‘I can remember/ Standing by the wall/ And the guns shot above our heads/ And we kissed as though nothing could fall…’


My Notorious Life: A Novel

Kate Manning

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Jan 18, 2017
Category: Fiction

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Mane ‘n Tail
The SlideBelt
The Burn Pits: The Poisoning of America’s Soldiers

Why this book? On this weekend? It chose itself.

“My Notorious Life: A Novel” is everything I say I don’t want. 434 pages. Set in the 19th century. Told in the first person, in 19th century speech. Based, in part, on the life of Ann Trow Lohman (1811-79) also known as Madame Restell, who practiced midwifery in New York for almost forty years.

In sum: a book not likely to hook me, a reader who likes short books about people I might know or want to.

But I started to read:

It was me who found her. April 1, 1880. The date is engraved on my story same as it is on the headstone, so cold and solid there under the pines. What happened that morning hurts me to this day, enrages me still, though many years have passed.

The time was just before dawn. She was there in the tub. It had claw feet, gold faucets. Marble was everywhere in that room, so magnificent. A French carpet. A pair of velvet settees, a dressing table, candelabra, powders and pomades, all deluxe. I knew something was wrong right away. When I knocked I knew. There was not no noise of bathing, just that slow drip. That plink of water landing on water, so dreadful. I went in and there she was. A scarf of red across her shoulders, down her chest. The water was red and cold with all her life leaked out. A bloodbath. My hands were trembling. Terrible sounds strangled in my throat, quiet so as not to wake the house. My little daughter and my husband were fast asleep. The maid was not yet up.

Well done. But… sigh… 19th century prose. But wait: there’s a story, and what a tale it is. Axie Muldoon — her real name is Annie, but her mother calls her Axie “because I was forever axing so many questions” — is the child of a poor, one-armed woman, trapped in New York’s filthy, airless slums. Her mother dies in childbirth, her brute of a stepfather couldn’t care less about her, and Annie and her siblings are shipped off to foster families in the Midwest. Years later, 14-year-old Axie returns to New York, where she’s apprenticed to a midwife and taught the art of birthing. But although Mrs. Evans is said to be able to “fix a girl up,” Axie doesn’t see her do any abortions.

To my surprise, I was on page 110.

Axie has a suitor, Charles Jones. He’s as poor as she is, and ambitious, mostly, it seems, to have his way with her. “One evening, when the night was thick with the smell of warmed garbage and the heat was trapped down amongst the buildings” — there’s a romantic setting for you — he shows up, bearing wine, “a hard swooning taste new to my tongue.” He’s about to be drafted. He begs. And she succumbs.

A sex scene from 1860? Yes. And I succumbed too.

Women come, all pregnant, all in trouble. At first Axie is disgusted by the work, but she never gets tired “of the drama and the miracle.” When Mrs. Evans dies, Axie takes over. Charlie becomes her husband and partner. She is unsure of love, but she trusts money — it “did not go off elsewhere in the night drinking hops and gin and coming home to fondle a woman and call her names only to pass out.” Tart, she is. Cheeky. And a compelling storyteller. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

Define “compelling?” Try this: Dickensian. That is, a novel stuffed with vivid characters, lively speech, no dross, a plot that’s not ashamed of melodrama, and, not least, a great injustice.

My wife likes to say that the world’s biggest drug problem is testosterone, and that is never truer than when the subject is women and their reproductive freedom. In the late 19th century, men imposed codes that made sure this freedom didn’t exist, so Axie Muldoon works in the shadows, using euphemism as her first language.

Then a villain appears, taken from real life: Anthony Comstock (1844-1915). In the Army, “he refused to drink his ration of whiskey and delighted in pouring it on the ground in front of his comrades in arms.” Later, he turned his attention to “vice.” Axie finds him a “hideous” man. And knows that “we two, me and Comstock, was barreling toward each other, each one on a mission.”

You can, if you like, read “A Notorious Life” as commentary on America’s never-ending battle over women’s rights. Certainly, Comstock lives on, and not just on Sunday morning political shows and the sidewalks in front of family planning centers. And it will ever be thus, for some American men want to control women’s lives even more than they want to put a gun in the hand of every citizen.

I didn’t read the book as metaphor — not because I’m a man, but because “My Notorious Life” really is a Dickensian reading experience. It violates all my little rules for novels. But Axie Muldoon is a heroine and a half, and I cheered her on every page.

Short Takes

The story you won’t see in the film: “Ray & Joan: The Man Who Made the McDonald’s Fortune and the Woman Who Gave It All Away”

In the new movie “The Founder,” Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) comes off as first cousin to a certain hard-charging, win-at-all-costs businessman who’s found a second career.

There’s much more to the Kroc story than that, and Lisa Napoli unearths it in “Ray & Joan: The Man Who Made the McDonald’s Fortune and the Woman Who Gave It All Away.” It turns out that when Ray met Joan, they were both married. That he was an alcoholic, prejudiced against pretty much everybody, and on the far side of the “obsessed” spectrum. And then he died, and something great happened — his wife started giving money away, often anonymously, to causes that Ray despised. The Salvation Army. NPR. Hospices. AIDS research. Alcoholism treatment. No wonder McDonalds expressed “absolutely zero willingness” in helping Napoli with his book — it’s got considerably more protein than a Big Mac. I gobbled the pages. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

“Climbing Back: A Family’s Journey through Brain Injury”

I haven’t seen most of my college friends in 47 years. When I think of them, I see them as they were — as we were — in 1968. Elise Rosenhaupt and her boyfriend Tom: off they go, bright and shining, headed for New Mexico. So when Elise sent me her book, “Climbing Back: A Family’s Journey through Brain Injury,” the title was like a blow to my brain. It begins like this: “The last time I saw our son before his injury, my husband and I were walking toward Harvard Square.” And you sink with her: getting the news that Martin, a Harvard sophomore, had been struck by a car that launched him 100 feet in the air. He’d landed on his head. He was in Neurological Intensive Care at Massachusetts General Hospital.

There are many books that chronicle disaster and recovery. This one’s not like them. There are doctors and nurses, of course, and friends in the waiting room, and Harvard faculty showing up unexpectedly, but Elise Rosenhaupt has worked as a poetry editor, and she knows when to weave in the story of her marriage, her family, her parents and their brain disorders. The prose is taut: “There is nothing in my world but wanting Martin to live.” And you think, this is how recovery is done when it’s done right, when you marvel at the frailty of our bodies and the resilience of our spirits. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here. For the audio book, click here.]

I’m no seer. But Joan Pancoe just might be.

When two friends whose opinions you respect praise a movie, book or service, it’s actionable. That’s how I found myself in Joan Pancoe’s apartment for a Soul Reading. Joan has been a karmic astrologer, psychic therapist and spiritual teacher since 1976, and has written several books. (The most recent is “Cosmic Sugar, The Amorous Adventures of a Modern Mystic,” published with a pen name for good reason; it’s explicit in the extreme. I mean, it made me blush. To buy the Kindle edition, click here.) Joan’s seen everyone from believers in past lives to skeptics. I’m somewhere in the middle. So I only felt moderately silly showing up at her Lower East Side lair with my list of Big Questions and Important Names. Then Joan went into trance and rolled out the kind of Spiritual Truths that are generally applicable… and Specific Insights that make you wonder if she’d hacked your email. Was I glad I saw her? Yes. Will you? I’m no seer. More information here.

How Does That Make You Feel? True Confessions from Both Sides of the Therapy Couch

Sherry Amatenstein is a New York City-based licensed clinical social worker. She’s written 3 three books on relationships. Now she’s edited “How Does That Make You Feel? True Confessions from Both Sides of the Therapy Couch,” with essays by 13 therapists and 21 patients. “I wanted to humanize shrinks to the shrunks,” she says. “I wanted patients to see that therapists are neurotic as hell, too.”

Her contributors — they include a noted screenwriter and a writer for “Seinfeld” — are just as honest. “Has my drive been solely about proving to my narcissistic [Jewish] mother that I am indeed worth her sagging labia?” one writes. A woman whose parents sent her to a pedophile therapist, writes about her mother: “She never met a boundary she couldn’t or wouldn’t cross.”

Most of these essays are more heartfelt than shocking; they not only provide a valuable window into therapy, they give us an appreciation for the process. This includes Amatenstein’s reason for becoming a therapist: “My father was at Auschwitz and had to watch his parents and little sister walk away, knowing they were going to the ovens. My mother was sent to a work camp. I never knew my grandparents.” So she grew up hearing other people’s pain and wanted to ease their suffering. This book helps. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]