ELEANOR ROOSEVELT’S SECRET LIFE: WHITE HOUSES

If you’re the type of person who likes “real” historical novels, ones that peer into the lives of actual historical figures directly, rather than looking at famous or infamous people through made up characters who happen to orbit around them, and if you’re interested in the era of the 1930’s and 1940’s in America, then we have a new book for you!  It’s Amy Bloom’s newest novel, White Houses, and it tells the story of Lorena Hickok and her relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt.

Amy Bloom is an excellent writer, and fond of historical fiction.  Her last book, Lucky Us, followed a rather eccentric pair of sisters through the world of 1940’s America, and it was a fun read, filled with historical detail and fascinating characters.  

Lorena Hickok, known as “Hick”, has become known to the general public, if obliquely, through Ken Burns’ television series about the Roosevelt family, but she was more than just a footnote to the Roosevelts’ marriage. She was, as White Houses demonstrates, a fascinating person in her own right, a woman who started out with nothing and made herself into one of the prominent journalists of the era, which was, it’s worth noting, not an era in which women were assumed to be able to do the same kind of work as men.

Her relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt, which started when Hick was covering FDR’s first run for the presidency in 1932, forms the spine of the book.  The two women were very different: Hick was outgoing and brash, as she had to be in order to make a success of herself in a man’s world, whereas Eleanor was kind of shy and introverted, unsure whether she had what it took to be the wife of the most powerful man in the world. And while they had to hide the true nature of their “special friendship”, due to the rampant homophobia of the period, this book leaves no doubt that this was love, deep and powerful, shaping their lives.

Hick, our point of view character, had a bird’s eye view of everything that went on in the White House, from Eleanor’s daily routine to FDR’s relationship with his lover, to the behavior of FDR and Eleanor’s children (spoiler alert: they do not come off well in this telling), and seeing things through her intelligent and observant eyes gives us a different perspective on one of the most well known periods of American history.

If you’re doing the Field Library Reading Challenge this year, this book counts for the category of “Read a Book about the Great Depression” (as you can see, I’m pretty loose and forgiving about what fits in particular categories), but you don’t need an excuse to read this lovely historical novel about two extraordinary women.

 

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FIELD NOTES BOOK FOR MARCH, 2018: FURIOUSLY HAPPY

After a great discussion of the February book, No One Cares about Crazy People, the Field Notes book group chose our next book, which we will be discussing on March 17 (my birthday!): Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things, by Jenny Lawson.  Copies are already available at the Field Library, and more will be coming in through the week, so if you’re interested, come on in and pick one up.

Furiously Happy is a hard book to describe. The author, Jenny Lawson, admits right up front that she has mental health problems.  She’s suffered from depression and anxiety disorders for most of her life.  However, this is not a sad book like No One Cares about Crazy People.  Quite the contrary.  Lawson has such a sense of humor, such a delightful writing style and so much life and energy that this is one of the funniest books I’ve read in years.  I don’t want to give away any of the particularly hysterical parts of the book (most of it is laugh out loud funny).  Let me just say that when I read it for the first time, I was riding on a Metro North train to New York City, and I was laughing so hard the woman sitting in the seat next to me actually moved to another seat.

There’s much to discuss about the book, including whether her husband should be considered for sainthood now or whether the church should wait for his death to do it (really, he puts up with a lot), whether Lawson’s approach to life is a good way to deal with horrible things even if you don’t have mental illnesses and why we don’t all have taxidermy raccoons with outstretched arms to give people a hug. I’m being facetious, a little, but the book inspires that kind of goofiness.

So come and join us on March 17, from 11 to 12:30 at the Field Library Gallery, for coffee, snacks (possibly including homemade Irish Soda Bread), and an entertaining discussion of Furiously Happy.

FIXING THINGS AND YOURSELF: HOTEL SILENCE

I don’t want to give anyone the impression that all Scandinavian novels are dark mysteries with horrible crimes and brooding protagonists, though obviously I’m a fan of that particular genre of Scandinavian novel (hello, Jo Nesbo!).  It’s not true, of course; Scandinavian authors write every kind of book, and many different kinds get translated into English. Case in point: the charming new book, Hotel Silence, by Audur Ava Olafsdottir.

Our protagonist, Jonas Ebeneser, is a man who feels he’s reached the end of his rope. He’s living in Iceland, he and his wife have just gotten divorced, and his now ex wife tells him that the person he thought was his biological daughter isn’t his. Not wanting his daughter to find his body, he decides that he will commit suicide, but in another country.  With that in mind, he heads out to an (unnamed) foreign country dealing with the aftermath of war, and checks himself, and his box of tools, into the Hotel Silence, a somewhat dilapidated place run by a brother and sister, with two other guests.  

Slowly he begins to fix things around the hotel, which is in desperate need of all kinds of TLC, and as he does, the people of the area, who have been suffering from the aftereffects of the war and who are trying to rebuild their own lives, learn about his skills with tools.  They begin coming to him for help, for repairs to their own broken objects. Jonas becomes involved, more or less voluntarily, in fixing what needs to be fixed, and begins to appreciate the dangers and traumas these people have been facing and their will to live and to make things better after the war.  As you can imagine (what would be the point of writing a book like this where this doesn’t happen?), Jonas is changed for the better by his experiences and ends up fixing himself as much as he’s fixing the things in his new neighbors’ lives.

If you’re a fan of A Man Called Ove (another Scandinavian non-thriller), you will enjoy Hotel Silence, so give yourself a chance at renewal and read it.

 

BEEN THERE, DONE THAT: HOW TO STOP TIME

What would it be like to have lived for centuries and hobnobbed with all the great and famous (and the not-so-great and the ordinary)?  You wouldn’t even be able to brag about the time you were acting in plays with William Shakespeare, or tossing down cocktails with F. Scott Fitzgerald or the like, because people wouldn’t believe you, either figuring you’ve got a great imagination or that you’re delusional.  If you weren’t the only one who could live for centuries, it stands to reason that the other immortals (or near immortals) would find each other and work out some rules for their mutual preservation, and you’d end up having to follow those rules, too.  After a while, you’d probably just want to live an ordinary life, whether or not that would be possible for someone in your position.

That’s the premise of How to Stop Time, by Matt Haig.  Tom Hazard, the protagonist, who’s already lived more than 500 years and has had all kinds of adventures over the centuries, is now working as a history teacher in a local high school (and here I have to tip my metaphorical hat to the author for this idea: what could be easier for an immortal person than teaching history, of all things? He wouldn’t even have to look anything up!), and trying to follow the rules of the Albatross Society, which protects people like him.  The first rule of the society is not to fall in love, not to get attached, and you can see how sensible that would be if you were inevitably going to outlive your beloved and suffer through loss over and over again.  However, while Tom is immortal, he’s also human, and there’s a French teacher at his school who is captivated by him, and he by her.

Can he break the rules of a very long lifetime, and defy the rules of an increasingly arbitrary and erratic leader of the Albatross Society and actually allow himself to fall in love and to begin to live fully and without hesitation in the present, for all its flaws?  Even if you think you know the answers to these questions, it’s still worth spending some time with Tom and his colleagues to see how he manages to use the wisdom of a lifetime to learn how to be a happy person at last.

ALASKA TESTS YOU: THE GREAT ALONE

How do you follow up a bestselling book that spent twenty weeks on the New York Times list and has been fodder for book clubs for years?  Well, if you’re Kristin Hannah, you leave World War II and France behind and set your next book in 1970’s Alaska, and the result is The Great Alone.  If you enjoyed The Nightingale, you will definitely love The Great Alone, and if you’re one of the rare people who didn’t read The Nightingale, you’ll still love The Great Alone if you’re a fan of dramatic books with an incredible sense of place and time.

I have to warn you, the first chapter or so of the book feels cringingly cliche. We have Ernt, the Vietnam veteran husband and father who’s completely messed up by his time in the war, a volatile abusive man who can’t hold onto a job and who is angry at the world. We have his wife, Cora, who’s always making excuses for him and putting up with his behavior (and yes, I realize that I’m viewing a 1970’s character through a 2018 lens, but even in the 1970’s there was some awareness of domestic violence and Cora sometimes seems willfully blind to the obvious signs that Ernt is trouble), and we have the protagonist, the thirteen year old Leni who has been dragged around from one place to another by her somewhat feckless parents.  If you feel you’ve seen them all before, you have some basis for that.

However, once the characters move from the Seattle area to Kaneq, Alaska, painfully unprepared (the classic hippie “living off the land” notion mixed with an invitation from the father of one of Ernt’s Vietnam buddies to come to live near them), the book comes alive. I personally have never been to Alaska, and certainly never came to Alaska in the early 1970’s, but Hannah brings the frontier world to vivid life: the tiny town, the different kinds of homesteads out on the edge of the wilderness, the camaraderie of the locals (one of my favorite characters is Large Marge, a former attorney and a force to be reckoned with) and their eagerness to help these new people get settled and survive.  The weather becomes practically another character (which is one reason this would be a good book to read in the winter because no matter how bad things get around here, you can feel relieved that you’re not living in the Kaneq area in winter). The natural world, the turning of the seasons and the wildlife, both helpful and dangerous, fill the book with verisimilitude.

Leni begins to come into her own, living off the land with her parents, finding her place in the local society, and falling in love with one of the only other kids her age in the school.  There’s a bit of the Romeo and Juliet in her romance with Matthew, who’s the son of one of the most powerful people in the town, a man with whom Ernt is bitterly feuding.  

As the long Alaskan winters close in and Ernt becomes more and more violent and irrational, the book becomes more engrossing. You care about the characters even when they do foolish things, and you find yourself rooting for Leni (and Cora, to a lesser extent) to become the strong, independent woman she is developing into over the course of her time in Alaska. There’s a palpable sense of suspense, mostly involving Ernt.  I’m not going to give away the resolution of the plot, though it’s more complicated than you might imagine, but I will say that there is a happy ending of sorts and it’s worth waiting for.

 

MURDER BETWEEN THE WARS: THE MITFORD MURDERS

A mystery set in the past is a difficult thing to pull off well, especially if the author chooses to use real events and real people as part of the story, though of course it’s the fun of seeing real life people and real life events we already know about being shown in a new light that makes historical mysteries work. For an example of how to do it right, we have Jessica Fellowes’ The Mitford Murders.

Jessica Fellowes has experience in writing historical fiction set in 1920’s England, since she’s been writing all the books set in the world of Downton Abbey.  Here she turns her attention to a real life unsolved mystery, involving some famous real life people, and creates a new Golden Age type mystery.

The protagonist is Louisa Cannon, desperate to escape a life of grinding poverty and difficulty with her widowed mother and obnoxious uncle in London, so when she hears of an opportunity to work as a nanny for a well to do family in Oxfordshire, she jumps at the chance.

At the same time Louisa is escaping from her uncle, a nurse, Florence Nightingale Shore, goddaughter to the famous Florence Nightingale, is murdered in broad daylight on the train on which Louisa is traveling.  There are no leads and the case seems likely to go cold, though one police officer is determined to make his reputation by solving it.

And so, it turns out, is one of Louisa’s new charges, the oldest daughter of the Mitford family, Nancy.  Nancy is 16 and dying for adventure, for a taste of the outside world. She’s bright and acerbic, a budding author, and she and Louisa find themselves drawn into the investigation of Shore’s death, even though it becomes more and more likely that they are running headlong into danger themselves.

The Mitfords actually existed (and were fascinating people in their own right), and the murder of Florence Nightingale Shore actually happened and was never solved in real life. Using real life people and real events adds just a little more verisimilitude to the vivid setting of 1920’s England, so if you’re a fan of Downton Abbey and the world of England between the World Wars, this should be just your cup of tea.