During our sheltering from the COVID-19 virus, reading can provide a meaningful escape from the constant hand washing, planning our grocery orders and listening to the news. The following are some of my recent immersions in fiction and non-fiction.
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones is an extraordinary novel about an upwardly mobile young black man, Roy, his artistic and spirited young wife, Celestial, and their longtime friend and neighbor, Andre. The style relies initially on an exchange of letters between the husband and wife, then broadens into chapters told from their changing perspectives around a single, turbulent narrative. Celestial is from a well-to-do Atlanta family; Roy from a poor family from Eloe, Louisiana. After just 18 months of marriage, they travel from Georgia to visit his family, staying at a nearby motel. Roy is wrongly accused of rape and sentenced to 12 years. The letters between inmate husband and wife unveil their relationship and backgrounds, and the later chapters broaden to include Andre’s dramatic role. An American Marriage reveals much about living while black, no matter what one’s socio-economic status. It’s also about relationships between men and women as they mature, become better able to communicate and sort out their lives and the meaning of marriage. There’s a lot of rich material, well told, for anyone who has been in a marriage, is contemplating getting married, or knows someone who has been.
Dutch House by Ann Patchett is regularly described as a fairy tale, one with a Hansel and Gretel flavor. The Dutch house is an enormous ornate mansion built by a Dutch couple in Elkins Park, PA, purchased by real estate developer Cyril Conroy as a gift for his wife, Elna, who hates the house. Elna, feeling compelled to serve those in need, departs for India, abandoning her husband and two children, Maeve and Danny, whose sibling bond is the driving force for the book. Enter a (seemingly) wicked stepmother with two stepsisters, who displace the Conroy children. The father dies. The stepmother ejects Maeve and Danny, and takes over the Dutch house and the father’s business empire, leaving only a trust fund set up for the children’s education. Maeve and Danny continue to be drawn to the house for years, lurking outside it, sitting in Maeve’s car, smoking cigarettes. Like many a fairy tale, eventually there is reconciliation and, in the next generation, restoration. Themes of enduring sibling devotion, rage, revenge, loss and resolution keep the reader spellbound.
My Glory Was I Had Such Friends: a memoir by Amy Silverstein, is the first-person account of a 51-year-old woman’s fight to survive terminal heart disease. She had her first heart transplant at 25 years old and moved from one health crisis to another over the intervening years. As the memoir begins, she is poised on the brink of death due to the failure of her replacement heart. You know from the start how the narrative ends because Silverstein was able to write the book, but her story is about more than the clinical challenges, heart-stopping in the details. It is about how her friends, especially nine amazing women, came to support her, one at a time, for several days at a time, to be with her in the hospital as she waited for a new heart. Her physical and emotional suffering is profound; her courage, awesome. Her friends were heroic, many of them leaving behind demanding professional and personal commitments to fly across the country to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, where she was hospitalized for many months. How they created a spread sheet so that Amy had round-the-clock coverage, how they stayed awake during her sleepless, pain-filled nights, how they took care of her most intimate physical needs, will pull at your heart strings. Their actions and the book itself are a deep dive into the meaning of true friendship.
Saving America’s Cities by Lizabeth Cohen, Harvard professor of American studies, analyzes our successes and failures at urban renewal through the prism of the career of “master rebuilder” Ed Logue. While the focus is on Logue’s years in New Haven, Boston and New York, the book is a primer of what to do and not do to create structures, services, and social programs to rebuild our crumbling cities, redress glaring inequities, and engage advocacy groups. The reader learns, as Logue learned from mistakes he made in New Haven’s Chapel Square Mall, about the hopes and limitations of vast government planning in the 1950’s after the 1949 Housing Act, the eventual abdication of federal responsibility, the emergence of public/private partnerships, and the increasing clout of community groups and citizen organizations to have a say in how they live. The battles fought with the destruction of Boston’s West End-to-Government Center urban renewal – displacement to gentrification -were echoed in South Bronx, Roosevelt Island and elsewhere in New York. Hailed as epic but later forgotten, such renewal issues are still debated in Boston’s Seaport District and in rezoning for multi-use site plans in cash-strapped suburbs. As we fight about architecture and social issues, this tome helps us relearn the lessons of the past. Whether it’s the bullying style of Robert Moses or the more socially enlightened hubris of Logue under Boston Mayor John Collins in Boston, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and Mayors John Lindsay and Ed Koch, the book is about politics, people, progress and protest, about money, economic growth and quality of life for ordinary citizens at the most granular level.
Somewhere Towards the End is a thoughtful memoir written in 2008 by Diana Athill as she approached her 90th birthday. The British writer, editor and memoirist lived to 101, and one imagines her longevity is due in part to the spirit she evinced in this book – spirit to live unconventionally, courage to defy societal norms, candor in acknowledging her shortcomings and limitations in old age. She spent half a century in publishing (was founding director of Andre Deutsch), retiring only when she turned 75. In this memoir, winner of the Costa Prize for Biography, Athill reflects on her life as a writer, what she looks for as a reader, her pleasures as a gardener, her developing skills in drawing. Mostly she writes about having to accept the physical deterioration that comes with aging, even when the mind remains sharp and the spirit creative and adventurous. Throughout the book Athill shares her thoughts about dying and death as their approach becomes increasingly imminent. Her honestly, combined with good cheer, is inspirational.
Ninth Street Women by Mary Gabriel is a brilliantly researched look at Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler, as the subtitle describes them, “Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern Art.” Most art critics and gallery owners dismissed these giants as women artists, not as great artists in their own right. Lee Krasner, wife of Jackson Pollock (founding abstract expressionist of the New York School), was not only her husband’s publicist and coach but a highly successful artist in her own right. So, too, with Elaine de Kooning, wife of Willem de Kooning. Frankenthaler, at one time, was married to noteworthy artist Bob Motherwell, but these women would have been important in the art world if they had never married. Gabriel’s meticulously researched book chronicles the emergence of abstract expression from the 1930’s into the 1960’s. She brings to life the personal successes and struggles of this extraordinary group, who time and again sacrificed their relationships, physical comfort and their families because their art was not merely their profession; it was their life.
Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-year-old Author by Herman Wouk is a delightful little book for anyone who likes to read and enjoys insights into life and making a living as a writer. Wouk, enormously prolific and hugely successful, gave us Marjorie Morningstar, Youngblood Hawke, The Winds of War, and War and Remembrance. His The Caine Mutiny won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and his war books were made into popular and successful TV miniseries. Others of his literary works became theatrical productions. Wouk reflects on the real-life sources of his stories, (including especially his World War II experiences), his career decisions – some good, others not so much – and his love of his wife of 63 years, who also functioned as his sounding board and agent. His spiritualism (The “Fiddler” part of the title a nod to his Jewish identity) and his commitment to the state of Israel are an important part of his life story. Wouk had also done well as a comedy writer, and his sense of humor infuses his recollections. His honesty as a centenarian, unfiltered by etiquette, informs some colorful descriptions of familiar names, many of whom have predeceased Wouk. The author died in 2018 at the age of 103.