Friday, February 28, 2014

The Ten Year Nap by Meg Wolitzer

The Ten Year Nap, by Meg Wolitzer, is a candid look at the lives of four stay-at-home moms. Amy, Jill, Roberta, and Karen are highly educated women who have given up their careers to raise their children. Now, ten years later, the are having doubts regarding the extent to which they are invested in their families. Yet re-entering the workforce after a long sabbatical is a frightening prospect.

Amy Lamb, who is the central protagonist of the book, is an attorney married to her former colleague (Leo). Amy's mother is a successful novelist who was part of the first wave of feminists in the late 60s and early 70s. She is critical of Amy's life choices and disappointed in what she has not achieved.

Her college chum, Jill, has had her own disappointments. Always a brilliant student, her mother's suicide has shaken her notions of what it means to be a woman and a mother. When she and her husband adopt a child from the Soviet bloc, she grapples with her inability to connect with her child.

Then there is Roberta, a failed artist turned puppeteer, who becomes a mentor for a disadvantaged South Dakota teen. Yet when the novelty wears off, she abruptly stops writing to her. Disappointed in herself, Roberta begrudges her husband for his late-life success in puppetry.

Karen, alone among her friends, is happy with her life. A mathematical genius, she and her banker husband share a close bond.

Karen was genuinely grateful for what they had, and she and Wilson gave a lot of money to charity every year...After she had asked Wilson that question about whether she was selfish, she felt almost no residual ambivalence about her own desire to make her family life run beautifully, and to stay in one place, eating an expensive little salad from its container. All that she lacked was more direct contact with numbers and number theory. (p. 217)

The Ten Year Nap does suffer a bit from having too many secondary characters.  Yet the book tries to intelligently explore what Rebecca Traister terms,"the mommy wars." ( What is it like for women to tackle motherhood as they once did their careers?  And what happens when children begin to grow up? Meg Wolitzer once again gives us an intimate portrait of marriage, women's friendships, and motherhood.

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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Woman before Wallis

Margaret Alibert was a French national of unremarkable birth. Ordinarily middle class, she longed to be rich. And she was going to make sure it happened. A relentless social climber and self starter, Margaret became one of the "grande horizontales" of Paris during the first world war as a  way to support herself and her young daughter. A quick study, MMe Denart was more than happy to mentor Margaret. Margaret in turn reinvented herself, changed her surname to Meller ( the name of her first and married lover) and became known as Maggie Meller.

Maggie met Prince Edward when he made his first trip to France, in 1912. Maggie was already established by that time and the Prince was a very young, very sheltered youth of 17. The Prince was  traveling under an assumed name.  He stayed with a friend of his grandfather's, Henri deBreteuil. One of deBreteuil's sons introduced the Prince to Maggie. In  1913 while on a visit to Germany the Prince is introduced to "doubtful women" and Paris nightclubs. Turns out he likes both.

Stationed in France during the war, the prince carries on a torrid affair with Maggie. Not in the least subtle, they are everywhere when he is on leave. He also writes her letters which are indiscreet at best, by passing the regular mail (and the censors) and using a King's messenger to deliver them. By the end of the war the Prince was a true party boy. In 1918 the prince decided he was finished with Maggie. She did not take this well. Maggie sent the Prince a letter reminding him of the comments he made in his letters during the war - and she wants money to keep quiet. The Prince demanded the letters back. Maggie retains the letters.

This behavior continued for both of them until 1922. The Prince partied and worried about the letters being made public and Maggie took a series or ever more rich lovers to keep her in style. After her divorce in 1920 Maggie was a very rich woman. To recover from her divorce (and the loss of her latest lover) she travels to Egypt where she meets Ali Kamel Famy Bey, young, rich and sexually experienced. Younger than Maggie, Ali falls desperately in love with her. She is not interested. Ali is rich and Maggie remembers him when they meet again in 1922 in Paris. Maggie agrees to marry Ali and travels to Egypt. She has hired an attorney to protect her "interests." A good idea since Ali's family is horrified at the prospect of her joining the family.

The two are married in late 1922. The marriage is strained from that start. Conservative socially, Ali doesn't want Maggie to continue her partying ways. The fighting starts almost immediately. Maggie sleeps with a gun under her pillow so she can protect her jewelry. Ali is aware of this and  in June 1932 Ali and Maggie head to England on holiday. After more arguing, Maggie shoots Ali in the back. In front of a witness. She is charged with his murder.

Now we come to the meat of the book: the murder trial of Maggie in England. The Prince is now in a real panic. Remember the letters that Maggie has from the Prince? He doesn't want them exposed and they will be once the prosecutor and the press start looking into Maggie's past. Now starts the royal cover up.

Through the use of official documents, private letters, and news reports Andrew Rose pieces together the amazing acquittal of Maggie. While there are some blanks in the evidence and what is there is mostly circumstantial, this book is very interesting. Everyone knows about Wallis but who knows about Maggie?  Almost no one -  possibly because of the cover up. She is just never mentioned. Read this book and you will find out all about her! This book makes the royal scandals of today seem tame!

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Friday, February 21, 2014

Room 1219 by Greg Merritt

Long before O.J. Simpson, Hugh Grant, Pee-Wee Herman or any of today's seemingly weekly Twitter-promoted scandals, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle's trial for manslaughter set the standard for celebrity impropriety and captured a nation's attention while ruining one man's career and also reshaping a burgeoning film industry.Greg Merritt's Room 1219: The Life of Fatty Arbuckle, The Mysterious Death of Virginia Rappe, and the Scandal That Changed Hollywood does an excellent job of connecting these various themes within its 350 pages.

When one looks back at the early stars of silent film, there are some who immediately come to mind, such as Chaplin and Keaton, while others have been left behind. Fatty Arbuckle, despite being one of the biggest (and not just in size) comedy stars of the time, is mostly remembered for the night that he was accused of manslaughter when rising actress Virginia Rappe died four days after attending a party that Arbuckle hosted in a San Francisco hotel. Various explicit rumors have surfaced over the years and while it seems likely that intercourse may have occurred (or at least that was the intention) the details about what happened while Arbuckle and Rappe were alone in a room are disagreed upon.

But Merritt's intention with this book is clearly much greater than discussing whether Arbuckle is guilty or whether Rappe was just a young starlet trying to sleep her way to the top. The most interesting parts of this book discuss the creation of young Hollywood and its new film industry. Like many of his colleagues, Arbuckle entered the film industry from Vaudeville, but contrary to what one might presume now, this was actually considered a step down since working in the film industry was not considered very prestigious. Arbuckle and his colleagues helped create and develop the form (and industry) so that it moved from anonymous actors to superstars who were able to create their own studios.

The early parts of the book show us Arbuckle's youth and eventual migration to Hollywood and as one might guess, it covers the three manslaughter trials in great detail. The book also tells us how this and concurrent scandals tarnished Hollywood's image, eventually prompting Hollywood to create its own "morality czar" Will Hays, whose Hays Code brought the studios in line by requiring them to avoid certain subjects. But beyond being a fascinating history of early film and Arbuckle's career, the book is also a tragedy, as we see how one man's career was ruined by a public voracious for scandal, despite being found not guilty for the crimes for which he was accused.

There were no winners in this case. Rappe died at the age 30, having had an interesting string of careers up to the point of trying to make it as an actress. The trials dried up all of Arbuckle's money but eventually, despite being banned from working in the film industry for a number of years, he went on to direct a number of films under an assumed name and eventually resumed acting in talkies. He would act in six of them before dying unexpectedly at the age of 46. It's hard not to see echoes of how he was treated in other Hollywood scandals throughout the years. I have some quibbles with the structure of the book, since for some reason the author skips back and forward in time in setting up the early parts of the story, and by the time of the third trial I found it hard to keep up with minutiae. But certainly any fan of early Hollywood should find something to enjoy in this worthwhile book.

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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Fin and Lady by Cathleen Schine

Newly orphaned Fin (named by his father for the “three bright white letters” at the end of the movie “Les Enfants du Paradis” because he hoped Fin would be “the last of his children”) goes to live with his half-sister Lady. Fin who is 11, and Lady, 24, have met only once before, six years earlier when Fin and his parents were sent by Lady's mother to retrieve her from Europe, where she had fled after ditching her fiancĂ© at the altar. Since "ditch day" (and probably before that too), Lady has experienced much of the world--possibly too much, in fact. Hounded by suitors, unpredictable, adventurous to a fault, she is a lot like Holly Golightly, only filthy rich.

Lady, Fin, and Fin's collie Gus form an unconventional family. Fin and the dog move from their previous home, a farm in New England, to Lady's "terrific, perfect, groovy" brownstone on Charles Street in Greenwich Village. The time is the early 1960s, and in his new home, Fin is surrounded by Charles Street beatniks instead of Connecticut cows. He misses his parents (and his cows), and contemplates his new situation, worried that he and Lady are not real family, just an adventure:

"He lay there in the unfamiliar semidarkness, the sheet pulled close in spite of the summer heat, and he wondered what more he could do to make Lady like him. She liked him, but did she like him enough to keep him with her? Forever? He often felt that Lady was just ahead of him, just out of reach, rounding the corner, leaving just a glimpse of her hem as disappeared."

Cathleen Schine is also the author of the 2011 best-selling comic novel “The Three Weissmanns of Westport.” As in that book, the characters in “Fin and Lady” - both those whose names are in the title, as well as those with lesser roles - are richly imagined, and much of the dialogue is smart and the descriptions funny. The storyline moves from New York to Capri and back to New York.  But who is the book’s narrator? You need to read to the end of the book to find out!

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Friday, February 14, 2014

Mrs. Queen Takes the Train by William Kuhn

The Queen is a little unhappy, some might say depressed.  Trouble with her computer is what has set her off this time and she just needs a few happy memories to make it better. After going to visit Elizabeth, a horse born on her birthday and kept in the Royal Mews, the Queen decides to just go. Alone. No security, no plan.  So starts Mrs. Queen Takes the Train.

The Queen has been queen for a very long time. She's feeling her age and just would like some happy times, like when she was younger.  Like riding the train to Scotland. And being on her old yacht, the Britannia. What with her children's marriages foundering, her daughter in law's death and the fire in the castle, she's just tired. She can't even ride anymore!  A visit to the mews to see one of the horse's is just what she needs.  But when she gets there she realizes she doesn't have a treat for the horse, who happens to love cheese.

As she leaves the mews she is told by some workman that she can't enter the palace grounds. They of course don't recognize her as she is alone and wearing a hoodie with a skull and crossbones on it (which she got from Rebecca who works in the mews). She heads off to the cheese shop where she meets Rajiv. She convinces Rajiv to help her get to Edinburgh to see her old ship, the Britannia. In the mean time, Luke the Equerry, who was responsible for the day to day movement of the Queen realizes she's gone. He enlists the aid of William, a senior member of the queen's household staff, who encounter Lady Anne (the current Lady-in-waiting) and Shirley (the queen's dresser) who are also looking for her. Soon everyone is off trying to catch up with queen.

 The Queen and her unlikely allies of Rebecca and Rajiv wind up on a train to Scotland.  The Queen just  enjoying her new found freedom, Rebecca and Rajiv surreptitiously following her, Lady Anne and Shirley also in pursuit and Luke and William following. While ostensibly on the hunt for the Queen, each of the characters finds out something about themselves.

This book is simply charming.  A nice pleasant read for a cold winter's day.

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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt, is a Dickensian novel of epic proportions. Nearly 800 pages, it is supposedly written by the now-grown Theo Decker--the novel's chief protagonist. Unlike the boy heroes in David Copperfield or Great Expectations, Theo is no innocent. At age 13, he is again in trouble at school and has been summoned to the principal's office.  He has been caught smoking. He has also been stealing with another boy and wonders if the appointment he and his mother have pertain to the theft.

Theo and his mother duck into the Metropolitan Museum of Art on their way to the school. There she shows him her favorite painting--"The Goldfinch" by Carel Fabritius. This painting becomes both the focal point for the suspense of the novel as well as its central metaphor.

What happens in the museum that fateful morning will change Theo's life forever. Tragically, a bomb goes off and his mother is killed. The guilt caused by her death, and the ensuing loneliness, throw him completely off-course.  "Things would have turned out better if she had lived," he reflects. As it was, she died when I was a kid; and though everything that's happened to me since then is thoroughly my own fault, still when I lost her I lost sight of any landmark that might have led me someplace happier, to some more populated or congenial life." (p. 7)

Theo is one of the few survivors of that terrorist blast. With rubble all around him, he makes his way to a dying man and tries to comfort him as much as he can. This man, aware he is dying, gives him his ring and tells him where to return it.  He also convinces him to save the only extant work of the artist, Carel Fabritius.

Thus begins this dark Bildesroman in which "The Goldfinch" becomes the talisman for all Theo holds dear. It is his one constant as he is shifted from his temporary home at the wealthy Barbours to that of his feckless and alcoholic father is Las Vegas. Here he meets the boy named Boris--a character reminiscent of one of the street urchins in Oliver Twist.  Similarly motherless and unloved, Boris becomes best friend and adviser to Theo as he sinks into a life of drugs and alcohol, and eventually, into the criminal underworld of the Russian mafia. Along the way, he meets Hobey--a kindly antiques dealer who gives him something akin to home.

Like Dickens, Donna Tartt exposes the lurid under-belly of the criminal world.  Her depictions of the effects of drug addiction are graphic and difficult to read, as are her descriptions of drug dens.  Similarly, although there are no workhouses, children are still at the mercy of adults. The custom of keeping familes intact is not always in a child's best interests, as we see when Theo is placed in the care of his dissolute father.

Yet it is Theo's self-awareness that ultimately redeems him--that, and his love of "The Goldfinch." By saving the painting, Theo believes he is saving himself. As he ponders the significance of this small painting of an even smaller subject, its worth becomes clear.

But what does the painting say about Fabritius himself?, Theo wonders.  Nothing about religious or romantic or familial devotion; nothing about civic awe or career ambition or respect for wealth and power. There's only a tiny heartbeat and solitude, bright sunny wall and a sense of no escape. Time that doesn't move, time that couldn't be called time. And trapped in the heart of light: the little prisoner, unflinching. ..Dignified, vulnerable. One prisoner looking at another. (p. 766)

Ultimately, though, it is the beauty and timelessness of the painting that gives Theo hope in the future. Great art speaks to us from past centuries; it is the one immutable presence that Death cannot touch.

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Friday, February 7, 2014

Memories of a Marriage by Louis Begley

Memories of a Marriage, by Louis Begley, takes its readers into the homes of upper class New Yorkers and delivers some scathing commentary on their lives. Similarly, it offers a glimpse into a failed marriage as seen by different principals - the ex-wife, the new wife, former lovers of the ex-wife, and the son. The result is a cool, voyeuristic novel about the pursuit of happiness,wealth and self-gratification. If the characters sound unlikeable, they indeed are.

The book's narrator, Philip, is himself a writer. He has previously lost a daughter, and only recently, has lost his beloved wife. Now, in the autumn of his years, Philip is at loose ends. "A widower, a childless father, an outsider. That essential loneliness is made more acute by the fact that Philip is a writer, a practitioner of that most solitary of occupations. He is a tale-monger, a soul-stealer, a man who is all too eager to look into someone else's heart."
                                                   (Washington Post review by Marie Arana, July 08, 2013)

During the intermission of a ballet at The Lincoln Center, Philip runs across a woman he had a dalliance with some forty years earlier. Lucy De Bourgh Snow was once a beautiful, adventurous hellion, unable to live within the sexual mores of the society into which she was born. Her numerous affairs, her excessive drinking, her thrice-weekly sessions with a chauvinistic psychoanalyst were all recipes for unhappiness.

But Lucy is far from a sympathetic character. She is both narcissistic and needy.  Her hatred of her late ex-husband, Thomas, is excessive. She labels him "a monster" - a man whose blind ambition was matched only by coarse sexual appetite. The story of Lucy's marriage continues during the second intermission and, from there, into the night in her Park Avenue apartment. Philip, ever the writer and observer, enticed by Lucy's tale of lurid sexual escapades and seeks to know Thomas's side of things. The rest of the book is made up of conversations with those who knew the couple both in their early lives together and throughout their marriage. It is left to the reader to decide where truth may lie.

In the hands of a lesser writer, this slim novel would not work. But Louis Begley, author of numerous works of fiction and nonfiction, including About Schmidt, is a writer of much talent. Born in the Polish Republic in 1933 in what is now Ukraine, he and his family survived World War II by posing as Polish Catholics. The family left Poland in 1947, and Begley eventually studied English Literature at Harvard. He went on to graduate from Harvard Law School in 1958 and become a partner in a prestigious New York law firm. He retired from the law firm only 8 years ago.

Marie Arana, in her Washington Post article, compares Begley to the great Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz. She writes:

(Louis) Begley proves he is a master dissector of the American character.  Among contemporary novelists, he may be the wryest, most devastating critic of class in American society.  Like...Gombrowicz, who effectively skewered Poland's class system with probing, ironic novels that laid bare the absurdities of social convention, Begley delivers a literary stiletto to what Tiffany or Crate & Barrel might blithely call "the Gatsby set."

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Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Obituary Writer, by Ann Hood

This is the story of Vivian, an obituary writer in the first part of the 20th century; it's also the story of Claire, who is a "Mad Men" sort of wife of the 1960s; and finally it's the story of Vivian and Claire together. Although they are from different eras, these two women have much in common. Unfortunately for them, a lot of what they share is that they struggle with relationships and experience sadness and grief, "which never really goes away, it just changes shape."

In 1960, when Claire finds out she is pregnant, she must decide if she should stay in her loveless marriage, or leave it for her lover. Complicating her decision-making is the fact that she is not sure if her lover or her husband is the unborn child's father. Decades earlier, unmarried Vivian is also no stranger to adultery. When her married lover disappears during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, her suffering runs deep. By becoming an obituary writer, she is able to channel her pain into helping others who are grief stricken.

Hood writes well and authentically about the nature of despair and coping with it. When he was young, her brother died in a freak accident, and 10 years ago her five-year-old daughter died of strep. In her previous novel The Knitting Circle, her memoir Comfort: A Journey Through Grief, and now in The Obituary Writer, Hood explores the pain of loss, which can be eased, yet never erased.

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