Family Snapshots: Summer of ’69

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Review: Summer of ’69, by Elin Hilderbrand
Little, Brown, 2019. 418 pp. $28

For Kate Foley Levin, the annual family pilgrimage in summer 1969 to her mother’s home in Nantucket will feel sparse and lonely. Her only son has been drafted and is an infantry grunt in Vietnam; any moment, she expects the telegram announcing his death. Kate responds by withdrawing to finds solace in the bottle. Meanwhile, her eldest, pregnant daughter can’t leave Boston to join the family, for her due date is weeks away, and she’s too uncomfortable to travel. Said daughter also suspects her geeky MIT husband, who consults for the Apollo space program, is cheating on her. The next eldest daughter, a contentious soul, has annoyed Kate by making a mess of college and getting arrested at protest marches. But she won’t be there to bother anyone, because she has a job on Martha’s Vineyard, where, unbeknownst to Mom, she falls for a Harvard man who happens to be black.

Jessie Levin, half-sister to these siblings (her father, David, is Kate’s second husband) needs her mother more than ever. Just turned thirteen, she feels utterly bereft without her family, especially her half-brother, to whom she’s very close. She’s also fighting several losing battles, most notably with her bigoted, vicious grandmother, Exalta, which Kate might have helped with, but forget that. One firefight concerns Jessie’s identification with her (purely cultural) Jewishness, a link she shares with her father; she’s freaked out that Exalta’s an anti-Semite.

So we’ve got the Vietnam War, to which the Levins and Foleys are opposed, and a son at risk. We have possible marital infidelity, alcoholism, political protest, interracial romance, and anti-Semitism. As if that weren’t enough, we have sexual and physical abuse, feminism, Jessie’s sexual awakening, and abortion. And oh, yes, Jessie’s reading The Diary of Anne Frank for school. Summer of ’69 purports to be beach reading, but that’s one hell of a load.

Neil Armstrong’s photograph of Buzz Aldrin on the lunar surface, July 21, 1969 (courtesy NASA, via Wikimedia Commons)

What we don’t have is the Sixties — the lingo, the vibe, the sense that this was an unusual decade, the belief that so much was possible yet so much was wrong, and that you felt compelled to take sides and make a statement. Hilderbrand shows none of that. She’s strong on fashion, issues, and headlines, but those are period details, museum exhibits. The summer of 1969 was my last before my senior year of high school, so we share a fascination for that moment (she was born that July). But, much as I enjoy re-creations of that time and salute her attempt, I don’t think she gets it.

In her favor, she can keep the pages turning. She’s a keen observer of family dynamics, and she manages to thread several narratives without missing a stitch. In her world, people don’t talk to each other, and the closer they are by blood, the less they say, because they have secrets to hide. She also has a friendly, drop-in-for-a-chat-dear-reader tone that makes her narrative pleasant company, like an easy-listening radio station.

But Hilderbrand’s ease cuts two ways. Despite the pain the characters suffer and the issues she raises, which couldn’t be more momentous, the treatment feels one-dimensional, like posed family snapshots. Everything seems too far away to hurt anybody for real. With so much simmering conflict and so little honesty, you’d think more would explode, and that’s why I finished the book. I wanted to know how Hilderbrand would resolve these conflicts—and I now know I wandered into Never-Never Land.

One problem’s the characterization. Kate’s controlling and craven by turns, and it’s not clear why. David’s a good guy with no depth, and the older sisters represent themes but lack compelling internal lives. Jesse’s the only character who seems reflective about what matters:

Jessie thought all grown-ups lived in a different atmosphere, one that was like a cool, clear gel. Adults had problems, Jessie knew — money and their children — but one of the benefits of reaching adulthood, she thought, was that you outgrew the raw, hot, chaotic emotions of adolescence.

Yet this girl, intelligent and emotionally tuned in, gets upset that Anne Frank dies; she thinks the book shouldn’t have ended like that. The Holocaust! Who knew? Hilderbrand warps her narrative up, down, and sideways to let her characters find redemption and forgiveness and throws in the world’s most famous Holocaust victim, as though Anne defined those values. But don’t get me started on writers who co-opt a Jewish girl as a Christian saint, a Joan of Arc who turned the other cheek–a travesty encouraged, in part, by Anne’s father, who sanitized his daughter’s diary for publication.

Let’s stay with Jessie, a perceptive, nominally Jewish child whose brother’s in the Viet Cong’s crosshairs. Her heart’s been broken, and she has a sense of painful reality, even if she doesn’t always understand the why or how. Maybe she unconsciously connects her brother’s fate with Anne’s. They’re both so good; how can they die?

That’s a worthy question, but Hilderbrand doesn’t stay there. Having shown how bad things can almost happen to good people, she bails them out by snapping her authorial fingers, relieving them of the hard work of living. Maybe that’s what a beach book is supposed to do, keep you at a distance from work. But in relying on that illusion of substance, Summer of ’69 trivializes its subject matter.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Cosmic Shift: Park Avenue Summer

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Review: Park Avenue Summer, by Renée Rosen
Berkeley, 2019. 338 pp. $16

When twenty-one-year-old Alice Weiss arrives in New York in 1965 from Youngstown, Ohio, to make her fortune, she dreams of becoming a photographer. However, the job she finds is secretary to Helen Gurley Brown, author of the scandalous bestseller, Sex and the Single Girl, recently named by publishing giant Hearst to resurrect the then-flailing Cosmopolitan magazine. By the time Alice figures out what has hit her, her life has been changed forever.

“Good girls go to heaven. Bad girls go everywhere.” Helen Gurley Brown in 1964, by John Bottega, World Telegram staff photographer (courtesy Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons)

Alice represents the New York office world and what was then called a “gal Friday,” because, like her namesake in Robinson Crusoe, she does everything. That involves getting coffee or lunch, typing correspondence, taking phone calls, managing appointments, taking minutes at meetings, picking up Brown’s pets from the vet, running other personal errands, working hellacious hours, and receiving unsolicited advice about life, men, and career. Most significantly to the story, Alice must decide whether to fend off the advances of a very attractive Don Juan executive who might be plotting against Brown, only one aspect of the complex office politics.

Forces within Hearst want to kill Cosmo and see Brown fail. Her superiors (all male, of course) nearly lose their lunches when they see how she plans to imbue the magazine with her frank vision of female sexuality, starting with provocative covers and articles about orgasms. Rosen brilliantly captures how an unrepentant woman occupying a corner office goes about making her mark — or how this inimitable woman does, anyway.

Brown’s feminism is decidedly heterodox, though, for her creed includes at least two dubious propositions: that a woman can and should use her physical attraction to advance her career; and that every woman should bed a Mr. Wrong, a skirt chaser with too much magnetism for anyone’s good, just to “get that out of her system.” For contrast, Rosen has Alice attend a lecture by Betty Friedan, where she hears a more appealing philosophy, though she remains loyal to Brown and sees wisdom in her mentor too.

Which fits, because Alice’s life reflects the story’s feminist themes, and Rosen deftly weaves the two narratives of Cosmo and her protagonist. But Brown’s the star here, the definition of larger-than-life, consummate actress, constantly outré, loyal to her friends, but always the center of attention. She’s good to Alice — mostly — but doesn’t listen particularly well, and her protégée needs that above all.

I’d never before met a woman who cried as often or with as much gusto as Helen Gurley Brown. Every upset and hurt, every frustration and disappointment, got washed away with her tears and an occasional eyelash or two. After a particularly hard crying jag, the kind that left her eyes puffy, she’d remove her wig and submerge her face in a bowl of ice water, holding her breath for as long as she could stand it. Afterward I’d hand her a towel and guard her door while she reapplied her makeup and reappeared, looking fresh-faced and perfectly composed.
I was shocked by her tears at first because I was just the opposite. I hadn’t let myself cry since my mother died.

I like how Rosen seldom cuts an emotional moment too short and lets Alice feel deeply even though a whole lot is going on. One notable exception: Brown uses Alice as a prop during a presentation to potential advertisers in an exploitive way, yet the young woman only blushes, harboring no anger. But otherwise, Rosen’s protagonist has much to deal with, and the author honors that without flinching.

Nevertheless, two aspects of Alice’s life seem empty, or nearly so. First, she’s nominally Jewish, but, aside from fleeting references that suggest its importance to her, she doesn’t live it. I’ve never been to Youngstown, but I’m betting there’s a hell of a difference between being Jewish there and in New York; shouldn’t Alice register this, especially since she feels lonely in her new environment? But she never even has cause to wonder that there seem many more of her coreligionists around; nobody ever pegs her as Jewish, whatever that means to them, or her; and her unabashed passion for certain nonkosher foods wants explaining.

Secondly, I don’t entirely believe this novel takes place in the mid-1960s, and not just because the dialogue occasionally includes present-day business-speak or idioms. The clothing styles, sexual attitudes, and workplace mores feel right, but there’s no Sixties vibe — no slang, manners, street life, or sense that the country is at war, in Vietnam and with itself (conflicts that would emerge even more strongly within the next two or three years). Nobody even thinks about those issues, and though Alice spends time in Greenwich Village, I get no hint of protest, counterculture, or avant-garde.

But Helen Gurley Brown did leave her mark. If you’d like a glimpse of what she did at Cosmo, Park Avenue Summer is an entertaining, often poignant story of a young woman struggling with heartbreak and dreams that feel beyond reach.

Disclaimer: I obtained by reading copy of this book from the public library.

Holocaust Hallucination: Cesare

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Review: Cesare, by Jerome Charyn
Bellevue, 2020. 365 pp. $27

Berlin, 1943. Amid Germany’s war against the world and murder of European Jewry, there are many secrets dangerous to know, not least that Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of military intelligence, has a private agenda. Whenever he can, he hides Jews, mostly German Jews, of whom a few thousand may still be found in the capital. Most are tenuously protected by marriage to Christians; others live underground in ghettos that even the SS doesn’t bother to penetrate. But the biggest secret is that Canaris uses his best agent, the widely celebrated Cesare, to try to make sure these hunted people stay safe.

Er, wait. The head of the Abwehr rescues Jews? His best agent’s persona is a household word?

Wilhelm Canaris, executed for treason weeks before the war ended, remains a mystery as to the extent of his dissidence. This photo dates from 1940 (courtesy German Federal Archives, via Wikimedia Commons)

While floating through the dream that is this novel, once or twice I had to check the historical record, just for grounding. Concerning one particularly stunning instance, which I can’t divulge because it would give too much away, I found that Charyn reports history as it happened. So however strange Cesare may be, the truth may be even stranger. Does it matter?

No. And there’s plenty of powerful fiction here, starting with the protagonist. Cesare’s real name is Erik Holdermann; six years earlier, in 1937, he rescued a tramp from a severe beating by a group of hoodlums. The tramp was Canaris, and that made Erik’s fortune. But what he does with it is something else. Cesare takes his sobriquet from The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, an expressionist film of 1920 in which Conrad Veidt (remember him as Major Strasser, in Casablanca?) plays a somnambulist slave who sleeps in a coffin and murders people while in a dream state. And just as Dr. Caligari explored the horrors that occur between sleep and wakefulness, consciousness and oblivion, Charyn wants to show you the nightmare that built and characterizes the Third Reich, not least of which is its citizens’ refusal to face their murderous reality.

This warped image describes life from the ground up, at least for a certain privileged class. Every form of entertainment attacked as “degenerate” by the regime exists within blocks of Gestapo headquarters, tolerated by the authorities, many of whom enjoy its frenzies. Such dualities apply everywhere. Cesare’s great, obsessive love, Lisalein von Hecht, the half-Jewish daughter of a banker, plays many roles, or appears to — his ally and protector, his betrayer, wife of a Party muckamuck, lover of a cabaret chanteuse, communist, rescuer of Jews. Her father helped bankroll Hitler because he feared the Reds more than the Nazis and assumed the vulgar corporal would be easily managed. Even Cesare himself, though not Jewish, was looked after by Jewish prostitutes as a young orphan; and when he must penetrate an inner sanctum he can’t enter any other way, despite his reputed shape-shifting skills, he wears a black uniform of the SS. To the Jews, there’s no doubt about his identity:

The ghetto had its own golem, not twisted out of clay, but a man of bone, blood, and gristle, born in Berlin. This golem had never harmed a single Jew. He often traveled about in the boots and silver sleeves of an SS captain. How wily their golem was. He mimicked their enemies, and could make a gauleiter [district leader] disappear. And if their savior was a somnambulist beholden to a white-haired German admiral, what could it matter to them? The coffin Herr Cesare slept in was secreted somewhere in [the Jewish ghetto]. And woe to any man who rocked that coffin and interfered with Cesare’s sleep.

With such portrayals and references — throw in Kafka and Melville — Cesare is a literary novel par excellence. But it’s also a disturbing, hallucinatory thriller, with as many plot twists and double crosses as the number of angels capable of dancing on the head of a pin. Throughout, the author immerses you in the hell that was the Third Reich. As with other thrillers, there’s plenty of sex, but it’s mostly desperate, typical of German activities then, rather than erotic. At times, it’s hard to tell whether female characters are mere sex objects (sometimes for each other), or whether Charyn’s trying to turn James Bond on his perfect, Casanova head.

What I do know is that Cesare possesses the reader, in a howl of pain and madness. Yet I didn’t feel suffocated, only glad I could close the cover and realize I wasn’t living inside it. And with this novel, Charyn has shown me what fiction can do.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

A Different Kind of Thriller: The Second Sleep

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Review: The Second Sleep, by Robert Harris
Knopf, 2019. 298 pp. $27

In 1468, the bishop of Exeter sends a young priest, Father Christopher Fairfax, to a remote village to bury a parson who has just died in an accident. But when Father Fairfax gets there, he discovers that his late colleague collected antique books that the church and government have condemned as heretical. What’s more, at the funeral, a stranger interrupts the service to declare that the deceased’s death was no accident, nor did it result from witchcraft, as some have said — the accident site is thought to be haunted. To no surprise, more startling facts come Christopher’s way, and what he thought was a trip to perform a sacrament turns into something not at all routine, likely dangerous or compromising.

Shield of the See of Exeter, established in the tenth century (courtesy Hogweard, via Wikimedia Commons)

In The Second Sleep, then, do we have a murder mystery with a Gothic overlay? Is this another example of a trope, Killed by an Ancient Manuscript? Or, maybe, to play the book publicists’ game, this novel is The Name of the Rose meets Middlemarch.

None of the above. We’ve got a splendid, thought-provoking, unusual thriller, by a master on top of his game. I thought Harris slipped some with Munich, but The Second Sleep evokes the quality of Dictator and An Officer and a Spy. As with those novels, here, the pages gently exhale history like a subtle, authoritative scent, “no — and furthermores” pile up effortlessly, and the protagonist undergoes an arduous journey, changing in a way he couldn’t have predicted.

But there’s more, because Harris has bent to the genre to his will. As the narrative gradually makes clear, there’s something odd, not to say out of character, about this fifteenth-century English village. And as you continue to puzzle how this can be — for the details are too precise to be accidental, and Harris is a careful storyteller — you and Father Fairfax have something in common. You’re both due for a significant surprise.

However, as I said, this is a subtle, gradual reveal. Consider this paragraph from the fourth page, one that displays Harris’s fine prose as well as a hint of his intent:

After a while, the road began to ascend a wooded hillside. As it climbed, so it dwindled, until it was little better than a cart track — ridged brown earth covered loosely by stones, shards of soft slate and yellow gravel braided by the running rainwater. From the steep banks on either side rose the scent of wild herbs — lungwort, lemon balm, mustard garlic — while the overhanging branches drooped so low he had to duck and fend them off with his arm, dislodging further showers of fresh cold water that drenched his head and trickled down his sleeve. Something shrieked and flashed emerald in the gloom, and his heart seemed to jump halfway up his throat, even though he realised almost at once that it was nothing more sinister than a parakeet.

Parakeets? How’s that?

In finely wrought coherence of story and character, The Second Sleep takes on themes regarding knowledge, faith, reason, church and state, and human frailty. There’s even a touch of coming-of-age, for, like the best of Harris’s protagonists, Christopher faces severe challenges to his beliefs, character, and principles, and the narrative pushes the envelope at his expense. But the author neither lectures nor spells out anything unless he has to, which leaves room for the reader to think and feel — what a novel should do.

I’d say more about this fine book, but I fear giving too much away. Don’t read the blurbs on the back, though for once, the flap copy is safe. The Second Sleep will both entertain you and make you think.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Dreams of Freedom: The Parisian

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Review: The Parisian, by Isabella Hammad
Grove, 2019. 551 pp. $27

In 1914, young Midhat Kamal leaves Constantinople, where he’s graduated from a French lycée, for Montpellier, France, to study medicine. The relocation has two objects: to keep Midhat from being conscripted into the Ottoman army, therefore safe from the world war; and to become someone of whom his father can be proud. Father will demand his reckoning, that’s certain, for he’s a wealthy cloth merchant from Nablus, Ottoman Palestine, and a firm believer in traditional, hierarchical values.

Midhat, however, doesn’t quite see his father’s tyranny, despite having suffered from it his entire life. Such thoughts are unthinkable. But once in France, everything is thinkable, even sayable, often doable, and Midhat’s inner romantic flowers like a tree blooming in the desert. He falls in love with Jeanette, the daughter of the professor who offers him room and board, and maybe she returns his feelings. Subsequently, he goes to Paris, where he continues his studies, talks politics with Palestinian nationalists, and becomes a dandy and a seducer.

However, his inevitable return to Nablus shocks him to the core, and as he dutifully tries to reconstruct his life according to the traditions he’s been taught, he mourns his lost freedom, even as he makes the best of his circumstances. That’s what a man must do, he decides, fulfill his role as a proper son and heir to the family business.

Midhat’s inner struggle mirrors that of the Palestinian fight for independence. Hammad shows how his trust in French values gets crushed by colonial realities. But she also portrays the nationalists falling prey to rigid codes of honor that lead to self-destruction, when “flexibility,” as one broader-minded politician remarks, would be saner. So it is that telling one man’s fictional story depicts history.

Nevertheless, this brilliant, impressive novel — a debut, no less — almost sinks in the first hundred and fifty pages. The Montpellier narrative develops slowly, and Midhat’s character seems maddeningly concrete and restrained. To be fair, that’s culturally appropriate, and Hammad does a terrific job portraying her protagonist’s confusion as to language, customs, and behavior, suffering with an obsessive, overdeveloped sense of what people must think of him. Every failure, whether or not it really is a failure, feels like dishonor to Midhat. Still, though you understand why — especially in retrospect, which means those first hundred and fifty pages can feel like wandering — you want the young man to let looser within himself, even if no one else sees it.

But if you read The Parisian, which I highly recommend, don’t sink with the narrative. Tread water, and you’ll be rewarded. Once our hero connects with politics, then returns to Nablus, his character opens. Don’t be put off by the untranslated Arabic, usually honorifics or exclamations, which you don’t need to understand, nor the occasional French phrase. The plot, though simple, wields a very sharp blade, and I defy you to put the novel aside.

Palestinian women march against the British Mandate, Jerusalem, 1930; photographer unknown. The sign urges “no negotiations, no dialogue” until the Mandate ends (courtesy British Mandate Jerusalemites Photo Library, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Ninety-nine percent of jacket blurbs are fluff and nonsense, but here’s an exception — Zadie Smith astutely remarks that Hammad has written in the tradition of Flaubert and Stendhal. Though I’m not yet ready to place Hammad on that exalted shelf, I see the comparison, visible in the filigree approach to the characters’ interactions as well as the prose, as in this scene with Jeanette in Montpellier:

A strong red blush started at her chest and covered her face. It was Midhat’s turn to look at the garden. He wanted to give her privacy, but he was also waiting for the grin to subside from his own cheeks. Outside, the clouds turned the grass grey, and the tree at the far end was animated with wind. When he looked back, Jeanette was still red, staring at her lap. Neither of them said anything. Something in Midhat’s chest began leaping wildly about as a fly zoomed into the silence and browsed the coffee things. Together they watched the fly inspecting the corner of a sugar cube, and then sitting on the silver rim, rubbing its hands together. He made a decision to look at her again. He found, to his amazement, that he was unable.

Also like the two nineteenth-century masters, Hammad has written a biography of one character standing for a time and place — think of Emma Bovary, Julien Sorel in Red and Black, or Fabrizio del Dongo in The Charterhouse of Parma. (If you don’t know these novels, grab a glass of wine, a comfortable chair, and dig in.) This is the most successful kind of biographical novel, I think, true to history yet unconstrained by having to set down the complete historical record, which doesn’t always squeeze into a fictional frame. Another similarity is that all three protagonists, like Midhat, have been educated in romantic ideals, which leave them unprepared for the cruelties of real life.

But perhaps the most compelling aspect of The Parisian, as with these predecessors, is Hammad’s authority as a storyteller: This is how it happened.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Two Shot: The Girls in the Picture

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Review: The Girls in the Picture, by Melanie Benjamin
Delacorte, 2018. 415 pp. $28

When would-be artist Frances Marion flees San Francisco for Los Angeles in 1914, the last thing she anticipates is falling in with the crowd of hopefuls knocking on the doors of those who produce “flickers,” as movies are popularly called. But Frances catches the bug too, and in a great stroke of luck, gains an introduction to Mary Pickford, the most beloved actress in America, who also has artistic control over her films. Luckier still, Mary and Frances take to one another on sight, and a famous partnership begins. With Marion as her screenwriter, Pickford will go on to even more dazzling heights, playing young girls in her famous blond curls and rosebud lips.

Director Marshall Neilan (far left), star Mary Pickford, screenwriter Frances Marion, September 1917, photographer unknown (courtesy Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Frances’s first look at Hollywood may be idealized, but it sets the stage for what follows:

Far from being a barren cow town, the place seemed drenched in color, crimson and gold and purple and white flowers spilling out of every window box, embracing every streetlamp. I couldn’t stop gazing at the tall pepper trees, with their languid, lacy green leaves dripping with clusters of red berries, providing much-needed shade from a sun that rarely found a cloud behind which to hide — something this native San Franciscan thought she would never find tiresome. Orange groves dominated the mountainous landscape that sloped to the beckoning sea, the air so perfumed that I immediately craved the sweet, tangy fruit that I’d never really cared for before.

Naturally, La-La Land can’t remain milk and honey forever, with such large egos, salaries, and audiences in which to bask. And that is by no means the whole picture. As women at the peaks of their respective professions, Pickford and Marion become easy targets for jealousy and slander, with others waiting — hoping — for their fall, men in particular. The two friends often talk about such conniving men and vow they’ll never let a man come between them. Famous last words.

However, it’s not just the man-child Douglas Fairbanks who splits the friendship when he marries Mary, and whose powers of jealous manipulation know no limit. Within a few years, the advent of talkies overturns the silent screen, casting out those performers who can’t cope in the new medium (or are perceived incapable of it). Further, as producers consolidate their power—and the industry—they retain artistic control and subjugate their hired talent, women especially.

This history both enlivens The Girls in the Picture and undoes it. I like the behind-the-scenes action that describes how movies are made, for both the silent and sound eras. I’m also glad to learn how the studio system today got its start, and the how its rampant sexism has very old roots. But these events and themes, significant though they are, fail here to make a novel.

The narrative, though talky enough, rests on simplistic characterizations that bounce between two poles instead of bumping up against edges. In almost any scene, the reader may ask, will Mary be the girl who never had a proper childhood, and who grasps at her popularity to prop her up? Or will the generous, sensitive adult shine through for her friend Frances, with whom she shares an artistic outlook and ardent feminist sensibilities? As facts and viewpoints repeat themselves, the conflict plays out from A to B and back.

The story also seems too simple. Love happens at first sight, and so does hatred. Conflict lasts a few paragraphs, and just when you think, Now, we’re getting somewhere, the rift resolves somehow. Benjamin offers the “no,” but not the “furthermore,” maybe because the story must move on to the next script, the next year. Round about page 260, the threat that Fairbanks poses to the women’s friendship emerges, and for a while, the trouble percolates and deepens. But for some reason, Frances, who’s capable of holding her own with just about anybody, can never manage with Mary. Benjamin, who says that she has made up all the dialogue, seems unable to let her stars go.

Some of these problems may have to do with biographical fiction and its constraints, but there are other, more successful approaches to Hollywood, as with The Chaperone, about Louise Brooks, a lesser silent film star. The Girls in the Picture aspires to a more panoramic view, which is fine; in a different framework, that might work. But despite a large cast, this novel stays a two shot, Pickford and Marion, which poses limits, and their long internal monologues feel predictable and repetitive, especially Pickford’s. As for color, the cameos the jacket promises are similarly flat, except for that of the entirely self-absorbed lech, Louis B. Mayer.

The Girls in the Picture has whetted my interest in reading about early Hollywood history, so I’ll say that. If that’s what you’re looking for, maybe this book is for you; but I can’t recommend it as a novel.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

More Fun Than a Barrel of Surrealists: Costalegre

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Review: Costalegre, by Courtney Maum
Tin House, 2019. 227 pp. $20

In 1937, Leonora Calaway gathers artists known as “degenerates” in Hitlerian judgment and spirits them to Costalegre, a (fictional) resort in the Mexican jungle. Her guests include the reigning Surrealists of Europe, whose work she champions (and often buys), and with whom she’s had love affairs, past or ongoing. The heat and insects are crushing, egos combust, and no conversation takes place without vicious backbiting. Leonora’s immune, so long as everyone does what she says; and since she’s paying, they usually do.

You can imagine, then, what this nest of vipers would feel like to Lara, Leonora’s unloved, unlooked-after fifteen-year-old daughter. Lara Calaway shows artistic talent and gets the chance to practice it, but what she wants most is to be seen by her mother, understood even a little, to be put somewhere she can grow and mature, which Costalegre isn’t.

Leonora’s closely based on Peggy Guggenheim, the wealthy collector who left her stamp on modern art, and who, in fact, protected artists from persecution while behaving abominably in most other respects. Her long-suffering daughter, Pegeen, supplied the model for Lara, and it’s her voice that tells this harrowing story, in diary entries.

The Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice, as seen from the Grand Canal (courtesy G. Lanting via Wikimedia Commons)

And voice means everything here. I admire how Maum has crafted Lara’s — naïve yet painfully knowing, resigned yet yearning for what she can’t have. She refuses to be overawed by the “loonies,” as she calls her mother’s artist friends, so she perceives their arrogance, selfishness, greed, and lack of empathy for anyone else. Yet she so longs for something to happen, something interesting, that at first, she hopes for better, even as she has her doubts:

All the other loonies are coming on a boat, and I spent a lot of time scanning the ocean for them. For a pirate ship. That’s what they should be on, really, a lively pirate ship. Mum told me the artists would be held for ages at customs and that it was silly to look for them when I could play a game with the ones we already had, but it didn’t seem that far-fetched to imagine one of the Spaniards floating calmly on a canvas or flying on some swan.

But her angry pessimism lies just below the surface. “No one in this world cares about anyone but themselves, especially not these artists, the most famous, the most stupid, the worst in all the world.” She’s also often clear-eyed about Leonora, who “doesn’t know what to do with other women except try to dress like them.”

One of the artists, who doesn’t live in the house but keeps a small ranch where he also has his studio, may be Lara’s salvation, she hopes, someone with whom to have a genuine conversation. This potential connection drives the story and creates a surprising amount of tension, further proof that plot points aren’t necessarily what make you turn the pages. However, I dislike the way Maum enacts this hope of Lara’s, and therefore the resolution of the novel, which leaves me wanting more, as unsatisfied as Lara has been.

My other objection has to do with history. I don’t mind that Maum has brought her artists to Mexico instead of New York, where Guggenheim actually installed them, as the author notes in an afterword. I think that this novel benefits from an exotic, incomprehensible setting, parallel in Lara’s mind to the richness all around that she can’t touch, and which isn’t meant for her. Rather, what rings false is how the characters keep expecting war to break out in Europe any day; it’s too early for ominous predictions. The artists discuss the Anschluss, Hitler’s union between Germany and Austria, illegal by the treaty that ended the First World War, and though that’s frightening, it’s still only March 1938. The dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, for instance, hadn’t happened yet, though it would shortly.

You can readily understand why these artists had to leave Spain or Germany, but to have them expect that the shooting will begin any moment makes them either seers or paranoid, which undermines what they’ve said. Further, they offer no reasons except for their fears, which nobody doubts or demands an explanation for. Yet Maum is particular about the timing. I think it far more probable that these artists worry about what their native lands have become, and that they can’t go home again, maybe ever. War sounds too drastic, almost theatrical, which does them, and the narrative, no service.

Still, I enjoyed reading Costalegre, and if you like eccentric characters — loonies — you’ll have your fill here.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Revenge Tragedy: After the War

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Review: After the War, by Hervé Le Corre
Translated from the French by Sam Taylor
Europa, 2019. 533 pp. $19

A man sits, tied up, being tortured to divulge who killed a certain figure from the Bordeaux crime world. This figure, like most of his brethren during the late 1950s — like the police beating him up — collaborated with the Germans during the recent world war and profited from it. In fact, few profited as handsomely as Albert Darlac, the commissaire de police, and the man leading the interrogation. Jewels, art, and furniture taken from dispossessed Jews made him rich, and without a trace of compunction or remorse, he can say that his department would cease to exist if such activities disqualified a man from serving the law.

Maurice Poupon, member of the Legion of Honor and illustrious politician in the Gaullist government, 1967. As a Bordeaux police official during World War II, he had arranged for the deportation of more than 1600 Jews; during the Algerian War for independence, he allegedly tortured rebel prisoners (courtesy Archives municipales de Toulouse via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Meanwhile, Daniel, a twenty-year-old garage mechanic who lost his parents at Auschwitz, has terrible trouble understanding the ache inside him. His adoptive parents, former Resistance members who rescued him from a rooftop the day his biological parents were arrested, have protected him and given him a warm home. Their daughter, Irène, also adopted, is the only person to whom Daniel can show any vulnerability. But Daniel fears that this happy life — happy, considering his circumstances — will soon end. He’s due to receive his draft notice and fight in Algeria, in a colonial war his friends and family staunchly oppose.

Darlac and Daniel, victim and perpetrator, don’t meet for quite a while. The contrasts between them provide the context and the moral theme of this extraordinary, exceedingly violent narrative. Darlac scorns everything remotely resembling compassion or kindness as weakness that deserves to be crushed. As one old-time acquaintance says, “Other people die and you’re the one that smells like a rotting carcass.” Daniel, however, wishes he could make himself more accessible emotionally — not that he entirely realizes this, a superb stroke of characterization — and often hides inside movie images, which he’s constantly imagining in his daily life. But you know that once he reaches Algeria, his struggles to become fully human will only get more desperate.

Connecting the two, a figure from their pasts has come to Bordeaux to settle old scores. How Darlac reacts in particular provides much of the story, and a searing one it is. Any author can follow Raymond Chandler’s advice and have a man with a gun enter the scene to prevent tension from flagging. Le Corre has plenty of men with guns, but he doesn’t have to worry about the tension. It’s not just that stuff happens, because if it were only that, a hyperactive plot would do as well. No; he grounds every scene so thoroughly in the physical that you can’t help feeling that his narrative is happening all around you, and that you’re involved by turning the pages. Whether it’s the Bordeaux docks or the Algerian desert, Le Corre knows every inch of his territory, and how it feels to be there, so you do too.

But even that wouldn’t work if he didn’t also put you firmly in his narrators’ heads, as with this introduction to Daniel, which also happens to portray the port of Bordeaux:

He stops suddenly in front of the gates of the port, his bicycle between his legs, and remains there, stunned. With his balaclava and his sheepskin coat with the collar turned up and the mittens on his hands gripping the handle bars, only his eyes are visible. He observes the blaring traffic of cars and trucks, intoxicated by the din they make, grinding his teeth as axles groan and bodies shake over the large cobblestones… He feels the dull rumble in his legs as a train trundles slowly past endless rows of warehouses, accompanied on foot by a man swinging a lantern in his hand. The city buzzes and trembles in his flesh.

Many people will find After the War a bloody business — and so it is, because the title’s ironic. Wars merge, so that there’s no apparent space between one and the next, no aftermath, because even if the calendar says that a few years have passed, in men’s minds, they haven’t. Darlac is also a complete monster, so he’s hard to take. But it was that kind of monster who made the French portion of the Holocaust possible, a fact conveniently ignored in France. Rather, I’m more troubled by the way female characters seem to exist largely in a man’s perception, not necessarily as sex objects, though in Darlac’s case, that’s all they are, but without readily definable aspirations of their own. They’re invariably the kindest characters, but they’re not fully rendered, not like the men.

Nevertheless, if you like noir, After the War is as noir as it gets, a first-rate thriller by an author who understands how to put it all together.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Love Quadrilateral: Watershed

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Review: Watershed, by Mark Barr
Hub City Press, 2019. 303 pp. $26

Early one morning, Claire Dixon wakes because of painful symptoms of gonorrhea, which she could only have contracted from her husband, Travis. In a fury, she bundles their two children into the old car and sets off for her mother’s house nearby. The older woman, none too pleased to be roused, nor to have house guests, acts as though these burdens can only be redeemed through the arduous chores she has planned for her eleven-year-old grandson.

What a thrilling opening; you see Claire’s predicament instantly and can’t help put yourself in her place. And since this is sometime around 1936 or 1937 in small-town, western Tennessee near Memphis, hard times elicit hardness in people, while gossip about the Dixons will surely become cheap entertainment. It’s a hardscrabble place, Dawsonville, and the only hope for the future is the dam under construction that will provide the area with electricity for the first time. Not everyone greets the project with enthusiasm, either, for the federal government is the builder, which evokes fears of taxes, intrusion, or invasion by city slickers.

Initial architect’s rendering of the Watts Bar Dam on the Tennessee River, ca. 1939 (courtesy Tennessee Valley Authority via Wikimedia Commons)

One such newcomer is Nathan McReaken, a young electrical engineer from Memphis, but the way people treat him, he might as well hail from the dark side of the moon. He’s trying to catch on with the dam’s engineering office, no easy task, despite his impressive resume. Nathan’s granted a ninety-day tryout, reaching the end of which will require cleverness, talent, and political skills.

Like a bunch of other out-of-towners, he rents a room in a boardinghouse run by Claire’s Aunt Irma. But unlike them, he has a keener, more nuanced sense of his surroundings, and he’s far more sophisticated intellectually and emotionally, though that’s not hard. Unfortunately, he’s taken professional risks in the past, and he’s running from a mistake for which he’s been unfairly blamed. So, like Claire, he fears for his reputation too.

The 1930s and the New Deal fascinate me, so I was primed for this book. I also love the engineering office politics, easily the strongest scenes in the novel, and the cutthroat competition just to have a paying job, which brilliantly captures the desperation of the Thirties. The descriptions of the construction process and the difficulties of supply and labor offer a glimpse of how remarkable the effort was — and when you realize that this dam was only one of thousands of government projects, you have to be awed. On a more human scale, Nathan’s voice represents the passion and professionalism behind the project. He comes through loud and clear, expressing his acuity but also his loneliness:

Downstairs someone coughed. He pictured the boardinghouse as if it were a child’s miniature, each of them a doll in its own compartment. There was only the cough, the scuff of a shoe, the sudden voice raised in laughter, that told you someone was really there. A half-dozen lives playing out in parallel.

However, Watershed’s parts don’t cohere. I don’t know how Claire decides, as she does, to make something better of herself; at times, she hardly seems the unsophisticated “country girl,” as described, so what’s she changing from? She’s certainly not her mother’s daughter, and I feel I know the older woman better, what her standards are, what she cares about most, and why. Three men want Claire, or act as though they do, but, other than her prettiness, I can’t say what motivates them. Nathan, who believes he’s meant for her, just “feels right” in her presence. Okay, but the three men spend so much time maneuvering around each other, I begin to think Claire’s more an object of desire than a full person. I will say that after Travis, a complete boor, practically a thug — why did she marry him, again? — Claire’s next romantic choice makes sense.

But mostly, Watershed loses its way after its powerful start. Many chapters, though too brief to digress far and well written, have nothing to do with the story and exist only to show attitudes toward the dam and the electricity that will come. Though I like these themes, I wish Barr had confined them to scenes in which his protagonists appear, which would have felt natural, not shoehorned in. Without revealing too much, I note that these favorite themes loom so large at the end, they confuse the resolution, which zips by. Twice, I looked back after finishing the book to be sure I hadn’t missed a brief chapter or section. I’m still puzzled.

Watershed reached print through the generosity of Charles Frazier, whose Cold Mountain Fund dedicates itself to bringing southern writers into print. I applaud this mission with fervor and look forward to future offerings. However, I urge the powers behind Watershed, whether the fund or the publisher, to devote more resources to proofreading. Watershed suffers from many errors, not just dropped letters or words, some of which make the dialogue hard to follow.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Feeling Good: Lies in White Dresses

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Review: Lies in White Dresses, by Sofia Grant
Morrow, 2019. 359 pp. $17

In 1952, two lifelong friends, Francie and Vi, take a train from San Francisco to Reno, where they plan to take advantage of Nevada’s six-week residency law to obtain divorces. They’ve each got grown children, and neither has a frivolous bone in her body, so you sense a story lurking there, especially since both believe that divorce is a shame and a scandal. But there’s more. Their trip has hardly begun when they adopt June, a younger woman with a four-year-old daughter in tow. Turns out June has a vengeful, abusive husband she’s running from, and she’s practically penniless. So Vi and Francie bring her to the hotel where they’re staying.

Reno, Nevada, in 2007 (courtesy Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

It’s a wonderful premise, and it might have propelled an equally satisfying narrative. However, that doesn’t happen. Since I’ve beaten up this kind of book often enough, I’d like to use this example to talk about happy endings and how they get that way. There’s a difference between a happy ending for a character who’s struggled to get there and a happy ending that feels like an arranged marriage. Guess which kind we’re discussing here.

As usual, it doesn’t have to be that way. Lies in White Dresses builds on the wreckage of three marriages, laden with conflict, past and potential, fuel for explosive confrontation. To her credit, Grant doesn’t shy away from ugly scenes. She also gives Vi and Francie a few unpleasant character traits, not least of which are social prejudices they refuse to surrender. So far, so good.

Even better, Vi’s soon-to-be ex-husband is a real doozy, a philandering, controlling egotist who believes money means (and moves) everything. Throw in Francie’s daughter, Alice, born with one leg shorter than the other, which fills Mama with shame, despite herself. I like that complex reaction, which, again, has potential for depth; what’s more, Alice, no fool, resents her mother’s unspoken attitude. But the saddest person is June, who’d apologize to the air for breathing it, if she could. She says she wants to escape her violent husband, but she doesn’t really believe she can. I agree.

The way I’ve described Lies in White Dresses, you might expect real, agonizing conflicts that have exacted a terrible cost. Instead, you get fantasy. Not legitimate fantasy, mind you, in which the protagonist has gone on a quest that tests her, body and soul, or a farce or satire or frothy entertainment in which you know nothing’s real from the start. No; here, you’re shown how people have deeply hurt each other, just as in real life. But there’s no resolution or much attempt at one, only quick-and-easy apologies to calm the roiled waters, which no one dares disturb afterward.

However, something has to take the place of the unsaid and unfelt, in this case two expendable secondary characters, inserted to set up an ending that’s completely far-fetched, yet utterly predictable. One of these secondary characters is the twelve-year-old daughter of the hotel keeper, cute at first but an obnoxious busybody at heart, until she redeems herself by playing the heroine. Even less likely, Grant has the girl absorb wisdom from a whore with a heart of gold. Ironically, this mentor is actually the only honest, appealing character in the novel, having escaped the Lysol bath that’s cleansed everyone else; she freely avows her appetites, whether sexual, monetary, or alimentary.

By now, the narrative has required a tower of scaffolding and construction of faux walls to keep out fickle life. That’s how June can absorb a few months of kindness and develop the self-esteem that’s been beaten out of her for more than twenty years. Or how Alice, the half-loved child, turns out more mature and psychologically whole than her mother. Happens all the time, right?

As a novelist, I understand the urge to protect my characters. We’re all guilty of doing so, and I’m sure that’s hampered me. We love our characters and don’t want to hurt them too badly or have the reader dislike them, because that feels personal, like a slap. You’ve insulted my baby! But overprotective authors hurt their fiction, just as overprotective parents hurt their kids. And if I see antagonists trip over their shoelaces or the good guys cruise into happily-ever-after as though it’s a fast-food joint open 24/7, I get cranky. (In case you didn’t notice.) I’ll accept a happy ending, sure, if it’s earned. But people have to sweat, fight themselves and their conflicts, and if they come out wiser, well, hand them the bunch of roses. Lies in White Dresses doesn’t earn that right, though. Consequently, I wonder how anyone can actually feel good after the feel-good ending. It’s too much like real life, yet also not enough.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this from the public library.