When fiction bleeds into real life

  • Glass Houses by Louise Penny (Minotaur Books); August 2017
  • In 40 words or less: The latest Three Pines mystery deals with a classic vision of conscience and the strangling effects of opioids on familial life and civil society. Chief Superintendent Gamache will go to any length to break the Quebec-based drug cartel.
  • Genre: Mystery
  • Locale: Quebec
  • Time: Now
  • Fans love Louise Penny’s novels for the strength of the characters she creates. Once again, the human frailties of the principals deepen the storyline.

When I finished Glass Houses yesterday morning I was struck by the timeliness of the storyline – a very small, carefully chosen group within the Sûreté plot to bring down the cartel controlling the distribution of opioids in Quebec and across the US border. And then I listened to CBS 60 Minutes exposé prepared with  The Washington Post on the pharmaceutical industry working with the Congress to diminish the DEA’s authority and resources to combat the proliferation of opioid abuse.

Louise Penny’s Three Pines is isolated and idyllic. Every reader I know would love to spend time in the bistro and the bookstore. But as in every mystery, it’s not all it seems. The day after Halloween a hooded specter appears on the green, a cobrador, a moral debt collector, silently terrorizing all in view. When an occasional visitor is found dead in the cobrador‘s costume, the questions grow.

This story covers the period of approximately a year, bouncing between the murder in the fall and the trial in the heat of the summer. Stifling heat in the courtroom reinforces the discomfort for Gamache and the prosecutor during the trial. Early on, it is clear that neither is fond of the other and that this case is outside the norm.

The drug abuse and the opioid crisis clearly weigh heavy on Louise Penny. Key characters have struggled with abuse and their pasts are woven in as reality. Gamache has a reputation for ferreting out corruption within the ranks, often at a high personal price. The potential for corruption, particularly when dealing with the vast monies associated with drug trafficking are part of the story.

If you are unfamiliar with Louise Penny, I urge you to give it a try. Be aware that there is an arc through all the titles and reading later books will provide spoilers about the lives of the ongoing characters. Having said that, each may also be read and enjoyed as a standalone novel.

It may seem odd that I often choose this genre as a getaway read. Despite the violence, justice generally prevails albeit at a high price. When you look at it that way, it is a much pleasanter experience than keeping up with the news.

 

 

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‘Daring to Drive’: One Woman Changes a Kingdom

  • Daring to Drive by Manal Al-Sharif (Simon & Schuster); June 2017; in collaboration with Lyric Winik
  • In 40 words or less: From childhood, Manal Al-Sharif was unwilling to settle for the roles assigned by teachers and religious authorities. Necessity pushed her to defy convention and drive. Her story provides insight into the harshness of life for less-privileged Saudis.
  • Genre: Memoir
  • Locale: Saudi Arabia
  • Time: 1980’s – 2012
  • As a part of telling her personal story, Manal schools the reader on the history and customs of Saudi life, particularly since 9/11. The critical role Aramco (the state-operated oil company established by John D. Rockefeller) plays in offering women wider opportunities, somewhat outside of the constraints of the broader society, is a catalyst for Manal’s activism.

If you doubt for a moment that one person can bring about major change, Daring to Drive and this week’s dramatic announcement that women will be permitted to drive on the streets of Saudi Arabia prove it. Manal Al-Sharif was not born into an activist family. Her upbringing was in a harsh home, governed by strict Islamic rules and the unbending strictures of an education system determined to minimize girls’ opportunities and ambitions.

Manal always went her own way. She simultaneously questioned the authority of her teachers while exploring very fundamentalist religious teachings, putting her at odds with many including her siblings. 9/11 was a turning point for her, causing her to reassess her belief in the strictest religious teachings and the true nature of the factions calling for the demise of the West.

It is information technology that finally brought Manal to national and world attention. While she wanted to be an engineer, this was not a profession open in any way to women. The limited higher education options included a single path to information technology. Her tenacity and good fortune brought her to Aramco,  giving her a taste of some of the freedoms and opportunities open to women elsewhere in the world. As she learned of the Arab Spring through her laptop, another rarity, she realized that Twitter could provide the platform to bring together Saudi women across the country willing to drive!

This is far more than one woman’s quest. To tell Manal Al-Sharif’s story demanded looks into working-class family life, the juxtaposition of civil law and religious authority, the differential information available to the privileged and ordinary citizens. Decades of Saudi history and custom are woven into the telling. Not surprisingly, Daring to Drive has been received with acclaim in the U.S. and in the United Kingdom, with its large expat Saudi community and many wealthy Saudi visitors. The book has not been available within Saudi Arabia.

Manal was interviewed exhaustively in the development of this book. To bring her story to the page required the failed collaborative efforts of four skilled writers. It took hours of additional Skype conversations and extensive research for Lyric Winik, the final collaborator, to successfully convey the extraordinary personal journey Manal has taken from frightened small child to international activist.

It pays to have friends. My good fortune is to know Jenna and Gadi Ben-Yehuda. Knowing my love of books and authors, they introduced me to Lyric Winik as the book was being released in June. Lyric and I made plans to have her meet with a book group I facilitate on September 26. At 4:00 that afternoon the news bulletins and emails started pouring in – the Saudi Arabian government announced that beginning in June 2018 women would be allowed to drive in public in the kingdom.

Book club meeting, Tuesday, September 26, 2017, discussing ‘Daring to Drive’.

Meeting with a writer is a wonderful experience for a book group. It provides insights beyond the written page – how the narrative was constructed, what research was required, and the challenges of bringing the story to the public. We had many questions for Lyric, and we asked them all. And then we rejoiced for Manal and all the women of Saudi Arabia who have endured so much for so long in silence.

 

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It’s all about the stories

Next to Hamilton, the toughest ticket to get in the U.S. right now is admittance to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Thanks to Dan, I had tickets for this Tuesday and headed down with a small group of friends. We each followed our own path through the museum, checking in periodically and meeting up for lunch. This proved to be a great plan to get the most out of the few hours we had.

Photo by Elisabeth K. Boas

The museum has two different paths a visitor can follow: the three-level underground history galleries accessed from a single room-sized elevator, which often has a lengthy wait; or the culture and community galleries which each occupies a floor above. My story-gathering began as soon as I entered the culture gallery and noticed the cast iron skillet and sea green coffee cups that were part of many kitchens. Next to me was a woman who was struck by the inclusion of the skillet as well. And so the conversation began. She mentioned that the cast iron skillet was the one thing she really wanted when a family home was disassembled. Her grandmother used it for fried chicken and cornbread. I shared that my mother’s brisket pot held similarly memories.

And then we kept talking. About growing up in communities where there were people of different religions and ethnicities and children absorbed aspects of these cultures because it was everywhere.  We spoke about our surprise when we  each entered communities that were less accepting and racial differences created real social barriers. And we talked about where we live in now and how difficult it is to comprehend how far backward we’ve gone as a country in understanding and accepting one another. Sharon lives in New Jersey and was spending two days at the African American museum. She came with a friend who didn’t want to see the Holocaust Museum. So we talked about her coming back to DC and going there together. Two women of a certain age, one African American, the other Jewish American. Both American. Thanks, Sharon. You made my day.

There were other conversations – with a Vietnam veteran from Baltimore; a woman whose family has owned a cottage in an African-American enclave on Martha’s Vineyard for close to a century; and a woman who wishes her son (who was with her) could understand the emotions and importance of Freedom Summer. Each conversation enriched the experience.

When we did enter the floors devoted to the history of African Americans in the US the experience was very different. The artifacts and explanatory signs are
intended to deepen the superficial knowledge that most people have, particularly about the slave trade and the early US economy, and the role of slaves and free blacks in the military from colonial times through the Civil War.

There is a sanctity about the early rooms. By carefully interspersing quotations and artifacts the very personal toll of the Middle Passage is brought to life. The number of slaves captured in Africa by each of the various colonial powers is listed but seeing the ship names, the dates of passage, and the number of slaves at the start and end of the voyage brings the horror of that information to a new level. How can feeling beings put people in shackles and imprison them and name the ship “Happy” or “Excellent”?

A large area, open through all three levels of the history exhibit focuses on the unresolved conflict of “liberty and justice for all” and people as property. The backdrop to a statue of Jefferson is large stacks of bricks, each engraved with the name of one of Jefferson’s slaves. Once again, it is the details of display that connect the visitor in ways that haven’t been done before.

I’m already planning my next visit to the museum. There is so much to see. But since I always look for a book connection wherever I go, here are two:

  • Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill, a novel about the Middle Passage and life for a bright, accomplished slave and later, free woman, in the 18th century. A bit about the book and the TV miniseries here.
  • The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson’s National Book Award-winning historical study of the Great Migration of African Americans from the agricultural south to the industrial north during much of the 20th century.

Navigating the holiday season in this company town

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The next month is an ongoing series of office-neighborhood-networking parties celebrating the holidays and year’s end. Even for party animals who consider small talk a sport, parties this season in the Washington area have an underlying current of uncertainty. We are accustomed to the quadrennial cycle of presidential elections and the anticipated turnover of jobs, real estate and alliances.  Just like everything else this year, different doesn’t quite capture the climate.

Washington is a town where the second question asked after you meet a stranger is “What do you do?” Sometimes it is out of genuine interest, too often it is to gauge whether the person is valuable to get to know. When many people in government and not-for-profit organizations are concerned their jobs may be adversely affected and the fabric of our society has been shredded, and the politico-social environment has people shouting at rather than talking to each other, this quick sizing up of one’s value may be hard to handle.

So what does this have to do with reading and books?

Here’s my suggestion to change up the small talk with someone new – ask her (him) “What are you reading?” While there are some people who choose not to read, in this town reading is taken seriously across demographics and philosophies. Now this is not a foolproof conversation starter. I’ve been told that s/he reads a screen all day long and just can’t read at home (oh, that must be very stressful. Hope the situation changes) or the only thing s/he has time to read is Hop on Pop/Curious George/Good Night, Good Night, Construction Site (there is no greater gift than the love of reading, enjoy this time.) Thankfully, this is a question that usually perks up even the most reticent attendee.

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Over the last decade, there have been occasions where my political views have been very different from everyone else’s in the room. Rather than arguing politics, we talk books, generally histories or biographies. For those with whom I often disagree on policy, we look forward to these conversations. The focus on how history and the success/failings of leaders can inform our views tamps down the acrimony of the daily news.

And then there is the sheer joy of sharing a book or author you love with someone new. I never tire of the excitement people bring when they tell me about a new find. In these chats people seem to be all ears, listening with an open mind to what is compelling about a book, author or genre. The conversation may veer into what someone’s day job or passion is, rounding out the understanding of who you are speaking with. Expect to be surprised – the button-downed guy may be a sci-fi geek, the hipster may be on a Dickens jag, and the social worker may be into psychological thrillers. Who knows, you may come away from the event having had a break from the every day, made a new acquaintance, and have some new books to read when the news is just too much to bear.

Reading to move forward at Thanksgiving

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Two weeks ago I spent the morning leading a discussion for approximately 30 people titled Page to Screen. While there was interest in the material presented, there was a persistent buzz and uncertainty in the room about the upcoming election. While the outcome was known two days later, a general unease remains about how we got to where we are today and how we can move forward.

Regardless of one’s choices, the daily news is disturbing. Vandalism, hate crimes and incivility are increasing. This is not the peaceful transition of power that has characterized the aftermath of US elections for two hundred years. Being an informed and engaged citizen is at least as important today as it was two weeks ago. While it is important to step up and support the issues and organizations that speak to our individual concerns, it is also vital to step back and focus on those elements of our lives that shape our views: family, home, personal history and health, leisure interests and more.

Reading can calm or energize; help educate or offer the option to escape – it’s all in the selections. Daily, people are approaching me for book recommendations to distract from the political furor. For some I suggest the hair of the dog, fine narratives of earlier eras in American history, both fiction and nonfiction. Examples would be Erik Larson’s Dead Wake and In the Garden of Beasts, Ruth Gruber’s Haven, Mary Doria Russell’s Epitaph, and Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. All serve as a reminder that America has faced intractable problems and dissension in the past, and solutions come with a high price. Here is a list Penguin Random House built of titles to understand America in 2016.

2016 National Book Award finalists
2016 National Book Award finalists

Others are looking for books where the emphasis on characters and plot provide a respite from real politics and history. My current picks in that area are Helen Simonson’s The Summer Before the War, Louise Penny’s mysteries, and the short stories of Molly Antopol and Edith Pearlman. And great comfort comes from re-reading whichever books you consider your old friends.

Don’t forgot that the anger, disappointment, and uncertainty heard in our conversations and seen in the news can disturb children as well. This may be a great time to drop everything and read classic and modern children’s literature together. Biographies of American leaders – presidents, suffragettes, inventors or leaders of the Civil Rights movement – can provide both perspective and inspiration to all in these complicated times.

As I prepare for the Thanksgiving holiday, my hope is that everyone finds a welcome spot around a table, that there be conversations to bridge differences, and violence is left on the football field. If you choose to battle the shopping hoards, please consider a stop at your local bookstore. Between the books and other gift items stocked, there is likely something for everyone on your list with no assembly required. Even Senator Tim Kaine is ready for a stop at his local bookstore.

Courtesy of Shelf Awareness
Courtesy of Shelf Awareness