Thursday, March 22, 2012

My Mortal Enemy, only 85 pages, and perfect!

I just finished Willa Cather's My Mortal Enemy, which I may have read in my dim high school past. I had little recall except a vague idea of liking it, when my book group brought it up. Our group is small and impatient with trendiness. We want a quality read and this time, not overly long. At 85 pages we are reading a book that's fairly forgotten. O Pioneer probably makes it to college reading lists. But My Mortal Enemy asks that eternal question, what happens when you have the joy of getting the lover you want? And at a huge cost?

Lizzie, age 15, meets Myra Henshawe, who's visiting her aunt in their small town in Illinois. From New York, she's a breath of glamour and elegance. Myra at age 45 is short round with the beginning of a double chin, but she dazzles with her style and her contagious laugh. Her voice is "bright and gay and carelessly kind" (except when it's withering and cold and her lip curls but that's later) Lizzie is attracted, as well as repelled by how Myra says what she thinks, regardless of effect. Her very changeableness brings out her adolescent insecurity.

Oswald Henshawe, her husband, is easier. He draws her out. He's comfortable and safe. He's got half moon shaped eyes and is handsome and dressed in a distinguished way. And Lizzie suspects his self-contained quality hints at some hidden greatness--like an explorer.

The story of their romance is legendary. She's the adopted niece of the stubborn passionate banker of the town, rich and ornery. Her uncle was devoted to her. And they were similar enough to enjoy each other's company. Yet, when she fell in love with Oswald, whose father was a Protestant, he drew a line in the sand. If Myra was to marry, he would leave her nothing. The lovers are separated, while he gets a job in New York. Eventually he proposed. And true to great romantic heroines, at night she leaves her Uncles's house and his fortune behind, to marry her beloved.

Aunt Lydia and Lizzie are invited to visit Myra in New York. And soon Lizzie is at her perfectly furnished apartment on Madison Square with her plum velvet drapes. Myra's freinds include artists--the transcendent Polish Opera singer, the handsome young actor, the talented young poetess, dying of consumption and others who see in Myra a kindred spirit. She also sees Oswald's business friends, prosperous people who talk of money. Her life is full of perfect taste, exciting people, emotional satisfactions, yet there is some kind of unspoken compromise or disappointment. And Lizzie and her aunt see her dissatisfaction with her husband as unfounded even cruel.

There's a strange incident where Oswald asks Lydia to give him a "present," jewelled cufflinks he received from a woman friend. Lydia is at first reluctant but then feels he gets so little, since the whims and extravagances that are satisfied are alwyays Myra's, that she goes along with the ruse. But when it's successful, Oswald acts strangely guilty. Later, Myra visits her wrath on her cousin for "perjuring" herself, and the problems in the marriage are apparent but unclear. They seem less his fault but something in her uncompromising nature.

In the second part of the book, Lizzie is a school teacher in a "sprawling overgrown western city," living in a "falling down" hotel-apartment house, where she discoveres the Hanshawe's in reduced circumstances. Oswalrd has a low level clerical job and Myra is an invalid in a wheelchair. They live in different rooms and he serves her any way possible, though of course what he can provide is inadequate for her physical discomfort and spiritual anguish. Lizzie understands Myra's suffering is less about her physical problems, then a spirit, unable to adjust to the defiencies of her life. Light, sound, like the noise of upstairs tenants, continually pain her.

As Myra is unwound by a painful fatal illness, she turns to the Catholicism of her youth, looking for some transcendence. Lizzie gives Myra comfort what comfort she can, including hiring a driver to take her to the coast to see the ocean. Yet wWhen Lizzie mentions to Myra her unfairness toward her husband, Myra no longer contacts her. She rails against Her Mortal Enemy. Near death, Myra disappears and is finally tracked to that same ocean view.

The reason I call this a perfect book is that it's like a sonata or a song. It explores the arc of a person whose nature is "larger than life." And her Mortal Enemy, the one who she comes to resent, is the one who once meant an ultimate height-Love true enough for her to abandon a fortune. Her shortcomings are reflected on him, when what she's dissatisfied with is existence. True to Cather's understanding, her death means Oswald gets to strike out on his own.

While the plot seems predictable, like the opera singer's perfect aria, this novel captures a passion that is outsize to life. Myra's unable to compromise or accept the prosaic nature of days, which make the heights (like true love) a memory. Everyone knows spirits like this, beautiful monsters, who somehow make our reality more poignant for their feeling.

Perhaps why we fetishize pop stars--Morrison, Joplin, who burst beyond what can be supported--and die young. Worth reading My Mortal Enemy to see this study of life's tragic majesty? And yet, I did appreciate Cather's humor. On one level Myra gets what she deserved. And she did have fun.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Mary Gaitskill's NORTH SOUTH is serious romance

I am reading classics for free on my KOBO and buying hardcovers of new fiction. I am liking the classics better. In terms of slightly guilty pleasure, I'm reading classics I've seen on PBC or BBC. NY in 2012 is sending me back to more genteel times? I feel a little like Clooney in The Descendants, who's shocked when his kids open their mouths and vile street invective comes out. Made me laugh but not sure I like living here. So, when Margaret Hale is partying with her cousin on Harley Street, I may know the dances and dinners and the made to perfection clothes--fab fabrics--and the admiration of handsome men is superficial hooey. She certainly has an inkling of this, and, though a great beauty, is skeptical of her lovely cousin's superficiality, but heck--it's so much fun to be a girl with money and prospects! Then her cuz marries an aristo with a military career and leaves for Corfu. Margaret returns home to the genteel poverty of her father's parsonage in the SOUTH, a place described as a mythic country house overflowing with roses and huge snarly trees with gorgeous leaf tableaus in a sparkly ever-blue sky. Soon Marge is to be expelled from this paradise. The culprit? Her father's religious doubts. When he rencounces his priesthood, the family must quickly leave for the dread NORTH! The always ailing helpless mother, the class-obsessed loyal servant,the former priest less than eagerly look forward to his new career as a tutor in a manufactoring town, Milton. In greatly reduced circumstances, Margaret shows the strong determined fiber of her character. And this romance is all about character. We admire that she's opinionated, has great will and temper. We like that she's kind and feels that charity is something you feel, not a duty, and that in life you learn from other people, regardless of their age and class. You really get Margaret's courage and the modest fact that she doesn't care she's great-looking. She's looking at humanity through the large end of the telescope, not the narrow end, so she's caught by surprise when a lawyer, a long time friend, proposes marriage with great passion. Marriage? Lover? Foreign ideas for some vague future; no offense--never thought of you that way? But she's sorely tried to hold onto her ideals in the bustling business world of the very polluted Milton. Here her father's lofty beliefs about the higher purpose of life, are lost in the calculation of a place where status and money are synonymous and there's no rich natural world to escape into. Worse yet, she's been raised with her mother and aristocratic cousin's beliefs about the lowly nature of tradesmen. In Milton, trade is valued more than family or intellectual achievements. From a parsonage that revered her family, where she felt engaged and happy teaching children and caring for the unfortunate, Margaret has to manage in cheap rooms with her increasingly ailing mother and isolated depressed (not a term then) father. When John Thornton, the extremely successful owner of a garment manufacturing operation,comes to learn from her father and becomes a valued friend, he seems to personify everything Margaret hates about the North. Though her father talks about his incredible enterprising spirit and higher understanding, she thinks him cold, provincial,concerned only with the coarse values of the marketplace. She also thinks he's an imperious master of men--his hands who work the factory. Marget befriends the daughter of one, Higgins. Bess is her own age but seriously ill from breathing the "fluff" of the factory. Higgens, though uneducated, is wise man about people and the politics of his situation as a worker. Seeing the Union as a solution, he's a ringleader in a strike against the "masters," the owners of the mills. Meanwhile, Margaret, while helping his dying daughter, is privvy to the workers' suffering. In this novel, it's innate to her nature to say and do what she thinks is right. She may have doubts, but she does what her conscience dictates and is not always better for it. This means, when the strikers riot, she risks her own life and prevents Thornton from being injured. Later, when he proposes, she sets him right--that she would have done the same for anyone else in that situation. Though she believes this on an ideological level, she's ignored the personal level he lives on. Being a steadfast soul,he continues to love her and think he's not good enough. For Margaret, her Father's daughter, to engage in real life she has to gain values that she earns--so they're really her own. To this end, Gaitskill heaps suffering and tragedy on top of the isolation, poverty and alienation. Margaret breaks down, catches herself failing her own standards, but gets up and grows up. She becomes a better woman for what she has endured and, in the end, she becomes the person she wanted to be. Naturally that's way different than her start. This is a great woman's coming of age and a romance. That's probably why it's lasted for a couple centuries. When a person of the values of the south (be it England, Italy, the U.S.) comes north, it's an encounter with an alien perspective and some self-discovery? I am on the record for not liking romances, but they don't make them like they used to....catch the film first. SW

Saturday, March 10, 2012

About face by Carole Howard

Let me begin this review by saying I don't like the genre. I find women's fiction and romances annoying. That said, who in publishing has not spent hard time with the bodice-rippers? And I actually adapted a science fiction story of mine for a romance magazine. With this disclaimer, I want to say that About face is surprisingly high-minded and romance is but a grounding subtext to a portrait of a successful yet unfulfilled woman in a mid-life crisis. Ruth Talbot is caught between her outer role as a high-level exec at a cosmetic company and her inner self, the young woman in the Peace Corp who worked and lived in an African village. And this is no "white man's burden" experience. The author, who's lived in African countries, shows how Ruth is nurtured by the spirit of the community, as much as she brings vegetables to their diet, sanitation, and medicine. Her youthful privation was shared by Vivian, her best friend, and another Peace Corp volunteer, David, who later becomes her husband. The book alternates between Ruth's memories and her present job at Mimosa Corp, where she deals with a new boss who wants her gone and doesn't share her values about "doing good," and a jealous backstabbing office mate. When her husband decides to take an early retirement and wants her to join him, she's thrown into a malstrom of uncertainty. Then at a benefit, she bumps into Vivian, the long lost Peace Corps friend. Vivian and her husband Carlos are Ruth's road not taken. And much of the book has to with her processing the experience of maturity. Her son grown, with enough money to retire, she contemplates her life as a corporate warrior and decides to introduce a radical cosmetics line, which celebrates the beauty of mature women, with products that make her look not young but her better self. It's called About Face. She must fight her boss and negative media images to bring it to market. Her personal crisis is about whether she should say goodbye to her business world, while involved in the project of her career to explore an unknown future. A support group of friends, ranging in age but all seekers, sustain her with searching queries that allow her to determine her purpose. And as she renews her friendship with Vivian, who works in a shelter for abused women,she comes to see what it is to feel purpose without the validation of money and status. And there are drawbacks in the couple's poverty and hardened political stances. Ruth's talent as an entrepreneur and her belief in capitalism and money being used for good are compromises for her friends. But in the end, they join forces to better the lives and self-esteem of women; sometimes more beautiful in a very different way than when young. This book is all about the emotional growth that comes with time, making a person more what they really are. Think of a photographic image developing in an acid tray. It takes time and stirring for the image to completely come to life. I has a texture not possible in digital photos. Ruth Talbot's saga is like that. My problem with this book again is the genre. It has for me too many cliches, like hot flashes, which while probably enjoyed by the audience for women's fiction,made me wince. Comedians also use recognizable traits for a put-down of aging women. And you hear it in every bar in our land. Culturally, I dislike masking misogony as a joke. Of course this author is simply showing women's shared physical reality and how this woman compensates for it at the office. My other problem is the happy ending. It's plausible but a bit too perfect for me. The rest of the book has more realism, so it could use that at the end. But in woman's fiction, writers create women leading lives real enough we can identify with, yet with outcomes that unlike ours are more happily resolved. This is the fantasy of the genre. I prefer Edith Wharton.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Emergency Public Relations: Crisis Management in a 3.0 world by Alan Bernstein and Cindy Rakowitz

EMERGENCY PUBLIC RELATIONS: Crisis Management in a 3.0 world by Alan Bernstein and Cindy Rakowitz is not just nonfiction, but fantastic nonfiction, it teaches you about handelling the impossible; the improbably feared event, a crisis. As Cindy says in the book, most publicists would rather be shot than deal with a pr crisis. As a pr professional, I have been like the "Little Dutchman," foolishly using my thumb to plug a hole in a bursting dam. Wish I had had this book to school myself in the crisis mind-set and have some base-line plans for when the unexpected inevitably occured. The problem is there are very few mentors qualified to write such a book. Most PR people wing it with some perspective from the last crises, though they know that every one is different with it's own momentum and challenges. But experience in this book means more than "war stories." Between the two of them, Alan and Cindy have over 50 years of crisis management, from law enforcement to companies both public and private. Originally in 1981, this was a spiral notebook that dealt with a simpler slower media world of one to one communications. Jumping ahead to 2012 and the Internet, new techologies and social media platforms, crises happen fast and spread widely and are open to the interpretation of any citizen reporter. Immediate containment is crucial. Countering with your ideas means having specific tools in place. What are the mindsets and strategies essential to our era? Whether the crisis is physical (flood, fires, earthquakes, epidemics) or manmade (extramarital affairs, embezzlement, hostle takeovers, brand attacks) advance thinking means having plans in place, preparing with drills, looking at case studies and formulas that work. Uniquely, the authors show that you also have to be prepared to throw this out. You need knowledge but it's just as essential to build flexibility into your approach and improvise as needed. And you need tools for defense. Though crisis mindset means vigilence 365 days a year, defense depends on core values and a concise mission statement (that are real). These enable you to build trust and respect with both the public and media. And you will need that bulwark when a situation threatens your brand. EMERGENCY shows how they were used to enable Domino's Pizza to contain a nasty prank by employees that went viral. And when Johnson & Johnson had their Tylenol Crisis, they responded with such integrity in the end they enhanced their brand. When it comes to individuals and everybody is their own brand these days, you have to release facts with heart. This means messages are framed to be congruent with your core values and mission. Not thinking with compassion certainly worsened Bernie Madoff's verdict and hurt Tiger Woods. But look at Bill Clinton's rehabilitation. If not forgotten, his standing, as a force in international relations, is unaffected. The secrets of tailoring a message, even when you're wrong, are explained. And how to get them out out, ways to handle the media--from thinking like a journalist and avoiding manipulation, to writing a press release that's actually read. Cindy is a friend and colleague, but I was bowled over by how comprehensive this book is. It provides a template for a plan that can lierally "save your life." Pr crises apart. I considered how hysterical New Yorkers got after 9/11. My husband stocked powdered milk and gas masks, while a good friend bought a dingy from L.L.Bean to cross the Hudson--we all could have used this book. It's a new classic.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Orphanmaster's Son

The Orphanmaster's Son by Adam Johnson is a book I wanted to like, lots of people I respect do, and I am always willing to champion a book that's against totalitarian repression and meglomaniacal dictators. So what's the problem? It's unrelenting in its narrative of atrocities so viscerally frightening in this "no exit" world that they would have been the envy of Kafka's Castle or Dostoyevsky's The Lower Depths or Solzenetsyn's Gulag or any concentration camp history....and that's my problem. I don't know if Mr.Johnson's N.Korea is meant to be mythic or real or a combination of both.

Why does this matter? If it's historical truth or fiction based on it, then I accept the necessity to shock so we can be outraged and perhaps contribute to some change or resolve it won't happen again. If he's created this world in order to indict N.Korea, that would be an endeavor made more believable by a novel with more than one note--despair/hopelessness--only relieved at the end by the possibility of escape but not for the hero. I found myself almost feeling sorry for a country I know little about, so wholly condemned as vicious, tyrannical, and completely soul destroying for all its citizens high or low.

A pity because it is so well written and yet you find yourself almost afraid to care for the protagonists, because people are so casually tortured and killed--completely eviscerated as individuals with identity in The Orphanmaster's Son. The book tells two stories that overlap. One of General Ga, who is not really the General, and his biographer, who actually is a police torturer. It begins with an orphan, who's not really an orphan since his father is the orphanmaster, the man who captures them from the streets and has them sent to various work farms, uranium mines, toil that leads to no life expectancy for these ill fed, ill treated, flotsam of the bottom rung of N.Korean society They are exploited even for their blood if they sicken, far worse than Dickens' England. Yet the Orphan master's son manages to survive and keep some identity since he had had a father and a mother who was a "singer."

One day he is attacked by the strongest most evil man in N.Korea, General Ga, and lives to not just escape the uranium mines but to become the man he killed, assuming his high place in society and his wife, the beautiful actress Sun Moon, who is the soul of the "Dear Leader's" Korea. His learning about love with Sun Moon and her two children, inspires a denouement worthy of Casablanca, the movie that also inspires the Imposter Ga to a great act of liberation. The police interrogator cannot bear the one noble man he's encountered, who experienced love, to be destroyed and so he tells his story so that his identity will be preserved and, at the end, you protest his stultifying solution, though it was inevitable. In this N.Korea, the "Dear Leader" is a combination of Hitler and Big Brother. In this unimaginable world everyone and everything is part of him and owes whatever existence they have to complete subjugation. It is a nightmare there is no waking from, until the Americans land to rescue their female rower. A path is briefly open. I don't know I would recommend this novel, which I think is a poetic allegory to the reality that is North Korea. I would rather read something by a North Korean? I may be having an authenticity problem.