Dreams of Freedom: The Parisian

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Review: The Parisian, by Isabella Hammad
Grove, 2019. 551 pp. $27

In 1914, young Midhat Kamal leaves Constantinople, where he’s graduated from a French lycée, for Montpellier, France, to study medicine. The relocation has two objects: to keep Midhat from being conscripted into the Ottoman army, therefore safe from the world war; and to become someone of whom his father can be proud. Father will demand his reckoning, that’s certain, for he’s a wealthy cloth merchant from Nablus, Ottoman Palestine, and a firm believer in traditional, hierarchical values.

Midhat, however, doesn’t quite see his father’s tyranny, despite having suffered from it his entire life. Such thoughts are unthinkable. But once in France, everything is thinkable, even sayable, often doable, and Midhat’s inner romantic flowers like a tree blooming in the desert. He falls in love with Jeanette, the daughter of the professor who offers him room and board, and maybe she returns his feelings. Subsequently, he goes to Paris, where he continues his studies, talks politics with Palestinian nationalists, and becomes a dandy and a seducer.

However, his inevitable return to Nablus shocks him to the core, and as he dutifully tries to reconstruct his life according to the traditions he’s been taught, he mourns his lost freedom, even as he makes the best of his circumstances. That’s what a man must do, he decides, fulfill his role as a proper son and heir to the family business.

Midhat’s inner struggle mirrors that of the Palestinian fight for independence. Hammad shows how his trust in French values gets crushed by colonial realities. But she also portrays the nationalists falling prey to rigid codes of honor that lead to self-destruction, when “flexibility,” as one broader-minded politician remarks, would be saner. So it is that telling one man’s fictional story depicts history.

Nevertheless, this brilliant, impressive novel — a debut, no less — almost sinks in the first hundred and fifty pages. The Montpellier narrative develops slowly, and Midhat’s character seems maddeningly concrete and restrained. To be fair, that’s culturally appropriate, and Hammad does a terrific job portraying her protagonist’s confusion as to language, customs, and behavior, suffering with an obsessive, overdeveloped sense of what people must think of him. Every failure, whether or not it really is a failure, feels like dishonor to Midhat. Still, though you understand why — especially in retrospect, which means those first hundred and fifty pages can feel like wandering — you want the young man to let looser within himself, even if no one else sees it.

But if you read The Parisian, which I highly recommend, don’t sink with the narrative. Tread water, and you’ll be rewarded. Once our hero connects with politics, then returns to Nablus, his character opens. Don’t be put off by the untranslated Arabic, usually honorifics or exclamations, which you don’t need to understand, nor the occasional French phrase. The plot, though simple, wields a very sharp blade, and I defy you to put the novel aside.

Palestinian women march against the British Mandate, Jerusalem, 1930; photographer unknown. The sign urges “no negotiations, no dialogue” until the Mandate ends (courtesy British Mandate Jerusalemites Photo Library, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Ninety-nine percent of jacket blurbs are fluff and nonsense, but here’s an exception — Zadie Smith astutely remarks that Hammad has written in the tradition of Flaubert and Stendhal. Though I’m not yet ready to place Hammad on that exalted shelf, I see the comparison, visible in the filigree approach to the characters’ interactions as well as the prose, as in this scene with Jeanette in Montpellier:

A strong red blush started at her chest and covered her face. It was Midhat’s turn to look at the garden. He wanted to give her privacy, but he was also waiting for the grin to subside from his own cheeks. Outside, the clouds turned the grass grey, and the tree at the far end was animated with wind. When he looked back, Jeanette was still red, staring at her lap. Neither of them said anything. Something in Midhat’s chest began leaping wildly about as a fly zoomed into the silence and browsed the coffee things. Together they watched the fly inspecting the corner of a sugar cube, and then sitting on the silver rim, rubbing its hands together. He made a decision to look at her again. He found, to his amazement, that he was unable.

Also like the two nineteenth-century masters, Hammad has written a biography of one character standing for a time and place — think of Emma Bovary, Julien Sorel in Red and Black, or Fabrizio del Dongo in The Charterhouse of Parma. (If you don’t know these novels, grab a glass of wine, a comfortable chair, and dig in.) This is the most successful kind of biographical novel, I think, true to history yet unconstrained by having to set down the complete historical record, which doesn’t always squeeze into a fictional frame. Another similarity is that all three protagonists, like Midhat, have been educated in romantic ideals, which leave them unprepared for the cruelties of real life.

But perhaps the most compelling aspect of The Parisian, as with these predecessors, is Hammad’s authority as a storyteller: This is how it happened.

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

Two Shot: The Girls in the Picture

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Review: The Girls in the Picture, by Melanie Benjamin
Delacorte, 2018. 415 pp. $28

When would-be artist Frances Marion flees San Francisco for Los Angeles in 1914, the last thing she anticipates is falling in with the crowd of hopefuls knocking on the doors of those who produce “flickers,” as movies are popularly called. But Frances catches the bug too, and in a great stroke of luck, gains an introduction to Mary Pickford, the most beloved actress in America, who also has artistic control over her films. Luckier still, Mary and Frances take to one another on sight, and a famous partnership begins. With Marion as her screenwriter, Pickford will go on to even more dazzling heights, playing young girls in her famous blond curls and rosebud lips.

Director Marshall Neilan (far left), star Mary Pickford, screenwriter Frances Marion, September 1917, photographer unknown (courtesy Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Frances’s first look at Hollywood may be idealized, but it sets the stage for what follows:

Far from being a barren cow town, the place seemed drenched in color, crimson and gold and purple and white flowers spilling out of every window box, embracing every streetlamp. I couldn’t stop gazing at the tall pepper trees, with their languid, lacy green leaves dripping with clusters of red berries, providing much-needed shade from a sun that rarely found a cloud behind which to hide — something this native San Franciscan thought she would never find tiresome. Orange groves dominated the mountainous landscape that sloped to the beckoning sea, the air so perfumed that I immediately craved the sweet, tangy fruit that I’d never really cared for before.

Naturally, La-La Land can’t remain milk and honey forever, with such large egos, salaries, and audiences in which to bask. And that is by no means the whole picture. As women at the peaks of their respective professions, Pickford and Marion become easy targets for jealousy and slander, with others waiting — hoping — for their fall, men in particular. The two friends often talk about such conniving men and vow they’ll never let a man come between them. Famous last words.

However, it’s not just the man-child Douglas Fairbanks who splits the friendship when he marries Mary, and whose powers of jealous manipulation know no limit. Within a few years, the advent of talkies overturns the silent screen, casting out those performers who can’t cope in the new medium (or are perceived incapable of it). Further, as producers consolidate their power—and the industry—they retain artistic control and subjugate their hired talent, women especially.

This history both enlivens The Girls in the Picture and undoes it. I like the behind-the-scenes action that describes how movies are made, for both the silent and sound eras. I’m also glad to learn how the studio system today got its start, and the how its rampant sexism has very old roots. But these events and themes, significant though they are, fail here to make a novel.

The narrative, though talky enough, rests on simplistic characterizations that bounce between two poles instead of bumping up against edges. In almost any scene, the reader may ask, will Mary be the girl who never had a proper childhood, and who grasps at her popularity to prop her up? Or will the generous, sensitive adult shine through for her friend Frances, with whom she shares an artistic outlook and ardent feminist sensibilities? As facts and viewpoints repeat themselves, the conflict plays out from A to B and back.

The story also seems too simple. Love happens at first sight, and so does hatred. Conflict lasts a few paragraphs, and just when you think, Now, we’re getting somewhere, the rift resolves somehow. Benjamin offers the “no,” but not the “furthermore,” maybe because the story must move on to the next script, the next year. Round about page 260, the threat that Fairbanks poses to the women’s friendship emerges, and for a while, the trouble percolates and deepens. But for some reason, Frances, who’s capable of holding her own with just about anybody, can never manage with Mary. Benjamin, who says that she has made up all the dialogue, seems unable to let her stars go.

Some of these problems may have to do with biographical fiction and its constraints, but there are other, more successful approaches to Hollywood, as with The Chaperone, about Louise Brooks, a lesser silent film star. The Girls in the Picture aspires to a more panoramic view, which is fine; in a different framework, that might work. But despite a large cast, this novel stays a two shot, Pickford and Marion, which poses limits, and their long internal monologues feel predictable and repetitive, especially Pickford’s. As for color, the cameos the jacket promises are similarly flat, except for that of the entirely self-absorbed lech, Louis B. Mayer.

The Girls in the Picture has whetted my interest in reading about early Hollywood history, so I’ll say that. If that’s what you’re looking for, maybe this book is for you; but I can’t recommend it as a novel.

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

More Fun Than a Barrel of Surrealists: Costalegre

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Review: Costalegre, by Courtney Maum
Tin House, 2019. 227 pp. $20

In 1937, Leonora Calaway gathers artists known as “degenerates” in Hitlerian judgment and spirits them to Costalegre, a (fictional) resort in the Mexican jungle. Her guests include the reigning Surrealists of Europe, whose work she champions (and often buys), and with whom she’s had love affairs, past or ongoing. The heat and insects are crushing, egos combust, and no conversation takes place without vicious backbiting. Leonora’s immune, so long as everyone does what she says; and since she’s paying, they usually do.

You can imagine, then, what this nest of vipers would feel like to Lara, Leonora’s unloved, unlooked-after fifteen-year-old daughter. Lara Calaway shows artistic talent and gets the chance to practice it, but what she wants most is to be seen by her mother, understood even a little, to be put somewhere she can grow and mature, which Costalegre isn’t.

Leonora’s closely based on Peggy Guggenheim, the wealthy collector who left her stamp on modern art, and who, in fact, protected artists from persecution while behaving abominably in most other respects. Her long-suffering daughter, Pegeen, supplied the model for Lara, and it’s her voice that tells this harrowing story, in diary entries.

The Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice, as seen from the Grand Canal (courtesy G. Lanting via Wikimedia Commons)

And voice means everything here. I admire how Maum has crafted Lara’s — naïve yet painfully knowing, resigned yet yearning for what she can’t have. She refuses to be overawed by the “loonies,” as she calls her mother’s artist friends, so she perceives their arrogance, selfishness, greed, and lack of empathy for anyone else. Yet she so longs for something to happen, something interesting, that at first, she hopes for better, even as she has her doubts:

All the other loonies are coming on a boat, and I spent a lot of time scanning the ocean for them. For a pirate ship. That’s what they should be on, really, a lively pirate ship. Mum told me the artists would be held for ages at customs and that it was silly to look for them when I could play a game with the ones we already had, but it didn’t seem that far-fetched to imagine one of the Spaniards floating calmly on a canvas or flying on some swan.

But her angry pessimism lies just below the surface. “No one in this world cares about anyone but themselves, especially not these artists, the most famous, the most stupid, the worst in all the world.” She’s also often clear-eyed about Leonora, who “doesn’t know what to do with other women except try to dress like them.”

One of the artists, who doesn’t live in the house but keeps a small ranch where he also has his studio, may be Lara’s salvation, she hopes, someone with whom to have a genuine conversation. This potential connection drives the story and creates a surprising amount of tension, further proof that plot points aren’t necessarily what make you turn the pages. However, I dislike the way Maum enacts this hope of Lara’s, and therefore the resolution of the novel, which leaves me wanting more, as unsatisfied as Lara has been.

My other objection has to do with history. I don’t mind that Maum has brought her artists to Mexico instead of New York, where Guggenheim actually installed them, as the author notes in an afterword. I think that this novel benefits from an exotic, incomprehensible setting, parallel in Lara’s mind to the richness all around that she can’t touch, and which isn’t meant for her. Rather, what rings false is how the characters keep expecting war to break out in Europe any day; it’s too early for ominous predictions. The artists discuss the Anschluss, Hitler’s union between Germany and Austria, illegal by the treaty that ended the First World War, and though that’s frightening, it’s still only March 1938. The dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, for instance, hadn’t happened yet, though it would shortly.

You can readily understand why these artists had to leave Spain or Germany, but to have them expect that the shooting will begin any moment makes them either seers or paranoid, which undermines what they’ve said. Further, they offer no reasons except for their fears, which nobody doubts or demands an explanation for. Yet Maum is particular about the timing. I think it far more probable that these artists worry about what their native lands have become, and that they can’t go home again, maybe ever. War sounds too drastic, almost theatrical, which does them, and the narrative, no service.

Still, I enjoyed reading Costalegre, and if you like eccentric characters — loonies — you’ll have your fill here.

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

Revenge Tragedy: After the War

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Review: After the War, by Hervé Le Corre
Translated from the French by Sam Taylor
Europa, 2019. 533 pp. $19

A man sits, tied up, being tortured to divulge who killed a certain figure from the Bordeaux crime world. This figure, like most of his brethren during the late 1950s — like the police beating him up — collaborated with the Germans during the recent world war and profited from it. In fact, few profited as handsomely as Albert Darlac, the commissaire de police, and the man leading the interrogation. Jewels, art, and furniture taken from dispossessed Jews made him rich, and without a trace of compunction or remorse, he can say that his department would cease to exist if such activities disqualified a man from serving the law.

Maurice Poupon, member of the Legion of Honor and illustrious politician in the Gaullist government, 1967. As a Bordeaux police official during World War II, he had arranged for the deportation of more than 1600 Jews; during the Algerian War for independence, he allegedly tortured rebel prisoners (courtesy Archives municipales de Toulouse via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Meanwhile, Daniel, a twenty-year-old garage mechanic who lost his parents at Auschwitz, has terrible trouble understanding the ache inside him. His adoptive parents, former Resistance members who rescued him from a rooftop the day his biological parents were arrested, have protected him and given him a warm home. Their daughter, Irène, also adopted, is the only person to whom Daniel can show any vulnerability. But Daniel fears that this happy life — happy, considering his circumstances — will soon end. He’s due to receive his draft notice and fight in Algeria, in a colonial war his friends and family staunchly oppose.

Darlac and Daniel, victim and perpetrator, don’t meet for quite a while. The contrasts between them provide the context and the moral theme of this extraordinary, exceedingly violent narrative. Darlac scorns everything remotely resembling compassion or kindness as weakness that deserves to be crushed. As one old-time acquaintance says, “Other people die and you’re the one that smells like a rotting carcass.” Daniel, however, wishes he could make himself more accessible emotionally — not that he entirely realizes this, a superb stroke of characterization — and often hides inside movie images, which he’s constantly imagining in his daily life. But you know that once he reaches Algeria, his struggles to become fully human will only get more desperate.

Connecting the two, a figure from their pasts has come to Bordeaux to settle old scores. How Darlac reacts in particular provides much of the story, and a searing one it is. Any author can follow Raymond Chandler’s advice and have a man with a gun enter the scene to prevent tension from flagging. Le Corre has plenty of men with guns, but he doesn’t have to worry about the tension. It’s not just that stuff happens, because if it were only that, a hyperactive plot would do as well. No; he grounds every scene so thoroughly in the physical that you can’t help feeling that his narrative is happening all around you, and that you’re involved by turning the pages. Whether it’s the Bordeaux docks or the Algerian desert, Le Corre knows every inch of his territory, and how it feels to be there, so you do too.

But even that wouldn’t work if he didn’t also put you firmly in his narrators’ heads, as with this introduction to Daniel, which also happens to portray the port of Bordeaux:

He stops suddenly in front of the gates of the port, his bicycle between his legs, and remains there, stunned. With his balaclava and his sheepskin coat with the collar turned up and the mittens on his hands gripping the handle bars, only his eyes are visible. He observes the blaring traffic of cars and trucks, intoxicated by the din they make, grinding his teeth as axles groan and bodies shake over the large cobblestones… He feels the dull rumble in his legs as a train trundles slowly past endless rows of warehouses, accompanied on foot by a man swinging a lantern in his hand. The city buzzes and trembles in his flesh.

Many people will find After the War a bloody business — and so it is, because the title’s ironic. Wars merge, so that there’s no apparent space between one and the next, no aftermath, because even if the calendar says that a few years have passed, in men’s minds, they haven’t. Darlac is also a complete monster, so he’s hard to take. But it was that kind of monster who made the French portion of the Holocaust possible, a fact conveniently ignored in France. Rather, I’m more troubled by the way female characters seem to exist largely in a man’s perception, not necessarily as sex objects, though in Darlac’s case, that’s all they are, but without readily definable aspirations of their own. They’re invariably the kindest characters, but they’re not fully rendered, not like the men.

Nevertheless, if you like noir, After the War is as noir as it gets, a first-rate thriller by an author who understands how to put it all together.

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

Love Quadrilateral: Watershed

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Review: Watershed, by Mark Barr
Hub City Press, 2019. 303 pp. $26

Early one morning, Claire Dixon wakes because of painful symptoms of gonorrhea, which she could only have contracted from her husband, Travis. In a fury, she bundles their two children into the old car and sets off for her mother’s house nearby. The older woman, none too pleased to be roused, nor to have house guests, acts as though these burdens can only be redeemed through the arduous chores she has planned for her eleven-year-old grandson.

What a thrilling opening; you see Claire’s predicament instantly and can’t help put yourself in her place. And since this is sometime around 1936 or 1937 in small-town, western Tennessee near Memphis, hard times elicit hardness in people, while gossip about the Dixons will surely become cheap entertainment. It’s a hardscrabble place, Dawsonville, and the only hope for the future is the dam under construction that will provide the area with electricity for the first time. Not everyone greets the project with enthusiasm, either, for the federal government is the builder, which evokes fears of taxes, intrusion, or invasion by city slickers.

Initial architect’s rendering of the Watts Bar Dam on the Tennessee River, ca. 1939 (courtesy Tennessee Valley Authority via Wikimedia Commons)

One such newcomer is Nathan McReaken, a young electrical engineer from Memphis, but the way people treat him, he might as well hail from the dark side of the moon. He’s trying to catch on with the dam’s engineering office, no easy task, despite his impressive resume. Nathan’s granted a ninety-day tryout, reaching the end of which will require cleverness, talent, and political skills.

Like a bunch of other out-of-towners, he rents a room in a boardinghouse run by Claire’s Aunt Irma. But unlike them, he has a keener, more nuanced sense of his surroundings, and he’s far more sophisticated intellectually and emotionally, though that’s not hard. Unfortunately, he’s taken professional risks in the past, and he’s running from a mistake for which he’s been unfairly blamed. So, like Claire, he fears for his reputation too.

The 1930s and the New Deal fascinate me, so I was primed for this book. I also love the engineering office politics, easily the strongest scenes in the novel, and the cutthroat competition just to have a paying job, which brilliantly captures the desperation of the Thirties. The descriptions of the construction process and the difficulties of supply and labor offer a glimpse of how remarkable the effort was — and when you realize that this dam was only one of thousands of government projects, you have to be awed. On a more human scale, Nathan’s voice represents the passion and professionalism behind the project. He comes through loud and clear, expressing his acuity but also his loneliness:

Downstairs someone coughed. He pictured the boardinghouse as if it were a child’s miniature, each of them a doll in its own compartment. There was only the cough, the scuff of a shoe, the sudden voice raised in laughter, that told you someone was really there. A half-dozen lives playing out in parallel.

However, Watershed’s parts don’t cohere. I don’t know how Claire decides, as she does, to make something better of herself; at times, she hardly seems the unsophisticated “country girl,” as described, so what’s she changing from? She’s certainly not her mother’s daughter, and I feel I know the older woman better, what her standards are, what she cares about most, and why. Three men want Claire, or act as though they do, but, other than her prettiness, I can’t say what motivates them. Nathan, who believes he’s meant for her, just “feels right” in her presence. Okay, but the three men spend so much time maneuvering around each other, I begin to think Claire’s more an object of desire than a full person. I will say that after Travis, a complete boor, practically a thug — why did she marry him, again? — Claire’s next romantic choice makes sense.

But mostly, Watershed loses its way after its powerful start. Many chapters, though too brief to digress far and well written, have nothing to do with the story and exist only to show attitudes toward the dam and the electricity that will come. Though I like these themes, I wish Barr had confined them to scenes in which his protagonists appear, which would have felt natural, not shoehorned in. Without revealing too much, I note that these favorite themes loom so large at the end, they confuse the resolution, which zips by. Twice, I looked back after finishing the book to be sure I hadn’t missed a brief chapter or section. I’m still puzzled.

Watershed reached print through the generosity of Charles Frazier, whose Cold Mountain Fund dedicates itself to bringing southern writers into print. I applaud this mission with fervor and look forward to future offerings. However, I urge the powers behind Watershed, whether the fund or the publisher, to devote more resources to proofreading. Watershed suffers from many errors, not just dropped letters or words, some of which make the dialogue hard to follow.

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

Feeling Good: Lies in White Dresses

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Review: Lies in White Dresses, by Sofia Grant
Morrow, 2019. 359 pp. $17

In 1952, two lifelong friends, Francie and Vi, take a train from San Francisco to Reno, where they plan to take advantage of Nevada’s six-week residency law to obtain divorces. They’ve each got grown children, and neither has a frivolous bone in her body, so you sense a story lurking there, especially since both believe that divorce is a shame and a scandal. But there’s more. Their trip has hardly begun when they adopt June, a younger woman with a four-year-old daughter in tow. Turns out June has a vengeful, abusive husband she’s running from, and she’s practically penniless. So Vi and Francie bring her to the hotel where they’re staying.

Reno, Nevada, in 2007 (courtesy Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

It’s a wonderful premise, and it might have propelled an equally satisfying narrative. However, that doesn’t happen. Since I’ve beaten up this kind of book often enough, I’d like to use this example to talk about happy endings and how they get that way. There’s a difference between a happy ending for a character who’s struggled to get there and a happy ending that feels like an arranged marriage. Guess which kind we’re discussing here.

As usual, it doesn’t have to be that way. Lies in White Dresses builds on the wreckage of three marriages, laden with conflict, past and potential, fuel for explosive confrontation. To her credit, Grant doesn’t shy away from ugly scenes. She also gives Vi and Francie a few unpleasant character traits, not least of which are social prejudices they refuse to surrender. So far, so good.

Even better, Vi’s soon-to-be ex-husband is a real doozy, a philandering, controlling egotist who believes money means (and moves) everything. Throw in Francie’s daughter, Alice, born with one leg shorter than the other, which fills Mama with shame, despite herself. I like that complex reaction, which, again, has potential for depth; what’s more, Alice, no fool, resents her mother’s unspoken attitude. But the saddest person is June, who’d apologize to the air for breathing it, if she could. She says she wants to escape her violent husband, but she doesn’t really believe she can. I agree.

The way I’ve described Lies in White Dresses, you might expect real, agonizing conflicts that have exacted a terrible cost. Instead, you get fantasy. Not legitimate fantasy, mind you, in which the protagonist has gone on a quest that tests her, body and soul, or a farce or satire or frothy entertainment in which you know nothing’s real from the start. No; here, you’re shown how people have deeply hurt each other, just as in real life. But there’s no resolution or much attempt at one, only quick-and-easy apologies to calm the roiled waters, which no one dares disturb afterward.

However, something has to take the place of the unsaid and unfelt, in this case two expendable secondary characters, inserted to set up an ending that’s completely far-fetched, yet utterly predictable. One of these secondary characters is the twelve-year-old daughter of the hotel keeper, cute at first but an obnoxious busybody at heart, until she redeems herself by playing the heroine. Even less likely, Grant has the girl absorb wisdom from a whore with a heart of gold. Ironically, this mentor is actually the only honest, appealing character in the novel, having escaped the Lysol bath that’s cleansed everyone else; she freely avows her appetites, whether sexual, monetary, or alimentary.

By now, the narrative has required a tower of scaffolding and construction of faux walls to keep out fickle life. That’s how June can absorb a few months of kindness and develop the self-esteem that’s been beaten out of her for more than twenty years. Or how Alice, the half-loved child, turns out more mature and psychologically whole than her mother. Happens all the time, right?

As a novelist, I understand the urge to protect my characters. We’re all guilty of doing so, and I’m sure that’s hampered me. We love our characters and don’t want to hurt them too badly or have the reader dislike them, because that feels personal, like a slap. You’ve insulted my baby! But overprotective authors hurt their fiction, just as overprotective parents hurt their kids. And if I see antagonists trip over their shoelaces or the good guys cruise into happily-ever-after as though it’s a fast-food joint open 24/7, I get cranky. (In case you didn’t notice.) I’ll accept a happy ending, sure, if it’s earned. But people have to sweat, fight themselves and their conflicts, and if they come out wiser, well, hand them the bunch of roses. Lies in White Dresses doesn’t earn that right, though. Consequently, I wonder how anyone can actually feel good after the feel-good ending. It’s too much like real life, yet also not enough.

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

That These Dead Shall Not Have Died in Vain: The Impeachers

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Review: The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation, by Brenda Wineapple
Random House, 2019. 514 pp. $32

In May 1868, the Senate voted to acquit President Andrew Johnson of the articles of impeachment Congress had brought against him. Tradition holds that the acquittal quashed a vicious vendetta against a defeated, broken Confederacy, and that Johnson stood for the peaceful reconciliation that the postwar nation needed above all. But as Wineapple proves in this riveting, brilliantly researched (and timely) book, tradition is plain wrong.

Rather, the former Confederacy was doing its best to continue the war by other means — killing thousands of African-Americans and Union sympathizers; attempting to regain control of governmental and administrative bodies denied them as former rebels; and clamoring for readmission to the Union without having to fulfill the conditions set forth by Congress in the Reconstruction Acts. As for Andrew Johnson, he tacitly encouraged the racial violence; vetoed the Reconstruction Acts, though he knew he’d be overridden; refused to convene Congress for months, during which he pardoned former Confederates by the carload; restated his ironclad belief that the country “was for white men”; and removed Unionist Reconstruction officials, putting former planters in their place.

Rep. Thaddeus Stevens, Pennsylvania Republican, believed that Andrew Johnson had betrayed the Federal cause in the Civil War and those who’d died for it (courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Brady-Handy Photograph Collection, via Wikimedia Commons)

Consequently, when Thaddeus Stevens, Radical Republican power in the House, and Charles Sumner and Benjamin Wade, his Senate allies, moved for impeachment, theirs was no vendetta. They believed that Johnson had transgressed the constitutional separation of powers to serve a policy that rendered moot the sacrifices of the Civil War and promised further racial violence and political division. Their ideal — which is why they were called Radicals — was political equality for all Americans, especially the franchise, without which an unjust society would never heal or change.

Wineapple details how the effort to impeach came up short, and what that meant for the South and the country at large. She focuses on the combination of racism, self-interest, lack of principle, and political chicanery that shaped the Senate vote, including, almost certainly, outright bribery. The removal of a president unfit to serve (a characterization that even his allies would have agreed with) further stumbled because of the plaintiffs’ murky legal approach. But, as the author astutely mentions in her introduction, even the concept of impeachment was (and, presumably, is) hard to swallow, admitting as it does that our national myths of triumphant democracy need revision, and that we’re capable of electing dysfunctional leaders.

Consider, for instance, her description of Johnson’s leadership style:

Andrew Johnson was not a statesman. He was a man with a fear of losing ground, with a need to be recognized, with an obsession to be right, and when seeking revenge on enemies — or perceived enemies — he had to humiliate, harass, and hound them. Heedless of consequences, he baited Congress and bullied men, believing his enemies were enemies of the people. It was a convenient illusion.
Those closest to him were unsure of what he might do next.

If that summary rings any bells, no wonder. But are those impeachable offenses, then or now? Wineapple doesn’t speak of current politics, but she doesn’t have to. The correspondences are there, but, more importantly, so are the historical lessons. Even with a substantial Senate majority to work from, the impeachers failed — and not for want of passion or skill. Among the obstacles? Benjamin Wade was president pro tempore of the Senate, and since there was no vice president anymore, he’d take office if Johnson fell. And Wade, radical of Radicals, believed in votes for women as well as for African-Americans.

Nothing less than the nation’s soul was at stake, the ideals of liberty on which we pride ourselves. That alone would make a good story. But Wineapple also has the congressional leaders, Ulysses S Grant, Mark Twain, Frederick Douglass, and a host of other larger-than-life characters, any one of whom would make a fitting protagonist for a novel, let alone a player in a historical drama like this.

I wish that Wineapple had explained how Johnson was able to keep Congress from meeting for so many months. I also confess that the actual trial bored me, in parts, but only because the attorneys droned on so long that even the Senate galleries emptied, when tickets had once been so hard to come by. But otherwise, The Impeachers makes a thrilling narrative. Wineapple has researched her ground so thoroughly with private letters and archival papers that she seems to have listened in on public and private conversations from 150 years ago.

Read The Impeachers and be amazed. And, in case you’re interested, the current president pro tempore of the Senate, third in line for the presidency of these United States, is Orrin Hatch of Utah.

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

Women Without Men: A Single Thread

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Review: A Single Thread, by Tracy Chevalier
Viking, 2019. 318 pp. $27

Memories of the dead beset the house in Southhampton, England, where Violet Speedwell lives with her widowed mother. It’s 1932, sixteen years since Violet’s older brother was killed in the Great War, but to Mrs. Speedwell, it’s as though he died yesterday. She grieves him and her late husband to such lengths that she has no room in her heart for Violet, nor even for her other son, Tom, though he’s given her two grandchildren. In fact, Mrs. Speedwell is so unfailingly nasty, impossible to please, and entirely self-centered — talking nonstop of how she’s been put upon — that Violet comes to the end of a very long rope. She moves to Winchester, where she rents a room in a boardinghouse and obtains a transfer to a branch of the insurance company where she works as a typist.

Be it known that Violet is thirty-eight, lost her fiancé in the war, and has moved all of twelve miles. She’s one of many Englishwomen who remain “spinsters,” as they are called, with tacit or explicit disdain, the uncounted casualties of war. But her mother has never uttered a word of sympathy or condolence. And to no surprise, when Violet leaves, Mrs. Speedwell throws a fit worthy of King Lear and is not in the least mollified by her daughter’s weekly visits. Said pilgrimages, incidentally, cost train fare that Mum would never think to underwrite, a sacrifice because Violet’s job in Winchester covers the rent and little else. Even people who don’t know her well remark on how thin she looks; she never gets enough to eat. Freedom has its price.

Then too, the other “girls” she works with, younger, less conscientious, or empathic than herself, snub her, except when they want something. They live up to their employer’s prejudices by focusing on when and whom to marry, which means they would leave his freezing, inhospitable office and bequeath a mountain of untyped insurance contracts. Heavens! Just shows you can’t trust a girl.

Looking for a social outlet, Violet volunteers to embroider cushions for Winchester Cathedral. An unusual idea, perhaps, but she loves the cathedral, which puts her in mind of other desires:

Over the centuries others had carved heads into the choir stalls, or sculpted elaborate figures of saints from marble, or designed sturdy, memorable columns and arches, or fitted together colored glass for the windows: all glorious additions to a building whose existence was meant to make you raise your eyes to Heaven to thank God. Violet wanted to do what they had done. She was unlikely to have children now, so if she was to make a mark on the world, she would have to do so in another way. A kneeler was a stupid, tiny gesture, but there it was.

I have to confess that embroidery has never interested me, but Chevalier brings the craft to life, because she invests care in who the broderers are, the egos involved, and the power struggles that inevitably result. These women can be fierce in their loyalties and ostracism, especially if they sense behavior they believe improper. Nevertheless, within this vicious sewing circle, to which Violet recruits others, she finds purpose, friendships, a measure of confidence, and, through proximity, an attraction for a cathedral bellringer, a married man twenty years her senior. Heavens, indeed.

The high altar of Winchester Cathedral, Hampshire, as it appeared in 2014 (by permission of DAVID ILIFF, License: CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Chevalier has portrayed both the generosity and small-mindedness of English provincial life to a T. Another “quiet” novel, in other words, in which the author displays her well-known gift for characterization and deftly explores themes of gender roles and sexuality without earnestness. I particularly salute how she depicts women crushing other women, beating them down through social snobbery or selfishness, hurting the very people with whom they could make common cause. Without calling undue attention to the irony, Chevalier shows how Violet’s male boss exploits her, that brother Tom’s condescension and sexism undermine her, or that a man seems bent on stalking her–and still, other women find ways to cut her down, voicing the same attitudes that men do. Through that, Chevalier wants you to recognize how women often attack their sisters or others who represent their own interests, out of fear or envy.

Sometimes, quiet books speak loudly. This is one.

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

The Prince Who Could Not Speak Up: Lampedusa

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Review: Lampedusa, by Steven Price
FSG, 2019. 326 pp. $27

At age fifty-eight in 1955, Giuseppe di Tomasi learns that he has emphysema, and it’s incurable. Give up cigarettes, his doctor tells him. Eat less; exercise more. Follow that regimen, and you’ll have some years left.

But Giuseppe can’t; not because he’s stubborn or addicted to his ways, though he is. (He’s so stuck in his diffidence, he wrestles for months with how to tell his wife he’s dying.) Rather, he’s the prince of Lampedusa, the last of his line, and, like many Sicilians of his generation, he believes that the world in which he grew up has gone forever. So why stay in it? He bears no anger or ill will, only sadness for what has happened to his country since Mussolini took power, the ensuing war, and the striving but damaged Italy that has emerged. Is his acquiescence to his fate passivity or an act of suicide?

No. It’s an existential choice, a key part of which involves writing a book, a testament to leave behind. All his life, Giuseppe has loved literature but written nothing except an article or two. However, in his final months, he pens The Leopard, a novel about an aristocrat who witnesses the Risorgimento, the unification of Italy in the midnineteenth century, and realizes his world is dying.

Years ago, I read and thoroughly enjoyed The Leopard, as clear and penetrating a psychological study of a man, time, and place as you could ask for. Following its posthumous publication, the book became a runaway bestseller, the subject of a film directed by Luchino Visconti, and has earned at least a mention in discussions of great twentieth-century world literature. So when I saw that Price, the author of By Gaslight, a Victorian thriller par excellence, had written a biographical novel about Giuseppe di Tomasi, I had to read it.

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, a man shattered by the twentieth century (courtesy http://www.fondazionepiccolo.it/Xpiccolo/Area1/ITA/ITA/Static/personaggi/TomasiDiLampedusa.htm via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

I’ve come away impressed by Price’s artistic range and the way he’s rendered his subject as acutely as Giuseppe portrayed his Risorgimento prince. I also salute the courage to write about death, that singular event we all think about but dislike talking about or, heaven forfend, reading about in a novel. But as someone who has wondered what our world is coming to — and what, if anything I’ll leave behind when I depart it — I can tell you that Lampedusa speaks to me. It’s not only about literature and its creation; it is literature.

To be sure, the narrative is what publishing folk would call “quiet” (about as far a cry from By Gaslight as you can figure), but that leaves room for contemplation. Price brings across his protagonist’s withdrawn nature, his delicacy in not wishing to offend, the tremendous influence his mother had, especially after family tragedies robbed her of her natural vivaciousness, and the First World War, which left psychic wounds in Giuseppe that never healed.

Price is a gifted poet, and it shows in how he weighs every word, not overwhelming the reader with images but carefully selecting the right ones. For instance: “He was a man who had left middle age the way other men will exit a room, without a thought, as if he might go back any moment.” But, if you prefer descriptions of the Sicilian landscape or city life, there are plenty to choose from, like this one, of Palermo:

The narrow streets there were soft underfoot, the refuse and rotting fruit crushed by the crowds into a slippery grime. High up the stone walls the light would darken and then filter through the interstices of the iron balconies overflowing with potted plants in the criss-cross of laundry lines and Giuseppe would wind his way down to the market, unhurried, the crowds gradually increasing, the flatbed wagon standing with melons in tall stacks or long bolts of red and yellow cloth or gigantic silver fish laid out glistening in rows, their deep flat saucerlike eyes staring at the horrors of the world.

The only thing I dislike about Lampedusa concerns the character of Giuseppe’s wife, Alessandra, known as Licy. (She’s the only female psychoanalyst in Sicily, a fact that Price deploys only occasionally, with great care.) She’s fierce, domineering, slow to forgive, and Giuseppe lives in fear of her. I get that her remoteness offers part of her appeal to him, and how her controlled passion makes her interesting to someone who wishes to provoke it. But I’m not sure I understand how the bond between the two can be so strong and yet so distant.

Still, I admire Lampedusa, the kind of novel that leaves a deep, firm impression.

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

Hard Life Lessons: Dominicana

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Review: Dominicana, by Angie Cruz
Flatiron, 2019. 319 pp. $27

When Juan Ruiz marries Ana Canción, he takes her from Los Guayacanos, Dominican Republic, to New York City on New Year’s Day, 1965. That might be unremarkable, except that Ana is only fifteen, while he’s thirty-two and has been lusting after her for at least four years. Never mind that Ana doesn’t love him or that Juan wears his machismo like armor, with all that implies about his prerogatives, self-regard, and definition of marital duties. But he’s a hard worker, Ana’s mother believes, and a big thinker. Besides, what Ana wants doesn’t matter. Mamá plans to get off the island, escaping its poverty, dead-end future, and corrupt, leeching dictatorship. Ana will get free herself, then be her mother’s (and siblings’) ticket to New York. So that’s settled.

The central symbol of this engaging, heart-rending novel is Dominicana, the ceramic doll that Juan buys Ana at the Santo Domingo airport, and which Ana keeps in their apartment in Washington Heights, upper Manhattan. It’s the first and practically the last gift he buys her. Oh, he provides a few dresses, but nothing like the wardrobe she needs; just enough to look nice for him. Ana fixes his favorite Dominican foods — she’s an excellent cook — while he buys Chef Boyardee for her. And though he can go anywhere he wants, anytime, with anyone, let Juan find out that she’s walked to the corner store, and he’ll slap her face.

Though Cruz never calls attention to what the doll represents, it clearly stands in for her identity as a Dominican and her quick, brutal, much-too-early transition from childhood to womanhood in a strange, frightening city. The doll reminds Ana of who she is, and the family she’s left behind. Most important, Dominicana is Ana herself, for what is she to Juan but a faceless doll, a possession to use as he wills, or to show off to his friends? However, to Ana, Dominicana also has a practical purpose, as a hiding place for the money she manages to earn on the sly.

For Mamá, though she’s pimped her own daughter and been controlling, nasty, and cruelly withholding, has instilled one lesson in her Ana’s head. Smile at your husband and his friends, she says; be the perfect wife in all ways. But don’t forget to demand what you want, and to work around him to get something for yourself. As she has often told Ana, men can only perform like men “when women are doing everything. We’re invisible little workers so they can puff out their chests.”

That lesson saves Ana. It also prevents the novel from becoming a tale of unremitting masochism, a catalog of Juan’s bad behavior and his child bride’s helplessness, with no hope permitted (and no reason to keep reading). But Ana, though she gets burned a couple times trusting the wrong people, keeps looking for ways to grow. And when a coup erupts in the Dominican Republic–manipulated by the United States government, which sends troops–Juan leaves to try to secure his business interests on the island.

American G.I.’s in firefight in the Dominican while a child hides under a Jeep, May 1965 (United States Information Agency, courtesy National Archives and Records Administration, public domain)

That respite is what Ana’s been waiting for. She shows remarkable energy, spirit, and courage in seizing her chance, aided by Juan’s brother, César, who’s everything her husband is not. Yet though Dominicana is a shorter book than the number of pages suggests, Cruz is properly careful not to push the envelope too far. Ana remains young, scared, and confused about what she wants or can be allowed to want. There’s no Hollywood transformation, complete with shimmering images and everybody applauding at how she’s grown. Besides, she’s no fool; Juan won’t be gone forever.

I like how Cruz weaves external events into the narrative. The coup naturally commands Ana’s attention the most, but there’s also Malcolm X’s murder, the World’s Fair, baseball, and, in the background, Vietnam. To this ex-New Yorker, who lived six months in Washington Heights (though twenty years after the action here), the city sings a familiar song. Generally, Cruz avoids heavily descriptive passages, but this one shows Ana’s first unescorted view of her new home:

A cluster of wig-wearing and long-skirted mothers push strollers the size of shopping carts near the subway stop. Past the triangle on 170th Street, where the trees light up at dusk and people sit watching their children play until the night takes over. I try not to look at the eyes of anyone, just at the fire hydrants, the bus stops, the iron lampposts, the uneven sidewalks cracked in parts that have imprints of hands and boot soles. Pigeons eat from the soil moistened by the recent rain. Is it true that the sewer houses the devil, and that if I get near it, it will suck me in?

The story can be hard to follow at times, because of the very brief, episodic chapters, especially when thoughts and spoken words blend for want of quotation marks. I also want the narrative to linger longer at key emotional transitions toward the end. Even so, I strongly recommend you read Dominicana, a terrific book and a necessary, important story about what immigrant life is really like.

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