by Sukey HowardMay 2009
Finding Mr. Wright
If T.C. Boyle had called his latest novel, The Women, nimbly narrated by Grover Gardner, The Man, no one would have balked. The central character, the flame that draws the loving female moths, is Frank Lloyd Wright, America's greatest architect or, as he would have insisted, the world's greatest architect. Flamboyant, flagrantly egotistical, boundlessly energetic, ambitious and shameless in his self-absorption, Wright is the central, centripetal character of this operatic saga staged in three acts, in reverse chronology. Boyle begins with Olgivanna Milanoff, a Montenegrin beauty, the last and longest-lasting woman in Wright's tumultuous domestic life. Then comes the mercurial, morphine-addicted Maude Miriam Noel, a fading Southern belle, who wreaked as much maniacal havoc during and after her attachment to Wright as she could manage. Mamah Borthwick Cheney, perhaps the love of his life, who was publicly excoriated for leaving her husband and children, pays dearly for living with Wright in Act III. Kitty--Wright's first wife and mother of his six children--hovers, never making more than cameo appearances. Boyle's exuberance, a good match for Wright's, and his skillful blending of history and invention animate this extraordinary fictional portrait of Wright and his women.
Maimed minds, lost lives
We call it post-traumatic stress disorder; during WWI, it was called shell shock or battle fatigue and many sufferers went without treatment, left to founder on the edges of society. Whatever name we use, soldiers still come back invisibly scarred, deeply disabled by war's lasting aftereffects. Were Maisie Dobbs--the appealing private investigator, psychologist and star of Jacqueline Winspear's best-selling series set in post-WWI England--here now, I think she'd agree that sadly little has changed for today's returning soldiers. It's in the midst of the mentally maimed that Maisie finds herself in Among the Mad, looking for a damaged soul who's threatened massive harm to innocent Londoners unless the government does more for the veterans of the Great War's trenches and mustard gas. Maisie has been called in to assist Scotland Yard as they desperately search for the would-be terrorist. But even Maisie's considerable talents may not be enough ferret him out. Winspear creates real suspense set against the troubled social and political scene in early-1930s London and Orlagh Cassidy's superb performance creates the voices and the mood.
Jackson, Mississippi, in the early 1960s, when the civil rights movement was gathering momentum and the backlash was bloody, seems an odd place for a privileged white girl--a recent Ole Miss grad and editor of the Junior League newsletter--to start a secret book project collecting the stories, good and bad, of what it's really like for the black women who work for white families, intimates but always inferiors. "Skeeter" Pheelan does just that with the determined help of the help, Aibileen and Minny, two very different African American women who have spent their lives caring for their employers and raising their children. The Help, Kathryn Stockett's poignant, powerful debut novel, follows their intertwined efforts. Though it deals with very serious problems--segregation, intolerance, inhumanity--it's above all a wonderful story, hopeful and humorous, wonderfully told, with characters you won't want to leave. And, it's a fabulous example of how a brilliant ensemble audio performance can make "wonderful" even better. Jenna Lamia, Bahni Turpin, Octavia Spencer and Cassandra Campbell's pitch-perfect narration captures the time and place, the accents of each character, as well as their sorrow, anger, frustration, hate, humiliation and genuine love with an authenticity that's hard to match. You'll laugh and cry as these three women work together, learn to go beyond their own preconceptions, learn to trust and truly overcome.