Tag Archives: California

Days of Awe: A. M Homes

Over the years, I’ve read a number of short stories, and a few from Laurie Colwin, Margaret Atwood, and A.M. Homes stick in my mind. Homes seems to excel in creating people who behave badly, and that brings me to Days of Awe, a collection of twelve short stories

Days of awe

In the first story, Brother on Sunday, a middle-aged plastic surgeon on holiday with friends from his youth ruminates about his career, his relationships and his own mortality, but the holiday ends with a confrontation with his brother, dentist, Roger. While he wonders if he’d still make friends with his current crowd if given the choice, the bigger question is how much will he take from his brother. This story captures the tone of a successful man who is content with his place in life, comfortable with his choices and yet is disengaged and left an observer. We are inside the mind of a plastic surgeon at the beach as he clinically assesses the bodies of strangers around him:

In front of them, a woman is stepping out of her shorts. One side of her bathing suit is unceremoniously wedged in the crack of her ass; she pulls it out with a loud snap. Her rear end is what Sandy calls “coagulated,” a cottage cheese of cellulite, and, below it spider veins explode down her legs like fireworks. 

“Do you ever look at something like that and think about how you could fix it?” Terri asks.

“The interesting thing is that the woman doesn’t seem bothered by it. The people who come to me are bothered by their bodies. They don’t go to the beach and disrobe in public. They come into my office with a list of what they want fixed–it’s like a scratch-and-dent shop.”

In the second, complex story, Whose Story Is it, and Why Is It Always on Her Mind? a Jewish writer attends a conference on genocide. The “transgressive” fiction writer, Rachel, finds herself on a panel which is like “a quiz show with points awarded for the most authentic answer.” As questions bounce around, the writer’s authenticity, and lack of direct experience, is challenged.

Despite the fact that these panels are supposed to be conversations, they are actually competitions, judged by the audience.

The writer strikes up a relationship with Eric, a war correspondent. While the story pivots on this relationship, undercurrents include the survivor’s need to vocalise witnessed horror, or “relentlessly collect and catalog the personal effects of those who disappeared.” And what of Eric who acknowledges that there’s “something wrong” with him and the compulsion to travel to the world’s nightmare atrocities, “having to go back, again and again,” as though he “needs to be punished.” In spite of the fact that Rachel has a girlfriend, left at home, she embarks on an unpredictable relationship with Eric.

Several of the stories are set in California including Hello Everybody, a story in which Walter returns from university to his friend Cheryl’s posh home in Southern California. This is a glimpse into the world of perpetual California makeovers: Walter wears thick makeup to cover his acne, Cheryl sports a new tattoo and her white, white teeth are the result of a “crushed-pearl polish.”

They are forever marking and unmarking their bodies, as though it were entirely natural to write on them and equally natural to erase any desecration or signs of wear, like scribbling notes to oneself on the palm of the hand. 

They are making their bodies their own–renovating, redecorating, the body not just as corpus but as object of self-expression, a symbiotic relation between imagination and reality.

The story’s blurb describes this as an “anthropological expedition,” and it really is. These are “pool people.” Cheryl’s mother, Sylvia, is dealing with the fallout of having her eye colour changed, and the scenes when the entire family (and Walter) go out to a fancy restaurant for dinner where “they serve tiny, designer-size macrobitoic bites” is hilarious. Sister Abigail is anorexic and demands ten calories per menu item. Cheryl is, of course, in constant therapy and at one point she asks her therapist (in an inversion of the usual question) if it’s her fault that her parents are still together. The same family appears again in She Got Away. I would love an entire novel about these people.

And if we’re talking about California, how could Disneyland be neglected?  The Last Good Time is set in Disneyland, and while the story’s protagonist is unappealing, the plot intrigued me. This is the tale of an adult man who, on the brink of losing his grandmother, decides to take off to Disneyland and capture the last good memory of his childhood. The story resonated as I’ve known many people who make monthly, quarterly, semi-annual, or annual pilgrimages to Disneyland for a range of reasons: sentimental/honouring the dead/treasuring childhood memories etc., and it’s a concept I had to get my mind around.

Not all the stories worked for this reader (The National Bird Cage Show, Your Mother Was a Fish), but that didn’t impact my great enjoyment of the other stories. Reading Homes is like tasting a flavour you’ve never had before. Wonderful.

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The Mars Room: Rachel Kushner

“I sometimes think San Francisco is cursed. I mostly think it’s a sad suckville of a place. People say it’s beautiful, but the beauty is only visible to newcomers, and invisible to those who had to grow up there.”

In Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room, 29 year-old Romy Hall is serving two life sentence (plus an additional six years) for something bad, something she actually admits she did. As the old saying goes, prisons are full of innocent men and women, but in this case, Romy is guilty and now lives out her life at the Stanville Women’s Correctional facility in Northern California.

The mars room

The novel opens very strongly with Romy, being transferred from one prison to another, describing a bus ride “up the valley” It’s two a.m., the women are shackled and counted, and Romy watches the world go by from the bus window. One pregnant 15-year-old is “in the cage on account of her age, to protect her from the rest of us,” but her whimpering attracts the attention of a more aggressive prisoner. This scene sets the stage for the story which centres on society’s outcasts: one woman who murdered her own child, trans Conan, and the novel’s central character, Romy Hall who grew up in the Sunset area of San Francisco. Running wild and unchecked, by age 11 Romy meets trouble; soon she’s more or less a street kid, shoplifting, doing drugs and eventually living in the Tenderloin, working in the Mars Room, a seedy strip joint:

If you showered you had a competitive edge at the Mars Room. If your tattoos were misspelled you were hot property. If you weren’t five or six months pregnant, you were the it-girl in the club that night. Girls maced customers in the face and sent us all outside, hacking and choking. One dancer got mad at d’Artagnan. the night manager, and set the dressing room on fire. She was let go, it’s true, but that was exceptional.

In prison, Romy is surrounded by poor, disenfranchised women–women who’ve had terrible things happen to them, terrible things done to them, and who’ve been altered as a result:

I said everything was fine but nothing was. The life was being sucked out of me. The problem was not moral. It was nothing to do with morality. These men dimmed my glow. Made me numb to touch, and angry. I gave, and got something in exchange, but it was never enough. I extracted from the wallets–which was how I thought of the men, as walking wallets–as much as I possible could. The knowledge that it was not a fair exchange coated me in a certain film. 

The novel, which moves from first to third person narrator, goes back over Romy’s past so that we eventually learn the path that led her to prison but then there’s also claustrophobic prison life. The other prisoners Romy mentions seem types rather than individuals: a masculine looking trans and a “butch security force.” 

Another main character is Gordon Hauser, and while he’s a teacher who works in the prison, there’s also something lost about him. He never finished his PhD, was teaching community college as an adjunct, and ends up teaching in prisons because it’s steady work.  Gordon retreats to the Sierra foothills where he reads Ted Kaczynski.

Romy’s strong voice is not entirely unsympathetic, but I suspect this is because her intelligence is evident :

Something brewed in me over the years I worked at the Mars Room, sitting in laps, deep into this flawed exchange. This thing in me brewed and foamed. And when I directed it–a decision that was never made; instead, instincts took over–that was it. 

Through Romy, the novel tackles some big questions, but ultimately, for this reader, the tale was relentlessly depressing and a rather bludgeoning experience. The novel’s message re: justice for poor females who are frequently victims in various ways, and end up behind bars as fodder for American’s prison system, makes a social-conscience novel which is heavy-handed, one directional, and unsubtle. The correctional officers are fat, stupid, abusive etc. Wentworth, a favourite Australian series of mine, in spite of being occasionally over the top, addressed the same issues, but somehow the intimacy, plot, social issues and moral grey areas were much better defined.

I had a friend, a correctional officer, who told me the women were the ‘worst” and he preferred working in a men’s prison. I thought of him as I read this.

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Beast in View: Margaret Millar (1955)

“In the mirror above the telephone stand she saw her mouth repeating the lie, enjoying it, and she saw her head nod in quick affirmation–this lie is true, yes, this is a very true lie.”

Thirty-year old Helen Clarvoe has a lot to be grateful for, and yet she lives a miserable, solitary existence at a bleak, second-rate hotel. After the death of her father, she left the family home and has very little to do with her flighty mother and dilettante brother. Beast is View is an exploration of loneliness, madness and manipulation, a claustrophobic novel with few characters and very little down time.

Beast in view

The novel wastes no time on preliminaries, and we are dropped right into the action when Helen Clarvoe picks up the phone, and begins a conversation with someone who purports to be an old friend. As the conversation becomes increasingly disturbing, Helen demands to know who is calling her: the caller identifies herself as Ellen Merrick, and that they met at school.

Peculiar things begin to happen to Helen. She hardly goes out as it is, but the phone call and the subsequent events rattle Helen so much, she turns to her late father’s financial advisor, 50-year-old Paul Blackshear for help.

What a graceless woman she was, Blackshear thought, hoarding herself like a miser, spending only what she had to, to keep alive. 

Blackshear, a widower, is already semi retired, and when Helen tells him about the threatening phone call, and that she’s beginning to wonder if someone has access to her apartment, initially he doesn’t want to get involved. Then he changes his mind. Armed with scant information, Paul begins to track down the mysterious Evelyn Merrick. Soon he finds himself on the track of a woman who leaves a trail of damage through poisonous innuendo, and this trail leads him right back to the Clarvoe family. ….

Blackshear discovers that Evelyn Merrick has an almost hypnotic power over her victims. There’s one scene that takes place at the Lydia Hudson School of Charm and Modelling.

The outer office was a stylized mixture of glass brick and wrought iron and self-conscious young women in various stages of charm. Two of them were apparently graduates: they carried their professional equipment in hat-boxes, and they wore identical expressions, half disillusioned, half-alert, like travelers who had been waiting too long for their train and were eying the tracks for a relief car.  

This scene is representative of  the novel’s premise of truth vs. illusion. The charm school students feed the business–the graduates don’t feed the modelling industry. Millar creates a schism, a mirror fractured in two in the very first scene, and this sensation continues through Blackshear’s quest. Most of the (unpleasant) characters appear to have some sort of duality–whether they’re two-faced or living some sort of lie. Millar feeds this unsettling thread throughout the plot’s twists and turns.

Beast in View is an unnerving, classic woman-in-peril novel with an emphasis on terror through psychological suspense–something along the lines of Midnight Lace (although the plots are dissimilar). After reading this, it’s easy to see why it was picked up for an episode of the Alfred Hitchcock Hour, for in this novel, terror exists (mostly) in the mind. This book should appeal to fans of Ruth Rendell.

Margaret Millar was the wife of Kenneth Millar AKA Ross Macdonald

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Catalina: Liska Jacobs

“Dazzle a man and you blind him.”

From a few pre-publication quotes, I had a feeling that I’d love Catalina, a debut novel from Liska Jacobs. What is so attractive, so alluring about Kamikaze Women–self-destructive women whose messy personal disasters surround them in a blurring cloud of detritus? These are women who simultaneously attract and repel–women whose lives crumble at the foundations as they careen, hopelessly, from one catastrophe to another.

The Kamikaze Woman in Catalina is our narrator Elsa, who washes back up in California after being ‘let-go’ from her job as personal assistant to MoMA’s curator, the very married Eric Reinhardt. Elsa and Eric had an affair, and we don’t know what went wrong, but the affair ends with Elsa being given a “generous compensation” package by Human Resources. We get, right away, that Elsa is being discarded and paid off, but Elsa, hard-as-nails, but also interestingly brittle, doesn’t quite ‘get’ the fact that she’s been summarily dumped.

Catalina

Elsa begins to think that New York feels “predatory,” and so home to Bakersfield and her mother’s house, ostensibly to lick her wounds. But home doesn’t offer consolation:

Poor girl, the joke’s on you. You’re back. Your old life just waiting for you, like a second skin.

So Elsa escapes with a quick flight to LA and then it’s a short drive to Santa Monica. Elsa holes up in a luxury hotel, enrolling in a yoga course but going to the bar instead, dropping money even as she tries not to think about Eric from the blurriness of a cocktail of unknown drugs (stolen from her mother) and alcohol.

There are many bottles. Probably too many, I think. So I combine a few that look similar. Who cares? I definitely do not. After all. I’m doing what Eric suggested on that last day: Go Home. See your mother in Bakersfield. Be open to possibility. Fine, a blue one if the mood strikes, or maybe a white, or sea-foam green. So many possibilities. 

The scenes at the hotel are marvellous. The sniffy disapproval of the waiters and other guests as Elsa polishes off bottle after bottle of alcohol, ordering up coke though room service, and the way she teases a Lancelot in bellboy clothing.

Instead I call room service and order another Bloody Mary, which, I tell myself, is basically a salad. 

Finally, with numerous traumas and dramas played out, Elsa calls up her old friend Charly, who is married to Jared. Elsa expects her friend to be mired in domestic bliss, but it’s clear that there are problems between Charly and Jared. He makes cruel comments to his wife and keeps a lascivious eye on Elsa:

“Have you been working out?” he asks. I tell him the most exercise I get is lifting a wineglass to my mouth or opening a prescription bottle. This enthralls him. 

Elsa’s ex-husband Robbie now works for Jared, and so before long, Elsa finds herself on a trip to Catalina to attend a jazz festival with Charly, Jared, Robbie, his new girlfriend Jane and millionaire boat owner, the very alpha male, Tom. Tom’s family own ” a potato chip company, real American money.” 

He’s well groomed, scrubbed clean, and absolutely menacing. 

Of course, this trip is a recipe for disaster.  Charly’s marriage is unhappy, Jared is openly womanizing, Robbie still has the hots for his ex and Jane, a restaurant manager,  is … well… on the tiresome side. “She’s always doing some marathon or on a new diet.”  She’s “very animated. Her arms and hands wave as if she were an instructor worried about losing Robbie’s interest.” As for Tom, he says that Elsa, brought along on the Catalina trip as a date, reminds him of his first wife:

Hot as shit but absolutely bonkers. 

Catalina is the provocative, unsettling  story of one woman’s meltdown, but it’s also a story of a handful of people behaving badly. A novel of Bad Manners, if you will. Everyone thinks that wildly successful Elsa is back on an extended holiday, but Tom, who claims he can hear Elsa’s pills rattling in her bag, has Elsa’s number, and he delights in watching the trip implode as couples fight, friction escalates and lives collide.

The big question here is Elsa’s state before being dumped by Eric. There are elusive shards of the past tantalizingly submerged in the plot, and most of these float to the surface through Elsa’s memories of her marriage to Robbie. But this is a woman who doesn’t want to examine her life and her mistakes; she’s much prefer to blur the past, and the present, with alcohol and whatever pills she can dig out from the alarmingly diminishing supply which lurks at the bottom of her bag.  I loved Catalina; it’s just the sort of book I am always looking for and find so rarely–people behaving badly within the rails of polite society.

I squint to try to make out where the pier should be, where the Miramar is, where the airport and Charly and Jared’s house should be. Bakersfield just north and inland-New York and Eric a few thousand miles beyond that. It’s there, I’m sure. I suddenly feel lightheaded. Strange. Like catching your reflection, that moment just before recognition, when you are a stranger to yourself. 

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(The idea of Kamikaze Women comes from Woody Allen and the film Husbands and Wives.)

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Genius and Discovery: Stefan Zweig

German Literature Month 2017Genius and Discovery is another nifty little collection of Stefan Zweig gems from Pushkin Press. Triumph and Discovery contained select moments in history, and this collection contains the following five sections:

Flight into Immortality

The Resurrection of George Frideric Handel

The Genius of a Night

The Discovery of El Dorado

The First Word to Cross the Ocean. 

In the preface, Zweig talks about “genius

Millions of people in a nation are necessary for a single genius to arise, millions of tedious hours must pass before a truly historic shooting star of humanity appears in the sky. 

Genius is pushing it a bit with a few of the people mentioned here.

Flight into Immortality is the incredible story of Vasco Núñez de Balboa. Gold fever grips Spain after Columbus “who always fanatically believes whatever he wants to believe at any given time” tells tales of “gold mines of immeasurable extent,” in the Americas.  Gold seekers, adventurers, ruffians, you name it, arrive in Española (“later San Domingo and Haiti”).

But what a dismal tidal wave of humanity is now cast up by greed from every city, every village, every hamlet. Not only do honorable nobleman arrive, wishing to gild their coat of arms, not only are there bold adventurers and brave soldiers; all the filthy scum of Spain is also washed up in Palos and Cadiz.

While lawyer Martín Fernandez de Enciso readies a ship to sail to the San Sebastián colony “near the straits of Panama and the coast of Venezuela,” many of the Spanish adventurers are stranded on Española and hope to avoid debt by taking a ship out. The governor orders that no man may leave without his permission, but that doesn’t stop Vasco Núñez de Balboa who boldly smuggles himself aboard Enciso’s ship on a crate.

Genius and Discovery

And so begins Vasco Núñez de Balboa’s incredible adventures as he seeks gold and becomes the first European to see the Pacific ocean. This is a story of the highs and lows of human nature; mention is made of how he used hungry dogs to tear apart prisoners.

The Resurrection of George Frideric Handel is the story of how Handel recovered from a stroke and eventually wrote the Messiah.

The Genius of a Night is the story of how The Marseillaise was created, and this section wasn’t that interesting for this reader. The First Word to Cross the Ocean is the story of Cyrus Field and the first telegraph cable across the Atlantic Ocean

And now The Discovery of El Dorado. This is the story of John Augustus Sutter, born in Switzerland, who traveled to California, and becomes the luckiest and unluckiest of men when gold is discovered on his property. The Zweig version differs wildly in several aspects from the Wikipedia version, and while some of this can, perhaps, be ascribed to our modern sensibilities, some of it cannot. Zweig paints Sutter as a more tragic figure, and tells us that Sutter’s wife died after shortly arriving in California. Zweig says Sutter had three children while Wikipedia says five. Zweig portrays Sutter as a man stripped of everything: attacked by a mob, his “eldest son, threatened by these bandits, shoots himself.  The second son is murdered; the third runs for it but is drowned on the way home.”  Zweig creates a portrait of a widower, a demented beggar whose children are all dead. Wikipedia has Sutter’s wife living to a ripe old age, and one of his sons became the founder and planner of Sacramento.

Zweig didn’t have Goggle.

Apparently Zweig wrote 12 of these vignettes, so between this collection and Triumph and Disaster, we can read ten. Sadly omitted: Cicero and the (mock) Execution of Fyodor Dostoevsky

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Translated by Andrea Bell

 

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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.

commonwealth

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.

“Single.”

“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.

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Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh and L.A. by Eve Babitz

“Not that I like to blame things on tequila, but…”

Eve Babitz: it’s not what she sees or who she’s with, it’s her wryly witty observations that make Slow Days, Company: The World, The Flesh, and L.A., from New York Review Books, so much fun to read. So who is Eve Babitz? According to Wikipedia, she seems to be mostly famous for who she slept with, but if you dig around a bit, shove the notoriety aside, then you find her work as an artist and as a writer. Matthew Specktor’s introduction tackles the issue of how Babitz’s notoriety buries her books: “to start laying out the names of Babitz’s paramours is to begin building the wall that obscures our view of her work.” Specktor also points out a major point with Babitz’s work: yes she may have slept with this or that famous person, but these very real people are “largely pseudonymous, or brushed aside in a way that feels aptly dishabille.” Babitz’s reputation, unfortunately, seems to subsume her books, and while I approached Slow Days, Fast Company prepped for pretentious name dropping–there’s none of that here, and instead the book is a refreshing, disarming perspective of California life. Whether it’s Bakersfield, Orange County, Forest Lawn, Palm Springs or even something as simple as California rain, Babitz’s canny observations make us see things through her eyes, and that’s quite a vista.

slow days fast company

Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh and L.A. is a series of essays–each gives a snapshot of some aspect of the author’s California 1960s and 70s life. Her writing is a mesmerizing blend of worldliness mixed with innocence, and the result is, ultimately, unique and fascinating. A part of the Hollywood fast track glamour scene, nonetheless, Babitz managed to mix with the in-crowd but always kept an outsider’s critical eye. While it’s clear that Babitz loves California, still she always maintains a healthy skepticism about the lifestyle as, for example, when she mulls over the thought that “in Los Angeles it’s hard to tell if you’re dealing with the real true illusion or the false one.”

One essay finds Babitz visiting a fan in Bakersfield. It’s a unique area–you can think you know California and then you visit Bakersfield and realise that it’s a world apart. It’s an epic journey for Babitz: “It takes two hours for an ordinary person to get from Hollywood to Bakersfield, so I planned on three.”  She mingles with the locals and marvels, with an anthropologist’s interest, at the social mores, but always with curiosity–never condescension. The scene at the Basque restaurant echoed my own experience: “The forty of us from the party went to the White Bear and thirty-nine of us were prepared for what happened next. I was not.”

If I had a favourite essay, it would have to be Emerald Bay, which records a visit Eve Babitz made with Shawn, a gay man, who becomes her constant companion. In this affluent community, Babitz meets a boring woman called Beth Nanville, and while the essay could have dwindled into a diatribe of the affluent set in Orange County (where everyone is “so sadly hideous and Nixony,“) instead, the essay becomes a soliloquy of just what the author missed in the deeper, indecipherable side of Beth Nanville.

Ultimately, there was so much I liked about Eve Babitz, and this was unexpected from the things I’d read about her. I applauded the way she kept her love affairs more or less off the page; I loved the way she acknowledged feeling claustrophobic in San Francisco; I laughed when she describes her stylish friend Pamela and how she keeps  “hoping for something that is evil and brilliant to come out of her boyish mouth, but all she ever says is ‘Why aren’t there any men in this town?’ ” But here is, I think, the best quote from a highly quotable book:

Since I’ve started carrying a book everywhere, even to something like the Academy Awards, I’ve had a much easier time of it, and the bitterness that shortens your life has been headed off at the pass by the wonderful Paperback. Light, fitting easily into most purses, the humble paperback has saved a lot of relationships for me that would have ended in bloodshed.

A big thank you to Jacqui for reading and reviewing Eve’s Hollywood. I was on the fence about Eve Babitz’s work, but after reading Jacqui’s review, I decided to take a chance. Sometimes books written by people who are famous for being famous are pretentious, egotistical and boring. Not so Babitz. She has a remarkable eye and this book has a freshness that belies the society Babitz lived in.  Slow Days, Fast Company; The World, The Flesh and L.A. is highly recommended for regular readers, Emma, Carolina, Marina, Max, and, of course, Jacqui.
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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

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Case of the Vanishing Beauty: Richard Prather (1950)

“She looked hotter than a welder’s torch and much, much more interesting.”

Strip for Murder gave me so many laughs, I knew it wouldn’t be long before I returned to another Shell Scott mystery from Richard Prather. Case of the Vanishing Beauty is the first in the series, and why not go back to the beginning?

case of the vanishing beauty

Shell Scott is hired by a young woman named Georgia to find her missing sister, Tracy. For mysterious reasons she refuses to discuss, she insists that he accompany her to a nightclub, a “Mexican dive” called “El Cuchillo.” The floor shows aren’t that hot until knife thrower, Miguel and his shapely partner, Lina start their routine. Shell has eyes for Lina:

She was slim. but with hips that were amply high, full breasts that she was careless about but nobody else ever would be.

Shell isn’t sure why he’s been dragged to the nightclub by his new client and his this “screwy case.” But the visit to El Cuchillo stirs up a hornet’s nest, and by the end of the night, Shell is deep in the case to find the missing Tracy.

Case of the Vanishing Beauty was published in 1950, six years before Strip for Murder. Both novels of full of Shell’s unbridled lascivious view towards women, but the setting of a nudist camp in Strip for Murder allowed plenty of opportunity for Shell’s self-deprecating humour. In Case of the Vanishing Beauty, pouty, explosive, sultry, Lina doesn’t develop beyond her stereotype even though her character appears in several scenes in the book. Venezuelan Lina, who calls herself a Mexican dancer, plays a fairly big (jealous, possessive, explosive) role in the book far beyond the floorshow, and, unfortunately as a stereotype, she’s not that interesting–although Shell Scott seems fascinated. Still, this is the first in a long series of over 40 books, and the tale includes some great riffs on California life and being a PI:

Southern California is a mecca and melting pot for half the cults and societies of the civilized, and sometimes uncivilized, world. Maybe you live here or maybe you’ve been here and know about it and maybe you don’t. I was born in this town. A quarter century ago, when I was a towheaded kid starting kindergarten, Los Angeles  and Hollywood weren’t what they are now. Pepper trees lined Hollywood Boulevard and the movies were silent, flickery things. L.A.’s city limits were a fraction of what they are today, and the population was only about half what it is now.

I’ve watched it grow, and as it grew, and as people from all over the States and even the world poured in, a rash of religious, vegetarian, mystic, and occult healers and savers sprang up like no other part of the States ever saw. Messiahs sprang up out of the ground, milked the suckers dry, then faded out of sight. Healers laid on hands, read the stars for propitious signs, and stood on their heads to save the downtrodden and, incidentally, make a fast buck.

That’s a long quote, but it illustrates Prather’s breezy, yet punchy style; plus it includes the info that Shell Scott is a native-born Angelino which gave certain bragging rights back in the day.

While I didn’t enjoy Case of the Vanishing Beauty nearly as much as the very funny Strip for Murder, this first book introduces a great character: Shell Scott, who carries a 38 Colt and drives a yellow 1941 Cadillac convertible–he’s obviously not trying to keep a low profile around town. This is 50s Hollywood written in the 50s and not a writer trying to catch the right ambience. Prather successfully maintains a dream-like quality to the book that morphs into Shell Scott’s living nightmare:

After so long a time you get a little sick of violence. You see guys gasp and bleed and die, and it makes you feel a little funny, a little sick while it’s happening, when it’s right in front of your eyes. But it isn’t ever quite real when it’s going on, when you’re in it. Maybe a muscle man slugs you, or a torpedo takes a shot at you, or you’re pulling a trigger yourself or smashing a fist into a guy’s face, and you’re hurting or crippling or killing some trigger-happy hood. But when it’s actually happening, you’ve got adrenalin shooting into your bloodstream, your heart pounds, your breath comes faster, pumping more oxygen into your veins. Glands and body organs start working overtime to keep you sharp, keep you alive, and you’re not the same, you’re not thinking like the same guy. It’s all kind of a blur like a picture out of focus jumping in front of your eyes

 

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Strip for Murder: Richard Prather (Shell Scott mystery ) 1956

“Never in my life had I seen so many naked broads all at once. I didn’t mind though; I’m broadminded.”

Strip for Murder (1956) is my first foray into the life of Southern California based, former Marine turned PI, Shell Scott, and after reading this well-paced, witty, action packed detective story, I know it won’t be my last. Author Richard Prather (1921-2007) wrote over 40 Shell Scott mysteries, and Open Road Media has made these great little mysteries available at a very reasonable price for the kindle. Crime and humour are not natural bed mates–and if not done with just the right touch, you can end up with a novel written in bad taste. Donald Westlake knew how to blend crime and humour, and if you enjoy Westlake’s humour, then there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy Strip for Murder.

strip for murderAt 176 pages, there’s very little down time, so the book begins with Shell Scott, inappropriately dressed, attending a dinner party for the “Smart Set” at the home of the woman who’s just hired him, millionairess, Mrs. Redstone.

And here I was in brown slacks and a tweed jacket over a sports shirt called, according to the salesman, “Hot Hula.” At least there were no wild Balinese babes doing things on the shirt, It was just colorful.

According to Mrs Redstone, the mother of two adult daughters, Sydney and Vera, she’s convinced that Vera’s new husband, Andon Poupelle is not the Wall Street man he claims to be but is in reality a slimy fortune hunter. The last detective Mrs Redstone hired for the job has been murdered after he delivered a glowing report about Poupelle. Mrs Redstone wasn’t entirely convinced by the report but the death of the detective who wrote it led her to talk to the police who recommended the services of Shell Scott. So Shell’s job is to dig around and see if there’s any dirt on Poupelle.  While Poupelle may have convinced Vera Redstone that he’s something special, after an exchange of words, Shell knows that Poupelle is a slimy gigolo at best.

Wherever there’s big money and women starting downhill, you find slobs like Poupelle hanging around giving them a push.

The last PI on the case was found shot dead near to two significant locations: Castle Norman–a swanky gambling joint dressed up as, you’ve got it, a Norman castle complete with knights on their steeds and a murky moat. The other significant location is Fairview, a nudist colony for health nuts, and after some shady incidents involving the case occur there, Shell Scott is ‘forced‘ to go undercover as the calisthenics director at the colony. When he first arrives he has no idea about the nudist part–he thinks he’s going undercover at a health retreat. The first inkling Shell gets that something is different is when he’s greeted at the main gate by a naked woman:

She was a little dark-haired doll and nobody I knew, but you can bet it was somebody I wanted to know.

She wasn’t in any terrific hurry; nobody was chasing her. Not, I thought, dazedly, yet. She ran right up to the gate and stopped. At least she stopped running, but it was quite a spell before she stopped moving completely.”Hi,” she said.

I still had some of that tightness in my chest, but that seemed to be the least of my worries. I said, “Hello there!”

She smiled, and it seemed to me that she smiled all over. “You’re Mr Scott?”

“Yes. She-er, Don Scott. You call me Don.”

“Fine. We were expecting you.”

Wow, I thought. Maybe my reputation had preceded me. If this was what happened when I was expected, I was never going anyplace again without letting people know well in advance. Hell. I’d flood the States with posters: Scott is on his way!

In between pretending to be the new calisthenics instructor at the nudist colony (and there are a lot of laughs in these scenes,) Shell navigates the dark streets of LA hitting up a series of lowlife informers, such as grifter Iggy the Wig (who wears “a rug to keep him glamorous,”) and Three Eyes (he sports a glass eye,) for information about Poupelle. Meanwhile he’s shadowed by a bunch of gangsters including Egg Foo, Folsom graduate Sardine (you’ll understand the name if you read the book) cheap thug Garlic, and a “lop-eared gunman named Strikes.” But there are some great female characters too, including burlesque dancer, Babe Le Toot, “sex cyclone,” dancer Juanita who “looked as if approximately five feet ten inches of well-stacked woman had been mashed down into five feet seven inches, the excess bulging out and overflowing in enjoyable places,” and Daphne, the secretary of a geriatric loanshark, Offenbrand:

She was wearing a dark skirt, above which was a pink sweater she might have knitted herself, getting halfway through with the job before saying the hell with it. Offie was so old I figured she was on display for the customers. I got younger every minute. She was strategically seated, so that she smacked you in the eyes when you entered, and she was strategically built so that she smacked you in both eyes. Hell, she smacked you all over.

Here’s Shell at the nudist colony looking at a guest named Peggy.

She turned sideways, leaving me enough room to get by. She really was cuter than the dickens. I thought of Laurel and looked at Peggy. Sometimes I hate myself. I went out, but as I went by Peggy I gave her a little pat on her behind. Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t grab it and yank it around or anything, just gave it a friendly cuff. Nothing crude, you know.

strip for murder vintageI’ve been on a bender watching Mad Men over the past few weeks, and it’s fascinating watching history through the characters who work at a Manhattan advertising agency. Sexism is rampant, but for the most part the dominant offenders are oblivious to the way they tread on women. And that’s what’s so interesting and refreshing about Shell Scott. He celebrates the differences between the sexes rather than denigrating the females he encounters, and as a series character, he’s fascinating. He’s a lone PI, keeps a small office in downtown LA on Broadway, drinks bourbon and water, drives a Cadillac and has pet guppies for company. He also has a good relationship based on mutual respect with the local PD, and while he’s for hire, there’s a core of decency that runs right down his spine and which wrestles with his libido. While Strip for Murder may appear to be a cheap little pulp detective tale, it’s much better written than I expected, and the author is comfortable with taking some risks through memorable, over-the-top scenes. The tale begins with Shell being embarrassingly ‘underdressed’ for a swanky society party and the author keeps that theme and works it into this frothy and yet deadly serious tale. As for the “hot hula” shirt Shell wears in the first scene, even that has significance on the final page.

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