In appreciation of an enduring friendship   Leave a comment

Dinners with Ruth by Nina Totenberg is subtitled A Memoir on the Power of Friendships, which could be changed to A Memoir on Power Friendships.

Totenberg, legal affairs correspondent for NPR, first met Ruth Bader Ginsberg long before either had established their careers. As their stars rose, their relationship flourished. Yet, RBG’s isn’t the only name Totenberg drops recounting dinner parties and other social events.

Friendships with her NPR colleagues, in particular Susan Sontag and Cokie Roberts, have been previously celebrated in another memoir.  Additionally, Totenberg counts several former Supreme Court justices, reporters, her sisters and many others among her friends.

Certainly, the most engaging narratives are those regarding RBG. Totenberg refers to her intelligence, kindness, quiet nature and love for her husband Martin who died in 2010. Earlier, Totenberg’s first husband died after a long illness. Both women provided support and comfort to the other. When the journalist remarried, the justice officiated.

Totenberg briefly shares her family background and her entrée into journalism: first in print media and later among the first of NPR’s staff. She remains a contributing journalist and has received numerous accolades for her work.

Each of the 17 chapter names includes the word friend or friendship. From love to fame, from hardships to lost, aspects of various significant connections significant in Totenberg’s life are recounted. Not only does the reader learn more about the author, but an added benefit is the opportunity to reflect on the importance, and variety, of friends in one’s own life.

Dinners With Ruth

Four Bookmarks

Simon & Schuster, 2022

304 pages, includes notes, acknowledgements and index

Life’s Joys and Sorrows   Leave a comment

Zorrie is the title character in Laird Hunt’s novel about a woman whose life is defined by loss, love and the tenacity to keep moving forward.

Following the death of her parents, Zorrie lives with a joyless aunt until the age of 21 when she leaves her hometown in rural Indiana to find her place in the world. She’s undaunted traveling alone and sleeping under the stars. She gets to Illinois where she eventually finds employment at a radium factory painting the numbers on clock faces. The townspeople call the young women who work there “ghost girls” thanks to the radioactive material that makes them glow – something that is haunting. Although she makes enduring friendships with other young women, Zorri makes her way back to Indiana.

This is a terse novel with little embellishment, much like Zorri’s life. Despite this, the descriptions of the community, farms and hardscrabble existence of Zorri and her neighbors are vivid. She’s a no-nonsense, kind and hardworking person.

Soon after returning to Indiana, she marries Harold, the son of the older couple with a spare room to let. Hunt’s adroit narrative leaves the reader as surprised as Zorri by the depth of her relationship with Harold.

The depression, World War II and other events of the mid-20th century impact Zorri’s life in profound ways. Still, her resiliency and Hunt’s ability to highlight beauty among mundane daily routines make for an engaging novel. Zorri may not articulate appreciation for what she has, but it’s evident nonetheless.

Zorri

Almost-four bookmarks

Bloomsbury Books, 2021

161 pages

A Classic Tale With a Modern Twist   Leave a comment

Barbara Kingsolver acknowledges a connection with Charles Dickens, which explains the many similarities between her most recent novel, Demon Copperhead, and the classic David Copperfield. Admittedly, I’ve forgotten a lot about the latter, but recall enough to know they both deal with contemporary social issues of their times. For Dickens, child labor, squalid living conditions and long-standing poverty in 1800s London were among the problems he addressed.

Kingsolver sets her narrative in southern Appalachia where Demon, an exceptionally reliable narrator, tells his life’s story beginning with his birth in a single-wide trailer to an unwed mother prone to addiction. If not for the kindness of neighbors, the Peggots, who temporarily and intermittently become his surrogate family, Demon likely would have ended up in foster care long before he did.

The topics Kingsolver focuses on include physical abuse, disarray within the foster care system, child labor, the elevation of high school football over classroom education and widespread drug addiction. Demon is a victim of these and more. Despite often making poor decisions – without consistent role models there’s little reason to expect otherwise – he’s intelligent and self-aware. He’s also caring and resilient.

Demon is artistic and a keen observer of his situation and those around him. His hunger in one foster home is palpable, as is his fear when he runs away.  Besides the Peggots, a handful of other adults try to help Demon, but their rural community has access to ill-gotten pharmaceuticals with few resources to focus on their consequences.

Demon Copperhead

Four-and-a-half Bookmarks

Harper, 2022

548 pages, includes acknowledgements

Maddening Crowds   Leave a comment

In my effort not to binge read Louise Penny mysteries, I discovered I’m still not up to date on her oeuvre. The Madness of Crowds gets me closer. Written in the midst of the pandemic,  this novel incorporates an element of timeliness unlike most of Penny’s previous works.

Beginning with the loosening of mask mandates and the availability of vaccinations, the residents of Three Pines are finally comfortable venturing out to enjoy the companionship of family and friends.

Between Christmas and New Year’s, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is tasked with overseeing security at a nearby university for a controversial speaker. Professor Abigail Robinson believes the pandemic demonstrated the need to euthanize the physically weak and mentally feeble but otherwise healthy human beings. Her thesis slowly gains attention from supporters and detractors.

The usual cast of characters is featured, including Gamache’s family, his closet colleagues Jean-Guy Beauvoir and Isabelle Lacoste, along with the quirky, but endearing residents, of the serene, isolated village of Three Pines. Added to the mix are Robinson, her assistant, the university’s chancellor and a Sudanese refugee being considered for the Nobel Peace Prize.

No Gamache tale would be complete without plenty of intrigue. In this case several issues arise, in addition to that of euthanizing, there’s murder, defending free speech,  family secrets, tortuous mental health treatments and how far one has – or might have –  to go to protect a loved one.

The murder investigation is at the forefront, but everything else is always near the surface.

The Madness of Crowds

Four Bookmarks

Minotaur Books,  2021

436 pages, including acknowledgements

Dictionary Women — and Men   Leave a comment

The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams is an engaging novel about how the complete edition of the Oxford English Dictionary came to be. In addition to its development, perhaps more importantly, it addresses women’s roles in the achievement.

Along with the words that make it into the initial version is the vocabulary that the mostly male lexicographers overlooked – either by design or ignorance. Here’s where narrator Esme comes in. As a young child she spent most of her time under the table where her widowed father and his colleagues collected words for inclusion in the dictionary.

When not in the “Scriptorium,” Esme is in the nearby home of James Murray where housemaid Lizzie cares for the young girl. Despite class differences, theirs is a relationship that endures as Esme grows up and begins her own collection of words. She starts with some discarded by the men and later adds the vernacular of working class women she discovers with Lizzie’s help.

Williams’s novel is inspired by true events, but isn’t just historical. The story is brought to life by the vivid personalities of the main characters, but also lesser, nonetheless equally important, ones. While the dictionary is being compiled (a decades-long endeavor), the arduous battle of the women’s suffrage movement is underway (another lengthy process). The backdrop of societal mores, the Great War and personal relationships imbues the work with emotion.

Words and their meanings are significant but their power is reflected in how they’re used and by whom.

The Dictionary of Lost Words

Four Bookmarks

Ballentine Books, 2021

388 pages (includes epilogue, author’s notes, timeline and book group discussion questions)

Take One, Action   Leave a comment

59109471

The cinematic worlds created in 1940s Hollywood collide with the realities
of World War II and personal battles of the characters in Anthony Marra’s Mercury
Pictures Presents
.

After her father is arrested for his anti-fascist writings and imprisoned in
an Italian penal colony, young Maria immigrates with her mother from Rome to
Los Angeles. The move does nothing to assuage the guilt she carries for
inadvertently alerting authorities to her father’s political transgressions.
Years later she’s hired at Mercury Pictures, a second-rate movie studio, where
she becomes an associate producer.

Marra incorporates multiple storylines tied together by Maria and Mercury
Pictures. Numerous characters populate the novel; most have emigrated to escape
persecution in their home countries. All, perhaps especially Maria,
try to reinvent themselves. Humor, irony and pathos merge as they navigate new
lives despite their status as second-class residents while making propaganda
films to support the war effort.

Much of the story is set in Hollywood/Los Angeles, but other locales
prominently figure in the epic Marra crafts, including San Lorenzo, Italy,
where Maria’s father lives out his days. The Utah desert is a surprising setting:
where, during the war, a crew from Mercury recreates German village to film a
war scene.

All of the characters are nuanced and interesting. They’re talented and
ambitious. These include Maria’s Chinese-American boyfriend; the German
miniaturist; the Italian cinematographer and the Jewish studio head, among
others. None are caricatures and all face some form of prejudice, much of which
is anticipated, some unexpected.

Mercury Pictures Presents

Four Bookmarks

Hogarth, 2022

416 pages

Crime, ethics and truth   Leave a comment

In Bad City, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Paul Pringle provides an in-depth look at the culture of silence regarding scandals at the University of Southern California while addressing the threat to journalistic integrity at the Los Angeles Times.

When Pringle, a Times investigative reporter, gets a tip about Carmen Puliafito, then dean of USC’s Keck School of Medicine involving drug abuse he’s initially skeptical.

Through diligent inquiry, Pringle pursues the doctor’s activities, which include dispensing and using illegal drugs. His wealth and power allow him to lead a double life as a respected member of academia and the medical community. He’s also the manipulating lover of a much younger woman to whom he provided drugs, money and apartments.

Inquiries to USC are dismissed at the same time his editors attempt to quash the story. Slowly, Pringle suspects a conflict of interest with the paper and its relationship with the renowned university. This only further motivates him to continue his probe.

Pringle is able to substantiate his story, but his editors want more thus delaying publication. When it’s evident the story will languish indefinitely, he and a handful of other reports secretly work to expose the Times and USC connection.

While the focus is on Puliafito, Pringle also addresses other USC scandals including the gynecologist who sexually abused hundreds of women; and the Varsity Blues scandal involving bribes to gain admission to elite colleges and universities around the country.

Pringle successfully challenged both the power in play USC while championing journalism’s important role.

Bad City: Peril and Power in the City of Angels

Four Bookmarks

Celadon Books, 2022

289 pages including acknowledgements and notes

More than scientific inquiry   Leave a comment

The best books are those you don’t want to pick up because once you do, you don’t want to put them down. It’s a conundrum.  Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus is one such book. It’s a love story (on many levels) wrapped in science, specifically chemistry.

Elizabeth Zott is not a woman to be dismissed. Even after her post-graduate education is derailed due to sexual assault, she’s relentless in her pursuit of science.

Well ahead of her time in the late 1950s early ‘60s, she refuses to let her gender restrict her dreams, nor does she allow her good looks to dictate how’s she’s perceived. She’s exceptionally intelligent with a strong sense of self and a desire to be a chemist in the male-dominated scientific community.

She’s hired at a research lab where she meets Calvin Evans, a socially-awkward but distinguished scientist.  A relationship based on mutual respect, desire and, ultimately, love flourishes despite the ill-will of their colleagues.

Garmus deftly illustrates the sexism and hypocrisy of the era.  Yet, this is not a male-bashing narrative. When circumstances change, Elizabeth finds another way – round-about though it is – to pursue a career in chemistry: she hosts a television cooking show where she takes an unusual approach. Instead of identifying ingredients by their common names, she uses scientific terminology (ie., sodium chloride vs salt). Surprisingly, the program is a hit.

Humor and tragedy are incorporated in equal measures with several endearing characters the reader would love to spend more time with.

Lessons in Chemistry

Five Bookmarks

Doubleday, 2022

390 pages (includes acknowledgements)

In Einstein’s Shadow   Leave a comment

Thanks to National Geographic’s limited TV series, “Genius,” several years ago, I knew of Albert and Mileva Einstein’s marriage and his dismissal of her. Marie Benedict’s fictionalized account of her life in The Other Einstein adds nothing new.

It does, however, reinforce my negative perception of Albert. More disappointing is the portrayal of Mileva. Although her brilliance is never underplayed, she’s rendered as a weak, indecisive woman where Albert is concerned.

The narrative focuses on their courtship, which begins at the Polytechnic Institute in Zurich where she and Albert are studying physics. It soon becomes evident that she is an excellent student, despite being scorned by her professor because she is a woman.

Her gender is a constant obstacle to her ability to make a name for herself as a scientist. Benedict gives credence to Mileva’s contributions to numerous theories, particularly that of relativity for which Albert is, perhaps, most well-known. Although. her name is never included in any of the studies.

In Benedict’s hands, Albert is a selfish, insensitive man. Mileva recognizes this, yet she still falls for him. The relationship distracts from her ability to obtain her degree. She becomes pregnant, something Albert comes to view as an impediment to his own future. When their daughter is born, he has nothing to do with her.

I have enjoyed Benedict’s other novels about interesting, strong women in men’s shadows. However, this is the most unsatisfying. Mileva is pathetic in her vulnerability to what she mistakenly sees as Albert’s charms.

The Other Einstein

Two Bookmarks

Sourcebooks Landmark, 2016

304 pages

Counting on one another   Leave a comment

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Some things aren’t as simple as One Two Three, the title of Laurie Frankel’s novel about triplets who call themselves by those numbers. Their given names are Mab (One), Monday (Two) and Mirabel (Three). They live in the small town of Bourne, where 17 years ago the poisonous discharge from a chemical plant turned its water green with many residents suffering a range of illnesses and repercussions.

This was the cause of the girls’ father’s death, shortly before they were born. Their mother has been fighting for justice ever since, and the triplets were not left untouched. Mirabel is considered a genius, but she only has the use of one hand to control her wheelchair and voice box. Monday will only eat yellow foods, does not like to be touched and has assumed the role of the town librarian. Books are stashed throughout the family’s small home. Only Mab is left unscathed, which is not necessarily as easy as one might think.

When plans are announced to reopen the plant, despite assurances from the owners that things will be different, the girls become detectives certain there are secrets to unearth.

Chapters are alternately narrated by one of the triplets, each providing her own perspective. The narrative incorporates laugh-out-loud humor, instances of impending doom and even a sense of joy as the girls work together despite their physical and mental limitations. Mab, meanwhile, is distracted by a love interest. Yet, despite their differences and abilities, they’re committed to uncovering the truth.

One Two Three

Four-and-half bookmarks

Henry Holt and Co., 2021

400 pages