In good hands with Jennifer Egan

Thu, 06/06/2019 - 10:15pm

One of the greatest things about reading a good book is that we are able to learn something as we flip through the pages.

A fringe benefit of reading is that we don’t need to travel, because good writing is like traveling. Whether we are reading fiction or non-fiction—if we get the sense that we are in good and capable hands—we can track through the narrative and have a solid and visceral learning experience. This is the essence of reading. If we have an inquisitive nature, then reading a good book will teach us new things and usually lead us to ask follow-up questions. Moreover, this is where the learning happens. It’s such a simple activity.

As a school teacher for thirty-two years, I was a strong proponent and a very verbal advocate of literacy; I wanted to have my students reading good books. In a Freshman AP English class, our department had our students read the following authors for a solid literary foundation: Shakespeare, Homer, Twain, and some intense short story analysis of Poe, Guy de Maupassant, James McPhee, et, al. It was rigorous stuff for the class, but the students jumped right on board the learning train. This type of literature set the students up for a lifetime of reading—good books lead to more good books. All of the aforementioned writers were very capable with the type of writing they did.

While sitting in the Savoy Bookstore in Westerly one afternoon, I was looking for an author to take me for a journey to a new place and to meet new situations, conflicts and people. I’d been scanning the stacks and grabbing books to sample a few sentences—nothing clicked. If a book doesn’t grab me after ten pages I’m done, and will move to another title. After perusing the New York Times Review of Books, I still kept coming up empty.

As I was about to leave the bookstore, I saw there were two women chatting about the book they were each holding. “Pardon me, ladies,” I said, “Does the book you’re holding look like a good one?” Both of these pretty strangers praised the author, and told me—with authority — that I wouldn’t be disappointed. This was all I needed to know. “Thanks, ladies,” I said while grabbing a copy of “Manhattan Beach,” by Jennifer Egan, right off the shelf and heading straight for the cash register. I cracked the book when I got home and tore through the first one hundred pages. The ladies at the bookstore were right — Egan’s book did not disappoint.

The setting of “Manhattan Beach” takes place in various locations but primarily in Brooklyn, New York. Egan’s protagonist is woman who has a shady dad who is connected to a shady character. Moreover, she has a complex family life regarding her mother and sister. Her journey in the noir-ish story is set in post-war New York, where we find her working in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where she—against the odds—becomes a hard hat diver, doing difficult jobs on warships.

Anna Kerrigan had to compete for the male-dominated job of hard-hat diver. In Egan’s description of the trials Anna went through, she wrote with such convincing power of what it was like to be wearing hard-hat diving gear—the Dress. I felt so claustrophobic that I had to put the book down because it unnerved me. Then, I had a professional diver I know read the book and pay close attention to the diving elements in the narrative. I wanted his take on Egan’s details and description. He said, “When Anna tries on the Dress, the textures, the weight, the smells, the sounds, the view, the mechanics of the stuff. She nailed it.”

Dave Robinson, the diver who wrote this, is the nephew of hard-hat diver Tom Eadie. Eadie was a US Navy Chief Gunner’s Mate/Hardhat diver who did salvage work on submarines. He was awarded the Navy Cross, and the Medal of Honor for rescuing a fellow diver. (Google, “I like Diving,” by Tom Eadie.) After reading this note, I knew I was in good hands with Jennifer Egan. Moreover, my daughter got me “Manhattan Beach,” for Christmas; Emily has never given me a sub-par book. She knows her dad is a tough room in regards to reading; the kid just knows what her dad likes. (I flipped Emily’s gift to a friend.)

As we move along in our years, we must short-list some books, and simply dismiss others. Egan’s book grabbed me right from the rip, and got me asking several questions about the storied history of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and the importance of our naval strength. Egan informs an imagined place below the Brooklyn Bridge, and wrote a female character with the stones to work and survive in this difficult time and place of Post War America. Take the journey with Anna Kerrigan this summer, and be assured that you’ll be in good hands.