Historian Jill Lepore eloquently pieces together the sparse writings of a little-known 18th-century American woman who also happens to be the favorite sister of Benjamin Franklin. In her meticulously researched work Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, the Harvard University professor reveals a humble woman whose station does not dampen her upbeat and quick-witted spirit. The siblings emerge as two restless spirits, connected through their love of writing yet separated by their assumed roles of the time.
Born in 1712 in a two-story wooden house on Union Street in Boston, the youngest child of Josiah and Abiah Franklin was expected to learn to read but not necessarily how to write. Her mother taught her, as did Benjamin, who was six years older. Married at 15, Jane Franklin Mecom's endless days of cleaning, washing and mothering were in contrast to her glamorous brother's life. She cherished letters from her brother. Their lifelong correspondence reveals a keen, opinionated woman who is a shrewd political observer and a lover of books. With 12 children, she came up with her own way of chronicling births and deaths by creating her own slim book called the "Book of Ages." The book became a remembrance and her story. It survives, while most of her letters to her brother do not.
Lepore, a National Book Award finalist and staff writer for The New Yorker, is passionate about her subject even when evidence is scarce. She explores the political, social and commercial sides of the times in compelling character-driven prose. And while she freely draws the parallel life of the siblings, it is the juxtaposition of men’s and women's roles in Colonial America that reminds readers of the extraordinary fortitude of women like Jane. With 148 pages of notes, source material, reproduced documents and time period detail and spellings, the narrative unfolds slowly. Readers of early American or women's history are rewarded with a fresh look at one of this country's most influential, iconic leaders and the sister in his reflection.
A dizzying amount of wealth permeates the stone fortifications in Anthony Russell’s entertaining new memoir, Outrageous Fortune: Growing Up at Leeds Castle. What seems most important is what the wealth symbolizes and how it shapes the lives of those it cradles. Yes, the tweedy set flaunts its well-placed connections. There are pheasant-shoots, duck launches and tea-sipping beneath museum-bound tapestries. Not surprisingly, Russell admits there are also consequences to being reared in a "gilded bubble,” where everything material is handed to you. Russell aims to satisfy our curiosity.
For those not familiar with medieval fortresses, Leeds Castle is about as splendid as they come. Located in Kent, England, the former Norman stronghold with ties to six queens of England is among the most visited historic buildings in Britain. Its 900-year history is the stuff of fairy tales. Readers will appreciate the complement of black and white photographs.
The writer-musician Russell, who grew up in this milieu, was exposed to the stuff of kings at an early age thanks to his maternal grandmother and chatelaine, the bold, indomitable Lady Baillie. "Granny B" purchased Leeds Castle in 1926 for the American sum of $874,000. It is here that Russell spent his childhood in the 1950s, absorbing "the castle way." This included eccentric "ceremonies" like fussing over baby ducks and enduring family gatherings where no one paid him much mind. With such a privileged start, gearing up for adulthood beyond the castle gate would have its challenges.
Writing with wry humor, Russell alternates between being sardonic and wistful. He points out unapologetically some of the silliness while poignantly recalling the shear splendor of it all and gratitude for being a part of it. We get to know some of the uniquely British personalities (with names like Morg, Guysy-Wee and Mr. Elves) who help add the color that make this frank, behind-the-scenes look a delightful jaunt, just in time for the return of another extravagant household in Downton Abbey.
Paul Harding's second novel, Enon, brings back the Crosby progeny in this not-quite-a-sequel to his stunning 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning debut, Tinkers. In this latest effort, the grandson of Tinkers' dying protagonist reels over the sudden loss of his only child in the same tiny New England town. It is a story not so much about death as it is about the physical and emotional spiraling into grief's crevasse and the slow, tentative climb out.
Charlie narrates this story with a hand-wringing anguish. His 13-year-old daughter Kate has been struck and killed by a car while riding her bicycle to the beach. It's an unimaginable bond lost, not just for Charlie but for his wife, too, who promptly leaves her depressed husband to return to her native Minnesota. Life is at its lowest point for Charlie as he descends into a morass of drugs and alcohol. For him, grieving demands a continual rewind of the past: his time with his daughter, his memories of his clock-enthusiast grandfather, the history of Enon. Soon healing begins to seem uncomfortably overdue.
Harding delivers metaphor-laden prose and rich detail that relentlessly probe Charlie's grief through his hallucinations that are, at once, dreamy and remarkably lucid. At one point Charlie tries to capture "the function of loss'" through a mathematical proof he writes on a wall. "My thoughts quickly became confused as I tried to demonstrate the calculus of grief." Another time he digs out his grandfather's fly fishing rod he intended to show Kate and begins casting off the old oak stump in his overgrown backyard until he crawls, exhausted and defeated, back into his house. With its disquieting tone, this short novel of 238 pages oozes like a scab that will not heal until finally, a choice must be rendered: to heal or not.
Baltimore author Rafael Alvarez discusses his new book, Tales from the Holy Land, on Thursday, Jan. 16 at 7 p.m. at the North Point Branch. The former reporter for The Baltimore Sun and writer for The Wire recently answered questions for Between the Covers about his latest collection of short stories on the magic of old Baltimore.
Q. Your new collection of short stories, Tales from the Holy Land, comes out this month. If you had to choose one story that epitomizes the gritty resolve of your hometown, what would it be?
A. "Junie Bug," in which a man spends his life digging in Leakin Park for the body of his father; and "The Sacred Heart of Ruthie," in which an orphan raised by the Oblate Sisters of Providence grows up to be a heart surgeon.
Q. This is your third collection of short fiction. What makes you favor short stories as your literary medium? How did this latest book come about?
A. I write fiction every day – about a half hour to an hour a day – in between the journalism and screenwriting I have to do to make a living. When I have enough for a new book I string them together and because I always use the same cast of "Holy Land" characters – Basilio, Grandpop, Nieves, Orlo and Leini, Miss Bonnie – it reads more like a novelized "mural" than stand alone short stories. [As a] side note, the 2013 Nobel Prize winner, Alice Munro, works exclusively in the short story genre.
Q. As a former reporter for The Baltimore Sun and former writer for the HBO cop drama, The Wire, you have witnessed a lot of Baltimore's heartbreak. How do you keep cynicism from overtaking your writing?
A. There are two, maybe three Baltimores within the city. I have lived in Baltimore for all of my 55 years – was educated here, raised my children here – and have never been the victim of a crime. I am thankful for that, but I'm not ignorant of how fortunate I am to have been born into the 1960s middle-class and not the entrenched underclass. I keep cynicism away from my art and my soul by means of hope, which I incorporate into both, by believing that the more you give away the more hopeful you become.
Q. Talk a little bit about your family background and its influence on your fiction writing.
A. The best answer to this question is found in the story The Fountain of Highlandtown, which won the 1994 Baltimore City Artscape fiction award and is included in Tales from the Holy Land. The story was my first real success in the world of fiction and, in many ways, is the provenance for all of the stories to come.
Sadness frequently visited Kamala, but seldom was there time to succumb to its undertow. Like the monsoon that wiped out her Bengali village and claimed her family, Kamala's turbulent life was an unpredictable force leading her to reinvent herself over and over. In Sujata Massey's eloquent new historical novel The Sleeping Dictionary, India's struggles to free itself from British imperial rule coalesce with one woman's efforts to become independent even as racial and class barriers stand in the way.
Kamala was not always her name. As a child she was called Pom, born into the lowest caste in India. After a wave destroys her village, the 10-year-old orphan is rescued, embarking on what seems like a lifetime of difficult transitions. Christened Sarah, she is now content as a servant at an all-girls boarding school, where she has her dear friend, Bidushi, and her love of language and books. When she is accused of a theft she did not commit she flees, only to disembark in the wrong city, where a degrading experience awaits. By the time she arrives in Calcutta in search of a reputable position and new identity, she is hiding many secrets from her employer, a kindly British Indian civil service officer who only knows her as Kamala, well-born and well-read.
Massey, whose father was born in Calcutta, calls upon lovely descriptive language and a strong sense of place to evoke the troubled peasant life and colonial society of the 1930s and 1940s Raj India that is the center of Kamala's bumpy journey. With astute social commentary of women's roles and layers of Indian history, culture and language, she creates an authentic voice in Kamala that is as complex as the identities she has assumed. Betrayal, love, espionage and tragedy all find their way into Massey's story. The former Baltimore Sun reporter, best known for her award-winning Rei Shimura mysteries, has more in store for readers with her new Daughters of Bengal series. Here's looking forward to the next one.
Literary fans of something old and something new now have an opportunity to see, in person, the art masterpieces at the heart of two respected writers' novels. Tracy Chevalier's hugely successful Girl with a Pearl Earring and Donna Tartt's eagerly anticipated new novel, The Goldfinch, feature paintings by Dutch masters now on temporary display in the United States. Johannes Vermeer's beloved "Girl with a Pearl Earring" and Carel Fabritius's exquisite "Goldfinch" are currently part of a 15-painting exhibition on loan to the Frick Collection in New York until January 19.
Girl with the Pearl Earring, Chevalier's second novel, is about Vermeer's 16-year-old housemaid who becomes the subject of his painting. It was greeted with popular and critical success following its publication in 1999. In addition to some 4 million copies sold, the book was turned into a movie.
The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt's sweeping new novel, is part suspense thriller, part coming-of-age novel. It centers on a young man named Theo, whose life is changed forever following a bomb attack at a New York museum that leaves his mother dead and him in possession of a rare Fabritius painting.
Now at the final American venue of a global tour, the paintings are traveling for only the second time in 30 years as the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in The Hague undergoes an extensive two-year renovation. Here is your opportunity to get up close and personal with the paintings behind the stories. Visit the Frick Collection for more information.
Witnesses. Accomplices. Killers. One thing is clear from Wendy Lower’s chilling new book Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields. Regardless of the prism through which German women viewed the Third Reich’s maddening quest for racial purity few escape Lower’s dogged search for the answer to “why?” Why did this “darkest side of female activism” rear its head and consume a generation of women that found themselves thrust into a war they did not want but nonetheless embraced for their own selfishness and ambition.
For the thousands of women coming of age in Hitler’s Nazi Germany, the dividing line between home front and battlefront was practically nonexistent. While most women found ways to distance themselves from the violence of the war, a third of the female population was actively engaged in a Nazi Party organization. Many volunteered to be sent to the Eastern Front where some of the worst atrocities against Jews were documented. Clerical, teaching and nursing jobs became the sinister underpinnings of the Nazi machine, where new career tracks beckoned young women seeking a steady paycheck. How these women, some barely out of their teens, others young mothers, evolved into indifferent bystanders or cold-blooded killers, is the thrust of Lower's dramatic account.
Lower sorts her 13 "main characters" into three categories: witnesses, accomplices and killers. It is the latter perpetrators of genocide that evoke the most study. Women like Johanna Altvater, a secretary who lures Jewish children with candy only to shoot them, or Liesel Willhaus, wife of an SS commander who shoots Jewish slave workers from her balcony with her child in tow, are impossible to fathom. Lower, who is a Holocaust historian, explores shocking behaviors like these in this 68-year-old story of one of the most disturbing puzzles of women's behavior. Hitler's Furies has recently been named a finalist for the National Book Award.
For Celia Cassill, life since her husband's premature death has been about keeping what's important close to her. Her memories, her grief, her personal space are hers alone. The young widow in Amy Grace Loyd's graceful debut, The Affairs of Others, goes about her days like a figure in a dollhouse, her life compartmentalized in the converted Brooklyn brownstone she purchased after her husband died.
Celia has carefully chosen the tenants who rent her three apartments based on their ability to respect each other's privacy and mind their own business. "There is a certain consonance of character I look for," she tells George, an English teacher who wants to sublet his rooms to a recently divorced middle-age woman named Hope. Celia reluctantly agrees. Soon Hope's problems seep into her landlord's guarded milieu and Celia finds herself increasingly drawn into the attractive woman's orbit. It's not long before the lives of her other tenants ignite her curiosity as well, like the mismatched couple whose relationship is on the rocks and the elderly ferry captain who suddenly wanders off. Celia begins tiptoeing around their messy lives as she reevaluates her own through trial and error, sex and violence.
Loyd, the former literary editor at Playboy magazine, exposes with elegant, spare prose grief’s manifestation and its tentacle-like reach. “Certain grief trumps others,” Celia says in her somber, observant voice that resonates with the intimate knowledge of dying. Readers of Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking or Lily Tuck's I Married You for Happiness will recognize lost and found joy in this accomplished first effort.
Nurse Cathy Green looked at the elderly lady lying on the asphalt floor of the hospital's parking garage. The lung cancer patient was wheezing. Her oxygen tank was near empty. The rattled nurse couldn't stand to watch this woman die just because no one came to rescue her, so she walked away. It is gut-wrenching scenes like this that stay with you in Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital, Sheri Fink's riveting, exhaustively researched account of what happened at one particular hospital following Hurricane Katrina.
For the doctors and nurses at Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans, the principles of the Hippocratic Oath were severely tested in the days following the storm when the floodwaters rose. Keeping the sick alive became an exercise in ping-pong triage. Patients were controversially grouped for evacuation. Rancid air and pitch-black interior rooms made conditions unbearable. Help was slow in coming. Complicating the picture was the "hospital within a hospital." LifeCare housed the most critically ill patients on Memorial's seventh floor. Who gets help first? Who is evacuated last? In Memorial's case, Fink attempts to contextualize what really happened after the hurricane and who was responsible for the 45 patients who died there under suspicious circumstances.
A medical doctor who has worked in disaster relief, Fink won the Pulitzer Prize in investigative reporting for her 2009 article, “The Deadly Choices at Memorial.” Published in The New York Times magazine, it chronicled the mercy killings at the hospital under horrendous conditions. In her book's shifting perspectives and reconstructed narrative, she places readers where they need to be: inside the mindset of those who were there. "We went into survival mode and were just trying to keep them alive with food and water," said a staff member. Readers who like their narrative nonfiction with some kick will find this issue-oriented page-turner of ethical choices made by a beleaguered staff a difficult read to put down.
At its heart, Sara Farizan's contemporary coming of age novel If You Could Be Mine is a love story about the romantic relationship between two teenage girls from Iran and the complex decisions they face. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, there are no public displays of affection between the sexes, no Facebook, no women in football stadiums. But for best friends Sahar and Nasrin, it never mattered. They had their stolen kisses and untested promises. They had each other. Since they were small, Sahar never doubted she wanted to marry her best friend, Nasrin.
Unfortunately, relationships like Sahar and Nasrin’s must be kept secret in a country where any one gay is an enemy of the state. So, when 18-year-old Nasrin decides to do what society expects and marry a young male doctor because "he makes sense," Sahar can hardly breathe. She searches for a way they can be together openly. She believes she has found it with sexual reassignment surgery, a legal option in Iran. The problem is that Sahar is not even sure she wants to be a man. "She needs to know this isn't a game. It isn't something you just try on," a transgender acquaintance she meets through her cousin explains.
Farizan, an Iranian American who was born in the U.S., exposes in her simple writing style the absence of choices for young women while weaving in historical perspective. She does not condemn Iranian culture. "I respect a woman's decision to cover up as long as it is the woman's decision," Sahar says. It shows the naïveté, impulsiveness and self-deprecating humor that define youths who are still defining themselves. Mature teens and adults alike will find a tender yet compelling read in this fresh debut.