By Colm Toibin Scribner, 2014 When this book came out a year or so ago, a reviewer described it as a book about a quiet Irish widow, a book in which nothing much happens. So I didn’t pick it up immediately. But now I have. And in the hands of the extraordinary writer Colm Toibin, the everyday becomes illuminated, the preciousness and intimate richness of every single life, no matter how withdrawn or circumscribed it may seem, is made clear. As for the claim that “nothing happens” in this novel, that is nonsense. For any young widow left with four children to support on very little money, life could be desperate. How Nora copes, calmly, quietly, is the core of this moving story. Nora Webster, we learn, is a mother of two girls in their late teens and two younger boys. Happily married to Maurice, a popular school teacher, she is shell-shocked at his agonizing death. It seems that both priest and doctor would not allow enough pain-killers for the dying man because it might damage his heart. This subtle dig at religious rigidity is all that Toibin allows himself in this novel. In fact, Nora’s greatest support comes from two religious women, a Sister Thomas, who seems like a busy-body, but offers non-judgmental love at every turn, and a former nun who becomes Nora’s singing teacher. Writers of fiction are often advised to create characters that readers will like. Toibin does nothing so obvious. He offers us Nora, who is prickly and defensive, who forbids herself the expression of much emotion, whose own mother preferred her sisters and sons-in-law to Nora, and who, on the surface, does not offer much comfort to her grieving children. The girls were away at school, but the younger boys were placed with Nora’s aunt while Nora tended to her dying husband. During this time the older boy, Donal, developed a stutter. Her aunt asks Nora why she never once checked on her kids the whole time their father was in hospital. Nora has no convincing answer except to say her time was fully occupied. Donal becomes the focus of Nora’s anxiety, though this is never stated out loud. She tries quiet activities to make the children feel life can continue normally, like taking them for an outing to Dublin, like renting a caravan for a summer vacation to make up for her having to sell the family beach cottage, like allowing her sister-in-law to build a dark-room so Donal can develop his photographs. Nora’s gradual opening up, like a flower, to allow others to help her is the story arc of this book. Her husband’s sister finds a boarding school for Donal, a Christian Brothers school with a photography club and Nora lets her sister-in-law pay for the tuition. Like most kids, the boy is lonely at first and Nora senses, when she visits him, that he wants to come home. Like Nora, he is guarded about his feelings and she won’t let him articulate them. Instead, she promises, simply, to visit him every weekend. Later, her second daughter, Aine, becomes involved in student politics, and is caught up in a demonstration on what became known as Bloody Sunday. She cannot be found. The family looks for her and in the end, Nora says she’s going home. (The girl is fine.)In these two instances, in which Nora demonstrates the opposite of helicopter parenting, we see that she is in fact a superb parent. She allows her children a chance to build their own resilience. The novel begins in the late 1960s and spans three years. These were momentous years in Ireland, the beginning of The Troubles, in which Northern Ireland became the focus of religious and political factionalism and the IRA became active. They were also momentous years for women. Feminism is never mentioned in this book. In fact, Nora, who is forced to return to work as a widow at the same firm she worked for before she married, regrets the loss of her freedom. While in the end she masters her bookkeeping job, we sense that she never enjoys it, hates the web of office politics, and wishes she could have her old life back. Nora says, “Never once, in the 21 years she had run this household, had she felt a moment of boredom or frustration.” While one reviewer of this book found this to be self-deceptive, I found this comment by Nora to be very believable. There was, and still is, a sub-set of women who love the fulfillment of being able to create a full-time loving and secure home for their families. And this is why Colm Toibin is such a marvelous writer. He never allows himself to be seduced by current trends. Once again he has pulled off a masterpiece.
By Jane Wilson Howarth Vicarious Travel, 3 edition, 2014 Amazon Digital Services My cousin’s son, David, a twenty-something with a sense of adventure, is in Nepal. He had just started working on a genetics project when the earthquake struck in May this year. In response to pleas from his family to return to the safety of home, he refused because he felt he could be of help where he was. Such is the lure of Nepal, its beauty and its people. David’s adventure reminded me of a book I first read when it was issued in January 2014. Written by English physician Jane Wilson-Howarth, the novel tells the story of Sonia, an Englishwoman who is escaping a failed marriage and the loss of a job, her Nepali guide, Rekraj, her landlady/host, Guliya, and Moti, a teenager with surprising wisdom. The story hinges on cultural misunderstandings, until a natural disaster shows a strength of character that springs from deep within and crosses the cultural divide. The writing is wonderfully atmospheric. One can almost smell the woodsmoke and the cumin, see the snowy mountains, feel both heat and cold. The author drew on her experience as a doctor in Nepal to write the book, which is a fictional follow-up to a memoir, A Glimpse of Eternal Snows. That book has recently been published in India, following English and American editions. The vivacity of the author’s personality her passion for life, and her humanity come across in this book. Once Wilson-Howarth draws the reader into the world she shows us, it is hard to put the book down. Highly recommended.
By Jo Robinson Little Brown & Company, The Hachette Group, New York 2013 Did you know that eating a humble can of tomato paste can help protect you from sunburn? This factoid I learned from this fascinating book by health and food writer Jo Robinson Robinson quotes from a 2000 study by German researchers led by Wilhelm Stahl which found that tomato paste protects against UV rays because of its concentrated amounts of lycopene – an ingredient manufactured by tomatoes to protect themselves from the sun. Of course, all tomatoes are good for you, but it seems that cooking tomatoes and eating canned tomatoes which have been heated in the process of canning makes the lycopene more “biovailable.” According to Robinson, carrots, as well as tomatoes, become more nutritious if sautéed or steamed (not boiled). Whole carrots, cooked before being cut up, retain their beta-carotene better, and make three times the amount of beta-carotene available to the diner than raw carrots. Corn and beets, too, are healthier if cooked. All this somewhat belies the title of this book. “Wild” implies untamed, unhybridized and certainly not GMO-modified plants for consumption. But Robinson, who has researched the wild origin of edible plants, points out that hunter-gatherers knew how to cook. Indeed, wild-lambs quarters,(Chenopodium album) a leafy weed that thrives world wide but grows particularly well in northern California, was steamed by Native Americans to cure stomach aches as well as added to soups, stew and eaten raw. And guess what? That quinoa you pay a premium for in the store is actually the gathered seeds of domesticated lambs quarters. “Know what you’re eating,” is the mantra of this book. Whether selecting plants for your garden, or shopping at the farmer’s market or the local supermarket, you will find this book useful. Armed with the knowledge from this engaging book, you’ll be able to select those fruits and vegetables which maintain the most nutrition, and then you’ll be able to prepare them in the healthiest way. Highly recommended. A book to buy, not to borrow.
By Jill Teitelman Freestyle Press, Boston 2012 When Ruth Kooperman tells her friend Grace that her boyfriend proposed in the hardware store, her friend has a question. “Which aisle were you in? Grace wants to know. “Plumbing or electrical?” So goes the wise-cracking in this novel that reads like a memoir. It’s a first novel but clearly not the first literary effort by Boston-based writer Jill Teitelman. If it weren’t so funny, it could be called “The Baby Boomers Lament” because the protagonist, Ruth, opens the novel with the memorable lines, “Why didn’t I ask where the Women’s Lib train was going before I jumped on?” Approaching forty, Ruth has spent her adulthood thus far in gobbling up experiences – in travel, in jobs as interesting as they are short-term, and in boyfriends who share the same quality. She knows perfectly well that she’s short-changed her self-esteem by never letting go of the financial safety rope dangled before her by her parents, even as she cannot forgive her boorish father for his constant put-downs of her every move. No wonder she has never found the right man – each prospect her father meets gets the brush-off. Not only can her father not stand her friends, he belittles her for being so stupid as to select them – or whatever she is currently doing in life. But it seems that Ruth does have a talent for friendship with other women. In Rhonda, and later in Grace, Teitelman creates a portrait of besties through which Ruth can find her kindest self even as she envies her friends for their stability and contentment – states of being that she somehow seems to unable to achieve herself. She is nothing if not critical of herself as well as Jake, who becomes the father of the child she wants so desperately, and later of Marty, the man she marries at the age of fifty. Teitelman’s depiction of Ruth’s son, Joey, is also delightful. A terrific mother, she shows single motherhood in all its difficulties and joys. More self-aware than most women, possibly because she delayed motherhood so long, Ruth can sometimes irritate because she is discontented so much of the time. But then, her best friend gets sick, and Ruth discovers what grace truly means. Her friend’s ability to find joy in a simple life and to endure a terrible and unfair fate catapults Ruth into another plane of knowing. At times this book reads like a journal, and so it is not surprising to learn that Teitelman started it as a memoir, then turned it into fiction. Not your typical debut novel, I found it quite a page-turner.
By Liane Moriarty Kindle Edition, Penguin Books (first published 2009) Have I said that I am a fan of Liane Moriarty? I repeat. I am a huge fan of the Australian writer Liane Moriarty. She’s a prolific author – has written at least six novels and each one seems to climb to the best seller lists as soon as it is released in the US. Liane writes about everyday ordinary people – all right, everyday, upper middle class people in the suburbs of Sydney. She writes about mothers of school age children, and most often her books have several interweaving plot lines. Her characters are quite often deluded about their own and others’ secret lives, are very relatable and often funny. What Alice Forgot is the premise as well as the title of this book. Alice hit her head in a gym accident and when she wakes up, thinks it is 1998 instead of 2008. Was the previous century any better than the present one? It was simpler, certainly, in Alice’s muddled mind, and perhaps in Moriarty’s. (The author is almost the same age as her character.) In 1998 Alice was happily in love with her husband Nick, and pregnant with her first child. In 2008, she is amazed to find that she has to live with three rambunctious children, who people say are her own. She and Nick are separated and going to divorce. She doesn’t want this divorce at all, she thinks, as her memory comes back in sparks, like faulty wiring. She appears to have changed in the intervening ten years, and not just because of motherhood. As Alice’s memory returns in fits and starts we understand the stresses in her life that led to the present day. There is a lifetime of sudden loss in these memories, but just as we begin to think that Alice might be a tad self-indulgent in her sorrows, (Her husband has to work so hard!, being thin is so important!) we get into the parallel story of her sister, Elisabeth, who is undergoing fertility treatment, and has suffered miscarriage after miscarriage. Then there is Alice and Elisabeth’s ‘honorary grandmother” Frannie, who loves the girls as her own. Her loss is even greater than theirs. It all adds up to a sympathetic story, and this is what saves Moriarty’s characters. After all, a novel has to be about conflict and struggle. And on the surface, all Moriarty’s characters live in a world of privilege, Australian style – plenty of money, good public schools, sunny beaches accessible to everyone, welcoming coffee shops on every corner, and people living in a web of close family relationships. Still, she writes about serious subjects with humanity and humor and keeps the reader guessing about the ending till the end.
About Place Journal is a literary journal with a difference. Published by The Black Earth Institute, it is dedicated to “reforging the links between art and spirit, earth and society.” Each twice-yearly issue is themed. My story, The Dog Catcher of Jabiru, appeared in the November 2015 issue. My essay, Cleopatra’s Molecules was published in the May 2015 issue. Since it came out last week, I have been amazed at the response. People have plugged it on Facebook and Twitter, and I’ve been receiving emails asking for permission to send it on. Apparently the ideas I was working out as I wrote the piece have been helpful to people who have lost a loved one. I’m glad about that. If you’d like to read it, please go to http://aboutplacejournal.org. A Moment In Time We seem to be in a moment, people. That is, I think we may be in a time when people are really starting to think about our place in the universe in a different way. As Cleopatra’s Molecules lay on editor John Briggs’ desk awaiting publication in About Place Journal, I received my latest copy of Orion Magazine. In the May/June 2015 issue is an interview by philosopher and environmentalist Kathleen Dean Moore with Dr. Mary Evelyn Tucker, who directs Yale’s Forum on Religion and Ecology. It is entitled “A Roaring Force from One Unknowable Moment: The story of the universe has the power to change history.” Moore opens with this bold statement: “The World has arrived at a pivot point in history. You could drive a nail through this decade and the future of the planet would swing in balance.” She proposes three things to tip the scales and the third is to “change the story about who we are, we humans – not the lords of all creation, but lives woven into the complex interdependencies of a beautiful, unfolding planetary system.” Cosmic evolution – what a beautiful thought. To read the full article, click on https://orionmagazine.org/2015/05/a-roaring-force-from-one-unknowable-moment/ Do read Orion. Best of all, subscribe. www.orionmagazine.org.
By Kelly Corrigan Ballantine, 2014 Mothers matter. They really do. I have to admit, the topic of this memoir – recollections of the author’s time as a nanny to a family in Australia some twenty or more years ago – did not inspire me to pick it up when it was released last year. But this is Kelly Corrigan. She can write. I realized this about two minutes into the book, which I picked up at an airport bookshop. It was of those decisions you make when you have about five minutes to catch the plane and your Kindle is not charged. I am glad I did not have more time that day, or I would never have read this brilliantly constructed, humorous, tear-inducing book. Kelly Corrigan does not mock, however gently, the foreign culture in which she found herself, as so many “American Abroad” books do. Indeed, Corrigan describes the Sydney suburb in which she found herself as “basically indistinguishable from the one where I grew up.” Nor does she satirize a middle-class family who had to hire a nanny. Because that is not the point. This book is about motherhood. The Tanner children, seven-year-old Millie and five year-old Martin, are motherless because Ellen Tanner had recently died of cancer. Besides her widower, John, in the household also are Evan, Ellen’s twenty-one year old son from a former marriage, and Pop, Ellen’s father, who keeps to himself but does the family laundry. Kelly notes the common difficulties of step-family relationships within the family, as all is revealed gradually. But she never judges, and she weaves what she learns of the family’s profound grief and fragility after Ellen’s loss with a new appreciation of her own mother. Corrigan’s mother Mary is a sharp-tongued character, whose pithy remarks demonstrate her no-nonsense, do-the-right-thing values. Such a mother would naturally be in conflict with a strong-minded young woman like Kelly. Yet, as the book develops, and Kelly begins to understand the depth of the Tanner family’s loss and their courage in just putting each foot forward, one after the other, day after day, she starts to appreciate what her mother gave her. The last twenty five pages of the book reflect on this as Kelly Corrigan recalls her own bout with breast cancer when her children were small. As Kelly Corrigan notes, “Mothers are everywhere.” Except when they’re not. Mother’s Day is coming up. Cherish yours. She’s just irreplaceable.
By Jennifer Kaufman and Karen Mack Bantam Dell, 2013 We know right off the bat that Dora, the protagonist in this charming novel, is going to have trouble when, in the Preface, we learn that when she was seven her inebriated mother drove the car, with her children in it, off a bridge. So we are not surprised to find her, in chapter 1, wallowing in despair after separating from her second husband. Dora literally wallows- in a hot, deep bath, where she spends all weekend reading novels. Ah, I was hooked. A heroine who loves to read. Not only do literary quotes head each chapter, there are literary quotations throughout the book, which, in case we don’t recognize them, are acknowledged in footnotes. Footnotes! And at the back of the book there is a seven page bibliography. But Dora is no geeky bookworm. She’s witty, attractive, bored by the blind dates her friends set up, and falls in lust with a fellow booklover. He works at the local bookstore, but has aspirations to be a screenwriter. “It’s that L.A. hyphenate thing – no one is really what they’re doing. Everything is just temporary until their real career starts,” her sister remarks. But Dora is snowed by Fred’s erudition. “My god. Just kill me now,” she thinks when he quotes Dorothy Parker. Dora, however, has no career to speak of. The story touches on issues of class, with extreme Hollywood wealth contrasting with the situation of ordinary Californians. Dora eventually emerges from her bubble (bath) to learn what is important in life. The love of literature is the unusual theme that underpins this fine novel. If the characters lived in New York this would not surprise but it was a delightful departure from the norm to read about book addicts in Tinseltown. This is the first book written by the duo of Mack and Kaufman, a film and television producer and former Los Angeles Times staff writer, respectively. (They’ve since written two other romantic comedies.) They have an intimate knowledge of the worlds they write about, and Literacy and Longing in L.A. moves along as if written by one voice. It is quite a remarkable feat.
The Good House By Ann Leary St. Martin’s Press, 2012 The North Shore of Massachusetts is famous for its light, the low angle at which the sunset illuminates its farms and marshes as it slides towards the marshy inlets to disappear into the sea. The string of little towns, Newburyport, Rowley, Marblehead, Salem, Ipswich, Hamilton and Gloucester have attracted settlers since the time of the Puritans. The area is famous for its seventeenth century witch trials, its fishermen still haul in cod and lobsters, while its wealthier denizens ride to the hunt and play polo. About forty miles from Boston, the North Shore is still not easy to get to, and therefore, to live there is a conscious choice by those who can afford to choose, or it is somewhere you live because you were born there, your ancestors were born there and truly, there is no where else you would rather live. In the fictional town of Wendover, set in the North Shore, who better would know the town gossip and exemplify the symbiotic relationship between the townies and the newcomers than the town’s top real estate broker? Hildy Good, the narrator of Ann Leary’s The Good House, knows that the only way to make money in the town these days is through antiques and real estate. The creaky old houses are pulled apart by their wealthy new owners, and renovated to look old again, providing work for realtors and antique dealers, plumbers, handymen and landscapers. Hildy Good parlays her descent from a famously hanged witch and her deep knowledge of the townspeople to advantage when she sells houses, and she straddles the world of her rich clients and the townies. Hildy is the hinge to the story of a relationship between someone whose ancestors have lived in the town for generations and a newcomer. But Hildy is a secret alcoholic. Actually, the secret is only to herself. It is obvious to all around her that she has a problem. When the book begins, she has recently come out of rehab, drinks soda water at parties and at night puts herself to sleep after several glasses of the wine she’s stashed in the trunk of her ex-husbands MG, which he abandoned in the garage. This kind of wonderful detail permeates the writing of this terrific novel. Ann Leary’s gentle satire absolutely nails the socio-economics of the area, and her delightfully unreliable narrator pulls the story along. The underlying theme of an addiction’s lure provides the emotional heart of this book. Highly recommended.
Queens of Ancient Crete – And The Men Who Loved Them The Year God’s Daughter The Thinara King The Moon of Asterion By Rebecca Lochlann Erinyes Press, 2011 A rich blend of historical novel and fantasy, the first three books of The Child of the Erinyes series are set in Bronze Age Crete. The Year God’s Daughter, The Thinara King, and In the Moon of Asterion, trace the fortunes of Princess (later Queen) Aridela, her lover and consort, Chrysaleon, and his half-brother and rival in love, Menoetius. I was captivated from the start, ordering the next book as soon as I had finished the last. Rebecca Lochlann has created a world both recognizable and yet sinister, a world that spun its year around the annual ritual sacrifice of the king and his apparent cannibalization by the island’s women. The people believed that the annual sacrifice was necessary to fructify the crops. Horrible, yet Lochlann convinces us of the characters’ sincere belief in the necessity for this ritual, and in their faith in their gods and their afterlife. She’s spent many years researching this ancient world, then let her imagination fly with her strong female characters, Aridela, her tutor, Selene the Amazon, and Themiste, the priestess. Beautiful descriptive writing, fast-paced and convincing.