Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Nana by Delacorta

In the mid-80's, I was a regular attendee at a marvelous repertory cinema and it was there I saw the movie Diva by Jean-Jacques Beineix.  There is something about it that fascinates me to this day. Two of the characters, Alba and Gorodish, especially intrigued me.  There was an air of mystery surrounding Gorodish, who, as played by Richard Bohringer, had a sort of rumpled cool that I admired.  I had the rumpled part down cold if not the cool.  Then there was Alba, the woman-child, who exuded youthfulness and a simmering sexuality that made me feel like a dirty old man at 20.  I couldn't take my eyes off either of them despite the fact they really weren't the main characters.  

It wasn't until some years later I learned Diva was based on a novel of the same name by an author named Delacorta.  I thought one day I might come across it but since I assumed the book would be in French, what good would it do me? Despite three and a half years of study in college, I wasn't fluent enough to attempt to read it so you might imagine my surprise and delight to find a copy of Nana, the prequel to Diva, in my favorite used book grotto, in English, no less.  I practically raced home to start reading it.  I have since learned there are five novels featuring the exploits of Gorodish and Alba and Nana sets the stage.

As if this weren't already a sort of miraculous find, there is an inscription dated January, 1984 which reads "To Peter, because I love you.  Love, Cathie".  It made me wonder who Peter and Cathie were in 1984 and it made me wish I was Peter.  If Cathie bought this book and did so just because she loved him, she must have been one cool babe. It filled me with longing for a woman I'll never know.

In any case, Nana is no great literary event.  It is dated, trashy, at times completely unrealistic (a man and woman have sex on a moving motorcycle, going full speed.  At night!), and made me once again feel like a dirty old man.  That's because Gorodish is a dirty old man and thirteen year-old Alba is the object of his, ahem, desires.  As written, Alba, desires nothing less.  Perhaps this seemed kinky or risque or simply French in 1979 when Nana was published.  Now it seems rather creepy. 

However, once I got past all that, I loved it!  It gave me the back story I've always hoped for about both characters along with the promise of four more books about them.  Gorodish is a cool-as-ice con man and paired with Alba's street smarts and willingness to do anything for him, Nana is cinematic, dramatically tense, and great, pulpy fun.  Sometimes trash is treasure and I so look forward to tracking down the rest of the series.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Ready, Steady, Go! by Shawn Levy

Like so many people, every January I tend to get a touch of the post-holiday blues.  It isn't depression so much as a letdown and I'm always starved for something, anything, that will fully engage me.  Many is the Janvier where no matter what book I read, what films I watch, what music I listen to, what fabulous parties I attend, nothing grabs me the way I need.  This month I got lucky when a dear friend of mine lent me this absolute delight.

Shawn Levy first came to my attention some fifteen years ago with Rat Pack Confidential, an engaging account and a story-behind-the-story of The Summit, the famous show the Rat Pack put on in Vegas while filming Ocean's Eleven in Hollywood.  Shame on me for losing track of this talented writer. 

Sub-titled The Smashing Rise and Giddy Fall of Swinging LondonReady, Steady, Go! examines how the scene that had an enormous worldwide influence on popular media and youth culture was built, brick by brick and person by person.  Not only did this cultural explosion encompass the obvious exports, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, but the men behind them, Brian Epstein and Andrew Loog-Oldham.  Levy also brings focus on fashion designer Mary Quant and the first supermodel, Jean Shrimpton, (Twiggy, familiar to us here in the U.S., is portrayed as less the next big thing than this year's girl), actor Terence Stamp, photographer David Bailey, artist and gallery owner Robert Fraser and hair stylist Vidal Sassoon.  This often overlapping group created a small scene that became a gigantic force in pop culture and had a tremendous effect on class and social standing that reverberated throughout the UK.  And who knew Vidal Sassoon fought in the Israeli army against the Egyptians?  Not me. 
Class had an overwhelming effect on British citizens.  There were the royals, the titled, the working class and the poor.  As Levy mentions in the opening pages, the rationing that began in England during World War II didn't end until 1958 (!) and that mindset made England a very gray place, especially for working-class people. In one of his stand-up routines, comedian Eddie Izzard describes growing up in a time when America seemed to have it all over England.  If you were an American and wanted to be an astronaut, such a thing was encouraged.  In Britain, the kid with that very same dream was told 'You're British.  Scale it down a bit'.  What happened as a result, this sense of 'classless' success of the David Baileys and Mary Quants and Brian Epsteins gave those kids not only hope to become astronauts (or anything else they dreamed of) but the will to give it a shot.  In a short time, little Carnaby Street, a virtual nothing, and London itself became the center of the swinging world.

Levy writes with authority but in a manner so genial it reads as though he's holding court over drinks at your favorite night spot and you can't wait to hear more.  As well, he writes RSG! from a very British perspective, an example being the inclusion of Terence Stamp as one of the bright young things of the time.  I could only remember seeing a film with Stamp (The Limey) from much later in his career.  To me, Stamp's roomie at the time, Michael Caine, would seem a better subject since his body of work is far more substantial and spans decades.  However, as Levy tells it, Stamp's success opened the door for young British actors of the 60's to become the British stars of the '60's.  

As with Rat Pack Confidential, Levy tells the complete arc of the story from the gray beginnings to the unexpected heights to the overblown end.  When the scene was over, Carnaby Street and the Kings Road were pale imitations of a creative vortex that thrived just a few years prior, leaving many dead, many more wounded and most everyone worse the wear.  Despite the casualties, the many legacies had profound impacts that are still evident all these years later. 

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

My Top Ten of 2012

That's my kind of baby New Year. 
Happy new year, all.  Here's one last look back as I pick the ten best books I read in 2012.  In this time of post-holiday blahs, you are certain to find something to grab you and pull you from your doldrums.  They will take you away from wherever you are.  If, in fact, you are already out of your doldrums, good for you.  You should read some of these anyway, you well-adjusted citizen of the world, you.   

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett  
Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

Office Girl by Joe Meno

I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution by Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Marks

More Baths, Less Talking by Nick Hornby

The Receptionist: An Education at the New Yorker by Janet Groth

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis by Timothy Egan

Over Time by Frank Deford

While I don't really have an order or preference, if I had to make a top pick in each category, I choose Harold Fry in fiction and  Shadow Catcher in non-fiction.  They are both exceptional reads.    

As ever, thanks to friends in the book biz who keep me aware of titles they think are worthy and a little under the radar.  Thanks to publishers for putting out great stuff among the muck and mire.  Thanks to booksellers for spreading the gospel.  Most of all, thank you for reading what I write about reading.  

May 2013 be a better year for us all.