Sunday, March 27, 2011

Recession Poetry

Recently I added All is Vanity by Christina Schwarz to my TBR list.  In 2003, when it first came out, I read A is V, and recognized some characters.  I passed the book on to friends saying, "I actually know someone like this.  Someone who can't pay her credit card bills but refinances her house to add a pool.  Someone whose brand new house might actually go into foreclosure.  Can you believe it?"  In 2011 we can believe it, and I wanted to read A is V  again to see if it still struck me as powerful and accusatory after "The Great Recession".

It turns out that before I got a chance to look back to A is V, I found a new book by Jess Walter that shows the financial collapse of the irresponsible spender (read:  Everyman) post-recession.  At least I hope we are post-recession.  In Walter's book, The Financial Lives of the Poets, the main character, Matt, is a journalist who decides to quit his job about a day before the recession hits, in order to write financial news in the form of poetry.  To compliment his bad timing, Matt's wife, Lisa, goes on an Ebay spending spree, buying up "collectibles" which she is sure to resell at a profit.  A series of horrible but surprisingly understandable decisions follow, showing the reader a fictional version of the financial collapse of the neighbor next door.

Financial Lives is a great book.  In fact, because I just don't want to have to decide if Financial Lives  is better than say Carter Beats the Devil, I've decided to change my page at the top of your screen from "10 Favorites" to just "Favorites" so that I can include more really good books there.  Walter found a perfect and believable voice for Matt, and even makes the concept of financial poetry seem credible.

Next Up:  McSweeney's, Issue 36 by Dave Eggers.  The box arrived in the mail about a week ago, and I can't wait to read the instructions!  You'll understand more soon.

Still Listening to:  What is the What by Dave Eggers.  Talk about a great voice for a character.  Both the voice as written by Eggers and as read by Dion Graham are amazing.  I was a little intimidated at the idea of listening to a book that takes up 17 discs, but I'm not in any rush to finish.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Light at the End of the Dock

In the wake of 9/11, I clearly remember an interview on the news with a man, who was declaring that for the first time in his life, he didn't feel like an African American, but instead he felt like an American.  As a fellow American, I could relate to that, and felt a similar sense of unity.  In Netherland by Joseph O'Neill, the events of 9/11 seem to have the opposite effect on Hans, a Dutch man, and Rachel, his British wife.  Soon after the attack, Rachel feels the need to leave New York for her home, London, leaving Hans to fend for himself.  Hans reconnects with his home by becoming involved with a group of cricket players from all around the world, who find themselves in New York. 

Much of Netherland is centered around this group of cricket players, and in particular, a referee named Chuck who takes Hans under his wing.  This is a group with which Hans, an analyst for a major bank, would not normally associate.  However, it is to these people that Hans turns, somewhat blindly, when his life is at its lowest point. 

There's an obvious Gatsby reference toward the end, which sets Hans up as the Tom Carraway character to Chuck's Gatsby.  Cricket in America plays the role of Daisy.

When this book came out in 2008, everyone was reading it.  I tried to be contrarian and ignore it,  but when I heard that then Presidential candidate, Barak Obama, was reading it between campaign stops, I knew I would have to read it.  I would have read it sooner if I had known that O'Neill had written part of it at Yaddo. 

Next up:  The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walters

Still Listening to:  What is the What by Dave Eggers

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Monotonous Wife

Well, I've given up on The Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick.  I was listening to it in my car, and it sounded like I was listening to someone reading me their grocery list.  I listened to 3 discs, and made myself begin the 4th, until I just couldn't take it anymore.

It occurred to me that it may be the voice of the reader that was bothering me, so I tried looking in the book at passages that were irritating in the car.  Reading the book did not improve my opinion.  I looked back at the beginning of Part Two, where I ejected the disc, and found that from pages 118 through 121, there were 65 sentences, 50 of which started with the word "she".  That had to be deliberate, because an editor would never have let that get through accidentally, but what did it accomplish?

When I told her I wasn't liking Reliable, my friend, Kim, who had read the book, filled me in on a juicy twist that hadn't happened yet.  But, when I thought about it, that twist made the story of how the husband and wife met impossible, or at least incredibly unlikely.  My decision to move on was confirmed.

Next up on CD:  What is the What by Dave Eggers.  I have started this, and like it better than Reliable already.

Still reading:  Netherland by Joseph O'Neill

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Untrue Crime

When I first started listening to The Black Dahlia  by James Ellroy, I was really enjoying it.  The voice of the story teller was fantastic, and I was interested in how Ellroy could craft a work of fiction around a well known true crime.  In fact, I was questioning why I had this perception that Ellroy was someone my dad would read, but who I wouldn't like.  But when the police brutality began, my interest quickly waned.

The mystery of who killed Elizabeth Short, a/k/a The Black Dahlia, is still unsolved more than 60 years after her death.  In Dahlia, Ellroy solves the mystery through his invented characters, while making the LA police of the 1940s look like corrupt bullies.  I can't imagine that the families of the true detectives involved with this investigation were not incredibly offended by the portrayal.  Ellroy doesn't even bother with a perfunctory  "This is a work of fiction, and any resemblance to any person living or dead, blah, blah, blah" which makes me think that it must be so clear to all involved that these are fictional characters that no legalese is required. 

Although the police beatings of suspects and witnesses began somewhere around the 5th disc, I kept listening through all 11 discs, thinking that the protagonist, Bucky Bleichert, had to realize the wrong of his ways, and change.  He did not.  The one redeeming part is Ellroy's Afterward, where he confides that he based his version of the Dahlia on his mother, who was also killed in an unsolved LA murder, not so many years after the Dahlia murder.  He must have created the role of Bleichert, the investigating officer obsessed with the case, to represent himself.  Ellroy describes his struggle to find his mother's killer, and to understand who his mother was, which mirrors Bleichert's struggle relating to the Dahlia.  I hope Ellroy didn't beat up as many people during his investigation.

Next up on CD:  The Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick

Still reading:  Netherland by Joseph O'Neill

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Scents and Sense

Apparently, I am the only person in the world with this problem, because otherwise there would be a more readily available solution.  Have you ever tried to find a new perfume?  To me, it is almost impossible, because if I try on more than a few fragrances, they all start blending together and I can't tell them apart.  Of course, there are only a few hundred in a department store to choose from, so I hardly even know where to start.  To make matters worse, whenever I find a perfume that I really like, it gets discontinued.  The last couple times that I have tried to find a new perfume, I have first checked the Internet.  It seems like there should be a site where you can type in the names of 3 perfumes that you have worn in the past, and based on their top, heart and base notes, the site should suggest an alternative that is currently available in stores.  As far as I can tell, no such site exists.

This time when I started thinking about the chore of choosing a new perfume, I remembered that my sister had blogged about a perfume book a few years ago.  I checked her archives, and then checked Perfumes: the Guide by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez out from my library.  Perfumes is a great book in that it lists over 1500 fragrances, rates them with stars, offers a two word description of the scent, and then gives a paragraph discussing the product in greater detail.  I tackled the book by looking at anything with 4 or 5 stars, and reading the descriptions from there.  In that way, I was able to narrow my search down to 12 that I wanted to try.  I then went to my mall, tried as many of the 12 that I could find (about 7) and then selected one that was not on my list but which my 11 year old daughter randomly picked up and sprayed on me. 

The two word descriptions were probably my favorite part of Perfumes.  For the perfumes that Turin and Sanchez liked, the descriptions were things that you might expect like "dessert air", "resinous oakmoss", and "woody smoky".  The descriptions for anything that they didn't like (ex:  anything by Paris Hilton), were much funnier, such as "remedial candyfloss", "Windex actually", and "pencil shavings".  My favorites were the two word descriptions for the perfumes that were named after actual scents, such as the three perfumes in a row, all named "Gardenia", for which the two word descriptions were "not gardenia", or Clean Lather, which was declared "un clean".

The drawback to Perfumes is that while some perfumes are timeless, many seem to only be available for a few months or years.  Of the 12  four and five star perfumes that I wanted to try, 3 were no longer available, and the book was published only three years ago.  For Perfumes to remain a valuable resource, it either needs to be published annually or they need to have a website that is kept up to date between editions.  If they have such a website, I can't find it.  The perfume that I wound up buying was not reviewed, and a little Googling told me that it was introduced two years ago.  But, when I was having second thoughts about my purchase, Turin and Sanchez convinced me that I had made the right decision.  They describe the perfume that the lady at the counter tried to sell me but that I didn't buy as being "in hippie head-shop territory, with a heavy overripe floral like the smell in your leather purse when you've had a banana in it since yesterday."

Still reading:  Netherland by Joseph O'Neill

Still Listening to:  The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy

Friday, March 11, 2011

Historical Junk Food

So what could be better than the story of a battle for England's throne, involving the unsolved mystery of what happened to two princes?  I am guessing the other side of the story.  The White Queen by Philippa Gregory is the story of Elizabeth Woodville, who marries Edward IV.  Edward's reign is a constant battle to get and keep the throne, known as The Cousins' War, or The War of the Roses.  Elizabeth and Edward had several children together, including two sons who may or may not have been imprisoned in the Tower of London, and may or may not have died there.  This is a great mystery of British history, and there are several theories of what may have happened, and who may have been responsible.

In The White Queen, Gregory proposes solutions, by analyzing Elizabeth Woodville's actions, and interpreting why she may have done what history shows she really did do.  However, Gregory's next book, The Red Queen, is reviewed as telling the same story, but from the perspective of Margaret Beaufort, Henry VIII's grandmother.  Obviously, we know who wins, so my guess is that the The Red Queen will make me think that the perspective of Elizabeth Woodville is misguided.

Last summer I visited The Tower of London, and saw where many royals were imprisoned, and where the more unlucky were executed.  This picture shows me, my husband, and our friend, Sev, outside of The White Tower, where Edward IV and Elizabeth's sons were held.  The White Tower is at the center of the Tower of London, which is actually much more a compound than a tower.  The tour was well worth the time. 

Although I know that it is the literary equivalent of junk food, I can't resist Gregory and her historical fiction.  As much as I know I should read "more important" books, I am sure that I will be posting about The Red Queen soon.

Next up:  Netherland by Joseph O'Neill

Still listening to (but not liking as much):  The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy

Friday, March 4, 2011


I'm not telling you anything that you won't read on the back of Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez if I begin by telling you that it is a story about love.  But unlike any other love story that I have read, this one spans decades, without a kiss, and apparently without the knowledge of one of the participants.  Love starts off with a boy, Florentino, flirting with a girl, Fermina.  Fermina's father learns of the flirtation, and tries to put an end to the relationship.  Instead, Ferminia outgrows it herself, and tells Florentino that it is over.  Well, it was over for her.

When Fermina marries another man, Florentino vows to wait for her.  I am still not telling you anything that you won't read on the back of the book if I tell you that when Fermina's husband dies, 51 years later, Florentio shows up at the wake to try to rekindle the old flame.  Isn't that romantic?

To put this story in today's terms, think of a guy who asked you out while you were a sophmore in high school, who you flirted with and exchanged notes or texts, but who you did not go out with.  Then think of him spending the next 51years of his life thinking about you, and waiting for your husband to die, even though you hadn't thought of him since you graduated from high school.  Isn't that really more creepy than romantic?

Love is an enjoyable book, but I am not sure if it is accurate to classify it as a love story, even though Florentino surely would.  It is more a comparison of two lives, one of which is lived in a conventional way, and one of which is lived while waiting for something else to happen.

While reading Love, I had a dream that I was "skiing" down an icy ski hill with my high school boyfriend.  I put "skiing" in quotes, because instead of using skis, I was riding a snowboard with a razor scooter-like handle bar, and he was riding a motorcycle.  I am sure that Freud would have something to say about us racing down a slippery slope.  What I have to say is that my snow-scooter was *AWESOME* and if anyone ever manufactures one, I will be first in line to buy it.  Maybe that will be what I grow old waiting for.

Next Up:  The White Queen by Philippa Gregory

Still Listening to:  The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy  I am really enjoying this CD.  The voice of the reader, Stephen Hoye, is so much like that of an older attorney who is "of counsel" to my firm that I actually looked to see if it was the person I know doing the reading.  The murder does not occur until the third disc of eleven, with the first two and a half discs being all about two police officers who I assume will be involved with the investigation.  The story is so good, that I was not bored, even just hearing about random police officers' lives.  Stephen Hoye's voice is perfect for this book, in that he can talk about someone being "an ace detective" or someone paying "a double sawbuck" and sound genuine.  I think that if I was reading the book, the 1940's investigator lingo would have turned me off, but hearing it in Hoye's voice is really keeping me interested.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Credit Where it is Due

In recent years, letters that an employee of Tiffany Studio sent to her family members have surfaced.  These letters indicate that a woman named Clara Driscoll, who worked for the studio, may have been the designer behind Tiffany's famous lampshades.  This discovery is the foundation of Susan Vreeland's new novel, Clara and Mr. Tiffany.

Clara and Mr. Tiffany is written as sort of an expose' where the reader is supposed to get the idea that Louis Tiffany really didn't have so much to do with his famous Tiffany glass, particularly the lampshades. Although I don't know for sure because I found the picture above at Google images, the lamp that is pictured looks very much like a lamp described in the book as being designed by Clara.

Clara is petulant about the fact that she doesn't get more credit for her work, even when she is named as the designer for a certain work that won a prize at the Paris World Fair of 1900.  But actually, the idea of an employee being responsible for art credited to someone more famous is nothing new.  We had never heard of Clara Driscoll prior to about 2008, but we had not heard much about any other designer who worked for Louis Tiffany either.  Likewise, we have not heard about the jewelry designers who worked for Louis Tiffany's famous father, Charles Tiffany, at his little shop, Tiffany and Company.  Another example is the famous sculptor, Auguste Rodin, who actually didn't sculpt.  He designed the statutes and busts, but then would hire unnamed no ones to physically carve the stone to fit his vision.  So really, what could Clara expect?  A Clara Driscoll lamp would have never sold as well as a Tiffany, but now, thanks to Vreeland and the others who uncovered her role, the "Driscolls" will probably be among the most valuable of the Tiffanys.

While Clara is complaining about not getting her due, she reveals a good deal about the progressive ways of Louis Tiffany, which are much to his credit.  For instance, Clara was able to work at Tiffany Studio because unlike the other glass studios of the time, Tiffany believed in hiring women.  He even paid them the same as the men, causing the men to strike in protest.  If Vreeland is accurate, he also hired the physically disabled, homosexuals, and people in interracial marriages.  While he battled his demons, Clara has to concede that without Louis Tiffany, his materials, his teachings, and his funding, she could not have been a glass designer, and certainly would not have been in charge of an entire department in such a well known company. 

The Afterward reveals that many of the more minor characters, including most of the people who lived in Clara's boarding house, were also real people who went on to attain various degrees of success and anonymity. If this boarding house existed today it would be very tempting to pack up and move in.  The house was full of people who cared for one another, and entertained each other by performing plays or reading poetry in the evenings.  The men's favorite poet was Walt Whitman, and if I hadn't already read Leaves of Grass I certainly would have added it to my TBR list after reading Clara.

Next up on CD:  The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy

Almost done reading:  Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Book Group Report - 7

My book group met tonight to discuss The Persian Pickle Club by Sandra Dallas.  The consensus was that it was a good story.  We had a little disagreement about whether the narrator, Queenie, was truthful.  This had to do with whether what she says should be taken literally, or whether at the end she says something to deliberately deceive both Rita and the reader. We also discussed how this was a book set in the time of the Great Depression, but published in 1996, and read by us in 2011.  We wondered if we, as readers in 2011, could relate more to the characters than the original readers in 1996 could have.  As I've discussed before, we know now that squatters are people in the real world, and we really didn't get that in 1996.

Next up:  Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann.  I have read this book already, and I really liked it.  The premise is that the author takes a day on which a crazy but forgotten event occurred in New York City, and adds other characters.  He then shows the reader other things that could have happened in the City that day that were significant to the characters, but likely would have been overshadowed in the news by a wild stunt.  I think it worked really well, and I'm anxious to know what the other book clubbers thought of it.

Almost done listening to:  Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland

Still reading:  Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
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