The Thing about Florida: Exploring a Misunderstood State by Tyler Gillespie

People could say almost anything about the state, and it would be true.

Florida native that I am, there is no denying Florida is a world unto itself and yes, deeply misunderstood. Growing up beneath a sky full of shuttle launches, my father worked at Kennedy Space Center, I saw the first manned shuttle launch of Columbia in 1981 (I’m that old) as well as witnessed the Challenger blowing up with my classmates at school, life can be pretty interesting here and not without its sorrows. Living minutes from the ocean, and less than an hour from all the theme parks it was a magical time to be a kid. I also lived where I had snakes and bobcats in our backyard, so yeah- we are sometimes untamed too! Add the nearby base formerly known as Patrick Air Force now Space Force , where I met and married my future husband, Florida can be pretty serious. It took moving away to England for me to realize just how swampy the air can feel to those who visit. It also tickled me to no end how other people think of us, not just overseas but stateside. After living in England, Japan and North Carolina we returned to my hometown again, which has flourished beyond my imaginings. For a state so many claim to hate and have turned into a long running joke, it certainly isn’t stopping them from making it their home. Naturally, I had to read this book and found myself cringing, nodding my head, and often laughing. It takes another Florida native to really get it! Our experiences can mirror each other and yet be vastly different.

Tyler’s take on our much maligned state is refreshing and just proves the point that Florida is so much more than a punchline. The Atlantic is in my blood, and so is the sunshine. For Florida natives, you take it with you wherever you go, he knows that. Tyler explores the Florida man stories, often not quite what headlines have you believe, surprising facts about the state’s history, the tragic shooting at Pulse Night Club, communities including Miami’s “Little Cuba”, the residents, our laws, the voting system, the wild animals, reptiles and snake farming (including animal smuggling), drag queens, halfway houses, confederate reenactments, conversion therapy, honing in on eclectic “controversial Floridians”- so much more. It is about his time growing up gay and as he says, it’s not meant to ‘defend’ the state but maybe “present a version of Florida other than the caricature so often seen in popular media.” He has done a beautiful job! I was surprised to learn a few things I didn’t even know.

The rest of the country could cut us off all they want, I think we’d still thrive- sure maybe we’re feral but that makes us tough. It’s my belief it’s the hot summers that make us a little wild too. Should our state come with a disclaimer? Nah, we’re not all that bad, people forget what a wild bag of mixed nuts we are. I say that with a grin and a wink. This is a fun read but serious at times too. Well worth your time if you want to know more beyond the ridiculous headlines and unfair assumptions. There really are so many versions of what people experience living here, whether they are natives or transplants. No two stories are alike, and Tyler Gillespie’s words go behind the memes and erase the stereotypes. One thing is a fact, it is always interesting! Yes, read it!!!

Publication Date: April 13, 2021

University Press of Florida

Dostoevsky in Love: An Intimate Life by Alex Christofi

There are many ideas I haven’t yet written down. They will lacerate me, it is true! But I have my heart and flesh and blood which can also love, and suffer, and desire, and remember, and this, after all, is life.

Alex Christofi has written an intimate portrait of Fyodor Dostoevsky, one that beautifully connects his personal life with his great work. He wrote his way through, if not out, of personal tragedies. The pen seemed to be at ready to spill each fresh misery that cropped up during his many trials and tribulations, be they born from the seed of love or politics. A man who used even his mock execution during his brutal imprisonment to write a semi-autobiographical novel about the inmates in a Siberian prison camp. Dostoevsky’s writing always seemed to flow from what he was confronted by in life. There was an untold amount of tragedy, some at fate’s mysterious hands but often, like all of us, by his own making. Gambling, poor choices of the heart, deaths, illness- so much plagued our dear author from his earliest loss, that of his mother. Without question, his health influenced his work and was in and of itself a curious thing, epilepsy. So little understood about it during his lifetime, how can it not have affected Fyodor’s thoughts, creativity? Make him question his very mortality?

The phases of his life from childhood to his dying day, the people dear to him as much as those he resented, the pleasures and disturbances of his very existence, all of it found a way into his fiction and, as Christofi points out within these pages, made for autobiographical work. Dostoevsky didn’t need to leave behind memoirs, for he was present in everything he wrote. He pinned human behavior as no other, from the foolish to the profound, and that is why even today the wisdom of his words reaches many readers’ souls. He suffered, lord he suffered like no other. He was contrary, he pursued his desperate wants only to later reflect with keen perception how we never seem to be satisfied with attainment, that the rush is in the chase. He understood humiliation, the misery of insult, the imbalance of class, the madness of politics, the contrary nature of man, and he penetrated the very heart of every emotion that can be born of any situation and was able to express it through characters. Alex Christofi writes beautifully of the author I felt I was observing for an entire lifetime, one who is both grand and small.

This book is far less static than other biographical accounts of Dostoevsky, it is factual but with fictional breezes of Fyodor’s writing blowing through. Fyodor isn’t the only person brought to life, all too often when a historical figure is written about, the people surrounding them fall flat. Not here! The women that he loved, who caused him desire so strong he trembled, pulse with life, even when fading from their own story as consumptive Maria. Polina is the fire, the wildcard and would be assassin, a woman he can’t help but draw close and cling to, despite the burn. Later it is the young Anna, his stenographer who he falls in love with and uses a story to tell her of his love for her. Anna becomes his dearly devoted second wife and mother to his children, sticking by him despite his debts, gambling addictions, the crippling loss of their two children and severe illness. Anna is a beacon to his troubled soul, and their love story as great as anything he has written. She is the one who carries on his legacy, what does a man do to deserve such a faithful, intelligent partner?

I wasn’t expecting to be as deeply engaged as I was. You don’t need to be familiar with Dostoevsky to enjoy the read but certainly a book any fan would enjoy. Every person in his orbit is humanized. Beautifully written, the connections, the facts, the emotions, the timeline- it’s quite the journey. Yes, read it.

Publication Date: March 23, 2021

Bloomsbury USA

Act Like You’re Having a Good Time: Essays by Michele Weldon

I have often been called “difficult”- a frequent damnation of women who speak their minds. “Spirited”, they say now if they are not trying too hard to insult you.

“Act like you’re having a good time” is the sage advice Michele Weldon’s father gave and modeled to Michele and her siblings, advice that has carried Weldon through sixty plus years and counting. You have to show up in life so you may as well enjoy as much of it as you can, because who wants to be around miserable people? Happiness is always in our own hands- at least in the way we react to what fate serves us. Michele writes about her identity and appreciates the privilege she has had, despite any obstacles she has faced, including a difficult marriage, the trials of single motherhood while trying to have a career and the harsh realities of having breast cancer. Mother, wife, friend, daughter, mentor, journalist, author, and emerita faculty at at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Weldon has a lot to reflect on and does so in these tenderly honest essays.

Ambitions and dreams that change as she faces her more mature years, the amount of time left to achieve them is the reality we will all face, if we are lucky. There is a point when a person takes stock of where they have been as well as who; how they have affected people in their life, where they have failed, what has been learned and what there is left to do. It’s not always pretty looking back and it can be scary looking forward. Waiting outside the door of the self is the larger world and what it means to be a woman in it. How beauty is measured, ageism, antiquated ideas, gender, race, class, ethnicity, attempts at fitting into the ever changing landscape, navigating technology that seems to move at the speed of light… it can feel like an uphill battle. Yes, even women of a certain age can feel the pain of comparison to an ideal beauty that is always shining on youth. More so when actresses in their age bracket don’t seem age. It is here, in her third act of life, that she shares what she has learned and what is still missing. All of this in the midst of the disruption COVID-19 has forced on the world.

It is not easy to reshape oneself, but in order to survive, we must. More so as we shed decades of experience, have to alter our thinking and embrace new ways of being. The world right now can leave you disoriented, that is true for the majority of us and it requires clarity to plant yourself where you need to be. Easier said than done. Michele certainly shares her failings with painful honesty, where finding a sunny disposition seemed of her reach. We are human, after-all.

Weldon understands what parents go through and the necessity of constant motion, as she raised sons, how it doesn’t leave much time for ‘pausing’, reflection. It is hard to keep ‘having a good time’ when you are running on fumes, with three boys and a career she certainly faced exhausting days. In these essays, she talks about the many phases of her life, the vulnerability and how it feels now to be arriving in a place where she is often left feeling “unseen”, inconsequential. How aging has changed from her grandmothers day to present time and where she lands in that disparity. Do you attempt being fashionable or let yourself go? Is there anything in between?

The hunger for affirmation has been present throughout her life, and isn’t it what most people have for a career goal, to achieve recognition or at least feel they’ve left their mark, made an impact somewhere before they retire? How much must one accomplish to feel right with themselves?

Michele Weldon examines her past to understand her present and plan for the future, because despite their being more behind her than ahead of her there is still so much living to do. I don’t think you have to be sixty to understand what it means to measure your worth, reflect on your choices, and try to navigate this madly spinning world. None of us age backwards, we’re all moving forward in phases, and wisdom of experience is never a thing to scoff at. At some point we all face similar questions. Yes, read it and I have to give a nod to the adorable book cover!

Publication Date: September 15, 2020

Northwestern University Press

More Than Love: An Intimate Portrait of My Mother, Natalie Wood by Natasha Gregson Wagner

Losing my mother was the defining moment of my life. No other event would ever again so sharply etch its mark upon my soul, or so completely color the way I navigate the world, or leave my heart quite as broken.

More Than Love is a tender, gut-wrenching memoir about life for Natasha Gregson Wagner after her mother’s shocking, tragic death. Natalie Wood, like all celebrities, has seem to become public property after her mysterious drowning death while vacationing on the Splendour, the yacht owned by she and her husband Robert Wagner, it’s namesake an ode to her movie (my favorite) Splendour in the Grass. The fact that remains decades later is no one knows for sure how the beloved actress ended up floating in waters off the coast of Catalina. Rumors, conflicting stories, through it all one thing is true, Wood’s death defined the lives of those who knew and loved her best as much as her life did.

Losing a mother at any age is a shock to the system. For a little girl still learning who she is, what she will become, a daughter whose true privilege in life wasn’t in the surroundings and wealth but the shine of a mother who provided endless comfort, love and happiness, her mother’s death is a devastation. It is a trauma you don’t get over, particularly when the world owns a piece of her. The case gets re-opened, like tearing into a fresh wound that never gets the chance to heal. Here we go again. I cannot imagine the torment, and having remained silent about everything, this memoir is not about taking sides, it’s about telling her own truth, sharing her love and admiration for a mother gone far too soon. It’s about visiting the past, remembering the power of love and family and how Natasha learned to make a life out of the wreckage of bottomless loss.

Natalie Wood was an incredibly talented actress, one who transitioned from a career as a child star into an impressive career as an adult. The world saw Natalie come of age on the big screen. A Russian-American who began acting at the tender age of four and supported her family, behind her sweet beauty lived a woman of strength and keen intelligence. A woman who carried her family on her shoulders at far too young an age and seemed to do so to the very end of her life. Yet when she became a mother, her daughter Natasha was the star in her sky. Despite the failure of her marriage to Natasha’s English father, life would be golden, the bond between mother and daughter impossible to sever. Alike in temperament and looks, from her birth she was doted upon by her mother and soon, by Robert Wagner too. Natalie was soon living with R.J. (Robert Wagner) in Palm Springs, a man who became a second daddy to Natasha. Along came Natalie’s parents too, whom helped care for her little girl, as much as Natalie had always cared for them. The family history is intimate, and naturally with intimacy comes the painfully raw insights. The expectations, demands, the pressure to be a success, the missing childhood, each of these revelations shed a different light on her, allowing Natalie Wood to become someone separate from the characters she played and the persona fans are familiar with. Here, she is a daughter, mother, sister, friend and wife. She is humanized, carrying imperfections, bearing resentment towards her own mother conflicting with the love she feels (robbed of her own childhood) , trying to have a fruitful career as she was a natural at acting, and be a present, loving wife and mother providing her children with the carefree happiness that eluded her own youth. Wood was the head of her family, always.

Then there is Natasha who must navigate a world without her mirror, a mother she started to clash with, as little girls are meant to in staking their own independence. The mommie she suddenly longed to be separate from, creating her own identity, shucking the princess role while at the same time so needy for her. Never could she imagine the fear of not wanting her mother to leave for their trip on the yacht would prove her attachment was a foretelling. Soon, the distance between them would be impossible to breach. Natasha would have to bury the pain, unable to confront even objects her mother left behind, or face being buried herself. This is where being a child of a celebrity feels like a curse. In the aftermath, hyper-vigilance is born, always watching for disaster. The self, shattered, lost. The vultures coming to take, the lies, the rumors… All the years in between, living with the ghost of her mother, the self-esteem issues, the comparisons, the disastrous relationships, the road to acting and always that looming interest from the media, reporters in her mother on every anniversary of her death. In her mid-forties, it was time for Natasha to face her mother’s legacy, now a mother herself, and finally meet her mother with the eyes of her adult self.

This was one of the most beautiful memoirs I have read about a celebrity. I have always had a soft spot for Natalie Wood, her roles in West Side Story and Rebel Without A Cause were wonderful but for me it was always Splendour In The Grass that impressed upon me what a talented actress she was. I feel through her daughter I see her as a beloved mother and wife, more than a persona. She absolutely created a bountiful life, was generous to a fault and wanted so bad to be a good mother. The love between she and R.J. isn’t something easily faked in front of children. I don’t doubt their affection and deep love for each other. I think, for any child, the most painful thing is that one’s mother is seen as a tragedy when her life was anything but. Beautiful memoir.

Available Now

Scribner

Published May 5, 2020

David Bowie: My First David Bowie by Maria Isabel Sanchez Vegara

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He inspired his fans to find their own voice and dare to be different.

Who can help but love an artist that can take to the stage transformed as an alien rock star? David Bowie truly was ‘the coolest invader the world had ever seen.’ For me, along with his incredible music, he will always be the powerful Goblin King Jareth, who made my young heart sing in Labyrinth. For anyone who wants to introduce David Bowie to a young reader or give a young fan a bit of backstory about the incomparable musician’s life, this is a wonderful pick. It begins with little David, born in London, growing up with ideas that are out of this world and follows him to the birth of an artist all the way to the success of worldwide fame. Colorful illustrations accompany the tale and inspire children to find their own voice and dare to be different

This is a board book version in the series from the critically acclaimed, multi-million copy best-selling Little People, BIG DREAMS. The books introduce young readers to artists, scientists, political activists, writers, actors, musicians, dreamers- people such as Amelia Earhart, Maya Angelou, Alan Turing,  and Mother Teresa, to name a few. When I saw the cover with David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust, I had to read this book. I would have devoured this series when I was a child and been over the moon if I could have had one on David Bowie.

This one is best suited to ages 5 to 8 years old, but certainly the colorful illustrations would please the eyes of younger readers too.  The best thing it teaches is that it’s okay to be different, to explore the arts in it’s various forms and that you start small and are always becoming. No one becomes famous overnight, it takes effort, and always dedication to your dream. As David liked to dress in a ‘spectacular fashion’, it’s good to dazzle the world with your unique style and it’s okay to express yourself through clothes, music, art- simply to give life to your voice in any form you like to be heard.

A cute, educational, fun series that adults can use to teach children about well known people from all walks of life.

Publication Date: May 26, 2020

Quarto Publishing Group- Frances Lincoln Children’s Books

Square Haunting: Five Writers in London Between the Wars by Francesca Wade

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“Though they arrived at Mecklenburgh Square at different stages in life, moving there provided each of them a fresh start at a critical moment: the way they each chose to set up home in the square was a bold declaration of who they were, and of the life they wanted to lead.”

Square Haunting focuses on the influence living at Mecklenburgh Square in London’s Bloomsbury had on the poet H. D., detective novelist Dorothy L. Sayers, classicist Jane Harrison, economic historian Eileen Power, and author and publisher Virginia Woolf. Each lived here at different times, choosing not the expected path for women, marriage and children, but feeding their ambitions, a break for freedom from the social norms of their time. Here they could ‘follow their own pursuits’, and meet with like minds. They had to work to earn the lives they wanted, of course some had the wealth of family but money was a necessity one always had to fret over. Geography matters, it is always conducive to one’s education to be at the heart of things, politics, revolutions, and around people and places that ‘stimulate the intellect.’ 

We remember these women as established writers but it is the making of them that is often forgotten. Their fears and of course the fight to be more that their mothers before them were ‘allowed’. To reach for the things their fathers and brothers were given simply for being born male, all those opportunities women were shamed for wanting.  In the midst of wars, modern culture on the rise, bohemian life, Bloomsbury was often thought of as a ‘vulgar place’. Here was a changing society, moving fast, too fast for some. But for women, it truly ‘offered a room of one’s own.” Our great authors wanted a different life, Mecklenburgh Square is where they would be shaped, a common thread in their world. Or it is where they were meant to find refuge, and engage with others to escape their own mind.

H.D.’s time spent in Mecklenburgh Square tinted her whole life, writing of how men hindered her (a female) as an artist. Disinterested in being Pounds protégé writing autobiographical work, exposing real people with her pen, layered truths and fiction. Born an outsider, understanding all too well how unrealized dreams could hinder a woman, as with her own mother, she would never confine herself so. Playing with her gender, shirking rules, rebellious and vulnerable, London was just the place Hilda would belong. Enthralled with suffragettes, finding a perfect circle of friends, London itself was a place in her writing that her characters, heroines too could find confidence in ‘work and herself’. H.D’s hungry mind could feed on manuscripts at the British museum, marriage with Aldington was a joining of like minds, but the Bloomsbury sets pleasures were interrupted by war, patriotism. No one could remain untouched. Devastation would come soon enough, personally as well. A place is both freedom and later, “four walls about to crush her”, when her marriage began to crumble with infidelity, and deep loss.  Mecklenburgh was formative, even when she was wrapped in misery, for it is here she found herself.

One common theme is women deciding to be neither male nor female. For “it is fatal to be man or woman pure and simple”, particularly for a writer. For these famous women it reduced them to be one or the other, to be defined, to carry the weight of expectations, of one’s sex, better to be both- to have an ‘androgynous mind’ is the only way to a limitless existence.

Dorothy L. Sayers seemed to torture her long suffering parents with her big dreams, ‘yearning to achieve success through her writing’, she didn’t want to be a teacher. Not surprising from a woman who was one of the first females educated at Oxford. She felt “her brain growing rusty” when she settled upon teaching, so she followed her heart and a man to France and with the sour end of that venture, knew it was London that shined with possibilities. She felt at home immediately at Mecklenburgh Square, where for H.D. it was collapse of her marriage, it was independence for the single Dorothy. Living life differently in London left her with a brave feeling. working on translations for extra money so she could continue to write her poetry and chilling stories. Here she wrote her first novel featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, and everything in her surroundings supplied her with plenty of material for the future of her work. This was the only place that could guarantee her artistic success. In time, love would test her too, and her feelings about her work and social norms. Sayers, just like H.D., would discover the cost of freedom for a woman is much harsher than for any man. Work is where a woman like Sayers healed, and she pored herself into it.

Jane Ellen Harrison is this books enigma, a woman who came to Mecklenburgh Square at the advanced age of 75, “having renounced her comfortable life as a Cambridge don”. She destroyed evidence of the life she led before and as Francesca Wade notes, for Harrison it was a rebirth, not a beginning as it was for H.D. and Sayers before her. It would also be her final home, as she died there. A bit of a myth maker about her own life, what mattered most wasn’t intimate revelations and exposure about herself but that it’s possible to shake off and discard anything that doesn’t provide what is needed, for one’s work or happiness. Many lives, regardless of age, are always possible. Once called one of the cleverest women in England, she too chose of life of intellectual stimulation and  struggled with the in between time of success and uncertainty about her future. She was passed over often, as women often are, for posts that she certainly deserved even if she didn’t like such a fact to be known, never one for being pitied. From Archaeological digs and her study on man-made hierarchies and ” the gradual erosion of women’s importance in Greek society” she drove home with factual evidence the vital roles women played in history, challenging the institutions run by men. What a greater inspiration to other young ladies, and female writers coming of age, then the findings of Jane Ellen Harrison and learned ladies like her? Of course, she was accused of debauching young minds. A woman’s education could go further, and should, then motherhood alone. A staunch believer in being a ‘free woman’, but much like the others also was adamant about not categorizing brains into male/female. Eventually into her life came Hope Mirrlees, a relationship that gave her so much of what she needed.

Eileen Power is another whose history has been partially erased ‘for reasons unknown’ by her own sisters after her death. A serious scholar, but as a woman seen by her male peers as ‘an anomaly’ for women surely aren’t this clever. Subordination seems to be a role women like Power and Harrison fought against and yet understood all too well. Her years in Mecklenburgh Square showed other women there was much open to them, a feminist, a pacifistic, who ‘owned her independence.’  She wanted her work to prosper and her surroundings, home should allow for it. She wasn’t one to let her personal life interfere with her important professional work, but it was vital for her to find like minded female friends with whom she could be herself. Her biggest cause, she said, was the cause of women. That women keep their individuality after marriage, ‘that love is not the only thing in the world’. 

For all the important women in this book, their thoughts echo many of the same things. That they are a person, that love isn’t the only thing in life, that an education, intellectual stimulation, a profession, passion is vital for every human being. Mecklenburgh Square was a hive of activity that fed them with the very things they needed to grow and to freely be themselves. Despite their intelligence, each saw the same “unchallenged assumptions” again and again. Maybe this is why they were found walking straight into what had always been predominately male territory. In London, they were able to cultivate friendships, connections to make the life they wanted a reality, despite the expectations of their time.

Virginia Woolf is the last, her time in Mecklenburgh Square was tense, with ‘political crisis’. There wasn’t fresh hope to be had, for Woolf a cloud of grief followed she and her husband Leonard after a wretched year. They were to manage their time going through a war. Back and forth, solitude and city- for her ‘peace of mind’ during a deep depression. When in Mecklenburgh Square they could entertain and debate with fellow writers. The lively discussions lifted the mood but her storms always returned. Not unlike the women before her, her love life was complicated and non-conventional in it’s own right. Partaking in an affair of her own with Vita Sackville-West, their marriage had it’s problems. Leonard was the one that tried to nourish her so she could write, despite her fragile mind. Like the others, she too was invested in defying conventions, in exploring how such things effect people, their life choices, their happiness, work and love life. It seemed she too was influenced by the environment of Mecklenburgh Square, tacking questions of womanhood, personhood. Yet with the destruction and looming threat, she couldn’t be truly at ease there. She still hadn’t truly found a room of one’s own.

This book is about women shaping their own worlds, trying to be self-sufficient in incredibly  difficult, often chaotic, war-torn times,  breaking with social norms. Wanting nothing more than to be a person, not confined by gender or any other roles society seems fit for them. They struggle with work and relationships, with family and destiny, and some with the state of their own mind. Sometimes the women are contrary, but always curious, intelligent and inspiring. It is an engaging read, sometimes heavy and sad, but it couldn’t be any other way when you strike out to change the world, or discover your place in it.

This is how one place shaped the lives of these famous women. Yes, read it, my review is flimsy by comparison to Wade’s work.

Publication Date: April 7, 2020

Crown Publishing

Tim Duggan Books

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family by Robert Kolker

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Mary’s mother is well practiced at laughing off moments like these, behaving as if nothing is strange. To do anything else would be the same as admitting that she lacks any real control over the situation- that she cannot understand what is happening in her house, much less how to stop it.

Hidden Valley Road is the story of a family, created by Don and Mimi Galvin (ten boys and two girls) picked apart by the ravages of schizophrenia, a disease that takes the foundation of the family and ‘permanently tilted it in the direction of the sick family member’.  What happens when it appears in several family members? When, like the fear of it’s contagion, the parents aim a laser focus on each child afraid they may be next? How does this attention harm every sibling? How can the parents possibly dodge the terror of, ‘who will be next’ ? Is it any surprise that fear of odd behavior in their own children will follow the siblings later in life?

In the beginning, Mimi and Don envisioned a life full of ‘limitless hope and confidence’. Don was ambitious, and war bound after joining the Marine Corp Reserves, before heading out near Okinawa where he was to be stationed during the war in 1945, he married Mimi. While he was away, Mimi gave birth to their firstborn son. Soon followed more children, born while her husband  came and went for his career, at times he was home from Georgetown (finishing his degree) and Rhode Island to the Navy’s General Line School. Focused always on his career, which came first, Mimi was left either trailing after him with the children or awaiting his return alone with their offspring. She with dreams of a lawyer husband and a life where she could raise their brood alongside their family in New York, bided time until the war was over. Don was using the military as a means to his end, a career in law or better yet, political science. The end of his service came but he reneged on their plan and instead joined the Air Force, which lead them surprisingly to Colorado Springs.

Despite Mimi’s disappointment and after many shed tears, she began to appreciate the beauty of their surroundings. Together, she and Don discovered a passion for falconry, one which they shared with their boys, coming of age in the 1950’s. (I found this fascinating). Mimi rushed headfirst into raising her children all on her own without the help of nannies, family anyone. She would raise her boys to be cultured through art, music, nature and as more children came (if Don had his way Mimi would be pregnant forever) she worked even harder at being the best mother anyone could be; their clan would be the ‘model’ American family. Her passion for motherhood knew no bounds! It fed her ego, there was a special pride in ‘being known as a mother would could easily accomplish such a thing’, raising such a brood with unwavering determination and love. Why such a large family, well if it made Don happy, it was her joy to provide more offspring. Personally, as a mother with two children I found her enthusiasm and energy incredible, I get tired just thinking about it.

The dynamic in the couples marriage changed, Don’s career in intelligence yet another thing to keep Mimi at a distance, while she remained the rock for the children through the years, the one left to supervise, a ‘happy warrior’. But her dream of perfect children, everyone in line, the ‘model American family’ was about to shatter. Battling the common childhood illnesses like chicken pox, everyone knowing their chores, cooking, cleaning, for a large family is a mean feat but battling a little understood mental illness in a time where there wasn’t much compassion to be found in anyone straying from the social norms was a terrible mark against you. When the cracks first appeared in the eldest, most adored son (the namesake Don Jr.) who often watched his siblings, bullying them, setting them up against each other, it was largely ignored. The busy family didn’t have time for squabbles, the father’s favorite was believed. Even when he would smash dishes, and act out with violence, Don and Mimi behaved as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening, confusing and horrifying the other children. Something was wrong, no one knew it more than Donald himself. He would take the mental disturbances with him away to college, where it would soon show itself.

With the two older boys eventually out of the house, and Don Sr’s professional prospects, order had to be maintained, there could be no admittance of anything being off kilter. Such a thing is a stain that could ruin Don’s career and the Galvin’s social standing. Maybe the boys wreaked havoc, ending in bruises when they were home visiting, but ‘boys will be boys’ and need to become men and stand on their own. Then Don Jr fell apart, again and again, and it was no longer easy to deny something was wrong, not when it could no longer be hidden from the public too. He would never climb out of his illness, despite medicine, science, doctors best efforts. Worse, the abuse their daughters suffered in silences, denial. The embarrassment of their brother’s illness a thing they felt ashamed about and resentful of.

I can’t do justice in a review, it’s hard to summarize what the entire Galvin family went through, the hope, the fear, the denial and sexual abuse. I think about those decades, where mothers were often blamed for any sign of mental decline, where shame was all that mental illness bought you. When turning to doctors often did more harm than good, even now medication that is meant to help navigate mental illnesses do the body, all it’s organs so much harm, but there aren’t many alternatives beyond avoiding medication altogether and that leaves you exactly in the same abyss you started from. It victimizes the person coping with the illness, but you can’t ignore the voices of the family members that are forced to cope with the illness too. Children that are neglected because the illness consumes so much energy within the family, the physicality of it. Science isn’t moving fast enough, despite leaps like studying the Galvins and why schizophrenia claimed some of the children and not others. It feels too late for the Galvins in many ways. As much as we make judgments about Mimi and Don’s attempt to pretend everything is normal, how can we not empathize, imagining being in their place. Parenting is difficult enough, much of what we deny is fear motivated, comes form a place of love, and sure sometimes our own egos.

I’m always drawn to stories and studies about mental illness. I have a schizophrenic uncle, my own son is on the autism spectrum (he isn’t the only one in our extended family)… but for my uncle, I have seen how people fear mental illness, the hopelessness of my grandmother (when she was still alive) and yet immense love and support for her son who would not take his medication, and lives the life of a loner, often taken advantage of and there is nothing anyone can do. There is so much we do not know, and it’s hard for many to trust doctors when some of their treatments have done more harm than good. It can feel overwhelming and hopeless, your choices limited. Of course we aim to fix things, who wants to watch their family member suffer. It is reality still that with diseases people often find public support, compassion yet where there is mental illness most reactions are fear based and the public often judges those coping with it a ‘lost cause’. It’s the terrible result of little education. Doctors can only treat as well as the scientific discoveries and breakthroughs, but behind the illness are very real human beings.

This book is heartbreaking, and I have great admiration for all the Galvin children  (those still alive are full grown adults now, of course). This is really their story. They own it, they live in the aftermath and each makes choices based on their own emotional compass. Their story broke my heart and it will stay with me. Yes, read it.

Publication Date: April 7, 2020

Doubleday Books

 

 

Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin

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As a writer and mother myself, I am struck by how contemporary Jackson’s dilemmas feel: her devotion to her children coexists uneasily with her fear of losing herself in domesticity.

I have been reading several biographies and memoirs while reading arcs and have been gravitating towards artistic, powerful women like Shirley Jackson- whether they felt powerful in their own lives or not. I am not sure how I missed reading this when it came out in 2016 but I was deeply engaged, losing sleep to get to the end as I couldn’t put this book down. A Rather Haunted Life, indeed. Haunted not by ghosts nor black magic and all things witchy but haunted in the way many women’s lives are, especially in times when making more than your spouse and writing stories that made people uncomfortable were suspect. Haunted by the demands of motherhood, a hunger to write with meaning, expectations of her own parents, by her own insecurities and infidelity, and the severe judging eyes of fans and detractors how could she maintain stability? Those were just some of the demons in her head. One commonality in many writer’s (artists) I have noticed through the years is voice, they turn to it because it’s not just a calling but a way of asserting themselves in the world. Shirley Jackson rumors float around even today, that she was superstitious or studied witchcraft, and surely she fueled it early on herself and why not? It’s an image that sells  (especially if you write creepy stories) but Franklin’s biography dispels Shirley as a myth and makes her a very real person. It encompasses her origins, her family history, her husband Stanley Hyman, her children and everything in between. You cannot really write about Shirley’s passions without including those she spent her life with and loved.  You cannot dismiss the very people that molded, guided her decisions, for better or worse.

Interesting that when Shirley wrote about her domestic life, motherhood it wasn’t what some wanted. Why must a woman be one or the other, a career woman or mommy? Why can’t she have the ability to terrify, to expose the monsters within, to express spirals into madness and yet also adore her children, the little savages, and write about motherhood, the ups and downs of domesticity? As if you can’t be a mother (and enjoy it) and also conjure creepy fiction. Maybe she didn’t concern herself with being a feminist, yet she was. Through her writing, she gave voice to the outsider, and exposed terrifying hypocrisy. It’s strange to root through another’s life posthumously, but Franklin’s writing about many of the struggles Shirley faced lends her stories that much more meaning. She wrote about the fears so many women had then, try so hard to conquer even today! Shirley exposed the cracks in the 1950’s ever smiling, not a hair out of place model of a female. It wasn’t a better time, one was just expected to maintain that happy illusion of everything is fine, nothing to see here. Her own mother certainly had a problem with that, being a fine lady herself. You don’t show the dirt, you sweep it under the rug!

Reading about her relationship with her mother (Geraldine Jackson) gutted me and lends credibility to why she wrote what she did, her characters turning their back on social mores, usually to extreme consequences. It’s no wonder she saw those fine citizens as smoldering with the desire to tar and feather anyone different, to burn them with modern day witch hunts, that she fueled the image of being a witch- there is power in it. It was said of Shirley’s mother, “…she tried valiantly to shape her daughter in her image”, something Geraldine would never succeed at. It weighed on Shirley though, those attempts. Shirley knew all too well how it felt to want to shuck off the past, the expectations of parents (society) and wanted to re-invent herself and the world is very lucky that she didn’t heed the words to  cultivate charm, and “seek out the good in others, rather than explore for evil.” For it is this digging into the psyche and exposing the poison in society that resonates even now with readers. She does away often with the mother, no wonder… Life is funny, children aren’t all little mirrors, and as was the case with Shirley she was the child that would test her mother’s vanity, ego. Shirley was haunted by her mother’s criticisms, unable to even voice how damaging her mother’s words could be, even when Jackson was shining, successful- still never the pretty, little daughter her beautiful mother wanted. We all know how no amount of creative genius in a woman seems to be enough in a world where pretty beats all!

Marrying Stanley Hyman, a highly respected literary critic and professor of literature was a marriage of minds but his feelings for monogamy downright became a torment to Shirley, how could it not? Shirley who spent so much of her life rejected by her mother, who wanted love and acceptance and deserved to feel it, eclipsed in many ways by her husband humiliating her as a woman, with his affairs. She knew early on, is likely the defense, that he did not hold much stock in monogamous relationships, didn’t believe in them. Of course they loved each other, there is no doubt by the accounts within this insightful book but her husband also appears to have put a lot on her shoulders, haranguing her into writing, even when she was unstable. He just didn’t see the toll everything in life was having on her, creating when the pen won’t budge maddening enough without all the haunting of the soul.

There was happiness and this book is by no means all doom and gloom. She and Stanley had romance, he was very impressed by her fiction writing, so much so realizing very early in their courtship he couldn’t compete. She loved him enough to marry someone  her parents weren’t sold on, after-all he was Jewish and you didn’t marry outside your religion. Shirley loved the children they had together, without a doubt! He absolutely admired her talent, they were well matched as much as ill suited, she was more sensitive than her humor, wit would have one believe and he, a cold indifferent partner at times was an obstacle in their love. It was all about their own personal natures coming together, as it is in any relationship. There were ups and downs, they made a life, they had a family, they managed careers- things fell apart, things held together. She never did leave him, did she? Not until her death anyway. Shirley dealt with serious crippling anxiety, even agoraphobia and the medicine back then often exacerbated one’s mental struggles, even her weight loss (dieting) had unhealthy consequences to her mental well being.  It’s fascinating because she struggled with self-acceptance on one hand but was also confident enough in her talents to publish, indulging in her pleasures (food, friends, motherhood) and with her own writing confronted her mother in a roundabout way. She wasn’t a mythical, spell conjuring witch, she was a talented, intelligent, writer, a loving mother, and a loyal wife. She wasn’t one thing, she was many.  This is one of the best biographies I have ever read that deals with it’s subject with humanity, admiration and compassion.  I was surprised by the emotions A Rather Haunted Life evoked within me. I am very happy I finally read it!

This was a beautifully written biography.

Published in 2016

Liveright

 

Born to Be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey by Mark Dery

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Things impermanent, incomplete: these were the sorts of things Gorey loved best.

I was excited to learn months ago that there would be a book coming out about Edward Gorey, the man whose genius inspired the likes of Tim Burton and Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket), among others including Anna Sui. Ahead of his time, the ‘too strange and eccentric nature’ of his creations later found a wider audience, certainly with my generation and those born after. Gorey is the father of it all, a man who found beauty in ‘things withered’ as he took ‘pleasure in that which is old, faded and lonely.’ As to his sexuality, admittedly I am not interested in the speculation so much but can understand his hesitance during his time to claim homosexuality. During his youth, it certainly wasn’t a time embracing any peculiarities of arts nor any deviate from the so-called ‘norms.’ He was flamboyant in his dress, certainly it all seemed to be theater but reading about the way he kept his home, when he finally allowed someone deeper access into it, not everything was about ‘show’, with his home ever changing almost as if a stage for his entertainmen, a show for one. He seemed a man unto himself, someone who lived for his pleasures without the need to explain himself. I always find it interesting when we try to explore the sexuality of others, that it still makes people uncomfortable if someone doesn’t chose a label. Maybe it’s because I have family members who are attracted to people but aren’t (or weren’t for those now deceased) much interested in the complications of relationships, who chose to live their lives freely, to come and go as they pleased and put their time and attention into their passions, be it art, study work, travel. As well as others who once were married and when it ended invested in themselves, didn’t chose to have more relationships later in life. In fact, I see it all the time in neighbors, friends. Not everyone wants someone in their life, at their side all the time and would rather visit with friends and then go home to the quiet of their beloved solitude. Don’t confuse being sometimes alone with chosing to live as a recluse. Why is that so hard to accept? There are people who don’t really feel invested in their sexuality at all, who find their passions in other things beyond the body. Certainly the gay imagery in some of Gorey’s work fuels the whisperings that he was homosexual, as well as his own comments in interviews. There was also the earlier crush.  In fact, Maurice Sendak (himself gay) met Edward Gorey and understood him, the need to hide his sexuality, as well as the struggle as an artist to be taken seriously, to become successful.  Whatever his sexual preference was, Gorey was a wildly creative, fascinating, private man. Before he went to Harvard, his education was delayed by serving in the Army. It’s hard to associate the Edward we all know and love with the clean-cut military picture of one Private Gorey, circa 1943.

His childhood certainly doesn’t seem as ordinary as he led people to believe as you will read about in the chapter entitled “A Suspiciously Normal Childhood”.  As the author asks, is it normal to be ‘cutting your eyeteeth on Victorian Novels’, learning to read at three? What about a grandmother’s madness? Seems he had plenty of gothic drama to fuel his future work, within his own upbringing. As this is a review, I won’t go into more,  it’s in Mark Derry’s book, read it! It seems current times would have been perfect for Gorey’s talents, but maybe for someone enamored of his privacy fame would have been too itchy a coat for the man. Certainly I can imagine the shallow narcissism of our times would have been fodder for his work, even his later plays that seemed to become a bigger passion than releasing books for his fans. We can all learn so much from the pleasure Edward Gorey revelled in while creating something for the sake of doing it simply because you enjoy it and not worrying so much about the reception. In time, those naysayers will come around, which he learned years before with a certain magazine cover he landed after prior rejection. There was a lot I didn’t know about Gorey, and this book isn’t so much about revealing deep dark secrets as it’s a peek into the life of one heck of a peculiar artist, one whose macabre style was rich in texture, his shading with only a pen is incredible, his meticulousness evident with crosshatching. He had a signature style, creepy little stories that an untold number of artists have mimicked, but will we ever know the man fully? A man of biting wit, melodramatic about the smallest events and yet seemingly indifferent about the big stuff, lover of cats who he allowed free reign, even if it meant messing up work he spent hours on, contrary to his core, highly intelligent, a lover of the ballet, avid collector, a lover of things old, faded and lonely. Can we ever know even ourselves? For fans and people new to Edward Gorey, this is a wonderful read.

Available Tomorrow November 6, 2018

Little, Brown and Company

In the Name of the Children: An FBI Agent’s Relentless Pursuit of the Nation’s Worst Predators by Jeffrey L. Rinek, Marilee Strong

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“To handle the horrors we must deal with on a daily basis, many in law enforcement become hardened and compartmentalize their emotions, which has its own deleterious effects. I was not able to do that, nor could I stand at a clinical distance and rely on some technique or one-sixe-fits-all theory of criminality and remain untouched by the horrors I saw.”

During his 30 year career working as a FBI agent, Jeff Rinek witnessed the most vile crimes against children from sexual abuse, torture, abduction, murder and child abuse, sometimes from their family members. I had to read this book in parts, human depravity is beyond belief at times and I had the option of putting it down until I could catch my breath, Rinek and other’s in his line of work don’t have that privilege. I have the utmost respect for the brave men and women that work in this particular field. Not many have the stomach for it, and it isn’t surprising that the work he has done has stayed with him, for how could it not?  This is the stuff of nightmares, but Rinek isn’t writing in the vein of sensationalism. This is a man who has kept every victim and their families within his heart, everything he has experienced has touched his own wife and children. Jeff shares not only the horrific cases he has helped solve, but the troubling ways it effected his family life. How could he not be overwhelming concerned for the safety of his own sons, having seen the darkness that befell so many innocent children? How could he sleep peacefully at night with the images of crime scenes floating in his mind, just as horrible the confessions of child molesters and serial killers thundering in his ears? It’s impossible to truly separate the two worlds.

Jeff Rinek had a way about him that made the criminals feel comfortable enough to confess, I think it is most evident in his dealings with Cary Stayner. Not many could keep their emotions in check enough to empathize with someone who has committed monstrous acts. I know when we label something evil or monstrous it makes it impossible to understand how someone can commit such atrocities and maybe prevent them, but it’s hard not to feel this way. Without his ability to reach into whatever humanity resides in the criminal, we may never know the truth. It is important to be able to understand the psyche of man as much as we can, whether we’re repulsed or not. It matters to the victim’s family, particularly when bodies are missing. Maybe there is truly no such thing as closure, maybe the ‘knowing’ is more horrifying than what the mind can imagine, but living without answers is to be further victimized.

In reading about these tragic, horrifying crimes, it made me think about why it is so important for people to report crimes that happen to them, or things they witness that don’t sit well within them. Nothing truly happens in a bubble, and often in abusive relationships, be they physical or sexual, often men or women go further in victimizing others, especially children (the most helpless and vulnerable of us all). The hard truth is, if someone has harmed you, you aren’t the first, nor likely to be the last. One of the most shocking realities is how often child molestation is enabled by other adults, such as wives. I’m not surprised children don’t come forward more often, the feelings of shame involved, the stigma boys in particular (especially as they become adults) are met with in coming foreward about sexual abuse is heartbreaking. I’m reading another book right now about Evil, it’s more from a  psychological standpoint, but when I read true crime books, or listen to a victim recount their harrowing experiences it is damn hard to want to understand the psyche of criminals. How do you remain removed from cases, its human nature to empathize, particuarly being a mother or father yourself. Of course seeing the body of a child that has been defiled in every way imaginable one would think of their own son or daughter, fear would be rooted inside your being. Rinek dealt with the worst of human nature, how could he not imagine the worse if a phone line home is busy, or his child doesn’t get off his bus?

The violence, ritualized sexual abuse, physical, and mental trauma, torture the children suffered under the ‘religion’ Allen Harrod (their own father) started is as hard to stomach as every story within yet it is with the tenderest of care Rinek, along with others, helped the children find their strength to seek justice and have kept watch over the children long after the case ended. The bravery of Harrod’s eldest daughter in coming forward is incredible, though shocking that it took her going through three different police agencies to get anyone to look into the matter. Without her, who knows how long Harrod and Labrecque’s crimes would have continued, under the guise of religion. Much like the people involved in seeing justice served, it’s gut wrenching to know the truth of how the children suffered, but worse to imagine being the children involved. Human depravity is boundless but it’s knowing the children (their victims) will carry not just physical evidence of their nightmare for the rest of their lives, but have to cope with PTSD, have to navigate the world without an example of healthy family relationships, and in a sense deprogram from what for them was ‘normal’  that remains with you long after reading their story. That these things happen in our so-called ‘modern times’ is worse than any fictional horror I can conjure. You don’t have to be close to the case to feel the frustration and anger at the justice system, how easy it seems for criminals to continue their abuse once captured, still victimizing everyone involved through ‘legal manipulation.’ Then there is the game of going to trial. Evidence is a peculiar thing, what is left out as to not ‘prejudice the jury against the defendant.’ Ridiculous in many cases, such as pictures of adults raping children in this situation shouldn’t it be admissible, doesn’t the victim deserve to see justice served? It’s one thing to hear it, but when there are photos to back the child’s confession, well? Statute of limitations is infuriating in and of itself, if a child comes into adulthood and finally has the ability to seek help, to expose the abuser only to find out they can’t be charged anymore, how is that just? Something is certainly broken. It’s hard not to feel like children don’t matter enough, it certainly feels like criminals often get a slap on the wrist, are released only to commit even more gruesome crimes. But I feel heartened that men and women like Rinek work hard for them, it seems to even the balance, at least a little.

Retired now, Rinek remains just as passionate about making the world a safer place for children and for us all, as he did when he was working full-time. He has remained in contact with the children victimized by Harrod and Labrecque. It is obvious his job was his life, and he is the sort of agent the world needs, someone who puts all of his being into solving crimes, and caring for the victims. It’s hard to review this type of memoir, because it comes from a deeply personal part of Rinek’s life. It’s enough to say that if you can’t even read it, because it’s our natural instinct to close our ears and eyes to terrors, imagine how the victim’s loved ones feel, how the men and women in law enforcement have to go home every night with the knowledge of such horrors branded in their minds. It’s important to be a voice for those who have been silenced, and to see those who have harmed children caught, so they can’t leave more families destroyed.

This truly is an unflinching look into the life of FBI Special Agent Jeff Rinek and how his job effected every facet of his life.

Out today!

BenBella Books