Charity Girl by Michael Lowenthal.

I’m not that familiar with Boston’s history, aside from snippets of trivia I’ve squirreled away regarding the city’s role during the Revolutionary War. Michael Lowenthal’s novel Charity Girl is fascinating for its level of knowledge alone — everything else is just an extra treat, like unexpectedly getting sprinkles on an ice cream cone. Though in Boston, apparently, they’re called jimmies.

Charity Girl follows Frieda Mintz, a seventeen-year-old shopgirl at the now-obsolete Jordan Marsh, during a time when everything around her is in a state of utmost frenzy: the United States has been fighting in World War I for a year, Babe Ruth is leading the Red Sox to victory, and Frieda has just moved out of her mother’s oppressively traditional household. Living on less than ten dollars a week, Frieda makes three gumdrops take the place of a proper lunch and allows strangers at the local dance halls to buy her drinks.

Don’t be misled — Frieda is nothing but a good girl, one looking to find love and her place in the world. Like most of us, she makes a few wrong turns along the way and deals with the consequences as best she knows how. The admirable thing is that she never once loses hope. After being wooed and seduced by a young soldier, Frieda still holds on to the idea of love… even when he sends a letter flippantly informing her that he’s learned he has syphilis — a topic briefly addressed, with more references to his song-writing skills, war and the Sox.

Frieda then gets swept into a little bit of American history that I never even knew took place: the incarceration of wanton women. Approximately 15,000 women were held against their will for the charge of spreading sexually transmitted diseases to the American armed forces. Some of these women were prostitutes, some of them were unfortunate cases, and even more were, like Frieda, charity girls — girls who spent time with men out of either pity or fun.

Lowenthal’s writing is fascinating, and would be even if his topic were something as mundane as growing potatoes. By combining words, by choosing the right words, in the most readable and elegant way, he lets Frieda be so utterly real — hopeful, tragic and lovely — that even when her situation seems almost unbearably lost, the reader can’t help but share her optimism.

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My Reading List, and Some Reasons Why.

Here’s a photo of the books I’ve currently got waiting in the wings, in no particular order. They are all for pleasure, except for The Poet and the Murderer, which is for book club. That’s not say, of course, that the books my friends and I pick to read together aren’t pleasurable — the difference is that I chose the six others for myself, and for no reason other than just plain wanting to read them.

  1. The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
  2. The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry
  3. Messenger by Lois Lowry
  4. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
  5. Mrs. Kimble by Jennifer Haigh
  6. The Poet and the Murderer by Simon Worrall
  7. Charity Girl by Michael Lowenthal

Excluding The Omnivore’s Dilemma and, again, The Poet and the Murderer, I purchased these books this past weekend at the Muse and the Marketplace. I attended a lectures by both Jennifer Haigh and Lois Lowry (big surprise, that), chatted with Michael Lowenthal at lunch on Saturday and attended the keynote brunch the following day with Jonathan Franzen. There were several books to be purchased at conference, but I went with these not only because these were the writers who impressed me the most, but also because I had a very limited amount of room in my bag.

  • Do I really need to say anything more about my great affection for Lois Lowry?
  • Jonathan Franzen read excerpts from his most recent book, The Discomfort Zone, and answered many questions on what I can’t help but think of as The Oprah Incident. He also discussed the German language, his unsuccessful pursuit of girls and the contemporary North American writers whose work he enjoys reading. I should also mention that Mr. Franzen’s voice is absolutely lovely to listen to. Immediately afterwards, I went to a seminar with John Sedgwick, who wondered how a voice like that could be attained. Nicotine, he concluded.
  • Jennifer Haigh’s workshop on how to get a novel started was undoubtedly one of the most helpful, and not to mention exciting. In clear, concise words, Ms. Haigh spoke about some of her writing tricks; I know that I’m going to use them myself from here on in, with the hopes of being even a quarter as successful.
  • Michael Lowenthal was a funny and friendly lunch companion — though our eating together was pure happenstance. I nervously sat down at a table, and found myself with published, acclaimed writers and a charming, witty agent. I’ve never felt like such a fraud before in my life. Mr. Lowenthal was easy to talk to, and had so many fascinating things to say about his recent time at the Instituto Sacatar, an artists’ colony in Brazil.