An Irresistible Tale: The Hummingbird’s Daughter


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Review: The Hummingbird’s Daughter, by Luis Alberto Urrea
Little, Brown, 2006. 495 pp. $15

This beguiling novel defies first appearances, and a lucky thing for me, or I wouldn’t have read it.

Set in late nineteenth-century Mexico, The Hummingbird’s Daughter tells the early life of Teresa, the so-called Saint of Cabora. Born the illegitimate, half-Indian child of a well-to-do rancher, Teresa shows remarkable aptitude from a young age. She learns to ride a horse better than most men, to read, to dispute, and to remain serene in the face of insult, all of which appalls and enthralls her natural father, Don Tomás, who–extraordinarily–welcomes her into his house. She also studies with Huila, a salty, old herbal and spiritual healer, eventually surpassing and supplanting her; that too appalls and amazes Don Tomás, who worries what will happen. The young girl travels to far-off lands in her dreams, converses with God, delivers babies, and develops a large following, which, as Don Tomás has predicted, can come to no good.

José de la Cruz Porfirio Diaz Mori, who ruled Mexico for thirty-five years,, photographed in 1910; this novel portrays him, from afar, as a corrupt, malignant figure (Courtesy Aurelio Escobar Castellanos Archive, via Wikimedia Commons)

José de la Cruz Porfirio Diaz Mori, as he appeared in 1910, ruled Mexico for thirty-five years; this novel portrays him, from afar, as a corrupt, malignant figure (Courtesy Aurelio Escobar Castellanos Archive, via Wikimedia Commons)

As a rule, I avoid magical realism. As far as I’m concerned, One Hundred Years of Solitude is aptly titled, because those are the conditions I’d need before I could finish it. My teeth hurt if I have to read how the mystically gifted sweep away evil merely by waving a hand, and how a popular uprising forestalls the vengeance that would ordinarily result. Nor do I care much for macho fantasies in which beautiful women fall into an unscrupulous seducer’s arms without having to be asked twice, and that their love either reforms him, makes the earth move, or both. And much as I detest various aspects of modern life, I groan whenever I come across a narrative based on “the wisdom of the ancients,” as if peccadilloes of the past like witch-burnings, serfdom, or endemic smallpox never happened, or that our contemporary malaise wouldn’t last ten minutes if we could only summon up pseudo-profundities said to be lost to time.

Nevertheless, The Hummingbird’s Daughter, which skates parallel to that last category, is a terrific book. Urrea wins over this jaundiced reviewer for several reasons, chief among them his refusal to let his theme obscure reality. Teresa, or Teresita, as she’s usually known, may be called a saint, a title she dislikes and has never sought, but that only increases her burden to prove herself. Thousands of people flock to receive her healing powers, imputing to her motives, methods, and sympathies that she doesn’t possess. The established church calls her a heretic; the politicians, a traitor who preaches revolution. Men despise her for being a woman beyond their control, even as they dream of raping her. Those who fashion themselves of European extraction hate her as an Indian. Consequently, not only does Teresita fail to bring evil to a standstill–never her intention, anyway–everyone sees in her what they wish, using her for their own purposes. Naturally, the poor young woman tires of it all.

Only vigorous, unbridled prose can carry a narrative like this. Urrea’s grasp of biblical phrasing, Spanish cadences, and florid, earthy expression make this novel a delight to read:

Crows, attracted by the stink and the tumult, spied on them from the treetops, hopping along from tree to tree, peeking out from between the ragged leaves. And buzzards, attracted by the flapping crows, hypnotized by all the wandering meat beneath them, circled and dreamed of putrescence and death, the deliciousness of rot. And unknown and unseen, to the north of the trail only five miles away from the rancho, three dead men grinned under the soil, shot by Rurales for their scant gold and their boots, buried hastily and half-eaten by beetles and voles, tunneling wildcats and foxes, these three leathery travelers vibrated underground as the people passed, shook in their paltry graves as if they were laughing, giggling, their yellow mouths wide in toothy hilarity.

But besides casual violence, lust, and the hardness of life, there’s humor too. I laughed at the burro who dreamed of kicking the children entertaining themselves at its expense, at Don Tomás’s seemingly endless supply of friendly insults, and the various harmless obsessions that grip the characters. The laughter helps see to it that events and actions in The Hummingbird’s Daughter are seldom just one thing but many, depending on how they’re viewed, and Urrea has the sense not to push too hard. For instance, Teresita learns to remember always that she comes from the earth and belongs to it (the essential difference between herself and the corrupt, Westernized church and government). Yet she also comes to appreciate modern conveniences that Don Tomás’s engineer friend, Lauro Aguirre, has installed in the main house. So the reverence for old ways gets tempered, somewhat, or at least makes room for certain pleasures.

And speaking of pleasures, that’s what The Hummingbird’s Daughter is, a rollicking tale in which the many pages slide swiftly by.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

How Not to Write a Mystery: Death at the Paris Exposition


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Review: Death at the Paris Exposition, by Frances McNamara
Allium, 2016. 253 pp.

The Paris Exposition of 1900 was a landmark, a great show of scientific, artistic, technological, and cultural marvels. It marked the turn of what many people believed would be a century of unheard-of progress, peace, and inventiveness. Its great engineering feat, the Eiffel Tower, has become an internationally known symbol, and the exhibit halls built for the fair remain among the city’s finest.

Lucien Baylac's image of the 1900 Paris Exposition, digitized in 2007 (Courtesy Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons)

Lucien Baylac’s image of the 1900 Paris Exposition, digitized in 2007 (Courtesy Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons)

So any novel titled Death at the Paris Exposition has much thematic material to draw on, a milieu tailor-made for fiction, and enough potential characters to fill every café on the Champs-Elysée. Unfortunately, McNamara makes little use of the resources available, and the result, at times, reads like a primer on how not to write a mystery–or any novel, for that matter.

The premise works well enough. Bertha Palmer, a Chicago socialite, has been named to the American commission to the exposition, the only woman to hold that post. Mrs. Palmer names Emily Chapman, a university lecturer, as her social secretary, so that Emily, her physician husband, Stephen, and their three children occupy part of the splendid house the Palmers have rented. More to the point, you can’t attend the formal luncheons, dinners, or soirées without the proper clothes, so Emily gets a new wardrobe at the world-famous House of Worth, on Mrs. Palmer’s dime. I like how McNamara conveys the couturier’s way of doing business, and the complex etiquette involved in fitting a client for a dress.

It’s at Worth that Bertha’s splendid pearl necklace disappears, and from there, the crimes multiply. Before long, a young woman is found strangled, and the French police suspect Mrs. Palmer’s son, Honoré, for the theft and the murder. Emily, who has solved cases in Chicago (this is McNamara’s sixth novel about her), sets about finding the truth. And the first place to look seems to be the confluence between fortune-hunting Europeans and Americans hoping to land an aristocratic marriage partner, a time-honored theme straight out of Henry James.

But Death at the Paris Exposition fails to deliver. Not one of the characters has angles or edges; everyone behaves true to form, which subverts any mystery. Honoré lives up to his name–respectful to ladies, dutiful to his parents, moderate in habits–so he can’t possibly be guilty, no matter how many times McNamara has Emily pretend to consider it. Conversely, another character acts and sounds like a fake–he’s clearly not an aristocrat–yet nobody seems to notice. And when he’s finally exposed, he drops the mask and reverts to “criminal” type, showing a “feral” expression, a cliché that thuds almost as loudly as the group scene convened for the purpose.

As a detective, Emily repeats rote, clunky phrases like “I needed to make the inspector turn his attentions away from Bertha and her family”; and whenever she mulls the case, she goes in circles, restating facts the reader knows. I’ve always thought that the pleasure of reading a mystery is matching wits with the sleuth. But if she doesn’t have any, where’s the challenge?

Nineteen-hundred was historically rich, and Paris is, well, Paris. Yet here, time and place are missing in action. McNamara spends paragraphs describing the clothes, but not a word on how it feels to wear them, aside from whether the women think they look attractive in them. Amazingly, even the exposition gets short shrift. Nothing in the story says, “This is 1900,” either in daily life or current events. No one breathes a word about the Boxer Rebellion, Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, the assassination of the king of Italy (one of many by anarchists in those years), the American war in the Philippines, or McKinley’s reelection, to name only a few current issues that might have gotten Emily’s attention. As for contemporary mores, I can believe that she’d buy an English translation of an Émile Zola novel, but she’d have known that respectable women weren’t supposed to, and yet that never occurs to anyone. And since when do men wear hats in a Catholic church, as one character does at Notre Dame?

But it’s the prose that gives me the strongest sense of carelessness. When McNamara’s Parisians speak English (and a surprising number do), they sound like cartoon Frenchmen who have no real grasp of their native tongue. Sadly, that linguistic misery has plenty of company in the overall narrative. The author repeatedly confuses who and whom, writes sentences whose clauses fail to connect (sometimes humorously), and uses commas as if they were taxed. If you care about the art and craft of writing, a book like this can only be painfully disappointing–and I think McNamara’s editor bears a good part of the blame.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Brilliant, But a Little Mean: Leaving Lucy Pear


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Review: Leaving Lucy Pear, by Anna Solomon
Viking, 2016. 319 pp. $26

It’s summer 1917, and eighteen-year-old Beatrice Haven sneaks out of her uncle’s home at Cape Ann, Massachusetts, one night to leave her newborn infant in a pear orchard. Her act is desperate, of course, but not entirely random, for Bea anticipates that poachers from town will be coming to raid the orchard and will therefore find the child. What follows is beyond predictable, but Bea’s only thought–indeed, her only choice, as she sees it–is to save her baby from the orphanage. Further, that suits her purposes, for she plans to attend Radcliffe come the fall, though whether that notion is hers or belongs to her mother, Lillian, is an open question.

Bartolomeo Vanzetti, left, and Nicola Sacco, 1923 (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons via Boston Public Library)

Bartolomeo Vanzetti, left, and Nicola Sacco, 1923 (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons via Boston Public Library)

Meanwhile, the woman who picks up the infant girl is Emma Murphy, mother of eight, wife of a hard-drinking fisherman, Roland. The narrative shifts ahead to 1927, when Lucy Pear, as the foundling is called, is ten years old, and Emma has tired of her husband’s frequent absences and violent temper. She’s easy prey for Josiah Story, mayoral candidate and quarry manager, whose charm, money, and connections prove irresistible. Josiah arranges for Emma to tend Bea’s invalid Uncle Ira, who still lives in the house with the orchard. The job brings Emma needed money, a measure of independence from Roland, and puts her in Bea’s path, for that’s where she lives too. Radcliffe lasted barely a few months, and depression has immobilized her ever since.

So everybody’s got secrets, and cowardice has brought them about. Had Bea been able to stand up to her mother, she might not have made disastrous, self-destructive decisions. If Emma could face down her husband, she’d be better off, as would their children. And so on.

All those tightly contained secrets create an emotional pressure cooker, and Solomon exerts every ounce of tension imaginable, posing moral tests right and left that her characters often fail. I admire her refusal to protect them or ease their way; they’re no better than anyone else, and sometimes less. Yet the author never disengages to throw them in your lap, as if they were suddenly your problem. I think it takes courage to write like that, particularly when, more often than not, the publishing marketplace values the milk of human kindness, even–especially–if it’s artificially sweetened. Reading Leaving Lucy Pear, I’m reminded of the boldness of Philip Roth or Vladimir Nabokov–though she’s more merciful than they–and in most ways, it works for her.

I also admire Solomon’s way of illuminating psychological moments through superb prose:

Her mother looked at her tenderly and Bea felt swollen and strangled. She nearly began to speak. I am already so disappointed. She was stopped by fear: fear that if she started talking about herself, she would never stop; fear that her pain would fall out of her, grotesque, hairless, gasping, and she would not be able to stuff it back in.

All this makes Leaving Lucy Pear a gripping, painful, exceptionally well-observed narrative. And it’s also damned difficult to read, because the only truly sympathetic characters among a multitude are Lucy, Bea’s Uncle Ira, and her estranged husband, Albert. Tenderness is strictly rationed here, whereas hardness litters the ground, blocking every move, or so it seems. There’s a fine line between courageous, unflinching honesty and what can feel, at times, like authorial sadism. Solomon crosses it, I think, which makes her people difficult to sit with.

Similarly, I wonder why the Havens, wealthy Jews, must have no sense of their Jewishness except that they’re ashamed of it, Lillian especially, who’d do anything to pass. I get that Leaving Lucy Pear is partly about people afraid to be who they are, and that the historical background includes the Sacco-Vanzetti trial and the unabashed bigotry it aroused, an atmosphere from which nobody escapes. Even so, the portrayal has a mean edge, and the Havens’ self-hatred digs them a deeper hole than they already have as crass, disconnected, and (in Lillian’s case) manipulative people. Solomon rescues them, somewhat, by conveying how weak and fearful they are, and therefore still human. (Lucy, at age ten, is actually the strongest, most luminous character in the story, outshining both her mothers by far.) Yet Leaving Lucy Pear is a frightening, disturbing ride, and though I like the ending, I felt a bit bruised by the time I got there.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Vietnam, Up Close: The Man from Saigon


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Review: The Man from Saigon, by Marti Leimbach
Nan Talese/Doubleday, 2009. 342 pp. $26

Have you ever read a first-rate novel that still leaves you unsatisfied? For me, The Man from Saigon is one, because, good as it is, it should be ten times better. The subject is riveting, the writing sublime, and the plot couldn’t have more tension. Yet though I believe everything that happens to the characters, I don’t believe what happens between them.

You can’t argue with the premise, though, or with how Leimbach carries it out. It’s 1967, and Susan Gifford, who writes for a women’s magazine, goes to Vietnam to cover the war. The story follows her fumbling efforts to understand Saigon, where everything and everyone is for sale; the climate seems too crushing to withstand; and the American officers conducting press briefings treat her with even more contempt than they do her male colleagues. Susan quickly realizes that to file anything worthwhile, she must get up-country, which she does, with the help of Marc, a TV reporter, and Son, a Vietnamese photographer whom no one else trusts.

American soldiers carry a wounded comrade through a swamp in Vietnam, 1969 (Courtesy National Archives)

American soldiers carry a wounded comrade through a swamp in Vietnam, 1969 (Courtesy National Archives)

Leimbach renders these events so vividly that it’s as if you too were getting spat on by the teenage prostitutes on Tu Do Street, huddling in a bunker under bombardment firmly convinced that the next incoming shell will kill you, or watching an army surgeon coked on Dexadrine performing operations round the clock.

And then the story really kicks into gear. Susan and Son join a supply mission heading into the Mekong Delta, supposedly nothing dangerous. But the Viet Cong ambush the column, capture the two journalists, and set out to find their own unit, from which they too have become separated. They take Susan’s boots, spare clothes, and personal possessions, and though she tries, through Son, to explain that she’s not a spy, a soldier, or a threat, they can’t understand what she’s doing there or why. So beyond the cuts on her feet, which become infected, or feeling dizzy and faint from lack of food and water, she fears every second for her life and Son’s.

Leave a box of vegetables in the sun and that is the smell. Lie on asphalt at noon on an August day and that is the temperature. The heat rises from the ground, bombards you from above. The dense brush, the banyan trees, their branches intertwined, connect at the top to form a canopy, allowing no breeze. . . . She has been on such marches before, always with a company of Americans, always with Son who carried the bulk of the equipment. It is different now. A kind of timelessness has set in. She keeps thinking she is dying, that she is walking with a ghost.

I’ve read many eyewitness accounts of the Vietnam War, the centerpiece of my teenage years, but I’ve never read anything as visceral as The Man from Saigon. The pigheaded nature of American policy, the duplicity, the savagery on both sides, the corruption at every level, the misery and death–they’re all here, in beautifully rendered detail.

That said, however, for me, The Man from Saigon fails as anything other than a sort of journalistic fiction. Marc, the TV reporter, becomes Susan’s lover mostly because they share that terrifying bunker under fire. I’d believe that they might sleep together a few times, but not that Susan loves him, as she repeatedly claims. Their only common bond is a passion to know what the army refuses to let them see, and what lies they’re told instead, but otherwise, he’s a closed door. He says little or nothing about his life, feelings, dreams, or past–except that he’s married–and tries to drown his anxieties in drugs and alcohol. He’s got nothing to give her.

Then there’s Son, for whom her affection grows during their captivity, during which he treats her as kindly as he can, even tenderly, at moments. I think we’re meant to compare him to Marc. But Susan doesn’t know who Son really is, so can you call that love? Also, she suspects he’s working for Hanoi, yet somehow, that doesn’t matter; she never considers that his activities might cause many deaths, including those of her countrymen. About Vietnam, I’m as dovish as they come, yet I don’t see how you can duck that moral question; in war, no matter what you do, there are always consequences. And if Leimbach is trying to send a feminist message, that Son’s quiet tenderness beats Marc’s overt masculinity any day, I agree, but not because of what she writes. The narrative allows neither man much of an inner life, so the contrast feels superficial and set up–Son has a gentle character, whereas Marc has a job and an outlook. No contest, there.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Overpaid, Oversexed, and Over Here: A Historical Artifact


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“It is always impolite to criticize your hosts; it is militarily stupid to criticize your allies.”

This aphorism is merely one of many revealing nuggets in a reprint I ran across of a U.S. War Department pamphlet from 1942, called Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain. Whoever wrote it had a keen wit, a sympathetic but clear-eyed view of the British, and subscribed to more than a couple widely held prejudices of the time. He (I strongly suspect male authorship) had also either intuited or experienced the young American soldier’s propensity to brag, which is why the text continually skewers the notion that the GI is a hero simply for crossing the Atlantic and bailing out his clumsy British cousins.




The Instructions are meant, then, to caution against blundering into a social or political minefield through lack of empathy or understanding, thereby threatening the Anglo-American alliance, one ill-considered confrontation at a time. Covering everything from food (or lack of it) to the wage disparity between British and American soldiers to explanations of pounds, shillings, and pence, the pamphlet consistently warns against making assumptions based on appearances.

Some observations seem minor, yet are astute and thoughtful at heart, and you can imagine how ignorance might have led to hurtful or humiliating remarks. For instance, we’re told that London has no skyscrapers not because British architects couldn’t design them, but because the city was built on swampland. The shabbiness or disrepair visible in clothing, buildings, or public transportation results not from carelessness or lack of pride but from the way finite resources are funneled to the war effort.

Other observations have to do with manners or misperceptions. Where an American spectator at a ballgame might yell, “Take him out!” at a player who fails to perform to expectations, that’s bad form in Britain. The proper response is “Good try.” (I like that one.) Beer is brewed at below-peacetime strength “but can still make a man’s tongue wag at both ends.” (I like that one too.) Women in uniform aren’t ornaments but worthy contributors: “When you see a girl in khaki or air-force blue with a bit of ribbon on her tunic–remember she didn’t get it for knitting more socks than anyone else in Ipswich.” What’s interesting here, though, is that, from what I’ve read, British men were no more likely than Americans to accord women their due and were probably even less so.

The crucial point, however, is that Instructions for American Servicemen repeatedly emphasizes that the American soldier is there to destroy a common enemy, not to clean up a mess that Britain made. The author acknowledges that Britain lost the first couple of rounds, but so did the United States; and the soldier would do well to “remember how long the British alone held Hitler off without any help from anyone.” Consequently, the populace has taken a beating, having lost sixty thousand deaths to German bombing alone. “There are housewives in aprons and youngsters in knee pants . . . who have lived through more high explosives . . . than many soldiers saw . . . in the last war.”

But to characterize the British as victims would have done them a disservice and encouraged pity instead of sympathy and respect. Rather, the author points to their toughness and worthiness as an ally. The text pays due tribute to the celebrated determination to remain cheerful under fire and further underlines the intent to pay back the enemy for what he’s done. Don’t be fooled by tendencies to be soft-spoken or polite, the pamphlet says: “The English language didn’t spread across the oceans and over the mountains and jungles and swamps of the world because these people were panty-waists.” Such were the mores of 1942, and the assumptions of what it meant to be masculine.

The nitty-gritty, though, comes in a brief section dealing with how to behave among people who have less money than you do. Don’t be flashy, don’t rub it in, and, if you wish to befriend a British soldier, don’t belittle his army or “swipe his girl.” These warnings are downright prescient, for the following years led to a British complaint that their American allies were “oversexed, overpaid, and over here.” No doubt this summation contained a world of stories; how could it have been otherwise?

I’d be curious if the British government ever published a similar pamphlet about their American visitors and, if so, what it said.

Not So Puritanical As That: The House of Hawthorne


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Review: The House of Hawthorne, by Erika Robuck
New American Library, 2015 402 pp. $26

Sophia Peabody has received a most unconventional upbringing for an early nineteenth-century woman, even for one born into Massachusetts intellectual circles. Her poor health has much to do with this. Sophia gets crippling migraines from random noises, commotion, or even by expending effort to concentrate–a pity, because she’s a gifted artist. Yet, on certain days, attempting to draw or paint bring on attacks that leave her bed-ridden. Her mother assumes that Sophy must give up all thought of marrying, because, if childbirth didn’t kill her, the work of keeping home and husband would. Consequently, she must devote her life to art and avoid any excitement other than what may be found in her sketchpad and books–only the appropriate sort, of course.

Fat chance. Sent to the reputedly healthful climate of Cuba with her sister, Mary, also of frail health, Sophy finds heat of more than one kind. Nature feels unleashed, more vividly savage, and the colors and marvels of the landscape stir her sensibilities as an artist and a person beginning to realize that she’d like to widen her experience. Living among the plantation gentry, the family entertains neighbors of their social class, who impress Sophy with their manners and bearing. But the slavery that supports these people and, by extension, her sister and herself, is always close at hand, and the revulsion Sophy feels for it, and the sympathy for the slaves, tells her that Cuba is no place for her. In a way, this comes as a wrench, because she’s formed an attraction for a plantation owner’s son, a shy, modest young man who seems to hate the system as much as she does. Nevertheless, the Peabody sisters return to Massachusetts.

Matthew Brady's photograph of Nathaniel Hawthorne, taken during the 1860s, not long before the author's death (Courtesy Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons)

Matthew Brady’s photograph of Nathaniel Hawthorne, taken during the 1860s, not long before the author’s death (Courtesy Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons)

Enter Nathaniel Hawthorne; talk about a thunderclap. They first meet in the company of Sophy’s sister, Elizabeth, who wants him for herself:

When I enter, Hawthorne’s eyes meet mine, and he rises. By the holy angels, I feel my soul at once aflame and reaching through my breast toward him. I falter, and he is at my arm, leading me to the sofa. I try to ignore the heat–the fire of our first joining–and lean back once I am seated. I tear my eyes from his to look at Elizabeth, and I see a pain in her face that makes me wish I had stayed in my room.

Thus begins a lengthy courtship of two people burning for one another, and I mean, they can’t wait to tear each other’s clothes off–except that they do wait, and for years. The House of Hawthorne is a charming novel, and this section is my favorite. Sophy must outwit her jealous sister and prod her intended to tell his family they’re engaged, something he’s extremely loath to do–and he has his reasons. Nathaniel and she must struggle to restrain passions that are positively transcendental. The future author of The Scarlet Letter tries hard not to be a Puritan and succeeds to a larger extent than his reputation might suggest.

I like the writing, which is simple and direct, much like the narrative itself. Notable characters from the Hawthornes’ literary circles, both in Massachusetts and abroad, play roles–Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, and the British poets Browning, for example. But none come fully alive, perhaps because Robuck never grants any more than a thumbnail sketch, generally a familiar one. Emerson is cold and pompous. Thoreau prefers his own company to that of society. Melville is a needy pain in the neck.

As with these characters, Robuck fails to make full use of the themes she introduces. Sophy’s artistic life before and after marriage makes the point, echoed by two characters and the woman herself, that she’s sacrificed to Hawthorne and his career what she might have achieved. It’s not that he discourages her art–far from it–it’s that she doesn’t have the time. But there sits the feminist argument, mentioned and mulled over a little but unfortunately not developed. Likewise, though the Hawthornes discuss slavery and feel deeply about it, especially Sophy, they take no stand, because they oppose war as the means to end it. But this resolution seems unsatisfying, particularly since their siblings, abolitionists all, were mad at them for it, as were, no doubt, their famous friends. I’d have also wanted more thoughtfulness about death, which strikes frequently during the narrative and causes the Hawthornes much grief. Again, they mention it, consider it, and utter a notion or two, but they don’t get down and grapple with it. They save the grappling for each other.

That’s not bad, just less than it could have been. The House of Hawthorne is a nice book, only lighter in impact than it could be.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Bloody Pastures: The Black Snow


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Review: The Black Snow, by Paul Lynch
Little, Brown, 2014. 264 pp. $25

It’s 1945, and the Second World War is in its final, convulsive months, but in county Donegal, Irish country folk have their own violent conflicts to think about. The barn belonging to Barnabas Kane, an up-and-coming farmer, has burned, killing forty-three head of cattle and a handyman, Matthew Peoples. The fires have hardly cooled before the whisperings begin: Barnabas sent Matthew into the barn and was therefore responsible for his death. But no charges have been filed, and no one really knows what happened.

Glengesh Pass, county Donegal, northwest Ireland (Courtesy Jon Sullivan via Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Glengesh Pass, county Donegal, northwest Ireland (Courtesy Jon Sullivan via Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Nevertheless, Baba Peoples, the late man’s crazy widow, believes Barnabas killed her husband, and that the Kanes owe her compensation. She even goes so far as to point out that Eskra, Barnabas’s wife, has brought “foreign ways” to the village; Eskra keeps bees, for example. What else would you expect from a woman born in America? For that matter, villagers hostile to the Kanes–which, by now, is most of them–remind one another that Barnabas came from America too, forgetting that he was born in Donegal, emigrated, and returned with Eskra as his bride. It’s a brilliant stroke on Lynch’s part, showing how quickly superstition and prejudice prevent any reasonable assessment of the tragedy and turn it into an occult act perpetrated by evil, so-called outsiders.

Consequently, Lynch gets remarkably far with a deceptively simple premise, and he’s not done. Not only does Barnabas privately wonder whether he did, in fact, send Matthew to his death, he’s quick to notice who among his neighbors failed to help quell the flames and to suspect that the fire resulted from arson. (A diary kept by his teenaged son, Billy, suggests that Barnabas may be right, though not for the reasons he believes.) True or not, however, his paranoid fantasies mirror what the villagers say about him, and his deep, angry depression makes him both impossible to live with and incapable of repairing the barn–for awhile, anyway. So nobody in The Black Snow gets off lightly, even when they deserve sympathy; the novel explores a complex moral problem, with no easy answers.

I also admire the prose, which, at its best, is poetic.

The plough still in the tapered field, poised with the lean of an animal in the moment before attack, its teeth bared waiting to tear at the neck of the earth, but it sat with a dog’s patience through days of raw cold and then rain and he had not the strength to go back to it.

However, though I like this passage, there are others I find self-consciously ornate. Lynch is much too fond of fragments, and though the one above works, they don’t always. Further, as I read phrases like “the damask of puzzlement on her face,” I’m puzzled too, enough to pull me out of the narrative. Or I read “That rain came with a venomous slant to cut a man wide open,” and I’m stopped again, wondering why Lynch needs venom on top of cutting someone apart.

And that’s the problem with The Black Snow–it’s over the top. Barnabas Kane (Cain?) eventually gets out of bed and rebuilds his barn, putting his faith in a fresh start. However, the setbacks come pretty hard afterward, and though I applaud these instances of “no; and furthermore,” I don’t believe them, especially when it comes to further violence from Billy and, of all people, Eskra. It feels strange to write this, for I’m one to criticize characters granted redemption they haven’t earned. In such cases, I’m tempted to ascribe that to a desire to appease the reader, a goal often (but not always) more common to commercial rather than literary fiction. But with The Black Snow, the most literary novel I could imagine, I find myself criticizing a narrative that refuses to grant redemption to characters who’ve plainly earned it, dealing out further punishment that’s frankly incredible. Go figure.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

The First 1800 Words: A Glimpse of My New Novel


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Today, I’m offering a peek at my new historical novel, tentatively titled Curtain, inspired partly by Colm Toíbín’s fine book, Nora Webster. If you care to comment, I’d be happy to know whether what I’ve written here would tempt you to read more.

It’s April 1937, and Jeff Messer has missed the funeral of his closest friend, Broadway playwright Brendan Moore, by staying too long in Europe. Back in New York, Jeff apologizes, but Anna, Brendan’s widow, is too hurt to listen, and she’s furious that her sixteen-year-old daughter, Rosemary, takes Jeff’s side and tortures her at every opportunity. But Rosemary is convinced that her beloved father’s last play is the only thing that stands between the Moores and the relief line, and that Jeff, who directed all of Dad’s hits, must stage this one. However, no one knows that the play evokes a secret from a terrible chapter in Jeff’s life that may even get him killed.
Can these people find it in their hearts to see the others’ pain and grief–and is the play the thing to make it happen?

Chapter One

Anna was out, talking to the lawyer about Dad’s will, and would be gone an hour or two, easy. It was Friday morning, and Rosemary would return to school Monday, wearing this same black dress, most likely. Now was the time, before routine trapped her.
She ventured toward her parents’ bedroom and stopped, as if the heavy, white door, open a crack, were warning her to take care. She’d have to want to widen that passageway, an act of commission.
Rosemary reached toward the cut-glass doorknob, whose facets had used to make her imagine an immense diamond, too big to wear, only to draw back. She pictured faces challenging her in hurt or anger, voices calling her a hypocrite. Not just Anna, but her aunts and uncles, even her friends, anyone whose questions she’d ever rebuffed to protect a secret. This was her parents’ private place. Anna didn’t come into her room without permission, certainly not to snoop when Rosemary wasn’t there. The girl knew that because nothing had ever been disturbed, whether on her desk, in or atop her bureau, or anywhere else. So she’d never trespass the other way. Except that Dad’s legacy was a special case and maybe their best chance to stay off relief. And she, Rosemary, seemed to be the only one to recognize this vital fact. She grasped the doorknob and pushed gently, making sure to note the precise angle the door had made.
The phone rang in the living room. Rosemary ignored it.
Anna had stopped wearing perfume, so the room no longer smelled like lilac. In fact, aside from the ghost of Dad’s Camels, fainter and fainter over time, the only odor came from cabbage cooking upstairs, a scent Rosemary loathed. Cabbage was cheap, so she didn’t hold it against the Bartons, who were struggling, like so many. But she wrinkled her nose just the same, and it struck her: Aren’t we struggling too? No cabbage had shown up yet, but if the rest of 1937 was like the first few months. . . .
She shook her head violently, because she had a job to do, which didn’t include feeling sorry for herself, and stepped into the room. Just crossing that boundary made her hold her breath, as if she expected Anna to leap from the closet and say, “I got you, you little sneak.”
The phone continued to ring. It happened so often these days, like a tired song that repeated the same note over and over until you wanted to scream.
The closet remained closed, and nobody leaped anywhere. Emboldened, Rosemary went further, stood directly beneath the globe light fixture that hung over the foot of the double bed with its pale blue bedspread. The bed she’d been conceived in, most likely.
What a creepy thought. She’d been having thoughts like that recently, imagining her parents creating her. She hoped it didn’t mean she was perverted, wondering about stuff like that. But she couldn’t help it. Had they enjoyed it? Equally? Or had it hurt, for Anna? Something told Rosemary it hadn’t, but still, Anna had never gotten pregnant again. Rosemary would have liked a younger sibling, preferably a brother who’d be sweet and adoring and vulnerable and look up to her. Maybe Anna had wanted another child too. Both she and Dad had come from large families, so having only one child themselves was very different for them. Though the condolence visit from her aunts and uncles had proven having siblings was a hit-and-miss thing. God, what if she’d had a little brother like Uncle Timothy? Disgusting.
The phone stopped ringing, thank God. Now she could think better.
Where did they keep the script? More exactly, where had Dad left it, and had Anna moved it? If she hadn’t moved it, maybe . . .
Dad’s Underwood, covered up like a canary’s empty cage, stood on a table in the corner, out of the way. Tears came. Never again would he tap-tap the keys at the kitchen table, humming and chuckling as he wrote, while a cigarette burned in the ashtray.
Quietly, as if Anna could hear–as if Dad could see and disapprove–she slid open his top dresser drawer and listened carefully for a key in the front door. If Anna caught her, Rosemary could always say she was looking for memories of Dad, and she probably wouldn’t even have to fake her tears, which would silence Anna like a piece of tape over her mouth. But all she saw were Dad’s shirts, laundered, pressed, and folded, like he was about to wear them, his handkerchiefs, and cuff links. His watch. A packet of letters, tied with ribbon. Rosemary reached out, then mentally slapped her hand. She didn’t have time for that, and besides, reading them would really be snooping. She might feel guilty for that, and she didn’t want to do anything she couldn’t excuse. Though Anna had behaved really badly.
In Rosemary’s head, Anna had been Anna, and not Mom, for exactly eighty-three days, and counting. She’d officially rechristened her the night she’d overheard Anna say out loud that Dad was dying, the first Rosemary had heard of it. She’d never been so angry, felt so betrayed. Her mother had tried to keep her ignorant of the most important thing that had ever happened in their family. How could Anna, a woman who prided herself on the straight dope, who preached honesty, honesty, honesty, lie like that? It was a stupid lie, too, the kind that would show itself sooner or later. But that hadn’t stopped Anna, whose round, angelic face and light, blue eyes could fool you, and the eggshell chin that would crack before the mouth ever uttered a falsehood.
But the very next day, Rosemary had gone to Dad and asked him, point-blank. He’d looked at her with the dark eyes that had already started to shrink into his head, like there was nothing left in life for him to see, and said softly, in a voice that had begun to dry up like old leaves, “Yes. How it hurts to leave you and Mom.”
That conversation, only a few words, was the most precious she’d ever had–and Anna, in her role as Mom, had tried to prevent it.
The memory of Dad’s confession brought more tears. Rosemary turned away so that she wouldn’t cry into his top dresser drawer. Dad would forever be Dad, but, in her own mind, the only place that was truly safe, Mom had become Anna. Out loud, Rosemary would give her what she required, but in her head, she was a rebel, a resister. Anna had forfeited the right to her intimate name because she’d done something so hurtful, so ordinary, so goddamned stupid and insensitive. And to top it off, she’d treated Rosemary, who was sixteen already, like a little kid who wouldn’t know how to handle the news.
She slammed the first drawer shut and flung open the second. Anna might catch her, but she wouldn’t be lied to.
The phone began to ring again. Honestly.
But the second drawer proved no more enlightening, nor the third and last. A great weight seemed to want to drag her lungs down past her waist, as if they’d fail, like Dad’s. She struggled for air, caught her breath gratefully. What if he’d locked it up somewhere, maybe in his filing cabinet? She closed the drawer, checked to see whether she’d moved anything, and dove into the closet.
No luck. The cabinet was locked as tight as J. P. Morgan’s bank vault. Nothing on the floor, either, or wedged onto a shelf up top.
Anna’s dresser? Rosemary drew back. Rummaging there would be like slapping the empress’s face before the court. If she had to, she’d do it, but only as a last resort.
Wait. One more place. She dropped to one knee and lifted the bedspread, fighting off visions of her parents coupling. The sight of the boxes, neatly labeled in dark pencil, made her close her eyes and exhale in triumph. Left, Right; Pinch Me, I’m Dreaming; One of Us Is Crazy; Barrel Over Niagara; Marry Soon, and Often; and the others–the whole works, literally. She sneezed, twice–the boxes were dusty–and found the newest, which wasn’t dusty at all. Interchangeable Parts. Hallelujah.
The phone stopped again.
Rosemary looked over her shoulder, as if she hadn’t already broken the law and could redeem herself, should Anna surprise her. But Anna wasn’t there, nor did her key enter the lock. Rosemary slipped the looseleaf binder out, replaced the box and the bedspread, and spent precious seconds deciding exactly how far open to leave the door. Then she raced into the hallway, and grabbed her coat and hat from the rack.
Call first? Yes. She had to be sure. She went to the living room, lifted the receiver quickly, before anyone else could call, and dialed. Some people, like the Bartons upstairs, had given up their phones to save money. If Anna and Rosemary had to do that, this call might be–but Rosemary wouldn’t think of that.
“Hello?” A man’s voice. The wrong man; the greasy roommate, Harvey.
“Hello, Mr. Mandel. This is Rosemary Moore.” She thought she heard a woman’s voice in the background, a complaint.
“Oh. Oh, yes. I’m sorry about your dad.” He rushed his words, breathing hard.
Rosemary shuddered. Poor Jeff, having to live with someone like that. Mr. Mandel was a teacher, no less. He must have called in sick just to–“Thank you. Is Jeff there?”
“No, he’s out. He said he was going to Chas Parker’s office, and then to Max’s.” Out of the way, so Harvey and his lady friend could have privacy. Did Harvey ever leave so that Jeff could . . .?
“Thanks. Good-bye.” She hung up before he could reply and reentered the hallway.
Chas Parker. Jeff was already arranging to direct another play. Rosemary wasn’t a moment too soon.
As she turned the doorknob, she stopped short. Those boxes under the bed were her siblings. They couldn’t adore anybody, and you couldn’t talk to them or play with them or button their coats for them, and they wouldn’t look up to you. But they were Dad’s children, not Anna’s. There was something to be said for that. And maybe she could care for her latest and last sibling, in a way.
The phone started ringing. The other night, when Anna was in a particularly foul mood, she’d suggested that she and Rosemary stand in Sheridan Square, handing out postcards that read: “I knew/didn’t know Brendan/Mr. Moore well, and/but I’m sorry for your loss. I promise not to waste your time and patience by calling/coming over/reciting righteous platitudes. Signed, _________.”
Dad would have been the first to laugh. Rosemary closed the door firmly on the ringing phone.


© Larry Zuckerman, 2016

Deadly Silences: The Longest Night


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Review: The Longest Night, by Andria Williams
Random House, 2016. 383 pp. $27

As Chekhov famously observed, a playwright mustn’t put a loaded rifle on stage if he doesn’t plan on having a character fire it. This novel, about a poorly engineered nuclear reactor, obeys the master’s dictum, to good effect. Unfortunately, however, the narrative pulls out that age-old device too many times, using characters as the rifles that you know will go off.


Navy personnel learn how to use a prototype of a nuclear-powered submarine in the 1950s (Courtesy Idaho National Laboratory via

Navy personnel learn how to use a prototype of a nuclear-powered submarine in the 1950s (Courtesy Idaho National Laboratory via

It’s 1959, and army Specialist Paul Collier has been assigned to a team in Idaho Falls, Idaho, that operates a nuclear reactor, among the country’s first. In moving his wife, Nat, and two young daughters to this remote town, Paul expects his family to mold their lives to his. He’s the breadwinner, subject to strict Army routine, which, to his mind, means that Nat must tend the kids, manage their home, and make sure that nothing and no one get in his way. To some extent, Nat agrees. It’s the 1950s, before American feminism had coalesced into a recognizable movement; these people, in their early twenties, have never come in contact with a differing outlook; and since their livelihood depends on Paul’s career, his demands seem reasonable, in a way.

However, there’s much more to it, and this is where The Longest Night does best. Paul, a self-willed, emotionally guarded man with a painful past, keeps his own counsel no matter what the cost. He’s not about to tell Nat that the reactor has obvious design flaws that make it unsafe, or that his immediate superiors cover up the problems for fear that the army won’t want to hear about them and will punish the whistleblower. Nor will Paul tell Nat that Master Sergeant Richards, his drunken, lecherous boss, has been hazing him and making sexual remarks about her, all of which Paul must swallow to be a good soldier. For her part, Nat, though more open than her husband, keeps quiet about how lonely she is, having no friends in a remote army town, and how bored to be chained to the house with two young children while Paul drives the car to work. She says nothing, either, about the persecution she suffers from Jeannie Richards, the master sergeant’s wife, a sadist in a beehive hairdo.

Even without reading the entire jacket flap–this one is further evidence that you should always stop after the first paragraph or so–the reader knows that the reactor will go haywire. There’s just too much talk and worry about how unsafe it is, and how nobody really knows how the infernal machine will behave. But to me, the best parts of The Longest Night depend on the tension of what can’t be said. Williams excels at depicting the pain of silence, whether in the social gatherings where Jeannie Richards cuts apart the other army wives or the growing estrangement between Nat and Paul, which seems menacing, even tragic. Two good people deserve each other yet can’t manage to talk.

But having set up this cold war, Williams has to bring matters to a head, which is where The Longest Night falls short. On an excursion with her children, Nat meets Esrom, who bails them out of a sticky situation, and you just know he’ll show up again. Why? Because too much has been made of Nat’s poor driving, and Esrom, born to a ranch, is also an auto mechanic. That tell-tale harbinger would pass muster if Esrom weren’t cardboard–gentler than Paul, sensitive, an excellent listener who amuses Nat’s daughters with tales of coyotes, snakes, and horses, who comes around to clean the gutters without being asked, and predictably falls for Nat but would never, ever say or do anything untoward.

Since Paul’s away on tour in Greenland, the community comes down hard on Nat for flouting the army wife’s code of honor. (How he got to Greenland makes sense, sort of; how Williams brings an antagonist across is path seems too convenient by half.) But in Nat’s mind, she’s done nothing wrong, because she hasn’t cheated on Paul, strictly speaking. Esrom and she just spend time together. She laments that you’re never supposed to admit that you’re bored or feel longing or want anything other than what everyone else has. Williams makes this point well. She brilliantly conveys the small-minded, backbiting world of the army base, with its petty cabals and viciousness. Yet how can Nat, who’s had a rocky sexual history, be surprised at their reaction, which, after all, has some justice to it?

I think Williams has tried to play this tricky situation both ways. She wants Nat to be completely sympathetic and Esrom to be pure, because that puts the community in the worst possible light. But Williams has already made that point, so by portraying Esrom as a total innocent, a portrait that Nat accepts, Williams has put no obstacles in their way. That, in turn, makes The Longest Night entirely too predictable and less genuine than it should be.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

The Man Who Saw It All: Dictator


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Review: Dictator: A Novel, by Robert Harris
Knopf, 2015. 385 pp.

This third book in a trilogy about Marcus Tullius Cicero has much going for it, even as it suffers pitfalls typical of biographical fiction on a grand scale. The subject is certainly worthy. Ancient Rome produced few men whose range of accomplishment rivaled Cicero’s–senator, consul, historian, philosopher, legal advocate, and, not least, the most gifted orator of an age that valued public speaking. What’s more, and perhaps what makes him such a tempting fictional protagonist, he knew everyone who was anybody, as friend, enemy, or (often) both.

Bust of Cicero from the first century CE, Capitoline Museums, Rome (Courtesy glauco92 via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Bust of Cicero from the first century CE, Capitoline Museums, Rome (Courtesy glauco92 via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

As this volume begins, Cicero’s in exile from Rome. That would humiliate anyone but especially a man used to power who believes he has upheld its dearest principles. His marriage, never particularly happy, seems more like a tenuous accommodation than a supportive partnership, while his beloved daughter, Tullia, is suffering her own marital problems. By promising to support Julius Caesar, a political enemy, Cicero regains the right to return to Rome. But as this experienced, adroit politician knows too well, such a bargain brings as many dangers as possibilities, just as he recognizes that Caesar is a man ill accustomed to hearing the word no. In other words, Cicero has little choice.

Therein hangs a tale, and a fine, often familiar one it is–the tense rivalry between Caesar and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey), which devolves into civil war; Caesar’s dictatorship; what, thanks to Shakespeare, may be the most infamous assassination in history; and its aftermath. But to read Dictator makes you realize how much Shakespeare compressed, edited, changed, or simply invented. And knowledge of the history in no way dampens appreciation of the book. One reason I admire Harris’s novels is his skill at making tense drama out of well-known events, as with Aquarius Rising (about Pompeii) or, my favorite, An Officer and a Spy (about the Dreyfus Affair). Among other things, that implies a talent for characterizing famous people, and here, they include the two Caesars, Julius and Octavian, as charismatic as they’re cold and calculating.

But that’s not where the narrative comes from. Rather, Dictator unfolds through the eyes of Tiro, Cicero’s secretary, a real historical figure, incidentally. (He invented a system of shorthand to keep up with Cicero’s prolific dictation and coined abbreviations [such as i.e., e.g.] still in use. At first a slave, Tiro was a friend and adviser even before Cicero freed him, and in these pages, his enforced proximity has lent him a keen eye for politics and for his master’s virtues and flaws. Most important, perhaps, he has infinite patience, much needed during Cicero’s rages, such as when the great man chafes at his banishment from Rome:

He should have heeded the example of Socrates, who said that death was preferable to exile. Yes, he should have killed himself! He snatched up a knife from the dining table. He would kill himself! I said nothing. I didn’t take the threat seriously. He couldn’t stand the sight of others’ blood, let alone his own. All his life he had tried to avoid military expeditions, the games, public executions, funerals–anything that might remind him of mortality.

However, Tiro’s narration, witty and ironic as it often is, keeps raising the unspoken question: What about the man telling the story? Who is he, really, aside from being Cicero’s scribe and shadow? Like any devoted chronicler, Tiro puts himself in the background, but this isn’t always satisfying. Harris has him refer to himself as invisible, meaning nondescript, but I’m not buying. Tiro may be the conveniently overlooked witness to great events, but he’s a character too, and deserves more. It’s as if Cicero and the Caesars use up so much oxygen, there isn’t enough to go around, which leaves the minor characters less able to live and breathe. Conversely, though Cicero enjoys being the center of Roman attention, he has his humdrum years, like anybody else, so that Dictator occasionally drags, despite Harris’s prodigious storytelling skills.

The novel offers other pleasures, though, not least a window on Roman politics: endless cabals, corruption, backstabbing (literal and figurative), and reversals, whose participants have long memories and sharp tongues. That Cicero, an intellectual for the ages, would attempt to make sense of this cesspool in which he waded is quite understandable, and his analyses sound as cogent today as they did two thousand years ago. For instance, when he asks, “Must the existence of standing armies and the influx of inconceivable wealth inevitably destroy our democratic system?” you can’t help thinking how prescient the ancient philosopher was. Likewise, when he supposes that a human can only prepare for death by leading a morally good life (essentially by following the golden mean), I find myself having to stop to reflect on that.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.