Monday, May 29, 2006


The Patron Saint of Liars, Ann Patchett, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1992, 336 pp
I've been wanting to read this book ever since I read Bel Canto, by the same author. It was very good, very sad, very unsettling. I finished it about ten days ago and now that I've had time to reflect, I realize that it is truly a women's book. There are two decent men in the book, but even they can't help.

Rose grew up in a town outside Los Angeles with her mother. Her father died when she was three which left her mother very sad. All they had was each other and both were beautiful. Rose grew up almost without any sense of self. It was all about her mother. She married the first man who asked her-Thomas, a quiet man, a nice man, a math teacher. But Rose was not happy being married. When she got pregnant, she got in the car and drove.

She landed at Saint Elizabeth's, in Kentucky, a home for unwed mothers run by nuns. She never let Thomas or her mother know where she was. The rest of the story takes place at Saint Elizabeth's. Rose has a daughter, deciding at the last minute not to give up her baby. The daughter, Cecilia, takes up the story and there is a very cool nun. But Rose is a very strange person who has a lack of human feeling and connection. She is almost autistic, except for the special connection she has with the one nun.

Cecilia has plenty of mothering from nuns and pregnant girls, but not from her mother. Her life is a mystery to her and even at the end, though the chance is there for her to learn the truth, she doesn't and it is heartbreaking for the reader.

So the story is about loss, about failure to be what is expected of a woman, about atonement, about connections, about longing. about freedom not being really an option. It is absolutely beautifully written and I admire Patchett for not making the story wrap up neatly, because in real life it never does and there are no truly happy endings.

Sunday, May 21, 2006


I have been "trying" to write this chapter for about a month. All the "writing" has gone on in my head. In that time, I have bought a car, had it stolen right out of my driveway, gone to work, read about 20 novels and just generally felt bad. 1944 is the year that my parents got married. In a certain way, the year is a prelude to the beginning of me, though I would not be born for another three years. Possibly I have been bogged down in the significance of it all.

My father was a writer; a secret writer in a way. He was never published, except for the United States Steel Annual Report, for which he wrote much of the copy during the years he worked there as an accountant. He also wrote speeches for some of the top executives at USS, as well as helping to prepare statements made during some of the "trustbusting" trials. He was never paid or given any acknowledgement for this extra work, other than being the guy in the office who was called in when they needed someone who could write. I suppose for my father, it was more exciting than bookkeeping.

He also wrote things (usually poems) for any special occasion in the family: birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, etc. My mother told me a few weeks ago that when he gave her the engagement ring on July 4, 1942, it came with a card saying, "This is the day that you lost your independence." My dad was always way ahead of his time and he understood feminism before my mother did.

He passed away in mid-June, 2004. He was one month away from their 60th wedding anniversary and one month away from his 84th birthday. He could not have written anything for those occasions because he was suffering from Alzheimers and had not written for many years. I still miss him terribly. Even when he was in the Alzheimers home and drugged to kingdom come so that he would not spit on or hit the attendants, he never failed to recognize me when I visited him. We had a special bond that survived all my teenage and young adult rebellion as well as all his attempts to mold my life and character.

Here is a lesson in memoir writing then. Apparently a memoir cannot be wholly a linear story. It is a story that spirals and twists because of the way that memory seems to exist in chains of events. So having taken a trip on several of those chains in the last paragraphs, I can now address 1944.

The books I read from 1944 were a mix of Christianity, history, romance, war and racism. Summarized in that way, it sounds pretty much like everyday life on planet earth, but certainly in the literature are some topics or approaches to topics that were not much found in fiction before, particularly race. I try to imagine living in the United States in that year and get the idea that Americans were just somewhat bewildered in trying to understand what was happening to their world. Clinging to traditional values and questioning them at the same time; being terrified by what is going on in Europe and the Far East but annoyed by rationing. It seems to be a conflicted time.

In film, "Casablanca" won Best Picture and Best Director (Michael Curtiz); "Watch on the Rhine" won Best Actor (Paul Lukas) and "Song of Bernadette" won Best Actress (Jennifer Jones). With two war pictures and a deeply religious one, Hollywood certainly mirrored the times.

Popular music included "Don't Fence Me In," "Swinging on a Star," "Sentimental Journey," and "Accentuate the Positive." Not a lot of sorrow in that area.

In the war, while the Germans were still bombing the heck out of England with their V1 and V2 rockets, they were losing so much ground on the Russian front that certain German generals attempted to assassinate Hitler. The Allies took Rome on June 4 and on June 6 (D-Day) began to take back France. Also the Japanese were being pushed back with much loss of life on both sides. The Russian Red Army occupied Poland and Hungary, setting the stage for the Cold War in the next decade. There is a bookstore in Burbank, CA which places the front page of the New York Times of each day from 60 years ago in their front window. I have been walking by and reading it for years now. Practically the entire page was about the war every day in 1944. It was just about the only news there was and very intense.

However, it was an election year and FDR was elected for an unprecedented fourth term. No changing horses mid-stream for the American people during World War II, no matter how much they hated that income tax. (I may not have this accurately, but I believe there is now an amendment to the US Constitution allowing the same person to serve as President for only two terms.) Roosevelt, at great cost to his health, attended a meeting with Churchill in Quebec and hosted a conference in Washington, DC, to begin talks about forming the United Nations. In the midst of all this, Vietnam achieved its independence from France, but little did anyone realize where that would lead.

The cost of living in the United States rose almost 30% in 1944. Government contracts for war production brought about huge booms in many corporations, including United States Steel, the company my father would return to in peacetime. The first uranium pile was built in Tennessee, the cyclotron was completed in Washington and quinine was finally synthesized, so we could send soldiers and missionaries into malarial areas with less risk.

Life for my future parents was calm in comparison, but they finally overrode their families' wishes and were married on July 15 of this year. It was also my dad's 24th birthday. He got leave from his base in Philadelphia and arrived in Michigan the day before the wedding. That night he came to my mother with something he had written about what he planned for their life together. She thinks she has it still somewhere but doesn't know for sure where it is. I would so much like to see that.

Their wedding day dawned with rain and clouds. The wedding took place at 3:00 pm at St John's Lutheran Church in Port Hope, Michigan. My mother's sister Shirley and my father's sister Lois were the bridesmaids. My mother's brother Carlton was one usher. My father's cousin Walter was supposed to be the other. They had grown up together, but Walter was by this time an alcoholic and somehow missed his bus connection in Detroit. (We assume he was in the bar.) So Carlton's wife's brother took his place. Just as my parents were standing at the altar being pronounced man and wife, the sun broke through the clouds and shone on them through the stained-glass window. Mom took it as a good omen.

The wedding dinner was at the Port Hope Hotel. It was attended by 25 family members and friends. My grandmother Engle made the wedding cake: angel food with the eggwhites hand-whipped by her. In the one surviving wedding picture, my mother stands with the train of her dress arranged around her feet, close to my father in his army uniform. They are young, she is beautiful, he is handsome and they look very happy and relaxed. That night they took off in Carlton's car and spent the night at the Bay City Hotel. After three days in the lovely Lake Huron shore town of East Tawas, they got on a train together and headed for Philadelphia to begin their married life.

It seems odd to me that my dad had not lined up anywhere for them to live, but possibly he hadn't had time. In any case, they spent the first week in Philadelphia staying at the YMCA. It was hot and my mom could not sleep. During the day she learned her way around the city on public transportation and hunted for a place for them to live. After looking at terrible small apartments she finally saw an ad for the second floor of a row house at the end of a street on the last stop of the elevated train and that is where they settled. It was next to a park where they walked to escape the heat in the evenings. On my dad's army pay, walking was about the only entertainment they could afford, but my mom made friends with the local butcher, who would slip sticks of butter and other rationed items into her shopping bag, once he learned that her husband was in the service.

My mom can make friends with almost anyone, a trait she luckily passed on to me. They soon had friends in the neighborhood and found a little mission church to attend. Mom played the organ and Dad took up collection, which pleased the congregation because he was in uniform. When God is on your side, how appropriate to give your church donations to a soldier.

For a while my mom had a job at Wannamaker's, a famous Philadelphia department store, in the stationary department. But her beloved Uncle Howard died in December, so she quit her job to go to the funeral. I don't think she ever had a job again until after my sisters and I were grown. She channeled her musical talent into playing organ, singing in church choirs and teaching her daughters to play the piano. Her considerable common sense and ability to face new situations were brought to bear on running a house and raising three girls. For the remainder of 1944, I am sure she had her hands full keeping my dad in a good mood and figuring out what to make for dinner.

Saturday, May 06, 2006


Long hiatus. Life intervenes. I am back to finish up 1944 this weekend and move on to some more recent books read. Here are the remaining books I read for 1944:

Presidential Agent, Upton Sinclair, The Viking Press, 1944, 655 pp
Lanny Budd carries on. He meets President Roosevelt and becomes one of his agents, sending back reports about what is going on behind the scenes in Europe including Nazi Germany. I learned plenty more about the events leading up to World War II.

Lanny loses Trudi, his secret wife who worked for the resistance. He assumes that the Nazis got her, tries to find and rescue her but is unsuccessful. Later he learns that she died in a concentration camp. The book ends before Hitler takes Poland or war has started but it is on the brink. Lanny is understandably depressed but at the end decides to continue doing what he can.

As usual, the story is good and kept me going through all those pages. Sinclair was obviously a fan of FDR and the New Deal. He lived until 1968 and kept writing books into the 50s. It will be interesting to see how his views develop.

Pulitzer Prize Winner:
Journey in the Dark, Martin Flavin, Groset & Dunlap Publishers, 1943, 432 pp
Here is a book I would possibly never have read except for this reading project. It was an important book for my memoir because it shows how a whole segment of American social history came to its final end with World War II.

Sam Braden grows up in a rather poor family, determines not to be poor and makes plenty of money, but does not find happiness, of course. The pursuit of the bitch-goddess success has not changed in this country, but the change in the 40s was due to a more broad-based democracy, the rise of the little guy and yet the loss of some kind of innocence and a quieter sort of life. It was Flavin's portrayal of this change that probably won him the Pulitzer.

I looked up the author and found that he mainly wrote plays. This seems to have been his only novel.

Newbery Award:
Rabbit Hill, The Viking Press, 1944, 128 pp
This wonderful story was like a precursor of ecology. It is the story of a piece of property from the animals' point of view. An abandoned house is bought and inhabited by very enlightened, animal friendly people. The animals in the area go from very hard times to a sort of animal utopia, as the people plant fields and gardens with enough for the humans and the animals.

The animal characters are fully developed with Georgie, a young rabbit, being the main character. It is all done in the tradition of The Borrowers and also reminded me of Richard Adams and Watership Down. Very good stuff. I wanted to make all the agri-business people and polluters of the world read this book and take a very hard test on it to retain their right to do business.

Caldecott Medal Winner:
Prayer For a Child, Rachel Field, Simon & Schuster, Inc, 1944, 28 pp
The illustrations by Elizabeth Orton Jones are excellent. The text is a prayer and it is pretty sappy although I probably would have liked it as a child. It fits right in with the still strong Christian influence of the society of the 1940s.