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Mixed Results in new Diane Johnson Book, Flyover Lives

Flyover Lives
Destination: Moline, Illinois (kind of)

Book: Flyover Lives (NEW January 2014) by Diane Johnson

This book starts out to be a book about traveling back to family roots. But the journey, and the book, loses its way.

Reading the flyleaf or publicity material, the reader is led to believe that Flyover Lives is about an attempt by Diane Johnson to disprove a statement made by a friend in France (where Johnson lives half the year) that Americans are indifferent to history. The title promises that someone is going to take the Midwest seriously, and Diane Johnson has an impressive track record as a best selling and prize-winning author. I thought, “Hurrah! Flyover Lives will present a good picture of the Midwest to travelers from other countries or other parts of the United States.

Postcard of Moline bridge from time of Flyover Lives Memoir

Postcard of bridge from Moline to the Rock Island Arsenal about the time Johnson grew up in Moline. Photo from Boston Public Library

Additionally,  the description of Flyover Lives captured my attention, because I am immersed in a search for my family history at Ancestors in Aprons, and since I just finished The Spoon From Minkowitz that charmingly encourages both travel and family history searches.

Having read these books back to back, it is interesting to compare the story of Jewish refuges from pograms who settled in the East, to the story of Midwestern settlers.  Johnson complains about how boring the lives of her ancestors are in contrast to people from the East who all came through Ellis Island or escaped some “evil continent”. She is concerned that “Midwesterness might not interest people from other places.  New Yorkers, as we know, are really interested only in New York.”

“My parents didn’t emphasize ancestral myths, and as far as I could make out, our family was nothing at all; we had no ethnic or Old Country recollections to lend color to family reminiscences–how indeed could I ever become a writer?  We were Default Americans, plump, mild, and Protestant, people whose ancestors had come ashore God knew when and had lost interest in keeping track of the details…”

Happily, Flyover Lives starts out promisingly with Johnson talking about the lives of some of her ancestors, drawn from journals written by two women and a collection of letters from various people.  However, half way through, Johnson seems to run out of family material to talk about and jumps to her own life in the present.  Okay, a family historian should present her own recollections for future generations, and when she’s trying, her observations are sharp. However, too much of her story is punctuated with sweeping generalizations that turn out to be based on too little evidence.

I say this because I also grew up in the Midwest, about the same time that she did and in a family of about the same economic status.  Many of her assumptions about life at that time and place are only about her OWN life, and do not warrant expanding to include all woman or children or men of the period. Just a few examples: many women DID work outside the home; my ancestors back to the 1800′s DID travel around the United States, including to California and New York, and some even moved there; some of us WERE interested in faraway countries and took it for granted we would go there some time.

Having run out of real family history the author, and perhaps her editor, realizing that the book was too slim, start pasting in essays that she has published elsewhere whose only relevance is that they are first person tales.  While the longest, a recounting of her experience in Hollywood with famous directors, shares interesting behind-the-scenes glimpses of people like Stanley Kubrick and Mike Nichols, I fail to see the relevance to the rest of the book.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind reading a book of essays by a good writer. I don’t mind writers repurposing previously published material.  But if that is what the book is, the publisher should tell the reader rather than pretend that it is a family history/memoir.  I should have perhaps paid closer attention to the foreword which ends with an almost apologetic “In the interest of completeness I have added some contemporary stories, especially my own story of leaving and going back to have another look at the scenes I had not always remembered exactly.” In fact, the “going back” section is short and outweighed by other stories that do no relate to the search for roots and the exploration of how our ancestors and places in our history have shaped us.

You may enjoy parts of Flyover Lives and not care if it hangs together. After all the author, Diane Johnson has written several novels including the best selling trio of books L’ Affair, Le Mariage and Le Divorce.  She also co-authored the movie, The Shining and has been nominated for a Pulitzer and many other prestigous awards. Nevetheless, I could not recommend adding Flyover Lives to your traveler’s library. Maybe pick it up at your local public library if you are interested in one of the subjects included–ancestors lives in the 19th century Midwest, movie making in the 60s, Generals socializing, buying a car, getting a divorce and living in London with small children.  But don’t expect to learn much about the Midwest or a search for family roots.

 

Afghanistan Fragmented in New Book by Masha Hamilton

Book Cover: What Changes Everything
Destination: Afghanistan

Book: What Changes Everything (NEW June 2013) by Masha Hamilton

 

(Disclosure: years ago, before she had published her first novel, I knew Masha Hamilton when she lived in Tucson)

Before you even open this book, you get a treat.  The dust jacket is the most striking cover art I’ve seen this year.  And the style and choice of artwork becomes clear when you read the book.  I spend a lot of time complaining about book covers, so I wanted to take this opportunity to praise the publisher, Unbridled Books and designers  David Ryski and Kathleen Lynch.

Even better–in this case you CAN tell a book by its cover.  What Changes Everything is as innovative, arresting, gritty, relevant  and personal as the cover suggests. Masha Hamilton clearly knows the country and the people–Americans in Brooklyn, Afghans, Russian emigres–that she writes about. She currently serves as the press officer for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.  Even before that, she had been a regular in Afghanistan, and founded the Afghan Women’s Writing Project–and if you don’t know about it, you can learn more in this article I wrote about AWWP. Continue reading

A New Dr. Siri Laos Mystery Novel

Laos Mystery: The Woman Who Wouldn't Die

Destination: Laos

Book: The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die, a Dr. Siri Mystery Novel Set in Laos by Colin Cotterill

It is not often that I get to feature a book set in Laos. Thailand–yes, Cambodia–many, but Laos–well, actually never. Until now. A new Laos mystery novel caught my eye. I jumped at the chance to give you a taste of Laos through the latest in the popular Dr. Siri Laos mystery novel series by Colin Cotterill. Since Colin Cotterill lives in Thailand and he’s British, with dual citizenship that includes Australia there is deep irony in the fact he writes these books. The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die is salted with sarcastic references to the way that foreigners do not understand Laotians and digs at everything that has to do with Thailand. At one point Dr. Siri describes a woman’s voice by saying,

She was loud, too, and spoke Lao with the same linguistic prowess as Yul Brynner speaking Thai. Continue reading