Modern Lit: The Fountain of St. James Court, by Sena Jeter Naslund

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

imageFor the past decade, Sena Jeta Naslund has been writing novels with distinctly literary themes, drawing on material first treated by such giants as Herman Melville (Ahab’s Wife) and A. Conan Doyle (Sherlock in Love). Now she gives a nod to James Joyce and Virginia Woolf in The Fountain at St. James, or The Portrait of An Artist as an Old Woman.

There are two female protagonists in Fountain, one imaginary and the other real. Kathryn Callaghan is a 21st century novelist who has just completed the first draft of a biographical novel. The subject of that novel is famed 18th century portraitist Elisabeth Vigee-Le Brun, who painted highly acclaimed works of Marie Antoinette and her courtiers. Kathryn’s story takes place within a single day, as she takes stock of her life, now that she’s in her sixties and contemplating how best to spend her final years. In doing so, she learns something about how far she will go to protect those she loves.  Interspersed with Kathryn’s experience is a reading of  her new novel, told in the first person by the artist herself.

Of the two lives presented here, Vigee-Le Brun’s is by far the most momentous. As she dares to become the most pre-eminent female painter of her time, Elisabeth tells about her childhood with a much-loved father, her relationship with the Queen of France, and her flight from the horrors of the French Revolution. Along the way, she will lose the person she most loves, her daughter Julie. But to my mind, Kathryn’s story is the more compelling one, as she comes to terms with love, loss, and age,  and finds the courage to  ward off  a very real threat to the life of her own beloved son. While Elisabeth thinks of her life in visual, artistic terms, Kathryn relates hers to literature and its themes. But both spend considerable energy reflecting on the relationships that defined their work, their lives, and the choices that each made.

As a novel, Fountain is deeply contemplative rather than action-based, and as a result, lags in many places. Still, the novel-within-a novel structure is interesting, and as always, Ms. Naslund’s writing is eloquent and evocative.

Bad Girls: Yoko Ono

It’s difficult to grasp the fact that Yoko Ono Lennon is 80 years old. Born in Tokyo in 1933, she and her parents moved between Asia and the US as demanded by the dictates of her father’s banking job. They were in Japan during WWII and suffered the deprivations common during war. In the early 1950’s, the Onos settled in Scarsdale, NY. Yoko attended Sarah Lawrence College, and to the dismay of her parents, embarked on a “Bohemian” life style as an artist. Yoko married a composer and attempted suicide after the marriage failed. In 1962, she married again, giving birth to a daughter, and despite marital strife, stayed with her husband for several more years, pursuing her career and leaving child care responsibilities to him.

In 1969, everything changed for Yoko when she met John Lennon, who attended one of her art exhibits. Lennon was attracted to her avant garde attitude towards both art and life, but their relationship did not heat up for a couple of years. When their affair finally began, and Lennon divorced his wife, public outrage was enormous. John and Yoko married in 1969, at the height of the peace/love/drugs movement, and became the most famous couple in the world, demonstrating for their beliefs with flamboyance, via a bed-in, naked photos, appearing in public wearing bags, and other in-your-face antics. The Lennons were flattered by their inclusion on President Nixon’s infamous anti-American list. Lennon insisted that Yoko participate in his music, though she was not especially gifted in that area, and when the Beatles ultimately broke up, disappointed fans held Yoko responsible. The couple was widely criticized for their treatment of Julian, Lennon’s son from his first marriage. Yoko’s former husband, believing that Lennon was a harmful influence on his daughter, kidnapped her from Yoko’s custody and refused to permit any contact. Attempts were being made to deport Lennon for drug use, and for a time, the marriage foundered.

The following year, Yoko and John reconciled, and their only child, Sean Lennon, was born. Shortly after the release of a joint album, John was murdered in front of their apartment at the Dakota in NYC.

For years, animosity toward Yoko continued, but she never gave up her artistic and social endeavors. She created a memorial to John Lennon in Central Park, Strawberry Fields, and the John Lennon Museum in Japan. Yoko recently has instituted a $50,000 Peace Prize for Palestinian and Israeli artists. Now 75, Yoko Ono has finally been given credit and recognition for her artistic and political contributions, and has reconciled with her daughter. It’s tempting to wonder what her reception might have been had she been Caucasian and beautiful.

Great Historical Fiction: The Secret Keeper, by Kate Morton

The Secret Keeper

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When she was sixteen, living on her family’s farm outside of London, Laurel Nicolson saw her beloved mother committing the murder of a stranger. Although Laurel’s own testimony established that it was done in self defense, her parents never fully explained why it happened. Now Laurel, a successful actress, is in her 60’s, and her mother is dying. This is her last chance to discover the truth about this dark family secret.

The Secret Keeper is wonderfully labrynthine novel, which, as it progresses through its various stages, is told and retold from the perspectives of three women. There is Laurel herself, speaking mostly in the present time, explaining things as she understood them then and how she interprets them now. Her mother, Dorothy, relates her own version of events as they unfolded during the Blitz in WWII. An alternate version is provided, also from 1940’s London, by Dorothy’s glamorous friend Vivian. All three are remarkably captivating individuals, and, every step of the way, author Morton surrounds them with an array of vibrant supporting characters. The bulk of the action takes place in wartime London, which comes alive in all the life and death peril of the bombings.

Although some reviewers have remarked that the secret was a fairly easy one to guess, I was unable to figure everything out until close to the end. When the truth becomes apparent, it’s very bittersweet, and very satisfying. Having read all three of Kate Morton’s earlier books, I feel confident in describing her writing as literary, elegant and eloquent, and she creates memorable stories bursting with life. She’s a terrific novelist, well worth reading.

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Modern Lit: The Wishing Thread, by Lisa Van Allen

The Wishing Thread

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Tarrytown, NY, a mere twenty five miles from Manhattan, abounds with legend, folklore, and history. The village of Sleepy Hollow, named for the famous story by Washington Irving, was called North Tarrytown until 1996, when the name was changed by the vote of the populace. It is here that Lisa Van Allen has set The Wishing Thread.

Aubrey Van Ripper has two sisters, but it’s always been assumed that she would take over The Stitchery, a yarn shop that’s been in the family for two centuries. Aubrey’s never left Sleepy Hollow, but her sisters, spooked by the tradition that the Van Rippers can knit garments for their customers that will make their fondest wishes come true. Some say the Van Rippers are swindlers; other say they’re witches. When Aubrey’s aunt dies, her sisters Bitty and Meggy return for the funeral, and are shocked to learn that the aunt has left the property to all three of them, with the stipulation that they all agree on its future. Each of the sisters has her own share of problems, secrets, and dreams. Unable to reach an agreement, their relationships with each other are challenged to the breaking point. Seems there is no magic to be knitted up to resolve this conflict. Can Aubrey continue to believe? Has she ever truly believed?

Gracefully written and evocative of past and present, The Wishing Thread is about family ties, learning to be oneself, and the power of love and hope. Knitters will love this story, but there’s much to enjoy for non-knitters as well.

(Note: Historically, there are many old traditions based upon the belief that knitting can be used to “work charms and spells with.”)

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It’s a Mystery: Over Her Dead Body, by Kate White

Over Her Dead Body

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Would-be authors are often advised to “write what you know”, and former Cosmopolitan magazine editor Kate White has done just that with her series featuring Bailey Weggins. In Over Her Dead Body, Bailey has just lost her job at Gloss and lands on her feet with a new one as crime writer for a celebrity rag. She’s happy to have it, despite warnings from a co-worker about what a *itch her new boss, Mona, is. But someone bashes Mona in the head, and Bailey’s assigned to write an on-the-scene article about the murder from an insider’s point of view. There is an entire roster of possible suspects, all of who had axes to grind with Mona.

This is a light, brisk mystery, with the reader following Bailey as she works at solving the case during the day, and at building a new romantic relationship in the evening. She’s definitely a Devil Loves Prada, Sex and the City sort of career woman, never hesitating to get down and dirty. The plot is a simple one, but loaded with red herrings (scarlet/vermilion/puce???). There are two neat twists at the end, one for the murder case and the other for the romance, the latter a teaser to entice readers into picking up the sequel. But I like my mysteries a little less chick-litty.

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Modern Lit: Heartbroken, by Lisa Unger

Heartbroken

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Lisa Unger explores the family rifts that can grow and fester as a result of truths never spoken. Kate Burke’s annual vacation on remote Heart Island, her family’s private Adirondack hideaway, becomes more burdensome than pleasurable. Her seventy five year old mother, Birdie, hasn’t softened with age, and Kate’s always agonized over why Birdie is so emotionally remote and critical. Kate knows she’s become a disappointment to Birdie, settling for a life as a stay at home mom. But this year, her novel, based upon family journals, is about to be published, and Kate hopes her mom will be impressed, but fears her reaction nonetheless. Birdie has her own secrets.

Emily is a young woman in an abusive relationship, and lives with her mother’s disapproval. The rash acts of her live-in boyfriend will soon bring her back to Heart Island, which she visited as a child and recalls as idyllic.

The lives of these three women are about to collide, to erupt in the sort of violence none of them could have imagined. Ms. Unger has developed into a masterful storyteller: Heart Island is outstanding. The novel begins ordinarily enough, but chapter by chapter, the commonplace begins to spin faster and faster, until none of the women can foresee or control the consequences. Multidimensional and suspenseful, what begins as a family saga morphs into a nail biting psychological thriller, in which the outcome is anything but predictable. Some hearts will be broken, while others will be reborn.

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Historical Fiction: Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, by Jennifer Chiaverini

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In 1868, seamstress and former slave Elizabeth Keckley (she, herself, spelled it Keckly) did the unthinkable, when she had the audacity to write a memoir of her life in general and her years in the White House in particular. She would soon regret it, or at least regret her honesty and her misplaced trust her publisher. Drawing primarily from that memoir, author Jennifer Chiaverini has written a fictional account of her life from 1860 to her death in 1907, and although the perspective is primarily Elizabeth’s, appears to have provided a fair picture of the tumultuous life of Mary Lincoln as First Lady.

Her engagement to serve as Mary’s “modiste” was quite a feather in Elizabeth’s   cap, contributing greatly to the success of her dressmaking business. Mary quickly came to rely upon her for much more than her sewing skills. Mary was never well accepted into the society of the capitol, and Elizabeth became her truest friend and confidante. She also gained great insight into the character of Abraham Lincoln. Each woman was remarkable in her own right, for very different reasons, and each suffered substantially in the years following the President’s assassination.

Ms. Chiaverini writes a series of historical novels involving quilting during the Civil War, and Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker is produced in the same simple, cozy style. Apparently, she couldn’t resist including a few slow chapters on the making of a quilt said to have been designed especially for Mary by Elizabeth, although she never managed to give it to her. What this book does well is paint a picture of race relations during the Civil War era; particularly evocative are the passages on the derogatory and overtly racist public reaction to the memoir, and on the difficulties Mary and Elizabeth encountered when traveling together. Mary is sympathetically portrayed as a well-meaning woman who did many fine things, but who undermined her popularity through her own behavior, likely due to bipolar disorder. Less uniformly successful is the portrayal of the personality of Elizabeth. Her extraordinary accomplishments are justly explicated, but the character herself comes across as a candidate for sainthood.

No book, of course, is perfect, and this is a story well worth reading. Elizabeth Keckley deserves a prominent place in the history of her era, and Mary Lincoln a more compassionate image, as Jennifer Chiaverini has demonstrated.