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The great, good and not so good reads for June

I read a bit more than usual in May because I was putting off my next writing project until I left for my residency at Dorland Mountain Arts Colony. Also, three of these books were fairly short. I'm glad I finally got around to reading The Nickel Boys, a novel that sticks with you for a long time. And of these six, I recommend four: The Nickel Boys, The Lost Apothecary, Sensational and Of Women and Salt, even thought I know that reading about women journalists at the end of the 19th century (Sensational) may not be your cup of tea.

Here are my brief reviews:

The Lost Apothecary

Sarah Penner

Park Raw Books (Harlequin/HarperCollins) 2021

For a person who writes historical novels, I’m often a picky and tepid fan. I read slowly by nature and for pedagogical reasons, and any archaic vocabulary, labyrinthine sentence structures, or long-abandoned syntax will slow me down even more, often to the point of encouraging me to leave. I prefer that an author drop the attempt to “sound” like a contemporary of the characters she has chosen and give it to me straight. I’m a 21st century American, and I just want to enjoy a good story.

At the same time, I love history and love even more the discovery of little stories and peculiar habits of those who came before us – even as far back as the protagonists of Jean Auel’s Bronze Age novels. So, it’s a conundrum. How do you find a satisfying historical novel that includes the good stuff that isn’t bogged down in mimicking the voice of another century?

The answer: The Lost Apothecary.

Sarah Penner’s debut novel brings together four women separated by 200 years. In the late 1700s, we have Nella, an apothecary (both the name of a pharmacy and the pharmacist) who provides lethal doses of medicines to women who need to rid themselves of cruel or infidel men in their lives, and Eliza, a client who becomes her young apprentice. In today’s world, we meet Caroline, who is trying to recover and distance herself from the recent news of her husband’s affair on a trip to London, a trip that brings her into contact with a soulmate, Gaynor, a librarian who loves history as much as she does.

Caroline discovers an old apothecary bottle while beachcombing along the Thames (her guide calls it “mudlarking”) to pass the time. Caroline was history major and enthusiast who put aside her plans for graduate school at Cambridge and took a boring job at home in order to satisfy her husband’s preference for rationality and stability, a decision she regrets once their 10-year marriage reveals its faults. But the lost apothecary bottle sends her on a mission of rediscovery of both the story of the ancient pharmacy and of her passion for a good historical mystery.

When her husband unexpectedly joins her in London, Caroline refuses to let his presence stop her from finding the old apothecary and piecing together the story of the chemist, her murdered victims, and the women who wanted the men dead. In an inevitable—but not predictable—turn, Caroline herself becomes a suspect in a poisoning that could easily stop her from pursuing her reignited excitement for historical research or anything else.

The ending of both stories—the 18th century one and the 21st century one—are satisfying and are a testament to Penner’s storytelling generosity. She ties up loose ends, and she prevents Caroline from reaching a decision that might have been easy, but that would have left us disappointed.

Sensational: The Hidden History of America’s “Girl Stunt Reporters”

Kim Todd

Harper (HarperCollins) 2021

As a student in the journalism school at Iowa State, I found the courses on the history of the profession stuffy and sanctimonious. All that preaching about “yellow journalism” and all those old men, men, men, some in hats with “press” tags stuck in them, all of them celebrated for their bad manners, gruff personalities, and halos of cigar and cigarette smoke. I didn’t know the parts women played in building the traditions of American journalism were being left out.

Sensational: The Hidden History of America’s “Girl Stunt Reporters’ tells the story of the women reporters at the end of the nineteenth century and their huge impact on the profession, filling in that gap. Engagingly written, full of great stories and anecdotes of the scrapes and dangers young women risked to gain a foothold and a salary in newspaper work, this history may have changed my entire attitude toward my first professional career. (I was a mostly reluctant reporter for nearly 20 years.)

Kim Todd’s story of this sensational journalism starts with Nellie Bly getting herself committed to an insane asylum on an island in New York Harbor. Bly recorded the torture, cruelty, and inhumane conditions for Joseph Pulitzer’s newspaper, the World. It was a dangerous assignment that proved her metal and sent dozens of would-be Nellie Blys scrambling for similar “stunt” assignments that would uncover social evils at the same time they sold hundreds of thousands of newspapers for Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst.

These women did more than their male counterparts to promote many of the progressive reforms at the end of the 19th century, including women’s suffrage, antitrust movements, better living standards in the nation’s poorest ghettos, labor organizing, and efforts to provide safe and remunerative workplaces, especially for women and children. However admirable, the work of going undercover gained a shabby reputation through the decade covered by Todd’s account—part of that taint deserved, part clearly the fault of editors eager for sensational headlines, and part rising from the misogyny of a male-dominated business. But however ridiculed, the author points out that the strategies employed by these young stunt reporters have been mimicked over and over through the past century, and both the “new journalism” of the latter half of the 20th century, and the “investigative journalism” of today owe much to their ground-breaking, risk-taking efforts.

An interesting digression toward the end of the book effectively lays bare the shameful way American journalists covered the Spanish American war—an assignment that was routinely denied to women. War is men’s business, and they did it very badly, playing up every jingoistic and bigoted trope to whip up the public’s bellicosity. I never read anything close to this in any college classes, and the telling delivered an unexpected bonus history lesson.

I highly recommend this book for its fascinating stories of remarkable women and its service to an understanding the world of journalism yesterday and today.

A sidenote: Once again, I am struck by the consequences of the recent turn toward print-on-demand and/or cheap production of hardcover books—books that cost just as much as well-made volumes—perhaps in the interest of reducing demand on quality printers or reducing printing costs. This hardcover book’s pages were perfect-bound, a form of binding that used to be common only in paperbacks, instead of being collected in folios and stitched before being glued to the spine. The result is a book that falls apart on first reading. That should not happen with a $28 book.

A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray

Dominique Barbéris

Other Press 2021

Two sisters grow up in and around Paris, immersed in the romance of Jane Eyre as children, a foundational sensibility that persists even as they settle into middle age, encumbered with husbands, homes, jobs and the mundane, quotidian worlds of adults who never inhabited the foggy moors of Great Britain.

One Sunday, one sister drives out from her apartment in the middle of the city to visit the other sister in the provincial suburb of Ville-d’Avray. As evening falls, the suburban sister tells a story of a long-past almost-affair of years past. The stranger whom she follows and who follows her for some short months is, if anything, a bit seedy and shadowy, and yet, the suburban sister courts their pas-de-deux, clearly not knowing what she wants from him nor what he wants from her. And in the end, the woman, the man nor the reader ever come to figure it out.

The novella is heavier on scene than plot. Soggy leaves underfoot and misty walks through wooded parks substitute for what might be messy hotel sheets and abandoned offices in a less atmospheric and more conventional story of an affair. As the narrator returns to her Paris apartment and shakes off the strange tale, her husband wonders why she’s sitting in the dark. He quickly realizes: “You’ve been to Ville d’Avary again.”

You might find reading this novella a pleasant diversion, paired with a cup of tea, on your own soggy Sunday, someday. But it’s not much more than that.


Cynthia Ozick

Knopf (Penguin Random House) 2021

My literary education really started only a few years ago when I quit the corporate world and found time to read. So, when it comes to reading the classics, reading modern literary geniuses, or keeping up with the most well-respected authors of the 20th and 21st century, I have fallen far, far behind where most book reviewers probably start. So it was that I have recently decided I need to catch up with such notables as Coetzee, Morrison, Robinson, and Ozick, even as I’d rather pick and choose something else.

It was in this vein that I decided to pick up Ozick’s latest book—a novella more than a novel—assuming that it would demonstrate the author’s talents at their most seasoned and mature. I now think that was a mistake.

Antiquities impressed me not. As I started into the 179 sparsely filled pages of this thin volume, I withheld my judgment, even while wondering what the book was supposed to be about well into its middle. As I read further, I also wondered what transformation I was supposed to see in the main character that would make this tale worth my time. What was the intended theme of this rambling story? The book ended without either question answered.

The novella’s main character, Lloyd, is an old alumnus of a private boys’ school who later became a regent, and finally a boarder when the school was transformed from an educational institution to a home for aging regents. Lloyd is pompous, dislikable, disliked, and doesn’t like much of anyone else either. Ostensibly the reason for writing his memoir, which this book comprises, is to tell the history of the school in 10 pages or fewer. Obviously, he takes some 18 times that many pages, although the printed pages in this diminutive book carry fewer words than most hand-written pages probably would. But quibbling with Lloyd’s wordiness is hardly the gravest of concerns here.

Lloyd’s story largely centers around the arrival of a nerdy, unpopular, stick-thin and strange Jewish boy with the unfortunate name of Ben-Zion Elefantin, who comes to the academy when Lloyd was already barely accepted by the other students. Lloyd befriends the boy, which provides him a flimsy excuse for his own increasing ostracism. Their odd, tenuous friendship carries hints of a gay courtship. They lie with their bare legs entangled on the bed, which may or may not be the extent of their physical encounter—we don’t know. But the question of Ben-Zion’s sexuality is left as vague as all other impressions of his mercurial personality. And how Lloyd feels about Ben-Zion is quite unclear as well; Lloyd is not taken to introspection nearly as much as he is to reproach of others.

Whatever slim understanding I reached at the end about Lloyd, Ben-Zion or any of the other peripheral characters in this book, I didn’t care. Ozick may be a master at writing sentences, and according to her following, at creating stories. But this is clearly not a great example of the latter.

Of Women and Salt

Gabriela Garcia

Flatiron Books (Macmillan) 2021

One of the keys to success in a multi-generational novel is shaping the narratives of each time frame with equivalent weights and stakes. If one story is significantly stronger or weaker than the other (or others), then the structure can fail, and the entire work suffer from the imbalance.

When a book is about multi-generational trauma, that becomes an even more difficult trick to pull off. Even if we think the world we live in today is violent and uncertain, it is hard to dismiss evidence that things were once worse. Consider the horrors experienced by women over the centuries—whether in insane asylums, in the workplace, in the forum, or at home. While child abuse, sexual predation and domestic violence have hardly disappeared from our modern world—even in “advanced” Western economies where women in the workplace and tabus against domestic violence are widely accepted—there is little question that, yes, things used to be horrible.

That makes a book like Of Women and Salt, an exploration of misogyny and abuse over the past 150 years in the U.S. and Cuba, naturally uneven. After the startling and tragic story based in Cuba in 1866, which opens the book, the musings and trauma of the book’s contemporary characters can feel trivial. Of course, they’re not. But it is the author’s challenge to keep us equally outraged by their disappointments, sexual exploitation, and heartbreak when they are juxtaposed with savage beatings and brutal wars that devastated the lives of the women who came before.

Garcia’s novel, set in nine different years and following two lineages of mothers and daughters, struggled to maintain that equivalence, and I found I had little patience for the woman whose drug and boyfriend addictions—all assumed to be caused by sexual predation by a stepfather—seemed to pale in comparison with the violence faced by her grandmother and great-great-great grandmother. Both those ancestors were caught in the midst of Cuban revolutions—one in the 30-year war for independence from the colonial Spaniards, and the other against the dictatorship of Batista in 1959. When it comes to suffering, it’s hard to compete with outright war, its guns and bombs and bayonets and beheadings.

Perhaps because the author shies away from describing the stepfather’s violation in any detail, falling back on hints and vague references, we don’t feel its impact. Authors can end up with an imbalance of impact because they are more comfortable depicting scenes of violence and war than of sexual predation. Is the former realistic and gritty, the latter prurient?

The narrative regains its heft and momentum whenever it returns to its wartime settings, and finally in the end as it picks up the story of the youngest girl’s undocumented immigration. Here, the Cuban and Nicaraguan families’ stories come together, weaving a highly textured narrative tapestry of women’s determination, perseverance and strength.

The Nickel Boys

Colson Whitehead

Anchor (Knopf/Penguin Random House) 2019

It’s hard for me to find anything new to say about The Nickel Boys, as I’m probably the last literate American to read it. So, I’ll just say: I found it every bit as great as people have said it is, and as great as the Pulitzer Prize it won says it is.

The story is about Elwood, a young Black boy, who takes his education seriously, works hard, and obeys his grandmother who is raising him. He’s sentenced to the Nickel Academy for stealing a car even though he had been caught in it while hitchhiking to school. Once incarcerated, he befriends Turner, who despite his loose ethics is a decent enough kid brought up in a tough place. The education they are supposed to receive at the school is a joke, and the boys and young men spend most of their time working in the academy’s factory and farm, and providing “community service”—a.k.a. labor for rich folks in town. And being beaten, sodomized, and humiliated.

The torture, violence, and miscarriage of justice relayed in this short, beautifully written novel are hard to read, but Whitehead has mercy on his readers. He doesn’t make his characters only victims but fleshes them out with (sometimes flawed) moral compasses and the kinds of hopes anyone can relate to. While many scenes are difficult to digest, Whitehead never pushes the narrative to the point a reader has to look away to stop the trauma. (I’m reading a book right now about a religious pilgrim in which that is the case. The mistreatment and injustice are unrelenting.) And the even-handedness—almost dispassion—with which Whitehead’s narrators relay their stories of the Nickel Academy provides a kind of Teflon that allows for page turning, despite the horrors.

The abuse the Black boys undergo in Whitehead’s fictional (based on a real) “reform” school isn’t punishment or correction. It’s torture and debasement. Honest punishment isn’t arbitrary, and well-intentioned correction isn’t meted out with brutality and viciousness. A young man beaten to death can’t be said to be “reformed” except in a very cynical, cruel sense. The reform that was really called for at the Nickel Academy was eradication of the racism and ruthlessness that allowed the school to exist.

As kind as Whitehead is to his readers, this book will stick with you long after you read it. Even though it is eminently readable, the story is tragic and tough and impossible to forget. Let’s hope the world doesn’t.

An aside: I saw Colson Whitehead in a TV interview recently and I was impressed with how approachable and down-to-earth he seemed. I would expect such an acclaimed author to have more airs. But he seemed like a genuinely nice guy.

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