Sunday, April 03, 2016

Of Penthouses, Tenements, and Thieves

Greeting Earthlings and others. I'm happy to say I've been reading a blue streak and want to pass on a few recommendations before my memory deteriorates entirely. 

Let's start a little light with The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin. 

Early in his career, when Capote truly did show promise and began to find success, he inveigled himself into a social circle well above his meager beginnings. These women, wealthy, influential socialites, first regarded him as a pet but friendships emerged, none more so than with Babe Paley, wife of media baron William Paley and the leader of the group Capote called his "swans". Author Benjamin recreates the story of how Capote rose among these society swells as well as his being cast out by his own arrogance. 

In 1975, Esquire published a short story by Capote entitled La Cote Basque 1965. It was the first time he had been published in years and was part of a purported master work he would never finish. The story was a thinly-veiled tale that exposed very private details about the lives of his "swans", details only he would know. By this point in his life, Capote's writing career had stalled. Instead, he had become a "media personality", quipping his way through 70's talk shows and being "seen" at Studio 54 all while pickling himself with coke, alcohol, and self-pity.

After the story was published, they would never speak to Capote again nor would he ever regain his stature. Author Benjamin does an admirable job with this piece of fictionalized history. 

97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement by Jane Ziegelman 

97 Orchard examines each family through the lens of what foods they ate and cooked and how they shopped. She also explains what new foods they learned to enjoy as well as which traditions were preserved from their mother countries. Germans, Russian Jews, Irish, Litvak Jews, and finally Italians all lived at 97 Orchard street and we follow them, beginning in the 1870's through the mid 1930's, and witness the vast changes happening in New York and American culture. 

Reading the book caused me to visit the Tenement Museum, located at 97 Orchard street in NYC. It was an absolutely fascinating view into the lives of the families about whom I'd just read. Do visit and, by all means, read 97 Orchard.

When I began Welcome Thieves, it annoyed me. Kind of that weird-just-to-be-weird thing and I considered putting it down since the To Be Read stack is large and friends and publicists have been generous with new books of late, enough so that Mrs. Next is giving me that familiar "you need to cull the herd" look. I'm really glad I stayed with it because I think Welcome Thieves is clever, funny, and deserving of your time. 

The collection is a bit out of balance but so are the characters and once you get to the third story, "Monkey Chow", you'll know whether or not you want to proceed. Beaudoin writes well AND can tell a story. Word-wise, he is real gunslinger.  A line I particularly liked comes from one of my faves in the collection, "All Dreams Are Night Dreams": 

"She grabs a towel, removes her makeup with a swipe. Beneath is the expression I once saw on the face of man who'd been stabbed with a pen over a game of dice". 

If that grabs you, you'll dig the sweet and sad "Comedy Hour" and the remarkable "You Too Can Graduate in Three Years with a Degree in Contextual Semiotics". Fans of George Saunders and, especially, Karen Russell, will groove to this collection of oddballs, weirdos, and bruised hearts.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Reed Next? I thought you were dead!

I was going to come to you hat in hand, all apologies as Kurt used to sing, but I've ridden that bus already. No doubt, it's been months, MONTHS, since I've posted anything but there are no rules to this thing. Why? 'Cause I sez so.

As a small gesture in catching up, I just saw the movie version of The Martian, the last book about which I posted here. Loved the book and, happy to say, loved the movie. Matt Damon was well-cast as Mark Watney and the effects were much as I imagined. 

As is often the case with a film, there was less development and some characters were abridged, Kristin Wiig's character in particular, which is too bad because in the book, NASA PR director Annie Montrose is delightfully hell on heels. Much along these lines, the film felt a bit rushed. In the book, time is practically a character, maybe even an enemy, to Mark's potential rescue and survival. Still, well done but read the book.  

Last year, I was lucky enough to read an unsigned novel by Michael Kun and Susan Mullen which I thought was wonderful and deserved to be published. I'm so happy to report the book got signed to a great house, St. Martins Griffin, and will be published November 1. As good is the cover art. 

I'm especially pleased this is being marketed to a YA audience as it should hit home with "kids these days" but all you 80's refugees out there, read this one. You may very well find yourselves on the pages still wearing that awful beret and smoking clove cigarettes. 

You can pre-order at Shmamazon or wait and buy it at your favorite indie. And yes, I'll be glad to remind you before the book comes out. 

Finally, an upcoming title you must read is Dodgers by Bill Beverly. Due out in April from Crown, this book is part buddy picture and part road novel/coming of age tale. The road trip is a long journey from a bad LA neighborhood known as the Boxes to kill a witness in Wisconsin whose testimony has the potential to undo the drug gang to which they belong.  

The "buddies" are anything but. In fact, they are not acquainted at all until we learn that East, a devoted soldier, and Ty, already a cold-blooded killer, is his 13 year old brother. I was especially taken with the character Walter who provides a worldly counterpoint to East's narrow naivete. He brings some light and some oxygen to the tiny world East has inhabited his entire young life. 

Beverly's prose is short and sharp and he is skillful at creating and maintaining a gnawing tension that hangs over the road trip like a cement cloud. I was moved by this story and these characters, East most of all, and hope Dodgers finds the broad audience it deserves. 

Sunday, October 04, 2015

The Martian by Andy Weir

This weekend's release of the film version of The Martian, starring Matt Damon, has thus far received almost universal acclaim. This makes me happy because the book lends itself to a film adaptation. In fact, it screamed "Make me into a movie!" when I read it on vacation a few months back. From the hype and reviews of the film, it sounds like they got it right. Now it is my hope people will go back to read the book because it is terrific. Author Andy Weir has given us an engrossing, wildly funny, and action-packed story.

Mark Watney is a crew member on a Mars mission when a violent storm separates him from his crew who, thinking him dead, abort their mission and head back to Earth. As you can guess, Mark isn't dead and now he's stuck alone on Mars and must fend for himself. It is a bit Robinson Crusoe on Mars though fortunately not this Robinson Crusoe on Mars. Watney is a plucky sort as well as a very able scientist who can assess his situation and work toward his goal of staying alive. His other challenge is to find a way to communicate with Earth to let them know he's very much alive and really needs a lift home. 

Weir is a first-time novelist who never thought The Martian would get published, so much so, he posted the book online for free before an agent made hay with the book and turned it into a bestseller. In interviews, Weir talks about how hard he worked on the science of the book and it shows. While some of it was well over my head, it only slowed down the pace of the book a wee bit. Readers smarter than me may not be slowed down at all.

Provided director Ridley Scott has done his job successfully, and by all accounts, he has, audiences will be cheering in the theaters much like I did in a Nags Head beach house. The Martian is a great, big, rousing success of a story, book, and author. Don't just see the movie. Read the book. 

Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Wonder Garden and Fortune Smiles

Hey! Remember me? I used to intermittently blog about books. Then, in early May, I got a new job and have been hunkered down, desperately trying to master my new duties. It hasn't allowed for much in the way of writing so if you're still with me, I appreciate your patience. As you might imagine, I have some catching up to do.  

There is a sizable stack of books which I call the "guilt pile" to remind me that these are the books I need to tell you about. It's unlikely I'll get to them all but I thought I'd begin with two short story collections. 

The first is The Wonder Garden by Laura Acampora. In a set of linked stories that take place in the small town of Old Cranbury, Connecticut, the author introduces us to a dark group of denizens. The concept of house and home as far more than where people simply live crops up in almost every story. In fact, many of the stories are disturbing, such as Afterglow, in which a husband works out a deal to watch his wife's brain surgery up close or the creepy absurdity of the story, The Virginals

What struck me most about the collection was how unlikable most of the characters are. They are weirdos and oddballs but they aren't charming weirdos and oddballs in the vein of a Lewis Nordan nor are these traits played for laughs as is often the case in fiction. I never came away liking them or feeling as though they had grown in a positive way. While the stories are very compelling and the author is very gifted--Acampora has a way with words that I found very satisfying and re-readable--I think I was just happy to get away from them. Still, I recommend this collection.

Like The Wonder Garden, Adam Johnson's forthcoming collection, Fortune Smiles, is also peopled with unlikable characters. There is an overwhelming sense of isolation in them and a lack of honesty with themselves. This is perhaps most prominent in "George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine", which tells the story of a former Stasi prison warden who simply will not allow, despite the wealth of the evidence of history, that he did anything wrong. These themes also play out to great effect in the title story. Unlike The Wonder Garden, Johnson's characters are not irredeemable. At best, they are adrift. At worst, they are lost. 

Having never read The Orphan Master's Son, which won the Pulitzer two years ago, I thought his sense of voice was astoundingly good and his characters were rich. Nonc, a character in Hurricanes Anonymous and DJ in the title story were especially memorable. 

Fortune Smiles hits bookstores August 18 and should be added to your list. 

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street by Michael Davis

In high school, I participated in linguistics competitions that pitted students from area schools against each other. I was very good at prepared speeches but extemp was my domain. I owned it. In one of these winners, I referred to kids my age as "the Sesame Street Generation". For some reason, the judges, a panel of smart teachers, thought this terribly clever though I'm not certain why because we were the "Sesame Street Generation". I was only two years old when it debuted on TV but it seemed a constant to me the way the Steelers always won the Super Bowl in the '70's or FDR was always president to my Dad's generation. Michael Davis does a tremendous job of giving us a very complete picture in this worthwhile 2008 history. 

Street Gang is a story of wannabes, gonnabes, lesser-knowns, and more than a few rebels at all levels, Jim Henson and the Muppets the most prominent. However, without the alchemy of Joan Ganz Cooney, Jon Stone, Joe Raposo, Tom Whedon (Joss Whedon's dad!), and others, Henson would likely never have gone into children's TV and without Henson, no Oscar the Grouch, Cookie Monster or Big Bird, no Frank Oz, Carol Spinney, or Kermit. 

The idea to utilize public television to teach poor, inner-city pre-schoolers began as dinner party conversation in 1966, when Bonanza, Gomer Pyle, and Green Acres were top-rated programs. It was an incalculable gamble though many thought it sheer folly. Remarkably, the right people came together to create a landmark in television, one that broke socio-economic, racial, and educational boundaries forever.

We know now that young kids in poverty have fewer opportunities than other kids and it is accepted wisdom that educating them at such a young age is vital to their academic success, earning potential, and ability to break the cycle of poverty. That kids, poor and otherwise, could learn from television (public television, no less) was astounding in 1968 and that the show succeeded to such an extent was without precedent. 

For kids of color to see themselves on TV was groundbreaking but it was also meaningful to a kid like me who grew up in a world of white. Of course I didn't realize it at the time but seeing those faces made them less exotic, less unusual, more real. They were just kids like me so when I met them later on, I didn't fear them in the manner of the generations before me. 

I was, however, a bit intimidated by the small font size of this generously footnoted, 350 pager but Davis writes with ease and authority. The story is informative, entertaining, and, at times, gossipy. Turns out Bert was sleeping with Ernie. 

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

Yesterday, I meandered into my favorite second-hand book bazaar to kill some time before treating a friend to a belated birthday lunch at the diner of a nearby bowling alley (his choice). Pickings were slim on this visit but I was fortunate to find a copy of Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher which I began reading in the car while waiting for the birthday boy to arrive and completed it by beddy-bye. As regular Reed-ers know, I'm a sucker for an epistolary novel and this slender collection of letters of recommendation doesn't disappoint. 

The letter writer, Jay Fitger, is a creative writing professor at the appropriately named Payne University, a small Midwestern school whose English department has seen far better days. He labors in a building that is under extensive construction, mostly for the benefit of the Economics department whose upstairs offices are getting a royal makeover while his department suffers toxic dust, loud noises, and foul, leaky restrooms. Retired professors aren't being replaced, funding has gone the way of the dodo, grad students aren't being added, and the new department head is (gasp!) a sociologist. 

Like the department, Fitger, a once promising novelist whose backlist is largely out of print, is slowly spiraling into literary obscurity. His spark for academia no longer burns brightly and his personal relationships are in tatters. Like Sid Straw in Michael Kun's delightful The Locklear Letters, Fitger can't get out of his own way. Unlike Sid, he is not a likeable man. He is bombastic, cranky, misanthropic, sexist, and unpopular with colleagues and administrators, all of which he is acutely self-aware. Seemingly, he spends more time writing letters of recommendation for students and colleagues than he does teaching or other more literary pursuits. But oh, the letters! 

Schumacher, herself an academic at the University of Minnesota, is obviously no stranger to the folderol but she imbues Fitger's considerable ire with biting commentary on the state of academia and publishing to great effect. In one instance, he writes on a friends' behalf to a Dean of a school he believes entirely unworthy of her. And so:

"Let's consider the facts: Carole is comfortably installed at a research university--dysfunctional, yes; second tier, without question--but we do have a modest reputation here at Payne. Shepardville, on the other hand, is a third-tier private college teetering at the edge of a potato field and is still lightly infused with the tropical flavor of offbeat fundamentalism propagated by its millionaire founder, a white-collar criminal who is currently--correct me if I'm wrong--atoning for multiple financial missteps in the Big House in Texas". Ouch.

Later in the novel, he grudgingly defends his own department head to Payne's Dean of Arts & Sciences: "In my wildest nightmares I never imagined that I would make or endorse such a recommendation, akin to Hamlet naming Uncle Claudius counsel (Hamlet is a play by a writer named William Shakespeare: I'll send you a copy on some other occasion.)"

While it might have been enough to let Fitger froth at the mouth for the entire 180 pages, Schumacher wisely and slowly brings about a sense of decency in the man, mostly in his desire to help a promising grad student in whose novel, a re-telling of Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener set in the accounting department of a 1960's Vegas casino, he believes and the reappearance of an old friend with whom he studied at an Iowa-like writing program years before. On their behalves, Fitger reaches out to agents, publishers, and academics in a knowing effort to do something for someone other than himself. While he doesn't spare his spleen with any of these recipients, he makes an uncharacteristically sincere effort with mixed results. 

If I had a criticism, it is that the ending came too quickly, both in the narrative sense and for my own selfish reason that I didn't want the book to end. Both of these are small beer compared to the joy the book brought me. Find a copy soon.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Of Fans and Vans

Sometimes I come across a book that I believe I should have written. Two that come to mind are The Day I Turned Uncool by Dan Zevin and Talking to Girls About Duran Duran by Rob Sheffield. Zevin's book was right on the money and it made me feel cheated that he beat me to it and desperately lazy because not only did I not think of it first, I probably wouldn't have had the wherewithal to actually write it. Sheffield's book missed the mark entirely by my account and so I felt justified and appropriately pompous. With John Sellers' Perfect From Now On, I'm somewhere in the middle. 

Perfect From Now On is Sellers' examination of his own musical obsessions, which are plentiful. Remember that kid in junior high that couldn't stop talking about The Ramones while wearing his Ramones t-shirt and jeans with holes in the knees a la The Ramones with music by the Ramones leaking from the headphones of his Sony Walkman? That was me. That was Sellers, too, only his bands were U2, Joy Division/New Order, The Smiths, Pavement and, ultimately, Guided By Voices.

I remember well the need to know only the "cool" bands before they became so as well as the need to disavow them as sell-outs once they enjoyed mainstream success. I remember the long, stoned discussions with like-minded pals about the "importance" of the music and musicianship. I recall almost going broke buying all the obscure bootlegs of my favorite artist, most of them imports and therefore even pricier than normal. I strove to be a completist and flaunt my musical superiority. Sellers goes even further, seeking to touch the hem of GBV lead singer, Robert Pollard, in which he succeeds and fails brilliantly. 

Sellers writes with honesty and considerable self-deprecation however his "righteous" anger overwhelms any sympathy you might have for him. He also uses copious footnotes, many of them lengthy asides on even more trivial matters, that slow down the book. It's only in the last third of the book that he reveals that his copious footnotes are, in fact, in tribute to Nicholson Baker. Aren't we clever? 

Ultimately, I did enjoy the book mostly because I could see where my path diverged from the authors': I grew up. 

Speaking of the boys from Forest Hills, I thoroughly enjoyed On the Road With The Ramones by the band's long-time, long-suffering road manager, Monte Melnick. This is about as insider as it gets and gives a clear portrait of the band that influenced so many musicians and inspired so many listeners.

With the exception of Marky and C. J., Monte is the last man standing and he was there for the entire ride. Having read most of the Ramones bios out there, I think Monte's version comes across as an honest and loving account of the band especially because he wasn't a performer. The band, even in good times, was difficult and it only became more fractious as their career continued. Here, Monte comes off as the glue that held them together. 

And what a big job that! Dee Dee was crazy, Marky was drunk (then not), Johnny was the all-powerful overlord, and Joey was plagued by insecurity, OCD, and other health problems. Only Tommy comes off as a normal adult human being and he left because he thought he'd have a breakdown because of the others. We're a happy family? Not by a longshot.

Told in the oral history style of Please Kill Me by Legs McNeil, Monte shares the pages with band members, road crew, producers, fellow musicians, and management but Monte is again the glue that makes On the Road... a worthy addition to the story that was The Ramones.