‘Bertrand Court’ reveals the extraordinary in everyday life

  • UnknownBertrand Court by Michelle Brafman (Prospect Park Books, September 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: Seventeen stories connected through a cul-de-sac in the Washington area show that familial ties can bind or chafe, lovers connections can linger, and everyone has fragile moments. Brafman has a wonderful grasp of the inner voices of her characters.
  • Genre: Fiction, short stories
  • Locale: Washington DC area
  • Time: 1970 – 2000s
  • Read this for well-crafted stories of the extraordinary elements of everyday life. Perfect to savor in small bites.

One of the most difficult things an author can do is make the commonplace events of daily life compelling.  In Michelle Brafman’s new collection, Bertrand Court, families and friends, colleagues and lovers reveal and conceal themselves in the Washington suburbs. Although some of the people in these stories have careers that are very Washington, the underlying circumstances and insecurities of their personal lives are much more universal.

Brafman tackles the long-simmering jealousies between aging sisters, and couples trying to hide their financial reversals from family and friends. There are those blessed with children and others not as fortunate. Some find a spiritual home in organized religion and one woman wishes for that to fill a hole that her family’s wealth could not satisfy. Husbands question their wives’ choices and vice versa and the children must be shielded, regardless.

While most of the stories need not be connected, it is the periodic convergence of friends and families in Bertrand Court that brings the collection together. Whether it is a birthday party or a (non) book group night, the connection is what counts. No matter how perfect anyone’s life may seem, the stories serve as a reminder that the human condition is fragile and that it’s not the errors or self-doubt that define someone but rather what happens next.

Seeing the moon differently

There is little like the play of the moon on endless water to remind me I’m an infinitesimal particle in the vast universe. This view is of the moon on a bay leading to the ocean in Falmouth, MA, on Cape Cod. This has been a lovely change of pace with a friend at her home. Next stop, the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts. For those unfamiliar with either area, both are rich with natural beauty, culture, and endless opportunities to explore or just sit and relax.

So far, I’ve finished two books on this trip (write-ups for another time.) I’ve made a stop at the local bookstore, as I always do wherever I travel.  My purchase included a historical fiction title by a local author.

With the moon still almost full, I know I’ll be searching it out each night as we travel, much like Fieval in An American Tale.

Participating in the Daily Post “Moon”

Erik Larson brings history to life

  • Unknown-1Dead Wake by Erik Larson (Crown Publishing Group, 2015)
  • In 40 words or less: Larson paints a bold picture of the events that led up to the sinking of the Lusitania, a catalyzing event to the US eventually entering WWI. Politics, culture, seamanship and warfare all have their place in this compelling narrative.
  • Genre: Narrative nonfiction
  • Locale: US, Great Britain, Germany, Ireland, Atlantic Ocean
  • Time: 1915
  • Read this for an understanding of the US and its place in the world in 1915 told in a captivating way.

Erik Larson occupies a rare place among those writing histories. His books bring the era, events and people to life with a 360-degree view. Like a classically structured Shakespearian play, there is a progression in five acts. In the first, Larson introduces the players in this drama. They include a bereaved President Wilson, the young Winston Churchill, world-class shipbuilders and seamen, newlyweds, seasoned travellers, a woman architect, bankers, booksellers and more. Through his research, Larson has brought together rich gleanings from journals, letters and other archival material as well as the scholarship of others.

By Part II, the story shifts between the Lusitania, the U-boat seeking to destroy it, and the British intelligence office tracking the movements of this dance. As the Lusitania moves towards England the passengers are certain that the British Navy will ensure their safety, unaware that there are political forces interested in using the Lusitania as a pawn to draw the US into the war. At home, President Wilson is coming out of a deep Depression, largely due to Edith Galt entering his life. Much of America wants nothing to do with the war in Europe and sees no role for the US in the conflict.


As in Shakespeare, Part III is the heat of the action and Larson takes the reader inside the U-boat, on the ship and in the war rooms on the day the Lusitania is torpedoed. As he has earlier, Larson includes text of telegrams and logs chronicling the action.

Part IV details the actual impact and the resulting effects. Human stories of those on the Lusitania and those on land who strove to save them. Well-acquainted with many of the passengers and crew, the descriptions of chaos and heroism are compelling.

Part V and the Epilogue deal with the aftermath – those who are blamed and those who actually are responsible.

It is a measure of his talent that many dedicated readers of fiction find Larson’s storytelling more vivid than many favorite novels. Ideal for book discussions, the richness of the cultural landscape he describes is as worthy of conversation as the political and nautical events that are the centerpiece of the book. If you choose this as your first Larson title, I predict it won’t be your last.

Book snobbery – can’t we just get along?

Fair warning: I’m on my soapbox this afternoon.

In today’s Washington Post (8/6/16) (here), Sophie McManus came out, guns drawn, against readers of “beach reads.” In no uncertain terms, she paints the readers as sexist and vapid.  Through three-quarters of the column, she screeches about the unsuitability of their choices, because “these women” are a monolith. If one reads to the end, she raises the lack of diversity among editorial staffs and the importance of reading among African-American women. Now, having never heard of Ms. McManus, I felt obligated to do a little research before questioning her conclusion.

According to Ron Charles of The Washington Post, in reviewing her novel The Unfortunates on June 16, 2016, Ms. McManus graduated from Vassar and Sarah Lawrence and is the daughter of the editor in chief of Time Warner. Her novel, reviewed in all the “right” places, is about the ultra-rich and apparently is, in part, a social satire. I only wish her Book World piece was satire.

As a reader, professional book group facilitator, and blogger, much of my time is spent talking with people about what they read and why. Just like the teacher you wish you or your child had, I wouldn’t dream of criticizing someone’s choice of book or genre because they are reading. Reading is the enemy of ignorance.

When I speak with readers I try to erase the notion of “guilty pleasures” in reading. Who is anyone to criticize a social worker who deals with abused children from choosing to read fantasy for escape? And the person who spends day after day caring for a chronically ill relative may choose a “beach read” since there is no vacation on the horizon. Or, it could be the friend who called the article to my attention – a parent, leading volunteer in her community, and a practicing audiologist with a doctorate. People read for many reasons: to escape, to armchair travel, to learn an unfamiliar topic, to be entertained, to be part of a reading community. There are many reasons and they may change with one’s age and stage of life.

The women on that beach may be attorneys or wait staff, Uber drivers or teachers just looking to carve out that rare time away.  These same women may be in the book group Ms. McManus wishes would read her book but the group may choose narrative nonfiction, memoirs, classics or even other literary fiction. Let them read what they want when they want!

Isn’t there far too much divisiveness everywhere we turn? What is the upside to criticizing what writers write and readers buy? The assumption that all women who may read a “beach read” are so foolish they can’t see it isn’t real life nor anything one should aspire to is condescending. It would be tempting to say, given Ms. McManus’s background and comments, that maybe she should get a better sense of how the other 99% live and read. And if she hasn’t anything useful to say, maybe she’d best say nothing.


Three summer short takes

I’ve been savoring my reading time this summer. With all my book groups on hiatus until September, it feels like an “all you can read buffet.” Since reading isn’t all I do, please accept this group of “In A Nutshell” assessments, with a few extra words thrown in. Some full-length reviews are coming soon!

  • Unknown-8The Book That Matters Most by Ann Hood (W. W. Norton & Co, August 2016) (Advance copy)
  • In 40+ words or less: After the end of her marriage, Ava is encouraged to join a book group of disparate members. Monthly, one member leads the discussion on his/her most meaningful book. As Ava tries to restart her life, her daughter Maggie is in Paris engaging in destructive behavior, deceiving her family in the process.  Hood’s novel focuses on the importance of family, friendship, and love in creating a meaningful life.
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Locale: Providence and Paris
  • Time: Now
  • Read this for a novel about the resilience of the parent/child relationship, even when all seems lost.  The book club and the choice of discussion titles are key to Ava’s re-emergence and provide a vital plot twist.
  • Unknown-1A Window Opens by Elisabeth Egan (Simon & Schuster, 2015)
  • In 40+ words or less: When her husband must make a career change, Alice steps up moving to an edgy book-related start-up. Exhilarating at first, Alice discovers it’s not as advertised and far from family-friendly. Everyone – her husband, children, and parents – need her so something’s got to give.
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Locale: New York metro area
  • Time: Now
  • Pick this up for a modern family story with some great bookish quirks.
  • Unknown-2Me Before You by Jojo Moyes (Penguin, 2013)
  • In 40+ words or less: A young woman, desperate for a job, becomes the personal companion for a high-flying young businessman profoundly injured in an accident. Opposites in temperament, interests, and world views, they transform each others’ lives.
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Locale: Great Britain
  • Time: Now
  • There’s a reason so many people have read it. May not stand the test of time but well worth an evening or two. A better choice than the movie. Jojo Moyes tells a good story.