Tag Archives: 4 stars

#38: Clara and Mr. Tiffany, by Susan Vreeland

Begun: 5/10/2011
Finished: 5/14/2011
Format: Hardcover (library)
Rating: 4/5

This was the first book I’ve read by Susan Vreeland, but this, her latest novel, is just one of a large pantheon of works by her and other authors that might be called “fictionalized history.” A specific historical person or event is borrowed and a fictionalized tale is woven around it and what is known about it through historical records. One could argue that “The Girl With the Pearl Earring” started this, but many others have followed.

In this case, the historical person of record is Clara Driscoll. Until very recently, no one knew her name. But through the discovery of her correspondence with family, it was learned that she and the other women who worked in the factory of Louis Comfort Tiffany were largely responsible for the design and manufacture of the stained-glass lampshades for which Tiffany became so famous, and which are the most enduring and well-known legacy of his studio. Vreeland spins a meandering, episodic tale of about fifteen years of Clara’s life, from the time she was first widowed through her second marriage, between which she worked for Tiffany (who refused to employ married women). The book doesn’t have a clear plot arc, rather it unfolds in a series of episodes and happenings in the life of Clara and the cornucopia of colorful people that fill her life.

Too many people, actually. The book suffers from character overpopulation, especially where Clara’s Women’s Department is concerned. So many girls and women pass through her department that it’s hard to keep them straight or even develop any attachment to any of them. The men in her life (of whom there are quite a few as well) are given more development. Vreeland hits us with too many people right up front as Clara moves into the boardinghouse where she was to live for fifteen years. A few people stick out, including the trio of gay artists Clara befriends and the stoic Englishman who seems at once kindly and mysterious, but my head was spinning with a few too many new names. Less breadth and more depth might have better served the narrative.

Clara is a very appealing first-person narrator. Casual, conversational, just self-aware enough so as not to be annoying but still blithely sallying forth when we can see her flaws. She spouts off a few too many monologues and speeches, and the book also contains just a little too much description of the genesis of each lamp idea from flowers or gardens or aquariums. They become repetitious. Also, it seems that no man, gay or straight, can help but fall in love with Clara despite her age (relatively advanced for a single woman of that time) and her self-described plainness.

This was one of those books where I could really see the strings. Captain Exposition helpfully drops in from time to time to info-dump us into submission, and Vreeland has an annoying fondness for name-dropping prominent events and people of the time. Witness the scene in which Clara and two of her girls are having lunch and Clara points out a writer at a nearby table who has absolutely nothing to do with anything just so she can say “You know, he goes by O. Henry!” It’s the literary equivalent of that “This Picasso guy will never amount to anything” scene in “Titanic.” Pointless but for us all to give a chuckle at the historical irony.

And yet I really enjoyed the book despite the fact that I’m picking it apart. I felt connected to Clara, if less so than to anybody else in the story, and I cared about what was happening to her. I wanted to find out what would happen next. So what else is important?

#29: The Lock Artist, by Steve Hamilton

Begun: 4/11/2011
Finished: 4/19/2011
Format: Hardcover (library)
Rating: 4/5

I’m normally not much of a genre reader, i.e. mystery/romance/sci-fi.  I like nonfiction or lit/contemp fiction for the most part.  But if a genre novel comes highly recommended and seems a bit outside-the-box of the usual potboiler format, I’ll gladly give it a go.  This one came recommended as just that, and I’m glad I read it, because it was quite good.

A young boy is traumatized by a Mysterious Event which leaves him mute, and he discovers a near-supernatural talent for picking locks.  A chance misdeed involving a football-rivalry prank leads him through a series of unfortunate but inexorable non-choices to a life as a criminal safecracker, beholden to a mysterious mastermind.  The story is told somewhat confusingly in two sets of nested flashbacks from the present day, where Michael is serving a ten-year prison sentence.  He is flashing back to the events that landed him in prison at age eighteen, and to the events of one year previous that led to his involvement in criminal activities in the first place.  Needless to say there’s a girl, and eventually the circumstances of his Mysterious Event are revealed (and they don’t disappoint, as so many MEs often do, in that they are definitely horrific and also lead believably both to his muteness and his safecracking ability).

Michael is an appealing narrator, acknowledge his culpability in having become embroiled in this life while at the same time showing us that it would have been damn near impossible to make different choices.  His ladylove is more a cardboard cutout, disappointingly.  The more interesting characters, namely a gang of high-end thieves he lands in with in California (and who sort of remind me of the cast of the TV show “Leverage”) don’t get as much screen time or development as I would have liked, and the climax of that storyline is somewhat…well, anticlimactic.  I felt vaguely as if some aspects of the arcs were left unresolved, but all the same it was a good read, tolerably well written (by which  mean I didn’t notice the writing and was never jerked out of the story by it).

#28: The Devil’s Gentleman, by Harold Schechter

Begun: 4/02/2011
Finished: 4/11/2011
Format: Hardcover (library)
Rating: 4/5

It is sometimes interesting to read two similar books at one time.  I’ve been doing that for a week or so, although the other book is my lunchtime reading so I’m making far slower progress on it.  Both are true-crime books about murders that took place in the last few years of the 19th century.  This one is about Roland Molineux, who lent his name to an often-cited legal statute familiar to viewers of Law & Order (it has to do with the inadmissability of prior bad acts that aren’t part of the indictment before the court) and was tried in 1899 for several poisonings.  The other is The Killer of Little Shepherds, which is about the notorious  French serial killer Vacher, who was killing at almost the exact same time in the French countryside.  That book is about the birth of modern forensic science, but this one is more about society’s reaction to sensationalized criminality.  In essence, it’s about the birth of tabloid journalism and the genesis of what we now accept as the standard conflation of news, information and entertainment.  Schechter asserts that this was the real beginning of the twentieth century, and after reading the book, I find myself agreeing.

Schecter is a well-known writer to aficionados of true crime, and he’s taken his game up a peg with this well-researched and well-written history.  He has a knack of giving a great deal of interest to the biographical details of the key players, building up the crime itself, and setting the stage of the events of the time.  He doesn’t lapse into New Journalism Capote-esque fictionalization, nor does he do much editorializing.  In fact Molineux’s guilt or innocence is never clearly established, and Schechter doesn’t take a position.  The book was very interesting, especially to watch the interplay between the press, the popular opinion, and the actual investigators.  Molineux’s father was a venerated Civil War hero.  His wife was an ambitious socialite.  The world of journalism was changing with both Pulitzer and Hearst’s papers trying to out-yellow each other with sensationalist reporting.  The whole thing was hopelessly partial and ridiculously biased.  Say what you will about our legal system, at least it’s no longer acceptable to use blanket insinuations about men who are possibly gay killing in a “women’s fashion” like poison to bolster one’s defense strategy.

A very accessible and interesting book and a good start for newbies of true crime who don’t want to delve right into the most gruesome books about serial killers. And the book is just as much of interest to those interested in journalism history or legal history.

#27: The Devil’s Candy, by Julie Salamon

Begun: 3/29/2011
Finished: 4/05/2011
Format: Kindle
Rating: 4/5

I read Bonfire of the Vanities so that I could read this book, an account of the making of the big-budget, star-studded film adaptation, which became one of the most legendary flops in film history.  You wouldn’t have to have read the book to enjoy this account but I’d think you would at least have to have seen the film (which I have not, incidentally).  That being said, I felt like I got a lot more out of the book having read Wolfe’s book, and knowing what its message and tone was in comparison to how the film was made.

Author Salamon sat in during the entire production of the film.  Of course at the time, she and director Brian De Palma, who approved her journalistic presence, were unaware of the disaster the film would turn out to be, so Salamon would have had no idea that she’d be chronicling a symbol of Hollywood hucksterism.  Sometimes the universe just hands you a big juicy plum for no particular reason.

Salamon’s account of the filming is precise and detailed, even a tad dry at times, but she admirably sticks to what she witnessed and learned through interviews.  She doesn’t speculate or traffic in gossip, presenting the actors and Hollywood power types as she experienced them.  The book was a fast read and very interesting, as well as illuminating of the frustrating process of trying to make a good film when every single thing is piecemeal.  It’s like the death by a thousand cuts, or like being pecked to death by ducks.  I would have appreciated some more material at the end and some analysis of why the film failed so badly.  There is some, of course, but the end felt a tad rushed.

#24: Bonfire of the Vanities, by Tom Wolfe

Begun: 2/25/2011
Finished: 3/29/2011
Format: Kindle
Rating: 4/5

Holy shit.  I have finally finished this book.  I didn’t really appreciate how long it was when I started it.  That’s another benefit of Kindles – you can’t be intimidated or put off by the sheer size and heft of a really long novel.  They all feel the same when they’re ebooks.  According to Amazon the hardcover edition of this tome is 659 pages.  My Kindle for PC app put it at 688.  By any reckoning it’s a long-ass book.

It’s also one of Those Books.  The books that are cultural touchstones, the books that make a big splash outside the literary world, the books that everyone buys and then doesn’t read (although many do read it, I’m sure) because it’s part of the zeitgeist.  Published in 1988, it intentionally captured the dying throes of the excesses of the 1980s, the New Gilded Age, through the pen of one of the sharpest-tongued new journalists, Tom Wolfe.  This was his first work of fiction.  Let it never be said that the man doesn’t aim high.

Ostensibly the story of Sherman McCoy, a Wall Street bond broker who is involved in a hit-and-run in the Bronx while out with his mistress, an incident that later lands a young black man in a coma and Sherman in court while the entire city erupts in racial and class divisiveness, the book is really about phoniness.  Sherman isn’t as rich as he seems, his mistress isn’t as calculating as she seems, Sherman’s wife isn’t as innocent as she seems, and everybody is to some degree unsympathetic.  This book is also to a large extent about men, particularly men in the eighties, and their need – one might say obsession – with being gladiators.  With having women and society look on them with awe, with being powerful, with being respected, with being Masters of the Universe.  Everyone from Sherman to Larry Kramer, the DA who tries his case, is more or less fixated on his own image and the haunting fear that someone, somewhere might have a bigger dick than they do.  Ironically the character who’s most removed from this gladiator passion play is Peter Fallow, the British journalist who first breaks the case open, and that’s because he’s more or less written himself off – is it a coincidence that he’s the character who ends up in the best situation by the end of the book?

The story and the people in it are steeped, stewed and thoroughly marinated in racial and class divisions.  Sherman’s world is all about class, Kramer’s is about race, Fallow’s is about intellect, and all three of them are in different ways prisoners of the worlds they inhabit.  Wolfe is unflinching about every character, about every situation.  We the readers know the truth about Sherman’s accident from the start but even we start to doubt it even as we watch events unfold to swallow up all of Sherman’s thin veneer of stability.

The book starts slow, with many different threads of story and character, each of them getting a really thorough introduction before things start picking up about halfway through.  Wolfe’s machine-gun style of writing (dear God, the ellipses, I thought I was bad about ellipse abuse) is sometimes grating but ultimately fits the subject matter.  He gets inside each character’s head, resorting to some dizzying head-hopping points-of-view by the end of the book, so we’re spared nobody’s least flattering thoughts.

It’s a hell of a book.  Not what I’d call a pleasant read, but one I ultimately enjoyed for purely voyeuristic reasons.

#20: Titanic’s Last Secrets, by Brad Matsen

Begun: 3/20/2011
Finished: 3/20/2011
Format: Hardcover
Rating: 4/5

I’m a bit of a Titanic buff.  I’ve read tons of books about it.  It all started in the 8th grade when my advanced English class did a unit about it for no reason I can discern.  But I was fascinated, we all were, and that was just about the time that the wreck was discovered by Robert Ballard.  And ever since, the Titaniacs (as they’re apparently called), both amateur and professional, have been arguing over how the ship broke up, what sunk it, why did it sink so fast, yadda yadda.  When That Movie came out in 1997, Cameron’s depiction of the sinking (a high-angle break, big drama) was reflective of the best theory of the time.  But that theory’s been cast into some doubt, largely because of the work described in this book which was done by the two wreck divers whose previous exploits were published in the Shadow Divers books and chronicled on TV on “Deep Sea Detectives.”

Their theory is that weaknesses in the hull caused by newly-designed expansion joints made the ship break in two at a much lower angle than the 45 degrees we tend to think of, as little as 11 degrees, which means the sinking would have occurred extremely fast when the ship was still pretty close to horizontal.  Huge pieces of the bottom of the ship (which the divers found among the wreckage) ripped away and the whole thing flooded like gangbusters, taking most people on board by surprise.  It’s a much more horrible situation than a high-angle break, wherein everyone could see what was happening.

The book is surprisingly heavy on history, but it’s a section of the ship’s history one doesn’t often see chronicled: its building and the politics around it, and the men who made it possible.  I was fascinated by this although not everybody would be.  I’d say only 40% of the book was about the current work and the dives to the wreck, and then the investigation.  Most of it was history.  Relatively little time is spent on the Titanic’s voyage and sinking (we know this ground pretty well already).

I love a book I can read in a day.  I love it when I have a day that I can just devote to reading.  Not terribly common these days.  So thanks for the quick, interesting read, guys.

Book #17: When She Was Good, by Philip Roth

Begun: 2/16/2011
Finished: 3/9/2011
Format: Paperback
Rating: 4/5

There’s an old metaphor about frogs and boiling water.  The saying goes that if you toss a frog into boiling water, it’ll jump right back out, but if you put a frog into cold water and gradually heat it up, the frog will let itself be boiled alive because it doesn’t realize what’s happening until it’s too late. Well, I am that frog, and this book was the water.

In a post about a week ago I said that this book wasn’t particularly compelling and that I was just getting through it to make it to Portnoy’s Complaint.  And it starts out pretty innocuously.  A girl named Lucy Nelson hates her alcoholic father, who can’t seem to be responsible, resents her mother for staying with him, and passes judgment on everyone around her including her beloved grandfather and grandmother, at whose house she and her parents live.  The situation worsens as Lucy grows up, is impregnated by and marries Roy Brassart, and embarks on family life.

Lucy is for certain self-righteous all along, but as the story goes on and her personality becomes more and more polarized, I started to think damn, you cannot win with this woman.  Her husband is batted around in the eddies of her anger and moral outrage.  No one is safe from her judgment, and anyone who displeases her is unceremoniously cut off and declared an evil person.  It isn’t until the final twenty or so explosive pages that we see how deranged Lucy has truly become.

Roth has been accused many times of misogyny.  I don’t like to assign agendas to authors, I’d prefer for them just to show the characters they’re showing in all their flawed, crazy glory, but it bears mentioning that Lucy is Roth’s only female protagonist in thirty-nine novels, and his female characters rarely come off very well.  Then again, not many of the male characters come off very well, either.