Saturday, August 1, 2015

'The Ladies of Managua' author considers generations, cultures in collision



There's a bit of magic in Eleni Gage's life. She's willing to follow her instincts, and those of trusted others—so much so that she picked a wedding date a year ahead of time, before even meeting her eventual husband.
Oh, yes, she did. They married on 10-10-10. More about that later.
Gage has pursued a busy freelance and full-time career at magazines and is now executive editor of Martha Stewart Weddings, mother of two small children, and an author. In May, St. Martin's Press published "The Ladies of Managua," her second novel, third book.
Born in Greece, she grew up in Athens and North Grafton (where her parents, Nicholas and Jane Gage, still live). She is named after her grandmother, Eleni Gatzoyiannis—executed by Communist forces for whisking her children out of Greece to keep them out of Communist "training" camps. The children settled in the Worcester area, and one of them, Nicholas, became a New York Times reporter who researched his mother's death before writing an award-winning book, "Eleni." That book became a movie starring John Malkovich and Kate Nelligan in 1985.
With creative parents (Jane has turned to photography and art), and her brother Christos a screenwriter, she may have been destined to write as well, but she didn't plan it that way.
"I wanted to be a teacher. I saw my parents writing, and from the perspective of a child it looks fairly boring—you sit at the computer a lot. But it was a way of looking at things and observing things. Mom's not Greek, and she was always pointing out to me, 'Look at that ritual or celebration," "Isn't it interesting the way this is cooked or this holiday is celebrated?' So when I went to college, I studied folklore and mythology, because I became so interested in ritual and cultures—in what makes up a person's identity." That is what she has written about in her books and many of her travel articles.
After graduating from Harvard, she landed a role as editorial assistant (later associate editor) at "Allure" magazine. She moved on to "Elle" and "InStyle," later becoming beauty editor at "People." But with a solid career—still not teaching—she wanted to do more.
On a visit to Greece, she began writing a travel memoir, "North of Ithaka." She credits the elder residents of her grandmother's small village, Lia, who sat outside for part of each day and shared stories, for the memories and traditions that fed into her writing. "We were there overseeing the rebuilding of my grandmother's house, which had fallen into ruin after the Greek civil war," she said.
The memoir drew fans, but presented her with another problem. "A lot of people loved it, but I also got, from relatives, why did or didn't you do this?" She began to think writing fiction might be better.
One doesn't just sit down and become a novelist, however.
She pursued an MFA (Master's degree in fine arts) from Columbia University and achieved another goal: "I taught while I was getting it." She also wrote the draft of a novel. Later, she re-entered the freelance world, successfully publishing articles in travel and lifestyle magazines. (She has also contributed to The New York Times, Parade, and The American Scholar.)
She was researching a novel, when an Indian astrologer predicted her marriage to "a soft-hearted businessman" on 10-10-10, she chose that date for her wedding. She did, indeed, meet that businessman, a Nicaraguan coffee trader named Emilio Baltadano. "Other Waters" is about an Indian-American psychiatrist convinced her family is cursed. Its themes revolve around multi-cultural identity and conflict. The novel was released to good reviews in early 2012.
It was through her husband that seeds were sown for "The Ladies of Managua." The couple brought their first child to meet her Nicaraguan family. "We lived there for seven months between 2012 and 2013, in Grenada. He told me about his grandmother, who had gone to convent school in New Orleans during the late 1940s to '50s." His grandmother's own star-crossed romance as an adolescent led Gage to imagine one of the three characters who narrate the latest novel—her favorite, as it turns out. Her first draft took shape.
"I learned about the things girls learned in these schools: how to set a nice table, how to get into a cab properly." This set the character of Isabella in the novel, mother to the revolutionary Ninexin and grandmother to Maria Vazquez, who returns to Nicaragua for her grandfather's funeral. "I loved writing about her (Isabella); I feel like, as women we're always trying to figure out the rules of the world around us. We're raised to listen to the rules of society, as opposed to men, and I sort of realized by the time you figure out the rules, they've all changed. Older women carry so many worlds inside them—both the societies that don't exist anymore, and themselves at a younger age. I like how they (older women) are kind of uncensored. People of that age stop worrying about what others think."
She studied the revolution from the writings of a prominent Nicaraguan writer-revolutionary, Gioconda Belli. "I read a lot of books and articles by her; she wrote about coming across her daughter's college entrance essay (her daughter was raised in the United States, as is the character Maria). In it, her daughter wrote that she wished her mother had been around more. Belli felt badly when she read the essay, but her daughter told her it was alright, saying, 'You couldn't have been a good revolutionary and a good mother.' That inspired me for the conflict between daughter and mother. Guilt is hard to escape, especially for women. You're expected to do certain things. Raise your kids a certain way. Ninexin wanted to change society and was a little more fearless in that way, but the judgments of the people she loved weighed on her. She had this secret about Manuel (Maria's father) that she couldn't reveal because he was a national hero, and was a hero in his daughter's mind."

Their secrets, and their passage across years of disappointment and misunderstanding to find each other again, is what makes "The Ladies of Managua" a deeply satisfying novel. "They're all intelligent and I think they're all pretty passionate about things—but the difference comes in that they're all passionate about different things."
She wrote the novel in three voices, as "a way of exploring how much we can misunderstand even the people closest to us. Often, they don't know what we're thinking. So that was a really fun exercise."
She read a lot about women in Nicaragua and the revolution, while there. "There are not many novels written about that period of history in Nicaragua. But if you think of World War II, and about our own Civil War—how many books have been written about that?"
In September 2013, she became executive editor at Martha Stewart Weddings, living in New York City. "I have a great day job for a writer. You are exercising the skills that you use in writing; I'm writing and editing all day long, so that is really nice, and I enjoy the people I work with, but I do feel like there's never enough time in the world to do the things I want to do."
She finished working on "The Ladies of Managua" over the course of 18 free Fridays. With kids you have to plan carefully. She did a brief  book tour during maternity leave for her four-month-old. "It's a little crazy bringing the kids, but a lot of that is done digitally these days. You can blog or Skype with book clubs, or things like that. I try to fit in events when I'm going to places anyway. I was in Miami for my husband's work, and I did a reading there."
She hopes to do another book, when time allows, setting it in Greece again. But at present, she's enjoying the release of her newest, busy mothering her 4-year and 4-month-old children, and working full-time. She has learned to write whenever she can, wherever she is. "If you've got 20 minutes, sit down and write. You can edit it later. You can't wait for those magical moments when you'll have all the time in the world.
The author blogs at theliminalstage.com. There, she writes about themes of identity, family and cultural differences.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Talking over Go Set a Watchman a great book club opportunity



As everyone weighs in on Harper Lee's "Go Set a Watchman," let's consider it as a book club selection.
There's a lot to argue about.
Realize: This is not the same book, not the same plot, not the same Atticus, and not consistently crafted. Although it occurs later in time (Scout is grown up) it was written before "To Kill a Mockingbird." That's important, because Lee's writing skill was not what it became on a second approach. She is a good writer, but she's undisciplined here.
As two million or so people have now learned, you can't judge a book by its author. I tried to read "... Watchman" with an open mind. That mind has now closed the book, finished.
As a fall book club topic, it's a natural. There is much to debate.
First off, high praise for the nameless editor who persuaded Harper Lee to shelve this book in the first place and create another, based on the young Jean Louise—whom the world knows as "Scout." Jean Louise's childhood memories in "Go Set a Watchman" are far more interesting than the rest of the overwritten novel. The result of that advice, "To Kill a Mockingbird," is a beautiful, impactful book with memorable characters. "Watchman" is not.
Yet, it's a bit unfair to compare the two, as clubs must do. They are not companion pieces. (They are, however, a publisher's dream.)
In "...Watchman," we meet Scout—now Jean Louise Finch, five years into her career. She's working in New York City and visiting her father in Maycomb annually, and she's ready to say "yes" to a childhood friend she doesn't really love because she's susceptible to the siren call of traditional marriage and family, although reluctant to commit. As it's set in a time of early civil rights unrest, the book basically revolves around a horrific revelation about Atticus. You'll have to decide for yourself what his motivations are and how much they reflect the times vs. his character.
This is an immature work, beautiful in parts, funny in others. It's also stocked with exaggerated characters, awkward narrative shifts, and a nearly incomprehensible, poorly written climax, in which Jean Louise rails hysterically against her father's betrayal of all she believes he stands for. Lee wraps it up with a epiphany of sorts for Scout.
The plot plods, especially over first hundred pages—a little too much Jan Karon and not enough Harper Lee. But the racial unrest is real, reflected in the characters and in situations Jean Louise confronts.
Reading both books is the best way for club members to grasp the enormous task of making a weak novel into a good one. Sometimes, an author has to throw out what doesn't work. The question is whether people can and should separate the two works. And whether Lee should have thrown this out.
The society of the confederate flag, segregation and slavery, in the early years of the civil rights movement, haunts Jean Louise. And, she says, "I need a watchman to lead me around and declare what he seeth every hour on the hour. I need a watchman to tell me this is what a man says but this is what he means, to draw a line down the middle and say here is this justice and there is that justice and make me understand the difference."
But the novel dissipates into confusion, histrionics and an emotional morass, at least in my reading.
Borrow, don't buy, "Go Set a Watchman" new. There'll be many copies available at used books sales in the fall.
Book clubs, Facebook style
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerman is gearing up his 50,000 minions—err, Facebook users—to read a book!
Zuckerman set up a "virtual" book club, dubbed "A Year of Books," geared toward history, technology, various cultures. Lecturers, experts, geniuses—expect the unexpected. He announces a new choice every two weeks on a dedicated Facebook page, A Year of Books. Michelle Alexander's "The New Jim Crow" is a recent selection. Alexander is a civil rights lawyer writing about the realities of incarceration specific to African-American man, certainly a hot topic in our society.
Earlier choices (and discussions) include: "Dealing with China" by Henry M. Paulson Jr.; "Orwell's Revenge" by Peter Huber; "Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration" by Ed Catmull; "On Immunity" by Eula Biss; "Gang Leader for a Day" by Sudhir Venkatesh; "The Better Angels of Our Nature" by Steven Pinker, psychology professor at Harvard.
Your group may find one of these books perfect for discussion.
Book group meetings
At Haston Library in North Brookfield, Ellen Smith says, the club is reading "Orphan Train" by Christina Baker Kline for its Aug. 25 meeting. The group meets the last Tuesday at 7 p.m.
Robin Brzozowski leads one of two book groups at Athol Public Library. Booked for Lunch (nice name!) meets the fourth Monday, noon to 1 p.m., with refreshments from Friends of the Library. New member drop-in visits are fine. "We read popular fiction, a few non-fiction selections and an occasional classic," says Brzozowski. "Our discussions are intelligent and they are quite lively. Everyone is given the opportunity to share their thoughts, followed by an informal roundtable discussion." Contact the library for September's selection.
Book club at Sterling Library will resume at 1 p.m., Sept. 2, with a classic selection, Dostoyevsky's "Crime and Punishment."
At Southbridge, members will meet at 6:30 p.m., Aug. 3, in Jacob Edwards Library to discuss "This Boy's Life" by Tobias Wolff.
The evening book group at Thayer Memorial Library will meet July 28 to discuss Kafka's "The Trial" and Aug. 25, to discuss "Unbroken" by Laura Hillenbrand.
The Worcester Public Library book club, says Morgan Manzella, next meets at 2:30 p.m., Aug. 8, and 3 p.m., Aug. 12, to discuss Neil Gaiman's "American Gods."
The Women's Issues Book Group of National Organization for Women meets the second Monday monthly, 7 p.m., at Barnes & Noble, 541 Lincoln St., Worcester. Up next (Aug. 10) is Sonia Sotomayor's "My Beloved World." Sotomayor is the first Hispanic to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court; she writes of her life, beginning at a Bronx house project.
The Friday Morning Book Club at Northborough Public Library has slated "Call the Nurse" by Mary MacLeod for 10 a.m., Aug. 14.
At Westborough Public Library, readers will discuss "The God of Small Things" by Arundhati Roy at the 7 p.m., Aug. 3 Monday Evening Book Discussion.
Douglas Library Book Group will consider Pearl Buck’s "The Good Earth" at 6:30 p.m., Aug. 11. A copy of the book may be borrowed through Simon Fairfield Public Library, 508-476-2695. New members are welcome, says Director Justin Snook. Homemade refreshments, inspired by the title, will be served.
Leominster's Brown Bag Book Club, which meets at noon, Aug. 6, will discuss Lisa Genovra's "Left Neglected." Leader Jane Maguire says the Sept. 3 meeting topic is "Infidel" by Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Send comments, questions or suggestions to ann.frantz@gmail.com
 

Monday, June 29, 2015

Back to the Beach--and more good reading!



Beach-goers of the meditative sort, and some who are not so much thoughtful as seeking entertainment, eagerly shove paperbacks into their gear this time of year. No doubt, they're taking advantage of free time to catch up on intended or suggested reads. Some are reading to find good choices for next fall's meetings. Regardless of reason, here is a knapsack full of fun.
First off, I've found a couple good writers based in Nantucket. These island residents write—a lot—and specialize in the women's fiction genre, which includes emotions and relationships immersed in a character-rich plot. Nancy Thayer and Erin Hilderbrand are both popular, best-selling authors. Their books entertain, and also give those unfamiliar with this vacation spot a glimpse of island life and places (that may actually exist) to visit.
Thayer recently released "The Guest Cottage," in which two single parents accidentally co-rent a Nantucket house. One is a widower and the other has been brutally dumped by her philandering husband. Amid competing outside temptations, they mend their broken lives. It's well written, and the children's confusion—as they deal with grief and separation—complements the main theme. As the author of 23 novels and a variety of short stories published in "Redbook" magazine, Thayer is no stranger to family themes and the strong emotions associated with love and loss. It's quick, enjoyable fare.
I read two of Hilderbrand's books: "Summerland" and "The Matchmaker." Both were fun, but I particularly enjoyed the latter, in which the action is juxtaposed with comments from characters whose lives were changed by the protagonist's matchmaking. She senses a good match, but is unable to trust her instincts when it comes to making her own romantic choices. Hilderbrand was at a Worcester reading with Hank Phillippi Ryan during May.
I don't know this writer, but you may want to check out Cynthia Riggs' mysteries, set on Martha's Vineyard. She's an island native who has written multiple mysteries about a 92-year-old amateur detective. That's different! Her new books include "Murder on C-Dock" and "Poison Ivy." There are, of course, many more authors who reside or summer on the Cape and islands, so ask at local bookstores when you arrive. That's a good idea regardless of where you find yourself this summer.
Next, a few authors sent in additional suggestions to the summer reads we published last month. A good idea is welcome, so ...
"Here are three," said Chris Bohjalian (his newest is 'Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands'). "I was riveted by Jill Alexander Essbaum’s novel, 'Hausfrau,' a re-imagining of 'Anna Karenina' set in Zurich in the present. It is poignant, exquisitely written, and (yes) incredibly hot. (And I mean hot in a good way, not in a Paris Hilton sort of way.) I savored Nick Hornby’s 'Funny Girl,' a novel set in the world of British TV in the 1960s. It helped me endure the fact I know longer have 'Mad Men' to feed my 1960s addiction. And I will never look at Scientology quite the same way again after Lawrence Wright’s 'Going Clear,' his history of L. Ron Hubbard and the organization he founded in the 1950s."
Daniel Bruce Brown of Westborough ("Roll Over Hitler," "The Fifth Season") says, "I’d certainly recommend anything by Kurt Vonnegut. 'Bluebeard' and 'Galapagos' in particular."
Dave Ellis, president of the Brande Foundation and an educator and leadership professional, is the author of "Becoming a Master Student," "Falling Awake," "Creating Your Future" and several other educational and leadership-oriented books. "I just read three books in a row by the same author," he said. "I have never done that. I was captivated by his style and the stories. His name is Glenn Cooper. I read: 'The Keeper of the Library,' 'The Tenth Chamber,' and 'Library of the Dead.' I also enjoyed 'The Circle' and 'Zeitoun' by Dave Eggers."
Thanks, guys.
A Quick note
Matthew Quick, formerly of Holden but now living in North Carolina, has published a sixth novel. HarperCollins released his newest, "Love May Fail," in mid-June. Quick is the author of "The Silver Linings Playbook." Based on the description, intertwining a noble quest with a cast of very strange characters, I'm expecting a pretty good read. (See June 14 Telegram & Gazette for an interview with Quick.)
Gerritsen launches War on Alzheimer's
Writer-physician Tess Gerritsen has started an effort to further research on the illness which took her father's life. Her campaign is at www.gofundme.com/WOA-2015. Since her fictional Rizzoli & Isles have made it big on a television show of the same name, she's offering two winning contributors at that site a chance to name characters in her next R&I novel, being released in 2016. “Watching my father lose his identity as he struggled with Alzheimer’s is the most devastating experience our family has been through,” said Gerritsen, author of "The Mephisto Club," "Vanish," "The Bone Garden," "Gravity" and multiple other novels. 
Book groups
While this is primarily a column for adult readers, it's worth mentioning that there are children's clubs that continue to pierce the iPad shell and attract young readers. Renee Cormier Wheeler, children's librarian at Leominster Public Library (and daughter of the late novelist Robert Cormier) typically sees 10-12 children at the clubs for boys 8-12 and one for girls 10-13. Upcoming meetings for July: girls, June 30, July 14 and July 28; boys, July 14 and Aug. 18. Wheeler selects books from a range of age-related literature. For details, contact rwheeler@cwmars.org or call 978-534-7522, ext. 4.
Eben Chesebrough of the Douglas Library group reports steady numbers throughout the summer: "Last night, we had 11, a good number for us."  On July 14 at 6:30 p.m., the group will discuss "Riding the Bus With my Sister" by Rachel Simon, the updated story of a girl with Down Syndrome who rides the bus daily and asks her sister to join her for a year.
The NOW Women's Issues Book Group has slated "Traveling With Pomegranates: A Mother-Daughter Story" by Sue Monk Kidd ("The Secret Life of Bees") and Ann Kidd Taylor, for its July 13 meeting. They travel in Greece, Turkey and France—a journey of loss and return, delving into the experiences behind Kidd's books.
The Friday Morning Book Club at Northborough Public Library will discuss contemporary fiction, "The Wedding Letters" by Jason F. Wright, at its July 10 meeting.
The Worcester Public Library book club, Pages and Palates,  will discuss singer-songwriter Patti Smith's "Just Kids" on Wednesday, July 8, from 3 to 4 p.m. and again on Saturday, July 11, from 2:30 to 3:30. Smith's "M Train" won the National Book Award. (The library is  hosting reading-related free events daily at the main library and branches through Aug. 14 for children, teens and adults.
Carl Hiaasen's "Skinny Dip" is the choice for Crawford Library, Dudley, where members will meet July 2 at 6 p.m. to discuss this comedic mystery. Up for August will be Wally Lamb's "We Are Water."
At Merrick Public Library, Brookfield, author Ed Londergan will conduct a free creative writing workshop from 10 a.m. to noon on Saturday, July 18. Anyone may attend. Banister Book Group meets at 7 p.m., July 28, to discuss "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" by Mark Twain.
In Gardner, members will discuss Sue Monk Kidd's "The Invention of Wings" at 4:30 p.m., July 29.
The New Earth Book Club has switched focus to a new topic: individuality in the complex world around us. They read "The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction" by Matthew B. Crawford and "All My Friends are Superheroes" by Andrew Kaufman in June. Organizer Celine Livingston says anyone interested in attending should email livsbookjourney@gmail.com.
The group at Gale Free Library in Holden is reading "Big Little Lies" by Liane Moriarty. A meeting is set for 10:30 a.m., July 7.
Thayer Memorial Library's evening book group meets July 28 to discuss Franz Kafka's "The Trial." The group rotates between fiction and nonfiction. Contact Karen Silverthorn at ksilverthorn@cwmars.org.
Lisa Perry says Sterling's library book club will discuss "We Were Liars" by E. Lockhart on Thursday, July 23, at 6:30 p.m. in the Baker Roomy.
Grafton Public Library's "Not Just for Young Adults" Book Group (18 and over) meets the second Monday of each month with facilitator Heidi Fowler. July's selection is "V is for Villain" by Peter Moore. The library has multiple groups, for fans of mystery, inspirational books, and general literature. See www.graftonlibrary.org.
Send your ideas and book group plans to ann.frantz@gmail.com. See www.readitandreeap.blogspot.com for more book news.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Tuesday, June 9 ... Summer!

I'm busy reading those recommended summer reads mentioned in my May 31 column, and many more books - latest reads are:
- Two for fun by Elin Hilderbrand of Nantucket: "The Matchmaker" and "Summerland." Nice for a breath of sea air on the page, and both contain characters that are rich.
- Kent Haruf's first novel, "The Tie That Binds," which established the late author as a fine writer of midwestern plains life, with beautifully drawn characters. His "Plainsong" and "Eventide" became Hallmark films back when Hallmark meant something more than love stories. His posthumous release, "Our Souls at Night," is on my "must-read" list.
- Jennifer McMahon's "The Winter People" is a slow building, increasingly scary summer read. Brrr....
- Anthony Doerr's "All the Light We Cannot See," joins my long list of War War II-era reads with a profoundly touching story about the intersecting lives of a German soldier and a blind French girl allied with the Resistance. In the end, we are all victims.
- Right now, I'm alternating between Colum McCann's "Let the Great World Spin," a somewhat ponderous, thoughtfully told story of several New Yorkers whose lives turn on a single observation - that of a man walking a high wire between two towers - and Kathleen Norris's "Dakota," a reflection on life in the Dakotas, mostly plains and Black Hills. I lived there for 17 years after marriage, and her writing is a beautiful call to home.

I reread one of my all-time favorites, "To Kill a Mockingbird" perioically, and want to alert readers to an interesting event coming up June 18 at the Worcester location (Lincoln Plaza) and also Burlington, Nashua,  Millbury and Framingham in this region. Those stores and others will hold a discussion of the book and the movie version (referred to by one store as "scream adaptation" in advance of the July release of Lee's final work, "Go Set a Watchman." All events are at 7 p.m. Check the B&N website for more details; some stores require an RSVP.

Our Lancaster book group, the Off-Track Bookies, has scheduled its final meeting of the season for June 18, with a potluck and brief discussion of "An Invisible Thread" by Laura Schroff. This nonfiction account of an 11-year-old panhandler's life after he tries to con a busy executive (Schroff) is a step into the world few of us are forced to live. Her involvement is not overwhelmingly beneficent, but she is as involved as life permits--certainly more than the average passerby, and the results are exceptional for this young man's life. I enjoyed the book when I read it last year.

Somehow, amidst all this and the routine of summer visitors and trips, I am managing to work on a much-neglected novel, written some time ago. It's amazing how much I learn between the times I have a go at editing and rewrites. Two books I recently picked up, to that end, are John Casey's "Beyond the First Draft: The Art of Fiction" and James Hynes' "Writing Great Fiction: Storytelling Tips and Techniques." The latter is part of the Great Courses series and includes a CD. I picked it up at the library in Lancaster.







Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Kenny O'Donnell, JFK and the launch of political handlers

By Ann Connery Frantz

Worcester native Kenneth O'Donnell Sr. was well-known during the 1950s and '60s for his unique position in John F. Kennedy's campaigns and, later, as a key presidential adviser.
Lesser-known is the crucial role Worcester played in Kennedy's ascent to power. O'Donnell was responsible for it. He suspected Worcester would be critical to JFK's 1952 Senate victory (while no one else even considered the overlooked city) and pushed to focus there. After JFK beat Henry Cabot Lodge in a huge upset victory, he remarked to O'Donnell: "You are either a political genius or the luckiest SOB on the planet." Kenny told him it was the latter.
Helen O'Donnell, Kenny's daughter, tells that story as part of "The Irish Brotherhood: John F. Kennedy, His Inner Circle, and the Improbable Rise to the Presidency," her just-published history. It's based on lengthy tapes with O'Donnell, presented to her by broadcast journalist Sander Vanocur.
She provides a fascinating glimpse into the Kennedy campaigns and the people dedicated to steering JFK into the White House by 1960. Helen was drawn into historical writing by those who sought to tap her father's recollections, like political pundit Chris Matthews (host of "Hardball"), with whom she worked in the writing of his "Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero." Before she finished transcribing Vanocur's extensive interviews, Helen had learned much more about her father's relationship to the Kennedy family.
"A Common Good: The Friendship of Robert F. Kennedy and Kenneth P. O'Donnell" became her first book. In March, Counterpoint Press released her second, "The Irish Brotherhood," which details campaigns between 1952 and 1958, up through 1960 and the early days of JFK's tenure as president. It is a story that divulges Robert F. Kennedy's importance to the JFK campaigns as well, revealing Bobby's character in equal depth. But mostly it is a book about the roots of modern-day campaign handling.
"You think you know all these stories, know what happened … but I really didn't," she said. "It's really a great — what they say in Hollywood — a great backstory. It was much grittier and more hard work than they ever let on to get him into the White House."
She recounts the amazing rise to power of John Kennedy, assisted by a dedicated, unpredictable, bull-headed but politically savvy group of hand-picked staff members, many of them World War II veterans, like JFK. He trusted their strategies, though his brilliance often put him ahead of them.
They weren't the predictable campaigners of old, she writes; they were a new breed, and their efforts yielded an entirely new kind of campaigning. They set a new standard for political handlers, using blue-collar roots and know-how to fight an upward battle in a political world suspicious of Irish Catholics— especially one whose father was Joseph Kennedy.
Kenny O'Donnell ate it up. "Dad was all about politics, but he saw his job as getting Jack Kennedy across the finish line," Helen said.
The brotherhood — O'Donnell, Larry O'Brien, Dave Power and Bobby — learned how to climb the political ladder, pulling and squeezing where they needed to, and working around the clock for a candidate with one big count against him: his religion. Few Catholics who had risen to powerful positions were about to jeopardize their well-being for an upstart politician. Striving to overcome perception and political cowardice were people like O'Donnell, whose hard-nosed, aggressive campaigning meshed well with this "Irish mafia."
The book is not for those seeking another JFK biography. It is, instead, a fascinating look into the pioneering roles of media handlers, whose existence today is taken for granted in political campaigns. Their ploys, their struggles and their overriding dedication to Kennedy made new men of O'Donnell, O'Brien, Bobby and their associates, as they moved every political boulder they could to facilitate the path JFK had chosen. (Bobby alone, it seemed, had a dedication as well to social justice, and would pursue that in his own way.)
Kennedy would have had a much harder time achieving the presidency without this group. O'Donnell was a loving father and husband, but in his work, he pursued the group's goals with a dogged aggression — he was brazen, with the ability to learn quickly from mistakes — there were plenty — and alter their course.
The campaign, improbably, took off in Worcester, where O'Donnell urged Kennedy to campaign hard before his 1952 election date.
"They (the Kennedys, Larry O'Brien) would have overlooked it, but he understood the changing demographics of that time, and how important Worcester was to the state. They never considered Worcester the key element that it was. Part of that was their sense of Worcester; it was not a small town, but people sort of perceived it that way. My dad and mother were from Worcester. They understood the politics of the city, and how much of the city's voters would be JFK voters if he were just exposed to them.
"He (Kenny) took a gamble, based on his knowledge of the city. It was critical for him, because he and Larry both knew they were going to be short on the numbers in '52 and they needed that Worcester voting block to push him over the edge. They were right. They took a hell of a gamble, but they won."
That win launched JFK into the rare thin air of national campaigning, proving himself a viable candidate for higher office.
O'Donnell lived on Clinton Street — "1301, at Tatnuck Square," Helen said. "The house is still there. He grew up there and maintained connections with a lot of Worcester people for years. He loved it."
Kenny worked by JFK's side from 1952 until his death in 1963, and knew family members well. They trusted him. He knew them for who and what they were, respected that, and kept confidences to himself. He adored Jackie Kennedy, who was cut from a different cloth. There's an interesting quote in the book, reflecting her father's understanding of the family: "The Kennedys always think of themselves first." That may seem callous, but it's candid.
"My father was sort of cold and practical about that; it was one of the reasons he insisted Bobby come run the campaign in 1952," Helen said. "He said to Bobby, you need to come to campaign because only a Kennedy can tell a Kennedy no. There was a line beyond which only another Kennedy could take across Jack or Bobby." That relationship served them well in crises.
"They were raised that way, and I think it's still true today. Anyone who thinks otherwise is foolish," Helen said. "They were raised to win the race. It's kind of an ethic of theirs."
The brothers were a good pairing, she said. "Bobby had a reputation for being the tough guy, ruthless, but in reality, my father said on the tapes, Jack was much tougher. Jack had steel that came from his own battle with survival all his life. When Jack Kennedy said 'no' or this guy's gonna go (from the campaign staff), that was it. Whereas, he said, Bobby would try to find a million reasons to save the guy before he'd drop the ax on him. Public perception is one thing, but the reality was different."
O'Donnell has not stopped writing; she has 200 taped interviews to draw from, most of which she has already transcribed. She's also writing a short book between Kennedy works. This will be about Frank Sinatra and Jack Kennedy; their friendship drew the nation's notice. "It's a small book, a novel, because I found out these great stories in Los Angeles that I couldn't use in either book. So I'm working on that right now."
"The Irish Brotherhood" will be succeeded by a book on the next segment of the Kennedy era, 1960-1963 — when the president was assassinated and Lyndon B. Johnson took the reins of office.
"I always loved to write," she said. "I was raised with news and history with my dad, but never thought that much about (doing) it. I was working in D.C., and Michael Kennedy (Bobby's son) asked me to write something for him — I assumed he had a speech to give. I had worked for Ted Kennedy, and sometimes Kennedys will do that when they need information. Then he called and said it was so good that he'd sent it to an agent and sold it for a first book. I told him I'd never written a book! And he said "You're smart, you'll figure it out." That was around 1998."
She lives in Washington, D.C., now, and visits the Cape when she's able.
Her father was, literally, in it to win it. "He did love it all. My mother was all in for Jack Kennedy too; she believed in what my dad was doing, but he never appreciated what she sacrificed. He was gone from home all the time. He'd been gone for years. When they finally won, and my mother was in that hotel in Hyannis, she was thinking he's 'finally' home. Then she learns he's going to the White House — right away. Dad and Jack had Bobby call my mother and tell her!"
He stayed in Washington for some time. "His last year at the White House he was executive director of the Democratic National Committee, trying to build up the modern DNC. I think he'd be pleased by how it's turned out. He was a political specialist listening to Lyndon Johnson. That was a complicated relationship, but Johnson trusted him."
Kenny O'Donnell passed away in 1977, when she was only 13 or 14. "He was really my hero. There was a lot of sadness around that time," she said. "One of the things I try to do with my writing is focus on the good times; there's a lot of tragedy, but these guys had a hell of a good time."
He died at 53, of heart and liver failure. But perhaps heartache as well, she said. "He just never recovered after Bobby's death. And my Uncle Warren was shot in a robbery in Worcester, and didn't live long. That devastated my dad; he never quite recovered from all that."

Monday, June 1, 2015

Ephron, Burke, Packer and other authors share summer picks



 ... And when God created the Earth, beaches came into being. Man, following suit, created patios, fans, icy drinks, cool tubs and swimming pools. All beckon readers—not for us the surf-side volleyball nets, max-sweaty hot yoga, lawn mowing. Sure—some things are inevitable, but in the back of our minds as we pursue the "musts" and "shoulds" is the impulse to read.
Authors are the same. In fact, while they may be writing, editing or teaching, they too plan summer reading. And today some of them share their book choices for the hot months. I asked, they responded.
Hallie Ephron, whose "Night Night, Sleep Tight" made the New York Times best-seller list, has a couple of recommendations.
"On the light side, looking forward to reading Lucy Burdette's new one (July) 'Fatal Reservation.' Key West, food, always fun. At the other end of the spectrum, I've set aside Greg Iles' nearly 800-page behemoth 'The Bone Tree.' Might take me all summer to read." Iles' book is the second in a trilogy that began with "Natchez Burning."
Concidentally, regional mystery writer Barbara Ross ("Clammed Up," "Musseled Out," "Boiled Over," "Death of an Ambitious Woman" and more) is an Ephron fan. She plans a busman's holiday in her reading—a generous helping of mysteries.
"Right now I'm on a book deadline, but as soon as I press SEND (June 1) I've promised myself the treat of reading Hallie Ephron's 'Night Night, Sleep Tight,' a suspense novel about an infamous Beverly Hills murder that took place when Hallie was growing up there in the '60s," she says. "Later in the summer, one of my favorite mystery authors has a new book out. I'll be first in line to purchase Louise Penny's 'The Nature of the Beast.' On the lighter side of mystery, on the beach I'll be reading Edith Maxwell's 'Farmed and Dangerous,' Sherry Harris's 'Longest Yard Sale,' Lucy Burdette's 'Fatal Reservations' and Lea Wait's 'Threads of Evidence.'  "
James Lee Burke (his Dave Robicheaux character has been portrayed by Alec Baldwin in "Heaven's Prisoners" and Tommy Lee Jones in "In the Electric Mist") says he's most likely to pick up his summer reading on a whim, passing through bookstores. But he has one recommendation: "I just finished 'Dead Wake' and thought it a smasher of a book."
Ann Packer, author of "The Dive From Clausen's Pier," "Swim Back to Me" and "The Children's Crusade," (among others), suggests two books.
"I can't wait to read 'Saint Mazie,' Jami Attenberg's follow-up to her extraordinary novel, 'The Middlesteins.' And Kate Walbert's 'The Sunken Cathedral' is a sublime book, which will surprise none of her fans." (Walbert, noted author of "A Short History of Women," "Our Kind" and "The Gardens of Kyoto," will be at the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge on June 17.)
From mystery writer Kate Flora (author of 14 mysteries and true-crime books including "And Grant You Peace," and "Finding Amy") splits her reading list into fiction and non-fiction choices:
She suggests Anthony Doerr's amazing novel of a blind French girl and a young WWII German soldier during the bombing of Saint-Malo, "All the Light We Cannot See." She'll also read "H is for Hawk" by falconer Helen Macdonald, an award-winning memoir about finding her way through grief with hawks. Also, Roxanna Robinson's "Sparta," a novel about the complex layers of PTSD, and conservation activist Terry Tempest Williams' "Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place," which describes her Utah family's struggles with cancer, living downwind of a nuclear test site, along with recounting how the Great Salt Lake flooded wetlands that were a refuge for migratory birds in northern Utah.
Jenna Blum ("Those Who Save Us," "The Stormchasers") has returned to the Boston area. She recommends a book she's just completed, Celeste Ng's "Everything I Never Told You," and two others.
"'Everything I Never Told You' is newly out in paperback—as is Laura McBride's stunning debut about culture and class clash in Las Vegas, 'We Are Called to Rise' and Courtney Maum's delightful 'I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You,' about a philandering British man who wants nothing more than to woo back his French wife," she says. "There you go, readers: paperbacks for your book clubs and the beach!"
Ng's book is a novel, by a writer with links to Boston's Grub Street writers collaborative. "It's about how attitudes in and around a mixed-race family in the 1960s have a trickle-down effect to the children, with heartbreaking results." She describes it as "a great emotional cause-and-effect book ... it reminded me a little of 'The Memory Keeper's Daughter,' with its emphasis on the sadness and destruction of secrets kept, but I thought the writing in 'Everything' was less melodramatic and much better, with beautiful similes.
Hank Phillippi Ryan also ventured forth. "I remember wonderful summers reading 'Winds of War' and 'Bonfire of the Vanities' and oh, my gosh, 'Ragtime,' says award-winning Boston writer Hank Phillippi Ryan ("Truth Be Told," "The Other Woman" and "The Wrong Girl"). "There's always 'the book,' right? And it gets sand in the pages and thumb-printed with sunscreen." Her recommendations follow.
"I'm reading the chilling 'Missoula' by Jon Krakauer (partly for research for my next book), and 'The Wright Brothers' by David McCullough, since I am fascinated by flying, and by people with passionately new ideas. I just finished the amazing Lisa Scottoline's 'Every Fifteen Minutes.' Looking forward to 'Hover' by Anne A. Wilson, a debut thriller author who was a Navy helicopter pilot. And the irresistible Joe Finder's new 'The Fixer'— I am afraid to start it, because I know I won't be able to put it down and I have writing to do!"
I'll include other authors' suggestions for summer reading in next month's column.

Book groups, authors

Why do we do this, anyway? Claudia McNeil of Chapters Book Discussion Group in Spencer, has an answer. "We've been going strong since 1986," she said. "We have read the best books (and of course, some were horrible picks), including many I would never have chosen on my own that were wonderful. And there have been some that I swore I disliked at the beginning of our discussion, only to really appreciate them after discussing them." Thanks, Claudia.
Author James Patterson will be featured at the Hartford, Conn., Mark Twain House and Museum. He'll appear at 7:30 p.m., June 17. Author and former inmate James Tillman ("The Power of Conviction") speaks of his 18-year wrongful conviction before DNA made him the first overturned wrongful conviction. He will appear on June 8 at 7 p.m.
Shrewsbury Public Library kicks off summer reading with a June 26 carnival featuring area authors. Check with the library for more details; its web site also includes summer reading tips.
Women's Issues Book Group has slated "Americanah" a novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, for its Monday, June 8 meeting, 7 p.m. in Barnes & Noble Booksellers 541 Lincoln St., Worcester. Its story: a young woman leaves Nigeria to attend college in the United States and experiences racism for this first time—in this country.
This coming week, there will be a reading/book signing by a former member of the Women's Issues Book Group, Judith Ferrara. Beginning at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 2, she will read from "The little O, the earth: Travel Journals, Art & Poems" at the Gene J. DeFeudis Italian American Cultural Center, 26 Mulberry St., Worcester.
The Douglas Library Book Group invites interested readers to attend a discussion of Garth Stein's "A Sudden Light." Session begins at 6:30 p.m., Tuesday, June 9. Stein, author of "The Art of Racing in the Rain," has written about a 14-year-old who confronts his father in order to protect his grandfather. To reserve a library copy of the book call 508-476-2695.
Northborough Public Library Friday Morning Book Club members are reading John Bunyon's "Pilgrim's Progress" for a 10 a.m., June 12 meeting. They rotate classics with contemporary monthly. July 10's selection is "The Wedding Letters" by Jason F. Wright.
Jodi Picoult's "The Storyteller" is up for discussion at Gardner's Heywood Library Book Group,  June 24 at 4:30 p.m.
The Contemporary Book Group at Gale Free Library, Holden, will meet at 10:30 a.m., Tuesday, June 2, to discuss JoJo Moyes' "Me Before You." The Classics Book Group has slated a poetry share for 6:30 p.m., Thursday, June 25.
Off-Track Bookies in Lancaster closes out its season with "An Invisible Thread: The True Story of an 11-Year-Old Panhandler, a Busy Sales Executive and an Unlikely Meeting." This nonfiction work by Laura Schrod and Alex Tresniowski unfolds the story of a boy who encounters a woman who will change his life... and vice-versa. Meeting is at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, June11.
Robert Haston's "Fatherland" is the subject of Haston Library's book group meeting, 7 p.m., June 30.
Members of the Crawford Memorial Library, Dudley, will discuss "Becoming Finola" by Suzanne Strempek Shea at 6 p.m., June 5.