great characterization. The now grown-up adopted babies have turned out well. Yet their mothers’ stories are full of heart-ache because they never forgot their first children, never stopped wondering what happened to them.

The life stories of the two main protagonists, Jess and Ginny, who became friends as pregnant
teenagers, are very different from one another. Ms. Stone does a great job of creating larger than life characters, especially Ginny. She also weaves in believable and interesting relationships between parents and grown children, showing in the adoptive children a tremendous desire to please their parents. In contrast, a young adult who is secure in the knowledge of her genealogy because her parents were married, even if now divorced, is shown to openly express her occasionally petulant anger.

In the sometimes contested ground between romance and women’s fiction, I am not quite sure where this falls. I think I’m going to call it a belated coming-of- age story. Jess, the lead character, had her childhood torn from her when she became a mother at fifteen, only to suffer the traumatic loss of the baby. She suffered for the next thirty years in a state of limbo. Perhaps predictably, her marriage was unhappy. The story of her journey to find her first daughter and to accept what happened heals her, and will enable her, the reader feels, to launch the second half of her life with vigor and happiness.

If the plot of the book is intricate and at times far-fetched, Jess and Ginny’s story is a very common one for women in my age group. Maintaining an unwanted pregnancy and letting the resulting child achieve a happy life through adoption into a stable home is clearly the preferred option for this author. Yet this story unflinchingly shows the emotional damage done to the birth mother.

Another Ocean to Cross

By Ann Griffin
Georgic Publishing, 2018

Only occasionally do I find a book that keeps me reading till all hours, taunts me during the daytime with chapters yet to be read.

Such a book is Another Ocean to Cross. This debut novel is a riveting story of World War II. At first a story of escape from the impending Holocaust, the story moves outside Europe to show the war’s global reach. The illusion of safety crumbles, and the book’s main character is confronted with moral choices that take the story beyond the parameters of most historical fiction.

Renata Lowenthal, 18 years old, a promising artist, is flogged by a Nazi officer in front of her family for painting “degenerate art.” It’s the precipitating event that persuades her Jewish family to flee Germany in 1938. A harrowing journey takes Renata and her parents to Alexandria, Egypt, where for the moment, they find safety under British protection and Renata supports the family through her art sales. When the bombing starts, this income dwindles, and Renata’s mother urges her to find a husband among the Allied troops, someone whose passport will protect them all.

There are many books on the Holocaust, yet this book is different. Its focus on the experience of being a refugee, making a dangerous sea crossing to temporary shelter, is brilliantly brought to life by Griffin, and makes the story timely today. Another contemporary echo of problems faced by returning soldiers is PTSD and opioid addiction to wipe out the pain.

Griffin’s research must have been prodigious. Her writing is evocative and her characters spring from the page, their responses completely believable in their desperate situations. I look forwardto reading more work by this promising author.

Take the Long Way Home in Popular Fiction

BONNIE McCUNE’S TAKE ON COMING HOME

I had the pleasure of meeting Bonnie McCune at the Author U Conference in 2016, where my novel, Lipstick on the Strawberry, then yet to be published, was a finalist in the “Draft to Dream” competition. Bonnie and I share a background in freelance journalism, and like me, she has won awards for her writing. Her third novel, Never Retreat, was published this week by Imajin Books, and I asked her if she’d be a guest blogger on my website. I’m committed to promoting the work of other women writers, so I’m pleased to offer Bonnie’s essay on women’s fiction in our very complicated world.

TAKE THE LONG WAY HOME IN POPULAR FICTION
By Bonnie McCune

Seems like life gets more complicated as the years pass. What toothpaste do I choose in the
supermarket out of the dozens of brands demanding my attention? How do I choose screen – time programs with thousands of stations, streaming videos, and DVDs at my fingertips? When election time rolls around, which candidates and political parties are worthy of support?

Just as convoluted are our concepts about traditions. Terms as basic as “home” and “family” aren’t simple. Nowadays, a family may have one parent, same-sex parents, one or more children with no genetic ties to the adults, assorted friends and hangers-on who give and receive emotional stability from one another, and an assortment of different ages. Ditto “home.” It might be an apartment, a separate house, a tent, a motel, even a box under a bridge.

Fortunately, we’re more flexible these days. We don’t need to be limited by words when we think about ‘family’ and ‘home.’ These terms are more easily defined by emotions than phrases, and I’m fascinated by the changes reflected in popular fiction. Whereas in romances, the happy ending used to always mean the hero and heroine got married, this is not as true today. The romance field has a term “happy for now” (HFN), meaning the reader can’t predict with  certainty that the main couple will wind up together. Probably they will, but maybe not.

Those of us living in the real world know every life has its share of knocks. Fiction, particularly the type described as “women’s fiction” now incorporates reality. In my new novel, Never Retreat, I wanted all my characters to have feet of clay. L believe there’s room in fiction to include writing unafraid to debate contemporary concerns. Heroine Raye, in addition to being half Latina and facing some kneejerk racism, is a single mom. Hero Des is an ex-military man who doesn’t necessarily agree with all the decisions leaders make. This type of fiction pulls no punches, while providing a fresh look at age-old issues.

The homecomings they experience range from survival in the wilderness to learning how to open up and depend upon each other. When we read fiction, we’re able to encounter many types of people and a multitude of homecomings. The plots of women’s fiction often take the long way home. They wind, tantalize, puzzle, enchant. But one thing they have in common, a truth we’ve long known, as always, home is where the heart is.

NEVER RETREAT – FACT SHEET
A feisty single mom clashes with an ex-military, macho corporate star at a business retreat in the wild Colorado mountains, where only one can win a huge prize. But when a massive flood imperils their love and survival, they learn the meaning of true partnership.

PUBLICATION INFO: PUBLISHING MARCH 15, 2018, 978-1- 77223-350- 6 Kindle ebook, 978-1- 77223-351- 3 Trade paperback, 240 pages. Amazon or Imajin Books. Ebook and paperback.

CONTACT: Bonnie’s writing has won several awards. Visit her at www.BonnieMcCune.com, Email, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn.

This Life Is In Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, And A Family Undone – A Memoir

By Melissa Coleman
Harper Collins Publishers 2011

Eliot Coleman is a now famous organic gardener, one of the leading experts in his field, considered a father of the organic food movement. When he was twenty-six years old he and his wife Sue took up land in northern Maine. This memoir by their daughter Melissa tells of the ideals and broken dreams that awaited Eliot and Sue in their quest for utopia.

Though sometimes called hippies, Eliot and Sue were not drop-outs. They were extremely hardworking, dedicated to a goal of total vegetarian self-sufficiency. They moved next door to the legendary back-to- the-land advocates Scott and Helen Nearing. Tellingly, the Nearings chose not to have children and saw them as a distraction.

Living in cabins and a house they built themselves, the Colemans survived without running water, indoor toilets, electricity or telephone. They cooked and warmed themselves on an old
cast iron stove. They took on no debt. Working sixteen hours a day, Eliot Coleman was able to turn the acidic soil of Cape Rosier into productive farmland. He did it by rediscovering natural methods of unlocking the nitrogen stored in the forest floor. He used horse manure and compost instead of chemical fertilizer. He plowed and weeded and hoed until the family was able to produce vegetables they then sold at a roadside stand. They survived on less than $2,000 a year.

And in the meantime, Sue gave birth to three daughters.

Today, when cell phones and the internet keep us in constant touch with the outside world, it is hard to believe that in the nineteen seventies Sue Coleman, pregnant or not, would rise before dawn to carry heavy buckets of water from the well, balancing them from a rod on her shoulders. She milked goats, fed the hens and collected eggs and sewed and mended clothes. Before she could bake the daily bread she had to grind the grains by hand. She cooked three meals a day, first for the family, later for all the workers, and she did it without electricity. She had to care for three children on her own because the others were all in the fields. She endured the sight of nubile, athletic young women striding naked through the farm while she felt cast aside, housebound, unable even to smooth her chapped lips with face-cream. In the midst of her sense of unraveling and chaos, a true family tragedy occurred. The fall-out from this loss flows organically, to overuse that word. No other outcome was possible, in Melissa Coleman’s telling.

Melissa Coleman skillfully blends her present self, her adult knowledge, with her childhood memories. Now that she understands the stresses on the family’s life she is unsparing in the honesty with which she chronicles the breakdown of her parents’ marriage and the farm. Yet she does not judge them. Her father’s urge to succeed was unmatched and one imagines that whatever profession he chose, charismatic, driven Eliot Coleman would leave others far behind. Still, the fact remains that his first wife was his true partner in his first and most difficult endeavor to live self-sustainably. As is true for so many women, her contribution and the toll it took is not recognized in the world.

This book is full of wonderful prose pictures, the soft light of summer, fireflies, snow on the fields, the milking of the goats. The world of farming as it used to be several generations back is presented without sugar-coating. It’s a world that another generation of young people is trying to claw back in a valiant attempt to undo climate change and the ravages of industrialization.

It’s no accident that many visionaries follow their dreams single-mindedly, without the distraction of family. Coleman shows us how sticking to the dream without compromise can destroy the hopes of those closest to the dreamer. The title of this book has a triple meaning and is so very apt. It tells us that we, too, can choose to live an intentional life. It refers to the line in the palm of the hand that presumably augers a person’s years of life. And it also alludes to what we must do for the fragile children we bring into the world, that awesome responsibility. One of the unspoken truths in this book is that the modern world, for all its faults, allows children to grow to adulthood because their mothers have time to care for them, freed from unremitting, backbreaking labor.

An Unnecessary Woman

By Rabih Alameddine
Grove Press, New York, 2013

This is simply one of the most extraordinary novels I have ever read. It breaks all the rules we students of writing have been taught. For example, never write a scene with a person alone in a room. A single childless, 72-year old woman in a room, to make the story even more unpalatable to modern tastes. In this book, much of the “action” occurs in the narrator’s head as she recalls her past and tries to justify her refusal to bring her aged mother into her home. That she has a home of her own at all is an achievement in Beirut, where Aaliya, the narrator, has lived all her life. In her society she is an “unnecessary woman” who has not procreated, who does not even have a job (she’s retired from working in a bookshop). She’s a woman with few friends and a terrible relationship with her birth family.

Not a promising set up, you might say.

The book is absolutely riveting.

Its imagery is amazing. Aaliya keeps an AK47 on her nightstand because Beirut has been at war through much of her adulthood. Beirut, she tells us “is the Elizabeth Taylor of cities: insane, beautiful, tacky, falling apart, aging, and forever drama laden.”

In her own way, isolated as she is, Aaliya shares these qualities.

In writing in the voice of the opposite gender, Alameddine set himself a considerable challenge, the more so because he tackles the subject of loneliness in older women. But in creating Aaliya, Alameddine succeeds brilliantly. Aaliya is intelligent, funny, perceptive, unsentimental, and self-deprecating. In inhabiting his fictional Aaliya, Alameddine shows us the ultimate gift of literature – insight into someone else’s mind.

The author plays on this is another way, too. Aaliya’s passion is the written word, and self-educated, she’s incredibly widely read, in English and French as well as her native Arabic. She’s set herself the task of translating the Western canon into Arabic. Sometimes, as in the case of Dostoyevsky, she takes two translations from the Russian, one in French and one in English, to produce a third translation in Arabic. This task symbolizes Aaliyah’s apartness from typical human relationships as she takes on the Other – that other way of thinking that learning a different language gives us. Translation can never be a perfect rendition of another’s thoughts, but a skilled translator can produce a work of art in its own right.

Aaliyah has never tried to publish these translations, and they sit in boxes in the maid’s bathroom in her musty apartment. “Why bother” she says. Aaliya leads us to believe that she thinks, therefore, that even her work is unnecessary. But it is not. It is the essential expression of ego. Not in the sense that she is egotistical. She is the opposite. But her creation is essential because it justifies her existence as a human being. She describes “the flow” this way: “During these moments I am no longer my usual self, yet I am wholeheartedly myself, body and spirit. During these moments I am healed of all wounds. I’ll be sitting at my desk and suddenly I don’t wish my life to be any different. I am where I need to be. My heart distends with delight. I feel sacred.”

In this paean to literature, Alameddine also alerts us to the danger of self-absorption. Aaliya has a family whom she could choose to embrace, and a group of three women who live in her apartment building, who are kind to her and who would, if she let them, be her friends. Toward the end of the novel we see Aaliya making a late start on actual human engagement. To the extent that she believes her choices in life were utterly constrained by her culture, this story could be a sad one. But Aaliya’s inner life is proof of the uncrushable human spirit.

Throughout the book are scattered poems, phrases, and philosophic quotes, which Aaliya uses to make a point. In the hands of some authors the constant allusions to works of other writers would be intimidating. But Aaliya just made me itch to read the books I hadn’t read, and to reread the ones I had.

The Real Jane Austen: A Life In Small Things


By Paula Byrne

Harper Collins, 2013

Whenever I think the world is going to hell in a handbasket, I find myself turning to Jane Austen.

Often dismissed as a writer concerned only with domestic dramas, Austen’s work accurately depicts her times as well as universal human nature. That’s why she still fascinates after two hundred years. Over the Christmas holidays, I read The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things by Paula Bryne. Taking an unusual approach, the biographer uses objects known to Jane Austen to create a rich picture of her life and the world she lived in.

That world was not quite as parochial as the fictional world she created.

After all, England was at war for Jane’s entire adult life. Two of her brothers were actively engaged in it as naval officers. Her family counted itself amongst the gentry, were related to minor nobility. Yet as Austen’s novels show, women, and to a lesser extent, men, were completely dependent upon a “good” i.e. financially comfortable, marriage for survival. The professional, who makes his or her way in the world through training, intelligence and experience, as opposed to birth, was a new type of person. Byrne points out that Persuasion’s Captain Wentworth, my favorite Austen hero, and possibly Jane’s as well, was just such a person. For women to earn their own living was a rare, even dangerous thing. To be a novelist was more respectable than to be an actress, but still, to live publicly was daring. Jane Austen published her novels anonymously.

Each chapter in this book is headed by an image of an object or a painting which scholarship has unearthed as being familiar to Jane Austen. Through these objects, “The Ivory Miniature” or “The Topaz Crosses” we learn about Austen’s attitude to slavery and to religion. In “The Marriage Banns,”, “The Royalty Cheque”, and “The Laptop”, we learn of her attitude to marriage and her work.

By describing her society so deftly, and with such humor, showing the bind women were in, Jane Austen can be seen as a proto-feminist. She chose not to marry, despite its financial costs, and tried to support herself through her writing. It is not exactly true to say her writing came before her family, but she wrote all the time, using a “laptop”, or portable writing desk, wherever she went. In this chapter Ms. Byrne describes Jane Austen’s attempts to get published, a struggle so familiar to authors.

Because most of her correspondence was burned after her death, she left no notebooks and because her books are so full of irony, “Jane Austen remains the most elusive of all our great writers with the exception of Shakespeare…” says Byrne. This book is an ingenious way to get inside Jane Austen’s world.

Little Gods

By Andrew Levkoff
Peacock Angel Publishing, 2017

Readers of this blog know how fascinated I am with the ancient world. In his trilogy, The Bow of Heaven, Andrew Levkoff introduces us to Alexandros, the Greek-born slave to Marcus Licinius Crassus, Rome’s richest man. Crassus, along with Pompey and Caesar, formed the first triumvirate. Naturally these three ambitious and competitive men were soon at odds. At the end of Levkoff’s trilogy Crassus undertakes a disastrous campaign against the Parthians and is killed. Levkoff ends the book by introducing us to a new character, Melyaket.

Little Gods is the story of the childhood and young adulthood of Melyaket and his rival, Scolotes. As children in the remote village of Sinjar in Parthia (modern day Iran) Scolotes and Melykalet play together. But Scolotes is always an outsider, regarded as being cursed because he was born with one gray and one brown eye. If the circumstances of Scolotes’ birth were unfortunate, Melykalet is blessed. He seems always to have the favor of the gods. How this plays out is the crux of this story. Because of Levkoff’s skilled writing, the reader feels empathy for both characters.

Today the Middle East is still mired in war. So the author does not miss the opportunity to bring the reader into the modern world too. In Little Gods, Andrew Levkoff harnesses his extraordinary story-telling powers to take the reader into the same place, two thousand years apart. In Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, helicopters circle the land inhabited by Kurds. Their aim seems to be to annihilate anything that moves. Two thousand years earlier, the same area was also a place of seemingly endless conflict.

The senselessness of war is an underlying theme of Levkoff’s work. Sadly, his book illuminates the fact that humans have not yet learned to live and let live, even two thousand years after the empires of Rome and Parthia fought for domination of this harsh desert.

This rather bleak view of human nature is mitigated by Levkoff’s compassion for human frailty. And by setting his story in a war-torn part of the world, he reminds us that our good fortune is just that -an accident of birth.

This is a fast-paced story you won’t put down.