What meets the eye

He’s back! After a couple of months gallivanting to Germany, Massachusetts and elsewhere, plus doing poetry things, the inimitable Bob Moyer is back reviewing books for Briar Patch Books.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE. By Celeste Ng. Penguin Press. 338 pages. $27.

Celeste Ng’s second book has hung near the top of the best-seller lists for seven months now. There’s a good reason —

She’s a magician.

With a sleight of handwriting, she conjures a Shaker Heights, Ohio, of 1997 that may or may not look like the town of the same name where she grew up. It’s a moot point, because her suburb reeks with reality —the facades, the posturing, the biases and underlying tensions that anyone who has lived in such a community can attest to, and people visiting for the first time can learn from. With no little sympathy at the same time, she takes on territory that John Updike staked out years ago, and matches him word for word.

Ng pulls two people out of a Volkswagen Rabbit and drops them into this nirvana, where “… purchase … includes protection forever against depreciation and unwelcome change.”  Their entrance introduces just that — unwelcome change. Artist Mia Warren and her daughter, Pearl, move into this idyllic bubble and rent a house from the Richardsons. Mia makes photo art pieces that sometimes sell, sometimes don’t, through an agent in New York. She has a noted disregard for the status quo. Pearl is literally taken in by the Richardson children.

A master of misdirection, Ng keeps our focus on one of those children, Izzy, for the first part of the book. As part of her literary prestidigitation, the author also starts the story at the end — the Richardson’s house is on fire, Mia and Pearl have already puttered out of town, and Izzy set Little Fires Everywhere before she, too, took off.

As she works her way back to the beginning, the author identifies issues that will upset the well-ordered community — the weight of secrets, racism, abortion and unrequited ambition.

When a custody battle breaks out over a Chinese-American baby, Mia sides with the mother against the community, and Mrs. Richardson makes a choice that will have unexpected results:  She uncovers Mia’s mysterious past.

That poignant backstory takes us into deep questions of identity and art, which play out in small but devastating bursts throughout the final pages of the book. As it turns out, it’s Mia’s presence and the pieces she puts together that set off Little Fires Everywhere, fires that do much more damage than the ones Izzy set.

This book is one for our age, if not the ages. Abracadabra!

 

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There’s nothing like a murder to make life worth living

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE GRAVE’S A FINE AND PRIVATE PLACE. By Alan Bradley. Random House Audio. Read by Jayne Entwistle. 10 hours; 8 CDs. $35. Also available in print from Delacorte Press. 363 pages. $26.

Things are grim in Flavia de Luce’s world. A few months earlier, her father died unexpectedly, leaving Flavia and her two older sisters orphans. Aunt Felicity is determined to sell Buckshaw, the crumbling estate where the family has always lived, even though it now belongs to Flavia. Making matters worse, Aunt Felicity wants to haul Flavia off to London to live with her.

Feeling that they all need a change of scenery and an escape from Aunt Felicity, Dogger, the faithful servant and longtime friend of their father, takes the girls on a rowing holiday. Flavia, the world’s foremost 12-year-old chemist and sleuth, is delighted at the prospect of visiting the village of Volesthorpe, the site of St.-Mildred’s-in-the Marsh church, where the notorious Canon Whitbread had poisoned three female parishioners with communion wine one Sunday morning. How exciting!

Even more exciting, as Flavia absentmindedly trails her hand in the river water, she catches hold of something. At first, she envisions winning fame for landing a prize fish by hand – but then she realizes what she’s gotten hold of is a human head, attached to a body.

Oh, joy! There’s nothing better than a murder to solve to make Flavia feel that life is worth living again after all.

Thus starts what Flavia will come to call “the most complicated case I had ever come across,” and one of the best books in this delightful series. With Dogger’s help, Flavia begins to uncover the village’s secrets. Before long, she will be trying to solve more than one murder, and she will find herself in mortal danger.

Flavia is such an endearing heroine, despite her (often acknowledged) tendency to be something of a brat and a busybody, if doing so suits her purposes. She’s a precocious, very bright girl with an extensive knowledge of chemistry, but she’s also a lonely child.

A fringe benefit of the visit to Volesthorpe is that she makes a friend – a boy who’s the son of the undertaker, and like Flavia, growing up without a mother. He’s a little younger than she, and equally unusual. Another plus is that she and her sister Daffy patch up their differences at least temporarily and join forces.

At book’s end, Flavia is looking forward to the future, something she would have thought impossible just days earlier. And her legions of fans are looking forward also, to the next book chronicling her adventures.

As I’ve written before, these books are so addictive I take a double dose: As soon as the print version is out, I read it, enjoying every nuance of the mystery and quirk of Flavia’s personality. Then I listen to the audio version, savoring small details I missed in my first eager read, but most of all, relishing the wonderful accents and characterizations Jayne Entwistle uses to bring Flavia and family and friends to life.

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Lies and other tangled webs

punishmentReviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE PUNISHMENT SHE DESERVES. By Elizabeth George. Penguin Audio. 23 hours; 18 CDs. Read by Simon Vance. $55. Also available in print from Viking.

It’s been 30 years since Elizabeth George’s first introduced us to Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley, in A Great Deliverance, her widely praised debut novel. It’s been three years since her most recent novel, A Banquet of Consequences, was published. Over the decades, Lynley and the series have had their ups and downs, including a bleak, dark stretch when Lynley’s pregnant wife, Helen, was murdered, and then both he and his inimitable sidekick, Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers, seemed bent on self-destruction.

Now there’s good news and more good news. There’s a new novel out starring Lynley and Havers. And The Punishment She Deserves is one of the best ever in the series. A Banquet of Consequences, the 2015 novel, was the most enjoyable one in a while, with Lynley back in good form and even Havers more or less behaving herself.

The Punishment She Deserves is even better, a well plotted, complex novel that’s both thought-provoking and highly entertaining.

Havers is still on a short leash, and it’s obvious that the higher-ups would be delighted if she gave them an excuse to banish her from Scotland Yard to some distant village. To that end, she’s assigned to go with her boss, Superintendent Isabelle Ardery, to the town of Ludlow to look into the apparent suicide of the much-respected local church deacon, Ian Druitt.

Druitt died in police custody, apparently having hanged himself after being hauled in for questioning about shocking allegations. His father, who is well connected, does not believe Druitt would have killed himself, much less committed the crime. A member of Parliament wants Scotland Yard to review the report on the death in custody.

Ardery is hoping that, during their time working closely together, Havers will stray into some of the disobedient and disrespectful behavior that’s gotten her into so much trouble in the past. But Havers, normally as rough as Lynley is aristocratic, is determined to be a model underling.

The problem is, despite her flaws, Havers is a very good police officer, and once she’s on a scent, she’s as determined as a bulldog. Early on in their investigations, Havers becomes convinced that Druitt did not kill himself, and that there’s quite a lot in Ludlow that needs a closer look. Unfortunately, Ardery, distracted by her personal problems, just wants to close the case and get back to London as quickly as possible.

When they do return to London, and Havers faces a dilemma about what to put in the report Ardery orders her to prepare, Lynley takes action in a way that could get them both in serious trouble.

As a result, Lynley and Havers are dispatched to Ludlow to settle things one way or another – and quickly.

The more the two follow leads and ask questions, the more secrets they discover under the surface of Ludlow, a seemingly quiet college town. As the case grows ever more complicated, they fear that they won’t meet the deadline that’s been imposed on them.

The book’s title takes on several layers of meaning, and it’s not just Havers who’s threatened with punishment.

The Punishment She Deserves is rich with characters, well beyond the familiar Lynley, Havers and Ardery. As readers, with the help of Lynley and Havers, try to figure out what really happened in Ludlow, other stories begin to emerge.

The book is long – 23 hours as an audio book, more than 700 pages in print – but it doesn’t seem that way, because it’s so rich with twists, insights and subplots. There is much to think about: the lies people tell, including to themselves; what it means to be a good parent; friendship; duty; justice…

And because the book is so well plotted and the characters so fully developed, it’s easy to follow Simon Vance’s expert reading on the audio version.

By the end, you will be so satisfied with this outstanding book in a fine series that – dare I say it? – you might feel like dancing, just as Barbara Havers is doing. Really. You have to read this book to believe it.

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No. 20: Inspector Rutledge, at his best

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE GATE KEEPER. By Charles Todd. William Morrow. 306 pages. $26.99.

gateIt’s hard to believe that The Gate Keeper is the 20th entry in Charles Todd’s mystery series starring Inspector Ian Rutledge, a British World War I veteran who’s now a Scotland Yard detective.

But A Test of Wills, the debut novel, appeared in 1996, and Todd has been producing new volumes with enough regularity to please his many fans. Several years ago, Todd introduced a second series, featuring Bess Crawford, a young British nurse in World War I. (Todd is, we all discovered a few books in, really two people, a mother and son writing team who live on the East Coast of the U.S. but love to travel to England for literary research.)

Inspector Rutledge, as fans well know, suffers from what today would be called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, lingering emotional and psychological effects stemming from his role as an officer in the Great War. Specifically, the voice of Hamish, a young Scottish corporal whom Rutledge had to execute when he refused to follow a battlefield order to charge into no-man’s land, lives in his head.

Although I loved the first few books in the series, the intrusive voice of Hamish annoyed me at times. Perhaps Rutledge used the device more in the earlier works; perhaps I just got used to the idea. In any event, Hamish’s presence now seems to be an integral and not overdone part of the stories.

Why do I love these books? In part, it’s because of the setting. England in the years after World War I is a fascinating place and time, as the old order, accepted for centuries, seemed to be crumbling all around, and society was adjusting to the devastating loss of many of its young men. Fans of “Downton Abbey” will recognize the time of social and economic upheaval portrayed in these novels. There’s a melancholy that haunts Rutledge even at his best moments, a melancholy that also pervades England after the horrors and loss of the war.

The Inspector Rutledge books are also just good mysteries in the fine tradition of British detective fiction, and Todd sends Rutledge on investigations to an interesting variety of towns and villages.

With any series of this length, some books are more satisfying than others, but even the weaker ones – sometimes the mysteries and cast of characters get a tad confusing – are well worth the read.

The Gate Keeper is one of the better books in an outstanding series.

As the story begins, Rutledge has just given his sister, Frances, away in marriage. What should be a happy occasion is unsettling for him, because through his struggles to adapt to life and his police career after the war, Frances has been one of his anchors. So, rather than just retiring for the night in his London flat after the festivities wind down, Rutledge heads out aimlessly for a long drive in the country.

Miles into the countryside, he’s jolted out of his dark thoughts by the sight of another motorcar stopped in the middle of the road, with a woman in evening dress standing beside it. The woman has blood on her hands, and at her feet is a dead man, a shooting victim.

Thus Rutledge becomes involved in a murder investigation in the village of Wolfpit in Suffolk, over the objections of the local authorities. He successfully convinces Scotland Yard that he should work the case, as he was the first to come upon the scene, but on some level he knows he’s also glad to have a reason to postpone his return to London.

His inquiry into the death of the man, a bookseller named Stephen Wentworth, is anything but clear-cut. The first suspect, the woman whom Wentworth was driving home after a party that lasted well into the night, insists that she is innocent.

Rutledge hears strangely conflicting stories about Wentworth. Most people have nothing but the best to say about him and cannot believe that he would have done anything to provoke a murder. But his own mother, and his former fiancé, describe him very differently.

As Rutledge tries to figure out the truth about Wentworth, and discover anything in his life that might have led someone to lie in wait to shoot him, another man is shot to death – another man who seems to have no enemies.

It’s a difficult puzzle, complicated by deceit, jealousy, greed and vicious, destructive hatred. Rutledge is determined to figure it out. This aspect of life, at least, he ought to be able to make sense of – and, indeed, he does, in fine fashion.

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Prepare for turbulence

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE FLIGHT ATTENDANT. By Chris Bohjalian. Random House Audio. Read by Erin Spencer and Grace Experience, with Mark Deakins. 11 ½ hours; 9 CDs. $40. Also available in print form Doubleday.

flightChris Bohjalian is one of my favorite contemporary authors, not only because he’s a good writer, but also because his books are so diverse. I have not read all his 20 novels, but I’ve enjoyed every one I have come across. He cannot be accused of formulaic writing.

This one is an up-to-the-minute story that fits more or less into the broad thriller/suspense/mystery genre. It’s also a book that ultimately addresses questions as to whether some people are beyond redemption.

This is the story of Cassandra Bowden, a flight attendant with a major airline. Cassie, we quickly learn, has a serious drinking problem. She’s nearing 40, still good looking, still able to do her job, but she frequently drinks to the point of blacking out, and she often wakes up hung over, in bed with a strange man, or trying to recall what went on with a man who’s no longer in evidence. Often, she’s disgusted with herself, but not enough to change her ways.

Cassie seems to be heading for disaster, and hardly has this book begun than she finds it. She wakes up in a hotel room in Dubai that’s not the one the airline booked for its crew. Fighting her headache and other consequences of the previous night’s excesses, she looks at the man in bed beside her – and finds that he’s dead, his throat cut, blood everywhere.

What to do? There’s no way Cassie wants to wind up in jail in Dubai, or even dealing with the legal system there, so she begins what will become a spiraling pattern of cover-up and lies.

At several points, she considers admitting what’s happened, calling the U.S. Embassy, doing something that most people would consider right. But always, she talks herself out of it.

She lies to the others on the flight crew. She lies to the FBI when they meet the plane in New York. She lies to the airline union’s representative, who tries to help her. She lies to herself, too.

She’s not even really sure that she didn’t kill the man herself, and if she didn’t, who did? And why did the murderer spare her?

But things keep getting more complicated, more ominous, and soon she’s seeking the help of a lawyer.

There’s more to Cassie’s self-destructive behavior than just binge drinking and sleeping around, however. Sometimes, even when sober, she makes reckless decisions and does what seems like the worst possible thing.

Soon, she’s exasperating her lawyer and others who try to help her, and in the process, she exasperates the reader, too.

I sometimes have trouble sticking with a book in which I don’t much care for or about the protagonist, and I began to think I might abandon Cassie and her story.

Even Bohjalian doesn’t seem to like her much, and he, too, seems impatient with her. She’s a drunk, a liar and a petty thief without a lot of redeeming qualities, although she does genuinely care about her sister’s children and the stray cats at the animal shelter.

But Bohjalian is a very good writer, and there was always something there – the mystery, what would happen, what was really going on – to keep me going. There’s the Russian factor: Who is this woman calling herself Miranda who showed up at the hotel room during the drunken night before the murder, and who is Viktor? What was the man Cassie found dead in bed with her really doing?

Is Cassie right to think she’s being watched and followed in New York?

In the end, I was glad I’d kept going. Bohjalian accomplishes the feat of delivering more than one twist that will have your head reeling, even as you say, “Of course.”

The audio version makes good use of three readers, one for Cassie’s parts of the story, one for those seen through the eyes of “Miranda,” and one for the FBI reports. In spite of yourself, in spite of Cassie, the story draws you in.

This is not one of my favorites of Bohjalian’s many accomplished novels, but it’s certainly one that’s worth a listen or a read.

 

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History and mystery

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

JEFFERSON’S DAUGHTERS: Three Sisters, White and Black, in a Young America. By Catherine Kerrison. Books on Tape (Penguin Random House Audio). Read by Tavia Gilbert. 17 hours; 14 CDs. Also available in print from Ballantine Books.

DaughtersThis ambitious book by Catherine Kerrison, who teaches history at Villanova University, is, in a way, several books in one.

Kerrison combines her two scholarly interests – colonial and Revolutionary American history, and women’s and gender history – in a remarkable feat of research and also of imagination.

The book is all nonfiction, to be sure, but where there are gaps in the information available, parts of the story that, apparently, no amount of diligent research can fill, Kerrison surmises what she cannot know.

By book’s end, Kerrison has made her case that the unknowable parts of the story are at the heart of the era she’s describing – a time in American history when slaves and women, even white women, were not really considered to be among those people who had been “created equal” and whose voices were worth hearing.

Early on, the book is an interesting account of what’s known of the lives of Martha and Maria Jefferson, the only two children born to Jefferson and his wife, Martha Wayles Jefferson, who survived to become adults, or even teenagers. Widowed early, Jefferson took considerable interest in the education of his daughters, but because he was so embroiled in the affairs of the colonies as they became a nation, he was often separated from the girls.

Drawing on available sources, Kerrison can tell us most about Martha, the elder by several years, who accompanied her father to Paris and attended a convent school for well-to-do young European ladies there. Martha married young after returning to Virginia with Jefferson, raised a large family, spent much time at Monticello and lived into her 60s, with her latter years complicated by Jefferson’s having lost his fortune and their home,

A bit less is known about Maria, the younger sister, who was left with relatives in Virginia before eventually being brought to Paris for a much shorter stay. Kerrison describes the distinct differences in the two sisters’ experiences and how those experiences helped shape them into very different young women. Sadly, Maria died early after the last of several problematic pregnancies, leaving one child who had almost no memories of her, and little written record.

Kerrison’s recounting of the brief life of Maria and the early years of Martha, while fascinating, get confusing at times, especially when listening to the audio version of the book. I found myself wondering at what point in Martha’s experience various things were transpiring in Maria’s life, particularly after Martha had married and had a rapidly expanding family.

Kerrison begins to delve more into educated speculation when writing about the life of Jefferson’s other daughter, Harriet, who was born to the slave Sally Hemings, with whom he had a long relationship. That relationship began when Sally, then a teenager herself, was chosen to accompany young Maria on her voyage across the Atlantic to join Jefferson and Martha in Paris. The Hemings family already had complicated ties with the Jeffersons; Sally was the half-sister of Jefferson’s late wife; they shared a father.

Living in Paris where laws dealing with slavery were different, young Sally was apparently able to strike a deal with Jefferson that cemented the Hemingses’ special status at Monticello. Harriet, born in the early days of Jefferson’s presidency, had a privileged childhood for a slave. Sources indicate that although she was never officially freed, she was allowed to leave Monticello when she was 21 and given some help on her trip north. Her younger brother, Madison, offered the information in the 1870s that his sister was “passing” as white and was married to a prominent man in Washington, D.C.

Kerrison had some basic information about Harriet’s early years from the records Jefferson kept, in which he briefly mentioned her in his accounts dealing with slaves. But much of what she tells us about Harriet is based on information she knows about other slaves and life at Monticello. She used such phrases as “might have” frequently.

Inspired by Madison’s claims, Kerrison pored through available records in the Washington area, trying to establish Harriet’s new, white identity. That part of the book becomes more like an academic detective story than biography or history.

Toward the end of the book, she philosophizes about the lives of slaves and women at the time and, to a lesser extent, today. Throughout the telling, she strives to be fair, pointing out the ways the white Jefferson daughters’ lives and fortunes were limited by their sex, but also pointing out how much better off they were than slave women.

Jefferson does not look particularly admirable in this book. Kerrison bluntly talks about how the education he wanted for his two white daughters was nothing like that he wanted for his sons. He never would have considered including them in the university he established at Charlottesville, except on social occasions. They were to be educated for their role in society, which was to be wives and mothers and ornamental additions to social occasions. And she bluntly talks about his attitudes toward his slaves, not accepting the often-expressed notion that he was always a benevolent master. Although there were rumors and even news articles about the belief that the “yellow children” at Monticello were his, and although he apparently afforded them special status, he never acknowledged them.

The effect is to present Jefferson as a visionary with high ideals, the author of the Declaration of Independence – but also a man of his times and place, a plantation owner in Virginia, who apparently did not think that equality and freedom should apply to anyone other than white men.

The earlier parts of the book will probably be more pleasing to readers and listeners who like history as story than will later chapters. Overall, though, this is much more an academic book than a popular history. It is a book that will be informative for the majority of Americans who have only a superficial knowledge of Jefferson’s personal life and thought provoking for anyone who takes the time to read it.

 

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America’s actor, America’s stories

Bob Moyer takes a look at a book from last fall, short stories from someone we think of primarily as a very good movie actor.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

UNCOMMON TYPE. By Tom Hanks. Knopf. 405 pages. $26.95.

uncommonTom Hanks is America’s actor. By dint of good choices, good fortune and great talent, he belongs to that pantheon of actors that includes Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper. Even if the movie doesn’t hold up to posterity, Hanks gives us a skillful, dependable and — well, American, performance.

The same can be said of these 17 short stories. There’s not a clunker in the collection. Even in the least effective, a series of four stories styled as columns in a small-town newspaper, such moments of delight as the summation of sounds made by old typewriters pop up.

Typewriters are both the literary and literal mechanical devices that link these stories together. There’s at least one in every story – just the answer to a trivia question as in “Three Exhausting Weeks,” background noise in “Go See Costas,” or a central theme in “These Are the Meditations of My Heart.” Their presence is surprisingly not forced in a panoply of story forms, from the press junket diary of a bit part actor in ”A Junket in the City of Light,” to the movie script of “Stay with Us.”  In these stories and a few others, Hanks takes advantage of his intimate knowledge of show business to bring detail alive.

The strongest theme in these stories, however, emanates directly from Hanks. He is America’s actor — these are American stories. Not just any America, but a kinder, more accepting America, where a World War II vet comes back not bitter because he lost part of a leg and a hand, but grateful because he’s alive and “…felt like he had won the 1945 Irish Sweepstake.”   Hanks’ America is one where the giant couple looming over the deteriorating desert town motel in “Stay with Us” becomes the centerpiece of a billionaire’s social project; a multi-ethnic quartet of friends hangs out with the intimacy of a sitcom in the making in two stories; and a billionaire from the future returns to the joy of the 1939 New York World’s Fair time and again for love because “The Past Is Important to Us.” The best of these stories is the tale of a Balkan immigrant in Manhattan, who finds succor at every turn during his struggle to survive, even in the most unlikely corners, when he is told to “Go See Costas.” These stories take us on a tour of an America we think of fondly in these partisan times.

Hanks has gone from the stage to page with the same expertise that he has demonstrated in his acting career. You may not be thrilled with all his work, but you won’t be disappointed. His is an Uncommon Type of talent.

 

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It might be … it could be …

Did you know it’s only a few days until the major league baseball teams start spring training? Tom Dillon is well aware that it’s almost time for a new baseball season, so he figures it’s also time for a review of a new baseball book.

MY CUBS: A LOVE STORY. By Scott Simon. Blue Ridge Press. 145 pages. $23.

Reviewed by Tom Dillon

CubsThis isn’t really a book. There is no table of contents, there aren’t any chapters, there’s no index, and you can read the whole thing in a couple of hours sitting in the doctor’s office or at the barber shop or maybe even in a bar – which might be the most appropriate place to do it.

There are also a good number of f-bombs you’ll have to negotiate, and there’s a syrupy sentimentality that may turn you off if you’re not a Chicago Cubs fan.

But baseball season has to start with some sort of book, and this is the only one that’s come across my desk so far this winter. It may also give some hope to the perennial losers among us. Maybe Wake Forest University basketball fans can get something out of it.

It’s basically an appreciation of the Chicago Cubs baseball team and all they went through over 108 years of losing before they finally won the World Series in 2016. It’s told through the personal and family memories of Chicago native Scott Simon, a National Public Radio broadcaster who clearly lives – and dies – with his team.

He’s had family ties with a lot of Cubs people, including the late manager Charlie Grimm and a few broadcasters. He’s eaten at the Billy Goat Tavern, whose owner put that supposed curse on the team all those years ago. He knows where bodies are buried – or at least where a few people’s ashes have been scattered. (Hint: It’s near first base.)

He’s thrown out the first pitch to start a game at least a couple of times, an angst-inducing experience. (Don’t miss the part with the yoga teacher.) And his family—wife and two daughters — are apparently just as mad about the team as he is.

He’s really a pretty good storyteller, as will become clear only a few pages in during an encounter with Santa Claus. And no matter what you may think, he has some sort of jaded weird perspective about this slice of life and baseball.

As he put it somewhere early on, there’s no comparing the Cubs with the Titanic or the Hindenburg. Many lives were lost in those disasters, and besides, they only sank once. The Cubs sank nearly every year for 108 years.

Simon has a passing knowledge of poetry, which will be clear as he twists the work of Allen Ginsburg and Rudyard Kipling, among others, into paeans – or maybe it’s pains – to Chicago baseball.

And he has a lot of trivia at his command. Did you know that Bill Buckner, the Boston Red Sox first baseman who let that grounder go between his legs in 1986, had just been traded from the Cubs to the Red Sox?

Simon is a serious journalist, despite these comments. He has eight books to his credit, including the bestseller Unforgettable, and he’s won broadcasting awards that include the Peabody and Emmy.

He also has a serious part toward the end of this book, where he comments about the Chicago murder rate. “I am sickened by Chicago’s homicide crisis, and appalled by attempts to politicize it,” he says. Yes, that means you, Donald Trump.

But Simon’s book is at heart what the slipcover says it is, a “portrayal of paradise lost and found.” And it tells a good story succinctly. So now, let’s play baseball.

  • Tom Dillon is a retired journalist who lives in Winston-Salem.

 

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Lights, camera, action, love and friendship

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE GIRLS IN THE PICTURE. By Melanie Benjamin. Random House Audio. Read by Kimberly Farr. 16 ½ hours; 13 CDs. $50.

PictureMelanie Benjamin has made quite a successful career by spinning the real-life stories of famous people into entertaining novels. As she does so, she largely sticks to the known facts, but since life is messier than fiction, she takes liberties, leaving out some details and developments and adding others. Onto the basic framework of documentable history, she hangs imagined thoughts, emotions and conversations.

In the past, she’s written about Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) and Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland; Anne Morrow Lindbergh, the author and wife of the famous aviator; Mrs. Tom Thumb; and Truman Capote and the New York high society women he called his “swans” in the 1960s and ’70s.

This latest novel is set during the birth of the movie industry in the United States, primarily as seen through the experiences of two friends, the golden-curled Mary Pickford, a darling of the silent film era, and Frances Marion, a journalist, author and highly successful screenwriter.

The story Benjamin spins of those early days in what became Hollywood is fascinating and one the casual movie fan probably knows only vaguely. Mary Pickford and Frances Marion arrived on the scene in its early days, when movies were silent, brief and known as “flickers,” and respectable people in Los Angeles didn’t have much to do with the people who appeared in them – people they disparagingly called “movies.” The two lived through many developments in the industry and even spearheaded some of them.

They were good friends, bound by their ambition and their determination to make it in a man’s world. We see them as young women, wondering if they will have to sacrifice happiness in their personal lives – never finding true love – as they pursue their pioneering careers. Then we see them decades later, when they are all but forgotten by the general public, and the vagaries of life have taken their toll on that friendship.

The developments in the movie industry – technical, artistic and business – are intriguing and entertaining. Benjamin works the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Lillian Gish, Louis B. Mayer, D.W. Griffith and Rudolph Valentino into the story. When Pickford does find love and marries Douglas Fairbanks, the two become the King and Queen of Hollywood, greeted by adoring crowds wherever they go, in Europe as well as America.

And then the “talkies” took over the industry in the late 1920s, and many silent screen stars, among them Fairbanks and Pickford, were unable to make the transition.

Frances Marion’s career as a writer is also fascinating, especially when she went to the front in World War I to make films about the contributions of women to the war effort. Then she returned to the movie world as a writer, eventually winning two Academy Awards

Benjamin tells a good story, and, given all the recent revelations about abuse of women in the entertainment industry, it’s certainly a timely one. We see, for one thing, the early days of the infamous “casting couch.”

She is a bit heavy-handed, however, in conveying her themes. We understand that Pickford, Marion and other women in the movie industry were often treated poorly by the men who held the power, and that they had to work twice as hard to get ahead. It’s jarring, however, to hear them think and speak in 21st-century feminist terms about their problems. And we understand, early in the story, that some of Pickford’s emotional problems stemmed from having to work at a tender age as a child actress, and from being made to feel that despite any success, she was always only a step or two away from poverty. Yet, Benjamin tells us this repeatedly.

The narrative is also a little uneven, alternating between Marion’s lively first-person accounts and Pickford’s story, told in third person. And we get great detail about some things while others, such as Marion’s marriages other than to the cowboy film star Fred Thomson, are barely mentioned.

Ultimately, though, the story is well worth the reading or listening. It’s both a fascinating look at the growth of the movie industry and a touching story about the friendship of two remarkable women.

Kimberly Farr does a fine job of reading the audio version with just the right amount of expression and drama to bring the scenes to life in the listener’s mind – almost as if they were on the big screen.

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Franklin Roosevelt, meeting the challenges

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT: A Political Life. By Robert Dallek. Penguin Audio. Read by Rick Adamson. 30 hours; 24 CDs. $79. Also available in print from Viking. 704 pages, $40.

franklin-d-rooseveltRobert Dallek’s new book about Franklin Roosevelt, published in November, has earned well-deserved spots on more than one “best book of the year” list for 2017.

The book’s size could appear daunting, and as an audiobook it amounts to 30 hours of listening time. It’s worth every minute of turning pages or listening.

Over the years since he died in 1945, only a few months after being inaugurated for his unprecedented fourth term as president, many books have been written about FDR, as well as about his indomitable wife, Eleanor. I have read some of those, particularly several interesting ones about Eleanor. Reviewers who are more scholarly than I am tell us that Dallek’s book, comprehensive, thoroughly researched and presented with admirable objectivity, ranks high on the list of Roosevelt books.

As his subtitle makes clear, Dallek focuses on the outstanding political skills of this remarkable man who led the United States through some of its darkest moments – the Great Depression and World War II. Today’s readers may think, knowing that he did get elected four times, that FDR was always hugely popular. One of the many things Dallek’s book educates the casual reader about is the difficulties FDR had, the developments and issues that threatened his political career, and the fact – freely acknowledged by FDR himself – that if the war had ended before the 1944 election, he probably would not have won that fourth term. By the fall of 1944, people knew Roosevelt as not only president but also a commander-in-chief who was deeply involved in war strategy and diplomacy. Even those voters who disliked him and/or many of his policies were reluctant to turn to someone else while the country had so much at stake.

Dallek tells us enough of the story of FDR’s life to give context to the remarkable political career. He describes his boyhood, his doting and possessive mother, his Groton and Harvard education (he was a lot more involved in the student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, than in his college classes). FDR attended Columbia Law School but dropped out after he passed the bar, and he never really enjoyed practicing law. We learn about his marriage to Eleanor, and Dallek describes the stresses and strains, including FDR’s infidelity, without speculating too much on what cannot be known. Later, there are his worries about their children’s troubled marriages and other problems. FDR’s distant cousin, Daisy Suckley, became increasingly close to him as the years went by, and Dallek draws on their correspondence extensively to show what was going on in FDR’s mind and how Daisy gave him the unqualified support that Eleanor, busy with her own interests, did not. Again, though, Dallek does not dwell too much on the unknowable details of the exact nature of the relationship.

And of course, the polio that left Roosevelt crippled is a central part of the story of a man determined to succeed no matter what the odds.

The book is fascinating in so many ways. We see that FDR was bright and willing to try new things, but we also see that he often forged ahead with no real reason to believe whatever new program he was trying would work. Some did, others did not. Often, he trusted more to Providence and luck than to any studies or experience. Of course, in trying to move the nation out of the terrible Depression, to get people back to work and repair the economy, he was navigating in uncharted waters.

He drew on the same instincts and optimism when the nation moved from Depression to war, and Dallek’s insights into FDR’s dealings with Churchill (they were close friends, but not without disagreements) and Stalin are interesting, as are passages about how he made decisions about military strategy.

So much that Roosevelt started or dealt still resonates in American life. He worried about creating a welfare state and wanted people to have self-respect, but he also knew he couldn’t have the streets filled with the starving and homeless. He and Churchill both knew that as soon as the war was over, they would have new problems with the Soviet Union, but they needed Russian help to win the war.

FDR felt that the newspapers, mostly owned by conservative Republicans, were against him and often distorted their coverage. He preferred the newer medium of radio, which had more Democrats in high places, and he used radio to good effect to take his message to the people, through Fireside Chats and other addresses.

Dallek doesn’t portray FDR as a saint but rather matter-of-factly writes about some of his flaws and shortcomings. FDR didn’t do much to help oppressed black people or to speak out against white racists. He consented to the internment of Japanese Americans during the war. He did little to try to help the European Jews as Hitler was murdering them in concentration camps. Often, he went against his own beliefs, but, always the political man, he pragmatically did what he believed he needed to do to have the votes and support he’d need for matters that he viewed as even more important. Issues such as these were the source of some of his greatest stress in dealing with Eleanor, because she put ideals first and let him know clearly when she disapproved of what he was doing or leaving undone.

But doing what was necessary to achieve the larger goals was always on FDR’s mind. He wanted not only to win the war, but also to win the peace so that Europe and the United States would not be plunged into yet another war in two or three decades.

It was that determination to see the war to a successful close and then have a major role in shaping the new world order that kept him going through that last campaign, when, as Dallek clearly shows, he was already a dying man. Yes, FDR was flawed. He didn’t always live up to his ideals. He could be a little thin-skinned and even petty at times. His relationships with women were, shall we say, complicated.

But this book makes it absolutely clear that Franklin Roosevelt was a great man, a man who, like Lincoln, steered the nation as well as anyone could have through some of its darkest times, at great cost to himself.

Dallek obviously did extensive research, drawing on previous books about Roosevelt as well as letters, journals, news accounts and other sources. For the most part, he handles all this material expertly, showing the reader the reasons for the conclusions he presents without making his book slow and ponderous. (I did, I believe, find one error: Dallek writes about Eleanor Roosevelt’s “My Day” column in which she “described a visit to the Tuskegee Institute in Greensboro, North Carolina, where she observed the training of African American pilots and had the pleasure of a brief flight with the head instructor.” The Tuskegee Institute and that visit were in Tuskegee, Alabama, of course; Mrs. Roosevelt traveled to Greensboro after that flight and wrote her column about her visit to Tuskegee with a Greensboro dateline.)

Read this book, or if you, as I did, need to make a road trip alone, listen to Rick Adamson’s fine reading of the audiobook. You will come away with a new appreciation for how we got to be where we are today, and even perhaps a new hope that the grand experiment that is the United States can weather even the divisive, difficult times we face now. FDR was a political soul, certainly, and a human with human flaws. But he also was a statesman with a vision and ideals, one who quite literally gave his life for his country.

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