Friday, March 27, 2009

Loving Frank, by Nancy Horan (2007)

Growing up in the Chicago suburbs, you cannot help but know who Frank Lloyd Wright is; in fact there was a Wright home in our town (Geneva) and the Oak Park prairie houses were of course world renowned. However, aside from that, I personally never knew any other details about his life - that is, until Mom lent me this book.

Nancy Horan spent 7 years researching her incredible novel (it is fiction historically based in fact) which details the love affair between Frank Lloyd Wright and one of his Oak Park clients, Mamah Cheney. They first meet in 1907 when Mamah and her husband commission a home from Wright, and sparks fly. It does not take long before Mamah and Frank are secretly meeting each other. Mamah had long felt stifled in her marriage and Frank offered her the intellectual and spiritual relationship she had missed, along with a powerful physical attraction. A mother of two children, Mamah struggled with the implications that leaving her husband would have on them and on herself. In those days it was not obvious for a woman to walk away from a marriage and come out unscathed on the other side. But Frank, himself a father of six with a wife who refused to grant him a divorce, was compelling, and convinced her to move to Europe with him while he worked there.

Of course, it must be said, Mamah had a ideal situation which enabled her to escape real life - her unmarried sister and a devoted nanny both lived in with the family, and were able to step in and take over her duties as a mother and running the household. At times I found Mamah to be, in fact, rather selfishly self absorbed, in the way she deserted her children and simply accepted that others pick up the slack. This did have a consequence for her later, most poignantly in her later, strained relationship with her sister.

Mamah was a talented writer and translator and became involved with the early feminist movement, as the American translator for the Swedish feminist Ellen Keys. It was vitally important to her to have her own work, her own contribution to the world, and admirably, she did make this a priority in her life, spending time alone studying, even leaving Frank for a time in order to pursue her goals.

After spending time in Europe and Japan, she and Frank finally settled down in the home he was building for them in Wisconsin. At the outset, the couple was beleaguered by the press - their relationship was one of the biggest scandals Chicago society had known at that time and the newspapers smelled blood. But finally things died down and Mamah was able to make a real home for herself, finally spend time with her children, continute her literary work, and make plans for the future. The feeling that things in Mamah's life were at last getting on track and there seemed to be hope for a happy life, makes the dramatic ending all the more shocking, and truly sad.

This book is admirable in the imagination it must have taken to piece together the factual puzzle and fill in the blanks with educated guesses about how Mamah would have felt or behaved. Whether or not you sympathise with Mamah and agree or disagree with the life decisions she made, you cannot help but admire her as a powerful, daring person who never gave up trying to live her ideals.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Cobra's Heart, by Ryszard Kapuscinski

This is another of the Penguin "Great Journeys" series that I have mentioned before, this time in Africa. Ryszard Kapuscinski was a correspondant for a Polish newspaper in the 1960's and spent many years travelling around Africa. This little book pulls together some of his more memorable experiences there, especially off the beaten track, and about the people: "Their life is endless toil, a torment they endure with astonishing patience and good humour." A quick, engaging read with some fascinating tales.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Buffalo Soldier, by Chris Bohjalian (2002)

I was just with my mom and sister in Florida last week for our half marathon and my mom passed this book on to me to read on the plane home. I have to say, I was not very enthusiastic when reading the short summary on the back, but when I found out it was by the author of Midwives, which I read some time ago, I became intrigued, because I loved that book, and was amazed to find out the author was a man, not a woman. How could a man have written so poignantly and with so much understanding about pregnancy, delivery, being a midwife?? So I decided to give him a chance with Buffalo Soldier. I started reading it during my journey and it kept me company all the way.

The novel tells the story of a couple who lost their twin daughters in a tragic accident and who are struggling to put the pieces of their lives back together. They decide to foster a child, and a young black boy is placed with them. The husband struggles to come to terms with the child, his own grief and the distance between himself and his wife. The wife feels a close connection to the child, Alfred, which turns into a fierce loyalty when she faces possibly having to choose between him or her marriage. Alfred does his best to fit into the small and insulated white community, while warding off his own fears of abandonment.

I was entranced by this book. The characters are all real people, not one sided - even the secondary characters are superbly drawn. I was sorry when I got to the end of the book, even though it was a satisfactory ending, with some of the characters having to make hard choices, but the right ones, I think. And the Bob Marley song, "Buffalo Soldier", was in my mind all week...

I am definitely going to see if our library has more books by Mr. Bohjalian.