On March 11, 1948, a fire raged through the main building of North Carolina’s Highland Hospital, killing nine female patients trapped in a locked ward on the fourth floor. Victims included Zelda Fitzgerald, a dancer, artist and writer like her husband F. Scott Fitzgerald. Highland was a residential treatment facility for the mentally ill and considered quite progressive in its treatment methods. Author Lee Smith takes inspiration from the hospital, the tragic fire and Zelda Fitzgerald’s own life in her newest book Guests on Earth.
Smith’s narrator is 13-year-old New Orleans native Evalina Toussaint. Evalina refuses to eat after the death of her mother and is packed off to Highland for a cure. Now an orphan, the resort-like hospital becomes Evalina’s home, and its caregivers and patients her family. Fresh air and exercise, music and art: Evalina thrives under the care of the enlightened psychiatrist Dr. Carroll and develops into a talented pianist. Swimming and songs aren’t the only therapies employed at Highland, though, and as Smith reveals the darker secrets in the lives of Evalina, Zelda and other patients, she also explores the more invasive and seemingly barbaric treatments employed upon the mentally ill.
Smith, winner of the Southern Book Critics Circle Award, imbues her writing with the atmosphere of rural Appalachia. She draws upon both the folklore of the mountains as well as the culture of southern high society in creating compelling characters and an absorbing story. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote “the insane are always mere guests on earth, eternal strangers carrying around broken decalogues that they cannot read.” Guests on Earth allows a few of the guests to share their memorable tale.
In September of 1944, in the final year of World War II, a B-24 bomber piloted by Jack Arnett and carrying 10 servicemen plummeted into the western Pacific Ocean near the Micronesian islands of Palau. The wreckage of the plane disappeared, and the men were presumed dead though no bodies were found. Baltimore author Wil S. Hylton examines the quest of the man who worked to unravel the mystery of crash and the fate of the men on board in Vanished: The Sixty-Year Search for the Missing Men of World War II.
In 1993, middle-aged medical researcher Pat Scannon was a novice scuba diver, so when an invitation came to search for the underwater ruins of a sunken Japanese hospital ship supposedly laden with gold stolen during WWII, he was hesitant to accept. While diving on the trip, Scannon saw a wing of a different submerged American plane and became determined to answer the question of what happened to Arnett’s aircraft and crew. He assumed that, due to the massive size of a B-24 bomber, he’d locate the crash site fairly quickly; instead, his detective work spanned more than 10 years.
Hylton documents the details of Scannon’s research utilizing books, government documents, archival material and networking with veterans and military contacts. Yet, Vanished is far more than a paper trail. Particularly compelling are the parallel stories of Scannon, the crew members and their families who had been waiting for nearly 60 years for information about the fate of their loved ones. Vanished is a moving account of one man’s determination to lay to rest with honor a forgotten crew of our country’s airmen.
Mary Poppins, Julie Andrews and Walt Disney: for most of us, the three are linked together with supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, tea parties on the ceiling and Jane and Michael Banks of 17 Cherry Tree Lane. The name P.L. Travers, however, is recognizable by only the most diehard of Poppins fans, as she is the author of the Mary Poppins children’s book series, as well as the subject of the biography Mary Poppins, She Wrote by Valerie Lawson.
P.L. Travers was born in Australia and christened Helen Lyndon Goff; she later adopted Pamela Lyndon Travers as a pseudonym. Travers valued her privacy, and felt protective of the Mary Poppins characters and stories. Lawson explains that each contained elements of Travers’ own rather peripatetic and often difficult life. Initially, Walt Disney encountered resistance from Travers when he approached her about adapting her Poppins books to a film version. The “real” nanny is sharp-tongued, mysterious, controlling and a bit vain. Travers felt Disney would “replace truth with false sentimentality” and called Disney’s movie-making “vulgar.” In the end, Disney’s coffers trumped Travers’ misgivings, and the Julie Andrews version of Mary triumphed on the silver screen.
Expect to hear more about P.L. Travers after the December release of the new movie Saving Mr. Banks which follows Disney as he woos Travers for the film rights to the now-classic movie Mary Poppins.
Aminatta Forna sets her newest novel, The Hired Man, in a rural Croatian village in the summer of 2007. As she did in her Commonwealth Writer’s Prize-winning book The Memory of Love, Forna again examines people living in the aftermath of conflict and the insidious influence of violence which lingers long after the war has ended.
Duro Kolak is a middle-age man; small, quiet Gost is his hometown. He lives alone since the rest of his family, like many of the villagers, has moved away. Duro picks up odd jobs, hunts with his dogs, Kos and Zeka, and occasionally visits the pub. Change comes to Gost in the form of an English family who buy a shabby vacant house as a summer retreat and a real estate investment. Duro knows the house well, as it belonged to childhood friends, and he offers to help Laura and her teenage children repair the house. Duro also becomes the family’s guide to insular Croatian culture.
Forna, through Duro, alternates the contemporary story of Duro, Laura’s family, and the house restoration with the tangled back story of Duro and the Pavić family who were the previous owners of Laura’s vacation home. Duro’s reminiscing begins with his friends Krešimir and Anka Pavić with whom he swims and shoots pigeons. Idyllic memories these are not, and as the roof is repaired and an exterior mural uncovered on the Pavićs’ old home, the reader is gradually led into the dark dynamics of altered friendships, a Gost before and during the disintegration of a country and the horror of ethnic cleansing.
Forna paces this elegiac work deliberately, allowing the two storylines to slowly coalesce into a narrative of love and war and a search for the truth. The Hired Man is a beautiful and brutal tale, built on the rotten foundation of war crimes barely plastered over by the new peacetime.
As a child, author Kimberly Rae Miller would pray that her home would catch on fire. Her prayer was answered but, to her horror, it came with some unforeseen consequences. In her memoir, Coming Clean, Miller writes about her experiences growing up as the only child of parents who were hoarders.
Miller makes it clear that hoarding isn’t just a messy home with too much clutter. Hoarding à la the Miller parents means never throwing anything away. It means online shopping so obsessively that delivered but unopened packages are stacked to the ceiling. It means sleeping on the edge of a mattress otherwise piled with junk, never opening the refrigerator since it contains moldy sludge and showering at the gym since to call in a plumber to repair leaking pipes would mean being reported to social services. Yes, it means moving to a new home to escape the detritus in the old house.
It would be easy to dismiss this book as piggybacking on the odd appeal of the popular reality TV show Hoarders. The descriptions of the Miller family’s living conditions are shocking and sad. Miller also relates the shame she felt as a child, colluding with her parents to present a picture of normalcy, and the guilt, too, after the wished-for house fire resulted in the deaths of her beloved pets. Yet, this story is multi-layered, and Miller is clear that she was raised by loving and intelligent parents who encouraged and supported her in academic and social pursuits. Coming Clean reminds us that imperfect people and good parenting are not mutually exclusive, and our circumstances do not define who we are. Visit Miller at her blog, TheKimChallenge, where she writes about food, fitness, perspective and love.
John Brown: abolitionist, Harper’s Ferry raider, failure. Dry high school American history text material, forgotten right after the test…or not, especially if presented by author James McBride in his bawdy and raucous new novel, The Good Lord Bird.
Henry is 10 years old. He helps out in the rural Kansas barbershop in which his father works. Both Henry and his father are slaves, owned by Dutch. Henry’s father is barbering the scripture-quoting Old Man when Dutch walks in; an exchange with the Old Man gets heated and after guns blaze, Dutch is wounded, Henry’s father is dead and the Old Man is unmasked as the despised John Brown. Brown rescues Henry, though he mistakes him for a girl and calls him “Henrietta.” “She” is incorporated into his motley band of family and stragglers embarked on a mission to free the slaves.
McBride presents this story as 103-year-old Henry’s recollections, recorded by a fellow church member. Written in the coarse lexicon of the times, the rich and illustrative language can result in a comedy of errors. Henry is biracial and becomes adept as passing for a girl, and sometimes as white, to ensure his safety. As he travels through the states, alone or with Brown, he offers an out-of-the-mouth-of-babes razor-edged skewering of blacks and whites, slaves and owners, and country and city folk. The Good Lord Bird is historical fiction and McBride freely molds icons like Frederick Douglas and Brown into his own flawed characters. This book is not a choice for the easily offended.
Only in the hands of a talented writer like McBride could subjects like slavery and emancipation manage to entertain and amuse while also inform and illuminate. Despite the irreverent approach, ultimately the reader is left with Henry’s observation on slavery and its poisonous legacy when he says “the web of slavery is a sticky business. And at the end of the day, ain’t nobody clear of it.”
New to the library shelves are two memoirs, both written by young and accomplished African-American authors, which reflect on the challenges of growing up black in the United States. MK Asante draws on his experiences as a child and teen in urban Philadelphia in his book Buck. Men We Reaped, by Jesmyn Ward, recounts her family life based mainly in the poor rural South. Each writer, however, portrays the same pain and difficulty of coming of age in communities which are reeling from the dual legacies of racism and the drug culture.
For generations, Ward’s extended family has lived along the Gulf Coast in Mississippi and it is “home” for her no matter where she currently resides. Men We Reaped refers to her brother and four friends, all of whom died within a span of a few years from what Ward originally thinks are disparate causes: drug overdose, suicide, car accident, murder. Instead, as she tells each of their stories she finds the common thread is the desperation of being a young black male living in a region meting out race-based criminal justice, few economic prospects and the attendant breakdown of a once strong family and neighborhood structure. Ward, a 2011 National Book Award winner, is a gifted writer whose graceful style shines throughout her narrative of tragedy.
Asante’s Buck starts at a different place. Asante’s family is well-educated and middle-class. His father is a prominent professor, and he has an older brother whom he adores. By Asante’s teen years, his rebellious brother is incarcerated in Arizona, his parents’ marriage is in tatters and his mother is severely depressed. Asante finds a substitute family on the streets of North Philadelphia and begins a downward spiral. His mother enrolls him in an alternative school, which another student characterizes as “the island of misfit toys,” where Asante thrives. It is here where he determines he wants to write. Laced with quotes from Tupac to Orwell to Asante’s own hip-hop work and including excerpts from his mother’s journal, Buck is edgy, literary and blunt. Asante, a professor at Morgan State University, is also a filmmaker who previews his book here.
Always eagerly anticipated, Great Britain’s Man Booker Prize for Fiction committee announced its 2013 Long List on July 23. The Man Booker is widely considered Britain’s most prestigious literary award and has such a devoted following that one can lay odds with a bookie on the winner. The Long List will be whittled down to six selections in September with the winner declared on October 10, 2013.
The books and authors on the Long List are often an eclectic bunch and this year is no exception. Ireland’s Colm Toibin is named for his The Testament of Mary, a very short novel written in the first person from the perspective of the grieving and bitter mother of the crucified Jesus Christ. Zen Buddhist priest Ruth Ozeki, who divides her time between British Columbia and New York City, made the list for A Tale for the Time Being, in which a Canadian woman finds the diary of a bullied Japanese teen washed up on the Pacific shore. The story unfolds as the diary entries are read.
We Need New Names: A Novel is Zimbabwean author NoViolet Bulawayo’s contribution to the list. Preteen Darling, her home destroyed and father gone, lives with her mother in the shantytown of Paradise. She and her friends play games inspired by the violence of the post-colonial Mugabe regime until Darling is shipped to America to live in “Destroyed”, Michigan with her aunt’s family. Bulawayo writes “there is no journey without a price”, and Darling’s journey from comfortable home to Paradise, then from Paradise to America all comes at a cost.
David Bowie sang “fame puts you there where things are hollow.” Two new books take a close look at superstar entertainers separated by decades, yet the perks and consequences of fame seem to remain the same. Queen of the Air: A True Story of Love and Tragedy at the Circus by Dean Jensen is the true story of circus aerialist phenom Leitzel Pelikan who rose to international stardom at the dawn of the 20th century. Author Michael Walker looks to the music scene in What You Want Is in the Limo: On the Road with Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper and The Who in 1973, the Year the Sixties Died and the Modern Rock Star Was Born.
The Pelikan’s small family circus had fallen on hard times, and crippled patriarch Eduard was forced to “apprentice” his talented 12-year-old daughter Nellie to Willy Dosta’s traveling troupe in order to feed his family. Nellie, an accomplished acrobat and flyer herself, returned within a year and gave birth to baby Leitzel in 1891. Nellie left her baby in the care of her parents while she trained, traveled and eventually found renown under the tutelage of Edward Leamy. Petite Leitzel showed a gift for the trapeze and Roman rings and soon outshone her mother under the big top. So famous that she was known simply as Leitzel, she commanded a private car in the Ringling Brothers circus train, enjoyed legions of admirers and suitors, and was married several times including to her male trapeze counterpart, Alfredo Codona. Queen of the Air is not only a biography of a legendary aerialist, it is a behind the scenes view of the celebrity and circus life of an earlier time.
Walker’s title says it all; his premise is that 1973 marked a year of intense road tours for “every major act of the era” which ushered in the real ’70s, changing the hippieish peace and love culture of the ’60s to a harsher reality of big money, scads of friendly groupies and an unending assortment of illicit substances. Walker tracks the travels and travails of The Who, Led Zeppelin and Alice Cooper whose skyrocketing stars and bulging coffers are directly proportional to the indulgence of their dissolute behaviors. 1973 marked the year of outrageous contract demands, powerful and massive customized sound systems and no-holds-barred stage shows. What You Want Is in the Limo will be enjoyed by anyone who ever held a transistor radio to their ear.
Philipp Meyer’s new novel spanning nearly 200 years of the American West, The Son, opens with the transcription of a 1934 New Deal WPA recording of 100-year-old Eli McCullough’s reminiscences. Eli, also known as the Colonel, discusses his imminent death: in one breath, comparing himself to Alexander the Great and, in the next, dismissing women and marriage. From vests fashioned of scalps, Aztecs as “mincing choirboys,” and vaqueros to Texas rangers, ranchers and oil wells, the Colonel has seen it all and is not shy about sharing his opinions.
Meyer alternates narrators and timeframes by chapter, giving voice to Eli as well as to his son Peter and Peter’s granddaughter, Jeanne. Born in 1834, the same year in which Texas gained its independence from Mexico, Eli’s story is the backbone of the book. As a boy, he witnesses the brutal slaughter of his mother, brother and sister by a band of Comanche who take Eli captive and eventually incorporate him as a member of their tribe. Eli’s later choices reflect his determination to survive despite the torturous customs of his captors. His conduct also mirrors the rapacious actions of a government and its people relentlessly expanding westward into territory already occupied. The Colonel has a contentious relationship with his son Peter, whose chapters play the role of a conscience, ruminating on injustice and cruelty. As the only descendent of the Colonel interested in taking over the family legacies of ranching and oil, great-granddaughter Jeanne reflects on her struggles as a woman managing a vast business in a Texas-style man’s world.
Jeanne muses, “the blood that ran through history would fill every river and ocean…” The Son dispassionately recounts the barbarous atrocities committed by settlers and natives alike. Like the western novels of Larry McMurtry or Cormac McCarthy, Meyer’s writing is notable for its lack of romanticism about its subject. Meyer, who grew up in Baltimore’s Hampden neighborhood, has written a family saga packed with adventure and drama in which the sins of all the fathers have consequences reverberating down through generations.