VERA, A NOVEL BY Carol Edgarian


        Right away you will meet the fifteen-year-old Vera who tells the story. She is the illegitimate daughter of Rose, San Francisco’s predominate madame, owner and operator of the city’s predominate brothel, named – you guessed it- The Rose. Rose, and therefore Vera also, is probably a mix of Persian, Northern African, and Spanish blood, with a suspected dash of Armenian, who, for a fee was brought north from the slums of Mexico City by the 19th century version of a coyote to become eventually the “Grande Dame of the Barbary Coast, the Rose of The Rose.”

But Vera does not live with Rose, either in the brothel or Rose’s magnificent mansion on Pacific Heights – to this day unusual territory for people of such bloodlines. Instead, Rose pays a very proper, quite boring widow named Morrie to bring Vera up “to be anything but a hooker.”

The foundation on which Edgarian rests Vera’s story is the schizophrenic nature of Vera’s life as she shuttles back and forth  between her proper, conventional, relatively colorless environment as Morrie’s adopted daughter and the mysterious technicolor of Rose’s environment where she is befriended and even mothered by the ladies of the night.

Vera’s double life is made more emphatic by Vera’s adopted sister Pie who is as different from her as Rose is from Morrie.

We meet Pie, (sweety pie) at age eighteen, three years older than Vera. It is just nine days before the earthquake that will level the city when the two girls walk the family dog on a familiar loop from Morrie’s house on Franklin Street to Fort Mason and back. “Pie walked slowly, having just one speed, her hat and parasol canted at a fetching angle. She was eighteen and this was her moment. All of Morrie’s friends said so. “Your daughter Pie has grace in her bones,” they said. And it was true: Pie carried that silk net high above her head, a queen holding aloft her fluttery crown.

Now grace was a word Morrie’s friends never hung on me. I walked fast, talked fast, I scowled. I carried the stick of my parasol on my shoulder, with all the delicacy of a miner carrying a shovel. ------- and anyone fool enough to come up behind me risked getting his eye poked. We were sisters by arrangement, not blood, and though Pie was superior in most ways, I was the boss and that’s how we’d go.”

And that’s how it does go: it is the feisty Vera who takes the reins, makes the decisions, takes the action necessary for survival when the buildings tumble and the city burns and Pie moons over a lover who jilts her. It would be a spoiler to tell what those actions are and how it all turned out; suffice it to say here that if you want story, this novel is for you, populated with every kind of character, prostitutes, business people, kind motherly neighbors, a corrupt mayor in dire need of an emergency to prolong his career, a multiplicity of races from very level of society, one dog and two horses. 

And for icing on this spicy cake, Edgarian, like Dostoevsky in Crime and Punishment, identifies the specific place, naming the address of where the events take place so that if like me, you live in the Bay Area or have visited San Francisco, you feel like you are right there with Vera all the way.

For me, Vera is like a Dickens novel without the boring redundancy and fluffy sentiments. A wonderful read. Bravo!



VERA, A NOVEL BY Carol Edgarian2024-01-11T01:53:04+00:00

Two Excellent Books About The Sinking of The USS Indianapolis

At 12:05 am on Monday, July 30, 1945, a torpedo fired from a Japanese submarine struck the starboard side of the USS Indianapolis, near the bow; seconds later a second torpedo hit her amidship, also on the starboard side. Minutes later, the cruiser, on a run from Guam to Leyte on the last days of the war, disappeared beneath the waves. Approximately 300 men died aboard ship, the lucky ones killed immediately, even vaporized by explosions, others by drowning and many in the most horrible way: by burning. Approximately 900 men, including the commanding officer, Captain George Butler McVay, 111, made it off the ship. They were in the water for three days before anyone knew the ship had been sunk. By the fourth day, when they were rescued at last only 315 men had survived. Many had been killed by sharks whose presence was relentless, attacking at dawn and sunset. The sinking of the Indianapolis is deemed to be the worst disaster in U.S. naval history.

It would be a spoiler to tell you of the mistakes the navy brass made that increased the chances that the Indianapolis would be attacked and undeniably was the only reason the survivors were in the water as long as they were. And yet Captain McVay was the officer court martialed. Both books tell of the survivors’ long struggle to exonerate their captain. Having served in much less dangerous times at sea and later on land, I am not surprised by this injustice, but I am outraged.

Both books, In Harm’s Way, by Doug Stanton, and Indianapolis, co-authored by Lynn Vincent and Sara Vladic, are compelling reads, with driving narrative force, specificity of detail and deep penetration into the suffering and valor of the crew via the authors’ interviews with the survivors. I read Indianapolis two years ago and was so haunted by the tragedy that when I discovered In Harm’s Way recently, I read voraciously. The books are not redundant of each other. They complement each other. They address the tragedy from different perspectives and tell the events in different sequences. At their essence they both are a cry for peace on earth.

Two Excellent Books About The Sinking of The USS Indianapolis2023-03-14T21:15:05+00:00


What is the best memoir to read?

Last night – or maybe it was early this morning- I read the last sentence of Laurie Edwards’ essay collection All The Leavings, Published by Oregon State University Press in 2021. For the second time! So, if you ask me that question any time soon, All The Leavings will be my answer.

What is it like to live off the grid in the Oregon wilderness in a cabin where the bathtub is outdoors?

To be in the emergency room wondering if your daughter will survive?

To wake up in the middle of the night and realize that your beloved cat is outdoors, prey to a cougar who has been hanging around? you rush out, naked, into the woods calling for your cat until you hear the cougar’s footfalls very close. Suddenly you know what it is like to be prey.

What is it like when your daughter’s friend leaves by suicide? What’s it like to remember your own suicidal thoughts?

To leave, head out, say goodbye?

What do your friends leave in your heart when they die? Some of the answers might break your heart and I guarantee the last of the leavings in the Afterword will.

The thing is I want my heart to be broken. I want to go to places I evade in my own life. A fine editor, Tom Jenks, told me, while editing an early draft of Saving Miss Oliver’s, that I was evading places the story needed to go. “Where are those places?” I wanted to know.

“The places where it hurts the most,” he said. “And where life is so intense it’s scary.”

Laurie Easter goes like an arrow straight to those places.

All The Leavings is the work of a gifted and courageous writer

ALL THE LEAVINGS, BY LAURIE EASTER2023-01-18T02:32:04+00:00

The Vagabond, by Colette

I obtained the book you see pictured here so long ago that, when I read it last week, I had to read in short bursts and take Benydril, because the invisible mold on its pages afflicted my sinuses.

Sidonie Gabrielle Claudine Colette, born in Burgundy, France in 1873, published The Vagabond in France in 1910. It was, translated to English, and republished as the paperback in the picture, by Doubleday, under its imprint anchor books, in 1955. It is published now in English, by Dover Publications.

(My wife, Joanna was working at Doubleday, as assistant to the editor of foreign rights, when it published The Vagabond , which I believe is how we obtained a copy. In the mornings, he was a competent foreign rights editor; in the afternoons, after multi-martini lunches, not so much. During the afternoons, Joanna covered all his bases for him, for a whole lot less pay than he was getting, but that’s a story for another day.)

The best way to classify The Vagabond is as early women’s lib, long before the term was common.

Like Renee, the protagonist, in the novel, Colette made her own living as a travelling music hall performer after divorcing an abusive and unfaithful husband, Henry Gauthier Villars, a prominent literary critic who locked her in a room so she would focus on writing the wildly popular Claudine Series, for which he took the credit and kept the royalties for himself! After her divorce, while performing as a music hall mime, Colette managed to write an average of a novel a year. In 1910, she married again. That marriage ended in 1935 when she married for a third time. This last marriage, to Maurice Goudeket, also a writer, was a happy one. She died in 1954.

The Vagabond closely mirrors Colette’s own life.

Renee has settled into her life as a music hall performer when Maxime, a young, handsome, independently wealthy man arrives uninvited in her dressing room, declaring his admiration and bearing the usual flowers. Still simultaneously grieving for the lost love between herself and her ex husband, and still furious at him, she’s determined to abandon romantic love forever. She dismisses Maxime, addressing him contemptuously as “Big Noodle,” and continues to hold him at bay. But he persists, showing up in her dressing room night after night, until, over time, she falls in love with him.

It is not clear to her whether she wants an enduring, loving marriage, including the pleasures of sex, or is seduced by the comfort and security that comes with marriage to a man so wealthy he has no profession, and who swears he will focus all his energies on making her happy.

The reader has the pleasure of being in her head as she makes her decision, one that covers all the markers of the relations between men and women, and the place of women in society, especially in Renee’s case, the lowly place of unmarried female music hall performers assumed to be licentious, ready to be kept.

It would be a spoiler to tell what Renee decides as she plies her trade in a long absence from Maxine during an extended tour of European cities. Suffice it to say she knows that marriage to Maxine will come with his domination over her, even though that is not what he wants. The very act of caring for her, providing her his home, his wealth, and his respectability is a kind of domination, however inadvertent.

I was compelled by this novel, told in prose, that even in translation is powerfully evocative of the senses. I assume that if The Vagabond were to be made into a film, today’s audience would want the love scenes to be explicit. But it was delicious, to read so-called sex scenes that are not scenic at all. What a pleasure not to know whether the lovers are in a hurry, or take the time to take their clothes off first, whether the woman achieves orgasm or not, and whether the lights are on or off.

What good luck it was to discover this book behind another on my shelves, and to read it for the first time after owning it since 1956!

The Vagabond, by Colette2022-12-03T19:58:10+00:00

Best War Novels

The tragedy of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sent me to my bookshelves this morning to look for and remember the novels about war that I thought were worth keeping and treasuring. Here’s the list.

Tolstoy’s War and Peace

Eric Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on The Western Front

Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms,  and For Whom the Bell Tolls, and obliquely, because set soon after the armistice, The Sun Also Rises

Pat Barker’s World War One trilogy, Regeneration, and The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road

Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong and Charlotte Grey

Joseph Heller’s Catch Twenty-Two

Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five

Best War Novels2022-11-14T23:41:56+00:00


I hate to think of what I would have missed if my daughter had not given me this unusually structured, magnificent novel for Christmas, 2021. It was published in 2017. That I had never heard of it is, to me, like being the geologist who didn’t notice an earthquake he was standing on.

The first page of The Weight of Ink is dated twice: June 8, 1691, and II Sivan of the Hebrew year 5451. The place is Richmond, Surrey, which was then on the outskirts of London.

The first sentence of the first page: “Let me begin afresh, this time to tell the truth.”

The very next page is dated four hundred years later, November 2, 2000, in London, where Helen Watt, an ailing professor, near the end of a less than satisfactory career, is about to get access to the papers in which the unknown writer promises this time to tell the truth. One of Helen’s former students, whom she doesn’t remember, and his wife, are legally prohibited from finishing the remodeling of their recently purchased 17th century house in Richmond until the authenticity and historical value of a cache of papers recently discovered by an electrician behind a panel can be evaluated. If Helen can identify the author and place him or her in the context of that time when the Great Plague was about to arrive in London, she will retire in some glory, thus redeeming her career. To do this she must unlock the mysteries before her younger colleague, favored by the department head, does.

Thus, two women are connected across the centuries, Helen Watt and Esther Velasquez, an immigrant from Amsterdam who, contrary to the norms of the time, was permitted to be the scribe for a blind rabbi, a role usually reserved for men. The novel switches back and forth between their lives as Esther, secretly a philosopher and seeker of truth, navigates her tenuous situation, and Helen and her young assistant, study the papers to unlock their mysteries, most importantly the identity of Esther – who they at first naturally assume is male.

What is delicious for the reader is the dramatic irony in the novel’s architecture: Helen and her assistant and their competitor can only read the papers while the reader of the novel has access to all the rich dimensions of Esther’s life in the time when Jews were only recently allowed to live in England. The reader always knows more than Helen does and hopes that Helen will catch up in time to win her race. The reader cares just as fervently for Esther to find her truths and survive.

Thus, The Weight of Ink thrives vibrantly in several genres simultaneously: mystery, historical novel, career novel, feminist novel, while transcending all genres via the literary quality of the writing. Here is Helen approaching for the first time the house where the cache of papers is still behind a panel:

“She approached the door, her cane slipping on the irregular stones. Her breath was uneven from the unaccustomed exertion – she slowed to calm it. On a narrow window beside the door, a reflection of her own bent figure. As she leaned closer, it rippled as though on the dark surface of a stream: a pale aged professor in her outdated suit. Tilted to one side, leaning on her cane.

——— Straightening, she took the cold iron knocker in her hand. Both – the smooth weighty metal and her thin quaking hand – were impervious to the sunlight that fell profligate over everything: the door, the marble threshold, the sleeves of her wool coat. The knocker’s blows reverberated dully through the thick door and died. And in the silence – the unmistakable silence of an old house – she felt, for just an instant, the old feeling: the impossible ache of standing so close to a piece of history. A feeling like something dropped endlessly inside of her – like being in the presence of a long-ago lover who had once known her every inch, but now refused to acknowledge her.”

I figure I extracted about a third of the richness in my first reading. I’ll get another third in the next. And if I’m still around in a year or so, I’ll read it for the third time.

If you haven’t read it for the first time yet, you’re in for a treat.



Like in all great narrative, the opening lines reach beyond the particulars of that narrative to identify for us what is universal in the story, in this case paradise lost, Adam, looking back on what disappeared, the instant he lost his naivete.  The world changed while I slept, and much to my surprise, no one had consulted me. That’s how it would always be from that day forward. Of course, that’s the way it had been all along. I just didn’t know it until that morning. Surprise upon surprise: some good, some evil, most somewhere in between. And always without my consent.

‘That morning’ was when his father told Carlos Eire, “Batista is gone. He flew out of Havana early this morning. It looks like the rebels have won.”

In 1962 at the age of 11, Eire was one of the 14,000 children airlifted out of Cuba, exiled to physical safety and emotional turmoil, by, and from, his own parents, because Fidel Castro came to power. Eire’s memoir describes his boyhood with lyrical precision that brings every scene to life and is full of nostalgia, not just for the privilege and affluence he took for granted as a part of the upper crust in Batista’s, world, but also, indirectly, for his innocence about Batista, who, in cahoots with the mafia and the CIA, was a cruel, murderous dictator, surely no less and maybe more, evil than Castro.  Eire’s father was powerful judge who sent his children to the same private school in Havana that Batista’s children attended. One of the key moments in the memoir comes when Carlos accompanies his father to the courthouse and watches his father act as both judge and jury, dispensing summary ‘justice’ to the less than powerful, then, after only three hours of work, returning to his comfortable home and art collection.

Memoirs are never about what happened; they are about what the narrator remembers about what happened, and how he or she shades that memory toward one version of truth. Carlos Eire reveals which truth he chooses in the final verse of the poem which serves as the preamble to this stunning memoir:

Still, all of us are responsible for our actions.

Not even Fidel is exempt from all this.

Nor Che, nor his chauffeurs, nor his mansion.

Nor the many Cubans who soiled their pants

before they were shot to death.

Nor the fourteen thousand children who flew away from their parents.

Nor the love and desperation that caused them to fly.

In my opinion, any person with the sensibilities that enabled Carlos Eire to write to write so superb a story would eventually become an outcast wherever he ended up living.  If Fidel had lost and Batista won, and Carlos’ family remained at the top of society, still wealthy and powerful, he would have eventually learned that Cuba was never the paradise he had thought it was, because it wasn’t a paradise for most. He would have left in his heart but stayed in place, rather than the other way around. To me, that is what makes Waiting for Snow in Havana universal. This is not a story of what happened to happen to Carlos Eire. This is the story of the nature of exile, of the experience of diaspora, wherever it has happened and wherever it will happen again.

I didn’t read Waiting for Snow in Havana when it came out in 2003. I wasn’t even aware of it. Several months ago, browsing in a bookstore I saw the those words in the title: Snow in Havana? No way could I resist.

This one’s a keeper. I’ll remove a book from my shelves to make room for it, and if I’m lucky enough to still be here in a year or so, I’ll read it again.


THE TRANSIT OF VENUS, by Shirley Hazard

“They were natural and supernatural, in that blank space, like amorous figures from mythology.”



When I was a teenager, in thrall to my hormones, I couldn’t imagine a more enthralling love story than Romeo and Juliet. Then I went to college where I succumbed to English professors’ groupthink that Pride and Prejudice takes that prize. And I am still occasionally excited by the notion of re-reading all that sturm and drang about Helen of Troy.

But now that, at age 90, I have been a grown up for a few years, I submit to you, seriously, that Shirley Hazard’s novel, The Transit of Venus, published in 1980, transcends any category. It is what it is, a love story like no other as a great poem is like no other: to change it but a little, changes it altogether.

The “they” in the quoted sentence above are two lovers, Ted Tice, an astronomer, and Caroline Vail, a widow; the blank space is an airport. The sentence comes in the second to the last page in the novel and is earned by everything precedent. It names what the alert and therefore enthralled, reader has sensed from the beginning: that this story is both their story and ours, that in its fluid projection from future to past and back again, its marriage of fate and character, its straightforward prediction of the outcome, and the Olympian distance from which it told, it rises to the level of myth. In my copy, worn out by five readings – three of mine and two my wife’s – the lovers’ fates are predicted on page 12. The novel is divided into four Parts, in each of which the whole arc of the story exists, and the ending is so indirectly narrated that act of divining it is an arrow in the reader’s heart.

I’ll say no more, except that I hope you will read this novel. Don’t read it late at night or after too much wine. It requires your brightest attention. When you read the last page, stop, stay with your emotions for a few minutes, then turn the first page and start again. You will marvel at how even richer your second experience is.

Steve Davenport


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THE TRANSIT OF VENUS, by Shirley Hazard2022-05-18T17:35:07+00:00



There are two tragedies associated with this Pulitzer Prize winning novel: the death that is central to the story and the fact that the novel had to be published, and the prize awarded, posthumously. Agee’s fatal heart attack, in a taxicab on the way to his doctor at age 45, silenced one of the finest American writers of the 20th century. You may have read Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, with photographs by Walker Evans, documenting the lives of sharecroppers during the great depression, and if you are of a certain age, you may have watched Humphry Bogart in The African Queen, screenplay by James Agee, and I guarantee that anyone who has read his short story, A Mother’s Tale, will never forget it.

A Death in The family is autobiographical. When Agee was six years old, his father was killed in a car accident on his way to visit his father, James’ grandfather. In the novel, Jay Follett is killed trying to get home from a visit to his father on time to say goodnight to his six-year-old son Rufus and his younger daughter Catherine.

The great value of of this novel is that it engenders a level of empathy for the grief of the survivors that is both uplifting and so harrowing that this reader could read only a short section at a time. I gave myself recesses not available to Jay’s wife Mary, her two children and other members of the extended family. When we say to a grieving friend, “I wish I could share your burden,” we are saying we are willing to participate in your tragedy, to suffer and do that heavy lifting. Well, here’s the opportunity to do these things, at least vicariously – just read the book.

The genius of A Death in The Family comes not from telling about the accident that kills Jay Follett – that is told indirectly by those who go to the site of the accident and figure out how it happened- but instead, by telling of the emotional impact on Mary, the two children, especially Rufus, and others in the family, citizens of a small town in Tennessee. Via Agee’s lyrical prose, often italicized for that heightened intensity we see also in much of Faulkner’s writing, we can feel what Mary and her children feel. We join Mary and her aunt through the long night to find out whether Jay was just seriously injured or dead, and we are there with her when his death is confirmed, and with her too in the morning when she tells her two children who want to know where their father is. We are allowed an intimacy with the mind and heart of a six-year-old boy as Rufus gradually absorbs the brute fact that his father is gone from him forever.

For years A Death In The Family stayed on my bookshelves unread. Who needs to read about a death in a family? What’s there for us to learn after experiencing that loss ourselves, firsthand? Now I feel blessed to have finally read it. To be as empathetic as this book allows us to be is to find our better selves, and to feel the love for the lost father and husband and for each other that Mary, Rufus, Catherine and various aunts, uncles and grandparents feel confirms the immeasurable value of each person’s life. There is value in the paradox that the random, meaningless death of her husband that causes Mary to question her religious faith and confirms her brother’s apostacy, is made to be uplifting by a writer’s interpretation of his own experience.

Send not to know for whom the bell tolls, John Dunne said in a famous sermon long ago in St Paul’s Cathedral in London. It tolls for thee. James Agee said this too, without sermonizing, in A Death in The Family, one of the great American novels.

A DEATH IN THE FAMILY2022-05-16T22:17:17+00:00
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