About Rosemary Wolfe, NoChargeBookbunch

Avid reader; published writer; itinerant walker; experimental cook...and a Doctor - Ph.D.

Four Winds by Kristin Hannah

I just finished reading Hannah’s newest book, a tribute to courage and hope during the Great Depression. The Four Winds is not a happy book. It does have its moments, but maybe this is not the best time to read it.

The heroine of The Four Winds is Elsa Martinelli, a single mother of two who, in 1935, heads to California from the Dust Bowl in the Texas Panhandle in search of fresh air for her son, who is recovering from “dust pneumonia,” a then-common ailment on the Great Plains. Just as in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, leaving the drought-ridden farm does not yield the promised land in sunny California, and her life only gets worse when they reach the San Joaquin Valley, where the family settles into a squalid camp on the banks of an irrigation ditch and become migrant field workers. One of the minor characters (and Elsa’s love interest) is based on American journalist and socialist John Reed. Hannah references his book Ten Days That Shook the World in the story; you might remember a handsome Warren Beatty playing him in the movie Reds.

Dorothea Lange’s
Migrant Mother

Through grit and resilience, and with the help of a friend, Elsa overcomes miserable circumstances, and after pages of despair, Hannah finally ends the story on a sad but hopeful note. Among Hannah’s inspirations are Dorothea Lange’s portraits of Dust Bowl Women. Lange, best known as a documentary photographer during the 1930s, included reports from the field with her photographs. Some of her quotes from people with whom she had spoken make their way into Hannah’s dialogue. “Somethin’ is radical wrong,” one told her; another said, “I don’t believe the President knows what’s happening to us here.” Lange also included her own observations. “They have built homes here out of nothing,” she wrote, referring to the cardboard and plywood “Okievilles” scattered throughout California’s Central Valley. “They have planted trees and flowers. These flimsy shacks represent many a last stand to maintain self-respect.”

Hannah acknowleges her story’s connection to the current global catastrophe in an Author’s Note at the end of the book:

“My husband’s best friend, Tom, who was one of the earliest of our friends to encourage my writing and who was our son’s godfather, caught the virus last week and has just passed away. We cannot be with his widow, Lori, and his family to mourn.  Three years ago, I began writing this novel about hard times in America: the worst environmental disaster in our history; the collapse of the economy; the effect of massive unemployment. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that the Great Depression would become so relevant in our modern lives, that I would see so many people out of work, in need, frightened for the future.


As we know, there are lessons to be learned from history. Hope to be derived from hardships faced by others.  We’ve gone through bad times before and survived, even thrived. History has shown us the strength and durability of the human spirit.”

 

Quick Reads and Lists of Books

Although my tastes these days tend toward feel good stories, and I’ve forgotten about checking on all the award winners this year or grabbing new publications as soon as available,  I am still always looking for a good book to take me away from reality.

Fiona Davis took me to the New York City Library and favorite neighborhoods I wonder if I will ever see again in The Lions of Fifth Avenue.  An historical novel framed around a series of book thefts spans two generations of women as they navigate family and careers.  With a smattering of women’s rights and a big dose of family drama, the story is easy to follow and with a read-it-in-a-setting vibe.  It was a Valentine’s present to me through Libby, the library’s email guru, after a friend recommended it.  If you are a lover of New York City, a lover of libraries, or just want to escape into the stacks again, The Lions of Fifth Avenue will satisfy.

William Kent Krueger’s Thunder Bay also has an historical bent, with a suspenseful plot and a taste of the Old West in the seventh book in Krueger’s Cork O’Connell mystery/detective series.  Search for a long-lost son mingles with gold in Canada and the Ojibwe tribe in Northern Minnesota.  In his style of rich character development and slow moving plot, Krueger gave me a different perspective and a reason to turn the pages.  This paperback has been sitting on my shelf, and now Krueger has his eighteenth to be published in August, 2021.  I need to catch up.

I’ve preordered a stack of books:

  1. Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro    The story of Klara, an Artificial Intelligence Friend, who observes behaviors from her shelf in the store, hoping someone will choose her.
  2. Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams    The misadventures of a lovelorn Victorian lexicographer and a young woman investigating his adventures a century later.
  3. The Kitchen Front by Jennifer Ryan     During World War II, a BBC radio program hold a cooking contest with the grand prize as the program’s first-ever female cohost.  Four women vie for the chance to change their lives.

and, in case you are wondering, some of the award winners for 2020 are:

  • Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
  • Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown for the National Book Award
  • Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain for the Man Booker Award
  • Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet for the Women’s Prize for Fiction
  • Raven Leilani’s Luster for Center for Fiction First Novel Prize

Have you read any of them?

 

 

 

Got Milk?

Hard to believe it’s been almost a year since I was planning to see old friends in California and attend the annual Literary Conference to meet authors and pick up ideas.  My airline ticket is still outstanding and I won’t be using it because the conference will be virtual this year.  I do plan to log on but it will not be the same.

Reading is not the same.  When I can muster the motivation to open a book, it’s more likely a sequel to the  Bridgerton saga or the wonderful fable by Jane Smiley – Perestroika in Paris – recommended by my good friend.  And I read much more slowly, but perhaps the story of the horse, the dog, the raven, the rat, and a couple of ducks in Paris – and the map inside the cover – was one I was reluctant to see end.  How else could I vicariously be in Paris, and will I ever be there in person again?

The newsletter announcing the virtual literary conference had a few recommendations for books, and one title inspired me to look for it in Libby.  Neil Gaiman, author of so many of my favorites – The Good Omen, Coraline, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and more – delivered another gem in 2013 I missed – Fortunately, the Milk.

The story is simple: Dad goes out to get some milk for his kids, taking a long time,  but eventually returning with a carton. When asked why he took so long, he tells them a fantastical tale involving a spaceship of green globby aliens.   But it was the first paragraph that grabbed me – possibly because buying cartons of milk has become the bane of my existence these days when I fully expect to meet virus laden aliens in the grocery store.  It could be my story.

“There was only orange juice in the fridge.  Nothing else that you could put on cereal, unless you think that ketchup or mayonnaise or pickle juice would be nice on your Toasties, which I do not, and neither did my little sister, although she has eaten some pretty weird things in her day, like mushrooms in chocolate…”

Maybe I’ll read a little Gaiman today and pretend it’s green globby aliens who’ve taken over the world.  Oh wait, they have.

Circe – A Witchy Goddess for Our Times

Image of Circe Book Cover

🏺The Greeks attributed both good times and misfortune to the whims of the gods.  With the world still in turmoil, we are all hoping the gods get tired soon of tormenting us poor humans – enough already.  We need some good times. Reading Madeleine Miller’s Circe has me wishing for some spells or maybe an errant lightning bolt.

If you are a fan of Greek mythology as I am, having D’Aulaire’s children’s book as one of my most treasured still on my shelf, you will enjoy the retelling of how the world was once occupied by goddesses and nymphs, with unusual powers.  Although a minor character in Greek storytelling, Circe is the focus of Miller’s story, as she interacts with her father, the Sun, and Odysseus on his travels.  Miller cleverly weaves in other gods – Hermes, Athena, the Titans – as well as lesser known humans with skills – Daedalus, the architect and father of Icarus, as they interact with the main character.  The minotaur makes a brief appearance as Circe’s nephew, and Medea as her niece.

Impatient for a resolution to some of the teasing narrative, I often flipped to google to remind myself how the story progresses in the famous Greek poems. Why was Athena so worried about Circe’s son?  How was the famously beautiful Helen related?  Whatever happened to poor Prometheus and his liver? Who was Achilles’ lover?

But Miller has her own agenda for retelling the old tales with Circe as the heroine, “ a reclamation of one of myth’s reviled women.” as noted by author Clare Messud in her review of the book. Annalisa Quinn for NPR says: “{Circe is } a fierce goddess who, yes, turns men into pigs, but only because they deserve it.”

Though most readers may recall Circe from her dealings in the Odyssey,  Miller extrapolates a world from the few short lines from Homer’s poem to create more of her life, from her lonely childhood with Helios, the sun, as her scorching father, her first romance with a human and later a true love with Odysseus. Circe’s discovery and development of her magical powers gives her the well earned accolade of witch and her heritage makes her a goddess.

I downloaded Circe to my phone in 2018, when it was first published, but have not felt the urge to read it until now.  I’m glad I did.  The story was entertaining and flowed easily.  I knew how the story ended, but I persisted to finish.  From the pages, I noted a few lines relevant to me today I might not have appreciated two years ago:

“Beneath the smooth, familiar face of things, is another that waits to tear the world in two.”

 

“…the floor was always clean, the tables gleaming. The ashes vanished from the fireplace, the dishes washed themselves, and the firewood grew overnight. In the pantry jars of oil and wine, bowls of cheese and barley-grain, always fresh and full.”  A dream come true.

 

“Your wife sounds like a clever woman {says Circe to Odysseus}. {He answers} – She is. I cannot account for the fact that she married me, but since it is to my benefit, I try not to bring it to her attention.”

 

“What was the fight over? Let me see if I can remember the list.  He ticked his fingers. Vengeance, Lust, Hubris, Greed, Power.  What have I forgotten? Ah yes, vanity and pique.”

 

 

 

Thoughts…

Finding art museums in my travels is almost like looking for book stores.  My visits always inspire me, sometimes surprise me, often intrigue me.  From the Nelson Atkins Museum in Kansas City, the Getty Center in Los Angeles, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the Gardner Museum in Boston, and so many more. I have bookmarks and notecards from their gift shops, but, more importantly, I have memories I can call up anytime and vicariously revisit to feel better.  Since I cannot visit in person lately, those imagined visits can be a balm to earth-shattering reality.

One of my favorites is the National Gallery of Art, where I often sat in the garden alcove during my lunch hours, sipping expensive coffee and absorbing the tranquility of the surroundings. When I had time, I walked to the Capitol Building.  Although it is not known as a museum, it holds an astounding collection, from Trumball’s painting to the famous fresco on the ceiling.  Anytime I entered the Capitol, a feeling of awe came over me – as though I were in a museum or even a church.  Those around me spoke in hushed tones.

I told a good friend I had dreamed about having dinner with friends, talking about the art we has just visited in a museum.  She told me it was my mind taking a break from the insanity just seen on television, and she is right.  Images of the desecration of the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. will remain in my mind and not be forgotten.  But, someday, hopefully soon, civilized behavior will return, and art, in person, will be the balm it always has been.

In the meantime, the word “base” keeps assaulting me on the news.  The word has a page of definitions in Merriam-Webster, some referring to the noun in mathematics, science, or architecture, but the one that seems to best fit the description of the rioters at the Capitol this week is the adjective: “lacking or indicating the lack of higher qualities of mind or spirit, {or} being of comparatively low value and having relatively inferior properties.”