The Parrots by Filippo Bologna

A writer writing a novel is like a serial killer who’s keeping a victim locked in the cellar. Every evening, he slides under the cellar door a tray with a little water and stale bread, just enough to keep his victim alive, anticipating the moment when he descends the cellar stairs to have his fun with her.”

As readers, we pay attention to those who carry off the coveted literary prizes in the publishing world. Those who directly benefit are probably the most interested in following the Trail of the Winners and the Losers. I note who wins this or that prestigious prize, but mostly my interest stops there. I don’t have any interest in reading a book just because it’s a prize winner, and I tend to be skeptical of the entire selection process. Nonetheless, I appreciate the efforts of those who try and read the short list for themselves prior to the announcement of the prize, and I also empathize with authors who wait for the news only to hear they’ve been passed over. It would be tempting (and also torturous) for those who didn’t win to read the prize-winning novel and chew over the reasons why this one won while theirs didn’t.

The ParrotsI’ll admit that the nasty side of me wonders what goes on in the minds of the contenders. The healthy thing, of course, would be for any nominee to cross fingers, ignore the process, hope for the best, and then behave gracefully when the prize falls to someone else. Sometimes it’s just not that easy to lose, and stories of rival authors attempting to sabotage each other through Amazon reviews give me hope for humanity. And that brings me to the Italian novel, The Parrots by Filippo Bologna, the cynical, but very funny story of three authors in Rome all competing for the same prize. These authors are known as The Beginner, The Writer, and The Master–all men at different stages of their lives and their writing careers. They are men who want/need that prize for a range of reasons, and given that I love to read books about people who behave badly, it was almost guaranteed that I’d like this.

The Writer, on his second unhappy marriage, and plagiarizer of his mother’s work, badly needs the prize. He tried writing novels “filled with love affairs, lonely desperate men throwing stones at the stars, missed dates, ashtrays overflowing with cigarette ends and women dragged by their hair, raincoated figures waking the night streets, cars speeding by beneath the streetlamps, the glances of strange women behind the windows of buses: that was how he imagined the stories he would one day write.”  But “his stories had kept slipping away from him, his sentences had jammed like rusty revolvers.”  

The Beginner turns out to be a tough contender, and according to The Writer’s publisher, The Beginner’s first novel may win the prize because it’s a “first book. And when it’s your first book, they forgive you everything.”

The Master plagued with bills, is convinced that other writers have the edge due to computers, if he could just “plug his technology gap,” he’ll be able to “rival other writers in creativity.” Facing cancer, he mulls over the “prizes he hasn’t won, the recognition he hasn’t obtained” and he sees the prize as “the only way to take leave of the world with dignity.” This drives him to desperate measures.

The Prize is organized and financed by The Patroness who as “the lines on her face crease a moment like a ruff, then relax” conjures up the image of an aging fashion model.  Votes roll in. The Publisher tells The Writer that he’s behind in the prize voting which he explains is due to the death of voters they used to count on. The rash of deaths has lowered the age of the typical voter on the panel:

The older they are, the better. What little time they have left isn’t enough to read all the books in the competition. So they have to choose: read or live. They can’t do both. That’s why they have to trust what we tell them.

On the other hand, there’s The Beginner:

They’ve had him park his arse on the right sofas, on TV and in drawing rooms, they’ve stuck him on the covers of women’s magazines. He isn’t very intelligent but it’s not vital for him to be intelligent–on the contrary. He’s polite, good-looking, blue eyes, women have a soft spot for him.”

“I don’t think he’s that good-looking, he has a stupid face.”

Of course, you get the idea that it isn’t about the books, it’s about the projected personalities, the PR campaigns, vote rigging, and  the pathetically unattended book events in provincial towns in which The Beginner offers “himself as a sacrifice to a handful of torturers who have emerged from their houses.” And of course, that’s taking the optimistic look that anyone will even show up. But there’s worse: “the neglected provincial writer chosen to chair the debate”:

Because he could well imagine ending up there himself. The Beginner had immediately recognised the type, universally knows as “provincial writer who hasn’t made it”.  It was a very specific, widespread and in no way innocuous, anthropological and literary category. Poisoned by the suspicion, if not the contempt, of their fellow citizens, hurt by the smugness of literary society towards them, worn down by rejection and their own inadmissible lack of talent, such people spent their wretched days exiled to their desks, writing imaginary reviews, updating their blogs, working away at novels doomed to the eternal darkness of a drawer. With the passing of the years, they ended up suppressing their feelings of failure and converting them into a sense of martyrdoms. They constructed vast conspiracy theories in which powerful publishers, ensconced in the centre of things, did all they could to crush anyone outside their own charmed circle–the only proof of this conspiracy, of course, being their own misfortunes. They founded small and apparently crusading publishing houses in some cellar, or directly in their own homes, clandestine distilleries where they got drunk on the very spirits they sold under the counter. By so doing, they were finally able to realize their dream and see some of their own manuscripts in printed form, just for the fetishistic orgasm of touching the cover, leafing through the pages, arranging them on display on the mantelpiece in their best room. The most enterprising of them even managed to found schools of creative writing–on the pattern of the more famous ones–in premises placed at their disposal by cooperatives or local authorities, more as an opportunity to exchange a few words with some human beings on autistic winter evenings than as an assertion of their own debatable teaching skills.

Ouch! That long quote gives a sense of the novel’s tone. Caustic, merciless, and cynical, this clever novel pokes fun at the publishing industry, and apart from the occasional sink into farce, this mostly works. I found the objectification of the three authors: The Beginner, The Writer, and The Master, a bit wearying at times, and asked myself why the author chose to write the novel like this. Why not give his characters names instead of leaving them as types? But after concluding the novel, it seems fair to argue that individualism doesn’t count–identity beyond production doesn’t matter as in many ways. The Beginner, The Writer, and The Master, while three separate human beings plagued with their own issues, are arguably the same person at different stages of their careers in this grubby cannibalistic industry.

The Parrots is a good companion read to Gert Loveday’s very funny novel, set at a writers’ workshop: Writing is Easy.

Review copy/own a copy. Translated by Howard Curtis.

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Who is Martha? by Marjana Gaponenko

“A shame to die,” he sighed, “things are only just beginning to get exciting.”

who is marthaWhen Who is Martha? from Ukrainian author, Marjana Gaponenko opens, Professor Emeritus of Zoology, Luka Levadski, at age 96, has just received “a death sentence” of carcinoma of the lung from his doctor. Living alone in Ukraine, in his tiny apartment where he talks to his books and chews over the little future he has left, Levadski decides to decline chemotherapy, “that cocktail of chemicals,” and return to Vienna to a happy time in his youth with memories of eating pastries with his great aunts. In other words Levadski decides to not go out with a whimper but with style while he indulges himself in various luxuries and whoops it up with whatever time he has left. The decision results in him no longer focusing on his disease and imminent death:

The desire to die in luxury he had never lived in spread like wildfire within him. It grew within him and swallowed up his fear of death. The sudden desire for luxury robbed Levadski of any sense of respect for the seriousness of his situation and reduced his lung nibbled by cancer to a mere trifle.

There have been no women in Levadski’s life–just a long, respectable career. Somewhere deep in his past, there’s an ignominious memory which involves a little girl and pastries in Vienna, but on the whole, Levadski, so focused on birds and their mating rituals and habits, just doesn’t understand women.

That he had a long time ago thought of winning over the opposite sex with this pathetic affected behavior, when his head had been filled with nothing but the mating dances and brooding habits of birds, was something he did not want to be reminded about. But he did think about it, he thought about it with a hint of bitterness. After a fulfilling academic life he knew: Women would have interested him more if they hadn’t constantly insisted on emphasizing that they were different from men. If they had been like female birds, a touch grayer and quieter than the males, perhaps they would have awakened his interest at the right time. Levadski would gladly have procreated with such a creature. Only he didn’t know to what purpose.

While the book describes Levadski’s often hilarious misadventures in Vienna, it also goes back into his past, his childhood and his youth. This is a life in which birds were always of paramount importance. At one point, for example, Levadski, a student at the Institute of Zoology in Lemberg, receives a letter from his widowed mother urging him to come home:

My son, something is brewing in this world. The non-migratory birds like the crested lark, wren and the common treecreeper have turned their backs on our little place, the forest and the fields. There is no sign of the house martin either. House sparrows are now nesting under the eaves. I can no longer remember the last time I saw a house martin standing before a puddle, stuffing mud into its cheeks as building material for its nest, it was such a long time ago.

All these signs, my son, as you yourself know, are alarming. Our dear father would have said : the rats are leaving the sinking ship. He would have been right.

Levadski listens to his mother’s warnings of a pending “catastrophe,” and it’s a good thing he did. I loved this section (and the character of Levadski) which illustrated how people, attuned to nature, pick up signals that others are oblivious to. The theme of Levadski’s life spent studying birds continues in his depictions of people he observes in Vienna:

Levadski’s gaze wanders to an inconsolable face. Two strings of pearls entwine the wrinkly neck they belong to. The old woman turns her head like a blue tit, looks around, before she plucks up the confidence to shakily steer the fork with the piece of cake in the direction of her mouth. She protectively holds her other hand beneath it, chews, swallows, and then, with a critical gaze, chin pressed to her chest, she checks whether any of the cake has fallen into her lap, her bosom no longer able to catch crumbs.

While the novel is amusing, and may even seem like a simple story, Who is Martha? raises some relevant questions about life, death, the humiliations and also the compensations of old age. Levadski retired at the age of seventy (twenty-six years earlier) “with the thought that he would not live much longer,” but the story opens with Levadksi at 96, just a few years short of 100. In this life affirming, optimistic, bittersweet story, the message is that we should never give up on life and the experiences offered to us. Levadski, armed with a death sentence, finally feels free to indulge in the luxury he’s always denied himself.  It’s sad that Levadski didn’t experience so many things in life until he had that death sentence hanging over his head–at one point, for example, he dares himself to touch a waitress, but we can only cheer him on as he orders a new suit, special shirts, buys a drinking cane full of 2 Star Odessa Cognac, and, with his new credit card, decides to stay in the Hotel Imperial, the “best hotel in town.” The story sags a bit when Levadski gets to Vienna, and I wish he’d crossed a few more of those self-imposed boundaries. This is the sort of story to elicit a range of opinions concerning the limitations we impose upon ourselves and whether or not Levadksi’s latter-day liberation is a cause for celebration or sadness. Perhaps both. Recommended for book clubs as the story is certain to generate discussion from readers.

Review copy. Translated by Arabella Spencer

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Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood by William J. Mann

But in fact Billy had been a blank screen, onto which Mabel, and so many others, had projected their own hopes and needs.”

While William J. Mann’s non fiction book Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood centres on the unsolved murder of director William Desmond Taylor, the sensational 1922 murder is set against the backdrop of censorship, scandal and the shifting times. Mann argues that a constellation of dark events which include the death of Olive Thomas, the Fatty Arbuckle trials, and the murder of William Desmond Taylor all paved the road to the establishment of censorship and fed support for the various ‘moral’ crusaders who saw Hollywood as a den of iniquity which threatened the morals of the audience. The book is essential reading for any readers interested in early Hollywood and the development of the Hays Code.

TinseltownThis was an era when “thirty-five million Americans–one out of three–went to the movies at least once a week.” Everyone agreed–politicians, fans, film moguls, and moral crusaders–that the film industry was impacting culture, and this resulted in a range of opinions and a figurative tug-of-war between the opposing camps on the subject of censorship. Film moguls, such as Hungarian immigrant and founder of Paramount Pictures, Adolph Zukor, and Marcus Loew, founder of MGM, for example, were loath to hand over censorship power to any outsiders, and for a period, the film industry self-regulated. This is where William Desmond Taylor comes in as an important figure. He was “well regarded in the film colony” but was a “bit of a cipher.” An “ardent defender against the increasing calls for censorship,” he was a stalwart, well-respected spokesperson for the film industry. His death and the subsequent scandal were building blocks in the road to film censorship. The “murder of Taylor–the man who’d once argued for the decency and integrity of Tinseltown–ratcheted the campaign of the reformers up to new levels.”

The book delves into the months leading up to the crime–Taylor’s increased nervousness and the spate of burglaries at his home. The night of the murder is detailed along with various eye-witness accounts, information regarding the removal of evidence by the general manager of Paramount Pictures, and the initial bungling of the case (Taylor was first thought to have died of natural causes.)  Four women are part of the author’s dissection of the crime: actress Mabel Normand whose cocaine habit (rumoured to be around 2,000 a month) was a matter for the press, Margaret Gibson, who reinvented herself as Pamela Palmer following her arrest in Little Tokyo for prostitution, former child star Mary Miles Minter and her formidable mother, Mrs. Shelby.

There’s so much intriguing information raised here: why, for example was Mrs. Shelby repeatedly given a layer of protection by Woolwine, the DA, and why was Margaret “Gibby” Gibson rehired repeatedly by film producer Jesse Lasky and the Famous Players Corporation against the odds?

With an utterly undistinguished filmography, a record for prostitution, and a desire to form a company that would compete with Famous Players, Gibby should have been a pariah in Lasky’s office. But instead she had now been hired for a second major feature at the biggest, most prestigious studio in the industry.

Author William J. Mann offers plenty of explanation for the events. The personalities of these long-dead people leap from the pages–from Zukor’s megalomania, the sacrifice of Fatty Arbuckle to a vicious witch-hunt, Will Hays’ drive to become independent from the movie moguls, Margaret Gibson’s history of involvement with the criminal element to Mabel Normand’s gentle determination to defy the gossip mongers and survive without scandal. In this compelling book, Mann creates a cogent argument that William Desmond Taylor’s past was involved in the solution to his murder. A must-read for fans of early Hollywood.

Included in the book is a chapter devoted to a confession to the murder and another much-appreciated chapter:”What Happened to Everyone Else.” The author also explains his sources: letters telegrams, FBI files, police reports, news accounts, production records and emphasizes that he “did not venture unbidden into the minds of my subjects. When I write ‘how terribly she missed him’ or ‘Zukor seethed,’ these descriptions are based in interviews or memoirs by the subject on question, wherein such feelings, attitudes, or motivations were disclosed or can be deduced.” I appreciated this clarification. Too many books in this genre tend to offer the thoughts of characters, and as a reader I’m left wondering what really happened and what is made up. Finally the author also acknowledges his debt to http://www.taylorology.com.

And so out had come the censor’s shears. In Pennsylvania, state-appointed moral guardians had even snipped out scenes of a “woman making baby clothes, on the ground that children believe that babies are brought by the stork.” What was next? asked the New York Times. “Will it be a crime to show a picture of a man giving his wife a Christmas present on the ground that it tends to destroy faith in Santa Claus?”

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Cometh Up As a Flower Part II

Rhoda Broughton’s book Cometh Up As a Flower was much more romantic than I expected, but nonetheless, parts of it were wonderful. Nell Le Strange, the narrator of this ultimately tragic novel makes an interesting yet at times, frustrating, heroine. Pressured by her sister, and with her family in desperate circumstances, she bows to convention, and marries a man she doesn’t love. She compares herself on her wedding day to “the poor lamb [whose] throat was about to be cut” and “the female martyr.

Then comes one of Broughton’s evocative passages on the day of Nell’s wedding:

The air is full of snow; flakes are sailing crookedly down to join the other flakes lying already on tree, and hedgerow, and field. There seems no horizon to-day, no definite boundary to the prospect–sky and earth are mixed and jumbled up together; it is freezing and thawing, freezing and thawing every five minutes.

Broughton doesn’t make Nell’s husband a villain; he’s a nice man, but nonetheless, the implications of sex with a man Nell doesn’t love are there. At one point she admits that she “wished he would transfer his amities to some other person, even if it were the cook.” Shockingly frank for its day, I’d think, and certainly Margaret Oliphant found the book shocking when she exclaimed that “Nell’s ‘flippancy … revolts the reader'” (from the intro by Fionn O’Toole).

In one scene, prior to Nell’s marriage, the butcher arrives to try to collect on a long unpaid bill which has amassed to thirty-five pounds, five shillings and 4 1/2 pence. One site calculates that in today’s money that would be a bill of around 2,725 pounds!

Nell is ruminating on the family’s poverty when there’s a knock at the door. She knows that it must be the cook/housekeeper “come with one fell object, namely, to get money for some of the numerous tradesmen who were kind enough to throng our doors.” The sympathy which had been gathering for Nell vanished with this scene for we see that she expects good and services to continue even though those who provide them go unpaid. She still complains that the butcher has the gall to send poor cuts of meat when really she’s lucky he’s sending anything at all.

“I wish he and his bill were at Jericho.” responded I, tartly.

“He says that this is the ninth time he has brought it in, and he wants to have it paid.

“Want must be his master,” said I briefly.

“But he says he must have it paid; that he’s got a very ‘eavy engagement to meet next week, and he cannot do without the money.”

“They always say that,” replied I, surveying ruefully a yawning chasm in the heel of my stocking.

“Indeed, ‘m, I think they do; but , if you please, what am I to tell him? he’s waiting.”

“Tell him that I shall be most happy to pay his bill if he’ll only show me how; that I cannot coin money; and I haven’t a farthing in the world, except the crooked sixpence on my chain, which he is most welcome to, if he likes to take it.”

Nell sees the butcher’s claim as a YP not a MP. Who remembers that wonderful scene at the recording studio in the film  Boogie Nights? The characters Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) and Reed (John C. Reilly) decide to become rock stars (hey, why not?) and make demo tapes at a recording studio. But they don’t have the money to pay the studio’s owner and tell him that they have to have the tapes first and then they can pay him later when they become rich and famous. Makes sense to them. But the studio owner says, in one of the great lines in the history of cinema, that the lack of money is a “YP not a MP.” But back to Nell … that’s one of her problems, she doesn’t grasp the realties of life: she lives in poverty with her father and sister but still expects food to miraculously land on her doorstep. It’s not the butcher’s problem–it’s her problem. Her options are running out, and then her sister Dolly fiendishly intervenes in Nell’s fate…

Boogie Nights

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Cometh Up As a Flower by Rhoda Broughton Part I

When I began Rhoda Broughton’s novel Cometh Up As a Flower, I thought I’d end up loving it. I didn’t, as it turns out, I only liked it. Parts of it were wonderful, but parts of it were too romantic, too wilty for my tastes. But those complaints aside, while Cometh Up As a Flower left me more appreciative than ever of M.E. Braddon’s masterful plotting skills, Broughton’s book does have a lot going for it.  The book opens very strongly indeed with our tragic heroine, Nell Le Strange, the youngest daughter of an impoverished, once wealthy, noble family sitting alone in the local churchyard:

Ours was a churchyard that it would have been a real luxury to be buried in. It inspired one with no horrible, hardly even melancholy ideas. One never thought of skulls or cross-bones, or greedy worms, while looking at those turfy mounds sloping so softly; those mounds that the westering sun always gave his last good-night kiss to before he went to bed behind the craggy purple hill. Were one really dead, stowed away in one’s appointed oak box, it would concern one, no doubt, not a whit whether one were huddled with other oak boxes into some ghastly pit, among the dark benettled grass of some city charnel, or laid down reverently in the fragrant earth, shadowed by some peaceable little gray church tower, such as ours was. But while one is yet alive and one’s oak box is as yet not a box at all, but the trunk of some branchy tree, one cannot realize this. Unconsciously we fancy that we shall smell the odorous mignonette and carnations that are reveling in the summer sunshine above our heads, that we shall hear the birds preaching our funeral sermons, and singing their own epithalamiums when spring comes back, that we shall shiver in the snow, and be chilled by the wintry rains.

A flawed, yet still beautiful passage (too many ‘ones’–read this quote using first person and it’s much better) that gives a sense of the novel’s main character, Nell. I immediately liked her, but at the same time knew that she was destined, with all that romanticism, for some painful lessons. Nell is the youngest of two daughters who live with their widowed father. Dolly, the eldest sister, the much more conventional of the two, was engaged to be married to a wealthy young man who inconveniently died right before the wedding. The marriage would have solved some of the family’s problems, but now Dolly’s value on the marriage market isn’t so great:

“life in an old barrack, with no present income, and with no future prospects, hardly seems to me a theme for Hallelujah; for weeping and gnashing of teeth rather.”

“I would not gnash my teeth if I were you, Dolly!” say I, with sarcasm, which is a weapon I but seldom use, as it mostly cuts my own fingers when I lay hold of it, “or you may break them, and that would seriously diminish your prospects in the market.”

“Market, indeed!” echoes Dolly, interrupting herself in the perusal of a toilette de promenade. “This little pig does not go to market, and very sorry she is for it too, she might have all her teeth drawn and knocked out, or gnashed out, and nobody would be the wiser. Alas! alas! there are no pig dealers in this Sahara.”

A very bold passage for its times, and one which reveals that Dolly is all too aware of a woman’s fate should she remain unmarried.

cometh up as a flowerNell falls in love with a man who can’t salvage the family fortunes, and so she finds herself marrying a man she doesn’t love. She’s so young, so full of life, we can almost hear the joy being squeezed out of her as she’s married off feeling only “huge loathing” and “infinite despair.” The skullduggery in the plot seems relatively tame after other Sensation novels I’ve read, and the crime involved is a moral crime more than anything else. While in Lady Audley’s Secret, M. E. Braddon creates a pathological female who will do whatever is necessary to get ahead, the wicked woman here is Nell’s sister, Dolly, who in many ways, at least externally, embodies the Victorian ideal woman.

The intro to my Pocket Classics edition, written by Fionn O’Toole acknowledges that the novel, written in 1862-3 and finally published anonymously in 1867 is “sentimental and melodramatic in parts.” Cometh Up As a Flower, a best seller in its day, tackles sexual attraction, a loveless marriage, and strongly critical of a woman’s choices, “strip[s] away the facades and veneers of a respectable woman’s life and mock the society in which she is trapped.”

Rhoda Broughton, the niece of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu enjoyed a long writing career, but when Broughton died in 1920, her popularity was in decline. Born in Wales in 1840, Rhoda Broughton’s first novel Not Wisely But Too Well was serialized in Le Fanu’s Dublin University magazine, and while Broughton is categorized as a Sensation author, publisher Victorian Secrets argues that her work is “risqué rather than sensational.” Cometh Up As a Flower is an entirely different animal from other Sensation novels I’ve read so far. While the Sensation novel owed a debt to both the Gothic and the Romantic, Cometh Up As a Flower seems to have grown from the latter.

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There Must Be Some Mistake by Frederick Barthelme

When is thinking carefully cowardice? When is avoidance cowardice? Is it cowardly to evade and dodge, to leave by the side door, to step out of the way? Is it fear that makes a person behave ‘properly’ and in accordance with one or another code of conduct?”

American author Frederick Barthelme whose work is described as Dirty Realism or K-Mart Realism has a reputation for setting books in the New South.  There Must Be Some Mistake (and I’ll admit that I was attracted by the book’s cover) is the story of Wallace Webster, a divorced, retired architect. Wallace lives in one of the “prestigious” Forgetful Bay condos in Kemah (“halfway between Houston and Galveston“), Texas and more or less leads the sort of life he wants. His first wife died of cancer, his second wife Diane inherited a sizeable stash from her father and now lives on Rhode Island, and his college age daughter Morgan drifts in and out of his life. Jilly, a former workmate also visits, and with Jilly the relationship is a bit murky. There’s an attraction there, but Jilly is still damaged from her marriage which was “like TV show nasty, true crime nasty” to the ubiquitous Cal, a “tough piece of business.” Neither Jilly nor Wallace seem willing to make a move on the attraction and are happy to keep their relationship as an easy friendship.

there must be some mistakeThe book begins by setting the pace of  Wallace’s life, and although this is a man who could harbor bitterness towards some of the events in his life (his first wife, a singer died of  cancer, he was elbowed out of his business by his partners) Wallace is a very well balanced individual, content to enjoy his life and his free time. We realize that Wallace has an enviable life in many ways–it’s peaceful, bucolic even, and he has the means to do what he chooses.

All this peace and quiet begins to shift when a series of mysterious events occur in the condo community. First Wallace’s neighbor crashes his car in a deadly accident which claims his life, and then another resident Chantal White is “found in her kitchen, her hands bound with picture-hanging wire from the back of her prize art print and blue paint smeared all over her.” These are the first two things that occur, and it’s just the beginning. While the residents of the HOA aren’t exactly dropping like flies, it does become a whose-next scenario. As various crimes are investigated, Wallace finds the police presence “oddly reassuring. Like your life imitating television–murders and drive-bys and robberies and whatever happening to people all around you.”

For a few weeks the police were all over the neighborhood like mice. They were asking questions, coming in twos to everyone’s door, inviting themselves in, sitting on the edges of sofas and wing chairs with their little tablets, little flip books where they took notes whether the interviewees knew a thing or not.

With the police now frequent visitors to the condo development, Wallace finds himself becoming involved with the mysterious Chantal White, a woman whose murky past isn’t quite as buried as she’d like it to be. Chantal is the owner of a architecturally unique restaurant called Velodrome, and Wallace is just as drawn to Chantal’s restaurant as he is to her. It’s through his relationship with Chantal that Wallace chews over a great deal of his past choices.

There Must Be Some Mistake initially carefully creates an atmosphere which reflects the security of Wallace’s life in the Forgetful Bay Estate. This is a community where the highest stakes seem to be who is going to run the HOA. Wallace’s neighbors, for the most part, appear to be a boring bunch of middle class, middle-aged Americans whose priorities are status, gossip and lawn care. Wallace’s divorce is amicable, his daughter presents no problems, and his life is predictably safe. His laid-back lifestyle emphasizes internet searches, facebook status, TCM, lazy daytrips, Target shopping  and visits to “finer eateries.” But underneath the surface of this easy-going life, strange things begin to happen on the Forgetful Bay Estate. …

Through his characters, author Frederick Barthelme asks  ‘how well do we know anybody? How well do we know ourselves?’ Lulled into a false sense of security, this reader was unprepared for the direction the novel began to take as Wallace finds himself involved with the “comfortably weathered” “hard as nails” Chantal White at her restaurant, Velodrome:

We got back late and the bar was lit up with floods high on the telephone poles in the lot and I got the midnight view–the building was like a giant rock, made out of that blow-it-on concrete that people make odd-shaped buildings with, except here the shape wasn’t geometric, it was like a boulder the size of a small hay barn, all chiseled planes, small cliffs. irregular flat spots, poorly framed square holes for the windows, and what looked to be a small Airstream trailer stuck up on top. Homemade architecture, what we once called ad hoc design.

Chantal exemplifies the novel’s theme that even your neighbor, a person you think you know, can hide the deepest secrets, and when Chantal’s performance artist daughter Tinker arrives on the scene, things only get stranger for Wallace.  All the mysteries of the novel are not solved by its conclusion, and while in the hands of another author, There Must be Some Mistake would become a dramatic murder mystery, instead Barthelme veers away from the predictable and gives us a marvelous novel that is a reflection of, and a meditation on, modern life: from Trayvon Martin, reality TV, google searches, celebrity and junk culture. Some people disliked the ending, but for this reader, the ending matched the novel’s optimistic tone while embracing the realities, the unexpected and the mysteries of life.

And here’s a final quote I loved from one of Wallace’s neighbor’s:

So I’m looking forward to social security, know what I’m saying, and I run into this woman in the hardware store. She’s buying a set of wrenches, good ones, too. So she asks me a couple questions, and I act like I know from wrenches, which I oughta, and maybe I even did at one time, back in the old days, but the thing is I’m thinking sixty-one is not much different from fifty-nine, even fifty-five, but it’s night and day to fifty. Fifty you’re still alive, still a functioning cog in the system. There are parts to play, deals to make, women to bed. you can still sell yourself to the ones that remind you what pretty women look like, what god skin in, and the rest. But it goes downhill after that. Some guys keep up the pretense, but I never could.

Review copy.

 

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This Little Piggy by Bea Davenport

Bea Davenport’s novel This Little Piggy, set in the north of England during the ’84 miner’s strike, begins with the discovery of a horrible crime. On Sweetmeadows, a cheap, “mould-ridden” slum housing estate earmarked for destruction the body of a baby boy is found dumped near the rubbish bins. The baby belonged to “one of the Sweetmeadows’ rare two-parent families, the Donnellys.” Four months into the strike, Robert Donnelly, a miner, has returned to the mines as a scab. With the family already the target of harassment, Donnelly’s mother is certain that the murder of the baby has been committed by some striking miners, but Robert argues that the miners are his “mates” and that they’d never hurt a child.

this little piggyLocal reporter Claire Jackson, reeling from a personal tragedy and passed over for a promotion, throws herself into the case. She befriends an eight-year-old girl named Amy who lives near the Donnellys and who claims to have vital information about the baby’s death. Amy, an intelligent, yet feral child, lives with her single mother Tina in filth and squalor, and is often left alone without food for days at a time. The police dismiss the child’s story as fabrication. Claire, intrigued by the case, and drawn to Amy, becomes involved in investigating the crime, and she also finds herself selected by the miners’ organizer, Finn, to attend miners’ benefits and activities in order to counter the overwhelming negative press the miners are receiving.

Author Bea Davenport does an excellent job of creating a crime set against the tense backdrop of the miners’ strike. The Sweetmeadows Estate is considered dangerous both by the police (who tend to avoid the place if they can) and by any outsiders. Yet the people who live there seem to share a bond that goes beyond socioeconomics. Claire finds herself caught in the crossfire–she’s a journalistic advocate for both the miners and the residents at the Sweetmeadows Estate, but is she becoming too involved as her fellow reporter, Joe claims?  Claire counters that perhaps it’s time to pick a side:

Don’t you ever get sick of pretending that you’re not quite part of humanity, you’re just someone who stands on the sidelines and takes notes?

As the murder investigation continues, brutality emerges from the police towards Sweetmeadows residents, and with the strike continuing, violence towards the miners also escalates.  According to the police, the Sweetmeadows Estate is a “tinderbox. It’s a riot waiting to happen,” and the actions of the police during the investigation ignite an already tense situation. But according to the Sweetmeadows residents, the police aren’t exerting every effort to find the real killer:

“That’s the trouble with living here,” the first woman went on. “you get branded. If it was some posh couple’s baby, the police wouldn’t drive the mother to her grave by making out it was here that did it. And if anyone else complains about the police they have to sit up and take notice. But when it’s Sweetmeadows, it’s just, oh, it’s that lot again. They call us swine and treat us like rubbish. Bastards.”

As tensions rise and violence explodes, Claire finds herself in an increasingly dangerous position, and even though she thinks she’s taken a stand by showing support for the miners and the residents of Sweetmeadows, Claire, a sympathetic and charismatic character, must ultimately make a moral choice she didn’t anticipate.

As a crime book which explores class, alienation and the murky political complexities of the times, This Little Piggy succeeds. We see that life on Sweetmeadows is like life on an alternate universe; you can’t appreciate its nuances unless you live there, and even Claire, a frequent visitor to the estate, is ultimately an outsider. A minor quibble from this reader involves an incident between Amy and Claire towards the end of the book which jolted me out of an otherwise tense, compelling and wholly believable story.

Review copy.

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Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas

I watched and thoroughly enjoyed the mini-series The Slap–the story of what happens when a man slaps a child at a neighbourhood barbecue. The premise itself didn’t sound that gripping to be honest, but the reality, as the episodes followed the fallout, was riveting. So when Sue (aka Gummie) from Whispering Gums read and reviewed Christos Tsiolkas’s novel Barracuda earlier this year, I knew I wanted to read it. Barracuda is just one of the two nicknames given to Danny Kelly by other young boys on his swimming team. The other nickname, not so pleasant, is Psycho Kelly. Which one is accurate? Answer: well they both are.

BarracudaDanny Kelly, the son of a Irish/Scottish long distance lorry driver and a glamorous attractive Greek hairdresser mother, comes from an intensely working-class background when he’s poached from his working class school by the swimming coach of “Cunts College” as Danny likes to derisively call it. Cunts College is an elite Melbourne school and with a full scholarship, Danny transfers from his socioeconomic peer group into the school for the “filthy rich.” Just given the basic premise, this is a recipe for disaster.

It was like his two worlds were parts of different jigsaw puzzles. At first, he’d tried to fit the pieces together but he couldn’t do it; it was impossible. So he kept them separate: some pieces belonged on this side of the river, to the wide tree-lined boulevards and avenues of Toorak and Armadale, and some belonged to the flat uniform suburbs in which he lived.

While Danny doesn’t blend in with the boys at his new school, there’s one place he’s can’t be beaten, and that’s in the school’s swimming pool. He’s not at the school long before he feels that “only in the water did he feel like himself. Only in the water did he feel he could escape them.” While other boys have their body hair removed professionally, Danny’s mother uses an old-fashioned razor. While the other boys have “shiny new speedos,” Danny wears cheap trunks. The difference between Danny and the other boys at the school cannot be breached, and even when slight relationships form after Danny’s talent, bravado, and aggression win him a tentative acceptance, these relationships are fraught with tension and class-awareness and everything is held together by Danny’s ability to win at swimming competitions: “he knew that hate was what he would use, what he would remember, what would make him a better swimmer.” This makes for a high stakes situation with an Olympic gold medal as the eventual goal and his ticket to fame and success:

He hated them, he absolutely hated them, the golden boys. He hated their blondness, their insincere smiles, their designer sunglasses, their designer swimmers and their designer sports gear. They made him feel dark and short and dirty. He detested them and he couldn’t wait till he was wearing those sunglasses, till he had those brand names across his sweatshirt

The novel  begins with Danny living in Scotland and then goes back to 1994  when Danny first transfers to the posh Melbourne school. The novel concludes in 2012 for a total time span of 18 years and covers significant incidents in Danny’s life–a life in which Danny’s self-loathing coats his actions. This self-loathing is an impenetrable membrane, and it doesn’t matter who believes in Danny–his mother, his coach, his handful of friends, Danny loathes himself so much, that we know the anger summering beneath the surface will eventually explode in the most self-destructive manner possible. Danny’s coach, at one point, tells Danny that he can help him build muscles and improve technique, but that he can’t do anything about what goes on in Danny’s head, and as it turns out, this is Danny’s greatest stumbling block: not other swimmers, not other students at the school. He is his own worst enemy.

That afternoon, when he dived into the pool, that was when he finally spoke. He asked the water to lift him, to carry him, to avenge him. He made his muscles shape his fury, made every kick and stroke declare his hate. And the water obey; the water would give him his revenge. No one could beat him, not one of the pricks came close.

We see Danny make horrendous mistakes. Removed from his socioeconomic peer group, and given this fantastic ‘chance’ to train for Olympic competition there’s an enormous amount of pressure on Danny, and author Christos Tsiolkas conveys that pressure while very cleverly making Danny’s self-loathing the central issue rather than his homosexuality. The book really gets to the heart of class conflict. Danny, in a David Copperfield sort-of-way, is invited to share space with some of the wealthiest people in Melbourne. Danny is made to feel inferior, and he reacts with more self-loathing and shame, but there’s also no small amount of class envy. In one great scene, he’s invited to a dinner party for the matriarch of the Taylors, a wealthy family whose members fall over themselves to pay homage to the Grande Dame who holds the family purse strings.

The old woman whispered, “Come closer.”

Danny lowered his head.

“I’ve always admired the working class, my dear, always. Like us, you know exactly who you are. But look at them.” She waved a hand dismissively at the others at the table. “They have no idea how abysmal they are. Lord, how I detest the middle class.”

Danny looked into her bright shining eyes and knew he had just been given a gift, but he didn’t know how to unwrap it, could not figure out how to accept it. The old woman shrugged and rose from her chair, dropping her napkin onto the table.

Mrs. Taylor looked up. “Mother,” she blurted out, “you mustn’t smoke.”

“Oh, fuck off, Samantha,” the  old woman replied as she followed her son out to the courtyard.

Danny’s self loathing is so destructive that he lashes out at everyone who tries to help him, and there are times when Tsiolkas risks, alienating his readers from this character. He’s angry, unpleasant and yet we realize that there’s a brittle ego underneath. A deadly combination as it turns out. I found myself trying to reason with Danny at several points, but of course Danny has to hit rock bottom before he can turn his life around. On one level, the book argues well that talent and skill are not the only elements to make a champion, but there’s a bigger picture here, and that’s taking responsibility for your actions:

You construct a ladder and you climb that ladder, out of the hell you have created for yourself and back into the real world.

Review copy.

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Ten North Frederick by John O’Hara

Joe was like a young fellow that never grew up. In many respects that was what he was. But if you let it end there, you wouldn’t have the full picture of the man. I can’t believe that what I was allowed to see of Joe was all there was. If that was all there was, he was a dull man, perhaps a stupid man.”

Joe Chapin is the main character of John O’ Hara’s Ten North Frederick. There’s nothing really special about Joe, and he would have been a very average man if not for his inherited wealth. Born into the privilege that always cocooned him and also denied some fundamental, necessary experiences, he attended law school, married and had two children. He was a good husband, a good father, and as a conservative, he was also a lifelong member of the Republican Party. He never travelled to Europe, didn’t fight in a World War, but he did have political ambitions which grew, almost preposterously, from his innate sense of self-worth. In many ways it’s a small life, and it’s definitely a sad life. From early childhood, Joe was conditioned to act a certain way, think a certain way, and only mingle with certain types of people. Joe was a man who never stepped out of line–except once, and that incident led to his permanent unhappiness.

ten north frederickTen North Frederick is the address of Joe’s home–an old mansion in the fictional town of Gibbsville, Pennsylvania. This was also Joe’s parents’ home; Joe was born in the house, and he died there. He obeyed his family’s wishes to keep the family home in spite of the fact that it wasn’t the most elite address in Gibbsville, because the best families–not the richest or the most fashionable–lived in that section of town, and even Joe’s address said a great deal about the sort of man he was.  We could say that Joe was defined by external markers rather than internal. Joe was, in fact, a rather hollow person.

The novel’s focus is on the hypocrisy of small-time American life. In the introduction, written by Jonathan Dee in my Penguin Classics edition, Dee argues that O’Hara’s work is primed for a renaissance. He states that the novel is “pitilessly accurate” in “freezing the details of a bygone era in American history,” and citing the 2008 financial clash, that the novel blasts “the great American fairy tale of class mobility.” One of my pet beliefs is that no one writes as well about the excesses of wealth and the tentacles of selective power than Americans, and Ten North Frederick, surely one of the giants of 20th century American literature bolsters my argument. O’Hara’s style is heavy & ponderous–think Dreiser.

The novel begins with Joe’s funeral, and then the narrative expands with various pallbearers’ versions of Joe. A picture begins to form of the man who was the epitome of conformity, but then O’Hara moves in closer to see Joe through family members, and cracks begin to appear in the image we have until, by the end of the book, the vision we have of Joe and his life is of a big blank hemmed in and defined by conformity. Joe moved in a circle of influential people who all thought like him, shared the same values and beliefs, and rarely, if ever, stepped outside of their comfort zone.

In Gibbsville, in 1909, only a few men could tell with exactness the true wealth of the wealthy Gibbsville families. A family that had assets worth $800,000 could, and usually did, live in great comfort without spending much more money than a family worth $200,00. It was a matter of pride with the best people of Gibbsville to live comfortably, but without the kind of display that would publicly reveal the extent of their wealth. A few families, whose names were given to large holdings in coal lands and to breweries and meat-packing houses, lived in American luxury. They were the owners of the early motor cars. they employed the larger staff of servants. They had summer homes at distant resorts and led the lists of contributors to church and charity. Their wealth was a known fact and they were free to enjoy it. But behind them, obscured by the known wealthy, were the well-off, who possessed considerable fortunes and who quietly ran the town.

The book goes back in time over Joe Chapin’s life. We meet his parents locked in a bitterly miserable marriage. Joe’s neurotic, sexually repressed, vindictive mother Charlotte transfers all of her ambition and attention to her son while sidelining her husband into becoming a marginal, distant figure in his own house. Joe eventually marries Edith Stokes, a woman made in the same mould as his mother, and so he steps from his mother’s leash to his wife’s. Nothing is spontaneous with these people, and everything is decided by a name, an address, or a bank account. Here’s Edith planning the wedding invitations which are designed to let people know whether or not they are important enough to be invited to the reception:

Her lists had been checked and rechecked long before the engagement announcements, so that when she took the list to Charlotte Chapin, the mother of the groom and the bride-to-be were almost in perfect accord. Names marked with an “R” for reception remained marked with an “R”; a few, but a very few, marked with a “C” for church-only, were remarked with an “R” because Charlotte felt that this husband or that husband was slightly more important in the business affairs of the town than Edith could be expected to know. “It will mean a lot to Joe later on, Edith dear. I’d have done just what you did, but if you let down the bars just a little bit, just in one or two instances, I know it will be appreciated. And they’re worthwhile people, and in one more generation there wouldn’t be the slightest question about their being invited. So don’t you think we ought to be nice to them now?”

And so Joe’s life is controlled from the cradle to the grave–first by his mother, and then by his wife. He rarely makes a decision about his own life; his college is selected for him; his friends are arranged–even his college roommate is no accident, and Joe’s carefully conditioned to not question the status quo or who should be considered as acceptable society. There are many great scenes in the book that illustrate this but my favourite occurs when Joe’s mother, Charlotte takes offence with how 10-year-old  Joe is treated by another mother, Blanche Montgomery, at a child’s birthday party. She vindictively colludes with an acquaintance  to punish Blanche by shutting her out of the ‘best’ society.

The exclusion of the Montgomerys from the informal little dinner club was not noticed until the unannounced twenty-couple limit had been reached and nominations closed. It was an informal club in that there was no clubhouse, it had no rooms, no place for a bulletin board, no stationery. Its name was The Second Thursdays, without the word club. When it was seen that the Montgomerys were not included (and it became known they had not been asked), their social indispensability was at an end. Charlotte’s strategy had included extra, direct snubs for Blanche Montgomery, but she need not have planned so carefully. The absence of the Montgomerys from The Second Thursdays lowered their standing in the eyes of nonmembers and members–and no one, or almost no one, ever knew what had happened. One day they were a first family; then in a short while they were just another old family with money. And even Blanche Montgomery did not suspect Charlotte, who was not a member of The Second Thursdays; nor did she suspect Bess, a woman incapable of intrigue. In her tears and anger she blamed herself, but she never discovered the real reason for the snub. Perhaps she spent too much money on clothes? Perhaps she had flirted with someone’s husband? Possibly they did not like the color she had chosen for the repainting of the old Montgomery mansion? She was fully aware of the enormity of her failure: not even being married to a Montgomery was enough to carry her, but being married to her was enough to hurt a Mongtomery. In 1930, when her son was a lawyer for the big bootleggers and organized prostitution, dressed like a bootlegger and one of the prostitutes’ best patrons–she still blamed herself, and wished that her boy could have turned out like Joe Chapin.

The novel is packed with unforgettable characters: the vicious, yet hale and hearty politician, Mike Slattery, a very powerful man who runs the local political scene, and his wife, Peg who wanted the wives of the local elite  to “not forget for a minute that she was the most powerful human influence upon one of the most powerful men in the Commonwealth.” If you want a favour–someone run out-of-town or an abortion arranged, then Mike is your man. Mike never forgets that people owe him, and he sees himself as the puppetmaster behind the scenes. Unfortunately, the Chapins never really understood that Slattery’s power did not run on the same level as their own. Since a great deal of the novel’s focus is on conformity and hypocrisy, it’s not too surprising that there’s a thread of sex–illicit, secret, repressed–running throughout the book and seen in the thoughts and actions of several characters.

Ten North Frederick, which was incidentally made into a film, is the portrait of a privileged American but it’s also the portrait of the first few decades of the American century with landmark historic events which don’t touch the Chapin family. WWI takes place off in the distance, prohibition reigns–not that the alcohol ban makes any difference whatsoever to Joe and his friends who always have plenty of alcohol to drink, the 1928 crash, (Joe loses money but life doesn’t change),  the depression and there are distant rumblings of WWII. Ten North Frederick is a monumental achievement. It begins with Joe’s funeral and the many versions of this man, so at first Joe appears in our vision as a complicated piece of origami which over the course of the book is unfolded, through his various relationships, to reveal … a blank, creased piece of paper, a remarkably empty human being. And yet at the same time, it’s to O’Hara’s credit that the character of Joe remains fundamentally sympathetic.

** For foreign readers, there are a few passages of Pennsylvania Dutch which I had to work my work through phonetically.

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The Murder of Dr Chapman: The Legendary Trials of Lucretia Chapman and Her Lover by Linda Wolfe.

The book The Murder of Dr Chapman: The Legendary Trials of Lucretia Chapman and Her Lover gives us a glimpse into the attitudes and prejudices of early 19th century America. The title also holds no secret as to what happened to Dr Chapman, an affluent speech therapist who died after a long, painful, violent illness, or that his wife (hardly a grieving widow) and her lover were hauled into court for the crime. So while the title gives us the basic premise of the book: husband dead–wife and lover accused, some of the most intriguing elements of this crime include questions of guilt, but also how society closed ranks against Lucretia–but only when convenient to do so.

After reading about various Victorian murderesses–some who got away with their crimes, I was ready to read about the Chapman case–a cause célèbre of its times partly due to the degree of scandal involved but also a famous case thanks to the salacious memoirs of one of the accused and also the extensive journalistic coverage of the case by William E. Du Bois.

dr chapmanLucretia and William Chapman ran a boarding school, taught the children of the local elite, and enjoyed successful careers. William had an international reputation for improving stammering, and ambitious, well-educated Lucretia was known to bring her charges to church every Sunday. Images of both of these people seep through the pages, and there’s the sense that this was a marriage that ‘worked’ well as a business arrangement but that by 1831, 5 children later, all romance, passion and even affection, if they’d ever been present in the first place, were now, at least, entirely absent.  William had gained an enormous amount of weight, seemed to have delusions of his own grandeur and chose to be increasingly absent when it came to family life interactions.

So with the Chapmans’ marriage stagnant and at a stalemate, trouble arrived on their doorstep in the form of a man, originally a Colombian, whose family relocated to Cuba: Carolino Estrada Entrealgo, otherwise known as Lino, a thief and a murderer who was tossed out of Cuba and who washed up, eventually, at the Andalasia mansion owned by the Chapmans. Well, you can guess what happened next….

We see Lino as a clever con-man and exactly the circumstances that contributed to Lucretia being duped by a penniless, tattily dressed, albeit exotic, stranger who posed as the son of the governor of California. It’s interesting, though, that while Lucretia and Wiliam Chapman were duped into thinking that Lino was a wealthy man who’d suffered from a series of catastrophes, the merchant who was told to supply Lino with new clothing on credit was not fooled for a moment, and, in reality, all the signals of Lino’s duplicity were there–including his refusal to write anything because he was “ashamed” of his handwriting.

The book covers the story of William’s horrible death, Lucretia’s hasty marriage to Lino (9 days after the death of her husband), Lino’s behaviour after his marriage, the investigation into William’s death, and the trial.  I can only conclude that Lucretia must have been head over heels in love with Lino. If she didn’t see the warning signs before the death of her husband, Lino rapidly gave her reason to suspect his motives soon afterwards.

The book draws a portrait of Philadelphia life, a city known to be “particularly stuffy,” and we’re told that “Charles Dickens complained that after he walked about the town for an hour or two, its monotony made him feel as if he was metamorphosing into a Quaker.”  Coincidentally, I just finished reading John O’ Hara’s Ten North Frederick which is set in the fictional Pennsylvania town of Gibbsville, and the impression I gained from that book was that the region was insufferably stuffy–well at least the circle of society O’Hara’s characters moved in.

The book includes details of the notorious trial with its many colorful participants–including lawyers who saw the case as an important step in their careers. Towards the end of the book, author Linda Wolfe offers her own version of what really happened at the Chapman home. I won’t give away the verdict or the fate of Lucretia and Lino, but it’s interesting to see how society and the law closed ranks on this pair. Society’s judgment proved every bit as effective as the legal judgment.

Review copy.

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