“Manhattan Beach” by Jennifer Egan

Manhattan BeachJennifer Egan’s last novel, 2010’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit From the Goon Squad, was such an unabashedly postmodern work, with its shifting narratives and unconventional storytelling (one large chunk of the book takes the form of a PowerPoint presentation), that many readers no doubt wondered whether her follow-up would be even more experimental. Instead, Egan has written a historical novel set during World War II, which is more conventional but no less ambitious.

According to a New Yorker profile, Egan had been working on Manhattan Beach for 15 years before it was finally published. The book displays a prodigious amount of research, albeit the kind that is seamlessly integrated into the plot, and into Egan’s lyrical prose. Here, for example, is a paragraph describing protagonist Anna Kerrigan’s solitary walk through midtown Manhattan:

“She decided to head back home. Walking toward the IND on Sixth Avenue, she passed a flea circus, a chow-meinery, a sign advertising lectures on what killed Rudolph Valentino. Gradually she began to notice other solitary figures lingering in doorways and under awnings: people with no obvious place they needed to be. Through the plate-glass window of Grant’s at the corner of Sixth, she saw soldiers and sailors eating alone, even a girl or two. Anna watched them through the glass while, behind her, newspaper vendors bawled out the evening headlines: ‘Tripoli falls!’ ‘Russians gaining on Rostov!’ ‘Nazis say the Reich is threatened!’ To Anna, these sounded like captions to the solitary diners. The war had shaken people loose. These isolated people in Grant’s had been shaken loose. And now she, too, had been shaken loose. She sensed how easily she might slide into a cranny of the dimmed-out city and vanish. The possibility touched her physically, like the faint coaxing suction of an undertow. It frightened her, and she hurried toward the subway entrance.”

We first meet Anna at the age of 12 when she accompanies her father Eddie on a visit to the lavish seaside home of Dexter Styles, whose own pampered daughter has more toys than Anna could ever dream of. The need to provide for his younger daughter, severely disabled Lydia, ultimately drives Eddie to work for some dangerous men. A couple years later, Eddie disappears, leaving his wife to care for Lydia on her own.

At the age of 19, Anna goes to work in the Brooklyn Naval Yard, measuring and inspecting parts. Bored with her work, Anna dreams of becoming a diver, working underwater to repair ships. But that is not a job open to women. Anna decides to fight for the position, despite the dismissive attitude of the officer in charge of hiring divers. She also has a chance encounter with Dexter Styles, whom she remembers clearly from the day she visited his home, and wonders if he might possibly know what happened to her father.

We eventually learn much more about Styles and his background, and as his story begins to intersect with Anna’s, she is finally allowed to dive. While the individual pieces seem like they may be ones we’ve encountered before—mobsters, World War II, New York in the 1940s, grief, survival in the face of great odds—Egan’s skill is that she has combined them into a tale that is unique and beautifully told.

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“The Female Persuasion” by Meg Wolitzer

The Female PersuasionI read a lot of books that are primarily plot-driven, but I read Meg Wolitzer’s books because they’re character-driven: she writes so brilliantly about people and what makes them tick. Her 2013 novel The Interestings followed a group of six teenagers who meet at a summer camp, taking them from youth to middle age. The main character in The Female Persuasion, Greer Kadetsky, is only in her early 30s when the book ends, but her mentor, feminist icon Faith Frank, is nearing 80, and the trajectory of Faith’s life may serve as a preview of the difficult choices, sacrifices and compromises which will eventually be faced by Greer.

Greer is a college freshman when a chance encounter with Faith changes the course of her life. After graduation, she goes to work for Faith’s new foundation, Loci, which is well-funded by a venture capitalist. Faith (and Greer) hope they can use the money to help struggling women around the world, but the people who hold the purse strings are more concerned with providing feel-good workshops to affluent Americans. (The descriptions of Loci’s leadership summits sounded like a cross between Oprah’s Super Soul Sessions and Gwyneth Paltrow’s In Goop Health festival.)

Along with Faith and Greer, Wolitzer also pays exquisite attention to the lives of Greer’s boyfriend Cody, her best friend Zee, and Emmett Shrader, the billionaire pumping money into Loci. But the heart of the book is the complicated relationship between Greer and Faith, which is inevitably somewhat one-sided given how famous and beloved Faith is. Looking at a box of gifts given to her over the years by fans, Emmett ponders: “All of these women had needed a connection with Faith. She was plasma to them. Maybe it was a mommy thing, he thought, but maybe it was also: I want to be you. There were so many of these women, just so many. But there was only one Faith.”

In the final chapter of The Female Persuasion, a character refers to “the big terribleness,” a time when “indignity after indignity had taken place, constant hammerstrikes against everything they cared about.” What a tonic it is to read a novel about two strong female characters, with all their flaws and faults, both working toward a world where women “could feel capable and safe and free.”

“Making Up” by Lucy Parker

Making UpMaking Up is the third book in Lucy Parker’s London Celebrities series, which is set in the world of West End theatre. The heroine of this novel, Trix, also appeared in book #2, Pretty Face, which starred her best friend Lily.

Trix is performing in a musical which also features quite a bit of stunt work and acrobatics (I imagined something akin to “Pippin”) when the female star of the show falls and is injured. As one of her understudies, Trix is asked to step in, at least temporarily. However, a bad relationship with a manipulative man who undermined her confidence has left Trix shaken, and she’s not sure she can adequately perform the more difficult role.

Then there’s the show’s new make-up artist, Leo—a former school classmate of Trix’s, and her one-time crush. Not only is he working with her, but he’s also moved into the house she shares with a few other theater people. Leo and Trix immediately clash, but not surprisingly, there’s some sexual tension as well. I knew that Leo was a good guy as soon as it was revealed that HE HAS A PET HEDGEHOG NAMED REGGIE. At that point I would have proposed to him on the spot.

I really appreciated the fact that the main driver of the story is not “will Leo and Trix ever stop fighting and fall in love?” but “will Trix get her self-confidence back?” I think a lot of Parker’s young female readers will learn some important lessons about not letting a romantic partner damage your self-worth and isolate you from your friends; Leo is very supportive of Trix, but it’s clear that this is her journey, and even a cute boyfriend with a pet hedgehog can’t fix all of her problems.

There’s actually more conflict in the book between Trix and Leo’s sister, Cat, who has just returned from a year in New York and is behaving like a brat. (Full disclosure: Leo was actually hedgehog-sitting Reggie for her while she was in the States, but obviously Cat can’t be reunited with her hedgie until she has worked on her own emotional issues.)

With Making Up, Parker has proven that she’s not just writing to a formula in her books, but creating fully-realized and relatable heroines.

“The Glitch” by Elisabeth Cohen

The GlitchSince I have lived in Northern California long enough to have experienced both tech booms, I was immediately interested when I heard about The Glitch, a comic novel set against the backdrop of our local industry. Shelley Stone is one of the few high-powered female CEOs in Silicon Valley; her company, Conch, produces a wearable device that’s sort of like a more-advanced Siri who’s always in your ear. (The Conch provides advice, like “Avoid blood clots and increase productivity by taking a moment to stand and stretch,” along with giving directions and information.)

Shelley believes in her product, but more than anything, she believes in herself. Incredibly driven, Shelley lives a regimented life centered around work (“I manage myself, my actions, my thoughts, my goals, my calories ingested and expended, mood, work deliverables, and long-range planning with an intensity and accountability that I know most people could not handle”), but she does have a husband and two children (their maid speaks Mandarin to the toddlers “so they’ll have perfect tones”).

In the first chapter, the family is visiting Cap Ferrat, France, when 4-year-old Nova disappears. Both Shelley and her husband are on business calls, which they try to continue as they frantically search for their daughter. I thought at that point that the book was going to be about a type A personality who comes to realize the importance of family, but The Glitch is a lot wilder and weirder than that; Nova is found relatively quickly, though the search for her brings Shelley into contact with a mysterious man who figures into the plot later on.

Shelley went from a normal Wisconsin teen to a hyper-ambitious striver after she was struck by lightning shortly before her 20th birthday. Now rising at 3:30 AM (“such a great time to answer email while doing some high-intensity interval training”), she often comes across as the human embodiment of a TED Talk. Elisabeth Cohen must have spent months reading books and listening to speeches given by Silicon Valley thought leaders in order to write using such fluent business-buzzword-speak: “I tried to do some strategic blue-sky thinking, focusing on our Conch mottoes and corporate touchstones: ship and iterate. Moonshot thinking. Fail better.”

On the one hand, Shelley is obviously a deeply unlikable person with seriously screwed-up priorities (“having a family [is] part of my brand”). But on the other, there are so few women leaders in Silicon Valley (or in Fortune 500 boardrooms in general) that when things start going wrong, I will admit I was rooting for her to succeed. The Glitch takes some odd turns into magical realism, then sort of undercuts them with prosaic and sometimes-unconvincing explanations. But on the whole, this is a book I had fun reading, and it’s one I would put in a time capsule so people 50 or 100 years from now can understand what it was like in Silicon Valley circa 2018. By then, maybe everyone will be wearing Conches, or perhaps a similar technology will just be implanted directly into our brains.

The Glitch will be published on May 22. Thanks to Doubleday for the advance copy (via NetGalley).

“The Teddy Bear Habit” by James Lincoln Collier

The Teddy Bear Habit by James Lincoln CollierI thought it might be fun to occasionally revisit a favorite book from my childhood; not surprisingly, I was an avid reader, and I still own a handful of my old kid-lit volumes. One of my most cherished books was The Teddy Bear Habit by James Lincoln Collier, which was first published in 1967. I read it several years after that, and I strongly suspect that even by the late 60s its depiction of a Greenwich Village filled with beatniks and folk singers was already outdated. (Hadn’t the hippies moved in by then?) Still, I was absolutely enraptured by Collier’s depiction of Manhattan.

The book’s hero and narrator, 12-year-old George Stable, lives in Greenwich Village with his dad, a painter who draws comic books on the side. (His mom died when he was a baby.) His father disdains modern music and demands that George study voice with a pretentious British teacher, Mr. Smythe-Jones. However, George is keeping two big secrets: he’s taking guitar lessons from a beatnik named Wiggsy. And he’s got a good-luck charm, an old teddy bear: “I don’t understand it. I just feel stronger and more confident when he’s around… I know it’s a terrible thing for a kid as big as me to go around carrying a teddy bear. It’s a weakness, and it’s embarrassing to me all the time.”

When a chance encounter with a talent scout leads to an audition for a TV show, George has the bright idea of hiding the bear in the body of his acoustic guitar. (Sure, that muffles the sound, but he convinces the producers that “it’s my trademark.”) But then Wiggsy discovers the bear, which becomes a small, stuffed accomplice to a crime committed by the sinister beatnik.

I really enjoyed the way the story is told from George’s first-person point of view, but as a kid growing up in a small Midwestern city, what kept me coming back to The Teddy Bear Habit, which I read and reread numerous times, was the stuff about New York, which seemed as exotic as any foreign land. Even the food was different—George’s favorite snack is the egg cream (a beverage which “contains neither eggs nor cream,” as Wikipedia helpfully notes). I had no idea what exactly was in an egg cream, but when I finally visited New York years later, I made sure to find a soda fountain and order one.

There’s also a wonderful passage in which George needs to travel from Greenwich Village to midtown, “over thirty blocks uptown and three blocks crosstown,” but he doesn’t have enough money to take the bus or subway, so he walks. “The city was just getting started for the day. As I went along people began unlocking their stores, folding back the iron grilles on delicatessen doors, rolling down the awnings of shoe stores, turning on neon signs in the windows of restaurants… The department stores weren’t open, but there were people in some of the windows putting clothes on the plastic models… It was funny to see them carrying models around as if they were logs of wood.” Oh, how I longed to walk those streets myself someday!

Incredibly, considering the book is now 50 years old, both the author and the illustrator (New Yorker favorite Lee Lorenz, whose loose and lively drawings provide a wonderful accompaniment to Collier’s text) are still alive. Lorenz is 85 and Collier is 89. The Manhattan they depicted no longer exists, but I’m grateful that it will live forever within the covers of The Teddy Bear Habit.

“The High Tide Club” by Mary Kay Andrews

The High Tide Club by Mary Kay AndrewsWinter seems to be lingering in many parts of the country (including here in Northern California), so it felt like a good time to escape to the beach—via fiction. Mary Kay Andrews has been called “queen of the beach reads,” and her new book, The High Tide Club, will be published in May, just in time for summer vacation, and you couldn’t ask for a better book to put in your beach bag.

At almost 500 pages, the novel is hefty enough to last a while, and though it’s stuffed with plot—family secrets! Murder! Mysterious strangers! Shocking revelations!—it’s all presented in an easy, breezy way, with lots of short chapters and surprising twists sprinkled throughout the book.

Our heroine is Brooke Trappnell, lawyer and single mom of a three-year-old. She practices law in the small town in Georgia, dealing mainly with petty criminals, DUIs and divorces. So she’s surprised when 99-year-old Josephine Warrick, an eccentric millionaire living in a crumbling mansion on a barrier island, says she wants to hire her. Josephine already has a team of high-powered Atlanta lawyers, but she wants Brooke to try to prevent the state from taking her property in order to make it into public land. She has no heirs and is dying of lung cancer, so time is of the essence.

It turns out that Josephine also wants Brooke to track down her three best friends from the 1930s and 40s (or, more likely considering how long ago that was, their heirs). The quartet called themselves the High Tide Club, and Josephine says she needs to “make amends” to the other three women. When Brooke discovers that one of the High Tide Club members was her own late grandmother, she brings in another lawyer, Gabe Wynant, the senior partner in a prestigious Savannah law firm whom Brooke worked with early in her career, to avoid a conflict of interest. A recent widower, Gabe is a couple decades older than Brooke, but as they work together again, an attraction begins to develop.

“Sometimes the people we think we know the best are the ones with secrets we can’t even fathom,” Brooke’s mom tells her at one point. That’s certainly true of the characters in this book, but by the end, of course, mysteries old and new have been resolved. This is an incredibly fun novel with characters that will feel like old friends by the time you turn the final page.

Note: The High Tide Club will be published on May 8, 2018. Thanks to St. Martin’s Press (via NetGalley) for the review copy.

“White Houses” by Amy Bloom

White Houses by Amy BloomDid they or didn’t they? The question of whether or not Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok were more than friends has been a hot topic ever since their passionate letters were made public in the late 1970s. While historian Doris Kearns Goodwin declared that “whether Hick and Eleanor went beyond kisses and hugs” can never be known, others find the correspondence makes a convincing claim for Roosevelt’s queerness. Here’s an article featuring excerpts from a number of their more romantic letters. Sample: “Hick darling, I just talked to you, darling, it was so good to hear your voice. If I just could take you in my arms… Someday perhaps fate will be kind & let us arrange a life more to our liking.”

The Hick/Roosevelt relationship has been explored in books like Empty Without You: The Intimate Letters Of Eleanor Roosevelt And Lorena Hickok and Eleanor and Hick: The Love Affair That Shaped a First Lady, as well as a play, “Hick: A Love Story.” Now comes Amy Bloom with a fictionalized account of their relationship, which definitely comes down on the “yep, they were lovers” side of the equation. (Franklin Roosevelt, in this telling, is having a long-term affair with his secretary, Missy LeHand, another allegedly-romantic pairing which has been debated by historians.)

Bloom’s novel is narrated by Hickok, who describes her rough upbringing—her mother died when she was quite young, and she left home at the age of 14, escaping her abusive father. She eventually became a successful journalist, the first woman to have a byline in the New York Times. Assigned to interview Eleanor Roosevelt shortly after Franklin had been elected governor of New York, Hickok found herself drawn to her subject. She began covering Eleanor full-time during Franklin’s first presidential campaign. Their relationship heated up when Hickok accompanied Eleanor on a train trip; by the time FDR was in office, it became increasingly clear that Hickok could not cover the administration objectively, so she quit her job with the Associated Press. At times, Hickok even lived in the White House, but in Bloom’s telling, loving Eleanor was not easy—the beloved First Lady always had many demands on her attention. Hickok describes herself as “the brave and battered little dinghy” to Eleanor’s “lighthouse.”

While most of the people in White Houses are historical figures, I’m pretty sure that the Roosevelt cousin Parker Fiske, a key character in the book, is fictional. Fiske is a career diplomat and closeted gay man who is not above using a little blackmail to gain protection for himself; he pops up from time to time to beg Eleanor for a favor or threaten Hickok of the potential consequences if her relationship with the First Lady became public. “People didn’t see his homosexual self coming (unlike yours truly) and that bothered them. He didn’t look at all like that type of man, so everyone who liked him—smart and charming and so good at his job—pretended it didn’t happen, or that somehow it had happened but only due to a mix of bourbon and misunderstanding.” By today’s standards, the fact that Eleanor and Hickok were not able to live openly as lovers does seem sad, but Fiske’s story is ultimately far more tragic, a way for the author to shine a light on the genuine dangers of being gay in an earlier era.

White Houses is obviously not meant to be the final word on the subject, but it offers an interesting and poignant perspective on a relationship that continues to intrigue.