On Growing Up, Summer and Secrets

Adolescent friendships are unique: The close friends we make as children almost become part of our family, watched over equally by supervising parents, teased or ignored by resident siblings.  Glad to be included, they become part of the whole and accept conditions without thought or judgement.  On the other hand, our adult friends find us as self-sufficient beings, with loosened family ties.  Only the friends of our adolescent years perceive the context of our family’s past and the adults we will become. More observant than young children, they witness the stresses in these families they know and, being teenagers, they sometimes judge, although they rarely blab about what they learn.  Self-conscious and plagued by hormones, most teenagers prefer to keep secrets.

These are the undercurrent themes of Bittersweet, Miranda Beverly-Whittemore’s new novel about identity and lies.  Mabel Dagmar is her narrator, a working-class girl dependent on  scholarships for her college education and the opposite of her roommate Genevra Winslow, the assured descendent of a wealthy, Eastern family.  To Mabel, the Winslows exist in rarefied existence of Ivy League schools, named summer cottages and the kind of confidence that only comes from generations of independent wealth and she joins Ginevra for a summer vacation at the family compound with the envy of an outsider.  

Mabel’s search for her own identity follows two patterns many teenagers follow.  First, she rejects the choices her own parents made and then she tries to absorb the values of someone else, in this case, the exalted, entitled Winslows.  Although these attractive people appear to collectively exemplify the virtues of New England wealth (including one or two eccentric relations) Mabel sees, as the summer lengthens, that coils of subterfuge and lies bind these people together as surely as money, blood and tradition.  Then she sees how those coils reach out and destroy other people.  Eventually Mabel must choose what kind of adult she will become, which set of values she will embrace.

In some ways, Bittersweet follows the classical pattern of a Gothic story: a young woman in an isolated, romanticized setting discovers some big, bad secrets and a big, bad adversary.  Yet, this is no Jane Eyre.  For one thing, Mabel lacks Miss Eyre’s spiritual convictions and is burdened with secrets of her own so she has to rely on different weapons to overcome the adversaries and makes more fallible choices.  However, the stronger difference is the setting and this highlights the new writer’s skill.  Instead of the moors or a brooding castle, Bittersweet is set in a summering Vermont wood that is half camp and half family estate.  It is Ms. Beverly-Whittemore’s prose that shows evil can shine in the summer sun and stalk victims through twilight and fireflies.

Bless those with faith in the innocence of summer,  They should have life in abundance and look elsewhere for stories. Bittersweet speaks for witnesses and adolescent friends and those who know  the power of secrets.

My thanks to Blogging for Books for providing me with a copy of this novel.  LLG

The Lessons of Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler

Every adult who was once a kid reader has some books tucked away in his/her soul.  These stories are usually hidden quite well but they still guide the adult.  The history professor won’t talk about the book of ghost stories that got his attention in grade school but it stimulated his first interest in the past.  The attorney may speak of hornbooks and precedents instead of the copy of Katie John that stayed with her through fourth grade but the fictional heroine is still there.  And the old woman dozing in nursing home’s day room listens as child read about Pooh and Piglet and reacquaints herself with the citizens of Hundred Acre Wood who led her to a lifetime of reading.  The books we love as children incorporate themselves into our being and we carry their ideas with us through life.  I realized that today when I found an old friend, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.  Decades had lapsed since I last read the story but I wasn’t just seeing something familiar.  I found the lessons I’ve been living by for years.

A little background:  Claudia Kincaid makes the ultra-sensible decision to run away from home, in order to get a little justice.  Well, it makes sense when you’re the sixth-grade, always-responsible, eldest child  in a family of six and your future looks like more of the same.  She picks out a sensible hideaway (The Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art) and sensible goal (stay gone till her parents appreciate her) but her best decision is to recruit her little brother, Jamie as her accomplice and financier.  This complimentary pair move into the museum, taking advantage of the artifacts and amenities in the building after closing time and joining the perpetual school tours during daylight hours.  The book is, among other things, a siren song to New York and I’ll bet many an out-of-towner has put the MoMA on their itinerary because of the role it plays in this book.  Still, the best part of Frankweiler doesn’t come from the museum or its mystery or even Claudia and Jamie.  Tucked away in the story are the observations of Mrs. Frankweiler as she follows the kids on their trip.

According to Mrs. Frankweiler, [becoming] part of a team is something that happens invisibly, and she’s right.   Real teams aren’t created by a coach or a director; they come through a mutual decision of the members.   My own sister and I co-existed for years, loving and hating each other as siblings but no one would have called us teammates.  Then our Dad died and we got each other through not one, but two separate funerals.  Somewhere during that awful time, we learned to rely on and like each other and we’ve been a team ever since.  I just wish Daddy had lived to see it.

Frankweiler is a big believer in internalizing experience.  She says some people spend so much time and energy documenting a pleasurable vacation that they miss the vacation they’re having.  Somewhere along the way, I folded that belief into my chromosomes.  Yes, I have some photos of trips.  But my best memories, the ones I think of when the words, “Vail”, “Camp”, “Family” or “Beach” come to mind, were never photographed.  Those come from the times I lived completely in the moment, implanting the memories in my brain, if not my camera.  I don’t need photos to remember the Atlantic’s spray on my face or the sun on my arms near St. Petersburg or the eternal green of summer camp.  The details I want to remember are there, gorgeous and rich, and once they’re gone, no photo could bring them back.

Frankweiler also says we need days when we learn and days when we absorb what we learn.  If not, we become trashcans of meaningless facts.  This may sound a bit new-agey but the wisdom here is sound.  We go through life bombarded with information these days and not all of it is accurate.  Periodically, we need to sit down and sort it all out: we figure out what works and what doesn’t and how it all relates to us.  It’s this process that allows us to make connections and gain a greater understanding of our world.  That work can’t be done while we are harvesting data, we need time to think as well.  And, as humans, we need time for rest and sleep.  Even as kids, we need time to just be.

Mrs. Frankweiler, or her creator (E. L. Konigsburg) believed that, “Happiness is excitement that has found a settling down place, but there is always a little corner that keeps flapping around.”    I hope the woman and the character enjoyed a lot of that flapping in life.  They certainly gave a large measure to others and they taught me some lovely ideas.  I’ve held on to those ever since. 

There’s a story that needs to be told

Me, I’m a fool for history.  Show me a place where something really happened and tell me the story so I can see it in my mind and I’ll be your friend forever, even if the story is sad.  So much has happened where I live that I’ve always got plenty to read but there’s one bit of regional history that I haven’t found captured in books.  It’s time someone wrote about the Rhythm Club Fire.

It happened seventy-five years ago today, in Natchez, Mississippi.  Natchez was a medium-sized county seat then of about fifteen thousand people, sixty percent of whom were African-American.  Because this was during the cruel and moronic Jim Crow period, the town was effectively split along racial lines and white and black people co-existed with a minimum of interaction.  The divide was so deep, I’ll bet that almost half of Natchez had no idea their town was known as a place for great music.

A few years before, a group of African-American entrepreneurs (self named, The Money-Wasters Social Club) had turned a long narrow building in the business section of town into a nightspot called The Rhythm Club.  The place may not have looked like much from the outside with its tin walls and shuttered windows and the interior decorations consisted of Spanish Moss draped from the rafters, but people didn’t go there to look.   This was the era of swing music and the Money-Wasters made the Rhythm Club a regular stop for black dance-bands touring the South.   The Rhythm Club became the local place to go to hear music, cut loose and have fun, until April 23, 1940.

That night, the Rhythm club was stuffed with people, despite the sixty-five cent admission: Walter Barnes, a gifted musician and band leader was there with his orchestra and seven hundred or so people, including some music students and their teachers, had found their way through the front door entrance to the dance hall in back so they could hear the great band play.  Then around eleven thirty, a spark by the hamburger stand and only exit caught that dry, Spanish Moss draped through the rafters.  Now dry plants are potential fuel already but this stuff had been sprayed with a petroleum based insecticide so it was essentially a match waiting to be struck.  The flames started shooting across the ceiling, people began to scream and run but the fire was between them and the exits.  Walter Barnes and his orchestra tried to calm the crowd with music, but they were trapped in with that inferno.  Over 200 people died in that fifteen minute fire, including the bandleader, Walter Barnes.

The aftermath was horrendous.  The local hospital and the black undertakers are overrun with victims and some of the burned are sent home without treatment.  At least 60 of the dead couldn’t be identified and were buried in an unmarked, mass grave outside of town.  The newspapers arrived, along with the Red Cross but there isn’t a lot of follow up.  And all of this leads to questions.

How did the town of Natchez deal with this hideous tragedy?  Were the lost and injured remembered by all or was the event seen only through the the filter of segregation?   What happened to the black power structure of Natchez after that night took so many of its members?  What treatment was available or recommended for someone with serious burns at that time?  How did the injured recover?  Did they recover?  How do you go on living after coming through something like that?

A small museum, a handful of websites and one or two films talk about the tragedy but I haven’t located any books that research this subject in-depth.  Creating one would be a job for a historian who can devote years to the project but it’s a subject well worth chasing.  If reading books about disaster has taught me anything, it’s taught me these stories are so much more than about how people died; they’re about how people lived, what they cared about and why they should be remembered.  I hope somebody writes about Rhythm Club Fire because I want to read that book.

To Breathe the Air of Books

I have a condition I think of as “The Book Bug.”  Whenever I approach a large collection of books  or I get my hands on a new one, my pulse jumps, my heartbeat quickens and I seem to get  a slight fever.  I’ve had the condition for decades.  It hit me as a kid whenever Scholastic Books distributed their lists of new paperbacks and I was allowed to purchase two. (My attempts to increase the order provided early lessons in negotiation and the Bug returned when the books were delivered.)  The air around books is rarefied to me and I’ve been known to get a book rush when I enter a big library, a good book store or a list of new book reviews.  I’ll probably need a defibrillator if I ever visit the Library of Congress.  Up till now, I’ve assumed I’m the only one with this silly malady and I’ve been too embarrassed to admit it. Thanks to My Reading Life, I now know it’s a condition I share with the writer, Pat Conroy.

Conroy is, of course, one of the novelists whose stories are a combination of  imagination and autobiography and he is the first to admit that.  He is also a reader with a world-class addiction to literature. It started with his mother, an autodidact who saw reading as a means of escape as well as self-improvement; she read constantly to her children.  Their family library was started with  a selection of cast-offs, lucky garage-sale finds and the children’s school reading lists but the Conroy kids became readers of note.  Pat described his own head rush when, as a young man, he found a place in Atlanta called “The Old New York Book Shop”. The owner became a friend who sometimes  let Pat mind the store.  Behind the counter, Conroy read the store’s stock, gobbling up all the great books he couldn’t yet afford to buy.
Not all readers feel the need to write but most writers (Conroy included) start out as dedicated readers.  I believe the metamorphosis happens when a reader finds the stories or books that cleave to and over-charge his or her soul.  The charge builds up until the passive reader is ignited into someone who must transmit his or her own tales and follow the writers that outlined the way. Conroy’s conversion began with the novels of Thomas Wolfe and it’s easy to see the attraction.  A lonely, word-loving boy of the South found the story of another lonely Southern boy written in lyrical prose.  The identification was immediate, surrender complete and another reader picked up the pen.
In the end, any writer worthy of ink retains an addiction to reading but their craft brings a new appreciation of the art.  Books can take you anywhere, teach you anything and bring you home for tea but those who have created their own books grasp more of the artistry in the creation.   Maybe that’s why Mr. Conroy appreciates all the stories that sustain his life as a reader.  Or maybe he’s just suffering from The Book Bug.

On a personal note, this is my 100th post.  For those who follow this page, thank you.  My gratitude is deep.

A Sabbatical on Duma Key

It’s easy to get lost in a good book.  Not every book has this power but some stories can pull you in like the undertow and as long as the book continues, your consciousness is split between your familiar world and the narrative of the story, where you live fully and completely in its pages.  I love getting sucked into a story but, between you and me, it’s painful when it happens because I always finish these books with a sense of bereavement.  The consciousness I’ve been tuned into since the early pages slips away with the ending and leaves me back in this existence, a bit breathless and diminished by the loss.  It takes a while to get used to this life again.  So, be warned if you pick up a copy of Duma Key: despite the loss, evil and horror in its pages, you won’t want this story to end.

It’s the confession of Edgar Freemantle, a man learning some Americans have more than one act in their lives.  The first act of his ended when a work accident stole his arm, the ability to communicate and, in the end, his marriage.  Stuck and unhappy, Edgar decides to spend a year in the warmer world of Florida, “land of the newly wed and nearly dead” and either create a new life for himself or a suicide plan that his daughters won’t detect.  Nothing surprises him more when Florida begins to deliver the recovery he needs with Duma Key’s relatively undeveloped blocks of beachfront, a good friend and a developing gift for drawing.  Unfortunately, every gift has its price.

There was a point in my life when I never expected to praise Duma’s author, Stephen King, but that time has long since passed.  The caricatures of villains that populated Christine and Carrie left long ago and his novels are filled with pacing and focus.  The pop-culture jokes and references still exist along with lyrical passages and meditations on the nature of loss, recovery and the creative life.  Most of all, there is an emotional honestly in Edgar Freemantle’s story that makes him one of King’s most likeable imperfect heroes.  Freemantle is never so warm-hearted that the reader can’t see his relentless drive and how it alienated his ex-wife.  On the other hand, Pam is never so negative that you wonder why he wanted her in the first place. Duma Key is, among other things, the story of when a good relationship between decent people goes bad, a far more interesting (and subtle) subject than the cliche of an abusive marriage.  In Duma Key, most of the damage is created by decent people through a series of unconscious choices, turning a thriller into a tragedy.  It is eloquent in regret and grief.

But those are the emotions of survivors and Duma shows that life goes on, whether we like it or not.  Past war, past sorrow, past the death of their nearest and dearest, survivors continue on with their scars and knowledge of the past.  Like the readers of an “undertow” book they emerge on the far shore of experience, breathless and uncertain about what happens next.  And the readers turn the last page and blink in the remembered sunlight, their faces still turned toward the sea.

The Night We’ll Never Forget

My ex-boss and I used to have the same discussion every year on this date.  April the fifteenth was a historic day for both of us for different reasons, neither of which had to do with taxes.  Both were watershed events with long-term ramifications and my boss and I would debate which one had the greater historical impact.  I wish I agreed with my boss: Jackie Robinson’s debut as the first African-American player on a Major League Baseball team is a thing worth celebrating because it marked progress toward real democracy in America.  Unfortunately, thirty-five years before Mr. Robinson walked onto the field, April fifteenth dawned over a flat, cold Atlantic and a handful of huddled lifeboats where a magnificent ocean liner should have been.  Taxes and baseball are national but the world changed with the sinking of the Titanic.

Titanic’s tragedy was a world-wide event.  Although almost half of the souls on her board were either American or British, the rest came from every corner of the globe. Citizens from every inhabited continent set sail in Titanic and when she went down families in twenty-seven countries lost loved ones. (Japan’s sole passenger, Masabumi Hosono, survived the wreck but was ostracized ever after because he did not die).  People of all faiths, walks of life and backgrounds went to sea, trusting their lives to this fabled ship that was supposed to be the acme of beauty and technology.  When she sank, travel regulations around the world changed as well.

After Titanic, every vessel maintained radio operations, 24 hours a day.  Too much can go wrong when communications are shut down.  Afterwards, lifeboats were apportioned by the number of souls on board instead of the ship’s displacement weight and drills became part of each voyage.  When I went on a cruise a few years ago, they gathered us for a life boat drill before we had reached the open ocean.  I watched the holiday makers in their vacation shirts and shorts looking for their boat line assignments and knew this was because of Titanic.  Never again would passengers and crew set sail ignorant of  where to go in case of a disaster.  It was a terrible lesson, but we learned.


For my money, the best book on Titanic (and there have been hundreds) is still Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember.  In simple, plain language Lord recounts the tragedy, capturing the phrases that haunted survivors’ memories.  Guggenheim’s “We’ve dressed up in our best and are prepared to go down like gentlemen.”;  Ida Straus’s refusal to desert her husband and take to a lifeboat saying, “Where you go, I will go.”  There is the unknown porter saying, “There’s talk of an iceberg, madam.” and the assertion that,”God, himself could not sink this ship.”  It’s a masterpiece of reporting and for many, the first, best account of what happened on that incredible night.  No film with fictional characters can surpass this retelling of what actually happened.  The only drawback to Lord’s book is that it was written long before the wreck was discovered and that is a story to be reckoned with.

In the seventy years between her sinking and discovery, a great many theories about Titanic were proposed.  Only a handful of the survivors insisted that the ship broke before she completely submerged and their words were largely discounted.  People preferred to hope that Titanic was still intact and recoverable somewhere on the ocean’s floor or suspended between layers of water, gliding on an endless voyage with her deadBob Ballard’s discovery finally put the theories to rest and earned him a spot in the history as well as changing the focus of his own life (despite his other accomplishments, Ballard will always be recognized first as the man who found the Titanic).  His accomplishment, along with the story of the sinking is captured beautifully in Titanic: An Illustrated History.  Here is the story of Titanic’s discovery, introduced by Mr. Ballard, along with a series of photos and illustrations that help the ordinary reader grasp the beauty of the liner during her short life and what was discovered by Ballard and his team.  It’s a fascinating resource and the illustrations of Ken Marschall are beautiful and moving if sometimes terrible to look at.  Without gore or extra artifice, he brings the horror of that night home.

Perhaps the true measure of history is when it continues to touch people long after the world has moved onIf so, I hope people remember the achievement and joy that must have been part of Jackie Robinson’s April 15th.  It was another step in a good march that the country need to takeMr. Robinson made the 15th of April a good day.   It just came after a long, cold night.

   

To Make an Elegant Monster

Not all monsters are hideous or born to evil.  From no less  an authority than Wikipedia, the term monster comes from a Latin word that means an aberrant occurrence or creature.  Well, a significant number of people have defied society’s expectations and as a result, were judged as monstrous by their peers and brave by later generations.  One example is Beryl Markham, the subject of Paula McLain’s Circling the Sun.  Beryl Markham is usually remembered as the first aviatrix to fly from Europe to America alone.  Her dramatic crash-landing on the bare edge of the Nova Scotia coast and her tremendous good looks made her accomplishment extraordinarily good copy for 1930’s magazines and newspapers.The interesting point is that Ms. McLain’s story doesn’t dwell on the flying accomplishments that put Markham on the pages of aviation and gender studies textbooks; instead she looks at the events that led to this woman creating history.

McLain’s novel focuses on the Kenyan upbringing that shaped so much of Markham’s character.  As the daughter of a British horse-trainer in Africa, Markham witnessed the European land-grab/colonization drive of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.  She knew both the native African tribes-people trying to maintain their culture and the European settlers who transferred some of their civilization’s values while changing others to meet the circumstances.  This meant that when Beryl’s mother left Africa with a man other than her husband and her father brought in another woman as a substitute, gossip ensued but no one explained matters to the daughter who would feel abandoned.  Those feelings would only increase around the end of World War I, when her father lost the family home to bankruptcy and left, encouraging his 15 year old daughter to stay and marry a neighbor almost twice her age.  Given these circumstances and socializing with the “Happy Valley Set” (a collection of settlers known for their spouse-swapping and drug use) it isn’t surprising Beryl’s first marriage collapsed.  Instead, this set the pattern for Markham who left husbands and lovers in her wake and a newborn  in the midst of a scandal for a life of flying and horses, her other great love.  Along with her flying records, Beryl Markham left her mark as the first licensed female horse-trainer in Africa who racked up 46 wins in a single racing season.  McLain portrays Markham as someone who is capable of great devotion but limited in her attention span as she throws herself into training and then leaves behind her livelihood and the African friend who depends on her whenever a new man beckons. 

Beryl’s speeches in Circling the Sun about sexual freedom seem a bit anachronistic but then Markham’s entire history is that of a woman out of her time.  Modern society could tolerate this woman’s ambition more easily than the world of the 1920’s and Ritalin would have been available for her ADD but then she might not have entered the annals of history.  Instead we have a woman of scandal whose flaws are as deep as her charm and that is, perhaps her purpose.  If Wikipedia is to be believed, monsters are a sign something is wrong with the natural order.  As the Europeans upset the natural order with a rigid behavioral code, Markham upset those Europeans and gave restless women everywhere a role model to emulate.  Not every beautiful woman is cut out to be a devoted wife or mother and it’s better to accept that fact.  Forcing the unconventional few into uniform molds will only create elegant monsters.

Circling the Sun will go on sale  July 28, 2015.  My thanks to Net Galley for releasing this review copy to me.

The Intellectual Heavyweight of Stage Musicals

I love stage musicals.  We were raised on a collection of cast albums from classic Broadway shows and my sister and I learned every song by heart.  We’ve  continued the tradition, to the present and both of us admire this form that combines the best aspects of art and entertainment. While we both love being entertained (who doesn’t?) it is the experimental side of this form that really draws me, how directors and playwrights and composers alter or recombine the elements of a musical to tell a new story or get the audience to view an known one from a new perspective.  That’s probably why I admire Stephen Sondheim’s work so much and why I’m glad Meryle Secrest’s biography, Stephen Sondheim: A Life is a discerning review of his life and accomplishments.  This composer of cerebral entertainment  deserves an intelligent biography, even if he makes a living in show business.

Some would believe Mr. Sondheim was pre-ordained for a life in theatre, given his New York background, a talent for music and the teacher-student relationship he developed with Oscar Hammerstein II. Ms. Secrest’s well-researched biography suggests otherwise.  Rather than developing a relationship with Mr. Hammerstein because of his interest in music, it appears that the opposite is true: a lonely boy is welcomed by the lyricist’s family as a friend of their son and the boy begins writing music to please the surrogate father who provides the kindness and stability lacking in his own home. Young Stephen benefits both from his exposure to a stable, loving family and from lessons with one of the great experimentalists in the American musical form.
This drive to expand and improve the format of the stage musical by taking artistic risks and the willingness to risk commercial failure were passed from mentor to student; Mr. Sondheim’s built a career on these concepts.  From non-linear storytelling (Company, Sunday in the Park with George) and songs that muddle the barriers between show tunes and opera (Pacific Overtures, Passion) to subjects previously considered unsuitable for the musical stage (Assassins, Company), Sondheim has pushed musical boundaries and redefined the genre but often at great cost.  Follies was misunderstood for years and the failures of Some Can Whistle and Merrily We Role Along cost the composer more than income.  The musical is a combination of high and low art and by appealing to the audience’s intelligence, Mr. Sondheim has often overestimated it.  Yet he remains the surest link between the “great” book musicals of the mid-twentieth century (his first shows were West Side Story, Gypsy and A Funny Thing Happened on the way to the Forum) and the experimentation that continues today.  And, as he was mentored, Mr. Sondheim reaches out to the generation of composers who grew up listening to his music.  The late Jonathan Larson, the creator of Rent, had the benefit of Sondheim’s teaching and referenced his teacher by name in the score.

Ms. Secrest follows the story of Mr. Sondheim’s life with great sensitivity, creating a portrait that is knowledgeable and intimate without being gossipy.  An analysis is applied to Mr. Sondheim’s works through 1999 (covering most of the shows and revues except Bounce (aka Road Show) tracing the autobiographical elements in the composer’s life.  The result is a biography that highlights Sondheim without glorifying the man or glossing over his flaws. The only problem is, of course, the book is too short.  Mr. Sondheim continues to work and as long as that is true, this book ends prematurely.

It’s true that Stephen Sondheim has passed the age when most men have put aside their labors.  But, as the book points out, Mr. Sondheim is not most men.  He was a wunderkind, achieving goals before 30 that most of us never attain and he’s come back from failure too many times to count.  So, don’t count him or his biographer out until the fat lady sings.  As long as they both breathe, they may continue to work showing us new ways to think and understand what we see.  Because of this, we are blessed.

Time to start thinking about a Beach Read?

It’s started getting warmer here.  Oh, my poor sister is still in the land of ice and snow but I saw my first bumblebee yesterday, hovering around the forsythia and ready to go into business.  It’s time to start thinking of sandals and sunscreen, vacations and fireworks.  It’s time to start thinking about summer and books to read at the beach.  Beach Lit is, from what I’ve seen , a well-known but under-appreciated genre.  Yes, the book must be light enough in tone and weight to fit with life by the surf and it needs to be entertaining but, most of all, it needs to remind the reader why life and living are precious.  There should be some lessons learned, some perspectives changed and, to be perfect, it should have something to do with the natural world.   Do you want to stretch out on your towel and imagine yourself in the stock exchange?  Of course not!  At any rate, a novel is coming out next month that will fit perfectly into this category.  If  you are looking for a new take on some traditional escapist fare, tuck a copy of Karen White’s The Sound of Glass into your beach tote, next to the sun screen.

Ms. White is one of the host of Southern Women led by Anne Rivers Siddons and Dorothea Benton Franks who write, well…beach books.   The lead characters are women who are casually connected to homes of antiquity or artistic merit (in the South, many women  want to look young and live in a house that’s Older than Dirt) and they have a Challenge to Meet.  There’s usually an upheaval in the woman’s life, a choice that is Wrong and a good-looking man that is Right.  Pure escapism.  Karen White folds a layer of mysticism to her stories which goes awfully well with old houses.  In The Sound of Glass, the mysticism is how damaged women connect through space and time.
Merritt’s Heyward is a widow on the run from Maine and her past when she takes the reins of an old house in Beaufort, South Carolina.  Like Garbo, she  insists she”Just Wants to Be Alone” but none of her new southern friends are listening, from the zealous neighbors who trade casseroles for an inside gawk at her house to the Alabama step-mother who appears, without warning, to visit…well, stay.  Merritt’s tenure in the house unearths evidence of some ugly family secrets and Merritt has to free them (and her own fears) before she can re-engage with the life she lost so many years ago. 
There are a few problems with the plot.    Merritt’s South Carolina home belonged to her late husband’s grandmother who willed it to Merritt’s husband, her dead grandson.  Problem is, the grandson pre-deceased his grandmother which would make the house, in probate lingo, a lapsed gift.  Since grandma didn’t know or make provision for Merritt, a relation only by marriage, it’s unlikely our heroine would inherit that real estate, especially when there’s a blood grandson in the picture.  But the story is built on Merritt needing the house (and vice versa) so forgive the writer her trespasses.  Forgiveness is a lot of what The Sound of Glass is about anyway, the need to forgive ourselves and our pasts so we can go forward and live.  Ms. White is right on that  point as well as the sea glass she uses as a metaphor for the women who live in the house.  Sometimes glass falls into the ocean and bounces around there for years.  The pieces that make it to the shore have been tossed, tumbled, bumped and pounded for years and they are sometimes rough-edged and cloudy.  But they’re strong and beautiful in wind chimes when flowing breezes make them ring.  Merritt Heyward and the other women in her life have endured a long age of pounding and they are like the sea glass.  They may look brittle and cloudy but they’re strong and beautiful, when you see them in the right light.
This story won’t be on the short-list for the Pulitzer this year (although it could work in a Lifetime movie) but that’s not what’s required in Beach books.  Beach books are for fun, for entertainment and most of all to remind us why we work all year for just a few days in the sun.  Because life slips away from us when we’re focused on the job and our vacations remind us how precious and fleeting time is.  So we enjoy our moments reconnecting with life, ourselves and those we love.  Those themes are also part of The Sound of Glass.  That’s why it’s a perfect book for the Beach.

The Sound of Glass will be available on May 12, 2015.  Thanks to NetGalley for giving me an early look at the manuscript.

Time to start thinking about a Beach Read?

It’s started getting warmer here.  Oh, my poor sister is still in the land of ice and snow but I saw my first bumblebee yesterday, hovering around the forsythia and ready to go into business.  It’s time to start thinking of sandals and sunscreen, vacations and fireworks.  It’s time to start thinking about summer and books to read at the beach.  Beach Lit is, from what I’ve seen , a well-known but under-appreciated genre.  Yes, the book must be light enough in tone and weight to fit with life by the surf and it needs to be entertaining but, most of all, it needs to remind the reader why life and living are precious.  There should be some lessons learned, some perspectives changed and, to be perfect, it should have something to do with the natural world.   Do you want to stretch out on your towel and imagine yourself in the stock exchange?  Of course not!  At any rate, a novel is coming out next month that will fit perfectly into this category.  If  you are looking for a new take on some traditional escapist fare, tuck a copy of Karen White’s The Sound of Glass into your beach tote, next to the sun screen.

Ms. White is one of the host of Southern Women led by Anne Rivers Siddons and Dorothea Benton Franks who write, well…beach books.   The lead characters are women who are casually connected to homes of antiquity or artistic merit (in the South, many women  want to look young and live in a house that’s Older than Dirt) and they have a Challenge to Meet.  There’s usually an upheaval in the woman’s life, a choice that is Wrong and a good-looking man that is Right.  Pure escapism.  Karen White folds a layer of mysticism to her stories which goes awfully well with old houses.  In The Sound of Glass, the mysticism is how damaged women connect through space and time.
Merritt’s Heyward is a widow on the run from Maine and her past when she takes the reins of an old house in Beaufort, South Carolina.  Like Garbo, she  insists she”Just Wants to Be Alone” but none of her new southern friends are listening, from the zealous neighbors who trade casseroles for an inside gawk at her house to the Alabama step-mother who appears, without warning, to visit…well, stay.  Merritt’s tenure in the house unearths evidence of some ugly family secrets and Merritt has to free them (and her own fears) before she can re-engage with the life she lost so many years ago. 
There are a few problems with the plot.    Merritt’s South Carolina home belonged to her late husband’s grandmother who willed it to Merritt’s husband, her dead grandson.  Problem is, the grandson pre-deceased his grandmother which would make the house, in probate lingo, a lapsed gift.  Since grandma didn’t know or make provision for Merritt, a relation only by marriage, it’s unlikely our heroine would inherit that real estate, especially when there’s a blood grandson in the picture.  But the story is built on Merritt needing the house (and vice versa) so forgive the writer her trespasses.  Forgiveness is a lot of what The Sound of Glass is about anyway, the need to forgive ourselves and our pasts so we can go forward and live.  Ms. White is right on that  point as well as the sea glass she uses as a metaphor for the women who live in the house.  Sometimes glass falls into the ocean and bounces around there for years.  The pieces that make it to the shore have been tossed, tumbled, bumped and pounded for years and they are sometimes rough-edged and cloudy.  But they’re strong and beautiful in wind chimes when flowing breezes make them ring.  Merritt Heyward and the other women in her life have endured a long age of pounding and they are like the sea glass.  They may look brittle and cloudy but they’re strong and beautiful, when you see them in the right light.
This story won’t be on the short-list for the Pulitzer this year (although it could work in a Lifetime movie) but that’s not what’s required in Beach books.  Beach books are for fun, for entertainment and most of all to remind us why we work all year for just a few days in the sun.  Because life slips away from us when we’re focused on the job and our vacations remind us how precious and fleeting time is.  So we enjoy our moments reconnecting with life, ourselves and those we love.  Those themes are also part of The Sound of Glass.  That’s why it’s a perfect book for the Beach.

The Sound of Glass will be available on May 12, 2015.  Thanks to NetGalley for giving me an early look at the manuscript.