Desiderata: things desired
A monthly review of books recently read. As a new month turns over, here’s a look back at what I read in November that stirred my soul.
The Reading Tally:
Narrative Non-Fiction: 1
Internal Journey: 2
The Secrets We Kept, Lara Prescott
Brilliant. Just brilliant. Everything about this novel, from its premise — a fictionalized account of the true plot by the CIA to thwart communism through “cultural diplomacy”— to its the multiplicity of perspectives, including the Greek chorus CIA typing pool, the haunted Olga Vsevolodovna Ivinskaya, imprisoned in a Gulag for her involvement with famed writer Boris Pasternak, the “Mad Men”-esque characters of Cold War Washington D.C., and their fashions, passions, parties — to the women who became spies, their stories all but forgotten by modern readers until Lara Prescott breathed life into their legacies — just sings and sparkles with verve and vibrancy.
Boris Pasternak, the famed Russian writer, agonized for years over his classic novel Dr. Zhivago. Part of the agony was his fear that not only would it not be published in his homeland, but he risked arrest should it ever come to life in any print form. The Soviets banned it, sight unseen. And the Americans hatched a clever plot once they realized how a banned book could take the world by storm. The manuscript, smuggled out of the Soviet Union by a clever if not ethics-starved Italian publisher, would be smuggled back behind the Iron Curtain in a Russian translation to needle the Soviets and thwart their attempts to starve the Russian people of their cultural heritage and heroes. Never mind that this mission risked the lives of Pasternak and his lover, Olga Ivinskaya, who recounts harrowing years already spent in a Siberian prison camp for her relationship with Pasternak.
Back in the USA, Irina Prozdhova, a young Russian-American living at home in D.C. with her widowed mother, is hired into the CIA’s Soviet Russia (SR) division typing pool. By day, she clatters and clacks her way through endless reports. A natural introvert, she keeps a bit of distance from the snappy, sharp chattering of the other secretaries, but she doesn’t go unnoticed. Recruited as a spy, she is trained by the irresistible, statuesque, OSS-veteran Sally Forrester. The two women, as different as chalk and cheese, bond in way that leaves Irina confused and Sally rueful. Their friendship is the beating heart of this passionate narrative.
Part thriller, part romance, all engrossing historical fiction with the ringing bell of feminism omitted from history so often written by men, The Secrets We Kept is that ideal blend of compulsively readable popular fiction and intelligent, compelling literature. I’m thrilled to learn that this debut novel went to auction, garnered Prescott an enormous advance (although that can be a curse as much as a blessing, but I think in this case she will earn out that advance and then some), and that the rights have been sold as a major motion picture. So well deserved for this young (thirty-seven-year-old) author and this outstanding, complex, original novel.
Miracle Creek by Angie Kim
A debut novel that combines page-turning courtroom thriller with weighty reflections on immigration and parenting special needs children, Miracle Creek is a study on what comprises a moral compass, and the relative value of truth.
In a small Virginia country town, the Yoos, an immigrant family from South Korea, operate a hyperbaric oxygenation treatment (HBOT) facility called the Miracle Submarine in the barn beside their rented home. A questionable alternative therapy that claims to cure everything from impotence to autism, HBOT is performed in a sealed pressurized chamber that contains 100 percent pure oxygen. One terrible day, the chamber explodes and the fire kills two inside the chamber, and gravely injures four others, including Pak Yoo and his teenage daughter, Mary, who rush to rescue those trapped inside.
The fire was deliberately set and as the book opens, Elizabeth Ward, the mother of one of the patients is on trial for murder.
What seems an open and shut case of a sociopathic mother frustrated to the point of murder by her son’s behavioral imperfections becomes a twisted tragedy of lies and heartbreak.
Writing the narrative from multiple points of view, Angie Kim masterfully keeps her readers on an uncomfortable edge. We feel empathy for the many possible suspects, particularly the mothers who work to the point of exhaustion every day to care for their special needs children, hoping against all reason that they can affect a cure, or at least make things better, and for the Yoos, who came to America in hope and determination and instead face racism and poverty.
A suspension of disbelief is needed to accept how all the many loose threads come together in the end, as well as tolerance for melodrama, but as a whole, the novel is deeply compelling. The author faces so many uncomfortable truths and forces the reader to face them, as well. I have immense respect for her ability to craft an engrossing plot and layer it with substantive themes. Highly recommended.
The Women of the Copper Country by Mary Doria Russell
During twelve-hour shifts, six days a week, men toil deep underground with only headlamps to light their way for wages that don’t cover their expenses, no matter how much their wives scrimp, take in outside work, or share the burden within their ethnic communities. Miners are hopelessly indebted to the mining companies for equipment and supplies and when they become disabled or die, the company withdraws the lease on their house, condemning their families to destitution. Rarely does a week pass when a miner isn’t killed during the course of a normal work shift. Boys as young as fourteen are sent underground, and by the time they are young men in their early twenties, their backs are bent and their spirits broken.
The Women of Copper Country (oh what an unfortunate title for such an excellent book) chronicles with meticulous detail the 1913-14 uprising against Calumet & Hecla Mining Company, led by Anna Clement (the anglicized version of her husband’s Slovenian name). After yet another senseless death, this time of a friend’s husband, Anna forms the Women’s Auxiliary No 15 of a local union and rallies, over the course of several months, thousands of miners to join the union and strike against Calumet & Hecla, whose principals had grown fat and happy on the broken backs of laborers.
Mary Doria Russell, one of the most gifted storytellers of contemporary literature, renders a mostly-forgotten slice of history into an unputdownable novel. A few of the characters are historical amalgams, but many, like Anna herself, and the storied union activists Mother Jones and Emma Bloor, are taken from history books and given fresh, vibrant life on these pages. In a era when post-modern literature, with its forced plots and quirky stylings, seems to be the darling of critics, Doria Russell’s straightforward prose is fresh, intelligent and humane. This is historical fiction at its best.
La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
But the Nickel School for Boys, which houses white and black young men — separately of course — is not so easily endured. Punishment for any real or perceived infraction is torture and abuse, including solitary confinement, and even death.
Is it any wonder that Elwood Curtis struggles to understand and adhere to his hero Dr. Martin Luther King’s message of loving those who persecute you?
Colson Whitehead based his fictional Nickel School on the Dozier School for Boys, a real house of horrors whose past was exposed in an investigative series in the Tampa Bay Times in 2014. For 111 years, from its opening in 1900 until the Dozier School for Boys was finally closed in 2011, boys as young as five years old were brutalized and dozens were murdered.
We can, and should, read these same articles and the many that followed when this chapter of our shared history broke open. But as is so often the case, a work of fiction serves to break open our hearts. It is so hard to get one’s head around something this awful, an institution that endured for generations, right up to the back door of yesterday, but Whitehead distills his story to a single character, Elwood. The spotlight focus on one boy, and a few threads of others along the way, humanizes the horror. The brilliance of his clear and unsentimental prose is its controlled fury. Whitehead allows the reader to feel all the helpless rage of the observer and doesn’t offer any easy comfort or explanations.
Not far from the site where University of South Florida students continue to dig up the remains of boys killed while students at the Dozier School for Boys, a Trump rally was recently held. In response to “Shoot them!”, an attendee’s jeering declaration of war against Mexican immigrants, the tool that currently resides in the White House joked, “Only in the Panhandle can you get away with that statement.” And the rally of racists cheered and laughed. 2019. Your America. Not all that different from Elwood’s America of fifty years ago.
What did you read last month that you’d love to share with the world?