Tag Archives: literary fiction

Book Review: The Complete Ballet

This book review originally appeared in The Washington Independent Review of Books on 8 October 2017.

Chances are good that you’ve never read a book quite like The Complete Ballet: A Fictional Essay in FIve Acts, a genre-bending mix of dance criticism and novel/fictional memoir that is unique in concept and execution. It is by turns engaging, illuminating, ridiculous, funny, heart-wrenching, and educational.

Each of the five acts of the subtitle is focused on a famous ballet, the themes of which author John Haskell ties into his running story. The ballets are La Sylphide, Giselle, La Bayadère, Swan Lake, and Petrushka. Not only does Haskell describe the stories the ballets relate, he discusses the history of their creation and famous productions, as well as the outsized personalities who brought them to life.

All the big names are illuminated here: Nureyev, Fonteyn, Baryshnikov, and Sergei Diaghilev, the latter of whom “brought ballet into the twentieth century with the Ballets Russes, which he founded in 1909. Pavlova danced for him and Coco Chanel designed for him and Balanchine choreographed for him.” And he was paired for many years with the legendary dancer Vaslav Nijinsky.

Where did the author’s own interest in ballet originate? Page one introduces the writing of Arnold Haskell, the renowned ballet critic and force behind the Royal Ballet School. Coincidence? If there’s any relationship, it remains unacknowledged, though it would be interesting to know whether something about the shared last name prompted the idea for this intriguing project.

The unnamed first-person narrator, on the other hand, explains almost immediately that his interest in ballet began when his young daughter fell in love with The Nutcracker, and the two began reading ballet stories together.

Sometimes it’s hard to remember that we’re not hearing directly from the author. Repeated references to Arthur Haskell’s writing convey the sense that John Haskell and his narrator are alter-egos:

“Unlike Haskell, I’m not interested in writing a guide to dance. I’m trying to find for myself a version of life that expresses itself like dancing, like the moving body thinking itself into existence.”

In its barest outlines, Ballet’s “story,” set in the L.A. of the 1980s, relates, in bits and pieces, how our hero plunges deeply, desperately into debt to some truly dangerous characters, and where he goes from there. At the time, his life is shambles anyway, though he still seems hopeful enough to be seeking that version of himself and his life that might think or move or will itself into existence.

A case in point is the guy he thinks of as his best friend: Cosmo, a good-time schmoozer who owns a strip club. Though Cosmo is not a great role model, our hero keeps trying to act like him, hoping that it will stick and he’ll become that guy, but no luck. “Although his self-sufficient relaxation was worthy of emulation, when I tried to sit like he sat…I didn’t feel what sitting like him felt like.”

At the same time, the object of his hazy affection is one of the club’s dancers, Rachel, who also happens to be Cosmo’s girlfriend. It’s a classic ballet plot.

The narrator uses the stories of the ballets to echo his own, and to weave in details of his life, though it’s the story from an opera, Rigoletto (inspired by a Victor Hugo play, just as Giselle was inspired by a Hugo poem), of a father’s failed efforts to protect his beloved daughter, where he draws the closest parallel to his own life:

“And I don’t know if I ever had a curse laid on me but I remember watching my daughter, on her blue scooter, scooting along on the sidewalk in front of me, and she was a cautious person but don’t take your eyes off her for an instant, that’s what I told my wife and she told me but all it took was that one time she didn’t stop at the corner, and it was like a curse.”

The entire narrative has that breathless, stream-of-consciousness quality to it, helped along by the fact that, though there are section breaks, there are no paragraph breaks. In relating his story, our hero approaches and then backs away from various subjects, then returns to them later from another oblique angle. You can almost see the corps de ballet advancing, retreating, advancing, like waves on the shore.

In virtually every ballet, someone dies tragically. Often it’s the heroine, and very often she dies through the obtuse blundering or fickle-heartedness of her beloved. Sometimes both lovers die, but sometimes there’s a happiness to it, a transformation that allows them finally to be together on some other plane. It may not be as satisfying to the audience as a corporeal happy ending, but finding a measure of fulfillment at the ragged end of tragedy is hardly the worst outcome.

When, in The Complete Ballet, our hero finally achieves his own transformation, paradoxically willing himself into existence by disappearing into a different character, it’s more satisfaction than he or we might reasonably have hoped for.

Book Review: The Ninth Hour

This book review originally appeared in The Washington Independent Review of Books on 5 October 2017.

Novelists are often drawn back to the same time and place again and again in their work, to an emotional geography that formed them as people and as writers. For Alice McDermott, that place is among the working-class Catholics of 1950s-era Brooklyn and Long Island. Her work consistently involves the quietest stories focused on lives of little note.

And yet.

In the Catholic canon, the Liturgy of the Hours, such as vespers and lauds, marks the time of day for certain prayers; none, the ninth hour of the day, 3 p.m., is the time for mid-afternoon prayers. It is around that time on a cold and rainy February day that a young man sends his pregnant wife out to do the marketing so that he can close up their tiny apartment, kill the pilot light, and lie down in the bedroom for a permanent nap.

We see the aftermath of the explosion and fire through the eyes of neighborhood nun Sister St. Savior. Despite her desperate need for a toilet after a day spent begging at the Woolworth’s for the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor, the nun walks into the house rather than pass by, and immediately takes matters into her capable if arthritic hands.

Thus begins the story of Annie, the new widow, her daughter, Sally (christened St. Savior), the nuns of the convent of the Little Nursing Sisters, and the various characters that inhabit their work-weary neighborhood.

As unassuming a writer as McDermott is, she sometimes surprises readers with her willingness to break rules. In her 1998 National Book Award winner, Charming Billy, she got away with using a first-person narrator for a closely told story, the bulk of which took place before the narrator was even born.

Rebel McDermott is here again, this story narrated by an even more captivating “we,” signifying the children of Sally and her husband, Patrick Tierney, who grew up together. The Tierney children — how many? boys? girls? — tell this story in intimate detail, describing their grandfather’s last solitary moments, Sister St. Savior’s internal considerations of God, and countless other hidden moments. It’s a delicious little twist of narrative expectations that McDermott pulls off effortlessly.

The story unspools gradually, alluding to certain incidents and episodes, returning to them, adding flavor and depth at each pass. Sally and Patrick’s children recount the stories they grew up hearing. That their grandmothers, Annie and Liz, were fast friends from before their parents were born means the stories of the two families bleed into each other to become one.

Many of the stories involve the residents of the convent of the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor — primarily Sisters Lucy, Illuminata, and Jeanne — women who understand what needs to be done and simply do it. They are by necessity practical and tough, and have few saintly illusions about life. Their devotion to God is primarily manifest in the unceasing labor they pour into easing the suffering of others.

If Lucy is brusque and unsmiling while Jeanne’s eyes twinkle perpetually on the brink of laughter, both women prove themselves equal to any task, starting with making Annie’s apartment habitable again and finding the money to employ her to help Illuminata with the convent’s mending and washing. They also see things clearly, including the developments between Annie and the convent’s milkman, Mr. Costello.

Sally grows up in the warm embrace of Annie, the various sensibilities of the convent nuns, and the messy, tumultuous household of Liz and Michael Tierney and their six children. Sally and Patrick knew each other from infancy, and in Patrick’s stories they were destined for each other.

One of Patrick’s favorite stories involves Red Whelan, Aunt Rose, and the lasting enmity between his father and grandfather, for whom young Patrick is named. The Tierneys paid Red Whelan to take the elder Patrick’s place in battle during the Civil War.

When Red came back missing an arm, a leg, and an ear, the Tierneys bestowed on him permanent residence in their third-floor bedroom, and their young daughter Rose to be his lifetime caregiver. So much given to ensure the future of a son on whom all hopes rested. As Aunt Rose later said, “Weighed down all his life by the burden of gratitude.”

Hence the bitter and permanent break between father and son when young Michael, carelessly throwing away a generation of advancement that came at such a cost, insisted on marrying a mere immigrant servant girl — Liz.

The final insult, in the end, is that Red survives the old man. “I wonder if it irked my father, to see Red Whelan outlive him,” Michael tells Patrick. “I wonder if he thought, as he lay dying, that perhaps for three hundred dollars more Red Whelan would take his place again.”

As told to the children, the story is an object lesson in being sure the thing you think you want is worth the price you have to pay to get it. It’s the same object lesson that Sally learns when she thinks she wants to become a nun, and yet again when she thinks she wants to spend her mornings with miserable, self-pitying Mrs. Costello.

Sister Jeanne tells the children stories, too, in her old age but still with a twinkle in her eye, discussing with them the ideas of God’s sense of fair play and the joys of Heaven, something she is certain will be denied to her. How sweet, stalwart Jeanne could permanently be out of God’s grace is the central mystery of this story, while the reader’s central question, for her and several other characters, is, “Was it worth the price?”

McDermott, the master of understated storytelling, leaves us to ponder the answer.

Book Review: Get to Know KNOW THE MOTHER

This column originally appeared in Late Last Night Books on 20 July 2017.

Though she loves to read novels, author Desiree Cooper found that her fiction comes from her in a much shorter form. “If there was no such thing as flash fiction, I would have had to invent it,” says the 2016 debut author of the collection of flash fiction entitled Know the Mother. If you’re not terribly familiar with flash fiction, which works to tell an evocative story in a very compressed space, this lovely, haunting collection demonstrates just how effective and affecting this genre can be.

Mother’s stories have a strong common thread of dreams delayed or abandoned — suppressed under the weight of obligation — and of how identity is tied to those dreams. Who are we, really, if we’re never allowed to be who we want to be? Can anyone really know us if our true selves are hidden behind society’s expectations of us or the demands of roles we did not freely choose?

The title story in the collection asks these exact questions, as a daughter mourns the gradual loss of her mother to Alzheimer’s, tenderly caring for her as she watches for any sign of recognition. The daughter senses that her mother, even as she gradually ebbs, enjoys an interior life that her daughter has no share in. “She is leaving me so easily, I wonder if her love ever rose above duty.”

Another story, “Nocturne”, beautifully renders a life through a series of losses, all that point to the loss of a dream: “At age seven, Jeanine lost the family dog. She had been practicing scales on the piano . . . Jeanine was thirteen when she lost the citywide Chopin competition to Grace Lee . . . she couldn’t forgive herself for putting passion ahead of perfection.”

Most of these stories run just a couple pages — and some just a few paragraphs — but Cooper’s ability to evoke entire lives in just a few strokes is magical. Because so much is packed into such compressed space, attempting to describe or illustrate any one of them risks draining them of their wonder. You simply have to read them for yourself.

Cooper writes to the dynamics of race, gender, age, culture, and families, often all at once. She illustrates the universality of experience through situations that are fully recognizable to all of us, such as the jumble of thoughts and emotions that course through a mother who sits and waits through the night for her errant daughter, in “Mourning Chair”. She envisions all the worst possible scenarios: “My daughter is easy to recognize, officer. She’s the one with her heart beating in my pocket.”

And what American of a certain age can’t identify with either the parents or the kids — or both — in “Reporting for Duty, 1959”?: a family trapped together in a hot car on an endless cross-country road trip, the kids restless and bored, tormenting each other, Mom’s increasing threat level incapable of making them behave, until the moment Dad — silent until now, authority held in reserve for the nuclear option — pulls over and stops the car.

In this case, however, the family is African-American, the dad is an Army sergeant in uniform in the south in 1959, moving the family from a base in San Antonio to another in Tampa. The kids are two boys, twelve-year-old Junior and nine-year-old Curtis, and the story is told primarily from their point of view. At one point, Junior watches as his father pumps gas into their car. “All the other dads were sitting in their cars, waiting for the gas-station people to serve them. His was the only dad who knew how to pump the gas himself.” Cooper expertly builds the tension in this story such that I almost felt the need to close my eyes.

There are many other gems in this collection — heartbreaking, elegiac, fraught, nuanced, thought-provoking — and they stay with the reader long after the volume’s covers are closed. One of the wonderful things about flash fiction, of course, is that you can re-read to your heart’s content. You’ll want to do that with Know the Mother, knowing that you’ll notice something new each time.

Between Obligation and Desire: An Interview with Des Cooper

This Write Now column originally appeared in The Washington Independent Review of Books on 20 July 2017.

In June, I found myself at my first-ever writer’s retreat at the Interlochen Center for the Arts in tiny Interlochen, Michigan. A music camp since the early 20th century, Interlochen now also plays host to all types of artists, including writers.

There, I had the pleasure to meet and learn from Michigan-based author Desiree Cooper, who was leading the short-story seminar. Cooper’s 2016 debut, Know the Mother, is a collection of flash fiction (short-short stories). After hearing a craft talk that she gave, which drew from a recent essay of hers for Origins Journal called “Writing into the Blindness of Race,” I knew I needed to read her fiction. Once I did, I asked if I could interview her for the Independent.

Like my own, Cooper’s debut came rather later in life, her creative writing having taken a backseat to a career as a lawyer, journalist, and advocate for women’s reproductive rights, and been squeezed into the spaces between caregiving for children, then grandchildren, and now parents.

The theme of obligation overtaking dreams, desires, and even identity is strong in Know the Mother, no more so than in the title story. In the following interview, Cooper and I discussed that theme, as well as — both of us being debut authors of a certain age — understanding that time is not to be taken for granted.

Did you initially set out to develop a collection of stories that speak to a theme of caregiving/mothering, or did you simply find that you had a large body of work that took that path?

It took me 20 years to write this slim collection of stories. Being a mother and wife had everything to do with both the themes of the book and my laborious process. The conflict between the imposed role of caregiving and my life’s desire to be a writer has had me feeling creatively stifled, repressed, and unfulfilled most of my adult life. It’s no surprise to me that every time I sat down to write, my stories touched the theme of gender and the trade-offs women must make in order to be themselves.

Your story “Nocturne” explores the lifelong tension between obligation — even when it’s a loving obligation — and desire, which seems like something you’ve had to wrestle with. Do you have that sense of needing to make up for lost time?

That’s so funny. When I had a desktop computer, I had a Bible verse taped below the screen. I’m not particularly devout, but the verse was from Joel 2:25: “I will restore to you the years the locusts have eaten.” I have a profound sense of lost time when it comes to my art. That verse spoke to my grief for all that I haven’t yet had the time or resources to write. I love the idea that somehow the reward for my commitment to family will be warp-speed productivity in the latter half of my life. If there is a God, that would be one of my prayers.

Unlike the main character in that story, who wanted to be a concert pianist, it’s never “too late” for a writer, is it? Don’t we get better with age?

I remember my friends happily telling me that Doris Lessing won a Nobel Prize in Literature at age 89. (Read: There’s still plenty of time for you!) But the idea made me furious. Are we as women really supposed to wait until old age to self-actualize — and be grateful for that? (This does not apply to Lessing, by the way, who was as prolific her whole life as she was profound.)

While writers may have a longer work life, it’s not true that they have all the time in the world, or even that they get better with age. I was in an accident in 2015 and have been recovering from a traumatic brain injury ever since. Rather than affecting my mobility, the accident has affected my facility with language and concentration. At the same time, I’m taking care of my parents — both in their 80s — who have memory issues. I can’t help but wonder how much longer I will be able write a cogent paragraph, even though, at 57, people will try to assure me that I’m still “young” (in writer years).

Tomorrow is not promised, no matter your age. At this point in my life, I feel a healthy urgency to get it done before it really is “too late.”

Do you feel like you’re winding down on having so many obligations and can now allow yourself more freedom to pursue the track you want?

Yes and no. The accident pulled me out of an intense professional and political life advocating for women’s reproductive rights. In some ways, it’s been a forced retirement, if only a temporary one.

But at the same time, my family obligations are only multiplying. My parents can no longer live alone, and I’ve had to leave my home of 30 years to move to Virginia to stay with them. My millennial children have not fully launched, and my two grandchildren need a vast amount of daily support from me. I often say that this isn’t the Sandwich Generation, it’s the Hero Sandwich Generation. The pull of caregiving has only gotten more powerful.

But there is a difference. I have learned to manage boundaries and guilt. Actually getting a book published has made a lifelong dream become tangible, and with that reality has come a commitment to myself to be more disciplined in my practice. I don’t know if it will mean another book. But it will most certainly mean that I will put my writing first.

How did your career choices affect your fiction?

While practicing banking and bankruptcy at a major Detroit law firm, I learned so much about privilege and money. The pressure of working at a corporate firm taught me how to assimilate information efficiently, digest it, and use it to make a point.

My longest professional stint has been as a journalist — mostly as a columnist for the Detroit Free Press, and also as a commentator for public radio. I wrote about gender, race, and child welfare, with a generous number of profiles sprinkled in. Journalism clearly taught me compression, so much so that when I had room to stretch as a fiction writer, I couldn’t. If there was no such thing as flash fiction, I would have had to invent it.

My activism has been around women’s rights and reproductive freedom. As an activist, I’ve learned that storytelling is far more powerful than rhetoric. When I sat down to write fiction, I wanted to illuminate how the subtle forces of racism and sexism work in the most intimate spaces, influencing relationships and life choices. I have no interest in preaching. I only care about creating empathy.

Would you describe your going to law school as part of that sense of obligation, or was it what you truly wanted at the time?

Obligation. I was born to middle-class, striving parents and was part of the first generation out of the Civil Rights Movement. It was our job to walk through the doors that had been opened for us by those who marched, protested, and gave their lives. In that milieu, writing was not a job, it was a hobby.

I majored in journalism as an undergraduate because that was the closest thing to a writing job. I went to law school because I knew I couldn’t live independently without more education. I was five years into law practice before I realized that I couldn’t thrive in a life devoid of creativity. I left to join the nonprofit sector, but it was 12 years before I landed in journalism as a columnist.

Do you consider one story in particular as serving as a climax of the collection?

I’m not sure I have a story that represents the climax of the collection. But the title story was the first that I wrote decades before my own mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. It remains the axis of the stories: Women’s lives are so invisible and so overshadowed by the mantle of “mother,” that we really don’t ever learn who they really are.

In both “Reporting for Duty, 1959” — the story I was most haunted by — and “Home for the Holidays,” the car becomes a fraught space, a space that magnifies the everyday frustrations we all share, but then it also becomes an acute source of vulnerability for African Americans. Instead of representing freedom, a car trip is a gauntlet to be overcome, or even survived. Thoughts?

I didn’t realize until I’d finished the collection how many [of the stories] include a scene in the car. The car is iconic in American history but, for different reasons, in black history as well. It was a safe bubble in which black families could travel this country, as long as they stayed in the car and followed the rules of the road. It represented freedom as well as danger. To this day, the predominant reason for African-American tourism is to visit family (especially family reunions). There’s a reason for that.

In Detroit, it was the thing of lore for African-American auto workers to pile the family in their new American car and visit the folks down South. There was no greater pride! From a craft point of view, however, the car is perfect for flash fiction. It’s a setting of ready-made compression in terms of emotion, tension, and action. It also gives the story a temporal arc: something has to happen between leaving and arriving.

My sense is that Michigan seems to have a particularly strong support network for writers. I often hear about Michigan writing programs, and obviously we met at Interlochen. Is that the experience that you’ve had — beyond, for example, having a publisher call out across the parking lot for you to send your manuscript even before you had one?

Yes! The whole reason that the publisher suspected that I was sitting on a horde of stories was because he heard me read at a number of community events. Detroit is crawling with creative energy, reading series, and writing groups, especially now. I find great collegiality and a significant amount of cross-pollination among Detroit writers (i.e., writers are crossing racial, gender, and geographic lines).

I was pushed to take my craft seriously while sitting at coffeehouse sessions with the Detroit poet, Vievee Francis. She took many writers under her wing and was personally responsible for preparing them to be professional. I can’t say enough about Wayne State University Press, whose Made in Michigan Writers Series has opened the doors to so many diverse voices, and Kresge Arts in Detroit, which has catapulted so many Detroit-area artists into the national limelight.

Read more from Desiree Cooper at descooper.com and follow her on Twitter at @descooper.

[Photo by Justin Milhouse.]

Book Review: The Weight of Ink

This review originally appeared in the August 2017 issue of the Historical Novels Review of the Historical Novel Society.

In modern-day London, a cache of mid-17th-century papers is found, apparently untouched for three centuries, in a house under renovation. The Hebrew and Portuguese writings bring in Jewish-history expert and ailing academic Helen Watt to assess their provenance. Pressed to assist her is stalled American Ph.D. candidate Aaron Levy. Temperamentally mismatched, they nonetheless begin to uncover the mystery of an anonymous scribe working for a blind rabbi in pre-plague London.

Rachel Kadish offers an impressive achievement here in her latest novel. She ties together complex concepts of metaphysics and theology from the days of philosopher Baruch Spinoza, along with a mid-20th-century love story set in Israel, and a modern-day academic treasure hunt. The book offers a surprisingly taut and gripping storyline for one that spends much of its time in a dark study or a research library.

The true central character here is Ester Velasquez, a brilliant young Jewish woman whose family took refuge in Holland to escape Inquisition-wracked Portugal; she later finds herself in 1650s London serving as secretary to Rabbi HaCoen Mendes. Education for women was considered unseemly, and Ester’s work as a scribe renders her unmarriageable—a state she prefers. Ester’s wide-ranging intellect pushes her to read voraciously and ask questions, in particular about the nature of God, man, and the universe; those questions are extraordinarily dangerous.

Helen knows this is her last opportunity to redeem the choices that she’s made, and she and Aaron work against another academic team and her own worsening illness in a race to find and fit the last pieces of the puzzle in order to understand Ester’s true identity. The Weight of Ink has the brains of a scholar, the drive of a sleuth, and the soul of a lover.


Jenny Visits MWA Montgomery County

Join me at the Montgomery County chapter of the Maryland Writers’ Association this Saturday, July 15 (Mid-county Community Recreation Center, 2004 Queensguard Road, Silver Spring) from 10:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. for the July meeting and I’ll be discussing “Publishers, Publicists, and a Reading Public”, to share what I learned in my publication journey, including:

  • the pros and cons of publishing with a small press
  • understanding the publication calendar and using that time wisely
  • knowing what to expect when working with a publicist
  • using every tool at your disposal to connect with readers.

Book Review: Dark at the Crossing

This review originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books on March 6, 2017

Author Elliot Ackerman is uniquely qualified to write about his chosen subjects, the ongoing and apparently unending conflicts in the Middle East in which the U.S. is embroiled and often foments. A scholar-soldier, Ackerman was a White House fellow as well as a Marine who served five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and has covered the Syrian war from Istanbul since 2013. He has intimate, firsthand knowledge of the human suffering these conflicts cause, and his writing humanizes all participants.

While his acclaimed first novel, Green on Blue, focused on Afghanistan, Dark at the Crossing moves into Syria by way of Iraq. But it moves at first at a leisurely pace, as set in the opening paragraph: “The morning he went off to his second war, Haris Abadi spent twenty minutes in the sauna of the Tuğcan Hotel…Downstairs for a late breakfast, he ate three buttered croissants with jam.” It’s obvious that Haris, an Iraqi, is not a regular soldier reporting for duty; he’s on no one’s clock.

Haris is a naturalized American who earned his citizenship and a Michigan home for himself and his sister when he served as a translator to U.S. troops in Iraq. With his sister getting married and moving to the UAE, Haris — steeped in quiet guilt over his role in the war — searches for a meaningful cause. He is recruited online by shadowy Saladin1984 to join the Syrian Free Army and fight for the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime.

Thus, when we first encounter him, Haris is making his way to the Turkish border to cross into Syria and meet up with his contact, who has suddenly gone silent. At the closed border, he’s immediately rebuffed. From there on, Crossing simply follows Haris in his dogged attempts to get into Syria. His determination holds in the face of repeated reminders that the Free Army is almost defeated, though not by Assad.

For his American readers who tend to think in the stark terms of good guys and bad guys, Ackerman makes clear the tangled, shifting lines in the war. The Free Army’s popular revolution seeks to overthrow the Assad regime and establish a free and democratic Syria. Another group, the Daesh (the pronunciation of the Arabic acronym), is also attempting to overthrow Assad, but for a different purpose: to establish the Islamic State in Syria. The Daesh spends as much time fighting the Free Army as it does the regime, and its tactics are brutal and unforgiving.

One of the first Syrians Haris meets is Saied, who bears a fresh scar down the length of his torso, but also old wounds: He’s missing the tips of his index fingers. “The Daesh did this…To pray, they believe one needs fingers to point toward Mecca. If you don’t believe, you are lost to them. They will disfigure your body in the same way they think your soul is already disfigured.”

With Saied is Athid, slightly older and treated with deference by the Syrians around them. (“Among religious men, he is known for his piety,” Saied observes cryptically.) Athid offers to help Haris sneak across the border. When that attempt ends in betrayal, Haris is temporarily stymied, but then meets Amir and his wife, Daphne, who is even more determined than Haris to cross into Syria, from which she and her husband have only recently come.

The guilt that Haris, Amir, and Daphne each carry for good intentions with bad outcomes suffuses the story, keeping them isolated from each other and locked in a silent wrestling match with their own demons. Haris and Daphne’s single-minded pursuit of a futile objective makes them seem almost lacking in free will, as though they are forced by fate onto this path; at the same time, their determination makes Amir — whose refusal to participate should paint him as the sane one — seem cowardly.

The Americans in this story aren’t evil, but still leave destruction in their wake. When Amir says that Marty, a clueless American dilettante who runs a research firm holding fat U.S. government contracts, is a good guy, Daphne snaps, “Do good guys make money on bad wars?”

Jim, the battle-hardened professional warrior with whom Haris worked as an interpreter in Iraq, is incapable of compassion for the people whose country he and his fellow soldiers are ravaging. After smashing into a house and nearly breaking the arm of a young man in order to get his grandmother to admit where her husband is, Jim turns to Haris. “‘Tell them they’re free to go’…This is their house, thought Haris. Free to go where?”

This is a tightly packed, nuanced narrative in which virtually every character introduced plays a pivotal role. The story is told with economy and a sense of urgency even when the characters seem to be stuck in a holding pattern. That waiting ratchets up the tension, and it’s hard to see how this can end well.

Of course, that is the larger question that Ackerman is exploring here: What might constitute “success” under these circumstances? The real-life civilians of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria haven’t seen anything yet that looks much like success in these ongoing conflicts. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem as though the author will be running low on source material anytime soon.

Jenny’s Spring 2017 Calendar: Join Me at GBF!

Hope you’ll join me for one or all of these upcoming events:

Inspirational Women in Literature virtual conference, Saturday, March 18th from 9-6. These are some high-powered women! I’ll be speaking at 9:40 about some the strong women who inspired me to write. Contact me for login information.

Maryland Writers’ Association 2017 Writers Conference, Saturday, March 25th at the Crowne Plaza in Annapolis, MD from 8-7. I’ll be presenting “From Family to Fiction” at 11:00, and I’m thrilled to be following the always-inspirational Austin Camacho, though he’s a tough act to follow.

Kensington Day of the Book, Sunday, April 23rd on Howard Avenue in downtown Kensington from 11-4. It will be tough to beat the beautiful weather we had last year, but this is a vibrant and growing book festival with lots to see and do no matter what the weather holds. It’s great for families! Plus, I’ll be sure to have good chocolate!

Books Alive! 2017 Washington Writers Conference, Friday and Saturday, April 28th-29th at the College Park Marriott Conference Center (Friday from 6-8:30 pm and Saturday 8-5). I’m chairing this conference, which is one reason I’d love to see everyone there, but I’m also on a panel with luminaries Michael Dirda, long-time book critic at the Washington Post, and Tom Shroder, author, ghostwriter, and former editor of the Washington Post magazine. We’ll be talking about “The Twilight Zone: Between Memoir, Fiction, and Family History” at 2:50 pm with Chloe Miller, memoir writing instructor at Politics and Prose.

Gaithersburg Book Festival, Saturday, May 20th on the City Hall green in downtown Gaithersburg from 10-6. This is one of the largest book festivals in the DMV and draws nationally and internationally known authors. I’ll be moderating the Historical Mysteries panel with authors David O. Stewart and Burt Solomon at 11:15 in the Dashiell Hammett Pavilion, and signing books from Politics and Prose after that.

Book Review: The Bowl with Gold Seams

This review originally appeared in Late Last Night Books on 20 November 2016.

I’ve written frequently about my admiration for small-press publishing, folks who are driven more by their love of the written word than by any expectation of making a commercial killing. It’s that willingness to simply go with what they love that leads many small presses to build impressive catalogs of work by authors of remarkable talent. This month I’m highlighting another example of this marriage of small press to big talent.

I originally heard about Ellen Prentiss Campbell from several sources almost simultaneously, one of which was our shared publisher. As small presses go, publishers don’t come much smaller than Apprentice House Press, run out of Loyola University. Of unique note, though, Apprentice House is both non-profit and student-run. Students learn by doing; authors get unparalleled input into the creative process behind bringing a traditionally published work into print. What is perhaps most remarkable is that the students work as a team to choose the projects for which they’d like to offer a contract. Kudos for their selection of Ellen’s novel.

THE BOWL WITH GOLD SEAMS, Ellen Prentiss Campbell, Apprentice House, 2015, 221 pp.

“What is broken is also beautiful.” This is the lesson taught by kintsugi, a Japanese ceramic art form in which objects are purposely broken and then mended with golden joinery, thereby making them even more beautiful and more valuable.

In Ellen Prentiss Campbell’s gorgeous, quietly nuanced debut novel, The Bowl with Gold Seams, it is time and experience that combine to mend that which has been broken in the main characters.

The novel’s basis is a brief footnote in World War II history. When they rolled into Berlin, the Americans captured Japan’s ambassador to Germany and his retinue as they attempted to flee. Close advisor to Hitler, Hiroshi Oshima was considered valuable bargaining collateral in negotiating for release of American POWs as the war in the Pacific dragged on. The entire captured embassy staff and their families were taken to the U.S. and interred at the already-historic Bedford Springs Hotel in tiny Bedford, Pennsylvania.

Campbell’s approach to relating this story is intriguing, with a long prologue and epilogue in the story’s present day that bookend the main story of young Hazel Miller, raised as a Quaker by her father in Bedford between the wars. He runs the town’s jail according to Quaker principles, instilling in Hazel the concept that “people can do bad things without being bad people.”

She and Neal Shaw find each other on the first day of school; after graduation, they marry just before he ships out for the Pacific. Almost immediately, he is listed as missing in action. When it’s announced that the ambassador and staff will be held at the hotel, Hazel decides to take a job there. She finds herself intrigued by the Harada family: Japanese Takeo, reserved, severe, and as beautiful as a marble sculpture; his statuesque, high-strung, and musically talented British wife Gwendolyn, and their lonely thirteen-year-old daughter Charlotte who is trapped between two worlds.

With spare language and a clear-eyed approach to exploring difficult themes, Bowl packs an emotional punch. Characters are flawed and human, and the author avoids caricatures of virtue or villainy. The anger and suspicion of the locals at having the Japanese among them is palpable, and understandable given the still-active fighting and recent horrors of Bataan. Hazel starts out wondering how she will be able to tell these exotic-looking foreigners apart, but quickly learns to see and treat them as individuals.

In particular, she takes Charlotte under her wing, despite Takeo’s initial disapproval. He’s concerned that his daughter’s mixed heritage makes her stand out too much already, and wants to protect her from being “the nail that sticks out” and therefore “gets pounded back in.” But Hazel is drawn to Charlotte, the product of two warring parents who belong to two warring countries. Hazel comes to grasp the natural affinity between the Quaker and Asian philosophies of finding beauty in simplicity, and in using stillness and shared silence as a tool for divining a path forward.

In the prologue, Hazel and Charlotte are brought together again through Hazel’s position as the head of a Quaker school, just as the school is hit with a crisis that places Hazel at odds with the school’s board in discerning the best path for all concerned. She and Charlotte decide to visit Bedford Springs together and face their shared past, even as Hazel understands that she’ll need to confront the outcome of choices she has made.

The Bowl with Gold Seams is a reminder that first recognizing and then choosing the right path is a life-long effort that takes courage and a willingness to learn from earlier failures, to work actively to heal what is broken. The seams may show, but there is beauty in that, too.

Book Review: The Most Famous Writer Who Ever Lived

This review originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books on 9 November 2016.


The title of this book could have been The Most Famous Writer You’ve Never Heard Of, but irony is probably the more effective strategy. Like me, there will be others who will pick it up thinking, “Okay, I’ll bite. Who is the most famous writer who ever lived?” followed immediately by, “Who [the heck] is MacKinlay Kantor?”

Herman Wouk, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner: these are the Pulitzer Prize-winning authors immediately preceding Kantor’s award in 1956 for his seminal Civil War novel, Andersonville, about the notorious Confederate prisoner-of-war camp.

Here was a writer with a 30+ year career, more than 40 books, and innumerable stories to his credit; a Medal of Freedom recipient who, as a war correspondent, documented the liberation of Buchenwald; and the toast of the literary world for years. What caused Kantor to fall so completely off the literary map?

His grandson Tom Shroder sets out to answer that question in this new biography/memoir. Shroder is best known to Washingtonians as the longtime editor of the Washington Post Magazine, where his behind-the-scenes stewardship left an indelible mark. (As one example, he encouraged the late, great Richard Thompson to create a comic strip; the result was the sublime “Cul de Sac.”)

The author of several nonfiction books and editor of many others, Shroder has been a writer his entire career. Yet his own grandfather’s writing career was of no particular interest to him until he started this book project. By his own admission, Shroder had previously read none of the Kantor oeuvre — despite owning signed first editions — and paid scant attention to his own family history until many of its original witnesses had died.

“If only I could ask my mother,” he notes wistfully more than once, and kicks himself over his tardy interest.

Thus, despite having spent significant time with his grandfather, Shroder needed to answer the question, “Who was MacKinlay Kantor?” as much for himself as for us. The book is something of a detective story, with the author sleuthing out the details of his once-famous relative’s public and private life, in many cases drawing parallels to his own.

Benjamin McKinlay Kantor was born in Webster City, Iowa, in 1904. That first name never stuck, and he later changed the spelling of his middle name to make it seem more Scottish. He was known to all as Mack.

His mother, a strong, intelligent woman named Effie McKinlay Kantor, was unaccountably drawn once and forever to a charming, handsome, self-absorbed con artist, John Kantor, who bilked many people out of their life savings, forced Effie’s father to cover his early bad debts, and apparently enjoyed toying with his children’s emotions.

Amazingly, it was Kantor who divorced Effie, leaving her as a single mother to Mack and his older sister, Virginia. The three lived through many painfully lean years. Mack got his start as a writer when Effie was offered a job as editor of the Webster City Daily News, and she brought her 17-year-old son on board with her. Together, they wrote the entire paper every day.

As a young married man, Mack suffered more years of grinding poverty along with his wife, Irene Layne, and their kids, Layne (Shroder’s mother) and Tim, even after Mack became a published novelist.

His first big-ticket novel was the Civil War story Long Remember, and it finally pulled the family out of the poorhouse. In addition to his biggest artistic and commercial success, Andersonville, which came when he was 50, his novel Glory for Me — improbably written in blank verse — was the basis for the movie “The Best Years of Our Lives,” considered one of the finest films ever made.

It’s hard to point to where Kantor began his slide into becoming a bombastic, overbearing alcoholic who spent money like it was water. Shroder describes his own early fascination with the limos and fawning waiters that surrounded any New York outing with Mack, but which were leavened by the embarrassment of the loud, ugly public scenes that inevitably resulted after his grandfather consumed too many cocktails.

Shroder weaves together a fascinating portrait through the use of family lore, boots-on-the-ground investigative journalism, dusty research, and a solid dose of flesh-and-blood familial feeling for his subject and those closest to him.

Some of what he found would have been available to any biographer who had undertaken the effort — most notably, 158 boxes of artifacts in the Library of Congress, which Kantor had painstakingly annotated as part of donating them, at the library’s request. Other details, like so many families’ historical records, had been stored for years in various basements, unexplored and always one move or sewer backup away from the dumpster.

After years of being somewhat dismissive of his grandfather, Shroder was genuinely surprised to grasp just how famous Mack really was. Yes, he truly was buddies with Ernest Hemingway. He held the interest of the cultured and successful writer Peggy Pulitzer — nee Margaret Leech, author of Reveille in Washington — with whom he conducted a long-running affair. He was a bona-fide celebrity.

Sadly, MacKinlay Kantor outlived his success. His writing, always a bit ornate and old-fashioned, fell out of favor, and the paychecks stopped rolling in. He became a walking object lesson in how ephemeral and poisonous fame can be, and in the dangers of believing one’s own press.

It’s still unclear, though, why he seems to have been so thoroughly forgotten. If part of Shroder’s aim in writing this memoir is to resurrect his grandfather’s literary legacy, I’ll gladly report that it worked for me. I’ve now read Andersonville, and plan to go back for more. Thanks to Tom Shroder for re-introducing the world to MacKinlay Kantor.