An interview about Daisy

Twenty questions for Libby Sternberg on her novel Daisy

Master’s Degree writing student Andrea L. Dorten interviews me about my novel Daisy, an exploration of the Daisy Buchanan character from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Daisy is being read now by several editors.

How much research did you put into Daisy?

I think I’ve been researching this book all my adult life. By that I mean, I’ve read as much as I can by and about the Fitzgeralds ever since I fell in love with The Great Gatsby as a young adult. I’ve read all his novels and most of his short stories (there’s a nod to one, “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” in Daisy). I’ve read Trimalchio, the first iteration of Gatsby, The Crack-Up, The Last Tycoon (which reminded me of Gatsby), as well as Nancy Milford’s excellent biography of Zelda and countless other books I can’t even remember now. I was kind of obsessed with the Fitzgeralds throughout my life. Don’t judge. 🙂

When I started writing Daisy, I did look up some things about World War I, and after I’d finished writing the book, I read Maureen Corrigan’s So We Read On, about the writing of Gatsby and more. What an astonishing book! I was nodding my head so many times reading that work and I need to write her a fan letter!

What inspired you to write The Great Gatsby from Daisy’s point of view?

I was intrigued by who Daisy really was and wanted to explore her character, and I knew that the original novel was entering the public domain, so it seemed the perfect time to start that exploration.

How did you get into Daisy’s head in order to write her version of the story?

I heard in my head her witty banter first, how Fitzgerald wrote her, sharp as a tack, but also…tender. There’s a moment in The Great Gatsby where Daisy complains about how awful things are, how she’s seen and done everything, and she ends by declaring, “Sophisticated—God, I’m sophisticated.” But to me, that always felt like a cri de coeur, Daisy passionately pleading for who she used to be as a young woman, happy-go-lucky, beloved, and, yes, tender, before the world—leaving Gatsby for Tom and Tom himself—hardened her. So I wanted to explore that aspect of her personality, her vulnerability.

How do you hope readers will resonate with Daisy?

I think all writers want readers to love their story and characters as much as they do, so I’d love for readers to love Daisy, sympathize with her, understand her struggle, and, even though this is set in the 1920s, maybe draw inspiration from that struggle as she tries to find the courage to become independent.

What was your favorite part about writing this novel?

Discovering who Daisy really was. Though I had in mind a general idea of who she was and what would ultimately happen to her, characters can come alive for you as you’re writing and lead you down different paths than you originally envisioned. In fact, whenever I’ve suffered from writer’s block while writing, it’s usually because I’m trying to superimpose on a character something that doesn’t fit, if that makes sense. With Daisy, she became more real as I wrote, and she drove the plot.

What was the most difficult aspect of writing Daisy?

Respecting the original work without trying to imitate it was the most challenging part of writing Daisy. But I also struggled at times when I felt her character pulling me in directions away from the original. I love the original so much, sometimes it felt like a betrayal to go off in a direction that was at times antithetical to the story Fitzgerald originally told, even in smaller details such as Daisy’s reunion with Jay. In the original, it is a little different from how I wrote it. So even though I knew this had to be my story, not just a reiteration of the original, it felt as if I were cheating on the original to turn my back on certain plot points, leave some out, or deviate even in small ways.

Did you know exactly how Daisy’s story was going to end?

No, not at first. I had a general idea of how I wanted it to end, with Daisy more in charge of her fate, but it took writing the entire novel (and the editing, rewriting process) to discover how she’d take control.

Given the fact that Daisy is an homage to The Great Gatsby, what tips do you have for writers who are hoping to write their own homages?

Don’t merely rewrite the original. Write your own story in your own voice. Deviate from the original where your story requires it, especially in areas where you might have dared to disagree with the original author’s storytelling. I’ve seen retellings that are just a point-by-point reiteration of originals and they feel like school assignments to me.

Not only did you get to write Daisy’s point of view, but you also spent a significant amount of time writing both Tom and Gatsby. Which character was the easiest to write through Daisy’s eyes?

I don’t think any of the men were difficult to write through Daisy’s eyes because the original had already given me (and readers) a good profile to use for all of them.

Which character was the most difficult to write?

Jordan Baker was a little more difficult to write because she, like Daisy, isn’t fully developed in the original.

How much did you want to stick to the original story?

I only wanted to stick to the outline of the plot of the major story, not its details. So of course the love story between Gatsby and Daisy is central to the plot, but her view of events and how she influences them is different.

Did you know where you wanted to deviate from the original source?

There were two major deviations from the original that I had in mind at the outset. One was to make Daisy a doting mother, not someone who merely wished her daughter grow up as a “beautiful fool.” Daisy’s love for her daughter is a driving force in my novel because it triggers a reevaluation of her relationship with Jay Gatsby.

The other deviation is who ran over Myrtle Wilson, who was driving the night she died. Fitzgerald’s novel is so, so beautiful, but that particular plot point – that Daisy was driving with Jay in the car – stretched credulity to me. On the way into New York, Tom seems afraid his wife would run off with Gatsby, so why would he let her head back home with him? There are other small changes, too, such as readers learning what is in the letter Gatsby wrote to Daisy before her wedding (which isn’t revealed in the original), and, of course, the biggest change is giving Daisy agency, making her more than an ornament.

With discussions about diversity and representation occurring, this novel containing the point of view of a woman in the 1920s is unique and much needed. How would you consider Daisy a feminist novel, if at all?

I’m not sure how one defines a feminist novel, but I did want Daisy to come alive for readers because in the original she is something of a sprite, not real, not flesh and blood. In the original, though, when we do hear her voice, she’s sharp and funny, so that was my foundation—to take this witty, intelligent woman and give her real feelings, real inner conflicts and debates, and to show her transforming throughout the novel from a dependent into an independent woman, literally charting her own course.

Was it difficult to keep a balance between being faithful to the original novel while also incorporating your own writing?

Fitzgerald’s book is so beautiful, as I keep saying, that my fear is/was that people would think I was trying to compete with it, when I’m not. I’m exploring one character in the book, her life, that Fitzgerald left unwritten. I wanted my writing to reflect the sense of the place and time, but I didn’t want to imitate him. So the voice is entirely mine without any attempts to copy or reference his language.

Part of Daisy’s challenge involves doing what she believes is best for Pamela. How big of a role did you want Pamela to play in Daisy’s decision?

As I noted above, having Daisy be a doting mother was one of the big changes I made, and it drives her relationship with Jay, how she views him and their future together.

What have been the challenges of writing throughout the ongoing pandemic?

I didn’t have any problems writing during the pandemic. If anything, it seemed right to use that time to write.

What tips do you have for aspiring writers?

Don’t give up. Set page quotas for yourself when you first start out – you can’t edit a blank page, and you can’t always wait for inspiration. And…get a good critique partner. When I first started writing, I found a critique partner with whom I became friends. She ended up being published first (by Penguin, a romance). I learned so much from critiquing her books, analyzing what worked and didn’t work for me, and, of course, her comments on my manuscripts were invaluable.

I’d also suggest joining writers groups, if you can find supportive ones. Learn as much as you can about the publishing business. It surprised me how much time I had to spend doing that – almost equal to the time I spent writing.

By the way, that critique partner lives in Kansas, far from me, and I’ve only met her twice in my life, though we email almost every day. We’ve “watched” our children grow up from afar and seen each other through publishing and life crises and celebrations.

What books do you recommend for aspiring writers to help improve their craft?

Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. LOL! Seriously, it’s thin, it’s chock full of good info on grammar and usage, and, yes, that’s important. The more you have “right” when you submit a manuscript, the more you control its ultimate presentation to the public. You need to learn the “rules” before you can break them. I do have a library of books about the book business—managing your writing career, that sort of thing, and those can be useful. Now you can find a lot of that information online, though—how to write effective query letters/emails, how to find the right agent, what to look for in a book contract.

Any hints on what is next to come in your career?

I’m one of those writers who doesn’t stay in her lane. I’ve written mysteries, historical novels, romance, women’s fiction, chick lit, and serious fiction like Daisy. I go where my writing heart leads me. Right now I’m writing a romantic mystery with faith elements, something more in the highly commercial fiction area.

Are you exploring the idea of writing homages to other classic novels?

Nothing inspires me right now to do that, but who knows? Maybe something will light the fire of inspiration for me. I have one other retelling in my history—Sloane Hall, a reworking of Jane Eyre set in old Hollywood. I loved Bronte’s novel (it and Gatsby greatly influenced me as a writer), and it’s the template for romance novels. I wanted to rework it so that readers would find the story fresh, even if they’d read or seen it a hundred times. I’m proud of that book. Originally published by a small press, Sloane Hall was one of only 14 books highlighted by the Huffington Post on the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Bronte’s birth. I was surprised they’d found it!

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The BookLife Prize contest evaluation of Daisy:

Introducing a feisty protagonist with a girlish charm, Sternberg’s book shifts the storytelling genius from Fitzgerald to Nick Carraway, applying the Austenian concept of an unreliable narrator to The Great Gatsby. Sternberg requires readers to submit to layers of fantasy, by contrasting different realities in her still fictional world.

The author writes with a poised composure that reads like a continuation of Fitzgerald’s prose. However, the novel feels like a classical fusion of nineteenth-century literature with Jane Eyre’s direct address to the reader and Emma’s protagonist that cleverly orchestrates all things.

The author reconstructs a timeless American novel by adding compassion to Fitzgerald’s superficial relationships. Rather than defining her characters by wealth, she strips her story of financial interest and focuses on romance and female empowerment. Her book offers a new perspective that alters how one perceives Fitzgerald’s characters.

This book’s modernization applies the female agenda in today’s society to the social construct of the 1920s. It provides an inspirational heroine that escapes gender inferiority. In Fitzgerald’s novel, Daisy acts as an ornament to the male species, yet in this book, the author gives her agency.

A delightful portrayal of a female character claiming the story as her own, repossessing her own voice.

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Two book reviews: “Rhapsody,” and “The Ghost of Frederic Chopin”

Rhapsody by Mitchell James Kaplan

Though his music has lasted beyond his lifetime, George Gershwin’s work also seems to capture, as if in amber, a sense of the time in which it was created–the Roaring Twenties and its aftermath. It was a time of innovation and abandon, when great writers and musicians, particularly American ones, left an enduring mark on culture. Gershwin’s music straddled both classical and popular milieus. What other composer had such a wide range? He wrote everything from hit songs to movie music to Broadway musicals to symphonic works and opera.

In 1924, he met Kay Swift, herself a talented musician, one of the first graduates of the new Juilliard school (its name was different back then), who struggled for recognition in her own right in a world where male achievement was celebrated and women artists were mere asterisks in cultural history.

Mitchell James Kaplan’s lovely book Rhapsody tells the story of Swift and Gershwin’s love affair, a relationship as sweet and tumultuous as the times in which they lived. Swift was married to a wealthy banker; Gershwin was a known womanizer. Eventually she divorced her husband, and Gershwin…well, everyone knows the ending to his tragic tale. He died in 1937 at the young age of 38 from a brain tumor.

Kaplan does a wonderful job of telling the story of their relationship, no small feat when it was crammed into such a short time and, like the stateroom scene in the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera, also full to bursting with well-known names in the arts and history. He’s also very good at keeping the sometimes fantastical tale real and its main characters sympathetic, even when readers might inwardly cringe at their actions (Kay’s sometimes cool attitude toward her daughters, Gershwin’s philandering).

Bravo was the word that came to my mind when I finished this well-done historical novel.

The Ghost of Frederic Chopin by Eric Faye, translated by Sam Taylor

This short novel is both mystery and ghost story, and it succeeds most spectacularly as the latter. Set in Prague, it tells the tale of a television journalist tasked in the mid 1990s with making a documentary about a woman who claims to be visited by the ghost of Chopin who dictates new compositions to her. Is she real or a skillful faker who will make money from these so-called new works?

The book toggles back and forth between the journalist and a private detective he hires, between the time of their investigation and the present. In 1995, the Czech Republic had just been reborn, after shaking off decades of Soviet socialism, and both journalist and detective have things in their pasts that make them “guilty” of deceptions. The PI had once investigated dissidents, the journalist had won accolades for an expose of a Soviet author, only because he happened to produce it at the time the Soviets lost power.

Faye does a wonderful job of capturing the upheaval and melancholy of that time as the country struggled into a new economy and cast off the vestiges of the old surveillance state. His language (or at least, the translation of it from the original French) is often poetic, especially as he describes how the West felt as dreamy and unreal to Eastern Bloc Czechs as the Afterlife does to mortals.

As the memories and loves of the journalist and detective are explored, they try to figure out if Vera Foltynova, a housewife in her 50s, is a fraud or a medium. A hard-core skeptic, the journalist nearly drives himself mad trying to prove the woman fools them all.

To reveal whether he is right would spoil the ending. A book like this will surely leave some readers disappointed no matter how it is wrapped up. Faye does a skillful job of keeping that disappointment low. The last lines will satisfy all lovers of great ghost stories.

The tale is apparently inspired by the story of Rosemary Brown, a British woman who, in the 1960s, claimed to be visited by the ghosts of famous composers who dictated new music to her.

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Books for Prisoners

This summer, the Faith in Action committee of St. Edward’s Episcopal Church in Lancaster, PA will collect books for a small library that an Episcopalian prison chaplain keeps for prisoners in Lancaster.

The committee is looking for donations of Bibles, devotionals, inspiring biographies, etc. Paperbacks are preferred, but hardcovers are accepted. No fiction is needed because prisoners can read that on Tablets. Here are some of the types of books the committee is looking for:

  • Bibles: large print, children’s, comic book Bibles
  • Inspirational Christian stories and meditations, such as the following:
  • Healing Neen: One Woman’s Path to Salvation from Trauma and Addiction by Tonier Cain
  • Carried by Faith: From Substance Abuse to a Life Filled with Miracles by Sue L Hamilton
  • Heart of a Champion: True Stories of Character and Faith from Today’s Most Inspiring Athletes by Steve Riach
  • Burden: A Preacher, a Klansman, and the True Story of Redemption in the Modern South by Courtney Hargrave
  • Doing Time with God: Stories of Healing and Hope in Our Prisons by Bill Dyer
  • Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul: 101 Stories of Hope, Healing, and Forgiveness by Jack Canfield
  • Prison Saved My Life by Louis Dooley; Heidi Gruber O’Very
  • The Man I Was Destined to Be: Addiction, Incarceration, and the Road Back to God by Michael Tandoi
  • Knockin’ Doorz Down: A Story of Breaking through the Darkness and Finding Redemption by Carlos Viera
  • Doing HIS Time: Meditations and Prayers for Men and Women in Prison by James Vogelzang
  • Rising Above: How 11 Athletes Overcame Challenges in Their Youth to Become Stars by Gregory Zuckerman
  • Recipes for a Sacred Life: True Stories and a Few Miracles by Rivvy Neshmana

NOTE: Duplicates are okay, so don’t worry about others donating the same book. If you can find any of these in Spanish, those would be welcome, too!

A bin will be available in the church narthex for book donations during May and June. If you’d prefer to give money to this project, make checks out to “St. Edward’s Episcopal Church,” note “Books for Prisoners” on the memo line, and drop off at or send to:

St. Edward’s Episcopal Church

2453 Harrisburg Pike, Lancaster, PA 17601

THANK YOU!

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Launchpad Prose Finalist: Russian Tropics

RUSSIAN TROPICS

A short story

by Libby Sternberg (copyright Libby Sternberg 2021, published in the three-story collection From Here, written as Elizabeth Malin)

A SUDDEN SWIRLING breeze blew the sheer curtains by the veranda in a wild dance, and she had to rush to keep the wind from knocking over a delicate vase of Oriental design on a tall wooden stand by the door. Such foolishness to place it there, but Mister Jasperson liked the way the light picked up its deep hues.

She thought all this in Russian, her native tongue, as she moved the stand and its delicate contents to the corner where they’d be safe. Safe, too, from partygoers later that evening. Or perhaps not. She took the vase off its stand and moved it into a glass shelved china cabinet, carefully closing the door, just as the clock in the parlor chimed three in the afternoon. It seemed to come from far away, even though just a hallway and three walls separated them, but she closed her eyes, letting the soft gong trigger memory.

 A snowy evening, dim and gray. A fire roaring to keep her boudoir warm. Her father coming in with a gift for her after he’d returned from a trip to St. Petersburg. The clock chiming, the same velvety percussion floating through the hallways as if time itself were reaching out to tap them gently on the shoulders. Warning them.

That was the last time she saw him. While she’d been still recovering from fever, her mother had bundled her up and given her to the care of her uncle Fyodor, and they’d crossed endless miles of snow-covered fields in a fast-moving sled until the snow melted and mud prevailed and, oh, she had trouble remembering it all, only the awful, gaping sense of loss and fear and hunger. Her parents, absent. Her home, in the past. Comfort and ease, gone. Even the last gift her father had given her—a silly stuffed bear—no more. They’d carried only clothes and jewelry and some other things of value. And by the time they’d reached Istanbul, her Uncle Fyodor had taken most of the valuables and used them, she now assumed, for bribes and payments to get them away from the murdering revolutionaries.

She’d seen him one night in their tiny hotel room, prying the diamonds and rubies from her small tiara, the one she’d worn to court. He’d looked up, embarrassed. His hand had shaken. “Little one, fear not. I shall buy you a new crown some day. Write your mama now.”

And write she did. Letter after letter.

Dear Mama,

When will you and father join us?

No one had ever answered.

First, it had been on to Sicily, then up to Paris, and then to London, and finally, finally, on a ship to America. At each stop, she’d thought they’d stay and begin what she’d assumed would be the long wait for her parents to find her. And each time they moved on, she would say, “But, Uncle Fyodor, how will Mama and Papa know where we’ve gone?” And he would look at her with such warmth and pity and pat her head and say something like, “They will always know where you are, little one. Their hearts will know. But go write them now just to make sure.”

Dear Mama,

It is so hot here in this country of Florida. So hot that I think how much I want to be on a frozen lake midwinter, and you know how much I hated the long winter. If you kiss this letter, know that your lips touch me, as I have dropped several tears on it already. When will you come?

And yet, here in this wild and tropical land, in 1933, she still tried to put together pieces of why they’d stayed. Her Uncle Fyodor, bless his soul, had died almost as soon as they’d stepped off the boat. He’d contracted a cough on the journey. And it was but a mere five months later that he was gone. In between gasps, he’d told her he’d intended them to land in New York but something had gone wrong and….

She asked him, on his deathbed, why hadn’t her parents come, too.

And he’d patted her hand—too tired to raise his to her head now—and said, “They loved Mother Russia, little one, and I could only travel with one of you. Your brother and sister—too small,” as if she should understand. Loved Russia more than they loved her? How was that possible?

She was fourteen when he died in early 1920. Now, she was nearing thirty. A Russian princess. Unmarried. Alone. Unloved. Lucky to be alive. Was she?

She watched storm clouds way on the horizon, gathering over the sultry water like a snowy army ready to march. More wind blew. Strange gusts that hurried, then calmed. Weather was coming. Stillness followed by churning. Stillness…then rampage.

She couldn’t help it. She waited. After all these years, she waited. Hoping they’d gone to Paris where so many Russians had settled, or New York. She wrote to refugee centers, Russian enclaves. And she still wrote to them.

“Alexia, did you put the flowers in the parlor? Mr. Jasperson said he wanted the orchids moved there.” Rose, the housekeeper, stood in the doorway, her voice carrying no judgment and yet all judgment.

She turned and smiled, almost curtseying. “I am getting them now. The wind is blowing the curtains.” She spoke in simple sentences, her words still heavily accented. Mr. Jasperson liked her accent.

“Change into a fresh uniform, too, before the guests arrive,” Rose added as she passed her. “Your black one with the white lace.”

Black silk and white lace. The finest things she owned, and they belonged not to her, but to her employer. She’d escaped one commune to live in another, she thought as she rushed to the parlor, the big “living room” on the other side of the house that covered its entire length yet was still not as large as the entry hall to their home in Chelyabinsk. But in this land of wide windows and blowing curtains, clacking shutters and blinds, it felt as large as the ocean.

When she’d lost her uncle, she’d been frozen by fear. They’d been staying in a cheap hotel, so hot it felt as if a fireplace blasted its warmth at them every moment of the day and night, and you could never move far enough away from it to cool yourself.

Uncle Fyodor had been trying to get in touch with someone ever since they’d docked. A Mr. Welch or Walsh, a friend of a friend of a friend of a cousin of a brother of an aunt…it was so confusing, the chain of acquaintances and relatives. This Mr. W owned …stores, restaurants, banks? She didn’t know. All she knew was that her one protector was fading away, and she counted every second as a cocoon against the Horrible—the moment her protector would be gone. In those awful days, she no longer mourned her family. She was consumed by the present fear of losing Uncle Fyodor.

And lose him she did. Gone on a breeze, like this one, a rushing storm coming in from the east, winds so fierce they took rooftops off, and she sat trembling, holding his hand long after its warmth had perished with him.

But this new catastrophe meant she was no longer alone in her despair. A fresh group of refugees was created by the storm—homeless, without loved ones, in mourning and sorrow. Just like her. Authorities found her and found a home for her. At first, an orphanage where she was set to work in the laundry, exhausting days, bad food, and sleepless nights. She began picking up the language then, and she married.

Dear Mama,

I met a man at the orphanage church. He is big and stout with red hair. He brings me special foods and always asks how I am doing. I tell him of you and father and little Pytor and Magda. And he listens so well, even when I forget and start to speak in Russian. When you get here, perhaps you can live with us…

Rob Saxon, a man with dreams. She did not love him, but, oh, she did love being loved by him. He protected her, made sure she was comfortable, and he only got angry when no baby appeared in the years that followed. Five years. In a small bungalow by the water’s edge where he would fish when he wasn’t using his boats for other things. Running liquor she found out after he didn’t come home one night. He’d gone down in another storm.

The storms always brought change, she thought as she moved the delicate orchids to the airy parlor. Sometimes good, sometimes bad.

***

“Alexia, we’ll have to move the bar inside. Bring the punch bowl. Jorge will get the cart.”

She nodded to the housekeeper and went on to the veranda to start bringing the crystal bowl, not yet filled with sparkling liquid, inside. Hugging it to her gray uniform, she stole another glance at the darkening sky. The army of clouds had advanced. Now it loomed large over the opening to the cove, with only the smallest strip of blue sky in hasty retreat. The wind had picked up, too. So much so that even her stiff skirt danced about her ankles as she walked.

But still, she smiled. It was exciting, was it not, to face the storm?

She moved the heavy bowl to the table in the dining room, its starched white linen cloth caught by the breeze so that the corners flapped as if waving to the room. Four at a time, she moved the glasses, too, until, at the very end of her mission, she watched as the light white cloth on the outdoor table floated away, toward the sea, caught on the wind. No one was there but her. Rose had disappeared to the kitchen; Jorge had not yet come to execute his task.

Off and away the cloth went, sailing over the lush green lawn and the roiling water, so dark and fantastic that it no longer looked real but like something from a painting. She would not tell anyone where it went, and she was confident, in the party bustle, that Rose would not miss it until much later, and then she would be embarrassed not to remember what happened to it and say nothing.

As she placed the last of the punch glasses on the indoor table, she noticed from the corner of her eye that Jorge had entered and now silently moved the bar cart inside, careful not to upset any of the bottles. She scurried to help him, but he shook his head. His manhood would be diminished by aid from a woman. Such a proud man! About her age, with language skills worse than hers. She often felt sorry for him. She suspected it was this pity that kept him from going after her. It was her weapon.

After Rob Saxon had died, she’d thought she would once again be thrown to the wolves. She’d briefly contemplated returning home. The country surely would have calmed down by then. She found a tiny community of other Russians. She started attending the Orthodox church, and she supported herself by cleaning houses. When the bungalow was sold by the bank because payments were due, she moved into a small room, not unlike the one she’d occupied with Uncle Fyodor, and she waited, hoping to meet another Rob, or find another Uncle Fyodor, or hear from her family that they were at last coming. She wrote letter after letter home, telling her mother where to find her, then telling her, no, stay where you are because I will come to you, and then going back to her original plan.

Her idea to go back to Russia was stymied by her own fears. She learned of Lenin’s death. She knew what any change of leadership meant—death, fear, violence. She could not go back now, not until things settled again, until tempers cooled. Where would mother and father have hidden? Or would they have made some bargain with the revolutionaries? Father was good at bargaining. That was the fate she’d settled on, with her strong, capable father giving up land and houses, offering to supply his guidance as the young leaders took over the new duties of governing. Surely they would have seen how valuable his talents were. Surely that would have saved them. She became ever closer to some in the little congregation, especially a woman her age, Ludmilla. Beautiful porcelain skin, dark hair, blue eyes. Cheerful and fun.

She liked Ludmilla so much that she confessed to her one day her royal background and her desire to return home for her parents. She confided her hope that her parents still lived and prospered, they with their important skills, they would surely be necessary in the new Russia.

And instead of sympathy, she received…cold shock. “You!” Ludmilla said, pointing a shaking finger at her. “You, all of you! You killed my Ivan, my Dmitri, my Sasha!” she cried, rattling off names she’d never mentioned before. Names, Alexia discovered as Ludmilla rambled on, of the girl’s brothers and father and beloved fiancé. They’d been killed by the Tsar’s soldiers in a courtyard, with nothing to defend themselves but broomsticks and shovels, Ludmilla screamed. And screamed. A wail so intense, so frightening, that Alexia knew she would act on it. Deport her, perhaps—telling American authorities she was here without proper documents? Alexia was never sure if Uncle Fyodor had handled all that correctly. Alert Russian authorities to come for her here in America? It was possible. Those murdering savages would roam to the ends of the earth to stamp out her line. And now, it was the Ludmillas of the world who controlled the guns, and she who had nothing but a broomstick.

She felt just as unsafe in her little Russian enclave as she had on the journey with Uncle Fyodor. And she knew she’d never go home.

Dear Mama,

How I long to hear from you. I can only imagine how difficult things must be. But you must know that I have a comfortable home here and will welcome you—all of you, even our cousins and distant aunts and uncles—once you find your way out of the country. I hope you’ve been safe and fed well, and that my brother and sister will remember me when we meet again. Please, try very hard to leave. You will love this land as much as Russia…

But, another storm blew in, not as fierce as previous ones, but big enough to rattle the windows of her little boardinghouse, to cause damage her landlord didn’t want to fix. So she kicked out her tenants, Alexia among them, and closed. Alexia hoped Ludmilla would assume she had perished in this latest rain.

Again, Alexia became a nomad, but this time she was grateful. No need to explain to Ludmilla why she would no longer show up at church. No need to tell anyone anything. She was safe in her anonymity.

It was at that time that she’d gone to the fortune teller. Ludmilla herself had recommended her, had claimed she’d helped her see a brighter future. Desperate for the same predictions, Alexia had visited her, as well, going into a dark closet of a room in the back of an apartment near the fish stalls. The place had reeked of rotting fish, and she’d nearly been sick. The woman had looked at her palms, had tsked and hemmed and hawed and finally said:

“You were born in storm. Storms will guide you. Love will find you in a storm.”

But the next wind blew her here. She’d cleaned the Jasperson estate for the weeks leading up to the storm because their regular maid had gone off to marry. Mr. Jasperson, Rose had informed her, was unsure whether to bring someone on full-time or to keep using her on an as-needed basis.

But Alexia, buffeted by so many winds by now that she was strong and bold, had told Rose that if Mr. Jasperson wanted to hire her, he had better do it soon because she had two other offers she was considering. Within the day, she’d gotten the job.

Of course, by then Mr. Jasperson had noticed her. He’d commented more than once on how pretty she was—her blond hair like wheat, he’d said, her figure like a sculpture, her bearing like royalty. He’d encouraged her to go swimming from the dock and had even paid for a swimsuit. He’d watched her, she knew. Puffing on a cigar, hand in his blue linen jacket pocket, clear brown eyes staring from a pale face framed by light brown hair now beginning to thin. He was nearly twenty years her senior, never married—rumors flew as to why that was so—a tycoon who’d made his money in “this and that.” As far as she could tell, he’d dabbled in anything that would make him money, from selling fine art to investing in films to opening hotels and running factories. Rose said most of his money had come from a factory selling kitchen gadgets, things you needed no matter what, Rose said, even when money was tight.

Mr. Jasperson was nicer than Rob, sweeter. He smiled more, for one. He loved to laugh. And he could sing. When he had friends over, he would often be at the piano while one of his guests played, and he would sing beautiful songs in foreign languages—Italian mostly, she recognized. And she knew they were opera arias, even if she didn’t know the names of the pieces or the operas themselves.

Once he sang in Russian—an awful accent, many mispronunciations—and she’d tried very hard not to giggle as she’d gone in and out of the room serving this and taking away that. He’d noticed. And afterward, after all the guests had gone, after Rose was abed and Jorge to his own home, he’d sat on the veranda in the sultry night and reached for her hand.

“You are of the Romanov family, are you not?” he’d whispered into the air, blowing smoke toward the sea. “Perhaps a distant relative?”

But she had learned when to speak and when not. So she’d said nothing. She’d thought of Ludmilla and wondered if word had carried here through some invisible communication, the telephone perhaps, or a wire, or even strangers delivering flowers and food.

He’d looked up at her, his eyes shining in the torchlight surrounding the patio. “You’re trembling. Don’t be afraid, Alexia. We’re both refugees, you and I. I can take care of you. Dear girl, marry me.” He’d been very merry that night, but in a forced way, drinking heavily, which was not his habit. Had someone broken his heart?

She’d remained still. And again, no words passed her lips. By this time in her life, she’d determined she wanted to marry again—but this time, for love. She didn’t care about material things as long as she was comfortable, as long as fear didn’t lurk by her door. She wanted love, the warm, embracing sunshine of it, everything that had been ripped from her when her uncle had ripped her from her bed to escape.

So she said nothing to this man, wondering what she should do. She pondered running away. But then she thought: he wants you, Alexia, so give yourself to him. You’ve done it before with a man you didn’t love. And then you can still wait for the man who will marry you and you will love. The one who will come with the storm.

On another warm night—the nights in Florida were always so warm, so snug and hot, sometimes unbearably so—she’d been bold. She’d slipped into his bed, under cool satin sheets, and she’d waited for him, waited to give herself to him.

When he’d come in and seen her, in the shadows, not turning a single light on, when he’d seen her in the blue moonlight, he’d inhaled sharply and said, in a shaking voice: “You think this is what I want?”

And he’d made love to her, but it had been a task, an act not of love for her as much as gentle pity. She’d seen on his eyelashes the crystal drops of tears when she’d left his bed, and she’d been red-faced with embarrassment for weeks after until he finally put her mind at ease.

“Come, sit,” he had said after breakfast out there on that veranda, with warm, silky breezes coating the air with the salty taste of the ocean. She’d looked to and fro, and he’d assured her Rose was in the kitchen and wouldn’t disturb them.

“It saddened me to get crossways with you,” he’d begun, looking into her eyes with such concern she feared he’d cry again. “I didn’t mean for you to think that I expected…favors. So I will offer the proposal again along with this promise. If you agree to marry me, Alexia, I will accept that alone as your gift to me, along with any kindness and simple affection you can muster. I do not expect physical devotion but I would expect discretion. Don’t answer me now. And whatever your answer, your secret and employment are safe.”

That had been one year ago. And since then, she’d dusted and swum and lived in comfort in this house, in a small room off the kitchen. She’d done her job, she’d enjoyed his parties, his food, and she’d wondered how long she’d have to wait until a love came along, a love blown in by a storm. Would this be the one?

She’d wished she had someone to talk to about Mr. Jasperson, but she was afraid to confide in Rose and certainly wouldn’t divulge anything to Jorge, and she’d stopped going to church. She lived her quiet comfortable life, happy to feel secure on this raft floating in time, each second to the next, wondering… She had written to her mother, of course.

Dear Mama,

A very sweet man has asked for my hand in marriage. But I’ve not accepted, waiting now to hear from you. I do not think I love him. I do not know. I wait for a sign. If you came and met him, perhaps you could tell me what to do…

The pace picked up as the party time neared. Caterers arrived to work under Rose’s direction with the food, and a barman came to mix and serve drinks. A pianist sat at the baby grand and started playing. Alexia recognized him not as a hired help but as a friend of Mr. Jasperson’s, a man who was often about, sometimes staying over. She smiled at him, and he smiled back.

But as she moved silver trays of caviar and cheeses and fruits and cakes to this table or that, as she followed Rose’s instructions to turn on this light or turn off that one, as she tied back curtains and closed shutters, the storm built.

Sunset was now hidden behind the swarming clouds, and rain began to pelt the house and grounds as if someone were deliberately attacking them with barrels of water. The phone rang again and again, and finally, after only a half dozen guests had arrived, Mr. Jasperson himself came into the parlor, dressed in such a dapper way, as always, in pure white linen, a little wrinkled from the damp, but smelling clean and bright, a soft blue shirt and matching handkerchief in his pocket. He looked around and said to no one in particular, “I’m afraid this is it for the duration, darlings. Everyone else is too cowardly to strike out.”

That seemed to make things merrier, however. And once his announcement was out of the way, the pianist struck up a rousing tune, all banging and fast syncopations, and a couple danced.

She remembered to change into her good uniform, and was pleased to see him smile at her when she reentered the parlor in black and lace, a fresh cap pinned to her hair. Someone wondered if they should turn on a radio to hear weather reports, but Mr. Jasperson said there was no point to that since they weren’t about to escape the weather, were they?

With so few to tend to, he insisted that the servants indulge themselves, as well, so Rose and Alexia and Jorge, as well as the catering and bar staff, all joined in a champagne toast to the “twilight” and were told to eat their fill.

It was near midnight when the mood changed from frivolity to apprehension. So fast was the transition that she realized it had only been a veneer of jollity that had coated the night prior to this moment, with the looming fear just below. The lights went out, and then there was a deafening crash and glass splintering. They all ran to the veranda to see that a chaise longue had been thrown by the wind into a window. But if this weren’t foreboding enough, they also saw that one of Mr. Jasperson’s neighbors had lost his roof—or part of it. The section facing the ocean had peeled away, and slate pieces were blowing round and round in a vortex overhead, as if called upward by an unseen wizard’s hands. 

Mr. Jasperson hurried through the wind and rain to the neighbors’ place before anyone could stop him, and a few moments later, he returned, drenched and rumpled but with the elderly couple who lived next door under his wing.

“This place is a bit sturdier,” he said in explanation to the surrounding crowd.

And Alexia wondered: Do I love him after all, this hero?

The party was over, or at least the devil-may-care part of it. They still rallied as one, but this time with boards and nails, sealing up windows to keep shattering glass away, and Rose was told to fetch candles and kerosene lamps for the parlor. Once Rose and Alexia had a comfortable glow going, Mr. Jasperson proceeded with more announcements.

“No one is going home until this passes,” he said calmly. “And we’ll all huddle together here, in this room. Food is plentiful. Drink in abundance. And my library is available to all,” he said, gesturing to the many bookcases surrounding the walls. His voice almost demanded calm, and she knew everyone took some measure of comfort from it. He’d changed into a dry jacket and still looked every bit as stunning as he usually did. Alexia’s admiration grew.

His friend sat at the piano again, this time playing softer, sweeter melodies aiming to soothe, Alexia thought. Others relaxed on couches and chairs. Some read, some dozed. But a fretful unease settled on them, and it reminded her of the times on her journey when she’d wondered when it would be over. Even if it were a horrible ending, an ending seemed preferable to the waiting.

As she watched Mr. Jasperson, Alexia realized two things: she’d never uttered his first name, and she loved him. He was so strong, so gentle, so capable and honest and good. And he’d asked to marry her. How foolish she’d been to demur! She could hardly wait to give him her answer now, but he never seemed to be alone. Her heart was bursting with the realization, and she wanted desperately to share it with him, the object of her attention. The fortune teller had been right: the storm had blown in her love.

***

About three in the morning, when the clock tolled its gentle score once again, she thought she finally had her chance. Most were sleeping. The winds seemed to be abating. The night watch would soon give way to the hope of daybreak.

Alexia awoke from a light slumber, shaking free of a shawl someone had placed on her shoulders as she’d slouched in a chair in the far corner. Perhaps he had put it there, looking out for her as he’d always done. She rose on rabbit-quiet feet and glided through the room of sleeping souls, searching, letting her eyes adjust to the dim light of one kerosene lantern in the middle of the table.

She didn’t see him, but she heard him, humming, in the next room. The veranda! Of course, he would be there, facing the storm boldly, fearlessly, a centurion guarding his charges.

She hurried to the door, and yes, he was there. He was still now, hands in his pockets, staring at the churning sea and buffeting rain. Her heart pounded as she started to take one last step, a ballet dancer ready to leap to center stage, to take her place in the spotlight, where she’d always belonged.

But then…another guest intruded, coming from a chair, languorously rising, like the dawn itself. She recognized him. His pianist friend, a bit younger, and sadder, a man who’d always seemed to her to be stealing some of Mr. Jasperson’s cheer, warming himself by it. And he crossed to him, placing his hand on his arm.

“Paul,” he said – Paul! That was his name! Paul Jasperson. She’d heard him called that, of course, but she’d never said it. She mouthed it in the night air. Paul. “I can’t delay. My train leaves in the morning. At least, I assume it’s still a go.”

“I know.” Mr. Jasperson—Paul—straightened, as if this were a blow. And she realized this party had been a going-away fete for the guest, his friend.

“I…wish….” Paul said, and his voice was so slow and mournful, each word its own universe, that Alexia felt a catch in her throat, as if she were saying the words.

I… wish. They were filled with all the longing she herself had always felt, the hope and fear and body-twisting ache of yearning for love and home. I wish, Mama, that you would write back. I wish you could be here with me to share this wondrous land, to see what I have seen, to hear and taste…

“I wish you didn’t have to go,” he said, and swallowed.

Yes, oh, yes, how she hadn’t wanted to go. She’d wished she could have stayed with her family. She’d wished the world in its storms didn’t rupture and break and shatter things. That tenderness was valued, that even enemies could stand in awe of it and leave it be, a thing as delicate and beautiful as the orchids Mr. Jasperson loved.

And then, to Alexia’s astonishment, the two men embraced, and she felt, hidden just beyond the sheer curtains, envious, wishing it was her enjoying that moment of purest affection, of strength and…passion.

“What will you do?” the man asked Paul.

He shrugged. “Live.”

The other man laughed bitterly. “Is it living to be without me?” When Paul didn’t answer, he went on, his words cutting her. “Like that little Russian princess, you mean? Pretending? For God’s sake, Paul, we might not be able to live in the open, but we can live together.”

At that, Paul’s head turned, and she could see his eyes shine in the light. After a pause, he said. “Don’t make fun of her. She still thinks…she’ll find them.”

“Good god, man. You still waste postage on her letters?”

“Every single one,” Paul responded.

“Letters to the void.”

“Maybe.” He paused again. “I like to think of them as prayers. I can’t and won’t stand in their way.”

Eternity passed.

Dear Mama, she saw herself writing, I thought you were still alive. I thought…this man loved me, body and soul. Oh, Mama…

Her fist flew to her mouth to choke the sob that gathered there. Who knew this secret she’d cherished? Who’d given it away? Who’d betrayed her, embarrassed her, humiliated her?

She swayed with the acceptance of this truth, the breath knocked from her chest.

She stayed until they left the veranda, leaning against the wall, sliding slowly down until she crouched, as if hiding.

She was hiding. She’d been hiding all these years, first from the Bolsheviks, then from the Ludmillas, and always from the truth.

She swallowed a thousand tears. She lived a thousand lives. She wondered how her family had died and hoped it had been quick. She thought of Paul knowing…and knowing she’d refused to believe they were gone, and how he’d protected her from that. Prayers, he’d said. What had she prayed for in those letters?

And then she crept outside and lay on one of the chaise longues herself, as still as she had been when uncle Fyodor was dying, living in each second so as to forestall the worse thing yet to come in the next second, floating once more on that barque between unknowables, exhausted from the effort not to see what was ahead.

 The air calmed. The day began to break, a thin pink ribbon of a saving battalion of light come to rescue them from the armies of the dark, raging night.

Her eyelids fluttered, she dozed again and then woke in full sunlight.

Mr. Jasperson stood by her chair.

They’ve all gone home,” he said to her. And he offered her his hand.

You and I are refugees, he’d said.

She looked into his eyes as she stood.

She was of royal lineage. They often married with no love.

And maybe this was a different form of love, after all. His heart and body would never belong to her. Great pity for him swamped her, and she wanted to protect him with the gentle sweetness he’d shown to her. They could cling to each other, refugees, on their raft of pure tenderness. Perhaps that had been her prayer, to find a fellow exile like him.

Yes, she said to him in Russian, I will marry you. I will keep your secret if you keep mine.

He understood…something…he smiled, whispered her name, and kissed her hand.



           

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Let Women Sing (like women)!

By Libby Sternberg

During a live-streamed funeral service for a beloved Episcopal minister in our community, two startling voices rang out in the nearly empty church—the voices of women singing. Not just singing but singing as women, with warm tones, even small vibratos.

Listening to those sweet voices felt like a balm during a sorrowful service, and I realized, as I waited for each hymn just to hear them, that the reason it was so refreshing was because the one area where women’s voices continue to be suppressed in the modern church is in music ministry.

Suppressed might seem like a strong word, considering the fact that nearly 40 percent of the ministers in our national church are women now, and women fill many roles on the altar, including singing in praise bands and folk groups.

But in adult choirs, women are still often expected to sing like boys, to use straight tones in adult choral music, even straight tones in solos and small ensembles. The message is clear: If you don’t sound like a boy, or try real hard to sound like one, your mature woman’s voice isn’t so welcome in this space.

I know some choral directors might object and point out that it’s easier for straighter voices to blend. That’s true, but when we’re talking about mature women’s voices, we’re not talking about “warblers,” voices with vibratos so large they could be mistaken for trilling coloraturas. We’re usually talking about a warmer sound with some vibrato, contrasted to one where the singer has to expel all the breath in her lungs to get out just a few straight-sounding notes. That’s not healthy singing.

The mainline Protestant churches trace their musical heritage back to a time centuries ago where male voices dominated, a misogynistic era in church life where women were not just “less than” but one step away from being considered witches.

The male voice was so prized throughout the ages, in fact, and female ones deemed so unworthy, that boys were castrated to retain their pure, otherworldly soprano and contralto tones. Castrati were still alive in the early twentieth century.

If you’ve ever heard a male contralto (or countertenor), you can usually tell immediately it’s not a woman’s voice, even though the vocal range he sings in is the same for the female vocal part. It’s a strangely asexual sound, with virtually no vibrato. A woman singing an alto part would be hard-pressed to emulate it, even if she could rid her voice of any lingering vibrato.

This fetishizing of the boy soprano sound should stop. We’ve kicked out most of the vestiges of the church’s sad sexist history. Let’s get rid of this last bit, too.

While much beautiful music was written for boys and men’s choirs, churches are not museums where art has to be presented in its original form. We use modern instruments, after all, to play old works. Why not use “modern” voices to sing old works? That is, let women sound like women. Stop telling them to sound like boys.

A musical acquaintance of mine who sings in a national choir, one that does residencies in cathedrals all over the world, recounted this story to me:

“After one of our services, the head verger spoke to me and said how delightful it was to hear adult women’s voices. He greatly appreciated the warmth of healthy, mature female voices and felt they added a great deal to the worship experience.”

To that I say: Amen. 

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Our 2020 Holiday Letter

Dear Friends and Family,

This past year, we scaled mountains, swam oceans, ran marathons, skied, skydived, painted masterpieces, composed symphonies, and cooked amazing award-winning dishes using the new fryer/steamer/toaster/blender/artisanal teapot we invented and patented.

Not really.

Actually, we just picked up a bad habit. Zooming.

We started Zooming sometime in March, but over time, the habit grew. We Zoomed with family in groups, with kids alone, with kids with grandkids, with business associates, with choir members, with volunteer boards. There was no Zoom too obscure or no reason for Zooming too outlandish. We even Zoomed wearing…a tiara.

We have become very familiar with the interrupted thought as the mic cuts out when someone else starts speaking. Don’t ask us what we meant to say. We’d already forgotten it by the time we heard the “What?” from other Zoomers. Just assume it was brilliant.

Other than Zooming, we FaceTimed. But only with our kids.

We also went to the beach a few times. We only went when COVID restrictions allowed us. Really.

We bought masks – sequined ones, Penn State and leopard-print ones, and plain ole blue ones. We wore them everywhere.

We bought hand sanitizer in the big containers. Now that it’s available in small containers again, we grumble every time we have to refill one of our small vials from the big bottle.

We bought toilet paper responsibly. We are not hoarders.

We gained a few pounds, but our doctors assure us this is weight from our longer hair since we’ve not been to a salon in months.

We watched some shows on Netflix. Don’t ask what they were. We’ve already forgotten. Maybe that’s what we were trying to talk about during Zoom sessions before being cut off by others talking.

We spent too much money on jigsaw puzzles.

We’ve perfected the lemonade martini, the dirty martini, the raspberry martini, and threw out the lemon/ginger/cayenne martini.

We’ve discovered we like wine in a box.

So, that’s our year! Can’t wait for 2021!

The Sternbergs

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Book Review: “The Order” by Daniel Silva

In Israeli spymaster Gabriel Allon, author Daniel Silva created a highly sympathetic character who is melancholy, strong, unafraid, and defiant. In many ways, he mirrors the Jewish homeland he represents: unwilling to tolerate one more drop of genocidal blood on his watch after the Holocaust and acts of terror have ripped his family apart. Those who follow Allon in the series Silva crafted can’t help admiring and rooting for him as he uncovers and fights everyone from Irish terrorists to radical Islamists bent on destroying what they cannot conquer.

Thus it is a deep disappointment to encounter a book in this series that falters on virtually every level — the mystery is predictable, the thriller elements not at all suspenseful, and even Gabriel Allon’s attractive qualities seem somehow muted by the weak storytelling. Yet that is precisely how I felt after reading The Order, the latest of Allon’s exploits.

A quick summary of the plot: A Jesuit priest contacts Allon to investigate whether the latest pope has been murdered (instead of succumbing to a heart attack). No surprise, he has been. By a fanatical ultra-conservative bishop who heads a fanatical ultra-conservative Catholic group that intends to align with other conservative political forces taking power in Europe, forces that hate Jews and Muslims and immigrants in general, and stir up national pride while not providing good governmental services. By the way, I’m giving nothing away in this summary. You’ll figure all this out pretty quickly since none of it is hidden.

The story feels as if it’s supposed to be a warning to readers that dark forces could overcome the world again if we’re not vigilant. To avoid this fate, we must throw in our lot with the liberation theology Jesuit who, despite his saintly outlook and liberal broadmindedness, isn’t keen on letting priests marry.

If the story was predictable and trite, the writing didn’t always rise above it. It felt rushed at times and imprecise. A woman is described, at one point, as wearing cat’s eye glasses that make her look academic. Um, nope, those glasses would make you look like a fashionista. Horn-rimmed spectacles, maybe a la Harry Potter, might do the trick for the intelligentsia look. I’m surprised an editor didn’t flag that.

What I found most disappointing in the book — even disturbing — was Mr. Silva’s anti-Christian theme. It’s perfectly fine to enumerate the sins of Christianity, especially Catholicism, regarding the treatment of Jews (especially during and after the Holocaust when some church leaders helped Nazi murderers escape to South America). What’s not so fine is devising a plot that seeks to blow up core beliefs of Christianity. Mr. Silva seems bent on saying to Christians: hey, what you believe in? It’s all a lie.

Sorry to say but I’ll give a lot of thought to whether I’ll buy another book in this series.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist.

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Book Review: “Short Stories by Jesus”

Amy-Jill Levine’s book Short Stories by Jesus is simultaneously a provocative, frustrating, beautiful, tedious, and compelling work.

This analysis of the parables of Jesus by a Bible scholar takes a fresh look at these tales through the minds of those who first heard them. How would Jesus’s first audience react to his narratives about lost sheep, a pearl of great value, a prodigal son and a good Samaritan? What was their understanding of the world and of the people Jesus talks about? Did they see things differently than we do now? Spoiler alert: Yes.

This is why the book is so provocative and beautiful. Levine painstakingly defines words and how they were used throughout the Bible, where similar stories appeared, how certain storytelling devices were common (so many involved two sons, a rich man, vineyards, etc.) in order to help you feel you are there with those first listeners, hearing the stories for the first time with your understanding of what they knew.

Her impressive scholarship leaves you in awe as well as frustrated. As she went through example after example of mentions of the word “merchant” or “pearl” in ancient history and the Bible, I was impatient to move on. A summary would have sufficed for general audiences.

Where Levine shines is in provoking you to consider new looks at these well-worn tales. Her analysis of the parable of the Good Samaritan still has me mulling it, seeing it afresh, understanding that the answer to Jesus’s question– Who is your neighbor?– in that story is much deeper than you might think.

Similarly, her pulling apart of the “lost” parables (lost sheep, lost coins, lost son) forces you to view yourself not just as among the lost but as the seekers — what, she forces you to confront, are you seeking, what have you lost, that you would tear up the world to find?

In the parable of the pearl of great value, you’re left to ponder what is it you want so badly that you’d happily give up all your fortune to own?

Her other great accomplishment in this book is alerting Christian readers to the sad history of parable interpretations that have more than a whiff of anti-Semitism to them by ignoring the rich Old Testament history of messages of love and acting as if Jesus’s parables teaching the “way of love” were explicit rebukes to Jewish law.

“If the interpreter knows nothing about Jesus’s Jewish context other than the stereotype of ‘Jesus came to fix Judaism, so therefore Judaism–whatever it was–must have been bad,’ then the parables will be interpreted in a deformed way.”

Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus

At times, it feels as if Levine strains to look beyond obvious interpretations of the stories as she seeks to find some new view that will turn the parable on its head. That seemed particularly true in the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee and the widow and the judge. Her journey to find something different in these tales had me wondering if Jesus would go to such lengths to obscure a text’s plain meaning. Sometimes the obvious understanding might be the right one.

The merits of this book far outweigh the faults, however, and I heartily recommend it to those interested in Jesus, the Bible, and life in general. The book is available at all major etailers, including Amazon.

The Good Samaritan by Vasily Surikov

Libby Sternberg is a novelist. Her books can be found here.

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What is Church?

Since the pandemic hit, many churches, including ours, haven’t been fully opened. First, they were closed entirely, and services were only virtual, with a minister praying and preaching to an empty space.

Now, they are sort of, kind of open. Our church hosts two Sunday services, live-streaming one, but everyone wears masks, including the priest when administering communion, and the “music” service consists of a lone cantor singing hymns solo while the congregation is admonished in the printed program not to join in.

I’ve written before about how I missed church during the times it was completely shut down, a surprise to me because I’d contemplated for quite some time how church should be much more than a building. I resisted the notion that organized religion, with its churches and cathedrals, was the true church, and then I discovered, when I couldn’t access those structures, how meaningful they were to me.

Now, however, as our bishops continue to urge us to socially distance and won’t let us completely open the doors to our buildings for all the gatherings churches host, I’m wondering and wandering again, going back to my original thoughts about what church should be. Thanks, bishops, for leading me back to this place of discernment. Or maybe I should say, “be careful what you wish for.”

Wishing for congregations to be ultra-safe means we’re now scattered, connecting with each other through Zoom meetings, newsletters, phone calls, and those live-streaming services. That, in turn, means many people — not just me — might be wondering about the real meaning of church.

Sometimes, I’m clearer on what I think it should not be. I don’t think it should be a political rally or anything like it. I’ve written about that, too, several times. (Here and here.)

I don’t think it should be merely social gatherings for those attending. Yes, I miss the social coffee hours, parish pot lucks and choir dinners and all the rest. But it isn’t just that.

It isn’t just taking canned goods every week to the food drive either, as important as those communal acts of mercy are.

Now I’m back to thinking church is more about all the things we’ve been called to do during this pandemic, the things I mentioned above — the phone calls, the notes, the newsletters, the Zoom meetings, the small but meaningful contacts with each other that lift us up as individuals, make us feel loved.

Because love is what the church is really supposed to be about. Loving our neighbor. Loving God.

As we show our love for one another, I believe it creates ripples in the wider community. So, that person you call to offer an encouraging word to might do the same or help a neighbor and that person, too, might be inspired to pass it on, all unconscious acts of charity started by one little pebble of love tossed into the wider pond.

You don’t need a building for that.

Libby Sternberg writes in a variety of genres, including Christian fiction. Those books include Fall from Grace, In Sickness and in Health, Kit Austen’s Journey, and Mending Ruth’s Heart.

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Book Review: “No Man’s Land” by Wendy Moore

by Libby Sternberg

When I was growing up, all the doctors in my life were men — from our general practitioner to specialists. I first encountered a female physician after having children. Our pediatrician at the time was a wonderful woman who combined medical science with an artful understanding of being a mother herself. She was a blessing.

415uc5fpgTLThe way for her and other women doctors was paved by physicians like Louisa Garrett Anderson and Flora Murray, the two physicians at the center of No Man’s Land, an informative look at how difficult it was for women to be accepted in the fiercely male world of medicine.

The two women came of age during the UK suffragette movement in the early 1900s, with Anderson even serving jail time for some of her protesting activities. This was how these doctors met, in fact, during suffragette meetings and protests. They soon became friends and professional colleagues, eventually living their lives together as a couple.

Because men controlled staff appointments at hospitals, the women doctors were barred from those jobs by small-minded doctors who didn’t want women among their ranks. Murray wrote an article in the New Statesman in 1913, justifiably angry at this practice, especially when men of lesser abilities effortlessly rose in the ranks:

“Staff appointments are professional prizes. They are made by the council or governing body, generally consisting entirely of men, upon the advice of a medical staff composed entirely of men. They are usually given to men.”

Shut out of hospitals, they started their own together, a small facility catering to women and children, an area to which most women doctors at the time were relegated, regardless of their expertise.

Then…World War I began. While the suffragette movement was put on hold during those fearsome years, Murray and Anderson understood that medical care for the wounded would be such a paramount concern that they could finally be accepted by male colleagues and join the fight to save lives.

Still, it wasn’t easy. They had to battle stiff resistance among hidebound medical officers and prove themselves by setting up their own hospitals in France, financed by donations, many of them from sister suffragettes.

They started two such facilities, one in Paris and one closer to the coast where wounded men were eventually transported back to London, and showed they were more than equal to the task. They did so well, in fact, that eventually Alfred Keogh, the most senior physician in the British Army at the time, asked them to set up a military hospital in London to deal with a surge of casualties expected from an upcoming push on the front.

Thus the Endell Street Military Hospital was born. From spring 1915 to the end of the war and beyond, Murray and Anderson ran the hospital with a staff of all women. All employees and volunteers, from physicians to anesthetists to nurses to orderlies, were women. Murray’s organizational skills had the facility humming in record time, and Anderson’s surgical skills meant they operated on a record number of patients per day during high casualty initiatives at the front (think of every battle name of that war, from Ypres to the Somme and more, to imagine the flow of men under their care).

No Man’s Land takes you through this war — military, medical, and societal — in small details. All physicians, including Murray and Anderson, had to grapple with new wounds caused by new killing machines. No clear-through bullet holes but grisly shrapnel injuries resulting in fractured bones, mustard gas burns that scorched lungs, shell shock, and the ever-present infections that might take a life in an era before antibiotics.

No Man’s Land leads the reader up to Armistice and beyond, when the hospital took in civilian patients, too, now sick and dying from the “Spanish flu.”

While women gained a (limited) right to vote during this period, the struggle for female physicians persisted. Men returning from the war eased back into their jobs, pushing out women who’d been handling them. And male doctors’ attitudes about women in their profession rebounded to their original peevishness, shutting out female physicians once again from staff positions.

This lasted a long, long time, as my childhood attests, when almost all doctors were men and women were nurses. Societal change is a long, hard slog, and No Man’s Land demonstrates how difficult it is to change minds and hearts even when evidence of change’s benefits stares one in the face.

 

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