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Sunday, August 30, 2015
7:15 pm edt
I typically am not
a fan of biographies. Despite the interesting lives they seek to portray, most writers indulge in feigned eruditeness and
over inflated intellectualism. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein: A life is a life is a life. No need to embellish it; just tell
the story; treat the subject as s/he is/was – a human being like the rest of us…with the same failings, foibles,
fables, fantasies, and facts. But, alas, I have found this honest simplicity has been a rarity in the genre…
Then, this past weekend I read Joy
[August 4, 2015] by Abigail Santamaria whose lilting, flowing writing style turns the tumultuous, albeit shortened
life of Helen “Joy” Davidman – the wife of Clive Staples Lewis – into a stunning account that [pardon
the pun] “joyously” reads like an historical novel.
Drawing upon masterfully meticulous research
that uncovered nearly inaccessible material, Santamaria paints Joy not as an adjunct to C.S. Lewis’ life, but he to
An accomplished and renowned writer in her own right, Joy was close to being a childhood prodigy, graduating
from high school at 14 and, at 18, Hunter College, where she stretched and honed her literary muscles and first learned of
the United States Communist Party [which she later joined]. A brash young women raised in New York in the 1920s and 1930s
by strict Jewish parents – her father prided himself on being an authoritative school administrator – she joined
the editorial staff of New Masses, the communist weekly magazine, for which she reviewed poetry and books and critiqued
films. A skillful, prolific, and opinionated author with a distinctive leftist bent, she published several novels and a few
collections of poetry before marrying William “Bill” Lindsay Gresham and bearing him two sons.
claiming Stalin as her savior – she was an avowed atheist -- over the years, Joy became disenchanted with her life until
one fateful evening when her alcoholic husband went missing she felt the close presence of God. This fateful event spearheaded
both her and Bill’s search for spirituality, dabbling in Presbyterianism and then Dianetics before Joy discovered the
Christian writings of C.S. Lewis. She was hooked…and the rest is, iterally, literary history. To disclose any more
of it would taint the wondrousness of Santamaria’s biography of her brash, headstrong, courageous, and often quite unlovable,
but more than fascinating and most interesting heroine.
However enamored I was reading Joy’s life, there
were many times I really did not like her – as exemplified by many of Lewis’ [Jack’s] Oxford cronies and
friends. How he managed to fall in love with and eventually marry this brazen, often crass, but absolutely brilliant woman
who crashed into his life with two young boys in tow is a mystery that only Santamaria can masterfully solve. [Lewis finally
once said, “…you just have to get to know her to appreciate her fine qualities.”] As this talented devut
biographer puts pieces of the puzzle together, she reveals many interesting, heretofore unknown details about Joy’s
– and later, Lewis’ -- life. Reading about them is almost as fascinating as reading The Chronicles of Narnia
and Perelandia and will, as it did me, keep you up well into the night discovering them.
Santamaria also forthrightly dispels and debunks many of the common misconceptions about Joy’s relationship with
C.S. Lewis [known to friends and family as Jack]: Surprised by Joy, his autobiography, which Joy helped edit, is
not about her, but is titled after a poem by William Wordsworth about conversion to Christianity. Jack was not quite a confirmed
bachelor in his early years [he was 17 years older then Joy]. Not at all enamored of and by Joy when she first burst into
his life – as a matter of fact, he was often greatly annoyed by her presence – his love grew during the last years
of her life. Shadowland, the movie about their “great love” was more than slightly inaccurate [Albeit,
it still is an en”joy”able movie starring Debra Winger as Joy and Anthony Hopkins as Jack. Available on Netflix!]
As I said, I am not a fan of biographies. And had I had not known that Joy was the wife of one of my favorite of
all time authors [and theologians], I sincerely doubt I would even have reviewed it for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. But, there
you have it…I was, um, quite taken aback by how much I liked it. I guess, [a pun once again] I as delightfully surprised
This is a life is a life is a life…pure and simple…of one woman searching, questioning,
learning the power of redemption and…of love. Joy is so well written that it is an entertainingly easy read
of a life that was not so easily well-lived. A true, um, joyously welcomed addition to the genre and to the literary world
in general, Santamaria’s debut tour de force should not be missed…not even by the casual, non-intellectually
Monday, August 24, 2015
3:30 pm edt
Sisters of Shiloh
just got to hand it to those two brave young women who just last week passed the grueling 60-day training course to become
Army Rangers. Kudos to them both! It wasn’t so long ago that it was unthinkable for members of our fairer sex, while
serving in all branches of the armed forces, to actually see the light of combat. With a few exceptions (Think: Joan d’Arc),
the fighting was left to solely to men, who filled the field of battles. Leastways, so we thought.
however, 400 documented cases of women who, for myriad reasons, donned their brothers’, fathers’, and/or husbands’
clothes and marched off to join the ranks in our own Civil War. (Which, incidentally, ended a “scant” 150 years
ago.) Their gender undetected, they faced side-by-side with men the blood and guts of brutal battles and the side-effects
of war. I won’t go into further details here because…
…that would defeat reading all about
them in Sisters of Shiloh (March 2015), a most stunning, shocking, and animatingly lyrical novel written by two sisters – one a
noted author and the other a noted historian – about, well, two sisters who join the Confederate Army. Donning her brother’s
clothes, Josephine Beale unwillingly and unwittingly follows her younger sister, Libby, into the fighting frays of Manassas
and Shiloh to avenge the death of Arden, Libby’s husband. Dressed in his shirt, pants, and boots, Libby takes on Arden’s
persona and teaches her sister masculine mannerisms in order to for them to pass as young men. As, respectively, Joseph and
Thomas, they suffer through depravation, fear, and flying bullets, Libby’s struggles with madness and grief, and Josephine
‘s growing love for a fellow soldier.
To be fair to its – and my – readers, this is not a
novel for the faint-of-heart, nor for those who wish to avoid war at all costs. You also need to keep your mind opened to
the subtle vulgarities of those spirits that inhabit our souls. But Karen and Becky Hapinstall, the dynamic sister team who
penned Sisters of Shiloh over the course of twelve years, deftly weave together such a most hauntingly rich, beautiful story that
it is almost easy to forget the brutal blood and guts, violence and carnage. Their styles mesh together so seamlessly it seems
as if this tale of the bonds of sisterhood surviving the tangle of love and war was written by just one author.
In my three reading sessions of this scintillatingly brilliant must read novel this past weekend, I found myself totally
transported to 1863, into the heat of battle, totally immersed in the lives of Joseph and Thomas – er , Josephine and
Libby – keeping along with them the secret of their identities, discovering with them a universal truth: The bonds of
sisterhood are, in fact, inseparable and inseverable. And, as our intrepid heroines finally learn, what truly matters most
to us transcends everything and heals all.
Friday, August 14, 2015
and the Eagle
1:31 pm edt
I am a professed crossword
aficionado. I start my day solving the often nubbily constructed ones in the morning paper. On Saturdays is a double-treat,
with the daily puzzle AND the inscrutable New York Times Magazine Sunday crossword edited by Will Shortz. Mostly
everyone knows that late Saturday morning is my quiet time spent puzzling over brunch.
One much-used four-letter
answer is “Anya” to the clue, “Author Seton”. When I first came across it, I penciled in “Anna”…Wrong!
It is, in fact, the first name of Anya Seton Chase (1904-1990), a quite popular American author of historical novels –
she preferred to call most of them “biographical novels” – between 1940 and 1980. But, somehow, growing
up an avid reader and lately a [prolific?] book reviewer, I had missed them…and her. Which is probably why I had difficulty
with such a simple clue.
Born in Manhattan, she was raised by a fairly wealthy family in Cos Cob, Connecticut.
Her passion and penchant for writing did not start until she was 37 and had raised a family. Two of her more famous novels
were made into movies: Dragonwyck (1946) starring Vincent Price and Foxfire (1955) starring Jane Russell.
Sadly, growing up, I had, have…missed seeing them, too. Strange that such a prolific and talented writer had totally
escaped my realm…Until last month when a 2015 republished copy of The Hearth and Eagle (1948)was graciously sent to me by my publicist buds at Mariner Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Set in the shore town of Marblehead, Massachusetts, this lush, historical novel explores the life of self-determined,
passionate Hesper Honeywood from the pre-Civil War era to the beginnings of World War I. Hesper grows up and eventually becomes
the proprietor of “The Hearth and the Eagle”, an old, established inn and tavern first started as an “ordinary”
by her forebears in the 1600s. How our intrepid heroine weathers the storms swooping in from the Atlantic, the uncertainties
and frailties of three tumultuous romances, and rises above the tempestuous vagaries of life is the heart and soul of Seton’s
fourth (out of twelve) novel, based, by the way, on a fervent and ardent search for her ancestors.
an exacting author and a meticulous researcher, exemplified by The Hearth and the Eagle. Once started, I found it
so interesting and full of life’s every day details that I just couldn’t put it down. Reminiscent of Gone
with the Wind – if this was a debut novel – I could easily have dubbed Seton “the Margaret Mitchell
of today”. But…she was a talented, award winning novelist in her own right and such a sobriquet does not do justice
to her wonderful nearly mesmerizing lyrical descriptions of the inn, its surroundings, and the inhabitants therein. Her characters
are carefully drawn with an insightful brush, each stroke bringing each person in Hesper’s circle of family and friends
In unfolding Hesper’s tale Seton was ahead of her time writing about one woman’s courage
and fortitude, thematically suggesting that the true, resilient strength of a person is not dependent upon the outside world,
but ultimately comes from within.
The Hearth and Eagle – as well as Seton’s other works – is a requisite for everyone’s reading repertoire and library.
A welcomed addition, to be sure, to mine.
Friday, August 7, 2015
6:42 pm edt
in his 2014 introduction to the Mariner Books (an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) 2015 second edition release of The Bookshop (1978) by Penelope Fitzgerald, states that the last line of this powerful and enriching novel is “”Quietly devastating,
just like the novel itself.” And when you think about it (without giving away any spoilers), it’s true that, sadly,
many people are just not interesting in reading – or even knowing about – good, no, great literature.
I’m not talking here about the many lately published well-written debut novels whose writers have yet to carve their
populist niche into the stone-cast realm of literary talent worthy of an otherwise idle afternoon. No, I am talking about
the tried and true. Novels and their authors that over the years – in this case, well over forty – have pointedly
and purposefully chiseled their way into permanence in the very essence and depths of their readers’ lives...their minds,
hearts, and souls.
Penelope Fitzgerald (December 17, 1916 to April 28, 2000) was considered by The London
Times in 2008 one of “The fifty greatest British writers since 1945.” And after reading The Bookshop – not even the finest of her ten fiction and six non-fiction offerings – I remember reading one or two of her
other novels while an English major in college, although I was too immature to really appreciate her writing – I can
readily see why. The accolade, to me, still stands. Although I must now change it to one of the “fifty greatest writers
of English Literature to date since 1945”. And, now that I comprehend a few of this Booker Prize
winner’s essential messages, I am, to be sure going to conscientiously revisit the rest of her works.
being said…The Bookshop is, by far, one of the more poignant and carefully, compassionately crafted novels – both debut and
established – that I have read in a while.
Middle-aged, somewhat frumpy, and often lonely widowed
Florence Mary Green has it in her head to open a small bookshop in Hardborough, a small town lingering on the eastern English
seaboard. With part of a small inheritance she buys “The Old House”. Built in the early 1600s – it is now
1959 – the cellar seeps water and the house itself is inhabited by a rapper – the local term for a poltergeist.
Florence, against the advice of her pompous banker and most of the close-minded townsfolk, orders a stock of books –
most of the Everyman series – and takes on young eleven year-old straightforwardly rude and tactless Christine as part-time
after school help.
So far, so good…Until Florence stirs up the ire of Mrs. Gamart, the local arts “doyenne”;
is falsely befriended and then fastidiously betrayed by the brutal-tongued Milo North; and is off and on shunned by half the
populace whose only interests in reading are operatic scores, royal scandals, and British military activities during World
War II. She soon realizes her efforts may be uselessly futile, although she does find a stalwart, yet aloof friend in the
local earl, Edmund Brundish. Undaunted, our heroine forges on until – and here’s a familiar, albeit trite twist
– she is thwarted by the government. Truly good literature mimics true life.
Okay, to the average reader
– and I know you all are way above average – this plot line may seem ”boooorrrrring”. But
au contraire. It is, in fact, the foundation of an insightful study of human nature, with all its fine points and foibles,
faults and failures. And poor Mrs. Green is the kind, optimistically unknowing victim in and at the very heart of them all.
This is one novel in whose well-defined characters you’ll recognize bits and pieces of yourself, your
neighbors, and your friends. More importantly, you will come to see and understand the boldly unkind fecklessness of those
among us who selfishly think only of themselves and somehow because of this, witlessly through their thoughts, words, and
actions – thought, spoken, and done without considering the disastrous effects on others – destroy their very
deepest inner hopes and dreams.
And, yes, as Nichols says, like the last line of this masterful novel, the very
thought of what Fitzgerald tells us about (wo)mankind through her masterful novel is quietly devastating.
But, yet…I wouldn’t have missed reading this timeless novel for the all the books in my downstairs library. And
if you are a true bibliophile, you shouldn’t either.
J. McInerney, the host of this Literary Blog, is
an author, poet, and librettist. Her currenty published works include a novel, a book of spiritual inspirations,
volumes of poetry, stories
for children (of all ages) and
a variety of children's musicals. Her titles include:
Monster: A Novel of Phoenixville in 1978
The Prisoner's Portrait: A Novel of Phoenxville
during World War II
Rainbow in the Sky
Meditations for New Members
of Oreigh Ogglefont
The Basset Chronicles.
Cats of Nine Tales
Water: A Collection of Poems
Exodus Ending: A
Collection of More Spiritual Poems
We Three Kings
Beauty and the Beast
Peter, Wolf, and Red Riding
Originally from the New York metropolitan area, June currently lives near Valley Forge Park in Pennsylvania with her constant and loving companions, FrankieBernard and Sebastian Cat. She
is currently working on her fourth novel.