Modern Lit: Flora, by Gail Godwin

Flora

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Helen Anstruther has experienced a lot of loss in her young life. Her mother died when Helen was only three, and she has been raised by Nonie, her paternal grandmother, who dies shortly after the novel opens in the spring of 1945. Helen’s father is an unhappy, acerbic school principal who drinks too much, and when the school year ends, he takes a temporary job in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, doing secret war work. Because Helen needs looking after, he hires a distant cousin, the twenty two year old Flora, to be her nanny for the summer.

Helen is an intelligent, curious girl who has spent most of her time with adults, which is reflected in her speech and attitudes. She misses her grandmother terribly, and imagines hearing her voice when she needs advice. Helen is full of herself, and thinks she is superior, and Flora impresses her as a simple minded hick. Much of the novel centers on Helen’s “managing” Flora so she can have her own way. While Helen is often sarcastic and disdainful, Flora is unwaveringly caring and supportive. In July, Helen loses her two closest friends when one moves away and the other is hospitalized with polio. Though she regrets the situation, she rather cold-heartedly fails to contact either of them. When discharged paratrooper Devlin Finn, now a grocery delivery man, makes an appearance, both Helen and Flora are smitten. Their rivalry will bring about a tragedy.

The novel is narrated by Helen herself, now a successful, aging author. Part dialogue and part internal rumination, with occasional voice-overs from the adult Helen, the story of this fateful summer plays out slowly, as befits the warm, often sultry climate of the south. Just as the tempo seems unbearably stagnant, however, adult Helen drops a hint about things to come, which sharpens interest and causes a low, simmering sort of tension. The young Helen, of course, is mean because she’s bored and scared; abandonment is one of the books major themes. As the book draws to a close, adult Helen meditates on remorse and recovery. There were times “when I felt I had to keep from losing the little I had been left with, including my sense of myself,” she writes. “I thought I knew everything there was to know about her [Flora], but she has since become a profound study for me, more intensely so in recent years. Styles have come and gone in storytelling, psychologizing, theologizing, but Flora keeps providing me with something as enigmatic as it is basic to life, as timeless as it is fresh.”

Simple but tightly managed plot and well fashioned characters (even the house itself functions as a character!) make this novel a memorable one.

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It’s a Mystery: Restless, by William Boyd

Restless

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

How many of us believe that we know our own parents? Ruth Gilmartin tutors foreign students in English as a second language in 1970’s Oxford. Now a mom herself, she spend most of her off time caring for her four year old son, except for the one day each week when her own mother, Sally, takes care of him for her. One afternoon, Ruth arrives at Sally’s house to find her in a wheelchair, claiming to have suffered a fall. It’s clear that she’s bothered by something, but Sally’s not talking. Instead, she hands Ruth a manuscript to read when she has the time. This how how Ruth discovers that her mother isn’t Sally Gilmartin at all, but former Russian spy Eva Delectorskaya.

Though Restless has a few minor subplots, most of the novel relates Eva’s story, from her recruitment by British Intelligence in 1941 to her skilled execution of a program of disinformation designed to mislead the Germans. Eva falls into a love affair with her spymaster, the charismatic Lucas Romer, forgetting for a while that his number one axiom is “trust no one”. When one of Eva’s missions goes awry, Romer deems her expendable, and she’s forcer into spending the latter war years constructing another identity for herself in Canada. But Eva has a long memory, and in 1976, recruits daughter Ruth to help her get even.

Restless recreates the seamy, nerve-wracking world of high stakes espionage through Eva’s own experiences. Ruth’s life is not half so interesting, until she’s drawn into that world for a brief time herself. This is an action driven plot, and Eva is the only fully developed character in it. The result is a suspenseful spy thriller with a razor’s edge sort of ending, morally ambiguous but satisfying.

“When I was a child,” writes the narrator, Ruth, “and was being fractious and contrary and generally behaving badly, my mother used to rebuke me by saying: ‘One day someone will come and kill me and then you’ll be sorry’. Now, more than two decades later, she knows why.

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It’s a Mystery: A Secret Kept, by Tatiana De Rosnay

A Secret Kept

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Many reviewers have read and reviewed A Secret Kept after having done so with Tatiana De Rosnay’s first novel, The Secret Key, which received critical acclaim. The general consensus seems to that A Secret Kept can’t hold a candle to its predecessor. Not having read The Secret Key, I’m not hampered by expectations. This book is about a pair of middle aged French siblings, Antoine Rey and his sister Melanie. When they were children, their family took a series of vacations at Noirmoutier Island, and to celebrate Melanie’s 40th birthday, Antoine takes her on a surprise holiday there, hoping to rekindle happy memories. The visit does rekindle memories, but some of them are disturbing. On their way back home, Melanie confides to Antoine that she’s remembered something very disturbing about their mother, who died young. Suddenly, however, their car veers off the road. Antoine is not injured, but Melanie must spend several months in recovery, during which he finds himself suspended with all sorts of questions and speculation, wondering when she will be able to recall the momentous news. ,

The trajectory of this book follows the course of Antoine’s struggle to come to terms with an unwanted divorce. He still loves his wife, who has remarried, and his children, whom he sees on bimonthly visits. Desperately unhappy, he meets a free spirited woman who works as the hospital mortician, and he is stunned to realize that he’s falling in love with her. Melanie finally remembers and divulges the secret she’s discovered about their mother, and set out on a search to uncover how she died so many years ago.

A Secret Kept is a sort of family saga, recounted in real time and in a series of flashbacks. The Reys have always been an uncommunicative family, and, in addition to learning how to live his life anew, Antoine must learn to break out of that destructive pattern if he’s going to become the sort of father and lover that he would like to be. His newly found knowledge about his parents’ secret past, initially a shock, proves to be the key to first finding, and then reinventing himself. This well crafted novel is meditative and full of angst, but not overwhelmingly so, and it’s interesting to watch how Antoine handles having to change much what he thought he knew about who he was. In some places, it’s slow going, but generally worth persevering to the open-ended conclusion. The information about Noirmoutier, which can be reached by a road that’s obliterated by the tide twice is day, is fascinating, and the place becomes an apt metaphor for the book’s central theme.

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Here She Is —the Real Rosie the Riveter

post updated 4/26/15

This article was originally posted in 2009, and, in light of the sad news of Mary Keefe’s death this week, at the age of 92, thought it only right to update it today. Ms. Keefe is an American icon, and will always be remembered as Rosie. Not a bad legacy to leave !

One of the famous iconic images from World War II is Norman Rockwell’s poster of Rosie the Riveter. The painting, for which now-79 year old Mary Doyle Keefe posed twice and was paid $10, came to embody the can-do attitude of American women whose work helped win the war. Full story here .

post updated 10/1/09

It’s a Mystery: The Haunting of Maddy Clare, by Simone St. James

The Haunting of Maddy Clare

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

England, in the aftermath of The Great War. Few soldiers who fought in France returned unscathed, and Alastair Gellis and Matthew Ryder are no exceptions. Deeply affected by their experiences in the killing fields of France, they have decided to make a study of death and the afterlife by researching and writing about spirit manifestations. Their current case involves trying to rid the Falmouth House barn of its angry, often violent ghost, that of a servant girl, Maddy, who hanged herself there several years ago. Because of some girlhood trauma, Maddy cannot abide men, so Alastair arranges to hire a female assistant. Sarah Piper ekes out a living as an employee of a temp agency, so when she’s sent to interview with Alastair, she cannot resist the chance for a bit of adventure, not realizing that much more will be required of her than simple transcription.

Simone St. James’s description of Sarah’s first encounter with Maddy is atmospheric and chilling, and she spins out this tale in an effective Gothic style. The ghost hunting team quickly recognizes that, before they can hope to calm Maddy and send her on her way, they must ferret out the source of her terrible rage. Interestingly, each of the three comes to encounter her in very different ways, and by comparing their experiences, they begin to tease out the truth. The author enlivens the remote country village setting with good period detail and an array of very English characters, ranging from the new owner of the manor house to the suspicious inn keeper to the surly churchyard sexton. Having recently read, enjoyed, and reviewed Bellman and Black, in which crows play a prominent and symbolic role, it was pleasantly surprising to me to encounter crows in this book as well, fulfilling an even more active function. Maddy’s ghostly behaviors are anything but trite, and while Sarah’s budding romance (I won’t say with whom) could easily have detracted from the book’s central theme, it was well integrated into the plot as a whole. Alastair, Matthew, Sarah, and Maddy herself emerge from their brief but intense relationship quite changed.

The Haunting of Maddy Clare is an impressive debut novel. If it has an outstanding flaw, it is that some of the characters telegraphed their implication in Maddy’s mystery. But the overlying ghost story maintained its appeal, and readers who enjoy modern Gothic will probably enjoy this book.

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Movies in History: Arsenic and Old Lace

Plot: Cary Grant portrays Mortimer Brewster, a famous arts critic who marries the girl next door on Halloween. He returns to the Brooklyn home he shares with his two maiden aunts to pack for his honeymoon (at Niagara Falls, of course), when he discovers a corpse in the window seat. Mortimer is shocked to learn that his sweet old aunts have been poisoning lonely old men with arsenic laced elderberry wine,  and burying them in the “Panama Canal” that Teddy has dug in the cellar. He spends the rest of the movie frenetically trying to have Teddy committed, in the hope that if the authorities should happen to learn about the bodies in the basement, they’ll blame it all on Teddy. Midway through,  long lost, psychopathic third brother Jonathan appears on the scene with his plastic surgeon and another corpse in tow.

Arsenic and Old Lace was released in 1944. It’s in black and white and  very much like the stage play that inspired it, but when viewed as a period piece, one of the “madcap comedies” of the time, it doesn’t come across as dated. Cary Grant bears the weight of the plot, and he’s brilliant. It’s a joy to watch him convey a full spectrum of emotion in a ten second sequence of facial expressions.  Raymond Massey plays the role of Jonathan, who becomes enraged whenever anyone mentions his resemblance to Boris Karloff, and Peter Lorre that of Dr. Einstein, who keeps promising to make him look like someone else. The aunts, some cops, Mortimer’s new wife, and the sanitarium director make frequent appearances to move the story along.

In spite of its macabre theme, this is very much a comedy, with lines that hold up quite well some seventy years after they were uttered. Great fun, full of laughs, and vintage in the best sense of the word.

Nonfiction Review: Stones and Bones of New England, by Lisa Rogak

The subtitle of this book is “A Guide to Unusual, Historic, and Otherwise Notable Cemeteries”, but I’ve found it to be a series of one to two page vignettes about 95 cemeteries in the six New England states. The author has selected what she found to be the most interesting tombstone in each graveyard, adding one or two more if she found them remarkable. A photo accompanies each of the locations.

The back cover describes Stones and Bones as a guide that provides all the tools that you need to explore on your own. If you like to drop into old cemeteries and putter around a bit, I suppose that’s true. For those with a deeper interest in funeral and burial practices, gravestonimagee iconography, and epitaphs, there is little here to hold that interest. Included is some limited but useful information on almshouse burials, some brief description of the headstones of a few famous individuals, and dashes of humor. The photos, though black and white, are sharp and clear. It also identifies the oldest legible gravestone in CT (1644, Windsor.) My favorite chapter was the final one, entitled Ben & Jerry’s Flavor Graveyard, where retired ice cream flavors are commemorated with hokey epitaphs and images of winged ice cream cones apparently ready to fly to ice cream heaven. Who knew?!

Recommended for the most casual of cemetery visitors.