Once a long time ago, I found myself driving from New Haven, Connecticut to New York City with a law student I’ll call Jim. The reason for our trip was to watch a boxing match.
Having never attended a boxing match, this was a little thrilling to me; but, even more thrilling was the pre-boxing dinner conversation. To summarize, Jim told us that he had gotten into a conversation with his fellow law students in which several of them admitted to being responsible for a person’s death and “getting away with it.”
He related this matter-of-factly, as if it were a common occurrence. For a long time afterwards, I thought of this group as particularly special, made up of smart and “deadly” individuals. It wasn’t until I read Purity by Jonathan Franzen that I revisited my thoughts.
In Purity, the hero, Andreas Wolf, clobbers a foe with a shovel and then buries him in a shallow grave in East Germany. The reason for the killing is simple—a stepfather had sexually abused his stepdaughter and Wolf is in love with this girl.
No punishment seemed too harsh for the perpetrator.
So, too, the reader feels that the killing is perhaps justified. Franzen makes the killing a burden for Wolf that compels him to act a certain way (as could be imagined). And yet because of the tone and style of the novel, a deeper question of moral culpability is lost.
Wolf certainly isn’t in anguish over the murder; he is just worried that he won’t get away with it, which brings me back to the law students.
As related by Jim, they viewed their crimes as deep dark stories, something apart of them and buried deep. Perhaps we should take things into our own hands more often.
A more compelling part of the murder rests on the idea of communism and the East German Stasi police (something I know little about, but learned about through this book). Franzen brings up the sense of paranoia East Germans lived under when there was the veil of surveillance suffocating them. Born into parents who embraced communism, Wolf chose to rebel in the form of a poem that slips through the cracks of censorship.
Learning about East Germany under communist restraint was just one of many things I learned about in Purity. In fact, one of the joys of reading a Franzen novel is the glittering expanse of the author’s knowledge. Franzen seems to know a little bit about everything (or maybe it is a lot about everything). If you like to soak up some facts as you read a novel, then Franzen is the writer for you.
He shows great dexterity as he navigates endless topics and writes with a zestful, funny way about everything from East Germany’s economy to nuclear weapons to spying to the types of flora and fauna in exotic lands,
Here is a passage about alcoholics: “With whiskey, the capillary bloom was more diffusely rosy than with gin and less purple than with wine. Every university dinner party was a study in blooms.” Not something I needed to know, but amusing none-the-less.
Similarly, Franzen can write gorgeously--he just doesn’t choose to do so very often. Listen to this passage about smells:
“She hadn’t wanted to believe this, but the smells at Los Volcanes were convincing her. How many smells the earth alone had! One kind of soil was distinctly like cloves, another like catfish; one sandy loam was like citrus and chalk, others has elements of patchouli or fresh horseradish. And was there anything a fungus couldn’t smell like in the tropics? She searched in the woods, off the trail, until she found the mushrooms with a roasted-coffee smell so powerful it reminded her of skunk, which reminded her of chocolate, which reminded her of tuna; smells in the woods rang each of these notes and made her aware for the first time…”
All of his meanderings lead to the questions of origins. He is interested in the complex mechanisms (luck, chance, and happenstance) that lead to a person’s conception. In other words, he may start with the central character’s story—Pip’s story where he hints at an unconventional mother and a missing father, but then we eventually get the entire story of the courtship of Pip’s parents. Sometimes the backstory of the characters would burden the narrative. The novel moves forward slowly as it taps into the lengthy past.
You probably know the feeling—you are interested in a certain character in a book, but then are yanked into a different world and time altogether—and you wait (sometimes impatiently) for the author to get back to the present.
Similarly, the pacing of the novel feels off at times. Pip, the heroine, leaves her transient home as a squatter in Oakland, California to live in a commune sort of situation in South America called the Sunlight Project, which is run by the above-mentioned murderer who fled East Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall. This utopia relies on the adrenalin rush of computer hackers (do-gooders) who believe in the power of transparency.
This rush of information is the counterpoint to Wolf’s earlier life in a restricted communist state. The setting of the commune feels like a summer camp, as Pip takes daily hikes, gossips with the girls, and imagines being the chosen one of Wolf. The idealism of Pip and her sense of integrity is compromised by her desire to sleep with the boss.
Her indecisiveness perhaps gets too much play in the novel. She decides not to sleep with the boss at the last minute (a long scene leading to the fact), followed by her decision to sleep with the boss, followed by yet another long scene when she again changes her mind. This is fine—yes, realistic, too—and yet as I read it I felt myself impatiently waiting for this part of the novel to be over. I understand the value of a good sex scene (or lack-thereof), but the book has so many of these sexual teases that it starts to get predictable.
When Pip comes back to the United States (after being ordered to return by Wolf) she ends up working for a newspaper in Denver. This newspaper is a counterpoint to the computer hacking at the Sunlight Project. Coincidentally enough, her long lost father runs to the newspaper. (Actually it is not a coincidence because her boss has ordered her to go there.) At the paper she runs in to the same set off toxic problems that occur throughout the book, namely how her sexuality and identity have become intertwined.
If the questions of Pip’s love life and origins become cumbersome, Franzen’s side stories are imaginative bulls-eyes. My favorite part of the book is when a reporter tracks down a story about nuclear weapons. The reporter tracks down the source at a fast-food restaurant. As she squats on the floor, she hears the story of a fake nuclear weapon getting used as a prop in a Facebook photo. The story is wonderfully outlandish and over-the-top and in this Franzen is perhaps making a comment about our society’s thirst for knowledge as if knowledge is just another commodity.
Franzen doesn’t come down on one political side or the other—he parodies the seekers of knowledge as well as the ones who leak knowledge. He looks at our modern world with eyes wide open and hints at a crumbling future, as well as a crumbling past.
Franzen’s style is to write big, blocky books with lots of words. Sometimes these words seem to be too much, but that is what it is all about—an overabundance of info.
Van Morrison, a slightly squat teen rocker from Belfast broke into the top-40 airwaves by owning this song with a howl unlike anything heard by white pop singers before 1964.
Then 10 years later Patti Smith turned it inside out, reshaping it with her own lyrics—a woman in a man’s world, belting it out, a primal scream at one moment, then an incantation—her words folded into and subsuming the original: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine….My sins my own/They belong to me.”
It wasn’t a rip off, but an Irish lament filtered through New York punk, and even more astonishing, it was sung by a woman.
It was not a rejection of the Irish master, but a reimagining; and, finally, homage.
And that is much of what Smith’s latest book M Train is an homage to the many writers she reveres—mostly men, and none more than her late husband, Fred Sonic Smith of the legendary MC5, musicians.
This is a book about what it means now to be a writer. It goes without saying that Smith is hands-down the finest prose writer of the rock and roll world from which she emerged with the breakthrough Horses album in 1975.
M Train stands both for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority trains she rides from the Village, to the house she rehabs in Rockaway as well as the ride through her memories she invites us to follow her on.
While the Just Kids was about Smith growing into an artist alongside lover and pal Robert Mapplethorpe, M Train is the mature artist, looking back at all she has loved and lost while still approaching life with the wonder of a child—as she says forever believing in “that lighthearted balloon, the world.”
Smith has said that Just Friends took a lot out of her. Mapplethorpe had asked her to write about him so that he wouldn’t be forgotten, and it took her nearly 20 years to get it just right. This time around, she said, she would write a book about nothing. But that was easier said than done.
“It’s a lot easier to talk about nothing,” she says in the opening where she introduces the cowboy muse that reappears throughout the book, but “it’s not so easy writing about nothing.”
In the process, she writes her book about what it means to be a writer and a reader in the world.
One struggles to think of a memoir that seems so true, that doesn’t fetishize the past, but looks for touchstones in the present, the things of permanence. Smith is an explorer—“I believe in movement”— and in this sense she resembles Graham Greene, another writer who could never settle down and whose journeys fed his work.
“I cross the sea,” she says “with the sole aim to possess within a single image the straw hat of Robert Graves, typewriter of Hesse, spectacles of Beckett… What I have lost and cannot find I remember.”
The book, and her journey within the book, is interspersed with Polaroid photos of the places and people she has loved and lost and have inspired her as a writer: A picture of her late husband Fred waving goodbye from the door to their home in Lake Ann, Michigan. Hermann Hesse’s typewriter in Montagnola, Switzerland. Herself with writer Paul Bowles shortly before his death in Tangier. A copy of Haruki Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicle next to a coffee cup in her beloved sanctuary, Café ’Ino in the Village—the victim of rent inflation in a city that may finally be all financiers and no culture.
They are not technically good photos. Why Polaroids? Her lover-friend Mapplethorpe was a master of technique—his prints flawless in their hyper-realism. She would never want to compete with him. Perhaps it is the immutability of Polaroids. There is no artifice, no possibility for manipulation. Café ’Ino is no more, but the rawness of Smith’s black and white image remains.
Her face in the shadow at Genet’s illuminated grave in Larache Christian Cemetery in Tangier is the end of the journey she started with her husband years earlier with their honeymoon trip to Devil’s Island in French Guiana where the newlyweds picked up stones from the site that inspired Jean Genet’s Thief’s Journal.
She and Fred had meant to place the stones together on Genet’s grave, but life and family intervened. This was her chance to fulfill that goal. (The next book, she says, will be about her husband Fred and brother and road manager Todd, whose deaths were only a month apart.) She laments the loss of a camera she has left on an MTA bus that contained shots of her dream house in Rockaway. Who would be looking at them now?
But this isn’t a book primarily about the past. It is about the quotidian life of the writer, a writer who incidentally (as she would have it) has a day job making music and touring the world with her band. In the present, she spends mornings at coffee shops and offers to stake Zak, a friend who plans to open a café in Rockaway.
He tells her she would be guaranteed free coffee for life. But what does that really mean? Zak sets up his cozy café near the wharf in Rockaway and Smith becomes so enamored by the setting that she finds a nearby fixer-upper to buy.
The For Sale by Owner sign, she says, beckoned her like the sign in Steppenwolf: “EntranceNot for Everybody. For Madmen Only.” She envisions it as “a place to think, make spaghetti, brew coffee, a place to write.”
The owner of the boarded up house—she calls it her Alamo in remembrance of the Lincoln Log forts she and her brother, both Davy Crockett fans, as played by Fess Parker, built—wants cash and Smith tells her that she’ll have it within three months.
Time to tour.
Throughout the summer of 2012 her calendar is filled with readings, performances, concerts, lectures in Brighton, Leeds, Glasgow, Brussels, Vienna, Berlin. At night she would work on an introduction to a monograph on William Blake, and later a preface to All the Songs: The Story Behind Every Beatles Release.
By September, she returns to Rockaway to consummate the deal on her house, in which she envisions a great room with skylights, a country sink, a desk, some books.
This book is resonant with concrete images and the sanctity in things, objects that breathe with meaning for Smith—Virginia Woolf’s cane, Roberto Bolaño’s chair. In early October, she closes the deal on her house. Then, on October 28, Hurricane Sandy strikes and wipes out the boardwalk, scores of houses, Zak’s newly opened café. But, Smith says, though severely damaged “my Alamo had survived the first great storm of the twenty-first century.”
We are left hoping she will one day be able to live in it.
The book is a celebration, not a lament, and it is full of humorous episodes, not least of which is the extended tale of her membership in the semi-secretive Continental Drift Club, whose members pay tribute to explorer Alfred Wegener who asserted a hundred years ago that the continents are in continual movement around the earth.
His ideas were considered crackpot until plate tectonics in the 1950s proved him right. Smith was slated to give a lecture to a meeting of the group in Berlin and was understandably apprehensive since many of the members were either scientists or Wegener buffs. She had found a backdoor to membership after sending letters to the club asking to be allowed to photograph Wegener’s boots.
Dead now for more than 20 years, Fred Smith was her greatest love, and she recalls the rich humor he brought to their daily lives. In Detroit they frequented the Arcade Bar where he would drink beer and she her ever-ubiquitous cup of coffee (she calls it her drug of choice). Here they dreamed up a cable TV show they would produce. Fred’s show would be called Drunk in the Afternoon, during which he would interview celebrity guests while sharing fine cognac out of a paper bag.
Her segment would be Coffee Break, and in it she would invite viewers to have a cup of Nescafé with her. The idea was that Nescafé would sponsor the show. The show never happened, but they had a son and daughter, Fred took up flying lessons, and Patti “wrote incessantly but published nothing.” But this must have been the incubus for her writing.
“You write out of what you admire,” Susan Sontag said, and this funny, compassionate, poetic book invites us to ride along with a writer who treasures all that life has offered her and especially books and their authors. About her immersion in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, she says after finishing it she had to immediately reread it because “I did not wish to exit its atmosphere.” The same can be said of M Train. You don’t want the ride to stop.
This is a beautifully written book. She says that she doesn’t know if readers will find resonance with the places and people she has described, but perhaps in the end they will at least be more familiar with her. She says: “I offer my world on a platter filled with allusions.”
Rome, 1943: A young Italian woman, Chiara Ravello, helplessly witnesses the mass roundup of the Jews in the ghetto. She makes eye contact with a mother loaded onto the trucks with her husband and two children, a toddler girl and a seven-year-old boy. Soundlessly they make a bargain. The mother pries the boy’s fingers off her sleeve. Chiara rushes forward and claims the woman’s son, shouting, “My nephew!”
Chiara is a born caretaker. Orphaned, resolved to spinsterhood following the death of her fiancé, she’s bravely assumed responsibility for her severely epileptic sister. Now she instinctively does the right thing by saving the life of this child although this “adoption” of Daniele Levi has profound consequences on the rest of her life. She devotes herself to her two charges, scrounging for food and shelter, loving and protecting them as a mother would.
The novel skitters back and forth in time from wartime to the 1970’s, skidding to a halt at times in between. Mostly, Baily recounts the story through Chiara’s point of view, though halfway through she switches to the outlooks of three other characters. The person we most want to hear from, of course, is Daniele, a deeply troubled young man, but the author elects to deny us access to his inner thoughts and struggles. As a child he is at first selectively mute; as an adult, he is denied a voice.
Chiara, her sister and Daniele escape to the countryside, to her grandparents’ beat-up cottage, where hungry, cold, and surrounded by German soldiers, they barely manage to survive, mostly due to luck and Chiara’s skill and creativity as a cook. They head back to Rome eventually until the conclusion of the war because there are more provisions and better shelter for them there.
Skipping to the present, we are shocked to learn that Chiara has not heard from Daniele for ten years. Apparently, Chiara has had other choices to make along the way, choices where she’s had no clear moral footing. Her love for Daniele is blinding maternal love, and eclipses all else. She cannot and will not lose him. Another character, her trusted friend, the priest, has chosen shaky moral ground himself, lying to her over the years, playing God by withholding crucial information, a choice he makes out of a desire to protect her from further distress.
Early One Morning is a beautifully written novel. Rome, then and now, is evoked in colorful detail, meaningful to even a casual tourist who recognizes the piazzas, monuments and shining vistas so lovingly described.
The plot is all-consuming: we’re driven to keep reading, anxious to know the fate of Daniele and the part that will be played by a mysterious young girl from Wales who stakes a claim in his story. Where Baily excels is in the portrayal of her characters.
Tempted to label them by their guiding traits—Chiara is Love; Daniele is Distress; Priest is Protection; Friend Simone is Acceptance, Maid Assunta is Faith, Girl Maria is Innocence—we stumble when their equivocal actions are revealed. Chiara, in particular, who we’ve grown to love, reveals a side to her personality which is deceptive, even heartless.
After the decision to spirit Daniele away from the Germans, she makes four momentous decisions that, when revealed, are quite disturbing. By Baily’s magic, we grudgingly accept that love dictated these choices, but where was her concern for the people she hurt?
We may be haunted by the what-if’s in this story, long after we put the book down. What a tribute then to Baily’s creation of multi-dimensional characters, who, like all of us, are a mixture of good and bad impulses and actions and whose lives bear witness to that complexity.
“Whoever saves a single life in Israel, Scripture regards him as if he had saved the entire world” (Talmud).
We are left with the knowledge that war has lasting repercussions that affect generations not yet born. Decisions and choices made under duress of war may not be totally comprehensible to those not affected. Baily has given us a wonderful multi-dimensional story, heart-wrenching at times, but alive and kicking and demanding our attention.
This novel by Virginia Baily, a British writer, hit the Sunday Times bestseller list in August and was dramatized on BBC Radio 4 in October. It was published in the US in late September and is being translated into 10 other languages.
Baily’s first novel, Africa Junction, set in Devon and West Africa, won the McKitterick prize in 2012. Her short stories and poetry have been widely anthologized. She’s the co-founder and editor of Riptide short story journal, based in Exeter and the editor of the Africa Research Bulletin.
At the end of My Brilliant Friend, the first in the quartet of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, Lila marries Stefano, a man from the neighborhood who is comfortably well off because of the grocery stores he owns. Lila is only 16 years old. The wedding is lavish in the tradition of Italian weddings.
Book 2, The Story of the New Name, then begins with Lila and Stefano’s honeymoon. They have gone to a resort along the Amalfi coast:
“They had reached Amalfi in the evening. Neither had even been to a hotel, and they were embarrassed and ill at ease. Stefano was especially intimidated by the vaguely mocking tones of the receptionist and, without meaning to, assumed a subservient attitude…”
Lila proves to be a most uncooperative and unwilling bride. Poor Stefano—he has married the most beautiful, intelligent and difficult young lady in the neighborhood!
“As soon as they were in the room, he tried to kiss her, and she recoiled. Gravely, she opened the suitcase, took out her nightgown and gave her husband his pajamas. That attention made him smile happily at her, and he tried again to grab her. But she shut herself in the bathroom.”
And so with this less than heavenly honeymoon Ms. Ferrante starts The Story of the New Name.
Rare it is that I found reading someone’s work with such intense pleasure. Rare has such a character been rendered in fiction as that of Lila. The last time such a character emerged from pages was when Scarlett O’Hara emerged in Gone with the Wind.
This sentence might be one of those seminal great sentences in all of literature: “…no one except me [Elena] seemed to realize that the marriage that had just been celebrated—and that would probably last until the death of the spouses, among the births of many children, many more grandchildren, joys and sorrows, silver and gold wedding anniversaries—that for Lila, no matter what her husband did in his attempt to be forgiven [Stefano has given the shoes she had designed to Marcella, a man she despised], that marriage was already over.”
The paths of the two friends, Lila and Elena, couldn’t be more unlikely: Lila is now, at a tender age, married, however unhappily, while Lena continues her studies, finishing high school with the highest marks and going off for further study in Pisa.
If asked why I have become so utterly captivated by Ms. Ferrante’s writing I’d reply it’s like secretly eating a hot fudge sundae. It’s intensely intimate and personal, and, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, amazing. I’m a stogy reader and if the sense of certain sentences elude me, I’ll go back and reread them until I understand their meaning. In doing so with Ms. Ferrante’s work I was frequently struck by the poetry, the profundity of it:
“Around Christmas vacation in 1966 I got a very bad flu. I telephoned a neighbor of my parents—finally even in the old neighborhood many people had a telephone—and told them I wasn’t coming home for vacation. Then I sank into desolate days of fever and coughing, while the college emptied, became silent. I ate nothing. I even had trouble drinking. One morning when I had fallen into an exhausted half-sleep, I heard loud voices, in my dialect, as when in the neighborhood the women leaned out the windows, arguing. From the darkest depths of my mind came the known footsteps on my mother. She didn’t knock, she opened the door, she entered, loaded down with bags.”
The Story of a New Name concerns itself with Lila’s infidelity, her affair with Nino, the son of Donata Sarratore, (whom Lena is also in love with.) When, after a miscarriage, Lila doesn’t again become pregnant, Stefano sends her to the seaside with the hope the sun, sea, air and water will strengthen her. Lena comes along. There Lila and Nino embark on an affair—preventing their attraction seems like trying to hold back the tide. Lila pleads to be allowed her pleasure, promising that upon her return to Naples, she will return to being a dutiful wife.
At this point in reading the text I began to play a game; I began to anticipate, were I the author, what would come next. Were it my book, I would have described whether Stefano had any inkling of Lila’s betrayal. When Michele Solara, from the wealthiest family in neighborhood, sees Lila and Nino holding hands while walking back from the beach, the news was sure to get back to Stefano.
I figured Stefano wouldn’t want to divorce Lila, because he loved her, at least he used to love her, and because a divorce would be a source of shame to him. But, Ms. Ferrante didn’t follow my imaginary script; if she doesn’t even mention him until later, it’s because he too had been having an affair—with Ada, the daughter of Melina, who worked for him.
As clever as Lila is, she doesn’t look after her own interests. Despite her vow, she and Nino continue their affair after their return from the beach, and she becomes pregnant. Stefano wanted a child, but instead of allowing him to pretend the child is his, she repeatedly throws in his face that he isn’t the father of her son. Nino meanwhile has abandoned her and isn’t even aware that he has fathered a son. When she leaves with Enzo, she throws all the jewelry Stefano has given her, including her engagement and wedding rings, on the table
Indeed, Lila can be exasperating.
Maybe it’s my age and experience but I failed to see Nino’s charm—okay, he’s handsome and intelligent, BUT he’s also unemployed and hardly has a pot to piss in. But, neither Lila nor Lena seems concerned with economics. Oh, well…
The Story of a New Name ends on a pathetic note for Lila, who now lives in a dumpy apartment with her son Rinuccio and Enzo and works in a sausage making factory (this part has shades of Zola); meanwhile, Lila has published her first book, a novel inspired by Lila, Nino and losing her virginity. She is engaged to Pietro, the son of an important professor.
The third book is Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. I’ve already started it but am yet to read just how Lila extricates herself and Rinuccio from their abject desolation. Knowing Lila, I’m sure she will.
History. In one word, that genre—history in the broadest, deepest sense—shines a light on why novelist Peter Golden’s second novel is a gem. Golden’s new novel is titled Wherever There is Light and his content illuminates that title in every way.
It’s not that the novel is what’s popularly known as “a historical novel,” because no one is going to confuse this writer with the authors of sprawling Civil War sagas or Renaissance-era bodice-busters. Nor does Wherever There is Light risk becoming a didactic novel, with its story and characters subservient to a message or to lessons.
Instead, in the tradition of W. Somerset Maugham and Irwin Shaw, what Peter Golden has done is to create vivid, complex, conflicted individual characters who interact in each other’s lives and also have their separate journeys and episodes, all of which are set against the turmoil of a violently changing world, decades ago.
The world re-created in this exquisite, deeply textured narrative takes readers from the 1920s through the 1960s. It’s a story dominated by two star-crossed lovers whose complicated interracial romance evolves and develops (against all odds and obstacles) as the epoch of the Roaring Twenties and then the Great Depression is followed by World War Two, the McCarthy Era ‘50s and the mayhem of the 1960s.
There’s Julian Rose, a young Jewish man who escaped post-World War One Europe and Weimar-era Germany to seek his fortune in America in the 1920s. He will find his fortune via everything from bootleg liquor to real estate profits. He will also find Kendall Wakefield, a young African-American woman whose upbringing by a single mother in South Florida propelled her to pre-World War Two Greenwich Village.
She aspires to be a painter, but eventually emerges as a world-class photographer. He, on the other hand, seeks the ever-elusive “security” that his parents never evinced. Despite their myriad differences, they embark on their on-again off-again decades-long love affair, breaking rules and crossing dangerous boundaries.
Places are as critical in this novel as the “dramatis personae.” And it is in varied places (from South Beach to Harlem, and from Paris to New York, and elsewhere) that the novelist in Golden thrives. His main characters are not merely “types” who pass through certain locales. They are, instead, formed by such legendary realms.
And then they are changed. And after being transformed, they grow and move on.
Here’s how one pivotal milestone is meticulously evoked by Peter Golden:
“Julian was surprised by how much he liked Greenwich Village. The curl of Minetta Street and the sun striking the Japanese maple in Kendall’s backyard. Relaxing in a Morris chair in her apartment and reading before a fire in the cozy gloom of a rainy afternoon. Holding Kendall’s hand and walking the curious twists and turns of the old streets. Seeing the beauty of the old brownstones and townhouses with their wrought-iron railings, and the grand churches, hidden alleyways and courtyards. Reveling in the quiet of their early-morning strolls through Washington Square, with the white marble arch and the sculptures of George Washington reflected in the glassy surface of the fountain. On one of these mornings, Kendall stopped and turned to Julian, resting her hands on his shoulders . . . .”
It’s impossible to not want to see and hear and absorb what they say next or what happens thereafter.
From the politically chaotic and culturally rich milieu of 1938 Greenwich Village to the grim revelations of the concentration camps in 1945 and the unanswerable questions raised by the Nuremberg Trials after the war, history lurks between the lines on each page of this novel. History, complicated lives, and worldwide tremors.
Best of all, in Wherever There is Light, author Peter Golden blends astute plot points with an in-depth probing of his characters’ inner lives, offering to readers a blend of details and drama that are reminiscent of the best of Richard Yates.
(M. J. Moore is finishing a novel titled For Paris ~ With Love & Squalor.)
To appreciate fully the sense of wonder, the anticipatory excitement, the poignant feelings of regret, and the constant sense of striving that permeates this unique memoir by musician Leah Wells, all we need to do is recall our own schooling.
Do you remember how galvanized your elementary school classrooms were by the occasional visit from a guest teacher who actually did cool things? A teacher whose arrival heralded a wondrous sense of the creative, the unknown, and perhaps most of all a reprieve from the boredom induced by rote exercises and test preparations?
Such periodic incursions by part-time, visiting faculty were likely a part of the later school years too (either the middle-school epoch or your high school era). Yet, for students of a certain age—that is, for really young kids—the magic is unforgettable.
If only it were all as seemingly effortless and inevitable as a magic act!
But there was nothing effortless or inevitable about the unexpected plunge that folk-music artist and movement specialist Leah Wells took when accepting a last-minute offer to teach in the Head Start program in the Bronx.
She did so for the same reason that the late, great James Cagney showed up one day and made inquiries at Warner Brothers: “I need a job!” Cagney told the studio personnel. As the mother of two sons whose father had recently lost his job (he was dismissed without a severance package, despite years of loyalty as a digital printing house’s night manager), Leah Wells had daily economics tormenting her.
On Another Note is a memoir with a two pertinent subtitles: “Making Music at Head Start” and “A Memoir with Classroom Exercises.” In a way, it’s even more than that.
This memoir reads like a novel, due to the author’s musical command of the English language. Her sentences flow. Her paragraphs are structured like melodies. Her sense of timing is rhythmic without being cornball. Best of all is that she describes everything—her new milieu; the big buildings and the small children; her craggy administrators and the wide-eyed joy of her animated students—with precision.
Nonetheless, while the pages have a novelist’s sense of narrative drive and a royal anecdotal energy, there’s no doubt that this book is grounded in the nitty-gritty of true-life experience. It has the flair of a terrific novel, but the guts of a street kid.
How could it be otherwise? From the get-go, the author had little choice but to immerse herself in a strange new world, a realm she’d never expected to enter.
Although born and raised in New York, there had never been any reason for Leah Wells to travel way up to the realm of the Bronx. It is, indeed, another country.
Here’s how Wells recounts crossing the threshold:
I board the Number 6 Train and am instantly sorry that I didn’t bring something to read. I have nothing to calm my nerves as the subway winds us further north on this line than I’ve ever been. Although I was born in New York, nothing has ever summoned me to these heights, or should I say depths, because it is both. The train thunders through station after sooty station in the dark tunnel, and then climbs to daylight where we float over city blocks of low, pale-brick apartment buildings. When I disembark at the Castle Hill station my journey is far from complete.
At the foot of the elevated station, Castle Hill Avenue appears to be a long, bland strip of fast food restaurants and discount centers. None of the buildings are over two or three stories and their palette is unusually pastel for this city. As I make my way further from the station I pass residential buildings of clapboard and shingles, painted pink and turquoise, and the polluted breeze that hits my face is salted. Could we be close to a river or the ocean? Nobody I ask can confirm that I’m walking in the right direction for Metropolitan Avenue. Not one of the three people I’ve stopped speaks English.
Every aspect of the public school system is as alien to her as the local geography.
Like any artist who has ever gone into teaching for economic survival, Leah Wells quickly learned that principals, department heads, and every other type of administrator exist for one reason: to mandate rules and regulations. They disdain her lack of lesson plans and proven methodologies. One administrator dubs her as “deficient” for lack of an immediate post-holiday detailed syllabus. Every idea must be calibrated to dovetail with a specific goal for a scheduled, intended purpose.
There are holidays that require prepared musical presentations. There are the so-called “Extravaganzas” for which Leah Wells had to create a concert-like variety of material as a way of proving the value of Head Start’s budget. And, each day of course, there were the spirited-yet-exhausting go-rounds with innumerable kids.
Wells had five classes in a row on her hands, and that was before lunchtime. It is guaranteed that many a class will conclude like this one:
“Again, again, Miss Leah!” They cry when I finally sit down, putting the guitar to my knee to play a “good-bye song” at the end of our time together. I usually borrow the song from Barney the Purple Dinosaur, which goes, “I love you, you love me, we’re a happy family . . .” to the tune of “This Old Man.” At the first cloying strains, some children are willing to sit and obediently mouth the words to this ubiquitous anthem that they recognize from watching television. Others stand to demand an encore. “Oh, stay, Miss Leah! Play more, Miss Leah. Play more songs!”
Though utterly spent, I still blush at their show of ardor. “But we’ve already had lots of fun and I have to visit your friends in the other class!” I remind them gently.
One Friday I make a case for packing it in: “We’ve sung. We’ve danced. We caught scarves in the butterfly net. What more can I give you? Isn’t that enough?” I ask, edging to the door when a child named Ethan stands up to put in his two cents.
“No, Miss Leah,” he answers, as earnestly as Oliver Twist asking for a second portion of gruel. “It’s never enough.”
Truer words could not be spoken. The craving for arts education that the children exude is palpable. Their appreciation for Wells’ efforts to tap into their imaginations and to create a classroom community via singing together, adding some movement, plus the joy of spontaneous creativity, permeates the text.
Fortunately, this “Memoir with Classroom Exercises” lives up to its subtitle. The exercises that are spelled out in the book’s chapters are never intrusive or merely didactic. They illustrate for all readers how Leah Wells improvised her classes, adapted to structured classroom schedules, and overcame myriad administrative obstacles in order to create fulfilling hours of music and movement for her students.
But the exercises are also utilitarian. Teachers needing prompts or ideas for engaging the wildfire energy of overpopulated classrooms will find a trove here.
All other readers will find a deeply moving, humane, compassionate narrator whose wit, insights, details, ear for language, and love for the arts enrich the book’s pages.
Much like Leah Wells who has enriched the lives of so many students.
(M. J. Moore is a regular contributor to Neworld Review.)