Better than chicken soup

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE WHOLE TOWN’S TALKING. By Fannie Flagg. Read by Kimberly Farr. 16 CDs; 12 hours. $54. Also available in print from Random House.

wholetownJust as there is comfort food, there are comfort books. Once again, Fannie Flagg has dished up the latter in fine style.

Some people know Fannie Flagg mostly for Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle-Stop Café, which became a popular movie, and they think of her as a Southern writer. She is, indeed, a fine Southern writer, but she’s also written some good novels with other settings. We already know the Midwestern town of Elmwood Springs, Mo., from her Welcome to the World, Baby Girl!, Standing in the Rainbow and Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven. (Forgive me if I’ve missed one.)

And now Flagg gives us, as only she could, an overview of the history of Elmwood Springs from its founding in the late 19th century to the present. Fans will be happy to see some familiar characters again, but first-timers won’t have any trouble appreciating what’s here.

Of course, this novel is not some dry accounting of facts, but rather a history through stories of the people who live in Elmwood Springs – and even of many of the people who die and are buried there. Lordor Nordstrom, the dairy farmer who, with his mail-order Swedish bride, got things started back before Elmwood Springs had a name, set aside a special place as a cemetery for family, friends and their descendants. As the years go by, Flagg’s stories of what has “the whole town talking” move easily back and forth between the living and those who find themselves at Still Meadows, mostly at peace but keenly interested in what’s going on.

Still Meadows, as it turns out, is something of a misnomer. Its residents can talk to one another, even if they can’t communicate with the living (for the most part).

This is not, however, a ghost story. It’s very much a book about life, described with Fannie Flagg’s characteristic wisdom. There is often humor in Flagg’s stories, but it’s never slapstick or condescending.

Flagg brings Elmwood Springs alive through a series of fairly brief stories told from a variety of points of view. Common themes and people tie everything together, even as the townsfolk find their lives changed by the Great Depression, wars (worldwide and more limited), women’s suffrage, suburbanization and all sorts of modern inventions, including movies, airplanes and cell phones.

There are happy times and sad. Inevitably, there are tragedies. Some people get what they deserve, while others suffer fates that just don’t seem fair. Yet, the overall feeling among the residents is that life goes on, and that’s mostly a good thing.

This book is sentimental at times, but never sappy. It’s certainly not formulaic. The stories may take a quirky turn at times, but never to an extreme.

Longtime fans should be warned that the audio version is not, as some earlier ones have been, read by Flagg herself. While her Southern accent enhances some of her books, the choice of Kimberly Farr for this one is wise. She’s able to get the Swedish and Midwestern accents just right. And even though the book covers a lot of time, and it’s important to pay attention to the setting of each new section, it’s not hard to follow the audio version.

Whether you listen or read the print version, The Whole Town’s Talking will make you smile a lot, laugh at times and ultimately feel that things aren’t so bad. It’s a celebration of life, family and that elusive thing we call community.

 

 

 

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Playing a risky game

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

SWEET TOOTH. By Ian McEwan. Anchor Books. 400 pages, Softcover. $15.95

sweet_tooth-mcewan_ian-18807532-frntlSerena Frome has been playing out of her league all her life.

The mostly overlooked daughter of an Anglican bishop, she attends Cambridge University, where she’s a middling student in “the maths” and the target of derision by more talented male classmates.

She accepts work in the British Security Services, where few females rise above secretarial positions and where her male superiors outmaneuver her.

But it is in love that Serena, lead character in Ian McEwan’s 2012 thriller, is most obviously outplayed. Her first lover is a gay student who uses her to hide his homosexuality. That’s something one must do in early 1970s England.

Her next is a Cambridge professor, 33 years her senior, who enjoys his dalliance and dumps her at a highway rest stop. Her third is the true premier leaguer, however, feasting on her minor league talent.

Thomas Haley is a rising author and literature professor at a second-tier British university. Frome’s superiors assign her to enlist him in an MI 5-sponsored program through which he’ll receive a regular stipend to write whatever fiction he wants. MI 5 considers Haley a supporter of British ideals, a young cultural figure who’ll be a good tool in the Cold War’s clash of ideas.

After Serena reads several of Haley’s graphically sexual short stories, she fantasizes. Once she meets him – he’s handsome, of course – she lands in his bed, something that’s clearly a conflict of interest for a spy, which, technically, she is at this point.

Poor Serena. She just wants a good job, a good lover and a chance to read. She loves literature and would have been an English major but for her mother’s insistence that she use her math talents to enter a male-dominated field, helping liberate all women.

Serena becomes entangled in the intrigues of MI 5, the jealousies of co-workers, the vindictiveness of a rejected suitor and the manipulations of those much craftier than she.

Sweet Tooth is set amid the social and political turmoil of early 1970s London and is a fictional account of government attempts to infiltrate the intellectual community for Cold War purposes. It’s wonderfully written; no one would expect anything less from McEwan. But one gets the sense that it could have just as easily been a long short story as a novel. One, two, maybe three accounts of weekends in bed might have been enough to get across the concept that Serena and Thomas liked sex.

And just about the time the reader wonders where the hell this story is going, McEwan throws in a twist in the last chapter that turns the whole damned thing on its head. Pretty clever.

That one word sums up the whole novel: clever. All of these men were more clever than Serena, and McEwan is more clever than his readers, at least this reader.

  • Paul T. O’Connor is the political columnist for the N.C. Insider newsletter. Contact him at ocolumn@gmail.com.

 

 

 

 

 

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Let justice prevail

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE WHISTLER. By John Grisham. Read by Cassandra Campbell. Random House Audio. 11 CDs. $45.

the-whistler-2897021John Grisham has written so many books that it’s hard to keep count: In addition to the legal thrillers (29?), there are children’s books and books about the rural South, among others. His fans are legion, and sometimes they are hard to please.

Some of his books are better than others, of course, but I have yet to try one that wasn’t worth reading. Maybe it’s because the audio version arrived at my house when I needed a good diversion, but for whatever reason, I liked The Whistler, and spent quite a few entranced hours listening to its story rather than the all-too-real news of the day.

Grisham’s thrillers usually expose problems he perceives in the legal system, and this time out, it’s a corrupt judge. The unlikely heroine is Lacy Stoltz, a young woman who, right out of law school, started to work for the Florida Board on Judicial Conduct, the small, underfunded state agency that keeps watch over the ethics of the state’s judges. She’s stayed there, even though the pay isn’t great for a lawyer. Whenever there’s a problem with a judge, Lacey is saddened, but she believes the work is important. Usually, the cases are nothing more remarkable than a judge who has let his alcohol problem interfere with his duties.

But a phone calls plunges Lacy into a case that quickly becomes a lot bigger, more complicated and more dangerous than anything she’s ever handled or even imagined.

From the beginning, it’s all rather cloak-and-dagger, even though lawyers on the BJC don’t carry daggers or guns or even badges. A lawyer who was disbarred and spent a few years in federal prison begins to tell her, bit by bit, about a woman in Florida who he claims is the most corrupt judge in U.S. history. This former lawyer goes by the name Greg Myers, but that’s the result of a legal name change. The information he’s feeding Lacy comes from a go-between who communicates with the real “whistler,” aka “the mole.” Myers is willing to sign his name on the official complaint that will give Lacy’s office the right to start investigating the judge.

Gradually, through clandestine meetings on a boat and chats on burner phones, Lacy learns more of the details – the judge, who turns out to be a woman, is one of the beneficiaries of a huge web of corruption that involves a casino on a small Native American reservation and a gang called the Coast Mafia. There are tales of bribes, kickbacks, rigged trials and a murder or two or three, not to mention an innocent man on Death Row.

The informants, it seems, don’t trust the FBI. They want the BJC to break the case, and their reward will be a hefty whistleblower’s share of the money that will be forfeited.

Lacy and her partner, Hugo Hatch, convince their reluctant boss to let them start the investigation. But before they’ve gone very far, things begin to get very ugly.

Those who want nonstop action in their thrillers may find this book a little slow. The BJC’s work is usually that way – a lot of paperwork and dealing with lawyers. But things pick up after Lacy and Hugo unwisely head to a late-night rendezvous on the reservation. After that, the suspense mounts, and the reader, along with Lacy and others who are involved, begin to suspect danger around every corner. Lacy proves to be a strong and determined woman.

There are some loose ends – at one point, Lacy seems to be starting a romance with a younger man who’s her physical therapist, but then he vanishes from the story. The plight of the innocent man on death row is not resolved as completely as readers might want, but again, maybe that’s because Grisham is demonstrating how slowly the wheels of justice grind.

And Grisham has never been the most eloquent or literary of writers, nor has he pretended to be. Rather, he tells realistic stories of right and wrong, justice and injustice, and how right can ultimately prevail even in a society that sometimes seems terribly corrupt and a system that seems awfully slow to respond.

Sometimes, that’s just the sort of book you need to hear or read.

Cassandra Campbell does her usual excellent job of reading, making the various characters come alive believably.

 

 

 

 

 

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Beneath the surface

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE TRESPASSER. By Tana French. Penguin Audio. Read by Hilda Fay. 21 hours; 18 CDs. $55. Also available in hardcover from Viking.

the-trespasser-2896705What a delight it is to discover Tana French, a wonderful Irish writer who pours her prodigious literary skills into richly layered detective fiction. I’m a latecomer to the French fan club; this is her sixth book about the Dublin Murder Squad, and she’s regularly on The New York Times bestseller list.

Although all her novels are about the Murder Squad, and this one uses the same two detectives as its immediate predecessor, The Secret Place, it is by no means necessary to have read any of the others to get full enjoyment out of this latest. Once you’ve read The Trespasser, however, you are likely to lose no time laying your hands on French’s earlier works.

The detectives are Antoinette Conway, the only woman on the squad, and Stephen Moran, who’s even newer to the squad than she is. Conway, who had thought that making it to the Murder Squad would be a dream come true, has instead been experiencing something of a nightmare. No one seems to like her; some of her fellow detectives are actively trying to sabotage her. She’s to the point of considering leaving the police force. Steve, her partner, is her only friend on the squad.

Their new case seems at first to be just another of the routine lovers’ spats gone wrong that are so often handed to Antoinette and Steve, though they long to tackle a really complicated and exciting case. Aislinn Murray, a pretty young blonde woman, is found dead in the living room of her stylishly decorated apartment, her bashed lying on the hearth. The table was set for a romantic dinner, and it doesn’t take long to learn that the expected guest was Aislinn’s relatively new boyfriend.

There is, in fact, considerable pressure within the squad for Antoinette and Steve to waste no time in charging the boyfriend, who was in the area of the apartment on the night of the murder.

But Antoinette isn’t one to be pushed, and she begins to see some troubling aspects in this supposedly easy case. For one, she is sure that she’s seen Aislinn somewhere before. And Aislinn’s best friend is acting a little strange, making Antoinette and Steve suspect that she knows more than she’s telling. And why are the other detectives in the squad pushing them so hard?

Antoinette gradually begins to question everything. Is everyone in the squad against her? Can she even trust Steve? Could there be some sinister plot in the background of this increasingly puzzling case? Is she at least partly at fault for the way her colleagues treat her? Is she in danger, beyond the obvious threats to her career?

French’s characters are as complex as her plot. Antoinette was raised by a single mom, who spun a series of stories about the identity of the father. Other than the fact that he hasn’t been around, the one thing Antoinette knows for sure is that he was not white. She’s come up the hard way, and she’s as tough and determined as she is intelligent.

Family also plays an important role as we get to know more about Aislinn, the seemingly Barbie-doll-perfect blonde victim.

French’s prose is literate and evocative. The plot develops rapidly enough to keep the readers’ interest, but not so rapidly as to make us miss the nuances. At least we think we are not missing the nuances, but when all the twists and turns are done, the ending will likely come as a surprise – even though all the elements were there.

This is fine detective fiction, and outstanding writing that transcends genre.

Hilda Fay’s reading is excellent, down to the varied accents, and the compelling story lends itself well to the audio version. French does not write the kind of story in which you need to flip back through the pages to remember who’s who or what happened. We know what Antoinette knows; we worry with her about what she doesn’t know.

Now, where are those other five Murder Squad books?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Why we do what we do

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

INVISIBLE INFLUENCE: THE HIDDEN FORCES THAT SHAPE BEHAVIOR. By Jonah Berger. Simon & Schuster. 232 pages. $26.99.

invisible-influenceAs much as we’d all like to think that we run our own lives, there’s no denying that social influences help us choose a new car, a preferred brand of jeans or a political party.

Jonah Berger, a marketing professor at the Wharton School of Business, has outlined the most important of these influences. Sometimes we want to be unique, other times we want to go with our crowd and, on occasion, we want both.

Is there any explanation for one musician’s rise on the pop charts and another’s failure to earn much notice outside of her hometown? What explains Britney Spears’ meteoric rise, for example, when other musicians with equal talent never registered with us at all?

Berger says, “monkey see, monkey do.” The crowd influences us. If we see a musician rising on the charts, we check her out. We don’t have time to hear every other aspiring musician, so we take the crowd’s word: Enough people listened to Spears, and she became a star.

But sometimes, we don’t want to follow. As Yogi Berra said, nobody goes there any more because it’s too crowded. There’s a counter influence that drives us to be different. If oldest sister is a biochemist, middle sister becomes a speech therapist and youngest a structural engineer.

Other influences drive us away from options: Note the drop in bookings that PBS News Hour recently reported for Trump hotels. Many people who can afford his hotels don’t want to be associated with him. And there are influences in which we’d like some aspect of the latest trend, but also something different. I like craft beer, but don’t want to drink the same brand as my friends.

Finally, Berger enlightens us on competition and why we sometimes choose to charge but other times quit.

Throughout the entire 232 pages, Berger is insightful and fun. He explains his principles through research anecdotes. One concept is demonstrated through a test of cockroaches in a maze, another by Princeton supper club members. The stories are fun in themselves.

I’m happy I picked up this book at the library. I wonder what prompted me to do so?

Oh, now I see, there’s a secret message on the cover saying, “Everyone’s Reading It.” I just went along with the crowd.

  • Paul T. O’Connor is the political columnist for the N.C. Insider newsletter. Contact him at ocolumn@gmail.com.

 

 

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Dark corners in the heart of North Carolina

Bob Moyer reviews the latest thriller by John Hart, a fine North Carolina author. I scooped Bob by a few months: You can see my review of the same book that ran May 8 in the Greensboro News & Record here:

http://www.greensboro.com/go_triad/arts/books/hart-s-thriller-redemption-road-is-well-worth-the-wait/article_ae13edaa-bd4d-5e40-a496-51957f15bfd1.html

Fortunately, Bob and I agree in our praise of the novel.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

REDEMPTION ROAD. By John Hart. St. Martin’s Press. 417 pages. $27.99.

redemption-road“…bad men and the things that happen in dark houses” haunt the tough young woman cop. An ex-cop, convicted for a murder he didn’t commit, gets out of jail, only to get arrested again. Two children, one poor, one privileged, are in peril. A serial killer not even in the public consciousness comes closer to his intended victim with each turn of a page.

And it’s all happening in Rowan County, North Carolina.

Or, at least, some place that looks very much like that countryside. Author John Hart has written a lyrical piece on the Web about that part of the world and its place in his writing: “I no longer live in North Carolina, but I set my books there, and when I close my eyes it’s what I see: Salisbury and Rowan County, the people and the land and the long, forever river.”

There’s another side to the county as well, a cityscape where “…the east side of town was paved with empty factories and broken dreams.” Hart moves us through this landscape on plot twists and turns that make a verb out of the noun “maze”: The ex-cop gets out of jail only to be confronted by the son of the woman he didn’t kill, a boy cared for by the female cop, whose life was saved by the ex-cop, so she became a cop — and we’re not even out of the first 50 pages.

As the narrative careens around corners, it may go up on two wheels, but Hart never loses control or the reader. He stays busy injecting subplots right up through the denouement, and he manages to get every major character into the grand finale. It’s a blistering, bloody read that will make you think about getting his next book, but also make you think twice about taking the I-85 exit to Salisbury on your way south.

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“Jack is back,” and fortunately, so is Maggie Hope

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE QUEEN’S ACCOMPLICE. By Susan Elia MacNeal. Read by Susan Duerden. Books on Tape. 10 ½ hours; 9 CDs. Also available in paperback from Bantam Books, $16.

accompliceMaggie Hope, intrepid spy, code-breaker and all-around spunky young woman, is at it again, in the thick of World War II action and intrigue. Susan Elia MacNeal’s sixth Maggie Hope mystery offers plenty of intrigue, excitement and insight into how life went on for people in the dark days of the war.

Having returned to London recently from accompanying Prime Minister Winston Churchill to the White House after Pearl Harbor finally brought the United States into the war (Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante, 2015), Maggie is biding her time working as a “girl Friday” (too often, that means serving tea and enduring sexist slights) at the Special Operations Executive’s offices on Baker Street. Far from being “only” a secretary, Maggie has succeeded at challenging secret-agent assignments and has taught aspiring spies. But she’s trying to wait patiently in London until her recently discovered half-sister, Elise Hess, a resistance fighter in Berlin, can be brought to safety there.

As might be expected, Maggie is not in for a quiet respite, much as it might be needed. “Jack is Back” – Someone is brutally killing young women in a ghoulish re-creation of the Jack the Ripper murders, leaving messages in case anyone fails to make the connection. But these victims aren’t prostitutes; they are daring young women who are volunteering to be spies and saboteurs for the war effort. Maggie finds herself working with MI5 and the London police to try to stop the “Blackout Beast.” Unfortunately, the blackout that’s necessary to protect Londoners from Nazi bombings affords the new Jack lots of opportunity to carry out his deeds unseen.

Other things are happening as well, lots of things. Maggie is convinced that something’s badly wrong with one of the female agents in France, but she can’t get her boss at SOE to pay attention to her worries. Friends help her move back in to the house she inherited from her British grandmother, where almost immediately she takes in one of her old friends who how has had to flee her home, infant in tow.

Two other friends – male and female – are preparing to head for France as spies, and Maggie’s past with the man makes the woman suspicious.

Maggie briefly sees her father, who’s in hospital, and readers learn that the treacherous woman who is Maggie mother as well as Elise’s is still a factor to be feared.

Meanwhile, Maggie renews her relationship with Queen Elizabeth and the young princesses.

And in Germany and France, Elise is having her own problems and adventures.

It’s easy to see why these books have become best sellers. Susan Elia MacNeal deftly weaves a great deal of historical information about a momentous time into fascinating mysteries and the adventures of a daring and determined young woman. These novels aren’t deep, psychological thrillers, but MacNeal gives us enough of a look into the thoughts and emotions of Maggie and other key characters to add depth to the fast-paced stories.

With plenty of action and compelling storylines, these books lend themselves well to audio presentation. I suppose, since Maggie is half American and was raised in the States, an American reader would have worked also, but Susan Duerden’s British accents (yes, she makes appropriate changes for various characters) enhance the story’s atmosphere.

The Queen’s Accomplice concludes with enough loose ends, unanswered questions and promises of action to make Maggie’s fan impatient for novel No. 7.

 

 

 

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From dark times, brilliant fiction

Two novels, both set in France during World War II, provide Paul O’Connor with a feast of outstanding fiction.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

THE NIGHTINGALE. By Kristin Hannah. St. Martin’s Press. 440 pages. $27.99.

ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE. By Anthony Doerr. Scribner. 531 pages. $27.

It’s early summer. We’re in the family room at cousin Kathy’s house, talking about books. Charlene, my sister, repeats a recommendation she’d made earlier: All The Light We Cannot See. Kathy adds The Nightingale. That’s two fiction suggestions from two devoted readers. So I go onto the N.C. Digital Library’s website, order both, and three months later, the digital books arrive on the same day.

Thus begin three of the best fiction weeks I’ve had since my senior year in college.

Both novels are set in France during World War II. Both involve French families caught up in the Nazi occupation and both involve the resistance.

nightingaleThe Nightingale tells the story of the Mauriac sisters. Vianne, the elder by 10 years, is a wife and mother, the responsible sister. Isabelle is the rebel, the child repeatedly dismissed from private schools for failing to abide by the proper behavior for a young woman.

Vianne’s is a story of deprivation, of doing what one must after her husband goes off to war and does not return, of finding the resources to keep her daughter safe and of doing her best to protect other children in town. Isabelle treads dangerously, repeatedly putting herself and others in precarious situations with the Germans. She courageously leads escape missions for downed Allied airmen.

Kristin Hannah, who is best known as a writer of suspense novels, delivers well. Her main characters are well formed and original, her minor characters are stock in nature, but not annoyingly so. The story moves quickly even as the timeline moves so slowly. Will the allies ever land in France and relieve these people? When will Patton liberate their town and save Vianne?

Kathy says it’s one of the best books she’s ever read. It’s certainly one of the best stories I’ve read in a long time. But then I read All The Light We Cannot See.

all-light-we-cannot-seeThe story braids the lives of two children: one German, one French. Werner and his younger sister are raised in an orphanage. Their father, a miner, died years ago when a mine collapsed. Marie-Laure is the blind child of a widowed key maker at the natural history museum in Paris.

Both Werner and Marie-Laure are brilliant. Werner is enormously curious and has a natural talent for electronics. He builds a radio from rummaged parts at the age of 8. Marie-Laure travels to work with her father every day and spends those days either reading Braille or listening to the museum professionals explain their collections.

As the war approaches and then grinds on, we anticipate that the two must cross paths, but how, when, where?

Anthony Doerr has not only authored a fabulous story, one that keeps us reading even as events move slowly, but he has also done a masterful job of developing characters; even Werner’s colleagues in a German army unit are richly developed. This is so much than a story, however. This is about the light we cannot see.

So, I have to hand it to my sister and cousin. They did me right. Two great recommendations.

  • Paul T. O’Connor, contributing editor, is a university lecturer who is available for freelance writing assignments. Contact him at ocolumn@gmail.com.

 

 

 

 

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Dealing with the devil

Bob Moyer was in Germany recently, but at least part of the time, his imagination was in New Orleans. He offers a review of the book that transported him to the Big Easy.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

LET THE DEVIL OUT. By Bill Loehfelm. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 304 pages. $26.

let-devil-outThe last time we saw NOPD Officer Maureen Coughlin, she was up to her knees in the Mississippi River, up to her neck in trouble. She had tried to save a key witness against a ruthless militia group tied to elite New Orleans sources, but lost both him and a corrupt colleague to the mighty river.

Then she got put on indefinite paid administrative leave.

Too much time on her hands. Too much booze, too much running, too many nightmares, too many cigarettes, too much violence – she has to Let the Devil Out. She hangs out in bars, “…searching out one special man, the one in whom she saw herself reflected back to her, the one hiding in plain sight.”  She likes the pain; it turns into a habit.

Then she gets her badge back.

Now she can’t Let the Devil Out. She wants to change, and she hopes Preacher, her sergeant and mentor, understands. But he’s little comfort: “Three hundred years people have been coming here to be somebody else. It’s not new, what you feel.” Preacher knows something is wrong, she can feel it, she almost breaks down: “her foot began thumping on the car floor…like she had no control over it…She felt sorry for it. She thought for a split second about shooting it.” She finds it’s almost as bad being on the job as it was being off the job.

Then the FBI requests her help.

The evil FBI that no one wants to work with. But the rookie has to do what she’ s told. She has to talk to the father of a militia member, initially stopped by her and subsequently killed by someone else. Immediately after their conversation, all hell breaks loose. The militia has gone into action, and she has to keep the devil in, when she points her gun at the driver of a white van, when she’s sitting across the table from a punk she wants to beat to a pulp. The denouement of this dizzying, perversely delightful book leads her to the point where she can choose to Let the Devil Out, let him go, and “Leave him out there in the dark.” Or not.

Bill Loehfelm knows his way around New Orleans; you could use his narrative as a reference for good bars and good eats. He also knows his way around real dialogue, things that sound like what real people, in this case, real cops, say to one another. And he keeps revealing a depth of character and context that surprises us. He’s the kind of writer who understands that the devil, and a good book, are in the details.

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An uncommon friendship

The Roosevelts, the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War – these are fascinating topics of fairly recent history that have been dealt with extensively in books, movies and TV documentaries. Susan Quinn, coming at them from a different angle, has written a fascinating book that sheds new light even on stories we’ve heard before.

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

ELEANOR AND HICK. The Love Affair That Shaped a First Lady. By Susan Quinn. Read by Kimberly Farr. Penguin Audio. 14 hours; 11 CDs. $45. Also available in print from Penguin Press.

eleanorandhickThis interesting and informative book tells the story of the relationship between Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok, and it also tells much about the separate stories of those two women who had important roles in a critical period in our nation’s history.

It does not, however – thank goodness – dwell on or speculate unduly about the physical relationship between the two, whatever that might have been. If you’re looking for a salacious account of lesbian lovers, you’ll have to look elsewhere. Although Susan Quinn drew on many of Eleanor’s letters, and those that exist of Hickok’s, in her extensive research, she acknowledges that no one really knows how physically intimate the relationship was. In the early years, especially, they write of longing for each other, and of wishing to kiss and touch. It’s well known that for years Hickok, or Hick as she was known, had a room of her own at the White House, next to Eleanor’s, and that the two went on trips and celebrated holidays together. It’s known that Eleanor’s circle of close friends included a number of lesbian couples, and that Hick did have physical relationships with some other women.

But it’s also known that Eleanor was not comfortable with physical intimacy, and that she had close relationships with a number of other people, several of them men, over the years. She and Hick had quarrels and disagreements, many of which seem to have arisen because Hick pushed for the relationship to be more intense and more exclusive than Eleanor wanted. Then too, the mid-20th century, Quinn reminds us, was a very different time when it came to public acknowledgment and acceptance of same-sex couples.

Quinn concludes that the most private details of the relationship remained private, despite some speculation and innuendo (it was also a very different time in terms of the press’ and political opponents’ respecting people’s privacy), and that ultimately, they are not what’s important. To her credit, she deals with the question but doesn’t waste much time on what doesn’t really matter in big-picture terms.

What matters, as Quinn makes clear, is the importance of the relationship in the development of these two women, and what the strengths and reinforcement they gave each other helped these two to achieve.

Quinn weaves in the stories of the early years of both Eleanor and Hick. Their experiences were very different – Hick came from a poor family in South Dakota; Eleanor from a very privileged one in the East – but they had similarities in terms of loneliness and emotional hardships. Their personalities were different, too. Eleanor was naturally shy and withdrawn, although she learned to be assertive and even dogged about her causes. Hick was often loud, brash and not in complete control of her emptions.

They became friends at what was a critical time for Eleanor. An intellectual and somewhat gawky girl, she was pushed into society by her grandmother. Eleanor had married her handsome cousin, Franklin Roosevelt, when she was only 21, and then bore six children in 10 years (one of whom died). Her mother-in-law, Sara Roosevelt, made sure that Eleanor never felt that she was the mistress in her own home or even the most important person in the lives of her husband or children. And she had been crushed by the discovery of Franklin’s affair with her social secretary, Lucy Mercer. Eventually, Eleanor worked to carve out an independent life of her own, pursuing what she considered worthwhile goals with her own friends.

But FDR’s election as president in 1932 threatened to curtail her activities and force her into more of a conventional role as First Lady.

Lorena Hickok, for her part, had worked and scrapped to establish herself as a real newspaper reporter in a profession that tried to relegate women to the society pages. She’d attained considerable success, working as a reporter for The Associated Press covering the presidential campaign, when she was assigned to cover Eleanor. It didn’t take long for their friendship to develop to the point that it was prompting fellow reporters to raise charges of favoritism and making Hick’s professional life difficult.

When she had to choose, Hick chose her relationship with Eleanor, resigning her hard-won job at the AP and accepting the first of several political positions she would hold over the years. For a time, Hick toured areas that had been devastated by the Great Depression, reporting officially to administration officials and privately, in more detail, to Eleanor. She would sorely miss being a journalist the rest of her life, and although she seemed to take pride in Eleanor’s accomplishments, including her popular “My Day” column, she also struggled to accept the fact that Eleanor could easily get articles and books published while she, Hick, the better writer, could not. In Hick’s final years, with her health failing and money needs pressing, she did find her niche as a writer of children’s books and other nonfiction, including a popular biography of Helen Keller.

Both women were intelligent and compassionate; both cared deeply about the many people in the country who were suffering. In the early years, Hick helped bring Eleanor out of her shy, insecure shell and encourage her to speak, write and become more of a public figure. Eleanor succeeded beyond all expectations; in fact, she became something of a force of nature. Even Hick could not keep up with her.

Quinn chronicles the rest of Eleanor’s and Hick’s lives, as FDR won three more terms in the White House and eventually died early in his fourth term. She takes them through the Depression, into World War II and on into the Cold War era. Drawing on a great deal of history and research, she describes enough of what was going on in the White House, the country and the world to give context to what Eleanor and Hick were doing and feeling. She describes the unusual relationship between Eleanor and FDR. After the Lucy Mercer discovery, their physical intimacy stopped, and yet they were closely bound in many ways and cared about each other. Both were independent and proud; each needed the other at times but always hated to acknowledge that need. Often, Eleanor was the idealist, trying to prod Franklin to take actions, some of which he did not believe were politically or strategically wise.

As the years went by, the relationship between Eleanor and Hick grew less intense, although they always remained good friends. After FDR’s death, Hick encouraged Eleanor to use the popularity and esteem she’d earned as First Lady to continue to champion important causes.

As Eleanor forged her post-First Lady role, on the national and international stage, she found new causes and, sometimes, new people to whom she felt especially close. Hick learned, not always happily, to deal with her own dwindling importance, but when she really needed Eleanor, Eleanor was there.

Quinn has done a remarkable job, drawing on a great deal of research and presenting an impressive amount of material while managing to tell a good story. It is, on one level, the story of the relationship between Eleanor and Hick, but it also is the story of two remarkable women who, individually, achieved a great deal and blazed trails that other women would follow.

Read by Kimberly Farr, the audio version moves along well, slowing occasionally as Quinn makes sure we understand what was happening, but never to the point that our minds wander or we lose interest.

 

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