Farewell, Dorothy Parker

By Ellen Meister

Putnam | 2013 | 301 pages

Reviewed by Janet Garber

The Bitch from Beyond

"Bring your inner bitch into the light where she belongs," counsels Dorothy Parker, newly resurrected, between gulps of scotch and gin. She’s holding court in the home of one sharp-tongued movie critic, Violet Epps, a could-be successor, who needs help in the assertiveness department when it comes to everyday life.

Violet is fighting for custody of her niece, pondering how to dump a dopey boyfriend, defending herself against the backstabbing moves of a junior associate, and making goo-goo eyes at her hunky kung fu teacher. A little backbone is what she needs and Dorothy Parker is just the one to give it to her.

“You’re far too gentle,” she [Parker] said. “You don’t want to hurt Malcolm.”

“You make it sound like ‘gentle’ is a character flaw.”

“It’s not,” Mrs. Parker said, “if you’re a poodle. But for a woman trying to make her way in the world, there is a lot to be said for acrimony.”

If the real Dorothy Parker did not utter these words, she certainly could have. Ellen Meister has done a fine job of imitating her and placing her in a modern context.

As always, Meister delights in sprinkling fairy dust into her otherwise realistic stories of contemporary folks confronting the issues contemporary folks confront. In The Other Life (see my March 2011 Neworld review), the sci-fi elements got a little out of hand, seemed silly, and, moreover, a clumsy plot device. Here, however, mainly due to her clever recreation of the acerbic Algonquin Round Table wit, Meister is able to deliver an affecting family drama, likeable characters, happy endings. The plot is tightly constructed and just when we are settling in for a predictable turn, it weaves left or right, giving the story yet one more twist. We find ourselves quite willing to suspend disbelief and allow Ms. Parker to assume corporeal status – she’s great company, after all (though a bit unpredictable). And note: Meisters’s one sex scene is surprisingly satisfying, as her women readers, in particular, may well prefer suggestion and hyperbole and dreaminess to any graphic and detailed descriptions of body parts.

Dorothy Rothschild Parker (1893-1967) was a successful screenwriter, poet, short story writer and best known for her wisecracks which remain funny to this day (see Wikipedia). She was also a civil rights supporter and donated her legacy to Martin Luther King, Jr. which ties in to her advocacy for the kung fu teacher, a black man, as love interest.

Once she materializes in Farewell, Dorothy Parker, she is exasperating, controlling, intrusive, alcoholic, a lover and proponent of getting what you want in life. She is also beset by her own hang-ups and demons, which her foil, Violet, helps her to vanquish.

The result is a charming book, especially for lovers of Ms. Parker, who get to spend some quality time with her, as it were. It is clear that Meister intends the book to be a tribute to her. And it is. Meister does not whitewash her character, though Meister herself is considerably less cynical than her mentor whose take on life and love could be somber: Woman wants monogamy;
Man delights in novelty.
Love is woman's moon and sun;
Man has other forms of fun.
Woman lives but in her lord;
Count to ten, and man is bored.
With this the gist and sum of it,
What earthly good can come of it?


Razors pain you,
Rivers are damp,
Acids stain you,
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren't lawful,
Nooses give,
Gas smells awful.
You might as well live.

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The Good House

By Ann Leary

Read by: Mary Beth Hurt

Macmillan Audio | 2012 | 10 hours, 8 CDs | $39.99

Reviewed by Michael Carey

The Good House, Ann Leary’s latest novel is already a national best seller, receiving praise for its moving and comedic perspective of alcoholism. The story takes place in Windover, MA, a fictional town on Boston’s North Shore, and is narrated through the eyes of Hildy Good, a descendent of the Salem witch, Sarah Good, and at one time the area’s most successful real estate agent.

Since her intervention and month in rehab (an event in her life she thanks her daughters for), Hildy’s business has dwindled along with her social life and sense of companionship.

She drinks alone at night and delights in this secret of hers. The story starts with arrival of the McAllisters in Windover. Brian is Mr. Boston, and Rebecca is a trophy wife with rich, historical roots. Hildy has a learned gift for reading people by their living environments and can clearly see Rebecca is struggling with depression.

When the two of them strike up a friendship, Hildy gains a drinking buddy (which only increases her drinking habit) and Rebecca gains a friend and confidant, someone she can talk to about her inappropriate, but exciting relationship with the town psychiatrist.

The novel starts slow, as novels often can, and the focus swings from the newcomers to Hildy. The depths of denial and alcoholism roll over her like the waves of Manchester Bay as she tries to improve her business and reestablish a relationship with an old lover. Hildy continually pushes her drinking limits, at times causing the listener to cringe and curse.

Ann Leary’s main character is well rounded, being a well-known figure in the community who relates well with the supporting cast. However, Hildy Good is also a bit of a train wreck (one that the listener can’t turn his ears from). It becomes tough to keep rooting for her when she continually flips the switch from reasonable (seeming like she just might be starting to get a clue or get it together) to derailed (delusional, defensive, and self-righteous).

In other words, Ann Leary has realistically and successfully created an alcoholic character who makes you question your own drinking habits and can, much like a friend who has had too much to drink, annoy you (in Hildy’s case to the point of wanting to stop the CD). If you place your trust in the author though, she will deliver a set up, twist, and a satisfying conclusion.

Whatever you may think of the novel, stage and screen actress Mary Beth Hurt does a fantastic job bringing Hildy to life vocally in all her facets. Her voices for the children and some of the town’s men are welcome in differentiating dialogue, but are comical and stereotypical. The tracks on the CDs are separated into fewer, and therefore longer tracks, which is great when you have longer periods of time to listen but makes listening on the go more difficult. There were times when I wasn’t into the story or the characters which makes paying attention and investing the time to listen difficult, but on the whole, The Good House succeeded in bringing me into its world, stirring responses and emotions, and telling a complete and satisfactory account of an alcoholic’s struggle.

The author is talented and the reader adept; they have created an comprehensively compelling audio experience.

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Alif the Unseen

By G. Willow Wilson

Grove Press | 2012

Reviewed by Jane M McCabe

Who is G. Willow Wilson?

Her life is as interesting as her name. Born on August 31, 1982, (which makes her a Virgo, a good sign for a writer) she’s an American comic writer, prose author, essayist, and journalist, who, after converting to Islam while attending Boston University, moved to Cairo. Now there’s a lady right after my own heart, someone who is doing some of the things I would do, if given the chance to relive my life…

Wilson has written a graphic novel, Cairo, with art by M.K. Perker, and several comic series—Air, Vixen: Return of the Lion, and The Outsiders. Willow is currently writing Mystic, a four-issue miniseries for Marvel Comics (are they still in business?) Wilson began her writing career at the age of 17, when she free-lanced as a music and DJ critic for Boston’s Weekly Dig magazine.

She spent her early and mid-twenties living in Egypt and working as a journalist. Her articles about the Middle East and modern Islam have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Atlantic Monthly and the Canada National Post. Her memoir about life in Egypt during the waning years of the Mubarak regime, The Butterfly Mosque, was named a Seattle Times Best Book of 2010—it’s an impressive résumé for a young woman who now is only 31 years old.

A reviewer at Metro in the United Kingdom says of Ali the Unseen that it’s “the first decent novel about the Arab Spring—no mean feat, since G. Willow Wilson had finished 90 percent of it before the revolution kicked off in Cairo in February, 2011. Yet much of the book—a kinetic, China Miéville-style splicing of science fantasy [whatever that is], Sufi mysticism, and political dystopia that centers on a young Arab hacker called Alif, and taps with eerie prescience into the febrile clashes between despotic governments and a tech-savvy youth that have since ripped across the Middle East—a dazzling novel about faith, cyberspace and twenty-first century Middle Eastern politics.”

To be sure, G. Willow Wilson (I just like to type her name) has created a wonderful cast of characters to populate Alif:

First there’s Alif, who’s actually only half Arab, which makes him illegitimate in the strictly Arab society. His mother is Indian and is the oft-ignored second wife of her well-to-do Arab businessman. He lives with his mother in the Baqara district of her imaginary city (which bears a striking resemblance to Cairo,) a poor to middle-class neighborhood. Wilson has included with the book’s art work a map of “The City.” Alif is an ace hacker who has managed to offend the Hand (for “The Hand of God”), the villain of the story, because they both love the same woman Intisar and because Alif has written a computer program that can identify users by their typing pattern. It was never entirely clear to me precisely what Alif’s offense is, nevertheless he is compelled to spend the entire novel evading, being imprisoned, and generally confounding The Hand.

Then there’s Dina, a young woman long in love with Alif but overlooked by him, whom, after he has been jilted, then betrayed by Intisar, he comes to appreciate.

Vikram, the jinn, is one of my favorite characters.

From the books glossary, “Jinn is Arabic for “hidden.” They are the second of three sentient races according to Islamic theology. Angels, created first, are said to be made of light; jinn, created second, are made of fire; human beings, created third, are made of dust, mud, or clay, depending on interpretations.”

From the drawings of the five different types of jinn at the novel’s back I identify Vikram as an effrit—“they are changeable in nature and capable of becoming pious and good.” In Vikram’s case, not only does he befriend Alif, Dina and the Convert, much in the style of a witty, outspoken uncle, he sacrifices himself on their behalf (but, more about that later.)

The Convert (no doubt created in Wilson’s image) is the American convert scholar living in the City who discovers that manuscript in question that Intisar has sent to Alif is an authentic copy of an early translation of A Thousand and One Days, a secret book of the jinn, which Alif and The Hand suspect may unleash a new level of information technology, hence the struggle for its possession.

The Convert says it’s the first Arabic edition ever to surface in hundreds of scholarship on the subject.

“Western scholarship,” Vikram interjected.

“I beg your pardon,” replies the Convert. “Is there any other kind? I mean, aside from the City, the Arabian Peninsula has been an intellectual black hole since the Saudis sacked Mecca and Medina way back in the 1920s. Palestine is a wreck, so there goes the scholarly tradition in Jerusalem. Ditto Beirut and Baghdad. North Africa still hasn’t recovered from the colonial era—all their universities are in the pockets of autocrats and westernized socialists. Persia is up to its neck in revolutions. If there’s any native scholarship on the Alf Yeom, it’d be the first I’ve heard of it.”

Whew, let’s hope that the Islamic Brotherhood doesn’t accuse Wilson of blasphemy and sedition.

One aspect left unexplored is that before Vikram dies (yes, a jinn can die), he manages to impregnate the Convert, so she is carrying a child that is half human, half jinn. The book ends before the child is born so we are left without knowing how this duality will be manifested in the child’s physiology and nature.

And then there’s Sheikh Bilal, the imam who gets roped into the intrigue when Alif hides out in his mosque. It’s he who offers another worthy quote concerning the wiles of Satan: “The greatest triumph of Shaytan is the illusion that you are in control. He lurks on the forking paths, lying in wait for those who become overconfident and lose their way.”

For all its good natured antics, ultimately I was entertained but unmoved by Alif the Unseen. Given my tendency towards impatience and my preference for non-fiction, I found myself tiring of its repetitive scenarios and wishing it would end before it did. That being said, I’m appreciative of the life of its author, more in keeping with the adventurers of late 19th Century and early 20th Century England than one lived in modern times. I’m impressed with her command of the Koran and Islamic mysticism and her ability to incorporate them into her winsome tale with modern technology. Hats off to G. Willow Wilson!

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Leo Politi—Artist of the Angels

By Ann Stalcup

Silver Moon Press

Reviewed by Jane M McCabe

As a recent newcomer to Los  Angeles I’ve discovered there are actually three distinctly different Los Angeles’—West Los Angeles, which contains the things for which this fair city is known—Hollywood, Beverly Hills, making movies, the Santa Monica pier; then, there’s East Los Angeles including downtown and the historic area of the city’s first settlement―Olvera Street and El Pueblo plaza; and, finally, there’s South Central extending to Long Beach and other beach communities, where the Watts Towers were built by Simon Rodia and the area was made famous by the riots during the 1960’s. Maybe there are other Los Angeles’ that I’m yet to discover, but the area I’m privileged to get to know somewhat in depth is that of East Los Angeles, specifically Olvera Street and the El Pueblo plaza—this is because I’m down there four days a week drawing portraits of people.

Before this time I was aware of the books written and illustrated by Leo Politi because when I worked with children I had the pleasure of reading some of them to children, but I didn’t know that he was an artist who lived and worked primarily in the downtown Los Angeles area. Off the plaza on the lower outside wall of the El Pueblo Administrative Offices (the Biscailuz Building ) there is a charming mural of The Blessing of Animals, which was completed by Mr. Politi in 1978. I could characteristic the style of all of the Leo Politi’s work as colorful, gentle and loving. Seeing this mural awakened an interest in me to find out more about him.

The tradition of blessing the animals by the priests from La Igelsia de Nuestra Seᾖora Reina de Los Angeles (The Church of Our Lady, Queen of the Angels) on the Saturday before Easter continues to this day. At this year’s event on March 30th I met Ann Stalcup, where she had a table selling Politi post cards and her biography of him.

Those of us modern writers are up against a challenging rubric—when not only have we written a book or books right after our own hearts, if we are lucky to have them published by a reputable publisher, we soon find that the promotion of our books fall upon us. Not all writers find this kind of work suitable to their nature, yet they must make an effort or their books will languish and the general public will not be aware of their existence, but don’t get me started on this!

Anyway, one thing and another, Ms. Stalcup agreed to let me have a copy of her biography of Leo Politi for a cut price because I said I would like to review it for this magazine. Her book is amply illustrated with Politi’s work, including a carefully-rendered, end-pages drawing of the downtown and Bunker Hill area of the 1930’s.

As a writer/artist who has written, illustrated and yes, self-published, a number of children’s book, the life of Leo Politi is of special interest to me. Here was a life well lived by a man with a great deal of talent, a warm loving heart, AND the belief that all people have been created equal in the eyes of the Creator—his pioneer work, if it could be called that, was he wrote and illustrated stories about the children of many different ethnic backgrounds—Mexican, Chinese, Italian, and Japanese—cultures represented in different sections of Los Angeles.

Leo Politi was born on November 21, 1908, on a farm near Fresno, California, to parents of Italian extraction. At the age of six his family moved back to Italy, to Broni, a small hill town in northern Italy. There Leo became known as Il piccolo Americano (the little American) because of the Indian costume he wore, leading the children up and down the street of Broni. While still young he determined that his would be the life of an artist and from then on he carried a sketch book wherever he went.

At the age of 21 in 1930 he returned to California—he traveled by freighter through the Panama Canal and up through Central America to reach Los Angeles, falling in love with Mexican color and culture. In 1934 he married Helen, a young woman from the Fresno area, but they did not want to live in Fresno so found themselves a house to rent on Bunker Hill in Los Angeles, and that’s where Leo’s career as an artist began.

In the 1930’s Olvera Street was more an alley than street, but over time became more picturesque and radiated the history of Los Angeles. Artists, craftspeople and merchants gave it color and sound, with candle makers, glassblowers, silversmiths, furniture makes and blacksmiths hard at work. At first Leo did charcoal portraits of the tourists who visited El Paseo Restaurant. He made barely enough money for them to survive. Soon he became interested in nearby Chinatown, Little Tokyo, and the colorful little houses of East Los Angeles or Chavez Ravine. (Some of these places disappeared when the freeways and Dodger Stadium were built.)

Leo first fictional child was Little Pancho, whom he drew pictures of for Script Magazine. When Little Pancho was published his fortunes improved, but it was with his second book, Pedro, the Angel of Olvera Street, that his career as a children’s book author and illustrator took flight. Pedro is set during Las Posadas (the shelters), a Christmas procession that involved Olvera Street shopkeepers and their children.

A few years after its publication Disney wanted to buy Pedro but Politi refused to sell—money never interested him; he insisted on the artistic integrity of his work.

Leo’s third book, Juanita, centers on another Olvera Street tradition—the blessing of the animals. During Politi’s long life, he wrote and illustrated many books, adding to his list Song of the Swallows (about the journey they make each year from Argentina to San Juan Capistrano) (this books received the Caldecott Metal); A Boat for Peppe (about an Italian America community in Monterey); Little Leo; Mission Bells; The Butterflies Comes; Angeleo Heights; Meiko (about a little Japanese girl who lives in Little Tokyo); Moy Moy (about the Chinese New Year in Chinatown); Rosa; The Little Clown, Bunker Hill, Los Angeles—Reminiscences of Bygone Days; Piccolo’s Prank, Tales of the Los Angeles Parks, The Poinsettia, Angeleo Heights; Emmet; Three Stalks of Corn; Redlands Impressions; and Lorenzo, the Naughty Parrot. Whew!  That’s an impressive body of work.

Politi says this about his work:

I compose a book very much as if I were making a piece of sculpture. First I put down the bulk. When I feel the bulk has body and right proportions, I begin to work on the detail. I work with the pictures and the text at the same time and make one supplement the other.

In all my books I try to embody certain universal things—the warmth and happiness of family life; my love for people, animals, birds, and flowers. My love for the simple, warm and earthy things, from the humblest house to a little tree to the tiniest sea shell; for the things made by hands, the sewing of a dress, the painting of a picture; and for the singing of songs and the movements of the body in dancing—all those arts which are instinctive forms of expression.

I feel that it is only through the respect and continuity of our heritage that we can build a foundation with strong roots for our future.

Although “multicultural” is a common word now, it wasn’t when Leo first started writing. His prinking of foreign language words and phrases throughout his book is also a concepto nuevo—a new idea.

Among Politi’s many honors none meant more to him than having an elementary school—the Leo Politi Elementary School in Los Angeles, named for him. Wisely, the school administrators have made sure they have a complete collection of Politi’s books in their library.

Many Angeleᾖos attended the memorial service for Leo Politi when he died in March of 1996 at the age of 87. Harvey D. Kern wrote then, “Los Angeles has lost a part of its very soul.” I would beg to differ, as the wonderful thing about the legacy of an artist is that his work lives on for generations to come.

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Masters of the Word: How Media Shaped History from the Alphabet to the Internet

By William J. Bernstein

Grove Press | 2013 | 420 pages

Reviewed by Fred Beauford

An editor, please

When I first received this book, my immediate reaction was a big thank you to Grove Press for sending it to me. This is a subject I know well, having taught The History of the Mass Media for many years; and although I last taught the subject at Cal State Northridge in 2001, I knew that there was still that little voice in me that said who knows if I will be back in the classroom again, and just maybe this is a book I can recommend to my students, or even require it for the course.

Three quarters of the way through Masters of the Word I recognized that I could do neither, not that Bernstein didn’t give us a detailed account of the growth of the media, starting with the birth of writing, onward to the development of the internet.

Interwoven with the technical developments, from clay tablets, to papyrus, to paper, to harnessing the conductive power of electricity in the world we now live in, author Bernstein also gives us a detail history lesson on how rulers and elites over the centuries used this new ability to extend and preserve human thought, to oppressed and control their subjects; that is, he so aptly points out, until enough people became proficient in whatever became the latest medium, to shake off the people who controlled them.

Bernstein points to the ancient Greeks as an example, who because they developed a large enough literate population, were able to invent democracy, where the concept of ordinary citizens, admittedly literate, had a say in the rules that governed their very existence.  (In south of the Sahara Africa at the same time, everyone in the village had a say; they just didn’t have a fancy name for it.)

Another example he uses is the impact of the Gutenberg Revolution. Writes Bernstein “…around  1500, we find that industrially produced paper and the printing press amplified the burgeoning literary revolution, and with it, the power of ordinary people to spread their opinions and influence. By the timeMartin Luther arrived at the University of Wittenberg its library shelves already groaned with the fruit of the Gutenberg Revolution. It was not Luther the theologian who affected the Reformation, but rather Luther the publisher.”

Bernstein captures well all the key developments of the various mediums and tries to give us an understanding of how each had a profound impact on humanity. Here is where I have a problem with his book: Bernstein clearly has the scholarship nailed, and I was truly impressed by his vast knowledge. However, he does not have the narrative skills, the chops, if you will, or the ability to self-edit, as a Jared Diamond or Bill Bryson, the two writers his book jacket compares him with.

I grew weary of the endless history lessons that went on and on, when a few paragraphs would have just as easily made the same point. All I could think of is if this guy is putting me the sleep, and this is one of my favorite subjects, I could imagine what this book would do to my students.

It’s a shame that what could have been a great book was severely compromised, apparently, by not having a sharp-eyed editor that was not afraid, and more than willing to say enough.

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