A review of Mitt Romney: An Inside Look at the Man and His Politics by R. B. Scott.
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In the City
The Archaeology of Home: An Epic Set in A Thousand Square Feet of the Lower East Side by Katharine Greider (Public Affairs; $26.99; 352 pages)
Freelance writer Katherine Greider works hard at doing right by her subject, a one hundred and fifty-year-old tenement building in New York City’s Lower East Side where she and her husband, David Andrews, spent several years creating their first real home. The Archaeology of Home is her second book; however, due to the personal nature of the subject matter, it feels like it is the first.
There’s an almost self-conscious and nostalgic tone to the descriptions Ms. Greider provides the reader about her own experiences in the humble abode. She emphasizes the overwhelming evidence that we are heavily impacted by the place we call home. Our daily lives are filled with immediate issues and the layers of other lives lived before our occupancy are quite invisible to us. This layering of past lives seems novel and foreign to someone who currently occupies a 16-year-old development home in California that was brand new when it was purchased.
Ms. Greider begins the book with a painstakingly constructed history of the geography and populations that inhabited the Lower East Side area where Number 239, East Seventh Avenue now sits. The reader is made painfully aware of the appropriation of land from the Native Americans who had existed in the swampy area for hundreds of years before the arrival of Europeans who imposed their style of cultivation and land division upon the place. Greider uses a monumental vocabulary that borders on pretentiousness when describing the various waves of inhabitants. Perhaps it is the source material that’s influenced her voice? Regardless, the reader may need the assistance of a dictionary or Google to clarify the meaning of some of the oblique words she’s chosen.
The tale warms up as does Greider’s voice when she gets to the relationships that matter most to her. The two children she and her husband bring into the world during their occupancy of Number 239 are somewhat incidental to the telling. Rather, it is her marriage and the travails she endures sorting out the meaning of living in a space with others that seems to dominate her personal revelations.
Some years into the author’s occupancy, Number 239 is deemed uninhabitable by building officials as its foundation has crumpled and the damp basement is a harsh reminder of the original swamp where the building was placed a century and a half ago. Because Greider and her husband are co-op owners, they must deal with the other members of the co-op in order to decide the fate of the structure. Their struggle is easy to relate to for anyone who has been a dweller in a multi-unit building or planned unit development. No spoiler alert needed here as a quick search of Zillow will reveal the current status of the location.
The Archaeology of Home is an interesting and admirable, though flawed, effort by a New Yorker who clearly loves the notion of small parts of a city being home in the truest sense. The reviewer spent the summer of 1968 living at 404 East 66th Street and enjoyed the sense of community found within the enormity of New York City.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.
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Continuing a Conversation with Suzanne Berne, author of Missing Lucile: Memories of the Grandmother I Never Knew
6. What is the most interesting or surprising fact you learned about your grandmother?
I discovered that she’d had a love affair of some sort with a French brigadier who was in charge of a German POW camp a couple miles down the road from the little village where she and her fellow relief workers were headquartered after the war. That really was a surprise. When I developed those photographs from the packet of negatives, almost the first thing I noticed were several photographs of a handsome man in a French uniform – he looked like Clark Gable – and I thought, “Who is this?” But it wasn’t until I started doing research in the Wellesley archive that I found out his name, then later I found letters from a nurse in Lucile’s unit that corroborated what I’d already begun to suspect. My father loved finding out that his mother had had a romance. That was perhaps the single most important discovery for him – it humanized her more than anything else I found out.
7. Your story is in essence two stories – the biography of your grandmother, and the story of a daughter trying to provide a mother for her elderly father. How did you meld these two stories together?
Mostly by trying to remember that one didn’t have much relevance for the reader without the other. Also by recognizing that these are not only two stories, they are two impossible stories: My grandmother has been dead for over 75 years and almost everything that once belonged to her was thrown away, so to try to “find” her I had to look past what I didn’t know into what could be or might be true. My father lost his mother over 75 years ago. I couldn’t “give” her back to him; but I could give him my efforts to reconstruct her life, and that brought the two of us much closer after many years of estrangement.
Yet always, always I had to keep my eye on what I couldn’t do, couldn’t know. Which, oddly enough, is what gives this book tension and coherence, or that’s what I hope.
8. You discover that the function of family history is “to explain what is essentially inexplicable – how we came to be ourselves.” Do you feel that you, and your father, now have a better sense of who you are and how you became that way?
History is made up of people and what they do and what they fail to do, just as people are made up of all the history that has gone before them. What I helped my father reclaim, I believe, is the feeling of being connected to something larger than himself. Lucile was an intellectual, an early feminist, a business executive, a relief worker, a wife and mother. She was a person of history, who was a product of her times, and also more than that, as we are all more than just “products” of our time. Through his mother, my father was connected to tremendous world events, to commercial innovation, political change, seismic social shifts, war. And so, I discovered, was I.
Of course, we are also very much products of a family history, shaped by certain traits and tendencies, either genetically inherited or passed along, as well as influenced by family losses and achievements. Putting some of my own tendencies within some sort of ancestral context was liberating for me at least. Or maybe it simply made me feel less alone with them.
9. You are the author of three acclaimed novels. How was the writing process for this nonfiction book different?
Well, frankly, I first tried to write a novel about Lucile, especially after I started learning about her experiences in France after the war. I thought I could make her come alive after I started learning for my father even more palpably through fiction. And she seemed like such a promising heroine for a novel! The grocer’s daughter in ruined France. But the fact of her kept getting in the way of the fiction I was trying to create – and the fact kept being more interesting.
So to answer your question, the process was not entirely different from what usually happens for me, which is that I have an idea for a novel and then I work away at that idea for years, and the result is nothing like what I first imagined. In this case, I had an idea for a novel and then abandoned the idea of a novel and wrote a biography instead.
10. What do you want readers to take away from Missing Lucile?
I’ve come to think that every family has a “missing person,” someone who died young, or disappeared, or was exiled from the family for some real or perceived crime. Missing relatives are ghosts – real ghosts – and they haunt us by making us wonder how life might have been had they not vanished. Maybe we would be kinder, or braver, or have made better decisions. Maybe we wouldn’t have felt so at odds with the world. Who knows? I suppose I’d like readers to finish the book and realize that no one is really missing if you start looking for her.
Missing Lucile has been released by Algonquin ($23.95; 296 pages). “Takes us deep into the lore of history as well as family.” Sven Birkerts
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A Conversation with Suzanne Berne, author of Missing Lucile: Memories of the Grandmother I Never Knew (Algonquin)
1. What was your inspiration for writing Missing Lucile?
My father’s mother, Lucile Kroger Berne, died when he was a little boy and he never got over it. His whole life was defined by this one terrible fact. As a child I always wished I could find his mother for him, the way children always wish they could give their parents things they feel their parents are missing. In my case, the feeling persisted into adulthood, especially when my father got very sick and he began to focus almost obsessively on the mother he’d never known.
2. You’ve said that you found a few things that once belonged to your grandmother that sparked your research into her life. What were they?
A few years ago I discoverd an old fruitcake tin of odds and ends belonging to my grandmother that I’d collected from my grandmother’s attic in Cincinnati when I was twelve. A commemorative medal, a college pin, a charm bracelet, two packets of postcards from World War I, an old exercise book of poems she had copied out, an annotated copy of Washington Irving’s The Life of Oliver Goldsmith. Nothing that, at first glance, seemed particularly revealing. But what caught my eye was a packet of undeveloped negatives. When I opened the packet and held the negatives up to the light, I realized they were photographs Lucile had taken in France in 1919. That packet was what really got me going, especially after I’d had the photographs printed and sent one to my father of his mother in uniform, a rifle propped against a wall behind her.
3. Your book illuminates the life of Lucile Kroger during the late 1800s and early 1900s, and the rich culture of that time. How much research did you do into that time period to write this book?
A lot – much of it haphazard. To my shame, I never took a history course in college, and I didn’t know the first thing about how to conduct historical research. The archivists at the Wellesley College library can tell you just what a novice I was when I first appeared at their door, asking if they could direct me to any information about my grandmother. But I was lucky in having a research assistant for a semester when I was teaching at Harvard, who went weekly to Widener Library and returned with armloads of books about France after World War I. And I was lucky in having a great grandfather, B. H. Kroger, who was famous enough to have had a book written partly about him, with lots of information about his first grocery stores and his life in Cincinnati at the turn of the century. And I was very lucky to be living close to Wellesley College, where I haunted the library for a couple of years and slowly blundered my way into information about Lucile, and college life for women in the early 1900s, and then the experiences of Wellesley relief workers during and after the first World War.
I paged through photo albums and scrapbooks, read college newpapers, alumnae bulletins, letters, yearbooks, and gradually found a woman and a world I hadn’t known existed.
4. In the book you describe your father’s sadness and his sense of loss, which permeated the family over decades. What was it like to, in essence, give him his life back?
I didn’t give him his life back – he was already in his eighties when I began researching his mother’s life and only too painfully aware of what he had missed by focusing so much on what he hadn’t had. What I did manage to do, however imperfectly, was help him realize that his mother had been more than simply an absence, that she had been a person with her own ambitions, frustrations, her own loses and chances, her own fierce desires.
5. How much of the book is fact versus what you imagine Lucile to be like? How did you weave those two pieces together?
I tried to be factual as much as possible but there were periods of Lucile’s life where I had very few “facts” about her to go on. For instance, all I had to inform me about her high school years were some photographs and her annotated copy of Washington Irving’s The Life of Oliver Goldsmith in which she’s recorded the names and addresses of two different boarding schools in Washington, DC, and the dates she supposedly attended them – though I could never ascertain whether she was ever a student at either school.
Often all I had that was truly factual about her life was what I could glean from the time period and wherever it was that she was living and what I knew, in general, about her family. So there’s quite a bit of speculation in the book. I don’t try to imagine Lucile so much as theorize about her, which I suppose sometimes amounts to the same thing.
To be continued…
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A Day in the Life
Missing Lucile: Memories of the Grandmother I Never Knew by Suzanne Berne (Algonquin; $23.95; 296 pages)
“He had lost his mother when he was a little boy. He’d hardly known her… I wished I could give his mother back to him.”
Missing Lucile is a loving, lovely and lively account of the life of Lucile Kroger Berne, the grandmother that author Suzanne Berne was never to meet. Lucile graduated from the prestigious and challenging Wellesley College in 1911, was married in 1923, gave birth to two children and died in 1932. Hers was a short life and the author’s father was just 6 when his mother died.
Lucile was a member of THE Kroger family of Cincinnati, her own father being the founder of a grocery empire that today is worth billions of dollars. Despite being part of such a prominent family, little was known of her life. As Suzanne Berne writes early in her account, “Lucile has slipped out of memory…” That is, until the author stumbled across a history of the Kroger family which provided her with the outlines of the story that is told here. She also found developed and never-before-developed photographs that helped her to fill in some gaps in Lucile’s story.
Suzanne Berne’s father was in his eighties when she began trying to put the pieces together to create a living, breathing, woman named Lucile. She has largely succeeded in this effort, even putting to rest some family myths. For example, it was said of Lucile that she never smiled, but the reader sees photographs of Lucile smiling – even while her college graduation photo is being taken – and reads accounts of her being almost hysterically happy. This is what happens in real life.
Suzanne Berne spent a great deal of time conducting research at the Wellesley College library, and a large part of this biography involves the time that Lucile spent there – a period she often referred to as the very best period in her life. And, yet, despite the author’s best efforts some riddles remain as such… “Every life has its blank squares.” (Lucile was captain of the Wellesley Running Team until she dropped out for a reason that is still unknown.)
Senator Robert Taft’s wife once said of Lucile that she was, “The only one in the Kroger family with brains.” She was also an adventurous person, a young woman who went to France just two weeks after the end of World War I; her intent being to fulfill the mission of Wellesley’s graduates – to minister to others rather than being ministered to. There it seems she may have engaged in a romance with a military man. Perhaps.
Perhaps is a word often used by Suzanne Berne in this work, because filling in the blanks on a life requires some guesswork: “In my opinion, writing about other people requires a certain stupid bravado – a willingness to chat up the unknowable. Especially since what you don’t know about someone is always going to be more interesting than what you do…” But this account is plenty interesting enough in telling the reader what’s known about the life of Lucile Berne.
The manner in which Suzanne Berne fills in “the unknowable” is charming (this is a novelist applying her creative skills to tying the events of a life together). The author writes about a woman she never knew in a tone that is filled with love and respect. The reader will suspect that Suzanne Berne sees a large part of herself in her late grandmother, a feeling that haunts many grandchildren.
“…everyone’s life is a promising novel when reduced to a few lines in a reunion record… every yearbook is full of promising-looking people who have no idea what will happen to them.”
Suzanne Berne’s father died in 2009, but not before he was able to read the majority of the manuscript that makes up this unique portrait. His daughter Suzanne provided him with an invaluable, lyrical, account of his mother’s life – one that turned a ghost back into a living person, a woman with strengths and weaknesses; a woman who won and lost in life; a woman who lived a life in full before her early passing. What a tremendous gift!
Lucile Berne’s life is now well accounted for, and it is well, well worth reading. Highly recommended.
This review was written by Joseph Arellano. A review copy was provided by the publisher.
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Stiltsville by Susanna Daniel (Harper; $24.99; 320 pages)
“It was so easy, I understood now, to take a wrong turn…”
“All the days have turned to years…” Chris Hillman (“Time Between,” The Byrds)
This is a novel that finishes well. This being said, the first half of the novel is a muddy bog. I often felt as if I was reading the diary of an obsessive person who notices every detail but has no idea as to what meaning to attach to the aggregation. Here is a sampling:
Paul stopped walking and I almost bumped into him. I could see the pink of his skin through the translucent white of his T-shirt, the short hairs on the back of his neck. “Look,” he said, pointing at the water. By his foot, a blue crab skittered across the sand, then slipped underneath a rock. …He offered me his hand and I took it, but only until I’d stepped over a wide stretch of coral. We walked for an hour. Paul spoke only to point out a creature or plant, and I spoke only to acknowledge him. The flats surrounded our stilt home on three sides, and I’d never before walked to their far edges.
This is not quite scintillating reading, and there are 150 or so pages like this before the plotline begins to come together. This is the story of a Miami couple and the events that happen to them and their daughter between the years of 1969 and 1993. It seems to take forever to get to the 90s.
The future married couple at the center of this tale initially meet as young college students playing in a community of homes built on pilings in the waters of Biscayne Bay, Florida. The collection of homes is known as Stiltsville. It’s a community that will not last, one of the many things revealed to the reader before he/she actually needs to know it. Susanna Daniel has the frustrating habit of setting a scene, the events involving the main characters, in current time before skipping forward to tell you what will happen later. For example, her female protagonist’s first impressions of Miami are that, “…the city (Miami) seemed large to me… though it would double in breadth and height and population during the time I lived there.”
This needless plot device is used far too many times. In one odd instance, the lead character is telling us about today before she jumps to “nearly a year later.” Contra, another time we suddenly shift from today to the events of the preceding day. Later on, we’re reading about what’s happening to the family one evening before we’re abruptly shifted back to the supposedly related events that occurred eight months earlier. All of this is far too clever to be interesting.
There’s also the problem of stilted language in Stiltsville. Early on our female lead tells us that, “…after meeting Dennis, I saw in my own future bright, unknowable, possibilities. I’m a bit ashamed to have been a person without much agency in life…” Agency? What reader knows a person who would use that word today… and in Miami? Her future husband Dennis, by the way, works for a successful law firm in Miami but seems to know little about law. In one scene, he worries that he’ll be arrested by the Coast Guard (and quite possibly disbarred) for buying a boat from a person who may not have had clear title to it. Any first year law student would tell him not to worry, but then this is fiction.
Stiltsville also includes some paths that lead nowhere. At one point Daniel includes a thinly disguised take-off on the Rodney King case, except that it’s set in Miami rather than Los Angeles. The reader is meant to get somewhat worked up about riots and the prospect of better communities being invaded before this side-story disappears. It has nothing to do with the main story, so why was it included?
In the latter part of the novel, Daniel does create some quotable statements such as, “The cement of a marriage never dries.” She also displays her cleverness in dropping a near tragedy into our laps before sidestepping it. And, finally, there’s the point at which someone is affected by a devastating illness. If Daniel had begun at this point she might have crafted a tight, compelling and fascinating debut. Instead, Stiltsville exposes us to a writer of some potential who failed to put much of it down on the written page this time around.
This review was written by Joseph Arellano. A review copy was received from the publisher.
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Other Voices, Other Rooms
American Music: A Novel by Jane Mendelsohn (Knopf, 237 pages, $23.95)
“When you’re lost in Juarez/ And it’s Easter time too/ And your gravity fails/ And negativity don’t pull you through…” Bob Dylan (“Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”)
“The memory was like an explosion and he was inside it, living through it and it surrounded him and slowly he breathed into it… This was where he was headed. He was entering someplace. It seemed to be his life.”
This one is a brilliant and one-of-a-kind experience. Author Jane Mendelsohn has written a novel about disorientation and jumbled lives, where people are not sure whether they are living now or in the past. Or in the future.
“…she seemed to enter that new future and for an instant the past disappeared.”
The novel starts out with an Iraq war veteran – circa current times – being treated for his injuries by a 21-year-old physical therapist whose name is Honor. As Honor works on the wounded soldier, whose name is Milo, she begins to feel and hear stories… His body “is like a haunted house.” She feels the stories in his limbs and in his bones, but bit by bit he also begins to tell her the stories that he sees. He tells the stories and they both listen thinking that somehow these stories may involve people from the past.
Yet, the stories are disjointed and cover very different periods of time: 17th century Turkey (1623 to be exact), 1936 and 1969. These life stories of five separate individuals are seen in visions and/or heard by our two protagonists.
Music and its simple joys is one of the themes that unite the distinct stories. A dancer in Budapest in 1623 inspires a man of chemistry to invent a cymbal, the prototype of today’s premium brand found on many drum kits. Count Basie’s inaugural performance at the Roseland Ballroom in New York City on Christmas Eve brings lovers together: “The music had swung them here… this happy romantic rhythm would kill them both.”
Another theme is the past as prelude. We cannot fully understand who and what we are now without understanding our ancestors and how their choices during their lives led us to the current moments in our lives.
“Do you ever regret coming east and leaving the movies?” Anna asked.
“No, I don’t,” Pearl said. She was looking straight up with her eyes open. Anna, already falling asleep, couldn’t see the tears. “If things hadn’t happened exactly the way they did,” she said, “I wouldn’t have been here with you.”
At the conclusion of American Music we see how the past and present stories are related. But this is not the key point. Once the past is fully encountered and understood, Mendelsohn tells us, we can’t hold on to it. Once it has served its purpose (once our relatives have lived and died for us) it is time to let the past (and them) go.
“She saw the… figures walk into the desert and she watched them… and she knew for the first time that she had not been letting them go and then the car drove on and she let them go.”
There’s an angel, a guardian angel of sorts that appears to a character in this book. He delivers a message and then disappears after doing his job. Jane Mendelsohn has done her job here so very, very well that it’s remarkable and more. I can almost see where the wings attach to her shoulders.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.
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