Rodham

What if Hillary Rodham had not married Bill Clinton?  Could she have been more successful?  And what would have become of Bill?

In her fictionalized rewrite of history, Curtis Sittenfeld creates her own version of lives and politics in Rodham.   While the author clearly admires Bill Clinton’s intelligence and charisma, she finds his philandering unacceptable, sometimes bordering on criminal.  Hillary, on the other hand, while lacking in essential glad-handing and manipulation skills helpful to aspiring candidates, comes across as the true, clear-eyed, brilliant leader, if only someone would recognize her talents.   In Sittenfeld’s version, Hillary does not excuse or condone Bill’s sexual predatoriness, and breaks off their engagement to escape back to a respectable career as a law professor – for a while, anyway.

Although the details can seem pedantic and slow moving, they follow the author’s tangential history, with enough references to actual happenings to make the reader nostalgic.  The actions and the quotes may be real but they are attributed to different players, depending on how well they serve the storyline.  At times, the ingredients get mixed up, and you may find yourself googling to check the facts, for example to reaffirm Carol Moseley Braun was indeed the first Black woman Senator, but Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, even Joe Biden stand out clearly.

Sittenfeld changes just enough history to make it palatable to those who still cringe at the current state of American politics, and offers her own surprising slate of American Presidents from 1988 to 2012, ending with the election in 2016.  She does tell you who wins in 2016, but how may be more surprising.  No spoilers here.

I remember colleagues commenting on the scandal of Monica and the blue dress before Clinton was impeached.  Some said his political prowess cancelled out anything he did personally; other countries would be more accepting of dalliances as long as he was doing a good job.  But others said character was integral in fostering trust in a leader, and without trust, a leader was ineffective.  Sittenfeld would agree with the latter.

I wondered how lives and careers would have changed if history had followed Sittenfeld’s progression.  Many may owe their careers to the real Hillary, who did not leave, and helped her husband get elected President.  In the book, one of the characters comments:

“…there are other lives out there we could have led, if circumstances were only sightly different…”

Don’t we all wonder at times what if – what if you had taken that job on the West Coast, what if you had attended a different school, what if you had dated another person…there are many alternate lives you can imagine some days.  Sittenfeld’s imagined alternative history does not have the page turning expectations of a thriller, but it is fun, and maybe a little enlightening.

Related Review:

You Think It, I’ll Say It

 

Comfort in Crisis – Read a Book

Are books contagious?  Could the virus now circling the globe be hiding in the pages of a library book?  Librarians strongly advise not trying to wash down the pages of your library books with Purell, but the Library of Congress has closed and Ron Charles of the Washington Post notes books returned to the library may have to be quarantined.  He writes about the Great Books Scare in the eighteenth century when books were sterilized by fire, and advises us to “…stay alert to what might ignite such paranoia again.”

When customers are fighting over the last ream of toilet paper, and breathing seems optional or even dangerous, a book can be as comforting as chocolate.  Fiction can take you somewhere else for a while.  I have a friend who does not check out books from the library, preferring to order audible or ebooks, sometimes buying one new.  I do have two books from the library:

  1. All This Could Be Yours by Jami Attenberg
  2. A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende

It is somewhat reassuring that I am the first to check them out.

But my savior may be Eric Larson’s new nonfiction book, The Splendid and the Vile, which I pre-ordered and received in the mail in its spanking new condition.  There’s a different aroma from a new book, and it’s comforting to turn crisp clean pages, but despite Larson’s subject matter, his story may be reassuring.  As Larson describes Churchill’s calm  leadership dealing with the escalation of World War II in Britain in the year before America joined the fray, the story evolves like fiction.  Yet it is not.  It’s a good reminder; the worst happens again and again, and somehow we manage.

What are you reading?

 

The Secrets We Kept

Dr. Zhivago is at the heart of Lara Prescott’s debut novel – The Secrets We Kept, as the action flips back and forth from Boris Pasternak and his lover Olga Ivinskaya in Russia to secretaries who are really American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operatives in Washington, D.C.  How could a romantic epic raise the ire of the Russian government, especially Kruschev, and tempt the CIA to smuggle copies into Russia to prompt its citizens to question their government?

Although Pasternak’s novel is a love story, but with political undertones, Prescott uses historical research to reveal the constraints the Russian author and others in the country endured.  When the book is banned in Russia but published in Italy, and eventually everywhere in the world but in Russia, Olga, who is not only Pasternak’s muse and mistress but also his literary agent is sent to a Russian prison and he is under constant surveillance. Although I knew the story drawn from Pasternak’s life experience – the main character who does not leave his wife, while passionately connected to his beautiful mistress, I did not know the intrigue behind publishing the book in Italy and smuggling it back into Russia for “soft propaganda warfare – using art, music, and literature . . . to emphasize how the Soviet system did not allow free thought.”   The Secrets We Kept proved educational as well as informative.

I found the East section of the book describing the lives and loves in Russia more compelling than the West with its secret missions and nebulous relationships, but the idea “that literature could change the course of history” was enticing and prompted me to find the book once banned in Russia – not that long ago.  Like many famous Russian novels, Dr. Zhivago has been adapted to film, and I vaguely remember watching the snowy scenes with beautiful Julie Christie and handsome Omar Sheriff, but I had never read the book. In fact, I may have only experienced great Russian novels late at night through the classic movie channel – War and Peace, Anna Karenina, The Sea Gull. Pasternak was a poet first and his words were acclaimed as powerful as well as expressive when the Nobel Prize Committee cited him “for his important achievement both in contemporary lyrical poetry and in the field of the great Russian epic tradition.” This book is available for free from the Gutenberg Press, and it seems a good place to initiate my reading of Russian literature.

As the book flips back and forth from East (Russia) and West (CIA), the narrator shifts to different characters and it’s not always clear who is talking.  The Western section focuses on two secretary/agents and their intersecting personal lives, leading to an ambiguous ending, but the historical facts shine in the Eastern section.  Of course, like its Russian counterpart – the Secrets We Kept has been optioned for a movie but the book would make for an interesting book club discussion.

The Fountains of Silence

In The Fountains of Silence, Ruta Sepetys unpeals the layers of horror inside Francisco Franco’s Spain.  His dictatorship lasted over 30 years, while Europe turned a blind eye and the United States made deals to profit itself, often at the expense of Spain’s poorer citizens.  Within the context of a Spanish family still suffering the consequences of the 1930’s Civil War in 1950, and a young American blissfully ignorant in his bubble of wealth and privilege, Sepetys writes a story with sound historical notes.

Photography and romance wield strong influences on the young hero, eighteen year old Daniel Matheson, when he returns to Madrid to visit his mother’s homeland with his Texas oil baron father.  The newly constructed Hilton creates a backdrop for privileged American businessmen and their families, while the underbelly of the building keeps the secrets of the impoverished locals who serve as maids and bellboys.  Daniel falls for Ana, the hotel maid assigned to his family, and through her discovers the hidden world of Franco’s Spain.

Sepetys periodically inserts letters and speeches with quotes from real sources, providing a provocative perspective on how the American government and capitalist leaders forgave fascism to do business with Franco’s regime. The well researched details brought Franco’s Spain and its people to life, while reflecting greed, political corruption, and the determination to overcome them.

At the heart of the story is an ongoing mystery. Babies are separated from their parents at birth and redistributed as orphans to be adopted by more “desirable” families.  Daniel becomes inadvertently involved in the intrigue and tries to use his photojournalism to stem the corruption before he returns to Texas, but without success.

The ending jumps to twenty years later, with Franco dead and  Daniel returning to Spain with his younger sister.  The finale is both romantic and nostalgic, with hopes for a promising future for both the characters and the country finally resurrected from years of oppression.

This was a time and place I knew little about, and I found it an easy way to learn history, while enjoying a love story with a happy ending.

 

The Giver of Stars

Where do you get your books? Imagine your librarian delivered them personally to your door as JoJo Moyes’ Kentucky packhorse librarians do in her latest novel – The Giver of Stars.

Chronicling the real story of Appalachian women in the WPA (Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration), Moyes creates a tale about five women, who ride mules and horses to deliver books to outlying areas in the Kentucky hills. Drunk moonshiners, coal barons, and the general attitude of men in the nineteen thirties make their job much harder, but the women persevere to bring literacy to unlikely places and to provide backwoods women with important armor besides their shotguns – the ability to read books.

Although not as compelling as some of her former novels, The Giver of Stars offers all the same components – adventure, romance, and breathtaking drama. The women each have a burden to overcome but they manage to persevere through prejudice, family restrictions, physical hardship, and, of course, the men. Not all the men are villains, however. Moyes has two love interests who manage to not only respect but also aid the women when they most need help.

Van Cleve, the controlling wealthy owner of the lands he is destroying with his coal mining, is the villain. As the story progresses, it seems likely he will prevail. If you have read any of Moyes’ books, you know she can be counted on for a happy ending, so I am not offering a spoiler to tell you she comes through again in this one, but the solution is almost at the end of the book and seems contrived.

In researching the novel, I found an uncomfortable note about another author claiming to have written a very similar novel published not long before this one. Author Kim Richardson’s novel – The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek – also about the packhorse women of Kentucky, was published a few months before Moyes’ novel. Her imagined characters face many of the same issues and incidents as Moyes’ women. Although Richardson brought her concerns to the publisher, the company decided no legal action on copyright infringement was warranted, and Richardson has declined to sue on her own. 

My knowledgeable librarian who has read Richardson’s book tells me it has more of a science fiction vibe, but uses the same historical premise as Moyes. Richardson’s book is in my library system, and I have ordered it to compare notes myself. 

From volunteering at the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped in Hawaii, I know amazing librarians who give personalized service to the blind, identifying books they might like, chatting on the phone with patrons to discover their interests in reading, and mailing large print books or books on tape to their doors.  Librarians are among my favorite people, and literacy is among the issues I hold dear, so there can’t be enough books about both topics for me.