Review of “Tiffany Blues” by M.J. Rose

The main part of this historical fiction novel takes place in Oyster Bay, New York in 1924 where Jenny Bell and her BFF Millicent (“Minx”) have gone for the summer. They are both art students, and were selected to attend the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation at Laurelton Hall for eight weeks “to imagine and create while surrounded and inspired by nature and the beauty that Tiffany had cultivated and brought into the world.” (While most of the protagonists are fictional, the house and art foundation were not made up.)

Much of the narration consists of Jenny’s marveling over the house and grounds, which indeed were thought to be glorious before their destruction by fire in 1957.

When Jenny isn’t gushing, she is quivering, in constant fear that someone might discover her secret past. The readers only gradually learn about it, but it seems someone at Laurelton is aware of it already. The obvious suspect is another student, Edward Wren, who is also the love interest of Minx, and who is particularly hostile towards Jenny.

Jenny soon gets another distraction besides Edward’s disturbing behavior and the beautiful surroundings in the form of Tiffany’s [fictional] grandson Oliver. He and Jenny experience an immediate mutual attraction, although he too hints of having a mysterious past.

Soon enough, as one would expect by virtue of the author’s lack of subtlety, everyone’s secrets come out, and with the exposure of Jenny’s past, another improbable Bad Thing happens.

An Epilogue takes us up to the time of the fire, and fills us in on what happened between 1924 and 1957.

Loggia from destroyed Laurelton Hall in Metropolitan Museum of Art

Discussion: I really appreciated that M.J. Rose put her Author’s Note at the beginning of the book instead of at the end. That way, we could follow along with a greater appreciation of what was real and what was created by the author. Like the author, I have long admired the work of Louis Tiffany. But while color and light are themes of the story, at times I felt as if the author belabored the subjects.

In addition, I thought the ominousness of the story was a bit heavy-handed.

Evaluation: A mystery is an entertaining way to acquaint readers with the magnificence of Laurelton Hall and the legacy of Lewis Comfort Tiffany. The author also provides a capsule view of life in the 1920’s that will also appeal to fans of historical fiction.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, 2018

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Review of “21 Lessons for the 21st Century” by Yuval Noah Harari

As the author explains, this book is “a selection of lessons” about current global problems. Each chapter doesn’t provide definitive solutions, but suggests different ways of thinking about and responding to such topics as equality, immigration, terrorism, the environment, education, and other timely issues.

Harari begins by noting that liberalism is in danger as a dominant narrative in the world, having been vitiated by disillusionment, disaffection, and distrust. These reactions have in part been caused by the revolutions in biotech and infotech. Many people feel as if their lives have lost relevance and significance. Just as Hitler and Stalin capitalized on similar feelings in the 1930s to direct anger and anxiety toward scapegoats, so too are populists today trying to exploit alienation and anomie to build their own power bases.

Totalitarian movements have always been bolstered by the way they help people feel like part of something bigger – a community of like-minded others. Today in a society with less interpersonal interaction than ever (in spite of superficial connections such as having many “friends” on Facebook), connections offered by belonging to the right or left are especially powerful because “real life” interactions don’t occur as much as virtual ones. Nevertheless, now one can have a “group” and “identity” and “significance.” On a broader scale, people are also encouraged to identify more with their nations and exhibit a national pride, even though it is counterproductive to deny the global interdependence of the world now.

Climate management, for example, must cut across borders, because the activities of one state or one country affect all the others. Much of the mass immigration movements are in fact driven by ecological problems such as drought and the resulting food shortages. Harari opines: “We now have a global ecology, a global economy, and a global science – but we are still stuck with only national politics.”

Harari’s discusses the many pros and cons of immigration and then segues into a discussion of terrorism, because much of the opposition to immigrants is based on false data about how many terrorist acts are committed and how many are (or are not) committed by immigrants. The actual numbers of each are much lower than fear-mongers allege. Harari points out:

“Terrorists are masters of mind control. They kill very few people but nevertheless manage to terrify billions and rattle huge political structures… Since September 11, 2001, each year terrorists have killed about 50 people in the European Union, about 10 people in the United States, about 7 people in China, and up to 25,000 people elsewhere in the globe (mostly in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Syria). In contrast, each year traffic accidents kill about 80,000 Europeans, 40,000 Americans, 270,000 Chinese, and 1.25 million people altogether. Diabetes and high sugar levels kill up to 3.5 million people annually, while air pollution kills about 7 million people per year. So why do we fear terrorism more than sugar, and why do governments lose elections because of sporadic terrorist attacks but not because of chronic air pollution?”

Terrorists think like theater producers, he says. They hold our imagination captive and use that against us. …Terrorists kill a hundred people – and cause a hundred million to imagine that there is a murderer lurking behind every tree.”

Thus we waste money, time, and political capital on fighting terrorism that could otherwise be invested in fighting global warming, disease, and poverty, inter alia.

But again, fear of immigrants can help bolster the power base of would-be dictators. Prejudice and racism have always had strong appeal, as they provide an easy explanation for why your life isn’t what you think it should be. Such appeals to baser instincts are both more potent and more surreptitious than in the 1930’s: today’s would-be dictators have tools Hitler could only dream about. Not only do they make full use of social media. They also co-opt the holders of much of the country’s wealth by reducing taxes and marginalizing the poor. The wealthy in turn exhibit outsized influence on elections, and buy controlling shares in sources of news, enabling those in power to hide or distort their activities and cement their rule.

Promises by rulers such as Trump and Putin to make their countries “great” again are rooted in false narratives about the past and about the feasibility of denying the future. But they have no answers, Harari avers, to the biggest problems we face: ecological collapse and technological disruption, especially from the increasing use of artificial intelligence in both the workplace and at home, and in the construction of our desires. Even when we feel we have “free will,” in fact our wills are being increasingly shaped by social media, advertising, and a search for “simple” answers in the face of too much complexity.

Harari addresses human stupidity (which “we should never underestimate”) as well as changes in education that might help remedy the situation. Our educational practices, he points out, were designed to serve the Industrial Revolution. With the advent of the Technological Revolution, memorizing facts is not only not nearly as important, but not as helpful as learning how to make sense of it all, through critical analysis and creativity.

Without knowing how to sift through and interpret the bombardment of information, humans tend to opt for easy answers, either through religious systems or political dogmas. Neither necessarily leads to greater tolerance, compassion, or even morality.

Evaluation: While much of this book is a critique of the current limitations in analysis by many people, the author does not hesitate to suggest a number of helpful changes that could be made. Above all, there is no shortage of stimulating ideas for readers to discuss with others.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House, 2018

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Kid Lit Review of “Charlie Takes His Shot” by Nancy Churnin

Charlie Sifford was born in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1922. He loved golf, but only white people were allowed on private golf courses, so he got close to the game in the only way he could: by becoming a caddie at the age of 13. And he watched. And he learned.

At age 17, he was forced to flee Charlotte after he defended his mother from an attack by a drunk man by hitting him on the head. He headed for Philadelphia to stay with relatives. There he was able to play golf at a public course open to black players. Then it was off to the Army for service in the Pacific — he fought at Okinawa — during World War II. When the 26-year-old Sifford returned to the States, he aspired to be a pro golfer, but there were still barriers.

Blacks had organized into their own golf association since, from 1934 to 1961, the Professional Golf Association or PGA actually had a “Caucasian-only clause” in their by-laws.

Charlie met Jackie Robinson in 1948. A year earlier, Jackie became the first black player in Major League Baseball. Charlie asked him what he thought about Charlie breaking the color line in golf. Jackie told him it would be tough, and warned that people would threaten him and call him ugly names.

“Are you a quitter?” Robinson asked, according to a story Mr. Sifford retold in his 1992 autobiography, Just Let Me Play. “I said, ‘No, I’m not a quitter.’ ”

Meanwhile, Charlie kept playing in the black leagues, winning the National Negro Open so many times, they told him he should just keep the trophy. But the paychecks on the black tour were small and the courses were bad.

In his biography, Charlie told the story of how, in the 1950s, five blacks were convicted of trespassing on a public course in Greensboro, N.C. When a court ruled that a public course had to be open to anyone, the city leased the course to a private company that put new rules into place barring blacks. The cities of Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Jacksonville, and Charleston, S.C., all used similar tactics to block blacks from public courses.

According to this author, a turning point occurred in the fall of 1959 when Charlie played golf at a Jewish club in Los Angeles with Stanley Mosk, a progressive liberal lawyer, who was also the Attorney General of California. Stanley “asked Charlie why one of the best golfers he’d ever seen wasn’t playing on the PGA tour.” Charlie told him about the Caucasian clause. Stanley, well acquainted with discrimination himself, promised to fight that clause, and after two years, he succeeded in getting it removed in November 1961.

A somewhat different memory was offered by Stanley Mosk himself. In an article for “Sports Illustrated,” Mosk wrote:

“I was elected California attorney general in 1958 and became aware of the PGA’s Caucasian-only clause in ’59, when I received a handwritten letter from Charlie Sifford saying that he was qualified to be a PGA member and play in Tour events but that the PGA wouldn’t allow him to join or regularly play because of the color of his skin.”

It’s possible for both stories to be true. In any event, three years later, Sifford was awarded full PGA membership, the first African American to join the PGA Tour. He was 42 – already considered older than optimal for the game. Nevertheless, Sifford won the 1967 Hartford Open Invitational and the 1969 Los Angeles Open.

Charlie Sifford

The author highlights the Hartford Open as a seminal point in Charlie’s career and in his life. At that tournament, “he noticed something different about the crowd…” For the first time, no one was rooting against him; in fact, the crowd was even encouraging him. When Charlie won:

“The crowd roared and clapped for fifteen minutes. Charlie wiped his wet eyes. He won $20,000. It felt like a million.”

Charlie did it; he had opened a door for others.”

In an Author’s Note, we learn that Tiger Woods credited Charlie with making his own career possible, and that Charlie received a number of honors later in life.

In 2004 he became the first black golfer admitted to the World Golf Hall of Fame, under the Lifetime Achievement category for his contributions to the game.  

Tiger Woods with Charlie Sifford at WGC-Bridgestone in 2009. (Scott Halleran)

But one of the most meaningful honors to Charlie came on May 3, 2011, when Charlotte’s old Revolution Park Golf Course, where he wasn’t allowed to play growing up, was renamed for the man who won five straight United Golfers Association National Negro Opens, the 1967 Greater Hartford Open, the 1969 Los Angeles Open and the 1975 Senior PGA Championship.

At the ceremony, John R. Rogers Jr., administrator of the Charlotte Historic District Commission, revealed that when the course opened in 1930 as Charlotte’s first municipal course, there was one stipulation: if blacks played the course, ownership of the land would revert to the donor. No blacks were allowed.

Now it is called the Dr. Charles L. Sifford Golf Course. (In 2006, Charlie received an honorary degree from the University of St Andrews as a Doctor of Laws.)

On Nov. 24, 2014, President Barack Obama draped the Presidential Medal of Freedom around Sifford’s neck as he sat in a wheelchair in the East Room of the White House.

Charlie died on February 3, 2015 at the age of ninety-two.

Illustrator John Joven uses a retro, cartoon-style with sharp angles and a soft palette. Often multiple images surround the text on pages. The differing views provide support to the story and keep up interest levels.

Evaluation: The author omits some of the worst indignities Charlie endured, like the feces placed in the golf cups, but includes just enough information to let young readers know he was ill-treated. She places the emphasis, however, on Charlie’s talent, perseverance, and the support he received throughout his career. This is an inspiring story that may not be as well known to readers as analogous stories in other sports.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Albert Whitman & Company, 2018

Charlie Sifford works out at a course in Los Angeles in 1957 after winning $11,500 in the Long Beach Open. Credit: Harold P. Matosian, AP

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Review of “The Girl from Berlin” by Ronald H. Balson

This book is the fifth in the Liam Taggart and Catherine Lockhart legal procedural series. I did not read any of the previous books, but didn’t feel like I was out of the loop in any way. This one is also a historical fiction novel; it goes back and forth between 2017 in Pienza, Italy and the 1930’s – primarily in Berlin and Bologna.

In the present day, Tony Vincenzo in Chicago asks Liam and Catherine to travel to Tuscany to help his Aunt Gabi in Pienza who was being threatened with eviction. (Catherine is an attorney, and her husband Liam is a private investigator.)

A Tuscan attorney had informed Gabi, who is 78, that she had sixty days to vacate; he claimed the land was owned by VinCo, a billion-dollar corporation. Gabi went through two previous lawyers, who both only wanted Gabi to take the money offered by VinCo and go live somewhere else. But she had no intention of leaving if she could help it.

Liam and Catherine tried to get information from Gabi about how she got the land and why VinCo thought she was not entitled to it. She asked them to read a memoir by Ada Baumgarten that would provide all the answers.

Ada’s story is told in chapters alternating with the account of Liam and Catherine’s attempts to obtain documentation for Gabi in the present. (You would think, given that Gabi said they would find out what they needed to know by reading the manuscript, they would do more than peruse a couple of chapters a day.)

Ada was born in Berlin on November 11, 1918 and became a concert violinist as a young girl. Her career was interrupted and ultimately ended, however, by the rise of the Nazi movement in Germany. Because Ada was Jewish, she was not only prevented from playing as the Nazis enacted more and more restrictions on Jews, but eventually targeted for elimination, and sent to the Auschwitz killing camp.

In the meantime, Liam and Catherine eventually get both an Italian lawyer to help them and a lawyer in Germany, who can help with corporate records for VinCo.

Time is running out though, and the pressure is intense to come up with evidence of Gabi’s ownership in spite of obfuscation and delay from all corners.

Discussion: I felt the author was acting on a desire to express various passions with this book: a love of Tuscany (and indeed, who can blame him?) and a desire to educate readers on what happened during the rise of fascism in Germany and Italy. Moreover, the author from time to time inserted subtle parallels between fascism and Trumpism, giving it the feel of a “cautionary tale.”

All of this was instructive even if not integrated so smoothly into the narration. The story in the book-within-the-book – Ada’s memoir – was good but the understanding Ada had of the situation seemed a little too prescient for a young girl living through events in the 1930’s. She claimed much of what she knew came from her friend Natalia, who had contacts as an underground partisan, but Natalia too had more of a 21st century knowledge of, and insight into, what the Nazis were doing than was believable.

Similarly, some of the dialogue in the 1930’s employed 2017 usage that was unlikely to have obtained in the 1930’s. (As just one example, Natalia talks of seeing Mussolini “suck up to Hitler.”)

Finally, as mentioned above, the fact that the investigators took so long to read a manuscript that was supposed to be crucial to their investigation beggars belief.

Evaluation: In spite of some quibbles I had, this was a good story, and kept my attention throughout. The legal complications, which can’t be revealed lest they spoil the story, were very interesting, as was Ada’s story.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by St. Martin’s Press, 2018

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Review of “Pieces of Her” by Karin Slaughter

This edge-of-your-seat thriller goes back and forth in time between 1986 and 2018. Stunning revelations punctuate the story from the very beginning, set in August, 2018. Andrea (“Andy”), 31, is living at home with her mother in Belle Isle, Georgia. Andy’s life has pretty much been a failure up to this point, and Andy lacks confidence and quick-wittedness, especially in comparison to her popular and competent mother Laura. Laura Oliver is 55, and works as a speech therapist. As the story opens, the two are at a diner at the mall when a killer comes into the diner and starts shooting. Andy is paralyzed with fear, but her mother takes matters into hand. Afterwards, although her mother is injured, she roughly tells Andy to move out that very night. It’s all very bizarre. Andy wonders, who was this woman who could do what she did? Who was her mother?

The shocks are only just beginning for Andy. She left to go stay at her dad’s house, but decided to go back for her bicycle. She discovers Laura in yet another life-or-death situation. This time Andy reluctantly helps, with horrendous consequences. She is forced to flee – her mother gives her money and an address for a storage facility in a small town hours away. Andy realizes she has never known her mother; she has only seen pieces. She knows only that she might be followed, and the level of tension is almost unbearable.

Then the narration switches to 1986 and we find out a bit more about Laura’s life. This doesn’t mean the action slows at all, however. The twists and turns on the road to enlightenment for the reader seem like driving on narrow switchbacks over the mountains. I admit to doing what I rarely do, which is occasionally paging ahead so I could breathe sufficiently to make it through the next segment of the story.

In the end, a final twist caught me totally unawares.

Evaluation: I’ve read a great deal of Karin Slaughter’s books, and this one felt very different than the others. But I’m not complaining!

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2018

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