Not All ‘Enchanted Islands’ Are Paradise

  • Enchanted Islands by Allison Amend (Doubleday), 2016
  • In 40 words or less: Loosely based on a woman who lived with her husband on the Galapagos Islands prior to WWII,  a novel of a woman striving to overcome the poverty of an immigrant home, using her skills and life-long secretiveness to become a US spy.
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Locale: Duluth, Chicago, San Francisco, Galapagos Islands
  • Time: 1890-1964
  • Readers who enjoy exotic settings will find the descriptions of life on the islands fascinating. The lives of the fictional Frances and Ainslie Conway are far more complicated than just their intelligence mission and likely than their real lives.

Allison Amend had taken a lovely nugget, two memoirs of Frances Conway’s experience in the Galapagos Islands, and used it as a springboard for this novel of hardship, transformation, and love. Amend imagined Frances as one of seven children born to Polish-Jewish immigrants to Duluth in the 1880s. The early portions of the novel contrast her family life with that of her friend Rosalie, the only child of educated German immigrants. Despite the relative comforts of Rosalie’s home, dark secrets propel the two to leave for Chicago at fifteen.Woven into the plot are historical details about the roles young women on their own could take at the turn of the 20th century. Franny and Rosalie sought out the Jewish community to provide a lifeline as they first arrived in Chicago but had no interest in assimilating into that life. In the course of her secretarial work, Franny also becomes involved in the surreptitious publication of early Zionist newsletters, not out of interest but rather through happenstance.

Franny and Rosalie take differing paths to securing their futures. After a blow-up with Rosalie, Frances heads west, initially to live on a farm, later to California as a secretary in military intelligence.  These experiences become the qualifications she needs to enter into an arranged marriage with an intelligence officer who is to be posted to the Galapagos Islands to keep an eye on the German residents suspected of providing information to the growing Reich. Before leaving San Francisco, Franny and Rosalie reunite. Rosalie is now a wealthy society matron, involved in the civic and Jewish community, living a life she’d like to share with Franny, her oldest and only true friend.

Franny’s marriage to Ainslie Conway is a creation of spycraft. Neither had been married or expected to. The cover story for “going native” was to remove Ainslie from the temptations of alcohol, apparently one of the facts this story hangs on. As the narrator, Franny’s vulnerability and desire for all levels of intimacy are revealed. Reading with 21st-century sensibilities, the challenges to their marriage are clear.

Amend does a wonderful job of describing the daily challenges that the rough terrain, limited supplies, and communications cause during their time in the Galapagos. On an island with less than a dozen residents, most of whom were German,  privacy was highly valued and there was little cushion between basic survival and potential disaster.  Medical care and any other services from more populated areas were days, if not weeks, away. Given the intelligence operations, using the hidden military radio was limited to specific purposes. As the war approached, US naval vessels periodically approached the island for reconnaissance purposes.

As is clear from the start, Franny and Rosalie are destined to reconnect again and the story comes full circle. Amend has an ambitious agenda with Enchanted Islands. She takes on the Jewish immigrant experience, the exploitation of young women, early feminism, spycraft and life in an exotic locale. Throughout it all, loyalty and friendship are key. While there is a lot to learn about life just before the war in the Galapagos, don’t expect to meet the real Frances, Ainslie or Rosalie.  Knowing this up front is good enough for me.






Authors on the importance of writing and the worlds they create – Book Expo Part 2

After a day of travel and 5 miles on the conference floor, it took some energy to arrive back at McCormick Place in time for the 8 am Adult Book & Author Breakfast. I am so glad I did.

One lesson learned – humor that may fly at 8 pm with a glass of wine can fall flat at 8 am when the caffeine has yet to do its job.  Faith Salie,  a TV and radio journalist, and panelist on “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!”, hosted the event and spoke first about her humorous memoir Approval Junkie. Her opening monolog was a mix of  intentionally bad publishing jokes and one-liners about her pursuit of a baby-daddy as she reached forty. When she finally segued to the importance of reading and writing throughout her life, Salie set the tone for the serious content to follow.

Colson Whitehead spoke next about The Underground Railroad, his upcoming novel that imagines this path to freedom as a physical railway traversing the country. It’s a book he’s been imagining for years and finally put to paper.  He described his journey, from a lowly staffer at The Village Voice more than two decades ago. And he told of how he “giggle-tested” the story line to see if the project was worth pursuing. In The Underground Railroad Whitehead confronts the issues and danger of that time in a story that may remind readers of Swift’s writings. I can’t wait to read my copy.

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I’ve been a huge Louise Penny fan for years. Her books are one of my go-to choices when I need to refresh my reading palate. A Great Reckoning is Penny’s latest mystery about the small village of Three Pines and Armand Gamache. She spoke about her childhood and the magic of books, showing her that anything was possible and that bravery, strength, and love could be found within. She shared that Gamache has been modeled on her husband, the former head of hematology at Montreal’s Children’s Hospital, a very caring man who had to see patients and their parents under the worst of circumstances. And then she told that over the last three years the husband she has known for decades has suffered from severe dementia, unable to walk, speak or recognize her. Each day begins with her reminding him he is strong, brave, handsome and loved. Louise Penny is clearly all those things as well.

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Were this not enough, the final author on the panel was Sebastian Junger. He came to fame most almost twenty years ago after writing A Perfect Storm. In 2010, his war documentary, Restrepo, about a platoon of soldiers in Afghanistan came to the screen with widespread acclaim and awards. Out of this began a further study into PTSD, the importance of connections and belonging, the result of which is Tribe. The subject and his conclusions should bring about many conversations in the coming months.

It was a very good morning – informative and thought-provoking. From the four, I have literary fiction, mystery, nonfiction, and humor choices for any particular mood. And as I read them, I’ll keep you posted!



It’s a marathon, not a sprint – Book Expo Part 1

UnknownBook Expo may have started last Wednesday but my preparation began long before. Every day I read several newsletters about upcoming book releases, literary awards and what’s hot in the world of books. I have my eye out for titles I’ve been hearing about or favorite authors with new or upcoming releases. A month in advance, Book Expo releases online listings of more than 500 authors who will be autographing their books at the event. There are hundreds of exhibitors with thousands of new titles they are looking to bring to the attention of the attendees, so developing a plan is really key.

Before leaving home, I built an agenda with the authors/titles I wanted to bring home, knowing that many were at the same time or required tickets. Of course, all these plans play a distant second once it’s time to navigate the show floor. IMG_3994This is a view from above of a section of the exhibition area. As many of the big publishers have consolidated (think Penguin and Random House), their booths have become larger. Some small/independent presses are finding it too costly to attend or share booth space with others.  There are also consortiums, smaller presses who band together for purposes of marketing and distribution. And the best information really comes from the seasoned professionals who really know their titles and will take the time t o share their knowledge.

The big guys have a lot going for them – high traffic locations on both sides of the aisle creating a showroom rather than a booth. And they have carpeting with padding.  That may not sound important but each day attendees walk miles from booth to booth AND spend as much as an hour at a time waiting for a signing. Comfort underfoot is a real draw. And of course, there are the books.  The larger publishers give away more titles and have big authors signing in their booths. They often have ridiculously long lines as well.

It takes great restraint to turn down free books when they are offered, but it is vital for survival. I know I won’t be reading dystopic fiction or most graphic novels, and the “all romance, all the time” booths hold little attraction. While my tastes run more to literary fiction, memoirs and narrative history, I do love a good mystery and an occasional thriller. I only pick up young adult (YA) titles and children’s books if I plan to gift them.IMG_4002 I try to be critical as I place the books in a (branded) tote, knowing that I have to either carry them or ship them home. I flew Southwest to Chicago in anticipation of filling a small duffle with my Friday afternoon gatherings and dropping them at curbside check-in.  The books I sent by UPS will arrive tomorrow.

Next up is the post on the Adult Book and Author Breakfast.

By Friday, look for “What the heck is Book Group Speed Dating?”

Please let me know if there are books you are just waiting to see published.  You never know, I may have a copy!


Chicago through different eyes

I love Chicago. My first visit was on a college exploratory tour and I was hooked.  My undergraduate years were spent at Northwestern and I seized every opportunity to explore the city and use it as my classroom.  And my spare time was taken up with explorations of ethnic neighborhoods, unfamiliar foods and head-spinning music and culture.  Even today, a chance to revisit this long-time friend is filled with anticipation.

When you attend a big convention in Chicago it takes real effort to see anything of the city at all. McCormick Place is an enormous complex sitting as an island on the South Side.  It’s really not far from the science museums but you can’t get there from here, even if you were to have the time. To get here you need to take a taxi or a conference bus – like I said, it’s on an island among highways.

I arrived Wednesday just after the fog lifted enough for air traffic to move.  My flight, and countless others, was delayed living up to the reputation of airport chaos. A fairly quick ride from Midway dropped me into familiar turf in a new locale: Book Expo America 2016, Chicago style.

Book Expo America is the largest annual conference of publishers, authors, booksellers, librarians, bloggers and all the ancillary industries that work to bring books to the attention of readers.  Huge banners hang from the ceiling and cover large surfaces in the massive corridors, hawking upcoming titles.

Snake-like lines of attendees wait to enter the convention floor to find unreleased treasures.  Booth after booth of different genres and audiences, primarily in English but with international pockets here and there.  Everyone is carrying (or picking up) large tote bags to bring books home. While e-books may be huge, here paper is king.

Hour-long lines form to get 15 seconds and a signed galley/ book from a top author.  Debut authors are introduced, ” if you enjoy xxxx, s/he will appeal to a similar audience with this twist.” Faces of other attendees become familiar as you stand in the same lines and periodically compare notes on what portion of the book world you inhabit.

For many, a periodic stop is the shipping room where you can fill boxes and ship them home for an exorbitant service fee.  A carefully filled box may contain 30+ titles and enough cloth totes for a week’s supply of groceries.  So if you would buy 3 or 4 of the books anyway, it seems a fair deal.

I was prepped before my first BEA 7 years ago so I know the right shoes are key.  Think Keens or Merrills if sneakers are too casual.  Even with hours in endless lines, 5 miles on concrete crisscrossing the aisles is normal.  So between that and carrying heavy bags of books, ibuprofen is my friend.

It’s Friday morning and I’m in line for my final day on the floor.  Having set the stage, I’ll tell the stories over the weekend.  Thanks for listening.

Jazz, gangsters and booze in a novel of 1920s Chicago

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  • images-2The Jazz Palace by Mary Morris (Nan A. Talese – Doubleday, 2015)
  • In 40 words or less: Chicago in its strength and grit comes to life in this jazz age novel. Figures such as Al Capone and Louis Armstrong add an authentic flavor to the story. If the development of jazz speaks to you, this is your book.
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Locale: Chicago
  • Time: 1915-1927

There is nothing like a real life disaster to capture attention. On the shore of the Chicago River, author Mary Morris introduces two families touched by tragedy in 1915.  That summer the S.S. Eastland, an excursion boat chartered to provide factory workers an outing, tipped over, drowning 844 people, about a third of those on board.

Benny Lehrman was out delivering caps from his father’s factory when he came upon the disaster. Guilty over the loss of his youngest brother during a snowstorm, Benny jumped in to try to save others. And here his path crossed the Chimbrova family. Three of the Chimbrova brothers died, their young sisters scarred by what they witnessed and their mother destroyed by the loss.

Chicago was an industrial, cultural and social hub in 1915. It was the center of the railroads, a city of factories with immigrants jostling for jobs and housing, each group protecting its people and territory. At the same time Chicago was drawing African-American musicians from the south as part of the Great Migration. Jazz and the blues had taken root in New Orleans and Biloxi and its stars were taking the train north in search of money, fame and a safer life.

After the end of WWI, the South Side of Chicago became a honky-tonk paradise for the growing African-American community with live musicians and dancing, drinking and brothels.  The North side had a similar mix for the white community. Both were under the watchful eye and protection, at a price, of the growing gangster presence which included Al Capone.

Up from the South is Napoleon, a man as physically impressive as he is talented with the trumpet. His music is his life, fine clothes his obsession, and he pushes the envelope in pursuit of both. Despite the risks, he searches out opportunities to play across town and musicians worthy of partnership.

As the oldest child, Benny’s family rests its hopes on him. By making deliveries, rather than working in the factory he has some leeway  and can follow his beloved White Sox, mired in scandal. Convinced he has musical talent, his family sends him for him weekly classical piano lessons. Though he does play Beethoven for his mother,  Benny is consumed by jazz and dedicates his free time to writing and playing this music, leaving the lessons behind. His pursuit of this passion further alienates him from his family.

It is the Chimbrova sisters and their club, the Jazz Palace, that brings these men together and can tear them apart.

Mary Morris’s The Jazz Palace is a true period piece. She captures the excitement and the grit of Chicago as the jazz age comes in, followed shortly by Prohibition. Her characters reflect the aspirations of working class immigrants and those seeking more freedom from the discrimination of the South. The pull of Lake Michigan and the brutality of the Chicago winters play a role in the novel. All these together paint a portrait of the City of Broad Shoulders during this transformative period.