Tag Archives: WIRoB

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.

Jenny’s Year in Reading, 2016

I know lots of readers make this a habit, and Goodreads actively encourages it, but this is the first time I’ve ever attempted to capture every book I’ve read during the year. And, sure, it would have been significantly easier if I’d simply noted each one as I read it, but scrambling to reconstitute the list on the last day of the year is so much more fun. Plus, I’m always amazed at the publications that put out their “Best of” lists way back in November or early December. What? I only just finished reading The Nix this morning!

Did I discover anything this year? I continue to be amazed at how many debut novelists show up as fully formed authors in thorough command of their voice. On the other hand, multi-published authors seem to suffer from an unwillingness by someone in authority to edit them. Also, I seem to read lots of relatively obscure books.

I’ve linked to any reviews I’ve written of the books listed, and I only noted the year if it came out before 2016.

My favorite book that should have gotten far more attention: They Were Like Family to Me by Helen Maryles Shankman (Scribner, 285 pp.) was originally titled In the Land of Armadillos. Changing the title could not have helped with marketing (though I guess my copy is now a collector’s item) but, under any name, it’s a set of beautifully interconnected short stories that left me a little shell-shocked and tingly, but in an entirely good way.

Other Stand-out Favorites:


Debut Novels:

  • Amour Provence, Constance Leisure, Simon & Schuster, 257 pp.
  • The Girls, Emma Cline, Random House, 355 pp.
  • Grief is The Thing with Feathers, Max Porter, Graywolf Press, 114 pp.
  • The Guineveres, Sarah Domet, Flatiron Books, 352 pp.
  • Here Comes the Sun, Nicole Dennis-Benn, Liveright, 345 pp.
  • Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi, Knopf, 305 pp.
  • Hystopia, David Means, FSG, 320 pp.
  • The Mothers, Brit Bennett, Riverhead Books, 275 pp.
  • The Nix, Nathan Hill, Knopf, 620 pp.
  • Surface and Shadow, Sally Whitney, Pen-L Publishing, 303 pp.
  • The Translation of Love, Lynne Kutsukake, Scribner, 336 pp.

Short Story Collections:



Books from previous years that I finally read:

  • Andersonville, MacKinlay Kantor, The World Publishing Company, 1955, 767 pp.
  • The Color of Water, James McBride, Riverhead Books, 2006, 295 pp.
  • Crabtown, USA, Rafael Alvarez, Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing, 2015, 441 pp.
  • From Watergate to Hugo Chavez: An Ex-Diplomat’s Memoirs, Gonzalo T. Palacios, AuthorHouse, 2009, 132 pp.
  • The Good Lord Bird, James McBride, Riverhead Books, 2014, 480 pp.
  • The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver, Harper Perennial, 2010, 507 pp.
  • Old Souls, Tom Shroder, Simon & Schuster, 1999, 253 pp
  • A Spool of Blue Thread, Anne Tyler, Knopf, 2015, 358 pp.
  • The Tide King, Jen Michalski, Black Lawrence Press, 2013, 361 pp.

Audiobook (+ print):

The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, Adam Tooze, Viking, 2014, 644 pp. The sweeping breadth and fully coherent depth of this book is staggering, and I found listening to the audiobook invaluable to my overall retention and comprehension of the material that Professor Tooze weaves together seamlessly. At the same time, I loved having the hardcover, which I used to re-read passages and chapters I had heard on DVD.

Hands-down biggest disappointment:

Barkskins, Annie Proulx, Scribner, 736 pp. In addition to my review of this book, I wrote a blog entry about it called “When Your Favorite Author Breaks Your Heart”.

Wishing everyone a safe, happy, and reading-filled 2017!

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.

Book Review: Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936

This review originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books on 3 November 2016.


Edward Sorel fell in love with Mary Astor while peeling up linoleum in his New York City apartment. The year was 1965, and under the layers he found a trove of newspapers from 1936. He never does say how the new kitchen turned out, but once he started reading those screaming headlines — ASTOR DIARY “ECSTASY,” ASTOR’S BABY TO BE JUDGE — he was hooked on the starlet.

It took the much-lauded cartoonist/caricaturist/illustrator another 50 years to get around to capturing that story in words and his inimitable illustrations. When he finally did, the project expanded beyond the diary scandal to become a more complete biography, Mary Astor’s Purple Diary. (Sorel notes that, oddly, for a pretty big star of Hollywood’s Golden Age, one had not been written on Astor before.) What’s even better is that he peppers Astor’s story with snippets from his own life, which gives the book its relatable center and the reader a two-for-one memoir.

Sorel leads us on a rollicking tour through scads of cads and scandal in Old Hollywood, of which Mary Astor was a packaged, commoditized product. Beginning her career in the silent movies of the 1920s, she had the face of an angel, the diction of a queen, and, apparently, the language of a longshoreman. Born Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke in Illinois to a rapacious set of parents who used her as a meal ticket, she got her first movie contract and her new name when she was 14.

By 17, still very much under her parents’ thumb, Mary nonetheless was able to undertake an affair with dashing alcoholic superstar John Barrymore. According to her autobiography, My Story, he was the great love of her life, but her unwillingness to cut ties with her tyrannical parents led him to find a replacement. His memorable break-up line to her: “Dear Goopher, I’m just a son of a bitch.”

Generally, the rest of her men, especially husbands, were no better to her or for her, and often seemed chosen at random. Her lifelong habit of keeping a diary got her into trouble with her second husband, Franklyn Thorpe, a black-hearted gynecologist who thoroughly enjoyed the lifestyle that Mary’s salary purchased, but who treated her with contempt.

When, after their divorce, Mary tried to change the custody terms for their daughter, Marylyn, Thorpe made good on his pre-divorce threat to use her explicit diary as proof she was an unfit mother.

Thus, what should have been a quiet custody hearing turned into a protracted, salacious, media-frenzy of a trial that took place in the evenings to allow Mary to continue to work on the film “Dodsworth.” Thorpe kept leaking purported sections of the diary to the press, many of them fabricated, to feed the frenzy.

Stakes were high for Mary, since Samuel Goldwyn could easily fire her on a morals clause and kill her career. Stakes were equally high for those discussed in the “purple” diary, most notably playwright George S. Kaufman, whose sexual prowess and stamina gave her much to write about. But because of a faulty chain of custody and clear evidence that it had been tampered with, not to mention overwhelming pressure on the judge to bury it, the diary was rendered inadmissible.

The details of the behind-the-scenes machinations of studio bosses and other power-wielding folks like morals boss William Hays are fascinating, while Mary’s continual poor choices in men and career are both maddening and saddening.

But the reason to read this book — in hardcopy form, please — is to enjoy what may be 87-year-old Sorel’s last collection of original artwork. The two-page reclining nude of Mary that graces the book’s end-paper, surrounded as she is by the defining elements of her celebrity, is by itself worth the purchase price.

Book Review: Commonwealth

This review originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books on 22 September 2016.

COMMONWEALTH: A Novel, Ann Patchett, Harper, 336 pp.

In her fiction, Ann Patchett’s typical launch point is to take an odd collection of people, throw them together in unfamiliar territory, and see what happens. Readers of her autobiographical essays may understand the origin of that impulse given the circumstances of her early years, when she found herself thrown into just such a situation with the unexpected arrival of four stepsiblings, a step-parent, and a new home on the other side of the country.

On diving into Patchett’s latest novel, Commonwealth, readers familiar with her backstory may feel a frisson of having been let in on a secret: This book is grounded in autobiography. Not knowing that will in no way diminish its joys, but understanding the parallels to Patchett’s own story lends an additional dimension, a layering of real and imagined that adds weight and depth to an already strong and lovely story.

The book starts with a significant understatement: “The christening party took a turn when Albert Cousins arrived with gin.” Bert Cousins of the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office crashes the party that cop Fix Keating and his beautiful wife, Beverly, are throwing to celebrate the baptism of their younger daughter, Franny. Bert, who uses the party to escape a house containing his wife, Teresa, and their 3.5 children, decides in the moment he sees her that Beverly will be his. A kiss given and returned in the midst of the celebration changes all parties’ lives irrevocably.

(As an aside, the first chapter of Commonwealth should be required reading for writers who want to understand how to set up an entire novel in just a few pages.)

Franny, though not a writer, is Patchett’s alter ego: second daughter to a cop and his beautiful wife, dutiful Catholic schoolgirl, and daddy’s girl, who one day finds herself swept across the country with her sister, mother, and new stepfather, and possessed of a troop of stepsiblings who move in for three months every summer.

The experience is painful and bewildering for all the children. They are left to their own devices to wrestle through a situation thrust upon them by self-absorbed adults who are wholly unequal to dealing with the chaos they’ve created. We’ve already observed Bert’s avoidance-based approach to fatherhood. Beverly’s combined unwillingness and inability to rise to the occasion is a disappointment to everyone. The wronged parties left back in L.A., Teresa and Fix, are rendered impotent by distance and their own bewilderment.

Cal, Holly, Jeanette, Albie. Caroline, Franny. Kids wise enough not to hate each other, but still kids — which means partially socialized, lacking impulse control, and fuzzy on concepts of cause and effect — they are in no way ready to look out for their own or each other’s preservation. When tragedy finally strikes, what’s most amazing is that it doesn’t happen sooner.

Years on, a twentysomething Franny, whose future has been mapped out by everyone except her, meets Leo Posen, a washed-up alcoholic author whose transcendent works of fiction are behind him. Because he listens to her — truly listens in a way that no one else ever has — Franny tells him the full story of her family. After changing a few minor details, Posen appropriates it as his own and sells it as fiction, a novel called Commonwealth, which reanimates his mordant career.

Franny understands how she’s betrayed her siblings. “[S]he knew exactly what it was she’d done, how serious and wrong it was to have given away what didn’t belong to her.” Here’s where that meta-level kicks in: Knowing some of Patchett’s own history makes a reader realize that there’s another dimension to consider.

If the question is, “How far from truth must a writer go to get to fiction?” or “Whose story is it to tell?” one can only presume that the author has gotten family dispensation, or perhaps forgiveness, for writing Commonwealth.

Patchett takes an oblique approach to telling the story, starting from the almost-beginning and moving immediately to the almost-ending, and then circling in tighter, drawing ever closer to its heart. Her sharply observed narrative makes the novel laugh-out-loud funny at the same time that it is heartbreaking, maddening, and irresistible.

There is a decidedly different tone and feel to this novel compared to her earlier ones. Patchett is typically pretty tough on her characters; she does not coddle them, much like a grammar-school nun who won’t put up with nonsense and doesn’t want to hear a lot of whining. Here, Patchett is much more tender, as one might expect under the circumstances. These are, after all — after everything — people she loves dearly, and she has shown us why.

Whose Story Is It Anyway?

This posting originally appeared in the blog Late Last Night Books on 9/20/2016.

On a recent trip to Florida, my husband, some friends, and I took a short boat ride out to an uninhabited barrier island. We hiked out to the beach, and they pulled up a seat while I continued on to hunt shells. I was perhaps a quarter mile away when I decided to take a quick dip to cool off. As I turned to go back to shore, a searing pain burned through my foot. I stumbled out of the water, fell onto the sand, and watched as blood pumped with every heartbeat from the top of my foot. The pain threatened to cause a blackout.

Here are the things that went through my mind as I sat there:screen-shot-2016-09-20-at-10-02-45-pm

  • I can’t put any weight on my foot.
  • I have no way to stop the bleeding.
  • I am completely alone on this beach.
  • I wonder how I can use this in a story.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is a perfect example of writer’s brain. For all I knew, I was in the midst of a life-threatening situation with no obvious resolution, but that was no reason to delay imagining the fictional possibilities. I could immediately envision all the ways this could segue into great literature:

Thriller: Suddenly, a diver in black emerges from the ocean, brandishing his spear gun as two SUVs careen over the dunes to converge on our heroine, who produces a set of throwing stars to take out the diver and the armed thugs emerging from the SUVs.

Fantasy: Suddenly, Neptune arises from the waves, wielding his trident and riding on the back of a giant seahorse. He nods to our heroine. “Come. You are the Chosen One.”

Horror: Suddenly, razor-like spines erupt from the puncture wound as hard scales begin to form around it, radiating out to envelop our heroine’s foot, her leg, as she watches, transfixed. The transformation has begun.

Romance: Suddenly, a tall, broad-shouldered young man appears, as though from nowhere, his biceps flexing and hypnotic eyes narrowing in concern as he kneels and tenderly lifts our heroine’s foot to examine the wound. “You’re safe now. I’m a world-renown orthopedic surgeon, recently widowed—but not so recently that I can’t consider dating again, as long as it’s the right woman.”

Okay, so first drafts are rarely brilliant, but you get the idea.

Every life experience, whether it’s yours or theirs, is fair game for a writer. A favorite writer T-shirt warns, “Careful or you’ll end up in my next novel.” A friend of mine recently posted on Facebook that she was thrilled to finally have a working washing machine again, but that we should look forward to reading her Tales from the Laundromat. Ditto for some painfully interesting online dating stories. No experience ever goes to waste when you’re a writer. There is literary gold wherever you turn.

It’s one thing, though, to use a single incident as a germ of an idea or a plot point for a story, especially when it’s not particularly personal. (The fact that I was the one bleeding into the sand was not a critical story element; it could have been anybody. Unfortunately, it was not.) What happens, though, when a writer decides to mine that literary gold from someone else’s personal experience? Even in memoir, the “story” does not belong solely to the writer; it inevitably involves other people’s stories, too. So the question becomes, “Whose story is it to tell?” As someone who has plumbed her own ancestral (and more recent family) stories as a basis for fiction, I’ve wrestled with this question extensively.

screen-shot-2016-09-20-at-10-04-33-pmTwo book reviews I recently wrote for the Washington Independent Review of Books got me thinking more about this. Riverine, A Memoir from Anywhere but Here is author Angela Palm’s debut. It may seem odd for a relatively young writer to start off with a memoir, but she uses it to work through a set of issues that she’s carried around for a long time. I loved the fact that, for the most part, her story read like a novel; it felt like a first-person fictional narrative, without the self-absorption of many memoirs. While the story was deeply personal, it also opened up at least two other people’s deeply personal stories. In her case, she had their full support and permission, but this is an ethical issue that any writer should consider carefully.

screen-shot-2016-09-20-at-10-03-21-pmThe second book, Commonwealth, is the latest novel from one of my all-time favorite authors, Ann Patchett. (For thoughts on the joys and sorrows of getting to review favorite authors, see my previous posting in LLNB. At least I’m two for three in the “joy” column now.) This novel has a distinctly different feel and tone to it than her earlier novels, in which she’s pretty unsentimental with her characters. The difference here is that this story is extensively autobiographical—though a reader unfamiliar with Patchett’s non-fiction might not know that—and considers the question of “whose story is it to tell?” head on. And on the heels of Riverine, the memoir that reads like a novel, I started to wonder, “How far from truth do you have to stray in order to consider something fiction?” More headache-inducing is the fact that Commonwealth describes a writer appropriating two entire families’ intertwined and painful life stories and passing it off as fiction, in a book called Commonwealth. It’s seriously meta, if you know the backstory. I loved it. As I noted in my review, “one can only presume that the author has gotten family dispensation, or perhaps forgiveness” for writing this book.

We can be grateful that Palm and Patchett decided these were their stories to tell; both are beautifully done, and I highly recommend them.

Postscript: In case you’re interested, I didn’t bleed out on the beach. It took a chain of about twenty Good Samaritans handing me off from one to another (Wave Runner to boat to golf cart to ambulance) to get me to a hospital and figure out how to reunite me with my husband and friends. True story: the guy who put me on his Wave Runner was named Gary Cooper. Who can make this stuff up?

The injury: two major puncture wounds that are still healing more than a month later. The presumed culprit: a stingray. But the wound in the first picture I took looks exactly like a classic vampire bite. Oh, the possibilities . . .

Book Review: Riverine, A Memoir from Anywhere but Here

This review originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books on 15 September 2016.

RIVERINE, A MEMOIR FROM ANYWHERE BUT HERE, Angela Palm, Graywolf Press, 222 pp.

Though the reader does not know it until much later, Angela Palm’s memoir is neatly summarized in her dedication: “To Corey, who was there, and Mike, who is here.” Certainly, any memoir starts with “there” and works its way to “here”; the unexpected dimension in Riverine is the forceful presence of what might have been.

Much of Palm’s memoir reads like a novel. Her writing is strong, quiet, and richly observed, and it’s easy to imagine that we’re reading a first-person fictional narrative. In fiction, though, we demand a chain of evidence, a rational explanation of cause and effect, some defensible basis for our willing suspension of disbelief. What makes truth stranger than fiction is that truth — life — simply happens, with no particular rhyme or reason, no discernable explanation of why, no matter how much we try to divine one.

Palm grew up in the in-between: between towns in an empty spot on the map; between water and dependably dry land; between privileged suburbia and poor rural shacks. Living on the banks of Illinois’ Kankakee River as her family did — in fact, in the middle of its natural course, the river having been artificially straightened in the 1800s — meant that floodwaters, sandbags, and a regular battle between man and nature were woven into the fabric of her childhood.

Looming larger than the river was the presence of her neighbor, Corey, whose bedroom faced hers and whose movements she tracked from her earliest memories, as one who has found her north star. Corey, four years older, was her babysitter, her protector, her best friend, and the object of her longing.

Palm is expert at making us feel the claustrophobia of her childhood, the desperate sense of being trapped in an existence that could not possibly be her own, with people who seemed wholly foreign to her. But while her family circumstances were strained both economically and emotionally, she had a level of stability that Corey never did.

“This is what I remember him being told: get out, shut up, go away, your sister is dead, your father is a lie. Growing children, like transplanting spliced plants, is a delicate endeavor.” Even so, he was kind-hearted and generous to both Palm and her little brother, Marcus, even after Corey began doing stints in reform school and juvenile hall — punished for the types of infractions that richer, better-connected teen boys skate past with few consequences. The one instance in which Palm and Corey pursue an intimate encounter, he respects her “no” immediately, admitting he had promised her father to leave her alone.

Corey slips further away from Palm, but the gut-punch comes from the crime he commits at age 19 that puts him in prison for life. Finding a path through to a life other than the one Palm spends years imagining is a long journey that takes her into and out of different jobs, hobbies, and scholarly pursuits, like criminal justice studies and a brush with law school.

Mike, the Mike of the dedication, turns out to be the antidote to a long string of stand-in boyfriends, and it’s clear that he is — finally, after Corey — someone who fits her. Palm’s acknowledgement of herself as a writer comes late, after the birth of her second child and a close-your-eyes-and-jump move to Vermont. With the support of Mike, she finally declares with confidence, “I’m a writer!” after a funny/fraught encounter with a Canadian customs agent.

Riverine is an effort for Palm to make sense of her past, to find answers to questions that have haunted her, like why her mother understands her so little, and why she could not douse the torch she carried for a boy she’d known forever.

Palm was 15 when Corey was sent to prison for life, and 31 when she finally goes to see him there. That visit helps the author, and now her readers, find at least a few answers, but not without opening the painful contemplation of “if only.”

Winner of the 2014 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, Riverine is an impressive debut — intelligent, tender, forthright, insightful. It may have taken teasing to get her to own the title (“My husband put on my sunglasses and pretended to toss his hair. ‘Uh, I’m a writer? Um…’”), but this is one writer we’ll be eager to hear from again.

Book Review: The Glamour of Strangeness

This review originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books on 8 September 2016.

The Glamour of Strangeness: Artists and the Last Age of the Exotic, Jamie James, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 384 pp.

The title of Jamie James’ The Glamour of Strangeness comes from a quote by that most famous of European adventurers, T. E. Lawrence. In his timeless Seven Pillars of Wisdom, he writes: “Pray God that men reading the story will not, for the love of the glamour of strangeness, go out and prostitute themselves and their talents in serving another race.”

He goes on to describe that fully adopting Arab ways and thought “quitted me of my English self and let me look at the West and its conventions with new eyes: they destroyed it all for me.”

Unlike Lawrence, the subjects of James’ survey of exoticism were not in danger of losing themselves in service to another nation or people; each was capable of shedding the trappings of his or her constituent nationality without external pressure and for purely personal reasons.

With the exception of Paul Gauguin, none of the artists and writers profiled here are household names, but all took a similar route into the unfamiliar. The other 19th- and 20th-century subjects include Walter Spies, a German artist raised in Russia who made his permanent home in Bali; Raden Saleh, a Javanese painter who came into his own as an artist during 20 years in Europe; a Breton doctor and writer, Victor Segalen, who loved China best and coined the term “exotes,” which James adopts to describe “travelers who seek to immerse themselves in otherness”; a Swiss-born writer, Isabelle Eberhardt, whose adopted locale was the Maghrib in North Africa; and film-maker/writer Maya Deren, born in Russia and raised in the U.S., whose heart was fully in Haiti.

Early on, James makes the distinction between a tourist, one who passes through a place to collect experiences, and a traveler, one who is genuinely interested in and open to the culture, the people, the geography, the history of a place.

He describes his work as “a critical survey of the manifestation of the impulse to acquire a new culture,” and his unifying theme is to consider subjects who were searching for a place that would become the home they never had. For his subjects, “home” was a place that they chose.

These artists were, to some degree, also escaping the strictures of their own cultures. Not surprisingly, for the European/American expatriates, the desire to slip the shackles of conventional sexual mores was one strong draw of an exotic, unconventional life. The women in particular found freedom in their adopted lands that was not otherwise available to them. The French expression is “le decivilise”; the American expression is “going native.”

Gauguin is something of the odd man out here. While it’s true that he was actively trying to cultivate a style uniquely his own and had long considered the concept of a “Studio of the Tropics,” his move to Tahiti was almost a PR stunt, calculated to draw headlines and make more money than he could in Paris.

He and his Symbolist friends held a series of fundraisers to allow him to decamp to a place where he could, as he described, “cultivate in myself a state of primitiveness and savagery.” That he chose a locale known for free love was no accident, but the long line of syphilitic sailors who had visited ahead of him took the bloom off that paradisical rose. Nonetheless, Gauguin achieved all that he set out to do, and he never looked back, eventually losing some of that patronizing sense of Tahiti’s “savagery.”

In contrast to Gauguin, who made a lasting impression on the European art world but left virtually no mark on his adopted homeland (beyond the children he fathered), Walter Spies is a cultural icon in Bali and virtually forgotten elsewhere. His work as a musician and painter is almost entirely lost, but he influenced the Balinese art that came after him.

It seems obvious that it was Spies’ story that initially captured the author’s imagination in undertaking this project. Certainly, Spies offers the best example of an artist who, in search of a true home, jettisons “manufactured wants” to fully embrace and live within a new culture without condescension, and contribute to that culture as a full participant.

While the profiles are interesting in themselves, and perhaps introduce readers to artists and writers they aren’t already familiar with, the collection never becomes more than exactly that: a collection of profiles.

To a modern audience, probably the most compelling elements of Glamour are those describing James’ own experiences as a traveler. A professional travel writer, he has visited some of the wildest, most remote locales on earth. Nonetheless, his own shock of exoticism comes when the English-speaking head waiter at Cambodia’s Grand Hotel d’Angkor, on being tipped with American dollar bills, says of George Washington, “This is your king? He looks like a lady.”

According to James, Walter Spies can be credited with unintentionally starting the tourism industry in Bali, “something he came to regret bitterly by the end of his life.” James wrote much of this book from Bali, as he watched the landscape around his apartment change from rural cattle pasture and rice fields to neon billboards, nightclubs, and luxury hotels — a transformation that illustrates what makes the words “tourist” and “tourism” epithets. By the same token, though, the Balinese see these changes as “a proof that their country is becoming modern and cosmopolitan.”

James also drives home the point that nowhere on earth is truly out of reach anymore — no Forbidden Cities, no culture or geography that isn’t accessible through a Google search, no location that your eyes cannot have beheld until the moment you are standing there. To think of places that way, though, considers the world through the eyes of a tourist rather than a traveler. Seeing a place is nothing like knowing a place. It’s nothing like being home.

Book Review: The Book

This review originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books on 30 August 2016.

The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time, Keith Houston, W.W. Norton & Company, 448 pp.

The Book is meant to be read in physical, printed form, and it promises to be an object of beauty. The galley proofs indicate that the final product will not only contain detailed reproductions of illuminated manuscripts, it will also offer samples of both papyrus and parchment. Oh, snap, Kindle! Mic-drop on you, iPad/iPhone/Android!

It’s clear that the meteoric rise of e-readers drove this project forward, since The Book itself doesn’t provide new or revelatory information. It doesn’t need to, though; it just needs to collect readers who understand the sensual and emotional dimensions tied up in this oh-so-physical object.

As author Keith Houston says in his introduction, “Find the biggest, grandest hardback you can. Hold it in your hands. Open it and hear the rustle of paper and the crackle of glue. Smell it! Flip through the pages and feel the breeze on your face.”

As with other quaint analog objects whose technology-induced death has been declared prematurely, the printed book doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. That we’re not in imminent danger on that front, however, doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of what is both a scholarly and light-hearted review of everything you want to know on the origins of written language, the media upon which it is captured, and its methods of illustration, reproduction, and distribution.

The Book reminds us of what we may have forgotten, or what we’ve failed to consider. For instance: Early paper was made of linen pounded from worn-out undergarments. Hence, the bragging still associated with fine stationery of its rag content. And parchment is made of livestock skin, the bloody implications of which Houston drives home with force. (Hands-down best quote: “Books are rectangular because cows, sheep, and goats are rectangular too.”)

The origin of such terms as upper- and lower-case, italics, foolscap, ostracize, stereotype, museum, protocol, syllabus — perhaps we’ve heard it all before, but it’s fun to go through it again from the beginning, and the author is a charming tour guide.

We learn that the Frankfurt Book Fair was already up and running in 1454, when Gutenberg sent samples of his printing to display at the annual event; that Charlemagne was illiterate and apparently incapable of mastering how to write his own name; and that standard paper sizes were not finally set until 1995.

What Houston’s account drives home is how stunningly labor-intensive the early production of papyrus, parchment, paper, and all the other accoutrements of writing and printing truly was. His detailed accounts of these processes leave the reader feeling sympathetically exhausted and wondering how more than a handful of books was ever produced before the advent of digital typesetting.

It was these exhausting steps that drove each successive improvement in the paper-making/printing processes, and while it’s difficult to follow the descriptions of, say, how the original Fourdrinier machine operated to produce continuous rolls of paper, Houston’s stories of the people who imagined, designed, created, failed in, and perfected each of the evolutionary steps toward the modern book are fascinating.

Readers are introduced to Cai Lun, a eunuch in the imperial court of the Han dynasty, who is credited with the invention of “thin, feltlike sheets made from vegetable fibers that had been pounded, macerated, and sieved in a pool…then pressed and dried to a smooth finish” — the world’s first paper. Producing more than a few sheets took huge amounts of labor.

Houston also explains that “Gutenberg was not the father of printing so much as its midwife,” since he did not invent movable type but accomplished all the heavy lifting to make it a viable component of the printing process.

The removal of one bottleneck in the production process inevitably revealed the follow-on bottleneck, around which the next innovation would concentrate. Each innovation was aimed at streamlining paper-and-print production in order to scale it up, making it faster and more efficient.

One illustrative story recounts how John Walter, owner of the Times of London, conspired with inventor Friedrich Koenig to construct a mechanically driven press in order to secretly print the paper’s November 29, 1814 edition.

The secrecy was necessary to prevent sabotage by the paper’s pressmen, since the new press was able to produce 1,100 double-sided sheets per hour, compared to the normal output of 200 single-sided sheets on the existing Stanhope presses. Walter’s willingness to pay extraneous workers full wages until they found other employment removed some of the sting of instant obsolescence.

And here we are at the point where virtually all bottlenecks have been eliminated, including those introduced by publishers. With no physical media needed to produce a book, new ones are being pumped out at rates unimaginable only 10 years ago. There’s no arguing the wondrous convenience of e-books — anyone who has run out of reading material moments before boarding a trans-Pacific flight understands the lifesaving qualities of a Kindle — and if people buy and read more books because it’s so easy to do with an e-reader, I as an author am hardly going to find fault with that.

But Houston knows, as do those of us who keep indie bookstores thriving well beyond their predicted expiration date (1998’s “You’ve Got Mail,” anyone?), that a physical book is not a commodity but an experience, a full-on feast of the senses, a tactile joy. Try putting that in your iPad.