Thursday, February 22, 2018

LOUISA by Louisa Thomas (biography)

The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams

What admiration I have for Louisa Catherine Adams, the wife of President John Quincy Adams. She was born in 1775 in London to an American father and English mother.  It wasn’t until she was older that she discovered that at the time of her birth, her parents weren’t married, though to all outward appearances they were.  It was a lively household of beautiful young girls, who grew up privileged, though their father was ever in debt.  They were accomplished, intelligent and trained in all the social graces.  Their father, Joshua Johnson was a buyer for an American firm in Maryland.  Because of his unsettled financial situation, at various times the family lived in France, England and America, and the girls were multi-lingual.

The first time Louisa met John Quincy Adams, she thought he looked ridiculous because of his unfashionable dress, his stiff manner and his poor social graces. He was a young diplomat in training and was equally as well-traveled as Louisa. Despite all, he was an attractive man, and if she wasn’t sure she loved him when they became engaged, she was sure she was in love by the time they married.

Louisa was a brilliant prolific writer and because of this we have a good record of her life and that of her husband.  She always kept a diary, was an excellent letter writer, and even wrote plays and fiction. She grew into an ambitious woman who was probably responsible for her husband being elected President.  In the early days of the American republic, politics were conducted undercover.  Men did not promote themselves or appeal directly to the public, and John Quincy considered his work to be a public duty.  The real power to pick a President was in the Republican Congressional Caucus.  Until 1824 the popular vote wasn’t even counted.  As today, Washington was full of gossip and jockeying for power.  But, politics as we know it usually happened during social occasions.  Since John Quincy was uninterested in playing the political game, and Louisa was socially adept, it became her task to make sure the right people attended their dinners and parties.

Before all this Washington life, however, Louisa had plenty of training, having lived all over the world as the wife of a diplomat. One of her favorite postings was in Berlin, Germany.  Her harrowing adventures fleeing across Europe from St. Petersburg to Paris in 1815, are worthy of a book unto itself.  John Quincy had left her alone in Petersburg with their son Charles as he was taking part in the Treaty of Ghent.  As Napoleon’s troops advanced on Russia, she made the decision to leave.  She arrived safely after many close calls under the roughest of conditions.  This trip changed her into a more independent self-confident woman as well as changed her relationship with her husband.

Louisa suffered numerous miscarriages as women did in those days, and she suffered from severe bouts of illness, some of them probably psychosomatic.  Life with John Quincy was difficult.  He was rigid, demanding and often absent.  He rarely consulted Louisa on major decisions, family and public.  It was a difficult life for an intelligent woman who was fully capable of being the equal of her husband.  Thus, she turned to writing and poured her soul into her diaries.  Despite his difficult personality, Louisa and John Quincy had a passionate marriage.  She also came to love and admire his parents, John and Abigail Adams, and kept up a warm correspondence with them, especially John.

Louisa died in 1852.  She did not have an easy life, and she lived through a most interesting time in history.  She wrote two autobiographical books.  One called “Record of a Life” detailed the early years of her marriage. The other she called “The Adventures of a Nobody.”  She was far from that.  And even though she was not recognized for all her accomplishments while she lived, as the author states, “She left us a voice.”

I greatly enjoyed this book and highly recommend it to all readers.  It would be an excellent choice for a book reading group.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

THE NINTH HOUR by Alice McDermott (fiction)

As I began this book, I was put in mind of the PBS program, Call the Midwife, but I wasn’t long into the book before it became a much darker tale.  The nuns in Midwife deal with the beginning of life, the nuns living in post World War I Brooklyn are dealing daily with death.  This is not a story of nuns abusing poor women, rather it is a story of the sacrifices good, often naive and dedicated women made by choosing a vocation with a Catholic order called Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor.  It is a complex novel of Irish Catholic life in the years after the war, and the effects of guilt and shame which were inevitably a part of Catholic life at that time.

“The Ninth Hour” opens with the suicide of a depressed subway worker named Jim.  He leaves behind a pregnant wife named Annie.  A wonderful, pragmatic and savvy nun, Sr. St. Savior arrives on the scene, takes over and does her best to have Jim buried in the Church (in those days, Catholic burial was denied suicides).  Though she fails in her effort to do this, she saves Annie’s life and that of the daughter Annie bore by finding her a place as a laundress in the convent.  The story then becomes a bildungsroman of Sally, Annie’s daughter.  It then follows her into mid-life and old age.

Sally grew into a happy, albeit, sheltered child who was fondly watched over by the kindly Sr. Illuminata, head laundress, while her mother worked.  There is plenty of interesting detail about life in the convent in this section.  When Sally mistakenly thinks she has the calling to become a nun, the wise Sr. Lucy who is well acquainted with life outside the convent, arranges for Sally to accompany the nursing nuns on their daily rounds, often tending to the sordid details of the sick and ill.  Sally soon discovers the nursing life,attending to bodily needs, is not for her.  Still unworldly, she decides to enter a novitiate of a more contemplative order.  Luckily the reader is not bound for another convent because, when Sally boards a train for Chicago, she meets up with a host of interesting characters who soon divest her of her money.  They are a cast worthy of a Dickens novel, especially one large, sweaty, vulgar woman who  is saved from being a caricature by McDermott’s fine descriptive writing. This was only part of Sally’s maturing.  She returns home to another secret which we readers already knew.  

The only part of the book that didn’t work for me, was that of hearing some of Sally’s story through the eyes of her adult children.  I would have preferred the story to just be told without their intrusion into the novel.

McDermott writes so well, the story holds the readers interest right to the end of the novel and Sally’s life.  She manages to give us happy along with the grim.  She presents a frank portrayal of convent life in a realistic manner. The nuns we meet are rounded human beings with flaws alongside their self-sacrifice.  McDermott shows us the effect that the belief in the need for atonement and indulgences can have on the formation of character.

I recommend this novel to all readers.  It is a well constructed and well written story of life in a Brooklyn that is long past.

Sunday, February 18, 2018


This important book was a massive undertaking for the writer and the reader; it is hard to know where to begin and what to emphasize.  It is about the same size as "War and Peace” and it takes a dedicated reader to absorb all the information the author has compiled.  I put it down and took it up over the course of two months.  Slezkine has set out to write a history of the rise of Bolshevism and the history of the Russian Revolution by structuring the story around one building in Moscow, the massive apartment house which became known as the House on the Embankment.

The section of the book I enjoyed the most was reading about the early years of the Bolshevik movement.  Like much revolutionary thought, it began with young intellectuals, members of the class which eventually was overthrown as the movement took hold, and morphed into something entirely different.  The writings of Karl Marx were not particularly popular in Russia at the turn of the century, rather the early meetings took a millenarian cultish approach, religious in their Utopian idealism.  Early leaders of the movement hoped to inspire the oppressed peasant population to revolt against the Tzar and ruling classes, but it wasn’t until the equally oppressed working classes in the cities became fired up that Bolshevism took hold.  By that time the party was in the hands of Lenin, Sverdlov, and eventually Stalin.

After World War I, Bolshevik philosophy began to spread to other countries, but never took hold the way it did in Russia.  Five years after Lenin claimed the name USSR, the building of the House on the Embankment began. It was a time of rapid industrialization.   Boris Iofan, the architect, planned a building that eventually held 505 apartments and housed over two thousand tenants.  A muddy island area of Moscow, known as “the swamp” and home to a number of factories, was chosen for his grand design.  I found it amazing that this large labyrinthine building housed so many things that we think of as modern today. The building was completed in 1931.  It was like a town within a building.  Besides apartments, there was a theater, a cinema, workout areas and a pool, restaurants, childcare services, a health clinic, hairdressers and barbers.  It married convenience with housing and was a wonder of its age or any age.  As Bolshevism morphed into the totalitarian communist party which ruled the country through the 30s and onward, the apartments were reserved for the top members of the bureaucracy, the party elites, even Khrushchev lived there when he was a rising star.

During Stalin’s years of thuggish dictatorship, the occupants were cushioned and isolated from the reality of the outside world and the starving masses during Stalin’s failing 5 year plans. And then during the long years of political purges, reality hit home and the tenants came and went in the madness of a revolving door of arrests and power changes.  During those years, some 800 occupants disappeared, arrested during the night, never to be seen again.

Eventually World War II and the German invasions took their toll, the building survived, but its occupants were not so exclusive.  Then after the fall of the Soviet Union near the turn of the century, the House of Government had a make over and the newly rich moved in renovating the apartments and turning them into condominiums.  It is wondrous that so much history survived and some families are still decedents of original tenants.  It is still a desirable place to live and many apartments look down on a square that is famous for demonstrations.

The wealth of information and breath of research in this book makes it one of a kind.  It is an important book but not one read for pleasure.  It is a great resource and an important addition to one’s library.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

SING, UNBURIED,SING by Jesmyn Ward (fiction)

In my opinion, Jesmyn Ward is one of the most gifted writers in America.  This is the second book of hers to have won the National Book Award for fiction. It was also listed as one of the NY Times ten best books of 2017.  “Sing, Unburied, Sing” is beautifully written, poetic in its cadences and in the voices of the characters who live along the Gulf Coast of Mississippi.  As in her other two books, the people of the coast are crushingly poor and disadvantaged.  The setting is the same town of Bois Sauvage that was in her first book, “Savage the Bones.”

The story is told in three distinct voices, each narrating in the first person.  The most realistic and touchable of the three is 13 year old Jojo whose white father, Michael, is in an upstate penitentiary, known as Parchman Farm.  The inmates are expected to work on the land under very tough conditions.  Jojo’s black mother is an addict who neglects her children, though she isn’t devoid of feeling, but she has lost the touch of how to be a mother.  Jojo and his three year old sister, Kayla, live with their grandparents, Pop and Mam who is dying of cancer.

Michael is about to be paroled from jail and Leonie, the children’s mother, gets it into her head that she wants to take the children on a road trip up state to the penitentiary to pick up their father.  What a road trip it is.  Along for the ride is Leoni’s friend, Misty who adds to the stress by insisting they take a side trip into the back woods to pick up some drugs.  Throughout the trip, the children are forgotten occupants of the back seat, neglected and unfed.  Jojo does his best to care for Kayla, who responds only to him, and day and night will not leave his side.

Michael’s release adds confusion to the return trip, and with him comes the ghostly presence of a 12 year old boy named Richie who had been sentenced for stealing meat many years before.  Richie has some connection with Pop who became his protector when he was sentenced to the same prison.

The characters are all beautifully drawn and their relationships and hard lives all too real.  The lost souls who inhabit the novel along with the family are drawn from elements of voodoo and a mixture of African folklore and Catholic beliefs.  This requires the reader to step out of reality and understand how the real and supernatural are entwined.  I found this difficult, and I did not enjoy the book as much as I did Ward’s previous novels.  I still recommend the book for a look at the ongoing problems of poverty and race relations in the United States, and especially for Ward’s brilliant writing.

Monday, January 29, 2018

VINEGAR GIRL by Anne Tyler (fiction)

This book is part of Vintage’s Hogarth Shakespeare Project, in which a group of prominent authors have reimagined various Shakespeare’s plays and characters and placed them in our contemporary world.  Some of the the other authors  in the series are Jo Nesbo, Gillian Flynn Jeanette Winterson, Margaret Atwood, Edward St. Aubyn and a number of other equally talented writers.

Vinegar Girl is a take off on “The Taming of the Shrew.”  One would imagine this would be a difficult one as relationships between men and women are very different in our modern world. Or, are they?  In Anne Tyler’s capable hands, it would seem not so.

Tyler sets her story in Baltimore in a small neighborhood not far from Johns Hopkins where Louis Battista, an eccentric biologist, has his laboratory.  Louis is working on some kind of breakthrough project, and he is about to lose his top research assistant, a Russian named Pyotr, because his visa has run out.

To say the Battista family is eccentric is putting it mildly.  His elder daughter, Katherine, is a 29 year old elementary teacher, who freely admits she finds children irritating.  The younger daughter, Bunny, an augmentative 15 year old has decided to become a vegan. They all inhabit separate planets, circling around each other in a household that is out of control.  The house is messy and unkempt with papers and books everywhere.  Katherine prepares one giant meal on the weekend that lasts the week.  It is always the same meal, called meat mash.  In desperation to keep his assistant, Louis has an idea.  You have probably guessed what this idea is—marry off Katherine to Pyotr.  But not so fast, Katherine is cranky, somewhat odd, outspoken and certainly not interested in saving her father’s job by marrying man who to her seems unconventional and slightly strange, not to mention his choice of clothes.  On the other hand, the Battista household is so crazy that marriage could be the way out.

Luckily for the reader Anne Tyler has written a hilarious story peopled with oddballs.  Every little detail lends itself to the plot of the story, and she is able to stay true to Shakespeare’s comedy by writing a book that is fun, clever, light-hearted and enjoyable.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

MOTHER NIGHT by Kurt Vonnegut (fiction)

I wouldn’t dare to review a book by the great Kurt Vonnegut, but if you are a Vonnegut fan and have not read this book (his third novel), you should give it a try.  It is different than his other books.  Or maybe I shouldn’t say that, as each of Vonnegut’s books are highly imaginative and individual, though each deals with a moral conundrum.

The story opens with an introduction by the author who states that he has been asked to edit the memoir of one, Howard Campbell, Jr. (this, of course, is also part of the fiction).  Vonnegut says in the introduction, “This is the only story of mine whose moral I know.  We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

We meet Howard Campbell as he awaits trial as a war criminal, in prison in Jerusalem. He is guarded by an 18 year old with whom he has struck up a friendship, and thus we gradually learn his story.  Campbell is an unassuming fellow, a playwright living in Germany, married to an actress, Helga, whom he adores.  Helga is the daughter of the Berlin Chief of Police.  The U.S. Secret Service, the OSS, decides that Campbell, because of his connections, is the perfect person to pass on information to them.  After he is recruited, he begins working with Nazi radio, broadcasting propaganda, moving in high German political circles, and passing on information to the Americans, most that he isn’t privy to.  As the Allied and Russian troops push into Berlin, Campbell’s wife disappears and is presumed dead.

We next meet Campbell 15 years later, living in Greenwich Village.  He leads a quiet, non-political life.  His chief friend is an artist living in the same building, who we later learn is working for the KGB.  It seems that both the Russians and the Israelis are interested in finding him.  Campbell seems to be a naif in the midst of a slapstick operation to capture him.  The operation is mixed in with a kooky group of American Nazis, called the Iron Guards, who regard Campbell as a great hero, and arrive on the scene ready to lionize him. The characters in this group are satirically hysterical.

Meanwhile, Campbell can’t seem to make contact with the officer who recruited him, and he is suffering from the weight of the responsibly for sending Jews to their death through his propaganda. What good is the information he helped the Americans with, if evil was caused by his actions?  This is his moral conundrum.  He makes the decision to surrender to the Israelis. The absurdity of his situation haunts him as he languishes in jail, baring his soul to his young jailer.

I read somewhere that this book was only issued in paperback, and turned out quickly as Vonnegut needed money for his growing family.  I think the book is a gem, and even these many years later, is filled with food for thought.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

A LEGACY OF SPIES by John Le Carre (fiction)

I am a faithful fan of John Le Carre’s writing and was excited to learn he had another book out.  I can hardly believe that at 86, he is still turning out such brilliantly written novels.  If you haven’t read him before, this is not the book to start with.  Rather, it is last in a long line of espionage stories beginning with “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” with the unlikely-looking master spy, George Smiley, who brought us through the Cold War era right up to present day.

George Smiley has a relatively small roll in this current book, but nevertheless, he is there behind the wings still mentoring Peter Guillam, the narrator, now like Smiley, an old man. Guillam, long retired from the British Secret Service, has been commanded to London from his farm in Brittany to answer for irregularities in an old 1960s operation, known as Operation Windfall, in what was then East Berlin.  It seems that the children of two members of the Service, who lost their lives when trying to cross over the Berlin Wall, are threatening to bring the matter before Parliament.  Smiley has gone underground, and it is left to Guillam to sift through the murky past, digging up old dossiers and finding comrades, many of whom have passed on.  Memories are stirred up, most involving Alec Leamas, the covert spy who was working to find out information in the files of the dreaded East German Stasi.

Le Carre’s books don’t have a lot of fireworks and torture scenes as many thrillers do, rather they are filled with the dark angst of the characters who work in dangerous situations, often moles and double agents, who must come to grips with the shady business they are in. Le Carre is a master at creating suspense in a quiet way that is more bone chilling than any action packed movie you might see.

If you are a fan, you will not be disappointed in this latest book.  I highly recommend it for those readers already familiar with the many brilliantly written books by Le Carre. I hope it is not the last we have heard of George Smiley.