A Wild Swan: And Other Tales

A Wild Swan: And Other TalesA Wild Swan by Michael Cunningham
Published by Farrar Straus & Giroux Publication date: November 10, 2015
Genres: Short Stories


When I think of Michael Cunningham many things about his writing come to mind: poetic, compelling… so many adjectives, and yet funny is not among them. Not that he is dark or his writing is without joy, but until I read his newest book, a series of short stories called A Wild Swan, he’d never made me laugh out loud. Now he puts a modern spin on eleven fairy tales and does so in a way that is ferociously funny and in the case of some, tender.

The tales come from various sources such as the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. Snow White is living happily ever after with the prince who brought her back to life with a kiss only now he kind of likes and needs to replay the moment of her asleep in the glass coffin as foreplay. She, on the other hand, is kind of tired of it but acquiesces to make him happy. The steadfast tin soldier still has only one leg but he lost the other in a car accident and is now a handsome college kid trying to get the girl he’s had a crush on into bed. Somehow, they fall in love, get married, have kids and even succumb to midlife marital ennui. The grand passion of the fairytale tin soldier and his paper ballerina are softened into the real life love of a long-term marriage. And Rumpelstiltskin? Not a nasty evil gnome taking advantage of a family, but merely a misunderstood little man whose desire for a child gets a bit out of hand.

Cunningham’s ability to complement the original style of each of the stories makes A Wild Swan inventive reading. For those of us who loved fairy tales when we were small (Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books remained a favorite of mine long after childhood) there will be the recognition of tales forgotten, tempered with the modern perspective Cunningham imagines. In this way, he makes the stories of A Wild Swan like adulthood— the illusion of their perfect happily-ever-after is whimsical and charming, but the grown-up perspective provides humor, tenderness and sometimes the somberness of real life.


Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II

savage continent

St. Martin’s Press. 2013


Within the first 15 pages of Savage Continent by Keith Lowe I learned that by the end of World War II:

  • The Germans had destroyed 93% of Warsaw’s buildings
  • 18-20 million Germans were rendered homeless due to the destruction of their cities
  • 70,000 villages in the USSR were obliterated either by the Germans or by their own troops to avoid providing any supplies or refuge to the enemy
  • In total 35-40 million people perished (the equivalent of the entire population of pre-war France and Poland)
  • 27 million of the dead were in the USSR alone

It’s enough to numb the mind but it is just a jumping off point for the exhaustive research Lowe uses to quantify what happened to the continent of Europe as a whole in the aftermath of the war. What was left of its people, infrastructure, buildings, transportation, environment, and most importantly, its soul. Savage Continent is not a dry academic recitation of statistics, but neither does Lowe shirk from the sheer mass of the destruction. Instead, he uses it to delve into the greater questions: What happens when the persecuted are freed? How can any one country recover when all resources are overburdened and the most basic needs for survival are lost? When the overwhelming motivation for solidarity is gone and old beliefs/religions/politics reassert themselves?

Savage Continent is not easy or enjoyable reading at times. For most of us, the end of the war is viewed from a simplistically visual perspective—the sailor kissing the nurse, the parades, and the joyous relief on faces. For those alive at the time, there was all that, but that was followed the reality of the “landscape of terror” that existed in Germany and much of Europe. By the end of the war Germany was home to 6.8 million displaced persons: forced laborers, prisoners-of-war, internment and concentration camp prisoners. The focus of the book is not on the Holocaust, but neither does Lowe avoid it. It is simply kept in the context of the greater whole—the complete and utter destructiveness of a war that lasted six years and covered the landscape of Europe and much of Russia. It is not the most joyful reading for the holidays, but for a country that has never had a war fought on our soil, never had no homes to return to or entire generations of families lost, it offers a chilling and factual perspective on what intolerance and willful ignorance can bring. And for that, I’m thankful for the reminder.



Rebel Queen: A Novel

rebel queen

Touchstone, March 2015


As a fan of historical fiction I often find myself reading about women as either accessories or behind-the-scenes figures so it was a welcome delight to read Michelle Moran’s Rebel Queen, about Lakshmi, the Rani (or queen) of one of the states in India in the late 19th century. The novel is told from the perspective of a young woman named Sita who lives with her family in a small village outside the capital of Jhansi. When her mother dies her grandmother tries to sell her as a prostitute even though she is only nine years old. When her father learns of this he decrees that he will train Sita to be a bodyguard, part of what was known as the Durga Dal—a female contingent of ten educated warriors that protects the Rani. Through her father’s dedication and his insistence that she learn English, Sita earns a position when she is sixteen and moves to the capital of Jhansi. There she experiences a world so different from her own it may as well be another planet. When the Raj dies and the British move to take over the kingdom what has been a time of luxury and prestige turns into one of political intrigue and battle.

Sita’s story is fiction, but the Rani was a very real woman who led a rebellion after her husband died. Moran writes of life in the palace and of India with such color and force that it is riveting reading. Rebel Queen conveys the duality of the times in that for many women life was spent in purdah (complete isolation from the outside world), married off before thirteen, and dying young on their husband’s funeral pyre. Against these customs, life for Sita is another world; a world where a woman rules despite her husband being the Raj and the women around her move freely, appreciated for their intellect and athleticism. All this occurs in the background as the Rani Lakshmi maneuvers to keep her state out of the hands of the ever encroaching British. Moran combines these conflicts of gender, race, caste, and colonialism so skillfully that Rebel Queen is as explosive as the chapter in history it represents.



The Bookshop

the bookshop

Mariner Books, 1997


November is a quiet month for new book releases so I try and use the time to read books I missed earlier in the year or just things that catch my eye. And by that I mean, anything in this mini-bookcase, which is now comprised of books coming out in 2016 and all the things that came out this year that I didn’t read (yet). I know, it’s a little crazy, but it is organized (sort of).

And yes, that is a Jane Austen action figure watching over my books for me.

And yes, that is a Jane Austen action figure watching over my books for me.


Anyway, it’s already known that I have a weakness for books about books. If it has bookshop, book or library in the title than I’m probably going to want to read it—even though that hasn’t always worked out. I’m happy to report that in the case of The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald it did.

Florence Green lives in a small town on the English coast. After her husband dies she decides to use her inheritance to open a bookshop because their town is without either a book store or a library. It’s the early 1960s and she’s hopeful the time is right to bring books to her village, but she is surprised when she meets with resistance from one of the town’s wealthy women. For reasons she cannot fathom Mrs. Gamart doesn’t like her and doesn’t like any of her decisions and seems determined to shut her down.

The Bookshop is a tiny book, weighing in at 123 pages and not likely to take more than an afternoon to read and yet, it does exactly what it needs to do in that time and space. It is a quintessentially British novel peopled with places and a cast that is reminiscent of Dickens, Trollope, and Wilde: an overbearing matron, a haunted shop, a waifish child from an overpopulated family, hard economic times, a largely useless barrister, and a reclusive aristocrat. At its center is Florence, plucky and of good cheer. She hires Christine, a ten-year-old wisp of a girl with the will of a major who soon marshals the store and its patrons into order.

In the wrong hands The Bookshop could be the worst of treacly slop, but Fitzgerald feels no compunction to sugarcoat reality. Instead, with the dry humor that is the best of the Brits she tells a story that is endearing in its fiction but sad in its truth. The kind that, when it ends, leaves a wistful desire for more.

Alice in Bed: A Novel

alice in bed

Counterpoint, October 2015


The Alice in Alice in Bed by Judith Hooper is Alice James, the younger sister of Henry and William James—the author and notable psychologist, respectively. We meet her in late 1889 in a small town in England; she is forty-one and an invalid, unable to leave her bed and able to communicate largely through the copious letters she and her brothers send amongst themselves with a rapidity that feels almost like today’s texting. Hooper explores Alice’s life from a childhood spent in Paris and London before her family settled in Boston and on to her days in England. Although fiction, Hooper uses some of the siblings’ actual correspondence, combining it with a rich imagining of Alice’s inner life that renders her as a complex and interesting woman.

At less than 100 pages into Alice in Bed I wondered, if Alice James was going to spend her life beset by vague vapors how was I going to slog through almost 400 pages of reading about it. Sadly, aside from a brief period in her twenties when Alice did become quite active in a ladies educational society, most of her physical life was spent dealing with numerous physical ailments, but the novel is anything but dull, just like the woman herself. The James family was an unusual one and their dinner table, as reconstructed by Hooper, reads like theatre; witty, sharp theatre with Harvard academics mingling with guests from all walks of life. This was not a family where ideas or conversation were discouraged and topics ranged from mundane gossip to the most esoteric of spiritual and philosophical concepts. In this realm, as the youngest child and the only girl, Alice was viewed as both a marvel and a precious pet, something to be cosseted, but not taken too seriously. When she was young this allowed her the opportunity to learn when no one thought she was paying attention.

Yes, I was in the habit of reading any letter left lying around. In my defense I cite the lifelong necessity of compensating for being the youngest and most ignorant member of the family, as well as the fact that the others did it, too.

Later, life became more restrictive. As her mind expanded, but her choices shrank, her episodes of ill health increased. She was sent to doctors who used a woman’s very anatomy against her with terms like “hystero-epilepsy” in order to shut down their sexuality and create fear about the fragility of their own bodies. For Alice, this physical instability was compounded by the changing nature of her relationship with her brothers, especially William. From childhood on they were unusually close, so much so that when he decides to get married it marks the most substantial decline in Alice’s health. As both Henry and William begin to achieve success in the world she battles against the knowledge that

Whatever my brothers might do, I was doomed to remain behind.

In spite of her shrinking physical world, as Alice in Bed progresses Alice emerges ever more clearly as a keen and acerbic observer of the world around her. For the modern day reader this will evoke strong and contradictory emotions. On the one hand, there is sadness for an intellect, acknowledged even in her own family, to be one of depth, going to waste, turning in on itself and giving rise to illnesses that can’t be diagnosed or healed. On the other, there is the frustration born of our modern perspective, but which has to be acknowledged as unrealistic for the times. I wanted Alice to chuck it all and strike out on her own and was annoyed that her greatest form of self-expression was illness—illness that left her bedridden for the majority of her life. And yet, such rebellion would not have been remotely possible at the time. Still, for any woman to read of another woman’s journey as

I had to peg away pretty hard between twelve and twenty-four, “killing myself”—absorbing into the bones that the better part is to clothe oneself in neutral tints, walk beside still waters, and possess oneself in silence. 

is heartbreaking and yet Alice does not ask for pity nor does Hooper construct her life in a way that demands it. Alice in Bed is a fascinating, maddening look at a woman who, while she does not correspond to our thoughts of freedom or a life fully lived, does manage to leave her mark on all those around her and through Hooper’s novel, anyone who journeys through that life with her. Somehow, within her own self she believed she had conquered that which she fought all her life. Her most poignant thought about herself is found in this glorious sentence she wrote to William, a year before her death:

Arm yourself against my dawn, which may at any moment cast you and Harry into obscurity.

 With such powerful conviction and no sense of defeat, her brothers pale in comparison to the indomitable Alice.


Dryland: A Novel


Tin House Books, September 2015


Julie Winter is a sophomore in high school and if navigating those waters is not enough, there are the perceptions of her by people at her school. Her brother Jordan was a swimmer of Olympic caliber and so everyone who meets her thinks she must be a potential swimming superstar. When she is asked to join the swim team, she does, but Julie is not Jordan. That Jordan now lives in Berlin and is removed from their family life means he’s not even available to help her. In Dryland by Sara Jaffe we watch as Julie flounders in an effort to find where she does fit and what does matter to her, including understanding the brother that she never really knew.

Swimming is only one component of Dryland. The novel is a coming-of-age story about the confusion of being fifteen, along with the questioning that goes with trying to find a niche or space to call your own. On the surface, Julie is doing everything right—she joins yearbook and then the swim team, has a best friend, and goes to parties, but none of these feel like real actions nor do they bring her any pleasure. In fact, swimming seems almost traumatic. She is unable to complete a series of laps but needs to repeatedly stop at the end of the lane, not for any physical reason but for what reads like a panic attack. She is offered a photography spot at the yearbook, but never pursues the opportunity. Instead, hanging out at the local cigar shop looking at swimming magazines, seems to be the only activity that she pursues consistently, but it’s not clear why. When she meets a young man there who swam in high school with her brother, she finally comes closer to understanding what she could not before.

At this point I should probably mention: I was a competitive swimmer all through high school and still swim weekly. For that reason I was predisposed to love this book. When Julie is swimming, Jaffe’s prose is as smooth and inviting as an empty lane, but sadly (to overwork the metaphor) the rest of the novel feels more like splashing aimlessly around. Julie’s school experiences evoke memories, her grappling with her sexuality, expectations, and life feel real and poignant, but there is no why to the angst about swimming, no motivation for much of her behavior. Has she herself suffered a trauma that both draws her into wanting to swim and repels her? I love a good character study but somehow Dryland fell into a space in-between. There was neither enough plot to propel the novel to a finish nor enough character for the long haul. If the goal of Dryland is to mimic the bewilderment and ambiguity of a teenager then Jaffe succeeds, but as a reader it is not fulfilling. Too much is hinted at but never clarified. The unreliability of a first person narrator coupled with the inherent unreliability of a teenage girl creates the potential for a lot of confusion and that’s where Dryland left me.

The Royal We

the royal we

Grand Central Publishing, April 2015


If you have even the remotest interest in British royalty (and really, how could you not?!), specifically Will and Kate, then The Royal We is going to be mandatory reading—in the way that their wedding was mandatory viewing (who cares that I went without sleep that night- this was Will and Kate). Authors Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan take the royal romance on a fictional tour-de-force when they have American Rebecca Porter meet Nick, a nice guy who lives in her dorm at Oxford. He turns out to be Prince Nicholas, heir to the British throne, and has insomnia and a penchant for bad American television, two traits that they share and that allow them to become friends. In short order they’re dating, but with his profile and family’s expectations not even their closest friends know. No one, but Bex’s twin sister Lacey, who is back in America, is privy to the secret. What could go wrong?

Are there parallels to the real royals’ love story? Yes, of course, but that’s what makes it fun. It’s the twists and turns the authors add that make it delicious. Nick has a wild younger brother Freddie and Lacey is the glam half of the twins, who is not adverse to either the press or coming over from America to party with the aristocracy. In addition, there are the Oxford friends (and frenemies), the Porter family, and, of course, the rest of the disapproving royal family. It’s all a lark and yet, in the midst of the humor The Royal We touches on some of the less than glamorous parts of royal life—namely the scrutiny of the press, the quest for perfection, and the crushing weight of having your entire life mapped out for you. Once Bex is outed, her low-key attitude towards fashion and beauty are deigned unsuitable for anyone dating a prince and what little privacy she had is gone.

The Royal We follows the relationship with all its ups and downs with the only question being—will they make it to the altar? Or will Bex bail on the drama and Nick tow the family line? As fun as the novel is it’s not silly, which is a big distinction. Much like the queen herself, I don’t like silly. Cocks and Morgan strike the perfect balance of humor and intelligence, making this guilt-free, luxury reading. Whether you curl up with a glass of champagne or a cup of tea The Royal We is the perfect indulgence.

Infinite Home

infinite home

Riverhead Books, August 2015


Edith and her husband Declan bought their Brooklyn brownstone 66 years ago and have been living in it and renting out its apartments ever since. Now Declan has been gone for decades and the brownstone is host to the elderly Edith and four tenants. Infinite Home by Kathleen Alcott is the story of this odd collection of souls. There is the artist, Thomas, who suffers a stroke and, with only a partial recovery, loses his will to paint and Edward, a burned-out, angry comedian who, to his own disgust, attained success by selling out. Adeleine is what is now known as a hoarder and an agoraphobe. And nestled amidst these grown-ups is 33-year-old Paulie, a man with the mind of a young boy, who lives on his own with the help of his older sister Claudia. In her wisdom and kindness Edith has welcomed in this group of unusual beings, people who might have difficulty in a regular apartment building, and it isn’t until age starts to catch up with her that their eclectic community is threatened.

Infinite Home is not a novel that hinges on a plot but is instead the kind where the sentences and how they flow make it worth reading. On the surface, these five adults would be known by their labels, if they were known at all. Alcott peels off the labels and looks at the layers beneath the surface, writing with compassion to give each life dignity. Adeleine does not just hoard, she writes a song for each item in her collection because “they deserve it” and Edith struggles to hold herself in the present while her mind slips to the past. Both Ed and Thomas find ways to connect with Paulie. For the reclusive Eddie, he is too much to face head on and so he videotapes their time together:

…Paulie onscreen, his bright and tiny teeth exposed and shining, his body forever batting like a moth to keep up with his wilderness of thoughts…

What takes Infinite Home from charming to deeply touching is how Alcott doesn’t shy away from the unpleasant or frustrating aspects of her characters. We feel their pain, revel in their beauty, but also find them puzzling or off-putting. Paulie is the perfect example because even as he enchants with his childlike exuberance and joy there is an understanding of what his sister Claudia must feel—like trying to control a Saint Bernard puppy. All that energy can easily become embarrassing and destructive. These are damaged characters, but through their stories, their baggage, their pasts, Alcott makes them shine. Using the quiet pace of everyday life her words blur the differences of Adeleine, Thomas, Paulie, Edward and Edith and bring forth their sameness, our sameness. The desire for security, stability and connection—all the things found in a home and community. The only tiny hitch in this beautiful flow is when the plot tries to overtake the writing. It’s not bad but it’s unnecessary. Like the thousands of fireflies Paulie travels to see gathering in a Tennessee meadow the luminescence of Alcott’s prose is more than enough to light Infinite Home.

At the Water’s Edge

at the water's edge

Spiegel & Grau, paperback release November 10, 2015


Water for Elephants author Sara Gruen returns with another novel set in a location that is likely to draw readers in. At the Water’s Edge takes place in a tiny village in the Highlands of Scotland, near the shores of Loch Ness…and you can guess the rest. Madeline Hyde is there with her husband Ellis and his best friend as they try and prove the existence of the Loch Ness monster so Ellis can get back in his wealthy father’s good graces. Gruen has not swapped genres from historical fiction to science fiction, At the Water’s Edge is less about Nessie than it is about Maddie and her preconceived notions about herself and those around her.

A novel that includes the Loch Ness monster needs a light touch to keep the story balanced, but from the beginning Gruen is heavy handed in her portrayal of Maddie, Ellis, and Hank. The men especially are caricatures of spoiled, drunk, foolish rich boys and the initial picture of Maddie is not much better. To complicate matters At the Water’s Edge is set in 1945, which ratchets up the improbability factor. Three wealthy young dilettantes are able to get on a ship in 1945 and sail from the United States to Scotland to find the Loch Ness monster? That’s dicey, but once they’re settled in and matters focus more on Maddie’s backstory and marriage as well as the stories of the village and the war’s impact on them, the novel regains some of its footing. Right up until Maddie begins to realize her husband doesn’t love her and begins to fear that he is going to have her lobotomized. Because in Scotland in the final days of WWII there were plenty of medical staff in remote areas waiting to forcibly lobotomize healthy women whose husbands said they were insane. What?!

Ultimately, At the Water’s Edge has none of the nuance or depth found in Water for Elephants, but Gruen is an engaging writer and the story does move along at a clip that allows the eye and mind to pass over the implausible aspects and linger at the lighter, almost romance style parts. Plus, we are talking about the Loch Ness monster. If approached from an ‘anything goes’ angle At the Water’s Edge works as quick, entertaining reading.

White Collar Girl

white collar girl

NAL, November 3, 2015


Jordan Walsh comes from a family of writers. Her father is a well-known journalist in Chicago, her mother is a poet and up until his death two years ago, her brother Eliot was poised to carry on the family legacy. Now, it is left to the young Jordan to both fulfill her dreams of becoming a reporter and to try and heal the wounds left behind by her brother’s mysterious death. The problem? It’s 1955 and female reporters are almost unheard of. Jordan’s battles to make herself heard in the tough world of 1950s Chicago are the fodder for Renee Rosen’s new novel White Collar Girl, so called because that is the name of the only column allowed to be written by women at the Chicago Tribune where she gets a job.

Rosen’s combined love of Chicago and history is evident in all of her works. Her previous book, What the Lady Wants was fascinating fiction about the life and times of Marshall Fields and socialite Delia Spencer. In White Collar Girl it is the administration of mayor Richard Daley that provides much of the newsroom action—from insurance fraud to payoffs for judges. Jordan is an integral part of each of these stories, but finds that her writing is often credited to male reporters. When she does finally get bylines it causes enough dissension in the newsroom that she is demoted. In an effort to break a story big enough to overcome the prejudice and to get answers to her own questions about her brother’s death she goes back to the story he was working on when he was killed. Here Rosen uses Chicago history in a case of ‘fact is stranger than fiction’—the scandal of horse meat being widely sold as hamburger to Chicago grocery stores and even fine restaurants from 1950 to 1953—which is true.

White Collar Girl is a well-blended novel with a lot of appeal. Through Jordan Rosen puts a face to the personal and professional issues for women at the time. As she struggles to prove herself in the workplace Jordan also finds herself subjected to the social expectations around her, namely that even with an education she should get married and have children rather than get a job. Getting an education was desired; doing something with it was not. Thankfully, as Rosen illustrates, drawing on fact in her fiction, the times have changed and so did the Tribune.

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