On “An Education” by Lynn Barber

Image result for an education bookYes–I’m writing this today because of Lone Scherfig’s lovely film. I saw it twice without knowing anything about the source material, or that Nick Hornby wrote the screenplay. Alas, it took a few more viewings before I googled the title and found that Hornby adapted his screenplay from a memoir of the same name by the English journalist, Lynn Barber.

Barber, who began her career at Penthouse magazine, went on to write for The Sunday Express, The Independent, and The Observer, with bylines in institutions such as Vanity Fair, The Sunday Times, and The Daily Telegraph. In addition to her memoir, Barber has published two books of interviews titled Mostly Men and Demon Barber (derived from her nickname as a deadly interviewer), a sex book titled How to Improve Your Man in Bed, and, interestingly, a survey of Victorian natural history writers titled The Heydey of Natural History–an ambitious feat, she admits in the memoir; one that took four years and extensive research to complete.

An Education is a slim volume that manages to span the length of Barber’s life via the medium of anecdotal vignettes. Each chapter highlights an important part of the author’s life, from her earliest years to her time at Oxford and Penthouse. We meet a dizzying array of notable figures who Barber interviewed over the course of her career, ranging from her first boss, Bob Guccione to Nick Nolte and scores of others.

Most of her stories are thoroughly entertaining and serve to highlight a golden era of journalism in which the boundaries of form were pushed beyond what had been seen and heard from previous generations. Barber certainly made a name for herself as a no-holds-barred sort of interviewer who pulled no punches when it came to getting to the heart of a narrative or profile.

She is unsentimental to the extreme. Nothing obfuscates her recollection of the past, and she is fairly open about her own shortcomings as a writer, a wife, a daughter, and a mother. For the greater portion of the memoir, such bluntness serves Barber well. But in the moments when she attempts to convey strong emotion–such as the events leading up to her husband’s death–she falters a bit. The strength of her plain dealing earlier in the book needs a softer hand towards the end, and I’m not sure she has the capacity to carry it off.

Fans of the Scherfig film will likely enjoy the memoir as a whole, but they might be surprised, as I was, to find that the source material on which the movie is based comes from just one chapter of the book. Silly me–I thought the entire memoir would be devoted to the Lynn (Jenny)/Simon (David) affair. Fortunately, the best details of the film are present in the memoir, and I found it amusing to see how they were adapted. But the complex relationship that develops between Barber and her parents is not something I think is properly conveyed.

Other than that, it’s a highly readable, funny and quick read for those looking for some light summer reading.

A House of Mirrors: On Jane Delury’s ‘The Balcony’

balconyThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Jane Delury‘s debut collection of short stories is a heady, atmospheric exploration of the comings and goings of a manor house in the French countryside. Set in the fictional town of Benneville, The Balcony weaves together the lives of those connected to the fabled Lèger mansion and its spectral grounds. Delury’s stories are not ghost stories, but they concern the lives of ghosts. From the Belle Époque to the present day, those who have touched the house remain tied to it in often inexplicable ways.

Each of the stories in this collection moves back and forth through time, but are placed in such a way that the reader discovers new information as they read; threads fall into place connecting people and places from one tale to the next. Some of the events that take place in Benneville and the mansion connect to larger tragedies–World War II and the Holocaust, the stigma of unwed motherhood, a sunken oil tanker in the Bay of Biscay.

But Delury’s finest exhibitions of craft exist in her depiction of the small tragedies within that broad scope: The lady of the house, once renowned for her sensuality and beauty, jumps from her balcony, making one last show for the young worker who is enamored with her; the sidelong glances that almost lead to affairs; the playing ground of young lovers.

Delury makes an admirable attempt to string the details of each story into a sustainable whole, and while many of The Balcony’s moments are beautifully done, the finished product doesn’t live up to the book’s ambitions.

The most important elements of the short story rely on what isn’t said — not so much a painting as a piece of wood whittled down to its most essential parts. Thematically, the book is cohesive: often dark in tone, its characters usually out of place or maladjusted in some way. Everyone has one foot firmly stuck in Benneville, and I think this conceit is what puts me off as a reader. I kicked this year off by reading Maryse Meijer‘s Heartbreaker, and it ultimately spoiled me on the short story front. Each story in that collection was fundamentally different from the next, but the sweeping darkness and yearning of the work as a whole made it completely unforgettable.

Delury relies much too heavily on the manor house and Benneville as connective tissue. There are hints of the fantastic, as in “Eclipse” when the story of a character’s suicide ends with her husband wandering the manor’s grounds during a solar eclipse. But the imagery that accompanies it does little to suit the potential richness of such a plot device, a recurring pitfall. She writes,

He called out again for his wife, louder this time, and continued through the courtyard, past the topiary, toward the rose garden. Something sharp grazed his heel. He cursed but didn’t stop. Behind the pergola, a wall of bushes grew at his side, barbed and shapeless, as if they had never been trimmed.

That is how “Eclipse” ends. This type of heavy-handed metaphor appears fairly frequently, but Delury sprinkles enough pretty lines throughout the book that the reader can sometimes forget that the prose too often plods along. The stories would have come across better had the writing been sharper across the board, but I suspect this is a matter of personal preference. I, for one, need good sentences to go along with my broody characters and French manor houses.

A collection of short stories that has the type of conceit that The Balcony does should delve more deeply into the unknown, touching on more than the varying shapes of tragedy. Delury hints at the unknown, occasionally building the sinister into the details of the house and its grounds, but it isn’t enough to mark the book as a worthwhile achievement. Quite simply, I wanted more.

All in all, reading The Balcony was an okay experience. I don’t believe it accomplishes what it sets out to do, but it is generally entertaining and quick to read. It will also help you brush up on your elementary school French, which could be a win for those of us who actually speak a lick of it. A.k.a., not me.

 

On “The Last Black Unicorn” by Tiffany Haddish

34974310__UY2113_SS2113_Anyone who’s seen the 2017 smash hit Girls Trip starring Regina Hall, Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Tiffany Haddish will know that it catapulted the latter comedian into stratospheric success. Her high-energy performance is unceasingly funny, and most viewers will say, with confidence, that she makes the movie.

I found out about her memoir, The Last Black Unicorn, when Trevor Noah interviewed her on the Daily Show. It’s a relatively quick read comprised of vignettes that chronicle aspects of Haddish’s youth and her connection with comedy. Obviously, her account of various mishaps in her past are extremely funny, but are often equally painful. I would have loved to see more detail in some of her earlier memories, which would have served to flesh out the stories a bit more. Instead, most of them rely heavily on the distinct cadence of her voice. It does not always translate well to the page, and several passages jumped from one idea to the next with little to no transition.

Stylistic failings aside, the book is worth reading for no other reason than the reader’s exposure to Haddish’s indefatigable spirit. Despite the atrocities of her younger years, The Last Black Unicorn radiates positivity and vibrancy, and Haddish is consistently smart, observant, and hysterical.

I’ve heard the audio book is the best way to experience the book because hearing her tell the stories jives perfectly with her stand-up chops.

All in all it was a solid choice for my lazy weekend at home (which is every weekend…who am I kidding?)… 3/5 stars.

On “The Grandmothers” by Doris Lessing

Even though I have a mountainous stack of library books to get through before I accrue enough fines to bankrupt the Queen of England, I often take great pleasure in reading random short stories or novellas just to change things up. I had not read any of Doris Lessing’s work prior to “The Grandmothers,” and I had no intention of doing so at present…But the version of this short story that I found at my library–published as “Adore” for the 2013 film adaptation–had an image on its cover of gorgeous looking people lying on a wooden platform, floating on a clear, blue body of water.

In the midst of winter, it seemed perfect.

My lack of familiarity with Lessing’s style of writing hindered my enjoyment at the beginning. Her narrative structure took some getting used to, but I really enjoyed the way she transitioned between perspectives throughout the piece. After about 30 pages or so, the mark of her greatness began to reveal itself in the way she was able to navigate several fully formed characters and build a gorgeous setting–something that is really a character in its own right–in just over 100 pages.

The naturalness of her four protagonists–Lil, Roz, Tom, and Ian–rolls off the page in waves. I almost went into a trance reading about their adventures in the sea and sun…And there’s this indelible, deliciously intoxicating image of the boys licking dried sea salt off of their mothers’ skins as children that has stayed with me for days now.

I found there was nothing but beauty in the narrative. The taboo of two older women sleeping with each other’s sons isn’t something I needed to grapple with in order to digest the story Lessing was trying to tell. Ultimately, “The Grandmothers” is seductive, hypnotizing, and deftly executed. If you’re like me and need a break from your regularly scheduled reading, it’s a beautiful distraction.

On “Summer Crossing” by Truman Capote

Summer_Crossing_SmallMy relationship with Truman Capote and his work has always been harried. There is no doubt that he is one of America’s finest writers; Other Voices, Other Rooms and the delightful Breakfast at Tiffany’s remain staples of our canon. Even the hotly contested In Cold Blood is considered a masterpiece of the “creative non-fiction” genre. But, as Melanie Benjamin explored in her novel The Swans of Fifth Avenue, Capote had a nasty tendency toward exploitation and excess. The infamous “La Cote Basque 1965” is enough to explain just how far he would go for fame and attention if he felt like he was falling into obscurity.

The 2005 Bennett Miller film, Capote, explores the personal tumult the author went through while writing In Cold Blood. It shows a man who tells his subjects what they want to hear in order to get information at the great cost of his self-respect and what would be a huge blow to his friendship with Nelle Harper Lee. The film pays especial attention to Capote’s relationship with Perry Smith, which was deeply empathetic. In one scene, he tells Nelle Lee, “It’s as if Perry and I grew up in the same house. And one day he stood up and went out the back door, while I went out the front.”

Later on, he turns to Nelle again for reassurance after Smith and Hickock are hanged. He asks, “And there wasn’t anything I could have done to save them.” She responds, “Maybe not. But the fact is, you didn’t want to.”

This is who Truman Capote is in my mind–the man who does whatever he must for the sake of a story–for good or evil. He left behind masterpieces but died a lonely, creatively-stunted alcoholic. A bleak ending for the once shiny, gregarious Southern author.

Like a moth attracted to flame, I picked up Truman Capote’s unpublished first novel, Summer Crossing in the hopes of getting a glimpse into the author’s origins. Before he sold his soul for fame and notoriety. The manuscript–believed to have been thrown away–was rescued by one of Capote’s former landlords and eventually sold at auction. The slim text, which was published by Random House in 2005, is a fascinating display of the young Truman Capote’s keen instincts.

The story concerns Grady O’Neil–the bohemian daughter of a wealthy Manhattan family who decides to stay home while her parents go on a “summer crossing” to Europe. It seems that she has found love with a 23-year-old Jewish man from Brooklyn named Clyde Manzer–a condition of secrecy for both parties.

Capote builds their narrative from a series of psychologically adroit sketches: Grady making breakfast for Clyde, burning waffles in the process; the push and pull relationship she has with her childhood best friend, Peter Boyd, who has fallen in love with her; the oppressive, sizzling heat of Manhattan at night–the only time Capote’s characters will safely venture out.

So many of these interactions are marked by Capote’s trademark wit and the dissection of human experience that he wields in his later work. The observations are there even if his sentences show the uncertainty with which he lays out the story. Reading his passages can be exhausting, to the point where I had to imagine myself reading out loud to make sense of some of his more circuitous descriptions. I am happy to note that, in his later work, Capote dropped his incessant use of semi-colons.

The only peculiar element to this story is its abrupt ending. Unlike his other pieces of fiction, Summer Crossing pokes at the surface of dread until the novel’s very last paragraph at which time he plunges his characters right into it. It seems, in that moment, that something in Grady snaps. She is pregnant with Clyde’s child, and they have eloped. What should he a happy time is marred by apprehension and distrust. They go for what would be a normal night out until a moment of tension between Clyde and Peter unnerves her to the point where she speeds her Buick along the Queensboro Bridge with the intention of going off the edge and killing everyone.

Clyde’s friend Gump says something along the lines of, “Slow down! You’ll kill us all.” To which she replies, “I know.”

Summer Crossing could be a commentary on any number of things: the unbridgeable gap between classes; the gentle malaise of the bohemian elite; or, the Great Gatsby-like trope of summer addling the minds of those who have everything to lose.

Or–it could be none of those things.

In my estimation, Capote used this story as an exercise, flexing his muscles for future narratives. The paint strokes of Summer Crossing are apparent in his later work, showing the author as someone who is constantly hyper-aware of nuance in behavior and speech.

For Capote fans, this novel is well worth a read. At a scant 130 pages, readers can digest the story in a matter of hours, though I would recommend reading with care. Capote is a tricky one when it comes to building those pristine sentences of his. One misstep and you could fall down the rabbit hole.

“Manhattans and Murder” : My Summer’s Guilty Pleasure

Image result for manhattans and murderAs I mentioned in my review of Gin and Daggers, I am a devoted Murder, She Wrote fan due to years of watching the show with my mother. Donald Bain’s light-hearted “cozy mysteries,” as I like to call them, are perfect for laid back summer nights when I need a reprieve from heavier texts I’m working through. Right now, that happens to be Heather Ann Thompson’s comprehensive examination of the Attica Prison uprising of 1971, Blood in the Water–an absolute must read for anyone interested in prison reform (or history in general). It’s exceptionally well done.

When I was feeling overwhelmed by the content of that book, I would switch gears and crack open Bain’s second novel in the Murder, She Wrote series, Manhattans and Murder. Like it’s predecessor, it is just as readable and just as chock full of Jessica Fletcher charm.

Though I preferred Jessica’s sleuthing around Old London Town, her time spent in New York City turned out to be just as fun. Bain is fantastic at describing her meals. I love that. Whenever Jessica eats fancy meals and retreats into her thoughts, I relax. It’s a strange phenomenon, but one I relish nonetheless.

While I do think Bain has firm grasp on Jessica’s overall mannerisms and demeanor, his characterization of her can seem a little bit off at times. Sometimes it’s in her speech, or the way she reacts to events that transpire in the novel…But I have no doubt those kinks will get ironed out at the series progresses.

Next up on the guilty pleasure tour is…drum roll please…Rum and Razors! Jessica is faced with yet another murder when her trip to the Caribbean goes awry. Dun dun dun.

On “Gin & Daggers” by Jessica Fletcher and Donald Bain

Image result for gin & daggersOkay, so my foray into the never ending Murder, She Wrote series of novels co-authored by “Jessica Fletcher” and Donald Bain can be attributed to a steady diet of the hit 1980s television show starring Angela Lansbury. It continues to be my mother’s favorite show. Not just because Jessica was such a snappy dresser, and smart as a whip, of course. But also because Lansbury bears uncanny resemblance to my grandmother.

Our mutual television obsession turned into a budding literary obsession on my part. Because I nearly always feel obligated to get myself into as many book series as possible, I immediately picked up Gin & Daggers from the library when I found out there was a such a series based on the show.

It was so worth it. Gin & Daggers is a delight and the perfect way to pass time if you’re a fan of the show. Donald Bain does an admirable job transferring Jessica Fletcher into a character in a novel. For the most part, her dialogue, especially her responses to people. I can here the distinct moral rightness of the Lansbury brogue.

The first novel in the series concerns the murder of Jessica’s good friend and world famous mystery writer, Marjorie Ainsworth. When the suspicion falls on Jessica, she must explore the motives of the cast of characters present at Marjorie’s estate that night to clear her name.

Her quest for the real killer takes her all over London, with plenty of cozy stops at pubs to eat fine meals and drink port. It’s delightful. And it made me homesick to that beautiful city and its prickly people.

The bottom line here is, if you’re a fan of Murder, She Wrote, you’ll love these books. Seen all twelve seasons more than once? Try reading one of twenty-ish (?) novels written by Bain. Time well spent, my friends.