The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray

Belle da Costa Greene is never happier than when she’s holed up among Princeton’s trove of ancient texts, soaking in the artistry of the lettering inside these relics and conjuring up the historical context in which they were printed. Since childhood, she’s been passionate about the art and literary relics of the Medieval and Renaissance eras, and so when her old friend, Junius is about to show her a unique specimen in the Princeton library, she almost shudders to think how fortunate she is to be able to see this ancient text up close. She is not prepared, however, for his offer of a recommendation for the position that will, ultimately change the course of her entire life: to be the personal librarian to his uncle, the one and only JP Morgan. For any woman, this would be an intimidating position, for this was not a position women were offered. But for Belle, there is a complicating factor that would make her uniquely unsuited – so she is bound to keep her true identity hidden from the world. But can she do this when it is so dangerous for both her and her family?

This is the fictionalized story of an actual woman, born Belle Marion Greener, who made her way into New York society by virtue of her ardent passion for the preservation of art, her intellectual prowess, and her social guile. Her earliest memories were of leafing through art history textbooks with her father, and her curiosity for learning that sprouted from this never waned. Though a woman, she was granted access to the library at Princeton, working with the trove of sacred texts that were housed there, and from there she was referred to interview with the larger-than-life collector of art and ancient texts and artifacts, JP Morgan. Impressed with both her fund of knowledge and her pure moxie, he not only hired her but gave her license to maintain and expand his collection as she saw appropriate. Together, they amassed one of the world’s largest and most impressive collection of ancient texts, bibles, and artwork.

What I will not spoil here is the secret that Belle must keep – I will keep that secret along with her. But suffice it to say, that this secret stays with her and directs the course of her life. She is not free to do as she wishes nor is she free to be who she really is in order to secure her career and maintain the security of her family. Because of the era she lives in, she is tied to the social mores and prejudices of the moment and cannot risk revealing her true identity. She is caught between two worlds and she must make her choice, which she does for the sake of herself and for others who depend on her. Even while she struggles, she finds that it is the way it must be and she ultimately makes a sort of peace with it. But at many junctures, it impacts heavily upon her in very deep and cutting ways.

On the lighter side, this story does give an insider peek into the life of the Gilded Age of art and high society and how social status was brokered at this time. It was a sort of precarious time, whether you were in or out, depending on what people were saying about you, whether you bought the appropriate art, had the “right” taste, or your money came from the right source. There was also the beginning of hope for women, suffrage and equality, with women like Belle who broke into what had been a man’s world. She was certainly a pioneer in her field, showing that she did not have to relinquish her femininity to be successful in her dealing in the art world.  She just had to be so much smarter – which she apparently was!

This is an entertaining and educational read, both. Great fodder for all you historical fiction fans!!

Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver

From the very moment of his birth in the narrow, rented trailer home where his teen mom went into an early labor, Damon already felt the stacking of the cards against him. His father already six feet under only six months prior, Damon learned early to try to hide his mom’s alcohol even as he hid from her poor choices in men. He also knew when to escape to the Peggots’, their kindly neighbors and grandparents of his ally, Maggot. But he lost his battle to protect his mom when “Stoner” moved in. While his mom believed this newest partner might provide stability, Damon saw that what he actually provided was constant tension and outright physical warfare. This was the beginning of a journey for Damon that led him through the nightmare of the foster care system, which would test him to the limits of both his weaknesses and his strengths.

Barbara Kingsolver has always been one of my favorite authors and, again, she has proved this justified. As she recreates the narrative of David Copperfield through the voice of a young, poor, Appalachian boy at the brink of the opioid crisis, she does so with authenticity, respect, a love of this part of the land and its people, and, yes, even humor. It is a hard story. Damon, or “Demon” as he is nicknamed, is abandoned into the foster care system and left to his own creative devices and survival instincts at an excruciatingly young age. We follow him through his minimal ups and prolonged downs and we see that he has, in spite of his circumstances, a kind heart and an artistic soul. We come to love him and see his failings as the failings of the system that has tried to eat him alive, rather than his own personal ones. We see how these failings have been built on generations of systemic exploitation and vulnerability.

Kingsolver, through this narrative, brings to light a few important messages. One is how the large mining magnates exploited so much of Appalachia without regard to the land or the people who lived there. They created dependence on the corporations for everything. The people were owned by these corporations, but not protected by them, as their health, education, and welfare were not at all the company’s concern. And once the land was stripped of its use, it was abandoned, as were the people who lived there, leaving only poverty in its wake.

So it is not shocking that Purdue Pharma sought to prey also on this vulnerable population, sending out its sales reps like missionaries to these communities who were middle and lower-middle class without great access to adequate health care. Few on the receiving end were insured, so much of their health care was in the form of emergency room or in-hospital care only. The providers there were sold the BS that Purdue Pharma was dishing out on pain management: that they had invented the miracle panacea for pain relief through Oxycontin and that it was, miraculously, non-addictive. Well, we know how that fable goes…

What I believe I loved most about this story, and what Kingsolver does so tenderly, is highlight the beauty of both this region and the folks who live there. She describes the landscapes: the steep waterfalls, the green mountains, the valleys and rocky streams -and the fauna and flora that thrive there. How even if poverty exists there, folks are able to farm a patch of land to grow vegetables, hunt for food, or knit themselves a few sweaters for the cold weather – and that they do so for each other in their close-knit communities – because there are still close-knit communities where everyone knows everyone else, and have known their parents and grandparents as well.

This is a uniquely gorgeous novel – one that should not be passed up. This is, without a doubt, a MUST READ!

(And I think it’s also time for me to revisit the original David Copperfield as well!)

Where We Came From by Oscar Cesares

Orly is feeling a bit resentful. His older brother gets to go to camp and his best friend gets to travel to Europe, while Orly finds himself being driven to his godmother’s home in her small town of Brownsville, TX for 3 long weeks. Not that he has anything against his godmother, Nina, but it isn’t exactly his first choice for a summer vacation plan. And for her part, Nina feels badly for the boy, having to spend his time with her, especially given her current situation. She would love to take him to places he’d enjoy, but on top of caring for her mother, which already is a burden, she has the added weight of the current secret hiding in the little house in her backyard, which she cannot share with him, nor with anyone else, for that matter. It’s just too dangerous. But how long can she really keep this secret from a curious, intelligent, and adolescent-brained boy?

This novel tackles the very complex and tragic issue of immigration over our shared border with Mexico, where on one side there are drug cartels openly wreaking havoc on their streets and on the other are either coyotes who prey on desperate refugees or border patrol agents hunting them down just to send them back all over again. Nina suddenly finds herself trapped in the middle, embroiled inadvertently in this dangerous, messy business. While trying to be compassionate and humane, she also must consider the safety and security of her own family as well – and it is complicated. Added to the mix a young boy whose life is on the line – it becomes that much more complex.

This is such an incredibly important book to bring to the attention of the world – and to bring down to a human level. These refugees are human beings, not numbers or statistics. No one leaves their home, their family, their communities, or those who share their native customs and celebrations unless they are utterly desperate and feel that their lives are truly threatened. We are morally obligated to show these individuals compassion and understanding – especially since most of us here in the US are descendants of those who were in similar circumstances at one time or another.

On the other hand, where I felt this book fell short was in bringing sufficient warmth, humor, and fire to these characters. We care but we are not dependent on what happens to them. While we understand that Orly is lonely, it does not become our loneliness. While we understand that he is grieving for his mother, it does not become our grief. The characters all remain one step outside, even as we want to know them more intimately. We are granted glimpses of Nina and her more glamorous past, but we still are not let inside, not really. And this keeping us at arm’s length keeps the story just that side of attachment to it.

This is a story I wanted to love, to be awakened by, to be energized by.  It is important, timely, and relevant. But I did not, was not –  not as I could have been.

 

Unchosen by Hella Winston

After spending 2 years gaining the trust and confidence of over 60 individuals in mainly two of the Hasidic communities in Brooklyn, NY, Hella Winston has composed this narrative of their lives and their struggles with the insular lives they lead. She focuses on a few individuals, through whom she communicates the tension between the traditional and the modern, what is considered “safe” and what is occasionally hungered for. And she does so with curiosity and with compassion.

If you are not familiar with their history, the Hasidic community was established here in the US by a few leaders that were survivors of the Holocaust of World War II and that has had a great influence on their philosophy and their attitude toward the outside world. While they looked to the United States as a place of refuge where they were able to be free to practice their religion, they also saw it as a country of strangers who might tempt them into being led away from their customs and traditions. This tension has kept them insulated and isolated from the outside world, as they shun any contact with it – whether through media, language, or even secular education.

What is saddest to me is that so often the root of the difficulty is that the community and the families rule by fear, not by love. The most fundamental fear is of nonconformity. If one is different, it interferes with one’s chances of finding a mate, and the ultimate purpose in one’s life is to form a family and be “fruitful and multiply,” no matter what one’s true dreams or goals are in life. Even if one is not being considered for matching, one’s sibling may be, and so one must conform to ensure the security of one’s family’s matches as well. Any deviation from the norm, any rebelliousness, any questioning, any appearance of difference, can affect one’s standing in the community. Furthermore, there is a sort of underground watchdog system of spies in the community looking out for this deviance. And even when one is a victim of abuse or neglect, especially if one is female, one has little recourse, because, again, it just reflects badly on the perpetrator and on the community, so it cannot be called out or acknowledged.

There is not only bad here, of course. The Hasidic community is a tight-knit community that looks out for its own. No one goes hungry. No one is not cared for. And while the majority live in poverty, they do provide for each other (even if it is with your tax money that they do so!).

It seems to me that it all boils down to this quote, taken from Winston’s Afterward, “…the need to coerce people’s behavior through fear and shame suggests a fundamental weakness in the belief system itself. To feel forced to abuse or reject a loved one for his or her failure to conform to community standards seems to negate any claim to true religiousness. But this is the paradox of fundamentalism.” And Hasidism is absolutely religious fundamentalism, tolerating no deviance, allowing no questioning, and dictating by fear.

An interesting read, for sure. I wish there had been more cases discussed, more examples and more details – but it was certainly eye-opening, even for someone who had been familiar with this community and who’d heard some of these kinds of stories before.

The Diamond Eye by Kate Quinn

Lyudmila Pavlichenko only wanted to protect her son when she went to retrieve him from the shooting gallery, where his usually absent father had brought him. He was only 5 years old, and the foolish boor was trying to impress him with the use of a gun, no less. Well, if that is what made a “good” father, then she would be both a good mother and a good father to her son. In addition to attending her graduate studies, working to earn money, and caring for her son, she also got herself certified as a sharpshooter. Little did she know how useful that would become, how it would equip her for the battles that were to ensue on her home turf during the second World War, and how it would change the course of her life forever.

Though this novel is fictionalized, it is based very closely on the memoir and historical accounts of the life of this true heroine, Lyudmila Pavlichenko (or “Mila”, to her closer friends). While women in Europe and America were only utilized in medical or administrative capacities until very recently in the military, they were occasionally utilized as front line fighters by the Russian military much earlier on. And although these women still faced harassment and were not generally treated as equals, there were a few, such as Mila, who were actually acknowledged for their contributions, which were extraordinary. In her case, she earned her moniker of “Lady Death” as a sniper, with an official head count of 309 Germans killed during the war (and probably more, in reality).

Quinn has become another of my favorite authors, uplifting strong women in history and bringing them into our consciousness. We can now appreciate, for example, how Lyudmila Pavlichenko not only contributed so bravely toward the fight against fascism with her rifle, but she also did so with her honesty and charm. Brought to America in a student delegation to help convince the US to open a second front in Europe to support the war against the Germans, she formed a personal friendship with both Eleanor and President Roosevelt. And though she shied away from the spotlight, she did not shirk her duties when it came to speaking up for gaining support for her fellow military fighters who were out in the field trying to protect what she felt were forces against evil.

I will say, while Quinn’s other novels truly grabbed me from the first page, this one took a bit of time for me to become fully absorbed. There was perhaps a bit more detail about the ammunition, war strategies, and the layout of the stakeouts than I might’ve needed personally (my eyes may have glazed over just a bit). But the suspense definitely built quickly enough, and there were a twists and surprises that caught me off guard, for sure. By the middle I was hooked and by the last few chapters, I was 100% riveted and could not put the book down until I finished it – including the author’s notes!

Quinn’s deeply researched novels consistently highlight how hard it has been for women to be acknowledged for even the most stunning achievements. She does this while keeping us engaged, entertained, and always wanting more.

I say it again – this is the very best way to learn history! And why I loved this book.

Lucy by the Sea by Elizabeth Strout

It is March of 2020 and Lucy has plans to leave for her promotional book tour. She is a bit taken aback when her ex-husband, William, a parasitologist, calls, insisting on her canceling her trip, packing a bag of clothing and work essentials, and joining him to stay in the house of a friend of his in Maine. He is concerned about this new deadly virus and feels they must leave the congestion of NYC in order to stay safe. She feels he is over-reacting – really, how long can this new virus really be a problem? – but he is also more knowledgeable than she is about this sort of thing, so she goes along with it, for the time being. Little does she know what is to come and how this decision would affect the course of the rest of her life.

Wow, I often don’t like to know what I’m going to be reading about in a book, but I wish I’d been warned about this one! This is definitely a “too soon” situation – since we are still living it. There are 42,000 reported cases per day today according to the New York Times (so presumably so many more, with home testing, states and individual localities not reporting their stats, etc.), thousands hospitalized with it, and hundreds dying of it per day in the US alone. And this is before we all go back indoors because of the approaching colder weather.

And then there’s the story itself, which has a contemplative, diary sort of feel. While Lucy adjusts to life in Maine, she also reflects back to her childhood of poverty and neglect, her strained relationships with her family, and her difficulties managing her success as an author. While it feels like there is not really a story here, the story does evolve gradually and organically and it does, perhaps a bit too slowly, pull you in.

What I appreciate here is that while there is acknowledgement of the political divide in the US at this time, it is done so with extraordinary delicacy. There is a clear understanding that Lucy and William appreciate science, wear masks, isolate, and observe the January 6th attack on the Capitol as a threat to democracy. However, Lucy does express a sensitivity to the anger expressed on January 6th. She relates to how poverty and its indignities can foster deep resentment, which incites violence such as that which erupted on that day. On the other hand, she concludes that this anger cannot justify the support of such radical extremism, Nazism, open racism, and overt hatred that was seen on that day either.

So while this was an interesting read, I cannot, in good conscience, recommend it for now. Maybe in a few years, when we’ve all recovered from our PTSD, it might serve as a warning, as a reminder of some sort. But it’s definitely too soon to be reading about what we’re all still being hit with on a daily basis.

Ghosted by Rosie Walsh

Sarah has only just met Eddie, but she feels an instant connection – and she knows he feels it too. She is fully aware that it is bordering on ridiculous that they could have fallen in love after only having spent a week together but he is professing the same feelings toward her. well, So why, has he not responded to her when she has asked for his flight information when she’s supposed to get him at the airport on his return from his vacation? And why has he not responded to her Facebook messages to him on his supposed return? Where is he??? What did she miss? How could she have gotten this so wrong? As we learn more about her complicated past, we learn that there may be more to both of them than we realize at first glance. Could this explain his disappearance?

So there were 2 obstacles to overcome with this novel, but it was ultimately a fun read. The first was that it started out a bit slow and I really believed I knew where it was going (I was wrong!). The second was that because of my own cynicism I had to suspend disbelief in the “love at first sight” stuff of storybook drama (fell in love after a week? Really?). Once I got past both of these, however, I found myself drawn in and actually caught off-guard by the unexpected plot turns. It became quite entertaining and hard to put down.

I don’t think there is too much to say about this novel – there is no philosophical note, no deep ethical conclusion I can draw out. It’s just a fun read that I can say I’m glad I enjoyed. You probably will too!

Women in White Coats: How the First Women Doctors Changed the World of Medicine by Olivia Campbell

There are so many women in medicine today – myself included – that we take it for granted. In fact, by 2017, women outnumbered men in medical school classes in the US. However, just like the right to vote and the right to enter many other professions, women had to wage war to gain entry into what was, by men, considered their holy terrain. In fact, it was not until the late 1800’s, when a few brave, brilliant, and brawny young women on both the European and American continents battled over the course of many years to achieve full MD status.

Many authors credit Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, born in Britain and later moved to America, as a major pioneer in this area, and she is probably the most well-known. But she could not have moved the needle alone, as they say. While she was fighting the battle mostly in America (although doing a good deal of her clinical training and public speaking in the UK), her colleagues, such as Elizabeth (“Lizzie”) Garrett Anderson and Sophia Jex Blake were waging the war on the other side of the Atlantic. While they were each very different women, approaching their mission with different styles, personalities, and tactics, they also relied upon each other for support and guidance. These women suffered not only prejudice, hardship, and a brutally uphill battle, but also physical oppression. Sophia, and her 6 fellow female students in Edinburgh were harassed to the point of having mud and garbage thrown at them on their way into medical school class by their male colleagues – with the support and encouragement of their male professors. In spite of this, these women persevered, overcoming these unspeakable hardships to go on to establish medical schools and hospitals for women.

It is neither surprising nor novel to read about (white) men fearing others being included among their ranks and using their power, influence, and even violence to attempt to maintain their unilateral hold on a particular enterprise. But while they held on, the field of medicine, particularly healthcare for women, truly stagnated. It was only when women were given full medical practitioner status that women’s issues were brought to the fore and women’s health truly advanced. Women were finally able to come forward and speak about their very private complaints, expose how they’d been treated by some male practitioners in the past, and have advocates with any power to make significant scientific advancements in their care.

This is an incredibly well-researched documentation of a dramatic advancement in the care of women for and by women.. Not a light read, but an important one.

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

Arthur Less has found an escape route. With the approach of his ex-lover’s wedding, which he cannot bear to attend, he has manufactured a series of commitments — lectures to be given, classes to be taught, awards ceremonies to attend – and all abroad, so that he cannot possibly be present to witness the upcoming nuptials. As he embarks upon his journey and his approaching 50th birthday, he reflects upon his life and what he has to look forward to. Throughout his journey, it seems that as his suitcase appears to become emptier,  his heart becomes fuller.

On the surface, the story of Arthur Less can feel somewhat self-indulgent. He is smoldering over his life, having lived many years in the shadow of a genius. He feels he’s achieved merely mediocrity at best, as an author, as a lover, perhaps even as a human in general. He laments his past works, such as they are, as well as his current attempts at writing and at love. He has imposter syndrome to the nth degree. Sadly, he neglects to see the love that he inspires around him. He has difficulty taking in the admiration of his students, his audiences, and his friends. Only we, the readers, see it.

Can’t we all relate to this? Just as Arthur travels around the world getting swept up in misadventure and blaming himself, many of us travel through life focusing on what we’ve done wrong and where we have erred rather than on what we should be grateful for. I know I often fall into the trap of being my own worst critic and blind to my own blessings. I often feel “less.”

I am not sure I understand how this was a Pulitzer Prize winner, but it certainly does have meaning beyond the surface and is a worthwhile and entertaining read.

I would be so interested to hear what others think about this one! Please comment!

The Winners by Fredrik Backman

In this long-awaited third in the Beartown trilogy, we return to the scene of the 2-year truce between Beartown and its rival town, Hed. While the death of a teenager had forced everyone to acknowledge that things had gone too far, and everyone had united in mourning over that loss, it appears that unity could not possibly hold forever. The rivalry was as deeply ingrained in folks’ DNA as was hockey itself. The truce was just too fragile. Just a bit of a personal dispute among young teens over a sister with a history, a cover-up of some controversial bookkeeping of the city council, and some other very complicated alliances, and you have the coming apart of that very vulnerable truce. And who will show strength and who will show weakness is what we hold our collective breaths over throughout the whole story. And you can never be sure.

Yet again, Backman has brought us back to Beartown, reunited us with our dear friends and introduced us to a few new ones. Each one is so carefully drawn, so lovingly portrayed, that they feel as if they are actual humans that we can travel to Sweden and find in a small town just outside a forest. Their stories are similarly complex, layered over each other in an interconnecting web, just as you’d find in a small town. The suspense continues to build, and just when you think you see where the plot line is heading, there is yet another twist that throws you off its trail. Backman’s true gift.

One tip: I’d suggest spacing out the novels, because Backman does such a good job of reminding us of who the characters are and how they are related to each other, likely to create standalone novels. However, reading them too close together may feel a bit repetitive, because of these explanations.

Otherwise, this is a beautifully written trilogy – even if you don’t love hockey and even if you don’t come from a small town that does.