A modern take on Jeeves & Wooster

Wake up, Sir! by Jonathan Ames

wake up sirJonathan Ames is apparently a bit of a cult author in the USA – as novelist, essayist, columnist, storyteller and creator of a sitcom for HBO called Bored to Death. I’d not heard of him before, but was piqued by the premise of his 2004 novel Wake up, Sir! which has recently been published in the UK and is an unashamed contemporary tribute to Wodehouse.

Alan Blair is a thirty-year-old American writer with one book under his belt and is struggling to get started with his difficult second one. He is a drinker, single, Jewish and full of neuroses, sexual, mental – you name it he suffers from it. He lives in Manhattan sponging on his beloved Aunt and ghastly Uncle, but having come into some money via an inheritance, he employs a personal valet to look after him. Said valet just happens to be called Jeeves.

…I went into the kitchen and Jeeves was there, beaming in at the precise moment that I made my entrance, which he’s very good at. He’s always appearing and disintegrating and reappearing just when the stage directions call for him.

Now I come to think of it, given the Star Trek analogy, there is a Vulcan quality to Jeeves, matching the unemotional Mr Spock always looking after Jim Kirk, isn’t there?

Even with the assistance of Jeeves, Alan can’t stop drinking and his relations have had enough. Tough love is required – they offer him rehab or eviction. Alan has already decided to take off for a writing retreat so chooses the latter option and goes to bed worrying.

I started rubbing the bony center of my nose, which I always rub when things have gone badly. Then midway through this nose massage, I heard a slight aspiration – Jeeves, like humidity, had accumulated on my left. Jeeves, I think, is closely related to water. They say we’re all 50 percent H2O but Jeeves is probably 90 percent. Jeeves and water seep in everywhere, no stopping them, like this underground lake that starts in Long Island, I’m told, and then pops up in Connecticut. So Jeeves spilled over from his lair, the bedroom next to mine, and was now standing alongside me, like mist on a mirror.

Blair and Jeeves set off for an upstate Jewish spa town Sharon Springs and arrive only to find it mostly boarded up, the bathhouse abandoned and ruined. Alan, drunk as usual, manages to get beaten up badly after a disastrous phone call to a number in a lavatory stall! However, they discover that in Saratoga nearby, there is a proper artist and writer’s retreat called the Rose Colony, and they have a vacancy. It would be the ideal place for Alan to dry out and get on with his writing …

We’re now halfway through the book, and so far it had been an entertaining slog with not enough happening, but once we’re through the gates of the Rose Colony the pace picks up and we finally meet a bunch of characters that are just as crazy as Blair himself. Blair is communing with novelist Alan Tinkle and his whisky bottle (falling off the wagon afresh each day). Tinkle is telling him all about his particular problem of overstimulation:

“Along with heavy drinking, I do preventative masturbation four or five times a day so that I can go out in public.”

This all sounded oddly familiar. Then I reassured myself: I might have shared some of his symptoms, but that can be said for most psychiatric illnesses.

“Why do you think this has happened to you?” I asked. “Maybe you should see Oliver Sacks. It could be neurological. Like the man who thought his wife was a cocktail waitress.”

“I don’t get any sex. That’s my problem. I’m thirty-one; I haven’t had sex in nine years.”

What could I say to comfort him? Nine years was a terribly long time. One hardly goes nine years without doing most things, except maybe trips to the Far East. …

It soon becomes clear that sex is high on everyone’s mind at the Rose Colony. Alan himself falls for an artist called Ava, who has a magnificent nose. They eventually succumb and there is a drawn out and often cringeworthy, but occasionally hilarious, sex scene:

The robe opened up. She was naked.
I put my hand on her full, fat breast. Then I put my hand under her breast. Nobody had enjoyed weighing something as much since Archimedes.

Alan manages to get into scrape after scrape, upsetting most of the residents and staff including the enigmatic giant Dr Hibben, the colony’s director. Thank goodness for Jeeves whose ubiquity will always save the day.

Jeeves-and-Wooster

Fry & Laurie as Jeeves & Wooster from the ITV adaptation

Although the character of Jeeves in this novel could have been lifted straight from Wodehouse, that of Alan Blair is, while remaining true to Bertie Wooster’s essential nature, a little different.  Like Bertie, he is the narrator of the tale, and he shares Wooster’s dandyish tendencies and naive refusal to grow up for instance. However, he is pathetic in his alcoholism and you can’t help but feel sympathy for him in his desire to deal with his condition, which is something I have rarely felt for the buffoonish Wooster. I loved the way that Jeeves is able to insinuate himself into any situation without anyone noticing. Indeed, in another review of this book in Quadrapheme web magazine, the reviewer wonders whether Jeeves might be a figment of Blair’s imagination? Upon reflection, that seems entirely possible!  (It didn’t stop me picturing Stephen Fry as Jeeves all the way though).

I did feel that this book took far too long to get going, we don’t reach the Rose Colony, scene of most of the comedy and bawdiness, until halfway through its 334 pages – by comparison, the Wodehouse-inspired Charlie Mortdecai books (well the first two, see here) are at least as racy, consistently funny and all over inside 200 pages.  Although not actually as filthy as I’d imagined reading the publicity, I enjoyed Ames’s creation which is more polished than mere pastiche, I just wish the first half had been compressed. (8/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you! To explore further at Amazon UK, please click below:
Wake Up, Sir! by Jonathan Ames (2004, pub Pushkin Press, 2015) paperback original, 334 pages.

Simenon’s most autobiographical roman dur…

Three Bedrooms in Manhattan by Georges Simenon

three bedroomsLast month I had the opportunity to meet John Simenon, Georges’s son at an event celebrating the prolific Belgian author and his work. Apart from all the Maigret novels, Simenon was famed for his romans durs (hard novels) which are standalone, and typically quite dark and noirish in character  – I previously reviewed one of them, Dirty Snow, here. At the event, I mentioned to John that I’d read one of the romans durs in preparation for the event: Three Bedrooms in Manhattan, which is reputedly very autobiographical and he told me that it was basically a novelisation of how his mother and father met.

John’s mother was Denyse Ouimet. Georges met her in Manhattan in 1945 when he interviewed her for a secretarial job. She was seventeen years younger than Georges and they married in 1950, once Georges’s divorce from his first wife was finalised. Their relationship was, by all accounts, tempestuous and Denyse suffered from psychosis in later years, but Three Bedrooms was written in 1946 when the couple were still getting to know each other, and could seen as coming straight from the horse’s mouth so to speak. Being so autobiographical, it’s not perhaps a typical Simenon in plot terms being a romance, but it is a typical Simenon in writing style.

Francis Combe is middle-aged, a noted French actor who has escaped to Manhattan from Paris when dumped for a younger man by his wife. However, once in New York, he finds parts difficult to come by and makes ends meet voicing radio dramas and living in a small apartment in Greenwich village. The novel opens with him waking at 3am and going out to walk rather than listen through thin walls to the drunken antics of his neighbours:

What were they doing, up there in J.K.C.’s apartment? Was Winnie vomiting yet? Probably. Moaning, at first softly, then more loudly, until at last she burst into an endless fit of tears.

Forced to be an insomniac, he goes into a late night diner and meets Kay in a scene that comes straight out of Hopper’s painting Nighthawks which was painted in 1942, (and is even more amazing in real life at the Art Institute of Chicago – it was one of my main reasons for choosing to visit Chicago one vacation ages ago – another was to see Grant Wood’s American Gothic there too, but that was out on loan. Grr!)

Nighthawks_by_Edward_Hopper_1942

Nightawks by Edward Hopper, 1942. Art Institute of Chicago

‘You’re French?’
She asked the question in French, a French that at first he thought betrayed no accent.
‘How’d you know?’
‘I didn’t. As soon as you came in, even before you said anything, I just thought you were French.’

They eat a little, make small talk – he finds out she’s from Vienna – then, they walk through the streets of the Village and end up in the second bedroom – in a hotel.

The next day, Francis takes Kay back to his apartment, she essentially moves in straight away having been thrown out of the one she shared with a girlfriend which had been financed by Jessie’s now ex-boyfriend. At first Francis tries to resist falling in love with Kay, but Kay immediately and totally falls in love with him:

She said, ‘When we met’ – and she said it even more softly, so that what she was confiding to him now seemed to vibrate within his chest – ‘I was so alone, so hopelessly alone, I was so low, and I new that I’d never pull out of it again, so I decided to leave with the first man who showed up, no matter who he was.
‘I love you, François.’

Having been found and her feeling declared, Kay becomes resolutely upbeat, willing to put up with all of Combe’s moodiness (and boy, he is a moody one!). He is the half of this couple that needs convincing, allowing Kay to look after him, sometimes almost smothering him it seems, but over the course of a few weeks as they walk for miles, eat (slowly), drink (lots), smoke, talk, embrace, being quiet together, collecting Kay’s things from the third bedroom,  Combe will eventually succumb.  It’s touching that they find ‘their song’ on a jukebox, and this is a trigger for Combe – realising his own feelings after fits of jealousy, wondering what she is doing when they are momentarily parted.

The style may be typical Simenon but, there’s a Gallic coolness to it. If you weren’t aware of the autobiographical elements of the story, it would take you some time to warm to Combe, or Kay, but you actually do will them to work it out and find the happiness they are both searching for.  That certainly raised this short novel in my expectations, and I really enjoyed it. (8.5/10)

I read the NYRB edition which has an excellent introduction by Joyce Carol Oates.  The novel was translated by Marc Romano and Lawrence G. Blochman.  For another review of this story, read that by Jacqui – click here

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The Late Monsieur Gallet by Georges Simenon

galletSpace here for a short word about the second Maigret novel in the new Penguin editions, translated by Anthea Bell. This was the first Maigret to be published as a book, rather than serialised as Pietr the Latvian had been (reviewed here).

Maigret is sent to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of Monsieur Gallet, a travelling salesman – or so his widow thinks.  He turns out to be living a double life, and his family seem to be rather unpeturbed by his death – What is going on?

In a mere 155 pages it got so complicated I struggled to keep up and Maigret had to display much dogged determination to solve the mystery too. Aside from Maigret himself,  there were no characters to really warm to either. Not one of the best for me. (6.5/10)

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Source: Own copies. To explore further on Amazon UK, affiliate link, please click below:
Three Bedrooms in Manhattan (New York Review Books Classics)
The Late Monsieur Gallet: Inspector Maigret #2 Penguin classics.

‘I like a fresh bowl.’

Yes, it’s a quote from that late 1990s TV series Ally McBeal which was set in a Boston legal firm. I watched it religiously for most of its run. Partner John Cage was the chap who said it – he had many quirks including a remote control for his favourite toilet stall, which he’d pre-flush before going… I bring it up because it was the first thing that popped into my mind when I spotted this book at a book sale last year!

 

The Lady Who Liked Clean Rest Rooms by J.P. Donleavy

donleavy lady clean Donleavy is Irish-American; born in New York he moved to Ireland after WWII where, now aged 88, he still lives. The Ginger Man was his first novel, published in 1955, and he continued writing up until the late 1990s. He wrote several plays in his early career in addition to his novels and occasional non-fiction.

I have The Ginger Man and A Fairytale of New York (1973) on my shelves but, despite them being broadly classed as comedies, I worried that they might be slightly challenging to read. This short, late novel from 1995 with its arresting title thus seemed a perfect compromise as a good introduction to the man and his writing.

Meet Jocelyn – a fit, fortyish divorcée living in Scarsdale, a prosperous suburb of New York City. Jocelyn got the big house and a chunk of cash from the settlement but is rattling around in this money pit and slowly going mad.

…she got so drunk she found herself sitting at midnight with a loaded shotgun across her lap, after she thought she heard funny noises outside around the house. Then watching a bunch of glad facing so called celebrities spout their bullshit on a T.V. talk show and remembering that once someone told her how, when having quaffed many a dram, they turned off T.V. sets in the remote highlands of Scotland, she clicked off the safety, aimed the Purdey at mid-screen and let off the no. 4 cartridges in both barrels. And she said to herself over and over again as the sparks and flames erupted from the smoke.
‘Revenge is what I want. Nothing but pure unadulterated revenge. But my mother brought me up to be a lady.’

Jocelyn’s family harks back to the Mayflower, she went to Bryn Mawr – but since the divorce, her friends have melted away and her children don’t talk to her, she has no help any more. She cashes in the big house, but bad financial advice loses her her capital. She moves again into a tiny apartment in Yonkers (not Scarsdale – eek!), tries waitressing and finds that her fine palate is not suited to serving uneducated ones. She can’t find another job, so she wonders if she can get a man – maybe one of her old flames would pay her for it!

The one thing that keeps Jocelyn sane are her regular forays to the big art galleries in Manhattan. The only problem with being out though is the need to pee – and Jocelyn, like her South Carolina grandmother taught her, “My dear, if you really have to, only clean, very clean rest rooms will do”, and there aren’t many around in the businesses and big hotels that will tolerate regular non-resident visitors. But one day she finds the perfect rest room in a funeral home and has to pretend to be at a viewing …

I won’t deny that this text was an easy read – I so nearly let it bog me down, but persevered as it was only 100 pages or so! Donleavy’s sentence structure can be very convoluted in its clauses, and he ignores grammatical convention a lot of the time. His almost stream of consciousness style of writing, all in the present tense, felt more like the story had been written in the 1960s than the 90s, and it frequently obscured the laughs at first which did become apparent on closer reading – for underneath it all was a funny little plot, although it is a rather sad book.

It was surprisingly vulgar in places and at first I wondered how Jocelyn could stoop so low, but as we all know – social standing is no measure of bad behaviour, and what those Bryn Mawr girls got up to!… Despite her demotion from socialite to lonely mad cat-lady-type, I didn’t like Jocelyn at all and I wasn’t entirely convinced by her characterisation either.

This book is a definite Marmite one – some readers will love it and others will hate it. The experience reminded me of reading Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard as similarly challenging stylistically; I appreciated both, but didn’t like either particularly. (6/10)

Are all Donleavy’s books like this?
Should I go on to try one of his full length novels?

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Source: Own Copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Lady Who Liked Clean Restrooms: The Chronicle of One of the Strangest Stories Ever to Be Rumoured about Around New York by J P Donleavy. Paperback.

Alice Hoffman’s new novel …

Over at Shiny New Books, the book recommendations website I co-edit, we’ve added a selection of new reviews and articles to keep you going until our super-sized Issue 2 hits the web at the beginning of July. Today I’d like to plug a pair of pages I contributed about Alice Hoffman and her new novel…

The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman

The Museum of Extraordinary Things

New York City – 1911 – a period of great change seeing the beginnings of the trade union movement after a terrible fire at a garment workers factory in which many perished. The triangle factory fire actually happened, and the author has used that and another fire at Coney Island later that year as the anchors for her new novel. We all associate Coney Island with funfairs, and Dreamland was the biggest and best back then and its spectacles are proving to draw away the customers from Professor Sardie’s ‘Museum of Extraordinary Things’…

You can read my review of the book here,
alicehoffman
…and then you may like to visit this page where you will see a Q&A article with her. Once the questions had been sent to her publicist, the answers came back the next day – I was grateful for the opportunity and impressed with the speed and super answers.

I have reviewed a couple of Alice’s novels on this blog previously – you can see what I thought of

The Ice Queen here, and The Story Sisters here.

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Source: Publisher – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman. Pub April 2014 by Simon & Schuster, hardback 384 pages.

A sad beginning and a happy ending cut oh so short by tragedy …

It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini

While I was doing some research into age appropriate novels for younger teens for a post on the topic back in November, I kept coming across books for older teens that I wanted to read myself. This was one of them, so I ordered a copy, and added it to my YA shelf.

its-kind-of-a-funny-storyIt’s a kind of funny story is a novel about a teenager suffering from depression. It is clearly autobiographical and Vizzini has said it’s about 85% true. As a fan of The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, it sounded as if I’d enjoy this book too.

I wasn’t planning to read it so soon, but a news item from the Huffington Post here made me go straight to it…

The author, Ned Vizzini, then 32 years old, committed suicide on December 19th by jumping from the roof of the building where his parents lived, leaving his wife and son.

Shock over his tragic death drew me to read the novel as soon as I could.  Although my reading was coloured by reality, it is a fine novel, and really helped to understand some of the pressures on teenagers today. It begins …

It’s so hard to talk when you want to kill yourself. That’s above and beyond everything else, and it’s not a mental complaint – it’s a physical thing, like it’s physically hard to open your mouth and make the words come out. They don’t come out smooth and in conjunction with your brain the way normal people’s words do; they come ou tin chunks as if from a crushed-ice dispenser; you stumble on them as they gather behind your lower lip. So you just keep quiet.

Craig Gilner is fifteen. He’s spent much of last year cramming to ace his application to Executive Pre-Professional High School in Manhattan. He gets his place and starts school alongside his friend Aaron only to discover that he’s not a natural genius like most of the other students there including Aaron. He’s instantly behind, and anxiety sets in. Discovering pot leads to less desire to get started on catching up, and he’s also jealous of Aaron’s girlfriend Nia, always being the gooseberry.

It all builds up and soon he can’t eat without throwing up afterwards, everything is entwining him in ‘Tentacles’. He needs to find some ‘Anchors’.  He is blessed with a lovely and supportive family who try everything to help – he ends up on medication and with twice-weekly visits to a shrink, Dr Minerva, who helps to anchor him.

However Craig’s medication runs out, and he stops taking it. Soon the depression leads to suicidal thoughts of jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge.  One night it just becomes too much and he phones a suicide helpline, who tell him to get to the hospital down the road. He admits himself to the short stay psychiatric unit, and finds he’s not alone, and thus begins the road to recovery.

It all felt horribly real. Craig is unflinching in telling us all about his problems, from the conversations, all the tentacles, waiting for ‘the Shift’ to happen – that live or die moment. It sounds grim – it is grim, but it is also grimly funny in parts.

What was hard to bear was the amount of pressure that Craig was putting on himself – it’s not like it was coming from his family, who still saw a Maths score of 93% as brilliant. That’s not the case though when everyone else gets 100 at this school, (which was based on the Styvesant School in NYC where the author went).

The second half of the book, set in the psychiatric unit, contrasts enormously and young Craig, put in the adult ward as there is no room in the teen one, quickly becomes a good luck charm to the other residents which, of course, is confidence building.  The other residents are, as you might expect, a collection of seriously ill misfits, suffering from psychotic episodes to bipolar, from phobias to self-harming, and not forgetting Craig’s suicidal deep depression.

Ned Vizzini in 2012, (Photo by Sabra Embury, his wife)

Ned Vizzini in 2012, (Photo by Sabra Embury, his wife)

I think it is important for any older teens reading this book to realise that there is a way back from depression and other mental health issues but it is a long road – often two steps forward and one (or more) back, and although an important part, it can’t be controlled by medication alone.

I did well up with tears several times whilst reading this brilliant novel, and when I reached the end and saw the little afterword that tells you that the author spent five days in a Brooklyn psych unit like Craig, you just knew he was telling it from the heart, and his legacy will live on in this book.

My thoughts and prayers go out to his family and friends at this most difficult time. 

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For anyone who wants to read more about depression, amongst books Ned Vizzini recommended on his website is The Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon (see link below).

Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini, 2007, Miramax/Hyperion paperback, 444 pages.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
The Noonday Demon: An Anatomy of Depression by Andrew Solomon

Introducing Bernie Rhodenbarr

Lawrence-Block-author-photo-croppedIt’s some years since I read one of Lawrence Block’s crime novels, and then I’ve only read the first twelve of his seventeen Matt Scudder books. In this series alcoholic ex-cop turned private investigator Scudder plies his trade around the shady joints of NYC. Scudder is a very likeable PI, but the books are quite dark.

Block has several other series, but apart from Scudder is mostly known for his ten novels featuring the gentleman burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr, who also lives and works in NYC. The Rhodenbarr books are much lighter fare than Scudder, and Bernie is very much a modern day Raffles (see my Raffles review here).

The first in the series is Burglars can’t be choosers.  Bernie can’t believe his luck when he is offered five grand to lift a blue leather box from a  desk in a posh apartment by a chap who won’t give his name but seems strangely familiar.

Rhodenbarr 1I rode to the fourth floor, poked around until I found the stairway, and walked down a flight. I almost always do this and I sometimes wonder why. I think someone must have done it in a movie once and I was evidently impressed, bit it’s really waste of time, especially when the elevator in question is self-service. The one thing it does is fix in your mind where the stairs are, should you later need them in a hurry, but you ought to be able to locate stairs without scampering up or down them.

On the third floor, I found my way to Apartment 311 at the front of the building. I stood for a moment, letting my ears do the walking, and then I gave the bell a thorough ring and waited thirty seconds before ringing it again.

And that, let me assure you, is not a waste of time. Public institutions throughout the fifty states provide food and clothing and shelter for lads who don’t ring the bell first. And it’s not enough just poking the silly thing. A couple of years back I rang the bell diligently enough at the Park Avenue co-op of a charming couple named Sandoval, poked the little button until my finger throbbed, and wound up going directly to jail without passing Go. The bell was out of order, the Sandovals were home scoffing toasted English muffins in the breakfast nook, and Bernard G. Rhodenbarr soon found himself in a little room with bars in the windows.

Applying his lock-picking skills, Bernie is soon through the door, but there’s no box. Then two policemen burst in. Bernie is old friends with one, and has come prepared with ‘walkaway money’. The other younger cop isn’t so sure but takes the bribe, and goes to the bathroom only to come out shouting there’s a body in the bedroom and it’s still warm, or words to that effect, before fainting. Bernie runs, thinking he’s been framed.

He ends up at an acquaintance’s apartment. Rod, an actor, is away on an acting job, and once in Bernie prepares to lie low for a bit. However he is awoken by someone knocking over the plant by his bedside. She introduces herself as Ruth, come to water Rod’s plants.  Ere long, Bernie has involved Ruth in his plans to clear his name, and the two also hit it off in the bedroom. The mystery turns out to be quite convoluted – I’d have never solved it. But Bernie sorts it all out in the end.

The crime isn’t the main thing in this novel however – it’s introducing Bernie. We get to know that he’s been in prison when younger, and that he doesn’t plan to go back. He does just enough jobs to finance his lifestyle, but is addicted to the thrill of the heist. I also have a feeling that he’ll have a different girl in every book.

Personally, I much prefer Scudder who is an essentially honest guy, but is more fallible with his own demons to fight too. Bernie is fundamentally dishonest – a slick thief who has a way with the ladies and is good at comic one-liners. He does have a redeeming feature though that I’ve yet to encounter … In the third book in the series, he takes over a bookshop, which he then keeps afloat with funds from his burglaries.  That will keep me reading!  (7/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Burglars Can’t be Choosers (Bernie Rhodenbarr Mystery) by Lawrence Block, 1977. Currently o/p but s/h copies available.

Gone Girl meets The Secret History – not quite, but a good try

Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight

Amelia

When a novel sets itself up on the front cover to be compared to Gone Girl (my review here), and in other places I’ve seen it compared to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, it raises the bar rather high…

Kate is a hard-working lawyer and single mum to teenage daughter Amelia, who appears to have been doing alright at her posh Brooklyn high school, despite her workaholic mum’s absences, and not knowing who her father is. When she is at home, Kate tries really hard and she and Amelia have a good relationship but, as she will find out, she has no idea at all of what’s going on in her daughter’s life, until one tragic day.

On that day, Kate is about to start one of the biggest presentations of her career, when she gets a call from her daughter’s school.  Amelia, the hard-studying, academic, over-achieving student has been suspended for plagiarising an essay about Virginia Woolf, and Kate is required to collect her pronto.  By the time Kate arrives, having got delayed in the subway, Amelia is dead.  They say she jumped off the school roof.

It’s not until a couple of months later that Kate is together enough to question things, and when she receives an anonymous text that matches her own instincts – Amelia didn’t jump, she persuades the police to reopen the investigation. Gradually Kate, and Detective Lew Thompson will piece together what happened, as layer upon layer of secrets and lies are exposed. No-one, it seems, is squeaky clean – teachers, parents, pupils, friends, or colleagues, and the school is awash with teenagers exploring their sexuality, secret clubs and bullying.

The story mainly alternates between Kate and Amelia’s voices through flashbacks. Kate’s chapters are mostly in the present as she investigates her daughter’s life. Her past sections are from 1997, when she as a promising young lawyer got pregnant. Amelia’s chapters are all from the months preceding her death, and they include her text messages and Facebook statuses. The only times we don’t hear from Kate or Amelia are blog posts from the school’s anonymously authored scandal sheet.

I predicted the key ending early on, but other developments were less telegraphed, and there were some genuine surprises.  Although Kate was being put through the wringer with everything that happened, and for a mother losing a child is such a tragedy, I found Kate’s need for validation that she wasn’t really a bad mother a little tiring.  I was more interested in Amelia’s story and finding out the identities of secret texters and bloggers.

Despite the book being based around a high school, there is too much sex and swearing to recommend this as a YA novel, but it should appeal to slightly older New Adult readers.  I enjoyed it too, but it’s not in the same league as those other two page-turners I mentioned back at the top. (7/10)

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Source: Review copy from publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberley McCreight, Simon & Schuster paperback 2013, 380 pages.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Is That All There Is? …

All That Is by James Salter

all-that-is

I must admit that until I looked him up on Wikipedia I had no idea that James Salter was 87 and still going strong, or that he was such a lion of American literature.  He published his first novel in his thirties after a career in the USAF.  I was vaguely aware that he was well thought of, but that’s as far as it went!  All That Is is his latest novel, and it’s the story of the life and loves of one man…

Philip Bowman returns from the war, having served in the Navy off Okinawa, and slips into the world of publishing as a book editor in a small firm in New York.  He meets a beautiful blonde girl, Vivian, from a well-off family in Virginia. They wed…

Bowman was happy or felt he was, she was his, a beautiful woman or girl.  He saw life ahead in regular terms, with someone who would be beside him.  In the presence of her family and friends he realized that he knew only one side of her, a side that attracted him but that was not her entire or essential self. Behind her as he looked was her unyielding father and not far away from him her sister and brother-in-law. They were all complete strangers. Across the room, smiling and alcoholic, was her mother, Caroline.  Vivian caught his eye and perhaps this thoughts and smiled at him, it seemed understandingly. The unsettled feeling disappeared.  Her smile was living, sincere.  We’ll leave soon, it said.  That night though, having driven to the Hay-Adams Hotel in Washington, wearied by the events of the day and unaccustomed to being a wedded couple, they simply went to sleep.

That chaste extract above doesn’t accurately reflect their initial relationship, however, but ultimately this marriage won’t last.

Bowman has an affair whilst abroad on a trip in Europe with Enid, an Englishwoman. Theirs is a lusty union, continued on subsequent trips. Vivian eventually calls it a day with Philip without ever knowing about this infidelity, their relationship has just run its course.  But, it soon becomes clear that Enid is not never going to marry him and they let things peter out. Then he meets a woman in a taxi queue at the airport whom, he thinks, might be the one…

Christine, is separated from her Greek husband, and has a sixteen year old daughter. They are terribly in lust with each other, and soon move in together after Christine finds a perfect little house by the ocean.  Phil keeps his apartment in New York though.  This set-up is set-up to fail, but I won’t explain how.

Although this novel is all about Philip’s search for love, it’s no romance.  Phil reminds me slightly of Mad Men‘s Don Draper – he works hard, and plays hard when given the chance.  It’s a surprisingly lusty book – all the encounters are written from Philip’s point of view, they’re manly but not overly graphic!

But there’s far more to Philip’s life than the sex. There’s life in the publishing industry, less about the mechanics – more about the personalities, including his boss who described his firm as ‘a literary house … but only by necessity.’  It’s at the publishers that Philip meets Neil Eddins the other Editor, who becomes his best friend. There are families too – Philip’s mother Beatrice in particular is a presence and somewhat steadying influence on him.  The decades flow by.  Bowman lives, works and loves, he suffers and comes through whatever life throws at him, and in between we revisit those we encounter before – older and wiser.

Salter’s writing style is not showy, but the language is precise, sentences tend to be short.  He doesn’t signpost dialogue with he said, she said for the most part either, leaving you to work out who’s saying what.

I didn’t warm to Bowman much, although I could sympathise when things didn’t go his way. Although I did like the style, it all felt a bit remote and almost ordinary.  All that is ended up leaving me with a feeling of is that all there is? (7/10)

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I received a review copy from Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
All That Is by James Salter, pub 23rd May 2013 by Picador, Hardback 290 pages.

 

The Women of Madison Avenue

Mad Women by Jane Maas

Mad Men still ranks amongst my favourite TV programmes ever. I love everything about it – the clothes, the campaigns, the decor, the lifestyle, the cast, (especially John Slattery as Roger Sterling).

But how true is the series?

I’ve already read one book by a guy who was there – Jerry Della Femina’s memoir (reviewed here), gave one man’s eye view – but his isn’t the only perspective available to help answer that question…

Mad-Women-cover-final

Jane Maas was there and saw it all. She was one of the pioneer ‘Mad Women’ of Madison Avenue. She started as a copywriter in 1964 at Ogilvy and Mather after several years working in TV production on Name That Tune, rising through the ranks to be a creative director and president of another New York agency along the way.

In compiling her memoir, she has spoken to many of her colleagues to build up her picture of working for and with the real Mad Men, giving a fascinating portrait of the advertising industry of the 1960s and beyond, and especially what it was like for women, although she didn’t have to start off as a secretary like Mad Men‘s Peggy Olson.

Jane Maas in her official first day photo at Wells Rich Greene, 1976

Jane Maas in her official first day photo at Wells Rich Greene, 1976

A petite redhead, Jane was married to architect Michael Maas in the late fifties, had kids and lived in central New York rather than towns outside like many of her colleagues.

She was also one of the first working Moms – ranking her ‘job first, husband second, and children third’ realising that her job and husband might go away, but that ‘the children would hang in’.  Jane was very lucky to have the services of her Mon-Fri live-in help Mabel though, but always felt guilty about not giving her children enough attention.

In chapter two, Jane gets straight to the subject of sex – apparently there was a lot of it about, although O&M was one of the more discrete agencies.  At other agencies, including Young and Rubicam, (the model for Mad Men), it was seemingly everywhere between employees outside the office…

The term ‘sexual harassment’ hadn’t been invented yet, or certainly wasn’t in our vocabularies. Most women then working in advertising were either secretaries or copywriters,  and 99 percent of us had male bosses.  The boss was in control of your salary, your raise, your career advancement … your life.  If he wanted to go to bed with you, you had to ask yourself what mattered more: your self-respect or your career.
A number of people confided recently that women were sometimes the ones doing the seducing. The best way to get promoted from secretary to copywriter was for your boss to make it happen. And the fastest way to make that happen was to make it with your boss.

Mad Men's Peggy OlsenUltimately what I am most fascinated by in Mad Men and books like this are the advertising campaigns themselves. For me, many of the best scenes are the ones where the creative folk are at work, and pitching to clients.

Maas tells us about the good and the bad campaigns, and the good and bad clients.  She tells howit was common for rooms full of men to discuss the ins and outs of feminine hygiene products without asking their women staff of their opinions, except as an afterthought.  She recounts how it was usual for women copywriters to be put on accounts for household products, the men kept all the cars, booze, fags, etc for themselves.

i-love-new-yorkMaas was one of the few that did break through the glass ceiling though.  She was not only one of the first women to wear trousers to work, she went on to be the director of the ad campaign that put New York back on the tourist map, I ♥ New York with its iconic logo designed by Milton Glazer in 1977.

She is also quite clear where she thinks Mad Men (and she is a fan) gets it slightly wrong.  In the hippest times of the 1960s, the agencies were colourful places – not the beige, class and chrome we see on TV.  Most of all though, she stresses that they worked hard, they played hard, and most important of all, they had terrific fun doing this job that they loved so much – Don Draper and his colleagues don’t have enough of the latter.

This book was less rambling and much more entertaining than Della Femina’s, and confirmed most of what I’d always suspected happened in a woman’s lot in those glory days on Madison Avenue.  I’ve always been fascinated by the world of advertising, it’s long been one of my fantasy jobs from way before Mad Men, so I liked it a lot.  If you love the series, you’ll probably enjoy this book too. (7.5/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
Mad Women Bantam paperback, 218 pages.
From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor: Front-line Dispatches from the Advertising War by Jerry Della Femina
Mad Men – Complete Season 1 [DVD]

Paving the way for the bonkbuster …

Valley of the Dolls (Virago Modern Classics) by Jacqueline Susann

Jacqueline Susann’s 1966 novel was hugely influential; it paved the way for Jackie Collins and all the other bonkbusters that followed. I’d been wanting to reach this book for ages, but knew nothing about its plot. I imagined that with that iconic cover (left) of a pair of luscious lips biting a pill, (even though my own copy is the rather lovely Barbara Hulanicki designed Virago hardback, right), it would be one long tale of bored women looking for love, and hooked on uppers and downers…

Well I was completely wrong. VotD is the perhaps more the spiritual heir of Peyton Place (reviewed here), relocated to the big smoke, than the Desperate Housewives of its day. I was pleasantly surprised by this, and also that its timeline starts so early.

The book opens just after the end of WWII. Anne Welles arrives in a sweltering New York City from New England looking for a job and a place to live. She’s young and beautiful, and everything falls into place for her. Within days she’s found a room, a job she loves at a theatrical agent, made a new friend in Neely the girl next door, and met Allen – a nice guy who takes her out.

Everything’s going so well for Anne – then someone turns up to throw a spanner in the works – Lyon Burke. Agency boss Henry’s younger partner returns from the war and Anne is instantly smitten badly. Then Allen proposes, and it turns out he’s a millionaire. They see Burke out one night at a club. He’s escorting a beautiful young woman, Jennifer North – an aspiring model and actress. She’s green with envy – what’s a girl to do?!?

Meanwhile, Anne’s neighbour, Neely has a career of her own to forge. At seventeen, she’s already a vaudeville veteran, and is up for a job in a new musical starring Henry’s long-term client, and former lover, Helen Lawson. Neely is fiercely ambitious and with Anne’s help gets into the musical and launches her career as a star in the making.

So we’ve met the three women, Anne, Neely and Jennifer, whose careers we’ll follow through their ups and downs into the 1960s. There’ll be career successes, meltdowns and comebacks; lovers, marriages, divorces, and kids too. And there will be ‘dolls’ – pills – the little green amphetamines to keep the weight off, and the red ones, initially to sleep – we all know where that goes.

The three girls are all different types. Anne is mostly too good to be true, and having the largest chunk of the novel, can be rather irritating. With stardom, Neely gets too demanding and the pills get to her, but her spirit is indomitable and for all her bad decisions, she’s a survivor. Jennifer, however is the sweetest, all the while just looking for someone to love and love her back. As for the men … I liked Henry very much. He’s the surrogate father figure who has given all to his job, and missed out on love for himself. Lyon is irresistible, but a bastard – I’d have fallen for him too, but ultimately all he’s interested in is himself.

Although this book shocked when it was published with its permissiveness (although probably a true enough reflection of showbiz relationships), reading it now doesn’t shock in the way that Peyton Place did when I read last year did. It was a little long-winded in places, but I did devour it and enjoyed it – an ideal summer read. It also reminds me that I ought to read Ira Levin’s Stepford Wives. (8/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Valley of the Dolls (Virago Modern Classics) by Jacqueline Susann
Peyton Place by Grace Metalious
Hollywood Wives by Jackie Collins
The Stepford Wives: Introduction by Chuck Palanhiuk by Ira Levin.