Beautiful Pair of Memoirs by Lucette Lagnado, WSJ Feature Writer

The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World, and The Arrogant Years: One Girl’s Search for Her Lost Youth from Cairo to Brooklyn, by Lucette Lagnado, (Ecco, 2008 and 2011.) - Review

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I stumbled across these in a used bookstore.  Lucette Lagnado is familiar as a feature writer for the Wall Street Journal – usually interesting and often obscure articles, covering New York or Middle Eastern topics.  What a powerful treasure of information and family homage is captured within these books.  Sharkskin Suit is the Lagnado family’s life in Cairo, traditional and as secure as any Jews ever feel.  Her father Leon is the focus, his mysterious life as a trader, a bon-vivant, and a dispassionate husband and loving, yet absent, father.  His marriage was between a patriarchal, Sephardi Jew, Leon, and a beautiful, submissive, Syrian Jewish wife, Edith—and between Edith’s mother, abandoned by her husband and family, and Leon’s mother, the autocrat who ruled the house.  For a Gentile, the combination of regionally close, yet traditionally different, Jewish spouses (Syrian and Sephardic) was interesting.  Prayers are different, relationships are different, roles are different.  Naturally, Edith’s were purged. 

After Egypt took control of the Suez Canal, Jews began to leave—taking the opportunity to migrate somewhat thoughtfully.  By the time the Lagnados left Cairo, with 26 suitcases and $200, there were no choices.  They fled to Paris to a pauper’s life assisted by Jewish Relief.  Eventually, they made their way to the U.S., but Leon, crushed by the loss of his life in Cairo, never adapted.  He kept his merchant ways, selling ties out of a cardboard box, and scrupulously repaying the $2,000 loaned to him by Jewish Relief for fare from LeHarve to New York. 

The Arrogant Years is not so much about Lucette as about Edith, who blossomed in New York.  A skilled teacher of French before her marriage, she found work and a new life within the city library system accessioning books.  Stories of the siblings, a rebellious older sister and two older brothers, are told, but not in depth.  Lucette excelled in high school, struggled at Vassar, regrouped, graduated and began work as a reporter.  Throughout both books, her mysterious illness, finally diagnosed as Hodgkin’s disease, interstices her life with pain and despair.  The Arrogant Years, as with most memoirs, does not plow new ground of the immigrant, destitute Jews who thrive in the U.S., but is beautifully written with love and thanksgiving.

Both books are elegantly illustrated with photographs that bring the family to life.  Highly recommended for history lovers and those who appreciate well written memoirs.

“The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck, adapted by Frank Galati, produced by The Rogue Theater - Review

Converting a novel into a movie or play requires radical simplification while remaining true to the plot and characters.  With a movie, you have fully fleshed film locations that speak thousands of words.  In the theater, you have several sets that must evoke location.  In the case of The Rogue, you have one set and clever wooden boxes that rearrange themselves into the truck, dining tables, stools, and stands.  Thus, 169,481 words make their way into two hours and forty-five on stage.

Part of the Joad Family:  Bryn Booth as Rose of Sharon, David Greenwood as Pa Joad, Gabriel Morales as Winfield, Cynthia Meier as Ma Joad, Florie Rush as Ruthie.  Photo AZ Daily Star.

Part of the Joad Family:  Bryn Booth as Rose of Sharon, David Greenwood as Pa Joad, Gabriel Morales as Winfield, Cynthia Meier as Ma Joad, Florie Rush as Ruthie.  Photo AZ Daily Star.

Frank Galati, a member of Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, adapted The Grapes of Wrath in ’88.  It was produced in Chicago, then traveled to Broadway where it won the Tony for Best Play in ’90.  It did not run even a year—this is not the fodder for the matinee crowd.  I was fortunate to see the Steppenwolf Chicago production.  Though memories of the production are dim, The Rogue production seemed more emotional, real, and benefitted from the small stage.  

Galati included music in his adaptation.  The Rogue’s program says, “Music Direction and Original Composition by Jake Sorgen”.  So, I’m inferring that what we heard was all original to this production, though some pieces were old folk favorites.  Here, the music and the players melded into the production, playing non-speaking parts where a “crowd” was needed.  Vicki Brown, violin, and Jake Sorgen, guitar, made wonderful music together and formed much of the frame surrounding and supporting the plot.

The Okie story is told in vignettes:  at the Oklahoma sharecrop farm, leaving the farm, on the road and camping, at the campground by the picking fields, on the road – again.  It’s the eternal story of the disenfranchised poor—contrasted with the off-stage middle class, living some form of the American dream even in the Depression.  They are the farm owner who evicts the Joads, the law enforcement men who harass and arrest migrants, the growers who pit needy against needy to keep wages low, the nascent unions that promise help, but can’t or won’t come through for the pickers.  To leave Oklahoma was to leave hell.  To make a new life in California was a living hell.  In the audience, you felt shame and pain for this black part of American history.  You also felt the love among the Joads and how they were clannishly bonded until California broke their spirits.

Cole Potwardowski, left, Matt Bowdren, David Greenwood and Aaron Shand.  Photo: AZ Daily Star.

Cole Potwardowski, left, Matt Bowdren, David Greenwood and Aaron Shand.  Photo: AZ Daily Star.

The Rogue Ensemble were excellent in their roles.  David Greenwood, as Pa Joad, at last had a leading role where his vocal “twang” authenticated the character.  His phlegmatic style befits the family leader.  Matt Bowdren, as Tom Joad, and Cynthia Meier, as Ma Joad, shared the unspoken love of mother and oldest child, no matter how unpredictable the child.  

There are 39 characters in The Grapes of Wrath—20 actors are listed in the program guide.  Director, Joe McGrath, did a masterful job of seamlessly blending the characters, choreographing the almost constant movement and delivering the meaning of the play clearly. Travel was signified by “constructing the truck”, situated on the small round circle stage right, propelled around by cast members using long sticks fitted into holes.  It all worked for the audience.  Lighting Designer, Don Fox, made effective use of back-lighting upstage to create silhouettes that added kuroko-like extra players to crowd scenes. 

The Rogue Theatre again took a difficult play, challenged by the need for a large cast, and made it look effortless.  Kudos for a great production.

“How to be both: A Novel” by Ali Smith (Pantheon Books, 2014) Review

A “tour de force” of inventive writing.  But for me, a struggle to both figure out and keep up with the double plots and the cross references bridging 500 years.  

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How to be both is two unique stories:  a teenager, George/Georgia (actual name Georgia, “both” because she has her first stirrings of same-sex attraction), who has tragically lost her mother and seems abandoned by her father who mourns in drink and brother too young to really understand, and a young woman in 15th century Ferrara, Italy, Francescho del Cossa, who is a masterful painter, posing as man to gain commissions.

The book’s “tie” is a fresco, seen by the mother in a magazine that prompts her to take both children out of school and drive to Ferrara – these frescos are not fictional.  Per Wikipedia, 

Palazzo Schifanoia is a Renaissance palace in Ferrara, Emilia-Romagna (Italy) built for the Este family. The name "Schifanoia" is thought to originate from "schivar la noia" meaning literally to "escape from boredom" which describes accurately the original intention of the palazzo and the other villas in close proximity where the Este court relaxed. The highlights of its decorations are the allegorical frescoes with details in tempera by or after Francesco del Cossa and Cosmè Tura, executed ca 1469–70, a unique survival of their time.

When I researched the palace after reading the book, I immediately recognized the work of Francesco del Cossa, though I have not visited Ferrara.  Having these in mind would enrich the reading.  

To soothe her loss, George/ia ditches school and spends her days at the National Museum in London in a room with a painting by del Cossa, as she imagines her mother did.  George’s time there becomes a study on the insensitive way most museum visitors dash past roomfuls of art, rushing to “complete the tour”.  I warmed to this activity and empathized with George’s precise method of examining all sections of a painting, thinking of each as a solo work.  del Cossa is known for his malicious depictions of stingy benefactors in the face of pigs and devils—totally missed if all you study is the face of the central character.   

To further confound readers, Pantheon issue two version of the book:  one with George/ia’s story first, the other with Francescho’s story first.  Mine began with George/ia, and that was difficult enough because you are thrust into the first scenes with no context.  However, Francescho’s would have been even more difficult as the first section.  

Smith’s writing pushes the envelope on guidance for the reader.  There is no dialogue punctuation – a blessing in a way because the flow is livelier.  There are sections of blank verse with no punctuation at all.  And there is this force that pulls the reader along because you hope that the next page will provide more comfort.

I came to this book after reading several NYT best sellers and recommended books for 2017. To me, they seemed pedestrian, too easy a read.  Ali Smith has two current bestsellers:  Autumn and Winter.  At the recommendation of Sam Sacks, reviewer for The Wall Street Journal, I began with her 2014 book.  Wish I had known what you know now, because then the read would have been enjoyable and challenging.  As it was, I struggled.  However, I highly recommend this book if you want to put your foot into the genre of a successful Scottish contemporary author.  This book summary on Amazon says it all.
 
Passionate, compassionate, vitally inventive and scrupulously playful, Ali Smith’s novels are like nothing else. Borrowing from painting’s fresco technique to make an original literary double-take, How to be both is a novel all about art’s versatility. It’s a fast-moving genre-bending conversation between forms, times, truths and fictions. There’s a Renaissance artist of the 1460s. There’s the child of a child of the 1960s. Two tales of love and injustice twist into a singular yarn where time gets timeless, structural gets playful, knowing gets mysterious, fictional gets real—and all life’s givens get given a second chance.

Amen.
 

"A Darker Sea: Master Commandant Putnam and the War of 1812" by James L. Haley, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2017

A good historical novel is a rare treasure.  Few authors want to take the research time to craft characters into past, engaging and educating the reader simultaneously—and do it accurately.

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A Darker Sea is the second of Haley’s new series based on U.S. Naval history.  The first book of the series (though by no means the first book written by this honored Texas author) is The Shores of TripoliSee my January 2017 review

Like the first book, A Darker Sea is easy to read, with an engaging story, and an excellent description of why we fought the War of 1812, often considered the second U.S. war for independence.  The plot is not laden with nautical detail.  There is family lore, romance, bromance, action, and intrigue.  Highly recommended for U.S. history lovers.

What to look for next year?  In Haley’s own words, here are the eight scenarios he proposed for the series.  “I sent off an outline for eight interlocking novels that followed the adventures of a juvenile midshipman in the Barbary War, through the War of 1812, perhaps chasing pirates in the Caribbean in 1818, with the missionaries in Hawaii in the 1820s, in the Texas Revolution in 1836, and so on to the Civil War, when he would be a white-haired old commodore.”

“The Sound of Gravel: A Memoir” by Ruth Wariner (Flatiron Books, 2015)

I’m not alone in the perverse fascination with Mormon polygamy.  Two cable shows, “Sister Wives” and “Big Love” (neither of which I have seen.) averaged 1.75 million viewers per show. Warren Jeffs and his band of polygamists in Colorado City, AZ and Texas repeatedly make news with sensational trials for raping underage girls (marriage in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of the Later Day Saints - FLDS) and welfare fraud because the mothers claim state support and food stamps for each child.  

So, I grabbed The Sound of Gravel when browsing the shelves of the Chicago Public Library--it was an unexpected find.  The story of Ruth Wariner is different from the FLDS.  Her family lives in LeBaron, Mexico, home to a polygamist LDS sect founded by her grandfather in 1944.

The following is from Wikipedia on the section “Mormons and Polygamy”.
 
“In 1862, the United States Congress passed the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act, which prohibited plural marriage in the territories. In spite of the law, Mormons continued to practice polygamy, believing that it was protected by the First Amendment. In 1879, in Reynolds v. United States, the Supreme Court of the United States upheld the Morrill Act, stating: "Laws are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious belief and opinion, they may with practices.

In 1890, church president Wilford Woodruff issued a Manifesto that officially terminated the practice of polygamy. Although this Manifesto did not dissolve existing plural marriages, relations with the United States markedly improved after 1890, such that Utah was admitted as a U.S. state in 1896. After the Manifesto, some Mormons continued to enter into polygamous marriages, but these eventually stopped in 1904 when church president Joseph F. Smith disavowed polygamy before Congress and issued a "Second Manifesto", calling for all plural marriages in the church to cease and established excommunication as the consequence for those who disobeyed.”

Many polygamist Mormons settled in Mexico, where they were tolerated.  Thus began the back and forth cycle for the members.  They always obtained U.S. citizenship, and when welfare was established, assured that they returned each month to collect their checks.  Each “wife” declared that she did not know the father, so there was no chasing for child support, etc.  

Ruth Wariner’s story begins in Mexico, her mother is the third wife of an entitled failure, father of 47 children, who feels little responsibility for providing for either wives or offspring.  These are cult members, indoctrinated in the original Book of Mormon which endorses polygamy and practically deifies polygamist men.  There is unhappiness within her community, but little thought of revolt.

As the mother and children shuffle back and forth between grandparents in California, who have returned to the official LDS religion, and LeBaron.  The children begin to understand that their settlement life style offers stark poverty and no opportunity.  Their religion, instead of providing consolation, threatens the women and empowers the men.  Since The Sound of Gravel is a memoir, we know from the outset that Ruth and her siblings survive, but not before catastrophe decimates the fragile family. This is a quick and engrossing read.

If you are interested in another graphic memoir of a totally dysfunctional Mormon family, please read Melissa Anderson’s Eleven Regrets (Little Bear Publications, 2015).  Beautifully written, it is perhaps the most disturbing memoir ever.  

Recommended
 

“New York”, by Edward Rutherfurd, Ballentine Books Trade Paperbacks, 2010

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Better than most “epic sagas”, New York begins in the 15th Century with the Dutch and the Indians and ends with the fall of the World Trade Center.  The story traces various families representing old money, new money, illegal money, etc.  The focus is on New York as the financial center of the world, not just the U.S.  

The stories around the various financial crises provided insights on the role of J.P. Morgan, Teddy Roosevelt and others who knew that several New York financial institutions were “too big to fail” long before our debacle beginning in 2008.  They appear to have been right.  

There are adequate maps to use as Rutherfurd pulls the story from Downtown to Uptown following Manhattan’s development.  The growth of the boroughs is included, but the focus is Manhattan.  

The Masters family are the main characters—old money going back to the Dutch, who evolve into new money as they change with the times.  Nice characters, well drawn.  

Recommended for those who can deal with a book of 860 pages!

"Fifteen Dogs:  An Apologue" by André Alexis (Coach House Books, 2015)

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How often do you open a book, read a few pages and become captured by the story, the writing, the imagination of the author? Alexis’s Fifteen Dogs had me from the first sentence, “One evening in Toronto, the gods Apollo and Hermes were at the Wheat Sheaf Tavern”.  You know immediately there is going to be a punch line to this story.

And what a story it is.  I’m not going to spoil your reading pleasure (and you must read this book) by revealing the plot.  Only that dogs do die, so those who cannot abide animal reality should not indulge in this wonderful story.

André Alexis is Canadian and has just been awarded Canada’s Windham-Campbell Prize for his body of work.  So why don’t we know more about him?  Ah, Canadian?  Not so exciting; perhaps a bit intellectual; published by a small Canadian house and therefore lacking the publicity machine?

Alexis refers to Fifteen Dogs as part of a Quincuix (a series of five interlocking novels that investigate the idea of faith, of community, of morality, of humanity).  Fifteen Dogs is Quincuix II, an apologue or moral fable often using animals as characters.  Each part of the Quincuix is written in a different genre: a pastoral, an apologue, a ghost story, a quest, and a romance. Pastoral is Quincuix I and The Hidden Keys is Quincuix III.  

Don’t miss is wonderful, quirky, amusing, sad book.  I plan to dive into I and III immediately.  
 

"Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World" by Jack Weatherford, (Three Rivers Press, 2004)

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And we think that Game of Thrones is complex.  In one century, from 1206, when Genghis Khan was born, through 1294, when Khubilai Khan died, the Mongols spread from a small group of nomads on the steppes of what is now Mongolia to control all of Russia, northern India, Persia, Iraq and China.  

Inventive warfare, featuring swift warriors shooting arrows from galloping horses, overwhelmed rigid peasant armies and fully armed, mounted knights.  Mongols attacked front on, while stealth battalions came from the rear, crushing the enemy between the two.  The Mongols did not always exterminate the conquered.  They demanded loyalty and taxes.  If there was no pledge of loyalty, you were exterminated.  Where inhumane systems governed, they supplanted it with religious tolerance, rights for women, and learning.  Originally the Mongols were illiterate nomads.  When exposed to systems of writing, accounting, teaching, they brought these skills to their people and to other, less developed, cultures.  While Europe was in the Dark Ages, the Mongol Empire and culture flourished

As nomads, their focus was always on trade routes.  Mongols opened all the groups they conquered to international trading, developing the Silk Road and the system of caravanserais, motels of the ancient world build one camel-day journey apart.  At the caravanserais, all were welcome, baths were available, food was available, merchants could store goods to reclaim as they returned.  What they paid was tax in return for the services.  

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World is not an easy read because there are so many important characters spread over such vast territory.  Jack Weatherford is an academic who spent years on the ground researching this book.  He presents the material in a logical and thorough manner.   This is a worthy read for armchair travelers and historians—eye opening to say the least.  
 

"Machinal" by Sophie Treadwell, produced by Greenhouse Theater Center, directed by Jacob Harvey

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Based on the lurid story of Ruth Snyder, a New Yorker who, with her lover, murdered her husband and was electrocuted at Sing Sing Prison in 1928, Machinal is an “expressionist” play.  That description was used in 1929 when Treadwell’s (an investigative reporter and feminist) play opened on Broadway.  It is characterized by extreme simplification of characters to mythic types, declamatory dialogue and heightened intensity.

Considered a hit on Broadway, Machinal (derived from the French word for mechanical) ran 91 shows.  It was the first big role for Clark Gable, who played the feckless lover.  The show has been revived many times, and is popular with colleges and universities--perhaps because starkness makes for a low-budget production. It’s hard to be involved with a stage full of performers who move woodenly, rarely smile, and, since you know the punch line, hard to become involved in plot development. The movement direction by Elizabeth Margolius was well done and added dimension to flat (purposely) production.  The evening we attended, the understudy, Abigail Schwarz, a student at North Central College, played the Ruth.  She was outstanding.  North Central College collaborated with Greenhouse on the production.

We can assume that when the play was first produced, it alluded to homosexuality in the cabaret scene.  In this production, two homosexual couples, one male, one female, sit woodenly in wooden chairs, mumbling inane lines to each other, holding hands, on the periphery of the set.  Was this added just to appeal to a “special” theater crowd?  To show modern sensibilities that were not likelycast in an early 20th century play? IMHO, the special crowd might be offended because the characters seem so clumsily grafted into the play.

Expressionist theater makes for a rigid and rather boring evening.  If you are a student of theater, see it to learn about the genre.  Otherwise, skip it.  

“A Very Expensive Poison: The Assassination of Alexander Litvinenko and Putin’s War with the West” by Luke Harding (Vintage Books Original, 2017)

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We visited Highgate Cemetery in London last year.  Aside from noting how cleaned up the grounds were, we were attracted to the grave of Alexander Litvinenko, marked with candles and a sign posted by his wife requesting that we not take photos.   So, when this book released, I jumped at the chance to read what I knew would be a disheartening story of espionage gone wrong.

Luke Harding is award-winning foreign correspondent with the Guardian, who has reported from Delhi, Berlin and Moscow and covered wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya.  He is the author of Mafia State: How One Reporter Became an Enemy of the Brutal New Russia, and this book on Litvinenko. 

Litvinenko was well known in the U.K. as are many of the other Russian emigres who have fled either to escape political murder and mayhem and/or to protect their billions.  They are reported on daily in the press.  In the U.S., coverage is less frequent, unless, like Litvinenko, you are poisoned with polonium that contaminated every surface the bumbling assassins encountered on their death mission through London

Litvinenko’s story is of a middle-class Russian military espionage officer who appears to responsibly serve the state.  When he completes his military career, he uses former contacts throughout the world to serve commercial interests.  In that arena, it is easy to run afoul of criminals in the “New Russia”.  He did; he tried to escape to London; Putin put a hit out on him.  Litvinenko was finally murdered in the second attempt.  Bumbling murder assignments seems to be common among the Russian henchmen.  They use poison because it is often undetected.  The heart of Harding’s book is that after many years, the murderers were tried and convicted in U.K. law courts.  By implication, Putin was convicted. 

Harding is no friend of Putin and the “New Russia”.  He tells it as he sees it—Russia is country run by criminals with accountability only to Putin and his cronies.  The mask of statesmanship and amiability is geared to only one thing—restoring Russia to the former USSR borders and putting money into Putin’s pockets.  Things get done when Putin is paid.  Things go away when Putin pays or murder others. 

When I finished reading this book, I found it shading anything about Putin and Russia that was in the news as the work of criminals and liars acting in their own overt and covert self-interest.  I’m not uncomfortable with the opinion.  Looking at any Trump or U.S. contact with the Russians in this light make me realize they are as evil as North Korea, a lot smarter and therefore magnitudes more dangerous.   Communism failed Russia.  What filled the void is an evil criminal state without a moral center, not unlike Russia under Stalin.

"Perfume River" by Robert Olen Butler, (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2016)

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Robert Olen Butler is a prolific writer – and each time I read a book of his, I’m encouraged to dive into his bibliography and read others.  Perfume River is his latest book.  I chanced upon it in the Portland, MA library, but that’s another story.

Butler’s most famous book, A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993, is short stories, many of them about the Vietnam war, from the POV of the Vietnamese, both in Vietnam and in the U.S.  In Perfume River, he returns to the war again, this time from the POV of American families in the U.S. 

We are long post-war.  Robert Quinlan, the main character, is 70, a veteran; his father William a veteran of WWII.  Robert and his wife, Darla have a long and happy marriage, even though she was a demonstrating pacifist in the 60’s.  Robert is still dealing with his father’s attachment to war and killing.  This has affected Robert and his brother Jimmy since childhood.  They took different paths regarding the war:  Jimmy fled to Canada and Robert enlisted so he would not be in the infantry, as his father was.  This rift in the family has never been healed.  William’s illness and unexpected death force the family to deal with secrets that will change their lives.  

Twined throughout the Quinlan saga is the story of Bob, the son of a Vietnam veteran.  Bob is now homeless and suffering from his own PTSD.  Through him, Butler examines the war’s impact on next generations, a fascinating exploration.

This is a beautifully written book—the tale of brothers who chose different paths, their families and their ability to face life’s unpleasant revelations and move forward.  It is also a story of marriage, how it changes with age yet remains a defining source of loyalty.

Highly recommended