Plucked from Writing Book Reviews and Sent to the McCarthy Hearings

image

In 1954, Mary McGrory was a single woman who had been writing spirited book reviews for a number of years.  After her boss at the Washington Evening Start ascertained that she wasn’t planning to get married any time soon, McGrory was suddenly transferred to the news desk at and sent off to cover the McCarthy Hearings.  What an amazing way to jump start a nearly fifty year career as one of the country’s most successful political columnists.  Somebody really needs to make a movie of about McGrory.  She was an epic character in an epic time.

In the meantime, John Norris has written an excellent biography of McGrory – Mary McGrory – The First Queen of Journalism.  While Nellie Bly enthusiasts may quibble about the “First Queen” designation, McGrory undoubtedly reigned as  queen of the Washington political reporting scene for half a century.  She could be imperious, selfish and demanding, but she wrote a heck of a column.  As a long-time columnist, she knew everyone and covered presidential campaigns from Adlai Stevenson through the George W Bush years.  The campaign stories alone are worth reading this book, particularly since McGrory started out at a time when reporters knew a lot of dirt about politicians, but didn’t necessarily spill it.  The stories of politicians trying to charm her or squirm out of answering deceptively mild yet go-for-the-jugular questions are priceless.

Although McGrory was an unabashed liberal and wrote highly opinionated columns, she did give politicians on both sides of the aisle a difficult time.  Bill Clinton was said to get apoplectic about her critical columns.  At the end of the day, McGrory was a very strong personality who was hard to pigeonhole.  She could be nice or she could be horrible to competitors.  The stories are hilarious, but they carry a serious bite.

I can’t help but wonder how McGrory would have reacted to the present school of journalism, where Fox is consistently conservative and constantly accused of skewing its news reporting accordingly and MSNBC often faces similar accusations from the other side.  In her day, unfazed by political neutrality niceties,  McGrory didn’t just express her political view point in her columns.  She took it a significant step further.  She could be a political activist and push people like Bobby Kennedy to run for office.  Despite the highly opinionated tone of her columns, McGrory’s column almost always appeared on news pages, rather than editorial pages, and she waged ferocious battles to keep it that way.  Issues  of journalistic ethics crop up throughout the book, but it seems that McGrory’s powerful personality held sway for her columns.

John Norris has done a skillful job of showing us McGrory, with all her fine points and her not-so-fine points.  Above all, I am just grateful that he has given us a highly readable record of a unique and powerful life.  I wasn’t familiar with McGrory’s story and am really grateful that now I know about her.  I strongly recommend this book.

 

Advertisements

The Railwayman’s Wife – A Beautiful Novel about Post War Australia

image

Ashley Hay has written a beautiful novel about a young, grieving widow in post-WWII Australia.  The Railwayman’s Wife is short and to the point.  Most of the characters are suffering from loss, and the intersections of these fragile, young people are what makes this book so good.

Ani Lachlan is the young widow.  She has suddenly lost her husband and is numb, but she also has a young daughter and a sudden need to earn a living.  Somewhat randomly, Ani is thrust back into the world as the local librarian.  Although it feels strange to have a job and a schedule in the face of her grief, this is a good move for her.

The Railwayman’s Wife is particularly appealing and satisfying because it is set in the world of books.  Ani’s library literally provides a welcome haven, as well as a point of entry back into the community.   Throughout this lovely story, there are references to choosing books, poetry and reading aloud.  In the face of terrible grief, books and reading provide sustenance.  They also link Ani to her late husband, whose books and love of reading aloud help describe him.

I loved The Railwayman’s Wife for many of the reasons I loved Eddie Joyce’s Small Mercies, which I previously reviewed.  Both books have distinctive and somewhat unusual settings (Joyce’s Staten Island and Hay’s small coastal Australian town), which provide a strong background for their stories.  They also revolve around recent, accidental deaths of young men and the families that survive them.  The numbing shock of loss and uncertainty about how to behave are common to both books, as is the characters’ growing understanding of how they will proceed with their own lives and feel pleasure again.

I strongly recommend The Railwayman’s Wife,  as well as Small Mercies.  These are serious, appealing books that provide intelligent comfort and understanding in the face of traumatic loss.

Beyond the Spellmans, Lisa Lutz Gets More Serious

image

There is something particularly anxiety producing about 0n-run-mysteries.  Lisa Lutz, the author of the weird and hilarious Spellman mysteries, continues to favor an off-kilter attack, but she tries a more serious approach in The Passenger.  Tanya Dubois is on the run from the get-go in this oddly deranged and absorbing tale.  It’s a challenge to make a wrong-doing character sympathetic, but Lutz pulls it off.   Tanya isn’t nice or law-abiding, but you are anxious to know her backstory.  As Tanya’s troubles compound and she wreaks more and more mayhem, you still pull for her even as you shake your head. Logic isn’t much in play here.

On the plus side, every reader ought keep this book, in case he or she ever finds herself on the run, because Lutz provides an abundant education on  how to disappear and take on new identities.  Hopefully this this will never prove useful

The Passenger is one of those books where each escape proves fleeting, and the constant onslaught of threats is dark and ugly.  Without spoiling the story, the book succeeds because the careening plot is balanced by a continuing thread of human contact that suggests better times.

The Seven Sisters in the late ’50’s

image

It is both comforting and realistic to have a college memoir written by someone who wasn’t all together comfortable with college.  In Ivy Days: Making My Way Out East, Susan Allen Toth writes about her days at Smith.  Toth, then called Susan Allen, left Ames, Iowa, to attend Smith College in 1957.  She achieved great academic success there, but she didn’t always love it.  Smith wasn’t warm and fuzzy, and Toth was on a scholarship at a time when Smith apparently housed all the scholarship kids together.  (That wasn’t necessarily unusual at the time.)

Toth wasn’t particularly comfortable at Smith.  Upon arrival she was miserably homesick and, as a poor scholarship student, painfully aware that her clothes weren’t up to snuff.  She felt heavy pressure to be happy and love it, which is a tall order for many college freshmen.  She had enjoyed great academic success in order to get admitted to Smith, and at times she seemed almost overwhelmed by her own expectations of success.  She had got what she wanted when she was admitted to Smith, but actually being there wasn’t all that amazing.

There were no major dramas to overcome, but there was a lot of hard work.  Massive amounts of studying and an almost total emphasis on academics are at the core of this thoughtful memoir.  The all-women environment was also key to Toth’s experience.    Lots of her classmates were dating and had serious boyfriends, but Toth kind of drifted in and out of it.  Romance wasn’t a vital component or measuring stick for her college experience.  Toth’s depiction of the dorm environment and the women around her ring very true.  There is very much a sense that this is how hard working, motivated women interact when there are no men around.

Toth’s book is written from a distance of about 15 years and after a PhD and a divorce.  She still doesn’t feel like a success, but she has gained perspective and an academic career.  Her reflections about her time at Smith should give lots of college students  some reassuring perspective that it is okay to feel insecure, pressured and not particularly happy as a college freshman.

I really liked this book, which had been sitting on my “to be read” shelf for years.

Harrowing Tale of the Cambodian Genocide as Told by a Child Survivor

image

At times all of the mass murder and genocide across the globe can be numbing.  You know it is happening and you see the awful photos, but there is just so much of it that it can seem remote and, God forbid, routine.  Well, Loung Ung’s 2000 memoir of her childhood under the Khmer Rouge brings it home.  First  They Killed My Father – A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, tells a harrowing tale of exile, murder and overwhelming hunger as seen through the eyes of a privileged middle class five year old.

This child knows what she had and has absolutely no idea why she has been  abruptly pulled from her comfortable life in Phnom Penh and, together with her family, cast into a hostile rural environment. Ung survives, but as the title of her book suggests, not all of her family was so lucky.   The mindless beatings and killings all occur in a numbing environment of hunger and fear.  No one trusts anyone; the author and her siblings are told they must hide their Chinese ancestry and middle class roots.  It is actually pretty amazing that the kids were able to follow these life-saving directions.  They showed a lot of discipline and seemed to have entered into survival mode.

Fortunately, Ung managed to get out.  After tough times in a Thai refugee camp, she immigrated to the United States with one of her brothers.  She went on to an American high school and college and ended up writing at least two books and working with the Campaign for a Landmine Free World.

I Googled Ung to see what she has been up to since writing this book and learned that she has prompted some controversy within the Cambodian community.  In particular, some have questioned whether Ung could have called the details of her childhood trauma so specifically, given that she was so young, only five years old, when the nightmare began.  Given that she wasn’t in a position to write it all down, it seems entirely plausible that her youth and the passage of time may have affected some of the specifics of her recollections.  Of course the passage of time affects the recollections of many of us.

Such controversies do not blunt the impact of this book.  Ung’s story hits you right in the face and breaks your heart.  This is what genocide felt like to a young child.  She may not have focused on the politics  behind the Khmer Rouge’s absurd cruelty and meglomania, but she saw the lunacy behind the terror.  People turned on each other with unimaginable viciousness, and mass murder and loss were the result.  At some level the politics really didn’t matter.