Posted by: Jeanie F | August 8, 2017

Dorothy Parker: Complete Stories

When we (“we” being my brother, two sisters, and myself) were young, our parents would occasionally tell us stories of their early marriage – presumably when they were in a nostalgic mood, thinking back to a time when they didn’t have four children, a mother-in-law, and an aging collie to look after. Of course they often mentioned the absence of “modern” conveniences, such as television, and told how they entertained themselves by reading to each other. One of the authors that they most loved was Dorothy Parker and, as we grew older our father, a true dramatic reader, sometimes shared her stories with us.

I loved, and still love, this complete collection. Parker knew women, she knew the dark side of the bright smile, and she used her incredible talent to shine a light.

In the Introduction to this collection, feminist Regina Barecca observes:

. . . Parker exploits the apparently trivial – telephone calls, social invitations – in order first to extract, and then to reveal, a theory concerning the larger implications of the difference between the sexes.

A family favorite was “The Waltz,” first published in 1933. This is a dramatic monologue, spoken by a young woman who has the unfortunate experience of agreeing to dance with a man who appears to be one of the world’s worst dancers. The piece is written in a way that we first “hear” her spoken words, which are followed by her internal dialogue.

After sentencing herself to a waltz, her thoughts flow along these lines:

What can you say, when a man asks you to dance with you? I most certainly will not dance with you, I’ll see you in hell first. . . Oh, yes, do let’s dance together – it’s so nice to meet a man who isn’t a scaredy-cat about catching my beri-beri . . .

and continues along these lines until the music stops, but rather than extricating herself from this oaf, she tells her partner, “I’d simply adore to go on waltzing.”

I imagine that Dad figured this was one of Parker’s more benign stories, and so it was to the juvenile ear. The satirical underpinnings were lost on me. However, recently I’ve revisited the complete collection and, from an adult point of view, recognize this as emblematic of all of her stories: insecure young women who depend on the recognition from and approval of men for their own self-respect. She used humor as a weapon in the battle of the sexes, and she used it effectively.

The fact that she is funny doesn’t diminish the fact that she had her finger on the pulse of the times. But in rereading this collection it occurred to me that, in many ways, her point of view can’t be considered antiquated. One has only to read advice columns or watch women on TV (Two Broke Girls, Jersey Shore, The Kardashians to name a few) to recognize that many women haven’t “come a long way, Baby”!

Where is Dorothy Parker when we need her? I suppose the next best thing is to get your hands on a copy of her story collection – I promise you’ll be entertained, as well as touched and, perhaps, a bit outraged.

Posted by: Jeanie F | July 31, 2017

The Late Show by Michael Connelly

Still enjoying my “summer lite” reading kick, I was excited to see that Michael Connelly has published a new thriller. I’m a huge Harry Bosch fan, and have also enjoyed the appearances of Bosch’s half-brother, the Lincoln Lawyer, Mickey Haller. I was ready to see what Connelly could do with a new protagonist – especially when I read that the new star in his stable was a woman.

And my girl, Janet Maslin of The New York Times, sang high praise:

“The Late Show” introduces a terrific female character: Detective Renée Ballard. Connelly has never had much success writing memorable women in supporting roles, but this new star is a beauty.

Maslin’s not the only one. The LA TimesUSA Today, and Kirkus Reviews to name just a few, have sung the book’s praises, and I’m not usually one to argue with them . . . BUT –

While I agree that there is real potential in this spunky heroine, there are problems with the story – not the plot, but the presentation. As Paula A. Woods aptly notes in her review for the LA Times,

Launching a new series and protagonist is hard work, and with so many characters, settings and departmental undercurrents to navigate, “The Late Show’s” seams show at times. The resolution of the Ramona Ramone case [one of several plot lines] leaves lingering questions some readers may not be accustomed to experiencing. More significantly, the denouement of the Dancers murders, while cleverly executed, opens some huge gaps in understanding the shooter’s motives that one hopes get resolved in future novels.

And this seems to be the problem. This is an ambitious novel – perhaps too ambitious a plot (or, more correctly, plots) to introduce a brand new character. While Connelly can be counted on to write a great detective story, he seems to labor over getting the true dimensions of  Ballard established early on. Moments of action are dragged down by the need to fill-in previously undisclosed aspects of her character, past history, or other personal information. There are times when it feels like Connelly is free-writing filler until he hits on something to move the story along. Definitely not what I expect from his usual tight action scenes. I found myself skimming long expository passages in order to get back to the plot.

Having said all this, I expect that the next time we see Ballard – and I do hope we will – most of this back story can be left behind, allowing Connelly to entertain in the way that he does so masterfully.

Grade: B

 

 

Posted by: Jeanie F | July 14, 2017

Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

 

As summer gets into full swing, books that focus on plot begin to look more attractive than books that make me think too hard. Nearing the end of  The Nix, I found myself in the Portland Airport looking for something to read on the plane. I knew I had a couple of hours in flight, and I also knew I wasn’t going to want to concentrate too much. It was Janet Maslin’s blurb on the cover – “Mesmerizing . . . one of the year’s best suspense novels” – that got me. I generally trust Maslin, and “mesmerizing” was just what I needed to pass the time in a middle seat of Alaska Air’s coach section.

The story begins with a small group of people boarding a private plane to travel from Martha’s Vineyard back to New York City after a summer vacation. There’s a Wall Street executive and his family – David (Dad), Maggie (Mom), Rachel (daughter), and J.J. (four-year old son) – the Batemans, a couple that has asked to join them, and Scott Burroughs, an artist that Maggie has invited along. There are tensions in these relationships that we discover as they board the plane. There is also a small flight crew.

This isn’t exactly a spoiler, since we know about this event very early on, but if you want to know NOTHING about the plot, skip this paragraph. Mid-flight something happens – and it isn’t until we reach the end that we know exactly what that was – and the plane crashes. The only survivors are J.J. Bateman and Scott Burroughs.

The suspense that keeps this light, but entertaining, novel moving is (1) the fate of the survivors, and (2) the skillful way that Hawley parcels out details – past and present – to keep us wondering what really happened on board that plane. Elements of the lives of the main players (hence the title, Before the Fall) are given to us bit by bit and expose a variety of situations that makes more than one character a likely cause of the accident.

While Maslin may have laid it on a little thick in calling the book mesmerizing, it had enough human-interest mixed with tension and suspense to make it a great summer read. It is an excellent beach – or airplane – book for anyone looking for good escapist entertainment (or squeezed into a middle seat).

Grade: B

Posted by: Jeanie F | June 28, 2017

The Nix by Nathan Hill

One of the greatest joys of being a reader is finding a BIG book and knowing, by the time you’ve finished the first chapter, that you’re going to love this book. That is exactly what The Nix, Nathan Hill’s first novel, was for me and, honestly, 620 pages flew by. This was one of those books that I couldn’t wait to return to every time I was forced, by life’s circumstances, to put it down.

The Nix is the story of Samuel Andresen-Anderson, a English professor and would-be author, who we follow from his early, unhappy childhood to his later, unhappy adulthood. His mother left Samuel and his father when Samuel was six years old. And this wasn’t the “I’ll see you every other weekend” kind of desertion. She told him goodbye and vanished, leaving no forwarding address. Samuel gets on with his life as best he can, but the specter of her abandonment never leaves him. This event is “The Nix” – a Norwegian house spirit who finds a person and inhabits them for life – the instant when life slips out of your control and never recovers.

We follow Samuel through his childhood, through important friendships he makes with a pair of siblings, his coming of age, and up to his eventual opportunity to find some kind of reconciliation with his mother. But there is so much encompassed in this seemingly simple story, that these bare bones are no more than the scaffolding of events that encompasse decades of not only Samuel’s life but our national history. In his review of The Nix, Jason Sheehan, writing for NPR Books, says this:

… The Nix is about a lot of things – about politics and online gaming, about the tenuous friendships of adult men and the 1968 Democratic National Convention. It is a vicious, black-hearted and beautiful satire of youth and middle-age, feminine hygiene products, frozen foods and social media. But more than anything, it is a treatise on the ways that the past molds us and breaks us and never lets us go. How it haunts us all.

For me, one of this most striking aspects of this book was how real everything feels – as if it was possible for Nathan Hill to personally experience the events, the emotions, the essence of everything he wrote.  One example is a section in which Bishop, Samuel’s childhood friend, has grown up and joined the army. He is in Iraq, in an armored tank with the other men in his unit, including one named “Chucky”. Chucky is a bit of a nerd, but he becomes a favorite among the men when he tells the story of getting up the nerve, on his first leave home, to ask the most beautiful girl in his school for a date. He tells them she said yes, and now they’re in love. And then, here’s how Nathan Hill follows up:

What everyone likes about the story is the part where he finally asks out the girl. Because the way Chucky tells it, it’s not like he had to work up the courage to do it. It’s more like it no longer required courage to do. Or maybe he discovered that he had plenty of courage all along, inside him, ready to be used, and everyone likes imagining that. They hope the same thing has happened to them, too, because they are occasionally terrified out of their minds over here, and they hope when the time comes for them to be brave, they will be brave . . . If a kid like Chucky could land a girl like Julie Winterberry, surely they can make it through one lousy war.

And this is the strength and the beauty of this book. We don’t just get the action, we don’t just get the emotion, but we crawl inside the skin, the hearts, the minds of the characters in ways you rarely encounter in a novel. I’ve never been in the military (thank God), or ridden in a tank down a road that could be littered with IEDs, but reading Hill’s description of it, seen through the eyes of a few men in a tank, made it as real as only the best literature can do.

I could give you many, many more examples of the ways that this book knocked me out, made me laugh, made me cry, and made me really sorry that Nathan Hill limited himself to 620 pages. I can’t wait to see what he does next.

Grade: A+

 

 

Posted by: Jeanie F | May 30, 2017

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

I wouldn’t normally have followed a book like Evicted with another non-fiction work on similar issues, but this is our book club book this month so there really wasn’t much choice. The demographic is different – Evicted dealt primarily with inner city blacks, Hillbilly Elegy with, well, hillbillies. In this case, hillbillies who moved from Appalachia to southwestern Ohio, the Rust Belt, in the mid-20th century.

Before I delve too deeply into the book itself, let’s agree to the particular population we’re talking about:

Wikipedia (2017): People who dwell in rural, mountainous areas in the U.S., primarily in Appalachia and the Ozarks. The move North to locations such as Chicago, Cleveland, Akron, and Detroit became known as the “Hillbilly Highway.”

New York Journal (1900): A free and untrammeled white citizen of Alabama, who lives in the hills, has no means to speak of, dresses as he can, talks as he pleases, drinks whiskey when he get it, and fires off his revolver as the fancy takes him.

I include both definitions because, to read J.D. Vance’s version, not much has changed between the two definitions, other than the “hillbillies” moved.

Hillbilly Elegy has been a best seller, currently touted as a way to explain the extreme populism of Trump supporters and his presidency. Besides the requirement to read it for my book club, I was interested because I mistakenly believed that it was a sociological study. It is, in fact, a personal memoir, written by a man who had a difficult childhood. Yes, his family practiced any number of the bad habits that are stereotypical of low income, disenfranchised populations – brawling, anti-social behavior, drug addiction, alcoholism, to name a few – but, in fact, their move to Ohio brought with it union membership, employment security, middle class incomes, home ownership, and many of the other perks that job stability affords. However, they remained tied to the Appalachians through frequent trips back “home,” where their deepest ties remained.

As we follow Vance and his family into Ohio, Vance appears to  benefit from his grandparents’ – especially his grandmother’s –  solid place in his life, but the family remains distressed and unstable. His grandparents live apart and continue to fight, often violently. They carry guns with them everywhere they go, and aren’t afraid to use them if “necessary”. Vance’s mother blows through relationships and marriages, ignores and/or abuses Vance and his sister, Lindsay, and is, herself, a lifetime drug addict. I lost count of the number of “fathers” Vance and Lindsay have, but the instability and violence have taken their toll. It is a long walk uphill to find the lives they hope to live.

Vance, himself, eventually finds his way out of this destructive cycle, but has paid a steep price.

The dis-functionality and depression experienced by Vance’s family seems almost identical to the problems associated with the inhabitants of the mobile home park in Evicted!, without the accompanying poverty. Somehow this is never clearly addressed: how is it that financial security; good and secure employment, including opportunities for advancement; adequate education; and freedom from hunger and poverty hasn’t helped this population to  succeed?

One review I read refers to the “hopelessness” of this “hillbilly” society. The flaw in this book is that it never offers a satisfactory explanation as to why this population, who relocates and, in doing so, reaches a realistic possibility of improvement, fails to achieve it.

Grade: C

 

Some of you may not know this, but I’m married to a real estate attorney. Along with the really dull stuff, like transactions, and the really happy stuff, like people buying new homes, he also has to deal with some of the tragic, such as evictions. When this book came out, I debated whether or not I wanted to read it but, for over thirty years I’ve heard him talk about both sides of this sad story – the evicting and the evicted. Believe me, there is plenty of blame, tragedy, greed, and stupidity on both sides of this issue, but I decided I wanted to know more about it than the frustration that inevitably accompanies a law suit. I wanted to understand something of the human side.

The fact that it won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction helped.

The author, Matthew Desmond, is an “Urban Sociologist” and associate professor at Harvard University. He’s also co-director of the Justice and Poverty Project, so he’s well-qualified to study this subject.

In the Prologue to this devastating, yet compelling, work, Desmond tells us this:

Even in the most desolate areas of American cities, evictions used to be rare. They used to draw crowds . . . These days, there are sheriff squads whose full-time job is to carry out eviction and foreclosure orders. There are moving companies specializing in evictions . . . data-mining companies that sell landlords tenant screening reports . . . housing courts swell, forcing commissioners to settle cases in hallways.

To write this book, Desmond moved into a trailer park in a poverty-stricken area of Milwaukee. He lived among the poorest of the poor, people scraping by – or not – day by day, sometimes hour by hour, and cataloged their struggles. Of this experience, he wrote in his journal: “I feel dirty, collecting these stories and hardships like so many trophies.”

It’s true that many of his neighbors have contributed to their predicaments through a lifetime of bad choices – many of which began before they had any control over them. They live hand-to-mouth, day-to-day, making heart-wrenching choices about whether to feed their family or pay the rent. When they decide not to starve their children, they have often made a decision that will result on them being – literally – on the street. Or living in their storage shed. Or with an abusive relative. And that, of course, can result in them losing their children to Social Services.

They live, day-to-day, with a Hobson’s Choice – choosing one means losing the other.

The flip side of this story is that of the owners of the park. There are two landlords: Sherrena Tarver, and Tobin Charney. We read of their vacations, their trips to the casinos, their annual income in the millions of dollars as they grow their investments in low-rent properties. I suppose that, depending on whose side of the story you relate to, it would be possible to understand Sherrena and Tobin’s points of view – their tenants flake out on the rent (that is often as high as 80% of their income), they do drugs, they fight, bringing police to the park, they live in filth – but I found it hard to garner sympathy for Sherrena, who says, “Love don’t pay the bills,” and evicts one tenant and her children just before Christmas.

There is little enough hope in this brutal book. There are some important takeaways, that Desmond shares in the Epilogue, titled “Home and Hope.”

  • America is supposed to be a place where you can better yourself, your family, and your community. But this is only possible if you have a stable home.
  • If [the poor] didn’t have to dedicate 70 or 80 percent of their income to rent, they could keep their kids fed and clothed and off the streets.
  • Between 2009 and 2011, roughly a quarter of all moves undertaken by Milwaukee’s poorest renters were involuntary.
  • Evicted families often lose the opportunity to move to public housing because Housing Authorities count evictions and unpaid debt as strikes when reviewing applications.

Perhaps, as a compassionate society, we could look at these markers and make some changes. Personally, I don’t see it happening any time soon.

Desmond ends by telling us that eviction impacts every aspect of the evicted’s life, but it impacts us as a society as well. Neighbors who cooperate with and trust one another can make their community safer and more prosperous, have lower crime rates. Children who are continuously misplaced are far more likely to end up being removed from their homes and placed in social services or foster homes. Desmond sheds some hope with public programs that help support the poor, and legal cases that provide them with legal services, but he leaves us, finally, with words of condemnation, not a solution:

Whatever our way out of this mess, one thing is certain. This degree of inequality, this withdrawal of opportunity, this cold denial of basic needs, this endorsement of pointless suffering – by no American value is this situation justified. No moral code or ethical principle, no piece of scripture or holy teaching, can be summoned to defend what we have allowed our country to become.

Visit Desmond’s website at http://www.evictedbook.com

 

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