A Review of Susan Elia MacNeal’s ‘91 Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante

Originally posted at Wellesley Underground here.

Susan Elia MacNeal’s New York Times-bestselling Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante from the Maggie Hope mystery series: this is why we read novels. This is why people read mysteries, in particular.

In this novel, the fifth in the Maggie Hope mystery series, MacNeal seems to airlift you out of the twenty-first century and submerge you deep into the early 1940’s with her masterful writing. The novel immediately hooks you in by constructing an ambiance with deft, concise descriptions that tend to all of your senses. You are immersed in a world vital not only with visual details that create a richly-woven environment which you now inhabit, but you can also smell the Chinese food, taste the cocktails, and hear the dialects roll off the characters’ tongues. As you read the novel, jazz music will bellow in your ears. And you will participate in the story, laughing at some of the hilarious levity that infiltrates the serious tones defining the novel (one memorable moment is when a character states that the British Empire’s colonialism was due to the Brits being hungry for more appealing food). The players in the novel, whose characters and appearances are captured in just a few expert sentences each, earn your trust in their authenticity and naturalism.

Early in the book, you glean the opportunity to experience, a little, of 1940’s America and its contrast to Britain, deeply entrenched in its World War II efforts. With Maggie, you exhilarate in the city-lights and lack of black-outs that characterize London.

However, as the book progresses, MacNeal introduces parallels that remind us our current era is not so dissociated from World War II. At the end of World War II, the resounding message was “Never Again.” Yet we are still fighting a war against racism, surveillance and privacy issues, violence, and fascism. People all over the world still perish due to their ethnicity, religion, or race. And nations still invade other countries which results in casualties, soldiers pitted against each other in senseless power-struggles. Central to the novel is an epic plea for peace, where Gandhi is lauded as the true war hero of the Second World War for abstaining from violence. At the crux of the novel is a challenge, not just against the Nazi party’s atrocities and imperialism, but against other violence against human beings, such as the death penalty which dooms a young innocent African American to death, serving as a central plot point. The book reminds us of Jim Crow and of poll taxes that prevented the impoverished from their right to vote. It stimulates us to think about the state of democracy in the United States, then and now. The themes of Mrs Roosevelt’s Confidante include all wars threatening human freedom, dignity, and democracy.  Other motifs discuss colonialism and the wastefulness of losing life over different political views.

The novel interlaces an intriguing page-turning plot with social themes relevant to today with poignant inspirational messages. I interviewed MacNeal earlier, and she wrote that she writes to entertain people. However, I find this a modest statement. Yes, the intricate plot, the able-fighting Maggie, both intellectually and physically, the romance, and the surprises are entertaining, but I find, more than being amused, the novel is transforming.

And that’s why I read. I read to be changed, to leave a book, like exiting a foreign country, with a novel perspective. In Mrs Roosevelt’s Confidante, you realize the power of words either to unite or to divide as Prime Minister Churchill addresses the Senate. The novel’s characters’ courage inspires you to search deep in your recesses to discover your own. You consider what you would risk for your and others’ freedom and privacy. You learn that most worthy goals in life require perseverance to obtain, such as mathematical or code-breaking prowess, as Maggie possesses. And Eleanor Roosevelt instructs you that not everyone will approve of you, a pertinent lesson in our age of Internet bullies, and that only you have the power to deprive yourself of your dignity and self-respect. Through reading this book, you realize not to take for granted your precious life and your time with the people who constitute your family and friends: you never know when you will see your loved-ones again.

As a physicist, the only element I would desire to be developed more is the presence of math, logic, and physics that would shape Maggie’s perspective. Would she compare some of her puzzles to unsolved theorems? She grew up in the wake of some of the most revolutionary developments of math and physics to that date, and I would love to see her engage in debates and possess more thoughts aligned with math and physics. Her Aunt Edith, who raised her, possesses a background in chemistry, and the two women’s educations would likely have been very different with the status of science at the turn of twentieth century. I would love to see them support and contest the merits of aspects of quantum mechanics, such as the EPR paradox. I would also love to see Maggie introduce the novel ideas of the special and general relativity, the photoelectric effect, and quantum mechanics to her friends, who might be disbelieving. Had she encountered Lise Meitner or looked up to the late Emmy Noether as a role model?  Perhaps there might be a scenario where she would have to solicit help from Feynman, known for his lock-picking abilities, or Einstein (or consult his papers). However, I must admit I am biased toward more math/science in my reading, and have also not read the other books in the series which might contain these elements.

In my past, I was inundated with World War II books and films, usually from the victims’ perspectives from conquered countries who resist, yet still suffer great traumas. These stories invaded my sleep through nightmares. Maggie Hope, too, enters my dreams, but, well, as an antidote, as an agent of hope. She is someone who solves crimes and who is in a position to oppose the oppressors. She is plucky, intelligent, and courageous. She will entertain you, stimulate thought, and will lead you to tears and laughter. And yes, Susan Elia MacNeal’s Mrs Roosevelt’s Confidante will leave you craving to read all the books in the series and hungry for the next installment.


What have you lost?

ucla Here is a little poem I wrote that was included in the inaugural issue of Lake Waban Blue, published here: What have you lost?

The image above is the UCLA Sculpture Garden.

 What have you lost?

Have you lost your youth?
Orange-pink and red residues across the morn
Orbs of lusty dew ready to be sipped
An eager skip onto the hidden trail
Ignorant of the ragged branches along the way
Chin angled up as Apollo ascends his place in the heavens

Have you lost a friend?
The one whose image never dissolves
She who no longer answers the letters
You once trod together down the hidden trail
Without foreboding of the division ahead
You hesitated, extracting a splinter, as she passed by

Have you lost your will?
A bed that beckons you to curl as a fetus
Engulfed in a warm surrender to sleep
Seduced by the sirens
No energy to hike the hidden trail
A craving for honeyed dreams

Have you lost your nerve?
Doubts bellow through your breast
As you yearn for a certainty than can never be
Do you dare down the hidden trail?
Questions pulse as anxious furies
Without answers, without knowing

Have you lost your voice?
Hoarse protests
And abandoned music
Filmy souvenirs from the hidden trail
But you listen, muted, to the myths in the photo
And welcome their harmonies, their challenges to you

But you don’t stop seeking answers along the hidden trail.
Despite the point and curve of the question mark
Finding that what is lost just waits to be found.
And what is fractured might yet be restored.


Dreams, Recent Physics Discoveries, and Freedom

We All Have Dreams. The beginning of each We all have dreams video produced by the Manitoba Opera begins with a quote by Anaïs Nin. I’ve been receiving links to these videos for the last few weeks and have been following them with great interest, as I am a self-professed dreamer. If you search for quotes by Anïas Nin, there are a number on the topic of dreams. That they are necessary, which is the one included in the Manitoba Opera videos. That they might lead you to to a new life, love, or country. Actually, you can become as lost in the words of Anïas Nin as you can in your dreams, an opera, a novel, or the Manitoba Opera’s videos. The dreams in the videos vary, if I recall, ranging from one young woman wanting to become a babysitter to another to become independent and work in an office to one to sing. I ask my friends what their dreams are and sometimes forget my own. One day recently I even searched on the Internet, “how to find a dream” which produced many results.

On my way along Portage Avenue this week, I stopped by the mall to play the Portage Place Piano, a public piano which almost continuously makes music. It is one of my favorite places in Winnipeg actually, listening to and playing the painted instrument. I realized as I played it, our dreams are too often end positions instead of states along the continuum. We dream of finishing that degree or getting that job position. Why not make a dream each day, work to fulfill it, and then make a new dream the next day? My dream for that day was simply to play a little music.

Have you ever had a mental block of any sort? I’ve been having some with music for longer than I’d like to admit. I understood how I fell into the well, I just didn’t know how to evade its depths. But when I remembered the elegance of some of the dreams in the videos, I realized how complicated we make everything. As I was telling my music teacher this week, there is a principle, often applied in physics, called Occam’s Razor which illustrates that the simplest solution is usually the correct one. As she said, a straight path is usually the best way to get somewhere. A sun-centered solar system makes more sense than Ptolemy’s epicycles needed to explain the planets’ orbits of an Earth-centered one.

The recent few years have precipitated the consummation of a number of dreams in physics including the discovery of the Higgs boson, a particle predicted by the theoretical model of particle physics called the Standard Model, and gravitational waves, the ripples of space-time predicted Einstein’s equations in General Relativity by Albert Einstein in 1915. I will always remember where I was when each of these revolutionary discoveries was announced. I awoke in the middle of the night on July 4, 2012 to hear the LHC CERN talks (and am sad I missed the second talk, but after the gold-standard detection was indicated on a graph, I returned to sleep, as it had been a difficult day prior). On February 11, 2016, I caught just part of Kip Thorne of LIGO’s press talk, and my eyes sculpted tears. Kip Thorne and gravitational waves have lived in my thoughts since I was a child watching The Astronomers. And stay alert, there are rumors of an imminent non-Standard Model LHC result. Will extra dimensions be discovered? It is one of my dreams to have verification of an elegant theory of everything (TOE) called string theory, a model necessitating ten dimensions instead of just the four which we all love and know.

We all have dreams. After watching the videos by the Manitoba Opera, I envisioned a dream of today. All I wanted was to play the piano. Unlike Rielle in Melinda Friesen’s Enslavement, I do possess the gift of time and a beautiful piano to play. How that book, again, expands my appreciation of freedom, and how precious each is, from being able to express ourselves to being able to make a number of choices regarding how to spend the time we have at our disposal, to being able to dream. And today I did play my piano. Following my New Year’s resolution, I did not prescribe a certain length of time to this practice. I just wanted to do some. However, once I changed inertial frames from not playing to playing, I found it hard to stop, and only did once muscular pain impeded me. Once you have made one step, the next is easier to take, so afterwards I sang some Handel. And, as I found in my voice lesson this week, singing releases muscular tension and is more effective at relieving pain than medication. A side effect of the singing is that a current of joy flowed through me. While my piano practice was analogous to meticulous problem solving, enjoyable in its own way, the singing literally released not only my voice but my mind from constraints. Singing is a conscious practice of letting go, more puissant in its efficacy than any meditation technique I’ve used. It is freeing. And, as I discovered this week as I walked about town and took buses, singing exercises in my head, breathing properly, being aware of my posture, shaping my mouth in various vowels, and relaxing my muscles, it is a way of life as well.

Do you have a mental block? Do you work on a project which might outlive you (as Einstein’s prediction of gravitational waves did)? Have you constructed a complex, circuitous road map for your life which is hard even for you to follow? My suggestion is to look at right now. What is a dream you can conceive that you can accomplish now. It might be the first rung on a ladder to a great scientific result. It might be the first measure of a piece of music. It might be to buy the ingredients to cook a good meal or to pick out a recipe. It might just be to sit down and play or to sing or to write. It might be to start to learn a skill that could potentially lead to a desired job. Just pick one dream for now which is doable today. And once you have finished that one, select another as a follow-up. And you might find that though you may or may not reach an end state that was on your original map, you will have launched off the starting point and be on a path.