Monday, March 27, 2023
The Wife Between Us by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen
Thursday, March 16, 2023
Shanda: A Memoir of Shame and Secrecy by Letty Cottin Progrebin
I don't read as much non-fiction as I should but when I do I am always on the lookout for a good memoir. And so when my friend Iris recommended Shanda: A Memoir of Shame and Secrecy by Letty Cottin Progrebin (2022) I was interested. Iris has never steered me wrong and I found Shanda to be a very honest, well written, and thought-provoking memoir in which the author reveals much about the role that fear, shame and thus keeping secrets has played in her life and the lives of her family members going back generations.
Shanda is the yiddish word for shame and Letty grew up during a time when people did not talk about divorce, addiction, teen pregnancy, depression, financial matters and so many other topics. What would the neighbors think or one's employer if they found out you had gotten divorced or were seeing a therapist or if you were a single parent or if you were gay etc etc.
Letty says that her family was particularly prone to secrets partly because of the times they lived in, the 1940's and 1950's, but also because as Jewish immigrants leaving lands with terrible histories of anti-semitism and oppression keeping secrets was often necessary to survive. Even in better times one had to be careful:
"The Elightenment enabled European Jews to live and work among their country’s majority population, though not always in comfort or safety. Their social status and religious liberty continued to depend on the whims of the powerful and the kindness of their neighbors. In good times, they could display their Hanukkah menorahs in their windows as tradition decrees; in bad times, they lit their candles behind closed doors"
Letty's grandmother at age 19 living in Ukraine did not want to marry the much older man her parents had arranged for her. And so on her wedding night, before the marriage was consummated, she climbed out of the window and ran off with her true love, Letty's grandfather. But her relatives here in America kept it silent that their grandmother, however briefly, had a first husband. Back then it would have been shameful to reveal even though today we rightly see it as courageous. Letty discovered this secret as a young woman when her aunt accidently referred to grandma's first marriage.
And that's the thing about secrets. Sometimes they are necessary but other times they do more harm than good and nowhere is that more true than in the secret Letty's parents kept from her and which she only discovered when she was 12 and a cousin blurted it out at a family gathering. It forms the core of the book and as Letty writes:
"Learning the truth about my family on the beach in Winthrop reordered my world. Betrayal became my burden, gullibility my shame. If those closest to me could lie without conscience or consequence, then anyone could misrepresent anything, and everything was up for grabs. I’m not saying I became pathologically suspicious, just inclined toward doubt. I ask a lot of questions .... a psychologist friend once overheard my conversation with a new acquaintance and likened it to “an intake interview.” If that’s an insult, I’ll cotton to it rather than be blindsided ever again"
I won't reveal the secret because I don't want to spoil the element of suprise in the book. But what I will say is that the secret that Letty's parents, Ceil and Jack, were keeping is not shameful at all and nowadays no one would care. But to keep their secret other secrets had to be constructed and that's where the damage occurred.
I may be giving the impression that Letty spends all her time in Shanda focusing on her relatives and their secrecy and is tight lipped about her own life. Nothing could be further from the truth. She is very honest about her life and reveals quite a number of her own secrets and it makes for a memoir that is fascinating and will cause the reader to think about their own families and what's been hidden I know it did for me.
Thank you Iris for recommending Shanda.
Tuesday, March 14, 2023
John Jakes and the Kent Family Chronicles
I was sad to hear about the death of the novelist John Jakes who passed away on March 11, 2023. He was a prolific writer best known for his Kent Family Chronicles series of historical novels. There were 8 books in this series where we follow the fictional Kent Family and their descendents from the American Revolution to the 1890's Gilded Age.
I read Jakes' first novel The Bastard (reviewed on Feb 19, 2019). It was well written and I learned a good deal about the lead up to the American Revolution. John Jakes worked history into his novels seamlessly knowing that the characters and the plot were key and it is fascinating to follow a family like the Kents through many generations and see how their grandchildren, great grandchildren, great great grandchildren turned out.
It was always my plan to read deeper into the Kent series and now I plan to. John Jakes will be missed.
Sunday, February 19, 2023
Waiting For the Barbarians by C P Cavafy
Finding Langston by Lesa Cline-Ransome
About a year or two ago my fellow book blogger Jane at her excellent website Reading, Writing, Working, Playing reviewed Finding Langston by Lesa Cline-Ransome (2018). Jane gave this novel a positive review and I agree. Finding Langston is an award winning young adult novel. It's geared towards middle school kids but can be read and appreciated at any age.
The book is set in 1946 and the narrator, eleven year old Langston, has recently moved with his father from Alabama to Chicago. Langston is having a tough time. Chicago is a big intimidating city and the kids at his new school are mean.
But mostly, Langston misses his mother who recently passed away. His father works hard and is exhausted at night. He doesn't talk much and is dealing with his own grief at his wife's death. Langston, therefore, is on his own spending his days going to school, dodging the bullies, and missing his Mom and the way things used to be with his family in Alabama.
And then one day Langston spots a library and decides to go inside. He sees a book by a writer with his first name and becomes curious. It's a book of poetry by Langston Hughes and he is transformed. From there he goes on to look up other writers from the Harlem Renaissance and by the time the book ends young Langston has grown in so many ways.
Finding Langston is about the power of books to change our lives as they did for eleven year old Langston. He found the poet he was named after and in doing so he found himself.
Tuesday, February 14, 2023
The Ray Bradbury Reading Challenge And How It's Going
I've been taking the Ray Bradbury Reading Challenge for two weeks now and it's going very well. And so I wanted to share some of what I have been reading and learning. I won't list all of the poems, essays and short stories I read. Instead I will just note my favorites.
Poems - I have been using Harold Bloom's Best Poems of the English Language. This collection of poetry starts in the Middle Ages and ends in the late 20th century and I am working through this list in chronological order making sure only to select short poems. And what I am learning is that being a poet in Tudor England could be a dangerous profession. Three of the poets I read wound up in the Tower of London. Sir Thomas Wyatt, Chidiock Tichborne and Robert Southwell S.J. It was a brutal time.
Regarding my favorite poems I would recommend three: Edmund Spencer's One Day I Wrote Her Name which is perfect for Valentine's Day. William Blake's Chimney Sweeper poem When My Mother Died I Was Very Young. There is a strong Victorian/Charles Dickens vibe to this poem about the lives of young boys, many of them orphans, forced into chimney sweeping work. And I also recommend Walt Whitman's poem O Captain My Captain, a moving tribute to Abraham Lincoln.
Essays - I read so many fine essays. Joan Didion's On Keeping A Notebook, Vivian Gornick's The Anti-Social Novelist which is her review of a recent biography of John Steinbeck but a book review by Vivian is always so much more. My favorite essay would have to be Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's Dialogue of A Self and Soul: Plain Jane's Progress in which they analyze the novel Jane Eyre:
"It seems not to have been primarily the coarseness and sexuality of Jane Eyre which shocked Victorian reviewers but ... it's anti-Christian refusal to accept the forms customs and standards of society ... They were disturbed not so much by the proud Byronic sexual energy of Rochester as by the pride and passion of Jane herself ... In other words what horrified the Victorians was Jane's anger.
Short Stories - I had 3 favorites: A Coward by Guy de Maupassant about a foolish young man who in an effort to impress his friends challenges another man to a duel. I also really liked The School-Teacher's Story by Mary Wilkins Freeman and In Dark New England Days by Sarah Orne Jewett Both of these stories are set in 19th century New England and have a really nice gothic spooky aspect to them.
So I do recommend this challenge provided you choose short poems and though I may be breaking the Bradbury rules I have expanded my view of essays to include articles in magazines and book reviews. I don't know if I will continue posting about the challenge but I did want to share a bit of what the experience has been like
Finally let me thank the great Ray Bradbury for this challenge. He is sadly no longer with us but his excellent novels and short stories live on.
Saturday, February 4, 2023
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
"Perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man. But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness. It was deeper and more intimate than the fear of evil and capricious gods and of magic, the fear of the forest, and of the forces of nature, malevolent, red in tooth and claw. Okonkwo's fear was greater than these. It was not external but lay deep within himself. It was the fear of himself, lest he should be found to resemble his father".
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe is a classic of world literature. Since it's publication in 1958 this critically acclaimed novel has been translated into 50 languages, been read by millions and is taught in high schools and colleges worldwide. The book is set in Nigeria during the late 19th century in the years just prior to the arrival of the missionaries and colonialism which would end the culture and customs of the Igbo community.
Chinua Achebe has said that in writing Things Fall Apart he was partly responding to novels like Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. Achebe wanted people to know that there was a vibrant and worthwhile culture in rural villages like Umuofia. He does this beautifully in Things Fall Apart.
But Achebe doesn't sugar coat life in Umuofia. Some of the customs can be quite violent and women are definitely second class citizens. The central character in Things Fall Apart is Okonkwo. He is a leader in the village, admired for his strength and courage. Okonkwo's life has been determined by his intense desire not to be like his father, a man he regards as weak and idle. Okonkwo is a man with a fierce temper. His wives and children are afraid of him. But change is coming to Umuofia and Okonkwo is powerless to stop it.
"There were many men and women in Umuofia who did not feel as strongly as Okonkwo about the new dispensation. The white man had indeed brought a lunatic religion, but he had also built a trading store and for the first time palm-oil and kernel became things of great price, and much money flowed into Umuofia. And even in the matter of religion there was a growing feeling that there might be something in it after all, something vaguely akin to method in the overwhelming madness"
It can be hard to convey in a review how brilliant this novel is, except to say that from the very first page I knew I was holding something special in my hands and that feeling carried through right up till the end of the book. I highly recommend Things Fall Apart.