The Bookshop

Whew– I’d been beginning to think there was something wrong with me, that I had become allergic to books for some reason, rejecting most of the ones I’ve been reading lately. But this gem from Penelope Fitzgerald has restored my senses, cleansed my palate. A widowed 40-something-year-old woman (Florence Green) determines to open a bookstore in her village, proceeding against the powers that be (Mrs. Gamart) who want to use the ancient dilapidated building she’s taken over as an Arts Center instead. She isn’t greatly invested in the books themselves, preferring to get recommendations from other people as to what to stock, but she gambles correctly on 250 copies of Lolita after securing the recommendation from the village recluse, Mr. Brundish. At that meeting he wonders why she asked for his opinion, not a woman’s. “I don’t know that men are better judges than women,” said Florence, ” but they spend much less time regretting their decisions.”

In the end, the evil Mrs. Gamart has her nephew pass a bill in Parliament that allows her to take over the building. Brundish struggles through the fog to Gamart’s doorstep to protest, dying on his way back home. Florence is evicted, ending up defeated on a train to London.

Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion

I’m fed up with the swirl of publicity for the books churned out of the NYC publishing elite (see also: Taffy Brodesser-Akner). The circus of praise surrounding them leads you to expect a quality that turns out to be lacking. Tolentino’s book is no exception, a baggy, wordy, bloated exploration of thoughts that are better written about elsewhere. Her essay Pure Heroines reads like a book report and a poorly Xeroxed copy of Kate Zambreno’s sublime book, Heroines. Cult of the Difficult Woman reads like a poor-woman’s Trainwreck (by Sady Doyle). Most egregious of all is the reliance of Wikipedia-esque research to create filler for the book (“In 1844, ‘optimize’ was used as a verb for the first time…”); that’s one of my personal pet peeves, exploring word history in a desultory way that implies you’ve done real research but most likely not. The only worthwhile part was her essay detailing her teenage participation in a reality show, Girls v Boys: Puerto Rico, mostly interesting because it was the only content in the book that couldn’t have been written by anyone else (or looked like a gussied up version of what someone else has written about).

Mildred Pierce

I love this movie so finally broke down and read the original book by James Cain, only to have Joan Crawford’s and Ann Blyth’s faces loom up at me from the pages. Veda is as horrible in the book as in the movie, and it was interesting to see what bits were moved and mangled and mashed up to create the screenplay. Things that needed to be visually appealing were inflated by the film, obviously (like Veda’s lounge singing was very visual in the film but simply a radio show in the book). Cain taps into pure gold with the friction between mother and daughter.

The Sugar House

I think I’ve choked down the last of these Laura Lippman mysteries. She’s a decent writer but this Tess Monaghan series is so formulaic and bland that they become a chore to read. In this one, a dead girl turns out to be the daughter of a billionaire who had been recuperating at an eating disorder clinic. There’s some weird connection to a local politician that I couldn’t be bothered to pay attention to. Her usual gang surrounds her, Crow, Whitney, the wheelchair lawyer, her family. At the end, she’s evicted from her aunt’s building and buys a home. Yawn.

Big Sky

I thought this was a sort of parody of detective stories by the excellent writer Kate Atkinson, but after finishing I see that Jackson Brodie is actually a recurring character for her. She milks her audience well, with a chaotic first few pages pulling you into the story of a sex trafficking ring run on the coast of England by three old pals. Coincidences pile on top of coincidences, which is why I thought this was extreme parody, but it ends up an entertaining read. Unfortunately, the wrapping up phase at the end is too tidy and monotonous. Endings are hard to get right.

Four Friends: Promising Lives Cut Short

Mostly I’m in awe that people have been recommending this book. How is it possible to bungle first-person reporting so much? The author, Cohan, looks around and sees that 4 guys from his years at Phillips Academy (premiere prep school for the elites) are dead from various horrendous circumstances, decides to write a tediously boring book about it thinking that just by including JFK Jr. as one of the 4 that people will be interested? Dull dull dull. I hung around to skim through the blather due to curiosity around how they died. One guy was killed in the 101 California mass shooting in 1993 (SF’s worst mass shooting still remains unmemorialized on the building), one guy was hit by a cab, one guy mysteriously found drowned with two of his daughters, and JFK Jr piloted his plane into the Atlantic. Another book that did not need to be written or published.

Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee

There were 3 distinct sections of this book: the strange murders swirling around Reverend Miller, who seemed to take out life insurance policies on everyone in his family and they ended up dead; the subsequent trial of the man who murdered Reverend Miller at the funeral home mourning his latest victim; Harper Lee’s involvement as a last gasp effort to produce a book in the 1970s and 80s. The first and last sections were the most interesting, with delving into Lee’s life providing the most meat for the story. Lee grew up next door to Truman Capote who whisked away to NYC where she eventually migrated. She had put the finishing touches on Mockingbird (after being granted a year off to write by the largess of friends) and was wondering what to do when Capote asked for her help researching the killings that became In Cold Blood. Her help in Kansas was enormous, detailed notes that later propped up his book, plus people much more likely to speak to a pleasant polite Southern woman than flamboyant Capote who met some people at his hotel door wearing pink lingerie.

Then Mockingbird came out and was successful beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, making Capote jealous, making Lee fearful of earning any extra money since her income bracket was already being taxed at 70%. This immediate success made it possible for her never to work again and some say that it cursed her from future writing projects. The author of this book does float the idea that it was possible that Lee “had decided to write for her own satisfaction or for posterity, not her peers, and the feelings of incompletion and failure were incongruous with her own experience.” I say, why not? If she got pleasure out of writing for herself (and her many letters seem to be delightful), then why not leave it at that?

Overall the book was strangely sewn together, stitches large and unwieldy. The editors of which Cep writes so lovingly as having positively influenced Lee’s writing were sorely lacking here. But alas, this is the current state of publishing.

Side note to myself that Melville is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, a place Lee made a pilgrimage to.

The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime That Changed Their Lives

One of my favorite librarians pressed this into my hands today after we were discussing how teenagers today can be absolutely obliterated by their dumb mistakes unlike what we experienced growing up. This book tracks the devastating impact of a few moments on an Oakland bus in November 2013 when Richard, a 16-year-old, was showing off and goofing around with his friends and lit the skirt that Sasha, a genderqueer teen, was wearing on fire. The fire burned Sasha severely, another passenger threw them to the ground to put out the flames but they had to have skin grafts and live with the fear of infection for months after. Which seems actually tame compared to what happened to Richard, the young black male captured on bus video and later telling the police that he was homophobic (after ignoring the right to remain silent). Richard gets tried as an adult (yikes) and sentenced to 7 years, later reduced to 5 years. As Sasha heads off to MIT and the wonders of Boston, Richard shuffles behind bars. Not too much of a stretch to wonder what would have happened if Richard had not been a young black male.

Ball Four: The Final Pitch

What began as a quaint insider look at the 1969 season of the short-lived Seattle Pilots turned into a bloated windbag filled with Bouton’s ramblings. Unfortunately I recommended this one to my dear old dad before I got too far in and realized how much misogynistic shit is spackled all over the book. The ballplayers go “beaver shooting” which means they try to look up ladies’ skirts or into lit windows at night or spy on their roommates in the hotel room. Lots and lots of erection talk and about broads. If you can get past that, there is a thin layer of interesting talk about the craft of pitching, but pray to god you’re reading one of the earlier versions which doesn’t tack on an additional 100+ pages of old windbag blathering into his tape recorder about what happened next (spoiler: he divorced his wife as did many of the other ballplayers, ended up marrying some other “magical” woman). This came highly praised but the only value I see is that it was the first tell-all book that laid it all out about how much players made and negotiated and were docked for being late, etc.

Three Women

I’m stunned by some of these sentences. I had to take a break, only a handful of pages in, to float over here and capture the essence before I end up dogearing every page. This is a non-fiction book that contains bursts of perfect prose.

“It’s not as if the prosecutors have your back. They have your shadow, is more like it.”

“Hoy also asks about a site that he doesn’t even know how to spell. You go, What’s that, and he goes, I don’t know, but have you ever been on it, and you go, No, I don’t know what it is. And you are thinking, Neither do you, you prick. But his formality makes you afraid to contradict him. You bet his wife and children have learned to lie to him regularly, to escape the kind of needling criticism that can wreck a soul.”

“They get the drunk munchies and drive out to Perkins, which looks like a soup kitchen. It’s wan and the customers have red faces and the waitresses have cigarette coughs but when you’re young and buzzed it’s good for a late-night snack. When you’re young you can do almost anything and it won’t be sad.”

The book captures layers of a taboo subject—female desire—in the stories of three women. Lina, raped by 3 boys as a young girl, eventually leaves her stable husband because she wants to be carried away by the fantasy of the affair she’s having with her teenage crush, hurried sex in trucks and motels, thankful for 30 minutes she gets with him occasionally. Maggie is a twenty-something recovering from an inappropriate relationship she had with her teacher her senior year of high school. Sloane is a successful restaurant owner whose husband makes her have sex with other men while he watches.

In Big Trouble

Another of Laura Lippman’s mysteries, this one sends Tess to Austin and San Antonio to find her ex-boyfriend Crow, who’s mixed up in a double murder with more bodies ready to fall on the sidelines. A bit of a yawn but still entertaining.

Al Jaffee’s Mad Life: A Biography

I imagine that the process of preparing for this book involved Weisman sitting down at Jaffee’s kitchen table with a tape recorder for several hours. It’s not particularly well-written, a slapdash kind of story heavily reliant on long, windbag-esque quotes from Jaffee that border on pointless at times. Goes deep into his bizarre childhood of growing up in Savannah, GA, before being emigrated to Lithuania by his homesick mother, then his father rescues them back to the Rockaways in NYC, then the mother steals them away to Lithuania again. Eventually Al’s back in NYC and studying art, but his mother is killed in her homeland. The story finally gains steam around the time when brother Harry starts mass-producing drawings of airplanes; the whole crew pitches in with tracing, coloring, then final drawing. Jaffee got his start with Stan Lee drawing Squat Cop Squad, breaking the wall by having the cartoonist spill onto the page and berate his creation. Lee came to the rescue again in the post-WW2 era letting Jaffee draw Patsy Walker. After years of Patsy, MAD magazine arose as an opportunity and he took a massive paycut to work on things that excited him. (First he worked on the 2 issues of Hefner-funded Trump, then Humbug, then to MAD). Jaffee’s creations filled MAD—the zany inventions, the fold-ins, skewering hypocrisy left and right.

The tyranny of noise

This 1970 book is the documentation of one man’s fight against the bone-jarring noise that took over a construction site near his NYC apartment for three years. Baron was somehow able to drop everything else he was doing and enter into the world of NYC bureaucracy, calling a myriad of Departments (Health, Transportation, etc.) to figure out how to get the noise down. Eventually he forms a citizens committee and becomes immersed in the global fight against noise (European car horns were quieter than US! They had to ship special horns here). There’s not much of real interest in the book except for the joy of reading his attempts to pull humanity back from the brink of noise anarchy. “If ours were a civilized society, it would not be necessary to work so hard to make a case for noise as a health problem.”

On the plus side, further research led me to this amazing NYTimes photo from the 1970s with the van for measuring noise:

Was Shakespeare a Woman?

I’m convinced. I’ve been convinced for a while that the actor/theater manager known as Shakespeare probably wasn’t the author of the plays under his name, but only dudes’ names have been puffed up as possible authors. Only… male egos would not allow their work to be shown under another’s name, right? As the often misquoted Virginia Woolf quote goes,

“I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.”

The Atlantic article proposes a few female candidates.

To Night Owl From Dogfish

Super sweet YA book told entirely through emails (and a few letters), but not in a bad way. Two 12-year-old girls get to know each other, one in NYC, one in Venice CA, because their gay dads meet and fall in love, conspiring to send them both to the same summer camp while the dads tour China on motorcycles. The girls resist getting close but it happens eventually, meanwhile the dads have a terrible trip and break up. One of the girls’ mom is a playwright with a residency near the summer camp, she shows up and re-enters her daughter’s life. The other girl’s grandma shows up from Texas and turns out to be an amazing actor who then performs in the playwright’s latest creation, which then goes to off-Broadway. It’s all very sweet and endearing.