Mary Doria Russell’s The Women of Copper Country

The very first word that occurred to me when I began reading Ms. Russell’s book was “solid”, and then, I swear, there was a sense of relief.  This book is solid, and this is not faint praise.  I knew I could count on it, lean into it, walk around in its rooms and settings and not trip or fall through a weak spot.  Hosanna!

Set in the copper mining country of upper Michigan, the story is a harsh one, based on events arising out of the labor movement of the early Twentieth Century, and in particular the Michigan copper mines strike of 1913 and the Italian Hall disaster.  Characters are, for the most part, actual persons or composites.  There is Anna Klobuchar Clements, the tall woman, wife of a miner, America’s Joan of Arc, who inspired and led a wildcat strike of nearly a year’s duration, protesting low pay, long hours, and dangerous conditions for the miners.  With Anna as its primary figure, the book focuses on the women in the movement, the women behind the miners, their mothers, sisters, wives and daughters.  These women lived with horror and loss on a near weekly basis – crippling, maiming, work-ending injury and death in the mines.  Not if, but when.

Strong material for sure, and with her deft and artistic hand, Ms. Russell knows just what to make of it. Good material and diligent research, skillful plotting and narrative, fully realized characterizations, sure sense of time and place.  It’s all there.  For, you see, Ms. Russell is not only an artist, she knows her craft, and it is craftsmanship that makes this the good book that it is; good and, yes, solid.  A book you are grateful for, that you can count on.  Lean into it.  It will hold.

You’ll have to wait until August 6 for The Women of Copper Country to hit bookstores.  But why wait when you can pre-order this gem? Click here to support your local indie bookstore or here to pre-order from Amazon.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Atria Books via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

John Burnham Schwartz’s The Red Daughter

I doubt the name Svetlana Alliluyeva means anything to most of us today, but Joseph Stalin’s daughter was a political hot potato when she defected from Mother Russia during the Cold War.  Whether you know of her, and regardless of your knowledge of the Cold War and Russian history, you will tear through this novelization of Svetlana’s life.  Mr. Schwartz writes of her confusing and privileged young life and provides the background to her defection, but the story is primarily that of her life after arriving in the U.S., and it is totally engrossing.

Intelligent, guarded and seemingly hard, Svetlana hides her vulnerability and her past, to the extent that she can or is allowed to; but her life as her father’s child and as an adult under the rigid control of Soviet society leaves her unprepared for Western life and choices.  She is haunted by the two nearly adult children she left behind; the U.S.S.R. tantalizes her with them, and U.S. authorities fear her children will be used to lure or harm her.  There is a brief remarriage, and a baby boy born late in Svetlana’s life.  She adores this child, hides his grandfather’s identity from him until he is a young teenager, and there are traumatic consequences.  You will swear that what you have before you is non-fiction reading as fiction, but, no.  The strength of this work is the story – fiction reading as blisteringly masterful fiction.

Available to everyone on April 30, or pre-order at Amazon.com: The Red Daughter: A Novel

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Random House Publishing Group / Random House via NetGalley.  I would like to thank the publisher and the author for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Oscar Hijuelos’ Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise

Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise

I receive advance reading copies (ARCs) from publishers for review purposes from time to time and I always make it a practice to read them in order of publication date.  I do this so my reviews will be as timely as possible and roughly coincide with each book’s release.  So when I finished The Early Stories of Truman Capote (November 23, 2015), I flipped to the next ARC on the list and came up with Oscar Hijuelos’ Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise.  Okay . . . so . . . the book I read immediately preceding the Capote collection was Lynn Cullen’s Twain’s End.  Were the book gods really going to make me read two Twain-based novels nearly right in a row?   Apparently so.  If I weren’t so damned OCD about my hard and fast publication date rule, I would have just put the Hijuelos aside for a month or so and come back to it later, but I’m a little anal about these things so I hunkered down and prepared to dive back into the world of Samuel Clemens.

If you read my November 11, 2015 post on Lynn Cullen’s book, you know that her Twain was a rancorous dude not much interested in giving a rodent’s posterior about anyone but himself.  So I wondered what kind of light Oscar Hijuelos was going to shine on the old coot.  A radically different one as it turns out.

Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise orbits around the actual, lifelong friendship of Mark Twain and Sir Henry Morton Stanley, controversial African explorer and supposed utterer of the legendary “Dr. Livingstone, I presume” line.  Twain comes off more like the revered figure most of us imagine, a better family man and friend than the one Lynn Cullen would have us know.  He’s a relatively considerate pal, a devoted husband and father, and just an all-around much nicer bloke to hang out with.  However, Stanley, not Twain, is the real star of the show here, as his voice is the principal one Hijuelos uses to narrate his sprawling tale.  The novel spans at least 50 or so years and we’re with Stanley every step of the way in his life, beginning with his arrival in New Orleans as a penniless orphan from Wales, to his first meeting with Twain on a Mississippi River steamer (Twain then being known only as Samuel Clemens and prior to his immense literary fame), to the sweltering jungles of both Cuba and Africa and finally to pastoral England.  We even backtrack a little to Stanley’s childhood before his abandonment by his mother and his eventual orphandom (okay, so the jury’s still out on whether “orphandom” is actually a word).

Hijuelos employs several narrative devices to relay the intertwining stories of Twain and Stanley.  At times he writes in the third person, giving the novel the feel of a Stanley biography instead of a fictional interpretation, and I frankly had to remind myself on a multitude of occasions that this wasn’t a biography.  Other times the epistolary voice takes over in the form of letters between Stanley and Twain and correspondence exchanged between Twain and Dorothy Tennant, Stanley’s portraitist wife.  Yet other chapters are set forth in the first person as either Stanley’s or Dorothy’s journal entries.  This constant tone shifting has the whole thing coming off as slightly schizophrenic, and truly the thing works best when it’s simply Stanley doing the talking from the pages of his diary.

For those expecting Hijuelos’ usual exuberant, Cuban-American themed fare, Twain & Stanley is a divergence, although the two men do venture together into Cuba searching for Stanley’s potential adoptive father (NOTE:  The Cuba jaunt is completely fictional, not based on any actual trip taken by the pair, although much of the book is rooted in the facts of their relationship as best could be gleaned from Hijuelos’ extensive research).  In all fairness, the author died unexpectedly before he ever submitted Twain & Stanley for publication so one can only presume that he didn’t get the chance to further shape, polish and winnow down his manuscript prior to his death.  According to his wife’s afterword, Hijuelos had been fascinated by Henry Morton Stanley since his teenage years, and the research and travel that form the underpinnings of this book were a labor of love that spanned more than twelve years.  You have to wonder though, had Hijuelos lived, would he be completely satisfied with the rambling Twain & Stanley we’re left with or would he still have some tweaking to do?

Full Disclosure: A review copy of this book was provided to me by Grand Central Publishing via NetGalley.  I would like to thank the publisher for providing me this opportunity. All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Lynn Cullen’s Twain’s End

Twain's End

Who knew Mark Twain was such an ass?  According to Lynn Cullen’s Twain’s End he was a nasty, bitter old man, and now my perfect little Twain bubble has been burst.  I love Mark Twain – Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer, The Innocents Abroad, Life on the Mississippi – all classics that I’ve read, and sometimes re-read.  No one disputes his status as one of this country’s literary greats.  He was even pretty hot as a younger man (think Tom Selleck in his Magnum, P.I. days).  Not that I’ve got a thing for dead guys, but still.  Mark Twain has always been on a pedestal, unassailable in my mind, and now I might have to rethink this relationship!  But seriously, I do get it that just because the man was an American icon doesn’t mean he was a good person to boot.

 Twain’s End chronicles the relationship between Mark Twain and his personal secretary of many years, Isabel Lyon, and while reading, I had to constantly remind myself that this was a fictionalized account, not necessarily a true telling.  Although written in the third person, the story is told mainly from Lyon’s point of view and Cullen is definitely sympathetic to her.  I’m not sure I was though, but neither was I rooting for Twain.  The relationship between Samuel Clemens and Isabel Lyon was almost certainly more than that of employer/employee, with the two becoming especially close after the death of Clemens’s wife.  Lyon occupied a bedroom adjacent to Clemens’s in his home in Redding, Connecticut even though he had provided her with a residence (oddly referred to as The Lobster Pot) located on his property, and she referred to him incessantly as “the King” or “my King” (with a capital K no less – creeeeepppppyyyyy!)  WTF?  I detect an unhealthy case of hero worship (to put it mildly) here.

Clemens is drawn as a deeply troubled, boorish, egotistical man without much concern or care for the feelings of others, including his own family.  He spends most of his time parading around as Mark Twain (partly to satisfy his fawning public and partly, I suspect, to feed his own massive ego), the bigger-than-life caricature that his fans, and a surprising number of his “friends”, expected to encounter.  Unfortunately, Mark Twain tended to steal the show from Sam Clemens, and as a result, his family and others suffered for it.

Twain sacked Lyon not long after her marriage to Ralph Ashcroft, Twain’s business manager (he fired Ashcroft as well).  Although the marriage was initially blessed by Twain, he ultimately accused Isabel of trying to steal from him and of being a “filthy-minded and salacious slut.”  To back his play and to keep her from speaking out against him, Twain penned a 400-plus page diatribe outlining all of her supposed transgressions.  Tell us what you really think, Mark (or Sam, or whatever you think we should call you).

All of this ugliness really occurred and it’s no spoiler to clue you in on these facts here:  Lynn Cullen reveals the dust-up at the beginning of her book.  Cullen did her research and most of the book is built around and recalls actual events (trips, meetings with celebrities, etc.) that happened among Clemens, Lyon, his wife, his daughters (Clara Clemens in particular, and also seemingly not a very nice person), and others.  Cullen admits she relied heavily on Isabel Lyon’s own diary for her facts so you can’t help but wonder if this might have slung the book too far in Lyon’s favor.  That said, and even though I have yet to read Twain’s own autobiography (Volume One of which was published for the first time in 2010, 100 years after Twain’s death per his wishes), I understand from various reviews that the autobiography tends to back up the fictional account portrayed here.

I enjoyed this book for the most part, being a fan of historical fiction and all, but I have to emphasize again that it reads like a non-fiction report of Twain’s later years, or like Lyon’s memoir (albeit in the third-person) had she actually written it.  You may find yourself taking it as the gospel.

Full Disclosure: A review copy of this book was provided to me by Gallery Books via NetGalley.  I would like to thank the publisher for providing me this opportunity. All opinions expressed herein are my own.