Sunday, June 04, 2017

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

In Evicted, Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond, has created a story that is moving and maddening. It provides first-hand insight into how our broken housing, public assistance, and mental health systems are largely irreparable in their current states. It is about how we are detached from our communities, our loved ones, and how our public institutions fail so many.

Having never given much thought to the topic, I assumed eviction was a finite experience in that when you were in arrears to your landlord, you received an eviction notice, moved out (or your possessions were seized in more extreme cases), and then you went and found another place to live. Done.

Evicted, taught me the act of eviction is, in these times, an ongoing event with sprawling consequences and octopus arms that keep hold of you in tattered housing and justice systems. The act itself often leads those affected to shelters and unsafe housing, to court appearances, joblessness, and an eviction record that trails them for years, making it harder to rent the next time. It also leads to sickness, depression, and exacerbates existing mental health issues.

As described in the book, it appears all too many of those affected have the ability to manage their lives in a way that would allow them to break the cycle. When more than half of a meager paycheck or government assistance check goes to rent, leaving little for other essentials, it's easy to see how quickly already questionable situations deteriorate into homelessness. Throw in mental illness, little education or real-world skills like knowing how to balance a checkbook, along with bad choices and the ensuing undoing of a segment of an already marginalized society is complete.

To his vast credit, the author allows us to see the situation for its many sides. You can feel terribly for Arleen and her boys almost as often as you slap your forehead as a result of her bad judgement. You may applaud landlord Sherrena when she shows renters small kindnesses like buying them a bag of groceries but disgust sets in quickly when Desmond describes how despicably mercenary she can be. While she can still locate her own humanity, as she says "the 'hood is good. There's a lot of money in there." Reportedly, she's worth more than two million dollars

This is the story of an America that exists today. Safe and affordable public housing is going the way of the dodo, especially for those living at or below the poverty line. Desmond offers several solutions including housing vouchers that would be helpful but since government and much of the public confuses helping the poor and working poor with entitling them, I have little hope the cycle of eviction and poverty will end anytime soon, especially under the regime of Il Douche'.

The book has won many awards including the National Book Critics Circle award for nonfiction and the Pulitzer in literature. This may be among the most important book to read these days.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Gene and Dean

Two showbiz books. One a memoir, the other a bio.

Kiss Me Like a Stranger by Gene Wilder

You usually don't start your list of your favorite actors with Gene Wilder but I think you should, just for the three Mel Brooks films alone. Then you get the Richard Pryor pictures, Willy Wonka, the bit with the sheep in Woody Allen's Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex. He even did great work on two episodes of Will & Grace as Will's crazy boss late in his career. For me, his performances were memorable and often quite affecting and he could hold his own with actors with much larger personalities. Then he marries Gilda Radner who also could make me cry with laughter. 

The memoir is a fast read, filled with some very touching stories as well as some very painful tales, often in the same story. As a young man at college, he became obsessed with praying, often for hours, and couldn't stop. The good that came of it was that he started to learn and understand mental illness and much of the memoir has him talking to his longtime shrink. His mother, to whom he was close, was a sickly woman and deep down, Wilder believed that he had no right to happiness or enjoyment when the woman who gave him life had neither. 

I was surprised to learn of his classic training as an actor and how many of his movies he wrote or helped write.
He also gets into his sex life which didn't begin until later than you might expect. He's very honest and, at times, it was even a bit uncomfortable. 

When he talks of his marriage to Gilda and her untimely demise, it is with great love but there was also a fair amount of anger. It seems as though Gilda lacked self-worth while at the same time was overwhelmingly self-absorbed and it made the hard times even harder. Still, to get a peak at their domestic life was intriguing. 

We lost Gene Wilder last year and I will miss him. Reading the book made me miss him a little less. 

Dino by Nick Tosches

Years ago, when I got into Sinatra's music, it naturally led me to Sam and Dean. Sinatra was a great singer and Sam was the ultimate performer but there was something about Dean I had never noticed: he was cool. As I came to appreciate his vocal style and then his acting, I learned Dean just did his thing. He never strained, he never seemed to swing for the fences but he delivered. As I learned in Dino, that's essentially how he lived his life. 

Growing up young and poor in Steubenville, Ohio, Dino Crocetti dealt blackjack and boxed before becoming a singer, mostly in mob joints. His first ticket out was a move to mob joints in Cleveland and then he meets Jerry Lewis in Atlantic City and BOOM, more success than he could ever have imagined. 

What's odd is that we don't really remember them for that. We know Jerry from movies, many of them just plain silly, and the telethon and we know Dean for some songs, his movies, and the roasts on TV. We are even familiar with their feud that was 'resolved' on the MDA telethon in 1976 but at one point they were the highest grossing club act in showbiz, like The Beatles before The Beatles. It never translated that well outside the night clubs but by all accounts, it was magic before Dean left the act in 1956, ending a seven year ride like few others before or after.

As Tosches tells it, that cool, the ease was the very crux of Dean Martin but that menefreghista, a Sicilian term for not giving a fuck, ended up becoming complacency. If the critics didn't like him in a serious role in a movie, fuck 'em, he'll turn out dumbass comedies for the same money and get points on the back end. The roasts are proclaimed too racy for television at the time? Let's just see how vulgar we can get. Doesn't mean a thing to ol' Dino. He's got a tee time. For him, there would always be another pay day, another broad, another round. Why sweat it? Singing in front of an audience, performing on film or TV was a cinch. As Dean said, "This stuff ain't hard. You want hard? Try being on your feet all day dealing blackjack". 

Still, he was the most charming man on the planet and a great talent whose work lives on to be discovered by guys like me long after he stopped caring. The best part? The work holds up and Dean still delivers. 

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Some Writer! The Story of E. B. White by Melissa Sweet

To most readers, White is best remembered as a beloved children's author and millions have read Charlotte's Web, Stuart Little, and The Trumpet of the Swan. In grade school, a teacher read Charlotte's Web to our class and I never liked it. In fact, I thought it was a "girl book" and felt the same way after seeing the movie so I never read the other two. Shame on me.

My appreciation of his work came by way of James Thurber and The New Yorker. I know him from casuals in the mag, his fantastic though nameless contributions to Talk of the Town pieces. I even refer to him as "Andy", as Thurber and most of magazine's crew did (I know. I'm kind of a dork that way). 

As well, I know him from the classic reference, The Elements of Style, which I still turn to on occasion mostly to be reminded how mistaken I am and how I should have paid closer attention in school. Regular Reed-ers likely think I should commit the small volume to memory and THEN sit down at the keyboard. A fine suggestion, no doubt.  

When I received this beautiful biography, I was delighted but reading it was an absolute treat. Author Melissa Sweet is a Caldecott honor winner and knows her way around kids books but this goes a step further. The mixed-media artwork is not only stunning but the remarkable visuals add to the the storytelling like few books I've read (Think Griffin and Sabine without all those tedious envelopes and mushy stuff). Sweet makes White's life come to life before your eyes. 

As well as striking pages like this, there are original sketches by White, family photos, and handwritten drafts of some of his most famous works. 

Best of all, it was obvious to me how much Sweet admires her subject as a person and a writer. You come away from the book wishing Andy was your friend and that is no small task for a writer to pull off. White had a way of making his subjects so approachable and there was an ease to his style that must have made other writers jealous. Sweet manages to attain a similar feeling. The book informs, entertains, and enchants the eye. If you are a fan of White's work, of great children's books, or expert visual storytelling, you can't miss with this. 

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris

For a long while, I was off Sedaris. Something about him had started to rub me the wrong way. It didn't matter of course. He became wildly popular and can live in France. In fact, it wasn't until his pieces about his life in France started to appear in The New Yorker that I began reading him again. While they could still be bizarre and bitchy, there was a maturity to his writing that grabbed me. He seemed to be writing from the heart more and shooting from the lip less. Now he makes me cry almost as much as he makes me shake with laughter.

To that end, I have some catching up to do on his backlist. I picked up this one at one of my fave used books joints and dove in. I'd like to think the maturity I find in his work is shared. I was in my late 20's when I first came upon an advance copy of Barrel Fever. Now I'm just the other side of 50. Sedaris is less shrieky but no less biting and there is such grace in so many of the pieces, especially those about his family, both currently and looking back. It makes me envious that I'm not closer to my own sibs. C'est la.

The Ship Shape, about his family potentially purchasing a vacation beach house, was among my favorites. However, since I've read him out of order, it hearkened back to one of his most moving pieces from nine years later. In 2013, he wrote Now We Are Five, a piece mostly about the aftermath of the suicide of his sister, Tiffany. His family gathers at a beach house and Sedaris decides he will purchase them the beach house his parents almost bought but didn't all those years ago in Ship Shape. It evokes memories of their youth and vacation and how little they knew about Tiffany by the end. How she had grown away. There is sadness and loss and longing and, of course, sly laughs.

The rest of the collection can be described similarly though the laughs are a bit broader. Over the years, we've come to know his family a bit. It even feels like we have watched them grow up. His brother, Paul, referred to as The Rooster, hasn't changed an iota but has grown as a man, looking after their aging father like I never expected. His sisters like a chorus and David, well, he's David, only more so. 

I'm glad I'm back to reading him again. 

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Fiction picks of 2016

Nobody’s Fool and
Everybody’s Fool 
by Richard Russo

This was a project I was eager to undertake: read straight through Nobody’s Fool from 1996 and Everybody's Fool, the sequel published this year. Separately, Nobody’s Fool stands beautifully on its own. It is during that pitch-perfect run that began with Risk Pool and culminated with Empire Falls

It is a sparkling, hilarious tale centered around Donald Sullivan better known as Sully. Unashamedly, I will use the same quote about the character damned near every reviewer has used: "Throughout his life a case study underachiever, Sully -- people still remarked -- was nobody's fool, a phrase that Sully no doubt appreciated without ever sensing its literal application -- that at 60, he was divorced from his own wife, carrying on halfheartedly with another man's, estranged from his son, devoid of self-knowledge, badly crippled and virtually unemployable -- all of which he stubbornly confused with independence." Brilliant. Picture him as Paul Newman like I do and you’ve got a fantastic novel (and a pretty decent film starring Paul Newman).

Everybody’s Fool takes us back to North Bath, NY and most of the same characters still populate the town. However, and most importantly, Sully is not our hero though he is still present. That job is filled by Douglas Raymer, a minor character from the first book, who has risen through the ranks to become police chief. Rife with intriguing characters and plentiful sub-plots, it is a Russo tale for certain but the pace is neither as breathless nor as break-neck as the first and that should be expected because it is a slightly different Russo who has written this one. We’re all a little older--Sully, Raymer, Russo and me.

Moonglow by Michael Chabon

Much anticipated, Moonglow pays off. It has all the hallmarks that make Chabon one of the great American authors of the last 25 years but this time he walks a fine line by making Michael Chabon one of the main characters in the book. It is his grandfather though who owns the spotlight. Like most men of his generation, he kept mum for years about himself but in the last two weeks of his life, Chabon’s grandfather reveals more about himself to young Mike than he had ever. 

Grandpa was a shtarker, a tough guy, but with a bent for science. As part of Operation Paperclip, his job was to hunt Nazis after the war and his goal was to capture Wernher Von Braun. Once he returns to the States, he marries a beautiful but troubled French Holocaust survivor with a daughter (Michael’s mom) whom he raises as his own. Typically, Chabon covers a lot of ground that would take too long to summarize and, as always, he teaches us a great deal about any number of subjects that so fascinate him but that often slow the pace. Still, Moonglow is a worthy and customarily uncommon addition to the Chabon canon.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

While a very different book than his outstanding debut, The Rules of Civility, Towles gives us another fantastic novel with sparkling prose and characters you wish you knew. Count Alexander Rostov returned to his homeland as the Revolution began, and after getting his mother to safety, took up residence in Moscow’s Hotel Metropol, one of the great Old World hotels. He is a man of generous spirit and bonhomie, well-traveled and educated, and his life at the hotel is a fine one. In 1922, he is stripped of his status for a poem he wrote as a young man that is now deemed subversive. He is sentenced to house arrest at the Metropol for the rest of his life. If he steps outside, he will be shot. He can travel nowhere and within the hotel, he can no longer enjoy the privilege he has known his whole life. This kicks off the next few decades of his life and the “family” he acquires while there. Some may find it twee but I thought it was absolutely charming and a worthy sophomore effort from the author.

Welcome Thieves 
by Sean Beaudoin

A relative newcomer, Beaudoin’s inventive short stories had me laughing out loud, grimacing at all the right moments, and rooting for his protagonists despite their inability to save themselves. I enjoyed All Dreams Are Night Dreams, a story of a fledgling water spectacle a la Cirque du Soleil and a troupe of Welsh travelers. The show is a slog and a dog and never quite reaches the Vegas heights it hopes for but the characters are most memorable. The long-titled You Too Can Graduate in Three Years with a Degree in Contextual Semiotics might make readers think it’s too clever by half but I thought it novel and affecting. Tiffany Marzano’s Got a Record, Hey Monkey Chow, and the title story were other faves in this very strong collection from an author that stood out this year.

We Are Still Tornadoes 
by Michael Kun and Susan Mullen

Set in the 80’s, Tornadoes chronicles the relationship between childhood friends Cath, who goes off to college, and Scott, who stays behind. It is a touching take on growing up, friendship, and the impermanence of youth while managing to be kind, funny, and thoughtful and that is no small task.

Regular Reed-ers might be sick of me endlessly plugging this marvelous epistolary novel but I loved it and don’t care who knows!

Friday, December 09, 2016

And then we came to the end...

...of another year and not a moment too soon. It has been a rotten year in many respects. We lost an unusual amount of talented people whose work I admired. There was a personal loss that hit hard and has left many close to me crawling from the wreckage. Finally, there was the election which still feels like a boot to the stomach and which has left me with a sense of fear and foreboding like I've never before experienced. 

Fortunately, there is always art, especially books, to mend my heart and sooth my furrowed brow. Old friends in the book biz still look out for me and I buy books, of course. I use my library more than I have in years and it gives me a certain feeling, a familiarity about which I had forgotten but which I'm happy to feel again. The nearest branch ain't exactly Disneyland but you make do.

Tallying it all up, I finished 30 books this year and picked up and put down another dozen, I suppose. Since I remain consistently terrible at writing about all the books I read despite having this here blog which is allegedly about all the books I read, there may be a few I've even forgotten. Looking over the list, I'm still reading more fiction than non-fiction. 

Uncharacteristically, I read a book of poetry this year, Jeff Sirkin's Travelers Aid Society  (full disclosure, Jeff is an old pal o' mine from an unaccredited Hebrew school we attended in Kuala Lumpur). I must say I enjoyed it but I'm still unsure if I "get" poetry and so there is always a feeling as though I'm doing it wrong. When I laugh at what I think is a funny line, I then look around, guiltily, wondering if that's where I was supposed to laugh or if I completely missed the point of it all and only uneducated cretins laugh at that line and I've actually no business laughing at that line and the poet would be crushed to learn I laughed at their pain. Maybe I can just come to terms with the idea that poetry makes me nervous and uncertain and, perhaps, I'm undoubtedly overthinking this. And why do I look around, guiltily, when it's only Mrs. Next asleep next to me and the dog awaiting the "you-can-get-on-the-bed-now" signal? 

All neurotic, incomprehensible blather aside, here are my top 5 non-fiction reads for 2016:

Sunny’s Nights: Lost and Found at a Bar on the Edge of the World by Tim Sultan

Ever hear of this book? Or the author? I hadn’t either but you should because I think it’s terrific.  Sunny’s Nights is a thing of beauty. A writer, both physically and professionally lost, happens on this tiny, non-descript, only-open-on-Fridays bar in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The owner, Sunny, is an estimable raconteur who holds court and can code-switch from Shakespeare and the Bhagwan Rajneesh to the poetry and patois of Red Hook in an eye blink (in one instance, he suggests Sultan drink a “berlermaker”). He is a gorgeous soul, all too aware of his limitations as a human, but full of a passion and a spirit to be admired. The stories he tells, the life he lives, all chronicled with loving detail by Sultan, make you wonder if he’s putting us on but Sunny’s the real, though unlikely, deal. Fans of J. R. Moehringer’s The Tender Bar will love Sunny.

Preston Lauterbach’s The Chitlin Circuit and The Road to Rock 'n' Roll was an eye-opener for me. It made clear the link between the big band era and rock ‘n’ roll, how the bands pared down in size, how black entrepreneurs made their own successful world despite being confined by Jim Crow, and how huge a debt is owed to the Roy Browns, Big Joe Turners, and Louis Jordans. They led the way for Little Richard and James Brown and all those subsequent musicians who felt their influence. Hot stuff.

The Seven Good Years by Etgar Keret

These pieces were all written in the seven years between the birth of Keret’s first son and the death of his father. Though non-fiction, they have all the elements that make Keret’s writing so outstanding: black humor, empathy, a deep humanity as well as witty self-effacement. Where there is immense sadness, there is also great hope.

97 Orchard by Jane Ziegelman

A remarkable work that traces the history of one Lower East Side address and the five immigrant families that all made their way through the doors from the 1870’s through the 1930’s. Only after reading the book did I learn that this is the address of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum which I then visited in late March (the day we went was the anniversary of the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory Fire). To read this marvelous book and then see the actual rooms themselves was unlike most of my reading experiences.

Under the Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L. A. Punk by John Doe and Tom Desavia

Told by the musicians and artists who peopled the scene, these are recollections of an era that would influence music in ways that are all too often overlooked. X, the Blasters, and The Flesh Eaters may not be as well-known or remembered as their east coast punk rock counterparts but their influence along with others in the book cannot be overlooked. There was power and passion and lots of weirdos. Bless ‘em for it.

Stay tuned. Working on my top 5 fiction picks now. At my current rate, I should be done by early February.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

We Are Still Tornadoes by Michael Kun and Susan Mullen

Click the link below to learn more about the book
Regular Reed-ers will remember that I wrote about this book before it was a book. Michael Kun generously asked me to be an early reader of this novel he co-wrote with Susan Mullen when it was still in manuscript form. I loved it and was so happy to spread the early word. To help with that, I plugged it and posted an interview with them ( Not long afterward, the book was shopped and I was delighted when it was snatched up by St. Martin's/Griffin. 

Early this month, it was published and the reviews have been excellent as has the media attention it has received including an extensive blog tour and public appearances on both coasts. I can only guess sales are strong. 

I just want to say I enjoyed it even more than when I first read it almost two years ago. It's a marvelous story that rings true, the characters are people you know and grow to love, the '80's references are plentiful and germane to the book, and it deserves to be read and re-read. It made me laugh out loud throughout and it made me cry. As I start to assemble my picks for the year, We Are Still Tornadoes has already found a place on my list. 

Now go get yourself a copy.