The Resurrection of Joan Ashby: A Novel
“A stunning debut novel. The Resurrection of Joan Ashby by Cherise Wolas encompasses a wealth of superb writing, mature insights, and breathtaking risks . . .”
A stunning debut novel. The Resurrection of Joan Ashby by Cherise Wolas encompasses a wealth of superb writing, mature insights, and breathtaking risks. Joan Ashby emerges as a substantial and realistic character; you can scarcely believe this is a feat of fiction and not biography. The book is not without some minor flaws—a kitschy ending, too many interruptions to the narrative with extraneous material, and some less than credible synchronistic events.
But even these glitches cannot mar the impact and power of the novel.
Wolas places under the microscope and through decades the nuances and expectations of marriage, where two people who love one another yet never truly know each other, gradually grow into two different people. She also microscopically examines motherhood and parent-child bonds.
Joan Ashby, in her early twenties was a rising, celebrated author of two international, bestselling short story collections. Since girlhood she had plotted the path of lifelong authorship: “Read great literature every day. Write every day. Rewrite every day. Avoid crushes and love. Do not entertain any offer of marriage. Never ever have children. Never allow anyone to get in my way.”
Surprising herself Joan falls in love with a handsome eye surgeon, Martin Manning, and marries him once he promises to never to ask her to bear children. Yet she soon falls pregnant and agonizes: “If she had this baby, it meant a second baby, Joan understood that now; the only discussion would be one of timing. Martin would want to create a foundation of family, Manning children . . . The opposite of how Joan lived her life, the opposite of what she required for her work. She knew other women managed both, had for centuries. But most of those women desired motherhood . . . she did not want motherhood, had no underlying faith in her ability to negotiate the enormity of the obligation, had no interest in the supposed majesty of the experience.”
Daniel is born and to her surprise, Joan falls in love with him, dotes on him, and gives up writing (despite her publisher’s admonishments) to tend to him. A strange, young woman, Fancy, enters their lives as Daniel’s nanny. She and Joan bond, and as Joan leaves her writing life behind, she embraces young motherhood, all the commitments of domestic life, and together with Fancy sets up flower and vegetable gardens, orchards and glens on the Manning four-acre property. Several years later Eric is born and mothering him proves to be much more difficult for Joan; she does not bond with this baby as she has with Daniel. Eric is born with an independent streak.
The narrative takes a darker twist when—years later—11-year-old Daniel, a voracious and advanced reader, who has been writing stories about a squirrel named Henry that garners his parents’ praise and pulls the mother-son bond ever tighter, suddenly discovers that his mother is a famous writer. The fact that she hid this part of her life from him, never said a word about her writing, is a shock that ends his burgeoning promise to follow on her path, and strains their bond. This sin of omission (for which she has a well thought through rationale) sets in motion a series of events that a decade later will shatter Joan’s life.
The Manning family is brilliant: Joan the fêted writer; Martin, a pioneer in eye surgery practices that he shares internationally; Daniel, venture capitalist and graduate of Wharton Business School; and Eric, the child Joan could never truly connect with, who drops out of school at 13 when his computer coding skills lead to the creation of a start-up hi-tech company that he sells and at age 22 is a billionaire.
In Wolas’ pages, Joan’s fully embodied motherhood, despite her ambiguous doubts about her role, are brilliantly accurate. Every mother who has sacrificed her ambition and talents for motherhood will find she is reading about herself. Every husband and wife whose marriage is torn apart will gain new perspectives from reading this novel. Every adult child who wonders about their parents’ relationship to one another and to themselves and their siblings will find a mirror shard here.
After a major bombshell blows the family apart, Joan leaves the Manning home in the Virginia suburbs and heads alone to Dharmashala, India, a place and country that has long fascinated her. Here she works hard to reclaim her shattered sense of self: “She is returning to her own beginning, in solitude, writing away—does she want to alter the rhythm, the joy she is at last experiencing again? Her engrained instinct is to keep everything to herself, to keep the facets of her world separated. Like a port-wine birthmark staining the skin over her heart—even if she could remove the mark, laser it away somehow, it would leave behind an outline, a ghost of what she was born into, of the child she became, of the adult who emerged from the ice and flames.”
On one of her excursions into the Himalayan foothills Joan climbs into a temple dug and shaped deep in the rock in the eighth century. She finds herself overcome by the chiseled perfection of the innermost sanctum. She kneels in the stone temple and asks what is she doing precisely:
“Working in words, trying to hurtle herself into her future, undecided about whether, or how extensive, an amputation of her own life is required? She is kneeling in this stone temple, thinking how hard stone is, how it endures for eternity, and when she rises, she knows she is not prepared to leave this remarkable Indian world, not ready to step back into the small world of Virginia, to be with Martin.”
The Resurrection of Joan Ashby is a remarkable achievement. Cherise Wolas is deserving of the laudatory praise her novel is receiving. A rare book such as this comes along only once in a long while.
, contemporary fiction
MY HEARTFELT APPEAL DIRECTED TO REPUBLICAN LEADERS TO DITCH DRUMPF.
LET’S PUT OUR COUNTRY BACK ON A PATH OF SANITY. HE IS AMERICA’S GREATEST FAILURE.
For most of my adult life I’ve been an educator, as well as a freelance journalist and an author, an international expert on the psychology of personality, and since the age of thirteen an anti-apartheid activist in my motherland, South Africa.
Let’s start there—the racist ideological madmen whom we opposed in South Africa at least believed in something, albeit a despicable racist ideology.
Drumpf believes in nothing except himself and his brand…and that’s it. He is non-empathic and unaware of the damage his lies do to other Americans and his country. He’s a racist. He’s a psychologically impaired ego- and megalomaniac. He is in the same league as all the most infamous villains of history. That alone should disqualify him for President.
Drumpf is the most pervasive negative role model for our children and grandchildren.
I’ve written a book on parenting, I’ve taught hundreds, if not into the low thousands of highly intelligent, young people, about moral responsibility, human rights, reality and illusion, and perhaps, most importantly, how to think and write critically.
* Drumpf models that it’s perfectly acceptable to be an ill-prepared, foul-mouthed, morally blind ignoramus. As long as you can lie and lie again, and bully and browbeat, you can be President.
*Drumpf models to them that bluster and bullying, screaming obscenities at individuals and groups is acceptable —after all he’s running for President; he’s the standard-bearer of the Republican Party, he must be okay.
* Drumpf lies and double downs, contradicts himself, lies again. He is a national embarrassment. He is a vaudeville villain, a clown, a con man, a cheat, a liar, a liar, and a liar.
HE IS A PATHOLOGICAL LIAR. He models to America and the world’s children that it’s okay to lie. And lie, and lie.
* He signals to America’s allies and enemies that his word is NEVER TO BE TRUSTED.
* He signals to Americans not only that can WE NEVER TRUST HIM but the sure road ahead if he becomes President will be to upend 240 years of progress, of tearing up the Bill of Rights and the Constitution.
*He is the greatest danger to America’s future and that means the international order too.
Can you imagine Drumpf trying to deal with a major catastrophe; he’ll blame the victims.
He’ll shirk responsibility. He won’t spend time in the White House; he’ll go back to his shyster business dealings. He and his wife will visit occasionally. Pence will be our president except in name…. and on and on.
My heartfelt appeal is directed to Republican leaders TO DITCH DRUMPF. Let’s put our country back on a path of sanity. He is America’s greatest failure.
, human rights
, mind structure
The Astronomer and the Witch: Johannes Kepler’s Fight for his Mother
“Rublack creates an astute and informative study of witchcraft and witch trials.”
The Astronomer and The Witch by Ulinka Rublack at first glance may appear to be a book for history scholars. After all, the author is a well-regarded University of Cambridge don and has written several other academic books. But this book holds many surprises.
Far from dry academic discourse, it is a scintillating read, presenting a fascinating depiction of Johannes Kepler’s 17th century world, a time in Europe of great discoveries and intellectual ferment. Kepler, with his astronomical theses and philosophical canniness, was a well-known intellectual leader with a great many followers. In fact he is one of our most famous scientists.
“Fired by his fascination with cosmic constellations, Kepler, in 1606, published his treatise, De Stella Nova. It reflected on a recent supernova, which he regarded as a new star. The star’s significance lay in the fact that it had appeared close to the conjunction of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn in the sign of Sagittarius. Kepler enthusiastically presented the age he lived in as positively influenced by this very special planetary conjunction. The universe beyond the Moon and planets was mutable. Unlike automatic clocks, which he admired for their enactment of regularity but criticized for their inability to reflect change, God’s world could thus be dynamic, surprising illuminating and varied, if people kept on positively responding to the possibilities of their time.”
You may justifiably ask how such a forward thinking and progressive man could also believe in witchcraft. As Rublack explains, Kepler believed all humans were “tiny specks of dust” who carried God’s image inside them and continued the work of divine creation.
In this worldview those who questioned Christendom were agents of demons and summarily victimized. Witches were the most unsavory manifestations of Satanic influence to undermine God’s divine creation.
Against this background, Rublack creates an astute and informative study of witchcraft and witch trials. Rublack’s meticulous scholarship immerses us into Kepler’s social and cultural milieu. In telling Kepler’s story—his six-year defense of his mother, Katharina Kepler, at her witchcraft trial—Rublack’s prose engrosses with intimate portrayals of village life, family life, prevailing beliefs, and local governance and legal practices. We learn why witchcraft was part of the 17th century mindset and why people feared witches so fiercely. For these people witchcraft was a fact of life.
For decades, Kepler and his mother had a vexed relationship arising from their conflicting personalities. Yet, without question, and despite all his many academic and other commitments, he came to her defense when she was accused of witchcraft and threatened with imprisonment or death. For six years he prevailed upon his connections in high society and government to gain support for his defense. In 1621 he appeared at her final trial.
“Despite Kepler’s attempt in public to present himself as civilized man of reason, he once more struggled to control his fury about Katharina’s criminal trial. Kepler knew he had to convince the Tübingen professors of law that, above all, his family had become victims of failed governance. . . . Kepler developed an implicit analogy between Leonberg’s governor as the ‘moon’ and Duke John Frederick and his ducal council as ‘the sun.’ As the moon had constantly become smaller, it had begun to reflect the sun’s rays only weakly and then completely disappeared. Finally it had covered the sun with darkness to fully eclipse good government.”
Rublack asserts that Kepler was right: Most Württemberg witchcraft trials and the majority of those that ended in a death sentence were prosecuted during John Frederick’s reign (1608–1628), which suggests that he insufficiently controlled his governors. “Ultimately Katharina was unlocked from her iron chain and set free . . . after fourteen months of incarceration under the severest of conditions.”
In the book’s epilogue, Rublack travels to Eltingen, the village in which Katharina was born, and begins her research by reading original trial papers. She also delves into the Third Reich’s fascination with this period in Germany’s history.
The final chapter is the crown to Rublack’s previous achievements in The Astronomer and The Witch. Here she offers an excellent and satisfactory summation of her findings and thoughts.
“The novel is a quick, compulsive read but leaves much untold; however, this is fiction and not comprehensive biography.”
Terrible Virtue by Ellen Feldman is fictional autobiography (told almost exclusively in an imagined first-person narrative voice) of 20th century feminist icon and birth control advocate and activist American, Margaret Sanger.
But is this the autobiography Margaret Sanger would have written if she had chosen to do so toward the end of her life?
The title stems from a Margaret Sanger quote from 1914: “It is only rebel woman, when she gets out of the habits imposed on her by bourgeois convention, who can do some deed of terrible virtue.” She adds: “A woman’s duty: To look the whole world in the face with a go-to-hell look in her eyes, to have an ideal, to speak and act in defiance of convention.”
With these words, Sanger, as Feldman notes, found her mission.
What is also “terrible” in this novel perhaps is the toll Sanger’s lifelong activism imposed on her two husbands, three children and many lovers. Among other questions, Sanger’s crusading raises the dilemma of whether activists living for a cause, can also be married or even raise children. Of course the “virtue” resides in the remarkable effectiveness of the activism Sanger espoused.
The novel takes the reader of a fascinating and compelling gallop through the surface of Sanger’s life as imagined by Feldman. The novel is a quick, compulsive read but leaves much untold; however, this is fiction and not comprehensive biography. Yet the novel does range over the highlights of Sanger’s life from a small town in upstate New York to a final home in Tucson, Arizona.
Sanger was born into poverty, a daughter of an alcoholic free thinker and town renegade and a haggard mother always exhausted by the bearing of and caring for 13 children. Due to the sacrifice of two older and devoted sisters Sanger was able to train as a nurse. Early on she championed several social justice causes, mingling with, learning from, and working with other progressives.
Ultimately she brought her leadership skills, powerful personality, and idealism (abetted by constant awareness of her mother’s childbearing suffering that caused her untimely death) into legalizing contraception. This struggle consumed her life and led often to violent conflict with puritanical, patronizing lawmakers, sentenced her several times to prison, and left her little option to further her work but to seek asylum in Edwardian England.
Sanger’s narrative is interrupted by short accounts from her children, husbands, sisters, and lovers that counterbalance and often confute Sanger’s telling of her life in which she gives short shrift to the great cost she exacted from those she loved and who loved her. Another fascinating element of the novel is the vignette appearances of the likes of Emma Goldman, John Reed, Big Bill Haywood, H. G. Wells, Havelock Ellis, and other luminaries of progressive movements in the early to mid-20th century.
Among many other pioneering ventures, Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in America in 1916 (illegal), founded Planned Parenthood in 1952, and in 1960 heralded Congress’s legal protection of “the Pill.”
This is a timely book. Since 2010 hundreds of new laws chip away at women’s choice, access to contraception, sexual education, and abortion—all passed by conservative lawmakers. Women’s rights are assailed today by the same puritanical zeitgeist that railed against Margaret Sanger in 1916. Sadly, Sanger’s work is not yet completely done.
, Janet Levine
“a well-written, family memoir that tackles broad questions of identity . . .”
Their Promised Land is somewhat quirky: compelling and heartwarming in parts but also long-winded and unremarkable in others. Ian Buruma, the author, is well known in trans-Atlantic literary and intellectual circles as a journalist and socio-political commentator. He teaches politics and writing at Bard College outside of New York City. In this book he is at his best when he philosophizes about individual and familial issues within an often indifferent societal context.
Buruma’s grandparents of the title, Bernard (Bun) and Win had five children. Buruma’s mother was a Schlesinger daughter and his father a Dutchman. The young Buruma grew up in Holland but often visited his grandparents and the extended Schlesinger family in England. The book is developed around the extensive correspondence the author found, long after his grandparents’ deaths, in which with great loyalty and devotion they wrote to one another—whenever they were apart—through their long and frustrating courtship, the First World War, and then the Second World War. These letters are a remarkable record of an ordinary family living in extraordinary times.
Or maybe not quite such an ordinary family.
Both Bernard and Win were English born children of German Jewish immigrants who left Germany for England in the late 1800s. They lived within a few blocks of one another in Hampstead, now a polyglot and diverse suburb of London; then, a German Jewish enclave of wealth, privilege, intellectual fervor and passion for classical music. Aside from their love for one another, their children, and the English countryside, their love of classical music served as a formidable tie. Win was an accomplished violinist, Bernard a music aficionado. Music brought out his deepest emotions and often moved him to tears.
Bernard’s father amassed substantial wealth, and his generosity aided their large and growing family (five children including a son, the famed film director John Schlesinger, the author’s deceased uncle) to live in the manner to which Win and Bernard were accustomed—private schools, holidays abroad, large houses in the countryside—where Win became an adept gardener—stalwart in local village activities, and household help. As Buruma remembers, Christmas was a bravura performance for Win and Bernard, as if by outdoing the neighbors they could be persuaded that this assimilated Jewish family was of the essence of “county English.”
As Buruma tells us “everything about their lives seemed very, very English.” And, “Their loyalty to Britain and its institutions was perhaps extreme, but it came partly from gratitude. The society in which they were born and bred did not turn on them, as Germany had done on its most loyal citizens.” Still, many Britons regarded Jews in their midst as exotic and many resorted to ugly stereotypical responses. Win and Bernard’s pride allowed them to simply ignore these attitudes.
As a young man, Bernard, happy-go-lucky and a rugby player, scarcely completed high school before enlisting to serve in WW1. Win, a few years younger, studied at Oxford but interrupted her studies to train as a nurse at Beech House, a London hospital for injured British Jewish soldiers. Eventually she did graduate from university. After the war Bernard completed his medical studies but was refused a residency at a prestigious London hospital, and he later learned it was because of his Jewish ancestry. Nonetheless he enrolled again to serve in the Second World War and was posted to India as a medical officer who rose there to the highest ranks of medical service administration.
During his absences Win stoically kept the home fires burning in true British “stiff upper lip” fashion, raising the children, doing her duty as required for the war effort, and writing long letters of genteel country life to Bernard.
Undoubtedly their legacy rests on their efforts in the late 1930s to adopt 12 Jewish refugee children from Germany, arrange for their transfer, meet the trains carrying them, buy a house in London to house them, hire a young rabbi to look after them, and then to pay for all their studies. Among the most touching pages of the book are the descriptions of the constant reunions of these refugees with Win and Bernard as they became adults, married, and had families of their own.
Buruma explores with sensitivity questions of class, culture, and identity by looking at how his own grandparents lived as “outsiders who were insiders too.” As he writes, “Devotion to ‘the family’ was perhaps the most Jewish thing about them. The family offered safety, protection, and a refuge. It is a recurring theme in Bernard’s letters and intimately linked to his idea of a ‘haven’. . . . He cultivated a rather Victorian idea of domestic tranquility, a mixture of English coziness and German Gemütlichkeit, something Jews of a different class would have called heimisch.”
And Win, in her letter dated March 2, 1943 writes: “Today, while I was gardening, a time when many thoughts and philosophies run through my mind—I said to myself there are just two things in this world which make me proud and eternally thankful. One is that I am an English woman, privileged to live in the most wonderful country in the world, and the other is that I won the unique and faithful love of such a man as you.”
This book is the uplifting record of a good marriage through almost a century of great horror and darkness.
– See more at: http://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/book-review/their-promised#sthash.FJRdSw9y.dpuf
Tags: human rights
, Jewish history
This is me, this past week, teaching a Philosophy class, in the same classroom, at the same school, as I have done for these past 29 years. I look happy, I am happy, I love teaching. If all there is to teaching is teaching, then, on most days I feel I can teach for ever. But there are meetings, and duties, and obligations, and grades to compute and comments to write, and students to see, and parents to see, and visits to the college office, and plays and other performances and sports events to attend, and (did I mention meetings), new technology to master and more and more pressure on faculty and students alike as the college application process year-by-year encroaches on every corner of high school life. You grow older among a sea of perpetual youth so gradually that you hardly notice your own well of bountiful energy starts to dry up. If your time in the classroom invigorates you, all that time away from the class room drains your internal reservoirs. I am tired. This has been an unusually trying year of ups and downs and I feel it now. So this is no time to make decisions. But for me the transition away from teaching in this pressured environment has already begun. One more year I have said, a heads up, so as to graciously exit (as a older friend once called it) “the little stage” of the class room.
Transitions abound in my life as in your own. Elementary school to middle school, middle school to high school, high school (usually) to college, college to (maybe) grad school, and then usually a job. Along the way transitions to and from relationships, transitions through the individuating process in adolescence into new understandings of parents and family life, experiments with and questions around gender roles and sexuality. Transitions in serious relationships, surviving break up, heart ache, more commitment, then (maybe) marriage, children, divorce, second time around a better fit, illness, death. Children, and the unfolding of unconditional love. Big bumps suddenly in life’s smooth path; divorce or death of a (partner) spouse. How do we recover from those transitions? But we do, although gradually life’s bumps and bruises whittle away at our core.
When I had a recent significant birthday I treated myself to a session with a world famous astrologer (Lawrence Hillman) and he is as good as his reputation. At the end of the session he said you have to find a place you can call home. This statement made me ponder, didn’t my Buddhist teachings say home is where the heart is? Well, yes and no. Metaphorically, yes, but physically no; physically I’ve never much cared for the New England landscape although I love the shore villages in the summer and the tranquil Berkshire Hills, and the mountains of Vermont but New England can never replace my complete at-one-ness with the South African landscape I love. Never home. It is too cold and barren and dead for too much of the year. I crave flowers, color, bird song, scents, warmth and light, sunlight, I am a person of the light. My life is in the USA now. I am an African-American. And I’ve found “home” in south west Florida surrounded by the one-of-a-kind and magnificent Everglades that teeming estuarine environment of great white clouds and blue sky, birds, saw grass and fish. And light and warmth.
This week my counselor suggested I write about transitions because she has so many clients (especially women) experiencing all of the above (and many more), all the time. So perhaps I will. I appreciate your feedback.
Note: The top photograph © Milton Academy 2014; and the other © Janet Levine 2013.
, high school
, human rights
, south africa
From the New York Journal of Books web site
The Last First Day: A Novel
by Carrie Brown.
Reviewed by Janet Levine | Released: September 17, 2013
Publisher: Pantheon (304 pages)
For the past 30 years I have taught at a fairly large New England prep school in the Boston suburbs with an internationally diverse student body—co-ed—and both a boarding and day population. My experience is in many ways lightyears from that of Ruth van Dusen, the protagonist of The Last First Day.
Ruth has been the headmaster’s wife for over 30 years at a fictional, rural New England prep school, Derry School for Boys. But in essence, especially in the evocation of the school as a community—the surface clubby congeniality of the faculty, a world unto itself, a Petrie-dish of emotions, aspirations, disappointments, petty ambition, and empire-building—it is the same.
As another school year is launched Ruth prepares (as she has done for all these years) for welcome back faculty, party at their home—the headmaster’s house—scenes from her severely troubled childhood, courtship, and marriage flash through her mind.
Ruth’s husband Peter is the wise captain who has kept the school afloat through financial storms and social upheavals with a gracious demeanor and boundless tact. They have no children.
They are both aware that Peter—growing visibly older and afflicted with a rare illness—will soon lose his tenure and make way for a younger, more “modern” leader, one more in sync with the changing world of educational mores and innovative technology.
Ruth, at turns angry and sad, faces the loss of what she could have been if she had not willingly if reluctantly, subsumed her life into that of her husband and the school itself.
Carrie Brown utilizes the literary flashback device to an almost alarming degree as we move ever so slowly with Ruth through her catering preparations and her evening marking the van Dusen’s last opening of school. This is a meandering novel not in a hurry to tell its tale.
Ms. Brown works with words like a miniaturist painter does with color and detail. Scenes from the van Dusen’s courtship, early marriage, and later years merge into the slowly fading life of the present with its impending changes and challenges.
This nostalgic (maybe overindulgent) tale almost drowns under the slow, torpid flow of scenes; but we can relish the sensitively evoked detail, like a Vermeer painting, depicting the curves and sandbars of youthful love and then a long union. These are the driftwood and detritus washed up on the banks of a relationship in which both partners know one another too well and (from Ruth’s perspective) often not at all.
Janet Levine is a journalist and author of four books including the novel Leela’s Gift.
, high school