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?

 

 

 

Looking Forward to 2021 in Books

Author Sophie Hannah reminded me that when I curse an inanimate object for getting in my way, causing me to smash my toes or bruise my elbow, it is, after all, not the inanimate object’s fault.  In an article listing her favorite books for the new year, Hannah notes:  “I’ve heard many say good riddance to 2020 and I understand why, but it also makes me want to correct the misunderstanding. A year is a moral-value-free and agenda-free unit of time. It has neither agency nor culpability. It’s merely a container inside which we have experiences.”

She suggests you start your 2021 reading with Abigail Dean’s Girl A a psychological drama about a girl whose new life starts when she escapes from an abusive family. “It’s a riveting page-turner, and full of hope in the face of despair.”  Publication: February 2

Fans of Kristin Hannah will be happy to know she has a new book – The Four Winds – set in the depression era of 1934 Texas. Elsa Martinelli must make the choice between the land she loves and moving west in search of a better life.   Publication: February 2, 2021

 

Here are a few more books to look forward to in 2021:

Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishaguro focuses on what it means to be human in his new novel Klara and the Seed.  Klara, an Artificial Friend, smiles and nods to customers in the store while tracking each day by the sun’s arc. When a mother and daughter adopt Klara, repressed emotion springs open, fleshing out Ishiguro’s themes of resilience and vulnerability in our crazy world.  Publication: March 2, 2021

Remember The Nest?  The author Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney returns with her next novel in Good Company, a tale of a marriage in mid-life and the secrets that threaten to upend the relationship between Flora and her husband, as well as with her best friend, Margot. Publication Date: April 6, 2021

Chris Bohjalian returns with a new thriller in Hour of the Witch. In Boston in 1662, A young Puritan woman plots her escape from an abusive marriage while being careful to avoid any accusations of witchcraft. April 20, 2021

The first novel in nearly a decade by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahira, Whereabouts is set in an unnamed city with the story’s first-person narrator a single woman in her mid-40s.   Lahiri wrote the novel in Italian and translated it into English. Publication: April 27, 2021

Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead is an historical novel about a female aviator at the turn of the twentieth century whose disappearance becomes the basis for a big Hollywood production a century later. Publication: May 4, 2021

Jean Hanff Korelitz, whose book You Should Have Known became the basis for the HBO series The Undoing,  returns with another tale of deceit and betrayal. Jake, looking for his next bestseller, tries   literary theft to rise to stardom in The Plot.  Publication: May 11, 2021

More books to come.  Ann Patchett is promising a collection of essays in November, and Beatriz Williams has a new historical fiction in June.

Finally, back to author Sophie Hannah for a final recommendation – The Enchiridion by Epictetus

Epictetus was a slave and a Stoic who believed that “men are disturbed not by the things that happen, but by the opinions about the things”. We can’t control what happens in the world, or even to our own bodies, but Epictetus believes we can always control our own minds by, for example, deciding to …be at peace with whatever we cannot prevent from happening.

I just ordered the paperback for $1.99 but you can get it for free on Project Gutenberg.

Looking forward to next year and more great books…

Happy New Year!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reading Through the Noise

Sometimes the noise of politicians and news broadcasts can be overwhelming, and turning off the dial and turning into a book can be a salve.  A few books I’ve read lately:

Magic Lessons by Alice Hoffman

Halloween may be the same for those in denial, but for many who are cautiously protecting themselves and their loved ones, the old traditions of partying or trick-or-treat from house to house are over.  Witches prevail, however; they are everywhere, both good and bad, and Alice Hoffman reminds readers of their trickery and power as well as the history of their persecution in colonial Massachusetts and seventeenth century England.  In Magic Lessons, Hoffman focuses on the ancestors of the characters from Practical Magic, famously converted into a movie with Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock.  The story combines historical fact with fictional lives, complete with spells and potions, as well as romance, intrigue and betrayal.  If you are a fan of Hoffman’s other witching stories, you will find yourself happily submersed, as I did, in an old world with magical possibilities.

A Life on Our Planet: My Witness Statement and a Vision for the Future by Sir David Attenborough

Writing a book at ninety-four years of age is in itself an accomplishment, but Attenborough’s short tale, complete with pictures, not only recalls the highlights of his amazing adventures through the lens of the tragedy facing the environment and the world, he also proposes a solution.  After chronicling how the world was and how it became desperately what it is today,  Attenborough leans into his own experiences to define the planet’s evolution within his lifetime.   I had expected a large heavy book, and was surprised when the small tome of under three hundred pages arrived.  Attenborough is his usual charming and succinct self, not wasting words or emotions, but calling attention to the world’s dilemma and what we can do to save it.

Leave It As It Is by David Gessner

I listened and watched a zoom discussion of Leave It As It Is sponsored by Powell Books with David Gessner in conversation with Teddy Roosevelt (played by an actor).  As they bantered about Roosevelt’s comment at the Grand Canyon (“leave it as it is”) that lead to creating national monuments throughout the West, they brought the discussion to the environment and the future of caring for the land.

Gessner mentioned the 1906 Antiquities Act,  used by Presidents to designate national monuments that reflect the full measure of the country’s history. President Theodore Roosevelt, who signed the Antiquities Act into law, created 18 monuments, including the Grand Canyon and Olympic National Park in Washington, totaling more than a million acres. Since then, sixteen presidents have used the act for preservation and protection.  The Trump administration is now trying to rescind Obama’s declaration of Bears Ears in Utah as a protected area.

Like Attenborough, Gessner wants to motivate readers to be aware of the importance of preserving the natural beauty of the land, with the same urgency Teddy Roosevelt felt for future generations when he said: “I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use the natural resources of our land; but I do not recognize the right to waste them, or to rob, by wasteful use, the generations that come after us.”

I downloaded a sample of the book, and it follows the same conversational tone the author established in the zoom interview, often including Teddy Roosevelt quoting his own famous lines. Gessner and Teddy Roosevelt on the zoom call were entertaining as well as educational.

More reviews of books by Alice Hoffman:  Alice Hoffman 

 

Simon the Fiddler

Reading Paulette Jiles’ Simon the Fiddler was like a quiet meditation at first, which is probably just what I needed.  I read slowly, taking in the author’s poetic style, the bits of song interspersed in the narrative, her all encompassing descriptions of the wild land from Ohio to Texas in post Civil War America.   If life seems difficult now, imagining those old times with yellow fever and impossible living conditions, had the unexpected side effect of an appreciation for today’s modern progress, such as it is.

Despite the pull of Confederate  conscription, the misery of military camps, and later the task of making a living as a musician, Simon is an optimist and a realist.  Coming from hardscrabble beginnings in Kentucky, he is determined to use his talent to make a good life for himself.  After the war is over, he manages to pull together a quartet, who with borrowed clean white shirts, follow the music from his violin to entertain – for money.

When Simon meets Doris, an Irish immigrant and indentured servant to a Union officer, he falls in love.  Through years of secret but limited correspondence, as she travels to San Antonio with the officer’s family, and he makes his way through Galveston playing his fiddle to save money for land and a wife, they form a bond until they finally meet again.  During this sojourn, Jiles slowly reveals the beauty of the land and its challenges.  Simon’s confrontation with an alligator is a highlight.

Finally, the action begins with Simon and Doris reunited in San Antonio, with romance sizzling as Doris plays the piano and Simon his fiddle. The story takes on a thrilling pace – intrigue, secret meetings, threats – culminating in a confrontation in a bar, ending badly.  All seems lost at the end – Simon in jail accused of murdering a man, the violin destroyed, and Simon beaten and wounded – from slashes to his gut to crushed knuckles.  And Doris?  Could she escape the Colonel’s sexual advances?

All ends well, thank goodness, because by this time I had invested a lot of time in Simon.  But the ending is not all sunsets and roses.  Jiles’ last notes are:

He saw all the hard road before them unrolling like a scroll and their names there,  for better or for worse, written in the Book of Life.

And so, life goes on …

After reading and enjoying Paulette Jiles’ News of the World, I had some expectations for her new book.  But this book is longer and slower moving; for a while I wondered if anything would happen, but the descriptions, the language. and the music kept me going.  And, it was worth it; Jiles delivers a moving tribute to pioneers’ determination and grit.  Not all were farmers and ranchers – some were fiddlers.

Review: News of the World