Friday, December 25, 2015

When is a commercial book literary & a literary book commercial? THE MAGIC STRINGS OF FRANKIE PRESTO and GINNY GALL

THE MAGIC STRINGS OF FRANKIE PRESTO by Mitch Albom and GINNY GALL by Charlie Smith seem worlds apart. Albom's novels have sold more than 35 million copies in 42 languages. Charlie Smith, author of eight novels, three New York Times "Notable Books" won the Agha Kahn Prize and has written for the Paris Review and The New Yorker. Albom, who started as a sportswriter, is a screen writer and syndicated columnist. His prose style is simple, at times even flat. Smith is a literary stylist whose "writing can  make the mountains ring." (NYTBR).

Albom is a big commercial success without being a literary writer. Smith is a literary success from Iowa's prestigious writing program, whose books have been well received by critics but are not bestsellers. Commercial and literary are marketed in different categories--one makes money, the other gets respect. Why is there a split?  One reason is publishers' infatuation with the products of MFA writing programs, elegant and polished, vetted by academia. Some have okay sales, though not as all-encompassing as Albom's products. Interestingly, both of these books were published by Harper Collins, so the literary and commercial are not really so polarized. Yet, as an itinerant student of lit, I take issue with the current definition of literary based on style. Before the ascension of "creative writing" to academia, prose could be awkward and still be literary.

Take Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward Angel and Dreiser's An American Tragedy, classics whose styles were found wanting by critics. Compare Hemingway's short journalistic sentences with Fitzgerald's gorgeous style. Then consider Hemingway's gripping stories of men at war and Fitzgerald's achingly sensual descriptions of the ultimate flapper and the wet tanned skin of Mrs. Diver, a doomed heroine. In fact, the two writers were in competition, championed by Gertrude Stein and Sylvia Beach's rival literary salons in Paris. The passion of their supporters and critics had little to do with the polish of the writing or whether the books resembled previous titles. Books were events before they were products.

Wolfe and Dreiser would probably receive rejection slips today. The length of Wolfe's wordy epic would be the kiss of death and Dreiser's stories would be dismissed as wooden melodrama, But a novel is great because of a powerful story and the way it is told. Wolfe's coming of age is symphonic, rolling out settings and characters at a momentous pace. Dreiser's novels, often based on news items, shock now, though less for what happens than how they occur. Violence, poverty or success are Darwinian destinies generated by characters, who interact with their social reality-- class structure and business.

John Dos Passos' USA trilogy is a neglected classic, usurped by a charming descendant, Doctorow's Ragtime. Many people think Doctorow developed the use of the novel form as pageant of American life, mixing real icons and imagined people to show the unfolding of our culture. Yet, though Doctorow occasionally acknowledged the influence of Dos Passos, readers aren't aware of how derivative his novels are.  Dos Passos was the first to use the camera eye in a novel. That viewpoint, like a newsreel, unfurls the evolution of business and culture, mixing Andrew Carnegie and other real people with fictional ones to trace the rise of railroads, oil companies, fashion and even public relations. It's a huge achievement and I hope readers will consider The Big Money and then think of why Ragtime is on high school lists and the other fallen off.

I had never read Mitch Aboum, so I came to THE MAGIC STRINGS OF FRANKIE PRESTO with curiosity. He's a commercially successful writer and that might mean crowd-pleaser. While sex sells, so does sentiment, happy endings. I discovered that while this is no masterpiece of social realism, there is no clear ending. Instead, I found a novel that's a poetic work of magical realism. In case you doubt me, here is Wikipedia's definition:

Magical realism, magic realism, or marvelous realism is literature, painting, and film that, while encompassing a range of subtly different concepts, share in common an acceptance of magic in the rational world. It is also sometimes called fabulism, in reference to the conventions of fables, myths, and allegory. Of the four terms, Magical realism is the most commonly used and refers to literature in particular[1]:1–5 that portrays magical or unreal elements as a natural part in an otherwise realistic or mundane environment.

Think of  Like Water for Chocolate or Marquez's classic 100 Years of Solitude, then consider the THE MAGIC STRINGS OF FRANKIE PRESTO. It begins with the muse of Music, the narrator, paying homage to one of her own. At his funeral she begins the tale of his improbable life. With the romance of Candide or an American TV Western, whose heroes owe much to happenstance, Frankie Presto, comes into a hostile world with his hands out to grab musical genius. He's born in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, and how he survives is through chance and the force of his musical genius.

Critics may prefer magical realism in translation to Album's simple English. But he pulls it off because Alboum is a lifelong musician. He has a serious love for guitars and knowledge of their famous masters, Segovia, Django Rhineheart and his invention Frankie Presto. In Presto's life, he gives a history of popular musical. Dizzy Gilespie, Elvis and even Kiss, are fun cameos in Music's story.  It's moving because Presto is not a Zelig character. He's got a haunting otherworldly, yet human sensibility. I began to wish I had a recording of Presto's playing and his singing, which are separate facets of his identity.

The metaphysical elements in THE MAGIC STRINGS OF FRANKIE PRESTO are ongoing like a folktale and could be hokey, But Music's historical framework makes them plausible or not, as you like. By the end. I was convinced of the miraculous in art's transcendent nature. Francesco is born during the Spanish Civil War in a church under attack. His mother gives birth and church bells ring, moments before Franco's soldiers burst into the room and murder her. The infant and a nun flee to extreme deprivation. Later abandoned, Francesco is saved by a mysterious hairless dog, whose master, a sardine merchant, takes the infant home and raises him. The dog, the woman, the senseless violence, and his strange salvation is a pattern that will reappear throughout the book, like a fictional Golden Mean. Another definition:

The Golden Mean (or Golden Section), represented by the Greek letter phi, is one of those mysterious natural numbers, like e or pi, that seem to arise out of the basic structure of our cosmos. Unlike those abstract numbers, however, phi appears clearly and regularly in the realm of things that grow and unfold in steps, and that includes living things.

Frankie Presto does have its sentiment. He has a childhood sweetheart he finds, loses and regains, he has fame, fortune, genius, vision but all have a cost. Like The Monkey's Paw, his fate is entangled with a talisman--guitar strings. But what occurs is in keeping with the mystery of life. It's awesome in the original meaning. This book was unexpected fun, especially the insider's look at Music and musicians, it's inventions and myths. I hope it continues Alboum's bestseller streak.

Charlie Smith's GINNY GAL also features an orphan born into a time of horrific conflict. Devlin Walker is a Black child in the Jim Crow South with a talent for writing. Delvin Walker's mother was a good time gal, living with her children in a small house in Chatanooga. She rented rooms for the town's brothel, and kept her children fed and happy. Devlin, who loves hearing books, teaches himself to read at four. He's also curious by nature and ventures over the bridge that separates him from the prosperous White part of town. When he innocently enters a dress shop and is fascinated by a bead, it leads to a severe beating. This is Devlin's first lesson about being a Black in the Jim Crow South. He's just five, when his mother, accused of killing a white man, flees into the woods. Devlin never recovers from her loss.

GINNY GAL, is a slang term for a Black person's hell and that is what Devlin Walker comes to experience through the 20's and 30's. There are bright spots. He does find a home with the kindly Mr. Oliver, undertaker to the Black community. Devlin is considered fortunate to be Oliver's successor, educated and eventually able to take over the prosperous business. He learns about the business, including the tragedy of untimely deaths, lynching and beatings by vigilantes and the Klan. Devlin never likes the smells of the trade but comes to love Mr. Oliver and admire his mission to provide solace to families, even when barely possible. Here is Smith's description in Devlin's voice:

"The dead boy lay peaceably under a mostly repaired face. The mashed-in parts had been picked out with an awl and the dents filled in with putty but they'd left the makeup  off so you could see where the work was done. The pick holes and the brown putty. The boy now had hands, at least he wore white cotton gloves that looked as though they were filled with palms and gingers. 'Cotton ticking," Oliver said, the gloves tied with white hemp twine to the wrists hidden under the white shirt cuffs and the black broadcloth coat taken from among the pile in a big cabinet out in the corridor."

This is tough material and Smith has a decidedly skilled hand. GINNY GALL is a realistic novel, where you find yourself rooting for the success of this bright, funny, appealing boy. With his uncommon intelligence and understanding, his reading of Shakespeare  and constant note-taking you see his ambition to write novels as a plausible future. But, as Devlin's understanding deepens, so does the inevitability of his fate as an interloper in a world ruled by Whites. When Devlin fears he will be accused of a White's boy's murder, he flees Mr. Oliver's protection for a freight train to places unknown.

As a second-class citizen who must avoid police, Devlin is glad to join a traveling museum of Negro History. He helps the "Professor," who charges a pittance for Black people to see the writings of Black authors and photographs of Black people, executed, drowned and burned. Sometimes a visitor, such as Celia, recognizes a loved one. For Devlin, she's an oasis in his aimless hiding, A young college-going Black woman, who aspires to be a doctor, really likes him. While Devlin knows marriage to Celia is a fantasy, still he writes to her.  Over time, she becomes an ever more distant life raft for his dwindling ambitions.

Separated from the "Professor," Devlin again rides freight trains, his means of escape and chance. He loses big, when along with a group of Black men and boys on his train ,he is falsely accused of raping white girls. Devlin's bright future becomes doing time, which stretches out further, each time he attempts escape. Despite being caged, beaten down, and bitter at the profound injustice, Devlin maintains his unique sense of himself and another life. What happens at the end, as he escapes to the mountains, is both an echo of his mother's flight and his big chance. Devlin's brutalized but not brutal and he has something of hope.

Stories from Black history are increasingly being seen by audiences, Black and White. There's a commercial appeal to GINNY GALL, which brings Jim Crow history alive as an American gulag. The facts are grim, yet there's a vivid sense of beauty in this novel. Smith's prose is so lush, you smell the blossoms, feel how sunlight changes colors, taste the textures of fresh and stale cornbread, hear a voice honeyed with love or see faces distorted by hate.

I would be curious what a Black person, whose family experienced the era, would think of Smith's novel.


Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Mothers of famous artists are often ignored in the mythmaking process but in THE MARRIAGE OF OPPOSITES, a mother's mythic origins inspire great art

The mothers of famous artists  are often ignored in a myth-making process that assumes artists are completely self-invented creatures. Probably Freud's theories contributed to the infamy of mothers, yet there's evidence women transmit the gene for intelligence to their sons (for daughters it's a split gene). In THE MARRIAGE OF OPPOSITES, Alice Hoffman shows how a son's genius arose from his mother's transformative journey. It is late in this mythic story, when you realize Camille Pissarro is the son most like Rachel, his mother.

She's an old lady in 1807 in Paris, when she begins her narrative about her life on the island of St. Thomas. Her family came to the island, as did their small Jewish community, because the King of Denmark proclaimed freedom of religion for all on St, Thomas and gave Jews civil rights. After 300 years of his family's expulsions from countries, her father finally found a haven. The story Rachel learned, was that he owed his life to his Black servant, now an invaluable employee, who carried him to the dock in a wicker basket. The servant, who became his best friend, was freed by Rachel's father for having saved his life.

Interestingly, the Danish king had also proclaimed no "new" slaves. Of course, the Jews, like other Europeans, existed apart from the native Black communities. Former slaves lived with Europeans as paid servants and sometimes secret mistresses. But no questions were asked, unless the unthinkable happened and they married, and became outcasts. Yet separatism was another myth, since in actuality the lives of  Blacks were completely entwined with Whites.

Rachel's inseparable best friend, the same age, was Jestine, their cook's daughter. They shared the desire to go to Paris, books, dreams and adventure in the wild. Their natural world was magical. They befriended feral donkeys, beautiful orange parrots, salamanders, even the sultry air and tumultuous ocean. Every year, on a special night, they lay on the beach to watch hordes of turtles leave the water to lay eggs on the beach.

In her notebooks, Rachel captured all the old stories; the sadness of the turtle girl, who wanted to be completely human, the werewolf descendants of the old Danish slave-owning families, who prowled the night. Memory and folklore merged, when Rachel's hands sparked in the presence of spirits, three blackbirds prefigured three deaths and the native "haint blue"warded off ill luck. There was also the surprising smell of molasses permeating buildings, especially her father's store and the synagogue.

Though Rachel largely does what she wants and enjoys her father's love and respect for her "head for figures," she can never escape her mother's disapproval. Her mother dislikes Rachel, educated over her objections in a time when women couldn't inherit or run a family business. She criticized her willful, outspoken personality. She pointed out that her plainness, combined with those traits, made  her unmarriagable. Rachel was fine with that but wished Jestine's kind patient mother, a source of treats and wisdom, was her own.

Though others might disapprove of the girls 'close friendship, what mattered to Rachel's father was less convention than what he thought right. He appreciated that Rachel could keep his books. Though her mother accepted that women were entirely at the will of husbands and fathers, Rachel's father wanted her to be independent. So Rachel grew up with a mother who didn't like her and a father who treated her like a son. She was very surprised, when Adelle told her fortune, that she would raise many children. When that suddenly came to pass at age 20, when Rachel is married in a business arrangement to a man her father's age with young children, she bowed to his necessity. The marriage would stabilize business. Yet, Rachel yearned for love and Adelle delivered. Eventually, she was to recognize a great love.

Her independent life was lost to the management of a household and children. But Rachel found help in the graveyard from the spirit of her husband's first wife. Rachel's fate seemed as unlikely as that of Jestine, the most beautiful girl on the island. Rachel's handsome cousin had been in love with Jestine since their childhood, a union that seemed destined in the stars. But this interracial union was thwarted and Jestine had a child and lived without love.

In the THE MARRIAGE OF OPPOSITES, the natural world and mythic reality clash with society's man-made rules, tradition and history. Yet myth has its own primal logic. Though Rachel had to conform to society, she also had to defy it to unite with her destined lover. Because of a legal technicality, he and Rachel lived as outcast with their children for years, before her marriage was accepted by her community, Her family's suffering made her appreciate the value of conforming to society. By the time Camille came along, the willful girl, keeper of the fantastic stories of her beautiful island, was submerged in the respectable mother.

Like many myths, there is also a curse. The witch, Rachel's mother, said that she should experience the sorrow of a child's willfulness.Though Rachel raised many children, Camille, the most like her,was the most difficult. When Camille was an infant and would not sleep, Rachel took him to the old herb man, who said the boy could not help what he saw. So dazzled and excited was Camille by the world, he didn't want to shut his eyes. He gave her a potion. Camille slept but never lost that sight. As he grew older, Rachel feared for her wayward son. He could not stop drawing or painting the white light and vivid colors of his island. Camille could not work in school or the business Rachel's efforts to force and direct him came to no good.

Parallel to Rachel's story was that of Jestine, whose daughter by Rachel's cousin is abducted. She mourned for twenty years. When Camille was finally sent to Paris to study art, he found Jestine's daughter for her, which brought the friendship into the next generation. Later, after his father's death,he returned to the island and tried to conform to help his mother. But Rachel had a revelation of the rightness of Camille going his way, as she had once desired. When she accepted nature's law of change, a solution offered itself.

As an old lady, Rachel thought of her notebooks and the time, before modernization, when the veil between spirits and humans was thin. Her hands no longer sparked but she respected the two worlds. Though in the physical one, she still had trouble accepting Camille's wife. Opposites were married in Rachel's life. Magical and historical reality, youth and age, art and commerce merged in this fantastic novel.

I found this novel transformative. The reader travels from youth's rebellion and inspiration to maturity's illusion of security. There's the bittersweet experience of old age, when time brings change that can sweep away what's familiar--what was once believed to be true. At its core, THE MARRIAGE OF OPPOSITES is a love story to the island of old St. Thomas, created anew in an artist's eye and the heart of his mother.


Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Vladimir Kvint's STRATEGY FOR THE GLOBAL MARKET NEW! Bloomberg--Why US Needs a National Strategy

“While his strategic analyses and forecasts of events are not infrequently outspoken, controversial, and at times even criticized as outlandish or impossible, in hindsight, they have been remarkably accurate and insightful. Indeed, it becomes evident that his forecasts are soundly grounded in detailed analysis of fact, coupled with a unique perspective and the wisdom gained of a long and unique career.” – James W. Michaels, Forbes Magazine 

"This path breaking book studies the concept of strategy, surveying its development from ancient times to the present and showing how it is basic to both economic growth and the quality of life. Strategies, Kvint explains, work to find new perspectives and to project new scenarios into the future. This original, deep, and practical book is a must-read for all of us who want to understand modern economics"--Edmund S. Phelps, the 2006 Nobel Laureate in Economics and Director, Center on Capitalism and Society, Columbia University, 

KVINT on Bloomberg Radio's Kathleen Hays  Show and TV

Dr. Vladimir Kvint, author of STRATEGY FOR THE GLOBAL MARKET (Routledge), is an economist and strategist. He is a US Fulbright Scholar and a member of the Bretton Woods 
Committee (Washington, DC), a Fellow of the World Academy of Art & Science and the Russian Academy of Sciences. 

Q. Having no background in Economics, it's the vision part of Strategy, predictions based in fact, that had me speculating about a kinship to a novel--an alternative reality created from a set of facts. Yet Strategy is a science, not an art form, with laws. Dr. Vladimir Kvint explains:

"The main law of Strategy is the Economizing of Time. If you are late, you lose a certain amount of resources. But you can be first in the niche of opportunities. Strategy has a similarity to ontology, the philosophical study of being. In both, facts are very important. According to Plato, time is also less important than descriptive of the world. But facts are not as important in Strategy as in ontology, because in strategizing the future facts belong to the past reality. This may be irrelevant to the future beyond the horizon."

Q. If strategically the present is already past, how does a strategist work?

"What a strategist does is assemble informative resources that already exist into a statistical baseline. Assembling resources and developing strategy takes time. By the time a Strategy is ready for implementation, what was current is already past. For strategists current does not exist. You have to understand the future for it to work. "

Q.  Here we are back to vision, why is Bill Gates the best example of why "common sense" is a bad adviser?

"When Gates said he could see his grandmother one day sitting at a computer in her kitchen, people laughed. But he could see through time. It was also against common sense, when Kennedy said that man would reach the moon. Yet, in just a few years, a man planted a flag on the moon. Both Gates and Kennedy had strategies behind their visions."

Q. Of course facts in novels are fictional, unlike economic forecasts. In 1989 you published a prediction that "by 1992 there will be no country called the Soviet Union" and in 1990, this was the cover story of Forbes. That insight was uniquely based on specific economic studies. Yet what do you believe about Strategy that's in common with Napoleon?

"Strategy is more important than any weapon. There is much writing about this by great leaders, such as Sun Tzu, Caesar, as well as Napoleon's Maxims. He describes as the two major criteria for Strategy--time and space with the domination of time. "

Q. How is the strategic process applied to the global market?

"Just as strategic development and thinking are always different from common sense, the strategic planning process is different from operational day to day planning. The point of Strategy is to help achieve a shortcut, an asymmetrical path to success in the best case scenario. I take Aristotle's consideration and concept of the 'Good Life' first and foremost. A strategist must learn how to formulate strategic priorities according to the values and interests of people and nations. Strategy keeps one centered in the major strategic objectives."

Q. What exactly is the Global Market?

"The Global Market includes developed and emerging market countries, as well as developing and underdeveloped countries. A strategic scheme reflects the market cooperation between consumers, companies, governments and multilateral institutions around the world. It must account for for real-time cooperation and competition. 

Q. So how do you define strategy in this context?

"Strategy is wisdom with a defined vector to success and an assessment of resource limitations. Planning is the implementation of Strategy. It is the execution of a defined Strategy within the constraints of time and resource availability"

Vladimir Kvint has 45 years of experience working with Strategy. He clearly defines the difference between strategy and planning. First comes the vision, then planning--the steps to get there, followed by implementation, and exit strategy.  

The omission of the last step, Dr. Kvint explains, is unfortunately all too common. When countries don't design one at the beginning of a strategy, suffering can be huge, as the U.S. casualties at the end of the Iraqi War. A corporate example is the disappearance of Arthur Anderson, once an anchor of American finance. But exit is another topic in this thorough and fascinating book.

Read STRATEGY FOR THE GLOBAL MARKET, if you're an economist, or an investor, an economics student for the knowledge of a world authority. If you've simply got a philosophical bent, read this book for a new angle on the nature of reality.


Vladimir Kvint talks Strategy with Bloomberg's Melike Ayan

Thursday, October 22, 2015

With a nod to Henry James, THE PRIZE looks at the mannered art world with irony and earnestness

Prologue to THE PRIZE, Jill Bialosky's incredibly moving novel of the art world

Edward Darby knew that an artist's work had the power to change the way in which art was perceived, for every successful artist must recreate the medium, but he did not know, each time he went to a new artist's studio, if he'd ever find it. When you see a work of art, it will be as if everything else in relationship to it has faded. Art should transport the seer from the ordinary to the sublime. His father, a scholar of romantic poetry, told him this when he was a boy. But it was more than that. It was the myths artists created about their art that gave the work authority, and as an art dealer, he was part of that creation. He thought about all this as he looked for Agnes Murray's name on the directory in the vestibile of a crumbling old warehouse in Bushwick. It was a cold and gray morning in April. He hoped he wasn't wasting his time.

THE PRIZE (COUNTERPOINT, Berkeley) is a novel of a prescribed milieu, the modern art world, with expected behavior, class designations, and subtleties of speech and intention rarely perceptible to the uninitiated. One of the pleasures of this book is that the reader gets to experience this high society and its subsets through the players; star artists, insecure and brash, jockeying not just for position but immortality, galleristas, voraciously seeking fortune's limit (wherever they can sell hot art to the most prestigious buyers internationally).

There are also the true artists and aesthetes with a sense of purpose deeper than the glittery show. They are the core of this Jamesian novel, that reveals how people actually perceive their lives and the incongruous mismatch between them of perceptions. Even between spouses, who believe they know each other, there are gulfs between shared realities. Like the prow of a ship visible at the water line, the feelings underneath have unfathomable depths.

This art world is no satire of poseurs and Machiavellian dealers pushing inflated prices. Instead of capitalizing on affectation and snobbery, though she has fun with cliches, Bialosky, a poet, excavates beneath caricatures for the throbbing soul of perception. Compassion's laced with humor as she describes how subjective perceptions of artists clash and collude with the calculation of the art world professionals. This is well described by the narrator and hero of THE PRIZE, who combines the intuitive perception of the true aesthete with business acumen.

Edward follows his hunches, whatever the cost. His ambition is less about making money than seeking transcendence.. The son of a scholar of romantic poetry, Edward knows in his bones that truth is beauty. This sensibility is his lodestar, unlike Holly, his earthy wife, who finds sustenance in volunteer work at animal shelters and maintaining their comfy country home. Edward is mystified by her capacity for simple happiness. She cannot see his attraction to the international art scene, the constant travel and superficiality.

This novel cleverly sends up the cliched set-up of "opposites attract,"by showing the primal tragedy both experienced that originally drew them together. In another knowing nod to James, romance in this novel is based on perceived "similarities"  by lovers, who actually have little understanding of their core desires. Edward is too familiar with the psychiatric total the life of an aesthete took on his brilliant father. His world, as a dealer is far less insular. He avoids the toxic introspection, he thinks, but actually he buries grief in the glamour of his world.

And he has justly earned the reputation of a solid figure in the art world. An aesthete with a poet's sensibility, he consistently delivers the gold. When he perceives intangible truth shining through--a sense of the eternal--he knows he's in the presence of true art. His life is built on such discoveries, like the beautiful high strung artist, who mixes 9-11 imagery with history tinged portraits. Now the major artist of the gallery he partners, he is patient, promoting her well despite her often impossible demands.

Though Edward's life is exactly what he wanted it to be, he finds himself adrift in his 40's. In lesser hands his not atypical crisis--finding his ideals are less than real, wanting to know what is of substance before he loses--would be too familiar. Here, passion makes you fear for his fate. Though Edward recognizes he likes to make a deal, and find a transcendent moment and make it salable, he's painfully vulnerable.

Among the changing people in his art scene, he meets his "soulmate", a haunted sculptor with a sensibility he thinks not unlike his own. Keats' Odes begin a seduction less about his object than the need to throw aside the pedestrian and seize the perfection eluding him,  Edward the truth seeker becomes a liar. His betrayal is mirrored throughout the facets of his carefully ordered life.

Then, as artists jockey for the validation of a major prize, Edward is driven to a precipice, where he must discover what life is worth living. This novel is understated yet the way it's written is beautiful, clever and often surprising. James might read it without disdain.


Thursday, September 3, 2015

SWEET CARESS, a fictional autobiography of an iconic female war photographer, not unlike the real Lee Miller

There was a mistake the day Amory Clay was born. Times (of London) announced the birth of  "a son." So begins William Boyd's novel SWEET CARESS: The Many Lives of Amory Clay (Sept.Bloomsbury). Interestingly, this novel is not about a transgender person and, despite the title, it's not a romance. It's a fictional autobiography of an iconic female war photographer, not unlike the real-life Lee Miller, who went from the muse of Man Ray and fashion icon to the front lines of WWII and published her coverage in Vogue.

Boyd's skill is such that I came to accept Amory Clay, as a British member of the small club of freewheeling women journalists, who went where the action was. Like Clay, Miller evolved as a visual artist. Martha Gellhorn, another member of this group, is also known for her relationship with Earnest Hemingway.And this book provides a good many romantic/sexual interludes that range from "chemistry" to career moves. But there is a certain perfunctory quality to Clay's affairs, a required indulgence, that can seem generic.

What's convincing are the snapshots of and by Amory throughout the novel. As she matures through the decades, as a person and artist ,so do the photos. It was strange to be engrossed in her adventures, believing she's  real, while knowing she's a literary conceit. But the author of Restless and Any Human Heart, knows how to build a very credible yet uniquely unpredictable character.

Amory Clay, media figure, begins with the evolving consciousness of a young girl on a farm run by her tough and nurturing mother. She's protective of her sister, the precocious musician, her oddball brother, and her strangely distant father, who form her world. When her uncle gives her a camera, her life opens up. Artistic and bookish, she captures the free life on the farm, until it suddenly ends. Despite the family's poverty,Amory is "exiled" to a boarding school, where she's groomed for a rare woman's scholarship. That ambition ends because of her father's madness, Amory suffers a major trauma and is never the same. (I think it's inferred her need for action may arise from this.)

She leaves school to work for her uncle, a society photographer.When her honesty interferes with the necessary flattery of the job, she goes abroad to make a name for herself.But her  photographs of Berlin brothels bring her notoriety instead of fame. (I had no problems accepting the truth of those photos and the revelation of how Amory got them).

Broke, she's takes a steady job in New York shooting fashions for a women's catalogue--an accepted outlet for a female photographer,She also managed a volume of personal art photographs. Her love affairs occupy her thoughts though they are less interesting than her probing observations of place and people. These grow along with a desire for creative work that captures real life. Finally, she finds the strength to refuse life as an object of a man's desire. Instead, she chooses to do "her bit" for the war and the novel takes off. Amory puts her life on the line to record what she sees, conflict and how soldiers live day to day.

But these are only some of the lives of Amory Clay,  There is a wonderful Vietnam chapter, as well as snapshots with cunning glimpses of her life as a "Lady" and mother. I believed more than these shots the ones of settings and people, historical and fictional. And, when the book was finished, I felt satisfied. I respected Amory's well earned wisdom and the life lived by her own values. I will certainly see the movie.

For what is probably one of the real-life sources for Boyd's heroine, read below about Lee Miller. I possess a book w/narrative of her photographs. They are stunning, art in action. Boyd's snapshots are not even close. His achievement is to create a portrait of a woman rarely depicted. A self-made talent, uncompromising about her independence, who succeeds despite the narrow expectations and opportunities of her era..

From Wikipedia: Elizabeth "Lee" Miller, Lady Penrose (April 23, 1907 – July 21, 1977), was an American photographer. Born in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1907, she was a successful fashion model in New York City in the 1920s before going to Paris, where she became an established fashion and fine art photographer. During the Second World War, she became an acclaimed war correspondent for Vogue, covering events such as theLondon Blitz, the liberation of Paris, and the concentration camps at Buchenwald and Dachau.

Monday, August 31, 2015

LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI 'S WRITING ACROSS THE LANDSCAPE, travel journals that read like a surreal novel

WRITING ACROSS THE LANDSCAPE travel journals 1960-2010 by LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI, edited by Giada Diano and Matthew Gleeson, is published by Liveright Publishing as a Memoir (September).

Ferlinghetti is a Beat icon, poet and author of the legendary Coney Island of the Mind and a founder of City Lights Booksellers and Publishers in San Francisco. In these journals through the decades, places (Latin America, Seattle, Tijuana, Cuba, Paris, Rome, Greece, Berlin, Belize, Russia, Australia) and people (Henry Miller, Allen Ginsberg, Pablo Neruda), he captures the truth of a moment, how it feels and what it says politically about a society--often within a Zen context of eternity. There are also drawings, such as "her tragic side" 8/01, that are revelations.

In addition, this book provides entertaining literary experience. Who but Ferlinghetti would consider reversing Conrad's Heart of Darkness to begin in New York City (as the heart of the beast) and discover the great Light, The Heart of Lightness?  I found this book so rich, so well edited, you could flip through it and find meaningful paragraphs on any page.  Here are a few chance selections..

The Sixties--Salton Sea
"When Do the Gas Stations Open Up Around Here?" I hear the cowboy shouting....That's life in the American West, 1961. Let me out, I'm way down here at the bottom of the well, below the Sea...I'm the cowboy and I paid eight dollars for this fancy resort beach house and I want some action along with it, even some Beauty, I want my money's worth, I'll take a lot of showers, use up all the soap and towels, drink out of both sterilized water glasses, turn on the air-conditioning, the refrigerator, the heater, flush the toilet a lot. I'll go swimming in the Pool even if I freeze to death doing it..."

Santa Rita Journal--1968
Santa Rita Rehabilitation Center. What are we doing here in this dank tank? Probing the limits of political dissent in this unenlightened country?  Nonviolent gesture of blocking the entrance to war at Oakland Army Induction Center hereby judged beyond that limit. Rehabilitate us, please...First rough impressions of anybody's first time in jail, suddenly realizing what "incarcerated" really means. Paranoid fear of the unknown, fear of not knowing what's going to happen to your body, fear of getting thrown in the Hole...Routine of being booked, fingerprinted, mugged, shunted from bullpen to bullpen itself a shock for any "first offender"...Naive vestigal illusions about the inherent goodness of man fly out the barred windows...

Pompei's supreme hallucination as in one of those films where the hero is walking into the sun and the heat is rising and his eyes take on a glazed look and the sky and the whole landscape start to whirl around him as in a kaleidoscope, perhaps the way it was before Vesuvius erupted. In Berlin they are running a marathon around the thirty miles of the ruined Wall. The morning newspaper in Napoli shows the huge crowd, thousands of runners passing through the Brandenburg Gate. Some have their arms outstretched, presumably in joy, or as if they were about to fly like Icarus straight into the sun. Turn the photo sideways and they look like the stone figures still gesturing in the rootless ruins of Pompei, the arms outstretched against the rain of lava. They have a comic aspect, un aspetto comico.

Journals are often interior confessionals and travel books are exterior observations. WRITING ACROSS THE LANDSCAPE is a poet's hybrid, confessions that offer glimpses of the world, ourselves and the future.


Saturday, August 29, 2015

GIRL WAITS WITH GUN, novel based on the true story of a female deputy sheriff in 1914

                   " I got a revolver to protect us," said Miss Constance, "and I soon had use for it."
                                                                                                 --New York Times, June 3, 1915

Amy Stewart's novel, GIRL WAITS WITH GUN, rings true. She includes real newspaper articles that give the Kopp sisters' story the authenticity of an era fairly forgotten in 2015. In 1914  Constance Kopp turned thirty-five on an isolated farm with her sister Norma, also a spinster, and 16-year old Fleurette.  It was eccentric that the three sisters and their mother chose to live on this farm, rather than town, where a school and other cultural advantages existed. It was unheard of, when their mother died, that the sisters decided to stay.  Despite the lack of conveniences, Fleurette's education at home and borderline poverty, they resisted the offers of their married brother to live with his family.

Typically, women without husbands for protection and no visible means of support were expected to move in with male relatives and be useful to their household.  The reasons the Kopp sisters resisted were rooted in both the secrets of their family and the narrow social conventions governing women's lives at that time.  With employment opportunities greatly limited, marriage was the most acceptable career. GIRL WAITS WITH GUN shows the rare independence of the Kopp sisters.

Constance, the oldest, was tall and broad-shouldered, smart and uncompromising. Though completely uninterested in farm life, she believed it was their best option. Her sense of responsibility was huge, as was her concern for Norma and, especially, Fleurette. Constance managed equipment, animals and finances, while working with Norma on the day to day running of the farm and Fleurette's lessons. She was also sick of the endless rounds of chores. The retiring life, the best for Fleurette, was occasionally too much even for them.

So, in the summer of 1914, they drove their buggy to Patterson, N.J. When a motor car plowed into them, the buggy overturned, pinning Fleurette, but the sisters were not seriously injured. Though badly shattered, the buggy was not beyond repair. Yet this accident would change the lives of all involved because Constance sought simple justice--payment for repairs from the driver, Henry Kauffman, a well-to-do silk manufacturer. Little did she know their seclusion was at an end.

Constance got Kauffman's contact information at the scene of the accident but, when her queries went unanswered, she had to track him down at his factory with her invoice. Non payment led to her meeting with the intrepid Sheriff Heath. Then, after payment, the Kopp sisters faced escalating harassment. Constance joined forces with the Sheriff to combat the powerful manufacturer and his "Black-hand" gang. The farm had become the site for a reign of terror that included threatening notes by "brick delivery." Then Fleurette was targeted to be kidnapped and sold into "white slavery."

Sheriff Heath first taught Constance, then the others, to shoot and gave out guns. During their long vigils with Heath's deputies, they would have to use them. But successfully defending themselves was one thing, bringing Kauffman to trial was another. Constance had to discover and assemble proof that would stick. Ignoring sex and class, she went on the offensive, risking her life for her sisters' safety. Ice storms, violence, notoriety in the papers; nothing deterred Constance from her course. At the end, justice was served and she had earned a real job, as one of the first female Sheriffs in the nation.

Read this very moving, even funny, action-packed novel.  What made it for me, besides the time-travel, was the portraits of the sisters. It may be invention but I found Constance's pragmatic yet inspired mental process, Norma's carrier pigeons and Fleurette's imaginative gift with a sewing machine endearing. These ladies were both modern, of their times, and somehow familiar. My grandmother made lentil soup for her family, before joining the march from Philadelphia to Washington for the women's right to vote--didn't happen until 1920.


Tuesday, August 25, 2015

What is the difference between memoir & autobiography? Take a look at Privilege and Prejudice, NEW World view podcast

An autobiography is different from a memoir, though the forms seem to have merged lately.  I think of a memoir as a public diary edited yet intimate. The thoughts of the writer about their experience are primary, while an autobiography seeks to know the person through their deeds. Reading about them, you learn how a life was lived, consciously and unconsciously. You gain insight into the roles of background and opportunity in shaping character and destiny.   

There are not many large full autobiographies and this one supplies the pleasure of the unexpected. It breaks the stereotypes about Black potential and advancement.  Privilege and Prejudice: The Life of a Black Pionee, the autobiography of Clifton R. Wharton Jr.,is about a Black man whose good fortune helped him to forge breakthroughs in four separate careers. It's an exceptional story, the release below explains more.

Media interviews with Dr. Wharton:

Some new ones. Here's SUNY's Rockefeller Institute.

A Book Talk with Clifton R. Wharton, Jr. - YouTube
Video for clifton r wharton jr? 1:21:54
Oct 13, 2015 -

MSU » Clifton R. Wharton
Oct 22, 2015 - MSU Presidents Simon and Wharton reflect on Wharton's memoir ... former Michigan State University president Dr. Clifton RWharton Jr. talks 

World View podcast from MSU.
MSU link:
 WAMC's Alan Chartock In Conversation with Dr. Clifton Wharton, Jr. about his new autobiography Privilege and Prejudice:The Life of a ...

WMHT’s New York Now, YNNs Capital Tonight, the Times Union, and WCNY’s syndicated Capital Pressroom-October7-10, 2015.
Former SUNY Chancellor Clifton Wharton is profiled for the writing of his new book

Inside Higher Education' Q&;A with Dr. Wharton

Diverse Magazine writes about Bill Moyers' interview of Dr. Wharton

Dr. Wharton's recent interview on PBS Newshour with Judy Woodruff.

“While I did not select the career goal of being a black “pioneer” or integrating the American dream, it was not long before I found myself treading where few, if any, Blacks had stepped before.”
                                                            --Clifton R. Wharton Jr.

The Life of a Black Pioneer

by Clifton R. Wharton Jr.

In this extraordinary new book you will step into the shoes of Dr. Clifton Wharton Jr. and experience the life of a trailblazing Black man who shattered many glass ceilings in a journey through the worlds of higher education, business, government, and the nonprofit sector. PRIVILEGE AND PREJUDICE: The Life of a Black Pioneer (Michigan State University Press; Publication date: October 1, 2015; 614 pages, $34.95 hardcover; ISBN: 978-1-61186-171-6) is a stereotype-defying autobiography. It reveals a Black man whose good fortune in birth and heritage and opportunity of time and place helped him to forge breakthroughs in four separate careers.

Clifton R. Wharton Jr. entered Harvard at age sixteen. He was the first Black student accepted to the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins, and went on to receive a doctorate in economics from the University of Chicago—another first. For twenty-two years he promoted agricultural development in Latin America and Southeast Asia, earning a post as chairman of the Rockefeller Foundation. He again pioneered higher education firsts as president of Michigan State University and chancellor of the sixty-four-campus State University of New York system. As chairman and CEO of TIAA-CREF, he was the first Black CEO of a Fortune 500 company. His commitment to excellence culminated in his appointment as deputy secretary of state during the Clinton administration.

In addition to learning Dr. Wharton’s fascinating life story, you will also meet, as Dr. Wharton met, national leaders in business, philanthropy, higher education, and government -- names like Nelson and John D. Rockefeller 3rd, Theodore Hesburgh, Paul Volcker, Bill and Judith Moyers, Henry Ford II, Cy Vance, Hugh Carey, Mario Cuomo, Hubert Humphrey, Theodore Schultz, Vernon Jordan, William Friday, Milton Friedman, Kenneth Clark, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Andrew Brimmer, John Whitehead, Sol Linowitz, and Presidents Carter, Ford, and Clinton.

A remarkable story of persistence and courage, PRIVILEGE AND PREJUDICE also documents the challenges of competing in a society where obstacles, negative expectations, and stereotypes remained stubbornly in place. An absorbing and candid narrative, it describes a most unusual childhood, a remarkable family, and a historic career.


Clifton R. Wharton Jr. has been a Black pioneer in numerous fields, serving as president of Michigan State University, chancellor of the State University of New York system, chairman and CEO of TIAA-CREF, and ultimately as deputy secretary of state.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

On Being One for Akashic Book's Terrible Twosdays.

“On Being One” by Susan I. Weinstein

Are you a parent going through the Terrible Twos? Did you live through them and survive? Terrible Twosdays is a place to commiserate over the unending shenanigans of your Darling Children (as the online parenting communities say). Nonfiction stories will be considered, so long as names have been changed to protect the guilty. Inspired by our best-selling gift book for parents, Go the Fuck to Sleep, Terrible Twosdays joins the roster of our other online short fiction series. Unlike Mondays Are Murder and Thursdaze, we’re looking for stories with a light and mischievous feel, all about the day-to-day challenges of parenting. As with our other flash fiction series, stories must not exceed 750 words.
This week, Susan I. Weinstein describes life with a baby boy.
Susan I WeinsteinOne Being One
by Susan I. Weinstein
He looks at me with woebegone betrayal in his large baby eyes. My tyrannical one-year-old son is teething, recovering from roseola. How could you leave me? say his eyes so expressively. His tiny hands reach out, appealing to me: Pick me up now!
I’ve fallen for it all day, even when the dirty dishes disgustingly fill the sink. Bits of baby food merge with the smelly patina of old formula. The living room floor is a mass of kiddie toys. In the bathroom stands an infant bathtub full of water, and everywhere else is the debris field. Any step in the direction of cleaning up or putting away laundry elicits bloodcurdling cries—red-faced baby indignation. He’s in pain, and you, heartless creature, put him down! How could you refuse him entry into forbidden zones—bathroom and kitchen—with unchildproofable dangers?
He’s looking tragic. I pick him up to soothe his hurts. I exude calm. Once in my arms, the crying stops, and sunny smiles emerge. Faker, I think, as he demands to be set down. A minute later, it’s,Pick me up! He again wants to be set down every which way, but not the way I need to get on with anything. But this is bebe’s job description—aspiring terrible two.
The next shift is a tall thin blonde from Barnard’s babysitter service. She’s working a summer job with Disney, says she has lots of experience, but can she cut it? Will I return to find him cozily asleep in his bed, his arm around his beloved wild bear, or wailing at a panicked young woman? Will he extract from me an infantile revenge? Once, I left him for a weekend with his dad, while I went on a business trip. He cold-shouldered me for days. Yet I don’t kid myself that I’m indispensible. Just as he’s stricken at my daily departures, he’s equally glad to see his regular sitter or his father. “Fresh meat,” we say, with cynical affection for our savage.
We’re under no illusions, no pretend games of euphoria. We’re knee-deep in baby poop and can’t afford the dignity. We’ve gone psychotic from lack of sleep, fear of flu, and juggling those who know the reality of life with bebe and those who enviously say it must all be joy. The truth is that parental love is primal. You fall in love unalterably and exist in the Darwinian realm of a life for a life. It’s our lives we trade off so that existence with bebe can continue.
He eagerly plays with the pretty blonde student. I’ve ceased to exist for him. With stealth, I make my escape and actually eat dinner in a restaurant.
We are betrayed by our biology, or so it’s said—usually by childless people. You love your child as you love yourself, or parenting doesn’t work. How else would the narcissism of the species lead to child-rearing? Can we afford to be ourselves and still nurture a child? Will he ever sleep through the night; be weaned; be interested in stacking, sorting, words? Will I ever stop paying attention to such arbitrary gauges of progress and intelligence? Do I need them to justify our profound alteration of ourselves?
Maybe we needed alteration, yet there’s little comfort in the road not taken—exotic vacations, a meditative life—instead of frayed nerves seeking solace in stolen intervals. Still, bebe is a complete discovery. In him is the anthropological history of the human race. The first day in the hospital, he looked at us with unseeing eyes and clearly communicated, Get me out of here! I cannot project familial traits on him, extended or imagined. He has a muscular body; we’re flabby and bookish. He’s charming and eminently sociable; we’re nervous introverts. As my selected toys gather dust, I strive to know him. I feel wonder rolling on new grass with him. He points from a sun in a children’s book to one in the real sky. His face is ecstatic.
Did I enjoy the mini-tantrum when I put him back in his stroller? Luckily, any pretty girl is a foolproof way to stop my son crying. As a newborn, he had nurses fighting over his care. At age one, he’ll enter a coffee shop, see an attractive female, and turn on the cute baby act. He fixes the object of his desire with an intense stare. When noticed, he unfurls a dazzling smile, as though to say, Cute baby here! Don’t you like babies? Get to know me! 
SUSAN I. WEINSTEIN is the author of two novels, The Anarchist’s Girlfriend and Paradise Gardens (published by Eat Your Serial Press/Maglomaniac), and a story collection, Tales of the Mer Family Onyx. Her plays, Something About That FaceRabies, and White-Walled Babes, have been produced, as well as her adult adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. Recently, she finished The Strange Afterlife of Harry Houdini & Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and is writing The Selling of ADD/ADHD. Susan’s paintings have been shown at Gallery Brooklyn and Wildflowers Too in New Jersey. Currently making her living in book publicity, she lives in NYC with her husband and teenage son. You can check out her blog at and follow her on Twitter@swpubrel.