Pretty Fly for an Antiquated Gay Stereotype

the-talented-mr-ripley

 

A couple of points to start off with:

1. I never saw the 1999 film with Matt Damon and Jude Law

2. We’re going to ignore the “homosexual villain” trope used in this book. It was an unfortunate thing in the 1950s and 1960s but Tom Ripley is a fascinating character beyond that.

Tom Ripley is a small time con-artist and forger eking (and gay man, even though it’s not said explicitly) out a living in New York City when the father of Dickie Greenleaf hires him to go to a small town and Italy and convince his ne’er-do-well son Dickie to come home and take over the family business. Though Tom obtains this job based on a lie, he seems to intent on accomplishing this task in the beginning, two things become abundantly clear: 1. Dickie has no intention of coming home and 2. Tom has no intention of going back to his meager existence in the U.S. Naturally things take a dark turn from there. We see things through Tom’s eyes as he kills, impersonates, lies and forges his way across Southern Europe.

I won’t spoil the plot too much but despite clearly being a bad person, it’s hard not to root for Tom. When he was in a tight spot, my stomach was in knots. When he was at peace, enjoying an Italian cafe, I could almost smell the espresso. Clearly the character of Tom Ripley could not exist in modern literature. But he remains one of the great villains of mid-century fiction.

We All Go a Little Mad Sometimes

furiously-happy

 

Furiously Happy is hilarious, fast paced, sad and sometimes exhausting to read. Often you are feeling one more of these emotions at once. I suspect this is sometimes what it’s like to be Jenny Lawson, a well known blogger who has written frankly about her struggles with mental illness. The title is inspired by a blog post Ms. Lawson made when she was in the depths of depression in which she vowed to be “furiously happy” during the times her brain wasn’t trying to kill her.

I have never battled severe mental or physical illness. I’ve lucked into relatively good health despite some stunningly bad life choices. Still, I found Furiously Happy eminently relatable. All of us have been tripped up by our own brain before. All of us have dark places we go in our own head sometimes. And all of us sometimes feel as if we’re just faking being adults and will be discovered and called out for the imposter that we are at any moment. (Right…guys?)

I have not read Jenny Lawson’s first book, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened. In fact, that book was actually on my To Be Read list when this one showed up on Kindle for $1.99. Let’s Pretend is now being moved up in priority. So…I may get it read some time in the next year.

You be the Captain, and I’ll be no one.

the-girls

 

The plot of The Girls is propelled forward by a fictionalized version of the Manson Family murders of Sharon Tate and her house guests in 1969. However, if you’re looking for details and insight into the murders and The Family, I can recommend two or three other books that would be much more helpful. The Girls is more of an exploration of first love and the lengths we go to be near that person and our willingness to ignore their flaws as they become more and more apparent.

Our protagonist, Evie Boyd is 14 in the summer of 1969. She is becoming disenchanted with her suburban teenage existence and even more so with her newly divorced parents. It is at this time that she first sees Suzanne and her friends. They are grubby and frayed at the edges, but seem to move through the crowd like displaced royalty. It is Suzanne that draws Evie to this crowd, not Russell who is our literary stand-in for Charles Manson. The story is juxtaposed by Evie as an adult who seems to be living a somewhat unmoored existence. Evie is largely unaware of the more sinister undercurrents flowing at the ranch as she spends more and more time there. It’s only before the bloody and violent conclusion that she even begins to sense that something is very wrong with this group of people.

Emma Cline’s prose is lovely. She is able to capture so many aspects of girlhood and first love in ways that are sometimes uncomfortably accurate. Most women can recall abandoning themselves completely for a first love. But if that first love was one of the most notorious murderers of the 20th century? What would you do to stay in that person’s orbit?

Get Mad, Then Get Involved

give-me-liberty

I try to space out my political reading, especially during an election year. I often find it equal parts enraging and frustrating and I wind up in a funk for several days after reading. What’s great about Naomi Wolf’s book is that it doesn’t just make you mad, it tells you how and where to channel that anger into something constructive. Give Me Liberty is exactly what its title suggests it is. But it is also a guide for us as citizens to re-involve ourselves in the political process.

Ms. Wolf starts by dissecting the Declaration of Independence. She parses the most quoted and misinterpreted passage regarding “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and then moves on the the rest of document which states that it is our duty as citizens to be active, involved and constantly vigilant for governmental abuse. She then goes on to tell about how citizens were encouraged to be involved in government until very recently. They were even given a citizens handbook that explained to them their rights and responsibilities. This all changed with the political unrest of the 1960s when politicians became what she described as a “priestly caste” who cloaked their procedures in legalese that is unintelligible to the average citizen. After that the book explains the ways in which government has slowly eroded our rights over the decades and what we have the right to do in response. The final chapters I skimmed somewhat. They detail all the ways in which you can take action and become involved; everything from starting a petition to running for office.

I’d highly recommend this book for anyone frustrated with the current political landscape. Even if you are not a dyed-in-the-wool liberal like Naomi Wolf. Everyone should get involved in the political process; conservatives, liberals and everything in between. It’s our duty as Americans to be an informed and involved electorate.

 

 

Pants Waits for Next Book in Series

girl-waits-with-gun

 

I’m fairly picky about which mystery series I follow. They are formulaic by design so if there aren’t engaging characters and interesting stories, I tend to lose interest pretty quickly. The story of Constance Kopp and her sisters: Norma and Fleurette caught my interest immediately and is that start of what I hope will be a fun, somewhat historically factual mystery series.

The story takes place in 1914 New Jersey. On a rare outing into town, the somewhat reclusive sisters’ buggy is run down by a reckless silk factory owner in his automobile. Constance attempts to get the man to make restitution and she and her sisters are quickly subject to threats, intimidation and harassment in the form of bullets and bricks aimed at their farm house. Constance, whose height and ambivalence toward romance and domesticity set her apart from the average woman in 1914, takes it upon herself to resolve the situation. There’s tension, family secrets and a picture of domestic life in the early 20th century.

There are a lot of things I appreciated about this book. First of all, Constance and her sisters, the silk factory owner and the dispute over the buggy are all real people and events that happened. Though Ms. Stewart obviously fills in the blanks that the public record leaves. The relationship between the sisters whose personalities are distinct and dynamic. Though Constance herself has no interest in the typical trappings of 1910s domestic life, she in no way scorns it and has a great friendship with her sister-in-law who is practically a model 1914 housewife. Also, the imagery of the three German sisters living a rural life in the early 1900s made me nostalgic for my grandmother, who came from a similar background (though I’m reasonably sure Grandma Schneider never shot a revolver at anyone). The second novel in the series was released today. I’ll refrain from giving the title as at does give a bit of a spoiler about Constance’s fate.

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”

the house on the borderland

 

I’m a pretty big horror fan. I graduated from Christopher Pike novels to Stephen King before I hit my teens. Naturally, I’m pretty familiar with the works of H.P. Lovecraft. So when I came across an author who Lovecraft named as a major influence on his work, I naturally had to give it a read. The similarities are apparent from page one. It has many of the ingredients of classic Lovecraft: cosmic horror, strange locals, unnamed horrors. It’s a must read for anyone who is a fan of Horror or just H.P. Lovecraft.

The story begins with two English gentlemen named Tonnison and Berreggnog who are taking a fishing trip to a remote Irish village. During their trip, they come across the ruins of a strange old house next to a lake where they find a partially dilapidated journal of someone whom they call The Recluse, who apparently lived in the house some time ago with his spinster sister and his faithful dog, Pepper. The journal details the increasingly bizarre and horrifying events occurring in the house and ends abruptly. The journal accounts for most of the book. After reading it the two men, already unnerved by the atmosphere around the old house agree never to return the the area.

The book does a good job of maintaining the feeling of unease and dread throughout the story. Even when the men have returned to the village proper, one is not completely at ease. The House on the Borderland is a pioneering classic of the cosmic horror genre.

History, Political Intrigue and a Little Bit of Magic

the stockholm octavo

 

This book contains lots of things I love (history, political intrigue and magic) along with some great character development throughout the course of the story. If I found out HBO or AMC decided to make this book into a miniseries I’d squeal and clap my hands like a little girl. The result, if done well, would be an exciting and colorful ride through late 18th Century Sweden.

The story centers around Emil Larsson, a bureaucrat living in Stockholm during the reign of King Gustav III. Emil is living a happy bachelor’s life until a tarot card reading promises him a golden path toward love and connection. In his attempt to follow the path set forth by the spread (called an octavo by its inventor), Emil finds himself a player in a conspiracy involving a potential revolt against the king by the nobles who resent him taking much of their power and giving it to the citizenry.

There’s so much to enjoy about this book. If all the history, political intrigue and magic don’t appeal to you, there’s also so much beauty in the clothing and accessories of the major players and the town of Stockholm itself all of which is described in sumptuous detail by the author. The winter scenery makes me want to reread it during the dead of winter while curled up in front of a fireplace with some hot cider.

Help I’m Alive, My Heart Keeps Beating Like a Hammer

kitty genovese

 

If you know the name Kitty Genovese, you’re almost certainly aware the story associated with her. She was stabbed multiple times over the course of a half an hour while 38 bystanders watched and did nothing. Her name has been associated with urban apathy for over 50 years and her case helped give rise to Good Samaritan laws across the country and the 911 calling system. But in truth, only two people saw and comprehended what was happening to Kitty; others only heard a scream and then nothing. Some saw the attacker run off and assumed the danger was over. At least one person did call the police but calls weren’t logged in 1964. Kevin Cook’s book show’s us the complexity of the case and of Kitty herself, who was more than just a murder victim.

This book first shows us the life of Kitty herself. She was an independent young woman who chose to stay in Queens when her family pulled up stakes and moved to Connecticut. She was also a closeted lesbian who was going home to her partner the night she was stabbed (a fact kept out of the papers and court trial for fear of the victim becoming unsympathetic). We also see the life of Winston Mosely, the troubled man whose path would cross with Kitty’s in the early hours of March 13, 1964. Cook also puts the crime in context. New Yorkers in the early 60s avoided calling the police, who were often unresponsive and unhelpful. He also notes that the street where the crime occurred was home to a bar that was open until 4AM and was often the source of rowdy drunks and domestic disputes that would spill out onto the sidewalk at night. This certainly caused many of the witnesses the night of Kitty’s murder to ignore her screams and go back to sleep.

Kitty Genovese may be the most well known crime victim in American history. The details of her murder were embellished while the truth of her life was hidden from the public. While this led to many positive changes in how we report crime and how we view the responsibility of bystanders, Cook’s book gives much needed nuance and depth to the story. He also gives voice to Kitty’s partner who, by choice and necessity, has kept her life with Ms. Genovese and the pain of her loss private for half a century.

 

KITTY GENOVESE 2

Land of the Free, Some Restrictions Apply

the buddha in the attic

 

I could have easily read this book from cover to cover in a day if I’d had the time. Not only is only a short 149 pages but the writing flows so beautifully that I hated having to put it down and deal with my real life (I mean, more so than when I’m reading normally). The writing is lyrical and the scope is both intimate and simultaneously sweeping. The Buddha in the Attic would make excellent supplementary reading for a college or high school American History course.

Julie Otsuka chronicles the lives of Japanese immigrants to the US in the first half of the twentieth century. She focuses on the women who came to the states in the early 1900s as “picture brides” and follows them through their marriages which often came at a very young age to much older men. They work, have babies (sometimes while working) and establishing themselves in communities only to have it all taken away at the onset of the second World War. (spoiler?)

Though there is some adult content in there, I’d highly recommend this to a teen or young adult (possibly with some parental screening) it’s a beautiful glimpse of a part of American history that was forgotten until very recently.

Yes Please! Thank You!

yes please

 

My 26th review puts me at a half-Cannonball AND means I’ve now doubled the amount of books that I read last year.  Go me!

I’ve been trying to branch out and read some biographies of smart, badass women. I read Tina Fey’s book Bossypants earlier this year and loved it in a way very similar to the way I love this one. The reason these two are close friends is obvious. They have similarities that run deep and are very supportive of each other. The main difference is that, while I admire Tina Fey, I’m also a little intimidated by her. Amy Poehler, possibly due to our similarly lower middle class backgrounds, seems like someone I could cut loose with.

Ms. Poehler’s book consists of essays of significant events in her life, from her childhood up until her show Parks and Rec as it draws to a close. As someone who has issues with anxiety, mostly of the social kind, I’m always in awe of women who are unafraid to be their complete and total selves in public or to put a their talents out there for the entire world to see. Yes Please is funny, engaging and difficult to put down. I managed to finish it in just four days while working two jobs and getting (almost) enough sleep at night. There was a bit more name-dropping in here than I thought there would be. However there’s a stunning lack of pretension in it. Amy Poehler is surprised and grateful everyday that she gets to live her life and meet all the people she’s met. I’m grateful she shared her experience and wisdom with me.