This installment: antique dealing in the ‘30s (f); short stories about confused young folk (f); unusual army buddies in the Indian and Civil Wars (f); reflections on Antarctica (nf); and moving, magnificent bio of Basquiat for kids.
Rare Objects by Kathleen Tessaro
A wonderful seamless historical novel which felt like watching a vivid, engrossing movie. In 1931 in the tough north end of Boston, desperate Maeve snaps up a job with antique dealers. Mr. Kessler sees through her charade, posing as an upper class woman, but says skill in fakery can make sales. She’s fled NYC where she had hopes to make her way but the Depression scotched that. She straddles the worlds of privilege and back home with daring, and takes up with a very complicated young woman, Diana, whose family has been good customers at the shop. (They met in earlier, darker circumstances.) Falls for Diana’s rakish brother, of course, who has roots in South Africa and is engaged in dirty business with diamonds and the Boer War. The underlying theme: there’s strength in what has been broken and then repaired. A thoroughly satisfying read.
Hot Little Hands by Abigail Ulman
Short stories mostly about young people in Australia, England, and America. An easy, artless tone that delivered me right into the lives of these confused characters. The young Russian gymnast who travels to Southern California which was not what she anticipated– where were Johnny Depp et al? The young woman who’s struggling with turning her blog into a commissioned book so she conceives a baby instead with a gay friend. And the peripatetic, utterly baffled English woman detained at customs, on her way home but suspected of intending to stay in the U.S. All too timely. Good stuff!
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry
A vivid blockbuster of a historical novel in which two men become army buddies in the wars against the Indians. Unusual wrinkle: small Irish Thomas loves tall mixed-race John Cole. Their relationship gets them through the horrors of battle and even serves as a livelihood between conscriptions as Thomas plays a woman in minstrel shows. The language is rich and lyrical with touches of vernacular as Thomas narrates. Then they get into the Civil War and experience the grim scene at Andersonville. Finally another skirmish with Indians puts Thomas’s life at risk. Meanwhile they’ve taken an Indian girl under their wing and become a family of sorts. What with the slaughter of the tribes, the slaughter of the buffalo, the slaughter of each other (Rebs and Yanks look alike), and the destruction of lands and people, no wonder we’re such a mess now. What a legacy!
Ice Diaries by Jean McNeil
The author, born in Canada and now based in England, is deeply drawn to both Poles. Here she writes about Antarctica where she joins forces with scientists and shares the gamut of experiences from sublime, heart stirring beauty to dangers to tedium. She brings in related literature, stories of previous expeditions, and climate change concerns. Interwoven is her own tale of growing up with a brutal alcoholic grandfather, then meeting the mother who turned her over to those dreadful progenitors when she was 5 days old and fled. (“I had no idea,” she later tells Jean cryptically.) Jean was flattened by stultifying Canadian society until she could break free. This mix of poetic, philosophical, personal, and analytical is what I love in non-fiction. Very powerful. And guess what—we’re pretty much doomed.
Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat by Javaka Steptoe
Here’s another example of a brilliant biography for kids that celebrates a complex, tortured life with passionate economy. Basquiat’s mother, from Puerto Rico, creates an atmosphere of artistic creation but then is beset by mental illness and the family is broken. He can’t stop drawing, takes his art to the streets and finally becomes famous, never forgetting the source of his inspiration. Steptoe’s illustrations are joyous, original pieces that echo Basquiat’s spirit. The book is especially poignant because the author’s mother also suffers from mental illness. Stirring and profound.
Back next week.