Circling the Sun

A life has to move or it stagnates. Even this life, I think. Every tomorrow ought not to resemble every yesterday.”  Beryl Markham

Circling the Sun book cover

If you want one last, lush, escapist summer read, consider Circling the Sun by Paula McLain, a fictionalized account of the life of Beryl Markham,  the first woman to fly across the Atlantic from east to west.

Born in England and raised in Kenya, Markham was a larger-than-life adventuress and socialite – a renowned horse trainer, an accomplished bush pilot, perpetually in the spotlight of gossip and scandal.

Especially if you’re a woman of a certain age, you might remember the romantic Out of Africa, a 1985 movie based on the memoir by Dutch writer Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen), who for some years ran a coffee plantation near Nairobi. Karen, played by Meryl Streep, had a long-term affair with charismatic safari hunter Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford.) Denys had the power to make women of the day swoon, but was adamantly against commitment and marriage. Karen and Beryl became friends, and Beryl went on to have a secret, short-lived affair with Denys.

Though Beryl married three times and had other lovers – allegedly one of them Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester –  many believe that Denys Hatton was the true love of her life. Author Paula McLain is adept at writing about affairs of the heart – she did a masterful job in depicting Ernest Hemingway’s first marriage in The Paris Wife – and she depicts Beryl’s affair with Denys in a sympathetic light, while plumbing the depths of the friendship between Beryl and Karen, who were in many respects kindred spirits even though they loved the same man.

I enjoy Cleveland-based author Paula McLain’s writing. She was drawn to Beryl Markham’s story when she learned that Beryl’s mother abandoned her at the age of four, only to reappear again when Beryl was twenty – which is exactly what happened to Paula McLain. She calls it a “shared emotional genealogy.” McLain writes with particular authenticity and empathy as she explores the lifelong effects, both good and bad, of maternal abandonment.

Despite Beryl’s remarkable feat of aviation, there isn’t a whole lot about flying in this novel. McLain instead focuses on the first half of Beryl’s life – her remarkable childhood in Kenya as she grew up next door to and on an intimate basis with the Kipsigis tribes, and her years spent learning and perfecting her horse training skills. McLain portrays Beryl’s love of Kenya in lyrical prose that will cast a spell over you if you love exotic lands and nature still relatively unspoiled by the ravages of civilization.

I think that one of Paula McLain’s strengths is her depiction of remarkable women who have not received the attention they deserve. As I read, I chafed at the difficult lot of women in Beryl Markham’s time. In the 1930s, many women still survived by making a good marriage. In both The Paris Wife and Circling the Sun there is a distinct feminist subtext.

West With the Night book coverI’m now inclined to read Beryl’s memoir, West With the Night, which didn’t initially receive the acclaim that Dinesen’s memoir, Out of Africa, did, though it sold well when it was later republished. Some believe that Beryl’s third husband, a journalist, wrote the memoir, though I almost hesitate to write about what could be a sexist rumor. Maybe it doesn’t matter – Beryl Markham lived a remarkable life that many a man and woman envy. Ernest Hemingway had this to say about West With the Night:

“Did you read Beryl Markham’s book, West with the Night? …She has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together and sometimes making an okay pig pen. But this girl, who is to my knowledge very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade bitch, can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers … it really is a bloody wonderful book.”

In Circling the Sun, Beryl says this about her lover, Denys:

“More than anyone I’d known, Denys understood how nothing ever holds still for us, or should. The trick is learning to take things as they come and fully, too, with no resistance or fear, not trying to grip them too tightly or make them bend.”

This trailer of Out of Africa, although based on another book, captures something of the flavor of Circling the Sun:

The publisher kindly provided an Advanced Reader Copy (ARC) of Circling the Sun.

Was Harper Lee ahead of her time?

Go Set a Watchman cover

As most of the world knows by now, Go Set a Watchman was an early draft of what went on to become To Kill a Mockingbird. Harper Lee turned Watchman in to her publisher in 1957, and her editor encouraged her to write a very different story.

Lee’s initial draft was about a young women (based on Lee herself) living in New York City who visits her Alabama hometown and clashes with the racist views of her father, Atticus Finch, and her boyfriend, Henry, in the aftermath of the 1954 Supreme Court Brown vs. Board of Education decision, which declared unconstitutional state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students.

This story morphed into the iconic novel we all know and love, set in the 1930s when Harper Lee was a child and Atticus defended a falsely accused black man.

In my last post, I wrote about how Lee’s publisher has marketed Go Set a Watchman as a newly discovered novel, a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. This has confused, upset, and disappointed devoted Harper Lee fans. Some people believe Lee has dementia and would not have wanted this second book published. Harper Lee has stated in the past that she’d said all she wanted to say with To Kill a Mockingbird and that she would not publish again.

Nonetheless, we now have Go Set a Watchman, and before I ever opened the book I decided to read it to the end because I was curious. As many have pointed out, usually a first draft of this nature is of interest only to literature scholars and writers seeking to learn from another writer’s process. Now the rest of us have the opportunity to read a young novelist’s first attempt and make of it what we will.

Some things have surprised me. First, while many readers have been disappointed (as a novel it doesn’t work for me, but I didn’t expect it to), other readers are enjoying Go Set a Watchman, happy to experience more work by a beloved author. For some, Watchman is simply a good story; for others, it’s fascinating to read an author’s first crack at writing a novel; and still others see this new vision of an imperfect Atticus living in an imperfect time as especially relevant, given the racial tumult playing out in America. They find Watchman’s Atticus a more authentic, believable character than the idealized hero portrayed in Mockingbird.

Much as I dislike the publisher’s tactics, I do think Go Set a Watchman is a valuable contribution to our conversation about race. In the end, I don’t think Harper Lee’s reputation will be damaged. Nothing can take away from the power of To Kill a Mockingbird. And those who are interested in the genesis of truly great literature can see, by comparing the two books, how far and difficult a road a writer must sometimes travel to craft a story that speaks to readers. It’s been said that at one point in writing To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee threw the manuscript out of her apartment window in despair.

There is something that I wonder about, though. Harper Lee initially tried to tell the story of a young person striking out on her own who can’t abide the attitudes and beliefs of those she loves in her hometown.  Isn’t this what many of us have experienced? At the time, Harper Lee’s editor may have persuaded her that American readers weren’t ready to grapple with the provocative views held by Atticus and Henry as Harper portrayed them. I think it is a shame that Harper Lee never had the opportunity to take her initial idea and give voice to that story as well, in a more fully formed and crafted novel than the current Watchman.

So much of Atticus, the fictionalized character, was based on Harper Lee’s true father. It takes a lot of courage to portray someone you love in a less than attractive light, and it takes a lot of skill. Contemporary writers of memoir and autobiographical novels do it all the time, but only a few succeed in doing it well. I’m sure Harper Lee had it in her to bring her original story to life, if she’d had the right editor and artistic support (clearly not those currently at the editorial helm of HarperCollins), but I’m not sure Harper Lee herself knew she had it in her.

Many have wondered why Harper Lee never published again. After the initial overwhelm of To Kill a Mockingbird’s publication, Harper Lee granted no interviews. Though she shared with friends a list of the additional books she wanted to write, she apparently never wrote them. She said herself that she couldn’t face the intense publicity again, and that she wouldn’t be able to top To Kill a Mockingbird, that the only place for her to go was down.

Who’s to say how Harper Lee really felt, but it may have been very frustrating for her if she was blocked in her writing after Mockingbird. Perhaps having her original story of a family portrayed in a less than flattering light rejected by her editor, and then being encouraged to craft a more idealized, palatable one, alienated Harper Lee from her own truth.

Writers of memoir and autobiographical novels often struggle with a sense of shame as they write the truth as they see it. Often they are criticized for being self-serving or narcissistic or for violating privacy. Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club are two memoirs that come to mind which required brutal honesty and tremendous courage to write. Nowadays, there are coaches, instructors, and editors skilled at helping memoir writers, especially, write their own truth; this wasn’t so much the case when Harper Lee was writing.

In Go Set a Watchman I see the seeds of an equally valuable story that may have been ahead of its time.

Have you read Go Set a Watchman? What do you think? Should it have been published? Has it changed your views of Harper Lee? How do Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird compare, or are they incomparable?

Go Set a Watchman: What do publishers and book bloggers owe their readers?

Go Set a Watchman cover

“To those whose bubble was burst about Atticus, well, Santa Claus was really our parents, Bill Cosby wasn’t really Bill Cosby, and Bruce Jenner is now Caitlyn Jenner. Let’s get over it and get real about racism. How can we fix it otherwise?” Wally Lamb

“It’s being sent to us as a gift. It’s a blueprint to decode, something that we need to be better than we are.” Nikky Finney

I don’t have insider information about the controversy surrounding the publication of Harper Lee’s novel, Go Set a Watchman. I know only what I’ve learned from the articles and opinion pieces I’ve read since the book came out a few weeks ago.

I’ve chosen to trust Harper Lee’s biographer, Marja Mills, who doubts that Lee would have wanted Go Set a Watchman published if she were fully functioning. Harper Lee had a stroke a few years ago and currently resides in a nursing home, where a guard posted at the door maintains a list of people who are allowed to visit her. Some have questioned whether Harper Lee is capable of making informed publishing decisions, especially since she maintained for decades that no further books by her were forthcoming.

Go Set a Watchman was the initial draft of what would be transformed into To Kill a Mockingbird. It was problematic because it was a draft written by a novice writer learning her craft, though Harper Lee’s editor saw the talent and potential behind it. What’s more, the Atticus Finch portrayed in this first draft was not the iconic hero America went on to embrace. He was an Atticus Finch that perhaps American readers were not ready for. Lee’s editor, Tay Hohoff, mentored and guided Harper as she crafted quite a different story, the one that became To Kill a Mockingbird.

Fast forward many decades. After Harper Lee’s sister, Alice, died (Alice was a lawyer who looked after Harper’s estate and protected her interests), Harper’s new estate lawyer and the publisher HarperCollins spearheaded the publication of the initial manuscript, the one Harper Lee had originally called Go Set a Watchman.  

The manuscript was lightly copy edited, but no substantive editing was done. Any revisions, of course, would have required consultations with Harper Lee and perhaps some rewriting on her part, which many believe she cannot do since she is nearly deaf and blind and may be otherwise incapacitated.

HarperCollins has marketed the book as another, newly found novel by Harper Lee.

I’ll save my opinions about the literary quality and content of Watchman for my next post. Here, I want to say how disappointed I am in HarperCollins and the current big business model of book publishing. The publication of Go Set a Watchman has been called a money grab on the part of a publisher capitalizing on Harper Lee’s name and reputation. I agree with that assessment.

Back in the day, I started my career as a book editor in educational publishing, and I’ve been told by a friend who has remained in the business that I wouldn’t be happy if I’d stayed. Books must rake in the profits. Literary and other books with less popular appeal are often not supported or even published in the first place, regardless of their artistic merit. Fortunately, independent publishers, university presses, and self-published authors are filling the gap to some extent; many are committed to producing literary works of art regardless of their profit potential.

I believe, too, that the publication of this unedited first draft shows a profound disrespect for Harper Lee and puts her at risk of an undeserved tarnished reputation.

What if the unedited first drafts of F. Scott Fitzgerald or Ernest Hemingway or Margaret Atwood were published and marketed as new novels? Might our opinions of them as writers change?

Writers, sculptors, painters and other artists have a right to their first drafts, their initial conceptions, their trial and error efforts, and they have the right to keep this work to themselves or at least have it viewed in context.

I’ve been disappointed by a couple of bloggers and social media bibliophiles I’ve read, who seem to have no knowledge of the controversy and circumstances behind the publication of Go Set a Watchman, and little understanding of or interest in book editing, authorship, and responsible publishing. They are providing no context for their readers.

In one case, a book lover on Instagram with many followers heaped nothing but vitriol on Harper Lee. He claimed that she “knows nothing” about race – a serious misreading of her – and seemed to not take into account that Go Set a Watchman is a dated first draft written by a young writer in the 1950s. Many of this Instagram-er’s readers thanked him for steering them away from the book and seemed to take his indictment of Harper Lee at face value.

I unfollowed him.

Sometimes I’m ambivalent about being a book blogger, though most of the time I believe blogging is valuable. I was educated as a journalist, I was a book editor for a highly regarded book publisher that produced quality work, and I was paid for the editing and writing I did, with the expectation that I’d maintain the highest standards.

As bloggers, we can write whatever we want, with no one to fact check or edit our work. That’s the beauty of it – no gatekeepers, the opportunity to express ourselves, explore our passions, and share them with others. But there is a down side, too.

All of this said, I believe the publication of Go Set a Watchman will turn out to be a good thing, as you can likely tell from the opening quotes I’ve chosen. More about that in my next post.

Please share your thoughts about Go Set a Watchman. Should it have been published? And if you’ve read it, what do you think? If you find this post valuable, please share it so more readers can join in the discussion!

Here is a video of Ursula Le Guin talking about books as commodities. I’ve posted this before:

Read Go Set a Watchman with me

Go Set a Watchman coverBarnes & Noble in Rochester opens at 7 am tomorrow for the release of the story Harper Lee originally tried to tell. I expect, wherever you live, your local bookstore will have plenty of copies of Go Set a Watchman on hand.

Maybe we weren’t ready for the book in 1960.

Lee’s editor set aside Go Set a Watchman and worked with Harper for 2 years as she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, the book we grew up with.

I’ll be talking about Go Set a Watchman here and on my FB fan page.  I would love for you to join in the discussion. But be prepared to be shocked by a very different Atticus Finch. If you like your memories about To Kill a Mockingbird just the way they are, then this book probably isn’t for you.

Please share this post with your friends so we can get a good discussion going on Books Can Save a Life.  I’ll be kicking off comments at the end of July, so go buy or borrow your copy of Go Set a Watchman now and get reading!

Bad Feminist? Good Feminist? Anti-Feminist?

Bad Feminist book cover“You think you are alone until you find books about girls like you. Salvation is certainly among the reasons I read. Reading and writing have always pulled me out of the darkest experiences in my life. Stories have given me a place in which to lose myself. They have allowed me to remember. They have allowed me to forget. They have allowed me to imagine different endings and better possible worlds.”  Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist

Where do I begin? It’s hard to know because Roxane Gay covers so much ground in her collection of essays, Bad Feminist. Her voice is unmistakable: hilarious, informed, opinionated, eloquent, vulnerable.

What a great read for a book club, especially if your club is diverse in terms of race, gender, political persuasion, and economic status. (Or are book clubs of such diversity scarce?) Oh, the discussions you’ll have.

Roxane Gay is a black woman, a feminist (a darn good one), a Ph.D and professor, a single woman of a certain weight, a liberal, a fan of reality TV and rap music, a best-selling novelist and author. She’s tired, because she does all these things – Roxane admits as much, but as one of those driven people she says she can’t stop.

She writes about all of this and more in her essays. Occasionally she leans toward the shrill, but mostly not – Roxane is very good at getting you to think while entertaining you at the same time. For certain, you won’t always agree with her, but you’ll have plenty to mull over.

Her writing is so, so timely in light of the discussions we’re having in this country about race. Roxane recounts movingly what it’s like to be the only female black professor in her academic department. She dissects her reactions to movies such as The Help and other depictions of race and racism in entertainment, discussions I found nuanced and enlightening, and sometimes difficult to take as I recognized myself in some of the attitudes she highlights.

I had chosen not to see The Help when it was released a few years ago, because I’d read an opinion piece by a black woman who said all the women in the movie who are racist are nasty, while all the women who are not racist are likable–when in fact it had been her experience that many people who were racist were the nicest people you’d ever meet.  Roxane highlights these and other kinds of stereotypical and overly-simplistic portrayals in a number of popular TV shows and movies.

As for feminism, Roxane writes honestly about personal trauma that in part has shaped her views. (I won’t go into that here, to avoid spoilers.) She addresses the sad state of affairs for women in the US, where women of reproductive age are finding it harder to obtain contraception, where politicians make outrageous statements about rape and other matters they don’t seem to understand. (Such as the infamous, women who are victims of “legitimate rape” rarely get pregnant.)

Recently Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer took a lot of flak for criticizing feminism.  Yet look at what is happening in the tech world, with apparent widespread discrimination against women who are coming up in their careers. One would think things would be better for younger women but that doesn’t appear to be the case.

I have to admit that at one time I would not have considered myself a feminist, though not anymore, especially given that I’m startled by how much ground women have lost in this country. Being of a certain age, I’ve come to respect much more than I did what the first and second wave feminists accomplished for all of us. I’ve been concerned, too, when I’ve not heard more of an outcry from younger women over recent trends. So it’s a relief to read Roxane Gay’s take on all this.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from her essays:

“I embrace the label of bad feminist because I am human. I am messy. I’m not trying to be an example. I am not trying to be perfect. I am not trying to say I have all the answers. I am not trying to say I’m right. I am just trying—trying to support what I believe in, trying to do some good in this world, trying to make some noise with my writing while also being myself.”

And,

“We don’t all have to believe in the same feminism. Feminism can be pluralistic so long as we respect the different feminisms we carry with us, so long as we give enough of a damn to try to minimize the fractures among us.”

And,

“It’s hard not to feel humorless, as a woman and a feminist, to recognize misogyny in so many forms, some great and some small, and know you’re not imagining things. It’s hard to be told to lighten up because if you lighten up any more, you’re going to float the fuck away. The problem is not that one of these things is happening; it’s that they are all happening, concurrently and constantly.”

Did I say I think you should read Bad Feminist?

Have you read Bad Feminist? What did you think?

I’ve ordered a copy of Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change. It is available from Amazon and other booksellers, and you can download the pdf at this link: Laudato Si’ . I’ll be writing about it here in late July, mostly from a secular perspective. Why don’t you read it with me – I welcome your thoughts, faith-based or otherwise.

Where Do Poems Come From?

I recently had a poem published in Verse-Virtual: An Online Community Journal of Poetry.  In this excellent and unique publication, the published poets are encouraged to contact each other to show their support for poems that move them. (No critiquing allowed.) The editor, Firestone Feinberg, is a joy to work with and warmly encouraging of new writers.

I wrote “Nadezhda, If You Were Here” quite a while ago, and as I prepared it for submission I was thinking about where poems – my poems – come from. In this case, I was reading a memoir by Paul Auster (I believe it was The Invention of Solitude.) In it, he includes an extraordinary letter written by Nadezhda Mandelstam to her husband, the poet Osip Mandelstam, after he’d been sent to a labor camp by Stalin. I had never heard of these people, but I was so struck by the letter I just had to read Nadezhda’s amazing memoir, Hope Against Hope, about her life with Osip.

I was reading the memoir in Wegmans grocery store on a cold winter day, when I was inspired to get another cup of coffee and start writing. That’s where my poem came from. I wasn’t sure I had much to say, but it turned out to be a direction worth exploring.

The Present MomentThis summer I’m enjoying This Present Moment, a collection of poems by Gary Snyder, who is now 85. Remember the Beat Generation? Gary Snyder is one of America’s greatest living poets. This volume includes poems about being a homesteader, father, husband, friend, and neighbor. (I’m paraphrasing the jacket copy because it is a good summary of the subject matter.) The final poem, “Go Now,” is about the death of his wife.

Even if you’re not a fan of poetry, I encourage you to take three minutes to listen to this poem by Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska, “Life While-You-Wait,” read by Amanda Palmer and passed along by Maria Popova and Brain Pickings. (Scroll down the page to get to the recording.) I think you’ll like it.

I’ve ordered a copy of Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change. It is available from Amazon and other booksellers, and you can download the pdf at this link: Laudato Si’ . I’ll be writing about it here in late July, mostly from a secular perspective. Why don’t you read it with me – I welcome your thoughts, faith-based or otherwise.

Rhythm of the Wild by Kim Heacox

“Looking back, I see now that Denali did more than charm me that first summer; it saved me. The whole damn place beguiled me and believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. Call me crazy or blessed or crazy blessed. But I swear that again and again Denali has done this–made me buckle down and find inspiration and become the free man I am today.”   Kim Heacox, Rhythm of the Wild: A Life Inspired by Alaska’s Denali National Park

Rhythm of the Wild book cover

“What you hold, dear reader, is a story of love and hope, equal parts natural history, human history, personal narrative, and conservation polemic. I make no attempt to be a neutral journalist, a rare bird in today’s corporate culture. I’m a story teller.”

At the moment, Alaska is burning, and I’d love to hear Kim Heacox’s thoughts about this. I recently finished reading his new book, Rhythm of the Wild: A Life Inspired by Alaska’s Denali National Park, and I liked it so much I bought a copy of his first memoir about Alaska, The Only Kayak, and liked that one too.

Denali Mountain

Denali. Wikipedia.

I’ve tried to persuade my husband to read the latter book, as he’s a kayaker and a Beatles lover, as Heacox is. I believe Heacox and J. are kindred spirits, but so far no luck, J. hasn’t picked up the book–he’s not a particularly avid reader. However, he has been to Alaska, while I have not, so I think that counts for more than reading two books about Alaska.

Kim Heacox is an award-winning writer (with four books for National Geographic to his credit), a photographer, a speaker, a conservationist, and a lover of Alaska and Denali. (Denali, the mountain, which is the highest in North America, and Denali National Park.)

 

Grizzly bear

Grizzly bear. NPS photo.

He and his wife, Melanie, have resided in Alaska for over thirty years; they are two remarkable people who have devoted their lives to educating others about the inestimable value of our wilderness areas. Heacox writes in a very personal way about Alaska and Denali, weaving together his own wilderness stories with coming of age in the Northwest during the 1960s and 70s. I admire him for many reasons, among them his talent for lyrical writing and his willingness to be vulnerable as he shares his love for the wilderness that is Alaska.

As I read, I began to feel sorry for the tourists Heacox describes who find their way to Denali but after a few short days must return to their Dilbert cubicle lives in cities and suburbs. Then I realized that has been much of my life, too. Heacox paints such a compelling picture of Alaska he made me feel deprived for never having experienced this wild, remote place.

Heacox recounts his fascination with the Beatles and their reinvention of music – from an early age he identified with outsiders and challengers of the status quo. Naturally, he’s been deeply influenced by “outsider” environmentalists as well, including  Edward Abbey and Adolph Murie. He writes about their legacies in Rhythm of the Wild.

Those of you who follow my blog know I’m a fan of Barry Lopez and Wendell Berry and other influential writers who care about nature and wilderness. I’ll look for more writing by Kim Heacox in the future. I consider him an important addition to my nature and conservation bookshelf. He’s the kind of writer we should be reading if we want to protect our national parks and take climate change seriously.

Here are a few enticing samples of this singular voice in Rhythm of the Wild:

“Years ago in a cowboy cafe in Moab, Utah, I met a nine-fingered guitarist who poured Tobasco on his scrambled eggs and told me matter-of-factly that Utah was nice, Montana too. And of course, Colorado. But any serious student of spirituality and the American landscape must one day address his relationship with Alaska, and once in Alaska, he must confront Denali, the heart of the state, the state of the heart….by Denali he meant both the mountain and the national park.”

Great Horned Owls

Great Horned Owls. NPS photo.

“Denali is what America was; it’s the old and new, the real and ideal, the wild earth working itself into us on days stormy and calm, brutal and beautiful, unforgiving and blessed. It’s where we came from, long before television and designer coffee, even agriculture itself. Before we lost our way and granted ourselves dominion over all living things, before our modern, paradoxical definitions of progress and prosperity, and too much stuff; it’s the lean, mean, primal place buried in our bones no matter how much we might deny it, no matter how fancy our homes, how busy our routines, how cherished our myths. Denali resides in each of us as the deep quiet, the profound moment, the essence of discovery. It offers a chance to find our proper size in this world.”

The publisher of Rhythm of the Wild kindly provided me with an Advanced Reader’s Copy (ARC).

I’ve ordered a copy of Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change. It is available from Amazon and other booksellers, and you can download the pdf at this link: Laudato Si’ . I’ll be writing about it here in late July, primarily from a secular perspective. Why don’t you read it with me – I welcome your thoughts.

Northern Lights and trees

Summer book giveaway

Guess book & flower

Guess the book (hint: gothic romance) and/or the flower for a chance to win a book or a package of seeds. You don’t have to get the correct answer to win. Ends Wednesday, June 24, midnight EST.

Here are a few of the books I’ll be reading and writing about this summer:

How to Be Both, by Ali Smith

Laudato Si: Praise Be to You, On Care for Our Common Home, by Pope Francis

H Is for Hawk book coverH Is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald

Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gray

Smile of a Midsummer Night: A Picture of Sweden, by Lars Gustafsson & Agneta Blomqvist

Rhythm of the Wild, by Kim Heacox

How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti

The Collapse of Western Civilization, by Naomi Oreskes & Eric M. Conway

Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng

Laudato Si books

Mad Men

Mad Men posterI was surprised at how bereft I was the day after the Mad Men finale, as though I’d said goodbye to my childhood forever. The only thing that made me feel better is the memoir I’m writing; nearly every day lately I return to the 1960s.

This post has spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the last episode of Mad Men, or if you’ve yet to watch the entire 7-season, 92-hour epic, you may want to stop reading right here. (Or click on these links to the New York Public Library’s Mad Men reading lists and NPR’s guide to the music of Mad Men. If you plan to watch or re-watch the series, you could supplement with books and music of the times.)

A few seasons into Mad Men, a couple of friends predicted that Don Draper would commit suicide, given his self-destructive tendencies. Many viewers thought the opening animation of a man in a suit falling from a skyscraper foreshadowed such an ending.

No, I thought. That’s wrong. A misreading of his character. Don is a survivor. (Indeed, so says one of the characters in the final episode.) Cheever Collected Stories book cover

I bristled at the judgmental tone I sometimes heard, as if Don deserved such an end, given his many faults. On the contrary, Don was emblematic of a certain kind of self-made man of his time–raised in poverty and neglect, a traumatized war veteran who became a successful ad man, rich beyond his wildest dreams, yet alienated and lonely. Like all humans, he struggles. Like The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, he’s lost.

You can find Don Draper in much of the literature of the 1950s and ’60s. The show’s creator, Matthew Weiner, drew heavily on bestselling books of that era, and was particularly influenced by the short stories of John Cheever, as well as Cheever’s journals. In fact, at the beginning of every season of scriptwriting, Weiner read the introduction to Cheever’s stories to the writers as a source of inspiration.

Weiner says that he loved reading the journals of 1950s and 1960s writers and ad executives and found them enormously helpful. While many of us look upon advertising with distaste, or at least ambivalence, Don Draper and his colleagues were in fact supporting families while doing deeply creative work. I think Weiner got it so right as he charted the highs and lows of these highly creative men and women. Weiner also points out that many famous artists have had to do advertising work to make a living.

When I was in college, a couple of my male friends had fathers who were prominent ad men, having commuted from the suburbs into Manhattan every day for thirty years. They seemed to feel pressure to follow in their fathers’ footsteps, and I sometimes sensed they were afraid they wouldn’t measure up. Advertising was a difficult, high-pressure career, but also an exciting and fulfilling way to make a living. And, of course, most ad execs were not deeply flawed Don Drapers.

One note of nostalgia for me is that the show ends in 1970, and in 1977 I moved to Manhattan, where I worked in book publishing. For a time I was in the advertising department of a large publisher, where I worked with artists, graphic designers, photographers, and other creative people. Publishing was a different world from high-stakes Madison Avenue advertising, of course, a backwater compared to the pressure of Mad Men agencies. But when I saw Mad Men’s meek Peggy Olson show up for her first job in that office in the sky, I was taken right back to my New York City days. Peggy’s world, where women in the workplace were all secretaries, was to a large degree my world. Needless to say, watching Peggy’s transformation has been riveting. Mad Men poster

In a remarkably candid interview conducted by the author A.M. Homes at the New York Public Library, Weiner says that he often discussed with his therapist the challenges of his work as the creator of Mad Men, and they often talked about Don Draper–his flaws, his motivations, his journey in life. Weiner reveals that his therapist helped him figure out whether it was necessary to be miserable when one is in the midst of creating. (Weiner implies that he was often miserable and concludes that, no, one does not have to be miserable when one is creating.)

Weiner says Frank O’Hara’s poetry in particular helped him understand the zeitgeist of the times. He read Lunch Poems and Meditations in an Emergency (which we see Don reading in one episode), and says that Meditations changed his life. That makes me curious, so I’ve added O’Hara to my reading list.

Here’s another fascinating tidbit: when they were looking for an actor to play the stranger that Don reaches out to at the Esalen style retreat, Weiner told the talent scouts that the stranger had to be an actor who was not famous and that this character “was the most important character in the entire series.” Weiner has more to say about this character and the closing scene in the New York Public Library interview. (The final scene is shown during the interview.)

The last episode concludes with what has been called the most famous commercial of all time: the Coke ad with the song, “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.” People critical of this ending feel cynical about pairing this uplifting message, sung in harmony by people of all races, with crass commercialism. As for me, I thought the ending was perfect, in sync with the person Don is, and in sync with the times. Yes, Don Draper the ad man may have risen like the phoenix to create the most popular commercial in history. But I took his encounter with the lonely stranger at Big Sur to be an authentic moment of growth and greater self-awareness. I haven’t been to Esalen, but I’ve been to a place called Spirit Rock, and things like that do happen to people.

If Mad Men were to continue, I think Don Draper would still be the flawed man we know, far from perfect.  And yet, a better man, too. You can hear Matthew Weiner’s thoughts about Don here in the NYPL interview.

I think Matthew Weiner ranks right up there with the great novelists of our time.

If you’d like to meet the real ad man who created the Coke commercial (Bill Backer, who makes clear he has nothing in common with Don Draper), click here.

Mad Men Books and Music Meditations in an Emergency book cover

Mad Men characters love to read. Here are lists of the books they are seen reading on screen:

The Mad Men Reading List compiled by Billy Parrott, Managing Librarian at the New York Public Library

Mad Men Reading List Collection of 25 books read by characters throughout the series

Weiner chose a popular song of the time to close each program:

A Comprehensive Guide (Nearly) to the Music of Mad Men from National Public Radio

Are you a Mad Men fan and have you watched the ending? What did you think? If you’d like, please share your thoughts about any aspects of Mad Men.

Patrick Modiano’s elusive Paris, what my father never saw

Eiffel Tower

La tour Eiffel. (Photo by A. Hallinan)

“Tell all the truth but tell it slant–“ Emily Dickinson

If you dislike ambiguity and prefer straightforward plots, you may become impatient with Patrick Modiano’s inconclusive and sometimes maddening quests. In his stories of Paris during and after the Occupation, the “missing” person in question is never found; the mystery of his or her identity is never solved.

Modiano tells the truth–what little of it he knows–but he tells it slant.

Reading is a way for me to immerse myself in other times and places, and on our recent trip to France, I wanted to see the country through the lens of World War II, when my father was a soldier there. So I brought along Irène Némirovsky (I wrote about Suite Française in my last post) and Patrick Modiano’s The Search Warrant (published as Dora Bruder in Europe). Coincidentally, my son had just read three novellas by Modiano: Afterimage, Suspended Sentences, and Flowers of Ruin, so I read them, too. (These are published in one volume entitled Suspended Sentences.)

I was thinking about my father, who passed away five years ago, and musing about events in 1940s Europe that may soon be all but forgotten. Once I became accustomed to Modiano’s method and spirit of storytelling, I could appreciate the author’s preoccupation with identity and memory, and his attempts to reconstruct and understand the past.

Even as I explored the Jewish quarter of Le Marais, where we stayed, and conjured up the WWII Paris I’ve seen in movies, I realized that a new story is playing out in France, making my father’s time seem even more remote. We passed by many military personnel armed with automatic weapons guarding Parisian monuments, temples, churches, and other sites in the wake of January’s Charlie Hebdo attack.

My father never got the chance to explore Europe as he’d hoped. He’d been fascinated by France and Luxembourg (where he spent the weekend in training before he was wounded in the Battle of Metz in 1944), and he’d planned to visit Sicily, where he was born. Instead, he was shipped out to Liverpool after he was injured, and then back to America, where he spent over a year in recovery. Though he did visit Sicily later in life, my father never returned to France. Suspended Sentences book cover

I found myself imagining what he might have thought if he’d seen Notre Dame (he was awed by cathedrals) or tasted Parisian escargot (which he would have relished) or strolled across the many old bridges spanning the Seine.

During our drive to Metz, I looked out over the French countryside and along the Moselle River, thinking that perhaps my father had been injured in one of the passing fields or forest groves.

In The Search Warrant, Modiano is obsessed with reconstructing the life of a young Jewish girl who died at Auschwitz. In a 1941 Parisian newspaper, he’d discovered an ad placed by the parents of Dora Bruder, asking for information about the whereabouts of Dora, who had run away from her convent school. It’s as if Modiano can’t accept that someone–that so many, in fact–could live lives so brief and obscure and die such senseless deaths, as they did in the war.

The Search Warrant fuses nonfiction (the facts he unearths about Dora Bruder) with memoir (Modiano’s autobiographical speculations about his father during the Occupation) and fiction. As I read, sometimes I couldn’t separate truth from fiction.

The Search Warrant book coverInterrupting the narrative flow are lengthy lists of the names and last known addresses of people deported to concentration camps. Modiano seems compelled to show his readers the documentation and proof behind any fact he asserts about Dora. He meticulously describes the Paris neighborhoods that he wanders in, too: the old, timeworn urban landscapes and the bland contemporary ones that have replaced them.

Such lists and geographical minutia also appear in Modiano’s three novellas. Each story portrays a protagonist searching for a person he’s lost touch with long ago or seeking to understand some incident from the past.

Before I started the three novellas, I read the editor’s introduction to see if I could better understand what Modiano was trying to do with his stories. I learned that his mother had been an actress and was often absent during his childhood, while his estranged father paid little attention to Modiano and his younger brother. Modiano surmises that his father was a black market smuggler and somehow aligned with French Nazi collaborators. Another heartbreaking autobiographical fact is that Modiano’s beloved brother, Rudy, died from an illness when they were young. Modiano’s obsessive search for Dora Bruder is emblematic of Modiano’s search for his lost family, and for a pre-war Paris that no longer exists.

Patrick Modiano won the Nobel Prize in 2014.

From Flowers of Ruin:

“Little by little, that man melted into the wall. Or else the rain, from falling on him so heavily, had dissolved him, the way water dilutes a fresco that hasn’t had time to dry properly. As hard as I pressed my forehead against the glass and peered at the dark gray wall, no trace of him remained. He had vanished in that sudden way that I’d later noticed in other people, like my father, which leaves you so puzzled that you have no choice but to look for proofs and clues to convince yourself these people had really existed.”

Notre Dame

Notre Dame

Cafe in Paris

Where to eat….they all look so good. Can you see the maître d’ beckoning?

Stone carving of two children

Children on a street corner in France.

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