Tag Archives: american fiction

Martin Dressler: Steven Millhauser

“He felt, even as he turned over the idea of a fourth cafe in Brooklyn, a sharp little burst of restlessness, of dissatisfaction, as if he were supposed to be doing something else, something grander, higher, more difficult, more dangerous, more daring.”

Steven Millhauser’s novel  Martin Dressler is the story of the rise of an entrepreneur, the son of German emigrants. The main character’s avid pursuit of the American Dream of almost limitless wealth and success unfolds in this well constructed tale that begins, significantly, in fairytale style with the sentence “there once lived a man named Martin Dressler, a shopkeeper’s son who rose from modest beginnings to a height of dreamlike good fortune.”

The novel opens in 1881 with a 9 year-old Martin already thinking of ways to improve sales at his father’s cigar shop with his design of cigar stand. Martin calculates exactly how much profit the sale of an extra cigar a week will yield over the course of a year, and it’s easy to see that Martin will be, in adulthood, a force to be reckoned with.


Over the years, Martin becomes a bellhop, a cigar stand concession owner, and a personal secretary to a hotel manager. He starts a lunchroom which rapidly becomes a chain of restaurants as Martin expands into various, untapped areas of New York. While Martin has limitless vision when it comes to business and profit, with women, his radar isn’t as good. His first sexual experiences, interestingly, involve a hotel, and Freud would have had a field day with this character. Martin’s sex life is divided between a quiet whorehouse and the occasional hotel guest. When he meets two sisters, he chooses the elusive Caroline as his wife, a woman given to strange illnesses, in  favour of her less attractive sister, Emmeline. Martin, a man of incredible energy, nonetheless finds himself sapped by his wife’s ennui and unexplained perpetual fatigue. But Martin’s continual need for motion in the world of business leads him to pursue his unquenchable ambition while ignoring his personal life. Always restless, he masters one business and then moves onto another, always growing, always creating, and feeling as though he “couldn’t breath” in any business that won’t allow for expansion. He nurses dreams of a vast hotel:

It was to be eighteen stories high, with turrets and cupolas and a broad central tower rising another six stories: a fever dream of stone, an extravaganza in the wilderness, awaiting the advance of civilization that had already been set in motion by the announcement of the plan for a subway under the Boulevard. The Dressler, soaring into the sky like a great forest of stone, would also throw down deep roots: three underground levels and a basement, including a subterranean courtyard illuminated by electric lights twenty-four hours a day and a level of shops arranged in a labyrinthine arcade. The ground floor was to be a vast system of interconnected lobbies, ladies’ parlors, smoking rooms, reading rooms, and arcaded walkways, above which would rise more than two thousand rooms, arranged in seductive combinations and divided into suites or apartments ranging form a single room with bath to twenty rooms with six baths.

Emmeline, who, over the years becomes his companion and confidante, questions Martin’s plans for his hotel:

There’s a strangeness, Martin, like a picture of a castle in an old book. 

He capitalizes on the idea that Americans want a blend of the efficient modern with the glories of the past, and as Martin gains full control of his plans, his projects become more unreal and less practical. Eventually, Martin, whose schemes become more and more fantastical, moves on to building the Grand Cosmo ….

Martin, in common with John O’Hara’s character, Joe Chapin in Ten North Frederick, leads an unexamined life. But whereas Joe has inherited wealth and is set on a lifelong path early in life, Martin is a self-made man. His ambition isn’t driven by money but by organizing and creating these businesses, and once they are successful, he seems to lose interest. The pursuit is always just that–no end goal, no satisfaction, just the endless chase. Martin passes many men along the way who are content with grasping at certain ambitions but then are happy to remain at that elected level. Not so Martin, no matter how much he gets, he knows there is always more, further horizons to conquer. And of course, to Martin, it’s never enough for his insatiable inchoate appetite.

Martin Dressler is an interesting vision of the unquenchable emptiness of the American Dream. We don’t really get inside the characters’ heads much–instead there is a distance as though we are watching a drama on stage. There’s a magical, dreamlike feel to the novel, as if the times, and Martin’s creations have a phantasmagorical element. I couldn’t help but think that Martin would have had a glorious time designing hotels for Vegas.


Filed under Fiction, Millhauser Steven

Commonwealth: Ann Patchett

“Half the things in this life I wish I could remember and the other half I wish I could forget.”

Ann Patchett’s engaging novel, Commonwealth, begins in the 1960s, in California, at the home of detective Fix Keating. It’s his second daughter, Frances’s christening, and while most of the guests are fellow detectives, there’s a gatecrasher, Albert Cousins, otherwise known as Bert, a lawyer from the district attorney’s office. Bert attends, bringing along a bottle of gin, and it’s on this day that the lives of the Keating and the Cousins families begin to blow apart, but no one knows it yet. Taken that way, in hindsight, the christening party is a moment in time, a moving snapshot of the lives of Patchett’s characters. The novel, rooted in that event, then extends out over the next fifty years with other snapshots, following the lives of its characters as they merge for various events–some happy, some tragic, and some just marking the passage of time.


Bert, who hails from Virginia, is an unhappily married man, but he doesn’t acknowledge it. He dragged his wife, Teresa to California, and now they have three children, Cal, Holly, and Jeannette, with another one on the way (who’ll be a second boy, a “pyromaniac” named Albie). Bert gatecrashes the christening as an excuse to not engage with his overworked wife, demanding children and the chaos called home. As the novel continues, we see that avoidance is a way of life for Bert, and it’s a pattern of behaviour that will have dramatic, tragic consequences for the other characters.

The stunningly beautiful, blonde Beverly Keating, who catches Bert’s eye, has two  daughters with Fix: Caroline and Frances (Franny). There’s a sense about her that she’s the kind of perfect woman who will always land on her feet, and that feeling is proved correct as the plot reveals her various incarnations.

Beverly was always in the pictures the children brought back from summer, as if Catherine Deneuve happened to wander by while they were playing in the pool or swinging in the swings and stepped accidentally in the frame as the shutter snapped.

So here we have a cast of four adults: Fix and Beverly Keating, Bert and Teresa Cousins and between them, six children. Over the course of fifty years, we see divorce, families blending, with Bert and Beverly becoming less-than-enthusiastic stepparents, and as the six children merge into one ad-hoc family, they develop relationships among themselves, creating bonds strengthened by being set adrift.  Although these 10 characters have a shared history, exactly what that history is is open to interpretation. In adulthood, Franny, a young woman who can’t quite find a path in life, meets a much older, successful author, who takes her childhood story, makes it into a bestselling book, and this causes questions to arise, once again, about the past.

Some reviews state that the novel is plotless. Rather, let’s go back to that snapshot image. Patchett doesn’t give us a linear narrative, and takes us back and forth in time, concentrating on some characters through significant family events, so we see how certain choices develop into major pathways. Teresa is the unsung hero here, struggling to manage a job to support her four children and receiving very little credit for it.

In Commonwealth, and the title is explained as the plot plays out, Patchett has created an engaging, tender look at the lives of her characters. It’s the bite of the narrative, the power of perspective and Patchett’s adept portrayal of messiness of life that elevate this novel.

Here’s Fix talking to his daughter Franny:

“And how about old Bert? How’s he doing?”

“He seems okay.”

“Do you talk to him very often?” Fix asked, the soul of innocence.

“Not nearly as often as I talk to you.”

“It isn’t a contest.”

“No, it’s not.”

“And he’s married now?”

Franny shook her head.


“But there was a third one.”

“Didn’t work out.”

“Wasn’t there a fiancée though? Somebody after the third one?” Fix knew full well that Bert had had a third divorce but he never tired of hearing about it.

“There was for a while.”

“And the fiancée didn’t work out either?”

Franny shook her head.

“Well that’s a shame,” Fix said, sounding as if he meant it

Caroline recently posted about errors and cliches in a short story written by Ann Patchett called Switzerland that is part of the novel Commonwealth. After reading Caroline’s post, I had reservations about reading the book. My concerns turned out to be unfounded–Commonwealth was excellent–I loved it, but if I had to pick fault with the novel, then that complaint would be the section in which Teresa flies to Switzerland to meet her daughter, Holly. We don’t see a lot of either Teresa or Holly in the book, and this section, which stuck out as clunky, did not blend well with the rest of the story. But apart from that, Commonwealth is an entertaining, engaging read.

Review copy


Filed under Fiction, Patchett Ann

Carousel Court: Joe McGinniss Jr

“Remember, babe: every page of the mortgage has TWO signatures on it. But facts and shared responsibility aside: just what IN THE FUCK do you think I’m doing?”

Given the gravity and dimensions of the Great Housing Bubble, I expected, and looked forward to, a flurry of fiction books which showed characters in various phases of the fallout. Perhaps it’s easier to stick 9-11 in novels, since we have a plethora of those in an unpleasant voyeuristic where-were-you-when-it-happened sort of way.

Carousel Court (and the title evokes a great image) from American author Joe McGinniss Jr. follows the toxic marriage of Phoebe and Nick, a young married couple who swallowed the myth that homes were ‘investments,’ wealth machines, and that burying themselves in debt to follow the American Dream at the sacrifice of quality of life is a perfectly acceptable option.

carousel court

The novel opens during the collapse of the housing bubble with Phoebe and Nick living, unhappily, in a new home on Carousel Court in Southern California. They’re tied to  an “interest-only, zero-down, 125 percent renovation mortgage on the house in Seronos.”

They chose the new construction with room to grow. Granite countertops, double-ascending stairways, and a double garage. More stainless steel. More square footage. More landscaping. And the pool: in ground free-form hourglass with ice-blue Quartzon rendering natural stone waterfall with solar heating. The cabana and wet bar. Nick and Phoebe spent as much time as they could to drive up the value. Something else Nick insisted on: the rock-climbing wall. It was simple, clean, and something to make their place pop: One interior wall of their double-ascending stairway hid the bonded two-part application of granite-like panels.

They moved from Boston to California. Phoebe, who imagines her lifeline to success lies in her former sexual relationship with a previous, wealthy, well-connected employer, has a job in pharmaceutical sales. Nick’s promised job vaporized while they were still in Boston, but committed to the house and to California, they went ahead with the move.

So here they are a few years into a nightmare existence. Phoebe spends most on her days on the freeway visiting doctor’s offices, and Nick has a job with EverythingMustGo!, a company which cleans out foreclosed homes. And oh yes, they also have a small child: Jackson, I’ve added him as an aside as Phoebe seems to forget that she’s a mother most of the time.

If it sounds as though I disliked Phoebe, I’d say that’s putting it mildly. This is one fucked-up woman. She swallows most of her samples as she careens across the freeways, tries to boost sales by sending erotic photos of herself to these physician lotharios, and while Nick is the stable force in their marriage, she treats him like dirt.

In snippets, we see how Nick and Phoebe met and where exactly their toxic marriage went wrong….

Carousel Court wasn’t an easy read, and by that I mean it’s painful to read about Phoebe’s addiction to her drug samples and her appalling neglect of her son. There’s a sense of impending doom which arcs over the storyline–one neighbor burns household items in his abandoned pool, another sleeps outside in a tent, armed and ready for intruders or perhaps even bank officials who will soon come knocking. And then there are the homes that Nick empties of abandoned belongings–often high priced items discarded by the owners as they flee from their creditors.

Inside, Nick kicks a couple of dead rats, avoids what seems to be human feces in the same room, with white walls covered in graffiti tags. He could direct guys like Boss does, dividing up the labor, sending pairs of men to certain parts of the house. But they don’t need to be told. So Nick just starts working. He drags three mattresses to the driveway, scoops up children’s underwear and stuffed animals and mayonnaise jars and vacuum cleaners, two hard drives and three cardboard boxes filled with old cell phones. In a bedroom he finds soccer and T-ball trophies. A child’s journal filled with stick-figure drawings and shaky writing lies on the floor.

Nick, eager to drive up his savings account, has devised an illegal scheme whereby he puts tenants who’ve lost their homes (and have bad credit) into foreclosed homes AFTER the houses have been cleaned up and BEFORE they’re auctioned off. In one scene he meets with a shell-shocked couple, portrayed as victims, who’ve lost their home. This scenes skirts the nuances of the crisis–how people took seconds on their homes, blew the money and then whined about how much they owed. The housing bubble (which was predictable IMO) allowed homeowners access to unprecedented amounts of cash–$60,000, $80,000, and for most people, it was just too much temptation. In the past, of course, people just used plastic and declared bankruptcy, but refinancing was the death knoll for homeownership for countless Americans (and yes, all over the globe).

Author McGinniss nails the bleak landscapes, the feeling that it’s Armageddon, but I’m going to add here that while I have massive sympathy for those who bought homes which then plummeted in value, or those forced by life circumstances to sell (abandon) their under water-homes, there are many more dimensions to the housing crisis. McGinnis adds details which hint at the sort of financial incompetence rife in this society. Phoebe and Nick have no money, Phoebe may lose her job, but the extravagances don’t stop (a thousand dollar stroller,) and it’s Phoebe’s unquenchable thirst for the lifestyles of the Rich and Famous that lead her down her hellish path. She never knows if there’s any room left on a credit card, but that doesn’t ever make her stop and assess her situation:

The small Korean woman massaging Phoebe’s feet in warm water is completely silent. The nail salon is nearly empty. Phoebe turns off her iPhone, closes her eyes and tries to sleep behind her sunglasses.

I’ve known so many people who lost their homes. One man retired & living on social security bought a prestige home for $800,000 and was SHOCKED when he couldn’t keep up payments. And then there’s someone else who bought his home 20 years ago, refinanced in 2005 for quadruple the home’s original cost and now whines about the payments he doubts he can maintain. But let’s not forget the boat, the Harleys, the classic Corvette, and the brand new truck all in his driveway bought with the cash from his second mortgage. Many people thought they were wealthier than they were. They thought they deserved a better lifestyle, and Carousel Court shows that attitude along with its bitter fallout.

McGinniss takes chances in this novel, and arguably the biggest chance taken is making his characters so unlikable. But making his characters likeable would have been a very different book, so if you pick up Carousel Court, be ready to embrace its John O’Brien-type bleakness which includes showing animals as victims of foreclosure. At times, this is a painful read–not just for Phoebe’s path of self-destruction, but for the way this young couple fight, seem unable to connect over the simplest of issues, and whose relationship boils down to angry texts.

While the ending seemed a little too pat and for this reader, unlikely, given the prior events in the book, I don’t think the sort of life depicted here is any gross exaggeration of how many young families who’ve overspent on a home, struggle daily. The author takes a lot of risks taken here in this edgy, gritty book. I turned the last page and asked myself just when we expected to own so much and accept that it was ok to enjoy life so little?

Review copy


Filed under Fiction

Siracusa: Delia Ephron

“An eight-day vacation-how could that hurt”

Regular readers of this blog know that I have a soft spot for tales about people on holiday, and that explains why I was drawn to Delia Ephron’s novel, Siracusa. This is a tale of two married couples who decide to spend a holiday together in Siracusa, Sicily. Both of the marriages under scrutiny here are pathologically troubled, and yet on the surface, everyone functions within those troubled relationships. But more of that later…

New Yorker Michael is a Pulitzer prize-winning play writer who’s stymied with his novel (featuring his alter ego and heavily influenced by The Red and the Black). He’s cheating on his wife, journalist Lizzie, who in the internet age, can’t quite seem to find her niche. Years earlier, Lizzie had a fling with Finn, who is now a restaurateur in Maine and married to Taylor, a beautiful blonde who heads the tourist bureau in their hometown. Finn and Taylor have a 10 year-old daughter, Snow. They all met in London the year before and had a great time, and this year Lizzie plans a trip to Italy. First stop Rome and then on to Siracusa.


Siracusa is told through four different narrative voices–the only character we don’t hear from is Snow ( a wise choice by Ephron). Snow, according to Taylor, suffers from Extreme Shyness Syndrome. Well I suppose that’s one way of putting it. In reality, the child is disturbed, extremely manipulative and communicates, sometimes in “clucks,” with Taylor acting as both Snow’s conduit to the world and as her mostly intuitive interpreter for the rest of the company. According to Finn, Taylor, “doesn’t have a clue where she ends and the kid begins.”

While the two marriages here are pathological, I’d say that Taylor’s relationship with Snow trumps the lot. Taylor (think Blonde American Princess), who already has a superiority complex, and thinks that she’s married beneath her, sees her daughter as perfect.  Snow is an accessory to Taylor’s beauty and perceived pedigree, but since Snow and Taylor sleep together, the child also acts as a wedge between Taylor and Finn. Not that Finn really ‘gets’ it. This is a man who takes life lightly; he smokes secretly (breaking his promise to Taylor) and is busy contemplating an affair of his own.

Ephron does an excellent job of showing just how dysfunctional marriages still manage to function. The dynamic between Finn, Taylor and Snow is appalling, yet everyone acts as though their interactions are normal–as if Taylor’s relationship with Snow isn’t pathological. Taylor orders food for Snow, speaks for her, voices her opinions, and even tells Snow how to react emotionally to her father’s laughter. Taylor may think she’s helping her daughter but in reality, she’s enabling Snow’s  behaviour.

Taylor, wrapped up in her daughter, never letting her out of sight, admires Michael as a great writer, and Snow… well Snow develops a crush on Michael. Egomaniac Michael, sensing Snow’s worship begins paying her attention. In the meantime, Taylor thinks the whole holiday has been organized by Lizzie so that she can get her hooks into Finn. As for Finn, he sees something that puts him in a moral quandary, and Lizzie is so busy trying to get Michael’s attention, she doesn’t see some warning signs.

Although you never know in a marriage who is responsible for what, do you? Husbands and wives collaborate, hiding even from themselves who is calling the shots and who is along for the ride.

Given the festering nature of these two marriages, and that these people decide to holiday together in order not to be alone with their respective spouses, it shouldn’t be too surprising that the holiday goes horribly wrong, and that some of the characters find themselves in therapy afterwards. Ephron’s tale, however, is not as predictable as it might seem to be. …

Some authors can never seem to pull off creating different voices, but there are four very convincing separate voices in this tale. Through the different narratives, Ephron shows us how these two sets of spouses don’t really know each other at all. The fussy, perky slightly neurotic voice of Taylor is convincingly annoying.

Whenever we go on a trip, Finn, Snow, and I stay in the same room. Snow and I sleep in the double bed. Finn takes the cot because he stays out late. That way no one gets disturbed. Because of running a restaurant, Finn is an owl. Sex in this culture, it’s importance, is overrated, and that’s all I’m going to say on the subject.

And in contrast here’s Finn:

I felt like something dirty she’d forgotten to wash off. Tay threw herself into packing. I watched that sick enterprise–the compulsively neat way she folded things. One uneven crease and she begins again.

I had fun reading this. About the first half of the book is spent in the build up to Siracusa, and on one night there’s a seemingly innocent conversation that takes place around the dining table when the adults all answer the hypothetical question whether or not they’d “give an alibi to someone you loved for a crime they committed.” An all-important moment as it turns out…

I don’t know if I was supposed to find the novel funny. Perhaps that’s a question for the author, but for this reader, the novel was nastily funny (I laughed in quite a few places as the situation devolved). Aside from Lizzie, all of the other characters are appalling people, so if you want to read about likeable people, then this book is not for you. Delia Ephron has a disturbingly canny eye when it comes to dissecting the complicated politics of marriage. Taylor, for example,  is insufferable but rather than confront her, Finn refuses to take things seriously and makes everything a joke. Taylor is constantly referencing her divorced mother, and Finn gets his digs in with comments such as Taylor’s dad “escaped.” Then there’s the entire Snow Situation… this child gets so much attention and yet still manages to slip under the parental radar.  When bad things happen, in “Siracusa. Where everything went in the shitter, we know these characters brought this all upon themselves.

Review copy


Filed under Ephron Delia, Fiction

Before the Fall: Noah Hawley

“Because what if instead of a story told in consecutive order, life is a cacophony of moments we never leave? What if the most traumatic or the most beautiful experiences we have trap us in a kind of feedback loop, where at least some part of our minds remains obsessed, even as our bodies move on?”

It’s evening in late August when a private plane leaves Martha’s Vineyard for New York with 3 crew members and 8 passengers aboard. It should be a simple, short journey, but sixteen minutes into the flight, the plane crashes into the sea. Miraculously, the last minute passenger, Scott Burroughs, a failed painter who’s managed to overcome his drinking problem and is finally producing good, although deeply disturbing work, survives the crash. He swims ashore with the only other survivor–a four-year-old boy.

Noah Hawley’s powerful novel, Before the Fall looks at the aftermath of the crash. The plane carried some important passengers: the head of ALC media, multi-millionaire David Bateman, his wife Maggie, and their two children, Rachel and JJ. Also aboard was Ben Kipling, a partner at one of the largest Wall Street investment firms, and his wife, Sarah. Bateman and Kipling are two of the most powerful, wealthiest figures in New York, and the fact that they both die in the same crash, with Kipling about to be arrested for illegal trading sends the media into a feeding frenzy.

before the fall

Leading the charge for the media is Bateman’s ALC News. Bateman formed the 24 hour news station with the intention of “shaping the events of the day to fit the message of the network.” Morally unscrupulous Bill Cunningham is ALC’s rabid watchdog “an angry white guy with a withering wit.” Cunningham is ready to do whatever it takes to dig up the dirt he’s convinced will be found as the cause of the accident. He’s ready to exploit his relationship with the four-year old who survives the crash, and he’s happy to stir trouble between the boy’s aunt and her money-grubbing loser of a husband. Soon conspiracy theories about the downed plane morph into a sex scandal as Cunningham pulls out all the stops to create the story of the plane crash he wants to hear.

Cunningham was David’s gift to the world, the angry white man people invited into their living rooms to call bullshit at the world, to rail against a system that robbed us of everything we felt we deserved–the third-world countries that were taking our jobs. The politicians who were raising our taxes. Bill Cunningham, Mr. Straight Talk, Mr.Divine Righteousness, who sat in our living rooms and shared our pain, who told us what we wanted to hear, which was that the reason we were losing out on life was not that we were losers, but that someone was reaching into our pockets, our companies, our country and taking what was rightfully ours.

Bill Cunningham was the voice of ALC News and he had gone insane. He was Kurtz in the jungle

Chapters go back and forth between the current investigation of the crash and the poignant back stories of the crew and passengers who died on the plane. Each chapter becomes part of the puzzle that will solve the mystery of the crash. No one is irrelevant here–from the pilot, to the security guard for the Bateman family, to the troubled, yet sadly-resolved Sarah Kipling–all these stores matter.

Scott Burroughs, whose Disaster Art labels him a suspect in the eyes of the media and the FBI works with Gus Franklin from the National Transportation Safety Board to try to piece together the mystery of just what went wrong on the flight. Scott, with shredded memories of the crash, emerges from the plane disaster as a hero, but instead of embracing this fame, Scott, still traumatized by the crash, makes the ‘error’ of disregarding the media. He becomes a ‘mystery man’ with something to hide, and once the media gets its teeth into his troubled private life, Scott’s  existence becomes a nightmare. In the eyes of the media, Scott morphs from hero to “notorious womanizer and recovering alcoholic, a struggling artist who’s never been able to keep a single lasting relationship.” And while that may all be true, it should be irrelevant. But when news is presented as a highly salacious gossip mag, sensation and speculation sell more seats than the truth.

Before the Fall is a sensitively written, beautifully constructed, moral powerhouse of a novel. The subject matter, grabbed from today’s headlines, is presented as a gripping story which examines fate, human nature and media hype. Scott Burroughs is an amazing, yet credible creation, and while the media viciously decries Scott and questions the crash, Scott’s backstory: inspiration by Jack LaLanne, reinvigoration for a damaged life through swimming, and the private tragedy that haunts his art, all piece together to place this man logically in the story. The scenes between the media, Cunningham and Scott are brilliant. Scott, an unlikely hero but a moral human being, comes across as a more intelligent, unstoned version of Jeff Bridges’s portrayal of ‘The Dude’ in The Big Lebowksi.

Author Noah Hawley is the creator of the television series Fargo. Someone rush and grab the film rights.

Review copy


Filed under Fiction, Hawley Noah

The Wicked Stepmother:Michael McDowell & Dennis Schuetz (writing as Axel Young)

“I’m thinking of murdering him in front of a large crowd of strangers. I have to do it myself,” Verity explained, “because hit men don’t take plastic.”

Authors Michael McDowell (1950-1999) known primarily for horror fiction and Dennis Schuetz, published the campy, over-the-top The Wicked Stepmother in 1983, and thanks to Valancourt books, this title is back in print. It’s full of spiteful, grasping people behaving badly, and I don’t know if it was the author’s intention for readers to find this entertaining book funny in a nasty sort of way, but that’s exactly what it is.

The book opens with spoiled trust fund brat Verity Hawke Larner, the eldest of the three Hawke children still asleep in bed at noon when she’s woken by Louise Larner, her mother-in-law calling from Boston. Verity is married, but separated from Louise’s ne’er-do-well son, the good looking, sleazy low-life drug dealer Eric, but to complicate matters, Louise is also a partner of the real estate company owned by Verity’s father, Richard Hawke, which “handled some of the most exclusive properties in Boston.”

wicked stepmother

This first chapter sets the tone for the rest of the book. As Verity struggles from sleep, she tries to remember the name of the man in bed next to her (“It starts with a B,”) and claims she quit her most recent job due to “burnout,” which is a euphemism for too many nights partying on cocaine. Louise insists that Verity drive from Kansas City where she settled two years earlier (as that’s “where the car broke down,”) and return to Boston for a family party.

Verity doesn’t make the party but shows up a few days later at the family mansion in Boston to discover that her father is dead. He collapsed in Atlantic City “slumped across a Blackjack table” just a few days after marrying Louise, and as Louise sniffingly explains to her new step-children, “We only had four days together–but they were perfect days.”

So that leaves Louise as the “wicked stepmother” of the title inheriting, what she imagines, is all of Richard’s estate. At the reading of the will, Louise is stunned by the revelation that although she inherits a decent amount, she doesn’t get everything, and that includes the Hawke mansion, and the eight million dollar trust fund to be divided between Verity and her siblings Jonathan and Cassandra. Louise, who is driven by avarice, then reasons that her stepchildren must die… one by one…

The private lives of the Hawke siblings are explored as part of the plot, so we see promiscuous Verity downing screwdrivers for breakfast and snorting cocaine every chance she gets while Jonathan follows his punk rock band girlfriend, and Cassandra moves on from being a magazine editor.  The lives of these three siblings who never have to worry about a paycheck or having a place to live are in direct contrast to Louise and her son who are both rotten, but also dangerously rapacious, to the core. There are a couple of scenes which are shocking in their complete heartlessness when these two loot the belongings of the dead.

Wicked Stepmother smacks of the 70s with its references to a Lime green Toronado and a yellow Cadillac, and the plot has the feel of a fictionalized tacky ‘true crime’ novel, with the bones of the novel being the lurid crimes fleshed out by the authors’ imagination. Some of the scenes and the dialogue are completely over-the-top, but in spite of the lack of subtlety in characterizations which feeds the novel’s theatricality, the violence, when it occurs is unexpected, shocking and chilling. Living under the protection of money, high society and the looming trust fund fails to prepare the Hawke siblings from the determined greed of Louise whose desire for the Hawke mansion has no moral bounds.

If this were made into a film, I’d place it in the very capable hands of one of my cultural icons, John Waters. He’d be the right person for the job–an assault of the rapacious, murderous self-made on the unprepared, upper classes of Boston.

Review copy.


Filed under Fiction, McDowell Michael, Schuetz Dennis

The Nest: Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

“How had they raised children who were so impractical and yet so entitled?”

When “self-made” Leonard Plumb created a trust fund for his four children, he knew, from his own bitter family history, that “abundance proffered too soon led to lassitude and indolence, a wandering dissatisfaction.” He didn’t intend to leave his children rolling in money, so he delayed the disbursement until the youngest, Melody, was 40 years old. He wanted his children to make their own way in life and not count on a cushy payout, and reasoned that a lump sum coming in their 40s would be:

“a little something to sit atop their own, inevitable financial achievements […] and pad their retirement a bit, maybe help fund a college tuition or two. Nothing so vast as to be truly significant”

Unfortunately, Leonard’s well-intentioned plans didn’t work out the way he reasoned. He could not have predicted that “as the fund grew so, too, would his children’s tolerance for risk.” Leo, the eldest, at forty-six, has made and wasted millions and is about to be cleaned out by his avaricious soon-to-be ex-wife, Victoria, a “world-class spendthrift.” Jack, a gay antique dealer, has secretly been paying his bills by using a line of credit against a vacation home he owns with his husband. Bea, a “formerly talented” writer can’t finish a novel and now works for a literary magazine called Paper Fibres which may appear to be keeping afloat but is really financed by the owner, Paul’s elderly maiden aunts. After years of scrimping but still living beyond their means, Melody whose “fortieth birthday glowed like a distant lighthouse, flashing its beam of rescue” plans to use her money to send her twins to expensive schools and pay off her house loans. All of the siblings, with the exception of Bea, have counted on “the Nest” to bail them out of their self-created financial woes.

the nest

A few months before Melody’s 4oth, a drunk and wasted Leo, a “narcissistic sociopath” (according to Victoria) ditches his wife at a wedding and causes an accident which leads to a permanent disability for the 19 year old waitress who is the passenger in his careening Porsche. Terrified of scandal, and wanting to avoid any financial involvement, Leo’s mother, the widow Plumb, always remote, “disengaged” and now remarried, but with power of attorney over the trust account, decimates “the Nest” by paying off the waitress and her family. After all, Leo, she reasons, is “the least needy and therefore, the one she thought of with the most fondness.” Leo, who’s been holed up in rehab, returns to New York, to the remains of his ruined life and to face his angry siblings. All that remains of “The Nest” is a fraction of the amount the four Plumb siblings expected. This is a disaster that everyone must face and one that has lasting repercussions for all involved.

Set in New York, the literal ‘nest’ for the siblings, the novel manages to capture the nuances and recent history of the city–the incredibly high cost of housing, the aftermath of 9-11, and the impact of AIDS on the gay community.

The Nest, a debut novel from Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney is caustically funny, and most of the humour comes from the self-destructive behaviours of the Plumb family–most notably Leo who is a charming philanderer always managing to step away from disaster while others mop-up. Sweeeny has a sharp eye which focuses on the subtleties of sibling relationships, and how dynamics established in childhood never really alter with the passage of time. While the tale’s focus is humour, there are a lot of painful truths here. The promise of a generous mid-life inheritance has done little for the Plumb siblings other than cause them to plan for the big payday, and as a result of the money they think is headed their way, they’ve all (with the exception of Bea) made horrible financial moves, delayed maturity, and have refused to face some realities.

The book’s humor keeps up a good pace throughout the novel, which, given the content– squabbling, desperate siblings and a depleted inheritance, is no small feat. I particularly loved the scenes of the Plumb parents–long deceased patriarch, Leonard Plumb and his inappropriate enthusiasms for his work, and his widow Francie who can’t keep her children’s birthdays straight, thinks Melody needs Botox, and when it comes to the matter of using “The Nest” to bail out Leo has to “contend with this execution squad of her own children.” The scene in which Melody recalls her only childhood party is priceless. It’s lamely organized by her mother, Francie, who’s furiously downing martinis wearing a silk kimono which “this early in the day was a very bad sign.”

But then Francie started singing “Over the Rainbow” and only a few verses in she started to weep. “Mom?” Melody said, weakly.

“It’s just so, so sad,” Francie said. She turned to them. “The studios killed Judy Garland. They killed her. That voice and what a tragedy. They made her and then they killed her.”

The girls were sitting quietly, nervously giggling. “Uppers to work all day. Downers to sleep at night. She was just a kid.” Francie stood now, facing them, her robe gaping a little in front. “I wanted to be an actress. I could have gone to Hollywood.”

One of the criticisms I read about the novel is that while readers enjoyed it, they considered ‘light.’ I recently read Tessa Hadley’s The Past, another novel about siblings and inheritance, and while The Past is a deeper novel with stronger characterizations and a gorgeous sense of the passage of time, The Nest‘s delightful humorous approach should not eradicate the serious messages here regarding our frequently unhealthy relationships with money.

Review copy


Filed under D'Aprix Sweeney Cynthia, Fiction

All Things Cease to Appear: Elizabeth Brundage

The thing about houses: they chose their owners, not the other way around. And this house had chosen them.”

Elizabeth Brundage’s fourth novel All Things Cease to Appear begins with a horrendous murder that takes place in the 70s. Catherine Clare, the wife of an art history professor, is found murdered in her Upper New York remote countryside family home. She’s been killed with an axe, and her husband, George, who soon becomes the main suspect, claims she was still alive when he left that morning. Did he murder his wife? If not, who committed this crime? What did the child, Franny, left alone with the corpse of her mother for the entire day, witness? In some ways the locals aren’t surprised that something awful happened in the remote farmhouse once owned by the ill-fated Hale family. The house, still full of the belongings of the previous owners, was neglected for years until George bought it at auction for a rock-bottom price. This is a house full of the echoes of tragedy, and according to Catherine, it’s haunted by the presence of Elly, a woman who died there.

There was something odd about the house. A chill flourished in some rooms and an odor seeped up from the cellar, the rotting carcasses of trapped mice. Even in gentle summer, when the world outside was singing its bright song, an oppressive gloom prevailed, as if the whole house had been covered, like a birdcage, with velvet cloth.

The book’s first chapter is simply amazing, and then the novel shifts focus from George and the crime back to the past as Brundage introduces various characters who all have some part to play in this cerebral tale of murder, adultery, lies and deceit. Each character is part of Brundage’s mosaic, so we see Justine, a woman who works with George, George’s boss,  a man who’s fascinated by the work of Swedenborg, Mary Lawton, the real estate agent who sold the farm to the Clares, her husband, the local sheriff who struggles to solve the murder, Willis, a young unstable woman whose presence triggers tragedy, and the three Hale boys who find excuses to hang around the Clare home.

all things cease to appear

Even though we know almost immediately that Catherine has been murdered, the step back in time moving forwards towards her death is fraught with tension and eerie suspense. There’s a poignancy as the days draw closer to the date of Catherine’s murder, accompanied by a sense of powerlessness that we cannot prevent the crime.

The day was overcast, the field thick with fog. She stepped outside and walked out into the field, and the humid air clung to her. She stood there alone in the middle of it. She could feel her outlines blurring, as if she could fade into the opaque landscape and disappear.

While this is the story of a murder, it’s also the story of how a community failed to help Catherine and the impact of the murder on various characters. This is an impoverished area, a farming community hit hard by economic realities.  The Clares are outsiders who don’t fit in with the locals, and this seals Catherine’s tragic isolation.

Elizabeth Brundage weaves a well-crafted and credible story around a murder while boldly defying genre expectations. Her interest here is the moral complexities of the situation, how violence impacts a community, a family, an individual, and in this tale we have two families damaged by violence: the Hales and the Clares. The novel’s length allows a satisfactory exploration of all the characters involved and the roles they play in Catherine’s murder, so we see the impact of the crime on the sheriff:

Over the years he’s seen just about everything–every twisted machination, most ill-conceived or plain stupid–but you get to the point, you get to the fucking point where you don’t want to see it any more.

And Willis trained to detect sociopaths, but who is nonetheless vulnerable to one. Her moral compass is scrambled thanks to her father’s career as a top defense attorney in New York:

In his boxy suit and shined shoes he meandered over to the stand like a man approaching a slutty woman in a bar, but he’s ask his questions with the voice of a priest. It didn’t matter what they were thinking now, because he knew the defendant and eventually the jury would too.

Her father could make you think he understood you, even if you’d done things that bordered on the surreal. Somehow, he justified it in his mind that, under certain circumstances, you could be driven to do anything.

If you take a look at Goodreads, you will see that readers are sharply divided. Some people loved the book and others found it meandering. Some of the reason for the diverse opinions may reside in readers’ expectations. This is not a past-paced crime book–rather this is literature that wraps itself around a murder. I’ve read Elizabeth Brundage’s other novels:  The Doctor’s Wife, Someone Else’s Child (I didn’t care for A Stranger Like You) so I knew that this wasn’t going to be just a crime novel. This is a complex novel centered on a crime, heavy on character, an exploration of the sociopathic mind and with hints of the supernatural. I have a few minor quibbles with some details of the ending, but overall, I really enjoyed this.

(there is one scene of animal cruelty but it is portrayed as such)

Review copy.



Filed under Brundage Elizabeth, Fiction

Stripper Lessons: John O’Brien

“he likes not knowing until the last minute where he’ll be sitting, sizing up the room like James Bond entering a casino”

Stripper Lessons, a cleverly constructed look at male loneliness from author John O’Brien, is a portrait of an unattached law clerk who works in a dead-end job for a large law firm, drives a beat up Vega, and lives in a small apartment in Hollywood. By day, he searches for an important, ever-elusive missing file, but by night, Carroll heads to the seedy strip club, Indiscretions, pays the cover fee and steps inside.

Dark, but not really. In fact when you come in night after night your eyes adjust before the velvet curtain swings almost-closed at your heels, parting into a vertical peephole and making you feel more INside than if six inches of oak had slammed shut tight at your back. It’s when the exit in the rear-EXIT ONLY-NO IN AND OUT PRIVILEGES-is pushed open and the security lights of the parking lot flood the room like sunshine, washing out the red  and blue spotlights that some of the girls are partial to, that you realize, or remember, just how dark it really is.

He knows all the “girls by sight if not by name,” knows their dance routines (3 in a row), can predict the DJ script, knows the “average stay for a dancer” (two months) and fantasizes about a private table dance. Unable to connect with women, he buys a VHS tape, “The Shy Man’s Guide to Meeting Women,” –a tape that’s largely useless and, if anything, reinforces his inability to talk to women.

stripper lessons

Carroll’s worklife is dominated by the thought of nights spent at Indiscretions. When he leaves the club, he feels “separation anxiety,” but then there’s the “anticipatory thrill” for the next night that feels like a promise of what could happen.

Already his mind is at work, confidence building and plans being laid. He need only complete another day of work and he will be right back in the music. Sparkling apple cider, things to be said, and perhaps even the will to say them. Yes, tomorrow could be the night that everything comes together.

Carroll’s world changes with the arrival of Stevie, a new dancer with a messy private life, who wears a revealing camisole and whose pubic area is naked. The other men “look disappointed about something they haven’t yet identified and uncertain about why they should be,” but not Carroll; he’s smitten.

There’s an unspoken competiveness between the male customers who place dollar bills over the rail waiting for the stripper to dance her way over and pick them up. Leaving a five (or larger) brings the hope that the dancer may linger tantalizingly close for an extra second. Melissa, whose routine is predictable, a “one trick pony,” dances with disdain and “narrows her eyes in antipathy at each new bill placed on the rail, looking then to the man behind it as if to catalog the perpetrator.”

A guy in a three-piece suit and no tie puts a twenty on the rail, but she just turns away, eyelids drooping. ThreePieceNoTie looks around and laughs: he wants us all to know that this is exactly the reaction that he wanted; he got what he paid for and then some; he’s nobody’s fool. The guy thinks she loves him, thinks he loves himself.

The novel takes place over a handful of days and nights with Carroll becoming increasingly fixated with Stevie. Carroll is intelligent, and detached enough to realize that a “cool move” made by a dancer, spinning “low on her heel, simultaneously bending forward in a tricky twist and giving a full view of her backside to the men seated along the rail,” is made not so much for effect but for the dancer to make a “quick tally of the bills hanging on the top of the rails.” But in spite of this clarity of vision, he still projects his feelings onto the dancers and makes it personal when these performances are anything but. He’s excited that he placed TWO dollar bills on the rail, and when the stripper doesn’t acknowledge the double up, he doesn’t admit disappointment and instead decides she doesn’t want to be “unprofessional” and can’t “openly express the gratitude that she must be feeling.”

The novel’s strength lies in its descriptions of Carroll’s deluded thoughts, and the imaginative leap we make that many of the other leering male customers think along the same lines. Here are these young women dancing in front of customers who imagine that because they go to the club frequently and leave dollar bills on the rails, that they have some sort of relationship with the strippers. A customer/business relationship is all too often misconstrued, and how much more fraught with landmines is that relationship when fantasy, nudity and erotic dancing is added to the mix?  At one point for example, Carroll decides to ask Stevie about what happened to another dancer. He thinks “such are the benefits of being well-connected.”

Of all the girls dancing, the one that sticks out is Tasha, a girl “who dances with her pussy. Way more than any of the other girls, like in a different league, this being largely a breast place.”

He watches her saunter directly to a corner, put one leg up on the brass rail and part her thighs for the benefit of the two or three men who are favored with a propitious angle. She puts down her open hands, one on each inner thigh, squeezing her own tender flesh, stretching what she can out of the club rules, inspecting herself right along with her audience, a gynecological flair. Satisfied with the state of things, she looks to the men, studies their faces as if to say; Have you seen this? Take a look-see down there. Snap shut the thighs …maybe not that quickly. In any event she is off, a moment spent center stage in an obligatory tit twirl-heel down and the stage is her compass–before strolling off to another corner.

Tasha makes the men feel uncomfortable. Perhaps because she’s so bold and aggressive, removing any playfulness or naughtiness from her routine or perhaps it’s because by stripping away the fantasy of what the men are here to see, she controls the power.

While the book’s title and cover may sound titillating, this is not a book about sex (although there’s a lot to be said about how the power of sexuality)–rather it’s a very poignant look at how a very lonely man tries to connect with females, and how, after two years at the club, the dancers’ routines substitute for a meaningful relationship. Author John O’ Brien makes us feel how Carroll’s real life fades in comparison. At one point, Carroll, whose ultimate fantasy is to bring a girl from the club home, looks around his apartment and the excitement exits his fantasy just like air out of a popped balloon.

I came across Stripper Lessons by accident and took a chance. It’s a remarkable novel for its portrayal of male loneliness, sexuality and fantasy. The ending, unfortunately, IMO, undermined the novel’s main thrust, but still, well worth reading.


Filed under Fiction, O'Brien John

Executive Suite: Cameron Hawley (1952)

Competence is a whip in the hands of a taskmaster,  and the lash cuts all the deeper when the whip is held by a perfectionist.”

Cameron Hawley’s novel, Executive Suite, a story of ambition and workplace politics opens in New York with the unexpected sudden death of 56 year old Avery Bullard. Bullard, who’s in New York to eliminate a man as a prospective executive vice president for the Tredwell Furntiure Corporation, suffers a cerebral hemorrhage and dies in the street as he is about to enter a cab. The man who was interviewed for the job witnesses the death and immediately dumps his stock in the Tredwell Corporation, and at the same time a woman passer by picks up and steals Bullard’s wallet. Bullard’s last act was to wire his secretary and order an emergency meeting of his five vice presidents so while the police in New York try to discover the identify of the dead man, back in Millburgh, Pennsylvania, at the Tredway Tower, the corporation’s company headquarters, the five vice presidents are supposed to dump their plans and prepare to gather together.  Everyone involved knows the meeting is to announce the new executive vice president, so no one can refuse. The last Executive VP died of a heart attack a few months before and the seat has been naggingly vacant ever since. The question on everyone’s mind is : who will Avery Bullard select? While the five men mull over their positions, we readers know that Bullard is dead and the bigger question is who will take over as the new president?

Loren P. Shaw: Vice president and Comptroller-ruthlessly ambitious, and of all the five vice presidents, his mask “was the best.”

Jesse Grimm: Vice President for Manufacturing: “his one weakness … demanding perfection from his machines but too quick to excuse the lack if it in his people.”

Fred Alderson: Vice President and Treasurer. The oldest of the vice presidents, he’s due to retire in 4 years.

J. Walter Dudley: Vice President for Sales–“practiced master of the art of winning quick friendships.”

Don Walling: Vice President for Design and Development. The newest of the five vice presidents. A self-made man ‘discovered’ by Bullard

The story goes into the minds of each of these men as they contemplate who will be selected as executive vice president, little knowing that with Bullard’s death, the stakes have drastically changed. Through these different minds, author Cameron Hawley explores just what work means to each man. Jesse Grimm, for example, no longer feels any satisfaction from his job and he has plans to retire imminently. J. Walter Dudley has recently found new zest in life through a no-strings relationship with a furniture shop owner, and Alderson thinks he deserves the executive VP spot since he’s been there the longest. Of course, the great irony is while the 5 VPs scramble around in various power plays assuming that the stake is the Executive VP spot, with Bullard’s death, the stakes have suddenly become much greater.

executive suiteAvery Bullard is, of course, absent after page one, but his presence dominates the lives of everyone who knew him. Originally a furniture salesman, he salvaged the Tredway Furniture Company from bankruptcy after the suicide of its founder and eventually merged seven other furniture companies which then formed the Tredway Corporation. He was a remarkable man who spent an energetic lifetime building his corporation while discovering and mentoring people. VP Don Walling was ‘discovered’ by Bullard, and it’s a debt Walling thinks he can never repay. Even Tredway’s largest stockholder, Julia Tredway Prince owes a tremendous debt to Bullard’s willpower and generosity. A few minor characters also exist to show what a powerful personality Bullard had–there’s loyal secretary, Erica Martin–“always in the bufferland between Avery Bullard and his vice-presidents,” and even an elevator man who’s devoted to the company president. But while Bullard demanded total and complete loyalty from his employees, some people–usually the wives, resent Bullard and his domineering presence in their lives. Mrs Alderson, for example, dreads the idea that her husband may become executive VP as she feels that she has already ‘lost’ her husband to the company. They live in the old Bullard home, a house she hates, because, according to her husband, “Mr. Bullard thinks it’s what we should do.”

But even the house, bad as it was, had not been the worst thing that Avery Bullard had done to her. Put in its simplest terms–and all of the years of loneliness had given Edith Alderson plenty of time to reduce everything to the simplest of terms–Avery Bullard had taken her husband away from her. He had turned her life into a meaningless sham of being married to a man whose first loyalty she could not claim.

This is very much a novel about American business. In some sense, Executive Suite reminded me of John O’ Hara’s Ten North Frederick–the story of Joe Chapin, a lawyer who is already dead when the novel begins, but whereas Joe Chapin was ‘steered’ through mediocre life by class, Bullard, a titan of industry, definitely created his own fate.

In its depiction of ambition, back stabbing office politics, and the issue of balancing home life with career, the book is relevant today. The novel can be faulted for its depiction of the female characters, but this is inevitable since this is a book about men and their careers while the wives linger in the sidelines. At one point, Walling praises another woman, glowingly to his wife, saying that she ‘thinks like a man,’ while another wife remembers only those people who’ve come to dinner, and she can recall the menu served down to minute detail. In this novel, Hawley asks some big questions: what do men ‘get’ from their careers, is it possible to balance work and home and still be successful, and what exactly brings job satisfaction? One character discusses compartmentalizing work and home and there’s the idea that one of the reasons the divorced Bullard was so admired was because he seemed to have achieved something with his life that other men envied. Ultimately, the novel argues that emotional choices in the workplace must be overridden by rational decisions; we don’t necessarily have to ‘like’ those we pick for the job.

I read some descriptions of this book as a page-turner. I found the book slow-going and it seems best read in big chunks rather than picking it up and putting it down as there are a lot of characters to keep track of here. One final thought–books written today about career and the workplace environment seem much more cynical. We see workers, anonymous and replaceable in a large corporate setting, doing anything but work. Thinking here of Apathy and Other Small Victories by Paul Neilan.

Cameron Hawley (1905-1969) also wrote the novel Cash McCall which was also made into a film.

Review copy


Filed under Fiction, Hawley Cameron