Acceding to all the buzz about this book, I put it on reserve at my local library. Twice. The first time I returned it without reading because I fell victim to a case of “Overdrive overload.” All the books I’d been waiting for showed up on my Kindle in the same week. Aack! The second time I settled in for a challenging, yet beautiful ride.
In 1862 Abraham Lincoln is not yet a beloved icon. The Civil War has just begun. Lincoln is widely believed to be inept and certain to be a one-term President. When his young son dies of typhoid, Mr. Lincoln recognizes the grief that other parents are suffering in the still young war—a war that would eventually claim more than 600,000.
“So we have the dilemma put to us, What to do, when his power must continue two years longer and when the existence of our country may be endangered before he can be replaced by a man of sense. How hard, in order to save the country, to sustain a man who is incompetent.
But those historic events only set the stage for George Saunders’ novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. Yes, I had to google “bardo” and learned that it is “(in Tibetan Buddhism) a state of existence between death and rebirth, varying in length according to a person’s conduct in life and manner of, or age at, death.”
The entire novel takes place in a Georgetown Cemetery where young Willie Lincoln has been laid to rest in a borrowed crypt. That cemetery is also populated by numerous and diverse spirits who while quite chatty, aren’t exactly certain of their condition.
This novel is stylistically challenging. Each of the fictional and historic characters speaks or relates the speech of another without much connecting tissue. Their contributions may only be a word or a few lines long, like listening in on the conversation at a large cocktail party. Or perhaps it’s more like a pointillist painting or a patchwork quilt. You may need some distance to appreciate the big picture. That being said, you’ll either get on board with the way the story is told, or you’ll give up. Author Saunders says that’s fine.
Here are a few snippets of the text that give voice to the Lincolns’ grief at the loss of their boy.
“Everything nonsense now. Those mourners came up. Hands extended. Sons intact. Wearing on their faces enforce sadness-masks to hide any sing of their happiness, which—which went on.”
“He is either in joy or nothingness. (So why grieve? The worst of it, for him, is over.) Because I loved hm so and am in the habit of loving him and that love must take the from of fussing and worry and doing, Only there is nothing left to do. Free myself of this darkness as I can, remain useful, not go mad. Think of him, when I do, as being in some bright place, free of suffering, resplendent in a new mode of being.”
“Mary Lincoln’s mental health had never been good, and the loss of young Willie ended her life as a functional wife and mother…Some blows fall too heavy upon those too fragile.”
The whole “dead men talking” thing reminded me of the cemetery scenes in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town and Fannie Flagg’s The Whole Town’s Talking, but with a much darker, deeper, more poetic edge. If it were a movie, I imagined Tim Burton might direct it because of his darkly comedic style. However Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally have secured the rights and no director has yet been named.
Draw your own conclusions about reading it. It’s certainly not for everyone. The audio-book was available at my library this week, so I’m having another go. Now that I know the story, I’m enjoying the vivid voice portrayals on my morning walks and appreciating it much more.
Author, editor, and writing coach Joan Dempsey slays. Period. This is How it Begins weaves present day issues of religious freedom, LGBT rights, immigration, and free speech into a deep, evocative, and compelling story.
Local school boards—at the direction of a charismatic pastor– have recently fired a dozen gay teachers, one of whom just happens to be the grandson of two Holocaust survivors, art professor, Ludka and retired Attorney General, Izaac. He’s also the son of the President of the Massachusetts State Senate.
“The Poles…no matter which century, had come to America largely to escape something: unemployment, foreign occupation, Communist oppression, and ethnic discrimination.”
The Redeemer Fellowship has plans to go nationwide. It has not only infiltrated school boards but has written bills and gained unwitting sponsors for “religious freedom” legislation.
“They’ve added a paragraph that allows the board of education to define sound moral character, which basically means that whatever characteristic the current board likes in their teachers—or, maybe more importantly, doesn’t like—the board gets. They just write it into their policies and guidelines…meaning people applying for teaching jobs could once again be asked about their religious beliefs and political affiliations.”
“Faith can be worse,” said Izaac. “It trumps reason all too easily. Reason? Reason is impotent. They see what they see, believe what they believe, and that’s that. Discrimination born of moral conviction is infectious.”
Dempsey keeps the tension tight throughout her novel. We feel empathy for her vividly drawn and complex characters who experience ambition, mistrust, hate, blackmail, violence, and arson. She reminds readers, “The Holocaust did not begin with the gassing of the Jews at camps. The Holocaust began here.”
Just as her characters are called to action, so are readers. Recommend.
First, let me just say that having Reno author Pamela Everett, an attorney with the Innocence Project and a UNR professor of criminal justice, meet with our book club was a wonderful privilege. She told us about the very personal journey that ended with the publication of Little Shoes.
In 1937–long before most of us were born–in Inglewood, California three little girls were raped and murdered. Albert Dyer, a mentally challenged crossing guard, was arrested and confessed. He was quickly tried and executed. End of story.
Years later, teenaged Everett learns of her family’s connection to the story. Two of the three victims were her father’s younger sisters. Her aunts.
“Maybe that’s why he was so terribly strict. Maybe he saw his parents assume the best about people and he would spend his life assuming the worst, never for a minute risking his children to dangers, hidden or otherwise.”
“Thinking of their forgotten lives, something changed for me, something in my relationship to these girls who were my aunts, my dad’s little sisters. It was just so tragic, to have died as they did and then to be buried away—literally—as if they never lived at all. They’d been alone so long.”
Those little girls stayed with Everett and she began asking questions of surviving relatives and former neighbors of her grandparents. As if nudged by something unseen, she dug into court records, newspaper accounts, state archives. With each little piece of information, something kept pricking her conscience. Could they have gotten the wrong man?
We learn that reporters in 1937 were just as invasive and aggressive as today’s tabloid and cable reporters. The horror of the killer crossing guard soon became front-page news across the country. And although eyewitnesses were plentiful, they were and are quite unreliable.
“Eyewitness misidentifications have led to 75 percent of the wrongful convictions overturned by DNA evidence in our country, and many of those mistakes happen early in the process when police are desperately seeking a suspect…”
These were the days before Miranda rights and police interrogated Dyer for ten hours—without an attorney present. Dyer alternately confessed and denied his guilt. His confessions—while inconsistent– weighed more heavily and the police stopped pursuing any other suspects, even as witnesses came forward to say that Dyer was not who they saw with the girls.
During Albert Dyer’s incarceration it was determined he had an IQ of 60. He was essentially a nine-year-old boy, which goes a long way to explain why his confession might not really have been a confession.
“Confessions are the most powerful evidence in any courtroom, and jurors—indeed, most of us—cannot comprehend how someone can confess to something they didn’t do… In some cases, confessions will overcome overwhelming evidence of innocence such as eyewitness identification and forensic evidence, even DNA… Yet more than a quarter of the documented wrongful convictions overturned by DNA evidence in the United States have involved false confessions…”
In this case, the transcripts of the session reveal the interrogator telling the story of what happened and Dyer merely agreeing, “Yes, sir.” And with a riotous mob outside the jail and the pressure on police to bring a killer to justice, it wouldn’t be hard for police to convince their mentally challenged suspect that he was going to die—sooner or later.
Everett found holes in the prosecution’s case. She “couldn’t find testimony about the physical evidence that should have been admitted in this case… There was nothing? …no testimony whatsoever about the fingerprints or blood from Dyer’s clothing, nothing connecting Dyer to the knife or the ropes the prosecution introduced.” Furthermore, what forensic evidence was available was contaminated almost from the beginning. “…one of the more unbelievable case photos shows several investigators handling barehanded the tiny nooses and the girls’ clothes, with one of them even smoking a cigar over the pile of evidence.”
Everett manages to balance the horrific nature of the crime, the investigation by police, and the trial of Albert Dyer with the long-lasting impact it had on her family. So yes, there is some really bad stuff here, but just enough. And for someone like me, who never reads True Crime, I appreciated not spending any more time on the brutality than necessary. I was also grateful that the photos of the girls were ones while they were alive.
Certainly, suspects have more rights today and police procedures have improved. While Everett continues to question wrongful convictions, she recognizes the dangers.
“… we open old wounds, forcing victims and families to relive everything, and in many cases to fear the release of someone they believe is guilty… No matter how painful, we should share these histories so victims are not lost and so future generations can know all that came before them and what molded their parents, grandparents and others.”
Little Shoes offers much to contemplate the next time a crime is sensationalized in the headlines and we all jump to judgment. Recommend.
My Dear Hamilton: A Novel of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton
Stephanie Dray & Laura Kamoie
For months the Hamilton soundtrack quickened my step on long walks in the neighborhood. Then there were the months I slowly slogged through Ron Chernow’s tome. Still, I was left wanting to know more about Alexander Hamilton’s wife, Elizabeth. Living until she was ninety-seven years old, she made it her life’s mission not only to ensure that her husband’s many contributions to the United States be remembered, but also to provide for the care of hundreds of orphans. After all, Alexander Hamilton had been one.
“I was struck by the powerful conviction that God put us here to make a better world. And it is a conviction that has informed the rest of my life.”
The Eliza we encounter in this well-researched historical fiction, is a reminiscent one. This mature Eliza (called Betsy by her family) already knows the betrayal and tragedy that is to come, as do most readers. But the authors work some sort of magic that both informs and compels us. Eliza’s loyalties and her longstanding mistrust or both Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr are perfectly clear, as is her intellect and diplomacy. Early on she adopted a “policy for the dinners that took place at my table: no man’s politics should be held against him, and all were welcome.”
“Silence is often the only weapon available to ladies. And I wield mine expertly.”
My Dear Hamilton provides insight into the monumental struggles of the Revolutionary War. Eliza and other officers’ wives, including Martha Washington, aided the troops by knitting socks and serving as nurses. After all, their lives were at risk as well.
“Inside the church, officers lay upon church pews, but the rank and file rested on naught but piles of straw. Nurses moved amongst the groaning mass of patients, combing hair for lice, and dousing everything with vinegar as a purifier.”
“Win, and nothing would ever be the same. Lose and, well, my husband, my father, my family, my friends—we stood to lose everything.”
The battles continued
Even winning the war didn’t bring peace. Yes, there were battles over the writing of the Constitution, but imagine rubbing elbows and doing business with those who had been on the other side.
“No royalists should not be suffered to live amongst patriots…. how easily any man could lay claim to the title Son of Liberty now that the war, and the danger of being hanged for it, had passed.”
“…angry, unpaid soldiers seized the city arsenals and held my husband, Jemmy Madison, and the rest of Congress at bayonet point in a standoff. After that Congress became a runaway government, fleeing to Pennsylvania, to New Jersey, then Annapolis.”
And then there were the personal battles
A woman whose husband is unfaithful is often judged more harshly than the man himself. Eliza and her contemporaries expected a wife to make her husband happy and to give him children. She knew “…how society looked upon a wife who wasn’t enough to satisfy her husband. Not enough. Not enough. Not enough.”
“For I was a wife who’d failed to inspire fidelity. And yet, my fidelity to him was now also to be counted against my virtue. I could neither leave my husband nor love him without offending someone.”
Modern, political, and very public infidelities remind us that not much has changed. For the most part it seems, Eliza followed her father’s advice when she discovered Hamilton’s affair.
“And, as you will find is so often the case in life, …the only prudent thing to do was frown, make them humble, and forgive.”
Eliza Schuyler Hamilton’s intelligence and contributions to her husband’s career–as well as her pain and prejudices–come alive brilliantly in this retelling. It also serves as a reminder of just how brutal American politics has always been, even at its inception. The founding fathers and mothers were all too human.
Australian archivist Hannah Heath has come to Sarajevo to investigate and conserve a priceless text, an illustrated haggadah. The small book relates the story of the exodus from Egypt and is a common part of the ritual at a Passover Seder.
“…The hagaddah came to Sarajevo for a reason. It was here to test us, to see if there were people who could see that what united us was more than what divided us. That to be a human being matters more than to be a Jew or a Muslim, Catholic or Orthodox.”
This particular hagaddah is special because of its detailed illustrations. It has been sought by warring factions and preserved at great risk by individuals over centuries of conflict. But who made this unique book and why? How far has it traveled and by what means? What stories can be told through the analysis of inks, parchment, and butterfly wings? Through stains of blood, wine and salt? The reader is transported to every place and time that the book has traveled. The surprising stories of each person connected to the book–its creation and its rescue over centuries—make for a compelling read.
“A book is more than the sum of its materials. It is an artifact of the human mind and hand.”
Geraldine Brooks’ research of this hagaddah also resulted in a 2007 article in The New Yorker. So yes, this is fiction, but VERY historical fiction. In fact the story of the Jewish girl protected by a Muslim family is true as are other characters Brooks employs to tell this story. There were and are good and heroic people of all faiths, just as there were and are monsters and murderers.
Because the audio-book was available through my library and the book-book was not, I listened to this book. While Brook’s writing alone is rich and evocative, the vivid voices and accents provided by narrator Edwina Wren worked well to place the me in the scenes. Brava!
“I had to remind myself that Islam had once swept north as far as the gates of Vienna; that when the haggadah had been made, the Muslims’ vast empire was the bright light of the Dark Ages, the one place where science and poetry still flourished, where Jews, tortured and killed by Christians, could find a measure of peace.”
Trust me, this is a good, profound book illustrating man’s historic cruelty to and mistrust of anyone perceived as “other.” However, the very survival of the Sarajevo Hagaddah also demonstrates that Christians, Jews, and Muslims have lived and worked together without fear and hate. Indeed, our shared humanity can and must outweigh the ideologies that divide us. Recommend.