Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Some Kernels of Truth in Historical Fiction

Title: Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker: A Novel
Author:  Jennifer Chiaverini
Publisher: Dutton Adult
ISBN: 0525953612
Pages: 352

Abraham Lincoln tends to get all the attention.  He is an iconic leader of America during one of the most difficult eras our nation faced and is admired by many including Barack Obama who has said, "Lincoln is a president I turn to often. From time to time, I’ll walk over to the Lincoln Bedroom and reread the handwritten Gettysburg Address encased in glass, or reflect on the Emancipation Proclamation, which hangs in the Oval Office, or pull a volume of his writings from the library in search of lessons to draw."

However, like many other First Ladies, Lincoln's wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, garnered her own attention during his presidency, and frequently in negative terms.  Mirroring modern times, Mary Todd was criticized for remodeling the White House, extravagant shopping trips, and her choice of attire (foreshadowing the criticisms of  Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush).  Yet, there was another actor in this drama that has had little attention of the the years - Mrs. Lincoln's modiste or dressmaker,  Elizabeth Keckley.  Drawing on historical documents (Elizabeth's own memoir and Mary Todd's letters), Chiaverini attempts to re-create the domestic scene of the White House during Lincoln's presidency and the aftermath of his death.

Elizabeth Keckley was born into slavery, but purchased freedom for herself and her son.  Moving to Washington DC to set up a business as a free, black woman was not easy, but her talent earned her praise from the DC elite and she eventually sewed for many Congressman and Senators' wives.  This led her to an introduction to Mrs. Lincoln and a long-term commitment to the First Lady.  Being available to Mrs. Lincoln as both dressmaker and dresser, Elizabeth was in the White House for daily events and important functions.  Therefore Elizabeth became confidante and adviser to Mrs. Lincoln, and it is theorized, to President Lincoln himself. Outside of the White House, Elizabeth was active civically and concerned for the newly emancipated slaves with limited resources. Therefore she founded the Contraband Relief Association and spent much of her time volunteering and fund raising for the organization.   After Lincoln's assassination, Elizabeth followed Mrs. Lincoln to Chicago for awhile, and attempted to help Mrs. Lincoln through financial difficulties.  However,  when Elizabeth published her memoir, hoping to defend Mrs. Lincoln from very negative publicity, their relationship was broken.  Elizabeth herself endured criticism for "betraying" the confidence of a house worker and lost many clients. She become poor and moved frequently until she was offered a position at Wilberforce University as head of the Department of Sewing and Domestic Science Arts where she taught, according to the novel, until she had a stroke and returned to Washington DC to live out her life at National Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children, a benefactor of her own work through the Contraband Relief Association.

The Smithsonian wrote an article based on the play mounted about Elizabeth Keckley in spring 2013 entitled Mary T. and Lizzy K. which highlights a few dresses thought to be created by Elizabeth.

Although I have learned about the Civil War, this book sheds new light on aspects of the era that I had never thought about. Chiaverini highlights the daily life of living in a city caught between the North and the South, not only politically, but socially and physically.   DC was frequently under siege or the staging point for wounded soldiers throughout the war. Keckley herself is portrayed as nearly emotionless but heroically hardworking and determined.  As for the other main characters, Mrs. Lincoln is dramatic and moody whereas President Lincoln is thoughtful, stoic yet tormented by his daily decisions to send people into harm's way. 

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Surviver - before the TV series

Title: Freedom's Landing
Author: Anne McCaffrey
 Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
ISBN-13: 9780441003389
Pages: 336
Could you or I survive when all the comforts of modern life are taken away?  Long before the reality TV shows tackled this question, Anne McCaffrey thought about it and the result is the Catteni series of books, with Freedom's Landing being the first in the set.

Humans from Earth, along with many other species, are kidnapped and enslaved by the Catteni race on a distant planet.  Kris, a woman from Denver, finds the opportunity to steal a speeder and escape to the jungle.  One day, she sees a dog fight overhead and rescues the Catteni being pursued.  Unfortunately, Kris is re-captured and dumped on a completely different planet with hundreds of others, both human and non-human. Angry and confused, the dumped group is rallied by an ex-military sergeant, who organizes supplies and purpose.  Kris again rescues the Catteni, Zainal, by making a case that his knowledge could be valuable.  The motley crew learn the dangers of the planet as they trek toward the hills for shelter and various characters are introduced.

Slowly the caves become home and Kris and Zainal are tasked to lead exploration parties around the planet.  Beyond the various species known, there seems to be a mysterious alien race, dubbed the Farmers,  who had mechanized the planet into a factory farm, leaving behind cattle, fields and robot workers.  The new colonizers take advantage of the discovered technologies and re-create many modern conveniences.   The Catteni continue to drop more colonizers and Zainal, being a high-ranking officer, demands reports and information about the planet, now named Botany. He reveals that the Catteni are only middle management for a race called the Eosi.  As Kris and Zainal develop their relationship, old-fashioned prejudice blooms among some of the disgruntled settlers and threatens the stability of the fragile colony.  As the numbers grow, the settlers continue to expand their living quarters by re-purposing the Farmer's barns.  Hoping to attract the notice of the Farmers, Kris and Zainal led a group to the central command post when a nefarious man, Aarens, sets off a homing beacon. Recalled back to the caves, the homing beacon is noticed by someone - which will be continued in the next book.

Kris, the main character, is determined, direct and self-reliant - a protagonist I tend to admire.  She quickly makes friends and is admired by or lusted after by most she meets.  There are few obstacles she can't overcome or skills she doesn't have, including martial arts and survival training.  However, things go too smoothly to be realistic.  As an escapist read, I enjoyed this book.  It was diverting and easy to read on my phone. Most of the plot points were broadcasted early in the story - no shock that Kris and Zainal got together and that some people don't like it.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

BFFs Forever . . . Unless we get into a fight

Title: The Recipe Club
Author: Andrea Israel & Nancy Garfinkel
Publisher: Harper Collins
ISBN: 978-0-06-199229-2
Pages: 342

As I have mentioned before, I have started collecting and reading food related books.  I started with the China Bayles  mystery series by Susan Wittig Albert which focused on herbs.  Then I discovered a slew of mystery books with main characters who are involved in food-related businesses or hobbies.   The Recipe Club isn't technically a mystery, but the first 50 pages sets up a mysterious secret that drove the two main characters, Lilly and Val, apart for decades.  The story is told in series of emails (modern times) and letters (1960-1970s) as the two girls grow up as best friends who evolve in different directions and are eventually driven apart.

Like the cliche, opposites attract, Val and Lilly couldn't be more different. Lilly is an extrovert and risk-taker, Val is book-smart and reflective.  But both are drawn together because of their difficult family lives.  Lilly's mother is an Broadway actress and her father a psychiatrist.  Val's mother is s recluse (being treated by Lilly's father) and her father is an unsuccessful inventor.  Both feel neglected and misunderstood by their parents.  However, Lilly's father gains some fame from writing up his treatment of Val's mother, and he takes Val under his advisement and grooms her to go to medical school.

Through the course  of ten years, Val and Lilly write each other letters and include recipes to express their current dilemmas.  For example, Cupid's Chocolate Cake for a romantic dinner early in a relationship or Warm Amaretto Milk for homesickness.  Each recipe is tied to the topic in the letter and titled appropriately. According to the end-notes to the book, the recipes were either developed by a chef for the book or drawn from the authors' childhood favorites.  As I was reading, I took notes on several recipes I'd like to attempt.  At the end of the story, many of the Recipe Club's recipes are incorporated into a very special menu.

I enjoyed the unusual format of reading a narrative through letters.  I know there are a few other books out there like this, but I haven't read one in a while.  The authors clearly embodied their characters' voices as they grew up and showed that, although the language and topics may have gotten more complicated over time, the essence of Val and Lilly stayed the same.  A coming of age story for both girls is set in the turbulent times of the sixties and seventies, which exasperates the search for identity and independence.  Yet, as each girl grows older, they grow further apart until innocent actions turn into betrayal.   But, as another cliche states, time heals all wounds, and the grown women learn many secrets of their childhood and re-connect and re-make their friendship.

Many ideas and issues resonant with me as I read.  I think we have all experienced the distancing of a special relationship and wonder what went wrong.  Good intentions are mis-interpreted.  Personalities grow in different directions. At the same time, the book reminisces about wanting to be older, the first kiss, the first crush, and the first break up.  The bitter and the sweet together.

There is an out of date website for the book that includes a quiz (Who are you?), more recipes, and suggestions on how to form your own recipe club.  Since the book was published years ago, there hasn't been any recent activity on the site.