Just Like February, by Deborah Batterman

Just Like February

As the story opens, five-year-old Rachel Cohen is worried that her hippie parents are not going to actually go through with their long-delayed wedding. Her mother keeps calling it off. For Rachel, its more than the much-fussed-over dress she’ll wear as the flower girl; it has to do with making her family seem less precarious.

Her conservative grandparents appear vividly in their humor, patience and bottomless love. Details such as Grandma’s raspberry rugelach and Grandpa’s jokes and stories bring them to life, as do their distinct voices.

But it is her Uncle Jake whom Rachel loves immoderately. A restless traveler, source of treasured gifts and postcards, Jake is a free spirit who seems to offer Rachel a different kind of stability. He really does, even though this may seem at odds with his move to San Francisco, which has given Grandma to an obsession with earthquake predictions. It is only as Rachel grows older—the story begins in 1969 and ends in 1986—that she begins to recognise his demons and the real dangers that threaten him.

One of the most enjoyable things for me in a well-written book is turning back to the first page and first chapter after I’ve finished. Batterman’s beginning holds the seeds of the story to come. I was delighted to find images and motifs that circled back at the end. These are techniques that make for a satisfying ending—so rare in novels these days.

Writers often discuss how much to bring the outside world into your novel. They can add resonance to a story or, if irrelevant, distract the reader. Setting this story in the turbulent mid-twentieth century: the 1960s, 70s and 80s, Batterman could hardly ignore the effect of outside events on this family, yet she goes further by incorporating them into the storyline.

She does a good job of integrating the counter-culture of the time, with its dizzying sense that an old order is actually coming to an end. She also captures the early days of the AIDS epidemic, with their panicked and irrational fears, using them to drive the story.

For me, the story vividly brought back those decades. And the sense of being there again cemented by the many little details and references that were familiar to me. The text is interspersed with Rachel’s diary entries and postcards written by Jake and Rachel, adding another dimension of authenticity and voice.

I want to mention the cover, too. If readers aren’t familiar with an author, then the cover design is the first thing they see and the first way to interest them in the book. This cover is brilliant. Delicate and lovely, yet troubled, it sets you up for a story that is all of these things.

The next thing readers notice is the title. Titles are a particular weakness of mine, so I wanted to shout from the rooftops when I finally understood how appropriate this title is. The mystery of it draws you in. It lingers in the back of your mind and, even when it’s later explained, it still takes on new layers of meaning.

Delicate and lovely, troubling and satisfying: this is a story to savor.

Where were you when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon? Now that a new film about that event is coming out, what do you think its significance is?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book free from the author. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

My Beloved World, by Sonia Sotomayor

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These days I’m on the lookout for positive stories. I can only bear an hour or two of news early in the day, leaving me time to bury my dismay and disgust with normal daily activities before darkness comes.

I came to this memoir by the Supreme Court justice—the first Hispanic and only the third woman—with some hesitation. I knew it would be a story of success, but feared it would might be saccharine and superficial.

I needn’t have worried. Sotomayor is an excellent writer. Her prose is clear and flows well, developing scenes and narrative that a reader can easily follow. I think this skill must have been honed in her written arguments, where logic and emotion must both be consistently deployed.

It can be hard to find the right tone in a memoir. You have to describe your successes in a way that doesn’t come across as bragging, not even a “humble brag”. You have to talk about the obstacles in your way without whining or succumbing to a woe-is-me mentality. You have to be open about your failures.

Sotomayor starts by describing a scene soon after her diabetes diagnosis when both of her parents argue about giving her the insulin injection she needs. Burdened by their sadness, seven-year-old Sonia decides to learn to prepare the injection and give it to herself. The scene is a good introduction, not only to the challenges facing her—illness, financial hardship, cultural difference—but also to what she calls “the native optimism and stubborn perseverance I was blessed with.”

I understand. I often say that I am lucky to have been born with the happy gene. I’m less good at perseverance, but Sotomayor shows in situation after situation how extra effort can compensate for other gifts.

What keeps this memoir of her successful rise in the legal world is two-fold. For one thing, there are plenty of stories of failures mixed in with the successes, misery among the happy times. The other is the credit she repeatedly gives to others who have helped her along the way. On the first page of the first chapter, right after her remark about optimism and perseverance, she says:

At the same time, I would never claim to be self-made—quite the contrary: at every stage of my life, I have always felt that the support I’ve drawn from those closest to me has made the decisive difference between success and failure.

It is this generous spirit, shown also towards her parents where her love for them shines through even when she describes their failures, that makes me want to cheer her on and give her more credit than she gives herself.

Another challenge of writing a memoir is deciding what time frame to choose. I think she made a wise choice to start with her independent approach to her diabetes and end with her first becoming a judge. Since becoming a judge was her dream from the beginning, it ties up the story neatly.

If you’re feeling low, I recommend this book. As she says in the preface, “People who live in difficult circumstances need to know that happy endings are possible.” Although our circumstances are dissimilar and our ideas of what makes an ending happy differ, her story lifted my own spirits.

What book have you read that brightened your day?

Out of the Dust, by Karen Hesse

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Another Middle Grade coming-of-age story told in verse—pure coincidence that this was next up on my TBR (to be read) pile when I stopped to read Brown Girl Dreaming. Hesse’s story is also a Newbery winner but is fiction rather than memoir. Thirteen-year-old Billie Jo loves playing the piano when she isn’t busy helping her father and pregnant mother try to keep body and soul together in Dust Bowl Oklahoma.

She is good enough to be asked to play in shows, often with handsome Mad Dog. If she gets well enough known with her music, she can leave the failing farm and the ubiquitous dust behind and go to California. Then a terrible accident throws all her plans into disarray.

Spanning a two-year period from January 1934 to December 1935, these poems paint a vivid picture of what life was like during that terrible time. She describes having to turn the glasses and plates upside down on the table until the last second before serving the meal, and still the food is saturated with dust. There is the heartbreak of a field of wheat, already decimated by drought and wind, be flattened by hail or devoured by grasshoppers.

In some aspects, Billie Jo’s life is similar to many teens: wanting more independence than her mother is willing to give her, feeling as though she’s stuck in the middle of nowhere. When her teacher is in a production of Madame Butterfly, and Mad Dog says that “most everyone’s” heard of that opera, Billie Jo is miffed.

How does that
singing plowboy know something I don’t?
And how much more is out there
most everyone else has heard of
except me?

And she has a best friend. But when Livie leaves for California with her family, Billie Jo says, “I couldn’t get the muscles in my throat relaxed enough / to tell her how much I’d miss her.”

Poetry works well as a form for this novel. The fractured narrative adds to the feeling that you are reading a diary. Also, the necessary compression distills each scene into its essence while retaining the emotional impact. Hesse makes effective use of symbols as well, such as the mother’s special cranberry sauce for Thanksgiving. Here is one complete poem, called “Broken Promise”:

It rained
a little
everywhere
but here.

Other poems are longer and tell a more complete narrative, such as “Blankets of Black” about going to Texhoma for Grandma Lucas’s funeral. Billie Jo’s detailed description of the ordeal is riveting.

While written for ages 11-14, Billie Jo’s story will certainly appeal to adults as well. For younger readers, it’s a good introduction to the terrible tragedy of the Oklahoma Dust Bowl during the Depression.

Have you read a Young Adult or Middle Grade novel that brought an historical period to life for you?

North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell

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This 1855 novel has much to say about our own times. It is the story of eighteen-year-old Margaret Hale who moves with her parents from a rural hamlet in the south of England to the fictional Milton in the industrial north. There is a bit of misdirection at the beginning of the story, which starts in London where Margaret has been living with her aunt, uncle and cousin Eliza for half of her lifetime.

The story then moves to Margaret’s beloved Helstone, where she has returned to live with her parents after Eliza’s wedding. She says Helstone is “‘only a hamlet; I don’t think I could call it a village at all. There is the church and a few houses near it on the green—cottages, rather—with roses growing all over them.’” While there, she awkwardly receives a proposal from the brother of Eliza’s new husband.

So far it seems like a romance, a novel of manners. But then Margaret’s father suffers a crisis of conscience, gives up the church, and moves the family north where he will become a private tutor.

Similar to the U.S., with its tensions between red and blue states, coasts and midlands, the U.K. has traditionally been divided between the industrial north and the agricultural south. These tensions drive the story. Set in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, Gaskell uses Margaret’s mistakes and misunderstandings to explore issues related to the first-generation cotton mills and those who own or work in them.

When the Hales first arrive in Milton, they detest the noise and hurry and dirt. Margaret takes a dislike to her first acquaintance, John Thornton, brusque owner of Marlborough Mill and her father’s first pupil. She looks down on him as a tradesman, “sagacious, and strong” but “not quite a gentleman”. She criticises him, too, for not caring for his workers outside of work hours, saying he should be giving them moral instruction and making sure they have enough food and a decent place to live. But that is not how things are done in the north, where workers are free to make their own choices once they leave work.

Margaret quickly befriends a young woman, Bessy Higgins, whose father John works in another mill. Horrified by their poverty and Bessy’s “cotton consumption”, a disease caused by the air quality in the mills, Margaret invites herself to their home to bring a basket of food, as she used to do in the south for her father’s poorer parishioners. To her surprise, the Higginses are offended. As she learns to respect their independence, they become friends.

Margaret’s mistakes and missteps in what to her is an entirely new culture mirror our own easy assumptions from the beginning of the story: that a London wedding and an awkward proposal in a pastoral rose garden signalled a familiar story of romance. Gaskell’s clever misdirection resulted in my feeling great sympathy for Margaret as she struggles to to look past her preconceptions and recognise what is really there.

Margaret’s coming-of-age story alone is sturdy enough to carry the reader’s attention, but what I found intriguing were the even-handed discussions about the rights and responsibilities of “masters” and “men”. These organically arise in the story as Margaret’s reactions, conversations between her father and Thornton, Thornton and his fellow mill owners, and—most interestingly—between Thornton and Higgins, whom Margaret brings together.

Thornton complains that workers don’t understand the market forces that prevent him from raising their wage, while the workers believe he is just living in luxury while they suffer.

As Thornton and Higgins begin a strange sort of friendship, their mistrust and misunderstanding of each other fade and their respect grows. Thornton has already installed a wheel to draw out the cotton fluff that fills the air and destroys lungs, over the objections of some workers who believe all the fluff they swallow inadvertently helps prevent hunger. Thornton works with Higgins to provide a hot midday meal for the workers, so they at least get one good meal a day.

As workers, our concerns today are less about food and more about health care and other benefits, but the same mitigation holds true. In companies where owners and workers communicate, such as the one where I was lucky enough to work, benefits and the occasional necessary belt-tightening are out in the open.

The novel takes place during a time of great social upheaval. Industrialisation was changing the job market—Margaret’s mother can’t find a maid willing to work for a Helstone wage when young women could be earning more in a factory—at the same time that railroads were revolutionising movement. And everything was speeding up.

We are at a similar crossroads. Globalisation and automation are changing the face of work. Without unions—whose pros and cons are explored here too—workers are at the mercy of the bosses. With so many companies being publicly traded rather than owned by one person or one family, there is no Thornton to appeal to. Income inequality is even worse than during Gaskell’s time. And, yes, things seem to be speeding up even more.

One way to gain a more balanced view of the issues which divide us today is to look at how they played out in the past. This novel, sweetened as it is by Margaret’s story, is an excellent start.

Have you read a novel that’s helped you understand one of today’s issues?

Tell the Wolves I’m Home, by Carol Rifka Brunt

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This 2013 debut novel came highly recommended. I approached it cautiously, prepared to be disappointed, only to be thoroughly charmed by the voice of the narrator, fifteen-year-old June. One of the blurbs compared her to Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, but I thought immediately of Cassandra in Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. Both young women are imaginative and well-read. Both have beloved older sisters who seem to be moving away from them. Both are set apart from their peers, Cassandra by her peculiar family and living situation, June by a special friendship.

The voice alone would have carried me through the novel, but the story is gripping as well. As it opens, June remembers when and her sister Greta were being driven by their mother to Uncle Finn‘s apartment to continue sitting for the portrait he was painting of them, Uncle Finn who was dying of AIDS. It is the late 1980s, when AIDS was still new enough that, unsure of how it was transmitted, people feared and shunned the infected.

For June, who hardly saw her accountant parents during tax season and was ignored or tortured by her older sister, Finn was the one person with whom she could be herself. He took her to the Cloisters and Renaissance festivals and museums. He shared her fascination with the Middle Ages. She would often walk into the woods to pretend she lives in another time altogether. His death has left her bereft.

The story moves easily between memories of times with Finn and the present of the story: tax season, with the girls left alone to care for themselves. Popular Greta, who is two years older, is in her last year of high school, having been moved up a grade. She is starring in play at school and struggling with her own demons.

June is stunned by the loss of her confidante, struggling with the idea of death and, later, with the impossible task Finn has left for her.

There is so much I love about this story: June’s imaginative life that reminds me so much of my own at that age, the relationship between the sisters, the absent Finn and his care for his niece, the mounting suspense as events close in around June. I especially love the use of symbols.

I’ve always appreciated the use of symbols, particularly when they mean something a little different each time they reappear. The best at using symbols is Paul Scott, author of The Jewel in the Crown and other novels. In an essay, “Imagination in the Novel”, he describes how he came up with the central symbol of one of my favorite novels, his Birds of Paradise. His idea for the novel began with an image of a woman appearing in a doorway. The idea of her wearing “fine feathers” leads him to his symbol.

Sometimes this thing that glitters appears, sometimes it doesn’t. The thing that glitters is often a symbol. If the symbol can be justified, it is best to use it for all it is worth, to be honest about it, to say: “This is my symbol and this is what it means.” . . .

It was the idea of birds of paradise that glittered, and they became my symbol because, upon investigation, they not only stirred me with the idea of their beauty, but yielded information pertinent to the idea of the woman in the doorway and to the general climate of something having come to an end. Research brought knowledge.

Later he adds a third factor: “an experience of the oddity of life. The imagination, the knowing, and the experience finally cohere into a pattern.”

In Brunt’s novel we have various symbols: the woods where anything can happen, June’s medieval boots given her by Finn. The main symbol, though, is the wolves. June hears a pack of them in the woods—they are part of her secret world, and it’s significant when and with whom she’s willing to share them. And then wolves begin to emerge in unlikely places. At one point she says they are “hungry and selfish.”

This is more than a coming-of-age story, more than a dealing-with-the-first-death story. It is an engrossing story of deeply human emotions, ones we deny or fear, ones that lead us into actions we regret and the connections we crave.

What are you reading that has moved you deeply?

The Risk Pool, by Richard Russo

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Russo is one of my favorite writers. I’ve written about his first book, Mohawk. His second novel is also set in that fictional town and like the first is hilarious and true, full of flawed and damaged characters whom Russo treats with compassion even as he details their absurdities.

Ned Hall narrates the story for us. Although he uses the voice of an adult, he enters fully into the thoughts and feelings of his younger self. When he is six, Ned makes the mistake of telling people at school that his absent father was dead, thus bringing Sam Hall back into the lives of himself and his long-suffering mother. As a result, in addition to working at the phone company and raising a boy on her own, Jenny Hall has to suffer incursions that feel like raids by Sam, who manages to stay one step ahead of the local police and their restraining order. Then Sam kidnaps Ned. It’s just for an overnight fishing trip, but Jenny has no way of knowing that, and she is waiting for them with a gun.

Of course, my sympathies are with Ned’s mother, but this isn’t her story. It is Ned’s story of his tangled relationship with the father one of whose friends said “should have been issued with a warning label.” Like some New Englanders I’ve known, Sam manages to cobble together a ramshackle sort of life with seasonal jobs, unemployment, local bars, and the occasional girlfriend. His philosophy is that when things start to seem impossibly bad, something would “give”: a loan, a job, a lucky bet at the track.

Of course, what Ned really wants is for his father to love him. One of my favorite sections of the book is when Ned goes to live with his father for a few years; the culture shock is there but also the easy adaptability of a child. This coming-of-age story continues into Ned’s adulthood and beyond. Their curious relationship is epitomized by Sam’s usual “Well?”, expecting Ned to catch up on his own, without any parental guidance. Ned sees through his father, even at an early age noting the way Sam takes over a conversation about Jenny’s breakdown, and concluding “It will always be his story, about how he hadn’t believed it could be true.”

Even though Mohawk is in upstate New York, it and its denizens remind me so much of the milltowns I knew in Massachusetts that I kept forgetting where we were. It reminded me of Andre Dubus’s memoir Townie , both in its setting—in Dubus’s case Haverill, Massachusetts—and in the story’s focus on his relationship with his absent father. I also loved the way Sam’s friends, some of them stable but more of them disreputable, watch out for Ned and try to help him. This aspect of the book reminded me strongly of J. R. Moehringer’s memoir The Tender Bar. While Russo’s book is fiction, it has the strength and power of these memoirs. I admit to being a bit fascinated by these books about men and the way they are together when there are no women around. These stories depict a tenderness and a supportive web that are at odds with the stereotypes.

What coming-of-age story have you read that resonated with you?