Friday Book Whimsy: The Secrets We Kept

Between the end of World War II and President Ronald Reagan’s stern warning to the Soviet Union —  Mr. Gorbochev, tear down this wall — was a period of fear of communism and secrets about weapons and rocket ships and likely a lot of misunderstanding, not only by the people in power, but by the common folk like you and me. This frightening environment was no more obvious than in the 1950s, when the so-called Red Scare was at its most pronounced.

The Secrets We Kept, by Lara Prescott, is the story of plain ol’ ordinary women who by both chance and circumstance became spies. Or, if not spies, at least secret-keepers. After all, while the men in power dictated the memos, they were the ones who typed them.

But another thing that transpired in the early 1950s was that a man named Boris Pasternak finished the novel on which he had been working for many years. It was called  Dr. Zhivago. And it was the bane of the Soviet Unions leadership’s existence. They would do almost anything to prevent this so-called subversive propaganda from being released.

It is this scenario which resulted in Irina — a quiet, nondescript woman whose mother came from Russia, and Sally — a beautiful if disarming and strong-willed woman, being pulled from the clerical pool to assist in secretly bringing this novel to the United States to be published.

At the same time, Pasterak’s long-time mistress Olga, the model for Lara in Dr. Zhivago, fights her own battle to help with the cause, including many long years in a Soviet prison.

The Secrets We Kept  is a novel of espionage, but it is also a novel of 1950s sexism, love, friendship, and the power of the written word. Based on a true story, the author’s descriptions of this time in our history, and the role the book played, is powerful. I loved the book.

Here is a link to the book.

 

 

Thursday Thoughts

Don’t Push It
Last Thursday, I posted a photo of Bill showing our granddaughter Dagny how to repair the broken wheel on our lawnmower. Unfortunately, as is often the case, it wasn’t as easy to fix as Bill expected. He has been awaiting the arrival of the necessary parts. In the meantime, he went to our shed and, to my surprise, pulled out a manual push mower that I didn’t know he had, and still don’t know why he had it. He actually took a couple of rounds in our back yard before he gave up. He decided a third of an acre was a bit far to push a manual mower….

No Soup For You
Yesterday morning, shortly after Bill got up and came downstairs, I told him I wanted to make soup for dinner. I asked him what kind of soup sounded good to him. There’s nothing Bill likes better than having me begin bombarding him with questions before he’s even had his first cup of coffee. Wouldn’t you love picking out soup flavors when you haven’t even gotten the sleep out of the corner of your eyes? But, bless his heart, he thought for a minute, and then said, “Vegetable beef.” It was a chilly day, and my mom’s vegetable beef soup actually sounded very good. It’s made with beef shanks instead of stew meat, making it particularly savory and yummy. My first spoonful brought my mother to my kitchen table…..

Chip Off the Block
The other day, Bill’s brother David sent me a photo that he had received from one of their cousins. I’m not sure where this was taken, or where Bill and his brother David were when the photo was taken; off to college, maybe. Anyway, what struck me — once again — was the resemblance of Bill to his father. Both very handsome men…..

L-R: Bill’s brother Bruce, his sister Kathy, his father, his brother-in-law Charlie, and his mother. Neither Bill nor I can quite figure out the child; perhaps Charlie and Kathy’s firstborn, Missy.

A Chill in the Air
Though I doubt we have seen the last of warm temperatures, yesterday and today have been quite cool. In fact, yesterday morning I turned on our furnace for the first time. It won’t be long before I quit complaining about the heat and start complaining about the cold!

Ciao.

I Spy

I was born at the tail end of 1953. Throughout my life, I sort of forgot how close my birth was to the end of World War II. Not even 10 years between the end of the war and the birth of this blogger. I can remember things that happened eight years ago — 2011 — like they happened yesterday. That must have been the way my dad and mom felt. My dad, in particular, served in the United States Navy at the end of the war, and his marriage and birth of my sister transpired only a couple of years later. Those days must have felt like yesterday to him, also.

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve read a couple of novels that take place in the 1950s, during the Cold War, and they got me to thinking about my childhood in the 1950s. I do remember the Cold War. I will admit that I have no memory of atomic bomb drills in school, but I certainly remember praying for the conversion of the people of the Soviet Union. Perhaps in a Catholic school, conversion took precedence over what were likely completely useless duck-and-cover drills.

I have only a fleeting memory of the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 and the subsequent so-called Cuban Missile Crisis a year later. My sister Bec, who is five years older, remembers both events clearly, as well as the tension and fear in the room as they watched the television and prayed. Being only 8 years old at the time, I was probably way more interested in playing with my Tiny Tears doll in the bedroom I shared with my sisters, clueless as to how quickly and enormously my life could have changed. While my dad was not a fan of President John F. Kennedy, I think that he supported the tough stand he took against Castro and Khrushchev.

Both of the books that I read —  The Chelsea Girls  by Fiona Davis and more recently The Secrets We Kept, by Lara Prescott (which I will review on Friday) dealt at least in part with the espionage angle of the Cold War. Again, I was a mere urchin when Sen. McCarthy was holding his Senate hearings and everyone was worried that their neighbors might be Commies. But the decades between the presidency of Ike and President Reagan’s order: Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,  are etched clearly in my mind. There were stories almost daily in the news, especially during the 1960s. But more than that, at least as it related to my pre-teen and teenage self, the books and the movies that dealt with spies and espionage and government secrets were plentiful.

So plentiful, in fact, that when the Berlin Wall did come down and the Soviet Union crumbled, authors and movie-makers didn’t quite know what to do. Who should be the villain now? How could you have secret agents and secret double agents when there was nobody on whom to spy? September 11, 2001, provided an enemy for a while, but Americans never had the appetite to make Iranians or Iraqis or Afghans evil in their entirety in the way they could with the Soviets.

My take-away from these two books that I read was that the idea of spying on the Communists for the United States government sounds really cool. I’m pretty sure I could have played the part of a nondescript woman who carries secret documents in her ordinary J.C. Penneys handbag and discreetly and successfully drops them in the potted palm to be picked up by another spy. I would have had a little pearl-handled pistol and a cyanide pill in my billfold.

Alas, instead I am a gray-haired nana who has nothing but a little bottle of water and breath mints in my purse.

Murder Most Foul-er

A day or two after I blogged about my television binge watching habits, and in particular, how I was leisurely watching Midsommer Murders because there were 19 seasons on Netflix, Netflix announced that the program would be removed from their network October 1. At that point I was on about Season 9.

Yikes.

So I commenced to sitting down and watching episode after episode of the program. For the entire month of September, every afternoon and into the evening, I was parked in front of the television, watching Inspector Tom Barnaby, and then when he retired, his cousin Inspector John Barnaby. I watched the parade of sergeants that helped the Chief Inspector(s) solve the murders, all the while wondering how a small community like Midsommer could withstand the loss of four or five people each episode. I dreamed about Midsommer. I began talking with a British accent. I couldn’t stop craving bangers and mash. I would get into the passenger seat of my car, looking for the steering wheel.

Finally, Sunday I felt I simply couldn’t watch another episode. I was at the end of Season 17, and realized that I couldn’t eat another fish or chip. But I’m not a quitter, and I wanted to find out who would replace DSI Nelson. I wondered if the Barnabys would get another dog to replace Sykes. Would little Baby Betty Barnaby finally sleep through the night? So, I compromised. I began watching the first and last episodes of the remaining seasons. The first episodes would let me know if there was a new Detective Sergeant whose name and personality I would have to learn. The last episode would provide any surprises for the next season.

In my blog post about binging, I mentioned that the murders that took place in Midsommer were quite cozy. Maybe a thump on the head or a poison slipped into a cup of tea. But as the television years progressed, I realized that the murders were becoming more and more violent. Brutal, really. It went from a bump on a head with a cricket bat to being run over with an army tank or killed by bites from dozens of poisonous snakes. Really yucky stuff. Nevertheless, I powered on.

But watching the increase in sheer horror as the episodes progressed got me to thinking about our appetite for gore. In 1997, when the first Midsommer murder took place, we could handle a cup of tea laced with strychnine as a murder weapon. By 2019, we were lapping up murders committed by shoving a sharpened stick through into one ear and out the other.

Perhaps it’s because the outside world is getting more and more horrific, but it apparently takes darker plots and more violent murders to get us to pay attention. The same is true of sex scenes, even on television and sometimes even in programs that are in the 7 o’clock time slot. Often when Bill and I are watching one of the programs we like, a scene will make me uncomfortable. That’s when I will turn to Bill and say, “My, we’ve come a long way since Rob and Laura Petrie slept in separate beds.”

I know I sound like my grandmother, but it still seems to me that we are sacrificing clever plot lines and characters and dialogue and replacing it with sex and violence.

By the way, even though Chief Inspector Barnaby and Detective Sergeant Whoever-It-Might-Be face grislier murders, they still do it without a gun in sight. Just sayin’…..

Blessed are the Poor

The other day I had lunch with my daughter-in-law Jll. As we were driving to the restaurant (well, actually she was driving, I was a passenger without even one of those car seats with the little steering wheels that passed as a child safety seat in the mid-20th century), we drove by a man standing at the intersection holding a sign asking for money and God Bless You. The light was green, so we didn’t have one of those internal guilt trips where you think you should give money or should you? Because they might use it to buy drugs or booze. And is that a cigarette they’re smoking because if they can afford cigarettes, they don’t need my Abraham Lincoln.

“I used to carry bags with little containers of shampoo and soap and bottles of water that I would hand to homeless people,” she told me. “I haven’t done that for a while.”

I thought that was very clever and told her so. She admitted that while most were grateful, a few were not because what they really wanted was cash to buy the aforementioned drugs or booze.

Given that conversation, it was an interesting coincidence that this weekend’s Gospel from Luke told the story that Jesus related to the Pharisees about the poor man who was starving and covered with sores and the rich man who dressed in rich garments and ate delicious food. Knowing Jesus’ teachings, it comes as no surprise that the poor man died and went to heaven while the rich man died and went to “the netherworld.” The rich man begged for Lazarus’ help and was told that he had the goods when he was living, but it was now Lazarus who lives in glory.

The moral of the story, of course, isn’t that rich people can’t get to heaven. Of course they can. Instead, Jesus was reminding the Pharisees, and now us, that it doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor. What matters is that you’re generous.

There was a priest, now deceased, who was well-known in the Archdiocese of Denver for being generous to the poor and homeless. He was asked on occasion why he so freely gave money to the homeless when they often spent it unwisely. He responded that it wasn’t up to him to say how they should spend the money he gave. Jesus simply asks us to be generous, not to be judge and jury. We aren’t generous for them; we are generous for ourselves.

I take for granted how lucky I am. I know this because I find myself griping that my steak has too much gristle or I can’t believe I had to eat chicken two nights in a row. As they say: First World problems. I mean to be generous, I really do. I have said for ages now that I want to carry dollar bills in my car and when I have the opportunity, I want to hand one or two to that woman standing with the sign at the intersection, even if she’s talking on an iPhone 11. As Fr. Woody said, it’s not up to us to judge. It’s up to us to be generous. I’m going to the bank tomorrow and get some dollar bills.

Hold me to it.

Saturday Smile: Twins, Separated at Birth

I mentioned this past week that Jen, Bill and I went to see Downton Abbey  at the theater. At one point in the movie, Jen suddenly started to laugh. It was in a scene where the King and Queen of England had brought along their own staff, and their personal chef was trying to take over the kitchen. He was a snobbish French chef. I looked at her quizzically and she whispered to me that the chef — Monsieur Courbet — looked just like Winston.

It happens that Winston is Jen’s puppy — a Yorkie Poo who is more Poo than Yorkie. And he does, indeed, resemble the French chef. See for yourself…..

It has to do with the curly hair and the length of his pointed nose. Despite his decidedly British name, Winston definitely leans toward his French side.

Have a great weekend.

 

Friday Book Whimsy: The Chelsea Girls

Author Fiona Davis writes novels about historic locations and addresses in New York City.  The Dollhouse is about the famous Barbizon Hotel, a safe place to live for young women in the 1920s and 1930s who were alone in NYC and trying to make it on their own.  The Address is a fictional account of a group of folks living at the Dakota Apartments, which was THE place to live in the late 1800s. The Masterpiece told the fictional story of an art institute that at one time was located in Grand Central Station.

In her most recent novel, The Chelsea Girls is located in — no surprise — Hotel Chelsea in NYC. The hotel at one time was the address for artists of all types, from actors to writers to visual artists. It is also the home of our two protagonists — Maxine Mead and Hazel Riley. Both aspiring actresses, they meet working as part of a USO group entertaining troops in Naples at the very end of World War II. Maxine is strong-headed and confident while Hazel lacks confidence. Nevertheless, they become fast friends.

At the end of the war, Hazel returns to New York City and finds a residence at The Chelsea. Maxine goes to L.A. to become an actress. In 1950, she returns to New York, and is integral in getting a play that Hazel has written into the hands of an interested producer. Not only that, but Maxine convinces him that Hazel should be the director. He agrees, provided that Maxine be the leading lady.

Trouble begins when Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s Red Scare turns to the entertainment industry to seek out communist sympathizers. Both Hazel and Maxine get caught up in the trials, leading to a fascinating and educating story that shows both sides of the issue.

I have read all of Davis’ books, and The Chelsea Girls is far and away my favorite of the four. I love books set in the 1950s. I love books set in NYC. And I love books from which I can learn some history. The Chelsea Girls meets all of those criteria.

The characters were complex and interesting. Surprises abounded. A touch of romance and a touch of mystery.

It will probably be one of my favorite books in 2019.

Here is a link to the book.