A hotel would be perfect … if it wasn’t for the guests

This is an advance review of Heads in Bed – A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality, by Jacob Tomsky (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group), which will become available November 20, 2012.

Jacob Tomsky is his real name. In this book, he calls himself Thomas Jacobs. He spent more than a decade in the hotel business, and in Heads in Beds he lets it all out.

Since I teach philosophy, I was thrilled to learn that Tomsky majored in philosophy in college. So, you can add hospitality to the list of possible positions one can obtain with such a degree. His appreciation of that choice of a degree is somewhat lacking, however: “My degree was garbage stuffed inside a garbage can of student loans.”

Perhaps. But one thing is for sure. That degree shows through in his writing, which is outrageous, hilarious, enlightening, and filled with insight into the human condition. If, that is, you call some of the people he had to deal with on a daily basis “human.” He might disagree.

His career began in valet service in one of New Orleans’ finest hotels, and his talents soon came to the notice of management and, before you could say “Laisser les bon temps roleur,” he found himself working the front desk. A move to New York opened up new possibilities for him, in housekeeping and then, once again, at the front desk.

This book is laugh-out-loud funny at times, and I suppose a lot of people will recognize themselves in it. After all, for many frequent travelers, the guy at the front desk is nothing more than a functionary. But, if you treat them that way, you might pay the price.

Heads in Beds is filled with tips about the right–and wrong–ways to get good service. One sure fire way is to treat the hotel staff like human beings (Thomas cites people who continue talking on their cell phones while checking in, as though the desk clerk is a non-entity).

There are some very bad things that can happen when you treat bellmen badly. Thomas relates how one bellman, when he was stiffed after taking fourteen bags up to an NFL player’s room, snuck in later and relieved himself in one of his bottles of cologne. The bellman smiled later that evening as the guest strolled out with his date smelling of … his brand name cologne (with the added bouquet of the new ingredient).

In the appendix there is a list of things you should never say, and never do, which is a sine qua non for frequent travelers.

One thing comes through in this book very clearly. Even though Thomas details the various scams that hotel personnel can engage in in order to get some of your money into their pockets, in tandem with the doormen and the bellman, he comes across as a hard-working, and even principled young man. He might not agree with this, but it’s hard to cover up when you are a philosophy major. For example, it’s not always about money. If you treat your wife with disrespect, or jerk your kids around while you are checking in, you will set Thomas off and you might just find that that room overlooking Central Park you were originally booked in now becomes a room with a view of the parking lot. Subtle, but effective. And you will never really know the difference.

And if you really honk off a bellman, he just might request a “key bomb” from the desk clerk. You’re going to have to read the book to find out what that is. And, once again, you will never really know the difference.

Through all of this, there is one thing that comes across very clearly. People who work in hospitality for a living, like all human beings who work for a living, are deserving of respect. They get it from one another, for the most part, even if they don’t get it from their guests. So, next time you feel entitled because you have decided to bless a hotel with your business for one night, and feel free to treat them as though they are your indentured servants, think twice.

You may just find yourself wearing a whole new scent of cologne when you walk out.

This is a very entertaining, and informative book. “Guests who really know tip the desk.” And, in spite of his disappointment over his choice of a college degree, his writing betrays more than just quick wit, apt description, and street-wise banter. For example, when he returns to New Orleans after Katrina for a long weekend he reflects on life itself.

New Orleans, the storm…the river; they all reminded me not to take anything for granted. It all washes away, and we are washed away with it. So when the ground is steady and the sky is clear, we should breathe deep until our lungs inflate against our ribs and hold in that one breath until we are light-headed with the privilege of being alive. The absolute privilege of being human.

The next time I check into a hotel and learn that the desk clerk majored in philosophy, I will drop him or her a twenty. Maybe I’ll get an upgrade, maybe not. Either way, it will be worth it!

Copyright 2012 Isaac Morris

Asshole management — a practical use for philosophy

This is an advance review of Assholes – a Theory, by Aaron James, which will become available October 30, 2102, from Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

There are quite a few good jokes about people with degrees in philosophy. One of my favorite comic strips, Non Sequitur, by Wiley Miller, has a lot of fun with this. One example shows a man standing in front of a hot dog stand. The caption reads, “PUTTING A DEGREE IN PHILOSOPHY TO WORK.” The sign on the front of the hot dog stand reads, “Hot dogs – Pretzels – Pithy Quotes.” Another sign on the side indicates that the order comes with a “free side of Goethe.”

Since I teach philosophy, I am often asked to come up with a good reason why a person should major in the subject, and I offer the usual bromides: “It will make you better at what you do, whatever it is;” “It is great training for a career in the law” (except for that pesky ethics course, which frequently gets in the way!). Or, “It makes you think deeply.” I don’t mention that my studies in philosophy and theology opened the door for me in state government. Yes, like most philosophy teachers, I have long wished that philosophy would enjoy a resurgence of applicability to life in the real world.

Well, it has happened!

It started in 2005 with a book titled On Bullshit, by Harry G. Frankfurt, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Princeton University and former Professor at Yale. Frankfurt demonstrated the value of philosophy in dealing with one of society’s most troubling aspects. At last — philosophy touched on a real world problem!

Now, another philosopher will publish a long-needed philosophical study of yet another troubling real-world problem: asshole management.

Aaron James. Image souce: U of C, Irvine, Faculty Profile

Assholes: a Theory (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 10/31/2012) is the latest book by Arron James, Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Irvine. He is no dilettante: he has a Ph.D. from Harvard and has authored many books on philosophy, focusing on fairness in society. So, a book on a category of people who basically think what’s ‘fair’ is ‘fair’ only so long as it deals them all the cards is a very appropriate topic, one that everyone–not just philosophy students–can gain something from. In fact, while he drops many big names from the history of philosophy in the course of his book (Kant, Rousseau, Aristotle, Rawls, and even the most feared, Hegel), he does so in a way that makes their points understandable to the average reader and offers a very instructive handbook on how to deal with one of life’s biggest problems.

We’ve all experienced them. Assholes, that is. The boss who, at the slightest hint of displeasure by a board member about a report written by staffers, throws the staff under the bus without even analyzing the worthiness of the remark. The guy who butts into line at the movie theater, or at the lunch counter. The guy who swerves in and out of traffic lanes, frequently endangering other commuters, as though he is the only person who has to be someplace on time. The father who only asks to see his child from a failed marriage when he “misses” the kid in a moment of self pity. We know them when we see them, but have we ever stopped to ask ourselves what it is, exactly, that makes a person an asshole? To wax philosophical, what is the “essence” of an asshole? This is where philosophy is very important because philosophy, ever since Socrates, starts out by defining its terms.

James tells us that an asshole is a person who allows himself to enjoy special advantage ‘systematically’ due to an “entrenched” sense of entitlement (“entrenched” means the person will never change), and who is oblivious to complaints about his behavior because of that overwrought sense of entitlement.

Okay. Think real hard. Did you ever encounter someone like that? Of course you have. At work. At church. In school. At home. Just about everywhere.

Here’s a tougher one. Does this describe you? If so, then you could be an asshole. Of course, if you are, it probably won’t register because, after all, you are entitled to be that way!

James’ book invariably takes him into the realm of politics, and I was worried that I was going to encounter a left-wing diatribe (the guy teaches in California, after all), but he is “fair and balanced” in his condemnation of those he feels fit the bill: Rush Limbaugh is an asshole–but so is Michael Moore. Fox News gets a good drubbing–but so does MSNBC’s Chris Matthews (I couldn’t agree more!). And James has an especial dislike for Ann Coulter.

But can Ann Coulter be an asshole? There is an interesting discussion about whether assholes are exclusively male. He notes a difference between men and women that is culturally developed: women tend to be less aggressive, and so (according to him) they tend to disguise their contempt for other peoples’ opinions by pretending to appreciate them–and then turning around and going after them behind their backs. I won’t go any further, except to say that, Oh, ladies, you are going to have a field day with this!

At bottom, James contends that assholery is a moral issue, largely because the asshole disregards the humanity of those whose opinions he ignores. He calls Kant into the debate to recognize that every human being has moral worth, and the importance of every person to be recognized is crucial. The “proper asshole”, by his stable characteristic behavior, completely misses this point.

Where James hits the nail squarely on the head is when he addresses the effect of assholes on society. Why is it, for example, that Congress is unable to do anything except along party lines, (a phenomenon that has also affected the legislature in many states–particularly Illinois)? Here, James speaks the language of the common man and woman, because some visitors to the Illinois State Fair were sporting buttons that read “Vote the Assholes Out!” Come to think of it, it was on Democrat Day.

Assholery affects cooperative effort, and James tells us that “Cooperation is fragile.”

The prospects for any society depend to a large extent on circumstance and fate. And so cooperative people must remain vigilant if decent society is to last. Cooperative vigilance is the only bulwark against decline, especially in capitalist societies.

There are laugh-out-loud-funny parts in this book, but, at bottom, the discussion is a serious one. And it is smartly written. I am thinking about making this book required reading in my philosophy courses. Finally, I have an answer to that pesky question, “Why study philosophy?”

Copyright 2012 Isaac Morris

College teachers, take notes

If you went to college, I would ask that you think back on some of the teachers you had. Which ones did you really end up appreciating for what they did to encourage deep learning, and which–although these are the most forgettable–were of the opinion that they were truly amazing intellectual lights whose very presence in the classroom was a blessing in your life? And, far worse, which of them had an axe to grind of a political, personal, or lifestyle nature that somehow colored every fact and discussion that occurred in class–their objective being to indoctrinate as much as to instruct? Or, who used their class as group therapy (I actually had one of those!).

Teachers at the primary and secondary levels are required to possess not only knowledge in their field of study, but also to take courses toward certification that delve into how people learn, the history of education, and best practices and procedures. Not so with college instructors. To teach in college, you must possess–at a minimum–a master’s degree in the discipline being taught. As such, many college teachers may be very knowledgeable about their field, but possess very little understanding–and perhaps some foundational, erroneous assumptions–about how students learn.

What the Best College Teachers Do, by Ken Bain (Harvard University Press, 2004) ought to be required reading for 1) every college teacher in America, 2) every parent of a college student, and 3) every college student in the country. Actually, I happened upon this when I discovered a new book by Bain, who is Vice President for Academic Affairs at the University of the District of Columbia, titled What the Best College Students Do (Harvard, August 2012), which I hope to review later. But, since I teach at the college level, I was immediately drawn to the older text. One should never stop learning.

Bain cites studies that seek to determine what makes people want to learn, what motivates them in the process, and what can actually cause them to lose motivation (extrinsic motivations, like only wanting a grade, will not encourage deep learning: students must be able to relate the information to real life concerns). But he sums up these studies in very concise language, all of which provides food for thought about how a teacher conducts a class; i.e., what assumptions a teacher makes about himself and his students.

It goes without saying that the best teachers know their material, but how do they get their students to learn? The best of them do not approach a classroom focused on themselves, but on their students. They assume that the students want to learn, and that they are capable of it (the foundational assumption being that people are curious by nature). They trust their students.

The less successful teachers approach teaching with the idea that students aren’t capable of thinking and analyzing a subject until they have all the facts, and thus focus on “covering the material,” building a database for retrieval at a later date. The more successful teachers realize that the brain does not just store information for retrieval, but processes information as it comes in; thus, students are capable of intelligent consideration of issues and topics even with small amounts of information. The best teachers don’t think of themselves as pouring knowledge into empty heads, but rather as midwives who facilitate thinking. Deep learning, not just regurgitation, is their goal; working minds, not just graduated ones, their Holy Grail.

One thing that comes across loudly and clearly is that the student, not the teacher, should be the focus of what goes on in the classroom. This quote by veteran teacher Paul Baker says it best:

My strongest feeling about teaching is that you must begin with the student. As a teacher you do not begin to teach, thinking of your own ego and what you know . . . The moments of the class must belong to the student–not the students, but to the very undivided student. You don’t teach a class. You teach a student.

I am fortunate in that I had quite a few teachers who not only would have agreed with Bain, but who could have written this book–and maybe even a better one. Thank you, Father Zvonimir Djamanov, Dr. Charles Ashanin, Dr. Ruth Rose, Dr. Charles Frank, and Dr. Wolf Fuhrig–to name only a few. I won’t mention the ones who exemplify the worst–largely because I have forgotten their names! That should tell you something!

If you want to be unforgettable, college teachers take notes!

Copyright Isaac Morris 2012

Is our foundation of literacy crumbling?

Image source: Foundation for Comprehensive Early Learning Literacy

Why do I spend so much time talking about books?

The National Curriculum in England is based on three principal areas — Literacy, Numeracy, and Science. In my opinion, the most important of these is literacy. However, “literacy” in the United States is prized chiefly as a means of allowing people to read traffic signs, and to exercise the bare minimum that will allow them to participate in society. Literacy, as it is understood by people in cultures other than our own, means much, much more.

Yes, literacy involves being able to read, at a bare minimum. But reading also allows human beings–even at a very young age–to think and to feel. Furthermore, the more you read the better you are able to express your own thoughts having been exposed to ways of saying things. In fact, at one time, a major component to education in England, and even in our own country, involved reading of the classics. Exposure to those things made a person more empathetic, and better spoken. We have no better example of that than our own Abraham Lincoln, whose reading chiefly comprised of Shakespeare, the King James Bible, and Black’s Commentaries. There have been few Presidents who could express themselves with such beautiful fluidity (and he didn’t use a speech writer).

I find it interesting that my book blog has more followers in Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand than in the United States. My reviews are frequently about historical figures or deal with literary titles rather than the popular and ‘pulpular’ titles that populate our top ten lists in the US. I can only guess that reading is something done at a different level in these countries, and I suspect that this is due to what occurs at the formative stages of their education. I still recall, when I was a student briefly in England, seeing the common, blue-collar workers sitting on the tube at rush hour reading not the latest tell-all or crime novel, but books about the history of their country or books by literary giants like Jane Austen, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, or George Eliot. I was truly amazed and impressed. Of course, that was forty years ago. A lot changes in that period of time.

Now, sadly, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) rankings of member countries in the three areas of reading, math, and science indicate that both the United States and Great Britain are slipping. Numbers for 2010 show that the United States is ranked 17th in reading — and the United Kingdom has slipped to 26th place (out of 65 countries)

Our educational goals, ever since the USSR launched Sputnik, have focused on science and mathematics. Yet, both the United States and the United Kingdom have slipped in both areas: in Math, the US is ranked 31st, the UK 28th; in Science, the US is ranked 23rd, the UK 16th.

Who are the highest ranking countries in all three areas? China (Shanghai) is ranked number 1 across the board. Hong Kong, Chinese taipei, Singapore, Korea, and Japan fill out the rest of the top 5 in the three categories–with only one European country, Finland, making an appearance. Canada is the only North American country to appear in the top 10 (6th in reading, 10th in math, and 8th in science).

I am not aware of how the OECD measures their results, but if we assume that they have a sound statistical basis for their observations, then the state of learning in our country, compared with other countries (particularly in Asia), signals serious problems ahead.

One other interesting observation can be gleaned from the OECD study. Rankings based on the percentage of persons who complete secondary education reveal that “The United States of America is the only OECD country where 25-34 year-olds are not better educated than 55-64 year-olds.

The focus on math and science seems to have overshadowed the reading among some educators, with the result that all three standards may have suffered. Literacy is required to read those scientific texts, but is also crucial in allowing us to think about those texts. Literacy has declined to such an extent that literature courses may soon be disappearing at the secondary level. Yet, the most important thing that literacy helps to develop is not simply the ability to read the signs that differentiate the mens room from the ladies, but to learn to express themselves in writing and in discussion, and to think about the things that are spoken of to them by the government that we all share in. Lose literacy and lose your ability to share in the government of your life. Lose literacy, and become a slave to those who possess it. Lose literacy, and lose the ability to share your thoughts, your feelings, and your heart.

And, as I have noted before on other blogs, the love of reading is something that must begin at home.

What do you think?

Copyright 2012 Isaac Morris

The horror that ends with a rainbow

This month marks the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. The following review was originally posted in March 2012, but it is reposted here because Parker Rhodes’ The Ninth Ward uniquely captures the horror of that devastation from the viewpoint of a child.

The Ninth WardThere is, quite simply, no place on earth like New Orleans. I fell in love with it twenty-five years ago one hot and muggy fall weeknight. I sat on a bench in front of Saint Louis Cathedral (Jackson Square was, strangely, almost deserted), smoking a cigar and listening to one lonely kid blowing on a trumpet. The sad tune bounced off the walls of the church and the surrounding structures, and seemed to inspire a haunting chorus of spirits that surrounded me in the darkness (New Orleans is filled with spirits—you can feel them). It was a night that still haunts me. Since then, the place has mattered to me.

On August 29, 2005 the city got a double whammy. Hurricane Katrina, a Category 5 storm, hit New Orleans head on, blowing windows out of skyscrapers, tossing cars and buses around like toys, and ripping huge chunks off the roof of the Superdome where thousands who were unable to get out of town clung to one another in fear for their lives. When it passed, New Orleans breathed a sigh of relief and people went back to drinking on Bourbon Street (even though the power had gone out). Laissez les bon temps roller!

Then, the levees gave way.

What followed was more horrifying than anything Dante could have dreamed up for his visit to hell.

Today, the evidence of the destruction can still be seen in places like the city’s Ninth Ward, the area hardest hit and one of the poorest. The easternmost ward runs north and south from Lake Ponchartrain to Chalmette. Today, it is still largely the landscape of nightmares, large parts of it still desolate, like some deteriorated movie set, a stark reminder of the life-and-death drama that played out there 7 years ago. Or was it just yesterday? The spirits of Katrina’s dead hover timelessly.

Jewell Parker Rhodes is not a native, nor even a resident of New Orleans. But she is conversant with the spirits of the place, and made much of it in her 2000 novel “Voodoo Dreams – A Novel of Marie Leveaux.” The Ninth Ward is her first book for young readers.

I always thought that I would prefer a hurricane to a tornado any day, because you have advance warning and can get away from a hurricane. But that assumes you can get away. What if you don’t have a car? What if your social security check doesn’t come until the second Wednesday, and the hurricane comes 1 or 2 weeks before? That is precisely the scenario that Rhodes presents in The Ninth Ward. It isn’t pretty.

The heroine—and truly she is—of Rhodes’ novel is 12-year old Lanesha. She lives in the Ninth Ward with Mama YaYa, a woman unrelated to her who is in her eighties. Mama Ya-Ya is a midwife who brought Lanesha into the world. Lanesha’s seventeen-year-old mother, unfortunately, died after giving birth to her. Her mother was a “Fontaine girl,” a woman from a wealthy uptown area of New Orleans, who fell in love with a young black man from the Ninth Ward.

Lanesha’s uptown family has nothing to do with her. She dreams of becoming an engineer, and of someday building bridges:

My first bridge would be from lower Ninth Ward to Uptown, New Orleans. If I built a beautiful bridge to my family, maybe they’d walk across? Or else let me?

Her mother never said who Lanesha’s father was, so Mama Ya-Ya is all the child has. But the older woman’s unconditional love has given Lanesha a life of hopefulness, strength to endure, and a mind that will allow her someday to do great things.

Mama Ya-Ya knew the child was special because she was born with a “caul.” It was a sign. Mama Ya-Ya is good at reading signs, always praying at her bedside shrine of catholic saints and voodoo gods and goddesses.

Lanesha’s mother lies in uptown in St. Louis Cemetery #2—although Lanesha never visits. She doesn’t have to. Lanesha, like Mama, has “the sight.” Lanesha’s mother is right there with her and Mama. They are both used to seeing her half-reclining on an upstairs bed. She never talks, but the two living occupants take her presence for granted.

This all seems so fantastical, but the more time you spend in New Orleans the less odd it becomes. There are not a few people who have “the sight,” or claim to, living there. Voodoo isn’t just a tourist attraction, but I’ve not gotten up the nerve to investigate those parts of town where it is a lively reality. Maybe someday.

Parker Rhodes. Like Lanesha, a dreamer and a lover of books. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

The story progresses day-by-day, through moments of playfulness in the sun to then to days in school where Lanesha is shunned because she is different to —well, we know what’s coming. So does Mama Ya -Ya, even before the weather reports start coming through. Only Mama is confused. The signs show that New Orleans will survive the hurricane. That’s good. But there’s something else she just can’t quite put her finger on. It bothers her.

When reality floods in, we share the horror with Lanesha, her friend TaShon, Mama Ya-Ya, and their dog as water pours in through the front door, then up the stairs, forcing all of the occupants into the attic. Then the water invades there too, forcing them onto a dresser, then onto the roof. Outside, the bodies of animals float by in the toxic waters, along with tree branches and God-knows-what else. Surely, Lanesha tells TaShon, someone will come now that the storm has passed. But we all know better.

This is billed as a book for young readers. I can’t help wondering, however, whether this might be too intense for some of them. It is a sad and sobering read for adults. It should, however, if young readers are of a sensitive nature, cause them to look differently on those from areas like the Ninth Ward, people who are poor, people who are desperate, and realize that they aren’t really that different. Some are just more fortunate.

Writers sometimes exaggerate either the goodness or the badness of their characters, idealizing or damning for greater effect. Rhodes has clearly idealized Mama Ya-Ya and Lanesha, and I suspect has projected a lot of herself onto the young Lanesha, who loves to read, play math games, and who plans on a future different from what she has known. We know that not all the ward residents were thus inspired, and that some of them probably weren’t very nice people. But every one of them was a human being, and what they endured in the aftermath of Katrina was unimaginable. Reading The Ninth Ward injects that realization straight into your heart—no matter how old you are.

A lot of controversy followed in the wake of the storm, as government agencies passed the blame, city politicians dodged responsibility, and lawsuits started flying. A lot of human systems failed. Then the religious radicals started in about Katrina being the wrath of God brought down on a sinful city. But Lanesha doesn’t worry about such things. She just thinks about surviving, living, and continuing to thrive. She is a child, and children don’t analyze: they just confront experience head-on. Mama Ya-Ya gives Lanesha the last word in explaining the presence of suffering in a brief conversation that speaks to readers young and old alike:

“God sent the flood because people had been bad.”

“That’s the story–because people had been bad. But I tell you, Lanesha. Sometimes a storm is just a storm. A flood is just a flood….It doesn’t matter how the flood started. What matters is how it ends.”

“With a rainbow.”

Rating 4/5

Copyright March 23, 2012 Isaac Morris

The Light Between Oceans: a Gordian knot of lies

The Light Between Oceans, by M. L. Stedman (Scribner, 2012), is a book that will have you welling up with tears, especially if you are a parent or grandparent. Although it is almost cliché, there is only one word for it: heartbreaking.

I suppose I could do what other reviewers have undoubtedly done, and launch into a lengthy discussion of metaphor—the lighthouse between two oceans being the most obvious (Virginia Woolf was never my cup of tea, so I don’t want to go there). However, I will bypass the obvious metaphors and instead focus on the ethical and emotional content of this story.

This is a book about lies and the inordinate pain that they can cause.

The tragedy is that the people in this story are all truly decent individuals. When we meet Tom Sherbourne, he is comforting his wife, Isabel, after a miscarriage. Isabel and Tom wanted a baby so badly, but Isabel seems unable to carry one to term. Eventually, she loses three. After the third, Tom begins to worry for Isabel’s state of mind.

Tom and Isabel live on Janus Island, which sits between the Indian and Southern oceans (much is made of the name Janus, the Roman god who looks forward and back). On Janus, Tom is an employee of the government who keeps the light burning to warn commercial vessels of the danger of coming too close at night. It is a solitary existence, chosen by Tom to escape the post-traumatic stress of the war to end all wars; and by Isabel—a sweet girl Tom meets on the mainland of Western Australia—because she loves Tom more than anything. Their life together on the island is a perfect one wherein Tom can forget the pain and horror of war and lose himself in the arms of a woman who truly, truly wants and loves him. Their love is perfectly suited to solitude.

Author M. L. Stedman – Image Source: Random House Struik

But in time, the loss of not one but three children takes its toll. Their relationship suffers, and Isabel is near to a nervous breakdown.

Then, what Isabel would later (and ironically) refer to as “a miracle” happens.

A dinghy washes up on shore. In it is a dead man—and a very live infant. Isabel takes the infant into her arms, and immediately falls in love with her. When Tom insists that the infant be returned, Isabel begs him to keep the child, and offers convincing arguments as to why it would be the best thing. Tom is guilt-ridden, but also fearful for Isabel’s state of mind, so he falsifies the log book, buries the unfortunate man, and then proceeds to raise—and fall in love with—the little girl whom they name Lucy.

The falsified logbook was a lie, of course, as well as a crime against the Commonwealth. When Bluey and Ralph, two boatmen who deliver supplies quarterly to the island, show up they lie by introducing Lucy as their child. They lie when they go to the mainland to see Isabel’s parents and introduce them to their new grandchild. And they lie when the child is christened. In the end, Tom lies to Isabel about his own part in bringing about the discovery of their deception.

As Tom’s friend Ralph says when the truth of their situation is discovered, “There’s been lie upon lie, all with the best intentions.”

It will be four years before Lucy’s real mother discovers that the Sherbournes’ daughter is really her missing daughter, Grace, who disappeared with her father on a dinghy and has long been presumed dead (the circumstances under which they disappeared do not speak well of the inhabitants of the town). Now, the consequences of the lies will come with a vengeance because Lucy / Grace is old enough to suffer horribly at the loss of the only parents she ever knew, and the child’s birth mother must deal with the fact that her daughter not only does not know her but also hates her. As for Isabel and Tom, their lives are shattered—Tom may even face murder charges if the local constabulary has its way once the man’s body was discovered on Janus Island.

What will it take to untie the Gordian knot constructed of so many lies? But, more importantly, how is that such good people can lie so convincingly—and the lies don’t stop once they are discovered and Tom is arrested—when their emotions come into play? Tom and Isabel will not be the only liars in this tale. Untruth seems to be a recurring theme throughout.

To say much more would be to act as a spoiler, and I don’t wish to do anything to keep someone from reading this very fine and complex debut novel. Little is known about M. L. Stedman (she is very close-mouthed about herself, and insists that who she is isn’t as important as the story she tells—I couldn’t agree more), other than that she hails from Western Australia and now lives in London (read an interview with Stedman in the Sydney Morning Herald). What matters is her very remarkable first novel.

There were several times when I choked up while reading this book. I can still remember the smell of my infant children when I held them, though they are now grown, and I can only imagine the suffering of Isabel when her child is wrenched screaming from her arms; or of half-crazed Hannah (Lucy / Grace’s birth mother) when her child rejects and even despises her. Or Tom, the man who lived his life honorably (winning a Military Cross and Bar for gallantry) but who went against his conscience because he loved his wife; and whose life was changed forever by the little girl who would come to know him as “Dadda,” the child he would love more than he could have imagined—his pangs of conscience notwithstanding.

Stedman’s debut novel is a story that you won’t easily put down and which, when finished, you won’t soon forget.

Copyright 2012 Isaac Morris

Guest Review: Freeman, by Leonard Pitts, Jr.

The following is a guest review of Freeman, by Leonard Pitts, Jr., by Lisa K. Winkler. It first appeared on her blog site July 16, 2012. Ms. Winkler is the author of On the Trail of the Ancestors: A Black Cowboy Rides Across America (Createspace, 2012), which was reviewed on this site April 30, 2012.

Imagine a man walking from Philadelphia to Mississippi, hoping to unite with the woman he loves and hasn’t seen or spoken to in 15 years. That’s Sam, a runaway slave who fought in the Union Army, and is working in a library when he learns that General Robert E. Lee had surrendered at the Appomattox Courthouse.  He adopts the surname, Freeman, and embarks on his journey on foot.

Then there’s Tilda.  She and Sam met working on a plantation whose owner encouraged her slaves to learn to read.  Sold after Sam’s escape, she’s afraid to leave her abusive new master, who doesn’t accept the news that the war ended.

At the same time, Prudence Kent, a Boston war widow, travels south to open a school for the freed slaves, honoring a promise made by her father decades ago. She’s accompanied by her friend, Bonnie, a black woman who has lived in the Kent household since youth.

Leonard Pitts Jr.’s  Freeman captures the uncertainty, fear, and struggle for identity that plagued both blacks and whites at the close of the Civil War and upon the death of President Lincoln.

I’ve always liked Pitts’ columns for the Miami Herald and was curious about his crossover into fiction. His attention to geography and history, his portrayal of the characters’ journeys, alternating each chapter, and his message about the importance of literacy and education kept me turning pages of the 400-page novel.

There have been many stories about post-Civil War journeys; of people trying to reconnect with loved ones divided by the war. Freeman is another excellent addition to the genre; it emphasizes once again that there are no clear answers, that nothing is simply black and white.

Reprinted here with permission from the author.