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.


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.


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.



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.