Breathing Through History

With fireworks in London, bells ringing in Paris, and Americans dancing in the streets of Philadelphia, Chicago, and  Los Angeles, many are breathing a sigh of relief – the election for the American President is over. The celebrations are momentous but momentary as the pandemic still roars through the world.  But, for now, many of us can stop holding our breath.

As I talked to like-minded friends this morning, two political  books came out of the conversations – books I would not have thought to read, but now am interested:

The Luckiest Man by Mark Salter and The Red and the Blue by Steve Kornacki

And with Kamala Harris now the first woman in the White House, artist Kara Walker came to attention with her silhouette of the first Black and Indian Vice President elect.

 

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

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.