Posts filed under ‘July 2013 reads’

Judging a book by the cover is dangerous business – “The Chaperone” by Laura Moriarty

Louise Brooks: Fashion Portraits

Louise Brooks: Fashion Portraits (Photo credit: thefoxling)

“The Chaperone” by Laura Moriarty, Published in 2012

I made fatal reading error with this book.  I assumed by its description and my lack of knowledge of the real Louise Brooks that this book would be a light read.  I will also admit I made this assumption in part because of the book cover. I mean it has polka dots on it, doesn’t that just imply “fun times”?  Imagine my surprise to find that polka dots really mean “abused girl who makes good in Hollywood only to end up a drunk and bankrupt with a prostitution side business.”  My friends, be wary of the polka dots.

It is 1922 and Cora lives in Wichita, Kansas. She is in her late thirties, her children are grown and her husband is a busy attorney.  Cora hears about an opportunity to chaperone her neighbor’s 15-year-old daughter, Louise Brooks, for a month in New York City while Louise studies dance.  Cora decides to take the job and, of course, Cora’s reasons for doing this are complicated.

When Cora was a young girl the orphanage where she had lived shipped her by train from New York to the Midwest in the hopes that someone along the various stops would adopt her.  She was finally adopted and had a fairly happy childhood.  But she always wondered why her parents had handed her over to the orphanage when she was a toddler. So her trip to New York is an attempt to find out who her parents are.  It is also a temporary escape from her life in Wichita and her marriage that is purely a matter of convenience for both her and her husband. Her life has been one game of smoke and mirrors after another and Cora is tired.

Louise Brooks is a force and Cora’s job of chaperoning is not as easy as anticipated.  While Louise seems committed to her dance class, she is also committed to flirting with every guy they meet and finding ways to get bath-tub gin – which during Prohibition is easier than one would think.  Cora is constantly trying to keep Louise on track and, perhaps ironically, protect her reputation. If you know anything about Louise Brooks, you know at the age of 15 there was no reputation to protect. She had already been used and abused by multiple men.   As Cora continues her stay in New York her life changes and she eventually returns to Wichita without Louise (who stays with the dance company) with a new idea on how her life can be truly happy, even if not ideal.   Louise goes on to be a silent film star, who has many affairs and lives much of her life in a bankrupt-drunken haze.

Moriarty’s writing has some great story-telling in the first two-thirds of the book.   After that she really doesn’t seem to have much to say and the story, though quickly moving through many years, loses its momentum.  It merely follows the remainder of Cora’s life which is not very compelling.  Occasionally, Cora hears about Louise and at one point visits her but these incidents have no satisfying conclusion or direction.  Moriarty paints Louise as a one-dimensional, self-absorbed, unethical beauty with a painful childhood.  Maybe this is truly how she was but if this is the case then perhaps she was not the best subject for historical fiction.  Or maybe I am just jaded and find the story of the beautiful, washed-up movie star a bit over-played.

Regardless, my next book has a preppy-looking belt on the cover – it looks a bit whimsical.  This could go terribly wrong…

Other reviews to check out:

July 31, 2013 at 12:39 pm 1 comment

Admitting that you can’t fix it – “Father of the Rain” by Lily King

Cover of "Father of the Rain: A Novel"

Cover of Father of the Rain: A Novel

“Father of the Rain” by Lily King, Published in 2010

This book is engrossing.  I could not put it down and when I wasn’t reading it I was thinking about it.

When Daley is eleven her mother tells her that they are secretly packing up and leaving her father.  What becomes immediately clear is that Daley’s father, Gardiner, survives on a daily diet of seven martinis and a steak with a heavy dose of A-1 sauce.  Though this is the only life Daley has ever known her mother can no longer take Gardiner’s daily alcoholic rages, which end in cruel remarks, racist commentary, and abusive behavior.

Daley spends the summer with her mother and grandparents.  They return home – her mother has rented an apartment and Daley decides to bike home to see her father.  When she arrives another family is swimming in her pool and very quickly Daley realizes that her father has replaced them, even her room has been given to another little girl.  Gardiner very quickly remarries and his drinking gets worse.  For the rest of her childhood Daley lives with her mother during the week and stays with her father and his new family on weekends.   Her father’s house is volatile.  Gardiner and his new wife are either drunk and fighting or drunk and inappropriately boisterous.  Meanwhile all the children in the household just try to please the parents to avoid their wrath or their cruel remarks.  It all makes your skin crawl.

When Daley is done with college, she seems to have her life together. She is on her way to a professorship at Berkley, has a great network of friends and a boyfriend who she adores.  But her brother calls and tells her that their stepmom has left Gardiner and asks that Daley come home immediately.  Determined only to stay a couple of days, Daley gets to her father’s house to find him worse then ever.  He needs her and she is sure only she can help him. So she gives up everything and stays. She tries to get him sober and tries to fix their broken relationship.

Everything in you is screaming at Daley at this point in the book -“get in your car and leave now!” But she doesn’t listen to anyone, not her boyfriend or her friends or even her brother.  Her life becomes a vigilante watch of her father’s sobriety including taking him to daily AA meetings and waiting to take him back home. It is an unhealthy attempt to help her father heal while at the sometime competing for his love.  It is just you (the reader) and Daley slowly suffocating in her father’s house.  And you know it is just a matter of time before everything Daley has given up means nothing and Gardiner reaches for a martini.

Daley is weak and only wants her father’s approval but you can’t help wanting her to succeed.  She is lovable. Gardiner can be a mean drunk but King has given him other attributes – he can be fun and engaging too.  That is the problem, his daughter can’t hate him.  And while as a reader you do get frustrated with Daley, you do understand it – Gardiner is her dad and she wants him to love her, be proud of her, she wants him sober.   But of course none of that matters because it is not what Gardiner wants.

King has done something impressive here.  Either she is Daley and had a father like Gardiner or she is brilliantly insightful.  She gets that relationship between a daughter longing for her father’s and a father who just can’t be what his daughter wants and she writes it perfectly.  The novel’s painful honesty is raw and it is real.  Our families are ours, whether we like it or not.  And it can be one of the hardest lessons in life to realize that sometimes you just can’t fix the people you love.  And if you hold onto them you can just end up drowning with them.  Knowing when to let them go and walk away, that can be heartbreaking.  But sometimes it is all you can do – walk away and just hope.

July 21, 2013 at 4:48 pm 5 comments

The inevitable future – “Appointment in Samarra” by John O’Hara

Cover of "Appointment in Samarra: A Novel...

Cover of Appointment in Samarra: A Novel

“Appointment in Samarra” by John O’Hara, Published in 1934

I picked up this book merely because Will and his mother read it together in “The End of Your Life Book Club.”  It was my first book by O’Hara but I am now excited to read his other work.

Julian English is a part of the social elite in the small town of Gibbsville. He has everything. Julian runs a Cadillac dealership, has the perfect wife, has the connections (he can get bottles of champagne in the middle of Prohibition), and is a member of the town’s elite club.  One drunken night, Julian cannot take the boisterous stories of the town loud-mouth, Harry Reilly, anymore. So he throws a drink in his face.  He wakes up the next morning with the bitter realization of what happened the night before but he is unable to make amends with Harry.

This event leads to a down-spiral of drunken missteps for Julian.  His life becomes a cycle of a drunken evening of debauchery and violence followed by the morning of a terrible hang-over from both the alcohol and the effect of the previous night’s events. It is hard to watch as the reader but it is also that train wreck that you can’t turn away from and so you keep reading.  Julian’s ending is predictable but it is still tragically sad. So what begins as a success story ends as a story about how easily it can all go wrong.

O’Hara is the master of excess. In this way he can be compared to Fitzgerald. However, O’Hara’s writing is not lyrical or poetic.  He does not spend a lot of time painting a picture for the reader.  His writing is honest and straight-forward.  It is simple but it is good.  It is as though he is just telling you like it is and that is refreshing.

The character of Julian is great example that we are often the cause of our own disasters.  There are choices that we make that can cause a chain of events and where they lead is not always a good end.  And sometimes when we do everything to avoid what must be done the result is even worse.   But even more simply, sometimes what is going to happen will happen.

And of course this all leads to the title of the novel that is based on the telling of an old Arab tale by Maugham:

The speaker is Death

 There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me.  She looked at me and made a threatening gesture,  now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate.  I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. 

The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. 

Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threatening  gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning? 

That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise.  I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.

July 17, 2013 at 9:44 pm Leave a comment


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There is some great literature out there, but there is a lot of bad literature as well. We shouldn't all have to read it. These are my recommendations and thoughts about the books I read.

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