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REVIEWING

RED NOW AND LATERS

By Marcus J. Guillory

Published by Atria Books | 2013 | 338 pages

Reviewed by Robert Fleming

marcus j guillory

Marcus Guillory’s exceptional debut novel, Red Now And Laters, resembles the precious horn riffs of the great Creole jazz saxophonist Sidney Bechet in its rich, improvised language and cultural themes. As a native of Louisiana, the former entertainment attorney-musician now lives in Los Angeles, using most of the ingredients of well-lived legacy in its narrative, including zydeco, horse racing and rodeo, hoodoo, the legal world, and higher education.

With a penetrating eye on the complexity and complications of the Creole-speaking, heritage-proud Boudreaux clan, now thriving in the black neighborhood of South Park, Houston, Guillory provides his readers with a fictional gift in Ti’ John, aka John Paul Boudreaux, as the narrator for the sometimes comic, often disturbing, but always entertaining antics of his bloodline.

The product of a Hoodoo traditionalist father and a devout Catholic mother, he knows he has the power, an uncommon skill of spiritual healing, to make things whole, to transform disease to wholesome health.

Ti’ John’s mother, Patrice Boudreaux, is not only “a cautious woman,” but her protective manner tries to shield her rebellious boy away from the bad guys. She’s one of Guillory’s prime characters, a woman battling for her soul against sin and lust while trying to remain faithful to the saints.

The boy’s moral conflicts reflect her strict, religious dogma and his father’s love of the outlaw life, including horses, dice, and good time gals. Everywhere you look, there are memorable sentences, fragments, and phrases, like this one: “She wanted to be closer to God, which is understandable considering she was probably fucking Satan.” 

On the other hand, John Frenchy’ father towers over the book as a hell-raising black rodeo star, dabbler in Creole healing arts, rambling womanizer, with a knack for the lasso, bullwhip, pistol, knives, and spit. Ti’ John worshipped him. He looked up to his iconic Papa for life lessons in the rough-and-touch science of manhood and masculinity. Notable are the various scenes of the black rodeo, the cowboys, and the tense battles between man and beast.

Like any one of the black communities under severe financial and mental siege, Guillory paints the customary portrait of his citizens at a crisis point. “People were now more restless,” he writes with a poetic flourish. “Murmurs and prayers gently recited in the daylight became loud, exacerbated curses and fevered threats in the evening’s shadow. Gunshots rang out sporadically. Sirens howled, echoing off the black water into the purple sky. Night had arrived. And niggas act up at night.”  This grim scenario emerges in most of the embattled neighborhoods after the sunset.

The issue of time is a fluid matter for Guillory. Wielding a crafty pen and descriptive vignettes, the author chronicles the bloodline of the Boudreaux family through the combative Reconstruction era of the 1870s, through the harsh Jim Crow years, to the reactionary Reagan period of the 1980s. His use of significant historic, political, and cultural detail is distinctive, capturing the highlights of the clan struggling to make productive lives for themselves and their offspring.

When Guillory blends family drama and the supernatural, the novel takes flight, entering the natural rhythms of time and place like the aforementioned Bechet’s 1924 anthem, “Texas Moaner Blues,” with the trumpet titan Satchmo, or the powerful 1940 ditty, “Dear Old Southland.” Its collective clout in its depiction of myth and magic is akin to folklorist Zora Neale Hurston’s impressive Mules And Men (1935) and Tell My Horse (1938), along with Henry Dumas’ dazzling collections of short fiction, Ark of Bones (1974) and Rope of Wind (1979).

Also, the wide range of characters, both common and uncommon, move through the pages in time in a refreshing manner, human snapshots of long- ago moments or current one, approachable and familiar. At the center of this tapestry is Ti’ John, the one quiet yet reasonable voice, who anchors this tangled, bold, exhilarating fictional world.

As a coming-of-age novel, the boy tries to disengage from the contrary worlds of his parents, and stumbles along his own route to maturity despite the usual challenges of puberty. He is afraid to grow up, but knows it is inevitable. He wants to be a man without the emotional and cultural baggage of the males, including his father and his grandfather. The quest for manhood and adulthood, along with the abundant Louisiana Creole ancestral tree, gives this family saga added heft and majesty that few of the books in this genre accomplish.

Guillory’s beautifully imagined novel, Red Now And Laters, named after a popular candy, makes family history quite riveting with all of its secrets, rumors, tragedies and triumphs. It’s haunting, inventive, wonderfully contrary, and as spellbound as a Creole hant.

 



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REVIEWING

The  Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature

By Ben Tarnoff

The Penguin Press | 2014 | 319 pages

Reviewed by Fred Beauford

author

The Freedom of Isolation

For me, the major lesson I learned once again from The Bohemians--and a lesson I have harped on many times in my writings in these pages-- is that the literature of the New World is a dynamic, ever growing narrative.

In addition, it is composed of multiple steams of thought pushed forward by independent minded thinkers.

One key to these thinkers being able to think for themselves was to get as far away as they can from all the clerics and nabobs that insisted that they think in a certain way; and mid 19th century San Francisco, the first real unban center on the Pacific coast, offered such a place.

San Francisco rose up because the San Francisco Bay offered one of the world’s greatest natural ports for shipping,

In addition, it also offered a gateway to Asia.

Still, in 1848, the same year that the Treaty of Guadalupe ended the Mexican-American War and gave California to the United States, San Francisco was hardly much of an unban center with a little over 40,000 citizens, with the overwhelming of them men.

All of this changed almost at the blink of an eye: Writes Tarnoff,” In 1848, the discovery of gold in California (which must have greatly pissed off the Mexicans because they had just lost such a treasure) had triggered a swift influx of people from all corners of the world. As the gateway to the gold rush, San Francisco went from a drowsy backwater to a booming global seaport. Mostly the newcomers were young men...they lived among the cultures of five continents…Cantonese stir-fry competing with German wurst, Chilean whores with Australians. On the far margin of the continent, they created a complex urban society virtually overnight.”

The Bohemians profiles in depth, and interesting, telling details, four writers, all in their twenties, that formed the core group of writers Tarnoff labels The Bohemians: Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) Bret Harte, Charles Warren Stoddard and Ina Coolbrith.

The most well known, Mark Twain, fearing being caught up the Civil War, arrived by stagecoach in San Francisco in 1863 after several years in Nevada. Bret Harte, who was already a fairly well known poet, when Twain arrived, first stepped foot in Oakland, California in 1854 as a seventeen-year-old from New York; the gay poet Stoddard, also a New Yorker, arrived in 1855, at age eleven.

The most interesting of the four for this reader, and the only woman, was Ina Coolbrith. And quite a story the melancholy poet had to tell. Her father died five months after she was born in 1841. Her uncle was none other than Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet. When Ina was three, Smith died in an Illinois jail, murdered by a mob.

In 1851 her stepfather led her family West, where at the foot of the Sierra Nevada, the family met Jim Beckwourth, a freed slave turned Crow chieftain. He had recently discovered a path through the Sierras—the famous Beckwourth Pass.

Writes Tarnoff, “She remembers him as ‘one of the most beautiful creatures that ever lived.’” who said to her and her sisters after he had led them in sight of the other side, “Here is California, little girls, here is your kingdom.”

The family settled in Los Angeles, where she found local fame as a poet. But grief continued to follow her, including giving birth to a child that died, and a deranged and jealous husband who tried to kill her and her mother, saved only after her stepfather shot him in the hand as he was attacking them.

Notes Tarnoff, “She loved Lord Byron, and her ordeal made her more Byronic: an outcast with a secret past:“‘

“Only twenty, and my world turned to dusk,” she wrote.

Like Byron, she went into exile, embarking to San Francisco in 1862.

A year later, when Mark Twain rode into town on his stagecoach from Virginia City, Nevada, this was not the San Francisco of the Gold Rush. Writes Tarnoff, “By the time Twain got there, San Francisco still roared. It was densely urban, yet unmistakably western; isolated yet cosmopolitan; crude yet cultured…Even as the gold rush waned, and the miners’ shanties became banks and restaurants and boutiques, the city didn’t slow to a more settle rhythm, Rather, it financed the opening of new frontiers—in Nevada, Idaho, and elsewhere—and leaped from one bonanza to the next.”

In other words, by the 1860s, San Francisco reigned over a flourishing economic empire.

What was more important for Twain, Harte, Stoddard and Coolbrith was that San Francisco also supported a thriving publishing cultural.

“California was always crawling with scribblers,” Tarnoff points out.

Harte, as the most recognized literary light in the city, led the way. As a columnist for the leading literary weekly on the Pacific coast, the Golden Era, he began calling himself “the Bohemian.”  By 1863, all four were writing for the Golden Era.

“Under the banner of Bohemia, these four writers competed, collaborated, traded counsel and criticism. Some remained friends their lives. Others became bitter enemies. What connected them was their contempt for custom, their restlessness with received wisdom. They belonged to Bohemia because they didn’t belong anywhere else,” Tarnoff writes.

As we well know, only Mark Twain received worldwide recognition and had a profound impact on American literature. Harte and Stoddard had limited success outside of San Francisco, with Harte flashing boldly on the larger national literary stage for a few minutes, but quickly fading.   No such national recognition happened to the haunted Coolbrith. She became a librarian in Oakland, but did find recognition late in life, as she became the first California poet laureate.

As she accepted her reward in San Francisco at the age of seventy-four, in 1915, she quietly said to the crowded auditorium:

“I feel that the honor extended me today is meant not so much because of any special merit of my own, as in memory of that wonderful group of early California writers with which it was my fortune to be affiliated, and of which I am the sole survivor.”

Nothing I could write could better sum up this book.  The Bohemians is an excellent American literary history lesson, well worth spending some time with.



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REVIEWING

No Book but the World

By Leah Hager Cohen

Riverhead Books | 2014 | 301 pages | $27.95

Reviewed by Janet Garber

author

Rousseau Revisited

Ava and her brother, Fred, grow up in upstate Freyburg, New York, on the grounds of what was once an esteemed “free” school run by their now aging father, Neel.  Taking Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the 18th century philosopher of the Enlightenment, as his guide, Neel fervently follows the prescription in Rousseau’s Emile, or On Education, “Let there be no book but the world.”

So up to second grade, Ava and her brother and her best friend, Kitty, are allowed to roam free through the woods without much of a formal educational agenda.  When she shows an interest, Ava, is taught how to read music by her mother, Neel’s common-law wife, June, to the consternation of her father who feels Ava should just be encouraged to play by ear and thump around on various musical instruments.

Ava and Kitty soon prevail on their parents to release them from home schooling into the waiting arms of the local school system.  There they thrive, especially Ava, who yearns for a life governed by fixity, rules, and conventions, even religion and is eager to escape the preachings and clinical observations of her somewhat sanctimonious father.

Facing greater odds at reintegrating into society, however, is Fred.  Disdaining labels for him such as “cognitively impaired,” or “autistic,” the parents keep Fred on the loose after he fails miserably at fitting in to the mainstream school. Since he has never been tested and the causes of his “differences” are never divulged, no one really knows what he is or is not capable of.  His speech is very impaired and often intelligible only to his sister; he throws frequent tantrums, banging on pots, trees, and the ground in patterns discernible only to him.  Is he endowed with normal intelligence?  No one knows or seeks to find out. The parents never question their decisions. Ava and Kitty include him in their games at times, but he seems to have no other peer contact.

Fast forward a few years: the parents are deceased. Ava has married Kitty’s brother and lost contact with Fred whom June palmed off on an scarcely known acquaintance, hoping Fred could earn a living doing manual labor for him.  Tragedy strikes: a young boy is discovered dead in the woods and Fred is implicated in his murder.  Ava vaguely remembers that there was one disquieting incident with another young boy years before – is Fred a danger?  Ava must decide on her responsibility toward Fred, even her guilt, and decide whether to take up her lifelong burden again of interpreting Fred to the rest of the world.

What is compelling in this story, beyond the story itself, is the question of responsibility.  How do we know what the consequences will be of our child rearing decisions?  Neel obviously believes he is doing the right thing in not stigmatizing his “different” child; his wife has doubts but acquiesces in the treatment of their son.  Could corrective treatment, therapy, medications have aided him in becoming a better functioning adult?  No one in the book consults him on what he wants, beyond roaming free in the woods.  Wasn’t there an obligation to do so?

So many parents today are struggling with decisions on how best to provide for their “special” children:  are these children being overmedicated, over sedated for conditions that are misdiagnosed, transitory or nonexistent?  How is one to know and how is one to have the courage to go against the prevailing wisdom and the prevailing experts?  Does Leah Hager Cohen answer this conundrum with her quote on a flyleaf preceding her novel:

I know everything.
Half of it I really know,
The rest I make up.
The rest I make up.

from Maria Irene Fornes’s Promenade

In No Book but the World, the consequences are tragic.  An unsupervised, unsocialized Fred has perhaps committed a grievous crime.  No one can interpret for him in this case and no one can ever really know what happened.  It’s an uncertainty and feeling of powerlessness that most of us are uncomfortable acknowledging. And when something goes wrong and decisions are seen to be faulty, who is to blame?

Cohen writes beautifully and succeeds in putting us squarely in the point of view of her main characters, Ava, Kitty, Dennis and even Fred.  It is hard not to conclude the real culprit might be the father, Neel, who never seems to question his own theories and never stops to reflect on the inadvisability of using his own children as guinea pigs in a scientific experiment. Poor Fred has never gotten a chance to be taught alternate means of communication and remains an opaque, unknowable presence in the lives of even his closed family. 

Ava is scarred in her own way and seems to feel safe only on her own turf, married to a childhood friend, certainly an underachiever exercising a métier curiously similar to her mother’s - as a sing-along lady in local children’s libraries.  The reader ends up feeling sorry for all concerned and concluding that sometimes innate common sense needs to triumph over academic theory.    

       

Cohen is currently The Jenks Chair in Contemporary American Letters at the College of the Holy Cross and on the faculty of the Lesley University MFA Creative Writing program.  She has published both non-fiction and fiction and No Book but the World is her fifth novel.



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REVIEWING

FIVE CAME BACK: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War

By Mark Harris

Reviewed by M. J. Moore

author

A sea change has occurred in American life.  It is demographic.  It is chronological.  It is important.  

The Second World War is fast receding into the mists of history.  The veterans of WW II who are still alive are all close to age 90.  Or even older.  Do the math.  If a young vet was 20 when the war ended in 1945, he has to be going on 90 now.  And most veterans were closer to their mid-20s at war’s end.  

In a few short years, World War Two will seem as remote as the First World War (which was never memorialized and highlighted in our culture with anything like the perennial recapitulations of 1941-1945).  This is all the more reason to celebrate Mark Harris’ majestic new work of historical biography.  Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War is a vital, bracing, revelatory work of narrative nonfiction. 

Of course the book’s formidable title goes on to name the individuals alluded to via Five Came Back.  Those five were John Ford, George Stevens, John Huston, William Wyler, and Frank Capra.  

Each of those men was an established, middle-aged, highly regarded film director in Hollywood when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. 

Sad but true: Although the war began in 1939 and immense suffering was underway long before December 7, 1941, the fact is that for most Americans the war didn’t really commence until after the debacle at Pearl Harbor led to FDR’s declaration of war against Japan.  Within the same week, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy declared war on the USA as a show of solidarity with their Axis ally Japan.  And, finally, we were in it all the way. 

Amazingly, for deeply personal varied reasons, each of the five famous movie directors whose wartime odysseys are recounted and assessed in this superb volume enlisted when age, or high-level connections would have made it a cinch to avoid service.  But just as actor Clark Gable at age 41 and bandleader Glenn Miller at age 38 traded their tuxes for khaki, so too did this quintet of Hollywood mavericks.

None of these five men had a personal agenda.  Their enlistments were examples of public service in its authentic sense, because they all understood that their skills as filmmakers were being recruited most of all.  After years of acrimonious relations between Washington, D.C. and Hollywood (long before the blacklists of the 1950s or the Hollywood Ten scandal of the late 1940s, there were toxic issues causing tension and mistrust between America’s seat of government and the Dream Factory on the West Coast), there was a period of wartime cooperation.   

From President Roosevelt on down, the consensus was that no other medium had the persuasive force and the artful power of motion pictures.  Thus it was imperative that seasoned filmmakers be able to create works that would serve as morale-boosting propaganda pieces, as well as informative cutting-edge cinematic works.  All five men delivered.  Big-time.

John Ford (most famous even now for his slew of major films starring John Wayne) was 46 when he joined the Navy three months before the attack on Pearl Harbor.  He was 50 when his service ended.  

Author Mark Harris does an excellent job of telling the tale of how Ford’s specially commissioned documentary (a brutally honest film called Sex Hygiene) visually stunned millions upon millions of men in uniform, with its close-ups of ravaged genitalia thanks to syphilis and gonorrhea.  Frontal nudity included.  Plus endless warnings about the dangers of unprotected sex; or, for that matter any sex in the midst of a worldwide war with desperation in all parts of the globe.  Soon thereafter, Ford’s documentary The Battle of Midway (from 1942) was the first movie to show bona-fide combat film footage to Americans back at home. 

Although Frank Capra is usually remembered as the man who created the seven-volume series of informational films collectively known as Why We Fight, he also helmed a documentary about the apex of the campaign in North Africa.  Capra’s Tunisian Victory won’t ever be as beloved as It’s a Wonderful Life, his postwar classic, but Harris makes a convincing case that the deeply psychological tone of It’s a Wonderful Life would never have emerged if not for Capra’s wartime crucible.

The same could be said for all five men.  Each one was affected—traumatized, even—by the mayhem, the violence, and the sheer brutal horrors witnessed.

None of them, however, was more exposed to the war’s insane extremities than George Stevens.  It was his fate to be in charge of a crack unit of top Signal Corps personnel, and their ultimate task was to film the liberated concentration camps at Nordhausen and Dachau.  Because of George Stevens, who instinctively understood that black-and-white films would make it that much easier for evidence of the camps to be consigned to history’s dustbin, we have color films documenting the ineffable evil revealed at Dachau.  It was a shattering experience for the director and his men.

“Stevens felt bound to use his camera to make the unspeakable manifest, even as he felt nothing but endless despair,” Mark Harris eloquently writes.  And Harris is just as eloquent about John Huston’s work in Italy, where The Battle of San Pietro proved to be Huston’s trailblazing documentary.  Similarly, he is equally expressive when telling the story behind the creation of The Memphis Belle by William Wyler.

All five of the directors whose wartime stories flesh out this powerful book went on to create lasting, innovative movies after the war.  But the great value of this new work is that their wartime films receive a respectful, necessary, fresh evaluation.  Now more than ever, we need this chronicle.


(M. J. Moore is a frequent contributor to the Neworld Review.)



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REVIEWING

The Goldfinch

By Donna Tartt

Little, Brown and Company | 2014

Reviewed by

author

Desperate for something good to read I downloaded Donna Tartt’s new novel, The Goldfinch, onto my Kindle. I had been feeling out-of-sorts, aggravated by the slings of my own private, outrageous fortune and all the technical problems that seem to accompany modern times. When I read the first few paragraphs, I sighed a sigh of relief—ahhh! To be in the hands of someone who knows how to write! I was in love; I had before me an interesting, well-told story…

Before I lived in New York I loved books set there, but after having lived there for over twenty years and now living elsewhere, I still love books set in New York, especially those that describe neighborhoods with which I’m familiar:

“Along Park Avenue, ranks of red tulips stood at attention as we sped by. Bollywood pop—turned down to a low, almost subliminal whine [the music, that is, inside the cab that Theo and his mother are riding in on their way to the Metropolitan Art Museum where the horrible incident that propels the story occurs]—spiraled and sparkled hypnotically, just at the threshold of my hearing. The leaves were just coming out on the trees. Delivery boys from D’Agostino’s and Gristede’s pushed carts laden with groceries; harried executive women in heels plunged down the sidewalks, dragging reluctant kindergartners behind them; a uniformed worker swept debris from the gutter into a dustpan on a stick; lawyers and stockbrokers held their palms out and knit their brows as they looked up at the sky…”

To be in the hands of a good writer is sublime. I know fewer pleasures more enjoyable than to read a writer whose craft is such that the text comes alive with a vibrancy that is enticing.

At the MET a terrorist bomb detonates. It kills Theo’s beloved mother and an elderly man, whose death he witnesses. Before the man dies, he gives Theo a large garnet ring and an address of where to take it.  He also urges Theo to take a certain painting that has fallen from the walls—a painting of goldfinch chained to its perch, painted by one C. Fabritius in Amsterdam in 1654.  There is a girl with him, who, like Theo, survives the explosion. This is Pippa, who, in an instant, becomes the love of his life.

The subject of The Goldfinch is loss—Theo misses his mother horribly. Ms. Tartt writes convincingly about the experience one undergoes when he loses the person he loves most—the disbelief, the desire to stop living oneself, the lack of understanding by others, the dread, and the slow, painful healing that eventually takes place.

At first Theo stays with the Barbours, who live on Park Avenue and whose son Andy is his friend. When he goes to the address in the Village to return the ring he meets Hobi, Welty’s partner (Welty is the man who died at the MET) in their furniture repair and antique business. Hobi is a big, gentle giant of a man who is guileless and so expert at his craft that most cannot tell his work from original antiques.

Then Theo’s dad and his girlfriend, Xandra, show up and take him to Las Vegas, where they live way out in the desert. At school Theo meets Boris, a Russian émigré, who is utterly irrepressible. (Ms. Tartt is a master in describing friendship.) Theo and Boris become inseparable, until Boris takes up with a girlfriend—they drink, take a copious amount of all kinds of drugs, and engage in petty thievery. At one point Boris says, “None of us ever finds enough kindness in the world, do we?”

So drawn was I into this story that I preferred its company to talking with friends. When Theo’s dad is killed in a traffic accident, probably a suicide, as he had accumulated such a gambling debt that debtors were coming to the house with baseball bats, even though he wasn’t an admirable character, I felt sad, the way one still feels sad when a relative one doesn’t especially like dies.

My love of Theo induced me to overlook his faults. When he made a great deal of money dishonestly, by selling fake antiques, even after he murders, still I loved him. He is, after all, the depressed narrator of our story. After Theo’s dad’s death, rather than leave his fate to the vicissitudes of the state, he leaves on the Greyhound bus and makes his way back to New York. He takes Xandra’s neglected dog, Popper, with him, smuggled him  into a luggage bag:

“Then—only an hour or two along—I woke, with the bus stopped, to find Popper sitting quietly with the tip of his nose poking out of the bag and a middle aged black lady with bright pink lipstick standing over me, thundering: ‘You can’t have that dog on the bus.’

“I stared at her, disoriented. Then, much to my horror, I realized he was no random passenger but the driver herself, in cap and uniform.

“’Do you hear what I said?’ she repeated, with an aggressive side-to-side head tic. She was wide as a prizefighter; the nametag, atop her impressive bosom, read Denese. ‘You can’t have that dog on this bus.’ Then—impatiently—she mad a flapping hand gesture as if to say: get him the hell back in that bag!

“I covered his head up—he didn’t seem to mind—and sat with rapidly shrinking insides. We were stopped at the town called Effingham, Illinois: Edward Hooper houses, stage-set courthouse, a hand-lettered banner that said Crossroads of Opportunity!

“The driver swept her finger around. ‘Do any of you people back here have objections to this animal?’

“The other passengers in back—(unkempt handlebar-moustache guy; grown woman with braces; anxious black mom with elementary-school girl; W.C. Fields looking oldster with nose tubes and oxygen canister—all seemed too surprised to talk, though the little girl, eyes round, shook her head almost imperceptibly: no.

“The driver waited. She looked around. Then she turned back to me. ‘Okay. That’s good news for you and the pooch, honey. But, if any— ‘she wagged her finger at me. ‘—if any those other passenger back here complains about you having an animal on board, at any point, I’m going to have to make you get off. Understand?’”

After a while, I realized that rather than resolve any of the dilemmas that confront Theo, like, is he really going to marry Kitsey, whom he is fond of but not in love with, or will he declare his love to Pippa and propose to her? Instead of answering this straight away, as I would feel compelled to do were I writing this novel, in the next chapter Ms. Tartt changes the subject entirely. After Theo has shot one of the men pursuing them for the painting, he holes up in a hotel room in Amsterdam and contemplates suicide, but in the next chapter he’s back at Hobi’s in New York apologizing for all the trouble his deceptive business practices have caused him…

For all the smoke screens our esteemed writer creates (I began to think the book as a bit of a spoof); as hugely entertained and as deeply affected as I was by it, ultimately, I was unmoved. This is not to say I wouldn’t give it an A1 endorsement and suggest it to anyone who wants a really good read.



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REVIEWING

Chose the Wrong Guy, Gave Him the Wrong Finger

By Beth Harbison

Read by: Orlagh Cassidy

Macmillan Audio | 2013 | Running time: 9 hours | 7 CDs | $34.99

Reviewed by Michael Carey

author

Beth Harbison is a NY Times Bestseller many times over but will more than likely never write the kind of stories I’ll pick up. So you may imagine the sheep-eating grin that crossed my face when I beheld my next assignment, Chose the Wrong Guy, Gave Him the Wrong Finger by Beth Harbison. Needless to say, but I’m going to say it anyway, I put it off until last. Then I dove in trying to be objective and open to the romantic ride of Quinn Barton’s story. Here is how it went for an outside listener.

Quinn is excited for her wedding until Frank, the Best Man and the groom’s brother, pulls her aside and tells her she should reconsider, that Burke, his brother, has been cheating on her. This news plants a seed that all but ruins her romantic life to the point that the only relationships of note in the ten years since she left Burke at the altar (at least for the book) are a two-day affair with Frank after the wedding and a casual fling with a banker.

In the present, Quinn’s life is in a rut, but she seems to have made herself comfortable in it. She works making wedding dresses in her shop, Talk of the Gown. Quinn is as conflicted about her feelings on marriage as she is about her feelings for Frank and Burke, who are suddenly reintroduced into an unprepared Quinn’s life when their grandmother and town character, Dottie, is getting married to the younger Lyle. Quinn has convinced herself only in words that she has made her peace with the boys, but Dottie and Quinn’s best friend, Glen, know better. They try individually to push her out of her rut, to face her past, and find happiness once again. Quinn fights them at every turn reluctantly going through the steps and following their guidance blindly.

On the downside, I felt like some of the days merged, confusing me or making me question the author’s attention to detail. The listener also spends a good amount of time banking around Quinn’s head (read expertly by Orlagh Cassidy, a gifted actress and audio book reader). Her stubborn nature and uncertainty torture the listener with similar (if not the same) mental dialogue time and again. Maybe that was insensitive and the repetition is necessary to coax the listener into Quinn’s mental state.

However Harbison is not a best-selling author for nothing. She draws the listener in with suspense, raising questions that we want to hear answered. Is Lyle a gold digger? Will it be Burke? Frank? Someone new? No one at all? Where will all Glen’s help land Quinn? Then there are the characters: the lovable, bold, and often outlandish grandmother, the stereotypical cheeky, gay best friend, the dreamy ex, and his disciplined, attractive brother. It is a romantic comedy in the making. If Hollywood’s looking for scripts, here is one almost gift-wrapped.

I came to this audio book reluctantly. I wanted it to prove to me that it was worth my time. If you are familiar with my reviews at all, I usually walk away from the experience with a positive retrospect, and Chose the Wrong Guy did not fail managing to pull me in and making my journey relatively easy and painless. I can’t say I’ll be looking for the next Harbison, but if assigned, persuaded, or forced to listen to it, I think I will go in trusting her to tell a compelling and entertaining enough story. I’m sure that she has a huge following, and I’d wager they’ll enjoy this audio book in the same way they enjoy her other works. So to any of them, listen away and enjoy. To any readers who think this Chose the Wrong Guy might be up their alley, give it a try. And to any in my boat, if you find someone else has you listening to it, sit back and relax. It won’t be as bad as you think (I hope).



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REVIEWING

The Pat Boone Fan Club:
My Life as a White, Anglo-Saxon Jew

By Sue William Silverman

University of Nebraska Press | 2014 | 232 pages

Reviewed by Reviewed by M. J. Moore

pat boone and sue silverman

Sue William Silverman is a stunning, unconventional writer of memoirs.  This new work is her third memoir.  Although it stands alone as a worthy volume unto itself, it helps to have some idea of how it also picks up where her other books left off.

Back in 1996, Silverman’s first book appeared: Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You.  From the get-go, it was clear that her work was not for the faint of heart. 

That first memoir calmly (somehow), objectively (which was even more amazing) and dramatically told her true-life story.  From age four until age 18, Sue William Silverman was sexually abused by her own father, who was an unassailable man in the community; a white-collar archetypal “upstanding” citizen.  In fact, her father was a high-ranking government official during her youth, and later had a career in international banking.  To call him a high-functioning sociopath is too polite. 

And “abuse” scarcely describes the extremities of his monstrous behavior.  He sexually assaulted his own daughter in every way, starting with “bath time” when she was a pre-kindergarten child and eventually invading her bedroom at night on a regular basis. Her mother ignored all this, hiding out elsewhere in the house (thus avoiding her husband’s beastly rage attacks) with her spurious illnesses and sleeping pills.  Silverman’s most horrific line might be this sentence about her mother: “I was a present to her husband.” 

Absorbing Silverman’s first memoir can induce dizziness and panic.  It’s that visceral a reading experience.  Then: Her next memoir Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction chronicled how the violations that she endured as a child and as a young adult played out in her troubled later years, which finally resolved in miraculous ways thanks to her indestructible spirit, a true commitment to recovery, a great therapist, and at long last an admirable husband.  Plus her writing, of course.

Which brings us to The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life As a White, Anglo-Saxon Jew

The title alone deserves scrutiny (and a prize).  In most accounts of early Rock ‘n’ Roll and Americana at large the name Pat Boone signifies the ultra-square, clean-cut, lily-white facade of white-picket fence USA in the 1950s.  Boone was the anti-Elvis, so to speak.  In Presley’s case, his halcyon years in the Fifties really were a Southern-fried, blues-based, greaser’s explosion, until the Army and then Hollywood tamed the man with the swiveling hips.  And, needless to say, both Elvis and Pat Boone were put forward by their record companies to profit from “covering” the kind of music that African-American innovators like Chuck Berry had made into an art form.

But though he recorded “covers” of everything from Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” to Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame,” nobody ever ranked Pat Boone as a true rocker. And that was fine.  Boone was the ultimate all-across-the-board pop singer, beloved by many teens, most mothers, and plenty of grandmothers too.  In later years, his white-buck shoes would be filled by the likes of Wayne Newton and Donny Osmond.

In the early life of Sue William Silverman, however, Pat Boone was more than a singer.   

He was an icon of courtesy, sweetness, restraint, good manners, and a perfectly safe manifestation of Christian manhood.  In short, he was the polar opposite of her crazed father, whose high-profile career masked his psychotic nightly forays as a sex criminal whose sole victim happened to be his daughter. 

It is a tribute to the strength of Silverman as a person and as a writer that she can offer unto readers not a victim’s tale, but instead the story of an ultimate survivor. 

In her newest memoir, Silverman covers a wide range of her lifetime experience. 

Deftly interconnected chapters not only recapitulate some of the horror of her childhood, but much more: Readers are able to travel along as Silverman embarks on a 1972 cross-country trip in a beat-up Volkswagen camper.  Rewind to 1967, and shortly after the Six-Day War, Silverman flies to Israel to try to establish—after a lifetime of yearning to be Christian a’ la Pat Boone’s tribe—some sense of her Jewish identity.  She lives on a kibbutz.  Fast-forward to 1969 and she’s awed by the moon landing, but, like so many others, she is just as preoccupied with the America that’s imploding via the agonies of the Vietnam War and the long, hot summers.

Unlike her prior works, which have linear narratives, this new book features a fluid timeline and the author effectively segues between varied decades in her life.  The unifying theme of the book brings us back to the title.  Regardless of changing tastes and the passage of time, Silverman (going against the grain of her Woodstock-era demographic) always harbors respect and affection for Pat Boone and the ways in which her nightmarish girlhood was somewhat comforted by what he represented.

In the end, this memoir peaks with Silverman’s poignant anecdotes about where and how she met Pat Boone himself, exulting in the fact that she could finally tell him what he meant to her in her youth.  The tone is never self-indulgent or hackneyed. 

“Pat Boone is innocent, all-American teenage summers at Palisades Park,” she writes: “He is Ivory soap, grape popsicles, screened porches at the Jersey shore . . . He remains all the things that, as you age, you miss—the memory of this past smelling sweeter than honeysuckle on the Fourth of July.”

It’s telling that Silverman’s latest book is a university press release (kudos to the University of Nebraska Press), as was her first volume of memoir back in 1996.  Even more telling is that this new book is part of the esteemed “American Lives Series” that’s edited by author Tobias Wolff.  They all deserve a round of applause.


(M. J. Moore is at work on a biography of novelist Mario Puzo.)



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