A Gentleman in Moscow?

51Sp3yhGIQL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles spent over a year on the New York Times Best Sellers list. The novel is about a Russian nobleman who was forced to live within the confines of a Moscow hotel on orders of the new Bolshevik government. It is an elegant, charming jewel of a novel, a sort of literary Faberge egg. It is also the most polarizing piece of fiction I’ve come across in decades. DSC_0069

If I were to cast a movie of Count Alexander Rostov, the gentleman of the title, I’d give the part to someone like David Niven. To those of us old enough to remember, or TMC movie fans, David Niven was a movie star from ‘40s through the ‘70s. He played the consummate English gentleman: urbane, unflappable, loyal to a fault. He dressed impeccably, charmed the ladies and always had a witty response. Other than being Russian, this is pretty much a description of Alexander Rostov. 

I’m generally not a big fan of this type of man. I’m a sucker for the grand gesture, for the heart on the sleeve, weep into his beer kinda guy, like a Clark Gable. Or the socially awkward, nerdy, Boy Scout type. Jimmy Stewart comes to mind.

The set-up is that, in 1922, the Bolshevik Revolutionary government deems Rostov an enemy of the Russian state and designates him an “internal exile.” His place of exile is the Metropol, a luxury hotel in the heart of Moscow. He is already living there in a spacious suite with chandeliers, a dining room and a salon. He is unceremoniously moved to a single room in the attic. 

Rostov makes the best of the situation. He parts with his furniture, books and keepsakes with a philosophical shrug. “But, of course, a thing is just a thing.” In fact, he rationalizes that he has always loved train travel and boat travel precisely because of the limit on space. He compares his reduced living situation to Captain Nemo’s adventures on the Nautilus.

But Rostov is not entirely bereft. He still has his set of 52 crystal wineglasses in a variety of designs so that the each kind of wine or spirits can be drunk in its proper glass. He has his grandfather’s Louis XVI desk whose hollow legs contain gold coins. And he has at least a few of his books.

The hotel has its own barber shop, a bar, a casual eatery called the Piazza and a formal restaurant held to be the best restaurant in Moscow. It has a full complement of kitchen and wait staff as well as the barber, a seamstress, the bell captain, the concierge and the bellhops. So, yes, he has lost a lot—his freedom the most severe—yet, his life is still better than most.

He becomes friends with a precocious nine-year-old girl, emotionally abandoned by her Soviet bureaucrat father on assignment in Moscow. Inexplicably, she has a pass key to the hotel. The two of them conspire to explore all the nooks and crannies of the hotel. They visit the boiler room, a storage room with items left by patrons, from where Rostov reclaimed some of his belongings, the place where all the hotel banquet dishes were kept and many other rooms. They also sneak into guests’ rooms, including Rostov’s old suite. They gleefully spy on gatherings of genteel ladies as well as eavesdrop on meetings of various Bolshevik committees. 

These excursions could only be called adventures, and I was reminded of Eloise at the Plaza Hotel. This puzzled me as I thought the references to the ways of the Russian nobility and the one-eyed cat named Kutuzov were meant to lead me to think of War and Peace, not Eloise. Where was this book going? 

A year passes. Another year. Four years. Ten. Twenty. Thirty. Outside the hotel, Stalin rose to power. Five Year Plans devastated the economy. World War II came and went. A power struggle followed Stalin’s death.

Inside the hotel, Rostov faced adversity as well. One small catastrophe was the removal of all the labels on the wine bottles in the spirit of egalitarianism. It became impossible to pair food with the recommended wine. In a tsunami-proportion change in his life, Rostov unexpectedly became the caretaker of a five-year-old child. With aplomb and wry philosophical musings, Rostov overcomes adversity with ingenuity, physical dexterity and the help of his many friends.

About those friends. Despite calling him “Your Eminence,” the staff at the hotel genuinely likes Rostov. As the years pass, he develops especially close relationships with the seamstress, the chef and the maitre d’. He is also on excellent terms with the desk captain, the concierge and the dozens of workers needed to keep a large hotel running. They figure out ingenious ways to get around the common enemy: the bureaucratic hotel manager. 

Due to its excellence, important guests from foreign diplomats to movie stars to government apparatchiks stay at the Metropol. Rostov is a sought-after conversationalist because of his charm, wit, and broad knowledge of literature, history and the arts. He becomes friends with many of these guests, including a romantic liaison. 

In an ironic way, Rostov is the most egalitarian person of them all. After all, it is the job of a gentleman to make others feel at ease. Rostov could adapt to any company he is with. He remembered his grandfather telling him about Darwin’s “moths of Manchester.” The moths that had dark wings to match the soot of Manchester survived to propagate. As Rostov put it, “It is the business of gentlemen to change” with the times.

Lest you think that the story is just a pastiche of amusing incidents, descriptions of opulent settings and scrumptious food and wine, wry philosophical asides and War and Peace-esque anecdotes from Rostov’s life, let me assure you that, like any good caper movie, it all ties together in the end. Almost every relationship Rostov becomes involved in, from the conductor of the orchestra at the Piazza to the American vending machine salesman, and every bit of information that has dropped into his lap—the old copies of the Baedaker travel guides as well as his barber’s favorite hair dye—play a part in the final, winner-takes-all escapade.

Among my friends, there is a huge chasm between the fans of this book and the

Yoga Nancy

detractors. The fans outnumber the disparagers about two to one, which would jibe with the long time the book spent on the New York Times Best Sellers list. The ravers are so enthusiastic that they bring up A Gentleman in Moscow without prompting. My financial adviser recommended the book when it first came out in 2016. Yoga friend Nancy called it a page-turner. A different Nancy was breathless with praise for the language in the book.

Birder Bob

Birding friend Anne spoke in her soft Southern drawl that the book had to be one of her favorites of all time. Hearing this, another birder, Bob, agreed. At this point, his wife Barb sighed and said she couldn’t even finish it. Tennis friend Kathy loved the book so much that she lent it to tennis instructor Liz. Liz returned the book unfinished. She shook her head and sighed, “I give up.”

Birder Barb

My theory, and my reaction while tearing through the book, is that it depends on how willing you are to suspend disbelief. You have to accept the premise of someone being “imprisoned” in a luxury hotel. Not only is the prisoner talented and witty and charming, but he also has more money than he’ll ever need. On top of that, his friends all turn out to be loyal and extraordinarily competent. And the icing on the cake—he could get a baby sitter any time he needed one. This is escapism of the highest order, albeit charming, urbane and witty.

Tennis Kathy
Tennis Liz

If you don’t buy into these assumptions, then the book is just a series of digressions—some too cute, some arcane—slowing down an unlikely plot. If that’s the case, all the erudition about literature and history, the depth of knowledge of wines and music and the charming and witty repartee are irrelevant. For people who are looking for a filling breakfast, a Faberge egg is not satisfying. 

Tell me: Are you thumbs up or thumbs down?



West Meets East: Chinese Americans Visit Mother China

img_5969 2I had quite a few knowing chuckles reading Scott Tong’s img_5970account of his experiences in China in his book A Village with My Name. Like me, journalist Tong is Chinese American. Even though we grew up in Chinese homes in America, we both experienced major culture shock when we visited China as adults.

Early on, Scott talks about riding in a car to his ancestral village. “The ‘road’ we’re driving on has turned into a one-lane paved path about the width of a bike trail back home. It has the added drama of five-foot-deep irrigation ditches on either side….I try not to consider the odds of a car coming the other way, except that’s all I can think about.” 

On my most recent visit to China in 2016, I was mesmerized by the death-defying traffic. fullsizeoutput_2662A six-lane road inexplicably narrowed to two lanes. Cars, trucks, bicycles, motorized bikes, three-wheelers, electric scooters all jockeyed for road space, sometimes by going the wrong way down the sidewalk. A disabled man, one arm raised, the other on the controls of his electric wheelchair, careened catty corner across a major intersection. Every minute, I braced for some horrible accident.

Things were not improved outside of the city


Scott noted that the Chinese had always placed a premium on light skin color, especially for girls. Female TV stars were all pale. Scott’s mother was deemed “cute” because of her light skin. When Scott and his wife met their adoptive Chinese daughter for the first time, he noted, “Her skin color wasn’t ‘fairly,’ as paperwork suggested….[It] looked a shade or two darker than any of the photos.” The orphanage tried to make the child more desirable by lightening her skin in the photos.

The Chinese predilection for pale skin explains what had been always seemed to me an enigmatic comment my mom made when I was born. My dad said that her first words were, “How come she’s so dark?” And she said it not in a good way.

Scott homes in on the driving competitiveness of Chinese society: “China’s fast-forward dash for scarce resources—jobs, spouses, college spaces, affordable housing.” The winning of this race falls on the shoulders of the one child per family. (As of 2016, two children are permitted.) It can be a grueling, desperate existence. Scott’s Chinese assistant wrote in her diary “that she longed for a sibling not so much to play with as to share the harsh parental spotlight.” In my August 24, 2018 review, The Small Are Eating the Old, I talk about the grinding pressure my relatives in China, like all parents and grandparents in China, feel to give their child a competitive edge.

There were surprises on more personal levels as well. Scott’s great grandfather had studied in Japan in the early 1900s. While in Japan, he had married a Japanese woman whom he brought back to his village—quite a shock to his Chinese wife and three kids. On my first trip to China in 1977, the first of my family to go in twenty-five years, I found out that one of my uncles had four children, two with his wife and two with his paramour. You’d think my parents would have given me a heads-up.

Social interactions became more complicated as Scott embarked on his research of family history. He interviewed relatives, some long lost, still in China. Conversations with relatives, even in one’s native tongue, are sometimes difficult. As he was formulating his objections to his uncle who in effect, wanted to edit Scott’s book, he thought, “It’s hard to litigate this kind of argument in your second language.” When talking to my relatives in Chinese, I often wonder if I fully understand the point they’re making.

Besides the language, actual cultural differences stymied us as well. When is a family member “saving face” and refusing a badly needed gift? What are the rules for who should pay the restaurant tab? When are they playing you because they think you can do something for them? (I had an uncle who wanted my passport for a week so he could get some antique paintings out of China. I said no.) When are they understating out of politeness? Years ago in Hong Kong, an aunt invited my husband and me to a small, informal party for my uncle’s birthday. We showed up in street clothes for what turned out to be a full-scale, ten course banquet with dozens of guests in formal dress and in their best jade.

fullsizeoutput_2666Many of the buildings where  Scott’s relatives—and mine— grew up, worked and went to school still exist, often repurposed. His visit to his grandmother’s school reminded me of my 2016 visit to my aunt’s old convent. My aunt, mom’s older sister, entered the Helpers of the Holy Souls Catholic order in the 1930s. The European-style building smack in the middle of Shanghai is now a restaurant called “Ye Olde Station.” It has retained many of its fullsizeoutput_2670architectural features, light fixtures and dark wood trim. I walked through it wondering if my aunt had knelt to pray in this room or had communal meals in that room  or walked down that corridor.


In the book, Scott wondered about his “what if” life. “What if my dad had been the sibling left behind? What if I were the mainland cousin, driving —of all vehicles—a Buick?” I have often wondered how my life would have been if I hadn’t left China. What kind of friends would I have? What would my kid be like? Who would have been his dad? What kind of personality would I have?

When Scott was unable to track down any record of the last years of his maternal grandfather, he lamented, “I’ve waited too long to start chasing all this.” I—probably everyone—have had this feeling at some point or another. As Scott put it, “I am left with a few dozen pieces of a five hundred-piece puzzle.” 

Scott put in the leg work and the brain work to track down interviews, letters and locales that helped fill out the puzzle. In my opinion, he also showed a lot of courage. To acknowledge that our relatives suffered, made bad decisions, did despicable things is not easy. I would have been tempted to put my fingers over my eyes during the emotionally uncomfortable parts, like I do during scary movies. 

I think we can’t ever fully know our forebears, not even our parents, much less those relatives who are long dead. At least Scott can still ask questions of his parents and aunts and uncles. Mine are all dead. But at some point, Scott himself will be the grandfather and great grandfather. (I am already a grandma.) His kids, grandkids and great grandkids will know about where they came from and how they got there. They can catch a glimpse of what the early part of the twenty-first century was like. They will be so grateful. Hopefully, my grandsons will learn something of their ancestors through my writing as well.

I am grateful to Scott Tong also. In reading A Village With My Name, I was able to gain concrete context to my lived experience as a Chinese-American, make sense of my observations of Chinese life and even explain my discomfort with some social interactions with Chinese people. I learned about both parts of being Chinese and being American.

Tell me: One thing about your grandparents that surprised you when you first found out.

East Meets West: A Century of Connections between Chinese and Foreigners in China

img_5969 2As the last hundred years of Chinese history has had more than its share of upheavals, every Chinese family has stories of separation, betrayal, imprisonment, exile and death. In A Village With My Name: A Family History of China’s Opening to the World, Scott Tong writes about his search for his own family’s story. 

Scott Tong is a Chinese American reporter who lived in China from 2006 to 2010 as bureau chief for NPR’s Marketplace program. In China, he reconnected with relatives and began a deep dive into the history of his family. In this quest, Scott traveled to remote villages, including one where everyone’s surname is Tong, to cities such as Nanjing, Chongqing and Hong Kong and to a derelict prison camp near Tibet. In his memoir, he puts his forebears’ and relatives’ lives into the context of the trajectory of Chinese history and China’s interaction with the rest of the world.

Scott Tong

I am Chinese American too. Even though I am significantly older than Scott, we are both “one step removed” Chinese, clumsy in the language and unsure in social interactions. While Scott grew up in Poughkeepsie, NY, I have lived in St. Louis my whole life except for the first eight years in China and Hong Kong. Like Scott, I have tried to understand what life was like for my parents, my grandparents and my living relatives still in China. Both our families were separated for a quarter century by Cold War politics. Neither China nor the United States permitted its citizens to communicate with people in the other country.

Also, both our families in China had extensive ties to foreigners in the first half of the twentieth century. Scott’s great grandfather attended a Japanese university in the early 1900s. In those years, many young Chinese intellectuals went abroad to bring back Western knowledge and technology to bolster the crumbling Qing Dynasty. (The Japanese government had opened Japan to the West in 1868.) Scott’s maternal grandmother, Mildred, got her education at an American Methodist school in Nanchang, one of China’s smaller cities. In a stroke of luck, Scott found a stash of Mildred’s letters to her American teachers in the Boston University and Swarthmore College archives.

As Catholics, my parents’ families gravitated toward the French. Shanghai natives, my parents met as medical students at the Jesuit Aurora University in Shanghai’s French Concession. All their classes were in French. Decades later, they spoke French when they discussed things they didn’t want us kids to know. Like Mildred, my parents became very close to the faculty members. They often spoke of Pere (Father) Germain, the principal, a WWI vet, and Pere (Father) Audic, the physics teacher. Father Audic even came to St. Louis to visit us sometime in the ‘60s.

st. peter's shanghai
Aurora at right. St. Peter’s Church where my parents married at left. (Virtual Shanghai)

Everyone in China suffered to some degree under the Japanese during WWII (1937-1945). Scott’s family suffered unforeseen long-term consequences. My parents lived under Japanese occupation for eight years. Because my mother’s family lived in the French Concession, which was slightly more protected as a foreign entity, relatives in other parts of Shanghai flocked to Grandpa’s house. Fortunately, Aurora University stayed open and my parents were able to finish their medical studies. Living in the French Concession not withstanding, my mother’s brother was drafted into Chiang Kai-shek’s army. 

When WWII ended, civil war raged between Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists and Mao’s Communists. Mao declared victory on October 1, 1949. This event led to many family separations, including for Scott’s family and mine. Scott’s grandfather took his mistress and Scott’s dad, age ten, to Taiwan in 1949. He left behind a pregnant wife and a two-year-old son. Scott’s grandmother Mildred left for Hong Kong with her three young daughters, including Scott’s mom, in 1950. They moved to a district called Diamond Hill— a place that would become home to my family, too. .Mildred’s husband Carleton decided to stay in Shanghai. He ended up being jailed and died in a “re-education camp” after years of hard labor.

My folks graduated and married in 1946, a year after WWII’s end. Again, they chose to cast their lot with Westerners. Bishop Cuthbert O’Gara recruited them to an American Catholic hospital in Hunan province. This is where I was born. Dad did general practice. Mom delivered babies and was principal of the nursing school. With the help of the Americans, Dad got a position in a hospital in New Jersey in 1948, one year before Mao’s victory. He planned to return to China after a couple of years. Mom stayed on until fighting between the Communists and the Nationalists broke out near the hospital in Hunan. She took me and my six-week old sister, born after Dad left, on a harrowing journey back to Shanghai. It turned out my parents would not see each other again for seven years.

The Catholic hospital in Hunan. (Sister Mary Carita Pendergast, SC, in Havoc in Hunan

Like Scott’s grandmother Mildred, my mom decided to leave China. In 1952, in a high stakes gamble, she insisted she had to see her dying aunt in Hong Kong, and got

LuhA - 01
Me skipping rope at our Diamond Hill compound

permission for a two-week stay. Despite not being able to get a visa to enter British Hong Kong, she took me, my sister and her dad on the train to Hong Kong. While on the train, she found someone who would smuggle us over the border. We got off the train before the border station and walked what seemed like a very long way to a five-year-old me. In Hong Kong, we shared an apartment with two other families in the Diamond Hill district.

When I read about Scott’s grandfather Carleton, I thought of my own grandfather. He was a frail, mild mannered man. He had been a successful business man in Shanghai. He lived with us in St. Louis until his death in 1966. No doubt, if he had stayed in China, he would have been caught up in one or another of the purges. He would have suffered as surely as Scott’s grandfather had. A wave of relief washes over me when I think of how close he came to a terrible fate. It was not a sure thing he would leave Shanghai. Mom told him, “I am leaving regardless. If you decide to come with me, I’ll find a way to get you out.” He replied, “OK, I guess I’ll go.”

Scott’s mom in Hong Kong and dad in Taiwan thrived.They excelled in school and went to America to further their studies. They met at a Chinese Student Association Dance in Minnesota. Scott’s Dad went on to his dream job at IBM.

Our family received refugee status to enter America after three years in Hong Kong. We reunited with Dad in St. Louis in 1955. Then, I too became part of the model-minority, American-dream story. I did well in school, became a doctor, had a child, and now, I have grandkids. 

The folks who didn’t leave China had a much more difficult life. My mother had a taste of it before she fled. She had to attend indoctrination sessions. She pulled me out of kindergarten because she feared I would let slip that we were Catholic.

The two great national traumas in post-WWII China were the Great Leap Forward (1958-61) and the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76. During the Great Leap Forward, the top-down economic policies led to mass famine. Between 36 to 48 million people starved to death. It hit home when I visited China and my relatives in 1977. I was part of a “Friendship Delegation,” which was the only way to get into China in those days. Because I left China at age five, my cousins were virtual strangers. My oldest cousin looked like an old man and had lost all his teeth. He said they all fell out during the “Great Leap Forward.” 

The Cultural Revolution was instigated by Mao, ostensibly to restore ideological purity. It became a time of mass hysteria. Throngs of people marched through the streets waving Mao’s “Little Red Book.”They rampaged through homes destroying anything that they considered “bourgeois.” Anyone in authority — officials, bosses, teachers, members of the previously-moneyed class—was targeted. The wife abandoned by Scott’s grandfather was a school principal and was humiliated and punished. My aunt lost vision in one eye from being beaten by the Red Guard.

In the United States, during the years of the Cultural Revolution, I was a campus radical.  Our main goal was protesting America’s role in the Vietnam War. It was not much of a stretch to support Ho Chi-min, the North Vietnamese and, by extension, Mao’s China. In my youthful zeal, I was very enthusiastic about Mao’s anti-authoritarian and proletarian message. My teachers at Washington University were leftist as well. They were enthusiasts of Mao’s revolution, but had scarce information about conditions in China after the Cold War communications shutdown. I am chagrined that I bought into the popularity of Mao’s disastrous policies. My parents were vehemently anti-Communist.. I thought of them as too emotionally attached to the old ways. I was so wrong. Scott quotes his aunt: “We’re ashamed of what we did during the Cultural Revolution.” Me too.

Scott Tong has woven together the many threads of his family’s history across time, across China and across the globe into this surprisingly intimate story. Next time, I will tell you how it felt for Scott and me to encounter relatives after decades of being away; to try to imagine what life was like fifty, seventy-five, a hundred years ago for our parents and grandparents; to grasp the current economic and cultural landscape in what was for us a foreign language.

Tell me: What sorts of separations has your family gone through? 

George and Martha Washington’s Runaway Slave

Ona Judge slipped out of her master’s house as the family ate Saturday dinner and escaped bondage. She was 22 years old. That night, she boarded a ship bound for Portsmouth, New Hampshire, 400 miles to the north. It was 1796. Her master was George Washington. He was in his second term as president of the United States in the country’s capital, Philadelphia.

Washington advertised in local newspapers. They described the runaway as “a light Mulatto girl, much freckled, with very black eyes, and bushy black hair…of middle stature, but slender and delicately made.”

img_5944In Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of their Runaway Slave Ona Judge, historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar tells of Ona Judge’s early life in Mt. Vernon among family, her involuntary move to Philadelphia as Martha Washington’s personal maid, her daring escape to New Hampshire and her life passing as a free person. She also tells of the Washingtons’ determined efforts to recapture her, including Washington’s use of the power of the federal government.

In telling one slave’s story, Dunbar casts light on the physical and emotional hardships that slavery inflicted on bonded persons regardless of the status of their owners or the nature of the slave’s work. In Washington’s home in Philadelphia, the slaves slept crowded in the attic, rooms that were coldest in winter and hottest in summer. Dunbar points out that Ona, as with most house slaves, lacked privacy and private time: her time was never her own. For all slaves, the threat of separation from family and friends due to being sold or moved was ever-present. Women were always alert to unwanted sexual advances, but often could not avoid assaults. Every slave was subject to the whim of the master, no matter how impractical, unjust or dangerous.

Life events in the master’s family – births, marriages, deaths, moves – were sources of consternation for slaves. A death could lead to the sale of slaves to raise money to pay debts. Parents often gave slaves to their children on their marriage or at the birth of a child. All these maneuvers resulted in slaves possibly never seeing their family again.

The event that precipitated Ona’s decision to escape was Martha Washington’s decision to give Ona to her granddaughter on her marriage. Eliza Custis was labile and stubborn, known for her “stormy reputation.” Moreover, the newlyweds planned to live in the new Federal City (Washington D.C.). Ona would again be torn from people familiar to her, the people she had been with for nearly seven years in Philadelphia.

Many factors came together to make Ona’s escape possible: the fact that she was in a

Philadelphia Presidential House

Northern city; Philadelphia’s free blacks who helped her; the abolitionist movement which gave her courage; and Ona’s relatively high status in the Washington household, which allowed her to slip out.

Ona’s grit was evident on the ship voyage. For five days, she had to remain calm and not give herself away to curious passengers. A young black woman traveling alone was most unusual. She settled in the Portsmouth and lived there the rest of her life. She was never really safe because the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 gave slave owners the right to recover escaped slaves even in free states.

Life for free or fugitive black persons was harsh. Employment consisted of arduous physical work. For women, it would be lifting tubs of water for laundry, scrubbing clothes and floors, getting up before dawn to make breakfast for the employers’ family. Some men, like Ona’s husband, worked as seamen. At sea, they were safe from slave catchers. John Staines was a freeman, but slave captors did not always care whom they captured.

Ona and her husband had two daughters and possibly a son who died young. They lived on the edge of survival their whole lives. At the end of her days, Ona was so poor that she boarded with another family. Both her children and her husband predeceased Ona. In an interview with an abolitionist newspaper in 1845,when she was in her 80s, Ona had no regrets about the steep price she paid for her freedom. Unlike slaves, she was able to marry. She kept her family together. She learned to read and had found faith in God.


George Washington’s advertisement yielded no results. He found out about Ona’s whereabouts in Portsmouth through an acquaintance. Wanting to avoid publicity and afraid of anti-slavery sentiments, Washington sidestepped legal means to get Ona back. Instead, he asked his Secretary of the Treasury to contact his customs collector in Portsmouth. This man was instructed by Washington to capture Ona and “put her on board a Vessel bound immediately to this place – or to Alexandria, which I should like better.” The customs officer did not know how to refuse the president. To his credit, after speaking to Ona, he refused to manhandle her. George Washington could only fume.

Three years later in 1799, Washington, now out of office, tried again to recoup his human property. This time, he asked his nephew, a Virginia state senator, to go to New Hampshire. He found Ona home with her first baby. Her husband was at sea. This nephew plied her with lies. He told her she would be well-treated at Mount Vernon. He painted a picture of reunion with her relatives. (Dunbar speculates that Ona worried that her escape might have brought reprisals –harsh treatment or punishment –against her relatives in Mt. Vernon.) He told her that the Washingtons “would set her free when she arrived at Mount Vernon.” Ona did not believe him and escaped to a neighboring town before the nephew returned with a group of men to forcibly capture her.

Washington felt that he could not let Ona Judge’s escape go unanswered for a number of reasons. He and Martha together owned more than 300 slaves. The successful escape of one could lead to unrest and insubordination by all of them. And there was the financial consideration. It wasn’t just Ona’s worth — each of her children also increased the Washingtons’ wealth.

Washington and the other slave-owning Founding Fathers — Jefferson, Madison and 404Monroe – were men of the Enlightenment who intellectually believed that “All men are created equal.” They all had, at points in their lives, decried the conditions of slavery and the state of the institution. I believe that, in his heart of hearts, Washington sensed the hypocrisy between his beliefs and his slave-owning status. This is why he freed his slaves in his will. This is why the U.S. constitution banned the importation of slaves… but not until 1808. Ultimately, the Founding Fathers lacked the courage of their convictions and let their progeny deal with the slavery issue.

But the Washingtons couldn’t give up their lifestyle. Slavery was embedded in their personal and institutional life by habit and by law. Who would cook? Who would clean the boots? Who would curry the horses? Reap the crops? Tend to guests? Even manumission was a complicated procedure requiring the state assembly’s approval. Slave owners lacked the imagination to see or were willfully blind to the lives of suffering that slaves led.

A society built to keep one set of human beings as property to another must be brutal, convoluted in its reasoning and hypocritical. This led to George freeing his slaves upon Martha’s death, not his own, so that families who had intermarried wouldn’t be split up, as his freed slaves would have to leave Mt. Vernon on becoming free. Martha, however, freed George’s slaves a year after his death. She was uneasy, as Dunbar puts it, that “the only thing standing in the way of freedom of more than a hundred people was her life.”

Mount Vernon Slave Memorial (Mt. Vernon.org)

Here we are today, more than 200 years later, and racial inequality continues. Dunbar has given us a visceral sense of what that inequality meant and what freedom was worth to Ona Judge and other slaves. Awareness and empathy are the first steps to any change. This book has made me think about the institutional, social and implicit biases we continue to accept because it is convenient, helps our bottom line, or is just the social norm. Let us not leave it to our progeny to solve this injustice.

Tell me: About what do you lack the courage of your convictions? As for me, it’s the environment.


The Pleasure of Detecting

“You are reading my favorite author,” said the white-haired hospital volunteer 916wb7vjlhlleading me to my bone density x-ray. I was holding Louise Penny’s latest mystery: Kingdom of the Blind.

Then we shared a knowing smile and spoke simultaneously: “You have to read them in order.” We both knew that Penny would incapacitate, even kill off, not just people we liked but also people who have been characters over several books. She is fearless.

In Kingdom of the Blind, Armand Gamache, the Head of the Surete for Quebec Province, needs to track down a hoard of carfentanil, a drug one hundred times more potent than fentanyl. He is also dealing with his superiors and provincial politicians who want to make him a scapegoat for the drug epidemic.

Gamache is late middle-aged with a wife and grown children. He has close friends at work and in his civilian life, but Gamache never demands loyalty from family, workers or friends. He knows that each human heart is driven by unique circumstance.

He is a risk-taker. He is willing to sacrifice his reputation, his job, even his life to defeat evil. He will promote a low-ranked misfit into police leadership if he believes in that person’s character. He trusts his subordinates to keep secrets and execute strategic plans.

Louise Penny takes risks as well. She writes like she can see into people’s souls. And you absolutely believe her. Gamache believes that telling a victim’s relatives that someone is dead is akin to murdering the loved ones too. “And then, as he spoke the fateful words, their faces changed. And he watched their world collapse. Pinning them under the rubble. Crushed under a grief so profound most never emerged. And those who did come out dazed into a world forever changed. The person they were before his arrival was dead. Gone.”

Another passage: “Clara had painted the demented old poet as the aging Virgin Mary. Forgotten. Embittered. A clawlike hand gripped a ragged blue shawl at her neck…. But. But. There. In her eyes. Was a glint, a gleam. With all the brushstrokes. All the detail. All the color, the painting, finally came down to one tiny dot…. In a bitter old woman’s near-blind eyes, Clara Morrow had painted hope.”

Penny evokes a visceral response in conveying the wisdom and great heart of Gamache and the soul-changing possibilities of art, all in just a few words.


I come to reading murder mysteries honestly. One of my mother’s favorite TV shows in the 1950s was a series called “Sherlock Holmes,” starring Ronald Howard, Leslie Howard’s son. But she was familiar with this character even before the TV show, even before she came to America from China. She had a Chinese name for him: Faw-er-mos, a Shanghainese pronunciation of Holmes.


I read “The Speckled Band” by Arthur Conan Doyle my freshman year in high school. That same year a family friend gave me a hardback book of works by Edgar Allan Poe. I had recently read a Poe story in English class – “The Cask of Amantillado.” But Auguste Dupin, who solved “The Murders on the Rue Morgue,” was a real detective. And the idea of hiding something in plain sight, as in the “Purloined Letter,” thrilled me with the genius of it. I knew then that murder mysteries were for me.

I suspect that my choice of which books to read had to do with availability and my stage of life. In high school, I devoured all of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. A bit later, I discovered Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple. These characters were thinkers, using “those little gray cells,” as Hercule called his brain, to solve crimes. This was the time in my life when I was learning to think and solve problems.

I discovered Dorothy Sayers’ Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion and Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn at Washington University’s Olin Library. My horizons expanded in college through my classes, but also through the students and professors I met, the speakers and events I attended and because “the times, they were a-changin’” in the late 1960s. The mystery books widened my knowledge of the world as well, some of it pretty esoteric, like facts about church-bell change ringing in The Nine Tailors, by Sayers.

A good friend in college introduced me to Janwillem van de Wetering and his Zen 51+p1obsoaland jazz-minded Amsterdam detectives de Gier and Grijpstra and their boss, the commissaris. And because my friend lived in New York State, I started reading Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. Nero’s general factotum Archie Goodwin would often go to places that my friend and I went to when I visited: the towns of New Paltz and Rhinebeck and the Tappan Zee Bridge across the Hudson River.

imagesAfter college, I went to Hong Kong with my first husband who was doing research for his history PhD. The center where we foreign students gathered had a pile of books that others had left behind. Someone had dumped a bunch of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee novels. Travis lived on a boat called the Busted Flush in Fort Lauderdale. He was adventurous, gallant and ruggedly handsome. Who knew my second husband would be from Miami and is adventurous, gallant and handsome?

On returning to America, I decided to strike out on my own and to go to medical school. It was the time when many women burst into the workplace, including female private eyes: Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone; Sara Paretsky’s V.I Warshawski and Linda Barnes’ Carlotta Carlyle, a six-foot-one, red-headed Boston cabbie. Maybe it was my med school schedule, but it always felt like these gals needed more sleep. And it seemed pretty clear that I would become an internist – the doctors who, like detectives, put together symptoms, physical findings and lab and scanning results to come up with a diagnosis.

Did reading all those murder mysteries help me be a better doctor? That claim would be unfair to either expert diagnosticians or to clever mystery writers. I just have the kind of mind that enjoys building a coherent story out of available information. For example, rash + summer time + joint pain make me think of Lyme’s disease. Shortness of breath + swollen ankles + fatigue point to congestive heart failure.

During my mid-life years, I read mysteries to get respite from the challenges of work and child raising. The Tony Hillerman Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee Navajo series transported me to the red mesas and desert of the Southwest. Lindsey Davis’s Marcus Didius Falco, starting with The Silver Pigs, took me to ancient Rome. Falco 61t5yj6ezhl._ac_us218_.had a great sense of humor and had an easy repartee with Helena, a senator’s daughter. Brother Cadfael by Ellis Peters and Sister Fidelma by Peter Tremayne solved murders as members of medieval religious orders. Colin Dexter’s Morse tackled murders in modern day Oxford, England.

About ten years ago, my parents became debilitated. We took care of them in our home for about three years. During the stress of that situation, one series that grabbed my attention was Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series with Lisbeth Salander, the girl with the dragon tattoo. I was so hooked that, one day, as I was taking Mom to Mass, I resurrected an old high school trick. I turned the book jacket inside out so you couldn’t see the cover and read it in church. Mea culpa.

Today, husband Bill brings mystery series into the house: Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, Ian Rankin’s Rebus of the Edinburgh’s police; Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta; and Norwegian Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole. A bit hard-boiled, but I read them.

I have flirted with many other mystery writers: Dick Francis; Alexander McColl Smith (I love that Mma, as in Mma Ramotswe, is also how I called my Mom in Shanghainese.); Qiu Xiaolong; Robert Galbraith (aka JK Rowling); and Ann Cleeves, among others. I recommend some wonderful one-offs: Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose, Caleb Carr’s The Alienist and Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red.

My two favorite series right now are Donna Leon’s Venetian cop Guido Brunetti (See my review of her latest book The Temptation of Forgiveness in my September 2018 blogpost) and Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache.

In looking back over the scores of mysteries series I’ve enjoyed over the past half century, I realize that I was witness to thousands, probably tens of thousands, of violent deaths. Oh, my! I wonder if I shouldn’t have gone into pathology.

Tell me: what series should I read next?

Back to the Present

Everyone knows the story of putting a frog in tepid water and heating it up. The idea is that the change is so gradual that the frog will not realize it is being boiled alive. I’m not a frog, but I see myself adjusting to the changes in my life over the past 50 years so gradually that I’ve forgotten what it was like: before children, career, computers and cellphones and so much more.

I thought of this when I read Henry D. Terrell’s novel Desert Discord about a small West Texas town in 1970. The town is called Duro in the book, but Terrell modeled it after Odessa, the oil town where he grew up. The book is available on Amazon.


The cast of characters in Desert Discord is large, in the “everybody knows everyone’s business in a small town” kind of way. The sprawling, yet surprisingly intimate, story revolves around violin prodigy Andy and his large, Hispanic family; the artsy, counter-culture-ish Piedmans and their three daughters; Andy’s music teacher; a few small-time crooks and an assortment of young men with varying degrees of prospect.

Two of Andy’s friends start a marijuana growing operation. Young thugs who took them for homosexuals beat up Andy and his friend Simon. Both Piedmans are going through mid-life crises. There is a kidnapping, a peeping Tom, a runaway and several shootings. Also, a dog, classical music, a flash flood and traumatic brain injury. The intertwined story lines weave in and out with panache and humor. I am reminded of Donald Westlake’s Dortmunder books, where unintended consequences always intrude.

In my head, I know–and you know–that a lot has changed since the ‘70s. But the differences didn’t feel so concrete until I read the world described in Desert Discord. For example in those days we all drove American cars. The cheap VW Beetle was the one foreign car in wide circulation.

After twenty-five years of driving Japanese cars, and snapping on seat belts, I had forgotten a time when Japanese, Korean, German and Swedish cars didn’t roam our streets. The cars on our streets and in our parking lots today actually look vastly different from those on the streets and in the parking lots fifty years ago. And much safer.

In the novel, Andy putters around in his red, clanky-valved Beetle. My first car was a blue VW Squareback. I had recurring nightmares that I would be flattened by a semi because that car had no acceleration. Simon’s fiancée had a Dodge Dart. My next car was a powder blue Dodge Dart Soft Top. The rear wheel drive was terrible in snow, which, I suppose, is not a problem in West Texas. Jerry De Ghetto, a not particularly adept businessman, tries to impress with an Oldsmobile 442 convertible, which Terrell describes as a “long land shark.” My dad also drove a long Oldsmobile, an Olds 98. There were no SUVs in those days but Andy’s dad has a Ford Ranch Wagon.

Terrell also captures the different ways we communicated with each other before cellphones and computers. Sometimes, essential communication takes longer. When Andy and Simon are mugged, Simon has to run to a store to ask the clerk to phone the police. When Apollo Piedman drives his Corvair into a rain-swollen river, his family has no inkling of his harrowing experience until he shows up at home wet and shoeless. His daughter asks, “My God, Daddy…What happened to you?”

“What happened to me is I lost my goddamn car and nearly drowned. But here I am. Yay, me.”

Other times in the story, slower communication is helpful. When a person wants to drop out of society, the lack of the Internet makes that a lot easier to accomplish. A gay teenager in trouble with the law takes a bus to Houston and is able to be “lost” in the big city. Janie Piedman just wants to get away from her family. She heads out for California, as some of my friends did. She doesn’t get far, also like my friends.

An important plot point in Desert Discord is the risk gay people have to take to find each other – cruising or meeting in parks at night. Besides the societal change in attitude, we now have phone apps for this!

Reading Desert Discord, I am drawn back to the less distracted pace of life in the days when people had one conversation at a time. These days, when I say “Hi” to my neighbors, I have ear buds on and a podcast going. When I’m eating dinner with my husband, I am also checking my email – and my blog post viewers. When I am talking to friends, I am distracted by the ping of a text message.

Most interesting to me are the social issues that are raised in Desert Discord. Reading about them now, I feel very little emotion, even though I was very passionate about some of them at the time. My boyfriend’s long hair was a flash point with his parents and mine, just as Andy’s hair, which “spilled over his collar and onto his shoulders like a cavalier in a Pre-Raphaelite painting” keeps him from being appointed first chair of the second violins in the Duro Symphony Orchestra. At one time, this scene would have infuriated me. So many years later, I feel an amused recognition. The orchestra leader explains, “We’re not in the vanguard here in West Texas. It’ just that. . .well. . .the symphony board is concerned about appearances … Some members were adamant that the length of your hair was unacceptable.”

As I am rubbing CBD, a hemp product, on my arthritic fingers, I can recall the fear of getting caught by the police for smoking pot. It was both the fear of legal consequences and terror at what my parents would say! One night, our commune was passing around a joint when there was a loud banging on our door. The voice claimed to be the fuzz. It turned out to be friends playing a joke on us. My mild, pleasant buzz morphed into a stomach churning dread in seconds, proving once and for all, that the mind and the body are intimately linked.

In Desert Discord, marijuana touches many lives. Andy’s mom has been drinking it in a tea for her arthritis for years. Andy’s friends go to great lengths to make growing it a business – stealing metered water, patrolling for deer and hiding their field from the authorities. Janie just wants to get stoned.

IMG_5229It’s interesting to me that, despite the legalization of marijuana in many states, our policy continues to be as confusing and conflicted as ever. People are still being hauled in for growing weed in some states while, on my last trip to Denver, I bought some chocolate-flavored “edibles” at a marijuana store called the Smoking Gun.

There were few Latinos in St. Louis when I was growing up. Not so in West Texas. Desert Discord treats the relationship between Hispanics and whites as a non-issue. As Hispanics and whites have lived along side each other for a long time in Texas, there was an easy interaction. The idea that hordes of them need to be physically barred from this space a la the border wall seems ludicrous.

I had no views on homosexuality fifty years ago. If I had an idea that the concept existed, it was a vague, theoretical construct. Certainly no one ever told me that they were gay. I remember my first year medical school class on human sexuality in 1976. A gay male couple talked about their relationship. I don’t think it was graphic. My memory was that I was touched by the degree of tenderness they held for each other. I imagine I always had gay friends and family members, but I know now.

Human nature has not changed even if the appearance of the scene and the big political and social issues of the day have. Ordinary people leading ordinary lives, doing the best given the circumstance, making some good decisions and some stupid ones.

Desert Discord took me on a trip back to my own life, one that I had forgotten, via an IMG_5891entertaining story with endearing characters. For a little while, I was the cute, naive and earnest twenty-three year-old I was in 1970.

Tell me: What is one thing in your life that you do completely differently from ten years ago?

It’s My Pleasure!

My choice of books to talk about in this blog may seem a bit idiosyncratic. That’s one of the pleasures of having one’s own blog! I decide what books to review. I decide what it is about each book, as friend Mary Dee says, “sings to my soul.” The book I have chosen this time is nearest and dearest to me. I am one of its authors.

IMG_5872Guilty Pleasures: Indulgences, Addictions, and Obsessions (really, we put a comma after Addictions?) was published in 2003. As the introduction explains, the authors (in alphabetical order, Sue Caba, Karen Hammer, J.M. Holwerda, Cathy Luh, Catherine Rankovic, Holly Silva, Patti Smith Jackson and Laurie Vincent) came together as a writing group in 2000. We had been meeting for a while when we thought it’d be fun for everyone to write on the same topic. And so, Guilty Pleasures was born.

Our idea was to write about “stuff we know we shouldn’t do, but we do it anyway just because it feels good at the time,” to quote myself from the book. It felt a little daring, a little risqué, and very much fun. However, the Library of Congress Card Catalog matter-of-factly described the contents of Guilty Pleasures this way:

  1.     Vices
  2.     Pleasure – Social aspects
  3.     Conduct of life – Case studies

Who wants to read about the desires and misdeeds of a bunch of middle-aged IMG_5871women living in the Midwest? That was one of the responses we received from a publishing house that rejected our manuscript. But Andrews McMeel Publishing of Kansas City took a flyer on us, and they have my eternal gratitude.

As it turned out, some 5000 readers were interested enough to buy the book. Guilty Pleasures received positive reviews locally, nationally and abroad, including one in the Catalan language. Forbes put us on their book club list. It was even translated into IMG_5873Portuguese as Prazeres Inconfessaveis. Due to the wonder of internet commerce, Guilty Pleasures is still available at Amazon (https://www.amazon.com/Guilty-Pleasures-Indulgences-Addictions-Obsessions/dp/0740733397) and Google books (https://books.google.com/books/about/Guilty_Pleasures.html?id=A-ACAAAACAAJ).

Rereading the three-dozen or so essays, some only one page long, I think the fact that all eight of us were in mid-life gave these essays richness and context. We were old enough to have “histories” and young enough to be hormone-driven. We were smack in the middle of work issues; love, sex and relational tangles and the usual crutches of alcohol, drugs (mostly legal), food and shopping; as well as some unexpected foibles like rifles, running from the law, a taste for doo rags and the need to be right.

Fifteen years later, I am surprised how frank we all were, especially in the sex-related stories. One reason we felt freer to expose our foibles was our pact not to reveal the specific author of each essay. The agreement was that you can admit to penning your own essay, but you can’t “out” anyone else. Still, I was shocked that I used my boyfriends’ real first names. What was I thinking?

At the time, I wrote because I was feeling the need to be heard. I got fired as a physician by unscrupulous people who ran a cut-throat practice that didn’t care about patients. I wasn’t even allowed to tell my patients that I was leaving. I did, anyway, and tried my best to find them new doctors I trusted. One patient in his 80s said to me, “I’d hoped you would see me through to the end.”

Writing was a balm. I was so lucky to find my writing partners through the St. Louis Writers’ Workshop and our teacher – and co-author – Catherine Rankovic. Most of us were in writing-related professions, such as speechwriting, journalism, advertising and teaching literature, but I was not the only “amateur.” What all of us had in common was a desire to write well. And did we! I am still impressed by how clever and well-chosen the phrasing, how beautiful the metaphors, how rich the language in our little book.

I discovered another reward from having written this book besides having my say. (No, I didn’t become rich or famous.) In many of my readings to publicize the book, I would read an essay or two, then pass out index cards and ask listeners to write down their guilty pleasures. The process was fun and enlightening. I never knew that husband Bill had a thing for writing pens, that Willow (I know better now than to use a real name) had a penchant for daytime sex, and that Pat couldn’t resist buying stemware.

In every session, friends I’ve known for years and total strangers happily shared a tiny piece of secret happiness with each other. It turned out that heartfelt communication with others was even more delicious than the straight reading of my stories. Now, THAT’s a pleasure!

Tell me: What are your guilty pleasures? (You knew I would ask.)