Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A "Farewell" that's really a hello to Dorothy Parker


A “Farewell” that’s really a hello to Dorothy Parker

I’m a fan of Dorothy Parker’s story, Big Blonde, though she may be better remembered for her clever quotes, “I’ve never been a millionaire but I just know I’d be darling at it.” Though her heyday was 1920’s, Parker’s wit is still fresh and inspiring. So I cheer Ellen’s Meister’s novel, which brings her ghost to the rescue of a modern literary woman.

Farewell, Dorothy Parker by Ellen Meister (Putnam & Sons, February 2013) is a thinking woman’s fantasy. Violet Epps, fearless movie critic for a national magazine, is a hopeless wimp in her personal life, crippled with anxiety not entirely of the neurotic variety.

Recently, Violet lost her sister in a car accident, as well as custody of her beloved niece. To add to the turmoil, her loser boyfriend is set to move into her house and her snarky assistant wants her job. Feeling she needs inspiration, Violet, who thinks of Parker as a kind of literary alter ego, makes a reservation for The Algonquin Hotel’s dining room.

She is hoping to find courage to finally break up at the site of the old literary round table, where wits Sherwood Anderson, Alexander Wolcott and the outrageous Dorothy Parker did battle. When the manager asks her to sign his guest book of celebrity writers,Violet  is very honored. But afterward she begins to feel very odd. The world looks sharper, there's a voice coaching her, she doesn't sound like herself when she talks--the loser boyfriend is quickly dispatched! 

When Violet comes to in her house, she still has the Guest Book and a guest, one Dorothy Parker. One pushy ghost, she makes herself at home with the liquor and Violet’s tortured psyche, and in the Mary Poppins tradition of otherworldly do-gooders, proceeds to give Violet the” medicine” she needs to gain control of her life. Unlike that character, Meister wisely gives Parker her real life “baggage.” And in the course of this fun plot, there’s enough back and forth between Violet and Dorothy to believe they are real friends, who don’t always have each other’s benefit in mind. Especially when you are talking about spirit possession without consent!

Suffice it to say, Violet will stop “shrinking.” Her fierce energy and wit released in her reviews, will start to manifest in her life. Channeling Dorothy means Violet finds the courage to live her convictions. Then there is Dorothy’s unwillingness to move to the light, and perhaps get on with her next life?    

As Dorothy Parker has said, “Brevity is the soul of lingerie,” so I suggest you read this book and laugh. But it’s not for Parker fans only. There's a modern romance here and a knowing look at what challenges women face in their working life. Those that remember Topper or The Ghost & Mrs. Muir will also like this novel. And perhaps it will actually lead some readers to Big Blonde.

SW

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Stockholm Octavo is completely entertaining and totally unexpected


The Stockholm Octavo is completely entertaining and totally unexpected

Karen Engelman’s The Stockholm Octavo (Nov 2012, Ecco/Harper Collins) is completely entertaining and totally unexpected. Not only is it set in 1791 in Stockholm but the plot hinges on Cartomancy, a form of divination using cards. This is not Tarot. The Octavo is a construct with its own images and meanings, involving Masonic metaphysics. It is crucial to the fate of our hero, the Seeker Emil Lasson.

When Emil first goes to the gaming salon of Mrs. Sophia Sparrow, there are rumbles of the revolution in France and the revolt of aristocratic “patriots” against Sweden’s populist king, but the people in her comfortable rooms are more interested in gambling. There are also those seeking Mrs. Sparrow’s gifts as a seer. And when the vision comes to her, she must communicate it. 

That first night, she sees in Emil’s hand a good future in cards. And his dexterity at the gaming table is such that he becomes her partner and eventually earns enough to buy his red cloak, the position as Sekretaire in the customs house. This both elevates his social status and gives him financial security. He’s a happy man about town, until his Superior demands that he marry or lose his position.

Frantic to find a bride, Emil woos the wine merchant’s daughter, Carlotta. He's wildly attracted to her of the " honey colored hair," whose skin is like a “warm peach.”  But he has no idea  if she will accept him. When Mrs. Sparrow has a golden vision of “Love and connection” and offers to do The Octavo for him, Emil is eager for the chance.

She lays a card a visit over a period of weeks, until all eight are revealed. Each represents a pivotal guide that will lead him toward his goal. The companion, the prisoner, the teacher, the courier, the trickster, the magpie, the prize, are revealed one by one. Emil’s task is to tease out their meaning and identify their role in his life. At stake is his future and, as is revealed, that of Sweden. 

Emil analyzes the rich and powerful Uzanne, manipulative widow of a “patriot,” the master fan maker Christian, his lovely French wife, Margot, and their fop salesman. There is the beautiful short tempered daughter of Opera workers, a cross-dressing calligrapher, and the Uzanne’s mysterious protégé, the apothecaire Joanna Bloom. In this multi-viewpoint novel, you also experience Joanna's seduction by the beauty and luxury, the rich fabrics, colors and tastes of the Uzanne's world. 

Fans, symbolic and seductive, lethal and enchanted, are also reveletory in the Octavo. When Mrs. Sparrow and The Uzanne square off at the gaming table, the prize is the Uzanne's irreplaceable fan. The two women are profound opponents. Both are accomplished at the tables and connoisseurs of fans. The difference is Uzanne uses hers as a weapon of conquest and the Sparrow understands it as a magical object. She wants to protect her king, while the Uzanne seeks triumph at any cost.

That she loses her fan at the table is a significant blow. Yet the Uzanne’s plotting is relentless and it involves her control of Joanna Bloom. Formerly Johanna Grey, she, like Emil, fled a farm for a new identity in the town. With her brilliant mind and fierce spirit is she Emil’s destiny or is it the exiled Carlotta? And what effect can Emil have on outcomes, when the aristocrats call the shots?

Emil discovers the formidable Uzanne is his Companion in the Octavo, the one he follows. She is also his enemy. The lines of good and evil blur, when he realizes Joanna's role in the Uzanne's manipulations and later doubts Mrs. Sparrow. Is she a seer or charlatan and is her Octavo only a game?  When Christian supplies the Masonic link, the mathematical mystery that connects all the persons and events, his doubts lessen. And he quickly becomes caught up in unfolding events.

Joanna is a real prisoner he must rescue at a Masked Ball the Uzanne throws, while he and Mrs. Sparrow work desperately against the forces that threaten Stockholm. Do they triumph in the end? And does Emil find “golden love and connection”? 

In this delightfully earth bound occult novel, the main performer  is Stockholm, where character and social classes are fluid, the swipe of a fan, the inflection of a voice, the cut of a jacket signify layers of meaning. Success, love, joy are Emil’s if he defines his eight. You need to read this delightful book. The meaning of the cards and his life are an enigma, I wouldn’t dare give away.

SW

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Middlesteins by Jamie Attenberg is a Greek Tragedy in Bar Mitzvah clothes

The Middlesteins is a Greek Tragedy in Bar Mitzvah clothes.

This is a funny novel in a sad grotesque kind of way. It's also painfully familiar in the way of family dramas. But this is a barbed comedy, where characters are not just edgy depictions but  instruments of destiny that are very connected to earthly tortures.

It begins with our heroine, Edie, as a little girl. Her mother and father, immigrants from the war-torn old world, are delighted that she can eat what she wants and as much of it as she likes. Isn't that the idea of the land of the free and plentiful? So when little Edie suffers pain, she's of course given food as solace. She grows up equating food with love, the pleasure that never lets you down, until of course, she can't eat.

And that is the crux of this book, Edie's food obsession. Only time she stopped eating was when her father was dying and she was in law school. A svelte 164, she agrees to meet Richard on a blind date, though she's so distraught she can't go to dinner. He's so smitten with her epic personality, copious brains and curvy figure, he suggests they spend the date in the hospital. She appreciates his easy conversation with her difficult father, as well as his copious head of beautiful hair.

Thirty years later, Edie is eating herself into her grave. She's in the hospital with diabetes, pushing 300, and still can't resist fast-food or slow, boxes of cookies, tubs of ice cream-- all give her pleasure in the night; her most reliable demon lover. Richard can't stand to watch. "For his own survival" he bales and the family takes sides. Robin, his tauntly strung  schoolteacher daughter, can't forgive his desertion of Edie in crisis. Benny, his easy-going son, is not as judgmental as his his wife, who exiles Richard from the family.

 No longer can Richard visit his grandchildren, twins Emily and Jonathan, taking dance lessons for their joint b'nai mitzvah celebration. The chapters that follow are told by Benny and Robin, who have different "takes" and temperaments. The Middlesteins  (Hachette Book Group) hopscotches from Richard's and Edie's viewpoints, to their children and granddaughter, Emily to give context to Edie's tragedy.

Does the matriarch have to die?  Can anyone save Edie and should they try?  The daughter-in-law, an obsessive perfectionist, tries vigilance of Edie's fast-food trysts, enforced exercise with her lovely plumpish grand-daughter, her own meals of sauteed Kale. Edie's thin exercise obsessed daughter Robin tries logic and love, trying to think how to save her mother, until she finds her mother's secret hideaway in a strip mall.

There in a Chinese restaurant, her mother has a second chance at love.  The Chef adores the large woman who saved his broken finances and broken heart. Richard, meanwhile, finds the red-haired age appropriate beauty of the Aussie not quite wilderness. When the two marital warriors square off amid the chocolate fountains of the twins' extravaganza, it's not a pretty picture. But it's narrated with some trepidation and wit, by a chorus of their peers at the "waltz" table of the dance-themed event.

Edie is not pitiable, though she's completely unable to live without food, the only consistent comfort of her life. She's obsessed and ecstatic about food. And obsession is built into everyone in this novel, from Richard, a pharmacist, who believes hard work gives success, though he has no evidence but the delusional, Benny's belief in his marriage and the family, though without his pot, he's so stressed with his mother and the twins,  he loses his hair. His wife is a nightmare of perfectionist obsessions, from her tedious vegetarian health meals  to her overly detailed sense of  presentation. Even her daughter Emily, close to her grandmother, has the  family inheritance of dark-eyed wild emotional intensity,

If Edie's lyrical paens bring about her inevitable demise, you don't close this book without pitying her less than the rest of her family. Their obsessions are far less pleasurable!  There's a certain voluptuousness to Jamie Attenberg's description of food that feels more sexy than the sex in this book. Edie's "Fatal Attraction" is at once irresistable, over the top disgusting, and as painfully human as our own. What's grotesque is that like her, it's "larger than life."

And in the end, this is a book about real life's expectations, disappointments, and small satisfactions..  It's a fun fast read, a little embarrassing since it revels in all the graphic fleshly mess we humans try to airbrush out of existence. I read with horror, fascination, and an identification I could not deny.  Read, enjoy and be warned.

S.W.


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Saturday, December 1, 2012

Anna Karenina is astonishing! No better novel about love and the mysticism of nature


How can I say this? Probably because I never read it before. Tolstoy wasn't on my high school reading list. And I studied art in college. I've spent years reading for truth, when this book existed; luminous, transcendent, full of dirt and tragedy--like life itself. Tolstoy doesn't open with Anna, but her brother Stepan and it's brilliant he does so, because Stepan, Anna's brother has some similar proclivities. Stepan is a pleasure-loving family man, a sensualist easily moved by passing sentiments, and a philanderer. He's presented as attractive, a fun aristocrat with the usual indulgences of his class. In society he's liked for his easy-going personality and Stepan understands how to network and use connections. You almost agree with him that he's right to have a mistress or two, because pretty women are attracted to him and his wife has lost her looks, disposition, and has little of interest to say to a man of his cultured intelligence.

You may sympathize, until you meet Darya, his poor wife. The mother of six children, impoverished by her husband's lifestyle, burnt out from managing their household. She has little leisure to think of her looks and no desire to think about her husband's formal indifference. When she finds a letter from his mistress, her kids' governess,she has to pay attention, the pain is too acute. With little idea how to manage, she decides to leave her husband. Darya can't live with the incredible deceit. Yet Stepan wakes up on the couch, unsure how he got there and then, remembering, his concern is for his discomfort. The household in an uproar and he needs to restore his peace of mind.

The solution presents itself with the impending visit of his sister, Anna. When he informs her of his domestic trouble, she accepts the mission to broker a reconciliation. Though it's hard for her to part from her beloved son, Seroyzha, she wants to help Darya. While Stepan awaits her train, he meets his friend Veronsky, a handsome calvary officer. From Vronsky's first glance at Anna, he's smitten. Her dark curls framing an "exquisite" face with dark eyes and eyelashes, her graceful figure and movement, her small white hands, all dazzle Vronsky. A rake, habituated to barracks life, master of horses and pretty women, Vronsky loses his cool and becomes like an eager dog.

Kitty, Darya's 18 year old sister, thinks of Vronsky as her fiancee. She is under the intoxication of first love and assumes he would not monopolize her attentions the whole social season if marriage wasn't his object. Tolstoy, without judging, shows how Vronsky, who has never known family life, has no thought of marriage. On the night Kitty believes he will make her an offer, he's completely entranced by Anna. Though innocent Kitty is devastated, she accurately says there is something "uncanny" about Anna. Her dashed hopes lead her to collapse, when she realizes that previously she refused Levin's offer of marriage, a man who loves her. A friend of her deceased brother, Levin is a country gentleman, who farms his ancestral estate.

Vronsky pursues Anna with the all-consuming passion he puts into riding a race horse. He is fixed on her seduction with little thought of her situation--that she's married to a prominent politician and is devoted to her son. But Anna, a young woman married to a man 20 yrs her senior, is awakened erotically. Their relations make intolerable her perfunctory marriage. Alexy, her husband, is a cerebral man so fearful of emotion, the sight of tears makes him feel disturbed. His affected speech and patronizing manners become intolerable to Anna, though her disgust wars with her sense of shame.

With a sensuality like her brother's, yet Anna is not so superficial. She can't be a hypocrite about her feelings and is soon unable to preserve the outer forms of her marriage. Her basic honesty about who she is and wants, makes her an outcast, a "bad" woman. Leaving husband and son, she gains Vronsky but loses her world--even the right to see her son. She is tortured that she cannot live with the two people she loves, lover and son. When she opts to live with her lover, she cares little for her arrogant husband's humiliation. But when she almost dies in the birth of Vronsky's daughter, she is tortured with her treatment of him and wants forgiveness. Alexy experiences a state of grace. He can forgive her, accepts the baby, and they are briefly reconciled. But through the meddling of a hypocritical society woman, Anna does see Vronsky before he's to leave for a career promotion.

Rather than goodbye, the lovers reconcile. They flee to Europe, but Vronsky must give up his career, and Anna all hope of a legitimate place in society. Though they enjoy all the luxury and freedom of expats, the couple is soon dissatisfied with a life without meaning or focus. Love is not enough.

Meanwhile Tolstoy contrasts this story with Levin's life, working the land, respecting the peasant's knowledge of nature, and his own sweat at managing his land and wresting a living. A man of natural science, Levin also writes an agricultural study of the worker's relation to the land. His work is full of original ideas not quite ordered, just as Levin's personality is of great and changing feeling. Moods of happiness alternate with tempests of darker emotion, until he finally is able to marry his beloved Kitty. Then his life of solitary contemplation becomes a full and happy house. Kitty's family, Darya, her children, are all his responsibility to take care of. This weighs on him, when he experiences not joy but pity at the sight of his newborn son. Levin ponders the meaning of his routine life. A nonbeliever, he pursues theologies, philosophy, and finds no answers. Though he's a happy family man, he feels a bit desperate and even suicidal.

One day, he lies on the ground looking up to observe the globe of the sky. He has an unexpected "peak moment," an accountable joy and sense of the meaning in all around him. The moment passes, then, after a cloudburst, when he thought his family was dead but finds them intact, he understand his previous experience. It is a positive intimation of immortality, an intuitive sense of underlying reality. He thinks of this as a cosmic "good" he can evoke at any time. It changes his life and is the end of the book.

Levin's revelation is the opposite pole to Anna's fate. Outside of society, without a purpose beyond her love, and to serve as the loveobject of Veronsky. When he comes into his estate, he makes it as materially perfect as possible.
Anna's life is rich but artificial, haunted by the loss of her son and society. She and Vronsky long for the deliverance of a divorce. When she learns her husband won't grant one, Anna loses hope. She becomes obsessed with fear that she will lose all she has left--Veronsky's love. Since they can't marry, she decides he will leave her and she will have nothing, not even herself. With opium, she becomes further detached from reality. Death become her only way out of a life of fear and despair. When Anna lies down in front of a train, her last thought is of a nightmare vision of an evil peasant pressing on her.

Anna's "larger than life" love could not substitute for a world, where all doors had shut against her. In Tolstoy's vision, what dooms her is her lack of connection to nature--her affection for her son--and being solitary with the emotionally contained Vronsky. Beauty, glamour, sensitivity and intelligence could not save her. Her honesty means awareness of shame at her notoriety. She's tortured, divided from her own idea of herself. At that time, she briefly meets Levin. He is enthralled by what an amazing woman she is, her intelligence, and beauty. Though she knows she could make him fall in love with her, it's no satisfaction. Anna is wretched and goes mad in her life with Veronsky. Meanwhile, Levin and Kitty are nurtured by each other, and their closeness to the land. At the end, Veronsky with a toothache in his formerly perfect teeth, is going off to a war to die--his spirit destroyed by Anna's suicide.

Though Tolstoy was a Christian, he obviously had mystical beliefs about nature and man. To my mind there's also a kind of social Darwinism at work in this novel. In Levin's shining self-redemption is echoes of Dreiser's far less aware creature of nature, Sister Carrie, or even Scarlett O'Hara with that ball of dirt in her hand.

SW

Monday, November 12, 2012

This novel steals you, SUTTON by J.R. Moehringer


This novel steals you, SUTTON by J.R. Moehringer (Hyperion)

I was grabbed by  SUTTON, a novel about the famous bank robber from the Great Depression. Sutton is aspiring and resigned, flinty and sensitive, brilliant and a fool. He got under my skin with his soft noirish voice and the pathos of his thwarted life. I heard Moehringer talk about researching this novel and the odd coincidence that his mother, once a bank secretary, witnessed one of Sutton's robberies. It's the kind of coincidence Sutton details, and these telling details have more weight than bare facts in the elusive life of SUTTON .

It's a fact that "Willie the Actor" was released from Attica prison on Christmas Eve 1969, after serving 17 years. (The irony that Gov.Rockefeller, a former banker, signed the order was probably not lost on Sutton). His lawyer made a deal with a newspaper for an exclusive, so he spent his first night secluded with a reporter and photographer.  SUTTON, the fictional biography, imagines what might have occurred that evening. 

The young reporter and grizzled hippie photographer just want to drive him to the site of Arnold Schuster's murder. The man who finally identified Willie and was gunned down by persons unknown, is the story their editors want. But Willie agrees only if they take that event in  chronological order. They must visit all the addresses important to him or none of them. First stop is Brooklyn's "Irish Town," New York's "Vinegar Hill," a depressed place with lots of poor hopeless people. That's Willie's take, as he stares at the tenement where he grew up, the youngest son of a blacksmith and his grief-stricken religious wife. He looks inert, while he relives his miserable childhood. For years he was beaten by his sadistic older brothers but he never told his parents. The code of the streets was you don't "rat" and he preferred to be brutalized to being a coward. 

Another stop is the house his parents lived, after his father's business disappeared with the horse and buggy. Finally, Willie's free of his brothers, but his prospects have greatly lessened. The gifted student his mother hoped would become a priest, graduates in the top of his middle school class but his schooling is over. He has to get a job. He will always mourn the loss of education. The reporter and photographer witness his extreme emotion but when they ask him about his childhood, he only says he was "an active little monkey." Though his answers to them are elusive, the reader gets Willie's thoughts in Italic. The photographer gets closer than the reporter with his research files. When he tells Willie cameras tell the truth, Willie answers cameras always lie. Both are correct. While the shots of the sick old man in reverie are true, the meaning is more than the image.  

Willie hides that he's very ill and this may be his last night on earth. Visiting the sites of his life, he’s saying goodbye. And he’s got a folded paper with a crucial address.  But he’s not there yet. The car goes to Warranty Trust Bank, where Willie got a job through his boyhood friend, Happy. Willie proves a courteous punctual employee, admired for his work ethic. Management says he’ll have a future, just a few months before the bank has to lay him off. Sadly, he folds up his banking clothes and goes back to circling the want ads, discouraged that most jobs want more education than he’s got. Briefly he works on a construction site, before the Depression again catches up. He loses himself in the reading room of the public library. And, though often hungry, Willie doesn’t resort to crime. In his story, that happens after he falls for the most beautiful girl in the world.

It is love at first sight, though Bess first spotted handsome Happy with his ukulele. They meet again by chance on the Coney Island boardwalk. He’s so smitten, he can barely talk.  After her father disapproves of Willie, they resolve to elope. She begs him to rob her father’s safe. Willie enjoys his brief love on the run, but tragically they are apprehended before they can marry. When they get off with suspended sentences and she's whisked off to Europe, Willie's distraught. He wants to get enough money to keep her. So when  Happy suggests he meet the Professor, an expert safecracker, he agrees. The stop at the professor’s upper West Side apartment evokes nostalgic memories. Here was Willie's first encounter with art and culture, a museum of safes, beautiful artifacts, and the socialite fence who bought the “ice.”

When Willie goes out on his own, he specializes in banks.  Working with Happy, he makes enough money to get a big apartment and fine clothes. He hide jars of money in parks and thinks he may have enough, when he learns of Bess' wedding.  Visiting the church, he feels the shock of her going toward another man. Then, when Happy's shot, without love or true friendship, Willie’s fortunes decline. He’s betrayed by confederates he knows better than to trust. And inevitably, when he doesn't follow his intuition, he's nabbed by police.
There's a ritual of him being beaten by cops and, true to the never "rat" code, giving out no information. 

There's also the pattern to his adjustment to prison. He had some easy time, as a secretary to a psychologist, who gave him insight into his own motivations, or a gardener for a painter. Always, he was immersed in books. Philosophy, religion, economics, history, plays, books on acting--from Aristotle to Bishop Sheen, Willie enjoys the education, yet whether he's suffering or tending roses, he's unable to refuse the whispered challenge of escape.    

From Eastern State Penitentiary to Holmsburg to Attica, he meticulously plans routes, timing, types of locks to be manipulated and even the course for a tunnel..Always he's haunted by his lost love. One time, he says Bess drove a getaway car, before returning to her husband. (Though research showed it may have been the mother of his daughter, who's unmentioned by Willie). Another time he learns Bess has been abused by her husband and is pregnant, hiding on Coney Island.. He tracks her down and offers her comfort and escape. But she's gone when he returns. 

His most successful hiding place was on an island that housed impoverished elderly women, where he worked as a janitor and was remembered as gallant and kind. He even left money for proper funerals. Each time he’s retaken, he suffers incredible beatings and extended solitary confinements. Though he might come to the edge of sanity, he endures and never "rats." For this he receives the grudging admiration of  cops, jailors and gangsters like "Dutch," who value the old code.  

During his last freedom spree, Willie falls in love and finally creates a kind of life, when Arnold Schuster happens to enter the same subway car and recognize him. For bringing down the famous bank robber, Schuster gets many death threats. In depression era America, many people considered banks corrupt bloodsuckers, so Willie was admired as the robber who got even but never hurt anyone. Oddly, when Schuster was gunned down, the public turned on Willie.  

He returned to Attica for yet another beating, but Schuster’s assassin remained a mystery. As Willie stood  with the photographer and reporter in the alley where he died, they realize there will be no bonanza, no secret revealed. Whether Schuster's death was due to an independent crazy, a Willie Sutton fan, or a gang hit on the rat who sent him back to prison, is anyone’s guess. And in the novel, Willie takes the car after that site. His deal's done and he goes to the address on the paper. 

Bess’ granddaughter helps him find some resolution about the great love that might have been. And at the  surprising end, when you get Bess' viewpoint, this is a novel about memory. What’s elusive about Willie’s story is a matter of consciousness. This novel explores the gap between what we believe occurred, what facts say, and the  viewpoint of another. SUTTON is finally a meditation on life-- the mysterious interaction between personality, background and fate.  As Willie probes his destiny, the reader experiences the huge divide between the facts of physical reality, emotional truth, and spiritual necessity. Money has never been so immaterial.

SW

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Watchmaker's Daughter heartbreaking and funny


Launch Oct 11th, featured in Vanity Fair's Hot Type


The Watchmaker's Daughter heartbreaking and funny


The Watchmaker’s Daughter by Sonia Taitz: Extraordinary, wise, heartbreaking and funny
Sonia Taitz’s The Watchmaker’s Daughter (McWitty Press, October) is an extraordinary memoir -- wise, heartbreaking and funny.  I love this book, which reveals the unassimilated soul behind Marjorie Morningstar, the ethnic origins of Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, and the ambitions that fueled Natalie Wood, another dark-haired immigrant’s daughter. 

The Watchmaker’s Daughter is about black-haired Sonia, growing up the child of Holocaust survivors in the 60’s in New York neighborhoods rough and middling.  You experience the clash between kids eager for a free American life and survivor parents, traumatized and working hard for a living. Young Sonia tries hard to reconcile her own desires with her parents’ insular world.  She also wants to please and protect them and can’t imagine why Germans wanted to kill Jews. When her grandmother puts her in a harness in the playground and chases away other children, only later does Sonia understand that her motives aren’t cruelty but protection from the violence of irrational strangers.

Sonia’s refuge from the sadness of her family is TV.  Watching “Lucy” or “Father Knows Best,” she escapes into madcap stories of families as foreign to her as the children allowed to run shoeless in the park.  These children don’t hear horrific stories of parents’ near death experiences in concentration camps and murdered relatives.  She quickly learns she and her brother, Manny, carry these martyred  names.  It is up to them to make right the wrongs done to them and the millions who perished in Europe’s dark history.

What could be a dark memoir of emotional deprivation is, however, a fond story of love. The author’s mother, Gita, a budding concert pianist before the Nazis, cheerfully nurtures her family and her husband’s business. She constantly cleans and polishes, makes endless streams of food, and arranges velveteen trays of watches.  Sonia’s father, Simon, a master watchmaker, is dark, moody, and intense.  In Dachau, he ran a repair shop for the Nazis, saving the lives of his fellow inmates.  “Your father’s a great man,” Sonia learns in Israel. When her father is recognized on the street as a hero, the family is surrounded by admirers.

Simon is even prouder of his children’s achievements and his role in providing opportunities. Their very existence is a triumph over the Nazi death machine.  He raises his daughter not to bang pans in domesticity but to be a success in the outer world. His son becomes a successful lawyer.  He and Gita are glad to sacrifice for their kids, even as the children feel their futures weighted with obligation.

Sonia grows up curvy and dark-haired, a temptress like Veronica in Archie comics or Liz Taylor, certainly not the blonde Doris Day preferred by the culture of the time (or by her own mother). She wears colored fishnet stockings with white go-go boots. She is also is a top student at the prestigious Yeshiva to which her parents send her. Though she earns a spot at Yale College, she gives it up when her father requests she go to the closer Barnard.  In her parents’ world, only doctors and lawyers justify their parents’ toil. So Sonia, the dutiful daughter, then goes to law school  -- only to find that she’s taken a wrong turn with her life. When she’s offered a place at Oxford to study her real love – literature -- her father allows her to take time off, with the proviso she will not lose her faith nor betray it with foreigners.

Yet becoming herself means becoming someone other than her parents’ daughter. True to the DNA of her bold father, Sonia takes on the Old World. Here she can battle against the evil anti-Semitism of her childhood stories. At the same time, Oxford seduces her with ancient tradition and ecstatic literature. She also falls for a handsome student, whose mother rejects her as a “Jewess.”  At the end of her stay, she’s personally devastated, even as she wins a graduate degree and a major literary award.  But the writer’s life is too uncertain, so Sonia returns to finish her law degree, gets a well-paying job, and – to her parent’s great relief -- marries a Jewish lawyer with an Ivy league pedigree.  

Again, Sonia finds the courage to make a life contrary to what’s been set for her. While never ceasing to honor her parents, she leaves her unhappy marriage and marries her British love.  She also becomes the storyteller she was destined to be, after growing up deciphering her parents’ histories.  Then oddly enough, her act of will -- or the mystery of a life force asserting itself -- works out to everyone’s benefit. Her husband converts and becomes close to her parents. With the birth of grandchildren, Simon and Gita come to enjoy the “lightness” of American life previously derided.  

The conclusion of The Watchmaker’s Daughter is a touching tribute to her parents’ somehow unjust final days.  Here is her father, who has beaten death so many times, fighting his own cancer. Here is her mother’s selfless sweetness when faced with the inevitable, and Sonia’s realization of how much she now values the comfort of her mother’s domesticity.   

The Watchmaker’s Daughter is a touching book for any child of immigrants struggling to keep a sense of who they are and yet become who they want to be.  More than anything, it is a profoundly transformative story; at once a common experience, very individual, and ultimately heroic.  It’s inspiring to read how people, rising from traumatic events, can find the heart to forge a new life.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures is almost a guilty pleasure (Riverhead Books)

Rita Hayworth, Ava Gardner, Lauren Bacall, Natalie Wood, Liz Taylor…Who hasn’t watched stars of old Hollywood  and wondered what it was like to get discovered in some drugstore and become a legend?  Emma Straub’s new novel, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures (Riverhead Books) creates an imaginary star, who’s real and immensely appealing.  While movie star biographies tend to be more tease than truth,  this fiction succeeds.  Though you know the story arc, Laura Lamont delivers the pleasure of a not always charmed Hollywood life.  And you don’t feel the vague necrophilia guilt about enjoying  a dead  star’s  glamorous life.

Emma Straub’s art is to make Laura’s interior life so visceral you almost feel you’re enmeshed in her luck and misfortunes, talent and delusions.  She’s a very specific character, though a familiar American archetype.  For within Laura Lamont lives Elsa Emerson, the Wisconsin farm girl with old-fashioned values.  She measures her Hollywood life against them with uncommon sense and a pang for what’s lost in her success.

It begins with Elsa as the lively nine- year old mascot of the actors who flock to her family’s summer theater.  She adores her beautiful dramatic older sister, Hildy, and her father, who encourages her interest in his theater.  Elsa dutifully helps her long-suffering mother and stoic sister, Josephine , with  their endless chores. That summer she also acts as go-between for Hildy and a handsome actor.  When Hildy dies tragically, Elsa’s childhood is over.  She vows to go to Hollywood for both of them.

She gets her chance in her teens, through marriage to Gordon, a pleasant-faced actor going to LA.  Both are excited to begin acting careers but the birth of her daughter ties her to their tiny apartment, while he gets a studio contract.  She figures her acting dreams are just that, until a studio party.  Elsa’s  huge with her second child, when she meets Irving Green, the charismatic studio head.  He dubs her Laura Lamont and tells her to lose thirty pounds and keep in touch.

Laura understands she will be a star while her husband remains a bit player.  But Elsa’s conscience bothers her, when she learns the studio makeover includes not just dying her blonde hair dark, but a divorce.  Yet she accepts it as part of grooming her image for success.  Laura is also realistic enough to admit Gordon, whom she never loved, has wanted to be the only star.  She’s aware of the irony of the publicity machine, which makes her not a divorced woman with two girls, but one who’s never been married.

She loves her job on the fantastical back lot, the free child care, dance classes, company cars and amazing costumes of silks and satins. But there’s also the pressure of dramatically stretching herself to fulfill Irving’s expectations.  Though Elsa likes fun, Laura is a serious brunette. She tackles dramatic roles; a nurse caught in a war, a nun dealing with her dead sister’s suitor, where Elsa yearns for a screwball comedy.

The novel perceptively uses the Laura/Elsa split to examine her movie star life.  When Laura’s relationship with Irving deepens, Elsa doesn’t allow her to become intimate, until Gordon has left the studio. She finds marriage to Irving is like coming home.  She’s reviewing scripts at night, helping with casting, reminiscent of her relationship with her father.  They live in a mansion with lots of rooms for her girls and her son with Irving.  Her housekeeper is a friend, who makes the balance of motherhood and movies feasible.  But so caught up is Laura in her life, it’s more than a decade before she sees her family again.  The clash of her two worlds occurs, when she’s nominated for an Academy Award.

Irving brings her family to Hollywood.  And Elsa sees her parents and sister, somehow surprised that time has not stood still.  Through her mother’s resentful eyes, she sees her glamorous home as gaudy, her clothes as immodest, her hair as artificial. Worst of all, is the disapproval her mother feels for her forgetting her origins and being “influenced by people,” meaning Irving, who’s a Jew.

Laura understands that it’s not just her mother’s prejudice against her public life of luxury but for a husband so different.  Josephine helps her also understand her mother’s bitterness about  her values, even the name she gave, have been rejected by her famous daughter.  In contrast, her father is joyful and proud when she wins the award and easily talks with Irwin about theater and film.

Her sister Josephine later supports her, after her father’s death, when Irving also dies.  Irving, the man who made her a star, was the sensitive kind husband who loved both aspects of her personality. With him, she had her ideal life.  Laura says goodbye completely to that life, when she discovers Irving did not put away much money.  With three children, she looks for work, though still grieving. To handle her nerves, she increases the dosage of the blue pills she takes, unaware of a growing dependency.  Then the ever resilient Laura/Elsa spends a few weeks in a hospital before she can reclaim her life.

No longer an in-demand movie star, she briefly works as a hostess on her friend’s TV comedy show but it’s no fit for serious Laura Lamont.  In the twilight of the big studios, she finds work with the studio costumer, whose shop provides special occasion gowns. The admirable Laura is glad of the paycheck and the company.  So Laura with Elsa’s down to earth values takes care of her family.  And when her son has a crisis,  Josephine again helps with a stunning revelation that links her son with the long ago mystery of Hildy’s death.

Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures ends with her returning to the her origins in the theater.  Laura/Elsa makes her Broadway debut, her children and friends in the audience. She regains her first love, the world of "the boards." Laura brings Elsa home. This novel is a high-brow “weepy” and I mean this as a compliment.  It’s a women’s story but there’s depth and the emotion is earned.  It’s not chick lit.  Straub’s created an icon as eternal as the young actor’s wish for fame and fortune. My own true confession. I got this in the publisher's Twitter giveaway, a contest for your favorite LA Story. I was intrigued enough to submit.

SW 

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Wilkie Collins' BASIL, written in 1852, is all about class


Wilkie Collins’ BASIL, written in 1852, is all about class
I read Wilkie Collins’ second novel, BASIL, not expecting a masterpiece like the THE WOMAN IN WHITE.  Yet I liked it for its comparative brevity, urgency, and shocks.  Considered a precursor to the detective story, there are telling clues only seen as important in retrospect by Basil, the narrator.  The second son of an aristocratic family whose lineage goes back to the Norman kings, at the beginning, Basil is exiled from his privileged life to the coast of Cornwall. Heartbroken with shattered nerves, Basil writes to save his life and fears it will be forfeit before he can finish. An almost demonic force threatens him and, though you think he may be crazy, you have to read on.  The story begins with his family, particularly his father, whose pride in his ancient heritage, the conviction that virtue is based on class, is pivotal to this mystery.  How Basil ruined himself is the subject of his narrative.

His brother Ralph is a typical eldest son, a popular boy good at sports, who patronizes Basil.  He becomes a flighty profligate, who courts women of bad morals and refuses any profession. This decadent fun-seeker, earns his father’s despair but not his censure. Basil, more introverted and less successful in school, considers himself the moral superior of his brother. He’s most attached to Clara,  his sister, and considers her an influence for peace and harmony, a person who helps others discover their higher purpose. She’s virtue personified, completely obedient to her father and devoted to her brothers.  Clara’s pale with light eyes, and her instincts are aesthetic, spiritual and true.

It’s no wonder Basil becomes quickly infatuated with the dark beauty of her opposite, a veiled woman he sees on a streetcar.  He’s so transfixed by Margaret’s physical perfection that he follows her home. And even decides to marry her, though she’s the daughter of a store keeper who sells fabrics. Somehow Basil assumes that eventually his father will come to feel as he does about Margaret.  And because he needs time to figure out how to reconcile his love with his family, he doesn’t object to the strange condition set by her father on the marriage.

Because of her young age, he’s to marry her but leave her at the church. For a year, he can visit her in the presence of a parent but not claim her as his wife.  Basil agrees and soon finds the invalid mother preferable to the boorish father, though he’s perplexed by her strange outbursts about her daughter. His secret romantic idyll is the light of his life, despite his estrangement from his family, until one day Mannion returns from a business trip. The father’s right hand man and Margaret’s former tutor, Mannion is strange and enigmatic, and a bit sinister.
   
Mannion appears a gentleman in a position beneath him.  And he’s so self-possessed, his face and manner never reveal emotion. He exudes a curious influence over the family, a kind of personal magnetism, that only the mother avoids. Mannion gives Basil no personal information until one night when he shelters in his flat during a storm. Oddly, he proposes to help Basil to manage Margaret’s father to his benefit. Though Mannion says he simply wants to help, a sudden lightening flash makes him look a demon. Basil believes the vision is a trick of the light.  And, at year’s end, he happily prepares to claim his bride. 

Though Margaret’s mother has given him hints that all is not well, he’s dismissed her, like the rest of the family. But Basil’s greatly dismayed to discover that on that special evening, Margaret’s gone out with Mannion to a party. He follows them to a shoddy hotel and learns their horrendous secret. Enraged with the ruin of his family and the loss of his happiness, he attacks Mannion and then collapses. Delirious with fever, Basil rants Margaret’s name. His sister realizes he's decimated by some loss and betrayal. Worse yet, Margaret’s father presses for his daughter’s rights, extolling her innocence. Basil is disowned, when his father learns he’s married the daughter of a common tradesman. Then Ralph, at Clara’s urging, salvages Basil’s mess.   

But Mannon, a madman with an ancient grudge, vows to pursue Basil. To protect his family, he flees for Cornwall.  There, in a rocky point of the coast, he finally is released from the man’s persecution. Basil’s ordeal marks him for life, but makes him a compassionate person. Collins’ book is rich in how it sends up the hypocrisies of class.

Despite melodrama, the "penny dreadful quality of the story. there is much humor in the aristocratic lord with the dissipated heir, the prideful linen draper, a “man of commerce,” whose daughter schemes for dresses and carriages. There’s  the illusions of privileged Basil about noble behavior and romantic love, while Margaret’s thinking if he really loved her he would not wait a year no matter what he promised. There’s also good deal of real pathos in the timorous invalid mother who sees the truth and is routinely disbelieved. And Mannion is an unforgettable villain, a man born of a gentleman with the “mark of the gallows.”  Love this book.
SW

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Watchmaker's Daughter heartbreaking and funny


The Watchmaker’s Daughter by Sonia Taitz: Extraordinary, wise, heartbreaking and funny
Sonia Taitz’s The Watchmaker’s Daughter (McWitty Press, October) is an extraordinary memoir -- wise, heartbreaking and funny.  I love this book, which reveals the unassimilated soul behind Marjorie Morningstar, the ethnic origins of Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, and the ambitions that fueled Natalie Wood, another dark-haired immigrant’s daughter. 

The Watchmaker’s Daughter is about black-haired Sonia, growing up the child of Holocaust survivors in the 60’s in New York neighborhoods rough and middling.  You experience the clash between kids eager for a free American life and survivor parents, traumatized and working hard for a living. Young Sonia tries hard to reconcile her own desires with her parents’ insular world.  She also wants to please and protect them and can’t imagine why Germans wanted to kill Jews. When her grandmother puts her in a harness in the playground and chases away other children, only later does Sonia understand that her motives aren’t cruelty but protection from the violence of irrational strangers.

Sonia’s refuge from the sadness of her family is TV.  Watching “Lucy” or “Father Knows Best,” she escapes into madcap stories of families as foreign to her as the children allowed to run shoeless in the park.  These children don’t hear horrific stories of parents’ near death experiences in concentration camps and murdered relatives.  She quickly learns she and her brother, Manny, carry these martyred  names.  It is up to them to make right the wrongs done to them and the millions who perished in Europe’s dark history.

What could be a dark memoir of emotional deprivation is, however, a fond story of love. The author’s mother, Gita, a budding concert pianist before the Nazis, cheerfully nurtures her family and her husband’s business. She constantly cleans and polishes, makes endless streams of food, and arranges velveteen trays of watches.  Sonia’s father, Simon, a master watchmaker, is dark, moody, and intense.  In Dachau, he ran a repair shop for the Nazis, saving the lives of his fellow inmates.  “Your father’s a great man,” Sonia learns in Israel. When her father is recognized on the street as a hero, the family is surrounded by admirers.

Simon is even prouder of his children’s achievements and his role in providing opportunities. Their very existence is a triumph over the Nazi death machine.  He raises his daughter not to bang pans in domesticity but to be a success in the outer world. His son becomes a successful lawyer.  He and Gita are glad to sacrifice for their kids, even as the children feel their futures weighted with obligation.

Sonia grows up curvy and dark-haired, a temptress like Veronica in Archie comics or Liz Taylor, certainly not the blonde Doris Day preferred by the culture of the time (or by her own mother). She wears colored fishnet stockings with white go-go boots. She is also is a top student at the prestigious Yeshiva to which her parents send her. Though she earns a spot at Yale College, she gives it up when her father requests she go to the closer Barnard.  In her parents’ world, only doctors and lawyers justify their parents’ toil. So Sonia, the dutiful daughter, then goes to law school  -- only to find that she’s taken a wrong turn with her life. When she’s offered a place at Oxford to study her real love – literature -- her father allows her to take time off, with the proviso she will not lose her faith nor betray it with foreigners.

Yet becoming herself means becoming someone other than her parents’ daughter. True to the DNA of her bold father, Sonia takes on the Old World. Here she can battle against the evil anti-Semitism of her childhood stories. At the same time, Oxford seduces her with ancient tradition and ecstatic literature. She also falls for a handsome student, whose mother rejects her as a “Jewess.”  At the end of her stay, she’s personally devastated, even as she wins a graduate degree and a major literary award.  But the writer’s life is too uncertain, so Sonia returns to finish her law degree, gets a well-paying job, and – to her parent’s great relief -- marries a Jewish lawyer with an Ivy league pedigree.  

Again, Sonia finds the courage to make a life contrary to what’s been set for her. While never ceasing to honor her parents, she leaves her unhappy marriage and marries her British love.  She also becomes the storyteller she was destined to be, after growing up deciphering her parents’ histories.  Then oddly enough, her act of will -- or the mystery of a life force asserting itself -- works out to everyone’s benefit. Her husband converts and becomes close to her parents. With the birth of grandchildren, Simon and Gita come to enjoy the “lightness” of American life previously derided.  

The conclusion of The Watchmaker’s Daughter is a touching tribute to her parents’ somehow unjust final days.  Here is her father, who has beaten death so many times, fighting his own cancer. Here is her mother’s selfless sweetness when faced with the inevitable, and Sonia’s realization of how much she now values the comfort of her mother’s domesticity.   

The Watchmaker’s Daughter is a touching book for any child of immigrants struggling to keep a sense of who they are and yet become who they want to be.  More than anything, it is a profoundly transformative story; at once a common experience, very individual, and ultimately heroic.  It’s inspiring to read how people, rising from traumatic events, can find the heart to forge a new life.

SW

Monday, July 30, 2012

An Age of Madness by David Maine Aug-Red Hen Press

The Age of Madness by David Maine, Red Hen Press

I first thought Regina, the darkly ironic central character in David Maine's The Age of Madness, was a chick-lit standard, the successful professional woman, who knows something's missing from her life. Almost a caricature of the type, Regina's a runner obsessed with her performance, a fervent health food consumer, a home-owner fixated on light white spaces,classical music, peace and quiet. But this Regina is a psychiatrist,  a hard-headed rationalist, a non-believer, who doesn't suffer fools easily and yet suspects she is one.

Maine cracks open her facade to reveal a woman shell shocked by the simultaneous deaths of her husband and son. "Facing the facts," Regina wonders if she's the cause--the evil feminist, who forced her husband to abandon literature and become a househusband.  Was this the reason for his suicide or homicide-suicide?  She's obsessed with the question of what happened. And so are we, as Maine peels off the layers of this psychological mystery.

The author's brilliance is to show not just the tortured conscience of this profoundly ethical woman but her unexpectedly generous heart. Regina truly empathizes with patients, while summing up their diagnosis and treatment. She wants to heal but doubts she does more than dispense pills to ease pain and perhaps hope. Though a devotee of  "reality" without sentimental sugar-coating, it's clear she's wrapped herself up tightly to keep madness at bay.

Regina's healing is the plot of this novel and its movers are an unlikely pair, the estranged daughter she believes she failed and a handsome gentle hospital worker, who persists in wanting a connection. .
As Regina's self-delusions unravel, her reliance on the facts of existence seems akin to the madness of our times. Assumptions of what life is and how people are supposed to act--from roles and professions to race and class--have broken down. Ours, like Regina's, is an Age of Madness.

Her escape is in her work, her hospital practice with patients, who keep returning after improvement. And in her private practice, an elderly couple still struggles decades after their son's disappearance, a Korean-American daughter seeks prescriptions to relieve pressure from her family's expectations, a delusional minister serves a fervent flock of believers. Regina sees her work as a band-aid for the sorrows of the world. But after awhile, she can't escape. "Physician heal thyself" comes to mind, as Reginia's daughter takes up Shakespeare and creative license becomes an avenue of healing Regina can't dismiss.

Acting gives her daughter confidence to communicate what will save her mother, who's of course obsessed with her daughter's mental health.. Then, like many a Lifetime movie, love almost saves the day. There's a bit of a literary contradiction with The Age of Madness. Maine has written a commercial novel by blasting the formula. This is thinking woman's chick-lit but then so is Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. I found this book surprisingly insightful about how we live and think.

SW






Tuesday, July 24, 2012

American Boy by Larry Watson- Elemental mystery

American Boy by Larry Watson, August 2012, Milkweed Editions


Matthew Garth, the 17 year old narrator of AMERICAN BOY, is a hard-scrabble not quite hard-boiled boy in the early 1960’s in Willow Creek, an isolated town in Minnesota. Families here have known each other for generations and newcomers, like the charismatic Dr. Dunbar, are both admired and viewed with suspicion. Raised by a struggling widow, Matt’s from the “wrong side of the tracks,” grateful for his status, as an unofficial member of the Dunbar family. And like a Dreiser hero, he knows it’s strangely provisional. His friendship with Johnny Dunbar gives him access to the luxurious Victorian house, holiday parties, but most of all to the charismatic Dr. Dunbar.

When Matt’s father died, the pain of that event was muted by Dunbar, who credited him with enough intelligence to be able to understand the medical causes. Flattered that Dr. Dunbar encourages him, as a future physician, Matt considers his comfortable place as Johnny's “older bigger brother” essential to his happiness. While lifelong residents of Willow Creek, like his mother, don’t even allow themselves to hope for a better life, the Dunbars go to Minneapolis for concerts and good clothes. Matt wants thats wider world. Being included in this family, negates the drab reality of  life as the fatherless boy of a waitress.

The end of that charmed life begins with a chance event. An unconscious girl, Louisa Lindhal, is laid out in the doctor’s clinic. When the doctor lifts the sheet to show the boys the bullet wound that almost cost her life, Matt receives a fleeting but unforgettable glimpse of her breasts. His passion for Louisa is fanned by contradiction. She’s turned down very desirable boys, yet lived with a degenerate in a tar paper shack. The mysterious Louisa is beautiful but shabby, ignorant yet worldly wise. He's completely smitten, when she says the truth--both he and she are “strays” taken in by the Dunbars. 

The story accelerates as Matt, pursues Louisa and tries to figure out what’s going on in his world. Like most teens, his hypocrisy meter's on overtime and he suffers from Dr. Dunbar’s hostility, as the idol begins to crack. Matt also suffers from his mother’s depressive resignation and his own shortcomings. He hates how he manipulates Johnny to get close to Louisa. What he finally discovers about her ambitions, delivers him to his core. In this passionate very intelligent novel, the roles people play and what’s actually happening with them, is part of Matt's mystery. There’s also the sexual mystery of what women will and won’t do, and how that affects men. Matt experiences elemental forces in this novel. Nature mirrors human storms that threaten survival. Sanctuary, the family-human affection are but fragile constructs. And, in the end, he understands what's of value.

AMERICAN BOY seems oddly 1930’s in its noir-like soul. Early 60’s optimism, Vietnam or pot doesn’t touch this town. But perhaps that’s the point--this place is that insular. It’s a very small quibble. This is a heroic coming of age story. I was riveted by its layered mystery.
SW

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Gates of Eden has answers "Blowing in the Wind!" A gutsy uncompromising read.

In my opinion GATES OF EDEN by Charles Degelman (August Harvard Square Editions) can well be compared to Gone with The Wind, in describing huge cultural and political upheaval. In GATES it's the 1960's--Civil Rights, the Vietnam War, the historical ending of the war by the most massive anti war movement in American history and its aftermath. Degelman's novel describes the war in Vietnam and the war at home, through the passionate drives and idealistic committments of a cross-section of very real characters.

This ambitious novel begins with a nuclear blast seen by the boy Roger in Bronco, Texas. In Chicago, young Louis wants to go to the funeral of a black boy killed in the South. Middle class Connie, college bound, worries about her boyfriend, Eddie, a smart but poor kid bound for nowhere--or as she later learns, Vietnam. David and Madeline are New York sophisticates, privileged kids who want to make a mark, where it matters.

Despite their differences in background and ambitions, they will unite to build the antiwar movement that changed American history. And GATES, which won the 2012 Independent Publishers Book Award for historical fiction, also includes "The Masters of War," sections on the decisions of Presidents, Generals, Cabinet Members, that fuelled the mass marches of Americans of every age, race and class.

The young people at the core of this novel, become committed to change, because of what they experience. Connie and Louis are with the Freedom Riders, when they narrowly escape violent murder in the south. It makes them organize to end discrimination, the draft, the war in Vietnam.  David, a folk singer, becomes a leader in the SDS after he's gassed and beaten up among peaceful demonstrators. Later, he witnesses truth about the Vietnamese enemy, contrary to offical propaganda. Eddie goes to Vietnam and is unprepared for what he encounters.

Dylan's "The Answer is Blowing in the Wind," is an anthem for these kids trying to make sense of their world. They are radicalized by a leadership and media determined to hide reality, reported widely in the underground press, and a political system that won't address change.

These kids throw their lives into the struggle. Fighting injustice sends them to the Chicago Convention, where SDS leaders futilely meet with candidates, trying for a peace plank. One by one the avenues to peaceful change close. King is assassinated and with him nonviolence. When Malcolm X dies and rioting ensues in major cities around the country, the group experiences out of control police violence, deaths. And their affiliations make them fugitives.

The Answers seem to lead one way, armed insurrection, a path rejected by Eddie, who wants salvation in nature. The book's prologue is a bomb blast in a Manhattan Townhouse, and it's ending gets back there. You feel the waste of life, but understand how it happened. You have lived the dire quest of the survivors.

One of the rare pleasures of this book is that sex and drugs are not gratuitious. In the heated atmosphere of the war at home, these were ecstatic outlets. Self-indulgence was not the point, in people who were giving up their education, security, and futures, because they really were dedicated to changing society.  You see women, sick of being subservient, wanting to make their own choices, especially about their sexuality. They enjoy good sex and bad, endure illegal abortions and men who are faithless or crazy. The sex and drugs in this book are part of history, not a Hollywood fantasy.

The achievement of this book is to accurately and with great emotional logic, describe the events and personalities that enabled America to make major historical change. The Antiwar movement, which ended the draft, was supported by Vietnam Veterans against the War. They joined with groups, like SDS, to galvanize an America already sick of a war that cost a generation of dead children. This is a wonderful, gutsy, uncompromising read. Buy it!
SW

Friday, July 13, 2012



Son by Lois Lowry, the 4th book of The Giver Series is a moving read on its own!

This book is the last of The Giver Series and it’s to be published in October by Houghton Mifflin.  I read The Giver when my son was eleven and depressed by the book.  As a student of science fiction, I like dystopias, but didn’t understand why 11 year olds were reading about a kid with the job of killing old people. It seemed unrelentingly bleak, though probably not, if compared with the reality of life in North Korea.  As I learned from the teacher, The Giver’s educational value was to provoke thinking about society.  I did the question sheets, coaxing my son to feel less for the hideous lives of characters and think more about why their life was organized that way.  These books say 12 and up, I urge caution for teachers assigning for 6th grade.

At fourteen, my son is eager to read SON and may have read Gathering Blue and Messenger. The heroine, Claire, is 14.  And without reservation, I recommend this book for older kids and adults, even if they haven’t read the other three. I found SON emotionally moving, psychologically convincing, and magical in a tangible way that’s surprising.  SON reminded me of the classic Howl’s Moving Castle, made into a Miyazaki movie (Spirited Away director).  The mythological beauty and cruelty in SON is both akin to that story and a completion of THE GIVER.  Claire’s journey takes her out of the hopeless dystopia to a place of homecoming, celebration, fulfillment.  But to get there she has to be willing to give up everything she possesses.  And the vehicle for her transformation is mother love.

Ridiculous as that might sound, Lowry’s talent makes this love both heroic and an atypical compulsion. In Claire’s world, where utility is the highest value, emotion is a shameful secret.  She first feels this forbidden love, when she gives birth to a “product.” A birthmother unlike others, Claire feels empty when it’s carved out of her. Reassigned to a fishery, she tracks her child to Jonus’ father, a nurturer, and manages to mother him. But his failure to fit the community narrows his options and Jonas flees with the boy.  Claire must follows on a perilous journey.  Along the way, she almost dies at sea, but is brought back to life by an herbalist, and grows to womanhood in an agricultural community surrounded by dark lethal cliffs.

Claire trains years to scale them and makes it, only to encounter a supernatural evil with whom she makes an impossibly cruel trade to find her son. Hidden and wraithlike, she reaches an end of time. Her only deliverance is her son Gabriel, raised by Kira and Jonus. Then It becomes Gabriel’s turn to battle evil and take his place in the idyllic community founded by refugees.  By the end of this book, you see how people could make a utopia, if they can join their cumulative wisdom.  Having left other societies, Lowery’s people gain the courage to remake the world.
SW

Gone Girl is clever but noir light

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn


Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl is a clever novel. My book group chose it and oddly enough, we all had similar reactions. We admired how the book draws you in, using alternating letters between the husband and wife. And how you keep reading, wanting to know what did happen to the wife, who’s disappeared. Still about half through we got annoyed. All the detail of the wife’s letters become tedious. And most of us had inklings of what happened too early so it wasn’t so shocking.

I found myself thinking of great noir—James Cain’s The Postman Rings Twice or  Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley. This book might be a homage to those, but it lacks the riveting directness, the punch and irrefutable endings. Postman creates a sense of horrified inevitability as you see two passionate people cross the criminal line toward insanity. In Mr. Ripley, the  chilling narrator is already there. Gone Girl seems to flirt with what these great noirs make a beeline for—the chilling realization of murder as an almost prosaic human potential and the psychopathology that seems so porous in our animal brains.

The bigger themes; how fragile are society’s law to contain our primate instincts, what roles do morality, decency, play in creating a behavioral norm most people respect?  Can anyone cross that line to commit murder under the right duress?  Is conscience an artificial construct or an evolved human instinct?  These are, in to my mind, what any great noir brings to question.

Ultimately, a great noir gives you the mesmerizing chills, twists and turns you enjoy, while perhaps wishing they were not leading where you think they are. And at the ending, despite inevitability or a shocking surprise, you feel an enormous sense of regret. GONE GIRL gives you a more ambiguous ending and no hero or anti heroine you might actually want to triumph. We liked it but were disappointed. I hope her next book is less clever and more direct to the darkness and it’s primal meaning.

This is not to say it's not worth reading. I just think it is good enough to generate expectations that aren't quite there. I look forward to Ms. Flynn's next one.


Thursday, July 5, 2012

NEW Kurt Vonnegut, "We Are What We Pretend to Be"

WE ARE WHAT WE PRETEND TO BE: The first and Last Works w/special commentary from Nanette Vonnegut has never before been in print. Vanguard, a member of the Perseus Book Group, will be publishing it this Fall. The book is a treat for any Vonnegut fan and useful for aspiring writers.

I love Kurt Vonnegut for his strong heart, whether breaking with irony or crackling with humor. His wit was beyond rapier, even off-center going after unexpected targets and he improvised like a clairvoyant. He's full of spontaneous feeling and more accurate than not. I was once waiting for a plane in the Iowa City airport, as he was getting off one. He caught my eye and pointed to the book I was reading, Fitzgerald’s “The Crack-up.” He made a “thumbs up” gesture and touched his heart. He mimed a finger across his neck about it being suicidal. Vonnegut loved the book, Fitzgerald, and, though I was across the room, correctly perceived me as a fellow traveller.

WE ARE WHAT WE PRETEND TO BE tells a lot about Kurt Vonnegut. Written 50 years apart, and autobiographical, the two stories show where he started and where he wound up-- the journey from youth to maturity of this singular man.  Basic Training was written two years before his breakthrough novel, Player Piano. His daughter, Nanette, says in her unsentimental introduction, it was never accepted for publication. Around the Vonnegut house were  years of rejection slips, enough to cover the trash cans.

If God Were Alive Today is the beginning of a novel that was never finished.  Nannette's introduction ends with the tribute “ Even as an old man my dad defied gravity and did the audacious thing of creating something out of nothing.” She also acknowledges (If God) was the work of his "slightly charred 78 year old brain."

His improvisational wit is all over the place. The chaos of his protagonist, may reflect Vonnegut's dissolving marriage and the state of his health, but it's full of madcap vaudeville; farts, a hermaphrodite savior, drugs and sexy psychiatrists. Unfinished at his death, we don't know how it would have ended but it's some crazy process.  

In Basic Training, there's a boy of sixteen, an aspiring pianist, who's forced to become a menial worker on the General's, his uncle's farm. The loss of his previous "soft life” and the harsh discipline of his uncle’s uncompromising military ethos conspire to make him quite unhappy, a fact a little eased by the General's lovely daughter. Here you see Vonnegut themes of an innocent unjustly blamed and trapped in an authoritarian situation. And he must escape!

After lots of comic scrapes, the hero runs off with the homicidally insane hired hand, and ends up on Chicago’s skid row. But like Bringing up Baby, at the end everyone's misconceptions are revealed to be mistaken and the situation is happily resolved. It’s a romantic comedy but you also see the embryonic stage of Vonnegut’s satire on pompous militarists and the plight of hapless rebels. It's light fun, but I can also see how Vonnegut's pursuit of his talent, would lead to his breakthrough book a couple years later.

What's might be of interest for writers is that Basic Training shows Vonnegut actually writing what he did know. According to his daughter, in later years he yearned for this farm life in the Midwest. But that hoary cliche that aspiring writers should write what they know only makes sense if you transform it into something else. Otherwise, get it out of your system so you can write your own breakthrough novel.

SW


We Are What We Pretend To Be: The First and Last Works











Friday, June 22, 2012

City of Women is austere, sexy, and strangely uplifting

City of Women by David R. Gillham, an Amy Einhorn Book, published by  Penguin Group (USA).

What is it about Berlin 1943 that we keep revisiting this time of impending doom, as the once indomitable Third Reich began to crack up? Hasn't this era and its aftermath been explored ad nauseum in fiction and films like "The Berlin Stories"/Cabaret, “The Good German,” "The Piano," "Sarah's Key," "The Boy in the Stripped Pajamas," Erich Maria Remarque’s unforgettable play Full Circle, and of course Gunter Grass's "The Tin Drum.?"

Then I read City of Women by David R. Gillham (August, Penguin Group), whose heroine is someone I haven't met before. Sigrid Schroeder is not decadent, burnt out or a Nazi zealot who sees the light. She's a regular "haus frau,"except that she's not.  She has a job and no children, which separates her from her mother-in-law's generation. That woman continually scrubs, while self-righteously upholding the values of the Reich. She also expresses nonstop contempt for Sigrid. Yet the two women live together in her shabby flat.

What she suspects, and what we learn, is that Sigrid is an independent thinker in a time, where conformity keeps you alive. She is also alone in her marriage. Her husband has withdrawn from sexual and emotional intimacy. Though they share the same bed, her life a narrow one. She takes what comfort she can in routine; coexistence with him, until he's called up, and her job, as a stenographer in the patent office.

Yet this circumscribed life becomes claustrophobic, when German propaganda conflicts with the defeat of Stalingrad. As her husband leaves and the “Tommies” bomb every night, she's finds herself under scrutiny for her loyalty to the Reich. Too intelligent to openly voice her doubts, she retreats into her inner life. Her only desire is to collect her salary, deal with her mother-in-law’s incessant carping and put-downs, and enjoy time with her friend from work.

Sigrid finds a particular solace in the movies. What was interesting was that movies themselves, which were all propaganda, were no escape. She sought emotional space in the dark to exist as herself. In CITY OF WOMEN, Sigrid becomes extraordinary, because an authentic life finds her in this place. She may be hiding out, but at the movie theater truth collides with official unreality.

Behind the Heil Hitlers and the propaganda films and the many required sacrifices of civilians, is the uneasy feeling that the war is not being won. Behind the daily flow of law and order, the Gestapo hunt Jews. This enemy of the Reich is depicted as swollen frogs or greedy creatures with huge noses. Berliners have to square these images with the distraught men, women and children evacuated from their homes, beaten and murdered in the streets, who disappear en mass from the train station. They also cope with the stultifying  reality that a dropped word not in accordance with the official line, could be reported.

That meant arrest, beatings and torture in the underground cells of the Gestapo, or deportment to death. Then there's the loss of property and status not limited to individual "criminals, but whole families. War Widows and men serving were not exempt from punishment. So most people either espouse the cause or, like Sigrid, hide in themselves.

With men at the front, Berlin became a city of women. Yet in her theater, Sigrid finds one of those rare men, unable to serve or deserters. She carries a fish knife, in case her usual refusals are not sufficient. But she finds herself intrigued by this handsome man in his good camel’s hair coat, with his deep scratchy voice, and an animal magnetism that moves her. Despite her keen awareness of risk, there's something primal about this man she can’t refuse. And there's the intriguing fact he stands out, doesn’t even try to disappear.

When this man’s "warmth calls to her flesh," you're happy for her. Sigrid is not so young, probably mid 30’s, and not easy in any sense of the word.Yet in City of Women, she’s hot for this man in this theater, where she's anonymous. The passion makes her alive and she lives for it. City of Women is a very sexy novel, without being tawdry. The author has created a character you cheer, as she enjoys pleasure. The passion is not gratuitous but intrinsic to the story. Once it initiates her into life, she's less afraid.  

Sigrid is in the same theater, thinking it's her lover, when the 19-year old “duty girl” who looks after her neighbor's kids, sits next to her. The girl asks Sigrid to cover for her with the police. Sigrid does so, unsure why she's doing it. She also finds herself doing errands for Egon, not questioning the purpose. When the girl, Erica, is in danger of losing her job, Sigrid wants to protect her.

Then Erica makes off with clothes Sigrid had donated. She tracks her to a house, where Jews are in hiding. Sigrid's at a crossroads. Her decision takes her into an underground world, where Jews are saved in an entangled network of safe houses and operatives.

Sigrid's resourcefulness grows with her learning curve. She continues her passionate affair but doesn't disclose her private cause. Sigrid's habit of discretion is akin to her personal code of ethics. Reminescent of LeCarre, she's a kind of female Smiley, decent in her deception. Though aware of the contradictions of her position and the inherent hypocrisies, she soldiers on.

This is a heroine who compromises herself because she can't do otherwise. Whether it's her ethical code or her "good heart," or naivety, her motivation is left untidy. Like in Remarque, the gray of reality proves more arbitrary than the black and white of personal ethics. Emotionally, Sigrid has to almost "hollow" herself out, to fulfill her mission.

That she does so isn't about heroism but independence less of the mind than the soul.  And her reward, when finally love becomes a separate destiny, is the exercise of freedom. I found City of Women austere, sexy, and strangely uplifting.

SW








Monday, June 18, 2012

What happens when a Devoted Conservative & a Die-Hard Liberal decide to talk--YOU'RE NOT AS CRAZY AS I THOUGHT (But You're Still Wrong) Potomac books

You're Not as Crazy as I Thought (But You're Still Wrong) : Conversations between a Devoted Conservative and a Die-Hard Liberal by Phil Neisser
and Jacob Hess published by Potomac Books.

This book, in my opinion, should be read by every American who might possibly be sick of the "punch & judy show" we call national politics. This is the rare nonfiction book I'm reviewing, because I think it's important (not because I do book pr, though I choose books I think are valuable).

Jacob Hess and Phil Neisser are the Conservative and Liberal, who engage in dialogue about “hot-button” issues seeking not agreement but understanding. And it hasn't come easily. The two met at a conference on dialogue. Jacob was one of the few conservatives presenting, Phil had recently published a book, saying how Americans no longer knew how to disagree constructively.

Though Jacob, a religious Conservative of Mormon background, has convictions totally opposed to Phil, who is a liberal atheist, they agreed that the nation has become completely polarized. Even if average people might not be as extreme as the media portrays our national politics, everyone is affected by the vitriol.

Contrary to the national past-time of liberals and conservatives bashing each other as "idiots," they decided to do something new that's as old as our constitution. Remember the play 1776, where in a steamy Philaelphia  summer, Puritans and Quakers, Boston Brahmins and Louisana plantation owners, came together to form a new country?

Did they do this by denouncing each other and creating political blockades, or by engaging in dialogue? Jacob and Phil went through a similar process. For more than two years, they engaged in extensive conversations, writing back and forth, coming up with nuanced answers to difficult questions and listening , often through gritted teeth, until they actually got where the other was coming from.

And while they still disagree, they did gain enough understanding to make them think we might yet find a bipartisian process that would enable the nation to make bigger strides. And on an individual level, they feel there is much to be gained by inviting that neighbor you think is a political weirdo for a beer. Mutual respect creates a lot more optimism than political paranoia.

Why do conservatives and liberals have differing takes on Authority?  What is the problem with gay marriage? Here are some of the "hot button" topics they address in a thoughtful way you won't hear on any station:

GAY MARRIAGE
*Why the equal rights argument doesn't convince many gay marriage opponents
*Why many gay marriage supporters see their position as pro-family
* Should government be out of the marriage business altogether?
* What about the tricky question of biology?
* Isn't marriage just a legal contract to formalize an economic arrangement?
* In this time where so many children are born out of wedlock, isn't any kind of marriage a way to reinforce the institution?

GENDER ROLES
* Are gender roles outdated or still crucial to our society? --e.g., Should women be raised to be nurturers and boys be raised to be protectors and providers?
*Do shows like “family guy” undermine fathers?
*Should transgender people be “normalized” in our culture?
*Where's the respect for working women, many of whom are the sole support of the family?

RELIGION
* Can an atheist be moral?
* How do religious and nonreligious people perceive evil?
* Is the separation of Church & State a God-less concept?
* What kind of ethics and community do atheists subscribe to?
* How can you plan a future, if you believe the apocalypse is around the corner?

BIG GOVERNMENT, BIG BUSINESS
*What is legitimate authority?
*Is the solution less government and more personal responsibility?
* Where does public assistance end and individual responsibility begin and end when it comes to aid to immigrant groups?"  
* Is the profit motive too dominant in our culture?
* Should Big Pharma have more or less government controls?
* What's the best role for government in education?

Phil and Jacob are proposing a "grass roots" movement for bringing  common sense back to American politics. Their blog http://www.political-dialogue.com/ is a resource for intellectual independence in this year of orchestrated political warfare. So read this book, if you've got the courage. 

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Operation Ruby Slipper is over the rainbow


Operation Ruby Slipper by John Meyer (Grace Note Publishing)

John Meyer is a songwriter, who's written comedy lyrics for people like Joan Rivers and Lily Tomlin. His song "I'd Like to Hate Myself in the Morning," was sung in Judy Garland's last American TV appearance. And Meyer's memoir, Heartbreaker, was about his attempt to rescue Garland from her demons. So why, you might ask, has he written a novel, casting her as the heroine in a 1943 spy story, and why should we care? I actually think this novel is not about someone who knew Garland "cashing in" on the relationship. I believe Meyer's novel is a act of friendship, a tribute to the very positive, endearing qualities Garland possessed, including a strength of character that made her addictions more sad. In this book, Judy's courage, her sense of adventure and great humor, make her a heroine for any time. Though I'm not a fan of Judy Garland, beyond enjoying the Oz movie, and I dislike the maudlin cult around her memory, in this novel I liked her as a personality.

In Operation Ruby Slipper we meet Garland at 21, feeling her way toward adulthood, though she's old enough to have affairs, drink, and take "Dex" (given by the studio to keep her weight down). This Garland enjoys her work with Mickey Rooney, her fame, and all the studio perks--clothes, cars, champagne. Above all, she enjoys that her singing gives pleasure. She likes having fans and being admired. Judy's wise to the studio and the movie world, but she's not jaded about life. Garland is innocent, curious about people. Enthusiasm animates her. Yet she quickly sizes people up, comparing them to characters or actors. Situations call to mind plots of movies. When people talk, she thinks of dialogue, sounds evoke lyrics.

Meyer's Judy has wit and laughter that punctures pretense. She can also be filled with compassion for a "down" friend. Mercurial is the word used to describe the star's mood shifts, referencing her astrological sign, Gemini. The mercurial thing may be accurate but it's a bit annoying, along with the nn...sound she makes throughout the book, when she's insecure. I'm more interested, when Meyer puts her in action. This happens with a mysterious summons to Washington. She's asked to serve her country on a spy mission. Judy rises to the occasion. A bit far-fetched but it's made plausible. She's asked because a reclusive Nazi Physicist is a fan. The American Office of Strategic Services needs a photo of him and she's given a shoe with a concealed camera. There's no time to waste, he's developing a nuclear-powered battery for Hitler's u-boats, who knows what's next!

Judy's mission is more than fun and games, though we're treated to a flight on Howard Hughes luxurious plane with Steinbeck and Martha Gellhorn. She's given a packet of information but no training. She also receives a strange dental cap, "supposed to help her in a tight place." Judy's patronized in this, as she is, at first, by almost all the men she comes in contact with, from the Secret Service, Jeremy, her handler and accompanist, Rudi, the pivotal double agent, variou Nazis, who all assume as a pampered star and a young woman, she's not smart or capable. She of course takes their measure and they regret their errors.

All the harrowing details of being a spy in a war zone and the ongoing crises, Judy handles with creative flair. Both shrewd and intuitive, what does her in, true to character, is her emotional vulnerability and need for love. In this novel, she no sooner finds it, then the devastating reality of war, destroys her romance. When she finally meets her Physicist, he's a gentle sad man, the only one in the novel who on first meeting fully appreciates her--and he's gay. By the end, Meyer has Judy learn the lessons she perhaps missed in real life. She stands up to General Patton, leverages her photo of the Physicist into a meeting with Eisenhower, and figures she can now stand up to Louis Mayer. This Judy has experienced her capability in dire circumstances. She understands about power and won't be victimized. She's not older but far wiser. When she meets Minnelli, you get the idea this young woman will really make it.

I took this fantasy, as a friend's wish for what might have been--based on the best of who Garland was. She made a fun heroine. This novel is obviously recommended for fans of Garland and old Hollywood. It may also appeal to WWII buffs, who like spy novels. And, because this book depicts the world of a closeted Nazi who is also a perceptive scientist, it may hold particular interest for a gay audience.

SW