Book review: Just who do you think you are?

51ctthh6v4l-_sy346_The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion

Fannie Flagg

I’ve been a Flagg fan for years and have always enjoyed the Southern charm, heart, and humor with which she writes. This book is no exception.

Sookie Simmons Poole is approaching sixty and has just married off her third daughter. She’s looking forward to a little time to herself—to tend her beloved birds and maybe read a book or take a trip with her darling husband. Lenore, her “delightfully eccentric” and domineering mother lives two doors down in the tiny Gulf town where everyone knows everyone else’s business. Sookie worries that she carries the gene that has made many of her ancenstors “as batty as hell.” When Sookie receives a phone call followed by a registered letter it shakes her to the core. “Identity crisis” hardly covers the impact of the news she receives.

“Growing up with Lenore, she had always felt like a little brown wren, hopping along behind a huge colorful peacock.”

Meanwhile, readers are also getting acquainted with the Jurdabralinski family who ran the Phillips 66 station in Pulaski, Wisconsin in the years between two World Wars.  Their oldest girl, a free spirit named Fritzi, falls in love with flying. She learns to wing walk and fly as she barnstorms in shows around the Midwest in the early 1940s. When World War II arrives and all the men join the fight, Fritzi and her three sisters successfully run the filling station. Fritzi learns that the Airforce is looking for experienced women fliers to ferry airplanes around the country in order to free up male pilots for combat. Fritzi is one of the first to sign up to be a WASP (Women Air Force Service Pilots) and becomes one of the more that 1000 female pilots to complete seven months of training. These brave women flew sixty million miles of operation flights including ferrying aircraft from factories to bases, flight instruction (both basic and instrument), towing targets for antiaircraft and aerial gunnery, among other duties. You can find out more here: http://wingsacrossamerica.us/wasp/

“It makes me so mad when all the newspaper reporters that come here only want to show the gals putting on lipstick or posing like models…all this phony baloney stuff.  If anybody thinks this is a glamorous job and that we are just in it for the fun, they haven’t watched them pull a friend out of a burning plane and die right in front of them.”

Sookie and Fritzi’s stories are woven together and resolve in a warm and surprising way. I  recommend not only this book, but also learning more about the WASPs, a forgotten chapter of women’s history that is only now being discovered.

Book review: Why you want to catch flies, vinegar girl?

41ajuyjmvpl-_sy346_I’ve been reading and enjoying Anne Tyler’s books for decades, beginning with Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and The Accidental Tourist. Her quirky, yet somehow recognizable characters always make me smile.

Vinegar Girl is no exception. It is a contemporary retelling of “The Taming of the Shrew” and is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare Project, in which respected and diverse authors take on Shakespeare’s best-known stories.

Here, Kate Battista finds herself stuck teaching preschool and running the house for her widowed, eccentric research scientist father and pretty teenage sister, Bunny. Being a scientist, her father has an efficient system for just about everything, from loading the dishwasher to doing laundry. He even thinks cooking just once for the entire week simply makes sense. Watch for his formula for “meat mash.” Naturally, Kate’s forthright and somewhat prickly manner means she’s almost always offending someone.

Trouble starts when Dr. Battista, who is on the verge of a scientific breakthrough that could help millions, has his lifetime of research threatened by the imminent deportation of his foreign-born lab assistant, Pyotr. What to do? An arranged marriage, of course! Kate reluctantly agrees only after it is made clear that the marriage will only be on paper. They just need to convince the Immigration authorities. But then…

Tyler writes some funny and poignant situations around the issues of romance, getting acquainted, family dynamics, and feminism. It’s a comedy with a heart, to be sure.

Pyotr explains something about his country:

 “In my country they have a proverb: ‘Beware against the sweet person, for sugar has no nutrition.’”

This was intriguing. Kate said, “Well, in my country they say that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”

“Yes, they would,” Pyotr said mysteriously…But why you would want to catch flies, hah? Answer me that, vinegar girl.”

On Pyotr’s odd attempts at flattery:

“He had a foreigner’s tendency toward bald, obvious compliments, dropping them with a thud at her feet like a cat presenting her with a dead mouse.”

An excerpt from Kate’s big speech on men:

“Women have been studying people’s feelings since they were toddlers; they’ve been perfecting their radar—their intuition or their empathy or their interpersonal whatchamacallit. They know how things work underneath, while men have been stuck with the sports competitions and the wars and the fame and success. It’s like men and women are in two different countries! I’m not ‘backing down,’ as you call it; I’m letting him into my country. I’m giving him space in a place where we can both be ourselves.”

 

Eleanor Roosevelt’s crowded marriage

loving eleanorFranklin, Eleanor, Sara, Lucy, Earl, Missy, Lorena, Daisy, and Joe. This was a very crowded and complicated marriage. FDR and ER were neither exclusive nor stingy with their affections. And then there was his mother, Sara. Franklin and Eleanor’s story and its accompanying scandals reminded me of another power couple that occupied the White House and our collective consciousness half a century later, Bill and Hillary.

Loving Eleanor by Susan Wittig Albert is a well-researched, but fictional memoir of Lorena Hickok, a noted journalist who became a close friend of Eleanor Roosevelt. Very close. Three thousand revealing and personal letters between the two, that had been archived it the FDR Library, were unsealed ten years after Hickok’s death in 1968. They have provided much source material for both biographers and this fictionalized narrative. They leave little doubt as to the nature of their relationship, at least for a time.

lorena hickok
Lorena Hickok, aka “Hick,” tells this story.

But let’s back up a bit. Before FDR was elected President, Eleanor feared disappearing into his shadow. Remember, this was a time when women in general and First Ladies in particular occupied strictly defined roles. It was during the first presidential campaign that Hickok penned a series of articles about “The Reluctant First Lady,” highlighting ER’s concerns, her interests, and the projects that she desperately wanted to continue. It was “Hick” who encouraged Eleanor to find ways to change the role of First Lady into one in which she could thrive and find fulfillment. ER began holding weekly press conferences with female journalists, writing the widely syndicated “My Day” newspaper column, and shedding light on a host of women’s issues.

While FDR had several well-documented affairs, he was somewhat vindictive when it came to Eleanor’s dalliances. Earl Miller, ER’s hunky body-guard was bought (and married) off. Hick was reassigned to a traveling job during the Depression that kept her out of Washington D.C. And Joe Lash, a younger political activist and journalist beau was sent to the Pacific during WWII. Albert calls this FDR’s “left hook.”

The Roosevelts are of course, larger than life and endlessly fascinating. I’ve read Lucy by Ellen Feldman, about Eleanor’s former secretary who had a decades-long affair with FDR and who was with him when he died at Warm Springs. And I’ve seen the amusing Bill Murray movie, “Hyde Park on Hudson,” which focused on FDR’s relationship with his distant cousin, Daisy. The Ken Burns PBS documentary about the Roosevelts added to my picture of this influential family. However, this book has piqued my curiosity and put more books onto my always growing to-read list, including historian Blanche Wiesen Cook’s authoritative three volumes about Eleanor and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book about the couple. Then there are ER’s own books.

More than anything though, this book illustrates once again, that no one can really know what goes on in inside a marriage or the human heart. The power struggles and compromises that go on behind closed doors even–or especially–in the most public of couples, remain hidden from view. In addition, no matter how we may idolize and deify them, these icons are still quite human, with all the accompanying wants, needs, desires, and limitations. Knowing their struggles and private demons, especially when set against the times in which they lived, makes me appreciate them more and softens my heart. After all, who am I to judge?